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960: Surfacing Hidden Wisdom for Huge Breakthroughs: A Masterclass in Asking with Jeff Wetzler

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Jeff Wetzler shows you how to uncover startling wisdom from the people around you through better asking.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The mysteries of the unspoken–and how to tackle them
  2. The five-step ask approach
  3. The trick to posing quality questions

About Jeff

Jeff Wetzler is co-CEO of Transcend, a nationally recognized innovation organization, and an expert in learning and human potential with more than 25 years’ experience. Wetzler combines unique leadership experiences in business and education, as a management consultant to the world’s top corporations, a learning facilitator for leaders around the world, and as Chief Learning Officer at Teach For America. Jeff earned a doctorate in adult learning and leadership from Columbia University and a bachelor’s in psychology from Brown University. Based in New York, he is a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network and is an Edmund Hillary Fellow. 

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Jeff Wetzler Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jeff, welcome.

Jeff Wetzler
Great to be with you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love it if you could open us up with a riveting tale of someone who saw some cool breakthroughs when they upped their asking game.

Jeff Wetzler
Well, I can start with my own self, if that’s good enough, and I think this can be super simple. I’ll share a story with you early in my career when I was just learning some of these methods, where one of the questions that I was encouraged to ask was simply the question to somebody, “What’s your reaction to what I just said?”

And it’s a funny question because so often, I think we can assume that if the other person has a reaction, they’re going to tell us what that reaction is, but that’s often not the case. Often, if someone disagrees or doesn’t land well, they’re not going to tell us, unless they actually believe we want to know. So, I was a new manager. I had a direct report. I had just finished giving him a bunch of input and guidance and direction, and I thought to myself, “You know what? Maybe I should just try this question.”

So, I said, “What’s your reaction to what I just said?” And he said to me, “To be honest, it’s completely deflating. I’m so demotivated by what you just said.” I was floored. I had no idea. I thought I had just helped him out, given him direction, sent him on his way, and little did I know that it had totally landed the wrong way with him. And had I not asked that question, I never would have known.

We were then able to unpack it and realize the problem was I was operating with different information than he was about what our client needed, which was what was leading me to make some of the suggestions that I did. We were then able to talk it all out, get on the same page, and truly we were in a good place. But had I not done that, he would have been a lot less happy, a lot less successful, and we wouldn’t have done as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. And it’s amazing how much stuff is going on and we just have no idea about.

Jeff Wetzler
And that is basically the premise of the book. That’s the whole premise, is that we are surrounded by people who have all kinds of ideas, thoughts, feelings, perspectives, feedback for us in their heads, and far too often, we don’t get access to it because they don’t tell us. But it is a solvable problem, and that’s what the book is trying to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jeff, let’s start right there in terms of they’ve got this good stuff, they’re not freely volunteering it. Why has it got to be my responsibility to dig it out of them? Shouldn’t they just speak up and say what’s up?

Jeff Wetzler
Well, what I would say is, it is what it is, and so if they’re telling you, if they are speaking up and volunteering it, cool. But if they’re not, then what are you going to do about it? And so, this is a book that’s trying to empower people to say, “If it’s not coming to you, or if you’re not sure it’s coming to you, you’re not the victim of that. You don’t have to be at the effect of someone else’s choices about what to share or not share. You can do something about it. You can invite it out of them. Not just for your own benefit, but for the benefit of both of you.”

Because when you give somebody the chance to tell you something that they’re thinking and feeling and not saying, that’s a gift to them too. You’re enabling them to be more self-expressed. You’re communicating to them that you value them, and you want to hear what they have to say, and usually it brings you closer.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jeff, I’d love it if you could share, if those are skeptical, like, “You know what, I think people around me, they pretty much speak up and tell me what’s on their mind”? Can you disabuse us of that notion? Any startling statistics or studies or stuff?

Jeff Wetzler
I’m happy to share that, yes. I mean, even in doing the research for this book, I came across fascinating research that, in organizations, just to take one study for example, over 85% of people, and this was across many different industries, admitted to remaining silent with their bosses about something that was seriously concerning to them. And three-quarters of those people said that their colleagues were also aware of it, and were not talking about it as well. And so, that’s in the direction of upwards to a boss.

But I’ll just give you another example. There was a fascinating study that was done at Harvard Business School by Nicole Abi-Esber and her colleagues, and they were pretending to go around and do a survey of people, but what they did instead is they put a very, like, blatant smudge on their face. In some cases, it was lipstick, some cases it was chocolate, some cases it was a marker smear, and they just counted up the percentage of the time that people said, “Hey, you got a smudge on your face. You could just wipe that off.” And can you guess what percentage of the time people did or didn’t tell the researchers?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I’ve lived this experience, Jeff, so I’m guessing it’s pretty tiny. Lay it on us.

Jeff Wetzler
Well, 97% of people said nothing. Absolutely nothing. And yet later, 100% of the people said, “Yeah, I noticed that. It looked a little weird.” But 97% of the people said nothing. And I think to myself, if that’s just a smudge on the face that could be wiped off with one little pat, imagine what they’re not saying about the hole in your business plan, or your strategy, or the way that you’re impacting them, or how you’re demotivating them, things that are much higher stakes. So, it’s really all around us.

I’ll just give you one other study, which I thought was fascinating, which is that between 60% and 80% of people, depending on their background and demographics, have admitted that they actually don’t tell their own doctor something important about their health, because they either don’t want to waste the doctor’s time or be judged by the doctor.

And so, think about that. If this is information about our own health that could literally make us well, life or death, and we are not telling our own doctor because we don’t want to waste their time or be judged, imagine all the things that are so much less personally significant that people are not saying. So, those are a couple examples that help me appreciate how widespread this phenomenon that I call the unspoken is.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that. Thank you. And so, that notion right there, “I don’t want to waste their time, and I don’t want to be judged,” so two drivers. Because I was just going to ask, with the smudge or these scenarios, sort of why? What’s behind that? With the smudge, I’m thinking, “Well, I would like to think I’m in the 3%.” But if I wasn’t, if I didn’t speak up, I imagine it’d be because, it’s almost like, if you’re pretty sure, someone’s pregnant, I’m not going to risk it. Like, “Oh, boy, when is a little bundle of joy due?”

It’s like, “I’m not pregnant, I’m just overweight. Thank you for pointing that out.” Versus like a smudge on their face, it’s like, “Oh yeah, you got a little smudge.” Like, “Actually, that’s a birthmark. Thank you very much. It probably made me look weird.” I guess I fear being judged or some sort of negative reprisal.

Jeff Wetzler
That was the top reason, they did not want to embarrass the other person, because they were then asked, “Well, why didn’t you say something?” And they said, “Oh, I didn’t want to embarrass the other person.” And that is, in the research for this book, I identified what are the top barriers that keep people around us from telling us what they really think, feel, and know. The number one barrier is that they’re worried about the impact.

That can be the impact on us, they don’t want to embarrass us. The impact on them, they don’t want to look stupid, they don’t want to embarrass themselves, or the impact on our relationship. They don’t want to create tension in the relationship. So, that is one of the biggest barriers. But there are other barriers as well. Another barrier is they just don’t know how to say it. They don’t have the words to say it, or, mathematically, it doesn’t work.

And what I mean by that is, I discovered a neuroscience study that human brain thinks at about 900 words per minute, but the mouth can only get out about 125 words per minute. That means that less than 15% of what someone’s actually thinking, they’re telling you, if only because the math doesn’t work to get more out of it as well. So, there doesn’t even have to be any motivation to spare you embarrassment or whatever, they just can’t get it all out.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Jeff Wetzler
I was going to say, to me, one of the most significant reasons people don’t tell us things is they just don’t know we care. They’re not sure we’re interested. They don’t know that we actually value what they have to say, and so why bother?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, they don’t know we care. That’s well said. And so then, I’m curious, before we dig into the best practices for the asker, as we, holders of wisdom, that we are keeping silent to ourselves, any mindset shifts or reframes you might suggest for us so we pipe up more often to the benefit of others?

Jeff Wetzler
So, we don’t actually need to force the other person to do the work of asking us? Is that what you’re saying? From my perspective, I would offer, share it. The number of times that I have coached somebody on my team and they’ve said, “I’m really thinking this person needs to get better at X, Y, Z.” And I say to them, “Well, have you told that person?” And they say, “Do you think I should?” And I say, “Yeah, I really think you should.”

It is very common for me, when I coach people in my organization, they will say, “I’ve got this issue with so-and-so,” or, “I’ve got this idea for how so-and-so could do something differently.” And I’ll say to them, “Have you told that person?” And they’d say, “No, I haven’t. Do you think I should?” And I’d say, “Yeah, I think they would really value it.”

And so, a huge percentage of the time, the things that we’re withholding, we overestimate the degree to which that the other person might be fragile, or might not want to hear it, or might not be interested. So, my blanket advice is, consider if you were in the other person’s shoes, would you want them to tell you that if they were thinking that? And quite often you would want them to be thinking about that.

Now the advice has to be nuanced because there are power dynamics, there are dynamics based on other forms of difference, and sometimes the things that we’re thinking we’re right not to say because it’s going to make it worse. And so, the only other advice I would say is, if you think that actually saying the thing to the other person might actually be toxic or make it worse, talk to a friend first. Try it out. Get a little bit of context. Get a little bit of advice from a thought partner.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. All right. Well, before we delve into the depths of asking well, can you share what are the general maybe categories of wisdom or goodies that we’re bound to discover if we get in the practice of asking more often?

Jeff Wetzler
Yes, there are four. The first one is the challenges and struggles that someone else is facing. They are very unlikely to tell us that unless they think we really care and can help them. But imagine if you were a parent and your kid was really struggling with something and not telling you, or if you were a friend and your friend really that you cared about wasn’t doing this, or if you’re a manager.

When I was a leader, my first operating role where I was managing several hundred people in an organization, one of the teams that was under me was going through some major challenges, almost to the point where something like pretty visible and massive and high stakes up was about to blow up. And I had thought I was talking with them and coaching and asking questions all along, but they were just not telling me. And the issue was that they were dealing with challenges and they were coming up against things they didn’t know how to handle. They didn’t feel safe telling me, and so I didn’t find out. So, that’s one thing, we can understand what are the challenges and struggles that someone’s facing.

A second thing is, what do they really think about a topic or an issue or question? Maybe they really disagree with this plan that we’ve got. Maybe they think that there’s a better way forward. Maybe they’ve got some differing opinion. And often we will discover that they haven’t told us, but if we ask in the right ways, we can find out not only what they really think but I think, more importantly, where that comes from, what are the underlying reasons and values and perspectives and life experiences that got them to that view. So, that’s number two.

The third one is their observations and feedback for us. And so, literally, just two days ago, I was having lunch with a colleague, thought we had a great conversation, and I just said at the end of the lunch before we left, I said, “By the way, do you have any observations or feedback for me in my own work with this team, and my own leadership of the team?”

And she said to me, “Well, now that you asked, there is this one person on this team who’s really struggling with you for X, Y, Z reasons. I don’t think it’s your fault, but you need to know you’re having this impact on that person.” Had I not asked that question, I would have walked away from that lunch without any of that insight. Now I can go do something about it.”

And then the fourth thing is their best ideas, their most wild, crazy ideas that could be the thing that is actually the breakthrough for your team, for your relationship, for the innovation that you want to have, but that they often hold back because they might think it’s too crazy to say. So, those are four things that I think, personally, are like a treasure trove of insights and wisdom that’s all around us, waiting to be tapped into if we know how to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that so much. And as you’re sharing this, what comes to mind is when I ask someone, maybe it’s about a product or service feature, quality thing, and I say, “Oh, so is it good at doing this?” And they say, “Well, we haven’t heard any complaints.” That never really sat very well with me. It’s like, “I don’t think you’re telling me much.” And as we have this conversation, like, “Yeah, that means almost nothing.”

Jeff Wetzler
That’s right. Because if people have complaints, and they don’t think you’re interested, they’re not going to be telling you.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I’m thinking about some podcasts I’ve listened to that are just like brutally packed with ads, and then I look at their reviews, it’s like, “Yeah, surely there’s going to be a lot of people saying these ads are insane,” and then no one has spoken up. And it’s funny, it’s, like, how odd, and yet I’m not speaking up. I’m not taking the time. It’s like, “Dear, podcaster, allow me to pen this email to you.”

Jeff Wetzler
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“Or raise this review,” and I’m just sort of moving on and doing something else.

Jeff Wetzler
It’s also why if you are leading a team, or in any kind of relationship really, and someone does take the risk to tell you those things, that’s a huge gift because it doesn’t often happen, and that’s something to appreciate and reward, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. All right. Well, tell us, if we want to surface more of this wisdom, insight, goodness, you’ve got a five-step ask approach, how do we do that?

Jeff Wetzler
The ask approach is a science research-backed, practice-tested set of methods that when we put them together give us the greatest possible chance of really tapping into the wisdom and insights all around us. So, I’ll just run you through each of the five steps real quickly, and stop me if you want me to go deeper.

But number one is what I call choose curiosity, and this is the root of all asking. If we’re not genuinely curious, whatever questions we put out there are going to come across as inauthentic. But if we are curious, it really sends a message to the other person that creates a desire and motivation for them to share.

And I look at curiosity, not so much as a trait that someone has or doesn’t have, or a state of mind that we’re in, but as a choice that we can make, a decision that is always available to us to be asking ourselves one question when we’re interacting with someone. And that question is simply, “What can I learn from this person?”

If we put that question at the center of our minds, we’re far more likely to enter in a curious space. And I’m talking not about the kind of curiosity that’s like, “I’m curious about the history of Russia,” or “I’m curious about how trees grow.” It’s what I call connective curiosity. It’s curiosity about the thoughts and feelings and experiences of somebody else, and it’s the kind of curiosity that connects us to them. So, that’s number one, choose curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I’m curious, if we’re not feeling that, but we’d like to, how can we get to conjure more of that up?

Jeff Wetzler
So, in this chapter of the book, I talk about a couple things. One is to become aware of how it is that we construct our view of any situation, which I call our story about the situation, in a way that’s so certain. And the way it typically works is that we will walk into any situation, and there’s, of course, thousands of things that we could pay attention to, what this person said or didn’t say, or what they’re wearing, or the temperature of the room, or any number of things, and we can only select just but a tiny slice of that, otherwise we would go crazy.

The problem is we do this in microseconds and we forget all the things that we’re not selecting, and we just think the thing that we’re selecting is the is the thing, is the totality of the reality, and then we zip up, what in the book, I talk about as our ladder of understanding, all the way to reaching a conclusion, which basically, quite often, reinforces the assumptions that we brought in the situation with in the first place that caused to select what we did, and so, we get stuck in this thing called a certainty loop.

And so, if we want to break out of that, what we need to do is inject some question marks into the story that we’re telling. The first question mark we can inject is, “What information was I paying attention to? And what information might I have been overlooking?” All of a sudden, it’s like, “Huh. Oh, you know what, maybe there was more to it that I wasn’t zeroing in on. Maybe something else was going on. Maybe the other person was up against something that I didn’t realize. Maybe I was contributing in some kind of way.”

And then the next question we can ask ourselves is, “What might be a different story that somebody else could tell, about this information, than I would tell?” Now, sometimes we need to, in fact, enlist other people, find a friend, and say, “Hey, this is how I looked at it. How would you look at this situation?” because curiosity is a team sport. It’s much easier when we can get other people to help provoke that kind of curiosity.

So, we can start to find how we construct that story, and then once we understand how our mind works, we can begin to put question marks in different parts of that story.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes, I think that’s beautiful, because if we just know that we know, and of course, that’s how it is, and we’re certain, then there’s not much at stake within that curiosity, there’s not much motivation or need for it. And yet, I think it’s also fair to say that, boy, we humans are astoundingly overconfident in so many domains, it’s just I’m flabbergasted by it in terms of human nature, that’s one of the most intriguing. I’m sure I’m the same way. I’m not above it.

But when I hear people say things with such conviction and certainty about the future, I was like, “Wow, have you ever been wrong before? Tried to plan that didn’t work? Experienced the emotion of surprise? Well, then I’m surprised that you are so vastly certain that this future will play out precisely as you have said.”

Jeff Wetzler
Exactly. Exactly. And in the chapter, I also talk about things that zap all of our curiosity. I call them curiosity killers, one of which is being emotionally triggered. And so, I know for myself, when I get upset, when I get threatened, when I get stressed out, when I get pissed off at somebody, my curiosity just dies.

And so, I offer some strategies to say, “How might we flip that?” And instead of having our curiosity killed, could we use our emotions as cues to say, “This is the moment when I most need to be curious, when I’m actually feeling furious”? Just like the same way we would put a rubber band on the door to say, “Oh, yeah, this is going to remind me to do the dishes. I’m noticing that I’m feeling really righteous right now, really certain right now. All right, there’s something I’m not seeing. I got to get curious right now.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, what’s our next step?

