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509: How to Become the Manager Your Team Needs with FranklinCovey’s Todd Davis

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Todd Davis of FranklinCovey says: Everyone deserves a great manager.

Todd Davis explains why people are bad at managing—and what to do about it. 

You’ll Learn:

  1. Where most managers fail
  2. How to overcome the fear of feedback
  3. A productivity hack to keep your week from spiraling

About Todd

Todd Davis has been with FranklinCovey for more than two decades and serves as the chief people officer. As the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work, Todd has delivered keynote presentations and speeches around the globe, including at the renowned World Business Forum. Todd has been featured in Inc. magazine, Fast Company, and the Harvard Business Review. He and his family reside in Holladay, Utah.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Todd Davis Interview Transcript

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

Todd Davis
Thank you, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m such a big admirer of FranklinCovey and the work you guys do and several of your folks over there who’ve appeared in the podcast. I’d love to hear, what’s some of the newest, latest, coolest insights coming out of FranklinCovey over the last year or two?

Todd Davis
Wow! That’s a loaded question. Well, FranklinCovey, I’ve been here for, going on 24 years now, so lots of great things during that time. Most recently, and this has been maybe a little bit longer than two years but we’re still involved in it, a big business model change where we now have what’s called an all-access-pass model.

So, previously people that would engage with FranklinCovey would purchase our solutions or have our consultants come in for a specific solution, and we still do that, but now it’s more of a subscription model where people have access to everything and anything that FranklinCovey does. And we have, well, we call them implementation specialists that come into your organization or your team and help create these learning journeys. So, that’s probably the biggest, one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my career here.

On a more recent change, the book that I believe we’re going to talk about, Everyone Deserves A Great Manager: The 6 Critical Practices for Leading a Team just hit the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list today, it just came out today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, excellent.

Todd Davis
So, very excited about that. That was not why we wrote the book but it’s nice to see that validation of how it’s resonating with leaders and managers and others all around the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, let’s dig into that. I think that’s a beautiful vision statement put out there, everyone deserves a great manager. So, what do you say is sort of how well the world is doing right now, or maybe the U.S. in particular, that’s easier, in terms of what proportion of folks do, in fact, have a great manager and how are we defining that?

Todd Davis
Well, yeah, it’s such a great question. You know, I was talking with my group as part of our book launch last week, and we made the analogy, if you get on an airplane, you sit down in the seat, and you’re ready to relax for a minute, then the pilot comes on and she or he says, “Thanks for flying with us. I’m not really a trained pilot but I have an interest in flying and I may get my license one day. But, relax, welcome to Good Luck Airlines.”

Your immediate response, at least mine is, “I got to get off this plane.” And while that’s kind of an overly-dramatic analogy, this is what happens in the real world. We have good people, really good people, and according to a Harvard Business Review study, they’re put in their first manager role, on average, at about age 30 and yet don’t receive any management or leadership training until age 42, if ever, so there’s this 12-year gap where they’re like this pilot trying to do the best job they can but it’s kind of like, “Welcome to Good Luck Leadership.”

[03:02]

And our instincts, and what happens in reality, is we leave that company, we leave that manager. Yes, people need to be paid fair, they need to have benefits, they need to do challenging work, but study after study shows that people leave because of their leader, because of their manager, or they join or they stay because of that leader. So, not only does everyone deserve a great manager, if you’re going to have a successful team organization, you got to invest in and be one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I’m sold. I’m convinced. And so then, I’d like to hear maybe just to orient kind of what that looks like when someone goes from not so great, haven’t been trained, to making that transformation, what’s that kind of look like in terms of the starting line, and then the transformation, and then what it looks like on the other side? And if there’s a particular client or manager that comes to mind, feel free to share that story.

Todd Davis
Absolutely. Well, when I asked groups around the world, “Who’s ever had a bad manager?” every hand goes up. And, again, I want to distinguish between a bad person and a bad manager, but a manager who really wasn’t qualified to lead people. And then I talked to them about why they felt this person, what was the person lacking, or what was the gap. Many different things, of course, but a large majority of them center around the person’s ability to really empathize and communicate. Communication is like the number one thing that comes up.

And so, I’m not just saying that, well, if you can become a great communicator, then you’ll be a great manager. But that seems to be where it all starts, or most of the time. And so, to your question, “What is it like to go from a bad leadership or management situation, where I don’t really have a lot of respect or appreciation for a manager, to a great one?” It starts there with someone who is real with me, communicates with me, and the feeling, as you asked, “What is the feeling?” it’s a feeling of validation, of acknowledgement.

Not that I’m perfect, but that the work I do matters, that you care about me as a person, not just as the project leader or the frontline person or whatever my role is, but you care about me as a person. You’re looking through a lens of a leader’s mindset versus an individual contributor’s mindset. So, I got to be careful because I’m very passionate about this, and I want to make sure we get all your question answered. But mindset is where it really starts. In fact, that’s the person we talked about in the book, is the importance of having a leader’s mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Now that piece about they really communicate, I saw, it was a Harvard Business Review study another guest brought up, it said that the majority of managers are uncomfortable communicating about anything.

[06:01]

Todd Davis
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
I just couldn’t even wrap my brain around this study. I got to understand, hey, there’s some hard conversations, difficult to give some feedback or corrective, but it’s just like across the board. So, can you maybe paint a fuller picture in terms of not communicating? I mean, words are exchanged surely. So, what’s kind of the base level of communication that doesn’t really count, doesn’t get the job done, versus kind of an example of great communication, like, “Wow! Okay, this is what a great manager sounds like”?

Todd Davis
Great. Great question. I’ve been in leadership roles for about 25 years. I’ve been observing and coaching leaders during that time as well. And I think, to start with, there are many reasons why the communication is poor, we don’t communicate at all as managers, but those that I’ve worked with, well, I wouldn’t say the number one reason, but the top two reasons are they’re very busy, they’ve got a lot to do as a manager, and that’s caused by the fact that they don’t have the right lenses on, they don’t have the right mindset. And so, they view themselves as too busy to spend the time necessary with their team. That’s one of the first barriers to communication.

The other, and it’s really a close runner up, is when you say they’re uncomfortable communicating it’s because they feel like they have to have all the answers, “I don’t want to open up a conversation, and then my team member that I’m leading ask me something and I don’t know what to do.” And both of those are incorrect ways to look at things.

Number one, if I’m in a leadership role and I don’t have time to meet with my people, I need to get out of that leadership role. That’s what I’m thinking about. My number one job as a leader is to get results with and through others. And so, to have that kind of be a mental barrier, talking about communicating, is really what I need to address.

The second issue of having to have all the answers, again, wrong way to think about it. I don’t have credibility with you because I have all the answers. I have or intend to have credibility with you because I know how to facilitate an engaging discussion, I know how to go and find and pull in people who will help so together we can find the right answers.

So, “I’m afraid to discuss with someone because I don’t have the right answers or maybe I need to give them some feedback, and I’m uncomfortable with how to give them a feedback. I don’t want to offend them, or I just want the problem, if it’s a problem, to go away.” These are all things that get in the way of effective communication. And we can certainly go into some examples and some actual dialogue of what a communication should look like.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I think we may well do that. And so, when you say too busy to spend the time necessary, I guess there’s probably a lot of flexibility on that range, like just how much time is necessary. But do you have a sense in terms of, “Hey, this much time is not enough time”? Like, what’s sort of the minimum recommended daily allowance that we’re talking about here?

[09:15]

Todd Davis
Yeah. Well, it’s certainly varies with the industry we’re in, with the roles we’re in in those industries, with the number of people we have reporting to us. Practice number two of the book that we’ll get into is to hold regular one-on-ones. And so, specific to your question, whether I’m holding a 30-minute one-on-one with each team member every week, or every other week, or even once a month. While the frequency is somewhat important, it’s the consistency.

If I commit to say, “Hey, Pete, I’d like us to…we’ll see each other and work together on many things throughout the month, but I’d like us to meet once a month with the sole purpose of finding out what’s working for you, what’s not working for you, what can I do to help remove barriers. So, could you have that in mind? And as we get close to that time each month, I’ll send you a little form that I use, and you just…I want to make sure we get all of your topics addressed.” You make the meeting about them.

So, the frequency and the amount of time will vary with the number of reports you have, the direct reports you have, but the most important thing is the consistency. Once you made that commitment, if you cancel on that or you continually reschedule or move it back, it unintentionally, and I hope it’s unintentional, it sends a message to that person that I say I value you but I really don’t value you as much as I do this other thing that came up.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yes. That completely resonates. And that’s, I think, reassuring in terms of there’s some flexibility there with regard to the scheduling. And if someone is frightened by the notion of, “I have 18 direct reports,” it’s like, well, 30 minutes once a month, mathematically speaking, it results in nine hours per month out of maybe a 160 work-hours. Doing real-time math here. Five or six percent of your day is one-on-one conversations. And that doesn’t sound so outrageous. As I imagine, you probably get some pushback, like just that, “I don’t have time for all these, Todd.”

Todd Davis
A lot of pushback. And, again, I go back to, “Are you really ready to be in a leadership role?” Again, going back to practice number one of the book “Develop a leader’s mindset,” I like to ask leaders and those that I coach, “Do you want to be a great leader or do you want your team led by a great leader?” And people will pause, and I’ve had a few people say, “Well, okay, help me understand the difference. Do I want to be a great leader or do I want my team led by a great leader?” And it is a very subtle difference.

And in my experience, if you want to be a great leader, you probably do a lot of really good things during the day. You add value to your company and all that, that’s fine. If you shift that mindset a little bit and, every morning, you wake up and you have the mindset of, “I want my team led by a great leader,” then I’m looking at everything through their lens. “What do they need? How can I help Aaron reach his full potential? What does Blair need to complete this project?”

[12:28]

And so, again, it sounds subtle but then it makes it not just easier, much more meaningful to say, “Gosh, nine hours out of my month, or 10 hours out of my month…” based on the numbers you gave me, “…to spend investing in making sure I understand what my team needs because I want them led by a great leader, I’m going to be much more effective, they’re going to be that much more effective and engaged. And time and time again, I’ve seen it. Our team is going to produce much better results and much more meaningful to the bottom line.” So, it’s not just a nice to have and it’s not just that everyone deserves a great manager, you’ve got to be a great manager to help your organization and your team stay in business.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. And I just think about retention, I think that’s sort of been my philosophy when it came to some of my early career decisions. It’s like, “I don’t…” I think it’s a fair statement to say that we cannot count on, in the vast majority of cases, a single employer being your source of income for a lifetime. Generally speaking, that is not the case for the majority of folks.

And, thusly, in a world where, hey, economic downturns often do result in layoffs, and where loyalty is not as strong on both sides of the table, that’s kind of was my takeaway, it’s like, “Well, I need to be in environments where I am maximizing my learning and skills development and growth in order to be employable over a lifetime. And if I’m not, then I’m kind of flirting with some risky business.”

And so that I think from a business strategic perspective, hey maybe you’ve done a study on this, I think there’d be just a gargantuan difference in retention and turnover stats for organizations that do this versus that don’t do this.

Todd Davis
And that’s so true. There was a recent study by Deloitte, it’s called their Global Human Capital Trends Report, cited that 30% of workers today are engaged, 52% are disengaged, and then the remaining 18% are actively disengaged. I like to ask people, “So, what’s the difference between actively disengaged and disengaged?” And it’s those actively disengaged, they are really a cancer within the organization, they’re going down bringing everybody else down with them.

[15:01]

But the main thing, and to your point, Pete, 30% are engaged, are excited about what they do, come to work with this creative, innovative mindset, adding real value. And so, if we, as leaders, aren’t focused on, “How do we keep those folks engaged? How do we raise the level of engagement of others?” they are going to go elsewhere, and we are not going to succeed.

I like to coach managers on thinking about their superstars, their top performers, and making sure that they know the answer to three questions on a regular basis, like at least once a year, maybe every six months, “What’s working for you? What’s not working for you? What would you like to do next?” And I’ll have managers push back and say, “Okay, well, I’ll ask what’s working for them but I don’t want to ask them what’s not working for them. What if it’s something I can’t fix?” I joke back and say, “Well, okay, so let’s ignore it and wait until the company down the street is able to provide that or fix that, and then we lose them.” Let’s address “What’s not working for you?”

Often, they’ll bring up something that you can actually influence or maybe do something about. And if it’s something you can’t, if it’s something you can’t fix that’s not working for that superstar employee, if you have been asking sincerely, and they know your intent really is to try and have a great career for them, or help them create a great career, just by asking that question will be a huge deposit with them and add a lot of value.

And then I really get pushback on the last question, “What would you like to do next?” And people say to me, “Well, I don’t want to plant that idea in my superstar’s mind ‘What do you want to do next?’ I want them to keep doing the exact thing they’re doing right now because they’re so valuable.” And, again, I would just share and remind people, superstars, talented people, they want to be challenged. You just referenced this. They want to keep learning and growing.

And so, if you don’t ask them what they’d like to do next, and they don’t have that opportunity, they’re going to go to an organization that offers it, so let’s find out what they want to do next, and maybe there’s a way to have them continue doing their excellent work in their current role, but also adding new learnings and dimensions onto what they can learn.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love those three questions, and you piqued my interest earlier when you said, “Fill out this form for our one-on-ones.” What are some the things that go into the form?

Todd Davis
Well, I say it’s more symbolic. It’s a very usable form. There’s a copy of it in the book. But we just want to create the idea of, look, your regular one-on-ones manager or leader, they aren’t a status check of how these people are doing on their projects. Yes, you need to have that, and maybe that can be a small portion of the one-on-ones or preferably in another meeting. The one-on-ones are their meetings.

So, the form is to get them thinking about the types of things they’d like to bring up with you as their leader. Now, leaders are hesitant to do this. They want to be able to control the conversation, where things go. And while that’s understandable and human nature, that’s not how you’re going to attract and retain top talents.

[18:15]

So, you make the one-on-one about them, they fill out the things they’d like to talk about, you fill out a couple of things that you want to see get covered in the meeting but make sure that theirs are the priority, and you tell them that, “We’re going to go through your list of things first, and then if we have time for mine, great. But this is about you.” And then you share those lists before the meeting.

And, really, what that does symbolically and practically is it shows the value that you are placing on them and their time and how important what their thoughts and their opinions are to you. That it’s not just, “Let’s get together. We’ll talk about whatever comes up,” but, “No, I, as your leader, am going to put some thought into some of the things that you want to discuss, and that’s why I’d like to know what they are in advance so that I can be really well-prepared to make the most, the best use of your time, and have given a lot of thought to the things you’d like to discuss.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you. So, we talked about one of the practices, which is having the one-on-ones. Could you give us an overview of the other five, and then we’ll sort of see where we care to take deeper?

Todd Davis
Absolutely. So, just to kind of keep things in order in my head, practice one is develop a leader’s mindset, everything starts there, it’s the foundation of the way you think about your role as a leader. Practice number two, that we just talked a little bit more about, holding regular one-on-ones. Practice number three, setup your team to get results. Practice number four, create a culture of feedback. Practice number five is to lead your team through change. And then practice number six, manage your time and your energy. And I’m happy to talk about any or all of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, let’s talk about the culture of feedback.

Todd Davis
Great.

Pete Mockaitis
How do you do that?

