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KF #34. Builds Effective Teams

435: Building Trust and a Powerhouse Team with Kristine Lilly and Dr. John Gillis

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Legendary soccer player Kristine Lilly and researcher Dr. John Gillis share the 13 tactics of a powerhouse team, whether in sports or business.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 13 tactics that make a powerhouse team
  2. The most common mistakes teams make
  3. How to build trust in a team

About Kristine and John

Kristine Lilly is an expert on effective teamwork. She consults with organizations, providing lessons gleaned from her remarkable career as a professional athlete. Lilly played midfielder for the United States Women’s National Soccer Team for over twenty-three years. This included five FIFA World Cups and three Olympic Games. She was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012 and the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 2014. Before that, she won four national championships at The University of North Carolina.

Kristine lives outside Boston with her husband, David Heavey, a Brookline firefighter. They “team together” to raise two amazing daughters, Sidney and Jordan.

Dr. John Gillis, Jr. facilitates executive leadership development using a dynamic business simulation for LeadershipX. As a management consultant, he has worked for IBM, Accenture, Center for Creative Leadership, and The Conference Board. He did his doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and Wharton Business School. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife Lynette and their four children: Jack, Rylan, Caroline, and Mary Claire.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Kristine Lilly and John Gillis Interview Transcript

Kristine Lilly
For women for the span of – if you look at 1991 was our first World Cup till 2004, which some of the – Mia, and Julie and Brandi retired. Those eight to ten years, we won two World Cups, two gold medals, came in third twice and won one silver.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Kristine Lilly
Not to say we won every tournament, but if you look at – and if you go further on, the worst place we’ve done in any competition with the US Women’s National team is getting out in the quarter finals of I believe it was the – what Olympics? ’96, 2012, ’16. They lost in the quarter finals. Every other big event with the US Women’s National team participating either got first, second or third.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Kristine Lilly
So we won. We won a lot. We worked hard to be successful and really amazing group of women that I played with during my time and obviously now. The team continues to win, which hopefully, is due to a good foundation that was set early on with the National team.

Pete Mockaitis
That is awesome. That is quite the track record, so I want to hear how you did it. I understand much of this is packaged in the book, Powerhouse. Maybe you could orient us to what’s the big idea in the book?

Kristine Lilly
Well, basically, when John and I talked about it, I would share the stories about the team and he couldn’t – I think, John, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he had an idea of the US team, but I don’t think he really knew the history of what we accomplished. Then I finally shared a movie with him called Dare to Dream that was on HBO. I said, “Just watch this.”

Then he got a history of the team and he was really impressed with the team. Then we talked a lot about business and how a business needs to come together and work as a team like these sports teams to be successful. He’s like, “You’ve got such a great story here. Why don’t we share it?” That’s where we are with how we got this book going and sharing all these great stories of the US Women’s National team while paralleling it to business tactics as well.

John Gillis
Pete, if I could just add on. As a spectator and a fan of the team I got to watch when they were winning the gold medals in the World Cup Championships. But then when Kristine and our families became friends and she’d tell some of the stories behind the scenes and all the effort, the practice before the performance and what they did to prepare themselves so that the team would be successful.

Those are the stories that I think are so relevant that Powerhouse shares some insight into those stories, not that you’re just seeing the team win, but what it takes to actually build that effective team so that they put themselves in position to win. Those stories that Kristine was sharing set through the years that I’ve known her, that’s what we really wanted to share and then say how does that apply to business.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. You’ve got 13 tactics in the book. Could you give us a quick overview of what are the 13 tactics?

Kristine Lilly
Right. I think if you’re first wondering why 13, that was the jersey number I wore for the US team. We’re trying to keep that kind of personally cute and connected to my career. We have 13 tactics. We’re not reinventing the wheel on teamwork or anything. We’re just trying to emphasize if you put these tactics together that they can help you be successful.

What’s really cool about this book too is we’ve broken them down into groups of three. Obviously there’s one underlying theme throughout this whole book, which is our last chapter called Doing the Right Thing. Each group of three is under a different category or pillar. We have transform, empower, achieve and motivate. We’re using the word team to create those words.

Each pillar has different tactics. The first one we have selecting your team members, align the team’s directions, score a goal, would be transforming a team.

Obviously you get into empower, so we’re setting the team foundation, leading the team, and then serving on international teams because, obviously, the game is global for soccer and obviously, business and corporations are global as well.

Then our next one is achieve and you have learn teamwork, communicate with the team, and handle team conflicts. Then the last pillar motivate, you have chemistry, cultivating your team ethos and a winning mentality.

When I look at all these things, it’s really powerful when all those components come together and what the team can accomplish. I think when we talked earlier about the success of the US Women’s National team, all these components were on fire, all these components were working. There wasn’t something lacking in any of them when we were successful. I think that’s the difference in a good team dynamic and one that’s not as successful.

Pete Mockaitis
And in business environments, what would you say is something that is most frequently not working within that lineup?

John Gillis
I’ll jump in here and just highlight that Kristine mentioned that we’re not recreating the wheel, but at the same time, Pete, every business that I go to and I’ve been doing management consulting my whole career for decades. I go all over the globe looking and talking to companies and time and time again you see where there’s dysfunctions within the company.

Even though we recognize that teamwork and being effective in our teamwork will help provide a competitive advantage, each organization if you go to an individual at a company and say, “Hey, tell me about teamwork at this company,” most people will tell you a story in the negative. They’ll tell you what’s going wrong, why there isn’t effective teamwork.

Even though the question is “Tell me about teamwork at the company,” most people just have a negative experience with it. We’ve always known for years that teamwork can help a company succeed both as far as the teams working effectively, but how that contributes to the bottom line and making profitability, but yet, companies continue to struggle in that.

Through the 13 and really looking at assessing your company with some key questions at the end of every chapter, it’s saying let’s self-identify and self-assess where our team is strong, but where we have opportunities to improve so that we’re not one of those companies that’s saying when someone asks you, “Tell me about teamwork,” that we answer in the negative.

We want people to be able to go through the 13 teamwork tactics and be able to answer in the positive and say, “This is why our team is strong.”

Pete Mockaitis
Within those negative answers, what do you find most often? You mentioned you’ve got an assessment with the questions at the end of each chapter, so you can get to the particulars for your given organization. But what are the ones that you’re seeing most commonly folks are falling down on?

John Gillis
I’ll go first and then I’ll let Kristine jump in here in her experience. But I find that each company is unique and different, but yet if you have to highlight some of those, it really comes down to a breakdown in trust, a breakdown in role clarity and a breakdown in accountability.

We see team loafers that are there pulling down the other team members because their roles aren’t clear, they don’t have accountability for executing their work deliverable and so the overall trust among team members breaks down because of that role clarity and the accountability. Kristine?

Kristine Lilly
Yeah, it’s not ironic, but I think it’s similar on the sports side of it as well. Trust is a huge thing and knowing what your role is and accepting it and diving into it. Because a lot of times you may have a position on the field or in the office that you don’t agree with, but if you want to have your job and you want to help your group or your organization be successful, you’ve got to hunker down and do your job that it is and accept and go with it.

I think John was spot on with the business side of it, similar with the team side. Trust is a huge component for team members on our team. We had that throughout.

I think the other one I would add in there would be communication. Usually when I look at a game that we played and we haven’t been successful or we’re not being cohesive, we’re not finding the rhythm together, the field is really quiet. When we start talking and we’re communicating a little bit better, it changes the flow of the game. I think communication is a big part of it as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting correlation that you noticed in terms of actual experience that when things aren’t going well, it’s quiet.

Kristine Lilly
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And when things are going better, it’s not quiet with regard to speaking up. I can certainly see times where that happens.

John, I was intrigued by the interrelationship that you point out there in terms of when there’s a lack of role clarity and/or accountability, you’ve got some loafers, folks who aren’t doing much, and then trust is eroded in terms of I guess the other folks are taking a look at the loafers like, “What the heck? This isn’t fair.” It’s a real knot of unpleasantness. Tell me what are some of your top tips to facilitate some additional role clarity and accountability and trust?

John Gillis
Pete, you nailed it on the head. I think most people that are listening to this podcast would be nodding their head and saying, “Oh yes, I remember at this company or the company I’m at now or the company I was at a decade ago, I remember that team loafer and how it really did erode the trust.”

One of the things that we try to highlight in Powerhouse, it’s not just here’s the areas where teams might have issues, but how do we go about building trust. When you get to that section of the book, it’s looking at those steps as far as the benevolence, the openness, the honesty that’s going to help create trust.

As we talked about ahead of time, most of this book, if not all of it, it’s all evidence based. We researched trust. We researched accountability. We researched roles. We wanted to give people not only here’s issues that might come up, but here’s some research-backed approaches that you can use if your team is having a trust issue.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to hear what are some of the most impactful practices or activities, things to do when you find yourself in those shoes?

Kristine Lilly
With our sports team, one of the biggest changes in our team was when we hired a skills coach. We had Dr. Colleen Hacker join our team and she changed our group in a sense where we found everything we needed within each other, but it was really finding that path to connect with everybody and accept everyone for who they are and know that everyone had a role. I think that really was a change for us.

We would practice different things, whether it was team-building exercises, where we had to do to the typical fall back and your teammates got to catch you. Every time you do that, you’re still wondering are they going to catch you. But you build that trust and you see that. That was a big change in our team and bringing out the trust of the group and really helping us connect.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. Kristine, you’re saying that you did on numerous occasion these trust fall exercises and that was genuinely helpful?

Kristine Lilly
It was. It totally was because you still wonder if someone’s going to catch you. You’ve got to trust in that. They were there always. Sometimes a little laughter or maybe they caught you a little late, but they still caught you.

There were different exercises that helped build that or different ways that someone could step up and lead in different activities we did that maybe they were quieter on the field, but then you came to this tactical game and they started to step it up so that gave them the confidence to be like, “Oh, I do have a voice and people will listen.”

John Gillis
Pete, I think it’s really critical here that Kristine gave a great example. Finding the right team building activities for your audience, not – a trust fall might be perfect for your audience or it might not be the right activity.

In the book we talk about business simulations and we talked about coaching. We walk through several activities that you can do for team building because you have to find the right one for your audience.

One other story that Kristine shared in the book that I think was critical is that different activities are going to allow different players or different team members an opportunity to shine. You’re giving different platforms for people to step up and take leadership roles.

Kristine had talked about specific activities where a team member that might have been quiet in one activity was able to shine in another. It really allows that trust building to come through different environments and scenarios.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Okay. We talked a little bit about some of the problems and interventions. I’d also like to get your take when it comes to the thing that makes the biggest difference in terms of boy, with this you see a whole lot of power in terms of teamwork and performance getting enhanced. I’d be curious to get each of your takes on is there one of the tactics that is perhaps the most impactful.

Kristine Lilly
I think when you look at building a team and becoming a powerhouse, I think if you don’t have all these, you’re not going to be as strong. But I do think if I look at one area that really helped us, I would say this is from ’91 to ’99 when we won two World Cups and then the first gold medal in the Olympics and then came in third in one game, our leadership was unbelievable.

When I look at a component of a team is you have to have good leadership from your top coaches down to the bottom. That’s really important to have that going for you. Carla Overbeck was one of our captains and the leadership that she provided along with Julie Foudy was incredible.

The one thing in the book that she has a quote in the book, she says, “Our whole team was based on servant leadership.” What I love about that is Carla was the first one – she was our captain and everyone respected her – she would be the first one to pick up the balls or pick up the cones or do the hard work when, in highlight, when you look at anything that some of those players would just walk by it.

We genuinely cared about each other and genuinely wanted to make each other better, so we served each other to help that happen. I think leadership role from top all the way down was just so important in that timeframe.

Pete Mockaitis
So you mentioned the servant leadership piece and going ahead and doing some of the grunt work, the not so glamorous stuff, picking up the cones and balls and such, could you share what are a couple of other things that come to mind that make that leadership incredible?

Kristine Lilly
Well, I think when I stepped on the field with these women, we all were similar mentality, had the same goal set. We wanted to be the best in the world. But obviously there were times when you weren’t at your top and you’re struggling or technically you’re not on and your head goes down.

The greatest example I can share with you about Carla and how well she led us and how balanced she was with how she spoke to us, was if your head was down, she wasn’t like yelling at you, “Let’s go.” She’s be like, “Kristine Lilly, we need you.” Immediately you’re like, “All right. They need me. Even if I’m crappy right now, they need me.”

Then on the other side is when you’re doing well and you’re tearing it up, Carla would be the first one like, “Lil, that’s the way to go.” You have a leader that knew how to help each individual player out there and get the best out of them at the highest moment and at the lowest moment. I think that’s why Carla was so amazing in that sense.

Julie Foudy was our other captain and she balanced that out with humor and passion. You have two people leading us in different ways, but getting the best out of us at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you give us some examples of the humor and passion that really made an impact for you in the leadership realm?

Kristine Lilly
Yeah. Well, Jules was our vocal leader. She always wanted the ball, so she was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and half the time she had two players – three players on her, like, “Jules, I’m not giving you the ball.” That would make you laugh a lot.

But there was one play in the World Cup, in the ’99 World Cup when we won, where I headed the ball off to …, which we talk about in the book. After the play happens, I’m running out of our penalty box, we just cleared it, I’m running next to Jules and we look at each other and she’s like laughing and we’re both thinking in our heads “Did that really just happen?” We were just laughing at that moment.

I’m like, holy cow, we’re in the World Cup final. Overtime. We almost lost the game and we find a moment where we can laugh. That’s what was so great with Jules is the humor was always there to remind us this isn’t life or death. This is a soccer game. You’ve got to enjoy it.

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that notion of if you’re feeling lame and underperforming, to hear your name and we need you as opposed to any number of other things you can yell out, like, “Come on. Get it together. What’s wrong with you?”

Kristine Lilly
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Dozens to choose from, but I cannot think of something that would be more kind of uplifting in terms of getting a quick refocus then hearing your name and we need you.

Kristine Lilly
Yeah, it was pretty powerful to be honest with you.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig that.

John Gillis
Pete, I know that you come from the business world like I do and how many times has someone come up beside you in the business world and said, “Hey, Pete, we need you.” It just doesn’t happen as much. Even though I can point to the times in my career where it has because they’re few and far between, but they mean so much to me when someone comes on and picks me up in the corporate setting.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly and you feel valued in that midst. I think it’s …, rather than saying that, we’re just kind of ticked off that someone’s not doing what they’re supposed to do. Instead of thinking, “Oh, we need you,” it’s “Well, hey, who else can I shift this too who’s not going to let me down and make me angry?”

John Gillis
Exactly. That memory of teamwork where you have the social … that really impacted you.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love it, so as you teach this stuff and you’re sharing the good word and helping the teams to perform all the better, what are some particular mistakes, some things that people struggle with when they’re trying to put it into practice?

Kristine Lilly
Well, I think if you look at sports teams, business is they talk about it and talk about it and they tend not to put it into action. If there’s a way that you’re supposed to handle conflict and your leadership kind of just brushes it under the rug and talks about “Oh, everything’s transparent,” and then brush it under the rug, you lose respect and you lose trust immediately.

I think being consistent with what your ideas are, your values are, what your per se rules are, and staying true to them. I think that’s any kind of team, a business, any organization, your family as well, letting know what all the rules of the house are or guidelines that we all go through.

But I think really putting everything into practice is really where I think people falter. On the sports field definitely I feel that. We just don’t execute each thing we have set out to do, but I think in the business world that can be one of the parts that people can struggle with. They do a lot of talk, but they don’t put in to action.

John Gillis
I think, Pete, one of the reasons that it’s not going into action is that most people if you talk to them, they’ll say, “Hey, I’m a good team member. It’s that other person that’s not a good team member.” We don’t realize our own blind spot. We’re not self-aware or we’re not team aware.

I think it really requires that trust and that openness and communication to say, “Hey, I need to acknowledge where I’m a strong team member and I need to acknowledge where I’m not so that I can work on that,” because no one on the team thinks that they are not an effective team member.

They might think that they are, but it’s being team aware of how you fit in to the team and how you can better impact the team in a positive way and then acknowledge and work on the areas where you might be pulling the team down.

