Tag

Management

391: Preventing Burnout by Examining your Emotions with Dr. Shawn C. Jones

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Dr. Shawn Jones discusses the burnout epidemic and how mindfulness, reflection, and compassion can be used to combat it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three ways people experience burnout
  2. How to re-personalize what you’ve depersonalized
  3. Four best practices for preventing burnout

About Shawn

Shawn C. Jones MD, FACS is a board-certified ear, nose, and throat physician, head and neck surgeon with 30 years of experience in medicine and a thriving ENT practice in Paducah, Kentucky. He’s on a mission to combat the effects of the growing physician burnout epidemic by sharing his own inspiring story of recovery.

Dr. Jones shares his story of burnout and recovery in his book, “Finding Heart in Art: A Surgeon’s Renaissance Approach to Healing Modern Medical Burnout.”

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Shawn Jones Interview Transcript

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

Shawn Jones
It’s great to be with you. Thank you Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your good stuff. Maybe we’ll start with your story, which is pretty compelling. What’s your tale when it comes to experiencing burnout?

Shawn Jones
For me it really started one morning, in retrospect, when I was getting ready for surgery. I was shaving actually and I recognized I wasn’t feeling anything. It really brought a sense of abject intellectual terror in the sense that I recognized I was experiencing absolutely no emotion. I subsequently did what any well-training highly-functional professional would do and I ignored it hoping it would go away and of course it didn’t. It worsened.

Part of my difficulty was that – and I think the difficulty with burnout for a lot of people is that it’s a very disorienting experience, so it becomes troublesome to try to figure out why you’re not feeling quite right and what’s going on. Actually it was the assistance of my wife, Evelyn, who nudged me to get some help and to look into things. That sort of took me down the road of getting some outpatient intensive psychotherapy.

I was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder-related depression. It primarily was work-related stress that caused me to end up there.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me a little bit about the work-related stress. What was going on? PTSD you often think of in terms of war time or trauma/tragedy, and here it was work-related. What was going on at work?

Shawn Jones
Well, I sort of personally liken burnout to, in terms of the work-related stress aspect of it, to sun exposure. You can certainly go to the beach and in one day get totally burned, but you can also over a period of time get small amounts of sun exposure that result in you having the development of a skin cancer or something else.

I don’t think we recognize as well the more chronic forms of PTSD, but all of experience some traumatic things in our lives. Sometimes if we don’t emotionally unpack those, I think they sort of always reside in the midbrain in the part they call the amygdala that remembers those things.

Particularly as physicians, we experience a lot of things that would shock or dismay or be an assault on the emotions and other aspects of our personality for normal people. We’re trained to deal with that, but over a period of time it sort of builds up and if I think you don’t deal with that in some way in a healthy way and unpack that and process it in a healthy manner then it can kind of rise [sic] up it’s ugly head and grab you and that’s what happened to me.

That’s part of the whole purpose behind my book was to raise awareness about how you don’t have to have an absolute blow out where something huge happens. It can be sort of a slow leak that takes your energy and your enthusiasm for life away.

Pete Mockaitis
In your book, Finding Heart in Art, what would you say is the big idea there?

Shawn Jones
I think that knowing that a sense of presence and awareness about who you are and your purpose can really drive you to staying true to yourself. It’s hard to give yourself to anything, to your profession, to your family, to your friends if you’re not in possession of yourself. Maintaining the connection to who you truly are and the true self is part of that. I think finding beauty in the world is part of what helps keep us healthy in that respect.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. I’d love to get your take then in terms of what are some of the practices associated with getting that connection back and keeping that connection strong proactively.

Shawn Jones
The three primary ways in which burnout are experienced or is experienced is through emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a loss of a sense of accomplishment in the work that you do.

Particularly with respect to medicine, but a lot of work is steeped in deep fundamental meaning, it’s hard to figure out how in the world you would ever lose that. How could someone not feel a purpose or a calling or a real significance to doing that kind of work, whether it be fireman, policeman, CEO of a large corporation?

Quite frankly as that burnout envelops you and the emotional numbness takes over, nothing you do seems to matter, so coming back to center and recognizing the truth of who you are and why you were called to do what you do is partially rekindled as a result of reconnecting to life again.

That is done through the emotions, which are the voice of the heart according to the psychologist, Chip Dodd, who wrote a book called The Voice of the Heart. They’re not our heart, but they are the expression. The emotions are the voice of our heart, their outward expression.

Experiencing fully fear, loneliness, hurt and being willing to do that, then you get the gifts that those offer you, which are the fullness of living in what is essentially a tragic place and that connection to yourself, then you think you can experience through the recognition of media. It might be for me observing or looking at Renaissance art. For you it might be hiking Elephant Loop trail in Yellowstone. For another it might be making a guitar.

There are all sorts of ways in which we connect with who we are and become true to ourselves in an artistic sense. Part of that expression I think helps enliven us/enrich us and is one of the reasons those activities are referred to as the humanities because they have a way of keeping us human.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really intriguing here. When it comes to – you laid out three causes: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and the loss of the sense of achievement and significance. You’re saying that experiencing fully the not so pleasant emotions can actually be helpful and preventative against burnout?

Shawn Jones
Well, I think to a degree if you think about it, all of those things that I mentioned, fear, hurt, loneliness, anger, guilt, they are part of being human. One of the things that tends to happen when we experience them is we don’t like them. We don’t like the feeling that they bring, so we want to pack them away and not deal with them. Over a period of time that emotional detritus, if you will, builds up.

They are going to have their say one way or the other, but dealing with them allows you – for example, if your foot hurts, it might be because you have a cut on it. Recognizing that hurt and addressing it and bandaging it, caring for it, brings you the gift of healing. Each of the emotions are like that. They have a gift that they give you as a result of their full experience that you deny yourself if you aren’t fully willing to enter into them.

Part of being a surgeon, for example, is emotions don’t help me a lot when I have an emergency operation to perform at two in the morning. We’re trained in a sense and rightfully so to take our emotions about the experience at that moment and set them aside. I think sometimes, certainly I did, got so good at setting them aside, I never got them back out again.

I think that’s one of the reasons you’re seeing really an epidemic in burnout amongst physicians is because we haven’t been historically trained to get those feelings back out and look at them. I think that’s one of the reasons why … are having difficulty with that now.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious to get your take on it in terms of in practice what does that look like in terms of what you do in terms of, okay, I put an emotion aside and then later on I’ve got some quiet, some opportunity to work with it. What do you do next?

Shawn Jones
I think that’s really important because we all, we know that there’s a lot of data that suggests that isolation and being alone is dangerous for human beings. We all crave connection and relationship in whatever form for each of us that takes. Living in a community and having someone with whom I have a trusting relationship to unpack those feelings in a way that can be beneficial to me.

Even sometimes nobody has to fix anything per se, but to just listen to what I experienced and acknowledge the grief, the anger. “Yeah, that really sounds like that was difficult. What was that like? Wow.” Just having that connection with someone I think I really beneficial to experiencing the gift of having those feelings.

Then as we talked about before being true to who you are. Sometimes we get so busy and there’s so much screen time and busyness in every day, we never stop to take account of where we are and what we’re doing and being truly present in the moment.

Mindfulness is one thing that’s been shown to be really beneficial in helping to be able to center in that moment and be aware of what you’re actually experiencing, which makes it really helpful to come back later even if it’s necessary and unpack those feelings again at a later time.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say mindfulness, are we talking about meditation in terms of just sitting quietly and returning your thoughts to breath or how are you thinking about mindfulness?

Shawn Jones
Well, I think there are a lot of different ways you can do that. Mindfulness space stress reduction is popularized by John Kabat-Zinn, an Emeritus professor at University of Massachusetts, who has created a program there.

He essentially studied Buddhism. As he would describe it I believe in paraphrasing took the trappings of the religion or Buddhism out of that and used mindfulness as a way to center on the breath or other types of things that helps your pulse rate and does all sorts of beneficial things from not just your ability to monitor your body, but it is also been shown to do some really interesting things.

Richard Davidson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has demonstrated that never-before meditators do ten minutes of meditation three times a week for three months compared to a same group of non-meditators who don’t meditate. If they’re given a flu shot, the meditative group has triple the antibody response to the flu shot that the non-meditating group has. It improves immune function.

It has all sorts of benefits I believe that we haven’t really figured it out yet in terms of research, but it’s really been probably one of the most beneficial things to come out of neuroscience research in my opinion in the last ten years is some of that data that talks about mindfulness.

You can also for instance talk about meditative practices that are within the spheres of religion some people would have more comfort with for a lot of different reasons that is the desert fathers of the Christian stripe in that sense, like St. John of the Cross, the Cloud of Unknowing. Rumi was a Sufi mystic who meditated.

There are lots of traditions. All of them seem to have benefits to them, but meditative practices in general I think are very good at being able to discern and to let go and to be present in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a real nice lineup there. I had not heard the study about the flu shot. That’s fascinating. We talked a bit about the emotional piece. What do you mean by depersonalization?

Shawn Jones
A classic example from medicine would be to speak of a patient in a very impersonal way, like “The gallbladder in room 247.” While in some respects, depending on the circumstance, that might be appropriate because of HIPAA and other things like that, that tendency to not relate to people as on a personal basis puts in a distance between you.

I think in that sense, the electronic health record in medicine has been a severe impediment to that when you hear stories of patients going to see physicians and the physician the whole time they’re in the examination room are typing on the computer.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Shawn Jones
It’s not a human-to-human interaction. I think the same sorts of things are happening in corporate boardrooms around America, where people are on their phones and not present. I mean really present in board meetings and things of that nature. The technology that is meant to connect us is actually disconnecting us in many ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, so then in terms of your daily workday experience, what are some sort of simple ways we can bring the personalization back into it?

Shawn Jones
Well, I think a lot of this really requires intention. I have to set out with purpose on a daily basis to live my life a different way because it is so easy to get caught up and swept away in the moments and movements that occur to us when we’re very busy.

I think starting the day with purpose even if it’s just five or ten minutes of some meditative or centering prayer/practice is really helpful because it sets the agenda for the day just like you would if you were going to set the agenda for a phone call.

When you feel yourself getting out of control and sort of losing and being distracted, meditative practices will help you be able to take a moment, breathe, remember what you set your intention for that day, re-center yourself. That helps you, again, to be present, to not live in the past, not live in the future, but be truly present in the moment, which allows you to respond to situations and particularly crises in a way that is more appropriate for the subject and the event at hand.

I think those are two things that are really important. The other thing I’ve personally really tried to work on is what I think people refer to as mindful listening. That is making sure that when someone else is speaking that I’m looking them directly in the eye and I’m listening intently to their words and not planning on my response or what I’m going to say or how I’m going to interject.

I think those are three things that have really helped to make a difference on a day-to-day basis.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you set an intention, what does that sounds like in practice?

Shawn Jones
Today I’m going to make sure that I’m not going to be distracted. I’m not going to try to multitask. I’m going to be on task during the day. I’m going to listen intently to people and if I feel myself starting to become angry or to even respond and behave in a way, which I’m not inclined to want myself to be like, then I’m going to stop and pause and be intentional about taking control of that moment.

Just knowing that and setting that intention during the day – sometimes I’ll be in the middle of the day and it will all of the sudden hit me, I need to stop here for a second and sort of re-center myself and do what I said I was going to do today because I feel myself rising up in an emotional way in a sense.

I think that really helps because sometimes you can get carried away. People will come up and they’ll say something, “Oh Dr. Jones, you’re really going to be angry about this.” Before I even hear what the issue is, I’m already like, “Yeah, I’m going to be angry.” It sort of it helps to kind of take a breath and make sure that you’re being you and present in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. I’d also want to get your take on the lever there or the factor that loss of achievement and significance. Do you have some thoughts for keeping connected to that when you’re in the midst of work?

Shawn Jones
That was very difficult for me because I completely lost my sense of purpose to a degree. Somewhere deep down I knew that I’d always wanted to be a physician. I was one of those kids that even though no one in my family had been to college, I knew I wanted to be a doctor when I was five or six years. I never wavered from that.

Deep down I knew that was really who I was, but I just wasn’t feeling like I was accomplishing much of anything. There wasn’t any sense of satisfaction there. Mostly it was because I’d lost myself. I had become detached from my inner emotional environment in a sense.

I think finding that purpose is great. The last thing I think anyone ought to do when you’re feeling burned out is to make a quick decision and change jobs or get out or – I think it really is important for people to take stock of what’s going on and try to get some perspective on it.

Because I think, for me at least, the purpose was there all along. It was the way in which I’d engaged that purpose. I thought by working harder, longer, faster, more that I would find it again. Actually, I needed to do just the opposite. I needed to step off for a moment, take a rest and re-examine that and find me.

Because compassion is the recognition of suffering and the desire to do something about it, to alleviate it in another human being. It’s pretty normal, natural human response to suffering. But when you have compassion fatigue, which is part of that burnout spectrum, you lose the sense of your purpose, so having that compassion rekindled and recognizing that you can only give what you have, it’s really important that you have yourself to be able to give it yourself.

Many of us need to have more compassion with ourselves because we become very negative in our self-talk and that isn’t helpful in developing compassion towards others. Compassion is contagious and I think the more that we extend compassion towards others and towards ourselves then the more compassion we’re going to experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, it’s funny when you talk about you’re feeling sort of under-resourced, tapped out, you’re less likely to act compassionately that reminds me of the study of the seminarians who had to turn in a paper. I believe it was about the story of the Good Samaritan. Half of them were told that they were late. The other half was not. I imagine you’ve encountered this in your work.

Then they encountered someone who was just coughing tremendously, like directly in their pathway. Those who were told that they were running late or that the deadline was very near, with alarming frequency just totally blew right by the guy versus those who did not feel they were that rushed were able to stop and help. These are seminarians who had just recently covered that story.

Shawn Jones
Studied the Good Samaritan. Yeah. It’s amazing I think sometimes once we get headed in a direction, how hard it is to turn ourselves about, but that’s a great example of what it means to actually put into practice what logically you’ve put into a different part of your brain.

Pete Mockaitis
When you’re compassionate with yourself in the midst of negative self-talk, what does the corrective or compassionate response to, it’s like, “Oh, I screwed up. I’m such a moron. Oh, I did it again.” It’s like, “Why can’t I ever get my act together with this?” kind of whatever. There’s the beat up self-talk. Then what is the intervention self-talk sound like?

Shawn Jones
There’s a loving kindness meditation. Actually there’s a free eBook called Compassion – Bridging the Science and Practice that’s available. If you Google that online, you can pick it up. It was developed a combination of some of the best neuroscientists in the world. In fact it was at the Max Planck Institute in Germany in cooperation with Buddhist monks who underwent functional MRI scanning. It’s got videos and tutorials.

But loving kindness mediation is essentially is, “I feel good. I am good. I want the best for me. I want the best for other people. I desire only what is good in life and want to extend mercy and compassion and grace.” Really, it sounds almost too good to be true.

The first couple of times I did it, you feel kind of foolish looking in the mirror doing that sort of thing, but it is amazing how that comes back to you at times when the negative self-talk will begin to pop up. There’s really a plethora of data that suggest that those who have a greater profundity of negative self-talk are more susceptible to burnout. It really is important in terms of trying to mitigate against the effects of burnout that you work on some of those.

There’s basically two ways you can try to affect burnout. One is by increasing your resilience. Those are the things like mindfulness space stress reduction, making sure you get plenty of sleep, eating correctly, exercising, all the things we know that we need to be doing and be diligent about in terms of our discipline.

But then there’s also decreasing the work-related stress, making sure you set aside time to do the projects you need to do in a concerted way, being intentional about what you want to do during the day and not being distracted, making sure you limit your screen time as much as you can. Even with me I know that’s difficult because screen time is important for the electronic health record.

But doing the best we can to mitigate the things we know that organizationally cause stress because Christina Maslach, who’s done as much work on burnout at a corporate level than anyone, with Michael Leiter wrote a book in 1997 called The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It.

She said in that book that burnout is an organizational problem. It’s not a failure of people on an individual level. It is an organizational issue. Addressing it at that level is much more complicated and much more difficult because the things I’ll tell you to do in a hospital to decrease stress and burnout, might not work at Procter & Gamble, for example, or other – Google and Apple and things like that.

It’s going to be more generic recommendations about how to decrease stress, so it makes it more difficult to make application in each individual sense from an organizational standpoint.

Pete Mockaitis
Nonetheless, I’ll take a couple generic recommendations if folks find themselves in a leadership capacity, whether it’s for a couple direct report or for thousands, what are some of the generalized best practices to help prevent the burnout?

Shawn Jones
There’s an interesting study that says Americans more than any other culture, generally don’t take their vacations. I think one of the things that really would … is have their people take their vacations. It’s important for the work you do here for you to have time off. We give you that time off and we want you to take it. It’s not a negative and you’re not going to be a hero by not taking your vacation. I think that’s a pretty simple one to institute.

Then be really willing, as we talked about earlier, to listen to people about the things that cause organizational stress. With physicians, for example, and this is true of other leaders, if you allow one of your best workers to do what he thinks is most important 20% of the time, his risk of burnout is reduced 3 times. You can have him doing things he’s really not as interested in 80% of the time if he can do what really charges him up at work 20% of the time.

Finding out what people really are interested in and want to do in their job that fits your job description, the purpose of management in organization in my view is to fulfill the mission of the organization but to allow people the room and the space to accomplish that task while fulfilling the mission of the organization.

Sometimes that’s simply getting out of people’s way and not micromanaging them because that feels a lot of times like mistrust. If you don’t think I’m able to do this job and so you’re going to tell me how to move the widget from A to B and B to C when I’ve got a better way.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s also intriguing about that 20% guideline is that person may very well have a clearer, more accurate, astute perception of what truly is most important than the leader or the manager in terms of so it’s not just work 20% of your time on whatever the heck you kind of feel like doing and playing Candy Crush on your phone, but it’s like – it’s projects related to the organization that you find to be important.

Shawn Jones
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s pretty powerful.

Shawn Jones
Yeah. I’m sure Candy Crush is important somewhere, but it wouldn’t be in most places.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m researching the competitors on addictive app best practices. Cool. Well, Shawn, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Shawn Jones
I think that being really interested in ways to remain healthy in general is a way to incorporate this idea about burnout into your daily life. Most of us have an idea of the things we want to do on a daily basis to remain physically and otherwise healthy. This would just be putting another piece of that into that pie. It doesn’t take a lot of time. It just, again, takes some decision making process and some intention.

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

Shawn Jones
I really think that one by Cynthia Bourgeault is compelling to me. “What the caterpillar calls disaster, the master calls a butterfly.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Shawn Jones
What I like about that is there’s so much that we do not have control over in this life. Things happen and many times we react to that in ways that reflect our dislike of what’s just occurred, but we don’t know how the story ends. Many times when we look back what we thought was really a horrible thing that happened to us in our life turned out to be one of the best things that could have ever happened.

I think it’s important to recognize when we’re in that moment to realize there may be something else at work and to be open to those possibilities.

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

Shawn Jones
The one about the meditators with the flu shot response is one. But there’s another one in kindness research, where a researcher took a blue and a pink elephant and he presented them to very young children, 18 months and younger.

The first elephant, the blue elephant, would – a duck would try to open a box and the elephant every time would jump on the box and keep him from opening it. Then they would show a video with the pink elephant and every time the duck would try to open the box, the pink elephant would come over and help him open it. 95% of the children when presented with both elephants chose the pink elephant.