Todd Davis
So, yeah. Well, let me ask you this, Pete, and I can’t see you but I see a picture of you. When someone says to you, some colleague or boss says, “Hey, Pete, have you got a few minutes? I’ve got some feedback for you.” What kind of goes on internally?

Pete Mockaitis
For me it’s like, oh, boy, all right, they’re going to bring it. Okay, and so I’m just like I’m already a little freaked out so I’m trying to calm down a little bit. It’s like, “All right, Pete, there’s probably some merits in what they say, even if they enrage you, be ready with your magical phrase, ‘Tell me more about that,’ when your brain comes reeling associated with what they have to say.”

Usually, if it’s unexpected, that’s it. If it’s sort of like the regular time we have where feedback lives, maybe this is where you’re going, it’s like, “Okay, it’s just what we do here. All right, it’s all good.” As opposed to, it’s like, “So, to be more succinct,” I’ve had a listener correct me on that a couple of times, “It’s pronounced succinct,” now I know. Thank you. It’s probably, “Uh-oh, I hope I didn’t screw something up too bad.”

[21:16]

Todd Davis
Well, thank you for your transparency and honesty. And I’m wondering if you could travel the country with me as I give keynotes on this because you just described what is going on in every one of us. I had a person in a presentation the other day and I said, “When someone says to you, ‘I’ve got some feedback for you…’” and this person said, “Oh, I love feedback.” And I said, “Great. And that’s what you tell everybody, and I’m sure you do. And what’s really going on inside?” And I wasn’t trying to embarrass, but they said, “Well, I am thinking, ‘Okay, I wonder what I did wrong?’” And that’s human nature. That’s what we all think.

We hear this word feedback and we think, “Oh, crap. What have I messed up?” And when I say it, when other people say it that, “Gosh, feedback really helps us.” Our initial reaction is, “I’ve messed up.” Well, feedback, if we think about, this is very elementary, but feed means to nourish or to sustain or to foster, and back means to support. Just that reminder, first off, is, “Oh, wait a minute. Feedback is here to help.”

So, creating that culture of feedback, where you said towards the end of what you were sharing, is the norm is really the goal here because we all have blind spots. Everyone. The most accomplished human being on the planet has blind spots. And if we don’t have a systematic approach to feedback, getting feedback all the time, well, then we go through life and through our careers being less effective than we could’ve been.

Now the way we go about creating that culture of feedback is really important. In the book, we talk about the importance of giving reinforcing feedback or redirecting feedback, and we’re not avoiding the word positive or negative feedback to tiptoe around something or not call something what it is. In fact, we’re trying to do just that.

Reinforcing feedback, I mean, for people who have raised children or nieces or nephews or whatever, the first day they can tie their shoe or they remember the word pants to school, and you say, “Johnny, way to go. You got dressed all by yourself.” And, honestly, not to sound condescending, we don’t change much as we become adults. That reinforcing feedback tied to a behavior continues to cement in our minds, “Oh, that was a good thing and that felt good having that recognized. I want to do more of that.”

So, I guess the first thing I want to say here is let’s remember that reinforcing feedback of great behaviors, great results, is equally as important as redirecting feedback, when the behaviors are not where they need to be. So, reinforcing feedback is critical. And something, just to dive a little deeper on this, while some people will think, “Well, reinforcing feedback will be, ‘Oh, gosh, Adam, you’re so awesome. We’re so glad you’re here at the company. You do a great job.’”

[24:07]

That’s nice and I’m sure that’s well-intended but, quite frankly, it means nothing. Versus, “Adam, I’m so glad you’re on our team. That report you delivered yesterday in the meeting, the level of detail you went to, it shifted the whole conversation. And I have noticed over the last couple of months that we’ve worked together how detail-oriented you are. And, boy, did that play out well yesterday. So, I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate that.”

Adam is going to remember that feedback for a long, long time. And, more importantly, Adam is going to continue to even strengthen his strength of attention to detail. So, reinforcing feedback tied to a behavior. I had a very wise manage many years ago who taught me that, and just said, “Todd, remember you’re always very positive with people and that’s a great thing. Remember when you’re giving feedback that, number one, it’s sincere and that it’s tied to a behavior not just that it’s, ‘You’re awesome.’” So, that has stuck with me for a long time till forever.

Okay. Redirecting feedback, things aren’t going so well. This is where a lot of managers, “Gosh, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to offend them,” and they wait and wait and wait, hoping the bad behavior will just disappear or the person will disappear. Redirecting feedback, when given with the right intent, declaring your intent upfront, can be just the most helpful thing you can do as someone’s manager.

“Joan, I really appreciate you taking time to meet with me today. I want you to know how much I value your contribution on the team. I had, and I’ve had in my career managers and other people point out things to me that I maybe wasn’t seeing or wasn’t aware of, and it’s been hard to hear for me but it’s been a huge help in my endeavors to be a strong contributor. I want you to know my only intent as your leader is to do the same for you. You have so many good things going for you. There are a couple things I want to talk to you about that I believe are hindering your complete and total success. So, please know it’s with that intent that I share this with you.”

That’s how I begin every redirecting conversation. It’s got to be sincere. These aren’t scripts. This just comes from doing it a lot and it comes from the heart. It’s important to lower the person’s defenses. When someone feels defensive, they have a hard time hearing anything you’re saying. And I have found the most effective way to do that in a feedback situation, redirecting feedback, is to let them know I’ve received redirecting feedback before so that they’re not embarrassed or humiliated thinking, “Oh, I messed up.” “Well, no, we all mess up. We all need or benefit from this kind of feedback. And I’ve certainly been there before so I can really empathize with you.”

That helps lower defenses. And then making sure they know your intent, “Joan, my only intent is to help you be as successful as you can be. And I see great potential for you, and that’s the only reason I’m sharing these things.” So, that’s the way, the effective way, to receive redirecting feedback.

[27:10]

Now, a third thing, and I hope I’m not rambling too long here, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, go for it.

Todd Davis
Okay. The third thing is some managers think, “Oh, I’ve reached my manager status, now I give feedback. That’s what I do. I give reinforcing/redirecting feedback.” Well, great, but you want to have a team that just reaches great heights and does wonderful things. It works both ways. You’ve got to seek feedback. “You’ve got to make it safe for your team to tell you the truth” is the phrase I like to use. Make it safe. Do you make it safe for others to tell you the truth?

And know this, by your title alone as manager or director, whatever it is, you, it’s not your fault, but it’s already a little unsafe to tell you the truth. And so, great managers realize that and so they go out of their way to seek feedback. And let me tell you a bad way to seek feedback is to show up in somebody’s office and say, “Hey, Pete, what did you think of the meeting this morning? How do you think I’m writing the meetings?” Well, what are you going to say, Pete, when you walk …?

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re doing great, Todd.”

Todd Davis
Exactly. And when put on the spot like that, we’re all going to say the exact same thing. Whatever she or he wants to hear, “Oh, awesome. You do an awesome job.” But a little bit differently, if I say to Pete, “Hey, Pete, I wonder if I could ask you a favor. I’m really trying to make sure our meetings are super effective. In tomorrow’s meeting…” so I’m doing this the day before, “…would you mind taking some notes, making some observations of things that you think I could do better as the leader in facilitating the discussion in the meeting? I mean, yeah, I’d love to hear what you think I’m doing well, if anything, but I really want to focus on those things that you think I could do better. Then maybe the next day or two after the meeting, we can get together and you could share your thoughts with me.”

That’s how a manager, a wise manager, asks for sincere feedback and makes it safe for others to tell her the truth or in the truth. And managers who do this and make this commonplace, the next time Todd or Pete hears, “Hey, do you have a few minutes? I’ve got some feedback for you,” we think, “Oh, great. I’ve got another opportunity here to learn something I might not be seeing.” And it becomes the norm, and nobody has that hair on the back of their neck stand up like we usually do.

Pete Mockaitis
I love those words, and it reminds me of there’s a speaker, we had him on the show, Justin Jones-Fosu, and at one time we both were doing a lot of speaking on college campuses. That’s how we got to know each other and so he’s a great speaker. And then I said, “Oh, hey, that was really awesome.” I saw him present in a conference. And he said, he was so sincere, and I love it, he said, “Hey, Pete, I really appreciate that. What I appreciate even more is if you could identify a couple of things that you think that I could do better because that really helps me grow as a speaker.”

And so, I was like, “Oh,” and first of all I was struck that I told many speakers, I told many people that they’re awesome in many ways, but it’s very rare that someone said, “Hey, thank you for that. What would be even more helpful for me is this.” I’m like, “Whoa!” And so, then I said, “All right. Well, this is one part where you’re telling this really emotional story about someone who is ill and then you actually had this music go, which is kind of emotional. And while I think that made it more emotional, it also felt a little manipulative.

[30:27]

And I don’t know if that’s everybody or just me but I think that it would seem all the more authentic if that just wasn’t there. And it’s like we’re not in sort of a TV drama, if you will.” He said, “Thank you. Actually, a couple people brought that up and I’m wrestling with that right now so it’s good to have sort of one more datapoint. And it’s awesome.”

Todd Davis
That is such a great example. I appreciate you sharing that because you just remind me. One reason why I’ve seen leaders and others hesitant to ask for feedback is they think they have to incorporate all of it. And I love what you said that his response was, “You know, a few people has mentioned that and so I’m thinking about that.” You don’t have to incorporate all of it. But, boy, I’m telling you, I get a lot of that feedback. I’m thinking I might want to tweak this so it doesn’t feel so manipulative.

So, I’m just glad you brought that up because, boy, don’t not ask for feedback because you think, “Well, if I don’t incorporate it then I’m disingenuous.” That’s not true. But you can always follow up with a person, say, “Gosh, Pete, I so appreciate that feedback you gave me. I’m going to be thinking through that. And I wonder if you’d allow me to come to you again in the future for feedback because I really appreciate you taking the time to share that with me.” That’s what you need to do when you get feedback is the follow up and the acting on it, but not incorporating every piece of feedback you receive.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And just to close the circle on that, Justin happened to be, for several years, sort of the top-booked speaker at the agency so, I mean, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. One thing he did very differently than the other speakers was this, and he was number one.

Todd Davis
Great example.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I think that is more than a winky-dink. So awesome. So, the culture of feedback. I also want to get to you talked about managing your time and energy. So, I think about this a lot when it comes to sort of, hey, I got my day, I got the impact I want to make from an individual workload perspective. How do you think about this in the management context?

Todd Davis
Well, and this is not news to anyone, burnout and burnout in the workplace is just certainly not going away and it’s increasing more and more. And with all of our wonderful technology options and bells and buzzers and whistles, it allows us to be working — allows us, I say — 24 hours a day. In fact, I remember when I was promoted to a certain position here at FranklinCovey, gosh, 20 years ago…

[33:04]

And I remember saying, “Well, if I did this, could I have a laptop and maybe work from home once in a while when the situation permitted?” thinking that would be such a luxury. And I just laugh now thinking how the very thing that we were thinking was kind of a nice treat has become this thing that has chained us to our work responsibilities 24 hours a day.

And so, burnout, because of our ability to stay connected and, again, it’s a choice we all make, and I can’t really complain about it because it’s a choice I make, but we are connected all the time. And so, because we choose to do that, if we choose to do that, we’ve got to really manage that time and that energy or we will burn out, and what we model gets modeled by our team. What the leader values gets valued.

And so, again, we could talk, I do talk all day on this, but managing my time, first of all, managing my time, I liken it to a pinball machine. If I don’t have a plan for the week, I show up Monday morning or whenever your week begins, and it’s like the pinball machine. The plunger is pulled back and I’m like that ball in the machine, bouncing from bells to buzzers to whistles, and I get to the end of the day or the end of the week, and I think, “Man, I’m tired. I have been busy.”

And when I look back and say, “What have I really accomplished of value this week? Maybe a few things but not certainly all that I could have.” Whereas, when I take, and it takes me about 30 minutes on a Sunday night, sometimes less, I look through my week, I go through my appointments, I go through all the things that I really hope to get accomplished that week, and then I force myself to think through, “Okay, if I could only get two or three things done this week, what would they be?” And I choose those things with the intention of getting 20 or 15 or whatever done, but I choose the top two or three things. And then I have this plan on how to get that done.

And then Monday begins, and the pinball game starts, and so we all get caught up in it, urgencies happens, nobody’s week goes as planned, but if I have a plan to come back to after taking care of this urgency, if I have a plan, a centerline to come back to, I can get back on track several times throughout the week. And I will tell you from years of experience, and I certainly had some weeks better than others, but I get much more accomplished. And if I model that for my team, well, I’ll get even much more accomplished. So, that’s what I’ve learned in time management and how to try and create and adhere to a plan for the week.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say a plan, I guess to what extent, what sort of details or key things are identified with that plan?

Todd Davis
Well, and, again, I don’t want to have any emotional music playing while I say this, but I have written what we call a mission statement here that kind of identifies my values, what’s most important to me, and I reflect. On Sunday night, I’ll look at that just to kind of reconnect with what’s most important to me, both in my professional and my personal life, and the relationships in both professional and personal life that are tied to that. And that just kind of gets my mind around, “Don’t get too far off the path, Todd, of what really why you’re doing the work you’re doing and what’s important to you.”

[36:20]

And then with that mindset, I look through the week and I look through appointments that I’ve already committed to that are fixed in the week and then I think about, based on last week and the previous weeks, the urgencies that have come up — and I’m called the Chief People Officer, I have kind of a triage role — and have a lot of unintended or unplanned things come up, and I honestly try and block out time for those, don’t know what they are, but I think, “Okay, you’re being pretty unrealistic here, Todd. You’ve got these dates of back-to-back meetings. First of all, how are you going to get from one meeting to the next without any time in between? And as the urgencies come up, have you blocked…?”

So, I’ll block out some other time that’s not specific for a meeting, but because I know by this time of the day, I’ll have two or three things present themselves that I need to get answers back for people on. And so, maybe I’m getting too detailed, but that’s the level of detail I try and get to, to have a realistic week in front of me. And then I will look at, “Oh, that’s right. I told my daughter, Sydney, we’re going to plan this trip. I’m going to block out this hour that afternoon and see if she could talk then, and will schedule some time around that.” So, that’s just kind of an idea or a glimpse into my mind as I’m planning out the week.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, rather than your calendar having, hey, a few meetings and then some space that you’ve got to fill it in with whatever in the moment, you’ve sort of pre-allocated those spaces to what’s important.

Todd Davis
That’s right. And at FranklinCovey, we use a tool in 7 Habits called the time matrix, and there’s these four quadrants and there are different names for these. There are other models that are similar where you have these four quadrants, those things that are urgent and important, those things that are important but not urgent, and that’s what I was just talking about and you’re talking about where scheduling this vacation with my daughter is going to help me schedule. It’s important but because it’s not urgent, it keeps getting pushed off week after week. So, I make sure I’ve blocked time for those things that are important but not necessarily urgent.

The other two quadrants are urgent but not important, these are time robbers, these are other people’s urgencies. And then there’s the time wasters which are not urgent, not important. And you think, “Well, who would spend time there?” Well, I have, unfortunately. When I go home and turn on a sitcom thinking I’m going to watch it for half hour, and four hours later I get up off the sofa.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man, it must have been a good one, Todd. What were you watching?