Jeff Wetzler
So, the next step is called make it safe. And this is a recognition that even if I am dying to know what you really think and know, if I’m super curious, if you don’t feel safe to tell me your truth, especially if it’s a hard truth, it doesn’t matter how curious I am. This is building off of the research by Professor Amy Edmondson on psychological safety, and it is really about lowering the barriers that other people feel.

And this is particularly important, by the way, if we’re operating across lines of difference, especially power differences. CEOs are notorious for being insulated from the truth, but that’s really the case for any leader where there’s any hierarchical situation. But other kinds of identity differences as well: race, class, gender, ability, etc. those can all contribute to a less safe situation. And so, making it safe involves a few things. One is choosing how and when we connect, creating connection with the other person.

And so, for the book, I actually interviewed some iconic CEOs and asked them, “How did you get away from being insulated from the truth? How did you get people to actually be honest with you?” And one of the patterns that emerged is they were very intentional about where and when and how they engage with people.

So, Bill George from Medtronic said, “I would never invite someone to my office and make them sit across the big CEO desk from me, and assume they’re going to feel safe to tell me their truth. If I really want to know the truth, we’re going to take a walk. I’m going to sit on the couch. We’re going to sit across from each other on a couch, or I’m going to go to their turf. I’m going to go on a ride along with them on a sales call, etc.” And so, they were really intentional.

And I think the same is true in our own lives. If I want to learn from my teenage daughter what’s really going on for her in school, and I say to her, when she gets home from school, “How was your day? What happened? What did you learn?” I get absolutely nothing. But if I follow her lead about where we should be connecting, we’re going to do it at 11:00 p.m. when she’s done with her homework, done talking with her friends, decompressed from the day, and it all comes out, and she doesn’t want to stop talking. And so, part of that is like the where and how of connecting.

Another part of it is if we want someone to open up with us, we’ve got to open up first, and that opening up could be, “I’m opening up about what I don’ t know and why I’m asking the question so you don’t have to guess at my agenda,” or, “I’m opening up about something that might feel vulnerable to me as well, so that I can show you that we can both do that.”

And then another part is what I call radiating resilience. And this is so important because it’s demonstrating to the other person, “I can handle your truth. If you tell me something, I’m not going to crumble. I’m not so fragile. And also, I’m not going to punish you or hold you responsible for my own reactions.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how does one radiate resilience?

Jeff Wetzler
It could be as simple as saying to somebody something like, “Hey, listen, if I were in your shoes, I might feel really frustrated at this moment, given what happened. What’s going on for you? Is that what you’re feeling?” That’s one way to do it. So, you’re basically normalizing it. And so, if they can then say, “Yeah, I am feeling kind of frustrated,” I’m showing them that that’s not going to bother me if they say that.

I had an investor in my current organization, Transcend, say to me, “Look, I’ve made the investment. I just want you to know, my expectation is that things are not going to go the way that you pitched them to me when I made the investment, because no one can predict the future. If you could predict the future, you’d be rich right now, and you’d be betting on horses and winning the lottery. And so, I’m actually interested in how are things going that are different than what you pitched and expected. And if you tell me everything’s on track, I’m going to be suspicious.” And all of a sudden, she said to me, she can handle any bad news that I might throw her away.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s nice. That’s nice. Or, imagine if people are telling stories of, “I heard this surprising, unpleasant feedback, and it was so usefully transformational for me.”

Jeff Wetzler
Totally, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Oh, I appreciate this thing.”

Jeff Wetzler
And leaders can do that publicly, too, and they can invite that hard feedback publicly, and they can just acknowledge or reflect on it publicly, too.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And I guess, also, there’s some body language signals in terms of if there’s scowling or nodding or shaking your head. It’s like, “Oh, it looks like you really hate hearing this. Maybe I’ll stop talking now.”

Jeff Wetzler
Yes. One of the people I interviewed for the book was a clinical psychologist who said that one of the top things that stop adolescents from telling their parents the truth is if their parents flip out and have strong reactions. And so, you shouldn’t necessarily be stone-faced, but monitor your reactions, because whether on the positive or the negative side, if you get really overreactive, it makes the other person feel like then they have to take care of you as opposed to continue to express what they have to say. And the same is true in business settings as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And let’s hear the next step, pose quality questions.

Jeff Wetzler
So, the next step is really, what are the questions that we’re posing? And I distinguish between quality questions and crummy questions, because there’s a lot of questions out there that we ask that are not quality questions. They could be questions that I call sneaky questions, where you’re actually trying to get the other person to the answer that you want to get them to and manipulate them. They could be, like, attack questions like, “What the hell were you thinking?” So, there’s a whole bunch of questions that are not quality questions.

The definition of a quality question is simply a question that helps us learn something important from somebody else. And just the same way that a surgeon has all kinds of very precise scalpels and other tools to get at what they’re trying to get at, questions are the same exact way. We can use different kinds of questions depending on what we’re trying to learn from someone.

So, like what I shared at the very beginning of this conversation, when I said to that coworker of mine, “What are your reactions to what I had to say?” That’s a particular question strategy that I call requesting reactions that we can use to understand what we had to say land with someone and what we’d be missing. But there’s other categories of quality questions, for example, one that I call “invite ideas,” which is simply to say, “Hey, I got a dilemma. How might you think about this? What ideas do you have for how we could do something differently?” That’s another category of quality questions.

And then I would say another category is, this is one actually that I think is so underutilized but so powerful. I call it clear up confusion, which is just simply to say, “Hey, when you talk about expanding into new markets, what do you mean when you say expanding into new markets? When you talk about, ‘We got to get better at X,’ what does X mean to you?”

Because so often we’re using the same words but meaning different things and just pausing and saying, “Hey, what do we each mean by this?” can unlock so much insight.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you, those are great questions. Could you also demo some of the crummy questions that are asked all too often?

Jeff Wetzler
Well, so one category of crummy questions is clumsy questions. And clumsy questions could be, for example, when someone says, “I think we ought to go in this direction, right?” I’m just adding “right.” It’s kind of like, well, it makes it very hard for someone to say “wrong,” or, “Am I right?” or that kind of thing.

Or, sometimes it’s clumsy just to layer three or four questions on top of one another, and then the other person is like, “Well, which one am I supposed to be responding to?” Or if they say yes, you don’t know which one they’re actually responding to. So, sometimes questions can be well-intentioned but just super clumsy as well.

And then there’s questions that are more like leading-the-witness kinds of questions, questions that a lawyer might put on, say, to somebody on a stand, where they’re trying to get them to admit, like, “Don’t you think you could’ve done it a little differently better this way?” Or, even like, “Have you considered seeing a therapist about that?” Where it’s like, “We got an opinion behind that question.” Those are all categories of kind of crummy questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, saying “right” after a statement is, ooh, that’s a tricky one. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to say anything at all. That’s how it feels on the receiving end.

Jeff Wetzler
Totally. Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, “Is this just your vocal pause instead of ‘um,’ ‘like,’ ‘you know,’ you’re saying ‘right’”? One time I heard someone say, this is kind of insensitive, but I thought it kind of rang true to me. It’s like when someone says, makes a big statement, followed by “right,” what they’re really saying is, “Can I move on now, or do I have to slow down for you dummies?” “Okay, yeah, that’s how it feels.”

Jeff Wetzler
It can have all kinds of impacts like that. And I think the sad thing is that sometimes it’s also coming from a good place where they’re actually trying to check, “Does that resonate? Do you agree with me? Are we on the same page? Am I making any sense?” But it’s clumsy by just saying right, because it has all those unintended impacts.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, next up, step four, listen and learn.

Jeff Wetzler
So, once we ask the question, it all comes down to how well we listen to what people actually have to say to us, and most of us think that we are far better listeners than we actually are. And there’s a difference between trying to listen and actually hearing what someone’s saying or what they’re not saying.

For the book, I interviewed professional listeners, including world-class journalists. I remember one journalist, Jenny Anderson, saying to me that whenever she can, she will audio record her interviews with the people that she’s reporting on. And then when it’s over, she’ll go back and listen to it two, three, four times. And every time she listens to it, she’s astounded that she hadn’t heard that important thing in the previous time, or in the time that she was live.

And I think to myself, if a professional journalist doesn’t hear it the first time or the second time or even the third time, imagine how the rest of us mere mortals, who are not recording most of our conversations, how much we’re missing as well. And so, listening to learn, part of it is expanding the channels that we’re listening through. Many of us, myself included, tend to focus in on one channel of information, which is the content that someone’s saying, the facts, the data, the claims that they’re making.

But there’s two other really important channels to be listening through. The second one is the emotion. So, what are the feelings that someone is displaying or expressing in the conversation? And the third is action. What actions are they taking in the conversation? Are they repeating themselves? Are they constantly pushing back? Are they just going along with what we have to say? Those are all different examples of actions.

And so, just the same way that we can appreciate in so much greater richness a piece of music by being able to listen for the percussion and the vocals and the harmony and some other instrument, we can train our ears to also listen for content and for emotion and action, and then put them together and ask ourselves, “Are they consonant? Is there tension between those different things?” and really take in a much richer range of information.

One way to do that, and one thing I write about in the book to keep in mind for listening, is that often the first answer that someone gives to our question is not the most important thing they have to say about that question. Psychologists, clinical psychologists, have a term for this that they call the doorknob moment, where they’ve just been through a whole session with somebody of therapy, they’re at minute 49 out of 50, the person is about to get up, starts to put their hand on the doorknob to leave, and that’s when they actually say, “I’m thinking about leaving my wife,” or, “The government is investigating me,” or whatever.

And that would have been the most important thing to talk about during the whole session, but it only comes out at the last minute. And I think the same is true in many of our conversations. People can be thinking to themselves, working up the courage, “Do I have the courage to actually say this?” or, “How are they going to react?” or, even just trying to put the words together. And yet, if we ask a question, someone gives the answer, we think we know what they really think and we move on in the conversation, or we just react to it, quite often we are not actually getting it.

And so, an important way to overcome that when listening to someone, one thing is just to wait because more might come out. But a second is to just say, “Say more about that. Is there more? Anything else you have to say?” Sometimes in my own work conversations, if I’m brainstorming with someone, or asking them for thoughts or ideas, I’ll say, “Cool. Thank you. And what else?” And sometimes I’ll say, “I’m just going to keep saying to you ‘what else’ until you tell me that’s it, because each time I say what else you come up with an even better idea.”

And then, of course, you have to respect it when you’re done. But those are a couple of ways to really listen for what’s at the essence of what someone has to say.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Great. And step five, reflect and reconnect?

Jeff Wetzler
Step five is my favorite because I am a nerd and junkie about learning. And step five is all about “How do we take everything we just heard and squeeze the learning out of it, convert conversation into actual insight?” And I talk about a method that I call sift and turn. So, the first part is sifting it, asking ourselves, “Of all the things I just heard, or maybe wrote down in my notes, what’s valuable? And what can I let go of?” because it’s not all equally valuable.

And so, sifting it is, first, just kind of getting down to “What are the nuggets?” And sometimes it’s helpful to sift it with the help of other people because we may bring our own biases or assumptions about what we filter in and filter out. So, we can ask other people who are in the conversation, “What did you think was most important there?” Or, we can show our notes to some friends, etc.

But then once we’ve sifted it and we know what the goal is, then it’s about turning it. And turning it, I talk about three reflective turns. The first reflective turn is to say, “From what I heard, how did that affect or challenge or confirm the story I have about this person and about the situation?” So, I call it story-level reflection. And then we can say, “Now, based on that, what steps can I take in this situation? Maybe I need to course-correct. Maybe I need to apologize. Maybe I need to double down on my direction,” whatever it may be, but really thinking through what are the steps.

And the third turn I call stuff-level reflection, and this is to say, “Is there some insight I had here, or something they said that might help me get new perspective on my own deeper assumptions or values or ways of being, something that’s deeper in the stuff that I have?” And so, we can walk through these three turns, and I think a lot of people think about reflection as some esoteric thing. But this is a very kind of simple and concrete and practical way to take a conversation and really get the most out of it.

But we can’t stop with just the reflection. It’s important to reconnect to the other person. That’s why I call it reflect and reconnect. And the reconnecting is simply to go back to someone, and say, “Here’s what I learned from our conversation, and here’s what I’m going to do about it.” Because oftentimes, people are thinking, “I don’t want to waste my time. Did I waste my time? Are they going to actually do anything with that? Did I waste my breath?”

When we go back and we say, “Here’s what I got from what you said, and here’s what I’m going to do about it,” we not only let someone know we value them, they didn’t waste their time. We also give them the chance to modify what we took away because maybe we took away the wrong lesson. But I think we vastly increase the chances that, in the future, they’re going to want to share more because they know it’s a good use of their time.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. And I’m curious, if folks are jazzed, they’re going down this route of asking, asking away, and they find, “Huh, I’m not getting much when I ask,” in terms of it’s like, “Fine. Nothing much. Sounds good,” what do you recommend we do? I guess you’ve already pinpointed any number of the potential barriers or gaps that could be explaining things, but if we’re the asker and we find we’re not getting much on the other side, how would you recommend we approach diagnosing and addressing that?

Jeff Wetzler
I would go back to the make-it-safe step first, and I’d be asking myself, “To what extent does the person truly feel safe to share?” And I’d be asking, “Have I really created a connection of trust with that person? And are we doing this at a time and place where they really feel safe?” But then the second thing I talked about was opening up.

Part of opening up can be even being honest and saying, “I would have guessed that there might be more that you had to say on this. You might have more thoughts on this. And I’m wondering, is there anything more that you have to say about this? I’m also wondering, is there anything about how we’re having this conversation or what that I’m doing that might be making it harder for you to share if you do have it as well, and naming that and inquiring?”

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

Jeff Wetzler
I think I would just summarize by saying, this problem of the unspoken is pervasive, it’s painful, but it is not inevitable. We can truly do something about it.

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

Jeff Wetzler
Yes, one of my favorite quotes comes from…do you know Bill Nye the Science Guy?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Jeff Wetzler
So, Bill Nye says, “Everybody you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” And to me, that really sums up a lot of what this book is about, which is that I want to understand what is that thing that somebody else knows that I don’t. And it’s a reminder to myself, there is something I can learn from everybody.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Jeff Wetzler
There is a mentor of mine named Diana Smith, who just actually, two days ago, released a book called Remaking the Space Between Us. And it talks about a lot of the application of many of the similar ideas to what’s in this book, but applying it to our democracy and our society. And it talks about how we have grown distant from one another, and how we’re complicit in that, and how we can reconnect with one another, Remaking the Space Between Us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Jeff Wetzler
I, actually, about nine months ago, started using, this may sound a little dorky, but I started using a to-do list program called Things. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it or not. But when writing and launching a book, it is amazing how many moving pieces there are, and how many work streams there are, and this tool called Things, literally, helps me get my head around every bit of it, but then I can also only have things show up that I need to do on the day I need to think about it, and the rest of it can be in the background. I don’t even have to think about it. And that has, I think, been a lifesaver for me.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Jeff Wetzler
One of my favorite habits, you saw my dog make a cameo appearance earlier in this podcast, I spend probably three to five minutes every morning when I get up, my dog is usually up before I am, and she just jumps all over me, and I lie down on the couch and I just let her sort of like stand on top of me as if she is, like, one dominated our relationship, and I just get to pet her and play with her, and it’s a kind of a center of attention for our whole family. And so, I guess that counts as a habit and I enjoy it every morning.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote back to you often?

Jeff Wetzler
Well, this is one that I learned from Kim Scott, who wrote Radical Candor, but I have found that it resonates and people often repeat it back, which is, “When you’re furious, get curious.” That’s the time when we most need to get curious, and I think the rhyming just helps it stick a little bit more.

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

Jeff Wetzler
www.AskApproach.com is the website. I’m also on LinkedIn, Jeff Wetzler. There’s an Ask Diagnostic on the website, or you can get to it at Assessment.AskApproach.com, and that really helps you understand how well do you learn from people around you, and which parts of the Ask Approach are you strong at, and which ones do you need to get better at. And then we’re on Instagram at Ask Approach.

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

Jeff Wetzler
My call to action would be to approach every single person with the question in your mind, “What can I learn from this person?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Jeff, this was fun. I wish you much access to hidden wisdom.

Jeff Wetzler
Thank you. I wish the same for you and for all your listeners.

958: The Five Essential Behaviors of Great Collaboration with Tricia Cerrone and Edward van Luinen

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

Edward van Luinen and Tricia Cerrone slice through the clutter to identify the fundamental keys to effective collaboration.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What most people get wrong about collaboration
  2. How to overcome the barriers to authentic collaboration 
  3. How to zero in on an inspiring  “noble purpose” that drives motivation and engagement 

About Tricia and Edward

Tricia Cerrone 

Courage and collaboration are hallmarks of Tricia’s global leadership experience, whether it is leading a project, innovating new designs, or overseeing a portfolio of work. With a keen eye for talent and more than 20 years on the business and production side of designing and delivering technically challenging projects at Disney and other Fortune 500 companies, Tricia is adept at inspiring and motivating teams toward successful outcomes while advancing careers and developing new leaders. 