What that says in essence is that all of us are attracted to compassion and kindness. That’s what we innately are born with in many respects. It says something I think about the heart of human beings and the recognition of what we all desire in a certain sense and what we’re attracted and what we want to be. To me it really makes me feel hopeful for the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is very powerful. I’m going to be chewing on that. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Shawn Jones
A favorite book. I’ve been really enamored with historical biographies. I would say that Washington Irving wrote a biography of George Washington that was thoroughly researched. Part of it is how well it is written and the fact that Irving knew contemporaries of George Washington that were amazing.

But the character and integrity of George Washington is absolutely outstanding in reading the book and the kind of man he was and the kind of – the way he comported himself in different situations, absolutely courageous, was spellbinding for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite tool?

Shawn Jones
I think for me mindfulness is my favorite tool. It has in many ways transformed my daily life as well as my inner life in a way that has been so helpful for me in so many respects. For me, mindfulness would be that tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Shawn Jones
I enjoy exercising. Believe it or not if you saw me you wouldn’t think I liked powerlifting because I’m 5’ 10’’ and about 175 pounds soaking wet, but I really like deadlifting and squatting and doing Romanian deadlifts. There’s a lot of data that suggests that as you age maintaining muscle mass and functional strength improves your overall health. I enjoy doing that a couple times a week. It really helps me kind of unwind.

Pete Mockaitis
Can I put you on the spot and ask about the weights that you’re lifting?

Shawn Jones
Sure. I will do my best not to make this a fish story. I will tell you that I was in a gym not too long ago with a friend and he was lifting what he thought was a really great deadlift weight, like 350 pounds. A gentlemen came over and said, “Are you finished with that weight?” He said, “Yes.” Then he picked it up and did bent over rows with it. It was like, okay, we’re not at that level. But at first we thought, “Wow, this is really good.” But, yeah, my max deadlift is around 350.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, nice work. Nice work. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate for folks?

Shawn Jones
I think the idea that we all are attracted to the beautiful things in life and what beauty means to each of us is different. One example of that is if you look at the Renaissance masters, the early Renaissance masters, their idea of beauty was perfection. Nicholas Poussin, if you look at his paintings, there’s no dirt, there’s no grime – everyone is perfect.

It’s just beautiful, but it is a different aspect of beauty than if you look at the later Renaissance and the Dutch masters such as Rembrandt or Caravaggio where there is realism there. There is darkness and light. Mixed in with that is the beauty of the relationship between the people and the paintings.

For example, The Return of the Prodigal Son of Rembrandt, it is astounding how seemingly grimy and dirty and torn the clothing can be and yet overall it is aesthetically so deeply moving and beautiful. I think that’s a reflection of life. We have to look for the beauty in everyday life. If we look for it, we’ll find it. It will astound us and it will enliven us and enrich us, but we have to look.

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

Shawn Jones
My website is DrShawnCJones.com. That’s S-H-A-W-N for Shawn. They can follow me on Twitter at ShawnCJonesMD.

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

Shawn Jones
I think setting the intention and if you’ve not tried mindfulness or some meditative practice, it is very easy to start and there are a couple of apps even that will do it as much as I hate pointing to technology. Last night actually on NBC news there a story on Headspace, but there’s also one called Calm, which is very good, which is a great way to start without having to go to a class or do anything where you’re putting yourself out there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Dr. Jones, this has been just – it’s been profound and beautiful. Thanks so much for taking this time and good luck in all you’re doing in helping to heal medical burnout and your other adventures.

Shawn Jones
I appreciate it, Pete. Thank you. It’s been great to be with you.

390: Five Practices for Flexible Course Correction with Ed Muzio

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Ed Muzio shares how teams can function better through smarter iteration.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How many organizations are planning poorly
  2. Approaches for greater clarity
  3. How to make wiser group decisions

About Ed

Ed Muzio is CEO of Group Harmonics and an award-winning three-time author. An expert in the scientific study of measuring and modifying human behavior, he is a sought-after consultant to business and industry worldwide and a popular media source. His new book is Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team (An Inc. Original, 2018). He can be found at IterateNow.com.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Ed Muzio Interview Transcript

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

Edward Muzio
Hi Pete, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, it’s good to have you. I’m excited to chat about your good stuff, but first tell us a little bit about you learning the piano at the same time your kindergartener is learning the piano.

Edward Muzio
My kindergartener had a talent for music, so we got a piano and got him in lessons. I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, so I asked the instructor in the one-on-one lesson, “Can I take lessons as well?” thinking he would say, “You’re kind of too old for this.” He said, “No, adults can learn. It’s a little different.” We go every week and he does his lesson for 30 minutes and I do my lesson for 15.

What I can tell you is I’m ahead of him now Pete and I’ll be ahead of him I’m guessing another six months to a year because I can take on more complex concepts, but he’s going to get ahead of me and never look back because he has no problem with repetitious activity. He’ll keep learning. He has no problem making mistakes and trying because that’s just how kids learn. They fall down, get up again.

He has a sort of infinite patience in the sense of he does get frustrated, but it’s sort of like his whole life is about kind of bumping your head and going on, so he has no hang-ups at all. Plus his brain is so flexible. I’m watching him get better and better. I’m going I have six months, maybe a year and then he’s going to just be amazing and I’m going to be still pecking away at one note at a time kind of a thing. That’s going to be it after that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I have a feeling he’s going to love that moment. I can remember when I beat my dad in chess and I knew he didn’t let me win. It was powerful in the sense that it’s like, “Whoa, I am capable of learning and growing to a point in which I have never been able to attain before.” I read a lot of books about chess from the library along the way. It’s like, “Wow, there’s something to this learning, this discipline, this sticking with things that yields cool results.”

Edward Muzio
That sort of try, fail, try, check, try, fail, try again loop is human powerfulness in learning action. He’s doing it. I think you’re right. I think when the day comes he’ll be pretty happy and I’ll be pretty happy too honestly.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, you talk about try, fail, try, fail that’s about as good a segue as you can ever get. You’ve got a book. It’s called Iterate. What is the story behind it?

Edward Muzio
Well, Iterate, it’s that same idea. Iterate is take a step, learn everything you can from that step – assuming the step was in the best direction you could figure out – but now check in again and see based on what you’ve learned what your next step should be. It’s a general concept.

Iteration is used by software programs that produce models for aircraft flight or weather. Iteration is used by plants as they grow. It’s incremental adjustment and it’s a learning loop, kind of like learning the piano, which is take what you’ve learned and incorporate it into the next step. My book, Iterate, is about what we know that management teams in really strong organizations do in that space to make sure the whole organization is iterating.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, so that sounds like a prudent, wise thing to do in terms of as you’re trying to accomplish things and make them happen. What’s sort of the alternatives that folks tend to try with less effectiveness?

Edward Muzio
Well, I like to talk about sort of the story of – you maybe have seen this in the book, but the story of walking to your car. You walk out the door of the office or the mall and you’ve got three minutes to get to your car. You start walking. What I just said happens. Every step is the best step you can take from there.

But what’s important about that is as you’re going along, you’ve got your feet, which is the workforce, and they’re detecting changes in the surface or they’re detecting it’s wet or something. They’re able to adjust without calling the CEO, which is your brain. Your brain set the pace and direction, get to the car in three minutes, but your CEO is not involved too much in the work of your feet.

Your feet use a resource. That’s blood oxygen. They can call to middle management, which is cardiovascular, get some more. If they need a whole lot more, that gets escalated even further. Then you do get the message in your CEO office, which is breathe harder or walk slower. At the same time you’re looking out over the horizon. You’re trying to see is that my car that I’m walking to, is there an obstruction in my way. You’re feeding information down.

You’ve got this sort of metaphorical organization, where information is flowing both up and down and it’s meeting at the right places and decisions are getting made at all levels just so that every step you take is the next best one from there. When you notice, for example, that you’re headed toward the wrong car, that’s the moment you change direction, not two steps sooner and not five steps after.

That’s the model. The alternative and what we see in a lot of organizations unfortunately, is this sort of make a plan and then manage people as if sticking to the plan is the goal. You make a plan, you start walking on the line, and then you have this scenario where the people are sort of metaphorically saying we’re not heading toward the car anymore and yet the institution can’t seem to turn.

That’s management by one strict plan at the beginning of the year. It is the alternative; however, it does not produce nearly the observable levels of growth or agility or market dynamic receptiveness or any of those kind of things than an organization, which can actually turn in small ways and big ways when new information comes out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you mentioned a few potential indicators of performance or result. Can you share maybe any studies or research you’ve done that show what kind of a difference it makes when you iterate versus stick doggedly to the original plan?

Edward Muzio
There’s all kinds of anecdotal stories out there. What this book is based on is it’s based on actually about 70 years of research and experience. The research actually goes back to something called The Institute for Social Research, which was post-World War II, literally following managers around and writing down what they were doing and looking to see does management actually make a difference. Does it matter how you manage.

Then it tracks all the way up to we have information coming to us today about self-organizing systems like ant colonies out of the neuroscience field, which say ants kind of can find their way back and forth in these long lines because they leave a trail and they leave indicators of where they were and where to go next. That’s called … I believe. Don’t quote me on that.

We’ve got this sort of long line of research that all kind of comes together and says natural systems, computer systems, we know this is an effective way to solve problems. It’s intuitively obvious. You can go find the big bears in any space, like you’re look at sort of Intel for example. I used to work there during their growth years.

The famous sort of anecdotal story about Intel is in their early years they were competing with Motorola and someone from Motorola – this is folklore really – but someone from Motorola said, “I can’t get an airplane ticket approved in the time it takes you to adjust your entire approach to our market,” because they could just take this whole big company and just shift it.

That’s what we see in these inner shift companies is once we get these managers doing these simple five practices and doing them consistently, we start to see this agility emerge where we can stay the course for as long as we need to, but as soon as we need to turn, we can turn.

Pete Mockaitis
What are the five practices?

Edward Muzio
Well, the first one is called output and status broadcasting. I should say before I start, these are my words. One of the challenges in this work is language because if I say something that sounds like something you’ve heard of before, you’ll sort of assume I’m talking about that and that becomes problematic because really what we’re trying to do is describe behaviors.

As I talk through these, Pete, you have to sort of think about the behavior I’m talking about as opposed to the terminology. But just broadly speaking, there are five of them. The first, output and status broadcasting is managers are clear and repeated with their teams, everyone else about what they’re trying to produce with the resources they have under their control.

Secondly, they produce dashboards and plots and a particular kind of forward-looking data that shows two levels of the future, so they can sort of show graphically “Here’s where I thought I was trying going to go. Here’s what I now think is going to happen. Here’s the difference between those two things,” so that conversations can be held about the difference. That’s number one.

Number two is what I call work preview meetings. That’s those conversations. That’s management teams getting together saying where do we see this future variance, where do we see a difference between the goal we’re trying to achieve and the likely outcome of the path we’re on and what might we do with our resources to compensate for that.

One of the great sort of tragedies I think of North American management in general is that so much time is spent in meetings looking backwards, “Here’s what was done,” “Here’s a graph of everything I made up until this week,” “Here’s a list of all the things that got done last year.” Some of that is fine, but all you can do as a manager is move resources around at this moment to affect what happens in the future.

If you’re not mostly spending your meeting time talking about that, how do we change the resources around or not based on what we now understand about the future that we didn’t understand before, you’re having a problem. That’s work preview meetings.

That also gets into the third one which is called group decision making. That’s just the issue of once you’re in one of those meetings and you detect a variance, it becomes complicated what you should do about it and there’s some particular information about how to make good group decisions, things like, for example, voting is not a rational way to make decisions because people get focused on obtaining support rather than good information. It’s all around sort of coming to a good decision.

That leads into the fourth one which is called linked teams. We can talk quite a bit about this one, but the idea is that it’s not an org chart. We don’t have a set of individuals each with their own goals. We have a set of teams run by managers and each management team has a set of goals and works as a team so that everyone’s looking up at their manager’s goals instead of fighting with their peers on their own goals. That way those teams link together and do the work for the organization. All of that is necessary.

The last thing is the fifth practice and that is what we call frontline self-sufficiency. That’s the idea that an individual contributor, someone on the frontline has what they need to do their job and to do it efficiently and is so empowered to do it – I hate to use the word empowered. It’s more specific than that. But the net effect is they have what they need, nothing is in their way.

They’re so enabled I guess I should say to do that work that they can actually forecast their output. We don’t have frontline supervisors telling the staff how it’s going; we have the frontline staff telling the supervisor, “I’m on track,” “I’m ahead,” I’m behind.” That’s what leads to those forecasts that I was talking about because that’s how management ultimately knows what’s going on.

That set of five things really keeps the organization always taking a step, looking forward, saying, “Here’s what we thought was going to happen. Here’s what we now think is going to happen. What adjustments should we make? Here’s our decision to make them. Let’s do that and move on.” Then just iterating that cycle over and over again as they chomp away at their goals.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s dig into a little bit of this now. When you mentioned having dashboards and you have two levels to the future, what do you mean by that?

Edward Muzio
Well, dashboards, by the way, is one of those dangerous terms because everyone has one and they already think they know what it means. I do use the word, but I always kind of worry about that. Here’s the concept. Let’s take a really simple example.

This can work for complex things too, but in a simple example, I’m producing something, the line that I run, and I’m supposed to make 100 a week. In a typical sort of North American management situation, I would come to you Pete if you’re my boss and I’d have a graph. It would show week by week how many I made up to today.

Maybe if it was a good graph, it would also have some kind of a plan or forecast line that would show, “Hey, I’m supposed to stay flat. That’s the plan,” or “I’m supposed to do 10% more every week until I ramp up to this level,” so that’s the future. That’s pretty standard in management.

The problem with that is, of course, what you’re going to ask me is, “Ed, are you going to hit that forecast?” Then there’s going to be a long narrative discussion in which I sort of opine about that. Then you try and sort of figure out if I’m trying to hide anything. It becomes this very ceremonial dance.

What we need instead is I need to have a second future on that graph. I need to have what’s done in the past. That’s fine. I’ve got my plan line. This is what I’m supposed to deliver. Then I’ve got a second line that says based on my best intelligence today, here’s what I think is going to happen.

Now that second line might be right on top of the plan line, in which case there’s nothing to talk about, or maybe it varies. Maybe I’m saying, “Look, I’m not going to get as many as I thought,” or “Hey, I’m going to overrun.”

If that variance is big enough, that becomes something that you, me, and my peers and your management team need to talk about because someone else may need to adjust some resources or I may need to adjust some resources to deal with that fact, whether it’s good or bad. Even if I’m ahead of the game, it’s still potentially an issue for somebody who’s going to get overwhelmed by my output. Difference is difference and difference needs attention.

Pete Mockaitis
You said that there’s the plan and then the projection is your best guess as to how things are going to unfold here. I guess what gets interesting there is that there’s – you mentioned the dance, there’s all these layers associated with expectation and authority and punishment, shoot the messenger activities or not.

It’s almost like you have to have a somewhat mature and respectful culture to even deal with the fact that a variance exists. They might just be like, “Ed, no, Ed. Do the thing we agreed that you would do.”

Edward Muzio
Right. It’s funny. The North American management – I always call it the North American management model – we have this sort of mythology. It’s beautiful mythology. It says, Pete, you’re my boss. You say to me, “Ed, look, these are your goals. Go and get them. I don’t want to hear it, just go and get your goals. Don’t bring me forecasts that are different. Just get your work done.”

That’s the mythology. By that mythology you tell my peers the same thing. Then we all bring you our goals and you knit it together into what your boss wants.

The problem with that is that I am going to have variance and my peers are going to have variance. At some point I’m going to come to you and say, “I can’t do this unless you give me some of Fred’s money.” Fred’s going to come and say, “Don’t do that. I need more of Ed’s money.”

You’re going to become – and you know this if you’ve worked in any kind of management space – you become the referee. You’re almost like a parent in a dysfunctional household, where everyone is bringing you their problems, everything is framed as mission critical, and it’s your job to sort it out.

Meanwhile, your boss is looking at you saying, “Is it going to happen?” Your boss is looking down at you, you’re looking down at me and my peers, and everyone is trying to sort out kind of are these people lying to me, are they telling me the truth. It’s a very non-trusting culture, but it’s also a very preoccupied culture with trying to sort of sort out information.

What I’m saying is, you’re right, it is a cultural shift. We sometimes start it by saying, look, no news is bad news because we don’t know what’s going on, bad news is good news because we want to see variance early, and good news is no news because if there’s no variance, we don’t need to talk about it.

What that looks like sort of mechanically is on that graph that I have, I’m going to carry my past production and my past forecasts. Part of what you’re sort of looking for from me and expecting from me is that my forecasts are pretty good.

I’m not allowed to change my past forecasts to match my past production, so over time you’ll see, “Hey, Ed’s pretty good at forecasting his work. When he says this is going to go off the rails, I have a reason to believe him, the team has a reason to believe him. We probably should adjust to that.” Otherwise it just becomes like you said, sort of a fingers in the ears, don’t bring me bad news and don’t tell me – just go fix it kind of thing, but that doesn’t really work.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m right with you there. On the second practice, the work preview meetings, can you give us some perspective or tools on what are some great ways to provide previews?

Edward Muzio
One of them is that graph. I’m going to come in and I’m going to say, “Hey Pete, I’ve got this problem. I’ve got some variance. I need to talk about it.” Once you’ve got a team that’s presenting that to you and recommending to you what goes on the agenda, that sets you up to say, “Okay, of all these different variances, I’m going to put this, this and this on the agenda.”

One of the practices is as the manager of managers, have people tell you 24, 12, whatever hours in advance, “Here’s my biggest variance I want to talk about,” and then you be in charge of building the agenda and say, “Okay, from my perspective, these are the most important ones.”

Once you’re in the conversation, we have something called the OSIR – O-S-I-R. It’s an acronym – the OSIR report. That just stands for objective, status, issue, and recommendation. You manage me to make that kind of report.

You say, “Ed, you’re going to make your report now. Tell us about the variance.” I’m there with you, my boss and my peers. I’m going to say, “My objective is X, Y, and Z as you know because you’ve heard this from me before because of my output and status broadcasting. My status is here it is on my graph. You can see the variance. You’ve seen my graph before. You know how to read it,” so that takes a minute.

“My issue is the root cause of my variance,” whatever that is. “I’m short on people,” or “Things are happening differently than I thought.” “R is my recommendation. I recommend to the team that X, Y, Z happens,” “that Fred give me some of his resources,” “that you relax my deadline,” “that I do this or that thing.”

What that does is in about 3 minutes, it tees up the conversation. It’s not 10 or 15 minutes of me talking about reasons and root causes. It’s me talking for a very short period of time, putting a recommendation on the table, a strawman, and then saying “Okay, now here’s what I think we should do. What are we going to do?” You’re the boss, Pete, but we as a team are going to decide together what are we going to do.

Pete Mockaitis
That is helpful certainly, especially because if your variance is bad, it’s probably very natural temptation to make excuses and to share numerous reasons, external factors that can contribute to it just so that the folks who are reporting to you don’t think that you are underperforming because you’re maybe sensitive about it. You’re not delivering on what you hoped to be delivering.