Todd Davis
Yeah. Well, one after another, the damage done by a remote control. So, anyway, of these four quadrants, just really making sure, if I could summarize anything in the week, “Have I blocked out time for those things that are important but not urgent?” And because they haven’t been urgent, they haven’t got my attention.

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

[39:05]

Todd Davis
Just summarizing, I guess, this principle or this idea or this important fact that everyone deserves a great manager. For those who are in or will be in a leadership position, just remembering the influence you can have in that role. I’ll never forget my 35th day of employment at what was then called The Covey Leadership Center, now FranklinCovey, it was 24 years ago. I don’t know what happened on day 34 or day 36, but on day 35, my boss at that time, her name was Pam, she walked me up to a senior leader in the company whom I have not met during the interview process and his name is Bob. And she said, “Bob, I’d like you to meet Todd Davis. He’s our recruitment manager.” That was what I was hired at 24 years ago.

And then she said, “Let me tell you what Todd has accomplished during his first 35 days of employment.” And I’m shaking this man’s hand, Pete, and my mind goes blank, and I felt like I’m going to throw up. I’m thinking, “I can’t think of what she’s going to say. I couldn’t think of one thing I had done in 35 days,” and it was really this uncomfortable feeling. And then Pam went on to say, “He filled this position in Chicago that was vacant for the last six months. He’s got a recruitment strategy for the next year. He’s got a relocation policy in place.” And this list went on.

And, please, I’m not sharing that to say, “Aren’t you impressed with what I did in 35 days?” I’m sharing this to tell you I remember that moment even as I’m retelling it to you right now, it feels like it was yesterday and it was 24 years ago. This leader, Pam Walsh, believed in me more than I believed in myself. A very famous quote from Dr. Stephen Covey, the bestselling author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People said, “Leadership is seeing in people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.”

And so, I guess if I could just wrap on this topic with that thought, it is just that, to remind all the leaders, whether in a formal leadership position or an informal one, whether you have the title or not, that true leadership is seeing the potential in others so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you.

Todd Davis
And I did that with no music playing in the background.

Pete Mockaitis
We might add it later. We’ll see.

Todd Davis
Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds like it might already be your favorite quote. But do you have a favorite quote you’d mention?

Todd Davis
That is probably one of my favorite quotes. I’ve got another one. Can I share two of them with you?

Pete Mockaitis
Go for it, yeah.

Todd Davis
Okay. One is from Abraham Lincoln. John Wooden, the basketball coach, used it a lot but it was from Abraham Lincoln, and he said, “It is better to trust and be disappointed once in a while than to distrust and be miserable all of the time.” And just that quote motivates me to see the goodness in others, to see the potential in others, to trust and not be so suspicious.

[42:12]

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Thank you.

Todd Davis
Another quote, because you said I could have two, and this one I’ve had, gosh, probably 30 years. And it was from an old actress by the name of Fanny Brice, and I don’t know that she was a mentor or anything, but the words have stuck with me. And the words she said were, “Let the world know you as you are, not as you think you should be because sooner or later, if you are posing, you’re going to forget the pose and then, where are you?” And I think in the realm of being authentic and really being who you are, those are things that I try and remember.

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

Todd Davis
Well, this is an old one but people are very familiar with it. There was the marshmallow study with the kids that were observed in the room when they were told if they didn’t eat the marshmallow. Do you know the study?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, indeed. Yeah, by Walter Mischel.

Todd Davis
Exactly. Very, very familiar. But I guess why it just came to mind when you said favorite study, I haven’t been asked that question before, but when you asked me that, it’s just a daily reminder, I think, for all of us. While I don’t think about the study exactly, I think about, “Todd, what do you want now versus what you want long term?” And just that quick fix and, of course, we’ve become, with technology and everything else that “I want everything right now” mentality, and it’s important for all of us, but certainly for me to remember, “What is it that I really want the long-term result to be versus the quick high or the quick fix?”

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, and tying that together with trust, I had a previous guest who shared another layer to that study which I thought fascinating, which was that the study was meant to sort of assess your ability as a child to sort of delay gratification.

Todd Davis
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
But what they discovered was one of the big drivers associated with whether or not the child waited was their historical experience of being able to trust the word of people’s promises.

Todd Davis
Saying you’ll get more if you wait.

Pete Mockaitis
Exactly. Instead of like, “You know what, I don’t buy it. I would take this now because I know it’s there. You may or may not be there.”

Todd Davis
You’re right. I remember reading that and, boy, isn’t that true.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, we talked about sort of trust in leadership and investing in people, I think that’s huge right there with regard to they can do more of that…

Todd Davis
Such a great point.

Pete Mockaitis
…if they have great experiences with you and, thus, multiplying all the more leaders. Ooh, good stuff. And how about a favorite book?

[45:00]

Todd Davis
Hmm, lots of favorite books. And did I mention that Everyone Deserves A Great Manager just hit the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list?

Pete Mockaitis
I think that came up.

Todd Davis
A favorite book, right? I’ll tell you one that I refer back to both open and thinking back is Linchpin by Seth Godin. I don’t know if you’ve read Linchpin.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think I’ve read the Blinkist summary.

Todd Davis
Yeah. It was life-changing, sounds dramatic. I probably need music again by what I’m saying. But it really caused me to think about why I do what I do. The book is about…Linchpin is that thing that slips in to hold the pulley together.

And he likens it to just the linchpin at work, the linchpin in the workplace. And are you a linchpin? And why do you what you do? And those people, and we all know them in teams and organizations, who are really the linchpin, sometimes I just think of the heart of the team or organization that really keeps the team going.

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

Todd Davis
Wow! A favorite tool. I mean, when I say my phone, that’s nothing new for me, the iPhone…it’s really not a tool, it’s the plan that’s within it. We’ve already talked about this, but it’s how I plan out my week, how I try and live my life intentionally through the week with a plan, and I’m able to do that because of the technology. So, I’ll put my plan together on my computer, my Outlook, and then it syncs with my phone. Just to have to that plan, including my mission statement and all those things with me all the time, so the portability of that.

Don’t laugh at this but another favorite tool that comes to my mind. My kids tease me relentlessly because of I got a battery-operated leaf blower last year. It’s like the favorite thing I have. I used to take forever to rake the lawn. So, anyway, thinking of tools, that’s what first came to mind, and I wasn’t going to share it, and now I just did.

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

[48:03]

Todd Davis
The one, and this may or may not be helpful for people, I think, again, back to communication, I have found that we put off important conversations because we’re afraid we’re going to say it wrong, not just in the realm of giving feedback, like we were talking earlier, but whatever. If I have a difference of opinion with one of my colleagues, or a family member, whatever, we sometimes put off that conversation, not sometimes, a lot, because we want to just get the right words, we want it perfect, we’re so worried about the outcome.

So, one thing that I’ve had people tell me time and time again was, “I really appreciated you being in a conversation by saying…” and this is what I say, “Hey, Pete, I need to talk to you about something or I’d like to talk to you about something, and I will probably use the wrong words. So, could I have a do-over? If I say something offensive or if I don’t say it exactly how I mean it, just know that my intent is to get this topic out on the table. And then if I could have a do-over, if I say it wrong, would that be okay?”

And that’s not scripted. I just said that from the heart. For many years, I’ve had many people say that kind helps set the tone for the whole conversation. So, maybe it’s back to the notion I have of you’ve got to lower defenses. If people feel defensive, it’s really hard to communicate. So, let’s make sure my defenses and their defenses are lowered so we can really get to the heart of an issue. So, I guess that would be the nugget, as you call it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so great because, then, if in fact, if it says, “Well, it kind of feels like you’re telling me that, I don’t know, ‘I’m a terrible provider’ or ‘I can’t be trusted with responsibilities.’” You can say, “Yes, see, that’s kind of what I was concerned about, but I really don’t mean that at all.”

Todd Davis
“Yeah, I’m sorry.” Exactly, Pete. Yeah, I would say, “Boy, if that’s what you heard, I really need a do-over because I want to say you are a phenomenal provider. But I have noticed, in my opinion, I’ve noticed that sometimes you put a priority on this thing, and it’s unintentionally, I think, offending some other people.” So, you’re exactly right. It gives you the language then to use in the conversation so that it doesn’t blow into something it shouldn’t be.

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

Todd Davis
Well, FranklinCovey.com, and the book launched last week, Everyone Deserves A Great Manager: The 6 Critical Practices for Leading a Team. You can purchase it at all major bookstores, but the easiest way to purchase it is on Amazon.com. And, again, they can go to learn more about our company or about me on FranklinCovey.com.

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

Todd Davis
Just, “Why do you do what you do?” I remind myself of it or I think about it all the time, “What’s my real intention?” You’re the only one that knows what your real motivations are. And I think those of us and those of you that check in with them regularly will have just that much more of a positive influence on yourself, on your teams, and ultimately on the world.

[51:02]

Pete Mockaitis
Todd, thank you. This has been fantastic. I wish you all the best in making more and more people have great managers.

Todd Davis
Well, I really appreciate you and I appreciate the time, Pete.

492: Making Meetings Work with J. Elise Keith

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J. Elise Keith says: "Every meeting is an opportunity. Seize it."

J. Elise Keith shares what makes meetings succeed vs. fail.

 

 

You’ll Learn:

  1. Signs of an ineffective meeting
  2. How the best organizations approach meetings
  3. When and how to opt out of a meeting

About J. Elise

Elise Keith is the co-founder of online meeting management platform Lucid Meetings. Known as the ‘Meeting Maven,’ Elise offers unprecedented expertise that inspires audiences, proving that meetings shouldn’t be fewer or shorter—but better and more effective. She is the author of Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization, which contains eye-opening strategies companies can use to structure beneficial meetings, create a healthy workplace culture, and propel overall team momentum.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank You, Sponsors!

J. Elise Keith Interview Transcript

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

J. Elise Keith
I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I’m excited to dig into this. And I want to get your take, you know, often the first question I ask is an icebreaker of sorts, and you’ve seen a lot of icebreakers, I imagine, in your day. Could you share maybe an all-time favorite or least favorite icebreaker and story that goes with it?

J. Elise Keith
Okay. So, I have two for this one. The kind of icebreaker you should use really depends on the kind of meeting you’re having and what’s going on in your culture. So, there’s all kinds of really good icebreakers that are also really different. But one I like to use when I do, like, say, workshop where I’ve got a group and maybe they know each other or maybe they don’t, but you’ve got to get them loosened up a bit, is, “What was your favorite band or artist in high school?”

Pete Mockaitis
That is fun.

J. Elise Keith
It is fun because you get a chance to get a sense of people’s culture and sort of their inner id when you find…I did this with a group of librarians recently, and to hear the number of them that were, you know, deep hardcore punk funs than old-school hillbilly rock was kind of enlightening.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fun. Well, and what was yours?

J. Elise Keith
You know, I was a big Midnight Oil fan in high school which I grew out of, but at the time it seemed appropriately edgy and world-saving and different enough to be special, yeah. How about you?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, it’s funny, I didn’t own a lot of CDs, because that’s what we had at the time, but I do remember I think that Blink 182 Dude Ranch was the album I played again and again. And I also went to a number of punk rock shows myself. I remember the band 15 with Jeff Ott was something in vogue with my people and myself. And then, yeah.

J. Elise Keith
See? I mean, like all of a sudden, you know, I like Midnight Oil. My first album was Pour Some Sugar On Me, Def Leppard.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. Well, I think we’re going to have some extra fun here talking about meetings and so meetings are often such a huge pain point for professionals. So, I’d love it if we could maybe you could start us off by orienting us to kind of the state of meetings today. Like, any hard numbers you have in terms of how much time professional spend in meetings, what proportion of those meetings are effective, how do you even define effective. Kind of where do we stand today?

J. Elise Keith
Yadda, yadda, stats, stats, right? So, in terms of the overall situation with meetings, our most recent and best research shows that there are somewhere north of 65 million meetings per day in the US alone. And a lot of us are not working just in the US, it’s an international economy now so that’s millions and millions and millions of meetings every single day.

Now, it’s a huge number so that’s not necessarily relevant to each of us personally, which brings you to the second question, right, like, “How much time are individuals spending in meetings?” And that’s kind of all over the map depending on where you are in the organization and what0 kind of organization you’re in. It can be somewhere as low as like, say, half an hour or less for some people.

But when you get farther up the chain, when you get into middle management, or C-suite, or VP suites in collaborative organizations, that’s going to be typically somewhere between 60% and 80% of their day they’re going to spend in meetings. It’s a ton of time. It’s a ton of money that we invest in these.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, because every one of those hours has dollars associated with it. All right. So, that’s kind of the time load. And how often are the meetings working? How do we even define working from a numerical perspective?

J. Elise Keith
That’s a really good question, right, because a lot of times the way that, there’s a fair amount of research into whether meetings are effective. And often the way that research is done is people would throw out a survey, lets a Survey Monkey surveys, which are like, “Think of your last five meetings and estimate which percentage of them were effective.” And there you get a number where people who say, “Half of them were effective.”

But when you dig into that research a little bit deeper, you do some actual investigation with the companies and people, talking about the specific meetings they’ve attended, “So, how was your last meeting? Would you rather have that been a giant series of email?” that kind of thing, what you find is that the equation flips. And it turns that folks, by and large, think meetings work a lot better than the alternatives.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s good to know. That’s good news.

J. Elise Keith
The thing about effectiveness is that what is that word even mean, right? And that’s where you get into sort of the more interesting tactics and tools because for a meeting to be effective, you have to be asking yourself, “Well, what is it effective at? Can you use that effectively to do?” And in that case, you’ve got to look at both, “Are the people in the room enjoying it? Do they feel it’s a good use of time? And then, is it producing results for your business?” So, those are the two angles on effectiveness that you can pull together, and then you can start to see, “Okay, now, regardless of what the big stats say, what’s happening in my world here?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. And so then, I’d love to get your take then, so what do some of the best in class versus worst in class organizations look like with regard to meeting performance on these dimensions?

J. Elise Keith
So, it’s often easier to start with the worst because that’s probably where a lot of people are. Meeting performance isn’t something that most organizations have taken seriously. And so, what they do is they wing it. Essentially, you leave it to each and every manager and project manager and leader and whatnot to figure out how to meet as they think best for what they’re trying to do.

And that kind of approach sort of assumes that, “You know, everybody’s been in a lot of meetings. They ought to know what they’re doing. Let’s get them in a room. Off they go.” So, that’s what most people are doing and it’s deeply, sadly ineffective most of the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And in what ways?

J. Elise Keith
Well, it turns out that meetings are different than conversations, right? And meetings are a skilled activity that you can learn how to run and then design to achieve specific goals. So, there really isn’t any such thing as a generic good meeting. There are really good sales calls, there are really good interviews, there are really good ways to keep a project moving, and each one of those is a different kind of meeting that should be designed to achieve that goal.

So, in the best organizations they do that. They get training for everybody and they design systems. So, they take their meetings and they stop them being habits and they turn them into systems that are designed to achieve the goals that they support.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, now you lay out 16 types of meetings that work and you’ve mentioned a couple there. I guess I’m curious to hear what types of meetings don’t work?

J. Elise Keith
So, the types of meetings that don’t work are the ones that are basically, you know, kitchen soup. Do you ever do that? Do you ever do like a kitchen-sink soup or a casserole where you’ve got a pot and you just kind of throw everything that you own in there before it goes bad, and that’s the soup you’ve got? Which sometimes works great but most of the time it doesn’t.