Edward J. van Luinen, Ed.D 

For over twenty years, Edward has been a talent champion of teams worldwide. His experience includes Disney, Sony, and Heineken. He led teams through transformational global-regional-local restructuring, successfully implemented mergers and acquisitions, and introduced new software, learning systems, and leadership strategies. Edward’s collaboration motto is “advance a team member when you advance yourself.” He has worked in Africa, Europe, and North America. Edward collaborates in both French and English. 

Resources Mentioned

Tricia Cerrone and Edward van Luinen Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Trish and Edward, welcome.

Tricia Cerrone

Hey, Pete, happy to be here.

Edward van Luinen

Thank you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I’m happy to be chatting.

Edward van Luinen

Great to meet you.

Pete Mockaitis

So, your company’s called Authentic Collaboration. We’re going to talk about that a lot. Maybe, for starters, you could give us a definition. What do you mean by collaboration? And what makes a collaboration authentic versus inauthentic?

Edward van Luinen

Authentic collaboration is a group of people working toward a goal with all-hands on deck all the time. That’s a unique time because a lot of teams, the first thing they try to figure out is, “Okay, who’s the boss? Who’s the doer? Who gets the glory work? Who doesn’t get the glory work?” So, that makes it original and authentic right off the bat. It’s also a process with a lot of specific tasks that teams can begin to do on day one to set the tone of how they want to work, not just people staying in their swim lane and doing lists of tasks. How we work together is really the most important part of authentic collaboration.

Tricia Cerrone

And I think the part about why we picked authentic is we come out of the womb really good, and then but we get all these attachments and behaviors and things that aren’t useful to us anymore. And so, just imagine, like, we just want to kind of wipe off all the barnacles of life and be our true selves. And the behaviors really fight that and combat all of our weaknesses in a really easy way that’s natural.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, tell me, you’ve done a lot of research and teaching in the world of collaboration, any particularly striking, surprising discoveries that you’ve made about us humans and how we collaborate, best and worst?

Tricia Cerrone

That’s a good question. It’s interesting that people don’t actually know how to collaborate. I feel like the reason why it’s so important now, and we see in so many statistics people are trying to figure it out, and it’s the cause for so many work failures, but people are sort of just told to collaborate, and then they don’t really know what that means.

And sometimes they’re like, “Okay, we’ll make this beautiful cute room with fun things in it,” or, “We’ll kind of work together,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean collaborate. So, it’s like we learn how to walk but we forget it actually takes a few different movements to walk and sustain with collaboration. Only no one’s ever told you what those movements are.

And so, once we realized people just, they were doing things accidentally, but didn’t know why they worked, and so sometimes something would work. But, overall, no one really understood what it meant to collaborate. So, for us, we figured these five behaviors. If you do them all, you create this culture of collaboration that works consistently all the time. And so then, we went through, and we validated each of the behaviors of why they work for us as humans.

Edward van Luinen

Absolutely. The five behaviors of a new way to work and lead, which is authentic collaboration, is generosity, co-creation, action, resourcefulness, and gratitude. And as Tricia exactly said, many of those behaviors are on their own, not original. But we did some original research with hiring a researcher and found that these cluster of behaviors are unique and have not appeared in any sort of model before.

So, exactly as Tricia says, too, it’s like we first have to understand what all the behaviors are, and then start to practice them day in and day out, and that makes a difference and that makes an authentic collaboration team.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, could you give us a picture for what’s the state of collaboration today in terms of how well are, say, American, for the sake of conversation, workers doing at collaboration and what’s at stake?

Tricia Cerrone

Well, there’s a few statistics, right? I’ll let Edward go in a second, but I was just reading a Gallup poll about our lack of engagement at work, which really speaks to collaboration. And the 2023 kind of state of the world was basically that we’re losing like $8 trillion in productivity because people aren’t engaged, and they just don’t want to work with each other. And in America, that’s like $550 billion of what’s being wasted. So, basically, like 21% of people right now are looking for another job, and that’s about the amount also that are engaged at the office. And, Edward, do you have a few other statistics?

Edward van Luinen

Yeah, absolutely. And I agree with Trish. I mean, the Gallup poll is really important. Salesforce did a survey, and 85% of workers said that the primary reason that projects are failing is because of a lack of collaboration. And I think they think, “Oh, I’m a team member. I’ve just got to do tasks. It’s consensus. 50 people have to be in the room, but I’m not sure what people are doing.”

So, going back to the behaviors, it’s really about how we work, not what we’re doing. And authentic collaboration focuses on making sure that we are working effectively together first before we start accomplishing our goals and tasks. Software, another industry, 50% of software budgets are created for collaboration tools. The big question is, “Do the software engineers creating the collaboration tools know how to collaborate?” Maybe some do, maybe some don’t. So, a challenge and an opportunity for those to learn more about authentic collaboration, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, could you perhaps zoom in to a particular group or workplace or a team, and paint a real clear picture of what does typical, yet unfortunately bad collaboration look like, and then perhaps something they did to turn things around and the cool results that came on the other side of that?

Tricia Cerrone

There’s certainly like many things you can do wrong. One particular team that I was working with and I was not the leader at the time, the leader, you know, people can be so nice at work, at home, and then they get to work, and some of the times their insecurities come out. So, if you have a leader who is insecure, which, in a way, is like how one of the ways that pride can show up at work, then it’s hard because they don’t trust your decisions necessarily, but they also don’t trust their own decisions.

And so, what we had to do was actually gently educate our leader so that he could trust working with us. And so, I think leadership, it can show up as like ego. So, when you have someone on the team who like wants all the attention, then they don’t want to collaborate. And I think the other thing that happens in teams is, to Edward’s earlier point, people stay in their lanes because HR, to a degree, has made an industry out of, “These are your roles and responsibilities. You do these.” And then, “If I do those, no matter what someone else does, I won’t catch the blame, I won’t lose my bonus.”

And so, it’s this fear that’s come onto teams, and so that’s what we see a lot of is sort of like fear that I won’t be able to do my jobs because someone else didn’t do their job. And so, that’s why we try to use this sense of generosity to remove fear, and so that people are trusting each other and actually being honest with each other, and helping to problem-solve quicker. Did that answer your question, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, yes. Thank you. And when you talked about insecurity, what are some of the typical behaviors, I don’t know, words, phrases, actions, that you see insecure people taking?

Edward van Luinen

Great question, Pete. I feel that it shows up in hoarding information, hoarding team members, “This is my team. I’ve spent years hiring, coaching, growing them to be the high potentials or leaders. I want to keep them,” instead of the organization owning the talent. I think it shows up in not being all hands-on-deck all the time, “Because I’m a senior vice president, I don’t have to clean up the conference room after a meeting, when in fact I should, because I was participating in that meeting,” as an example. So, it can show up in a lot of ways.

I feel that another way that, on teams that I’ve been on, is that if we, as Tricia says, valiantly try to demonstrate the authentic collaboration behaviors in three, four, five meetings, and sometimes when you give, you kind of want to get, because you are role-modeling and demonstrating how you want to be treated. But in additional meetings or collaborations that I’ve tried, after three, four, five meetings, if I’m not getting any response from these authentic collaboration behaviors, it’s a good indicator that it may not work.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, okay. Well, that’s kind of quick results. We know pretty fast, apparently, if we need some traction here.

Edward van Luinen

Well, yeah, sometimes you have to. of course, depending if you’re in a company, you don’t often have the luxury of saying, “Okay, I don’t want to do this,” but as consultants or in a company even, you get an indication of how easy it’s going to be to demonstrate these behaviors and want to love your job. So, the question we want to ask is, “How can we get people to love their job even more?” And we feel we can do that with authentic collaboration.

Tricia Cerrone

I want to just add something to what Edward says. One thing we do tell people is if you do these behaviors, whether anyone else does or not, you are going to enjoy your work better because the way people respond to you is going to be different. And so, it does change the energy and the dynamic of everyone that you interact with. So, even if your whole team isn’t doing it, you’re still going to have greater success.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, I think we must hear these five behaviors. We got some hype here, let’s deliver. Tell us, what are they? How do we do them?

Tricia Cerrone

Well, the first one is easy, and I’ll just say, like, anyone can do these behaviors. It’s not about personality or style or how you were brought up, or anything like that. You can all do them. They’re all about the actions that you can do, behaviors, and getting better at them and being a little intentional about it. So, generosity is the first one, and generosity, you know, we all know that. It’s about serving and helping others.

So, it’s like, “How do you look at your team developing each other? How do you grow each other? Do you coach each other after a meeting? Do you,” as Edward said earlier, “help to clean up? Do you see what their needs are?” But the other great outcome of generosity is that it overcomes fear and scarcity, and that we talked about earlier, that insecurity and pride because it creates connection. So, that’s one of the great things about generosity. We could talk about generosity all day. I’ll hand it off.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, sure thing. And so, if I am trying to practice generosity regularly, are there any particular mottos, mantras, mindsets, attitudes that just I have in me and I’m working through as I see the world and make decisions, and choose what to do?

Tricia Cerrone

No, I probably wouldn’t say that we do have one. It’s more of like, “Look, be a little bit self-aware and look around you to see who needs help.” It’s how we walk through life, “Who needs help?”

Pete Mockaitis

And I love those simple examples in terms of cleaning up and coaching, etc. Can you give some additional easy little ways we can help out every day?

Edward van Luinen

Absolutely. Thanks, Pete. And one of the ways is we worked with a lot of leaders on our project, three-year project, Authentic Collaboration, which came out of this project, and one is that feedback is very important on how you’re doing. And we made a commitment to provide very specific, timely, written feedback to leaders that helped us within 24 hours.

Many of them commented, “Gosh, I usually got this verbally, or it was very late, or it wasn’t specific,” but we wrote detailed thank-you notes, which seems a little bit old-school, but I think people still like to get written thank-you notes about how they made a difference on the project. Another generosity trait that we demonstrated was we had a lot of high potential junior, more junior talent, you could say, on our team.

Well, one of the ways that we thought we were generous and collaborative with them was “You’re going to kick off this meeting with a bunch of executives present.” “I don’t know if I could do that.” “Well, we’re going to coach you to make sure you feel comfortable doing it,” and then they did it, right Trish, numerous times.

And then we said, “Well, how did you feel doing that?” “Oh, my gosh, it was great. Someone came up to me and really was happy to meet me, and didn’t know I worked in that division or department, and we’re going to have a coffee because now they know who I am.” So, I feel that’s another specific behavior of generosity, is letting other people shine. That’s real important.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And I guess the counter, the opposite of generosity is not necessarily being evil and maliciously destructive, but rather maybe more of a scarcity mindset in terms of the hoarding, “This is mine. I’m not going to share. If I give a little then it’s going to come back to bite me because I will have less because I have given.”

Tricia Cerrone

Right. And also, like, the ego of like, “Well, I did this on my own, I’m the star,” and not sharing that it took a team.

Edward van Luinen

Exactly. No, you’re right, Pete. Great question. And our motto, actually, and our book title is Collaborate to Compete. We feel that’s counterintuitive, it’s original, it’s pretty disruptively innovative, because most times, as you know, Pete, and Trish and I experienced as well in companies, people are unnecessarily competing against each other. Why don’t we work together and compete to get more market share?

Pete Mockaitis

Certainly.

Edward van Luinen

That’s who we should be competing against. So, collaborate is, and the whole performance management system, as Trish was saying, the rewards were built on competing, not collaborating, so it’s a real head-turner.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, so let’s hear about the next behavior.

Tricia Cerrone

One of the next is like resourcefulness. So, it’s better to be resourceful than to have resources, but it’s really about developing your ongoing growth and knowledge about everything in the world because you can often use everything, whether it’s tools or information. And so, it’s knowing how to use all of that in the moment, but having this also attitude of behavior of always learning.

So, even if we were going on a trip to Hong Kong to check out a different park, we would take a half day to like, “Okay, maybe I can get a tour of operations and learn how they do things differently here.” Or, if I’m in a restaurant and it’s, again, another country, like learning a few words, asking the history of the restaurant, because all those little things feed into your experiences and who you might be talking to.

And, as a designer, especially working with Disney so much, even looking at the world around you, like, “What’s the sense of humor of the country?” and you can see that in advertisements, or you might experience the culture in a store or anywhere you go. So, resourcefulness is really about asking questions and being curious, and curiosity really drives resourcefulness.

Edward van Luinen

I agree with Trish. Another behavior is co-creation, and a lot of people think, “Oh, I’m just going to go to a brainstorming meeting, and we’re going to come up with sort of a group decision.” I think that’s probably the 101 of co-creation. Co-creation can actually be democratized, for lack of a better word, throughout the organization in every interaction you’re in.

How can a conversation become co-created? You have ideas, I have ideas. We co-created our solutions all the time within the team. If they were co-created, that doesn’t mean, again, going back to the definition, all-hands-on deck all the time. It’s not my idea, it’s our idea in a conversation, in a meeting, in almost every interaction you’re having, you’re co-creating. And that’s, I think, another important behavior to authentic collaboration.

Tricia Cerrone

Yeah, and a lot of part, a lot of the co-creation piece is it’s important with problem-solving, and often people are jumping in with like this solution, that solution, but this kind of gives you the discipline to pause and listen and ask questions and build on that idea first, and explore it first, and then move on to the next idea, and then prioritize.

And all of that’s important, one, because you might miss something that is a great solution, but it also makes sure that everyone on your team feels seen and heard and valued for the idea and contribution. And a lot of the behaviors do that. It’s sort of a thing that we all need as humans and it also makes our work feel like more valuable. So, connection and being seen, heard, and valued is kind of core to why all these things work together.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so, do you have any top do’s and don’ts to achieve those ends?

Tricia Cerrone

Yeah, keep your mouth shut to start, right? So, co-creation, like if you have a problem, state the problem. And if you’re a leader at the table and you’ve brought everyone together, don’t be the leader who’s like, “No, that won’t work.” Don’t be the leader who’s like, “Oh, I have a better idea.” Don’t be the person who says, “We’ve tried that before.” Pause, and even if you don’t think it’s a good idea, ask the question, “Well, tell me more about that,” or, “What made you think about that?” or, “Why do you think that might work in this situation?”

So, it’s that ability to explore an idea a little deeper despite your own filter that you have. So, again, a little bit of self-awareness and a little more listening. We were just interviewing another leader who was sharing that she brought together this entire team of leaders, and the solution came from the custodial person, not from all these other experts who are great designers and thinkers. And I think that’s what it is. Everyone needs to listen because you don’t know where that great idea is going to come from.

Pete Mockaitis

All right.

Edward van Luinen

Absolutely. I agree, Trish. And, gosh, I was a people manager for five or six years, always leading the team meeting. And I don’t know, finally I had the realization, Pete, that was like, “Edward, why don’t you ask your team members to take turns leading a meeting? Why are you doing it all the time?” And I think that speaks to what Trish is talking about.

Co-creation is other people have gifts and talents and creativity, and, gosh, they probably are maybe better at leading a meeting than you are, and you’re the one that has the manager title. So, I think that goes to also being generous and co-creating and being grateful for wonderful team members too.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Let’s hear about the fourth behavior.

Tricia Cerrone

Action or preference for action is what we call it, and so it’s obviously you have to move. The reason it’s important and we include it is because people have a lot of fear about making decisions, and you have to act even when you don’t have all the information, and that’s the point. And you actually don’t need that much information to move forward on something, and to try something, but if you do that then you will learn, “Okay, does that get me a little closer to the answer? Or is that something I’m going to cross off as it’s not going to work?”

And then, either way, whenever you do act, it builds that courage in you to continue to take more action. And when you do it as a team, it builds that confidence on a team so it’s a great feeling of that first time, especially when you do that together as a team, and you grow that kind of security and confidence and ability to take risks together.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And the fifth?

Edward van Luinen

Gratitude. Gratitude, we define as it’s really more than a feeling, it’s an action. So, it’s tied to action. I’ll give a specific example. I had to get ready for a very difficult meeting. I don’t know where I was working at the time, and I took the time to journal before that meeting, “What were all my thoughts about why I thought this was an excellent project? While I was even having a difficult time with the project at that moment, overall, what was great about what was I doing, what the team was doing, what the effort was, what were the early results?”

So, that when I went into that difficult project meeting, I was actually, that time spent on gratitude was almost sort of like an armor. Other people were negative, and they might have been critiquing but I was calm and I feel giving myself gratitude, and allowing to share gratitude with team members is also really important which is recognition and rewards, and it also gets to that collaborate to compete.

People are not expressing that much gratitude in the corporate world. We need more. It’s like water in the desert, and I feel that that’s really important for leaders who are authentic collaboration leaders and also team members to spend more time in gratitude. I may say, too, that sometimes people wonder and are suspicious at first, “Why are you buttering me up? Why are you complimenting me? We are in a competitive corporate environment. Are you trying to get something from me?”

And I feel that the authentic way of approaching compliments through gratitude and the consistent way shows that, “No, I care about the team. I care about the company. I care about the noble purpose of this project and this company, and that’s evident through my consistently doing it, not just haphazardly complimenting and being full of gratitude just to get something.” Or, as you said earlier, Pete, it’s really about, “How do I demonstrate that authentic gratitude?”