But when you sort of summarize it in terms of this is the expectations that we go in this format, it’s going to take three minutes, I think that could really go a long way in reducing the length of long meetings.

Edward Muzio
Well, it does. One of the pieces that’s important is we always say discussions of status and discussions of history are minimized, not eliminated, but minimized.

We do in that same meeting – the first thing that will happen for the first let’s say five minutes is me and all my peers will just put up all our graphs all at once, that’s that dashboard concept, and say, “Here’s what I’m doing. This, this and this are going well. This one we’re going to talk about in a few minutes.” My next peer goes and says, “We’re all on track here.” Next peer goes and says, “These three are a little behind. We talked about that last week.”

There’s this very brief kind of quick status update that takes maybe ten minutes out of the hour if that. What that does, to your point, is it starts to let people see, so my peers and you to some extent, start to see, “Hey, Ed’s house isn’t on fire. He’s not just a collection of problems. He’s running this whole thing. It’s mostly going okay. Now he’s asking for help in this area.”

It’s a way of building trust because you’re right. If all we ever did was bring in our problems, then what happens is pretty soon my peers see me as nothing but a collection of problems. Then we lose trust. That little brief status at the front end, which educates us by each other’s graphs also educates us as to the fact that we’re trustworthy. Then from there we can go into that brief format and have a conversation. That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, then let’s hit the group decision making piece there. You mentioned voting is not the greatest of means to arrive at decisions. What are some key ways that we arrive at optimal decisions?

Edward Muzio
I always feel like I should preface this by saying this is not political commentary. This is business, small group decision making, but voting produces irrational result. Now, some people have said, “Well, we think that’s true in politics as well,” that’s to the listener to decide.

But what we know is if we put a group of people together and say, “We’re going to vote on the best answer,” then the focus turns to garnering support. I’m not going to worry too much about information. I’m going to say, “Hey, peer number one, if you go with me on this one, I’ll go with you next time. I’ll owe you a favor,” kind of a thing. That may be good for me and peer number one, but that’s not so good for the organization. We can’t do voting.

Consensus, which is we don’t do anything until we all agree has been shown to produce good quality decisions; the problem is the time. By the time we get everyone to agree, we’re too late for the business cycle.

We go into what’s called a consultative mode. Now traditional consultative decision making is Pete’s the decider, we’re all not the decider, we each talk to you one-on-one, and then you make a decision. That’s okay, but what we know is in these complex scenarios where everything is interdependent, I actually need to hear my peers talking to you and you need me to hear my peers talking to you because they’re going to raise an issue that I have information about.

We do what we call group consultative, which is each of us has a job to teach you what we know. That’s important. You basically say to us, “My agreement at this moment is off the table. Here’s how I’m leaning or not, but my agreement is off the table. Teach me what you know.”

Then I say to you, “Pete, if we don’t do this, X, Y, and Z are going to happen.” You say to me, “Ed, I think what you’re telling me is from your perspective, if we don’t do this, this, and this then X, Y, and Z are going to happen. Do I understand that?” I say, “Yes, that’s it.” Then that part of the conversation is done. It relieves me of the stress of feeling like I have to convince you to go my way. It also puts the focus on the information transfer.

You learn as much as you can from all the team members. In the process, they’re learning from each other. Then as the decider, we already know before we start it’s going to fall to you to make the decision. The decision you make is not necessarily the most popular decisions. It might or might not be.

It’s not a vote. It’s not a who spoke the loudest or who spoke the most. It’s you saying, “Hey, I’m the person in this seat and I’ve got the role of decider and based on what you all are teaching me right now, here’s my decision.”

Here’s another tip your listeners can use. Your decision isn’t done until the team can say it back to you both what was decided and your rationale for it. Not only Pete decided to give X number of dollars from Fred to Ed, but because he and we believe that Ed’s work in this area is higher priority or more immediate, whatever.

That’s important because we’re talking about managers, the managers have to be able to take that decision back to their teams and say, “Here’s what we as a management team decided and here’s why.” I call that commissioning. The decider makes sure to take the time that everyone understands both the decision and the rationale before we consider the decision to be complete.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, now when you started that conversation, “Hey, teach me what you know,” you said “I’m putting agreement to the side,” what do you mean by that?

Edward Muzio
Well oftentimes, I’m sure you’ve had these experiences and many of us have, we may know that you’re going to make the decision, right Pete? I’m going to say to you, “Pete, you’ve got to go my way and here’s why.” You’re going to start to detect some emotional content in there. I’m going to be animated and I’m going to maybe not even stop talking because I feel like you haven’t come around yet.

But once you say to me, “Look, we’re not at the part of the process where I’m going to agree with you or not. We’re just at the part of the process where my job is to understand you. Let me say back to you Ed what I think you just told me. Do I have it right?” If I say, “Yes, you have it right.” Then you say to me, “Well, do you have anything else to add, other information I need?” I go, “Yes, here’s some more.” We do that until I finally say, “That’s all the information I have.”

It’s a way of getting the information out of me while sort of relieving me of both the pressure and stress and also the reality of trying to convince you because then you can literally turn to me and say, “Ed, thank you. Thank you for the information. I’m going to consider that. I can appreciate that you’re – not only is this difficult for you logistically but it’s going to be really kind of an emotional thing for you. I’ve learned that as well. But I need to move on now and hear what the others have to say.”

It opens up the air time because everyone has something to contribute in terms of facts and information. Nobody feels that need to sort of filibuster until you come around.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. That is helpful when you segment or separate those dimensions from each other. Now I’m curious, when it comes to frontline self-sufficiency, what tend to be the bottlenecks, the obstacles that mean we don’t have the frontline self-sufficiency, the recurring things that folks need but don’t have so they can’t do what they need to do?

Edward Muzio
On one level the frontline self-sufficiency is one of the easiest, maybe the easiest of the key practices to understand because the components all kind of tie together very simply. It’s really three things that lead to a fourth.

But your frontline employees need to have clear output goals, just to say that they know what they’re supposed to do and they can count it. They know what it is. That’s one’s pretty easy to understand.

Self-managed feedback, which means they are tracking their own work more frequently than management is tracking it. It’s not a question of management telling them what’s going on; it’s a question of them already knowing how they’re doing.

Then the third thing is what I call control of resources. That just means they have what they need to do the job. If there’s material or something they need, they can get to it. Again, that’s not always easy to do, not too hard to think about.

But the formula is goals plus feedback plus resources equals forecasts. What happens is once you have a workforce that’s equipped that way, they know what they’re supposed to do, they know if they’re doing it and how well they’re doing it, and how fast they’re doing it, and they have everything they need at their disposal to do it, then they start to be able to make those forecasts.

They start to be able to say when the boss asks on Tuesday or Wednesday, “What are we looking like for Friday?” They can say, “I’m on track. This is typical,” I’m a little behind, but it’s recoverable,” “I’m way behind.”

That’s the information that gets rolled up into that second forecast, that second future line where I say, “Hey boss, hey Pete, here’s what I know is going to happen in the next two to six weeks,” I’m getting that from the frontline because they’re the ones that actually know where we are. Without the frontline self-sufficiency, forecasting becomes sort of academic and hypothetical and the process does not work nearly as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. I’m also wondering when people don’t have those things, the goal is unclear or the feedback is incomplete or the resources are also incomplete, what are the things you see time and time again are among the most common things that are incomplete and missing from the self-sufficiency picture?

Edward Muzio
In terms of specifics, it varies, but I’ll give you a couple examples. One of the ones that’s often missing, not surprisingly, is clear goals. We have someone who they know their job is to let’s say get these orders filled, that’s a goal, but there’s not really a how fast or turn time or anything like that. If you sort of ask them how it’s going, they go, “It’s okay.” If you say “Are you on track, ahead or behind?” they sort of almost can’t answer you because it’s not a clear enough goal. That’s one failure mode.

Another one is maybe the foal is clear, but the resource control is an issue. It’s like you have to get these orders filled or whatever, but there’s a step in your process where you have to get approval for a shipment let’s say. Sometimes that approval takes two hours and sometimes it takes three days.

Then when I ask my frontline for a forecast, they’ll say, “Well, I’m okay, but I don’t know what’s going to happen because I’ve turned this thing in so it will be Wednesday or Friday.” That’s an issue of control of resources. It’s a different thing but it’s also in the way of that forecast.

It’s a good way to kind of look backwards and say if you can’t get a fair forecast or reasonable forecast, you can look back and say, “Okay, why can’t they do it? Is it because they don’t know what the goal is? Is it because they don’t know how they’re doing at it? Or is it because there are these things that are out of their control in the way?” It’s always one of those three.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That’s a helpful framework in terms of segmenting that into discrete pieces. I guess I’m thinking about sometimes we have no idea because we’ve never done this before. It’s new stuff. I guess sort of like feedback is missing and maybe not so much from management but just from almost like the work itself. It’s like we’re entering new, uncharted territory and I don’t know how long it’s going to take for me to learn how to do this thing or to build this thing we’ve never built before.

Edward Muzio
Yeah, that’s a reality. That can actually happen just like that, but one of the things we also know is there’s a whole major category of work out there that we call troubleshooting work, which is the phone rings – you think of a call center for computer repairs – the phone rings and the problem is put in front of me. If I’m the frontline worker, I don’t know what the work is until I get the problem.

In that kind of scenario, although it’s true that I can say, “Well, I don’t exactly know how long the next one is going to take because I don’t know what it is,” there are still tools we can use around those goals and feedback and resources to make forecasting possible.

One of the tools we use is batch queues. I can say, “I have this many issues, which are received and undiagnosed,” meaning it’s in my queue to figure out the problem, “I have this many issues, which are diagnosed but unsolved,” meaning I know what the problem is but I’m not done implementing it yet, and then “I have this many that are solved.”

Sometimes people will further segment those into something like category A, category B, whatever. These take longer than those. But when you start to see individual contributors who work on that kind of work use those kind of systems, what starts to happen is they can, again, start to make forecasts.

You’ll say midweek, “How are you doing?” now they can’t tell you what the next thing on the phone is going to be, but they can say, “Normally by this time of the week I have 15 things that are received and undiagnosed. Right now I have 42, so I am behind,” or “Normally I have this many of type B solutions to implement and I only have 10% as many right now, so I’m ahead.”

Even though we’re all doing things to some extent we’ve never done before, you can start to work around that a bit and still get some intelligence of the system about within some broad bounds, what does this week look like relative to your other weeks of doing things no one’s ever done before? We still need that information.

Pete Mockaitis
When it comes to forecasting, you mentioned being fair and you used the term ‘a fair day’s work forecast.’ What precisely does that mean and how would you contrast that with the alternative?

Edward Muzio
Well that I do a fair day’s work forecast is once I have those three things, if I’m a frontline worker, I’ve got those goals, self-managed feedback and control of resources, then I can know what I can accomplish reasonably.

I think traditional managers will be afraid of this, say, “How do I know they’re not going to sandbag or how do I know they’re not going to lie?” But what we know about humans is they tend to try and perform pretty well most of them. Once I sort of know what I can get done in a fair day’s work, I can start to make a forecast and say, again, “I’m ahead,” “I’m on track,” “I’m behind.”

That’s contrasted with in the North American management model, the boss tells me how much to do and then I either do it or I don’t. What happens? Well, for one thing, I can only do so much. My capacity doesn’t change by my boss’s opinion; however, my presentation of what I’m doing will change.

You’re going to tell me, “Get this much done or not,” and if I can’t reasonably do it and I want to survive, which I do because I have that reptile part of my brain that’s geared toward survival, then I’m going to paint a picture or tell a story or find a reason why that wasn’t possible and I’m going to sort of make it okay. If the boss is really setting unreasonable goals, nobody can do it, then whoever has the most reasonable story gets to keep their job. That’s how it plays out.

But now we’ve got some really bad information in the organization because we have these quote/unquote expectations that first of all aren’t realistic and now we’ve got this layer of storytelling on top of it, which is here’s how you get around that and that will get trained to new people.

This is where management ceases to be functional and starts becoming ceremonial. Now we’re getting the work done despite management instead of thanks to the feedback and adjustment of management. That’s what we’re really trying to avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I think it takes a pretty good level of understanding in terms of what’s really on your plate and what you’re really committed to in order to have those. I think there’s a lot of people in work/life experience almost sort of like a chaotic sea of just too much and it’s kind of just all a big old cesspool of requests and action items. For many it’s a matter of what is latest and loudest, the most urgent and terrifying fire that they need to handle. It’s not a really fun way to live.

Edward Muzio
No, it’s more than that. … your cesspool quote. It takes years off your life. It’s not even funny. It literally does.

That goes back to that output and status broadcasting, which is one of the things we advise managers at all levels is you need to have three or five or seven things which you can use – it’s almost like an elevator pitch – to summarize the output you’re delivering. That output and that story and that summary needs to be presented over and over again to your next level, your next level so that people understand what they’re doing because we’re all subject to overload. We’re all subject to that cesspool of endless stuff.

If there’s not a clear drumbeat from management saying here’s what we’re measuring, here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re forecasting on, here’s where we’re going, then it’s just easy to get lost.

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

Edward Muzio
I think probably the last thing I would say is as you think about this, as the listeners think about this, I’ve found that there’s some confusion in that we need some more language around managing.

When you become a manager you start reading and getting advice about how to manage people, I like to call that managing with a capital ‘ing.’ That is true for anybody who manages people. You have to set goals, you have to deal with compensation, you have to help them solve their issues, you have to help them develop. That’s all tremendously important.

There’s another category of work that I call management with a capital ‘ment.’ That is being a member of the broader team of managers who together work in concert with each other and coordination with each other to coordinate and adapt the resources of the organization to achieve its goals.

I believe that most of what’s written for managers is written about managing with a capital ‘ing.’ My book, Iterate, is written about management with a capital ‘ment.’ I think it’s complimentary and equally important and often overlooked.

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

Edward Muzio
One that I really like is – it’s from Pema Chodron, who’s actually a Buddhist, but she says, “We’re all capable of becoming fundamentalist because we get addicted to other people’s wrongness.” I like that kind of on a personal level, but I also like it on a group meetings level. We’ve all been in meetings where someone was a fundamentalist because they were addicted to everyone else’s wrongness.

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

Edward Muzio
There was a study done years ago by a very famous guy named Asch. It was about social conformity. The idea was five people are around a table and you show all five people these different lines. Two of them are the same length and you ask them which two. The first four people give the wrong answer, but they’re in on it. The fifth person – the question was will the fifth person speak out against the group or will they go along. Overwhelmingly they went along.

But the piece that I find myself quoting is that thing’s been – that’s from the ‘60s. It’s been redone a lot of times, but somewhere around 2005 – 2006, somebody did it again with an MRI machine on the subject. The question was are they just sort of rolling over and they secretly know the answer, but they’re not saying it or is their perception being changed.

Asch, himself, always thought it was just a question of people – they just didn’t have the something, the courage or the stamina to speak up. What we found out was it actually changes your perception.

Group think is more than we thought. It’s not just about a lack of courage. Your perception changes. That just I think highlights the importance of if you see a difference, speak out in a group because even if you’re wrong, just you speaking out might help the next person who actually sees the real thing to actually be able to see it. You’re actually helping the perceptiveness of the group.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s a nice implication to highlight. Thank you. Yeah. How about a favorite book?

Edward Muzio
I’m just finishing up a book called The Insightful Leader by Carlann Fergusson. It’s about – it’s sort of the flip side of the coin to play to your strengths, which is how any one of those strengths, like results orientation or something, can become a hindrance. I think she did a really good job of explaining it got you here, but also it can become a hindrance and how to sort of keep your strength and not overdo it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Edward Muzio
A couple. Ladder of Inference by Chris Argyris. If you don’t know that one, you can Google it. It talks about how we build sort of our perceptions of what’s going on around us.

The other one is if you don’t know Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I won’t try and spell it, but just look for Flow. It’s about sort of having these great experiences of enjoying ourselves and it has to do with challenge and knowledge or ability being held in bounds. Those have been useful to me personally, but also professionally.

Pete Mockaitis
My hat’s off for correctly pronouncing his name. I imagine you’ve practiced it before.

Edward Muzio
I did one of my whiteboard videos – I have a series of whiteboard videos. I actually called his office and said, “Please just say his name to me enough times that I can get it because I don’t want to say it wrong.” Now I’ve got good notes on it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve Googled it myself. Well done. How about a favorite habit?

Edward Muzio
It’s sort of boring but I live my life by my calendar. I’ve got my calendar on a separate monitor next to me at all times. I schedule everything from meetings to things I have to do. I think I would be I would guess 80% less effective if I didn’t live by my calendar. I feel like that’s a good one.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks who are listening to you?

Edward Muzio
It’s from my mentor actually. The quote is “You can’t make a pie one slice at a time.” His name is Bill Daniels. He taught me a lot of this stuff when I first got into this space. It’s about that idea of those linked teams, which are you can’t assign Ed to one thing and Fred to something else and Pete to something else and then knit it all together later. If you’re a team, you have to act like a team. You can’t bake a pie one slice at a time.

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

Edward Muzio
A couple places. IterateNow.com, that’s just I-T-E-R-A-T-ENow.com. That’s the site for the book. It’s got my bio and my social media handles and things like that. My firm is Group Harmonics and GroupHarmonics.com. That’s where our offerings and classes and stuff are.

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

Edward Muzio
I think the thing I would say is we’ve been talking about without talking about culture, the culture around us. I think people tend to feel powerless. On that walk to your car, it’s like the culture is the weather.

But the culture really isn’t the weather; the culture has actually been clearly defined by people who have thought about it a lot as the collection of habits we took forward from the past. The implication is what you’re doing now is going to become the culture of tomorrow. If you’re walking to your car, it’s not the weather; it’s your habits. It’s how you swing your arms, it’s whether you smoke a cigarette, those kind of things.

I think my challenge is if you’ve got a world where it seems like management is more ceremonial than functional, don’t just say “Oh that’s the culture, nothing I can do,” and throw your hands up. Instead say, “Oh, that’s the culture. What can I do differently today that people will notice and repeat tomorrow so that I can change the culture?”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, Ed, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you tons of luck with your book, Iterate, and all you’re up to.

Edward Muzio
Pete, thank you, likewise. Enjoyed the time and good luck with your show.

388: How to Not Suck at Managing with Aaron Levy

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Founder of Raise the Bar, Aaron Levy, shares four key habits that improve team performance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why must managers suck
  2. How and why to listen better
  3. Examples of powerful questions

About Aaron

Aaron is the Founder and CEO of Raise The Bar, a firm focused on helping companies address the problem of millennial turnover.

Aaron is an ICF Associate Certified Coach, a Thrive Global contributor, an 1871 mentor, the Co-Director of Startup Grind Chicago and a member of the Forbes Coaches Council. He has educated, coached, and consulted over 5,500 business leaders, helping them to define goals, create action plans, and achieve sustained success.

Aaron is on a mission to transform the manager role – by empowering each manager with the tools, skills, and training to be leaders of people who unlock the potential of their team.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Aaron Levy Interview Transcript

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

Aaron Levy
How are you doing Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, doing well, doing well. I think the first thing we need to cover right away is your morning habit of listening to Disney music. What’s the backstory here?

Aaron Levy
I have just always been a fan of Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, the Disney classics. For some reason it puts me in a really good and happy mood. My wife kind of … will take the iPad around the house as I’m blasting some Disney music or lately it’s also been Queen. Anything that has good, high energy that just is fun to listen to in the morning.