So, that’s what a lot of folks are doing with their meetings, “I’ve got a time block on Tuesday. We always meet on Tuesday. My whole team shows up and we decide, ‘Hey, what is it we have to talk about today?’”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there it goes. So, it’s kind of like I’m hearing some telltale signs there. One, it’s recurring and, two, there’s not a plan in advance and, three, there’s multiple people as opposed to like the one-on-one. So, there are some ingredients, I guess, that may have a higher risk perhaps of not working out optimally in the course of having that meeting. So, everything is just sort of like, “All right. Here we all are now. So…” as opposed to a proactive, thoughtful, upfront design of, “What are we hoping to achieve?” and kind of planning from there.

J. Elise Keith
Yeah. So, it’s really about clarity of purpose, right, and what you’re trying to accomplish in the room. And if you walk into the room and you’re not entirely sure what you’re trying to accomplish or why everybody needs to be there, so you’ve invited all of the people because you’re not entirely sure who should be in and who should be out, then you’re likely to waste your time.

And, certainly, even if you do know what you need to accomplish, there are some things that just psychologically we’re not designed to do at the same time. So, let’s take, can we do a couple of examples?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes.

J. Elise Keith
So, the project status update. It’s a meeting most people loathe, right, but it’s designed to make sure that everybody working on the project knows what’s happening, gets an update about anything that’s changed that they need to know about, and has a chance to raise any concerns, like, “Hey, here’s a red flag. We need to work on this.”

But the underlying psychological thing going on there is you’ve all agreed to do something together and you’re going to make sure that you continue to trust each other and execute on that so that you can keep the work going. You’re doing momentum and energy and trust, right?

In a meeting like that, when we have already made promises in the past and we’re showing up to recommit to those promises and show that we’re good for them, it’s not a great moment to say, do something like, “You know what, let’s just go crazy and think of some wild ideas about what we might do now,” right? Or, “Hey, here’s a great problem. Why don’t we explore all of the different kinds of creative out-of-the-box thinking on how we might tackle this problem?”

The whole point of the project status meeting is to say, “Yes, we’ve defined a box and we’re in that box and we’re moving this box down the road.” When you ask people to step out of the box, right in the middle of that, you’re having them break from one mode of interaction to a completely different mode and you get the worst possible ideas ever because everything people raise is safe, right? And you don’t want safe when you’re doing brainstorming. You don’t want safe when you’re doing problem-solving. You want innovative, you want effective, so you got to break those conversations into distinct conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. So, you’ve got a clear purpose and a design, and that’s what you’re running with, and you’re not kind of mixing and matching in there. Understood. And so, I’m curious, with the project status update meeting, let’s talk with that example, so people often don’t like it. And so, what are some of the other things that they’re going wrong? Sometimes folks are sort of wildly go off script and enter a different phase. And what are some of the things that are going that also can go awry or indicative of, “Hey, this project status meeting is great”?

J. Elise Keith
So, what you’re looking for in terms of signifiers of great are energy, right? You’re looking for energy, you’re looking for some amount of dynamic, and in the case of a status meeting, which is probably one of the worst meetings to be using as our example, but in the case of that meeting, that energy and that dynamic might come from just keeping it really crisp and short and being very, very respectful of everybody’s time.

But in every case, one of the things that keeps these meetings from being particularly successful is that whoever is in charge of that meeting is probably frantic, they’re probably running from one thing to another with very little time to prepare, and they walk into the room believing that it’s their job to make that a fabulous experience, or an effective experience, or an efficient experience, or whatever it is that they believe for everyone else, and they do all the talking, and they set the agenda. And then they basically demand reports from everyone else. Well, that’s deadly.

It’s like you’ve shown up to the soccer match and you’ve got a sense of what it means to win the game so you get your team together and then you run the ball up and down and tell them what you’re doing. You don’t have anybody else participating, you don’t have everybody else bringing something to the field and helping you get that goal together. So, the best meetings are ones where everybody has got a job to do in that room, and they’re team sports. It’s not the leader’s show.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s a good thing to talk about right there. So, if there are folks in the meeting who say nothing, does that suggest that perhaps they ought not to be in the meeting?

J. Elise Keith
It either suggests that they shouldn’t be in the room because meetings are not a spectator sport, right? Or, they need some training, they need some education. So, they need education and the person in charge needs education because if you have people who are in that room who should be contributing and they are not, that’s broken. We don’t hire and have people work on our team so that they can absorb oxygen in the space. They’re there to contribute their perspectives and their ideas and the information they have that we don’t that helps us collectively get to a better result.

Pete Mockaitis
And would your view then be if they are just sort of receiving information that we should use a different format to convey the information?

J. Elise Keith
Absolutely. Absolutely. Now, sometimes that’s not practical, right? Like, sometimes you just can’t count on everybody to have done their homework in advance, so there are practices that companies put in place to help with that. Like, there are ways to get around that that are respectful of the fact that people don’t necessarily have time to proactively prepare. And yet you still don’t want to lead to them like they were in kindergarten because that’s disengaging and a little insulting, frankly.

So, one of the really famous ones is Amazon, in their corporate headquarters. They begin all of their meetings with 10 minutes of silent reading where whatever it is that they’re going to discuss, “Is it a proposal or the financial reports, or whatever it is?” it’s distributed in paper and everybody at the table has 10 minutes to read it through right there.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You know, I really like that maybe because, you’re right, as opposed to people just trying to fake it and not look dumb and sort of say expansive things, it’s like, “No, just do this right now.”

J. Elise Keith
Let’s just do it, yeah. And it’s also kind of a wonderful way to acknowledge that, like, you need people to come prepared but you don’t control their calendar outside of that meeting, right? So, that prep work is part of the work of the meeting, why not just build that time into the meeting itself?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And especially if it’s 10 minutes, because that’s something that can be handy in the sense of you’ve maybe looked a lot of those bits and pieces over time, and, “Oh, here it is collected,” and you’re kind of up-to-speed or on the same page and we’re moving. I’ve actually had a couple of guests before, they’ll ask me, “So, tell me about your audience.” And I’m thinking, “Okay, this means you didn’t read all the things I sent you.”

J. Elise Keith
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And I was like, “Well, hey, how about this? Let me send you this link and we can just sort of read that quietly for a moment and I’m going to go sort of get a glass of water, and we’ll reconnect?” So, I try to do that as respectfully as possible.

J. Elise Keith
But it’s maddening, right, because you only have so much time.

J. Elise Keith
So, you asked me earlier about both an icebreaker and then about meeting research, right? Like, the stats behind meetings. But when you dig into meetings and you see that what’s going on there is you’re bringing together a complex group of people to talk about work, which, in and of itself, is probably pretty complex too. So, it’s this really dynamic system of things going on, all kinds of things that can go wrong.

So, one of the reasons the icebreaker is such a great tool and why Amazon’s 10 minutes of silent reading is also a great tool is that the first tip to every successful meeting is to help people transition into the room because we’re all – and this is coming out of like the neuroscience and the social psychology research. We’re all dealing with up to like six different levels of distraction in our brain when we walk into that room.

So, our first job is to clear all of that and there’s a technique called clearing that explicitly does that, but you can do it a whole bunch of different ways, and get everybody focused on whatever is going on in that room and not the email they need to still write, or the fact that their kids might call, or their hungry stomachs, or any of those other things. How do you get people into the room? That is the absolute first tip to any successful meeting. And silent reading is one way to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it. So, what are some of the other alternatives and clearing approaches?

J. Elise Keith
Yeah, so clearing approach, and actually several companies use this, is it’s explicit, it is you walk in and everybody takes a moment to say, “Hey, today I’m dealing with this, I’m feeling this way, but I’m ready to put that aside and I’m in.” And everybody else says, “Welcome.”

Pete Mockaitis
In other words, “I’m in.”

J. Elise Keith
Yeah, I’m in. And so, you go around the room and everybody says, “This is what’s going on for me but I’m ready and I’m in.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I imagine that could go quickly or not so quickly. Are there some guidelines there?

J. Elise Keith
You know, that’s really up to the team and the culture. So, in some teams they go real fast and they keep it fast and many people pass, right, because their values are about efficiency. In other teams, their values are about community. And this is another tip with meetings. Your meetings are absolutely the best place to design in the values you want to see your culture support and engage, right?

So, at lululemon, they do the clearing, and then they follow the clearing by the vibrations. And that practice is where they go around and they say, “Hey, is there anything you’re hearing that you think we should know about?” And a vibration might be like a rumor that’s going around the office, or something somebody saw in the news, or the weather, or it could be any of these things, whether just like, “Hey, we think the group ought to know about this.” And what they do in their teams is sometimes what comes up in clearing or in the vibrations is a big deal, and that’s what they talk about. And they take the rest of their agenda and they move it to another day.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And that is really handy because I think a lot of times there’s great information that just never has an opportunity to surface, and it’s like, “Oh, someone else launched a competitive yoga pant on Kickstarter that everyone is raving about.” It’s like, “Oh, I had no idea.”

J. Elise Keith
Right. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
“That’s so cool and we have a moment for you to share that with us because that could change all kinds of things and maybe we wouldn’t have noticed this for another five months until maybe it’s a lot later for us to respond effectively.”

J. Elise Keith
Yeah. Well, it’s a huge deal. Like, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the research that Amy Edmondson has done into psychological safety. It’s this bit where we feel like we’re in a group that cares enough about us that it’s safe to take risks. We can tell them things that may or may not fit the dominant narrative, right?

And one of the things that she points out when she explains this to people is that, you know, half of the time, people are afraid to speak out not because they have evidence that something bad would happen, right? There are people who are afraid to speak out in environments where “nobody ever gets fired,” right? So, nothing bad would happen to them, but just nobody does it, they’re not really sure.

So, one of the really important things we can do in our meetings is ask, just make time and space to ask the questions about what people are seeing and what ideas they have so that they know that those are welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, so I’m digging this. So, we said, hey, once you’re actually in the meeting, first step, transition into the room, could be some silent reading, could be some clearing, asking about the vibrations, what’s going on.
J. Elise Keith
Could be an icebreaker, all the things, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a second step?

J. Elise Keith
So, then you need to connect with the goals and the purpose of the meeting, So, purpose is a verb, “We’re here to do this, to make a decision, to have a podcast interview,” whatever our purpose is. And then, at the end, “We’re about to achieve this.” So, those are your desired outcomes, “We’re going to have a decision, a list of next steps, and extra pizza,” whatever those outcomes are.

So, you kind of affirm that upfront and then confirm what your plan is for getting from, “Okay, we’ve gathered for this reason, for this purpose. We’re trying to get out with those outcomes. Here’s the plan for getting between point A to point B.” And most times people express that as an agenda. You don’t necessarily need an agenda but you do need a plan.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And you’re saying earlier that it’s best to perhaps not be the sole person who has that all figured out.

J. Elise Keith
Right. So, as the person in charge, there are multiple roles that you can bring to bear in a meeting. There’s the titular head of whatever that piece of work is, the leader, but you can have other people facilitate. And a facilitator’s job is to design that process part and then be the guardians of that process. You can have people assigned to take notes, you can have people assigned to be the vibes watchers, or the norms enforcers where they’re keeping track of everybody else, all kinds of different ways in which you can get other people involved in making that successful.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that’s handy. And then what’s the third step?

J. Elise Keith
So, then the final thing you have to do for any meeting to be effective is you have to wrap it up, and that’s five minutes, maybe more, maybe less. At the end of every meeting where you stop and explicitly say, “Okay, let’s make sure we actually know what we did here, what decisions did we make, and what are our actions that we’re going to take away,” Like, who, what, when. “Specifically, this is going to be done by this date by this person.”

And, ideally, you want to do those in writing where everybody can be looking at them and committing that that is, in fact, what they thought the decision was because, way too often, people walk out the room all thinking they made the same decision but five minutes later you’re in another meeting, you’ve completely forgotten, it gets fuzzy. So, you want that in writing and you want to confirm it before you leave.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we’re talking about some form of like projection is present, or we’re visually looking at this wrap-up piece.

J. Elise Keith
Absolutely, yeah. And there are a bunch of ways to do that, there’s a lot of different software platforms you can use that are about taking collaborative notes on meetings in real time. You can do it on a whiteboard. There are a lot of different ways you can do it but you want people to be able to explicitly see that. And by having it be written, not only are you making it easier to get the notes out afterwards, which is a bonus, you’re engaging multiple parts of the brain, right?

We process information differently when we read it versus when we hear it versus when we speak it. So, you put all these things together and, from a geeky perspective, you’re encoding these promises deeper into your team, and that’s critical. And then, the last, last thing I think you should always do before you leave any meeting is to say thank you. Take a moment and express some appreciation.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, just say it like with their time for investing themselves, for thinking, for contributing, for not blowing it off. I guess there’s a lot of things in there.

J. Elise Keith
For something fabulous someone did. You can have people thank each other, “I really appreciate Sandy because she brought up that point and I wouldn’t have known about that Kickstarter yoga pants. She has saved our bacon,” right? The appreciation not only show people that you care and respect their time. It’s also a fabulous way to help everybody learn what the group values by being very explicit about what you’re acknowledging.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so in between the second step of connecting with purpose and the third step of the wrap-up, are there some particular practices that ensure that the actual conversations we’re having are effective, that they’re bringing us to where we want to go during the course of the meeting?

J. Elise Keith
Absolutely. There absolutely are. And the challenge is that they’re different depending on the type of meeting you’re in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Gotcha.

J. Elise Keith
Yeah, which is why when you get into an organization that’s got really, really high meeting performance maturity. Basically, in our research, when we look out across the board, we found a number of practices that organizations establish as they’re putting their system in place from very basic, “We don’t have a system,” to, “We have this system that’s really locked and solid and really helping us drive our business forward.”

And one of those, as you get in there, is that as we’re talking about this, right, there’s the purpose and the outcomes and the different types of meetings and special ways you have to run each one. Well, that’s an awful lot of stuff to learn and have to try and apply in around the rest of what you’re doing. So, what these organizations do is they have standardized ways they do each of the different types of meetings that matter to their business that people are expected to learn, and then iterate and adopt and work with, but they’re not starting from scratch.

So, when you go to Amazon, you don’t just get to just guess how you’re going to start your meeting, right? They have their 10-minute thing. And when you go to an organization that’s practicing open-book management, you don’t guess how you’re going to run your weekly leadership meeting, “It works like this,” and you review the books. So, they have codified practices that shortcut the learning for all of those different things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you maybe give us an example of a meeting type and some practices that are overlooked but make all the difference in the world when you’re having that meeting type?

J. Elise Keith
I think there are a whole series of meetings, we call that the cadence meetings. They’re the meetings about keeping momentum going on a project or keeping the team together where they can build trust, right? And a lot of the practices that are key in those meetings has to do with who speaks, who’s setting the tone, and how rapidly, how frequently you’re doing it.

So, let’s take a look at one-on-ones for example. So, the traditional approach in many companies is that managers know they better have one-on-ones so they schedule them once a month, maybe once every 90 days, something, because they know they have to, and they have the employees come in, and they say, “Okay, let’s look at your  30-, 60-, 90-day goals,” and the employee sort of reports on what they’re doing and they all check the boxes and off they go.