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

John Gillis
One last thing that I would just highlight here is that Kristine mentioned that her number was 13 and there’s 13 chapters. She talked about the four pillars, transform empower, achieve and motivate. When we were structuring the book, it’s not that there’s one that’s more important than the other. All 13 really are critical.

You have the four pillars, and of course, the foundation that she talked about earlier, doing what is right. That’s a foundation for the other 12 chapters. Each one is critical and you can’t really ignore one and highlight the other because then you’re going to have a gap on your team.

Kristine Lilly
I think what I add to the process of writing this book with John when we were figuring out what all the chapters and who to talk to and obviously I was thinking of my teammates and once we figured out where we wanted to go with the people, once I started to reach out to them, they all were like, “Sure, when do you need me?”

It just reiterated why this book is so important because immediately I asked all these women that are super busy in their lives and they immediately were making time to do the interview to share their insight on the success of the US Women’s National team and just made it more prevalent how great that team was and how great the team continues to be because they do for others. I thought that was pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, now could you share with me a favorite quote? If one of you has one and the other one doesn’t, that’s totally fine for each of these fast faves. But yeah, what is something you find inspiring?

Kristine Lilly
A favorite quote of mine just in general?

Pete Mockaitis
Yup.

Kristine Lilly
I think one of the quotes that I always resort back to is an Emerson quote, “What lies before us and what lies after us are small compared to what lies within us.” I think when I look at my career and being part of the team, there’s always so much more you can give from yourself. If you look at the sports world, you spend your time like, “Oh, I can’t run anymore. I can’t do it,” but you can.

There’s always something more we can give to others and to our self to be better. That quote always resonates with me in life when I choose to do something and I’m feeling real rundown or a bit tired, I’m like, “No, I can do more.” That’s always for the bigger picture. It’s for others. It’s for your team. It’s for you to be better.

John Gillis
I love Kristine’s deep quote. I was just going to highlight that at the beginning of each chapter we pick a quote from one of those players that Kristine just mentioned and put it at the beginning of the chapter. But the introduction, the quote that we lead off with is “Wearing the same jersey does not make a team.”

I think so many times in the business world we say “Hey, this group of people, they’re a team because they all work for Company X,” or “They’re all in Department X,” or whatever reason we say, “You’re a team,” but yet, quite frankly, they have the same name across their jersey, the department or the company, but yet they don’t operate as a team.

Even though we put the team moniker on lots of groups of individuals, it’s really a team in name only. They’re not collaborating. They’re not building trust. They’re not having open communication. They don’t have clear goals and responsibilities.

We really need to – the word ‘team,’ that moniker, is thrown around quote a bit, when actually groups of individuals aren’t working together effectively as a team. I love that quote, “Wearing the same jersey does not make a team.”

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

John Gillis
Kristine, are you letting me take this one?

Kristine Lilly
No, I’m letting you take this one, John. You just busted on my sweet quote, my deep thoughts with Kristine Lilly here.

John Gillis
I love the deep thoughts of Kristine Lilly.

Kristine Lilly
I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.

John Gillis
Pete, one of the great things here is the team that wrote this book, so you have Kristine at the beginning of her chapter sharing these wonderful soccer stories and you have Dr. Lynette Gillis that did a lot of academic research that plays into the book so that it’s evidence based. Then I provided the management consulting experience with numerous companies across all sorts of different industries.

The research is really throughout, but the one that I’m going to highlight for you on that question because we did every chapter there’s research, but yet the one I think that people might not think about as much is the network centrality and really saying that when you look at your team, you need to figure out where the center point is.

For a lot of teams that might be the leader. Kristine talked earlier about Julie Foudy and Carla, but on some teams it’s not necessarily the person at the top. That central part of a team could be the person where people go to for information, for guidance, for direction, for know-how, for knowledge, for historical comparisons, that they are the central part that the team members go to in order to get work done effectively.

Understanding who has influence on a team, especially if it’s not the formal leader, but yet that informal leader, I think that’s a critical aha moment that the research provided in this book to say when you look at your team, don’t just look at the leaders, but look at the informal leaders, those that are central that have influence among your team members.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

John Gillis
Well, I can tell you, when we were writing this, there’s several authors that came to mind that we really admire and wanted to model after. Those, Sheryl Sandberg, with her book Lean in and Option B and of course her co-author there, Adam Grant that also wrote Give and Take. You look at Malcolm Gladwell and his evidence-based approach to look in at psychology and workplace culture.

A lot of those writers and authors are the ones that we really looked at it and tried to model some of this writing after. Obviously, that’s a high standard but we wanted to give that evidence … based approach similar to Jim Collins in Good to Great and give people a book that they could go to their business teams and their organizational teams and say, “Wow, this is not only entertaining, but I learned a lot and can apply to my business.

All those authors I just mentioned I feel like when I read their books, that’s what I felt. That hey, it was entertaining and I know that I can go and apply this immediately. I can pick up the book at the airport, read it on the airplane and when I get to the worksite, I can immediately apply it because it was not only entertaining, it was immediately practical and applicable. Kristine.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Kristine Lilly
Favorite tool, awesome at my job. I don’t know. I think for me – obviously my career playing my tools were my feet. They keep me going on the field. I think now we have a company with Mia Hamm and Tish Venturini called TeamFirst Soccer Academy. We travel around the country teaching kids about the game, but also about the passion and love that we shared for it and how to be a good teammate and obviously, how to work together as a team.

I think for me, my tool is just communication for me within my co-founders, also friends and then the staff we bring along with us to be able to communicate with them to get the best of them for the day on the field with the kids or whatever it may be and to make sure there’s fun involved because the reason why we played sports or play sports is because it is fun.

When you get into the world where now you’re trying to make money and run a business, I think there still needs an element of enjoying what you do. I think if I look back at my coaches that I had in the National team from Anson Dorrance, one of the first coaches of the US team and then Tony DiCicco took after him. He passed away almost a few years ago now.

He used to come to the field – Tony would come out to the field and he used to stand in the middle of the field, put his hands up in the air and he would just say, “I love my job.” We’d be like, “Yeah, yeah, Tony. We know. We know you love your job.” But it kind of – it stayed with me and a lot of the players that one thing we remember about Tony was him saying that.

But the fact was he really did love his job and we could tell he loved his job because how he taught us, how he communicated with us, how he was passionate about everything from the field stuff to caring about us. I think that’s a pretty powerful thing when you love something and if you can be passionate and spread that love and be contagious, that’s a great tool to have in your pocket.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Kristine Lilly
John, do you got any favorite habits? I had a whole routine for my game.

John Gillis
Kristine’s habits are fantastic.

I think the habit is knowing where your strengths are and where someone else’s strengths are so that you can leverage your strengths for effective teamwork. In this case, I was more the cheerleader for the girls and the email guy to organize the parents, knowing that Kristine and her coaching would give them all the soccer tactics that any five-, six-, seven-year-old girl would need to know at that level.

The habit for me for effective teamwork is knowing your strengths and capitalizing those, but also recognizing where your team member has more strengths than you so that effectively the team as a whole is stronger.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget that you share in the book that really seems to connect and resonate with audiences and you hear it quoted back to you frequently?

Kristine Lilly
Well, I don’t know if there’s just one nugget. I think for myself when I worked on this with John and read it over again, I think obviously the one thing that comes over and over in our minds is the word ‘team.’ I know that’s what it’s about, but even with our four pillars – transform, empower, achieve, and motivate – are all from the word team.

What I’ve learned throughout my career and pretty much in life and everything, you can’t do anything alone. You need people. People need people, but people also want people. People want to be a part of a team. They want to be a part of a group and feel like they’re valued.

I think the team concept is so powerful that individually, you just can’t necessarily do all that you want sometimes. I think the team is great. I would say the word ‘team’ is pretty much used a lot in this book and one that resonates with everybody and really resonates with me because I was part of such a wonderful team.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome.
Oh great. Thank you. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Kristine Lilly
For me, you can go to KristineLilly13.com to reach out to me. Also, go to Amazon to preorder the book, which will come out May 7th, but is available to preorder now. John can share his contact info.

John Gillis
JohnGillisJr.com. Kristine’s speaking, we have training workshops and just thrilled for everyone to join this Powerhouse training with us.

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

Kristine Lilly
Well, I think first off, recognizing what your part of your organization and what you’re trying to accomplish as a team is the first step. I think once you have that and you can embrace your teammates and find the strength within each other and the familiarities and the common mindset, then you can do great things.

I think back to why the teams were successful when we did win championships. It was a group of women coming together that were likeminded, strong, competitive, feisty, wanted to tear people apart on their way to success, but, in the same sense, doing it together, working your role and figuring out what you need to do to help the whole unit be successful.

When that happens, you’re in the zone. It goes back to the sport’s thing going, people in the zone, they don’t hear anything, they’re confident, and they’re going to make whatever shot they’re going to do right now happen.

John Gillis
I would say from my charge, we can all reflect back on our careers and know the successful teams that we were on and then the groups of individuals that were teams in name only.

Yet, when we were naming this book, we didn’t have Powerhouse when we started writing the book, but then someone said, “You need to name this book Powerhouse because the definition is a team having great energy, strength and potential for success.”

When you look back and say in your career where was the powerhouse that I was on, the team with energy, strength, and potential for success, and what can I do in today’s team to help us be a powerhouse.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Kristine, John, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing the good word. I wish you much luck with your coaching and teaching and book and all the fun you’re up to.

Kristine Lilly
Thank you, Pete, for having us. We appreciate it.

John Gillis
We really do. Thanks for it. It’s awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, well that is the recording. Good deal, thanks a lot.

Kristine Lilly
Thank you so much. That was great. We appreciate it.

429: A Navy SEAL’s Surprising Key to Building Unstoppable Teams: Caring

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Former NAVY SEAL platoon commander and current entrepreneur Alden Mills walks through his CARE framework for teambuilding.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Four key steps to leading with CARE instead of fear
  2. The distinction between caring and comforting
  3. The high stakes associated with caring

About Alden

Alden Mills is a three-time Navy SEAL platoon commander and was the CEO of Perfect Fitness. He is also a longtime entrepreneur, with over 40 patents and over 25 years of experience working on high-performance leadership, sales, and team-building.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Alden Mills Interview Transcript

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

Alden Mills
It’s awesome to be here. Thank you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s awesome to have you. I’m so excited to dig into the goods. Maybe why don’t we start with some action to hook this conversation into some entry. Could you open us up by sharing a daring story from your days in the Navy SEALS?

Alden Mills
Well, when I think about daring stories, I have to tell you, probably the single most daring story I had was actually when I first started SEAL training to begin with because I really wasn’t sure if I could make it through that. I remember this man coming up to us who had his left butt cheek blown off by a rocket propelled grenade in Vietnam.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh man.

Alden Mills
He walked with this limp. He had this deep Southern accent. We had about 122 candidates. I was as nervous as I had ever been because here I am; I’m about to start training, but he’s going to make us do this physical test. The same physical test we had done multiple times.
He gathers us up and he speaks to us and he says, “Class 181, gather around here. I want to let you in on a little secret.” We’re all like, “Oh, secret. We like secrets.” “Y’all interested to know how to make it through Navy SEAL training?” We were like kids to a campfire. We were all bobbing our heads up and down.
He goes, “It ain’t complicated. You just have to decide how much you’re willing to pay. You see, I know for a fact 80% of you aren’t going to be willing to pay the price. You know why? Because you all want to be SEALs on sunny days.” He goes on for a while, but what he’s really talking about was talking about creating this conversation in our head, in our heart.
I remember all of us standing around and it was kind of the first time that somebody had really talked to us about saying, “Hey, are you willing to die for your country. Are you really going to do this or are you just going to be that SEAL on a sunny day?” Within six weeks, we went from 122 down to 18. That was the beginning of a transformation of a whole series of evolutions of SEAL training.
I thought when you just asked me that I’d start with that. There are mission that I’ve been on that are still classified that I won’t talk about, but some of the things that were most exciting to me were those personal challenges like that day when he started bringing us all around together and telling about this conversation he was going to create between our head and our heart and how we had to learn to deal with what it was we were willing to sacrifice to make it through.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Yeah, that’s a powerful perspective that can apply to many circumstances. You’ve put together in your book, Unstoppable Teams , a number of pieces that sort of speak to some parallels between how Navy SEAL teams can really have some real similarities to high-performing civilian teams.
Could you draw that parallel for us or build that bridge, lots of metaphors here, if folks are saying, “You know what? What I do is nothing like what a Navy SEAL team does,” can you set us straight, Alden?

Alden Mills
You know how many times I’ve heard that. People will say, “There’s nothing similar between you and me. You’re a Navy SEAL. You’re a freak of nature.” Okay, maybe there’s a little bit of a freak that you want to go through that kind of training, but the same things that they do for us in SEAL team, they’re just more condensed, are exactly the same rules that apply as a civilian, which, by the way, I’ve had much harder times leading civilians then I’ve ever had leading SEALS.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh intriguing. Could you say more about that, please?

Alden Mills
I can. In part because in SEAL team they have this place called X Division. X Division is a place where they remove the negative attitudes, the quitters. They don’t let any of that get involved with the people that are in the arena.
As a civilian, after I left SEAL team, you’re surrounded by people who are in X Division. You have to make your own X Division. You have to decide who you want to listen to and what voice you want to focus on. You can’t just willy-nilly go out there and fire anybody you want. It takes a long time to remove somebody off of a team. Most of us, we inherit people when we go from one team to the next.
Sometimes the X Divisions that you have to create, both, by the way, I call them – there’s two kinds of teams. There’s the internal ones, inside of you and the external ones, all the different relationships you build. Sometimes those people are close to you that you have to put in your own personal X division, like family or friends who are telling you, “Oh, how do you know you can do that? You can’t do that.”
A lot of people who tell you you can’t do something, it’s because they haven’t done it themselves. It scares them. They don’t want you to go out there and be different. Misery loves company. That became probably my biggest challenge when I transitioned out of SEAL team into being a civilian and leading civilians.
I’ve led civilians in all different capacities, from community organizations to charities to … startups. I think that’s a really important element to share with people is to understand that it’s up to you to decide what are the things you want to focus on from the people that are telling you what you can and can’t do because at the end of the day, it’s up to you to set those limits and that focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. That’s good. The X Division is sort of like x out of considerations, like we’re just not going to let that into the thinking or consideration at all.

Alden Mills
That is correct.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Alden Mills
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Done. Cool. Well, tell us then. You’ve got a lot of good stuff in your book, Unstoppable Teams . Could you share what would you say is sort of the key thesis or big idea or main message here?
Alden Mills
The biggest thesis out of all of this is using the most fundamental human emotion to connect, inspire and empower people to do something that moves them from a point of natural selfishness to selflessness . That human emotion is care. It’s not fear. You don’t want to lead by fear. What you want to lead by is with care, what I call care-based leading .

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You say care is the emotion, so we’re going to unpack that into you’ve got a bit of a framework here. But let’s talk a little bit about the emotion itself and how that does lead folks out of selfishness to selflessness.

Alden Mills
Take a look at some of the most recent research that’s come out. There’s a wonderful piece of research that’s come out through psychologists down in UCLA who I quoted her in my book. What she’s talking about and discovered is all humans have a natural capacity for care reciprocity. Unless you’re a psychopath, okay, the amygdala isn’t firing and we just don’t accept any emotion there. But for the 99.9% of us out there, we respond to care.
In its most basic form, I hold the door for you, you turn around and you turn around and you hold the
door for somebody else. That’s usually pretty instinctually a reciprocal event. The same type of reciprocity occurs as you go further and deeper into caring for somebody. “Hey, how are you doing today, Pete? What happened last night? I heard about your mom. Is she okay?” Going and taking a step and initiating care.
All of the sudden, Pete feels like, “Wow, somebody did something kind of selfless. They weren’t worried about themselves. They were worried about me and my mom. They showed an element of curiosity and care about me,” that may have nothing to do with work, but it does have to do with the whole picture of who Pete is.
You go even further from that and say now I’m a first line, second line leader, manager, whatever you are in your organization and you’re saying, “Hey, I know what you are today, but I also know that you want to be here in a year. I’m going to help you get there.” Again, it’s not directly related to trying to help you get a better return on investment. It’s trying to help somebody go to another level.
When that starts to happen, people will start to say, “Hey, wait a second. These people are actually more interested in me and I’m going to reciprocate by doing even better work. That’s at the highest level what I’m talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah. That’s great. Then you sort of go into some depth there when it comes to caring – it’s a bit of an acronym – to connect, achieve, respect and empower. Can you give us a little bit of a detailed taste for what you mean by each of these four verbs?