Tricia Cerrone

Yeah, there’s nothing worse when it’s insincere, right? But I think the value of it is to be specific of how that person contributed to this amazing outcome. I also think it’s important for the team to share celebrations together. And if you think of, like, when you tell a story, there’s the highs and lows, and even with our five behaviors, there’s points where I see it as telling a story, and gratitude is sort of that celebration moment that everyone needs like a breath from all of the action, and so it re-energizes everyone again.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, talking about stories, I’d love if you could share with us some of the most clear, illustrative, transformative examples of folks who have really made a 180 on some of these behaviors and the cool things that happened when they did so.

Tricia Cerrone

I had a colleague who honestly thought I was… he was a good friend and I had pitched this program for bringing innovation to Disney, and it was in a room with like all VPs and me, the only woman in there too. But, anyway, he totally put my idea down in front of everyone, and he was passionately against it. And so, I was like, “Okay, that was not co-creation right there.”

Pete Mockaitis

Could you share, what did he say when he put it down?

Tricia Cerrone

He said, “It’ll never work. No one can pitch an idea within five minutes,” and those were his main things. One, it’ll never work, and, two, it’s not actually possible. And so, after the meeting, I went with him and I said, “Can you talk more about why you’re so against this?” And he just said, “I just think it takes a lot more to pitch an idea, and you have to really understand the lay of the land, and blah, blah, blah.” He had all these legitimate reasons because when we pitch something at Disney, it could be 20 minutes to an hour where you have an executive. So, the idea that you could pitch something in three minutes and get potential feedback in two minutes was a little bit of an alien idea.

So, I took his notes and then I addressed them with everybody who wanted to pitch, and so I basically used generosity and taught everyone how to pitch, and I also brought him in to hear their pitches and critique them. And then when it came to the time for this event to happen, and all these different Imagineers were pitching various ideas in front of the leaders, he sat there in the audience, and he came to me afterwards, and he’s like, “That worked and that was really great.” He’s like, “I didn’t think it through.” I was surprised he admitted it but he said it was really great.

And so, through his not belief, and then him willing to sort of be generous and listening and giving me his opinion, actually, and then co-creating with me and the team to understand how to pitch, then he was able to, like, kind of overcome how he thought about something. And so, I think that’s kind of a co-creation experience of how that kind of came together.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely. Thank you.

Edward van Luinen

And just to add to that story, there’s going to be barriers to authentic collaboration, Pete. It’s not all just Pollyanna that everyone understands these five behaviors, and we’ve got a great product and process and team, and I love my job because now I practice these five behaviors and work with great leaders. And we have sort of a part of our book, which is “Negotiating Naysayers.” Like Trish said, what do you do in that instant when you’ve got someone who’s against you, publicly?

And Trish pushed through that barrier of whatever that was, insecurity or ego, by finding out sometimes, as Trish met later with that person, “What’s going on? Why? Tell us more.” Sometimes people saying no have a legitimate reason for saying no, and we can find out what that is and uncover more information to be more action-oriented and co-creation. So, sometimes barriers are a gift, not in the moment because they don’t feel so great, right, Tricia? But it’s like, “Wow, okay, this is the test of leadership, you know.” Yeah, this is the test of leadership. It’s not all Pollyanna all the time.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Tricia Cerrone

I think one of the other kind of important things that companies need to be aware of, and even like leaders on a team should be aware of is, and we call it noble purpose, but individuals and humans want to be working on something that’s important in their life. And how we express that to them on a team can make all the difference in their engagement and their desire to like push a little harder.

And so, if you think about a company vision and mission, a vision is sort of that emotional piece of it, and then the mission is the “This is what we actually do to make that happen.” And the noble purpose we always try to bring to a team, and it’s that combination of those two things, like, “What it is it for the company?” but then, “What does that mean for the team? How does the team’s vision and mission support the company? And then me, as a leader, how does that support the company? And then you, Pete, your unique contribution on the team that no one else can do, that is your more than more defined vision and mission, your noble purpose.”

So, we make sure everyone on the team understands how this doesn’t happen without them. Even the assistant who’s ordering food is incredibly important to make it all happen. So, we make sure that noble purpose is this concept that’s both emotional and practical and clear for each individual to, again, go back to like, “You are important and valued in this project and in this company, and we can’t do it without you.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right.

Edward van Luinen

And if we can get our team members to say, “I love my job more,” then we’ve won with authentic collaboration. They can actually say they love their jobs more.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely. All right. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Edward van Luinen

I think that the Maya Angelou quote is so appropriate for authentic collaboration, “People forget what you say, people forget what you do, but people will never forget how you make them feel.” And I think that is really at the heart of authentic collaboration, is that people feel seen, heard, grown, developed, honored, and are rewarded being on an authentic collaboration team.

Tricia Cerrone

I think for me, one of my favorite sayings is the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite book?

Tricia Cerrone

I really like, as a business book, Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and also, anything by Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side. I love all his stuff too.

Edward van Luinen

I like The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson. I think that it speaks to how we can create in almost all circumstances.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Tricia Cerrone

They can find us at Authentic-Collaboration.com, which is our website, and we’re also on LinkedIn and post a couple times a week.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Edward van Luinen

Every day is day one. Sometimes when you’re in your routine as an HR director, or SVP of HR, or a general manager, or CEO, or hypo, sometimes we get into our routine. What we don’t want to do is repeat our same leadership style and wake up 20 years later, and say, “I’ve just been doing the same leadership style for 20 years over and over again.” So, every day is day one. Try something new. People don’t know you’re doing something new. They think you’re just being a great leader. But for you, it’s like, “Oh, this is the first time I’m doing it,” but no one knows that, so keep trying.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, Tricia, Edward, thank you for this. And I wish you many lovely, authentic collaborations.

Tricia Cerrone

Thank you, Pete. It’s fun to be here.

Edward van Luinen

Thank you, Pete. It’s been really fun. Thank you very much.

953: How to Transform Tension into Progress amid Tough Conversations with Todd Davis

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Todd Davis shows how to fix strained relationships and shift conversations from difficult to productive.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to reduce the discomfort in difficult conversations
  2. The three steps to turn tension into progress
  3. How to recover from worst-case scenarios 

About Todd

Todd Davis is a senior consultant and thought leader at FranklinCovey, and has over 35 years of experience in human resources, talent development and executive recruiting. Todd has been with FranklinCovey for 28+ years and until recently, spent 18 of those years as Chief People Officer and Executive Vice President where he was responsible for the global talent development in over 40 offices reaching 160 countries. Additionally, he authored and co-authored best-selling books including Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work and Everyone Deserves A Great Manager. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

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Todd Davis Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Todd, welcome back.

Todd Davis

Thank you, Pete. Great to see you again.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m excited to talk about difficult conversations, and I’d love it, for starters, if you could maybe paint a picture for us about the landscape or the state of play, the world of difficult conversations and their avoidance. What’s the status of that today? I have a feeling that’s happening a lot. Can you tell us just how much a lot and what’s the impact or cost of that?

Todd Davis

Yeah, I think great question. I think difficult conversations have always been a part of work and life, but I think, to your point, now more than ever before, with just the unrest, certainly in the U.S. but around the world, our emotions, our reactivity is at an all-time high. And so, I think just the crucial nature of how we handle difficult conversations is more important than ever before now, because people, at least in my experience, have more of a shorter fuse, so to speak. And so, we got to approach these very carefully and methodically in my experience.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Todd, how about we just don’t? Difficult conversations, by definition, are difficult. I think they may be unpleasant. Why not just skip them?

Todd Davis

You know what, I like your idea there, and I have done that, and in the short term, that’s very helpful. In the long term, it’s not. I wrote very quickly, several years ago, I had a situation at work with one of my team members, and just that, Pete, I thought, “Ah, this is going to just go poorly, and they’re going to feel upset, and I’m going to damage our relationship,” and I let this behavior go on and on and on until not only was this person looking bad, but I was starting to look bad because other people could see that I wasn’t taking charge here and trying to course-correct something.

And when I finally did talk to this person, they were upset and it was uncomfortable, like I thought it would be, but the thing that they were most upset about was how long I had waited to bring it up with them, and rightfully so. They said, “Gosh, if you realized this eight months ago, why would you let me look foolish for eight months?” I think those were this person’s exact words.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Todd, now we’ve got to know, what was the behavior?

Todd Davis

Well, I want to be loyal to the absent. It was a team member. It was a personal habit this person had of being on their phone too much. And while they were getting most of their work done, there were other team members…and this was before the pandemic, we were all in the office seeing each other, and it was a less than mature behavior that this person was modeling, and it was really making them and our department look bad.

And they didn’t have a lot of extra time like others did to pitch in and help others with their work. So, that’s about as detailed as I’d like to go with respect to this person, but it was awkward at best. And when you’re talking to somebody about a personal behavior they have, naturally we can get very defensive with that. So that was the situation.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, I hear that. And what’s so funny, that notion of, “But why did you let me look foolish for so long?” really sticks. I can recall a time I was in the office, and I was completely unaware that, I don’t know what happened. I put a sweater on and my hair got really weird, and I had multiple meetings. I’m thinking maybe nine different people I interacted with over the course of several hours, until I went to the bathroom, and I looked, and it’s like, “My hair looks so ridiculous.” It’s like, “How long has this been going on? And how has nobody said anything to me?”

It’s not just like a hair out of place. It’s like, “Are you going for a mohawk look this morning in the consulting office, Pete?” But it’s so funny, I love that reframe, that, “Yes, it might seem uncomfortable, but you may also have something to lose by avoiding it, and the person is actually less pleased with you for having kept silent.”

Todd Davis

Pete, it is so true. We think about the reason we do avoid or put off having these difficult conversations is because we’re worried about, in general, most of the time, we’re worried about offending the other person. And so, we think we’re being considerate, we think, “Gosh, it’s consideration that is getting in the way because I don’t want to offend or hurt in any way.” And yet, to your point, and your example of your hair, the ultimate opposite of consideration is not sharing something with them.

Now, again, easy if we’re talking about hair looking out of place or somebody who’s obviously doing some behavior on work hours that aren’t beneficial. Harder when we see things a different way. A leader sees something, a different way of doing something than their colleague is doing or whatever, and it’s not as cut and dried as these examples. But, still, if the leader will begin the conversation, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here in the conversation, but if the leader will begin by making sure the person knows, “Hey, I just want to help. Please know my only intent is to help you be as wildly successful as you are, and I know you can be in your role.”

And if we can continue to make sure that the receiver of the conversation knows that’s our intent, it doesn’t make the awkwardness or the uncomfortableness go away, but it certainly helps us get to a point where we can start to really discuss and collaborate.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So, we’ve teed up a little bit of the why associated with folks can get upset, even more upset with you if you don’t tell them what’s up and they need to be told. What is ultimately the outcome, the consequence of professionals and teams consistently having the difficult conversations versus consistently avoiding them? What roads will this take us down?

Todd Davis

Well, I love that question because I have been on teams before and I have led teams before, and we have created a culture of feedback where it is the norm. And again, I don’t want to pretend that, “Oh, so I just love it when people tell me things that I’m doing wrong that I need to change.” I’m not saying you get to that point, but if feedback can become the norm for both all the team members and for the leader, the outcome is a high-performing team.

I mean, if we have this level of trust where I say, “Gosh, when Pete shares something with me and it’s different than I was seeing it, I know that he just wants us both to win. He wants this whole thing to get better.” And if we can create that spirit of trust on the team where we know that nobody’s out to get us, we’re not feeling defensive or wondering what some ulterior motive is, the outcome is that we have probably the highest performing team in the organization, and others look to us to say, “Gosh, how are they doing that?”

And it’s through creating this culture of feedback where difficult conversations, yes, they’re still difficult, but we assume good intent. We are open to what the other person has to say, and we learn from it, and we all grow together.

Pete Mockaitis

I like that so much. And what comes to mind right now, it’s so random, is Mr. Beast, the top YouTuber, and whenever he tells his origin story, he goes back to, like, four or five other YouTubers, and they just “roasted” each other’s videos day after day after day after day, continuously telling them all the ways their videos are poor and could be made better. And, go figure, you compound that and he is the best in the world at that. And so, in your team, you saw they could become the highest performing.

And yet, I’ve seen the data suggest that a good majority of folks are not comfortable with having such conversations. I think Harvard Business Review had a Harris Poll showing that 69% of managers are just uncomfortable communicating with employees, which is quite a statement. Like, that’s sort of your job is communicating with employees, your whole job you’re uncomfortable with. That didn’t even put uncomfortable, difficult conversations in the mix but just straight up communication. So, you’ve identified through your research the number one driver of this discomfort. Lay it on us, Todd.

Todd Davis

Well, it’s tension. There’s something at stake. I mean, you think about it, Pete, think about your last difficult conversation, whether it was with someone in your personal life or someone in your professional life. When you really think about it, there’s something at stake for both parties. If I’ve got a performance issue on my team, well, what’s at stake for me as the leader? Well, that we’re not getting the results we could be getting if they could improve their performance. What’s also at stake for me is the nature of the relationship moving forward. I want to make sure that I get this information across, but that I also do it in a way that is respectful so that we don’t have this awkwardness going forward.

What’s at stake for the person that’s going to be receiving this conversation, hopefully receiving this conversation, is their dignity, their respect. It’s embarrassing. We can use other words for it, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how senior we are in our roles or how long we’ve been in the workforce, it’s embarrassing to get feedback. It’s awkward. And I think if people, I know, if these people that were cited in the Harvard Business Review, if they were thinking about, “Wait a minute, let me put myself in the place of this other person, that will help me structure this conversation, and, first and foremost, I got to remember that this is awkward and embarrassing. So, what can I do to reduce that defensiveness?”

And so, I coach with, and we coach in our work sessions, with an actual step-by-step, first of all, construct a purpose and an intent statement, “What is your purpose?” You want to declare that to the person? “Well, I want you to know, Pete, I need to share with you something that I believe will help you be better in the role that you’re in right now. Maybe it’s something that’s not even on your radar, but it’s going to be a little bit awkward. And please know that my only intent in sharing this with you is to help you be wildly successful in your role.”

“And I also, while I don’t ever know how anybody else feels, I know when I’ve been on the receiving end of feedback, it stings a little bit. So, I’m very mindful of that. But again, I want to reiterate my intent is to help you and the team be wildly successful. So, are you okay if I move forward and share with you what I need to share?”

Now, I don’t pretend that that removes all of the awkwardness. But, boy, is it a logical and a helpful way for me to say, “Okay, I can have this conversation. I now know how to begin the conversation and get into it.” So, that’s what we coach in the work sessions. You start from this place of courage and consideration.

Courage, recognizing “What do I need out of the conversation?” Consideration, “What do I need to make sure the other person needs?” And while we completely, or we immediately jump to, “Well, they need to know what they’re doing wrong,” but before that, they need to feel respected. They need to feel whole. They need to feel valued.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s great. So, fundamentally, we got some steps there as to handling things. And then what makes it tricky is there’s tension, there’s stakes in terms of for you, for them, for the organization, the team, and then that that fear of eliciting a negative emotion you’ve identified in your course materials as like the number one driver, kind of that visceral emotional level of folks avoiding stuff.

So, I’d love to hear, maybe before we even get into the how of the conversation, can you tell us how do we feel okay enough to pursue it, find the courage?

Todd Davis

Well, you talked up front about this mindset that’s so easy to get into of “Gosh, I’m just not going to have it. Maybe it’ll go away. Maybe it’ll get better on its own.” While, again, that can feel better for the short term, it’s not what we call an effective mindset. Anybody who’s worked with Franklin Covey knows that we always, always, always start with a person’s mindset. So, a very common mindset is, “Hey, this conversation is going to hurt, so no matter what, I just got to get through it. I just got to minimize the pain.” And that’s natural. I’ve had that mindset before.

But a more effective mindset, if we can start there, and we can realize as leaders or whoever is initiating the conversation, sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes it’s the employee who needs to initiate the conversation with their leader. Regardless of who’s initiating it, if they can get their mind around the fact that, “Wait a minute, I can reduce the pain and I can actually make progress when I’m focused on balancing both my needs and theirs.”

So, we get in the right mindset and that’s all around this balancing of courage and consideration, then we can begin the conversation with what I already shared, is first of all, stating what the purpose is, making sure that the person understands your intent, and then diving into the topic.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Courage and consideration, that’s fantastic. And I think sometimes we might find ourselves deficient on one or both of those. It’s like, “I’m feeling scared and timid, so I’m lacking courage,” or, “I’m mad. I am mad at this person for screwing this up repeatedly,” or whatever the context, like, you are mad about the thing. So, you may feel a little short on consideration of their feelings and perspective and context in the moment. Can you help us, how do we give ourselves a bit of a jolt or a boost on these dimensions if we’re feeling short?

Todd Davis

Well, if we’re talking about a leader right now that’s going to be initiating the conversation and who’s mad because of the person’s performance, I would suggest, and again, says easy, does hard, but I suggest we step back and say, “What is my role as a leader? My role as a leader is to get results with and through others. My role as a leader is to develop others. So, yeah, it may feel good for me to just go tell this person off and vent and tell them how angry I am. But am I really then developing and helping them get better results in the future?”