Well, Cisco just did a big study with 15,000 teams on how to run effective one-on-ones. And what they found was very, very specific and it was this. First of all, you’ve got to flip it. So, the manager doesn’t go in and ask the employee to report to them. Instead, the employee says, “Hey, here are my priorities and here’s where I need your help.” So, the employee is driving the agenda, and they used those two questions, that’s the way they start it.

And the second key thing they found is that it has to be at least every week because, otherwise, they’re talking about work that isn’t related to what they’re actually doing on a detailed basis. And the idea that the manager could possibly care about what you’re working on when they only check in on how they can help every 90 days, nobody buys it. So, once a week, employee-driven, and engagement on those teams goes up pretty dramatically.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, that’s striking. So, that’s what Cisco does, and then one-on-ones every week with every direct report, that could really add up.

J. Elise Keith
Well, so that’s where they’re looking at team sizes. So, one of the questions people get asked all the time is, “How big can your team be?” And the boundary of the size of a team that you can lead is your capacity for those touchpoints, like, “How many people can you dedicate time to showing them that you care and helping them out every week?” That’s the number of people that you can lead.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Well, so I guess I’d love to hear then, you talked about norms at one point. What are some of the norms that tend to be helpful across all meeting types?

J. Elise Keith
I think it’s really awesome when a company or an organization finds norms that are meaningful to them and their values, right? So, in some organizations that’s going to be things like every voice is heard, everyone speaks before you speak twice because diversity inclusion and voice is really important to them.

In other organizations, it’s going to be things like, “We start and end on time and the agenda sent out two days in advance,” because efficiency is really their thing. In some groups, something like Chatham House Rules, or Vegas Rules matters a lot, right? Like, what happens in the room stays in the room. My favorite that applies to all meeting types and that I think applies in every organization is a norm around having every meeting be optional.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so nice.

J. Elise Keith
Well, if you think about it, they already are, right? You’re a grownup, you don’t have to go to any meeting. But when you make it explicit, you’re saying that opting out of meetings won’t have “Hey, you’re fired” consequences.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I actually want to talk about opting out of meetings. I think that it’s a common occurrence that folks, when they are inviting people to a meeting, they don’t want to be rude, and so they want to include folks, and so there’s a miscommunication that happens often. So, someone invites someone to a meeting, and the recipient thinks, “Oh, they expect me there so I’m going to show up,” and then they think, “Why did I even come here?” So, do you have any preferred scripts or verbiage or master ways to diplomatically decline the meeting?

J. Elise Keith
Well, first of all, you need to know that you deserve to have your time respected. So, it is both respectful for you and for the people doing the inviting to speak up when you think that you can’t contribute well to that room because every person sitting in a meeting that isn’t contributing is dragging down the energy and the potential for everyone else there. So, you are doing a service if you opt out of a meeting that you shouldn’t be in.

And the way that we approach that is we just say, “Hey, I actually am working on some other things that day. I don’t have much to contribute here. I’d be happy to send in any information you need in advance and will look forward to seeing the notes afterwards.” And you just opt out.

Pete Mockaitis
There you have it. I’d also want to get your take on what are some of the best means of accomplishing some meeting goals that are not meetings?

J. Elise Keith
Oh. Well, let’s take brainstorming. Brainstorming is something that we often pull a lot of people into a room for, and we say, “Hey, we’re going to come up with a whole bunch of new ideas for next week’s marketing campaign,” or whatever it’s going to be, tends not to be the most effective way to do it. That’s something that is really well-handled asynchronously, which means you post up the question and you ask everybody to contribute their ideas in advance.

And there are a lot of technologies you can use to do that. And, frankly, you can also have a box in the office where people throw in sticky notes. So, brainstorming, getting that first blush of original ideas out, much better handled outside of the meeting most of the time than it is in. Same thing for anything where they’re digesting large pieces of information, so reading reports, coming up with strategies.

One of the tactics we recommend and that we use ourselves quite a lot is we’ll have a meeting to make sure we all understand a problem. We’ll get together and we’ll say, “Okay. Well, what’s going on here? And what are our options?” and start to get our heads around it. And then we’ll schedule a follow-up meeting within a week to talk about what to do about it so that that time in between where we’re processing it has some bake time.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, Elise, I’m curious, are there any sort of final thoughts you have with regard to meetings or overlooked master strategies or tactics that could make a world of difference?

J. Elise Keith
You know, I think the real key is to understand that every meeting that you walk into is an opportunity. That’s the place where your culture becomes real, where the team understands what everyone cares about, and the value that you can bring. It’s the place where you get an opportunity to provide and show care for the people around you, and where you get to be a part of making the decisions that make your business or your organization really successful.

So, once you shift to that mindset and you look at meetings as the opportunity that they are, then you can start to be in a place where you can learn about the different types and the skills that make it so that you can take advantage of that opportunity.

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

J. Elise Keith
So, I have two. I’m not a huge fan of favorites and to key to just one thing because there are so many wonderful things out there. But there are a couple that I put together that work for me, and one is, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” which is from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” I love that.

Like, what is your plan for your one wild and precious life? And then when I look at it from a business perspective and from a personal performance perspective, I pair it with another quote, which is, “Discipline is simply remembering what you really want.”

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

J. Elise Keith
My favorite book, holy moly. How about “Time and the Art of Living” by Robert Grudin?

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And a favorite tool?

J. Elise Keith
You know, time blocking and scratch paper.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

J. Elise Keith
A favorite habit, hmm. You know, listening to audiobooks while cooking large batches of food.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known, people quote it back to you and re-tweet it often?

J. Elise Keith
The one that gets re-tweeted the most, beyond the basic stats and things, is that, “You can’t have a meeting of the minds if the minds aren’t in the meeting.”

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

J. Elise Keith
They can visit us on my company’s website which is LucidMeetings.com and on my personal website which is JEliseKeith.com depending on what you’re looking for.

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

J. Elise Keith
You know, we’ve kind of covered it but my challenge to you is this. Every meeting is an opportunity. Seize it. Your challenge is to shed any negative beliefs you’ve got about your meetings and step into those opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Elise, thank you for this meeting, and I wish you all the best with all you’re doing in meetings.

J. Elise Keith
Hey, thank you so much.

434: Building People and Killing Policies with Guy Pierce Bell

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Guy Bell says: "Every business has one thing in common when it fails. And that's too many policies to correct behaviors."

Turnaround artist Guy Bell shares hard-won wisdom on why and how to establish the right number of rules for teams.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How modern businesses value processes over people
  2. The problem with budgets
  3. Guy’s process for people building

About Guy

Guy Bell is an executive with decades of experience turning around struggling businesses. He’s also started up new businesses, acquired and on-boarded companies and led green field growth. He has held leadership roles in a wide variety of organizations, including equity-backed investments, public-traded companies and family-owned businesses.

In each of these situations, Guy challenged himself with one simple question: “How can I empower my team to meet their full potential?”

Guy is the author of Unlearning Leadership, which was named one of 10 leadership books that should be on your radar in 2019 by Inc Magazine.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Guy Bell Interview Transcript

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

Guy Bell  
Thanks for inviting me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis  
Oh, I’m excited to dig into your good stuff. But first, I want to dig into your background. You were previously a singer-songwriter. What’s the story here?

Guy Bell  
I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and my big dream, as a kiddo, was to get on stages and sing around the world. But ultimately, at that time, it was Minneapolis. And that was the world I was living in. And I had a real fun experience getting a chance to sing and record out at Paisley Park, Prince’s Studio, and you know, playing his bars in town or his bar at the time and other places, and really enjoyed that early experience. And it really has been oddly foundational for my business experience.

So that was a definitely an early kind of love that I figured at 18 years old. What do we know, right? But I knew then I was going to be a singer for the rest of my life. And here we are.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I’m intrigued. And in what way was that foundational for the rest of your business?

Guy Bell  
You know, I kind of started off writing about this when I was getting into management. And I just look at the business world through the lessons of jazz, like there are no such thing as mistakes. You just play off of whatever kind of note you’re bending, if it’s not quite as you thought your finger was. And you learn to unlearn.

So in jazz, and when people become the best at their craft, they no longer play scales; they play the feeling, the mood, they know what a key they’re in, they understand the games, the rules of the game, and then they let go of that, knowing if that makes any sense. So that applies to business beautifully, in my experience.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, so now, what I love about this, is you’re sharing some things that might feel a little softer, there. But your credentials are pretty smashing when it comes to your work as a turnaround artist. Can you tell us, what do you do there? And what are some of the coolest results you’ve generated there?

Guy Bell  
Yeah, it is. It is strange, and it does feel soft. In fact, when I first got into managing, that’s usually the feedback I got: it was too soft, and I cared too much. And I needed to learn to toughen up and all these silly things that didn’t make any sense. Because over the years now, as you said, I’ve run publicly traded, privately held, equity-backed companies. And I’ve done it from taking these businesses that were run by people with the school of thought that said, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

And I came in at that one, though, it’s wildly personal. And it’s not just business, right? And so, you know, most of my turnarounds really, in this concept of the premise of who’s going to turn this around, but the people doing the work, and what are the common threads of what businesses miss, because they overmanage, they over-process out of fear

and out of a desire to manage risk, kind of overcontroling behaviors, and actions and they create policies to correct behaviors, and all these things that feel normal, because we have a good hundred years of doing this silly overreach for good reason.

Because people do make mistakes. People do take risks that are unwarranted. But what I’ve learned, I guess, Pete, and to kind of put it into a few bite-sized chunks, is I’ve learned something called Four Rules of Flight. And if you look at it from a business perspective, there are a certain number of rules that would relate to if you were flying a plane. So as an example, the four rules in flight are weight, lift, thrust, and drag.

If you take off, and you don’t have four rules, but you put together three rules, you have a car that looks like a plane. And if you’re there, and you add a rule—a fifth rule—you will crash. So when you look at business on a micro, and then on an individual level, and you understand that process matters, that there needs to be enough structure, enough of everything, but no more. What happens when we decelerate or we lose control of our business is, we don’t have enough rules.

And then conversely, which I found to be true in almost every turnaround, is people were over managing out of fear. When we start failing, we start judging. We start judging, we start applying more rules and regulations and structure, and we lose that ability to say when people are unleashed to reach their full potential, to give outstanding service, to come back and authentically say, “This process stinks. It’s not good, it’s not effective. Can we do it this way?” We don’t have those conversations anymore.

So that was one of those signature lessons that are pretty much universal. Another one quickly, and I’ll use what I’ve found to be one of the more controversial companies in America today, and for me, it’s a great lesson, and you could be controversial and still do it, right? And that is Amazon , “Day 1, Day 2”. He said 20+ years ago, if we don’t run this business every day like it counts, “Day 1” thinking, we will eventually become a “Day 2” company, which means at some point, it may take longer for a large company — and shorter for a small company — but we won’t exist because we’ll be managing out of fear. We’ll be keeping people from people.

And those kinds of philosophies have governed for better or worse, depending on how you perceive their culture, but it’s one thing above all else. And that is authentic. He knew that then, and he’s applied that year after year after year in his growth, and it’s a signature to his success.

I’ve found the same things to be true in every business that I work in, where we get caught up in belief systems that are unproductive, but they keep us from undue risk. And therefore we keep trusting that process more than we do the people, and that equation doesn’t work.

Pete Mockaitis  
Wow, Guy, this is riveting stuff. And it really feels like you’ve got your finger on something quite real and important and sensible in terms of just the reactionary with, you know, failures and mistakes leads to judgment, into fear, and to rules and processes and policies.

And so could you maybe share with us a story of a turnaround you went to, in terms of where were they, kind of in terms of financially, and the lay of the land? What did you do? And then what did they end up with financially in terms of results afterwards? Just because I think there’s some listeners who think this sounds almost too good to be true. Yeah, so add a dollar sign to this, please.

Guy Bell  
Yeah, so if you don’t mind, I’ll give you a bite of a couple of different situations. So one of the turnarounds—I was brought in was equity-backed investment. They were losing money and didn’t know to what extent. I was brought in to help them grow the company. And as it turned out, within a month or two, they weren’t ready to grow; they were actually ready to fold. And so for the first six months in that business, what we did is we got our arms around, “Do we have the right people in the right seats? Are we working on the right marketing strategies?” and you just go through the nuts and bolts of the business.

And we made adjustments to include the CFO, who was unwilling or incapable — probably a bit of both — to give us timely penals. And we were missing, you know, elementary parts of the business. So it’s really very tactical in that way, where you just kind of look through all the systems processes, you ask the question of, “What are we missing?” What are you missing that you need to get from us as an investment to improve or as support to get the right information at the right time, accurate, complete, decision making-ready?

So we did that. We turned it around that time. I won’t name the equity firm, but they were managing $3 billion, we were a small investment, they were ready to leave it and walk away because it was frustrating. It was losing money. As I mentioned, we turned it around and sold it for $64 million within two years. And so the keys of that, you know, turn around, our signature. And I’ll give a couple of examples that play out the same way.

I was asked to turn around a nonprofit university, 150-year old university based out of San Francisco. And when I came in, at first, it was a nonprofit looking to sell or exit out of being a nonprofit, because it was not having success. And for whatever reason, they believed that somehow selling would magically make it successful, as opposed to getting the right management team.

So I came in to that organization, after several interviews, and same thing, we couldn’t make payroll. We were a $75 million company, couldn’t make payroll. And so I went to the board and just said, “Look, nothing personal. And it’s not my ego saying this; it’s really just true. I need to have control of your marketing right now.” And at that time, I was hired to help turn around the company, but it was a role as a vice president or Senior Vice President of Operations.

Anyway, fast forward, we got the front end fixed, which is usually one of the problems, getting the marketing right-sized and getting the sales process in place. That was required to improve results. And in both cases, we got a better cost per successful acquisition. And we improved performance broadly over the 10 businesses, and specifically by individual, because we just looked at the darn data, right? And we didn’t go after chasing numbers.

We actually built into every person, which is a real shift in in most businesses, is they start managing to a number which is by itself stupid. They’re nice people and smart, but they’re making a stupid decision. As I learned over time, there’s some of the smartest people I’ve worked with that use a budget to kind of “drive performance”, as opposed to understanding the input, what is happening by individual salesperson to be effective. And how do we, as professionals, help each other, in that case, individual, improve their performance?

If there’s five kind of points of workflow, do all five work for that person? Are they effective at all five? And that is the work. And so we have to look at that accurate data every single day — sometimes, throughout the day, to ensure that we’re coaching, developing, understanding our business at the incremental level.

So fast forward, all of that to include kind of rebuilding into the talented people that were at that particular model. And actually, this is true, in almost everyone: the people that were kept from being effective leaders, whatever the work could be, just above an individual contributor, all the way up to running a business unit, what usually kept them from their potential was threats.

People were afraid at the executive level, of the critical feedback or whatever that caused this disruption, this ease of relationships. And so you just went back out and met everyone and re-engaged on a human level, rebuilt some trust pretty quickly, and unleashed them, you know, just said, “Look, I trust that you’re going to get this done the right way, let’s just do it transparently. And together. And there’s no judgment.”

And you know, 18 months later, we sold it. 18 months after selling it, they sold it again, for $275 million, I believe. And when I started it, it could have gone bankrupt in the next three months. So, really good outcome there, in both fronts, and in terms of the first sale and the second sale.

And I guess I could go on for a few more. But ultimately, I could even tell you a story where it didn’t work, if you like, but when it does work, the basic elements are, you know, pretty common.