Alden Mills
Again, so when we talk about these highest levels of how do you get people to reciprocate with care, and, by the way, care is also a function of oxytocin. There’s a blocker to oxytocin called cortisol. These have all been scientifically measured. The first thing that’s got to happen is to create a level of trust, which is what I call connect.
Being a military guy, I’ve created a simple acronym of these flywheel or loop, what I call the care loop of connect, achieve, respect, empower. When it comes to connect, how you connect and what’s the point of connecting. The point of connecting is creating and building trust with somebody. How do you do that? Well, you do that one, through communication.
Communication actually is involved with mental, physical and emotional communication. 55% of communication is broken down into your body language, 38% is through tone, 7% is through the actual words. The next piece of that is your credibility. Do you do what you say you’re going to do? How accountable are you? What level of proficiency do you have at something?
The third part of connect is committing, making that commitment. Are you all in? Are you all in for just some people or are you all in for everybody? When you start doing that on a consistent basis, you start building up a level of trust that then sets in motion the next step because if you’re on any kind of a team, teams are designed to accomplish something. You move to achieve.
When it comes to achieving, the whole point of why you build a team in the first place is to go achieve
something. Achieving really is setting direction for that team. What’s the purpose, where are we going and how are we going to get there?
I break achieving down into a series of what I call the five A’s of achieve. The first one is starting with aspire. Aspiring means when you’re going after something – when I’m talking about teams – and, Pete, a lot of people get teams and groups – they use teams so often that they mistake most things for groups because teams are a much rarer form of what a group is.
A group is really a combination of people coming together that maybe connected or directed to do something, but teams, they move at a higher level and are much more focused on doing something greater than themselves. Usually, the teams are coming together to do something that no single individual could do.
When it comes to inspiring, you need to have a level of trust already built for them to say, “Are you kidding me? How are we going to get to the moon in less than a decade?” Some of these great challenges. Then once you start the aspiring, this is a natural tendency for people. I call it the second A, which is assume. You have to let people go and experience and try and take their own path to getting something done.
A lot of leaders will make the mistake that, “Okay, I’ve inspired them. Now I need to tell them exactly what to do.” What happens there? You just take away the fire in their belly of saying, “Hm, how can I figure out the best way to do this my way.” You remove that creativity from them and you micromanage them.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Alden Mills
That can kill the team dynamic early on. Then from when you get to assuming, you can relax a bit because don’t worry I’m not telling you assume they’re going to get it done and see them in two months. You create assessments. You create assessments for the team. We always had assessments at SEAL team, checking in on how we were doing for the next – how was our progress as a team.
It wasn’t so much – excuse me – it wasn’t so …. the weakest link, as it was how is the team doing together, how are we processing.
Once you pass through assess, the next piece is like, “Oh my gosh, there are times when we’re not progressing.” A leader has to step into assure, to assure them that, “Listen, we’re going to take a couple of steps back before we go forward. Just look at the core ways we’ve learned not to do something.”
Then the final one is having an appreciation, having an appreciation for the whole person, not just for the eight hours or the ten hours in which you see that person . Have you spent the time to appreciate what struggles they have outside of work, things that you may or may not be aware of or things that you can help them with?
But when you start adding those pieces to the puzzle of building out a team, that’s where care starts to
build on the flywheel that takes you to the third component, which is building out an environment of respect. A lot of people today are like, “Well, we’ve got to have respect because it’s just the right thing to do.”
But what’s the real reason to create mutual respect? The real reason is to get people to willingly contribute. That’s what you want respect for, respect for different cultures, respect for diversity of thought. That’s what it’s about is getting these different points of view to give you different ways in which you can slay the obstacle and grab the opportunity.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I like that.

Alden Mills
Respect is what I call – go ahead.

Pete Mockaitis
The respect is not just like “You should respect,” be like well, no, it fundamentally is what leads to folks willingly contributing and if you don’t then they won’t and you need it and you’re missing out.

Alden Mills
Yeah, you’re going to be suboptimal. Some of the most enjoyable moments I’ve had in companies is when we brought together what – some people may say, “People around this table look like the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer . Oh, they all look totally different.” I’m like, “That’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want,” because I know that I stand a better chance at getting all kinds of diverse opinions.
What you’re really after is diversity of thought, not diversity of heart. I want everybody’s heart in alignment, but I definitely want to create that diversity of thought. The only way that’s going to occur is on that third piece of the flywheel of the CARE loop with respect and what I call realize, recognize, and require. Realize and respect can come from two places: authority or your actions.
If people think that “Well, just because I’m the senior person here, I get more respect,” that is a very short-minded approach because it’s not going to last very long. Authority and respect in a SEAL team would last for about ten seconds. Maybe in the civilian world it might last for a couple of paychecks, but over time what wins the day are your actions.
That brings you to recognize how do you recognize the actions of others. Do you take the extra time to figure out, “Hey, Sally over here is a math genius. She’s phenomenal at pivot tables.” You may have said, “What’s pivot tables got to do with launching the perfect pushup?”
Well, it solved all of the big issues that were actually our biggest Achilles heel, which had to deal with supply chain management and shipping millions of units. If it weren’t for Sally and her pivot table super powers, we’d be in the hurt locker.
When you can start to recognize how a super power of each individual comes together to build up the team, then you’re starting to create an unstoppable team, where everybody starts realizing “Hey, this
person is really caring about me and what I can bring to the table, therefore, I’m going to start reciprocating and do the same.”
That final R, by the way, is you have to require it. If you find time and time again that somebody is just totally disrespectful and they’re not into it and your efforts have not been sustainable to help them switch, then it’s time for that person to move on because that will just kill the environment for contribution.
That brings you to the final piece of the care loop and it closes it, called empower. Empowering is about building owners. I talk about doing that through educate, enable and engage. By educating people, you’re helping them be better, not just for their job at hand, but also helping them grow in the direction that they are seeking to do for the long term.
Enabling is helping them to succeed. And engaging is the active process of testing their education, challenging them, improving them, and helping the entire team grow.
When that all happens, the loop closes and people go, “Hey, I’m going to share this care loop with the next team that I …,” because teams all disband, people move on. That’s the great thing about if you approach things with a care-based philosophy, I guarantee you, it will come back in spades in the positive realm for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah. That’s handy. Your articulation of it in terms of care as a macro acronym and then all the C’s, and A’s, and R’s, and E’s underneath, so it’s easier to remember there. I suppose that makes good sense to me.
Now could you tell me in what ways do you get resistance from this because I’m hearing this as like, “Yeah, that would make sense. We should do all those things. I am right with you, Alden.” Where do you find people say, “Alden, you’re off base. I disagree here,” sort of where is there some contention?

Alden Mills
Well, let’s see. What’s the first big disagreement I’d get? “Wait, you’re a Navy SEAL talking about caring. Are you kidding me? Navy SEALS only care about killing, right? How can you go around talking about caring?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was going to ask, I wouldn’t put it that far, but if you look at the footage of-

Alden Mills
But that’s how some people would approach it.

Pete Mockaitis
The training. Yeah. The training doesn’t look like it’s caring with all the screaming and the discomfort. But what’s your take on that?

Alden Mills
Well, so the first thing is when people hear care, they hear oh, soft and cuddly. No, that’s not the care I’m talking about. I am talking about the care to be the best version of yourself, the care of you being able to go beyond what you originally thought possible. I’m not talking about caring and keeping you in the comfort zone. I actually want you out of the comfort zone .
The people that are the instructors at SEAL team, they are only there for a short period of time. They’re going to go back to a platoon. I could very well – and it happened to me. Some of those instructors became the people that I ended up leading. They give an unbelievable amount of care to ensuring that there’s a certain quality of individual that they’re looking to work with because their lives could very well rest in the hands of that person that they’re training.
The care that I refer to is the more you care, the more those people will dare. Ironically, to do that, it’s going to require you to dare first. Leaders are going to have to take that first step. How leaders deal with that first step is a critical first path.
I brought up cortisol and oxytocin earlier. Some people will say, “No, no, leadership is just like the movie Patton . You’ve got to get out in front and bark orders at them and do those kind of things.” Maybe there’s some organization that needs that, but I’ve never found that to be the most powerful.
There are times where you have to get up and give somebody an inspiring speech or assure them that we’re on the right path, but the large majority of the time, the work’s happening one-on-one or one in a small group and you’re getting people to stay focused on the objective at hand. The most important way to first do that, why people will even listen to you is because they know that you care about them.
A lot of people will make the mistake of going out and barking an order, saying, “God, you sucked at that. Why did you fail so badly?” The moment that happens, and this has been proven, cortisol gets fired off. Cortisol is a hormone for fight or flight or what I would call freeze, reaction. You are not in a creative space once cortisol is fired off. Cortisol is three times more powerful than oxytocin.
Oxytocin, you can argue, is the care hormone. When that gets fired off, it’s the ability to allow you to be more creative. If someone were to come to you and say, “Gee, we just failed.” “Oh great. How did we fail? Do we know what it was? And can we figure out a better way to do it?” versus “You did what? You failed.” Those two different approaches will send people down completely different paths.
That’s one of the first conversations I’ll get into with people about, “Oh, you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to set this tough standard.” The tough standard is the goal that you’re going after, but you only ever have to be as tough as a situation dictates .

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. I’m curious, with all of these verbs here, I’d love to get your take on which of them do you think has the biggest impact in terms of, “You know, Pete, this only takes a minute or two to do and yet it has such a lasting impact on folks really stepping up and growing.” What would you say is the key thing or two or three things that have an outsized impact?

Alden Mills
One of the first ones that I do anytime I get into a team is a I try and get one-on-ones with all my direct
reports for sure, but even the people that aren’t my direct reports and understanding, “Hey, what’s your goal? Why are you here? What’s important to you?” If I have more time, like I was on SEAL team, I’d ask people to give me one-, three- and five-year goals.
They’re like, “Well, I don’t know what they are?” I’m like, “Okay, well, give me a personal and professional and physical one or give me a financial one. Tell me what’s motivating you. Why are you getting up in the morning? Why are you coming here?” It totally disarms them because they think I’m going to be talking about “Gee, tell me about our ROI for this quarter. How come you’re not hitting your numbers?” I will take a roundabout approach to doing that.
But if you find and you stay curious about the whole person and not just what their performance is at this moment, it instinctively gives you some other things that you can always come back and connect to that person.
When I interview somebody, as an example, the first thing that I’ll have them do is say, “Hey, tell me your story.” “Mr. Mills, what do you mean by that?” “Give me your story. Where did you come from? What do you like? What did you study in school? What’s your favorite book? What’s your favorite movie? Tell me some things about yourself.” Trying to get multi-dimensional on the person instead of just, “Oh, what’s their output today?” Taking that interest in everybody.
Business would be really easy, Pete, if we didn’t have humans. Team leading and team output and being a leader is being a relationship builder. The better you can become at building relationships with multiple different types of people, the more you will be able to succeed because you will get more differences of opinion and different points of view that can give you different ways to solve problems and make great things happen.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. I really liked how you shared some particular verbiage that you use in terms of key specific questions that you were asking folks and things that you’re saying. Are there any other favorite phrases that you find really come in handy and you use often as you’re doing this caring stuff?

Alden Mills
Well, the first thing and one of my all-time favorite quotations that I use all the time is from good old Teddy Roosevelt. I think it applies as much today as it did back in whenever he said it. I think it was 1912 or so. “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Sometimes it can be really hard to flip the switch from caring about what you need to caring about what’s going on with them. The more you can remember that if you lead with care, they will dare.

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

Alden Mills
Some of my personal favorite things?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Is there anything else you want to say before we shift gears to the fast favorite’s portion?

Alden Mills
I just really want to impress upon people that this care is not to be taken lightly.
This isn’t just, “Okay, I’m only going to care about the people directly in me.” It becomes a mindset of how you handle relationships across the board. As that happens, you’ll find a force multiplying effect that will go into action because everybody else wants to help you succeed because you’re trying to help them succeed.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig that. Well, now, you mentioned a favorite quote, could you now share a favorite study, piece of research or experiment you found compelling?

Alden Mills
Well, I’m a huge believer in physical fitness, as you might surmise. There is a book out there called Spark . Spark has to do with essentially the link to physical activity and mental performance. I often find that a lot of people who have a bad attitude, have poor performance, they’re all things within their control. Usually, and this is what I started my first company on, it was the attitude of take control of your body, take control of your life.
Large majority of the time, as an example, depression can be solved – 80% of common depression can be solved with 30 minutes of consistent high aerobic activity.
There are so many different things that are within our control that we seem to forget and we allow outside influences – say, “Oh, it’s the environment,” “Oh, my life is miserable,” but they don’t realize that the few things that they can control of how they think, how they feel and how they act can totally change their direction in life and change the people that are with them.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. All right, I’ve got that book. I also ask about a favorite book. Would that be it or is there another key one you’d recommend?

Alden Mills
I’ve got lots of favorite books. Let’s see, besides Spark , which I ended up going back to all the time, I like Endure . I like Culture Code . I like Boys in the Boat . I’m a former rower. I real also enjoy a great story. By the way, I use story a lot to connect with people. People will find story very powerful as a way to connect, so I love reading about biographies. I’m reading about Leonardo da Vinci right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Alden Mills
I would give my favorite tool, you’re going to laugh about this, as I love my Peloton.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Alden Mills
I use a Peloton to – I follow a couple of different trainers and I so enjoy getting on that for a 30-minute of just flushing my brain and allowing myself to just focus inwardly before going outwardly.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have any other favorite habits?

Alden Mills
I do a mindful walk. I like watching the sunrise. I like going out with no particular agenda, but a 30-minute walk in the morning. Sometimes I refer to it as a prayer walk, but it’s an act of meditation for about 30 minutes.

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

Alden Mills
Yes. Their limits are up to them.

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

Alden Mills
They can come to my website, link in with me. My website’s called Alden-Mills.com.

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

Alden Mills
Don’t ever stop dreaming. Don’t ever settle for average. Keep pushing yourself out of the comfort zone. It’s so easy for us to stay in the comfort zone, especially as we get older. Stay away from those that want you to enjoy the misery that they’re enjoying and keep dreaming.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Alden, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best with your companies and your writing and the book, Unstoppable Teams . Yeah, keep up the great work.

Alden Mills
Thank you very much for the time, Pete. I hope this helps.

414: How Culture Change Really Happens with Gretchen Anderson

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Gretchen Anderson provides research insights on cultural shift from her work at the Katzenbach Center.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The four elements critical to a work culture
  2. The role of the critical few in an organization
  3. How to leverage the behavior you already have for the bette

About Gretchen

Gretchen Anderson is a director at the Katzenbach Center who has been working  with client teams across the globe for over 15 years. Gretchen has a doctorate in literature from Stanford University and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her two children, Jane and Calvin. Her new book is The Critical Few: Energize Your Company’s Culture by Choosing What Really Matters.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Gretchen Anderson Interview Transcript

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

Gretchen Anderson
Hey, how are you, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m doing well. I’m doing well. I think we’re going to have a good time here.

Gretchen Anderson
Great. I’m really looking forward to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to get your take, first of all, it seems like we’ve got something in common
You and I both listen to podcasts while falling to sleep. I want to hear all about this habit of yours in terms of what are you listening to and how do you do it. What is actually stuck in your ears?

Gretchen Anderson
Yes. For a while I was really into these headphones called SleepPhones. They had a great pajamas for the ears.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh that is nice.

Gretchen Anderson
Which, I loved that name. But then I actually just discovered I could put my iPhone under my pillow and I just let it play.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay. That’s great.

Gretchen Anderson
What about you? What do you do?

Pete Mockaitis
I think I’ve got something called CozyPhones, which sounds similar.