Pete Mockaitis
Are there some particular Disney tracks that are at the very top of your list?

Aaron Levy
Oh, you’re getting particular here. There is. There’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which is one of those where it’s like the soundtrack of Lion King a little bit. That’s a fun one in the morning.

Pete Mockaitis
Particularly the high-pitched pieces.

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I would sing or hum the tune for you, but I’m pretty tone deaf, so I don’t think anybody listening would really understand what I’m talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s hear now about your company, Raise the Bar. What’s your story here?

Aaron Levy
How far back do you want me to go? Do you want me to give you a little bit of the background of it and why we started it or just the high level?

Pete Mockaitis
I’d like to know your current problem that you’re tacking and how you do it.

Aaron Levy
Yeah, so that goes back just a slight bit. It goes with the idea and the curiosity I’ve had around why when people know better don’t they do better. Why is there this gap between knowledge and action? It’s something I’ve always been fascinated by.

It’s the same reason why only 8% of people ever accomplish their New Year’s resolutions. It’s not because they don’t know what to do. It’s because they don’t actually do it. That was something that I spent the early part of my career studying the science of why do people do what they do, of how do they move efficiently and effectively from knowledge to action, and why do some people do that and other people not.

As I started to see that throughout my career and as I started to play out and look at the research and say how does it work in real life, how do people actually move from knowledge to action? I had the good fortune of working with thousands upon thousands of leaders in our first organization. In doing that what I got to see is what really works and what doesn’t. More importantly, I uncovered what filled me up, which is helping people unlock their potential.

Pete, the reason I’m giving you kind of this long-winded thought process is because what I started to see around me when I got clearer on my purpose in life, which was to help people unlock their potential, was a bunch of my friends not doing that, a bunch of people around the world not doing that. I saw that in terms of people jumping from job to job to job.

It didn’t really matter how much money they were making, if they were at a really cool fast growing start up, if they were in San Francisco or Chicago or if they were working with their best friends. They were either planning to leave their company or already leaving their company.

What that told me and what I saw there was two things. One was this group of individuals who are not satisfied, who are not fulfilled, who are not tapping into their full potential and organizations who want their employees to be at their best. If your employee is at their best, you’re succeeding. It’s good for you as an organization. I saw this two-sided problem.

What I started to realize is what’s the one biggest factor or point of leverage within any organization to impact the engagement and potential and growth of an individual employee? That’s the manager position. Unfortunately, most managers suck.

The reason most managers suck is because we promote them because they’re good at what they do, but not because they’re good at leading people. Those are two very different skillsets. What we do at Raise the Bar is we say that doesn’t have to be the case. We help empower managers to be better leaders of people by giving them the tools, and skills, and training.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s a bold statement, “Most managers suck.” I guess depending how you are assessing/measuring that, I think it’s defensible with the data and the research. Let’s hear a little bit about that research in terms of, that’s the missing link and the driver behind attrition and great managers are the key to getting great retention. Can you share some of the research behind that?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I would say the first thing, there’s studies by Gallup that talk about how one in every ten managers actually have the tools, skills, and training to lead people. They’re soft skills. They’re skills like listening, asking powerful questions, holding critical conversations.

We think leadership is innate. Someone either has it or doesn’t. Do you think someone learning how to model on Excel is innate? Do we think someone learning how to financially project or forecast is innate? No, it’s a skill. Now, it’s a hard skill. That’s one of the things that we talk about. We train on soft skills.

That is kind of when we first think about the defensibleness of that statement that I made of most managers suck. Again, it’s not their fault. They just don’t have or aren’t given the skills. Harvard Business Review has this report where 69% of managers are actually uncomfortable communicating with their employees.

Pete Mockaitis
I saw that. That just still blows my mind. I read the whole thing.

Aaron Levy
Yeah, right? We could dive – these are just stats – but we could dive so much deeper into it. The three primary drivers – I did a lot of my initial research on what’s really going on here. Why are specifically the Millennial population, which is the largest population of the workforce. They’ve over 50% of the workforce now. In the next ten years they’re going to be close to 60 or 70% of the workforce.

We started to say, what’s the driver for this generation? What are the drivers that keep them in the workplace? What I started to hear in every leave story – because I started gathering the leave stories from people – why are you leaving, why did you leave, why are you planning to leave – it was one of three or all of three factors, which is one, “I want purpose or impact in the work I’m doing.”

It doesn’t mean I want to be doing humanitarian work across the globe. It means I want to know that the work I’m doing actually makes a difference towards this organization’s larger goals, just want to know that I’m making some sort of a difference.

The second one is “I want to feel connected to my team, to my company, to my boss.” Both of those have ties into the research and science of Richard Ryan and Ed Deci and their theory on self-determination theory. In that there’s the need for relatedness, connection to people around you.

Then the third thing that people are looking for, and Millennials specifically, is growth. I want to feel like my company cares deeply about my growth and development. If you just look at it from a logical perspective, who has the biggest influence on your individual growth from the organization? Who has the biggest influence on your level of connection to your team, to your company, to your boss? It’s your boss.

That’s the person that holds your growth and can be your coach. That’s the person is usually – and every organization is a little bit different – but I would say most of the time is directly responsible for your growth and development plans, for your performance reviews, for all of the things that are involved around your growth, your connection to the company, and showing you how your work makes an impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m sold. Then in terms of how to not suck, you mentioned four essential habits to be better leaders: the motivate, the evaluate, the communicate, and the serve. Can you orient us a little bit to how did we come up with these four and how do we do them better?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, there’s nothing crazy special about these four. What I call these four, I call these actually the traits or the outcomes that great leaders produce. A great leader if you look – you can look at all the leadership books that are out there, all the thousands of books. It’s kind of what we did when we looked at the science and the studies. We whittled down into what do great leaders – what are the traits of a great leader? What makes a leader great?

You say, well, their ability to motivate people. They can really motivate people. They’re masters at evaluating people, situations, environments. They can determine who to plug in, where, what to do, who’s on the right project, who’s on the right team, what’s going on. They communicate directly. They realize that in order to lead, you actually have to serve others. Leadership is an act of service.

Those are great outcomes. Those are great traits of leaders, but, Pete, you don’t go into work on Monday, you don’t just say, “I’m going to go motivate today.” It’s not an action that you do.

What we’ve done is we’ve said okay, if those are the powerful traits of leaders, where most people focus their energy and attention, what we’re going to focus our energy and attention is what actions done over and over again lead to motivation and how can we focus our energy on the actions that happen every day that you produce every day that will lead to somebody feeling motivated?

That’s the act of listening with intention/attention. To ask powerful questions, you actually or to evaluate you first need to ask powerful questions. To communicate directly, you actually need to set up the foundation for psychological safety and give clarity so that direct communication can occur. To serve, you actually need to hold critical conversations.

What we focus on at Raise the Bar is, what are the actions applied over and over again that become habits, which will enable you to lead powerfully in any situation/environment? Whereas most people focus on, okay, let’s motivate and let’s talk about the processes and the toolkits that you can use to motivate, as opposed to what are the skills, what’s the underlying skill that helps people feel motivated?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk about those underlying skills for getting people to feel motivated. You mentioned the listening with intention and attention. How’s that done?

I love the point you brought up about it not being an innate skill. I’m thinking about my little one-year-old at home here and thinking about other – it might be a skill you just expect people to have by the time they get to you, but that’s not the same as it being innate.

Much like I might expect him to be able to do algebra, be able to set up and solve for X when we’re trying to figure out how many calls we have to make or whatever to achieve a sales outcome, but it’s not innate. They had to learn it somewhere. I think a lot of us have not learned this listening and that motivates skills. How is it done and how do we learn it?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I’ll try and be as quick as possible because this is done over a whole month module that we do. Here’s a couple of things that I love that you said out of that.

One is we assume it’s an innate skill, but it’s not, like algebra. Algebra you’ve practiced. You’ve had someone look over your shoulder and give you tips on what didn’t work and what worked. You’ve gone home and you’ve done homework and you’ve messed up and you’ve taken tests on it.

When was the last time you took a test on listening? When was the last time you had a conversation recorded and analyzed by a peer or a coach or a teacher? For most people in the world, the answer is never. For a very few, where negotiation is a part of their job and they have to, where coaching is a part of their job. I’m a certified coach, so I had to do that.

I sucked at listening too. I’m still not great. I’m getting better at it hopefully because I’m practicing it on a daily basis. But most of us think we’re good listeners. The same thing as if you ask a room of 100 people how many of you think you’re a good driver and everybody raises their hand. Not everybody in the room is a good driver.

If you ask the people how many of you think you’re a good listener, most people raise their hand. But when you ask them when was the last time you’ve practiced the skill of listening, when you’ve had it assessed, when you’ve really dove into the science of listening, most people haven’t.

The first thing that we have people do or one of the first things that we have people do once they get this awareness that “Okay, maybe I have some area to grow here,” is we have them look for what we call their listening blind spot.

What I mean by a blind spot is it is a habitual thought or behavior pattern, something that your brain has been doing over and over again thousands upon thousands of times and it is what your normal, natural tendency is when you show up in a conversation.

For example, my listening blind spot is I’m listening to make a connection. Anytime I’m talking to somebody, I’m trying to say, “Oh yeah, you’re from Michigan too. I have my sister from Michigan here.” I’m trying to make connections to everything. That was really great for me in my career to connect me to people and endear me to others, but that also holds me back from being a powerful listener.

Others, plenty of my clients have, “I’m listening to find out if I should be paying attention.” “I’m listening to solve the problem.” “I’m listening to figure out the next step that I have to do.” “I’m listening to see if this person needs help.” We’re all listening for some reason and that is your blind spot. Until you’re aware of it, you can’t do anything about it.

We often tell people to really get clear on what your blind spot is because that blind spot is something that’s going to hold you back until you’re aware that you do it. Change – this is where we focus on the science of behavior change. Change doesn’t happen unless you’re aware.

What we first do is build awareness around how do you typically listen so that you can notice it and in future situations look at it from afar and say, “Oh, okay, I’m doing it. Crap, I’m doing it again. Okay, well, I noticed I did it. Now let me do something else.”

Pete Mockaitis
I think some listeners will be like, “Well, what else is there?” if I’m listening for connection when you need to make a connection and listening to solve a problem when we’re solving problems. What would be the ideal if these are our blind spots and not the optimum?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, that’s a great question. We think okay, that’s moving us forward, but what you’ll see is you’re not actually with the other person in the conversation. Rarely are you actually sitting and listening with attention to what the other person is saying and with simply the intention of having them feel heard or of supporting them.

Instead of trying to problem solve when you’re with somebody, instead of trying to listen to solve something – oftentimes I come home and my wife will tell me something and the first thing I’ll do is try and solve it. That’s not what she wants. She just wants to be heard. She just wants to know that I’m here and listening to her. That’s some training that I’ve given myself over the years is actually just sitting there without any need to move forward and just being.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a nice – that has an emotional resonance to it. There’s no need to move forward and to just be. Then how do they get the memo that you – that they’ve been heard, that you really understand where they’re coming from and why whatever it is matters to them or what they’re worried about or excited about? How does that get conveyed?

Aaron Levy
When was the last time you had a really powerful conversation with a friend or family member?

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll say Christmas Eve.

Aaron Levy
Wow, that’s close. Good. Did you feel heard?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Aaron Levy
It’s as simple as that. You notice when you’ve felt heard. There doesn’t need to be a sign post. There doesn’t need to be anything else. When someone feels heard, one, they’ll share more. They’ll open up more. They’ll give you more.

Even in a work setting, when you don’t fill the quiet space with your talk and you actually let someone fully answer a question, what happens is they get to get their thoughts out. Because as human beings we think at 1- to 3,000 words per minute. We listen at 1- to 300. Listening is inherently difficult.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. The other interesting thing is we think at 1- to 3,000 words per minute and we speak at about 1 to 200 words per minute. The  process of getting something out of your brain and then out of your mouth to sound the way you want it to sound, doesn’t work well for all of us, which is why we need some more time to get it out, which is why we need to give people the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas. You’ll see they feel more engaged, they feel more heard.

For the salespeople that are listening to this, if you ever just shut up and listen in a sales conversation, oftentimes they’ll say “That was a great conversation.” You’ll say, “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything.” Yeah, that’s what happens is people feel like they’ve had a really good conversation because they finally had a chance to feel heard.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s interesting you’re saying it’s not about doing the “Uh-huh. I see. Oh.” It’s not about chiming in with those little ‘I’m listening’ thingies, so much as they just pick up on it when it happens.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Here’s the other thing is we do an activity. It’s hard to take us through it right here, but we do an activity that helps people trigger a way to be and a way to show up with intention, with attention. We kind of trigger that individual.

What happens I would say 95% of the time with the leaders that we work with is we don’t tell them the verbal cues to give, we don’t tell them to talk or to not talk as a listener, we don’t tell them how to sit. Yet, as I walk around the room once we’ve triggered this, to a T, almost every single person that’s listening is facing the other person, is looking at the other person in the eyes or looking at their face.

They might even be talking a little bit as a means to continue the conversation, but not as a means to fulfill their agenda. They’re there with the other person’s agenda in mind.

What really happens is those cues can show you things, but don’t just follow those cues as markers, actually show up and be there with the intention of hearing the other person, of being with the other person, of – for me what I talk about is if my purpose in life is to unlock people’s potential, then the intention I set is hey, I’m here to unlock somebody else’s potential.

That might mean shutting up and letting someone speak. That might mean interjecting. But that means fully being here and being focused and not thinking about what’s going on around me, not thinking about the next conversation I have. I put all distractions away. I put my phone on silent. I’m just there with the other person.

Pete Mockaitis
Aaron, I’m afraid I cannot let you off the hook. Let’s take a crack at to the extent that it’s possible in this medium, what’s this exercise?

Aaron Levy
Okay. The first and most important thing of this exercise is getting really clear on what is your, what we call your commitment to the world. That is a much bigger question than most people want to answer in a podcast, in a workshop, anywhere in life because they think it’s this big hairy, scary thing.

But the truth is that each of us have a purpose, each of us are connected to it whether we know It or not. It’s not something that we have to go out and find. It’s actually something we have in here. There’s this great quote by Seneca that says, “You can have all the wind in your sails, but if you have no harbor to sail to, then you’re going nowhere.”

What we focus on very early on is getting really clear on “Hey, what is your commitment to bring to others, to bring or the world?” For somebody it might be to bring the truth. For somebody else it might be to show others what integrity looks like. For me, it’s to help unlock your potential. When you get that, when you actually connect with that, what happens is you feel like you have this much stronger connection and dial in to who you are and why you’re here.

What you’ll find and what you can look for and how to find that is to think about what are some of the most proud moments of your life, what are some of the most significant experiences, what are some of the things that piss you off the most or even what was a conversation where you felt you were really at your best with somebody else?

Oftentimes those all tie back to a couple common themes. It might tie back to sharing love with others. It might tie back to bringing honesty to the world. It might tie back to speaking up for people who can’t speak up for themselves. But it’s usually something subtle and simple.

When it resonates with you, for those of you who are listening, so you’re just thinking about it, I know it’s not an easy task to just listen to a podcast and come up with your commitment. When you do or when you come on to something, it’s like there’s a resonance in your whole body. When that happens, that’s what we actually…then before a listening conversation we trigger.

We practice connecting with the neural pathways that say this is my commitment and we build signs along those neural pathways so that you can more easily trigger that before a conversation with somebody else.

Pete Mockaitis
You said build signs, what’s that mean?

Aaron Levy
We’ll go a little bit into the science of human behavior. When we talk about building a new habit, in your brain it’s creating a neural connection, but what it really looks like is going into a ten-foot high field of grass and walking through the grass and paving a path. Not paving a path with a road crew and construction crew, but paving a path by walking down that grass and matting it down.

But it’s not going to happen if you do it just once. You have to hundreds of thousands of times. The more you walk down it, the more easily findable that path is. Instead of just walking down the path and matting it, what we do is we put signs. We say, “You’re going in the right direction,” or “Nope, you’ve lost your way. U-turn.”

We put signs and markers along the way so you’re able to identify, “Hey, am I taking the right action or the right path to know if I’m going in the right direction.” We do that with people by saying “Hey, this is what it feels like to be connected to your commitment.  This is what it feels like in your chest, in your body, or this is a word that you can connect to it.” What we’re doing is putting three words, ‘unlock your potential’ that’s a sign for me to connect to what I do and why I’m here.

Did that give you some explanation? I know we’re kind of getting deep into – I don’t always in conversations like this dive this deep into the science of behavior change and commitment and purpose ….

Pete Mockaitis
Oh Aaron, you know just what to say to make a podcaster smile. Well, good. I appreciate it. It’s good. We’re talking about all right, you connect to your purpose. You take some deep reflection and maybe a little bit of time to arrive at what’s inside. You land at hey, well, what’s really meaningful to you and what really upsets you. You’re there.

Then I’m hearing you want to get to that place, connect to that sort of state of resonance, like, “Oh yeah, I’m jazzed about my purpose.” You want to get there just before a listening session.

Aaron Levy
Correct. The thing is, this is practice. If you want to get there before a conversation where you know you’re going to want to show up and listen, whether it’s a one-on-one you have an employee, a conversation you’re going to sit down and have with your partner, anything where you know.

There’s plenty of other situations where you’re listening but you’re not prepared for it or you’re not thinking about it. What we’re not trying to do here is we’re not trying to say be a better listener in every single situation ever once you’ve practiced, once. Just do it better everywhere. We understand that you don’t learn how to ride a bike by just riding it once and you perfect it. You fall a bunch.

What we try and do is say let’s set yourself up for success by having a couple conversations a week. Maybe one or two where you know, “Hey, I want to show up kind of in this state. I want to remove all distractions. I want to know what the purpose of this conversation is.” I want to know the agenda or the desired outcome of the conversation from my perspective and the other’s perspective.

That way I kind of removed all of those distractions of where are we going, of what do I have to do next, and you’re able to show up with that person. You do that a couple of times really well and you start to get those signs. You say, “Oh, this is what somebody else says,” or “This is how they show up,” or “This is how a conversation can go when I’m really listening.” Then we put those signs up.

The more signs you put up, the more you take the path, the easier it is to go back to it so that eventually the more you practice, it becomes habitual and you’re just doing it as opposed to having to think about doing it. But again, what we start with is the couple of actions that done over and over and over again will lead to habit.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess what I find interesting is let’s say your purpose is to give voice to the voiceless for example. That gets you fired up. You’re like, “Yes. This is the thing.” That’s a great way to feel and great way to be. But that is also helpful in a context of listening. I don’t know. Can you connect the dots for me here?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, yeah. Oftentimes people will say when we talk about this or we think about it, because right now we’re thinking about it, we’re not being with this idea. We’re thinking about, how does this apply?

Oftentimes a leader will say to me, “Well, if I want bring the voice to the voiceless, then oftentimes what I’ll do is I’ll be speaking for them or I’ll be taking what’s going on with them and trying to share it right away or trying to dig into it as much as I can.”

I say, “Yeah, that’s what you think will happen, but I promise you, go back to that state, go to that state of being the voice for the voiceless and what happens when you show up in that state with any person, whether it’s the voiceless or somebody who has a voice, you will show up differently.” It’s hard to explain. It’s kind of magical. But when you step into that space, what ends up happening is it empowers you to really be with somebody else.