So it is very detail-oriented, it is very kind of, what is in the weeds of every individual. I use a concept called “Every person counts, every day counts”. And when they don’t count, you have one too many people. Or you have the wrong person. So don’t hire one too many people. I don’t care how successful you are. Everyone wants to count. So therefore, for crying out loud, why not set the scene to make damn sure they do? Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis  
Yes, that’s good. That’s good. All right. So that is well-established in terms of reporting to some true results here, from these perspectives and philosophies. And so then, I want to hear a little bit about that perspective of not managing to a number, but instead of building into a person. Can you unpack that concept for us a bit more?

Guy Bell  
Absolutely. I mean, one of the crimes was—I was working in a publicly traded company. And there was — and this is common, but I’ll just use this example. So there was a board budget that had cushion. And then there was a top upper management executive plan that had a little less cushion. And then there was an operating budget that had no cushy. And in some cases, if we wanted to drive, “the result”, we made it really difficult to achieve their goals, which by itself, is one of the fundamental flaws of why budgets are nothing other than predictive ways of understanding the cash flow for investment.

But having said that, that kind of mindset of doing that makes it virtually impossible and demoralizing to an operator, often not always. But when it does, that, by itself is a really silly model to use as a performance model. So I say just all that crap away, and work on every individual, every single day, on whatever those process, key elements of success are, whatever the sales process is, and stay with them. You will get the outcome that you earn by the activities that you produce. You will come to those activities you produce with a kind of on-fire, more excited approach, when you’re coached on getting past the routine of memorizing a script, or doing what I tell you to do.

But instead, taking what we talked about, that is important because we know what works and making it yours. And that just takes more investment. It takes a little more time, it takes really good listening and studying that person to say, “Gosh, they stink at the memorized script in their voice. Their approach isn’t going to work the way I want it to work.” So let’s figure out another way to approach this part of that sales funnel communications to ensure that they’re authentic, coupled with they’re getting the right result for them.
And then ultimately, I’ve learned, I show people the budget, I talk about our goals, and then I teach them how to throw them away in a sense of what the baseline is. Now go after every single person, every single one…that we were off 20% over our budgets or routine basis, when they were decently laid out. And I would fight hard in those situations where I wasn’t the one making the decision, to ensure that it was rational, so that we could actually overachieve when we do what they don’t see, because that’s not how they think about budgets and performance. But we do. And we would outperform them routinely.

When it was my decision, I didn’t purposely give a lay down in the budget. I just said, “Here’s what we need to accomplish, we need to see some growth in these areas, and then we train into the fact that we want you to be successful. We want you to exceed what we need to invest, to reinvest what we want to see out of our growth this year based on macro data.”

So I hope that’s helpful. But budgets have a whole host of problems that we need to kind of unlearn and relearn the real value so that we can incrementally build into talent, into the business process, into authentic engagements. And I found that to be difficult to do when people feel like, “Dang, I gotta hit my number, I’m getting on a call every day or every Monday and getting beaten up, because my people are not performing the way that they should.” And it’s all driven around hitting a number versus kind of building the individual up.

Pete Mockaitis  
I see. And so then it sounds like if you’re focused mostly on the number, that’s not really helpful in terms of having a person improve. So I guess if it’s like, “Hey, I need you to have, I don’t know, 40 new customers.” “Yeah, got 31.” “Get better!” That isn’t quite as handy.

“Okay, so here’s the five activities you need to undertake in order to acquire these customers. Well, let’s take a look at each one of them and see how it’s going.” So could you maybe give us an example of how it’s done in practice? Maybe it’s with sales, or maybe it’s with another type of contributor, but I think I get a taste for a breakdown and the process of doing some people-building in that way.

Guy Bell  
Absolutely. So I’ll give you a couple of examples. And I’ll stay with sales for now. One is I took over a company that was losing money. We ended up selling for six times EBITDA, which was a nice exit for a group.
They were losing money, we turned it around pretty quickly, we did it on the back of this exact idea. So we were converting an inquiry to revenue, basically help it be agnostic. So any model can apply their own kind of metrics. But we’ve converted, we’re converting at about 5.3 or 5.4%. And in this business model, there are five numbers, and you can play games with them all day long.

But ultimately, you can’t play games with as you spent this much money, and you have this outcome. And so what, with this money…

Pete Mockaitis
This outcome we’re talking about, like a marketing investment, correct?

Guy Bell
Correct. Yes, this investment of $20 million earns 9,525 new customers. So there is an equation there, and then ultimately, in this case, it turns out to be about a 5.4%-ish conversion rate. So that wasn’t great. Maybe even, you know, weak. Then there’s another factor where we’re buying, you know, eyes and ears and interest. But we also want to earn it through relationships, right? So we built a model quickly, and we trained on it, to talk about the keys to making kind of this process work better.

And we budgeted to say if we don’t get any better at that equation, meaning the conversion from a cost of acquisition, to meeting a customer, new customer and marketing, to a revenue, we made the decision to say, “Well, let’s keep it at the 5.4.” We may have put in two tenths of a percent, whatever we did, but something small when getting the 7.6%, purely on not focusing on 7.6%, or hitting a number.

What we did is we shifted the entire process. We weren’t using the data, right? So we put the exact data in, we understood it on an individual basis. Throughout the day, throughout the week, every call we had, we reviewed it, we’ve talked about the building blocks. We didn’t talk about… we had them learn to, say, if your funnel of five key metrics are working the way you want, or aren’t, what are you doing about them? And what are you doing them about them by individual?

And it’s just that process of learning to talk about that engagement at a deep level. And as you do that, people are kind of learning new muscles, learning to practice in a little bit more concrete way, versus, as you jokingly said, Pete, but it’s the truth. I’ve seen it, unfortunately, too many times where people are like, “If you don’t hit your number, we’re going to have to let you go.”

And so what kind of training have you been doing? And most people insist, “Well, I’ve done a ton of training,” and they said, “Well, let me sit on the next one.” And they think it’s trading, right? But they’re not really getting into the weeds of sitting down and listening to that part of the process. So let’s say it’s a phone call converting to an in-person, converting to a “I’m in” and they sign a piece of paper saying I want to do this.

And then it converting into, you know, revenue, which is there. They’ve stayed for five days in our business, and they’re excited to be with us, right? So in that business process, we get caught up in in too many things that are trying to get to that number, because I’ve got to make sure that 8 out of 10 of them show up, and that they stay for whatever number of days are for the requirements to hit their number.

So getting out of that mindset to, say, when you set the right stage, you do it the right way. You sit with people individually, and you understand how this works, and you get them excited about doing it right. And when they do, — and I know — the results improve. They may not improve the same for everyone. Of course, they never do almost. They improve for that person because you’re helping them get better. And once that success happens, which in most sales cycles, if you’re unlucky that your sales cycle is a year, then it’s pretty difficult.

But if your sale cycle is daily, weekly, in a month, you can really see shift in the thinking quickly, just by the evidence alone. But usually, people at first resist a little bit, because they’re the smart person and they want to do it their way or they feel like they’re a little vulnerable, because they’ve never really gotten into the weeds and sat down with an individual and had to shift their thinking of what should be done because they were good at it before. “You should be doing what I tell you to do, not with naturally you’re coming to,” right?

So it’s just going to help them do that over and over again, you know, measuring how they do it, saying, “Hey, it looks like you haven’t really made any improvements here. Let’s talk about it,” and you kind of go through it again. And then when they have a success, then you give them the praise. And you tell them, you know, they deserve to be here. And that is it’s working.

So stay the course and they get a couple wins. And now they’re heroes. A few cases. One case in particular, there’s a guy in Ohio that was mathematically successful, and yet, just under his number, because he was managing two numbers. So he wasn’t my direct employee. But I brought a team out to sit down with them. And we walked through each of his team members and their performance.

And we talked about, you know, what’s working and not working. And he felt threatened at first, because he felt like, “Well, gosh, I can see what the company does. Why are you coming here and talking to me?” And so after we get done, he had his numbers for the next six months. So it wasn’t about hitting the numbers. It was about, don’t stare at the number, because you just miss it all the time. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis  
Oh, yeah. But what’s so intriguing here is that… but this doesn’t sound like revolutionarily brilliant. It’s not. Like this is sort of what we’ve always should have been doing. But soon enough… it really is cool. This brings me back to one of my favorite cases when I was consulting at Bain and Company.

I didn’t think it would be a fun case, but it really was quite fun. There were call centers, and they had a problem with attrition. The call center representatives were quitting way too fast. Now, attrition is high in that industry, because that’s not a really fun job for most people. But it was way higher for our clients and even sort of the industry norms and standards.

And so we found a lot of the same steps in terms of, first, we had to clean up the data. Like we didn’t have reliable attrition data. It was it. So no one believed it or trusted it or regarded it. So it could always be sort of just put to the side, like, “Oh, you can’t trust those numbers.” It’s like, “Well, let’s make it so we can trust them.” And so that was kind of my roles. Like we were just getting down to these details. “Alright, day by day, every day, someone is going to tell me, ‘I need these six call centers; how many people quit?’ ‘Month by month, this is what the attrition numbers look like.’”

And then all of a sudden, it’s like, “Hey, you had a great month, what did you do?” “Oh, well, we tried this incentive thing.” It’s like, you know, what, we realized was that we had some supervisors who were just real nasty, and quit way faster than the other supervisors. So we noticed, and we replaced them. And yeah, it was just sort of like, there wasn’t like one magical silver bullet we discovered in terms of, “Oh my gosh, people love candy Fridays.”

But there’s just lots of little things, like, “Hey, what are you doing? Oh, that’s a good idea. Maybe we should do some of that. It’s a great job.” Those numbers are really moving somewhere. And they trusted it. And they had visibility, because more and more people, it was kind of fun that they kept asking to get added to my list. It’s like, “Oh, sure, thank you. I am the keeper of the attrition numbers,” which is funny because we’re an outside consultant. Like, they didn’t have their own attrition numbers they could trust.

And so, it’s amazing how I hear you. I guess the resistance is, one, it’s a little bit more time, it’s a little bit more detail that you’re getting, maybe an executive doesn’t feel that he or she should have to get into this level of weeds or whatever. But you’re saying, “Yes, in fact, you do.” That’s how it’s done?

Guy Bell  
Yeah, you have to. And what everyone has in common, even the smartest of the companies with PhD analysts and people that you used to work with, and probably are just fantastic at gathering data. But are we getting the right data in the right way? Are we testing? Are all the other links broken? Are they not broken? And can we not do it? Does that person know where to go when someone’s watching, to say, “We’re pulling data from 15 sources, inevitably, and every 90 days, if you don’t test it, something breaks, and all of a sudden, you have to visually catch it,” versus having some way of making sure that your data is your life?

And when it’s accurate, it does change radically. So it’s not a very soft thing. But it is the beginning. You have to make sure you’re looking at the right information exactly to your point. And you said something that is just absolutely the truth. And what I find to be kind of fascinating is we over engineer, we overthink so many things to the point where, “Well, we got to figure out a way to save on costs and get a better process. And let’s go analyze,” we brought in, you know, companies like your old company, and we spent 10 million bucks.

And we learned the same thing: some of us already knew not to say that it wasn’t smart. It was smart, but you can’t decentralize a few things. But you can on the numbers, meaning, if it’s a high-touch business component, the business process, you’ve got to know the difference on some level, you got to make a bet on something. And I would say that’s where we lose traction.

Often in business, around efficiency is when we overthink the power of the human potential, the power the human being. And we try to find a kind of a Tayloristic Ford Model back 100 plus years ago that, now, is agile workflow. And all the amazing feats we have now is just outstanding process analysis and distribution of this great wisdom. But it only goes so far, if that makes sense.

And at some point, you have to be human again, to kind of really understand the power of that detail showing up in a conversation, in a kind of a lengthy understanding, of you know who we are and this and that, then it’s very easy to discern. Do you fire someone? Do you say goodbye? Do you move them somewhere else? Or do you stay the course?

Pete Mockaitis  
And to that story with that 5.3% go into the 7.6%. So were there was it kind of the same kind of a concept? Like there wasn’t one or two silver bullets? Like, “Aha,! We just have to do this.” But rather, maybe dozens of tiny discoveries associated with when you follow up. Don’t say this, but you say that it wasn’t like that?

Guy Bell  
Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, you know, I replaced a few people, as you know, often happens. But in this case, one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever worked with, because he could do all the coding, he could study all the data, he could go in and write code, he could get into the back end of the website. All these things that were important, but I couldn’t do it myself, I don’t have all those skills. But he did. He would trust the data at the cost of the people.

And then I had a salesperson that would trust the people at the data. So yes, it was a dance, and we all learned, in a very fun way, when we kind of respected each other’s gifts and talents. We learned that this dance of it all matters. If you take any one of these things out, it does hurt the business. And you know, in some cases, I know how they perform after I leave. And I know a little bit, not always, but often, about what happens once they move on.

We stay the course of getting better and better at that. There’s been multiple exits since I’ve left some companies, and that’s exciting. But often, what happens is they go back to the behavior that is all data, or all hitting a number, or all kind of one-dimensional, because what should be this way? “There it is there. Therefore it should be here.” And they oversimplify, and then God only knows why they come to those conclusions. But it’s wrong. It does take a whole host of different subtle elements, and the data will point. But it will not do as you know. But you gotta get good data points, because it does help with time.

Pete Mockaitis  
All right, well, so given this thorough backdrop, What are the four rules of flight?

Guy Bell  
Yeah, weight, lift, thrust, and drag. Yeah, that’s the flight in business. If you look at it at a micro and macro level, every business has one thing in common when it fails. And that’s too many policies to correct behaviors. Free people up. And the only way you can do it, there’s only one way, is you have to trust that people are going to make mistakes, and that the mistake isn’t going to kill the business. That therefore it can be one less, until it’s that business killer. Again, back to there’s no one solution; every industry will have different rules. But if someone doesn’t pay attention to that, it is the beginning of the end.

So I would argue, one of the most important positions possibly in business is not someone that’s an executive, or a manager, or even an individual contributor. They’re all important. But maybe the most important thing to learn about four rules of flight is someone needs to say, “I give a shit—” excuse my language, “—about four rules of flight, and our business model, of whether it be oil and gas or education or retail, and it’s digital and ground.”

Some of them ensure that we’re staying true to the fact that we want to make the biggest decisions possible at the closest point to a customer that we can. And if we stay true to that someone, better yet, say, we’re going to tell the lawyers that are saying, “No, no, no, we had that risk. And it cost us X number of dollars because we had three lawsuits based on that behavior. Therefore we’re creating a rule, and then we kill the potential of making a mistake,” for sure.

But we also kill the potential of changing a customer situation, for sure. So to me, we measure the wrong things. It gets ridiculously complex, when you try to measure all of this additional kind of wonder state of what happens when you don’t know the unintended consequence. You may take your 55 lawsuits, which is usually what I walk into, and bring them down to zero, but at what cost? And 55 lawsuits came from, in their minds, too few rules. Not always the case, but often, there are too few rules, or they’re not the right rules. And perhaps they’re just simply bad training.

Perhaps you’re not setting the right stage to say when you have the freedom to make that decision, individual contributor working on a customer engagement, and they say, “As a customer, I’m not satisfied with this experience.” And you say, “Well, let me help you resolve it.” When you have that power, do you really know how to resolve it? And the answer is often no, but don’t give up on it; get better at resolving it, so that the customer gets a just-in-time answer.