Gretchen Anderson
CozyPhones. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And you’ve got SleepPhones.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. I used to listen to strange recordings in the days before podcasts. Then I would get sick of them. But there’s some sort of perfect middle of the Venn diagram of it has to be interesting enough that it distracts me from my own thoughts, but boring enough that it doesn’t keep me awake. Obviously, Pete, Awesome at My Job is never going to be in that category.

Pete Mockaitis
You know just want to say.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. But also I like that the voice is familiar. Sometimes I’ll listen to things on linguistics. Topics that are sort of adjacent to mine and that I find interesting, but are not directly relevant or else my mind will still want to pay attention.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m intrigued by the SleepPhones. I’ve been using CozyPhones, which are nice, but they have a cord. I see the SleepPhones are wireless.

Pete Mockaitis
Thanks for the tip. I can get wireless there. I like to also listen to podcasts or Blinkist, which has all you book summaries. They’re a sponsor, thanks Blinkist, of the show. Or sometimes a TED talk, just the audio, because that …. You go, “Oh, okay.” Then once one goes, it’s like okay, that’s about the right amount of time. I’ll be asleep now.

Gretchen Anderson
for me if it has a dot of music, it wakes up like a bolt of lightning. Yeah. Honestly, the production values can’t be too high because I can’t have music.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you for digging into that element. You’ve already educated me with something that could be transformational.

Gretchen Anderson
I’m glad. I’m glad. I’m glad. Everyone will be awesome-r at their job if they get a good night’s sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m right with you on there. Can you orient us a little bit? You’re a director at the Katzenbach Center. You do a lot of work associated with company culture and simplifying that. Can you orient us to what do you do and why does that get you jazzed?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, so I run a knowledge center within a large consulting firm. I work within PWC. I run a center with a team that is the firm’s kind of incubation engine on topics around culture and leadership and motivation and performance.

Pete Mockaitis
I like all those things.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, it’s really fun. I get to have – we do research, we write, we have articles, we publish this book that we’ll be talking about today, and we get to take this very cross industry, cross-the-globe view. PWC is a very, very large global firm. We get to be part of conversations about how ideas and theories, about how culture works in a business context are happening literally everywhere. It’s really fun.

We get to see what’s kind of universal. What’s the common X-factor that’s going to help both a local green construction firm in Baltimore and a giant global technology firm? What’s going to ring true for leaders at both of those organizations? That’s the really fun part about my job.

Pete Mockaitis
That is interesting, yes. You share some of your learnings in your book, The Critical Few. What’s the main message of the book?

Gretchen Anderson
The main message of the book is that culture, just like your strategy and your operating model, can and should be considered as absolutely a problem and an issue and an opportunity that gets leaders out of bed every day and that that motivational piece of the business if tapped and cultivated can be a source of positive energy for whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish.

Pete Mockaitis
Positive energy, I like that. Well, could you maybe give us a picture of that in terms of maybe it’s a case study or a story or example of an organization that went from not so energized to wow, this is great.

Gretchen Anderson
we ground the book within a fictional case study about a CEO, who we call Alex. We did this in part because culture is such an intimate topic for so many organizations.

The book is the story of very much a composite of all the companies we have ever worked with. It’s the story of a fictional company, who has a CEO who’s come in that’s kind of a company in retail.

They’ve got a lot of things going for them, but a lot of things are tough. By working with this leader, we’re able to help him understand that working within and through the culture and the motivations that people have, he’s able to get the best out of that business.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you maybe orient us to what’s it look like when it’s not at its best in terms of the energy and the vibe amongst the people in terms of the daily grind versus the happy place toward the end?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. I would say the real switch is that people within an organization before they begin kind of an evolution on culture that’s kind of purposeful and kind of critical few-ish in the way that we describe in the book, at the beginning they’re thinking about culture as something that’s standing in the way of getting work done in the way that they want to get work done.

It’s the thing that people throw their hands in the air and say, “It’s the culture. What are we going to do?” or “I would love to get this done,” or “This keeps happening and it seems like it’s the culture.”

It goes from being something that they feel is out of their control and kind of obtrusive and causing kind of drag to at the end of the book, they feel like there are specific things that they recognize what their culture is, they see it’s sort of core traits of who they are, they see how they came to be that way over time and how they’re not going to change them quickly.

They also understand that by being really precise about the behaviors that more people could do more of every day, by being really precise and really descriptive, by motivating and rewarding when people do those few behaviors, they’re able to start seeing them self-reinforce. They’re able to start see them virally spreading.

The book ends with a scene in a retail store, where the CEO and one of his board members literally watch a guy not knowing he’s being observed helping a customer in a way that he wouldn’t before and sort of attaching that to understanding that he’s part of this new shift in the culture and the direction.

Pete Mockaitis
When we say, “Hey, it’s the culture. It’s out of control. It’s a drag,” can you give us some examples of particular issues or complaints that folks would affix to that? “It’s the culture. It’s out of control. It’s a drag. It is what it is.”

Gretchen Anderson
we hear companies talk about this all the time. These are going to be really familiar to you and your listeners. They’re going to be, “We spend too much time in meetings and nothing ever gets done.” They’re going to be things like, “We’re drowning in a situation where decisions can’t be made without consensus.” It could be, “The way that things are drawn on paper, nobody follows those processes. Everybody bends the rules.” It could be all sorts of things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’d love to hear then sort of what are the four critical elements that you zero in on?

Gretchen Anderson
if I had to sketch the whole thing out for you, it sort of is the overall message of the book and of our approach is you have to be very comprehensive in how you think about what a culture is, but you also have to be willing to just start by looking at a piece of it and focusing in there.

Culture is a kind of ecosystem that includes how people behave, and how they feel, their emotional energy, their mindsets. It also includes specifically how they behave and show up to work together.
You, however, you can’t influence people’s mental states because they’re private, because I can’t tell when they’re changing. But what you can do is you can be very specific about behavior. We talk about behaviors as a point of entry.

We also say the culture of an organization as it exists today is where you need to start from. If you were to say to me, “I want to build a culture that looks like the culture of this wonderful restaurant down the street,” or “I want to build the culture of that technology company that everybody always talks about,”

I would say, “You know what, Pete? The culture of your organization grew up to be that culture for a reason and it supported the way that business has gotten done to date. Let’s figure out where you start from and then we’ll figure out where you’re trying to get to next.”

To bring it back to those four elements – that’s how we talk about that first element of the theory is this idea that every organization has a critical few traits. if we’ve all got the name of the same business on our business card and we all show up and work here and we’re part of this ecosystem, we’re going to share some family resemblance things in common.

Those might be things like a relationship orientation or they might be things like a focus on metrics or faith in our leader or – they’re a set of characteristics that if you met somebody you’d never met before but they both worked in the same company, you’re going to presume that they share.

And importantly, each one of those traits is going to have ways that they’re supporting you getting work done and ways that they’re hurting the work that you need to get done. There’s this notion that there are critical traits and all of those traits have ways that they’re helping and hurting. You can’t change them quickly, so what you might as well do is figure out how to work within them to get more of what you need.

Pete Mockaitis
Now when you talk about these traits, do you have sort of a master menu, if you will? I guess when you think of culture sometimes we can think about particular continua or dichotomies, like, “Oh, it’s very relationship oriented versus process oriented.”

Gretchen Anderson
Yup.
It’s always a tension because have you ever talked to any organization that is purely one or the other, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Gretchen Anderson
It’s interesting. We started thinking this way about traits seven or eight years ago. At that time we kind of purpose built them every time. We did a lot of interviews and kind of by hypothesis sort of built up what do we think these traits are after every – we’d have a lot of conversations. Then we started to realize some of these traits seem original to a company, but there’s a lot of ones that we kept seeing over time.

We’ve built a survey-based tool to kind of pull those out. That survey-based tool is definitely on kind of a poll of like “Are decisions made in this organization by consensus or are decisions made by single point of accountability?” “Do I feel I’m rewarded only for the financial metrics I deliver or do I feel that there are a broader set of points on which I’m evaluated?”

Very few organizations are going to fall far to the left or fall to the right. There’s definitely like a kind of spectrum quality to where organizations show up.

Pete Mockaitis
I love when you get really specific that way in terms of, hey, decisions can go one way or the other and sort of somewhere along the lines and then they how you get rewarded also. Can you unpack a few more of those dimensions?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, sure. We also think about is it very hierarchical or is it very flat. We think about do things follow the org chart or is everything very loose and informal? It’s those kinds of like, where are the pulls?

Another thing that’s really cool that doing this survey over time, I mentioned we do research the Katzenbach Center. We do longitudinally. Every couple of years we run a survey across organizations that mainly have been our clients basically because we have their emails. But 2,000 people in 50 countries responded to our last survey, so we get a pretty global and kind of cross-industry perspective on how people view these kinds of things as well.

We asked some of those questions and then mapped them to the industries that they answered. We’re even being able to start to say these are the kinds of traits that show up in particular industries.

We are saying yes, every organization kind of has its individual thumbprint, by taking such a close look at each organization, not against some external framework, but sort of in a very intrinsic take it in its own terms way, but by mapping that over time and looking across a lot of organizations, we’re able to see some trends that don’t mean, “Oh, we’re measuring you against our scorecard.” They’re very much built on the organizations own responses.

Does that make sense? You’re kind of wonky like me, I can tell. You’re asking me very detailed questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Because I think the world culture can be a little fuzzy for some.

Gretchen Anderson
For sure.

Pete Mockaitis
In terms of “It’s the way we do things around here. It’s like the vibe. It’s the feel, Gretchen.” I think the more that we make it all the more precise is like, “What I mean by culture is when you make decisions is it more like or more like that? When people are rewarded is it more for this or more for that?” If you have any more kind of extremes or ends of continua, I’d love to hear them.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. Well, so some of the things that we’ve had a chance to see – one thing – and it’s actually come up in a couple of difference sources recently. Let’s talk about that spectrum of how we’re rewarded.

Am I, Gretchen Anderson, rewarded as an individual within my company? Do I feel like it’s just going to be metrics? I’m sorry. Do I feel like it’s just going to be financial metrics or do I feel like there are also going to be sort of how I made the people on my team feel and a sort of broader set of metrics?

We did a regression analysis against the 2,000 respondents. A guy in our network said, “It would be really interesting to take that data, do a regression analysis against how proud I feel to work where I work.” The highest correlation in any of those scores and questions we asked, the highest correlation was “Are my metrics broad?”

I thought that was really nice because I sort of know that intuitively. It feels better to me as an individual to feel as if my whole self – how I mentor people – it feels good to me as an individual to feel as if a broad set of metrics are applied to my performance than just one specific one.

But I really liked that our data – because we didn’t ask, “Do you your metrics make you feel good?” or whatever. We actually just did that correlation. That was really nice.

Then similarly, PWC has done a survey outside of the Katzenbach Center, a survey called Digital IQ. They did an external analysis based on market data of companies that are most innovative in a digital space, like highest digital innovation that they looked at externally rather than by asking them, “Are you digitally innovative?” It was a set of external market criteria. And then found broader performance metrics tended to correlate as well to higher digital innovation.

I thought that was cool. I try to take a point of view on culture. We try, within the Katzenbach Center, to say we’re not saying any kind of culture is all good or all bad and we’re not saying, “Look, here’s our scorecard of good culture. Take the survey. Uh-oh, you only got an eight.” That is not what we’re doing at all. We’re really trying to take every organization on its own terms and encourage them.

This is very much what the book is about. We’re encouraging every organization to look within, figure out what you’re best at, and try to do more of it rather than apply some external measure. But then the nice part is that over time and being very deliberative in this space, we’re able to start to actually say there are some things that we do see and believe really drive the kind of motivation that feels like  everybody wants more of.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear some of those. What are some of the things everyone wants more of?

Gretchen Anderson
What everybody wants is a culture that’s aligned with what the business is trying to do.

We argue the goals should be for if you are trying to do the hard caloric work of evolving your culture, that is about trying to find ways to make sure that individuals working within your company feel there is an alignment between the kind of messages I’m getting and kind of what I’m rewarded for and all of those things feel coherent for me with what I need to do to help this company perform.

In our mind when we’re saying, “You want to work on your culture,” we’re saying that should be your goal.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nice. Then that’s rather thoughtful then in terms of making sure you have that alignment as opposed to for instance, I think let’s say innovation. “Hey, we want to be more innovative. We want to have more ideas. We want to make them happen. But there are sort of behaviors and rewards and bonuses that are tied to never being wrong, for example.”

It’s like, “Oh, well, there you go. I feel kind of disjointed being here and it’s not so fun. Am I supposed to come up with wild ideas, which may or may not work or am I supposed to just sort of do the thing that we all know works, which would not be innovative?”

That’s nifty. Then I’d love to hear then, how do you zero in on particular behaviors and can you give us some examples of behaviors you might zero in on to support something and how you would get those reinforced?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, the idea is that those behaviors need to be not chosen at random, but what they need to be is they need to be a bridge between what we understand the culture to be today and where we’re trying to get to.

Let me explain it in the context of I’ve currently been having conversations – a wonderful guy reached out to me, who’s running a green construction firm in Baltimore.

He’s very much talking about “In this world that I’m in, how do I get everybody in my office from the back office staff to the frontline people, to be all more customer-focused, even if they’re not dealing with customers every day?”

We did this really fun workshop with them around given these kind of core traits of who we are, the sort of pride in our business, this sort of attachment to our leader and his vision and these traits of who we are, team oriented, safe and careful—what would customer service behaviors look like that would be grounded in the way we are today, that we all agree would help us kind of outperform our peers in the market on the dimension of customer service, but what might behaviors be?

They talked about like, might a behavior be a dress code, might we have a consistency of style and dress that would mark us as part of this company, that would be appealing? We actually had a wonderful conversation about one of the core traits that had come out in this company was a real organization-wide, autonomy was valued.

We had this amazing conversation about what might a behavior be of we understand how to dress for work that would respect that autonomy trait. We can’t roll something out organization-wide and make it really sound like a heavy new policy without it being tissue rejected by an organization in which people feel like they should be able to make autonomous decisions every day.

Again, none of this is magic, but what I’m trying to sketch and show was that by having these conversations and the ways that we’re grounded and the concepts that we talk about in the book, it kind of framed the right conversations such that they were able to talk about behaviors in a way that felt very realistic and practical and approachable and real.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. So what are they going to do?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. What they also decided to do and this is another really core part of the theory is they are going to work with the people in the organization to figure out the right answer. They’re going to work with the people in the organization, we call them the critical few people.

These are the authentic and formal leaders, who have a finger on the pulse of how everybody thinks and behaves there, who sort of intuitively know what the kind of emotional triggers are going to be for people. The leader there has decided to name a couple of those authentic, informal leaders, sort of put the case to them.

Again, I get to go all the way back to this overarching theory that the best that you have in your organization is already inside of it. A lot of times you need to guide an organization to understand that the answer isn’t going to come from something external, but from paying attention to the voices of the people inside.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. As you’re going about doing all of this, are there any particular tips, tricks, do’s, don’ts, key things you find yourself saying frequently as you’re making it happen?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, absolutely. A big one is it’s much easier to act your way into new ways of thinking than it is to think your way into new ways of acting. That’s from an author named Jerry Sternin, who wrote a book called The Power of Positive Deviance. We love that quote. This is about a sort of behaviors-first approach to making things happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Now could you give us a couple of examples of behaviors that have just been transformational in terms of you’ve identified this is the thing we’re really going to do and reinforce that just had powerful ripples for organizations?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, I could, but I want to pick on that question a little bit because I think innate to this idea is that the things I describe, there isn’t a behavior that is so magical that every organization could pick it up and apply it. It’s an adjustment from “Here’s what we’re doing today and here’s how it could happen better.”

It might be walk the front line and talk to folks every day and listen to what they say or it might be send every meeting invitation being very specific about what the outcomes of the meeting will be. It’s that there’s been energy behind that particular behavior and we’ve kind of agreed that if we commit to it collectively, it’s going to help us get somewhere rather than that there’s a – I wish there was.