We define effectiveness as getting results in a way that allows us to get even better results over and over again in the future. So, I might get the results of making this person feel bad and apologizing and knowing how upset I am with their behavior, and that’ll make me feel good in the short term, but again what have I done for the long term? So, we want to approach these conversations, unless we’ve got the wrong person. Clearly, there are some times when you’ve absolutely got the wrong person in the role. And then, of course, that’s a different conversation as you’re going to help them get to a place where they can contribute in a better way.

But 90% of the time, we’ve got the right person or someone who can become the right person, but we’ve got to slow down, we’ve got to have that balance of courage and consideration, address what needs to be addressed, but in a way that they can hear it, in a respectful way. I think all of us, I know, all of us know what our tendency is. I don’t know you well enough to know what yours is, but I know what mine is. Mine is to err more on the side of consideration than courage so I’ve got to be mindful of that when I go into the conversations, “Okay, Todd, you have a tendency to sometimes sugarcoat or talk around an issue, hoping the message will get through so you don’t offend the person.”

And what I’ve learned through that is that sometimes it works, but more often than not, the message doesn’t get through. So, I remind myself of that before I go into the conversation, to say, “Todd, don’t lose that consideration, but you got to be a little more direct with respect for that person.” There are many people who are the opposite.

Pete, you seem like a pretty mean guy, so I bet you go in and say, “I’m just going to tell them like it is,” and it’s good to be direct, but also, “Can I tell it to them? Can I initiate the conversation in a way that they can lower their defense and feel hurt? So, maybe I need to increase my consideration.” So, the self-awareness of one when you’re beginning a conversation like that, this is so important.

Pete Mockaitis

Alrighty. How about you give us a demonstration? We’ve got some steps.

All right, Todd, let’s hear the situation. Give us a demonstration of these steps. Let’s say the situation is we are peers, you are leading a project, and you sort of need my cooperation to do stuff, and yet I am not giving you much of it, in terms of, I kind of show up to some of your meetings, I do most of what I say I’ll do most of the time, but sometimes it’s kind of late, and you would like for me to kick it into gear and be a dream collaborator, but you’re not my boss, you are a peer. How do you work it?

Todd Davis

Okay. Thanks for that softball. So, I would, first of all, determine the right time to talk with you, and so we’ll kind of fast forward here, we don’t have all day, but I would probably take you to lunch, see if we can go to lunch together, if you show up. And so, we go to lunch, and I would begin with some nice icebreakers, so then I would just say, “Hey, Pete, I wonder if it would be okay. I have some concerns about how the project is going, and I know we’re all equals in this, we’re all collaborating, but as the project leader I have some concerns I want to share with you. We go back a-long ways. We’ve worked together on different things for a long time. I have a lot of respect for you and your talents, but I also have some concerns about how the project is going that I really need your help with. Would you be okay if I share those with you?”

Pete Mockaitis

“All right, sure. Lay them on me.”

Todd Davis

“Okay. Well, I appreciate that. So, we’ve got this deadline looming in two months, and several of the people on the team look to you. You have a lot of influence with them. And it’s been my experience, and again, I may be wrong. I don’t think I am. But it’s been my experience that you’re not fully bought in on this project, and it’s showing up in ways that are really damaging to the team, and I don’t think that’s your intention. But, for instance, the other day when you didn’t even come to the meeting for the XYZ step of the project, it kind of showed your, at least in my opinion, showed your disinterest. I hope this is okay that I’m sharing this with you.”

“I care about you. I care about our relationship. I’ve worried about this for a while, and I haven’t quite known how to bring it up because I don’t want to damage our relationship. We’ve been good friends, and I’d like it to stay that way, but I also need to feel comfortable sharing these things with you. So, I’m wondering, I’d like to understand what your level of interest is on this project first. And if I’m misinterpreting your behaviors, I want to be certainly fair and respectful that way. But could you tell me a little bit about your passion or lack thereof for this project?”

Now, that would be how I’d begin the conversation, Pete. It would be a long conversation, but I would want to say those kinds of things so that Pete knows I’m not trying to pull rank on him because I don’t have rank, but, really, my interests are in having the project succeed in time and our relationship.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. Understood. Thank you. And so, I’ll just sort of step into the role and be like, “Well, yeah, Todd, I mean, sure. We’re going to be friends, and I guess you’re in a spot here. Yeah, that’s not fun to hear. I do like to crush it in everything I do. But, yeah, it’s true. Like, I don’t, I mean, I care about you. I don’t care much about your project. No offense. I don’t think it’s going to make much of an impact to the organization long term.”

“And, again, I could be wrong. I mean, I don’t know. That’s really not my area of expertise, and it’s also not really in my quarterly or annual goals, this stuff. So, it’s accurate. Like, I’m not that passionate about what you’re cooking up. I’m trying to be like enough of a team player to not just be totally rude but, push comes to shove, it’s like the things that I’m getting evaluated on, and my bonus is contingent on, really do have my heart and priority. And I’m kind of done working to midnight as a lifestyle, which, I mean, I could. It’s fair. I could stay up later and do your stuff, and I choose not to. That is accurate. So, yes, it’s kind of a tough spot.”

Todd Davis

“Okay. Well, first of all, thank you. Thank you for being open and honest with me. I appreciate the transparency. While, of course, I wanted to hear, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to just jump in and I love this kind of stuff,’ I would rather deal with honesty like you just shared. So, I want to be clear, what I heard you say is that, on projects you love and that you’re fully engaged in, you love the recognition and just crushing it and knocking it out of the park, and you’ll stay up till all hours of the night doing that.”

“But on projects that you’re not fully bought into, like this one, and that you don’t, and it’s okay, we all have our right to our opinions, that you don’t believe is going to make a difference, you’re kind of pitching in to help when you can, but you’re really not that excited about it, and want to spend your time more focused on those things that are going to matter to your next promotion, your grade, and things that you believe are really going to make a difference. Have I understood correctly?”

Pete Mockaitis

“Yeah, for the most part. I would say that I don’t care to stay up late anymore for work in general at this phase of my life with three young kids, unlike my earlier days, even if I am into a project. But, yeah, more or less, that’s the situation.”

Todd Davis

“Okay. Well, again, I appreciate your honesty with that. Is there anything? Because while we have different views of the impact this project will have, the deadline is the deadline. I’ve committed that we will have this done by that deadline. Is there anything that I could do differently to inspire or motivate you to bring yourself, not work until midnight, but during the hours of operation and working on this project? Is there anything I could do differently that would be more motivating for you to dedicate more time to this? And if there’s not, I respect that, and we can look at some additional resources, but if there is, I’m open to looking at things differently if there’s something I could do to inspire you to be more excited about this.”

Pete Mockaitis

“Oh, thank you. Well, I mean, motivation, I don’t know, I could tell you that I get most jazzed about sort of the creative aspects of things and the actionable aspects of things. And I am less into hearing meeting status updates, some person did that, some person did that. So, I think maybe, I don’t know, it might be hard to get much more motivation from me.”

“But I think you could probably get more of what you need from me if you could just like have a super tight scope in terms of, ‘Pete, this is exactly what is critical for you and you alone.’ That is kind of motivating. It’s like, ‘Okay, I’m the guy who can handle this, other people cannot,’ so I’ll do it. As opposed to, ‘Okay, you kind of need input from everybody on a thing to seem like it was inclusive. And I guess those don’t, I find as compelling. Like, the survey seems sort of long and not targeted. So, yeah, I guess that’s what I’m thinking there.”

Todd Davis

“Okay. This is super helpful as well, Pete, because at the end of the day, what I need is your creativity and your expertise, and I realize, as I’m listening to you, I do tend to be a consensus leader. I want everybody to feel like they have input. And what I hear you saying is that that’s fine, but you don’t feel you need to be in those meetings or those updates. That’s taking time away from some of the other projects you’re on, and from some of the specific creative things you could do on this team.”

“So, what I’d like to do is think about how I might restructure this a little bit, use you in those targeted areas, maybe have Jamie come in and she can, in working with you, she would have enough of a sense of where you are on the specific things I give you that she can attend to the status updates meetings because it is important that we meet weekly and know where we’re going. But what you’re saying is that’s not the most exciting use of your time and the best use of your time. So, I’m going to use Jamie for that, allow you to be, and I’ll be very direct and clear on setting expectations of what we’ve got to have you do each time so that we’re moving the project along.”

“But that your time, maybe once a month, I’d ask you to come in and give us an overall update, but not on a weekly basis like we’ve been doing. Would you be open to us trying that for the next couple of weeks and seeing how that works for you and for me, and then we’ll be both very honest about how it’s going?”

Pete Mockaitis

“Oh, sure, yeah, that does work. And, thank you, I appreciate you, you know, considering my preferences, and I think that will work. We’ll see how it goes. We’ll give it a shot.” Okay, Todd, that’s really cool.

And so, what I’m observing here is that you brought a good amount of humility in terms of you’re just trying to figure out how to make this work for everybody, and you’re not like, “Listen, Pete,” even if you were my direct manager or the CEO, it sounds like you probably wouldn’t be like, “Listen, I’m going to lay down the law. You gotta step up and, like, ABC, that’s what’s up.” Mic drop. But rather, it’s very collaborative and humble. It’s like, “Hey, I’m trying to make this work for everybody. I’m observing this. How might we find something?” And so, I like that a lot.

Todd Davis

You’re exactly right. And because, and you made it, and it is difficult, you made the point a couple times, we are peers. I have no formal authority over you. If I had, if I did, if you reported to me, if I were the one responsible for your next promotion, your next increase, while I would hope the humility and the empathy would be there, the conversation would say, “You know what, Pete, I appreciate this isn’t exciting for you, but I’ve made the determination that we’ve got to have these weekly updates, and I’m okay with maybe using Jamie to come in and give those a couple times, but at the end of the day, I’m really concerned about your reputation.”

“You are genius on your creative side, but if you’re inflexible on how you work with people, that’s not going to work for you. So, please know, I’m not sharing this with you to be critical. I’m sharing this with you because I would hate to see someone with your talent and your genius get passed over for really cool projects because you’re somewhat inflexible. And sometimes we have to work on things that we’re not as excited about but that gives us the ticket to then be chosen for other things that we are excited about.”

“So, I hope that you know my intent is to, again, reiterate, I just want you to be the number one pick for everybody on these projects. But if you’re going to be inflexible on this, that’s going to hinder your growth and progress in the company.” That would be the conversation I would have if I had the formal authority. But with your peers, it’s got to be like I did before, in my experience.

Pete Mockaitis

No, that is handy. And it does, I feel the difference, and it seems appropriate in terms of, it’s like you’re not saying it, but it’s clear, it’s like, “I am the person who judges your goodness as an employee.”

So that is, because in a way, I think it’s possible for folks to forget that. Like, if you’re too considerate and sugar-coated all the time, we can sort of forget that fundamental truth about the reality of your career progression. Now, it’d be pretty ugly to, like, stomp, like, “You know who I am, and I own you,” and, like, whatever.

Todd Davis

Never do that, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

But when you speak in the way you speak, it just sort of brings to mind, “Oh, yeah, the context we’re in is that…” Like, it was a little judgy, like when you said I was inflexible, but at the same time, you are the one who judges. And by judging in front of me, I am reminded that you are the one who judges.

Todd Davis

Well, it’s a good point. And, again, I would never use, hopefully would never use that language, and even maybe saying inflexible, I would soften that a little bit because that makes people feel defensive. But I would say, “You know, it might appear to some that you’re inflexible. I know you. I know how talented you are, but I also want you to know that, in addition to being creative, flexibility is a number one strength that really successful people have.”

And when I have someone and some people think this is generational. I don’t, I haven’t experienced that. People of all generations might say, “Well, that’s your opinion.” And I will say, “You’re exactly right. And part of my role as a leader is to form an opinion. And so, I gather as much information as I can, and I want to hear your input as well, but at the end of the day, I have to make a judgment call. So, you’re right it is my opinion and that’s what I’m paid to do.” And that helps. And, again, always in a respectful way but I’m pretty successful. You can be pretty successful at getting the message across in a good way if you use that kind of language.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, this also reminds me. One time I was an intern, and I was receiving some feedback and the context was actually unclear to me, and I said, “Wait a minute, am I supposed to be dazzling you? I thought the manager was making the decision.” It’s like, “Well, yeah, but I am the primary input to the manager’s decision, and I would like to be dazzled.” It’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Okay, I kind of thought of us as just like pals, like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’” I was an intern, I was just learning what’s up in career stuff, but that was very useful to kind of recontextualize our relationship.

Todd Davis

You bring up really good point because going back to, for your listeners, recognizing, “Do I heavily weigh more on the consideration side? Or, am I more on the courage side?” Recognize that because, if you’re like me and you tend to weigh more on the consideration side, you can fall into that trap and you can say, “Gosh, I had this conversation, but she or he left thinking we’re just pals and we’re here to work together and I get to have as much say as they do.” And so, you got to be careful of that.

When we were doing that, I really appreciate the roleplay you set up. That was really helpful, and there are three tools that I used in there that we teach in the “Navigating Difficult Conversations” course that I just want to call out. They were pretty subtle, but I’ve used them for so long that they come quite natural to me, and they can come quite natural to others if you use them, and that is to pause, observe, and ask.

And what I coach people on, and what I remember myself is, “Pause. Don’t panic when we’re talking,” because you can see some new leader or maybe some seasoned leader, when you say, “Well, no, I just don’t like doing that,” and they go, “Oh, my gosh, what do I say now?” Just pause, don’t panic. Observe, don’t judge. Even if I’ve worked with Pete for a long time, I go, “Oh, yeah, this is the routine he goes into.”

Well, everybody’s different in different seasons of their life, so observe, don’t judge, and then ask, don’t assume. And I tried to really emphasize that, and ask you, “So, what I hear you saying is this, and what I hear you saying is that.” And you were great because you said, “Well, mostly it’s just this.” And so, if I had assumed that I might have missed a couple of things that you shared with me when I was asking those questions. So, pause, observe, and ask.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, now, I’d love it, Todd, let’s say things go as horribly wrong as we fear, I’d love your take on what then. So, let’s say instead, I say, “Todd, that’s ridiculous. I’m working my keister off on your project and all these other projects, by the way, which are on my evaluation, critical path for reviews and such, and yours is not, incidentally. And I think it’s pretty flippin’ rich for you to make these heinous accusations when I feel like I am going above and beyond for this team again and again. And what about Mark? That guy is a real slacker. I think you should probably be taking him to lunch.”

Todd Davis

Yeah, and we’re peers, right?

Pete Mockaitis

Yep.

Todd Davis

This is still we’re peers. Yeah, that would be fun. I would make sure that you get the tab. But I would, yeah, in that situation, I would say, “Gosh, Pete, clearly, I have hit a sensitive chord here, and I apologize for that. That wasn’t my intent. My only intent was to see if we could make this work because I need your talent on this team. What you’ve shared with me here is that probably is not going to happen. I’m going to get what I’m getting, and nothing else.”

“And if that’s the case, I respect that. I don’t have, nor would I take the authority to say you have to do this, but I don’t have that. So, unfortunately, I’m going to have to get somebody else to fill that role and free you up to do what you want to do. And I’m going to have to go back to Joe, my boss, and let him know I’ve got to delay the timing on this.”

“Because if you’re unwilling, which I heard you loud and clear, and while I disagree, I respect that, I’m going to have to get somebody else to fill this role. They won’t be as good as Pete because I’ve worked with you before and your genius, but I got to have this level of dedication. So, thanks for being open with me and honest with me so I know what my next steps are.” That’s how I would end the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis

Understood. And I like that because it’s respectful and not just screaming right back at me. And then I might very well say, “Todd, I’m sorry. I’ve got way too many things cooking right now, and you didn’t deserve that. So, yeah, I mean, if you could find someone else, that would really be a relief, if that’s workable.”

Todd Davis

And, Pete, if I could interrupt, that might be a way. And again, we’re talking hypothetic here, but if Pete truly is this genius, creative genius, that might be a way for him, for me to work with his…and I’m not trying to be manipulative, but for me to recognize his ego, and say, “Oh, they’re going to get somebody else here and I know I can do a better job in this.”

There might be a way for us to continue the conversation after this to say, “Well, wait a minute. I don’t want you to have to change your deadline. I don’t want you to have to go to Joe and change the project deadline.” It might be a way to continue the conversation. It may not be. It may be just what you’re saying, “Thanks. Yeah, get somebody else. My heart is not in this.” But it might be a way to continue the conversation after a blow-up. I can think of several situations where that positively has happened.

Pete Mockaitis

And I find that encouraging, Todd. You’ve lived through several blow-ups, and it sounds like you’re suggesting that’s not terminal. When the absolute worst-case scenario happens, it’s actually not a horrific scorched earth, nightmare escape. Is that accurate?