The employee gets to expand their talents and contribute at a higher level, and therefore feel really good about solving something. This day and age, we often say, “My manager needs to talk to you,” and then no managers there. You know, all the goofiness that takes away their power? That’s just crazy.

Pete Mockaitis  
I hear you there. All right, so the four rules of flight then is not rather, “Hey, here are four key principles,” but rather the concepts that are in flight, they’re exactly four rules. And obviously in your operation, you should have exactly the right number of rules, correct? Not too many, not too few. Okay, most have too many. So we talked about budget troubles, what are some other rules or policies or traditional practices that you often see, just need to go?

Guy Bell  
Don’t create a culture; there’s no such thing. There are people that have PhDs in some form, and they consider themselves to be culture experts. What I’ve sadly learned, because I’ve made that mistake more than once, is a culture is a reflection of us leaders. And this is ultimately, even on a macro scale, a reflection of all of us. So we co-create culture. Culture is primarily driven in companies by behaviors at the top. And the irony of those four rules, kind of lessons, the four rules of flight, it would be, you know, one, too many policies. Two, your thoughts need to match your words, need to match your actions.

And when they’re misaligned, your business will fail. It may not fail tomorrow, it may not fail obviously, but you need to be aligned. And most companies choose to have a boardroom mentality, meaning what we think, and in the boardroom, most executives are less than kind. But you know, the kind around results that are positive, but not always. But they get down fire about, hitting our numbers, hitting our quarterly results, whatever these things are. And then we go sell the customer on the other side, a story of our business that…tries to make everyone feel good.

And then we go tell our employees a story that an HR department or an OD group comes in and says, “You know, well, they’re not too happy. Let’s go create a happiness poster.” That’s not the way it works. And it may be, you know, a good selling point for a minute or two years or five years or 10 years. But ultimately, either don’t have any of that crap and, you know, walk your walk, meaning if you’re an owner of a company, get a stable top management. It starts with them. They need to be able to say, “You know, what do we believe firmly?

“What are we communicating to our team? And so they can believe in it with us. And it’ll inform our execution, if we do that beautifully, elegantly. Regardless of if we’re kind of driven and we’re dehumanizing or not, the greatest people in the world, then damn it, stay the course.” Be who you are, as a company, as an individual group of owners, leaders, whatever that structure is the top. And then I would say, conversely, another really big mistake is not empowering everyone to become an expression of what that is, once you have a clear definition of, you know, by practice of how you look at your customers, how you’re kind of looking at one another and interesting in the conversation and empowering or not, right?

So whatever those variables are, that is the culture. And then from that place, really, how do we get into the individual contributor, a way that they can relate to it, however they are, wherever they sit, whatever they do? They matter, they have to matter. As I mentioned, if it’s one too many people, then don’t have them there. But if they’re there, they matter. So the culture is their expression in that exact same way with a different impact, but an impact all the same. So that’s one of those rules where I routinely… I’ll use an example.

I write about this, you know, you look at a company that everyone would have bet that 20 years later, Whole Foods would have been the most lovely place to work and the most beautiful culture because of how it began. It was the first of its kind, too unskilled to do what they did. And then you look at Amazon, who purchased them, was not known for being the most interesting guy to work with in terms of, you know, happy culture, and you know, feeling good about ourselves, but he’s executed at a very high level. And for better or worse, to my knowledge, they’re pretty well-aligned.

And so, two years ago, when I was watching this acquisition go through, and I kept thinking, because I know a lot of Whole Foods folks and I’m a consumer of both products. I quit consuming from Whole Foods, because it just became an experience that I felt, as a customer, was out of alignment. And I consumed more, frankly, from Amazon, who I felt like, you know, I read the articles, and I knew some of the backstory about what it was like to work there and stuff.

But it was authentic. No one walked in wondering what the experience was going to be like. And I remember reading an article that the founder and owner at the time of Whole Foods, said he met with Jeff Bezos, and we’re excited to come aboard. And he said, “Really, the difference I learned from Jeff and his company, was that I cared too much about people.” And I thought, “Dude, you have it totally wrong. You just you had it on a bunch of posters that you cared about people; you didn’t actually care about people.” And I’ll give you one more example of that exact lesson, I was running a publicly traded company.

And the CEO was an executive. The CEO came up in front of everyone in the management team and said, “You know, guys, we’ve got to get this turned around. We need to get people to feel like we care about them.” And I said, “Then just care about them.” And he said, “Well, what’s the point? What point do you want to you make?” And I said, “You said you want them to feel like we care about them, then don’t say that you don’t care about them. But if you really want to care about them, just care about them.” And he looked at me like, “Who are you?”

And we got to know each other well after that, but what’s happening is, I want you to feel like you have a voice. Do you want to have a voice? Do you really want respect? Either way, you don’t get to choose it. So that kind of thought process crops up, and then all of a sudden, it becomes you know, Whole Foods failing miserably. Because the thousandth time you say you care, but you don’t care, people trust their limbic resonance. Their body screams, “Man, this dude is not here for me. He’s not the person that created this company. I’m sure he’s a fantastic guy on a personal level, but he got caught up in something that was a concept not embedded into the fabric of that company in a way that everyone learns over time to trust the truth beyond our words,” right?

So aligning our thoughts, our words and our actions are critically important, too. Everyone counts; not some people, everyone. If you leave that, you’re in trouble. And then another one, it always starts with you. Always, not sometimes, not most of the time. So that means every janitor, every kind of entry level employee, everybody counts. And starts with you. You can change a company, you can change an experience, you can change a process. You’ve developed ways, but ultimately, you have to come in and say, “I’m not going to blame anybody. If I do that, I’m going to leave. But if I’m going to be here, I’m going to invest fully in what I have control and power over. And then I’m going to try to influence what I can see, feel and experience. And I’m going to do it in the most positive, affirming way. But I’m going to do it.”

If we can get to those four points, you know, four rules apply to many policies. Our thoughts, words and actions match. And then two, everyone counts in. One, it starts with me. That’s probably the closest version I can get to using that four concepts to simplify it.

Pete Mockaitis  
That’s good. Thank you. So when it comes to the caring, I’d love to get your take on it fundamentally, what is your top tip or suggestion when it comes to caring?

Guy Bell  
Wow, I love that. I would say the worst thing we can do is create the candy days in the lunches, where we go take a bunch of pictures and post them and make everyone feel happy, and that concept.

I think show up as you, and invite other people to show up as them, and let the messiness of life play its role. People are messy; we have bad days, and we don’t have separate lives, whether we like it or not, we’re not a husband, a wife, you know, a spiritual person, and you know, in this bucket, and then a dad in that bucket, it doesn’t work that way. And so what does it mean to truly invite other people into their fullness? To include you know, some of the mess and in that you earn some trust and that people start to kind of live into their fullness in a way that does matter and does get results. But ultimately you’re doing it to humanize the experience. You’re doing it because you care. And when you give a damn, and you authentically give a damn—or if you don’t—practice caring, practice listening, practice hearing everything, and then shift it if you want to go to business and say, well, let’s talk about a business process. I saw What’s going on? What do you think? And you’re four levels above them walking around the office? And they say, Well, I don’t know until Oh, yeah, I really do want to know, let’s talk about a little bit and never said they tell you their thought. And once in a while, you just get totally blown away by something that’s not in their backyard and you earn some trust, because you care enough to say I’ll bet you have an opinion. I’ll bet you see this from a different angle than I do. And then ask and let goofiness and silliness and stuff get in the way. But ultimately, you’re freeing people up to be everything to include transformative to include

You know, passionate, caring person toward the customers towards each other for the good of the company and the good of the community.

Pete Mockaitis  
That’s good. Guy, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some your favorite things?

Guy Bell
Boy, I don’t have a list. So no, I’m good. This is fun. Thank you.
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Guy Bell  
Geez, I like Buckminster Fuller’s quote, and I am not going to get it exact. But it’s something to the extent that to really change how something is working, you have to start over. You can’t just add on. And so I use it a lot at the end of my speeches. Of course, I didn’t memorize it. I think Buckminster Fuller, pretty much everything he kind of has come to and shared, that we’re now aware of his lexicon of ideas, is helpful.

I don’t tend to use too many quotes, though. Having said that, because I do like the idea of more expanding into kind of what is the complexity beyond the quote’s point, but I like the rich complexity to that end. I wish I had a better ones to share with you, but I do find the ones where it’s teaching us to free up our thoughts. You know, there’s all kinds of wonderful thinkers that have, over the years, over the centuries, talked about what does it mean to be a free thinker. So I enjoy any one in the field of philosophy and or economics that talk about free markets and free thought.

Pete Mockaitis  
Cool. And how about a favorite book?

Guy Bell  
A couple of them, I recently I read The Innovation Blind Spot. And it’s really a fantastic read. I also read a book, Utopia for Realists, which is from a fascinating young guy from Europe, who is looking at sociological history and kind of challenging modern thought through data. Very smart guy. And then I’ve read a couple books, one called Sapiens and Homo Deus, they’re are all fascinating reads.

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

Guy Bell
I go to bed, ensuring that I free myself of the day. I used to stay awake all night, when I had challenges at work, or whatever the case would be, and it became a practice of letting go and playing in that field. And then waking up in my first hour, half an hour of every day is a practice of, you know, quieting and reflecting on the on the joy of the day, and I walk into it, then converting that into kind of more mantras and thoughts throughout the day that support the kind of day I want to have.

Pete Mockaitis  
And was there a particular nugget you share with clients or readers or audience members that really seems to connect and resonate with them? And they repeat it back to you often?

Guy Bell  
Oh, you know, I think the message of learning to let go of what you know is such a rich and complex story.

But when I get into the details of let go and know, people began to resonate. And yeah, so I get feedback on that message. Another is, very specifically, when people ask for concrete approaches, I talk about policies from the lens of if it’s a rule, make sure everybody knows it’s non-negotiable. If it’s a policy, make sure you’re writing it towards something you want to accomplish, not away from something you don’t want to see happen. And if it’s a best practice, put it out there and don’t make it a point until you need to. And I’ve had lots of groups that are HR-centric, like how simple that is.

So that one’s red, meaning if you want to call it color coded, so that you know those are non-negotiable, they’re laws by governing bodies, whatever it may be. Yellow is our policies; they’re meant to be broken, you need to learn how to break them no more than, you know, whatever your rule is, 5% of the time. And if you do have a conversation, and three, we put out great ideas that your peers have used over the years. And we keep refreshing that it’s a nice, simple way to kind of put some meat on the bones of how to simplify the business without dumbing it down.

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

Guy Bell  
guypbell.com. It’s my website, and you can reach me at my email at guypiercebell1@gmail.com.

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

Guy Bell  
When you get people right, you get business right. It is really the critical reminder: we are in a time of the fourth industrial revolution; let’s do everything we can to make that work for us. And I’ve seen it both ways where it’s been transformative around working for the company and for the people. And I’ve seen it actually used improperly. So, you know, look at the people, even through the lens of these outstanding AI solutions and deep learning, and we’ll get the best both worlds.

Pete Mockaitis  
Guy, this has been a treat. Thank you so much for taking this time, and good luck with the turnarounds you’re doing and the adventures you’re having in the future you’re touching. This has been a real good time.

Guy Bell  
It’s been a pleasure, Pete. Thank you. I appreciate it.

414: How Culture Change Really Happens with Gretchen Anderson

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Gretchen Anderson says: "Everybody wants a culture that's aligned with what the business is trying to do."

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.

409: How to Crush Complexity with Jesse Newton

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Jesse Newton says: "Look for opportunities to crush stupid rules within your company."

Jesse Newton makes the case for simplifying your organization’s complex processes and getting rid of distractions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five factors that drive organizational complexity
  2. Key questions that clarify what’s truly important
  3. The communication mistake people make when simplifying work

About Jesse

Jesse Newton is the author of Simplify Work; Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement. He is the founder and CEO of Simplify Work; a global management consulting firm that helps organizations throw off the shackles of debilitating complexity and reignite top performance. His clients include McDonalds and PepsiCo. Prior to launching Simplify Work, Newton was a senior member of Booz & Company’s Organization, Change and Leadership consulting practice and also spent a number of years consulting around the world with Ernst & Young’s People & Organizational Change practice.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Jesse Newton Interview Transcript

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

Jesse Newton
Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to connect and talk about Simplify Work.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m excited too. I was intrigued to learn that only a few people know that you are a New Zealander. How is this the case? Do they assume it’s Australia or what happens?

Jesse Newton
Well, people see that I’m living here in Chicago and they make the automatic assumption that I’m American. Then when I start talking, they immediately realize that that’s not a Chicago accent.

Then to your point, they automatically go to Australia or England. I even get South Africa. Then people are totally stumped. I have to say, “Well, there is another country in that part of the world and New Zealand is it.” I’ve been over here for ten years and it’s been a fun ride, but still, as you can tell, have not been able to let go of the accent.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, don’t ever let go of it. I think it’s fun. I think it will serve you well in many regards. I had a great manager at Bain who was a New Zealander, Blair Nelson, great dude. He would explain why they’re called Kiwis and we’re not talking about the fruit. He’d go through that.

What’s your take on Flight of the Conchords with Bret and Jemaine and what they’ve done for the New Zealand image?

Jesse Newton
It’s funny. There are a couple of shows and movies that have done incredible things for New Zealand’s image, at least from an awareness standpoint. You’ve got The Flight of the Conchords, massive success; Lord of the Rings; The Hobbit. People think that New Zealand is a land where goblins and wizards and dragons cruising around. It just sort of adds to people’s interest I guess in the place.

But it’s funny, a couple of shows have really raised the awareness, especially here in America, of New Zealand.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we saw Bret and Jemaine live when they were at Millennium Park in Chicago and that was fun. I think in addition to all these goblins and creatures, it’s a land of hilarity and very creative music. We’ll give you that one too.

Jesse Newton
I’ll take it. I was actually at that performance too. I thought it was ….

Pete Mockaitis
Oh no kidding. Well, we could have been in the beer line together.

Jesse Newton
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And we wouldn’t have even known it.

Jesse Newton
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Your latest work, you’ve got a book here, Simplify Work. What’s the big story behind this one?

Jesse Newton
Well, like yourself, I have a management consulting background. I’ve been lucky enough to work around the world and with over 100 organizations. Basically, every company that I’ve been exposed to has really battled with complexity, so people getting stuck in just meeting overloads and reporting to multiple managers and trying to keep on top of emails and just unclear global matrixes, where people have no clue who’s responsible for what.

It inevitably results in people getting sucked into this complexity, losing focus of those few strategic priorities and becoming very reactive, becoming reactive firefighters. People just get stuck in this ongoing repetitive process of coming in and going through the emotions versus being very clear about what’s truly important, most important, and really prioritizing time, energy, and focus on those few things that matter most.

The experiences coupled with a ton of research really led me to write the book. I really am hugely energized by it. I think there’s just a ton of opportunity for organizations to let go of all those things that are getting in their way, to really liberate the best thinking in their people, liberate innovation, and also employee engagement.