If I could change every organization by saying, “There is a behavior and that behavior is hugging.” I would love to say that there is some universal solution or some behavior, but it’s amazing it’s usually the behaviors that organizations come to, it’s very important that they come to that consensus and that they describe those behaviors in language that makes sense to them, but it’s actually kind of hard to pull them out and show why they matter because it’s such an intimate answer.

Pete Mockaitis
I can understand that how for different organizations that, for example, the email meeting requests that are very specific on the outcome.

When you adopt that behavior, some groups would say, “Yes, what a breath of fresh air. That’s what we need so badly because we just meander all over the same place and we waste all this time.” Others would say, “Well duh, that’s how we’ve always done every meeting everywhere, every time, so there’s not a really a change or a gain to be made.”

Others would say, “Why do we need that at all? It’s self-evident. We all know what we’re trying to do here. Just two or three folks get together and we chat about how to bang out the widget better. It’s not that complicated. We don’t really need to do that.” I hear you that different behaviors will be the potent leverage prescription for different organizations.

In terms of how you zero in on what’s the thing for a given organization, it sounds like you identify the traits that you really want and then you talk to the people who are influential and have their finger on the pulse and are emotionally intuitive and with it with folks to see what they’re hearing and what they think would resonate. Are there any other sort of key practices to surface what might the kind of highly leveraged behavior be?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, absolutely, but let me make a small correction on what you’re saying. What you do is you leverage not necessarily the traits you really want, but the traits you really have. I know that sounds like such a small distinction, but it really is about you have your aspiration of where you’re trying to get to, but the important part is, you’re trying to ground it in a just where we are today that’s realistic.

Then you understand what we have, you understand what you’re trying to get to, whether that’s customer centricity in my example or in a highly-siloed healthcare organization we were working with recently, we understood that to be collaboration. That was the strategic aspiration that we needed.

But then the really critical thing to do as well is this notion of you choose what you’re going to measure and why. You resist the temptation and the impulse to try to find a comprehensive set of metrics that will measure everything and instead you say,

“When things start to change and feel different around here, where will we actually see that difference and how do we make sure we really pay attention to that and kind of drop a thermometer there such that we’re able to really get beyond people’s natural cynicism that culture can’t change, demonstrate, look, we said upfront there would be this proof point and we have it!” and use that measurement and the reporting of that measurement to be the energy that helps people move forward and move on.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you give us some examples of measures, so for example, collaboration, what kind of numbers might you put on that?

Gretchen Anderson
There actually was a really cool example from our own firm. We did in the Canadian firm within PWC, they did an organizational network analysis.

Everyone sort of took it as a – this sounds correct that we’re constantly asking partners in a professional services firm to collaborate with other partners outside of their business area. That sounds like a good idea.

But they did an organizational network analysis to figure out who sort of had the densest networks and whose networks stretched across – if I’m a partner in financial services, how well connected I am to partners in other parts of the business. They were actually able to correlate revenue per account to partners that had the strongest network relationships outside of their immediate area.

What a beautiful way to kind of specifically encourage a behavior to say “Let’s look at this behavior. Let’s measure how the networks map to this and let’s actually track it to revenue.” When actual business results can be tracked to something that we’re trying to encourage, that’s always really beautiful.

It’s rare and wonderful when you can come up with one kind of very clear metric like that. Usually we say, “Find every point at which – how many people show up for the program? Do we see an increase in engagement scores around particular issues we’re looking for? What are the things that you measure already and where can we see some kind of lift there?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so it’s nice certainly when you see hey, we want collaboration and we’ve got a nice proof point. Hey, look at this correlation partners who are well-connected with all sorts of different areas are having higher revenue per account, which makes sense because they’re able to recommend cool stuff to their relationships at the accounts. Then what is the behavior that you want folks to do more of when it comes to bringing more collaboration?

Gretchen Anderson
Within that example with the partners, I would probably say, if we want to figure that out I would want to kind of trail the partners who are doing it well.

I would want to trail them and say, “Are you flying to different client’s cities and setting up dinners with partners who you don’t often see even if you’re not on a pursuit together? Are you sitting down every morning and writing ten emails to people in the network?” I think it would look different. We would try to figure out what were people doing that seemed to be most influential and how can we get more people to do more of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Thank you. Anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and talk about some of your favorite things?

Gretchen Anderson
Sure, yeah. I talked a little bit earlier about interesting trends that we saw in our kind of global survey in those results. We had a really from this very, very diverse 2,000 respondents, we had a very interesting thing pop up. Again, it was the sort of thing that we’d known intuitively through many years of working with organizations of different sizes and different maturity levels and industries.

We walk into an organization and we ask the leaders how the culture is and they very often have lots of positive things to say about it. Then when we go further down into the weeds, into middle management, into the frontline, it is definitely a different story and a lot of times kind of that’s where the truth lies. That sounds kind of obvious, but our survey data popped that out so baldly.

When we asked the question, “Do senior leaders have culture as an important topic on their agenda?” if you responded to that in our survey and you identified yourself as a senior leader, you were 71% likely to agree versus only 48% of people who did not identify themselves as being part of the leadership team.

We were like, “Wow, that’s remarkable.” That tendency to use culture more cynically further down in the organization is almost a universal based on our data. We thought that was really cool.

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

Gretchen Anderson
You’ll like this as a podcast host, from the podcast StoryCorps, I really like the quote, “Listening is an act of love.”

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

Gretchen Anderson
I wish I could remember the author right now – but read an article recently in HBR that was about how we like to believe that open office spaces make people behave in ways that are more collaborative. A huge amount of real estate dollars have been spent on that concept kind of in the past 30 years.

But a guy did a study, a HBR professor did a study using people’s Fitbits to track – there was a major change in an office layout and they tracked by Fitbits before and after how much people got up and walked around and talked to their colleagues. The open office space, paradoxically, made people stay at their desks more.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, is that because you can just talk to someone without moving?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, or you’re slightly getting so sick of people that you’ve got your headphones I loved that point just in the sense of what we think in a top-down way is going to cause a certain behavior, is not necessarily what’s going to happen. If those leaders had interviewed everybody about what really would drive collaboration, they might not have started with real estate.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Gretchen Anderson
I love a book called Everybody Lies. It is about Google search data. It came out this year. It’s basically about how indirect – the ways that people query in Google forms a sort of more accurate record of predictor of how they’ll behave than kind of direct surveys. I’m getting at really, really interested and feel like the next frontier of culture work has to do around how do you measure behavior not by asking people, “Are you going to behave this way?” but really by indirect forms.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, yeah. Can you give us an example of one way we lie?

Gretchen Anderson
The great example from the book was around – it’s a really obvious one – but if you asked people, “Are you going to vote in an election?” versus if you found out how many people queried the location of their polling site. That second query almost entirely correlated to how many people voted in a certain district versus the question the day before, “Are you going to vote?” obviously a lot more aspirational.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Gretchen Anderson
It’s a good one, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. Thank you.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. I see that a lot just in talking to leaders about in order to get at culture, you always have to go at it slant. You have to kind of think about what motivates people and what they’re truly going to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Gretchen Anderson
That’s such a good question. I’m going to say something surprisingly old fashioned. I can’t survive without a notebook next to me at all times.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Gretchen Anderson
I travel with a yoga mat.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh good.

Gretchen Anderson
I won’t get on an airplane without my folding yoga mat in my bag. I think it’s a good sort of self-reinforcing one.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks? You hear them sort of repeating it back to you frequently?

Gretchen Anderson
I think it would probably be about how most leaders wildly overestimate how rational people are.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s resonating with me.

Gretchen Anderson
….

Pete Mockaitis
Rational in the sense of doing what it is in their best interest or doing what is logical or what do you mean by rational?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. I’ve taken this very much many years of working with John Katzenbach, the emotional drivers of how an organization behaves are – I’m not going to say more powerful than the rational ones, but so easy to ignore.

And that really understanding the people’s pride in their work, people’s sense of disenchantment when things feel incoherent, people’s motivation to work with someone who makes them feel good about the work that they do. Those are really powerful reservoirs of energy, but that it is much, much easier and tempting for most leaders to really focus on the rational reasons than be utterly baffled why things don’t line up like that.

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

Gretchen Anderson
I would point them to the website for the book. It’s TheCriticalFewBook.com. That will also point them to the Katzenbach Center at PWC. There’s a link through to that. You can also follow me on Twitter. I’m at GBrooksAnderson. You can find our book on Amazon.

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

Gretchen Anderson
I feel like in the many years I’ve been doing this kind of work, I both realized through my own personal experience as well as watching organizations work, I think you need to really pay attention to what gives you the most energy. You need to think about what are the situations in which I feel motivated. Just to find yourself in them more often.

I feel like so many people spend their careers and lives kind of beating themselves up for not feeling that motivation. It’s the quieting down and saying, “What do I feel energy around?” that usually leads you to the question that you and you alone were meant to solve.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely, thank you. Well, Gretchen, this has been fun. Thanks and good luck with all you’re doing there.

Gretchen Anderson
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure. I really appreciate the time.

407: The Key Behaviors of Inspiring Leaders with Ash Seddeek

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Ash Seddeek outlines the key leadership behaviors that inspire teams.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Ten key leadership behaviors that inspire followers
  2. One mistake that quickly kills a team’s creativity
  3. How to manage your bias like a pro

About Ash

Ash develops leadership, executive communications and strategic sales programs. He currently works with Cisco’s innovation startup teams to help them craft compelling value proposition narratives. Ash is also a mentor to entrepreneurs and a communications expert at the American Management Association.

He’s the bestselling author of the books Meaning, Start with a Vision, and The Road to Success.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Ash Seddeek Interview Transcript

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

Ash Seddeek
Thank you very much for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I was intrigued to learn that you were a Fulbright scholar not once but twice. Didn’t know that was actually possible. Could you tell us the tale?

Ash Seddeek
Absolutely. I actually come all the way from Alexandria, Egypt, where in my earlier life I was basically getting trained to become a linguist at the University of Alexandria. By virtue of my work there as a teaching assistant, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship. The first time I came to the US as a participant in a summer program.

Then the second time I actually applied to be an assistant group leader that essentially then sort of leveraging the first-time experience, sort of leading the group that went the second time around. That’s really how it happened as part of my working at the University of Alexandria.

Lo and behold, days go by and here I am actually leveraging a lot of that linguistics training in a lot of the executive coaching that I do with leaders today around leadership communications.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Excellent. Well, you’ve packaged some of these insights about leadership communications into your book, Meaning. Can you say what’s sort of the main message within this?

Ash Seddeek
The main message behind Meaning was really driven by the experience working at Cisco Corporation, especially at the highlight of the financial crisis in 2008. My job at Cisco at that time was to help understand the messaging that was happening outside Cisco about Cisco and also what the leadership team at Cisco needs to message, especially in Cisco’s largest conference, which is the sales kickoff conference that happens on an annual basis.

I saw John Chambers at that time, he was the CEO at that time, really grappling with how Cisco tried to re-sustain its position as well as also survive that financial crisis that were affecting basically the pockets and the budgets of its own customers.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Then within that you’ve sort of looked at individual leaders and what they were doing and found some interesting patterns.

Ash Seddeek
Exactly. The one thing that I saw and John and the rest of the executive team at Cisco were doing really well, and of course the technology at Cisco, just amazing how Cisco was making use of its own technology to speak across the 60,000 plus employees at that time.

Essentially helping them understand what was going on and re-clarifying the meaning of why do we continue to do what we’re doing, what sort of sustains our differentiation, and how leaders of all aspects and levels of the company can really help articulate that message all the way to the very last mile, every single employee, whether they are all the way in Cairo, Egypt; Dubai in the Arabian Gulf, or China, or India, or even in the US.

The ability to continue to message to the employees why we’re doing what we’re doing and how do we move from where we are today into the future was very critical task and responsibility that leaders need to have all the time.

I think in my mind, based on the research we’ve done for the book, this whole concept of communicating where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going is the fundamental task and responsibility in my mind, that the CxOs need to be communicating with their employees in organizations.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious, how does that shift if it’s at sort of the manager level?

Ash Seddeek
At the manager level, it becomes really a pivotal moment for the manager to understand that, again, a big part of their role is to help their team understand how the message that we’re hearing from the CEO and the executive team translates into what we do on a daily basis. How do we connect the dots between the piece of a product that we’re working on with the bigger product, with the bigger company, with the aspirations that the customers have?

That’s really where, as you’re saying, the manager’s role is very critical because a lot of the time the employees look up to that manager to explain what did John Chambers say and what does it mean to us.

Again, managers have that communication responsibility so that when I work with leaders and we basically talk about coaching and understanding what is a key pivotal responsibility for them, I mention the fact that they need to develop a signature talk that is really there to serve the purpose of translating that corporate vision and strategy and how it connects to what we do on a daily basis so that these employees have a very clear purpose and an understanding of how their little piece is actually part of that bigger puzzle and bigger vision.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, in your book, Meaning, you identify ten particular leadership behaviors that inspire followers. What are those ten?

Ash Seddeek
These ten behaviors and the way that we’ve collected them is we basically worked with – we interviewed a number of leaders across a number of industries. When we looked at the themes we found that there are five behaviors that are really more about that leader and how that leader interfaces and interacts with his or her environment.

Then the next five, and as I’m going to share with you the full list, the next five are really more about how they interface with everybody around them.

When you look at the top ten behaviors for leaders who really are very good at communicating meaning, we see that the very first behavior is about how they accept the reality that business cycles will inevitably ebb and flow. That’s really what we’ve seen at Cisco, the changes that were happening in the marketplace.

The second one is they definitely need to cultivate the habits of listening and learning. Again, there were some leaders that we spoke with that really demonstrated this really well.

The third one is to cultivate authentic humility in the sense that you really need to come across not as someone that knows it all, but someone who is really willing to listen and understand that this other person that I’m talking to may have a much better idea.

Then number four, being able to clarify and focus on the organization’s mission and values. People want to something that is bigger than themselves to hold into. It is that leader’s ability to focus that way, be able to understand what those values are and communicate them.

Then number five is very interesting because it’s really more about what happens to us when we achieve success. Sometimes we think that’s really where it emanates from. It has to start with us. But number five basically says, get of the way so others can succeed in the sense that you need to give people room. You need to give them space.

Sometimes when a question is asked and that leader likes to give ideas, he or she will jump in and give an answer. In my coaching I basically tell them pause, wait, let people in the room answer that question because that’s when you actually get them to see that they, themselves, can bring a lot of the ideas to the table.

Then the second set of behaviors, as I mentioned, are really more about managing relationships. Number six is about building a solid network of relationships knowing that it is incredibly powerful to be able to pick up the phone and connect the dots among five – six players and then all of the sudden you’re able to staff up an innovation initiative very quickly.

Number seven is about building strategic partnerships. Here we’re really talking more about not just internally but also across the industry. Of course, we see very good examples of that at Cisco and other companies.

Number eight is really more about caring for and rewarding people because if you don’t do the recognition and celebration of what people achieve in the company, again, human need, we understand it from people like Daniel Pink and others, they are looking for that recognition a whole lot more than any dollars you give them.

Then number nine is about over communicating with all stakeholders, especially in times of crisis or change. That’s really where we see companies that stay ahead of the necessary work that needs to happen around communication, especially around the times of change. That’s when you see people really doing well when they communicate and communicate repeatedly.

Then others fail when they assume that the change is not that big and it’s not big of a deal and everybody should just line up. Then they realize for human beings, change is real. You have to talk to them and you have to talk to them repeatedly about the why of the change and how they fit into that picture.

Then the very last behavior we see leader’s ability to build trust and buy in is very critical. When we look at all of these behaviors, that’s how leaders then have what they need in terms of internal skills as well as external networks to communicate meaning as we were saying at the very top of our conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. Well, thank you for that run down here. I’d like your take on which of these behaviors do you think is the most critical or liberates the most inspiration from folks and why.

Ash Seddeek
I think the one that would really drive a lot of inspiration is having anchors in a value system and a philosophy that this leader or a team of leaders believe in because without having these anchor points in a value system, then we won’t have anything that essentially sort of grounds us.

If we’re facing difficulty and if somebody listening to us is in a very difficult situation, unless they have a value that’s similar to ‘I will rise, no matter what the difficulty is. I have achieved success in the past and I can achieve this success.’ Really holding on to a body of values makes a big, big difference.