Todd Davis

That is accurate. I’m thinking of one right now. We had a director, I won’t say what department, and this person went through, I’m not kidding you, six executive assistants, because they were so difficult to work with. Six. And in my chief people officer role, I was overall of the recruiting and that, and finally the recruiters came to me, and said, “We can’t find anybody that’s going to please so and so. It’s just not going to work.”

And so, I went and talked to this person, and I was respectful, and I said, “I know you’re frustrated with the talent that our team, the recruiting team has been finding, but I need to be really honest with you about what I’ve observed.” And granted, it’s my opinion, I did not have authority over this person, but I was the chief people officer, and I said, “What I’ve observed, and I don’t know how to say this in a way that’s not going to be offensive, my intent is not to be offensive, you are very difficult to work with, and every one of these people who have left have said that in the reviews, and they’ve talked about the micromanagement and the demeaning nature. And I know you and I know that’s not your intent, but I’m telling you six people now have felt that, and I don’t see this ever getting any better unless we can address that.”

And this person blew up, like I knew anybody would, who felt personally attacked. And I just listened and, two days later, I went back after them, and I said, “Hey, wanted to check in with you, see how you’re doing. I wanted to reiterate my only intent in sharing with you what I did was to see if we could get to a place where we could get you some help, and I didn’t see that ever happening unless we could address what I’ve observed is the elephant in the room. And would you be at a point now where we could maybe talk to this?”

And we did, and we started talking through it, and this person actually asked me for some of the micromanaging behavior, because they couldn’t see it. And so, anyway, long story, but we got to a good point.

Pete Mockaitis

That is great to hear because even when it’s the absolute worst-case scenario, it is salvageable, and good things come from it, and maybe even better things. Like, your relationship with this collaborator, this peer, is probably even stronger now for having lived through that, because no one else found the courage to say what needed to be said to him.

Todd Davis

Well, the people that quit after one week did, but they didn’t count.

Pete Mockaitis

But no other peers in the organization had observed?

Todd Davis

That’s correct.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Fantastic stuff, Todd. Can you share anything else you want to make sure to put out there before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Todd Davis

I think, as we’ve been talking, Pete, if I could only use one word, and this would be ridiculous, but in coaching people, it would be empathy. If we can, in any situation, not just in difficult conversations, but in any situation, if we could do a better job as a world, and I don’t want to wax too philosophical here, but if we could do as much as we could to put ourselves in the place of others, not agreeing or disagreeing with them. I don’t mean that. Empathy is not that.

But seeing things from their point of view, we could have these conversations that are more productive. If we could, you know. Dr. Stephen Covey, best-selling author of The 7 Habits and a man I had the esteemed privilege of working directly with for many years before his passing, he would often say, “The deepest need of the human heart is to feel understood.” And when I first heard that, I didn’t disagree, but I thought, “Really, is that…?”

And then just, in my years of experience, that has proven itself over and over again. So, if we can just slow down a little bit and take the time to understand, even that person who has so many crazy ideas, you’re thinking, “Oh, my gosh, how do they think this?” If we could slow down and understand them, try to understand them, we can have a more productive conversation.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Todd Davis

I love this one, “Leadership is communicating to people their worth and their potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.” I love that quote. I try to live by that quote.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Todd Davis

It’s Seth Godin’s Linchpin. He has many best-selling books, and for those of you who don’t know Seth Godin, he’s a world-renowned marketer and just brilliant all around. Great man. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with him personally. And he’s written several books, but he wrote a book called Linchpin talking about, “Are you the linchpin in your organization?”

It’s not about ego. It’s not about hoarding all the information so they can never get rid of me. It’s about, “Are you the connector? Are you the one that makes things happen? Are you the one that knows how to pull the right people together?” and just the value in that. So, I’ve done a lot of, I wouldn’t say study, but work on that and coaching on that, helping people to become the linchpins of their organization.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Todd Davis

Gosh, a favorite tool. I’m standing there right now. Long before the pandemic, our offices, back when we were in offices, went to, or you had the option of getting a standup desk. And I think I had convinced myself that, at a standup desk, I would be losing weight, which isn’t true, but my back feels better, my posture is better.

And so, I’ve had a stand-up desk for four years now. I had one in the office. I bought one at home during the pandemic, and I just continued to use it. And I think and feel so much better when I’m standing.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite habit?

Todd Davis

Favorite habit. Well, I was going to say runner, I’ve been a jogger, and about 20 years ago I started running marathons. I haven’t won any of them so I’m not bragging, but I have run 17 marathons. And I’m realizing I’ve been lucky that my knees, like many people, they haven’t suffered from that, but I want to be mindful of that. So, I started about four months ago, I read this article on fast walks on inclines, and so I have a treadmill and I have it at a steep incline. And every morning, I get up and I walked three miles at a pretty fast pace.

And it started to get old, so I started to watch a series that I had heard about for many years. People are going to laugh because I’m way behind the times, but this series called “Suits,” and that’s my motivation to get up in the morning and watch another 45 minutes of “Suits” every morning. In fact, it was a great episode this morning. So, it’s a recent habit I’ve been into for the last four months, and it’s a great way to start my day.

Pete Mockaitis

You’ll have to find a new series when you’ve exhausted the episodes.

Todd Davis

You’re exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Todd Davis

Yes, actually. You had mentioned one of the books I was fortunate enough to write, Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work. I was driving somewhere and I was following a motorhome that was towing a boat, that was towing some ATVs, and there was a big bumper sticker on the back of this big train, and it said, “The man,” or, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

And I looked at that and laughed, I thought, “Gosh, I’d want every one of those things. Those look like fun.” And I thought to myself, “You know what? I think he or she who dies with the most effective relationships wins.” At the end of the day, for me, and I think for all of us, it’s all about our relationships and about how we interact with one another, and having those meaningful relationships. So, the person who dies with the most effective relationships wins, in my book.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Todd Davis

FranklinCovey.com. www.franklincovey.com.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Todd Davis

Don’t settle. Don’t wait. Time is short. We’re reminded every day, I think, of how fast things can change, here in the U.S., the bridge that just collapsed, and how things can just change in an instant. So, do it today. Start today. Whatever your passion has you going after, don’t waste time. Do it today.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Todd, this has been much fun. I wish you much luck at all of your difficult conversations.

Todd Davis

Thank you too, Pete.

946: Why Most Projects Fail and What to Do About it with Kory Kogon

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Kory Kogon offers her practical guide for effective project management–even when you’re not the official project manager.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why most projects fail
  2. Key questions to ask before starting any project 
  3. The five behaviors of successful unofficial project manager

About Kory

Kory Kogon is FranklinCovey’s vice president of Content and Senior Consultant. She is the Wall Street Journal bestselling co-author of The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity, and has appeared as an expert on TODAY, MSNBC’s Your Business, Forbes.com, Inc.com, and on FastCompany.com.

She is also one of the authors of the following FranklinCovey work sessions: The 5 Choices to Extraordinary Productivity®, Project Management Essentials for the Unofficial Project

Resources Mentioned

Kory Kogon Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Kory, welcome.

Kory Kogon
Thanks for having me, Pete. Great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your work, Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager. I think a lot of people find themselves in that position of the unofficial project manager. Could you paint a picture for us for how that normally shows up at work?

Kory Kogon
Well, in today’s world, we’re knowledge workers, we’re paid to think, to innovate, to create, and execute. And when it really comes down to it, we are making things, things that have a beginning and an end. And as knowledge workers, we just quietly slip into the role of unofficial project managers without the training that official project managers would get. And people just use their talents and skills to push through when there’s actually a better way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, can you paint a picture for us in terms of how well is that working for us so far, in terms of the state of unofficial project management at work?

Kory Kogon
Well, the state of it is that, generally, 65% of projects fail, and that can include official and unofficial project managers. But more down to earth and real is that wherever I go around the world, or the country, and speak with groups on Zoom or in person, when you ask them why projects fail, they always give the same reasons, that there’s unclear expectations, that there’s no clear communication, that they don’t have the right people in the right roles, that there’s scope creep. It goes on and on and on to this very similar list all the time, everywhere.

And, again, it’s because we’re trying to get projects done by the seat of our pants, and it’s really unfortunate because when we become scarred unofficial project managers, because we all go into these projects sort of expecting those bad outcomes, and so from an engagement point of view, where are we when it comes to projects? So, that’s a little bit of the landscape that that we need to push through. And like I said before, there’s just a better way when people become aware of just the organic nature of us being unofficial project managers.

Pete Mockaitis
And this 65% figure, I really want to dig into that because, I mean, how precisely are we defining a project has failed?

Kory Kogon
You know, it could be it was off budget or it didn’t meet its scope. So, again, it’s a wide berth to say that, you know, to pose that number. I don’t have the empirical data for you exactly, but it’s an estimate out there.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess what I was thinking is like, if the project is to start a profitable business, I would expect, a vast majority of the, in fact, would fail. Although, if the project is to, you know – why is this so hard to think of an example? – redesign our loan approval process is the project. That feels very much like, “Okay, that’s within the control of an organization to do that.”

So, you’re not aware if it’s like entrepreneurial, sort of risky market-facing factors are at play within the 65% figure, or it’s pretty much, no, it’s just, this could have been done, but it didn’t happen because of those very ordinary means by which things fall apart?

Kory Kogon
No, I think it’s a little bit of both. There are all kinds of forces that affect everything so it’s a little bit of both. And those outside forces might be constants that we need to deal with. So, I think there’s a lot in there. I don’t want to say, “Oh, well, you know, if people clarified expectations, it would be 100%.” It’s very rare to even get to 100%. So, even if we took 65 and reduce that to 40 or 30, the return on investment to anybody would be amazing.

Even an entrepreneur starting a business and gets slowed down because things aren’t progressing as fast, so they couldn’t get the money fast enough. Or the building, I mean think about constructing a building for a business and when it gets slowed down, so even if we don’t into that number a little bit, regardless of the factors, the return on investment is pretty huge.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then, I’d love to get your perspective on, from all your research and work here, what is the top thing that makes a huge difference and yet is done so infrequently in terms of ensuring project success?

Kory Kogon
The top thing, again not empirically, but just from our experience and what we hear a lot is unclarified expectations. And, again, you could be running the gamut of, “Is this a solo entrepreneur starting a business that has this project in their mind so they’re clear on their own expectations?” But even then, I can see traps along the way versus a 10,000-person organization where they’re working on projects and have big key stakeholders at the executive level, and everybody’s pulling in a different direction.

But I will say, clarified expectations. So, even an entrepreneur who is starting a business, if they are like, “Well, maybe we should do it this way,” or “Maybe we should do it that way,” and they don’t come to clarity to say, “Okay, we’ve got this clarity. Now let’s execute,” it really will step them back. So, I would say that is one of the biggest ones out there around clarifying the expectations or clarifying the scope of the project, first and foremost, is probably key.

I’ve also seen in some of the bigger organizations very painful scenarios of project managers trying to jockey the politics, and this key stakeholder wants this, and the other one wants that, and trying to do a project without that clarity, and it’ll kill you in the end.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Kory, it sounds like you’ve got a story in mind. Please, tell us a dastardly tale of unclarified expectations and what went awry.

Kory Kogon
Well, one story, one person that I talked to, it was just really amazing. She was talking about the project that they were working on, and it was a big team of people, and they’re four months into spending a ton on it, and a stakeholder showed up, and said, “No, no, that’s not the direction. We need to go in this direction,” and that person had a lot of influence, and they had to stop the whole project.

And once you stop a project like that, they had people that left the organization because of that, and trying to find the money to redo all of it just brought everything to a standstill. But it was more, you sort of had to be there, the pain on this woman’s face as she was telling this story of failure, and I think also, it’s not just that they didn’t clarify expectations.

It’s that how it makes people feel when, because no matter what, even though it was an outside force, if you will, to change something, all the good work that this person and the teams had done to get there suddenly went away, and it makes you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, and there’s nothing worse than people feel like they don’t know what they’re doing, and I think that leads to shame, which is another terrible thing that people have to deal with.

So, the cost is not just financial. It’s social, emotional, all from this idea of, “Can we just get clear up front on what this project is?” And if we’re all clear, in this new world of agility, as we go, we’ll get feedback, we’ll do it in a measured modern kind of way, so we make the project better and better, to apply and supply the value that it was meant to supply from the beginning.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And what are some of your favorite best practices, or key questions, or means by which we can get outstanding clarity right from the get-go?

Kory Kogon
So, the first thing is to understand you do need to ask questions. It’s amazing to me, Pete, how many people will say to me, “Well, I’m afraid to ask questions because they’re going to think I’m stupid or something, that I don’t know my job.” I’ve been in executive leadership for many years. If you don’t come and ask me questions about a project that I’m involved with, you’re making a big mistake because then you’re trying to read my mind, and I will come to you later and say, “Well, wait a minute, what about this?”

So, best you come to me and ask questions and don’t worry that I’m going to look at you and think you’re not smart. That’s totally not true. So, that’s number one, is get that, “ I do need to ask questions of key stakeholders.” The second thing is, when you go to ask questions, is that you go with a clear outcome of the project. So, it’s not, “Hey, well, you know, senior leadership says it’s important, Kory, so I need you to tell me what you want.” I don’t have time for that.

But if you came to me and said, “Listen, from what I know so far, that this is going to increase our bottom line by 10%, or it’s going to engage our people in a way they haven’t been engaged before, so we cut retention,” now we’re talking, now I have some concrete things that I can go on, so I will make the time to listen to your questions.

And so, the last thing I’ll say on questions is make sure you come prepared with a couple of really good – we call this the question funnel – open questions, meaning, “So, tell me, based on what we know, why is this project important to you?” Detailed questions, so that when somebody says, “Well, it’s important because senior leadership said so,” that instead of like, “Okay, fine,” knowing that’s not a real answer, we can ask a detailed question of, “So, what does important mean to you? What does that mean to the organization?” and you drill into it.

And then a closed question, meaning confirm what you heard. When somebody says, “Well, I think we’re going to put $100,000 towards the budget.” Don’t run off and go, “Yay, we have $100,000.” You want to confirm it and say, “So, you said $100,000. Are we final on that? Do we need some meeting on that? What’s the next step to make sure that that’s the budget?” So, we close it up and get confirmation.

So, those three, the question funnel, in addition to make sure you don’t feel that it’s silly asking questions, and having a good outcome so somebody pays attention to you, and then these questions, you’ll be really set to clarify expectations.

Pete Mockaitis
I like the visual of a funnel there in terms of open at the top, it makes sense at the beginning that we can be a little more exploratory, broad, expansive, make sure we don’t constrict too early. And then, yes, at the end, making sure that we’ve got what we need, those key bits of finality and closure. Can you share with us any particular specific questions that you have found often open up oceans of clarity when folks take the boldness to go ahead and put them forward?

Kory Kogon
Well, it depends on the situation. I don’t know if there’s any magic bullet, and one that I said before, knowing what we know about the project, “How do you see its importance to our team, to the organization?” That, I think, is a main question. One of the questions that I said to you before, this idea of confirmation to knock out assumptions, which are killing a lot of organizations, because everybody assumes they know what somebody else is thinking.

And so, just every step of the way, without being obnoxious, “So, is that how we want to move forward? Is that how you want me to write that down?” So, just really making sure we have the confirmation. And any question that will lead to a more measurable outcome. So again, in that detailed question, “But what will success look like for us?” So, I should be able to answer that and other people should be able to answer that for you. If we’re doing an event to improve customer satisfaction, how will we measure the outcomes of this? That is key to an agile project management world we live in.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s huge in terms of moving past fuzzy language to concrete language, like, “We really want to delight our customers,” or, “We want to grow. We want this to be a big opportunity,” is okay. So, is any positive incremental amount growth, and thusly we get to celebrate victory, and what did you mean by a lot, “Oh, wow, your ‘a lot’ is way, way bigger than my ‘a lot’ assumption”? And so, driving to that extra level of confirmation can really be quite eye-opening.

Kory Kogon
It can, and this whole notion of squeezing out assumptions. So, I think a key principle for project management, which is a little bit out of, not left field, but I think will be of interest to everybody, is this notion that words are only the code by which I’m describing the picture in my mind. And so, when somebody says, to your point, Pete, “Well, make sure this is done in a quality way.” “Okay, boss, got it,” and off I go, and I do things in what I think is a quality way, and I come back and show Pete, and Pete’s like, “What the heck is that? That’s not what I meant.”

But the word quality goes back to those detailed questions. The word quality means something different in your mind than it does in my mind. And as a good project manager, if I understand that principle around language, quality, trust, any words you can think of, feast, any kind of word, we call it a fat word, because there are so many different meanings that it’s imperative that people ask questions to make sure we are on the same wavelength, “What do you mean by quality?” And you continue to drill down until you feel, without being obnoxious, but until you feel like you’re on the same wavelength with the person you’re talking to. That’s a life lesson, not just a project management lesson.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly.