I know when I show up wanting to unlock someone’s potential or understanding that, I’m just there with them. I’m engrossed with attention and intention towards who they are.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I think the connection may be, speculating here.

Aaron Levy
Go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
That your purpose – this has come up a number of times, we talked about purpose – it’s always one way or another to help people. There’s a service bit to the purpose. No one’s purpose is ever “I am going to become a mega billionaire.” That’s not really a resonant purpose. It might be fun and exciting. But I guess the purpose things are service-oriented.

When you’re listening, in large part, the game in terms of the being side of things is that it’s not about you. You’re taking yourself out of it and you’re being of service to another person. In a way that’s kind of – if I’m thinking through this – that could be sort of like your linkage there. It’s like, “I’m getting into a resonant serving mode and that is a state that is highly conducive to listening.”

Aaron Levy
Pete, if this was a game show, I’d be like dinging the bells. You got it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

Aaron Levy
You’re spot on right there. No, that’s exactly right. What you’ll have and what people often get caught up on is “Well, my purpose is to bring in more money,” “to make money,” “to generate wealth.” We have this all the time. Yet, the challenge is the question that I often ask people is “When you have all the money that you want, what will that give you?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. Okay.

Aaron Levy
Someone says, “So I can provide,” “So I can serve somebody else,” but then it goes to the real core.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I got you. That’s cool. All right, so you get in that state, it seems like that’s the whole ball of wax there when it comes to listening well? You get there and then you just shut up and put your attention on the other person?

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Here’s the interesting thing is a lot of the work that we do is quite simple, but it’s not easy to do. We can boil it down into understand your blind spot, what holds you back from listening, get really clear on what triggers you to listen well, remove distractions and show up and do it. But it’s not so easy to do because behavior change is not an easy thing.

That’s where we focus on deliberate practice, which is the focus that we don’t often spend enough in some of these soft skills. It’s not just doing it once, but doing it once with kind of like training wheels on and your parents next to you. Then taking the training wheels off and riding your bike and falling and scraping your knee.

What happens is when people try these skills in the real world and they fall and they scrape their knee, is they say, “That didn’t work. I’m never going to do it again,” or “That felt uncomfortable. I’m never going to do it again.”

What we encourage and what we design in our work with leaders is that’s not an option. They actually have to go out and apply it in real life after applying it in our workshops. Then in real life they figure out what doesn’t work, what does work. Then they get on a call with their coach. Their coach will diagnose and work with them to understand what worked and what didn’t.

So often leaders say, “Wow, this blew up in my face. This was really bad.” Well, great. You’re supposed to fail because you’re going to learn from that. But the second thing is when we diagnose in a coaching session, they realize that out of the ten elements that they had or out of the conversation, only 30% wasn’t really that good. 70% they got was amazing was they learned something new about somebody else.

They learned something new about a team member. They learned that a team member is planning to leave and this is why they’re planning to leave. It’s not a great outcome, but it’s better than not knowing.

The 30% of what didn’t work was either the setup, was their patience in it, was the close out. We work with them to understand and to diagnose and to debrief and to really reflect on what worked and what didn’t work because that’s where learning happens. It’s what we call a learn, apply, reflect. You have to learn the skill. Then you have to apply the skill. Then you have to reflect. You do that over again and that’s deliberate practice.

Pete Mockaitis
In the … of listening, is there any part of paraphrasing, summarizing, is that in the mix?

Aaron Levy
Not necessarily, no.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Aaron Levy
It can be depending on the conversation. It can be, “What I heard you say, Pete, is,” but it’s not necessarily part of it because every conversation’s a little bit different. We don’t set people up for just a specific type of conversation. We say show up and listen in any conversation.

You show up this way, sometimes there doesn’t need to be a paraphrase. Sometimes you don’t need to say a word and someone just needs to be heard. Sometimes you do need to paraphrase and you need to recap after a one-on-one or after a performance. You can say, “Hey, what I heard you say is this. These are the action steps we’re going to take.” Sure, but that’s not necessarily the action every time after listening.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s good. Well that was fun. We talked a lot about listening. I guess we can’t cover all four after all. But that’s – we’ll have to have you back. All right, let’s talk about asking powerful questions. How’s this done?

Aaron Levy
I’ll try and be quick with it. If you want to dig deeper, I’m happy to dive into it fully. Asking powerful questions is really the key to exploring, to evaluating situations. It’s done by understanding one, we have biases as human beings.

If you look at the research by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, kind of if anyone’s ever heard of the book Moneyball, that idea, that concept of Moneyball, of the way our brain can lie to us when we look at a baseball player, just because we look at their sexy stats versus the stats that really are impactful, those are called biases and heuristics.

Our brain has tons of these biases to make life easier for us so we don’t have to think. We kind of take shortcuts as a brain, so we don’t have to think through everything we do in a day. But those shortcuts hold us back. Those shortcuts confirm what we think we already know about a person, a situation, an event.

This is by the way, my hardest skill to work on because I like to move quickly. In moving quickly, I assume and when I assume, I confirm what I thought I knew, but I’m not right necessarily. I used to get myself, especially earlier in my career, in a lot of trouble doing that. I’d make a lot of mistakes along the way because I’d assume something and I’d move fast. It doesn’t mean you can’t move fast. It means you need to check your biases.

The blind spot here – each of these skills has a blind spot – the blind spot here is your confirmation bias, is confirming what you already think to know based on the information at hand versus challenging your beliefs and exploring if there’s other information to be learned.

The trigger to actually start to ask powerful questions is looking at a three-year old kid. A three-year-old kid is someone who is constantly curious. They have this genuine desire to explore, to learn more. They say, “What is that about? How does that work? Why are we doing this? How does this work?” In doing that what they’re doing is they’re exploring. They’re exploring the world and unknowingly asking powerful questions.

The trigger to asking powerful questions is to let go of your assumption that you know the answers and be curious and ask yourself, “What don’t I know here?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good question. Can you lay on some more favorite go-to questions for us?

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Here’s the thing, Pete, I won’t, because when I went through my training and I said I want to learn how to ask powerful questions. Just give me the list. I’ll do it. I was great at – give me a checklist. I’ll follow them. I’ll ask those questions in my coaching sessions. I’ll ask those questions with clients. Great, I’ll be done. Everybody wants a list.

Unfortunately, powerful questions, there is no list of them. There is no pure this is a powerful question or it’s not because powerful questions have to happen in the moment. They have to happen in context. You might have a question and then you ask it at the wrong time or the wrong person or in the wrong context and it’s not powerful at all.

What I will tell people is, which are really good tips for you is although why questions might seem to be very powerful, why has just a natural response to people that can make them defensive or make them think too far into the question. Instead of asking why, ask what or how. Instead of “Why does this matter to you,” “What about this matters to you? What makes this so important?”

It takes an extra second to change a why question to a what question, but the why will throw somebody off a little bit. I encourage you to use a what or a how. Don’t use a yes or no question. “Did you like this?” “Did you have fun?” “Was this meaningful for you?” Likely, not powerful questions, not guaranteed, but likely not powerful questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Fair enough. I won’t press for the list, but maybe if you could regale us with a couple examples of questions that you have asked multiple times or been asked multiple times that seem to do the trick.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Here’s a couple. What’s the impact if nothing changes? What would that look like to you? What’s so important about this? Those can be powerful questions, not guaranteed, but they’re simple, they’re clear, they’re concise, they’re open-ended. The thing that I can’t tell you which they are or they aren’t – this is kind of a checklist for powerful questions: simple, clear, concise, open-ended – is I don’t know if they’re in the moment. I don’t know if they’re in context.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s helpful. Thank you. Well, so could you maybe give us the-

Aaron Levy
What’s driving you to get this list of powerful questions?

Pete Mockaitis
What’s that? What’s driving me?

Aaron Levy
What’s driving you to get this list of powerful questions?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh my purpose to develop and disseminate knowledge that transforms the experience of being alive.

Aaron Levy
There you go. Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Fired up. Ready to listen. Although, that’s a lot of words if you’re talking about simple. Let’s hear maybe when it comes to the communicate and the serve pieces, communicating directly, holding critical conversations, do you have sort of a quick sort of a do’s and don’ts that you might share within these ballparks?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I’ll give quick for communicate directly. There are tips for communicating directly, which are important, but not nearly as important as laying the foundation for direct communication to occur. What that is is that’s creating psychological safety. Psychological safety is this feeling of I can say something without feeling like I will make a mistake or speak up, without feeling like I’m going to be made fun of or ridiculed.

When Google’s project, Aristotle, looked at what makes high performing teams, they looked at okay, let’s look at teams that are the best team members, let’s look at teams that have the best individual – what they found was that it had nothing to do with the individual’s themselves. It had to do with the team. It had to do with psychological safety.

Do people feel psychologically safe to speak up, to say something, to challenge ideas? Do they have clarity about what they’re going after and how they’re working with each other? What are the expectations of this team? The two things we talk about are how to build those.

The first way to do that is to create a set of team agreements. Really that’s just as a leader of a team, it’s getting really clear on what are your expectations of how other people on this team should show up and work with you. If they’re not clear to everybody on the team, they should be clear. They should be communicated. People should align on them and connect with them and be able to resonate with them.

That’s what we talk about for direct communication. It’s really creating the foundation for direct communication to occur.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, how about on the serving, holding those critical conversations?

Aaron Levy
Yeah. It’s putting together all those other pieces really well. It’s listening. It’s asking powerful questions. It’s having a direct communication conversations set up beforehand because sometimes it’s just giving feedback.

But if something’s really critical, that means that there is an impact of not having the conversation. It’s understanding that feedback is a gift and by not giving someone feedback, you’re holding them back. You’re not serving them. In order to serve them, you might have to tell them that they’re not doing well or that assessment didn’t work or they’re not the right fit for the team. Things that you feel people won’t be able to necessarily recover from.

The truth is human beings are creative, resourceful and whole. They are able to. If you hold them to this higher standard, then they live up to it. When we see them as needing fixing or being broken, we don’t see that feedback as a gift. When we see them as whole, we can actually start to give feedback and it can be a gift. Whether they see it as a gift now or in ten years from now, that is some of the most important things that you can do.

We talk about that as a leader is having that conversation. Now we have a two-part process for doing it, for stepping away from the critical nature of the conversation and reflecting on what’s actually happening. But the most important idea and concept from that is feedback is a gift. There’s a quote that I love is, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well I was just going to ask for some favorite things, including a favorite quote. Sounds like you got us going there. Now could you share a favorite study, a piece of research that you found helpful?

Aaron Levy
Man, there’s a lot. I’m reading the book Give and Take right now by Adam Grant. In it there is a study about the importance of giving people energy and attention whether or not you think they are high potentials.

It’s a study that they did with students. They told certain teachers that, “Hey, these students are rock stars. They have – they’ve done really well in all these pre-tests and so they are –“ I don’t know the word that they used – “they’re all-stars.” Then they said, “These students aren’t.” Then they tracked where the students and how the students grew and how they performed over the year.

The people who were identified as all-stars performed 50% better than the others. Well, what happened was they weren’t actually all-stars in any shape of way you define it. They had just defined them that way for the teachers. What the study started to show was that the people inherently then give them more energy and attention because they think they have the potential to achieve into it.

What I took from that is as leaders if we see the potential in each of our employees, whether we think one is a high potential or the other’s not, if we see them all as high potentials, what we do is we elevate all of their games to a certain level, to a new level that we didn’t know was possible.

Instead of holding them back by giving them less resources, less energy, less support, we naturally do. We don’t even realize we’re doing it. If we hold everyone to that higher standard, what we’re doing is we’re giving them a chance and we’re giving ourselves a change to better equip ourselves and our team.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite-

Aaron Levy
I can’t remember the name of the study. Sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no problem. It is ringing a bell. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Aaron Levy
Meditation. Yeah, it’s something I struggled with figuring out. How do I find ten minutes in my day to just do nothing? Yet, it is the one of the more powerful, impactful tools. It trains your brain to slow down. It trains you to be. When you’re trained to be, you can listen much better because you’re just being with somebody else.

If anybody asks me what’s the one thing you should focus on doing, I would say it’s meditation. You look at the most successful people in the world and lists of them and look at their habits, to a T everyone does some sort of – not everyone, but a lot of them do some element of mindfulness or meditation in their lives.

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

Aaron Levy
Well, the first one is that feedback is a gift. I’ve already shared that and I’m going to stand with that one because that one takes a while for people to resonate with. Someone might hear it now and then think about it two years from now, but it’s really remembering that it is a gift, that the only way people can improve, the only way you can get better is if they know what’s working and what’s not working.

It’s like the analogy that I use is if you shoot a basketball in the dark, one, basketball will be no fun, and two, you’d never get back because you don’t know where the ball goes, you don’t know what happens. But as soon as you turn the light on, you can get some visual cues. You can get feedback in the moment, live on what’s working, what’s not working.

As a contributor to your team, as a leader of your team, as a friend, if you’re not giving that feedback, what you’re doing is you’re turning the lights off on your employee, your co-worker, your friend, your family member and saying “Figure it out in the dark.” It’s really this idea that giving that feedback is a gift for that person. It’s turning a light on. Whether they enjoy it in the moment or not, you can give it with tact and grace, but don’t withhold it.

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

Aaron Levy
I would point them to RaiseBar.co, R-A-I-S-E-B-A-R.co. It’s where we actually host our boot camp. All of the stuff that we’ve talked about are through two full-day workshops at a boot camp that we lead leaders through.

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

Aaron Levy
Yeah. If you are pessimistic or a naysayer about this idea of getting clear on your commitment or everybody having a commitment, sit on it, think about it, explore it, look at what fills you up. You might just find your commitment.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Aaron, this has been a whole lot of fun. I wish you and Raise the Bar tons of luck and success and keep up the good work.

Aaron Levy
Thanks so much Pete. It was a blast talking to you.

321: Making Meetings Meaningful with Mamie Kanfer Stewart

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Mamie Stewart shares her expertise in planning (and declining!) meetings, substitutes to the traditional meetings, and making meetings more beneficial and productive for everyone.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to decline a meeting so well, that they may just thank you for doing so
  2. Ideal alternatives to meetings
  3. Best practices for achieving your expected outcome in meetings

About Mamie

Mamie Kanfer Stewart is the author of Momentum: Creating Effective, Engaging, and Enjoyable Meetings. Her company, Meeteor, helps teams and organizations build healthy meeting culture. As a coach, speaker, writer, and trainer, Mamie has helped thousands of people improve their meetings and how they collaborate. Mamie has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Fast Company. She is a regular contributor on The Price of Business and is the host of The Modern Manager podcast.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Mamie Stewart Interview Transcript

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

Mamie Stewart

Thank you so much for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I want to hear first and foremost about, you do piano sing-alongs on a regular basis. What is the story here?

Mamie Stewart

Yeah, I love piano sing-alongs. I grew up playing piano, and I kind of played on and off, but in total probably about 13 years of lessons. But I never quite got into classical music, and even jazz wasn’t quite the thing for me, although I studied both for many years. And then about 10 years ago we were on a family business trip and we were in a bar, and one of our customers was playing the piano and everyone was singing along. And I was just watching the scene – I was in my mid 20s at the time – and I was like, “I want to be that person at the piano. I want to create this environment for other people. That looks like so much fun.”
So, I went home from that trip and I started playing again, and I play using guitar chords. So I use lyrics with guitar chords and I can figure out the melody in my right hand – I took enough lessons that the piano’s a really intuitive instrument for me. And now I basically only play pop songs and the whole family gets together. And we do it for parties, we’ll do it just hanging around the house with my kids and my cousins and my nieces and nephews. And we just went on another family business trip a couple of weeks ago and we did it on the business trip. And it was really fun watching my dad, because he was so proud of me. And it was really fun to be there with all of our customers again and I was actually that person at the piano, making the music happen.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s great. It just sounds so wholesome, in terms of family fun, as opposed to everyone’s on their iPad, zoning out in their own little worlds.

Mamie Stewart

Yeah, it’s really incredible when people come together like that. And I used to hate the piano because it felt like such as solo instrument to me. It’s always tucked in the corner and you can’t take it with you and sit around a bonfire. And so for a long time I didn’t like it as the instrument that I was good at. And I really wanted to learn guitar, which I since have, but actually play a lot more piano than guitar, because the power of the piano to bring people together to sing like that is just amazing. And it’s so fun when everybody’s crowded around and leaning over my shoulder and screaming out what songs they want next. It’s a lot of fun, and fun for all ages.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, it sounds like an effective meeting, if I may. How’s that for a segway?

Mamie Stewart

Nice.

Pete Mockaitis

So you’ve got a company Meeteor – clever name, like meteor with two Es before the first E. So, what’s it all about?

Mamie Stewart

So, Meeteor is all about meetings, obviously. And we used to be a technology company, and now we are more of a training and coaching and consulting company. So, we focus primarily on helping organizations and teams build effective meeting practices. And we do that by offering trainings and courses and workshops, and through coaching. So we work with a lot of teams to help them think about their collaboration practices from a broader perspective, of which meetings is one of them. But then really thinking about, what are the kinds of meetings that you’re having and how do you implement those effective meeting practices?

Pete Mockaitis

Excellent, thank you. Okay, so I want to touch on that point right there. You said you were a technology company and so you were doing software. Now you’re not. So maybe we could just quickly hit that point. What’s your take on the pros, cons, limitations of, and what’s available when it comes to meeting apps?

Mamie Stewart

So, I love technology. I’m not a technologist, I don’t know how to code. I tried it once and it was not for me. But I really believe in the power of technology to help us do our best work. And when it comes to meetings, when you have to plan an agenda, and you need to take notes, and you want that information to be available in lots of different places to all the different stakeholders that need to be informed of meetings’ outcomes, technology is wonderful. So, it can simplify and streamline your process, do wonderful things.
And there are quite a few good meeting apps that exist right now. So, a couple of them, if people are interested – BeNote is a great one, Instant Agenda, Lucid Meetings, Wisembly Jam. There’s a whole bunch out there and they’re all different. They all have a unique kind of perspective. Some of them feel a bit more corporate, some of them feel a little bit more cool and hip, some of them have more structure where they help you build an agenda using the different buckets that you need to think through, some of them are more free-flow. So they’re kind of all over the place, but it’s really about what you need to integrate with your own technology and what you need as a meeting planner or participant to get the most out of your meetings.

Pete Mockaitis

Right. I was just imagining – and this maybe exists, so you tell me – that it would be interesting in a meeting… Because I’ve been there – it’s just like, “This particular content is not at all relevant to me in any way, shape or form.” And so in a way it’s as though this segment of the meeting I could just not be at. And so I thought it would be interesting if there was maybe a live slider on an app that you could just move from 0% to 100%, like, “This is relevant and I’m into this” versus, “Not at all.” And so I guess you’d need to maybe have that in a dedicated device or something, not full of other distractions, which would cause its own set of problems. But tell me, Mamie, does that exist?

Mamie Stewart

Not that I know of, although I’m wondering if the reason it doesn’t exist is because everybody would always be on, “This isn’t relevant for me.”

Pete Mockaitis

Well, but I think that’s valuable information, especially if you’re taking seriously the cost of your meetings and saying, “Oh, okay. Duly noted. Let’s have fewer people in these meetings.” So yeah, I guess they don’t want to hear the hard truth: “I’m a boring presenter and / or I have convened a meeting that is wasting everybody’s time.”