That’s why we see HP and a lot of other companies publishing what they call the HP way. It’s the set of values. Apple did the same thing. A lot of leading companies make sure that they have a set of values that they communicate. Sometimes you may need to change them slightly, but you still do it in a way that really shows why we’re doing what we’re doing and how it’s going to help us achieve what we need to achieve.

I think when people see that you believe in something, that you honor it despite the challenges and the difficulties, then highly likely they will trust you more. They will buy more into your message. But if they see you shifting more because of profits and what the market demands all the time, then they will feel like maybe they could do the same thing and they could look for profits and other opportunities somewhere else.

Whereas if you give them something bigger than just the financial aspect, maybe the vision for what the company stands for, the mission. All of those things really give that leader the chance to inspire people, retain them for the long term because they are here not just because of what you give them, but rather what they are able actually to create with you and help accomplish.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love it if you could maybe make it all the more real when we talk about anchor points in a value system. Could you give us some examples of hey, this company has this value and this is how they see it lived out in practical reality for real?

Because I think what’s interesting about values is that sometimes – well sometimes they’re not lived at all and it’s just sort of lip service. Integrity, like many companies have integrity as a value and then many companies show just how little they have when the scandals hit the headlines.

But I guess, on the flipside, I guess I’m thinking about – when I was working at Bain I thought they did awesome with regard to living their values. For example, one of them they’d call it the openness to the one percent possibility. That one percent possibility is that you’re wrong, that you’re mistaken. Then it was cool how it was okay as someone fresh out of college to correct a manager or partner with a different fact that would be contradictory to what they’re saying in a team meeting.

Or while discussing professional development with a manager like, “Hey, these are my goals.” The manager would say, “Okay, cool. And these are my goals and what I’m working on.” That kind of humility was really cool like “Hey, none of us are perfect. We’re all working on something.”

I’m with you. That liberates some inspiration for me in terms of this place is cool and they mean what they say on this little chart of operating principles and I like that. Could you give us some more examples of particular company has a particular value that shows up in a real way that unlocks inspiration?

Ash Seddeek
I think probably one of the best examples I can remember whenever you’re on one of those Southwest flights and you hear the airhostess making the comments just about when you’re landing. She makes you laugh. When you look at Southwest’s values, you’ll see that one of them is live the Southwest way. Under that banner, they basically say you have to have a servant’s heart and a fun-loving attitude.

You take this value and you make sure every employee in the whole Southwest system applies it. Then you see it showing up when you hear the pilot talking and being very personable and giving you the comfort and the trust that everything is going to be fine or when you hear the air hosts making a funny comment and again making you laugh on the airplane.

I think when the value then influences everyone’s behaviors all the way to the point that it becomes part of what you do on a daily basis, that’s really where it becomes an anchor point that everybody understands that’s our culture here because, of course, those values is what eventually constitutes that whole concept of culture the company has.

If people then start to embody it into actions and words, then you’re actually seeing a living example and not just a set of words that are written on a piece of paper. That’s the example that just comes to mind right away.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s a good one. I’d love to hear some more.

Ash Seddeek
When we look at innovation, for example, which is a big value at Cisco and also the idea that you should never really get religious about technology.

I think Cisco and a lot of other companies, they have figured out that if you get stuck in your ways, it will basically lead to extinction, whereas if you adopt more of an innovative mindset that basically says I need to be able to at times maybe walk away from something that I invested billions of dollars in.

When I was at Cisco, if you remember the flip camera, that was an acquisition that Cisco spent a lot of money on. At some point it was clear it was not the right direction where things were going and they were able to then say, “Stop. Let’s shift.”

I think seeing this in real life despite, again, the cost, then it shows you that it’s better to make that decision now, acknowledging the costs and be able to shift direction and focus on something that the market is looking for, also shows you that value.

And of course, at Cisco, when we were walking around with the employee badge, we actually had that written down on the badge, where make sure you never get religious about technology. What you really should be focusing on is what are the customers looking for and how can you be innovative and self-destructive so you can bring these technologies to market.

That’s another example where you need to look back at that value and make sure that that value is helping enlighten and educate the decision you’re making. Again, when we talk to leaders, one of the best things we could do is to really be comfortable really focusing on the values as something that has long-term application and value for the organization.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thank you. I’d also be curious, having studied all these things and synthesized and come up with the themes associated with these behaviors, does it now shine a clearer, brighter light on some behaviors that you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is just terribly wrong,” in terms of are there maybe little things that leaders or professionals at large do frequently that are really just inspiration killers that you’d recommend we stop doing right away?

Ash Seddeek
I would say it’s been interesting for me over the past three years to realize, to your point, that a lot of the time the words you say on a daily basis, the actions you take on a daily basis are also driven by philosophies and points of view that you have, which in some respect, is essentially a set of values that you believe in.

If you think that the only smart one in the room is you because you’ve spent 18 years learning about networking or about fashion or about this or that, then that’s going to block you out from realizing that there are a lot more ideas in the room.

This really emanates from a value where you think, “Well, you know what? I am the source of intelligence.” Sometimes you only make this mistake of thinking that there are many solutions and I’m the only source for them. Understanding that we may have a bias to favor our own thoughts and then make sure that we manage that and be self-aware of it. Then basically say, “You know what? I would love to hear your ideas.”

Then all of the sudden everybody in the room is very much encouraged and inspired by the fact that you’re actually looking up and you’re basically telling them, “I know you guys are smart. I know you have ideas and I want to hear them.” Before you share anything, you want to sort of almost use that question and query process to uncover innovative ideas.

Again, one of the things I do with a lot of leaders is I basically tell them, “Right now your biggest value is not to share ideas, but actually ask good questions.”

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot, so you’re asking the questions first before you share your ideas.

Ash Seddeek
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
You mentioned managing your bias. I imagine at times that can be easier said than done. What are some of your favorite pro tips and best practices for pulling that off?

Ash Seddeek
I think one of the tips I would give people is being very transparent and vulnerable at the same time in the sense that you may tell people, “Hey, I have a tendency to overpower my own thought process and think the only way is probably some of the ideas that I’m bringing to the table, so if you see me jumping in say, ‘You know what, Ash? I’m not coming to you for solutions. I really want to show you a number of options that we’ve come up with and then and only then I’d love to get some of your input.’”

Because otherwise they may actually then think their ideas are not worth sharing with him or her and as a result maybe some innovative ideas never really see the light of day.

As much as these leaders share where their blind spots might be in a way that’s not necessarily showing it as a weakness, but rather as a blind spot that they want to be watching out for and they need to have the trust of their team to help them sometimes make sure that that’s not where we’re spending most our time, but rather we’re spending a lot of our time in uncovering as many ideas from across the team.

That’s really where diversity comes in in terms of the diversity thought and idea and innovation and making sure that collectively we’re finding what’s the best for the organization rather than, “Oh it came from this person or that person.”

I think looking at the outcomes that we’re trying to achieve then helps us really tone down where the source of idea is, not to the point that you completely not go back and celebrate where it came from, but once you are driven more by the outcome, it really helps you reduce the reliance on “Oh, he’s the only one that has these ideas,” or “She’s the only one,” but rather, “Let’s take a look at what the whole team can bring to the table.”

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that notion associated with the others bringing in the winning ideas. I just think about how often it’s not fun to be wrong.

Ash Seddeek
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I feel like it can be wrong in any number of ways like the exact opposite approach that you thought of is the optimal one. Or for me, I find it’s often about I want to go fast, but we should slow down or I want to go slow, but we should speed up. I find it helpful to reflect upon the times that I’ve been dead wrong and it was so helpful that someone slowed me down or sped me up.

I remember one time I was in PayPal. I was making a payment to someone in the Philippines in pesos or PHP. It’s about 50 to 1 is the conversion rate. I accidently did it in dollars. I’m often frustrated when software goes slows. … said, “Oh, did you want to give 4,000 dollars.” It was like, “Oh no. No, I didn’t.”

Then sure enough, I appreciated all of the ways that software, the security, the two-factor authentication, the texting you this or that can really save the day at times for you.

When I want to go fast and I’m frustrated that it’s slowing me down, I find that it is helpful to remember. It’s like hey, it might not feel so great in the moment to have a force speed you up or slow you down or point you in the opposite direction that you wanted to go, but it sure feels better when you get the desired outcome than the outcome you would have got had you had it your way.

Ash Seddeek
Exactly, exactly. Absolutely, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s handy for me in the humility, just coming up with those reminders. I’d also like to get your take on if there are any other kind of best practices in terms of tips and tricks, phrases or scripts that just really come in handy when folks are trying to live out and implement these ten leadership behaviors.

Ash Seddeek
I think an interesting idea that actually evolved over the past few months is what I’m now calling emotion one and emotion two. Emotion one, essentially most of us, leaders, whatever walk of life we’re in, a lot of the time when something happens, when someone comes to talk to you, you have that emotional reaction in your body.

A lot of the time leaders who are not emotionally intelligent, they will give in to that first emotion. Maybe it’s an emotion of frustration. Maybe it’s an emotion of “Oh my God, I cannot believe they screwed this up again.” Then the response is going to be one that they will not really like eventually.

What I’m basically starting to tell some leaders I work with is I want you to recognize that first emotion because once you recognize it, then you’re going to know it’s a pause moment, where you realize it is not going to be the best basis for what you want to say or do. What I advise them of doing is I advise them to let that first emotion wear off.

Then we come to the second emotion. The second emotion is really more driven by what outcome do we want to achieve eventually because as you said, maybe sometimes I need to realize that a particular activity I need to slow down in order for me to go very quickly in the future. Once you recognize the very first emotion, if you go with that flow of that emotion, you say something that you’re going to regret or do something that, again, you’re going to regret.

I tell leaders to be emotionally present, understand that the first thing that needs to happen is to realize that there’s no way for you to stop that emotion. Just let it go through the system and let it wear off.

Then ask yourself the question, “What is the action, the word that I need to say and do that would actually help us move our cause to the next step? What is it that I could say that would help that person I’m talking to understand that I emphasize with them, that I understand what they have to go through and that I’m willing to talk to them about what conditions for success do we need to create in order to take the next step.”

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot.
I think a lot of times for me the emotion one is like I’m hearing something that I think is outrageously wrong, ridiculous, absurd, offensive. I don’t know. I’m reacting strongly to something that I think is outrageous. My go-to phrase is just, “Tell me more.”

Ash Seddeek
I love that. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Which doesn’t mean, listeners, if I say that to any of you, that means I’m furious. I sometimes just want to know more and I don’t know the perfect follow up question and I just say, “Keep talking about that,” is what I mean. That doesn’t mean I’m enraged.

But I find that it’s helpful for one, it buys you time because they will tell you more and you can breathe a little it as they’re doing so. And two as you learn more about where they’re coming from and their rationale for the idea, like nine times out of ten it’s like, oh, that’s really not so absurd after all.

Ash Seddeek
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I still disagree, but it’s a plausible alternative to the view I had and now let’s sort of see what’s optimal together from here.

Ash Seddeek
Exactly, exactly. Right on. I love that too because, again, it helps you uncover. Maybe there are details that will change what I’m thinking right now. That’s the interesting part is when you actually uncover further details, then you realize something wrong happened with these guys and that’s why they were acting the way they were acting or they’re under some pressure that I did not understand or they were missing a piece of information.

Having that pause in the system, to your point, looking for more information is a very wise thing to do because, again, as leaders, you’re usually working with very high stakes situations. If you go with emotion one, it may actually mess things up.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ash, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention about inspiration or being awesome at your job before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Ash Seddeek
Absolutely. I think one of the key nugget I share with people and it’s based on my experience having worked at Deloitte … in San Francisco. But when you develop an outcome-based thought process, it not only inspires you to do really well every single day, but also once you act that way, you also start inspiring other people.

Because a lot of the time if you don’t have that mindset of ‘I am here almost as a management consultant. I am here really to achieve success for my client’ and you start really looking at everyone that works with you as your own client, it helps you detach from the struggles and the challenges and the dynamics of the moment to be someone that is self-composed and is much more result- and success-focused that it just creates an interesting air around you that people want to work with you, people want to be part of any project you work on because you see you have that focus on ‘I am here to help achieve success, not just for me, but for people around me.’ It’s very inspiring.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s funny, Ash. I guess in some ways I’m naïve or idealistic and also a former strategy consultant for Bain, but for me it’s almost like that’s the only way that I just naturally think and operate and breathe and work. Sometimes there’s a bit of a disconnect in terms of realizing where other people are coming from and their priorities.

But I’d love it if you could maybe give us a bit of a flavor for okay, an outcome-based mindset is one way to go and to think, live, operate in the course of doing work. What are some of the main contenders or alternative mindset worldviews that are driving people if not the outcome-based mindset?

Ash Seddeek
I think what happens on the other side of that is you actually get – I call it sucked in – you get sucked into the dynamics of the situation.

Let’s say the other person makes a comment. You don’t like the comment, as we were talking about emotion one. You get sucked in to the dynamics of the conversation. All of the sudden you’ve created an unhappy other person who thinks maybe you are not open to new ideas or you don’t understand what they want or you’re not listening.

They walk away with that impression about you and perception about you and then starts to build up because she’s going to go or he’s going to go walk out to somebody else and say, “Oh, I was just sitting with Ash and I just got a vibe that he just doesn’t want to listen to what we want to do and I don’t think he’s going to really be able to help us.”

All of the sudden, when we don’t focus on that outcome-based thinking and we get into the flow of that conversation, we give into that first emotion, then we create a dynamic that’s not going to be helpful for us. It sort of militates against wanting to be awesome.

If you want to be awesome, then we have to state with that outcome-based where some of the language I use, and again, to your point, Pete, working in management consulting you know that one of the key things you want to say is, as you said, “Tell me more,” “What does the solution look like,” “How can we help you get it done,” “When we’re done what would it look like?”

You can help people articulate what they’re looking or, whereas if you get into the flow and the dynamics of the personalities, then it’s not a good situation. We see a lot of just toxic environments really coming out of a lot of people giving in to those feelings that happen in the spur of the moment without focusing on what the outcome that they’re trying to build is for that person that they’re sitting in front of.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ash, I’d love it if you could for a moment enter the dark place and articulate what sorts of angry or reactive or what sorts of thoughts and responses internally or verbalized are popping up when folks are in this less optimal mindset when they’re working with folks.

Ash Seddeek
Yeah. I think from my own personal experience, I remember in my early days working at Deloitte, where I went into a client where my mind was thinking, “This company should be a whole lot more advanced than this. They should know a lot of things already. They should have this. They should have that.” I was just getting frustrated with the fact that my own expectations and assumptions about a large organization were not present.

People walked away from the conversation with me saying to my boss, “Well, Ash, was really coming across as very arrogant. We feel he’s really talking down to us.”

As you uncover your perceptions about the situation and what you’re saying, I think the lesson there is figure out first what the other person knows, what their expectations are, validate some of your assumptions before moving to the next step.

That’s what we start to realize then that the most important thing is to really come across as someone who’s there to, as Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand than to be understood.” With that in mind, it really sets you up for success. Whereas when you walk in thinking you’re the smartest man/lady coming to the conversation, you’re really blocking out a lot more opportunity than otherwise.

I love what Stephen Covey says. I think that was the biggest lesson there was rather than going in thinking they should have all this stuff in place already, you basically ask the question, “What are the things that we have already so we can build upon and see what else is missing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Now I’d love to hear some of your favorite things. Could you start by sharing a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ash Seddeek
The favorite quote that I heard a few weeks ago was, “I did it because I did not know it was impossible.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Ash Seddeek
I don’t know what the attribution is, but actually it was a CEO of a startup company. He heard it somewhere. I said that’s just amazing because it allows us to have the freedom to pursue goals and aspirations without getting in mind whether somebody did it before us or not. We just keep going.

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

Ash Seddeek
I think the work that we’ve done for the Meaning book really gave us the chance to speak with leaders in a number of companies. It showed us how even in situations where the business is much smaller, the leadership communication challenges are pretty much the same. Of course, it gets much more compounded in a larger organization.