Kory Kogon
As I know from my own home.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s funny is the word quality, it seems like, “Of course, we all like quality,” but that could actually be pretty dangerous. Like, Kory, if you tell me, you want something to be the high quality, I mean, watch out, because I’m thinking, “Okay, high quality means this is the best in the world in its category, or at least top 1%. Therefore, it’s probably going to take dozens or hundreds of hours to execute.” It’s like, “Oh no, no, no! When I said quality, I don’t want you to go deep into the land of obsessive, hardcore craftsmanship. I just mean it needs to not break.” It’s like, “Oh, okay, quality.” I’m glad I asked.

Kory Kogon
Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, so that’s one huge piece of failure there, is unclarified expectations, and we fix that by clarifying, asking a lot of questions, being bold, getting super clear. What is another major cause of failure and the antidote?

Kory Kogon
Well, I’ll give you sort of this overarching mindset that we say that project success equals value, plus people, plus process. And without getting into the details, the Project Management Institute updated their standard to one that more resembled the agile world, which means, “Are we bringing full value to the customer? And how are we being agile along the way to get there?”

So, we actually updated our mindset from people plus process equals project success, to value plus people, plus process, equals project success. So, to your question, the people part and the leadership part, much failure comes because project managers, in some cases, never intended to be leaders. In some organizations, they chose a technical track or a genius track, not a leadership development track, and a lot of people just don’t get it that people do the work. So, “Am I somebody that is inspiring people to want to play on my team and will play to win?”

So, with that, there are five behaviors. We said, out of all the leadership stuff out there, because if you think about it, Pete, when you think about the failure list – lack of clear expectations, lack of communication, wrong people in the wrong job, scope creep, all of that stuff – and then we’re saying, “Okay, yippee, we have this project to do,” and the people that are doing it are living inside that failure list unless a leader is its own failure, unless a leader knows how to pull them out of that, using a good process, and inspiring people to want to give their best.

And so, out of all the leadership behaviors out there, all the leadership development that people can take, we’ve narrowed it down and said, “You know what? For this, for now, if they just master five behaviors, that will go a long way to inspiring their team to want to do the work and want to win.” And those behaviors are: demonstrate respect, listen first, clarify expectations, extend trust, and practice accountability. And those five behaviors come from what we call the 13 Behaviors of High Trust Leaders. So, just those five.

And I always say our parents taught us to do those things, right? And when you’re under pressure, listen, I’ve been in leadership for many years. I’m born and raised in New York City. You probably can tell from my accent. I move fast and hard, and my default nature is just, “Let’s go get them.” And under pressure, not that I don’t want to respect people, but I have to be really careful, because my demeanor, I live in Arizona, my demeanor can be one that’s really to the point and a little gruff from time to time, and people could feel like I’m not respecting them.

So, when I’m under pressure of a big project, I really need to take a deep breath and think about it. Listening first also can go out of the window when you are under pressure. It’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I just need you to do it the way I said so,” which is I always say it’s so much easier to be a bad leader than a good one because I have to really think about being good, kind of thing.

So, all of these, clarifying expectations, for the team member, not just the project, but it’s not just, “Pete, just do this task with blinders on.” It’s, “Pete, let me explain. For you to do this task means that it’s the piece of the puzzle that’s going to make sure this all happens.” Like, “Whoa, okay, now I get what my task is as a contribution, not just a thing to do.”

Extend trust. People struggle with delegation. You got to let the team members do the work. And then practice accountability. If I am not a model of accountability before I hold you accountable, and if I let you show up late three days in a row, and the team sees that there’s no accountability, everything’s going to fall apart. So, those five behaviors are key to a project manager leading a project and staying off some of the failure list.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now you also mentioned you’ve got five project phases: the scope, plan, engage, track, adapt, and close. Can you walk us through those and some of the best practices there? It sounds like we got a little bit of goodness on the scope side. Any more you’d add to that?

Kory Kogon
I would. A key thing that people struggle with that they should be aware of, I mentioned, well, first of all, is how you get access to stakeholders, and I explained a little bit about that before, is you’ve got to have the right story to make sure people will make time for you. But then the other thing in scoping is making sure that you are able to get key stakeholders on the same page. That when they have differing opinions, are you good enough using those behaviors to get them in a room and help negotiate getting clarity on the scope? So that’s a key thing as well.

And I’ll also say within that first one around scoping is identifying key stakeholders. And it’s interesting because we give a little thinking tool called the key stakeholder dance, which is, “Who makes the decisions? Who has the authority? Who has the need?” Those are all the signers. The last two, C and E, is, “Who has the connection? And who is the energy?” And those are not signers. Those are people, like connections, I have people out in the field that they have so much influence in the organization that when I have somebody with negative energy or there’s politics, I can call them to the table and they can help smooth things over.

So, a lot of times that’s a big takeaway for people to really go back and revisit their key stakeholder list, and say, “Did I forget those people?” Because I usually go for just the signers and the ones we know. So, that’s scope. In plan, there’s really two key things to do. One is, “How do I identify and get my arms around risk?” so risk management. And people are working on a lot of projects at the same time. So, if we identify 10 or 12 risks, can we manage a million things? So, how do we prioritize risks and just focus on the ones that are really key?

And the second part of plan is the project plan, which is always everybody’s favorite part because they just tremble at the idea of a Gantt chart. And the interesting thing is it becomes this great visual scoreboard that once you know some project management principles, you’d be amazed at how easy a Gantt chart can be and how strategic it can become to your entire project and your team. So, that’s a little bit about a plan.

Scope and plan together, make up, “I’m ready to go, and now we just need to execute.” So, I’ll pause there, see if you have any questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. So, with Gannt charts, for those who are not familiar, can you describe this life-changing magic and what makes it so amazing?

Kory Kogon
Yeah, and people will say, “Kory, get a life. You get so excited about a Gantt chart.” And sometimes they’ll say, “Demystify success for the unofficial project manager,” because it is a demystification. So, a lot of people, when we ask them, what do they used to you know plan a project or to track it, and most times, and we do poll after poll after poll the, answer always is in the majority, Excel. And then some people are using some things like Monday.com. I mean, there’s a bunch of things out there, Google Sheets and all that kind of stuff.

And they use Excel, and it’s interesting because the Gantt chart program, so think, and I don’t represent them, Microsoft Project or Smartsheet on the Google side, and I have no allegiance to any of them, but essentially, they are Excel and project management principles included. So, here’s the big demystification, which I love, is when you understand the concept of dependencies, that one task must get done before the other task gets started, as an example, and you tie those things together, the software will allow you to tie those things together, and you learn the difference between work hours and duration.

So, work hours is, “Oh, yes, Pete, I can get that list to you, or the customer list together, in four hours, no problem.” Really? You have seven other projects going on, your team is busy, also somebody’s on PTO, and really the duration is two or three days to get those four hours of work done. So, if you input dependencies and duration in your task list, then you’re going to end up with what’s called the critical path. Another terrifying term to so many people.

The critical path is a wonderful thing. The critical path will light up in a Gantt chart and show you the shortest amount of time it’s going to take to get those tasks done that must be done on exactly the way you have them in order to finish the project right here. It lights up. So, suddenly, you have this magical strategic tool that shows you how this project needs to go, and how you might need to put your best people on critical path items because they got to be done right then and there.

So, it’s not for the faint of heart and it’s not for like brand-new people training. You want to make sure that you have the right people on critical path items. And if a critical path item is in danger, it allows you to think about, “Okay, Mary, you know what? You’re on a task that isn’t so critical. Can you help Pete out because we really got to get this done?” So, it just turns an Excel spreadsheet into a magical strategic project management tool that’s not as hard as everybody thinks.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, are you saying that you’d recommend, if you’re using Excel, try Project or something else? Or are you saying, “Get the magical plugins that make Excel do this for you right away”?

Kory Kogon
I’m not that good to know if Excel has the plugins, but I would say, and we say in our courses too, we’re not here to make experts of Gantt charts. And we’ll say it in the book as well, give it a try. So maybe it’s Microsoft Project, there’s a lot of online programs out there. Give something a try. Take a deep breath. Learn those principles, and then see how it works for you.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think a cool thing to highlight in terms of those principles and the notion of the critical path is that there are some activities that we can do serially. Okay, not serially, but parallelly. We could do some things at the same time, and it’s all good. Team A is working on some marketing stuff, which they can do before Team B does the engineering to make the thing actually exist. That’s possible. We don’t have to wait until we could actually see it and touch the thing in order to start getting some marketing things together.

However, when it comes to photographing the thing, it needs to exist first in order for it to be honestly photographed. And so, that is how you really start to see that differentiation between, “Are things done in parallel or serially?” and then the stack of things that are dependent on the prior things extend outward horizontally to become the critical path on a chart. And so, it really is pretty eye-opening. And as you go, “Oh, well, we can get started on all these things right now, but we absolutely cannot start this until that’s done, so we really, really, really got to make sure that this piece doesn’t get delayed here.”

Kory Kogon
A lot of times we just intuitively think about that as unofficial process, “Oh, well, you know, yeah, we need to do that, but we’ll check with them, and we’ll probably get that on Tuesday.” This makes it very specific. And you said it beautifully, things can work in parallel and these dependencies are finish to start, start to finish. So, there’s a few different ones in there that link them together.

I always like to talk about Thanksgiving in the United States dinner is turkey, you know, turkey dinner. And when you think about cooking, how all that works, you sort of intuitively know, “Well, I need to put the turkey in four hours ahead, but the potatoes need to go in ten minutes before the turkey is ready.” So, it’s very similar. We’ve been doing it intuitively, but when we get it down into a chart and let the chart help us manage, it’s really amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, and then you start to have some fun thinking about the resources and the true bottlenecks, and it’s like, “Oh, well, this doesn’t even need the oven at all, so easy-peasy. I’ll just use the microwave for that, and away we go.” Okay. Well, so now let’s hear about the engage.

Kory Kogon
Well, that takes us right back to the people part because this is where, if we’ve got scope and plan, and we want to engage, this is where we need to help our people do their work and hold them accountable, so we say inspire shared accountability. And so, if you think about if we’ve got a good, or whatever you’re using, it should be a visual scoreboard, much easier in this day and age because everybody can go online and see what’s what, whether you’re working remote, or hybrid, or whatever. So, really good versus having to bring a chart into a room.

So, everybody has visibility into my well-done, whether it’s a Gantt chart, or however you end up doing it, and what we recommend, and we’re very famous for this at Franklin Covey, is what we call a team accountability session, because people are already rolling their eyes, saying, “Of course, you’re going to tell me to do another meeting.” We work our meetings and our accountability, we like to say, from the bottom up. That this is not about the leader holding the team accountable. It’s about the team wanting to play to win.

So, this team accountability session is maybe a once-a-week meeting, that is not a staff meeting, it’s not an operations meeting. All it is, it’s like, forgive me, using a sports analogy, but like a sports huddle. The team gets together and everybody commits to, “This is exactly what I’m doing this week to make sure this project stays on target.” And the job of the leader in that meeting is to only, what we call, clear the path.

So, everybody comes to this very short 15-minute meeting, of course, depends on how many people you’ve got on the team. Everybody knows where they are, and they are reporting out, “Hey, last week, I said I was going to do this thing, got it, done, moving on. Next week, I have a million things to do, but here’s the one thing I’m going to do to make sure this project stays on task,” and the project manager is in the background clearing the path, “You know what? I can’t get through to facilities, they’re not answering my calls. I can’t get my thing done to get the parking set up.” And so, great, my job as a leader, I’m going to call facilities so you have a clear path to be able to do that, and the meeting is over.

And that is just, so it’s the people are making the commitments to what they’re going to do to keep that project on track, not the leader, and so it creates this engagement by the team and they high-five and they go out. That’s sort of the cadence of accountability that we do. Doesn’t always go perfectly. Lots of times people come to the meeting, “I didn’t get to it.” So, what the leader has to really learn is, “How do I tell Pete? He didn’t do his commitments, and he just announced it in the meeting, how do I let the team know that I’m holding him accountable without embarrassing him in front of everybody else, and turning the team against me at the same time?”
So, there’s a lot of learning that goes into that, and also, “How do I, if somebody is chronic, where they haven’t shown up for three weeks, how do I have a performance conversation with them to understand what’s going on and set it right?” So, the pathway is to engage through this bottom-up team accountability. And I say bottom lovingly, meaning the people who are doing the work get to speak and make the commitments, the leader is behind them. And then, “How do I keep things going because something’s going to give because we’re not perfect?”

Pete Mockaitis
And, Kory, I’d love it for you to give us a demonstration. Indeed, let’s say I show up and I didn’t do the thing, how does one respond in that artful way that you described that checks all the boxes you’re looking to accomplish there?

Kory Kogon
It’s a great question, and I’ll do it with you. So, go ahead, tell me you didn’t do something.

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, yeah, sorry, no, I didn’t quite finish that one up.”

Kory Kogon
“Thanks, Pete, for letting us know. Can you tell us a little bit about what went…? I’m sure we’re all so busy. What happened?”

Pete Mockaitis
“Yeah, that’s the thing. There’s just been a whole lot going on in a lot of directions, and, yeah, unfortunately, I just didn’t get to that.”

Kory Kogon
“Okay. Well, I get that and, again, I know, I can tell it’s on your face, too, how crazed everybody is. We’re all busy. You made that commitment last week. So, what is it? Is there anything that we can do to help you? Because now we have that commitment and we need your commitment for next week. So, what can I do to help you to make sure that we hit our commitments by the time we come back next week?”

Pete Mockaitis
“Well, yeah, I appreciate the question. I guess it’s just really tricky with my boy, my youngest kid just isn’t sleeping well, and so then the rest of us aren’t sleeping well. And then, I don’t know about you, when I don’t get the sleep, I’m kind of dumber and slower in everything I try to do on a given day. So, I don’t…it’s probably not practical for anyone to show up and tend to the children in my home. So, yeah, I’m kind of drawing a blank.”

Kory Kogon
“Yeah, it sounds a little frustrating. Everybody in this room is really nodding. Everybody has kids. Well, here’s what I would suggest so we don’t hold everybody up. How about you and I take this offline and then we’ll figure something out. Does that sound okay?”

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, sure thing.”

Kory Kogon
“Okay.” So, if I had gone any further with you, the tension would really rise. Somebody might have said, “Well, you know, I had these three other projects and I couldn’t get to it, and you made the commitment.” So, somebody might have said, “Well, you know what, I couldn’t get to it yesterday. I’ll get to it tomorrow. And here’s my commitment for next week. I’m going to keep it really light, but I can get this done to make sure that…” and we would agree and go on.

But you pushed me to the second part, which is we need to have a performance conversation offline because, had I gone any further with you, like I said, the tension was rising in the room, and it starts to become embarrassing for everybody else.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and they don’t need to hear about you and me troubleshooting a sleeping…

Kory Kogon
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
In terms of just like respectful of their time. But I really do appreciate how you made it clear. And it wasn’t super ominous, like, “You’re going to get a talking to by the principal.” But it was just clear, it’s like, “Okay, that’s not just going to get swept under the rug. Something is going to be done to address that,” and so the team gets that memo. And so, if someone was new, it’s like, “Oh, duly noted, not getting to it doesn’t work here.”

Kory Kogon
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“Okay, message received.”

Kory Kogon
That is the key, that when you do this well and don’t lose the respect of the team, like if it had gone further and we took the gloves off, that’s bad because what will happen is just group dynamics. The group will defend you more than the leader, like, “I can’t believe she’s doing that to Pete here,” that kind of thing. But what does happen, like you said, “I got the memo.”

And that’s the key, is by handling it when it happens somehow, what people are sitting there doing is exactly what you said, they’re like, “Okay, I am never, ever, ever, ever going to put myself in that position of not coming to this meeting without my commitments done,” or “I’m going to let Kory know beforehand so we can work it out.” And that’s the key, that’s accountability. That’s a great thing where people are thinking it up themselves instead of dropping the hammer on them, like, “You will do your stuff,” kind of thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that’s powerful, is that you didn’t need to shout, or be mean, or do name calling, or, like frowny faces. You didn’t have to do any sort of a toxic behavior for it to feel plenty uncomfortable such that I wouldn’t want to do that again. Like, people love to complain about their bosses, nor do I think I could be like, “Can you believe what Kory said to me?” It’s like, “I kind of can. Like, that’s seems kind of like a reasonable response from a leader, even though it sucked for you. Sorry you had to go through that.”

Kory Kogon
Right. And even when you said no frowny face, for me, some of my best friends, I’ll be sitting with them and I’ll get a nudge, and they’ll say, “Talk to your face,” because I could be showing my hand on my face. This whole thing around leadership, and even with these five behaviors, leadership is a choice. And project management, again, we didn’t choose to be people leaders, but if you’re a project manager, you’re leading people, and you have to talk to your face, and you have to be very measured about this and very self-aware, and emotionally intelligent in dealing with people and getting things done.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, so track, adapt, and close, we might do the quicker version of those.

Kory Kogon
We can, because if you get the first two groups done well, and we’re engaging, then track and adapt, we’ve been doing it all along. Track and adapt is really about the whole agile movement that we did have a scope, not that we want scope creep, but are we building in feedback loops, really listening to people to make sure that we are delivering value on the project? Market forces change, things change out there, and so track and adapt as a team. Do we have the agility to be able to do that? As a leader, am I leading my people in the right way around that?