People don’t like coming in and having to spend a huge tract of their week doing administrative tasks or having to submit expenses or spend half the year doing budgeting. They want to come into work and feel energized and passionate about the really interesting, creative opportunities they get to focus on and deliver real impact on the business. That’s done through careful design both from an organization as well as individually at what we can do to help to crush complexity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d love to hear, you said you did lots of research. Could you unveil some of the most compelling research that suggests just what’s at stake or what’s possible in terms of the scale of how bad and evil and toxic complexity is or the scale of just how amazing of a difference it makes when you arrive at that simplicity?

Jesse Newton
Sure, there are a couple little sort of statistics. There was some surveys, some research done by the Boston Consulting Group a few years ago. Something like 73% of organizations classified their operations as overly complex.

Coupled with that from an employee engagement standpoint, there’s a statistic that I think Deloitte did or there’s some research that Deloitte did that drove to a statistic on 80% of employees being not engaged, not actively disengaged, but just disengaged but not actively disengaged. Basically people are coming in, they’re checking out, they’re going through the motions, not really coming in and energized and ready to put in all of their effort and focus and capabilities into the job.

I’m picking that and connecting that with this complexity piece. There’s just this gigantic opportunity for companies to take a blank piece of paper and rethink how work is managed in their companies.

Then looking into the common sources of complexity – there’s five things. We look at strategy, structure, we look at process, system, and culture. Each of these important elements of an organizations really fuel organizational complexity within the business. Happy to talk about those a bit more, but then the other important piece is we, individually, also are responsible for driving complexity as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you maybe give us an example of an organization or some individuals in an organization that were just crushed by the complexity – they weren’t crushing the complexity; they were crushed by the complexity – and what that looks, sounds, feels like in practice in terms of their experience and productivity and how they came out on the other side and what the new world looks like?

Jesse Newton
Absolutely. I’ve got one direct experience, one … example and then another one that is from research. The first is from an organization that I consulted with recently, in the last two years. It’s a global consumer package goods organization. They were really battling with complexity. I was working with them in a commercial function, so sales and marketing.

They had really high-paid global experts spending a huge tract of their week doing those administrative tasks that I mentioned earlier, the expense processing, the budgeting, and basically were getting more and more angry and disconnected with the company because of their lack of time to do the most important things.

Interestingly during this project, they were hit by this huge global cyber-attack. The entire organization went down. People could not connect to the internet. They couldn’t connect to their email or their calendar, which meant that they couldn’t attend any meetings. All calls, all communications were driven online. This outage lasted for a couple of weeks.

Then when they reconnected and in discussions with these leaders across the marketing sales functions, I was gobsmacked when I heard that they actually felt incredibly liberated during the outage. They said for the first time in a very long time, they didn’t need to attend all of these extraneous meetings. They didn’t have to produce all of these extra reports and fill in templates and navigate through all these different sort of email channels.

Instead they were able to think about “All right, which individuals do I need to connect with directly to drive my most important priorities?” They picked up phones and scheduled face-to-face meetings. Sales people went out and reconnected with key clients and closed deals and built relationships. When I came back, I was very surprised to hear that.

Coming out of that, let’s take this as an example of how complexity comes to life within this particular function. Then let’s get very specific about those specific things that are getting in your way. Let’s do an inventory of the meetings that you attend. Let’s be very clear on the different reports that you need to fill in and the templates you need to fill in. How much time are you spending on each of these different activities?

Then let’s be very creative in how we remove those things or redesign how you get your work done so that those other extraneous things are minimized or handed to a different group or other ways of basically helping them to get more focused on those most important priorities.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Thank you.

Jesse Newton
The second piece was Apple. There’s a great example of when Steve Jobs re-entered Apple in ’97, he’s famously focused on simplicity. You see that in the design of the products. But organizationally, he also drove simplicity.

When he rejoined Apple, there was something like 26 products at Apple. Then he did a review of these different products. Apple strategy at the time was we need to have a product in every industry segment. We need to have a presence there because we’re a top leading IT company. When he joined and did the review, he funneled it down to about I think it was 6 products, so from 26 to 6.

The focus shifted from presence in all of these different industry segments to let’s make the best products that are going to change the world. That transition to a few enabled the organization to focus. His guiding orientation around focus and then top quality really drove that transformation of Apple, which then has led to the company becoming incredibly successful. A couple of quite different examples there on the power of that simple focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so could you orient us then? You’ve got five sort of drivers of complexity. If you were trying to bring about some simplicity, where would you start? Or since you’re a good consultant, you know all about the 80/20 principle in action, what would you say are the biggest drivers that really give you a whole lot of bang for your buck with regard to getting that simplification going with a modest amount of effort?

Jesse Newton
Sure, sure. The approach can be distilled into three simple steps. Really, the first is you’ve got to get clear on what’s most important. This could apply to an organization. It could apply to a function, a team, or an individual. That first focus on “Okay, let’s take a step back and think about what are the true priorities? What are the few things that are going to deliver the greatest impact?”

I think that’s critical. It has to be there because without it, you can’t effectively prioritize. You can’t say no to things without that clear understanding of strategic priorities. I would say that that first step is critical.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How do you do that well?

Jesse Newton
Well, it depends on what part of the organization you’re focusing on or whether it’s individual. But if you’re at an organizational level, it’s strategy, so which products are winning, which services are winning, where is the organization going to win in the future. It’s those types of questions. What are our best capabilities? How is the market evolving? General strategy questions that you would expect at that level.

At an individual level, so if it’s someone … function, it’s “What are my priorities? What are the group’s priorities for the year? How does that translate to me? How can I deliver the greatest impact relative to those group level priorities as well as the organization’s?” and then work backwards from there. It’s sort of answering those sorts of questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you offer a few more sort of sub-questions, if you will, with regard to zeroing in on the group’s biggest priorities and how you arrive at those. I guess sometimes the group knows it and they tell you and sometimes they don’t and it takes a little bit more work to get there. Then at your own level, thinking about how you can make the biggest level of impact that bubbles up to the group. Do you have any extra favorite clarifying questions?

Jesse Newton
Like, “Are you clear on the company strategy mission and values? What is the purpose of your role? How do you contribute to the business of success? What are your priorities?” I list out a number of those types of questions within each of the areas.

What I think would be more valuable to sort of get to your question is those categories to focus on at the individual level, which I talk about in the backend of the book, those are really around “How do I reduce clutter? How do I get clear on what’s most important for me individually? How do I stop interruptions and distractions? How do I really nurture my own energy? How do I optimize email and meetings and plan effectively?”

Those types of questions I think, given the context of this podcast, would be quite helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh absolutely. I love them all. Let’s tick into each of them. How do we reduce the clutter? What have you found to be some best practices?

Jesse Newton
Yeah, for sure. From a clutter perspective, it’s everything from look at your desk. Is your desk covered in paper? Take time to get your desk clear.

Look at your filing cabinet. I used to be one of these people where I would put documents away that I’d think I’d get back to or that I think might be useful, but when you actually go through and do a review of all the paperwork you’ve got in your filing cabinet, you can probably get rid of 75% of it, which was certainly my experience, which is massively liberating. Just having a clear desk, having a clear filing cabinet enables you to think more clearly.

Likewise with all of the documentation in your laptop on your hard drive. Is it a spaghetti of different folders with numerous documentation? Go through and actually cull all those things that you don’t use. Make it really clear how to access the bits of information you use all the time. Clutter is a big deal.

I’d also encourage people to look at clutter in their own personal environment. Go into your wardrobe and look at your clothing. I still also have shirts that I would think I would wear at some point but never actually did, so just get rid of it. There’s a lot of value behind this whole minimalism movement that’s become quite popular. It is very liberating to get rid of all the extra unnecessary stuff.

Then this getting clear on what’s most important at the individual level, there’s two parts of it. Obviously, we talked a little bit about work and your role within an organization, but what I say in the book and what I encourage is that get really clear on what’s most important to you from a personal perspective, whether it’s family or health or religion or whatever it may be.

But get clear on both your personal and then work priorities. Then organize your time around it so that you optimize it for both. You’re basically focusing all the time that you have during the day and week on those activities that are most important to you, which leads into the third piece around planning.

Probably one of the greatest things that an individual can do to crush complexity is to plan effectively. Be very disciplined about your calendar and carving out time to think, and to collaborate, to respond to emails, to attend the most important meetings. But then also spend time with kids or do whatever you want from a health perspective, etcetera, etcetera. Being very disciplined about managing a calendar is also really important.

The avoiding distractions and interruptions. Our phones are like magnets. We’re just drawn to the phones. We’ve built these habits around needing to check our phones every few seconds let alone minutes.

During the day, if you’re trying to do something that requires deep thinking, work that is innovative or if you’re trying to solve some problems, it really impacts your productivity when you’re being interrupted by a WhatsApp message or a Facebook post or a LinkedIn message. It takes energy to regain that deep focus.

One of the suggestions is be very clear about when you do your best work or how much time you think it’s going to take to produce a piece of work that requires that deep thinking. Then shut off all the distractions and interruptions. Turn off your browser. Even turn off your email. Put your phone upside down and put it on silent. But allow yourself to really focus on that most important activity.

Optimizing email and meetings is another one. From an email perspective, one of the causes of people becoming over reactive is just the needing to respond to the latest fire or having to keep up with these huge email chains.

One suggestion is one email, one action. Don’t just continue to manage email during the day. Carve out time to manage email during the day. It could be every two hours or every three hours or whatever it may be. But don’t allow email to continue to interrupt you during important work.

When you’re dealing with it, act on it in the moment. If you can respond immediately, do so. If you think that you know it’s going to require more time, whatever it may be, then create that time on your calendar and be disciplined about going back to that.

But one of the things that contributes to people becoming overwhelmed is that they lose track of all these different emails they’re supposed to respond to and they forget about some. They become increasingly reactive to it versus in control.

The meetings, really question whether you need to attend every meeting. Have the conversations with the team and managers around optimizing the time. When you’re really clear on what’s most important for you in your role, you can be a lot more deliberate around what meetings you attend and you can say no to things because you’re very clear on your top priorities. That piece is important.

Then finally, nurture and protect your energy. I don’t want to sound too philosophical or like a Buddhist monk, but there’s a lot of value in meditation. I think the whole idea of human energy is going to become more of a buzzword in the next couple of years because we’re increasingly discovering that our energy is key to performance.

Having little mindfulness moments at work give you shots of clarity and energy. It helps to really elevate thinking and consciousness so you don’t get stuck worrying about the minutiae by being caught reacting to things. It helps reestablish that macro perspective.

Understanding your own energy and doing the things that it takes for you to recharge your batteries like going for a walk or that five-minute meditate or whatever it may be, will really help to keep you focused and also not burning out trying to keep up with everything. Those are the few things. I hope that’s helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. Can you talk a little bit more, you said with email, one email, one action. How does that work in practice?

Jesse Newton
Yeah, going through your Outlook, pull up an email. The idea is as soon as you’re looking at an email, you want to be able to action it immediately. If you can’t, if it’s going to require a lot more work, if you have to connect with different people, whatever it may be, then that creates time on your calendar to come back to it.

The purpose being that you’re not losing track of email and you’re not letting them build up. It’s an efficient way of keeping on top of email without letting them sort of result in an email overload if you like.

Pete Mockaitis
That would be in contrast to, “Oh, got to do more stuff on that, just skip it.” You’re saying, “No, no, we’re not going to just skip it, but rather we’re going to put it somewhere,” in this case maybe an item on the calendar, so it’s out of the inbox and then it’s a calendar item?

Jesse Newton
Right. Or if you don’t need to respond to it, delete it. Or respond to it there and then if it requires a response. But you’re not creating more work for yourself in the future. You’re dealing with it in the moment, which is enabling you to keep up on the constant stream of emails.

Pete Mockaitis
When folks are trying to go about simplifying their work, what are some of the mistakes or challenges or hang-ups you see folks bump into when they’re embarking upon this?

Jesse Newton
I think make sure you have the conversations with your team and leaders. What you don’t want is to all of the sudden be not attending a range of meetings and potentially you’re impacting relationships without the context.

I would encourage people to sit down and just have a chat and say “Hey, I want to be really diligent about wasting my time and I’m clear that I need to achieve these things. I’m driving towards these objectives. Therefore, I’m going to be making decisions going forward on which meetings I really need to attend or how I respond to emails,” whatever it may be. I think just clarify that what your intent is when approaching simplifying work.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Thank you. Okay well then, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jesse Newton
No, I think, again, the opportunity is huge for organizations and for individuals. I think taking that big step back and either looking at your company or at how you approach work and thinking through strategically how can you do the best work and what’s most important.

What are the things that are getting in the way that are sucking my time or distracting me or pulling me away from the most important activities and what can I do or what can be done to really remove those things and redesign the way you do work to enable that focus I think can really serve to liberate peak performance.

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

Jesse Newton
Well, I’m not sure about favorite quotes on the spot. A couple of books that I read recently that I’ve really enjoyed reading that sort of reinforce a couple of important points. One of them is Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Have you heard of this book?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Jesse Newton
Yeah. I’m the eternal optimist. I’ve always felt that the world is getting better. It was just wonderful to read that book and to see the facts and data behind how we are actually as a society improving. I think from an organizational maturity perspective and the … of simplify work I think it continues to sort of build on that idea of improvement, of progression.

We are now finally moving away from 20th century ways of managing work. Organizations are becoming sort of savvy around how do you tap into people’s intelligence and creativity, innovation. It’s not just about control anymore, which is very exciting. I think emerging technology will just continue to fuel that shift from an organizational structure perspective.

Then the second is Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. He’s a neuroscientist and has written a book on how you can basically change the structure of your brain by the way that you think and in particular … moments of positivity. You can basically build more of a bias towards optimism and happiness and contentment.

I think building on that, what I was mentioning earlier about managing and nurturing energy and the power of mindfulness and meditation I think this book is pretty revealing on the science behind actually changing the structure of your brain and building the right habits.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Can you share with us a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Jesse Newton
Favorite tool. Well, I think it’s just coming into work every day and having that reminder of “Okay, how do I – what’s the most important thing to get done this day?” and then immediately jumping into it. It’s just an ongoing – that reminder of “Okay, whatever is critical, I’m not going to put that off and do it in the afternoon. I’m going to do that out of the gate and focus more time and energy on that one piece.” That’s just one orientation that guides the work that I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget when you share it that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and listeners?

Jesse Newton
I think it’s just this idea of how do you increasingly tap into peak performance. We so easily get pulled into distractions or get interrupted or we get stuck doing repeatable tasks or in this … reactivity. I think the idea of being much more proactive and deliberate and focused can really serve to liberate peak performance, can help people to really tap into energy and passion and focus.

I think that’s the nugget. I really hope that people sort of step back from the book and feel inspired by the new found reality they can create both within the organization and their life by simplifying it.

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

Jesse Newton
Sure. I think look for opportunities to crush stupid rules within your company. Maybe time bound it. You can try and crush one stupid rule every two weeks. Or all the meetings that come in, question whether you need to attend those, likewise with email.

Approach work through a critical eye. What are the things that are pulling me from top priorities and really question if those are needed. And then have those conversations with your teams to discuss whether all of those things are necessary.

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

Jesse Newton
Simplify Work, the book, it’s available on Amazon. I’m available on LinkedIn. You can contact me by email at JNewton@SimplifyWork.com. I’m happy to get in touch and discuss the idea of Simplify Work.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well Jesse, it’s been a good time. I wish you lots of luck in your simplifying and all your adventures.

Jesse Newton
Thank you so much.