But the leaders ability to remember that they need to reiterate the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing and where we’re going is very, very important. That was very interesting. Now, I find out that a lot of CEOs, they get so entrenched in the daily grind that they forget that their biggest responsibility is the communication piece. That’s really where the coaching sometimes is very critical.

Also, the board of directors helps them to realize that you need to step out of the business and work on the business. The best part that you could do on the business is to really check on the vision and see if everybody’s heading in the right direction. Then come back and tell them where they need to steer the course so that they can correct any misalignments.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Ash Seddeek
I would say probably my favorite author is Tom Peters. I love all of his books, especially the Brand You books. I think, again, going back to management consulting, he really gives you a lot of ideas based on having been a consultant before. It gives you that insightful view on things, especially on yourself as the brand.

I love when he says the idea of each one of us looking at ourselves as a professional services organization of one, which, again, means everyone around you is a client. It helps free up your thought process. It helps you to really anchor what you do in your own value system of delivering value to the customer and clients and the team that you are a part of. That is being outcome-focused mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Ash Seddeek
A favorite tool for me is definitely LinkedIn I think is an amazing tool in the sense that it gives me a much better level of access and knowledge about people I work with, industries I try to reach out to.

I think there’s a lot more to these social media tools that we have yet to discover in terms of how do we actually put it to use to create value for us and other people. I would say definitely LinkedIn is one of my top tools right now given the fact that I’m running an executive coaching practice and connecting with other coaches, connecting with clients, so really trying to find out what are the top leadership challenges that we need to help our clients with.

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

Ash Seddeek
Okay. Okay. I think a favorite habit is to realize that sustaining your energy is going to stem from the fact that you also take care of yourself and exercise, and make sure that you have time for yourself because with an opportunity for reflection, I have seen comes a lot of dividends. Your brain needs time to rest in order to connect the dots.

Sometimes you get an inspiration based on the fact that you essentially sat down and allowed yourself not to do anything. Maybe you’re enjoying your favorite drink or you’re reading a book, but you’re able to relax and be able to receive some of these ideas.

Because otherwise if you’re just, again, just going through the grind and you don’t give yourself a break, you may actually losing out on amazing opportunities for coming up with breakthroughs that your team may need, yourself might need. I think coupling energy-building activities plus also having downtime is very critical.

In terms of apps, probably I think the calendar app on our phones now makes a big difference in keeping us organized. I also use Evernote. I’m still trying to see if Twitter really is very valuable, but I do use it sometimes.

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

Ash Seddeek
I think the best nugget is the idea of being what Tom Peters said around the professional service organization of one. It really helps you to have self-independent thoughts to really take care of what you have to take care of. You never really are giving into being a victim to any situation. You are always feeling like you are in command.

If something has to happen, it has to happen because you started it and it has to start with you. That’s very critical. I think a lot of the time we lose a lot of energy because we’re waiting for somebody else to do something or we think they’re not going to like it or this or this or that. I basically come back and say, “If there’s one action you could do now, what would it be and let’s do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Well, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Ash Seddeek
I would encourage them to visit ExecutiveGreatness.com. I will actually prepare for them a few downloads at ExecutiveGreatness.com/Pete/ and they find a downloadable on strategic leadership and also a free chapter of the Meaning book as well.

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

Ash Seddeek
I think to really make sure that they have that independent thought and don’t be affected by the environment as much as sort of coming back to their own desire to succeed and say, “If I were to do something today, what is it and let me make it happen.” That’s going to inspire themselves to do more and also inspire others by what they’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ash, this has been a whole lot of fun. I wish you all the best with your clients and coaching and leadership inspiration stuff. Keep at it.

Ash Seddeek
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s been a pleasure.

405: How (and Why) to Boost Positivity within your Team with Jon Gordon

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Jon Gordon reveals best practices for building trust and rapport within a team, no matter the circumstances.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three exercises to build big rapport quickly
  2. The advantages of being an optimist
  3. How to transform challenges into opportunities

About Jon

Jon Gordon’s best-selling books and talks have inspired readers and audiences around the world. His principles have been put to the test by numerous Fortune 500 companies, professional and college sports teams, school districts, hospitals, and non-profits. He is the author of 16 books including 6 best-sellers: The Energy Bus, The Carpenter, Training Camp, You Win in the Locker Room First, The Power of Positive Leadership and The Power of a Positive Team. He is a graduate of Cornell University and hold a Masters in Teaching from Emory University.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Jon Gordon Interview Transcript

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

Jon Gordon
Hey, thanks Pete. Appreciate you having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m looking forward to this chat. I’ve been reading through The Power of a Positive Team a little bit. I chuckled a bit when you mentioned all the teams you’re on and have served. You describe yourself as the second-in-command at home. What’s the story there?

Jon Gordon
Second-in-command. Well, my wife I would say is in command. Then I have a teenage daughter. Well, actually she’s 20 now, so when she’s home I’m third-in-command. The idea that even though I lead in some ways, my wife I would say is the boss at home. I’ve learned to be a great team member at home and a great second-in-command leader, where we work together then lead our kids into the future.

Pete Mockaitis
When they’re asking permission to the kids to go to an outing or a friend’s house, she’s calling the shots?

Jon Gordon
Oh, of course. When we’re deciding what we’re doing for the weekend or where we’re going, she’s calling the shots. I say, “You have to ask my boss.”

Pete Mockaitis
She likes it that way?

Jon Gordon
Of course. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Pete Mockaitis
Good deal. I also want to hear about your book here, The Power of a Positive Team. What would you say is sort of your key point or thesis here?

Jon Gordon
Well, it’s a framework for how to build great teams. I’ve worked with teams for the last 11 years: NFL teams, NBA teams, corporate teams, non-profit teams, hospital teams, you name it. I’ve discovered what makes great teams great in working with all these teams. This is what I’ve learned over the past 11 years since I wrote my book The Energy Bus.

What happened was leaders and teams started reading The Energy Bus. They would then bring me into speak. I would then get to work with them, talk to them, consult with them and so forth. I just learned so much. In this book I pretty much put everything that I know and then everything I’ve learned on what makes a great team.

My goal with this book was that a team would read it together and they would know what they needed to do to become a great team. They would have a framework and a process they can follow along with the key ingredients and the best practices that would allow them to develop into a stronger team.

When I say proven, it is proven because it’s not based on theory. This is being out in the field. This is working with the teams. This is knowing what works. Now, I’ve done research also for the book in terms of what makes other teams great, but this is my first-hand experience in many ways of what makes a great team.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to hear in terms of your research, both first hand as well as kind of collected elsewhere, that confirms hey, these are the things that really make the difference.

Jon Gordon
Well, one of my favorite pieces of research is Google study, which they called Project Aristotle, where they really wanted to know what made their great teams Google at great, where did their best ideas come from. Then they also examined other teams in other industries. They wanted to know what made those teams great.

What they found was that the best teams weren’t comprised of the A players. In fact, their best ideas and their best inventions did not come from their A teams. Their best inventions, their best ideas, their most successful businesses came from their B teams. These were the B teams comprised of a scientist and experts that weren’t considered rock stars in their field.

The A teams were the people who had the most education, they were rock stars in the company, they had the most domain specific information and knowledge, but the B teams were comprised of people that perhaps were known less and perhaps had lesser education and were not considered rock stars.

But the B teams had what they called psychological safety, emotional safety, where they were free to share ideas back and forth. They were not worried about being ridiculed with those ideas. From the exchange of information and the flow of sharing, there developed a connection, there developed a trust, where they felt, again, safe to share, safe to be who they were. Out of this connection, out of these bonds of trust came the best ideas.

What we realized is that it’s not the genius minds that create the best ideas or come up with the best inventions; it’s the genius within the team. It’s the idea that the collective genius of them coming together and becoming a connected group, led to greater commitment, which then led to great ideas and genius inventions. It’s a great lesson for all of us as we build a team.

What I often say and I’ve been saying this even before I saw this research, so this research just confirmed what I believe and what I had seen firsthand was that you’ll never have a committed team without connection. You need to be connected in order to be committed. The more connected you become, the more committed you’ll be.

You can see a team that is connected, you can see how they then have commitment for each other. When diversity comes and challenges come their way, instead of running away from each other, they run towards each other; instead of fighting with each other, they fight for each other. They become stronger together.

We are better together. Together we accomplish amazing things. It’s that ability to come together as a team that allows you to be successful as a group.

Pete Mockaitis
Then in practice, how does this connecting happen well? Is it about teambuilding exercises and trust falls or what is it that makes that connection and that foundation in place for psychological safety to be present and flourish?

Jon Gordon
Well, there are many ways. Sometimes it happens unintentionally, where people just come together, develop great relationships and you wind up getting a great team out of that. But I believe that leaders need to be intentional in doing this. I’ve created a number of team building activities, exercises that teams do to help them become stronger together.

For instance, I worked with a leadership group in a company, had them come together, and they shared this exercise, “If you really knew me, you would know this about me.” Each person went around and shared that idea. That’s from my good friend, Mike Robbins. I need to give him credit for that.

In doing that it was amazing how the walls of ego just came crumbling down and you saw this group of people really come together and bond as a result of that.

My other exercise I love to do is called the Triple H exercise: hero, hardship, highlight. Hero, hardship, highlight. Who is your hero? Tell me about a hardship that you faced that made you who you are today? Tell me about a highlight in your life. As each person shares their hero, their hardship, their highlight, again, the authenticity and the vulnerability just paves the way for meaningful relationships and stronger connections.

I’ve done this with a number of teams. It’s powerful how that happens. There was one team in Australian rules football. This is the Richmond Football Club. They won a championship for the first time in 36 years. There was a whole article in a magazine about how this Triple H exercise was what developed this team, which is what caused them to come together and create an incredible bond. They all really talked about the power of this Triple H exercise.

If you could see it in these burly and strong Australian rules football player, you can see it in an NFL locker rooms like I do, you can see it in corporate meeting rooms and boardrooms, and you can see it with just a team coming together and having a team building session like this.

A lot of Navy SEALS, I’m friends with a lot of them, they do a lot of programs with companies and organizations. They do exercises where they cause people to face some adversity together. They go into the ocean and they deal with some extreme hardship. I always joke with these guys. I’m like, “Hey, you don’t have to drown together to become a strong team.” You can actually do exercises like this where you really become vulnerable and authentic and that builds a connection.

Then, if you’re a leader, this is something I recommend for leaders to do and teams to do, you can just come together and you can look to connect with one person every day, someone who you lead or perhaps a team member on your team. If everyone intentionally connected with one person every day, would have a meaningful conversation, maybe you go to lunch, maybe you have some established dialogue that you create in your culture, something that you’re going to work on together.

Snapchat for instance, which they’re now known as Snap, has a thing called Counsel, where they create groups that come together within the company and they have these ongoing meetings they call Counsel, where they sit around in a circle and they talk about who they are, they talk about different questions that are presented.

Each Counsel is going to have different questions, different focuses, but it’s all designed to have people from various parts of the company come together and create stronger teams and more of an informal kind of network, which is where we know that most of the great ideas come from. It’s not the actual formal network, it’s the informal network, the relationships that develop that lead to the bonds and the ideas being shared and ultimately the success of an organization.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, what I like about the exercises you mentioned there is you talk about vulnerability, but they strike me as – your proposals – being in the sweet spot. It’s not so shallow as to not be worth much. It’s like, “Okay, whatever. You like barbecue.” And it’s not so intense as to freak people out. It’s in a nice little zone that seems doable and approachable, but you might expect to have some real impact from.

Jon Gordon
Yes. It’s a little awkward at first, I will admit that, when you first are sharing your hero, hardship, highlight.

Just as if you would go to counseling with your wife or significant other – if you’ve ever been to counseling, my wife and I did before we got married – you know it’s hard to share at first, but as you start to do it – even we saw Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, he went to counseling. We saw this guy, who’s a mobster actually, become vulnerable and share.

As you do that, it’s amazing how you start to just let the guard and you start to share and you start to open up and you start to change as a person. You become better.

At first it’s awkward, but as it starts to go around the room, as you start to establish this is part of your culture and part of your team and you explain, “Hey, guys, this is going to be a little awkward at first, but I’m telling you as we go through it, it’s going to be real meaningful.” As you do it, it becomes very powerful.

Again, it’s not meant to be corny. It’s not meant to be touchy feely. You’re really telling them, “Hey, we’ve got to get to know each other. If we want to be a strong team, we have to know each other a little bit better.” When you know someone’s story, you’re going to know them a whole lot better.

The other exercise is a defining moment that made you who you are today. What’s your defining moment? When you know someone’s defining moment, you know their story. You’re going to know them a lot better. Then once you know their story, you want to fight for them and not really maybe be angry at them when you say them acting a certain way. You may understand them a lot better when you know their story.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love it if you could just make it all the more real for us. I’ll put you on the spot here Jon. Let me know, hey, if I really knew you, what would I know about you?

Jon Gordon
It’s funny, when I’m giving my talks, I do a lot of keynotes – over 86 this year. Actually, no.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a lot of travel. You’ve got some pretty good flier points there.

Jon Gordon
Yeah, 86 this year. When I’m doing keynotes and things like that, I actually share this. I’m not afraid to share who my hero is or a highlight or a hardship or if you really knew me.

I would say if you really knew me, you would know that my father, my biological father, left when I was a year old. My mom was a single mom. I was a year, my brother was four. That was a defining moment in my life because, again, when you have a father leave that sort of imprints on you a lot of who you are. For years we never had a great relationship.

But my stepfather entered the picture when I was five. He was a New York City cop. He raised me to be who I am now. He loved me as his own. I called him dad. He really had a huge impact on my life. It’s a part of who I am. My dad was Italian. My mom was Jewish. I grew up in a Jewish/Italian family, a lot of food, a lot of guilt. It just helps-

Pete Mockaitis
And great skin.

Jon Gordon
Great food as well. It helps form who you are as a person. I think having my father leave and feeling that abandonment in my life a lot was a part of me. I actually came to forgive him and even went to visit him with my daughter right before I started writing. I couldn’t write until I actually went to clear that from the path, clear that and let it go and forgive him. I did. It was shortly after that that I actually started writing.

I let go of all the past, all the pain, all the burden and from there I became in many ways a different person. That was a big part of my past, but if you really knew me, you would know that about me and you would know that my stepfather – I hate that term stepfather because he was my dad – who raised me and raised me as his own, his love really was transformative and had a huge impact on my life.

Pete Mockaitis
Do we have a highlight in there as well?

Jon Gordon
Well, I have many highlights, but it would be I would say – everyone always says this, but getting married to my wife, no doubt. I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for her. My two kids for sure are big highlights.

I would have to say – I joke, but this is true, I used to be in the restaurant business and I had Moe’s Southwest Grill. I was the first franchisee for Moe’s Southwest Grill. The day I sold my Moe’s was definitely probably the highlight of my life. I wanted to get out of the restaurant business. It was so challenging. I wanted to pursue writing and speaking. I knew that.

The sale almost didn’t happen. Finally it came through and it was like, thank you. I was now out of the restaurant business, able to do what I felt like I was born to do and do this work. That was definitely probably the highlight of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
I can just imagine the release and the relief emerging from that.

Jon Gordon
Oh yeah. My wife laughs when I tell this story, but she knows. I love my kids. I love my wife. But that day, whoo. You don’t think the day you sell the boat or the day you buy the boat, well the day you get a restaurant and the day you sell three franchises that were just draining me every day – again, I was good at the restaurant business, but I did not want to do it anymore. That day I sold was just a great day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let’s talk a little about some terms. When you talk about the power of a positive team and optimism and negativity, I want to make sure we’re thinking about these in the same way. How would you define these three words, we’ll say positive, optimism and negativity?

Jon Gordon
Well, it’s funny. I don’t really define them a lot, but I guess through my writing you sort of get the gist. It’s not like I come up with a perfect definition.

But for me positivity is about being the best version of yourselves, to bring out the best in others, like positive in terms of hopeful and kind and empowering. To me, positive is a lot of things.

Optimism is believing in a brighter and better future, knowing that and believing the best is yet to come, that tomorrow will be better than today, so you’re optimistic about things. You have a hopeful attitude.