Mamie Stewart

Yeah, and unfortunately that’s often how we see it – it’s never my meeting that’s the terrible one; it’s the meeting I have to go to that’s so bad. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

There we go. Look in the mirror.

Mamie Stewart

Exactly. It’s the reason we work with teams, because it’s really everybody’s responsibility to have an effective meeting. So if you go to a meeting that you shouldn’t be at, that’s on you too. It’s not just, “Oh well, I was invited to a meeting. I have to show up.” And if you’re planning a meeting, you’ve got to be on it too. You’ve got to be thinking a lot about who are the right people. And there are many practices. I know this isn’t rocket science, but there are clear steps you can walk through to figure out, is a meeting the right next step, and who should be there?

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, now your book Momentum covers a number of these principles. Maybe first and foremost we’ll set a little bit of the “Why” or the stage, in terms of, to what extent are poor meetings just terribly destructive and sabotaging companies’ and organizations’ efficiencies? My hunch is, the answer’s “A lot”, but if you could maybe contextualize that and see, is it just a little bit a lot, or a lot a lot a lot?

Mamie Stewart

Well, the problems with meetings are quite vast and really varied. So, they are costing people their energy, right? Everybody has been to a meeting and you walk out of it and you’re feeling so drained and frustrated. It was a waste of time. You have so many other things to do, now you’re going to have to work late. That is a real cost on people, and it’s a cost for the company.
And we can’t always quantify that but I’d say it’s a cost in lost productivity, and it’s definitely a cost in engagement, which companies are thinking a lot about: “How do we increase employee engagement?” And the number of engagement right now is very low. It’s something in the 20% or 30% of employees who report being engaged at work. And when you’re going to 5, 10, 20, 30 meetings a week, that has a big impact on how you feel about the company and the work that you’re doing. So that’s one form.
Another form is around the finances. So if you’re thinking about it from the value that you’re paying your people to be there – if you have a 5-person meeting and each person is being paid $50 an hour – that’s a $250 meeting. And most of us don’t think about meetings that way, but every hour you spend, it’s not just one hour. It’s actually five man hours if there are five people. And that can trickle down to the bottom line and it can be quantified in finance. And there are some online tools – if you just search “cost of meetings”, you’ll find different calculators to help you figure out how much are meetings actually costing you financially.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes. And I guess owning my own business I think about every hour of myself in this way. And so, if I’m in a terrible meeting, I try to be a nice guy, but I feel it – it’s like, “You are stealing money from me right now.” [laugh] In terms of, there are so many value-creating things I could be doing in these minutes, other than this. And so, I don’t know, I’ve yet to just exit, abort mission, like ejector seat, “I’m out of here.” But maybe that’s the right answer. So tell us a little bit of that, when it comes to, you say there are a number of tools when it comes to determining who should be at the meeting and should you be at the meeting. To begin with maybe, is the meeting even the appropriate choice for what we’re trying to accomplish here?

Mamie Stewart

Alright, so we’ll start at the beginning. So, if you’re planning a meeting, the first thing you want to do is figure out the desired outcome for that meeting. And we call it “desired outcome” because it really is the outcome or the result that the meeting is going to achieve, not the activity the meeting is going to be doing. So we often think about meetings by asking ourselves the question, “Why are we having this meeting?” And it’s kind of natural to answer, “To discuss, to brainstorm, to consider, to problem-solve.”
And those are all wonderful things to do in the meeting, but they’re not outcomes. So at the end of the meeting, if you ask yourself, “Did we achieve our brainstorm? Did we achieve some problem-solving? – yeah, you could say that we had a great discussion and yeah, we dug in and we thought about solutions and we problem-solved, but that doesn’t tell you if it was a productive meeting. It doesn’t actually tell you what the meeting achieved, and whether or not that helped move work forward. So, we focus on a desired outcome and we ask the question, “At the end of this meeting, what will you have achieved? What will be there?”
It’ll be something like a list of potential ideas for further investigation, or a decision that’s made and agreed upon, or a plan for the next three months with clear metrics for success, or alignment on this complicated information that we need to have a shared agreement on how to move forward. It can be written in millions of different ways, depending on what the meeting needs to accomplish, but you’re focusing on that outcome.

Pete Mockaitis

I think my least favorite outcome that I’ve heard for a meeting is, “To just kind of see where we’re at.” And I suppose maybe there’s a kernel of something that’s workable into a valid outcome there, in terms of, like you said – we truly do need to have an understanding of who is doing what and where it stands, in order to come up with, I guess, the true outcome would be, the plan going forward, or an elimination of redundant efforts, would be the success for that meeting.

Mamie Stewart

Yes, and that does happen on occasion. We say meetings that are about sharing information usually aren’t meant to be meetings. So there are lots of different ways and alternatives to meetings, so we can talk about those for a minute. You can send an email if it’s just, “Here’s some information you all need to know. Here’s an email that explains it.”
If you need people’s input on something but you don’t actually need them to interact together, you can write up a memo or have a shared document of some sort, put it online and ask for people to give input. And they can leave comments and edits and ask questions, but they can do it on their own time and you don’t have to bring them together in a room to do that.
You can also use chatting tools or other different forums, and even an alternative to a group meeting is lots of small one-on-one meetings. So, instead of me bringing five people together and taking an hour for the six of us to meet, I could go around and have a one-on-one with each of those people and spend 10 minutes with five people. I’m still spending 50 minutes of my time, but they’re only dedicating 10 minutes to me.
So I’ve saved them 50 minutes, because I went one-on-one, because I didn’t really need them all to be in the room together. I just needed to get their input on something. And it was maybe too complicated to send in a document, or maybe it’s too important and I really want to make sure that they understand what it is I’m sending and I want to talk to them face-to-face. So there are lots of ways to communicate besides meetings.

Pete Mockaitis

So I love that – those many alternatives to meetings. Another one I’m thinking about is just a survey, in terms of, “I need your input.” Maybe you’re commenting on the document or maybe you’re just filling out a survey with SurveyMonkey or Google Forms or Typeform, which I think is so cool. These are handy ways to collect that.
But what really blew my mind there is that one-on-one approach. Not only mathematically is that saving huge cost, in terms of everyone together versus one at a time, but it’s also in many circumstances likely to improve the input that you’re collecting, because people are not sort of censoring themselves like, “Uh-oh, I don’t want to offend these other four people in the room by stepping on their toes or making them think that I thought that their work was lame or that I’m questioning their judgement or their smarts”, or whatever. So you could not only save time, but even get superior input and build better relationships all in one fell swoop by having multiple one-on-one meetings versus the longer group meeting. That’s huge.

Mamie Stewart

Absolutely. Many times it’s even easier to schedule, because finding an hour for everyone to overlap can be really hard, but finding 10 minutes with each person, especially if you’re using a tool like Mixmax or Calendly or a couple of other scheduling tools, where you just send them your link and they grab 10 or 15 minutes on your calendar – it is so much easier to get those 10 or 15 minutes with people individually than trying to find an hour where you all overlap.

Pete Mockaitis

I love it. So then, we talked about when a meeting is appropriate and the alternatives to the meeting to achieve those aims. I’d love to get your take, if we’re on the receiving end of a meeting request and you’re having a heck of a time seeing how that is helpful for you to be there, or even it’s maybe slightly helpful but kind of way down low on your priority list, compared to the other, much more compelling things for adding value for the organization or achieving the key goals, etcetera. How do you do that dance in which you are declining a meeting, particularly if it comes from someone with higher power or authority or title in the organization? It seems like it may not be the right answer to say, “Nah, I’m out.” [laugh]

Mamie Stewart

I wish we could do that, but no, most of us can’t do that. There are there a bunch of different ways you can approach it. So first is, if you don’t know what the meeting is about and what the meeting is meant to achieve or why you were asked to be there, you should absolutely ask.
And it is totally okay to say, “I would really like to make sure that I’m prepared for this meeting. I’m not 100% sure what I can do to be ready, or what value, or why you’ve asked me to attend, or what perspective you want me to bring. I really want to be ready for this meeting. Can you tell me what the meeting is going to achieve, so that I can make sure I have all the information ahead of time or anything else I need to be prepared for?” So basically making yourself look like a wonderful employees who’s saying, “I want to make sure that this is a good use of your time as the meeting leader. What can I do to prepare? Can you give me more information about this meeting?” So that’s one approach.
On the same token you can also offer, “This is my understanding of what this meeting is about. Am I understanding this correctly?” So, “It’s my understanding that this meeting is going to be planning for the next quarter and making some decisions about budget allocation. Is that correct? And if yes, is there anything I need to be doing to prepare for that?” So if you want to offer something up, you can say, “Here’s an idea of what this meeting might be about. Is that correct?” So that’s one way.
If you’re not comfortable going directly to the meeting leader for any reason, especially if it’s not your boss – if it’s maybe from a different department or another colleague and you just don’t feel like they’re going to be receptive to that – if you can go to your manager… And again, even if it is the manager’s meeting, you can still go to them with this perspective, which is, “I was invited to this meeting and I have these other priorities that I know are really important to the team or the organization. Can you help me prioritize here? I’m not sure what is most important. Do you really need me to be in this meeting or do you think that this meeting is important, or can you talk to the meeting leader because I’m really trying to balance all these things and I don’t want to drop any balls?”
So again, now you’re asking for help from your manager, but you’re saying, “I want to do this all. It’s not that I’m trying to get out of work; it’s that I want to keep the quality of work high. I want to make sure that my priorities are aligned with the team of the organization’s priorities as well.”

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s great. You say, “Hey, what’s the goal? How can we be prepared? What can I do to be in great shape for this?”

Mamie Stewart

I have yet to have anyone come back and tell me that it didn’t work. I think most of the experiences I’ve had is hearing from people saying, “Once I came and I asked and I said, ‘What is this meeting all about?’, most managers who are calling meetings, or most meeting leaders actually know what they want to accomplish.
It’s already in their head; it’s why they called the meeting. It’s just that they didn’t communicate it. So it’s not that they are being thoughtless and like, “Oh, let’s just have a meeting for the sake of it.” They have something in their head they want to do. They just haven’t explained it or put it in writing or told anybody else. So, they’re most likely going to come back and say, “This meeting we’re going to talk about this customer and our strategy for how to handle them.” And then you can have another conversation.
If you realize if you’re thinking, “I don’t know that I need to be in this conversation”, that’s a different conversation, because you can say, “Now I know what this meeting is about and I’m not 100% sure that you need me for this meeting. I have a lot on my plate. Is there something I can provide ahead of time, any information I can share ahead of time about this client?”, or whatever the meeting’s about. And you can also let them know, “If I don’t attend, I am aligned with whatever outcomes you guys decide on and I accept any tasks that you allocate to me.” Now you have to be willing to go with that if you’re going to say it, but you’re basically trying to get out of the meeting by saying, “I’m willing to go with the group and I’m willing to take on responsibility for whatever decisions are made.”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, that’s a nice one. I like it. Okay, so then I’m wondering about large meetings, in terms of the whole department or the whole company or the whole team, in terms of, I think some folks have some bad habits when it comes to enjoying having everybody around when it may not particularly be value-added. Sometimes I think there’s some sort of emotional, familial dimensions to the game. What are your thoughts on those?

Mamie Stewart

There’s definitely a thing about inviting lots of people to meetings as a way to build relationships, and I’ve seen this multiple times. A lot of teams use their standing weekly meeting or their all-department or all-hands meetings as ways to build relationships and connection with each other and with the company, rather than for whatever said purpose they’re actually trying to achieve. They’ll say, “This is our weekly meeting. We’re going to go over what everybody’s up to” or, “We’re going to report out the numbers.” But really they’re only doing that because they’re subconsciously trying to create a sense of connection between people or between the organization.
And there are wonderful ways to make connection that don’t involve bringing a bunch of people together to sit through really boring report outs. So, I’ve talked to a number of different team who’ve tackled this in different ways. Some of them have started after-work get-togethers, some of them will go on a one-day team building retreat and just have fun, some will do lunch and learns.
I love this one story about a company – they started a book club that was an opt-in. So you didn’t have to read the book, but if you wanted to, you could. But anybody would show up for one lunch every month, and whoever had read however much, and then they just talked about it. And it was a chance for them to talk about something that wasn’t work-related, and get to know people in a different way. And they chose all kinds of books – fiction books, business books, books on the future of work – all kinds of cool stuff. And sometimes only one person had read it and sometimes they all did. But it didn’t matter because it wasn’t about the book; it was just about getting together and enjoying lunch and being humans.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s great. It’s to provide superior alternatives that meet that objective all the better, in a more fun, energizing sort of a way. I dig it. Okay, so enough about getting out of meetings. Let’s say when a meeting is occurring – what are the key steps after you’ve identified the outcome you’re after, to really have some best practices and productive meetings flowing?

Mamie Stewart

Alright, so you’ve identified the desired outcome, and now you want to think about the structure of the meeting and who needs to be there. So, for the structure of the meeting, there are a lot of different flows. What activities are you going to do? How much time do you need to allocate? Are you going to break people into small groups or is it always going to be one big discussion? Are you going to have any pre-material for people to consume so that when they come in they’re ready to jump into the content and you don’t have to spend the first 20 minutes getting them up to speed?
So there’s a whole bunch of things you can do around structuring an agenda that will help you make sure that the meeting achieves the desired outcome. But again, if you don’t know the outcome, you can’t really design an agenda to achieve it. So you’ve got to start with that outcome.
And then in terms of the people, it’s the same thing. If you know what you’re trying to achieve, you can think through, who needs to be in this meeting to get to that outcome? And I’ve heard from multiple people that they’ll have a wonderful conversation and they’ll get to the end of the meeting, and then they realize that the key decision-maker isn’t there. And so then they have to have another meeting with the key decision-maker, in which the key decision-maker asks all the same questions and wants to go through all the same options that the group already discussed. So they basically have to have a repeat of that meeting.
And it’s really unfortunate, because if the meeting leader had been really thoughtful about who needs to be in this meeting to get to that outcome… If you know that the outcome is a decision and not a recommendation, then you want to make sure that you’ve invited the right people. And sometimes you do invite them and they decline – then you need to reschedule. If that key decision-maker says, “I can’t make it to this meeting”, because usually they’re upper management and their schedules change and they get busy – don’t have the meeting without them. It’s okay to have a meeting without some people, and there are other people who are critical who need to be there.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes. I’m thinking back to someone I know who mentioned in his career he had a rule for his meetings attendance, which was that he always insisted that there be a clear outcome and a decision-maker present, and he would walk out of meetings if those two criteria were not met, which is bold. But point well taken, that if that’s your objective, it is impossible to achieve some objectives without certain people there. So yeah, don’t go there if you don’t have the key people in the room.

Mamie Stewart

Yeah. And I’ve actually seen people walk out of meetings before because they’ve realized it’s not a good use of their time. And In some cultures that really will not fly, and in other cultures it’s totally acceptable. Even if it’s never been done before, you have to know the vibe of your people, you have to know the culture of your company and the style of your team. But I’ve seen people say, “This discussion’s really interesting, but I’m realizing it’s not actually very relevant to my work. So if this is the only topic we’re going to cover for the remainder of the meeting, I’d actually just like to get back to my other work, because I don’t really think you need me.”
And teams will be like, “Okay, that sounds fine.” And sometimes they’ll say, “Actually no, there’s another topic. Maybe we should flip the order and talk about that one now, because you need to be here.” And I’ve actually done that in meetings where I’ve looked at the agenda and I’ve said, “The thing they really need me for isn’t till the end of the meeting. So is it okay if I show up halfway through instead of starting at the beginning and sitting through the first half of the agenda that they don’t need me for?”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s good, absolutely. Well, I’d love to get your take then, when you’re in the heat of the meeting, what are some pro tips for keeping that conversation moving toward the outcome that you’re trying to hit?

Mamie Stewart

This has got to be one of the hardest things, is being in a meeting and watching it go off tracks and feeling like there’s nothing I can do about it. We actually just wrote an article about this on our media blog, so you can check it out there. But there are a couple of approaches, and I want to reiterate – this isn’t easy stuff. I was actually just in a meeting with about 20 people; I was not leading it.
And I was watching this debate unfold and it was really souring the energy of the room and it was painful to watch. And I was sending vibes to this one person being like, “Please stop talking. Please stop hammering on this. We really need to move on.” And afterwards I was like, “Oh my gosh, I was totally that person who saw this meeting crashing and I didn’t do anything.” And this is my business; I should be the first one to jump in.
So I want to reiterate – this is not easy stuff, but there are things you can do. So, some of the things that we recommend – and coaches have to coach themselves too – so some of the things I recommend are, one, asking a question. So questions open up thinking in a way that statements don’t. So if you’re interrupting and saying, “It seems like this conversation has gone off track” – you’re kind of asserting a judgment in a way that other people might respond with like, “Stop interrupting us; we’re having a conversation here.”
But if instead you ask a question, like, “I’m listening to what you’re all saying and I’m trying to connect how this train of thought is going to help us achieve our outcome. So I’m not suggesting we stop; I’m just trying to understand the connection.” Now you’re actually asking people to respond and say, “Oh, how is this helping us achieve our outcome? Oh, maybe it’s not. Maybe we could table this for later.” So you can use questions to guide a conversation.
Another approach is to just suggest that it gets taken off the table right away. So this is what I wish I would have done. I wish I would have said in that meeting, “This is a really important conversation that we’re having right now. I don’t think it’s the most important conversation for this whole group to be having. I’m wondering if we could have a subgroup tackle this topic after the meeting ends, or maybe next week when we can find time to get together. But I feel like we have a bunch of people in this room that this conversation isn’t relevant for.”
And that’s also what happens, is when conversations go off track, it’s maybe a few people who are interested in the topic and you start getting into the weeds, but it’s actually not relevant for the whole group, or it’s not going to help you get to that outcome. And that conversation doesn’t need to stop; it just doesn’t need to happen right then. It needs to be taken offline for a different meeting or a different conversation.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely, thank you. Well, now, any thoughts when it comes to doing the capturing of the notes and the actions and the follow-up activities?

Mamie Stewart

Oh yes. So nobody loves taking notes. At least I haven’t met anybody who says they love taking notes. It’s not a fun job, it often can feel very administrative, but taking good notes in a meeting is a really wonderful skill. And you can develop this skill by practicing. But it’s hard to get engage and take notes and maybe help facilitate and keep things on track, so it can be a lot one person to do. So, if you’re not in that boat of, “I want to learn to take good notes and it’s going to be a thing that I do all the time, is take meeting notes”, another approach that we recommend for teams is to take notes as a team.
So during the course of the meeting, everybody is responsible for writing down key information. If you hear a decision that’s made, write it down. If you hear a next step that’s called out, write it down. If you hear a big idea or important information or something that’s relevant for you, write it down. And at the end of the meeting, you reserve the last five minutes to do a wrap-up. And one person pulls up some sort of digital document – could be an email, could be a meeting tool that you’re using, could be a Google Doc. It doesn’t really matter; we just suggest that it be digital so it can be shared easily. And you type up the notes together.
So you do a little round robin and you say, “Okay, who captured a decision?” Or ask the group, “What decisions did we make today?” And people will call it out, and one person types it up. And you build the notes together so that at the end of that five minutes, at the end of the meeting, you have now notes that everybody’s agreed upon, because they all sat there and built them together.
And it’s instantly shareable, so even people who weren’t in the meeting can be informed of the meeting’s outcomes. So if you were that person who opted out of the meeting because you didn’t feel like it was important for you to be there, but you actually do need to know what came out of the meeting – if there was a decision made that affects your work – it can be instantly shared.