Research from Duke University shows that optimistic people work harder, get paid more, and they’re more likely to succeed in business and sports. What the researchers found with that because these people had a positive, optimistic outlook. Because they believed in the brighter and better future, they actually took actions necessary to create it. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The researchers said they deluded themselves – I love that they used the word deluded – it was because they deluded themselves thinking and believing in a brighter and better future. Sometimes that’s what it takes, deluding yourself about what’s possible.

To me, pessimism is where you don’t believe the best is yet to come. Pessimism is where you believe that and you are fearful about the future. You worry about the future. Pessimism believes that your best days are behind you, not ahead of you.

I would say negative is where you bring a negative energy, you bring a fear, you bring doubt, you bring uncertainty, which, again, uncertainty is not always a bad thing, but it’s okay at times to be negative about things that help you examine them, improve them, look for where pitfalls can happen that can bring you down. There’s the benefit of negativity.

But when I think about negativity, I think of the bad kind of negativity that sucks the energy out of a team, that condemns people, that doesn’t speak life into them. It actually speaks hate, ill will, that attacks and that also focuses on perhaps sometimes self instead of others. Now that would be more narcissism, but sometimes that can come across as negativity when you put yourself on a pedestal and you bring people down.

Again, so many ways to define, I choose to define it through the body of work, through the stories and the collection of a framework and experience that ultimately creates the definition of positive and negative, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. I just wanted to kind of get that squared away so that we can sort of dig into a little bit of this negativity because indeed you mentioned that in certain contexts that can really be helpful to examine something, to improve upon something.

How do you play that game optimally as a positive team in which you’re not ignoring problems – there’s no weeds, there’s no weeds, there’s no weeds – but you’re also not sort of I guess dwelling on them and being consumed with worry and your energy is drained and dissipated and you think that the worst is just around the bend? How do you play that game in terms of dealing with the constructive stuff well?

Jon Gordon
Yeah, you always confront the reality of the situation, like this is what we are dealing with. “Yes, we just lost.” “Yes, we had this mistake.” “Yes, we did a poor production run and we just lost this amount of money. Okay, let’s deal with the reality. How do we solve it? How do we fix it? Where are we going now? What is our vision for the future?”

You address the reality of the situation and there is a negative associated with that perhaps. But then you are hopeful and optimistic about what you are looking for and looking towards in order to create that future. Then you have to then say, “What actions can we take in order to create it?” You always address the reality of the situation.

But I love when people say, “I’m just being a realist. I’m just being a realist.” Well, even realism is subjective because Steve Jobs was famous for what they called his reality distortion field. Time and time again, Steve’s team would say, “There’s no way you can create this software, this hardware in this amount of time.”

If you read his biography, time and time again, he would convince them that it was possible. They said he was able to distort their reality from pessimism or realism to optimism. Time and time, they accomplished the very thing that they thought was impossible. Leadership is so often a transfer of belief. You have to believe in what’s possible. Again, you confront the reality of the situation.

I’m a big fan of the no complaining rule, which I wrote a book on. I didn’t invent it. A good friend of mine who’s a CEO invented it. I wrote this book on the rule, which is so simple. You’re not allowed to complain unless you come with a solution. Every complaint represents an opportunity to turn something negative into a positive.

We’re not saying get rid of all complaining. What we’re saying is let’s use those complaints and let’s create justified complaints out of them that lead to solutions. A complaint represents something that we have to fix. It’s a problem that we have to solve. It leads to a new innovation, a better way of doing something, a better process, progress forward.

Think about all of our inventions, every invention came about as a result of a complaint that said, “There has to be a better way.” That’s turning a negative into and turning it into a positive in a very practical way.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have some other practices for transforming the negativity when it pops up?

Jon Gordon
Well, when you have a challenge, you can look at that challenge and say, “Okay, what opportunity does this challenge present?” because every challenge really is an opportunity to learn, to grow and to improve. You’re always looking for those challenges.

For instance, when I speak to hospitality organizations or companies, I’ll talk to them about “Okay, this guest has a problem, but it’s a huge opportunity to now wow them. It’s a huge opportunity to be a hero and come to their rescue.” You can turn around a very negative situation to something very positive. You can do this with customer service as well. It’s turning that challenge into an opportunity.

It’s all about our perspective. How we see the world determines the world that we see. It’s addressing the negative, but then transforming it and turning it into a positive. Same thing with relationships. You have to have difficult conversations that might be perceived as negative, but you have those difficult conversations in order to grow.

As I wrote about in The Power of Positive Team, every team has to have the conversations that say, “Okay, what’s wrong here? What can we do better? Let’s tell the truth about where we are and where we’re not measuring up.” Those difficult conversations will lead to growth.

In a practical way, I remember my wife coming up to me. She was the boss. She said, “You need to do some things to be a better father.” I was like, “Okay, make me better.” I literally said, “Make me better.” Now in the past, I admit, I would have been defensive, but in that moment I said, “Okay, make me better.”

She started to share some ideas of what I could do. I didn’t agree with everything, but I took two or three ideas, I started to implement them, and I got better as a result. How much better would we be as a team if we just said to each other, “Make me better. I’m open. In the spirit of good intent, let’s talk about it in a positive way.”

Pete Mockaitis
That is a great line there. That’s handy. Any other pro-tips for navigating the difficult conversation waters well? I think a lot of folks are so terrified of them they just never go there.

Jon Gordon
Right. Because we never go there, we never move beyond the surface. We move – we stay stuck. We stay stuck in in a like, so then we never move to love. We never move to deeper commitment, deeper intimacy. That’s what I share in the book.

One of the things you have to do for difficult conversations is to actually say, “We’re going to have difficult conversations. We’re going to make this a part of our culture.”

Then what you do is say, which every culture says, is “This is how we do things here. This is part of who we are and how we do things. This is the way we’re going to have engagement. These are our rules of engagement that we’re going to create when we have difficult conversations.” You’re not allowed to get all up in arms. You’re not allowed to get defensive. You have to be open. But you have to come with a positive intent. It can’t be to berate someone or to ridicule someone.

The Seattle Seahawks have ‘Tell the Truth Mondays.’ Every Monday they get together as a team on Monday because the games are on Sunday and they talk about who messed up and how they messed up. They watch film and they tell the truth. No one’s defensive because everyone knows it’s designed to make everyone better. You receive the feedback. Hopefully you grow from it, you learn from it and everyone gets better because of it. But it establishes part of their culture.

You have to do this at the cultural level. You can’t just say, “Hey, everyone, we’re going to just start having these difficult conversations.” No, you have to explain how you’re going to have them, why you’re going to have them, what the rules of engagement are. Then as you do, those conversations will really help the team grow.

We’ll do it as a family. We’ll sit around and say, “Okay, we’ve got to have a difficult conversation.” We’ll meet as a family and we’ll have a difficult conversation. Our openness has led to a much stronger family and team.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say here’s how we’re going to do it, what are some of those pointers in terms of doing the how very effectively.

Jon Gordon
Well, I can’t tell you how in essence because every organization is going to be different, every team is going to be different. You have to decide the how and how you want to do it. We get together every Monday or we get together every Friday. We sit around a table. This is how we do it. We make sure in our rules of engagement that these are our positive rules. You do it with positive intent. It’s meant to help your team get better. You don’t call someone out in this way.

If you haven’t taken the time to establish a relationship with that person, perhaps you shouldn’t be the one that attacks them or criticizes them. Earn the relationship first. On the negative side you may say, you’re not allowed to ridicule someone. You’re never allowed to make fun of someone.

With Ford, for instance, Alan Mulally, when he turned around Ford, he created a working together management system that helped them become a stronger team. One of his rules were you’re never allowed to laugh at someone at their expense. That only breaks down trust. Even those little jokes that we tell when we make fun of someone or friends do that with each other, that’s not okay in that environment, in that setting. He created a rule that said that’s not okay. He believed over the long run that really created psychological and emotional safety.

There’s many ways on how you can do it. I think the key is you’ve got to sit down and decide the framework and how you want to create these rules.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so we talked about some of the things to do. You mentioned one thing to not do is complain. What are some other key things you recommend that we stop doing right away in terms of this is a real positivity killer and a real negativity increaser. Laughing at other people’s expenses, that sounds like a nice one for the list. What else would you put in there?

Jon Gordon
We should stop focusing on people’s weaknesses and focus on their strengths. Research shows the more we focus on what people are doing right, the more we’ll do things right.

We should stop ignoring negativity. Too often we ignore it and it persists and exists. Then it winds up sabotaging the team and the organization. Like, you said, we don’t have the difficult conversations. Leaders do not confront the negativity and it winds up sabotaging the team. As a leader, you must make time for it. You must address it. The goal is to transform it and then hopefully remove it. Stop ignoring the negativity.

Stop focusing on the outcome. Instead focus on the process, your relationships, your people and your culture. We live in a world where everyone’s focusing on the fruit of the tree, the outcome, and the numbers, and the stock price, and we ignore the root. If you focus on the fruit, ignore the root, the tree dies. But if you invest in that root, you get a great supply of fruit.

We have to stop focusing on the outcome and start investing in the root. Our culture, our people, our relationships, everything that I’m talking about now and that I talked about in this book is a framework for being a strong team and developing strong relationships that will lead to a strong outcome. I think those are some key stop doings.

Maybe for – I don’t know when you’re going to share this – but we’re about to start a new year and I think one thing we need to stop doing is stop focusing on resolutions because resolutions, research shows 87% will fail during the course of the year.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah ….

Jon Gordon
50% fail within the first month. First month. You don’t even make it past January and you’ve already given up. Instead I believe people should stop doing resolutions and start doing one word.

Pick a word for the year that will help you be your best, that will help you focus on what matters most, focus on your priorities, focus on your keys to success, get rid of distractions, break through the clutter. One word sticks. One word gives meaning and mission, passion and purpose. One word we can remember. One word will guide you in your actions each day.

Pete Mockaitis
Please, give us some examples of these mighty words.

Jon Gordon
Well, it’s the word that you will pick. Every year everyone picks a word for the year on the team. Everyone in the family picks a word for the year. I just posted on Twitter about one word. I’ve been doing it for a number of years now. It is spreading like wildfire, how many people at organizations are doing this.

In the past Hendrick Auto had a one-word car, so all the words were on the car of all the employees. Every day those employees would come in and they would see their words on a car in the lobby of their headquarters. It would be a reminder to live their word for the year.

For instance, my words have been serve and purpose and rise, surrender. Last year was connected. I wanted to be more connected to people, more connected to my family when I was on the road and more connected spiritually. For me, my word was connected.

The year I picked serve, I knew I needed to serve more at home, serve my family, become a servant leader, stop focusing on self. I needed to serve others out in the world more where you use travel a lot, you speak a lot, you start to just try to survive and get through each day. I said, no, I’ve got to model this through the adversity, through the stress, through the busyness and serve. That was a big year that I picked the word serve.

If you watch Clemson football when they won the National Championship a couple years ago, Dabo Swinney on national TV in front of millions of people said, “My word all year has been love. I knew that our love for each other would make the difference and that’s what I told the team.” It’s really cool to see people pick their words.

Kurt Warner, the famous Hall of Fame quarterback just Tweeted my Tweet and he said his word is ‘committed’ this year. Then he wrote and typed in all of why he chose that word. He was going to be committed to his profession, committed to his family, committed to growing in his new role, just a really cool explanation of why he picked committed.

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

Jon Gordon
I think we covered a lot. I really appreciate you allowing me to share it. It’s fun to share these ideas and then it’s even more fun to watch people put it into practice.

In my book I share a lot of personal experience of what I learned and what I did with teams. I’ve had a few people say, “Oh, he was just talking about he worked with this team, that team, this team.” Well, I had to, to be able to share what we did and what I learned and then give an example. I was only sharing all of these examples to be able to help others learn from them so they can implement them themselves.

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

Jon Gordon
A favorite quote. Abraham Lincoln, “I am not bound to win; I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light that I have.”

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

Jon Gordon
Being positive doesn’t just make you better; it makes everyone around you better. The research shows that positive leaders, positive teams really do outperform negative teams. I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Jon Gordon
So many. It’s almost hard to say one book, but I loved A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. That was one of my favorite books. And The Last Arrow by Erwin McManus is a great book as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite tool, something that you use that helps you be awesome at your job?

Jon Gordon
I like Zoom. Zoom has been great to use in terms of being able to connect with others and do podcasts, so I like Zoom. I like Evernote. I use Evernote to keep a lot of my notes for my talks. I’ll go through and I can look at talks I gave a couple years ago and I’ll have the outline of that talk on Evernote. That’s been a helpful tool that I use.

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

Jon Gordon
My favorite habit is the thank you walk because the research shows you can’t be stressed and thankful at the same time. For about 13 – 14 years now I take a walk of gratitude every day. While you’re walking, you’re flooding your body and brain with these positive emotions that uplift you rather than the stress hormones that slowly drain and kill you.

I would say that the number one thing I’ve done to be a more positive person, because I’m not naturally positive, people think I am, but I’m not. This is a practice that has made such a huge impact on my life of a daily thank you walk, creates a fertile mind that is ready for success.

Pete Mockaitis
When you’re walking and you’re thanking, how does that work in practice? Are you just thanking for anything and everything you see or how do you work through that?

Jon Gordon
Different times, different ways each day. I’ll be walking. I’m thankful for my life. I’m thankful that I’m healthy enough to walk. I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful for my kids even though they’re driving me nuts right now. I’m thankful for these challenges that help me learn and grow. I’m thankful that I was able to write this book the other day. I’m thankful that I get to talk to you right now.

You can find things that are big and small. You can do it for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour. Usually mine starts with gratitude and then I move towards prayer, but for me the gratitude is a really powerful piece. It’s always different. Sometimes I’ll just start being thankful for things that you didn’t know you were thankful for. It’s a really cool exercise. As you do it, again, big and small, sometimes big things, sometimes small things. It’s just all different.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, is Kindle book highlighted up a storm or retweeted at your talks?

Jon Gordon
“Love, serve, and care” is really a very shareable thing that I say that a lot of people share. It’s something that is very viral in terms of this is what leaders do. The best leaders love, serve and care. A lot of people do hash tag love, serve, care.

The idea is that to be a great leader, you have to love what you do. You’ll never be great at it if you don’t love it. You can’t build a great team if you don’t love your team. You have to love it.

Then you have to serve your team. When you help your team improve and grow, they’ll grow. You’ll grow in the process as well. When you help others improve, you improve. Serving is really a key part of leadership. A great leader doesn’t see themselves. Maya Angelou said, “A leader sees greatness in others.” It’s about seeing that greatness in others then serving them to help them become great. That’s key.

Then care. You have to show that you care. You really stand out in a world where so many don’t seem to care anymore, but caring is the difference. Because you care, you love. Because you care, you serve. Because you care, you go above and beyond to do things that cause you to standout, to build better people, to build great products, to build great teams. Caring is a huge part of that. Love, serve, and care I would say is something that’s really shareable.

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

Jon Gordon
JonGordon.com, J-O-NGordon.com or social media at J-O-NGordon11 is Instagram and Twitter, JonGordon11.

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

Jon Gordon
I love that you’re talking about being awesome at your jobs. I would say – it’s a message I shared in my book The Seed, which is about finding happiness and purpose in work and life.

The idea is that you shouldn’t seek happiness in your job. You’ll never find it in your job or in the life. The key is to work with passion and purpose and to live with passion and purpose. When you do happiness finds you. Happiness is a byproduct of passion and purpose and doing something that you love and doing something that you’re engaged in. Focus on that part of it.

Also, don’t chase success. We live in a world that’s consumed with success, but when you’re awesome at your job, what you’re really focusing on doing is making a difference. When you make a difference in your job and you make an impact and you find ways to love and serve and care and you plant yourself like a seed, where you are, then you’ll start to grow. That seed will start to grow. You’ll become the leader that you’re meant to be. Then what happens is success finds you.

To be awesome at your job, don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the process. That awesomeness will lead to great things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jon, thanks so much for taking this time. I wish you tons of luck with your book, The Power of a Positive Team and all you’re up to.

Jon Gordon
Hey, thanks Pete, I really appreciate talking with you.