Pete Mockaitis

I dig it, thank you. Well, tell me, Mamie – any other key things you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Mamie Stewart

Just that meetings can be really fun. Meetings have such a bad rap and it’s not their fault. Meetings are really a wonderful way to come together and be with your peers and your people and build culture and move work forward. And it does take some effort, it does take some thinking, but that’s why I wrote the book and that’s why my business exists, because we can help people do it. It’s not rocket science. It takes a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of skill, and mostly a lot of effort, a willingness to say, “I’m going to do something about this. I’m not going to let meetings get in my way anymore. I’m not going to let them be this big distraction. They’re not a necessary evil of business”, and putting forth the effort to say, “I’m going to change this.”

Pete Mockaitis

Excellent, thank you. Alright, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something that you find inspiring?

Mamie Stewart

Yeah, so I have a piece of artwork that hangs in my office by a fantastic artist, Shannon Finnegan. And it’s double-sided. And one side says, “Change is impossible”, and the other side says, “Change is inevitable.” And I love it. As soon as I saw it in the gallery I was like, “I have to have that”, because I find that that is kind of the constant state of being of feeling like, “Oh my gosh, changing people’s behavior, trying to impact how people work, all of those things – it just feels impossible sometimes.”
Our habits and our behaviors are so ingrained to who we are and how we think that it’s impossible to change. And yet, we’re always changing. We’re never really static people; we’re constantly learning and growing and evolving. And so this dynamic tension that exists within change is just something I love and think about a lot.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Mamie Stewart

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this when you sent that question, and I kind of came to two conclusions because I listen to a lot of audio books and I read a lot. And I love the Center for Creative Leadership – they do a lot of different research, but I just love their work. And it’s not a particular study, but the research that’s been done on the impact of sleep on productivity and how important it is to get healthy sleep, and the diminishing returns that come from working long hours.
As an entrepreneur I started in the mindset of, “You have to work crazy hours and do everything you can to make this business succeed, and you need to drive your employees to get the most out of them.” And that just wasn’t me, and it didn’t really work for me. And when I started reading some of the research about the importance of sleep and work / life balance and all these things, like, “Yeah, that makes a lot more sense. I don’t want to work 15 hours a day. I have two little kids and a husband who I love and I want to be with. And I’m not going to do that.” And if I’m not doing it, I’m definitely not making my employees do it.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. And how about a favorite book?

Mamie Stewart

For managers I love the book Radical Candor. I’m sure you’ve heard this one before.

Pete Mockaitis

We had Kim on the show.

Mamie Stewart

Yeah, and she’s wonderful. It’s just a great book. I really love it. And for non-work-related stuff, I love the book Zero: The History of a Dangerous Idea. It’s about the concept “zero” and the history of this idea within mathematics and in life, that there could be nothingness. And there was a time where in math there wasn’t a concept of zero because you couldn’t have zero. Zero was not a tangible thing that you could have. You could have one, but you couldn’t have zero. And once zero became part of the world, it opened up math in a phenomenal way. It allowed for negative numbers and imaginary numbers and all kinds of cool stuff that we didn’t always have before that.

Pete Mockaitis

Thank you. And how about a favorite tool?

Mamie Stewart

Well, I already said that I love technology, and I love apps. So a couple of my favorites are Mixmax – I use it for my email and I use it for scheduling, and just it’s a great tool. And I have an app on my phone called Forest, which allows me to grow a tree to keep me from using my phone. Now at work I almost never use it because I don’t get distracted by my phone at work, but when I’m at home with my kids, it’s this horrible thing that I do because it’s like, “I’m so bored playing dolls, I think I’m just going to get my phone up.”
So, my kids now know and they will tell me, “Mommy, let’s play. Can you grow a tree?” And I’ll open up my phone and I will set a timer for the tree to grow in 30 minutes. And basically every time I open up my phone, it asks me if I want to kill my tree, and I say, “No, I don’t want to kill my tree. I want to play with my kids.” And so I will put my phone back down. So, it’s a great tool to keep you from being distracted by your phone.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh wow. And how about a favorite habit?

Mamie Stewart

I love habits. So, one of my favorites is to make a checklist of what you want to get done every day. So, sitting down every morning, and whether you have a to-do list that you’re pulling from or it’s just all kept in your brain – however you keep yourself organized – being really intentional, just like with a meeting, know what is it that you want to achieve in that day, and make a little checklist for yourself. It helps you stay focused, and that sense of satisfaction when you check everything off feels really good. And if you didn’t get to everything, you could even do a little mini reflection. So, I’ll often look and say, “Where did I get distracted?” or, “How did I either underestimate or overestimate how much time something was going to take?”

Pete Mockaitis

And tell me, is there a particular number of things you have on this to-do list? Some people say, “The five most important things, the three most important things, the two most important things”, or “No more than two hours’ worth.” How do you gauge that?

Mamie Stewart

I’m not a fan of arbitrary rules. The same thing happens with meetings – people say, “I like the ‘two pizza rule’. You should never have more than X number of people” or, “Meetings should never be more than 20 minutes”, or whatever. I don’t know, I don’t subscribe to those things. I feel like arbitrary rules maybe are general rules of thumb that can help, but they don’t actually get to the underlying problem.
And so, if you’re being really intentional, it’s not about how many things are on your to-do list; it’s about what you have the capacity to do that day. So when I look at my calendar and I see I only have an hour of time today where I’m not in scheduled meetings – what am I going to do in that one hour? What’s the biggest priority?
And it might only be one thing – it might be writing the outline for my next episode of The Modern Manager, or it might be working on the proposal for the client that I’m courting. If I have six hours available in a day, it’s a totally different list. So it really just depends, and each activity takes a different amount of time. So you have to be thoughtful. I don’t think it’s helpful to just say, “I’m going to pick three things to do”, because that might not be enough and it might be too many.

Pete Mockaitis

Got it. And Mamie, tell me – is there a particular thing that when you’re sharing your wisdom, really seems to connect and resonate and get folks nodding and re-tweeting and quoting yourself back to you?

Mamie Stewart

Well, we talked about it a lot today, which was the desired outcome. That is definitely the number one thing that I talk about, it’s the number one thing I suggest people do. So, if you’re only going to do one thing after listening to this podcast, look at your calendar and for any meetings that you’re planning, write a desired outcome, or for any meetings that you’re attending, ask yourself, “What do I think the desired outcome is of this meeting?” And if you’re not clear, go ask someone about it.

Pete Mockaitis

And Mamie, tell me – if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Mamie Stewart

So you can find all my information on my website, which is MamieKS.com. So you can get my email there, you can find information on my book, you can find my Facebook and Twitter accounts, all that good stuff.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Mamie Stewart

Yeah. So, definitely do that desired outcome thing I just talked about. And secondly – it’s kind of broad, but take ownership of your meetings. Whether you’re planning them or attending them, you have the responsibility and you have the capability to make them productive. So, stop looking at meetings as this necessary evil, as this horrible thing that’s going to waste your time, and start looking at them as an opportunity to get work done.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, I love it. Mamie, thank you so much for taking this time and sharing the goods. I wish you and Momentum and Meeteor all the success in the world!

Mamie Stewart

Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

288: Managing First-Timers in the Workplace with Chris Deferio

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Coffee shop guru & latte art champion Chris Deferio speaks on leading people who are at their first “real job” and keys to thriving in a chaotic environment.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Best approaches for managing first timers
  2. How to offer feedback so it’s received well
  3. Tips on how to keep sane and focused in a chaotic environment

About Chris

Chris Deferio is the host and producer of the Keys to the Shop podcast. He lives in Louisville, KY with his wife and son and has been in professional coffee service for 17 years. He provides training, consultations, and wisdom to owners, managers, and employees across cafes worldwide. His podcast is dedicated to the success of coffee shops and the professionals that make them work.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Chris’ championship-winning latte art

.

Chris Deferio Interview Transcript

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

Chris Deferio
I’m honored to be on your show.  I really love and I’m looking forward to talking about this subject today.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, sure.  Well, I was honored to be on your show, Keys To The Shop.  A good spot, and so, folks, check that out.  But first I want to talk about you being a champion in latte art.  How does that come about, and what does a latte art contest look like in practice?

Chris Deferio
Well, we can define the terms.  Well, I work in coffee.  And in coffee, and specialty coffee in particular, there’s this thing where you steam milk so that the foam is tight enough and flows enough to be able to form ribbons on the surface of beverages, specifically espresso drinks.  And you can see rosettas, what we call leaves, hearts, designs like that – usually symmetrical leaf / heart designs on the tops of coffees.  It’s actually pretty popular; so popular now, weirdly, you’ll see it on International Delight creamers.  They’ll hire a barista to do a heart and they’ll use in their marketing.  So that’s latte art, so milk art, because “latte” is Italian for “milk”.
So, we have competitions for these types of things, of course, because we’ve got to entertain ourselves, and there’s money on the line.  And I won my first one back in 2004 and I ended up winning two times after that, so three times total latte art champion.  And just sounds really funny to say, but the skill involved in it is one of just becoming sort of familiar with what the two liquids do when they meet in the cup, and it’s important.  I don’t want to downplay it too much, because a well-presented coffee is one that you’ll talk to your friends about, which means repeat business.  So it translates into something practical, and it’s fun to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I want to know what are the game-changing, winning designs that capture the judges’ hearts?

Chris Deferio

Well, speaking as a judge – I run a competition now with Coffee Fest tradeshows.  And I’ve been a long time judge before; I’m back again leading the Latte Art Competition as a judge, head judge, and there’s a lot of things we look for.  My designs when I won were basically variations on a leaf pattern that involved a lot of layers from the outside of the cup into the middle.  So, just a nice base, and I’m speaking in coffee terms – symmetry is really important, striking contrasts between the brown of the coffee in the white of the milk is also very important.
In the competition we judge on speed and also a general kind of flexible category, depending on the judge, of aesthetic beauty.  So, those are some of the categories we look for.  So there are some game-changing designs out there where people will do multiple different designs in the cup at the same time.  I was one of the people – old guy in coffee – that have pushed some of those designs out there into the industry, and now it’s really just about perfecting.  There’s not a ton of brand new stuff, just variations on classics, as far as I can tell.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, do you have some photos we could see in the show notes?

Chris Deferio

Oh yeah, I’ll send you some of mine and I’ll send you some of the winningest baristas’ examples.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s good.  Well, I’m trying to imagine, because you don’t have a lot of space to work with, and I guess it can’t get too out there, in terms of, this is a portrait of a person who is running on the beach.

Chris Deferio
Oh yeah.  Well, it does in some ways, it does, because people do one of two types of latte art.  You have etching, which uses a tool to draw a design like you’re describing.  You theoretically could do that.  The drink might be cold by the time you’re done, and it might not taste great.  I don’t know what they’re using for drawing, but we do free pour latte art predominantly.  I think that in competition may be the more respected version of latte art. So there are two types of latte art – there’s free pour and there’s etching.  So etching is just using a tool, so you could draw that.  You could draw yourself in a cup of coffee if you really wanted to.  But we do free pour latte art, so there’s no tools involved, just the flow of milk.

Pete Mockaitis

Cool.  So, you are coffee master and professional and you share some of that in your podcast Keys To The Shop.  What’s that all about?

Chris Deferio

Well, Keys To The Shop I’ve had for the last year or so – back in January 2017 – is a podcast that I run collecting best practices essentially from the industry to help people.  My tagline of the show is to give insights and inspiration and tools to people who work in retail, especially coffee retail.  And my audience is built, it is made up of owners, baristas, managers, people who would one day want to own a coffee bar.
And we bring in not only just industry experts to talk about workflow behind the bar, like how to build a drink quickly and well, or conflict resolution and things like that.  We bring in outside experts as well – authors of books dealing with management, or like I said conflict resolution is one.  Tom Henschel of The Look & Sound of Leadership did an episode on the podcast about conflict resolution, which translates into whatever industry you want to, because you’re working with people.  So, the point is, I want to provide a really focused podcast to equip my industry with the tools they need to succeed, and tell the stories of people who have succeeded in the industry as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Very cool.  Alright.  So now when we talk about some of these management issues, one thing we were discussing is that you have lots of experience and see lots of coffee shop owners doing leadership of folks who are at their first job.  Maybe they are interns, maybe they’re in college or they’ve recently graduated.  And so I thought it would be great to really dig into your wisdom on this point.  So maybe you could orient us first of all, how does managing folks in their first job substantially differ from those who have maybe just even one or two or three years under their belt?

Chris Deferio

Well, I think the way it’s different is that the structure under which they’re used to operating is just alien and different.  l like to think about, if they’ve come from a school environment, where there are things set up for them to go to, there are classes – you’re not really having to think about it, in fact you’re part of a group – there’s not a whole lot of individual attention in most cases.
And so by and large I’d say once you’re behind the bar and a lot depends on you individually, there’s kind of this deer-in-the-headlights.  There’s just so much to take in.  It’s not necessarily unique to them, but I think it’s times 10 with somebody who’s not used to being on display and being the focus of the individual attention that a manager has on them, because that manager is responsible for the owner’s business and the business is on the line.  And they understand that responsibility but don’t necessarily know how to function under that weight.  And so, sometimes it does feel like you’re drinking from a firehose and they can act that way.
So, there’s a lot of things that you need to bear in mind when you’re managing somebody who doesn’t have a lot of employment experience.  Even if they’ve had like a summer job, a job that’s a full-time job, even their first quote-unquote “real” job, is quite different.  And so, how you approach them as a manager has to bear that in mind.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, and I’d love for you to expand a little bit upon, we talk about the deer-in-the-headlights or the overwhelm or the reactions of the new employee.  Could you share a little bit there, in terms of… I imagine some of them are probably jarring and not what you want to see.  So, could you maybe highlight a few of those?  Maybe they’ll be some twinkles of recognition from listeners to say, “Oh, okay, okay.  Maybe I should have a touch more patience with that at first.”

Chris Deferio

Sure.  So, I’d say a good way to recognize this… Or let’s just say a common way to recognize that – you’re dealing with somebody who’s under that kind of situation is that, like I said, deer-in-the-headlights, but in the restaurant industry they call them “pan shakers”, or people who would start cleaning something that doesn’t need to be cleaned; they’re just looking for something to do.
There is just a general lack of awareness, the peripheral awareness.  Even though you’re in a busy cafe, none of it really affects you much.  And it should, and it’s odd that it doesn’t, because there’s so much stimulus going on you don’t know what to focus on.
And so, I think a manager who’s in that situation needs to be able to have a strong hand of guidance on what is it that they should be doing in that moment.  Having a good onboarding process for example is a great way to kind of counteract the confusion and the shock of being in an environment where now we really are relying on you to make this rush of customers work, or this cafe work.

Pete Mockaitis

And so when you say “manager” here, the manager is the person who is the first real job person, kind of working for and reporting to the owner.  Is that how you conceptualize this?

Chris Deferio

Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, got you there.  So indeed, intriguing.  So there’s a whole lot of stimuli, and it seems like folks in that position where they’re unaccustomed to it may just sort of start doing something, even though that something is not at all the right thing.  Any other kind of key symptoms or behaviors you notice?

Chris Deferio

I would say emotional is another one.  In any case where somebody is under that kind of pressure there’s going to be overly emotional responses to things that are just commonplace work-related tasks, that you and I, having been through the ringer maybe for years, or at least some experience, might not take it personally.  But I’d say taking things personally is one of the symptoms that I would see.  It’s like, “Okay, this is…”  They maybe weren’t expecting it.
I know I felt that way when I had my first job, which was in a grocery store just stocking things in freezers and fridges and milk cartons and what not.  The pressure was just so great to perform that you just kind of took everything to heart.  And there’s really no stopping that; it’s almost a rite of passage, I think, when you have your first job.  But where it can go south, I think, is when a manager then takes them taking it personally, personally. [laugh] And then it kind of goes off the rails.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that is interesting.  So, could you maybe paint a picture there, in terms of an example, where you’ve seen this happen with folks either in some of the shops that you’ve worked with or consulted for, in terms of making it all come together?

Chris Deferio

Well, okay.  So, I would probably just use an example of when I was a trainer and I had some experience in coffee, when we brought on new baristas.  This was actually an example of one of my failures, in that I was so confident – having some experience I just had too strong of a hand in my management.  But the individual was performing the job okay, but not really to my standards as a manager, and I was kind of arrogant at the time anyway.  But tamping is an example of something we do – we press the coffee down into a filter so that it could be extracted.  And I was noticing that the tamping was off or lopsided so that it wouldn’t extract properly.  And I brought it up in a way that maybe in hindsight wasn’t the greatest, but they took it so personally that…

Pete Mockaitis

“You’ve got a problem with my tamping, bro?”

Chris Deferio

“How could you notice that from where you’re standing?”, or… There was a lot of pushback, and I realized what I had done was I stepped on the only security that they had, because they’d just been trained by the manager at that store.  And what I was doing was coming in and essentially removing the only security that they had, without care for what it would do to the rest of what was built on that foundation.

Pete Mockaitis

Now we say “the only security”, you mean like he’s coming from a perspective of, “Tamping is the one thing that I have nailed.”  Is that what you mean?

Chris Deferio

Yeah.  Well, if you call into question parts of what they know to be true, then you might as well be calling into question the entire thing.  So, “If my tamping is off, maybe my milk is off, and if my milk is off, what am I doing here being a barista?  Maybe I was taught wrong.  I’m not ready for this.”  Your mind can kind of go a million miles an hour down the wrong path.  And it all kind of stemmed from a non-empathetic approach to an issue that could have been resolved by some other means that reinforced what they had learned, or added to rather than stripping it away simply to be right.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, intriguing.  So I’d love to hear, in retrospect, how would you address this issue, because you can’t have a sub-optimal temp at the end of the day.  Right, Chris?

Chris Deferio

No, I don’t think you can.  In the moment, I either could have… I think this would have been the best way to do it, is to investigate what kind of training the person had, before assuming what they had first.  So if I had questions for the manager as to how much training the person had, I should have asked.  Instead of addressing it with the individual first, I should have just let it go, because by the time I got there they had probably already been making drinks that way for hours, if not days.  And my stepping in in the middle of making drinks for customers is not going to solve it in their mind.  It might solve my personal need to sort of get my fidgety, “Ooh, you’re not doing that right” out there into her world, but it really didn’t accomplish what I wanted it to long-term.
So, I think having a more patient view of that situation and allowing myself to shoulder the burden of having unresolved tension, rather than just kind of chucking that tension right onto what was happening in the moment, if that makes sense.  I, as a manager or a leader, there’s this tension you would have that you want to see people do something right, but sometimes you have to let them do it wrong a little bit longer in order to wait for the right opportunity to show them in a way that’s effective.  And so it forces you to question, “Do I just want to talk, or do I want to affect change?”

Pete Mockaitis

Intriguing.  So then, what might be some indicators that this is the right time?

Chris Deferio

I’d say when things are more calm, when people are in a good mood, and when you are not upset.  Because you might be responsible for the bottom line of your company, you have to know yourself well enough to know when you can not sound like a jerk, or be passive-aggressive, or give somebody the feedback, a crap sandwich with the critique and the praise.
There is a bit of self-knowledge that’s needed to know how you sound first of all, and when’s the right time for you to do it calmly.  And then, like I said, when things are calm in the store, when there is a time that talking about technique is brought up, in fact – that’s a way.  Hopefully you have mechanisms or systems of communication in place, where feedback lives, like a one-on-one every week with the manager, or an ongoing training session.  Those are perfect times and require forethought as an operator to say, “You’re going to have these conversations with people, so where do those conversations live?”  They can’t just be invented on the spot; they have to have a place for your peace of mind and the security of the barista.  So, I’d say rather than indicators, maybe just dial back even more and say, “Have I built a system in my shop or my business that allows for a safe space for feedback, both from me to the barista or employee, and from the employee to me, to critique me?”

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, thank you.  Well now, you used the phrase “safe space”, so I am thinking about South Park – that’s the name of the show – where they did this song, “My safe space…”  And I want to touch upon the word “Millennials”.  I guess I am one, but in a previous episode we had Lee Caraher say like 72% of Millennials don’t like the word “Millennial”.  They don’t want to be called a Millennial, because there’s so much baggage and negative associations with it.  So, I’d love it the more that you could be fact-based, experience-based, research-oriented to this.  To what extent is there something real when it comes to the difference in managing Millennials or folks who are fresh out of college?  Are they still Millennials or are they the next one yet?

Chris Deferio

Maybe, and maybe it’s Gen Y, I’m not sure.  Or Gen Y is the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis

So what’s real and what’s just a bunch of stuff that people cook up to sell books or to try to stereotype and sort of offload responsibility?

Chris Deferio

Yeah, it’s a good question because we like to categorize.  Part of the human mind is all about, “This goes in this section of my brain, and this goes in the other.”  And if we need to understand people it’s easier to have a sorting mechanism, and so that’s what these names start to become.  And in no other time in history, especially with the rise of the Internet, do we have as much access to articles that kind of form our thinking towards people before we even meet them or know them in reality.
So, the reality of Millennials, I think, is simply that they are young, and I don’t know that there’s that much of a difference outside of the world they interact with.  They’re not not humans, and they have the same drive for success and love and acceptance and to interact with the world around them.  And they have the same idea that they want to change the world the way that any other generation did.  So, I think Millennials as a group have been given a bad rap by people who don’t want to take responsibility for leading Millennials.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Chris Deferio

Yeah, so on the show I had Bruce Tulgan, who’s the author of a book which I think every manager should read.  The book is called It’s Okay to Be the Boss.  I bought that for all of my managers in the store I worked at, and they all agreed it’s a fantastic book, practical.  The author also works for… His company is called Rainmaker Thinking, and they authored this incredible long-term study on the workplace opinion of Millennials toward management.
And what they found is essentially that Millennials want leadership, they want to be told how to succeed in the workplace, and actually are looking for people to, as the book that Bruce wrote says, to be the boss.  And they say in the book that there is an undermanagement epidemic, not a micromanagement one; in other words people are abdicating their responsibility to be leaders within an organization.
And Millennials I think are, just based on this study and my own experience – like I said, they’re people who want to do a good job.  And when somebody says to you, “I want to come in your company and deliver a ton of value, and what do I do, where do I sign up?”, and they’re eager – if you look on that with distain, there’s a lot of issues there.  You need to be prepared to help that person succeed.  So I view Millennials as eager and will not take lack of clarity for an answer.  So the mystery of just figuring it out on your own – hey, we have Google.  That’s gone.  Figuring it out on your own looks more like YouTube than just hacking away at it.
So yeah, Millennials I think have been given a bad rap and they are young people looking to be led, and then to lead themselves.  They want to make a difference in the world and we have an opportunity in jobs like coffee that are historically transient jobs – they’re not the jobs that they’re going to have for the rest of their lives – to shape people for the career that they actually are going to be spending a lot of time in.  So, managing first-time people, first-time employees, especially young ones, as impressionable as they are – they have a ton of energy and they have a ton of vision to contribute to a company if you’re up for the challenge of continuing to actually work in your company.

Pete Mockaitis

So that doesn’t sound unique at all to Millennials, in terms of if you’re young and inexperienced, “Figure it out” isn’t great leadership, management, guidance, at that sort of stage in a person’s development.  I mean you might say “Figure it out” in a nicer way, which was, “Why don’t you take a rough draft at a plan of attack and we’ll sync up in a day?”  That’s maybe a nicer version of “Figure it out.” [laugh] I’m not 100% abdicating my responsibility for getting to the bottom of this thing, but I would like you to take the first approach there.  Well, cool.  So then, you’ve got some takes on how one manages expectations optimally in the first real job environment.

Chris Deferio

Yeah.  So, managing expectations is a great place to start because as I was just touching on how we as an older generation – myself turning 40 here shortly – have a responsibility to manage ourselves first, so that we can lead others.  And that means if we have expectations of people that are unreasonable and are secretly based on our desire to just not have to do as much as we actually have to, then we need to deal with that so we don’t pass on dysfunction.  In today’s day and age there’s a ton of leadership dysfunction, and leaders in restaurants and coffee bars and politics are under fire.
And so, all eyes are on people who have authority and power, and we need to be able to have some kind of forethought about the people we’re bringing into our organization and stop being surprised by what happens when we bring young people into an organization.  You can’t really be effective as a leader or as a company if you’re constantly just scratching your head and complaining and surprised by something that you knew was going to happen.  So, embrace it, prepare yourself for it, and be the leader that’s necessary for what you’re going to inherit.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, so the managing expectations there – you’re talking about what it’s fair for you to expect of someone who’s newer, younger, inexperienced from the get-go.

Chris Deferio

Yeah.  So, they’re going to make mistakes, no doubt, when you onboard somebody.  In coffee for instance a lot of us have labs, and we have labs for a reason – because we don’t want people experimenting on the customer.  Or we have shadow shifts for instance, where you are on with the manager and they are watching you to make sure that you are performing in the critical areas.
However, you don’t want to rob people of their failures; you don’t want people to only do exactly what you say in every case.  You want to see them spill milk or you want to see them kind of strain to figure something out and not just jump in and not let that muscle develop, because then you will never be truly confident in that person’s “a-ha” moment, because they could fake it.  They could just say, “Oh yeah, I understand now”, but when you’re gone, because they didn’t develop the muscle of understanding through failure, then it’s just going to crumble under the pressure, especially if it’s one of their first jobs, like we were talking about earlier.
So, having a lab for another company might look like just an entry level position within the company, where consequences of failure are not dire – you’re not going to pass it on to your big accounts.  But you have somebody there that can walk them through the process and explain, as failures are made, how to do the job from A to Z.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes, that’s great.  Don’t rob them of their failures – nice turn of a phrase there.  And so, when you say a “lab”, can you help me visualize?  I’m imagining a lab coat and a white room and…

Chris Deferio

It’s exactly right, that’s what we do.  We actually recreate, so the speak, the coffee bar.  So it’s like a micro coffee bar, and sometimes it’s behind glass and other times it’s just hidden in the back corner.  It’s not usually the prettiest place but it’s got an espresso machine and a brewer, it’s got a couple of tables, and you schedule sessions with baristas when they are new employees, or existing employees that need work on one particular area.  You schedule some time in the lab to work on your tamping, to work on understanding a particular policy.  A lot of meetings are held in labs.
So, a lab for a coffee bar I think is critical, and the equivalent in any organization like where does the training take place, helps kind of anchor the idea, like, “Yeah, I’m here to learn right now in this space.  And we can just bang around in here and nothing is going to happen in the outside world, except I’m going to learn and bring what I learn to that outside world.”

Pete Mockaitis

It’s interesting when you describe the lab, it conjures to mind almost like a movie montage, like there’s music playing and someone is failing repeatedly and spilling it all over themselves.  And then the wise mentor is frustrated but sticks it out until there’s a maestro coming out on the other side.

Chris Deferio

Yeah, this is very much like Rocky.  Ivan Drago versus Rocky lifting logs in a log house.  It’s an approximation.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s great.  Okay, so we talked about not robbing people of their failures, managing the expectations, giving some protection so there’s not dire consequences if things go awry.  I’d like you to also kind of unpack a bit, you’ve got some takes on when it comes to the follow-through.  Not just saying, “Hey, do this”, but what comes after the “Hey, do this”?

Chris Deferio

Yeah.  This is a super hard one, and it is one of the things that erodes trust the most between direct reports and managers, or baristas and managers, however you want to phrase it.  When you tell somebody to do something and they do it – let’s say they do it well.  And nothing happens, except they do it well and they know, but nobody sees it – that is going to demoralize the individual, because nobody is there to see their victories.  I think you get some satisfaction out of it, for sure.
Yeah.  So if you are on the bar and you are not having follow-through from your manager, what that looks like is like you said – just “Do this” via text message.  You get a text message or an email that says to do it this way.  You need to have the presence of the manager there to follow up with you in order to either correct you or praise you, to guide you or affirm you.
And the present leadership is a good phrase for this.  A shop I worked at used the phrase “present leadership”, because often times what we have is a secondary culture form around this abdication of leadership to follow through.  So, for us it happens on closing shifts, when management is home – they try to get themselves on a 9:00 to 5:00 schedule, and then the closing shift is there by themselves.  And what you’ll find is that it’s kind of like a different culture, and they don’t have the kind of contact with the leadership as their counterparts in the morning do.  And the difference is that the people in the morning get the benefit of getting to see the manager every day, so there is a natural built-in opportunity for follow-through.
You can’t really judge an employee’s performance if you haven’t observed their performance in a consistent way.  So when you give them a raise and you tell them they’re doing a good job, but they know that you haven’t actually followed through and seen how they’re doing, if they need help, and been there along the process – they know you don’t know what you’re talking about, and it’s hollow.  And so you erode trust, they don’t trust you when you say “Good job”, because they know you haven’t even seen them do their job.
That’s part of what I mean by “follow-through”.  For managers who really want to be there for their employees, it’s going to take a lot of work upfront, but you build momentum in the future so where you might have to schedule yourself to come in during a time where you normally don’t come in to the store – maybe it’s a closing shift for coffee bar examples – just to make yourself known, to ask how things are going, see if there’s any questions, observe them in action.  Do that for a week or so, two or three times a week.  And that person will get the drift that you are concerned about their progress and you’re building rapport with that individual and following through on the thing that you said they should do or how they should do it, etcetera, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis

It’s interesting.  It sounds like this sounds pretty, I guess, fundamental and just, “But of course leaders should do that.”  And yet at the same time, I think there is a healthy opposition force that would say, “Oh my gosh, Chris, that is just too much work.  Why do I have to do all this handholding?  Come on, we’re grownups here.”

Chris Deferio

Well, yeah.  Grownups who can plan ahead of time, like we said manage your expectations – well, part of the expectation is that you’re going to have to spend some extra time with people who are new.  And I think the thing that really throws people is the minutiae of their job as a manager, because so much of our job in management has to do with reacting to situations and putting out fires.
And if you never really get that under control and don’t have control of your own schedule, keeping on human relationships on top of just ordering these other things for the office and responding to emails from people who may or may not want to buy your coffee or your product – there’s no room left for the people that you hired.  And there’s this weird relief – you come in and they’re doing fine; you’re like, “Oh hey, how are you doing?  How are you doing?  Good?  Are they taking care of you over here?  Great.”  And then you just walk away.
Now you’ve abdicated your responsibility as a leader to the people they’re working with, who have become the sort of surrogate managers for you because you can’t get it together with your schedule.  So it all kind of comes back to the leadership and what you expect from yourself.  It all kind of comes back to leadership having their stuff together, so that they can actually help other people form their careers and their understanding and their skillsets.

Pete Mockaitis

Now that example you used, in terms of, “How are you doing?  Are they taking good care of you?” – that’s an example of abdication.  Can you expand on that?

Chris Deferio

Yeah, so not in all cases, I think, but I see it a lot of times in coffee bars, where you throw people on to a bar and you hope that the most senior barista there will kind of show them the ropes – show them all this stuff about the POS and show them this other thing over here too, and, “By the way, I just remembered, can you show them this?”  Now, that might be delegation if it’s done with clear intent and structure, and always done that way, if that’s purposeful, but often times it’s just Plan B or Plan C when it comes to what the manager maybe ideally wanted or found out that they don’t have enough time to spend to walk this person through the POS system, the register.
So, what I say is advocation I mean naturally when you’re entering into an office or a service industry or whatever it is, the manager is the person you understand to be the source of knowledge, the one who is going to help you understand how things are, at least at first.  But when you never get that and they’re just the person that has you sign your tax forms, and then they just kind of throw you on bar but then show up at your review, it just feels like, “Why are you even here?  My coworker should be reviewing me, because they’re the ones who taught me, corrected me, were there with me during that really crazy rush, where we all burned ourselves.”  There’s rapport, and managers often times miss out on building that rapport, because they unintentionally, I’d say, in most cases, give away their opportunity to build those relationships.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, that’s good.  And I kind of finally want to get your take on when it comes to retail or coffee environment, there are times where you mentioned the rush.  In a realm of crowds and chaos and a whole lot happening real fast, what are some pro tips just for keeping your cool and your sanity and focus about you with all the stimuli?

Chris Deferio

Two things.  One – have workflow already in place.  If you own a bar, if you manage a system where you have to deliver a result, you have to have a workflow.  And that workflow has to actually be taking into account different situations that you could come up against.  For us, let’s say you have a menu of 15 items with four different variations on those items, okay?  So, you’ve got to practice all of the ways that people can alter those drinks, and maybe there’s ways that they’re going to… How is it going to be in the worst scenario and what do we do?  What’s the plan?
Too many people just cross that bridge when they come to it, and if it’s on fire they don’t cross it at all.  The workflow is a critical one.  And that was one of our first episodes actually on the show Keys To The Shop, with my friend Ryan Soeder on mastering workflow.
The other part is managing yourself emotionally.  You need to detach, essentially.  Not in a robotic way, but if you’re working the workflow, if you’re working behind the bar and you have a line out the door and you know you’re doing your best – there’s no reason, logically, to stress out.  You can’t go any faster, and everybody understands that.  And they keep coming every day, so they know.  They see, they have eyes, they understand what’s going on.
And somehow what happens when we forget that – we try to rush the process, we don’t fall into a rhythm.  And when we do that, we don’t do the other thing also – I had a third – is, communication.  Our communication can either come from a place of fear and insecurity, or it can come from a place of, “We’re in this together, we’re doing the best we can and we’re going to lean into the pressure rather than trying to run away from it.”
I’ll give an example.  There are times when I have personally been really stressed out on the register, and when I’m that way what I like to do is… I don’t know how to describe it, but I just kind of smile to myself and I overexaggerate my hospitality as a way of reminding myself what I’m doing here.  I don’t go goofy or anything, but I turn an inward switch.  And I think it’s important for people to figure out, “What’s my approach to the chaotic workplace environment and how will I pull myself away from that, observe it as an outsider, so to speak?  And not become out of control emotionally, but lean into the fact that this is what’s going on and it’s not going to define us.  We’re not going to let the shift run us; we’re going to run the shift.”  That’s a good way to just remember it.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely.  Well, Chris, tell me – anything else you want to make sure to highlight before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Chris Deferio

Yeah.  I just want to encourage everybody who works with young people and transient employees – it kind of goes hand in hand – that they are training up a future generation of leaders and owners and managers, people who will influence the course of history.  And it sounds really dramatic to say it that way, but every person who you know who you read a biography about who’s inspirational, worked at a deli, worked at a restaurant or a coffee bar at some point.
And maybe not everyone, but they had jobs that were kind of what they might consider menial.  But have had lessons that shaped them in the dish pit, in the mop closet, in a one-on-one with a manager; kind of like your favorite teacher in elementary school.  So our responsibility to actually take up a mantle of leadership and lead young people well in these jobs is really, really critical.  And it’s all about relationships and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, while at the same time being a strong leader that will help shape the next generation.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely, thank you.  Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Chris Deferio

Yeah.  So, I think my favorite quote comes from David Whyte. David Whyte is an English poet and I think the quote is, “You must learn one thing: the world was made to be free in.  Give up all other worlds except the one in which you belong.” So his book, if I could recommend it, is called Crossing the Unknown Sea, and it’s kind of a philosophy on vocation as a way of becoming, a journey into meaning through your work.  And so I really, highly recommend that book.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh great, thank you.  And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Chris Deferio

I don’t have a… Okay, tool would be just pen and paper, honestly.  I don’t thrive in digital environments as much as I thought I would, and I do have things.  I love my high-end drawing pens and special graph paper notebooks for organizing my thoughts.  I’m not full into bullet journaling or anything, but I do like to braindump onto paper and organize myself that way.  And sometimes it makes it into my reminders on my phone or something like that, but more often than not I’m trying to write something down.

Pete Mockaitis

Thank you.  And how about a favorite habit?

Chris Deferio

So, I guess a favorite habit of mine, besides coffee, would be – which is a great habit, it’s very healthy for you – I try to get up early.  It’s something I started doing a couple of years ago, actually started to try to adopt a way to kind of embrace the day.  Now I know this is not unique to me, but when I started doing it, it really turned my world upside down that I could actually start my day well by just getting up early and stretching and drinking a lot of water and thinking, including things like morning pages is a huge one, stream-of-consciousness, because I don’t get a lot of time, especially at a coffee bar, to create and to express.  You’re always reacting to outside situations.  So it’s nice to have some space where you can set your trajectory internally, and then embrace the day.

Pete Mockaitis

And tell me, is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate and get folks quoting yourself back to you?

Chris Deferio

Yeah.  There is something that I used to say in talks and I think I should bring it back, and that is that the customer has been hurt in the past by coffee.  The customer has had some kind of a traumatic experience in a coffee bar and they bring that experience in with them.  So, we have to approach them from a position of owning the stuff that our industry sort of did to them and earn back their trust.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m so intrigued.  I can’t recall an experience of my own.  Are we talking about hot spills, or what do you mean?

Chris Deferio

I mean emotionally, like you go into a specialty coffee shop and often times what you find is maybe the barista is not as welcoming as you thought they should be for the price point of the coffee.  We promise a special experience a lot of times and when somebody walks in, the expectation is set so high by the marketing that the actual reality of the experience is disappointing.  And so, knowing that people are sort of accustomed to dealing with disappointment when it comes to something that’s so hyped as specialty coffee with all these latte art flowery drinks and what not, we kind of have to approach it with some empathy and realize that A) it’s not personal, B) let’s make that up to you; let’s make this the best experience that you could possibly have.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Chris Deferio

Well, I would definitely recommend they go to KeysToTheShop.com, and the podcast the same name on iTunes.  It’s just KeysToTheShop on Instagram and Twitter as well.  And those are the best places.  My email is chris@keystotheshop.com.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Chris Deferio

Be patient with yourself, be patient with others, and take a look at the big picture on a regular basis.  And learn to be happy with the work that you’ve already done and hopeful for the work that you’re going to accomplish.

Pete Mockaitis

Awesome.  Well, Chris, thanks so much for taking this time.  Lots of fun.  I wish you tons of luck in your coffee adventures, and you are a champion in more ways than just latte art!

Chris Deferio

I really appreciate that.  Well, thanks for having me on the show.  It was really fun.