Close is always so interesting because if you talk to people, one of the things they’ll say is, “Do you have a bunch of projects that never end?” And people will laugh and say, “Ugh, all the time.” So, we got to finish them because it’s easy to start them, hard to finish them. But we finish them and the most important thing, again, remember we want an engaged team, is to have that closing meeting. When I get that meeting notice, I roll my eyes, like, “Ugh, the closing meeting.”

And then when I’m in it, I’m like, “I’m glad we did it,” because the team gets recognized, the key stakeholders are there, and it’s a place where people can share a retrospective, “What went well? What didn’t?” people can voice their concerns, we can celebrate people, and it really sets people up to be even more engaged for the next project. So, that’s track and adapt and close.

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

Kory Kogon
I think what I said, this is not for the faint of heart but it can be done. And whether you are a solo project manager, these principles are in play. Or, if you’re leading a group in a large organization, the same things apply when you put your mind to it. So, I think that’s a final statement on that.

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

Kory Kogon
Yes, I do have a quote, and that quote is by Dr. Stephen Covey, and it goes to everything that we’ve been saying. And what he said is that, “Fast is slow, and slow is fast.” And I really get on board with that in so many ways as a leader when it comes to projects, when it comes to managing home life, and 30 years in a relationship. Fast is slow. Slow is fast.

If you go too fast on a project, you’re going to pay the price at the end. If you go too fast as a leader trying to get work done and don’t take care of the people, it’s going to slow you down at the end. If you slow down, because I’m sure people on this call, Pete, also were going, “Hey, I don’t have time to scope and I don’t have time to go find other key stakeholders and all of that,” but we call it front loading, and so if you slow down to do the work up front, it’ll speed things up in the end. So that’s my favorite quote.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Kory Kogon
I’m a fan of Dr. David Rock, who is the founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, for many years, and I was lucky enough to be able to get a certificate of NeuroLeadership Foundations. So, I love following his work because it’s very, obviously, research-based and has everything to do with how the brain works. And in this world of knowledge work, we have to optimize our brain.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool?

Kory Kogon
A favorite tool, I think it’s interesting, here’s my old school-ness – tables in Word.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Kory Kogon
That is helpful to me because I write so much, and it’s always interesting when I see people write text in Excel, but a table for me is really good. And Notion now is a favorite tool of mine as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Kory Kogon
A favorite book is actually Quiet by Susan Cain, because I am a raging introvert.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Kory Kogon
My favorite habit is walking. I like to walk. Again, going back to the brain, that I work really hard, like so many people do, and continuously, and that is not a good thing, even in the day-to-day. You need to take breaks, and that break will increase your productivity by a certain amount. So, when I take a break, I like to go out and walk, and on the weekends, I live in the desert, so it’s a great habit to help me think. And a lot of times, I’ll come in my office, look at my computer, read something, and then go take a walk to let it synthesize.

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

Kory Kogon
We would point them to, you know, you can get the updated version of Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager at any of the booksellers, Amazon, etc. You can find me on LinkedIn, and you can go to www.franklincovey.com to see this and all of the other things that we have up there on people development.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be honest about their jobs?

Kory Kogon
Remember that it’s about the people, number one, if you’re a leader; and number two, regardless of your role, that you have every opportunity to work in your circle of influence if you let go of some of the things that you can’t do anything about. It’s a tough time in the world right now and in the workplace, and so if you just really take a deep breath, count to 10, and focus on things that you have control over, you’ll find that it’s easier to get through the day-to-day with a pretty good contribution at the end.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Kory, thank you. I wish you much luck in all your projects.

Kory Kogon
Well, thank you, and thanks for taking the time with me today, Pete.

944: Becoming a Leader that People Want to Follow with Jon Rennie

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Former submarine officer Jon Rennie outlines the leadership principles that make people want to follow you.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to deepen your connection with your team
  2. Why to let your colleagues fail more 
  3. Your fastest path to standing out 

About Jon

Jon is the Co-Founder, President & CEO of Peak Demand Inc., a components manufacturer for electrical utilities. He is a former U.S. Navy Nuclear Submarine Officer who made seven deployments during the end of the Cold War.

Before starting Peak Demand, he led eight manufacturing businesses for three global companies. He is the author of three best-selling leadership books and hosts the Deep Leadership podcast.

Resources Mentioned

Jon Rennie Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Jon, welcome.

Jon Rennie

It’s good to be here, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis

I am excited to have this conversation. I’d love for you to kick us off with a riveting tale from your days in a nuclear submarine during the Cold War. Bring us into the scene.

Jon Rennie

Well, can you imagine 155 guys getting on board a submarine, then locking the hatches for 100 days, where you deploy out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for 100 days, and you’re with the people that you deploy with, you have to get all these very difficult things done? We had 24 nuclear missiles, a nuclear reactor, and the average age was about 20 years old, and I did that seven different times in my life. So, it’s kind of an interesting experience. It’s certainly a great place to learn how to deal with people, how to get along with people.

Pete Mockaitis

Absolutely. And, jeez, you know, Jon, do people ever just go nuts down there? Like, how does that work? How do we prevent for that? Because that seems like there’s a reasonable probability that at least a couple of those folks would just mentally lose it. I don’t know if I could handle it. Like, how do you train for that?

Jon Rennie

I don’t know if they train for it, but they do screen, they do a lot of psychological evaluations, but here’s how they really test you. On your first deployment, they actually have you climb inside of a torpedo tube all the way with a grease pencil to write your name on the end, on the outer door of the torpedo tube, and then they shut the inner door while you’re in there. And that’s their test to see if you’re claustrophobic.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, so you’ve got a couple books here in terms of sharing what business professionals can learn from sailors and their experience in submarines.

Could you give us a cool example of a story, of a principle that you know you’re right, you teach about it, and how it really came to life and transformed someone in their profession, or, in particular, into a leader worth following?

Jon Rennie

So, one of the big things about being on a submarine is that there’s a shared level of responsibility, so every sailor is critical to the operation of a submarine at sea, and no person is more important than another. So, we have a shared responsibility to operate the submarine correctly, complete the mission and get home safely.

Now, the other side of it is we have a shared vulnerability, so if anything goes wrong, if your most junior sailor turns the wrong valve, everyone perishes. So, there’s not like one person dies, we all die. So, there’s a shared level of responsibility and vulnerability that is kind of unique to just about any other organization.

And you can imagine, when I came out of the military and went into the corporate environment, I didn’t get that same feeling.

There were certain people that had certain privileges and other people that had other privileges. And when things went bad, the people with the lower privileges are the ones that get laid off. So, the manufacturing workers or the call center people, they’re the ones that always got the brunt of whenever there were layoffs.

But when I started running manufacturing businesses after I got out of the Navy, I took that philosophy of “We’re all in it together and we need to have a shared level of responsibility and accountability to the business results.” In fact, my second belief, “All in the Same Boat,” because, literally, I learned leadership in a boat, all of us together working towards a common objective.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And could you share with us a tale of a time where you shared these principles with folks and someone really latched on and incorporated it, made it their own, and put it into practice, and saw some cool stuff happen?

Jon Rennie

Yeah, my first plant that I took over, I was young, 32 years old, I was the youngest plant manager in that plant’s history. And I came there and I noticed that there was an us-and-them attitude in the manufacturing plant. So, the hourly people kind of stuck to themselves, they had their own bathroom, they had their own areas where they congregated, and the salaried people had their own areas, too. And I kept thinking to myself, “How do we become one team?” We have sort of two separate areas, we live two separate lives, we didn’t have a lot of shared experiences.

And I wanted to get back to those days, like, for example, on a submarine, you stood long watches, six hours at a time, with your coworkers, and you really got to know them, they understood what your challenges, you understood their challenges. We just didn’t have that in the corporate world in this manufacturing plant.

So, I implemented this process called Fridays on the floor, where the first Friday of every month, I went out on the shop floor for four hours, and I work, and every month, I go to a different department and I work. And so, I’d actually operate the equipment, I would get to know the people, they would get to know me, and I learned that there was a tremendous amount of information on the shop floor that most of the salaried, most of the manager, they weren’t even aware of.

So, it was like there were two different worlds we live in. We weren’t one boat; we were two separate boats. And when I started doing that, I kept learning more and more about the way things operated, and the concerns that people have, tooling that was bad, procedures that were bad, all these things that I learned when I was doing it. And when I would come back and talked to the other managers, they didn’t understand my passion, they didn’t understand what I was talking about.

So, over time, we actually created Fridays on the floor for all of our management team, so we all would go out every Friday, we’d rotate different areas. And then after those four hours, we’d come back into one of the meeting rooms, and we would talk about what we learned. And what was interesting is that we basically started bridging that gap between the hourly and salaried people on that site, and we started fixing all these problems that have been going on for years and years that kind of have been ignored.

So, just by doing that, by getting out on the shop floor, and actually spending time with people, we actually built that bond, we built a connection, and we sort of built a common view of the businesses. And so, we ended up on that business, well, I was there for almost four years, and we were able to just improved our processes, reduced our scrap. We ended up having record-level of sales, record-levels of profitability, and a very high-performing operation, and we became sort of the top factory in our division.

But it was all about connecting the people. Instead of having two worlds, we brought them together into one world. And this came straight from the ideas from the military.

Pete Mockaitis

That is good. Back in episode 149, we had a guest S. Chris Edmonds, who said, “People in the organization see stuff that’s dumb all the time.” We see stuff that’s dumb, and then, whether or not that gets shared or implemented upon is, I guess, there’s all kinds of variables that might speak to it in terms of what’s the culture, what’s the psychologically safety in the organization.

And what’s fun about your approach there is we don’t actually have to rely on someone speaking up to get the information. And, hopefully, as you do that over some reps, we build some real trust and communication lines that go both ways so that people will just say, “Hey, our mallet is worn down.” “Oh, got you. Okay. Well, boom, here’s a new one.” So, you see these sorts of ongoing improvements in the communication, the culture, and the ability to fix the stuff they see that’s dumb all the more quickly and readily instead of waiting for years to get a fresh mallet.

Jon Rennie

Yeah, absolutely. And the other thing, too, is I think we built shared experiences, and that’s one thing that we had on the submarine, is we had all these shared experiences where I’d noticed, when I got to the corporate world, they had different experiences about what work life was like. A lot of people on the shop floor didn’t even know what the people in the office did, they’re like, “I don’t know. There’s just a bunch of people over there. I don’t know what they do.”

And so, part of it was them getting to know what we did every day. And I think that was one of the eye-opening things about this Fridays on the floor, is that the people were actually thankful, they were like, “I never knew what you guys did all day long. I never knew what marketing did. I didn’t know what accounting did. I just knew there’s a bunch of people in the office, they got to sit. I had to stand all day.” Really interesting, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, so I want to hear about you got a few books. The title I love the most was I Have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following. A fantastic subtitle. Generally speaking, how does one become a leader worth following?

Jon Rennie

Well, it comes with the title, which is “I Have the Watch.” I was a Naval officer, and part of that, when you took over the watch, you’re responsible for the mission and the people. So, if I was the officer of the deck, for example, I was responsible for six hours for the mission of that submarine and everybody inside of it.

So, in the case of, maybe, the midwatch, the captain was asleep in his rack down in his estate room, and I was responsible for that shift, everything that happened on that shift for those six hours. And so, it’s the idea of mission and people, and that’s really critical, because a lot of times people get promoted into management jobs, and they sort of go back to what they were used to doing, maybe as an individual contributor. They do emails, they go to meetings, and they forget that it’s about the mission and the people.

And so, the idea of “I Have the Watch” is that you have responsibility, you take ownership of the mission, you take ownership of the people, and that’s a really critical part of leadership. And a big part of this book I talk about is that leadership is a people business. It’s about people. So, if you are doing and not leading, then you’re really not doing your job as a leader. So, your job is to lead, your primary function is to lead.

And it’s different than when you’re an individual contributor, like maybe an engineer or an accountant. When you become the manager, you have leadership responsibilities, and sometimes we forget about that. Oftentimes, I saw it in corporate that people forgot their people responsibilities.

Pete Mockaitis

Could you share with us an example of a common people-responsibility that people forget?

Jon Rennie

So, the big thing I saw is busyness. So, we stay busy as managers, and in a lot of cases, it’s fear-based, where managers really don’t want to deal with people because people are messy. I always say that, too, people are messy so they don’t want to deal with it, so, “It’s easier to be in my comfort zone and answer emails, or be on the phone all day, or be in conference rooms all day than going out to the uncomfortable place where my people work, and they may have complaints, or they may have concerns.”

And maybe you’re overloaded, maybe you got a lot of things on your plate, and you don’t want to spend that time getting out and talking to the people so you isolate yourself. And I see a lot of managers, in my 22 years in corporate, I saw the managers isolating themselves, and mostly it was fear-based. They just didn’t want to take the time and listen to the challenges that their employees are having.

And so, I always challenge managers to get out, to go where your people are. It’s an essential part of what we do, is to get out of our offices and spend time to where our people are. So, I have a manufacturing company that I run, and in the afternoons, I always push myself away from my desk, and I go out. I pretty much can work any job on the shop floor, so I’ll just jump on the line and help out the employees. And I’m not there to help, I don’t really do a lot helping, but I’m there to listen, I’m there to talk, and I’m there to communicate because that’s really what’s important. We have to be present as leaders.

Pete Mockaitis

Now, Jon, I’m wondering, so manufacturing is really cool because, well, one, it’s just fun to watch how stuff gets built and it’s unfolding along the process. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.

If folks are in other industries that are a little bit less hands-on or tactile, how might we implement that with regard to that joining together on the frontline and observing? I’m just sort of imagining, I’m thinking about my audio people, like, “So, how do I hop in on that?” It’s like, “So, you’re many miles away from me, and you’re doing audio stuff and software, which I appreciate, I love it.” How might I apply some of these Jon principles in these contexts?

Jon Rennie

So, we’ve seen a lot with remote and hybrid work these days, and the concept, by the way, is not something that I developed. It’s called Gemba, it’s part of the Lean Manufacturing principles that come from Toyota. And the principle of Gemba is to go where the value is added. And, usually, in the case of any type of business where most of your people are, that’s where the value is added. So, you want to go to where your people are.

So, now the question is, “What do you do with hybrid and remote work?” Well, you have a normal check-in process. So, you have a check-in process where, in this case, I would say probably more like once a week where you check in on individuals, and you have a one-on-one, and you say, “How are things going? How are things going with this project?” And you have that chance to be able to touch base. It’s a little different than pushing yourself away from your desk and walking out to where your people are.

So, it’s the idea of Gemba where the value is added, go where the value is added, and it’s going to be different for every type of business.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Thank you. I guess I’m also thinking about sort of screen-sharing type stuff, like, “Hey, here’s what’s up. Here’s a software I use, etc.” and they could just behold, “Oh, what’s going on there? Oh, wow, that’s really cool.” It’s like, “Wow.” But I think you could still learn some things, like, “Wow, it seems like you’re spending a lot of time dealing with this.” Like, “Yeah, man, we get the audio, it’s a mess.” It’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry. I had no idea. Maybe I should be sending guests microphones,” and we do.

Okay. Cool. You’ve got a number of interesting turns of phrase, which I like to dig into a little bit. What do you mean when you suggest that we let people fail?

Jon Rennie

Failure is a powerful teaching tool. We don’t like to fail, right? So, as humans, we don’t want to fail. We want to succeed in everything we do. One of the things the Navy taught us was that was the best way to learn was to fail. And the way they did it was they put you in a position as junior officer of the watch, so you would have like an officer of the deck, and you have a junior officer of the deck.

And so, when you were junior officer of the deck, you were under the supervision of a more senior watch stander. And so, typically, then you take that junior position, and they would throw all sorts of different casualties at you – flooding, fire, you name it, an incoming torpedo. And they wanted to see how you fought the ship as a junior watch stander. And, inevitably, they would throw everything at you, and you would fail because it was impossible. They threw too many things at you.

And then they would stop the drill, we’d get the ship safe, and they would start talking to you, “What do you think you did right? What do you think you did wrong?” And it was the teaching session, the coaching session, and through that, we became better watch standers because we failed, we learned, and we got better at each of these individual tasks.

Now, what do we do in corporate a lot of times? And one of the things I noticed, kind of coming into corporate, is that we take our really difficult jobs and we give them to our senior people because we don’t want any mistakes, we don’t want failure. We take our junior people and we give them grunt work, and we make them do grunt work until you’ve been around long enough to take on a more important task.

And I think we miss out on opportunities to give younger people challenging assignments and a mentor to help them through that process, so they get exposure to the difficult things in business instead of just doing grunt work. The problem when you give a junior employee grunt work for two years is that they get frustrated.

They might come into your company very excited, very happy to be there, with a lot of passion, and that goes away as they continue to just do stuff that’s beneath maybe their skillsets, or beneath the things that they trained for in college, or maybe they got a certification in something that they never got a chance to use.

So, I really do believe that we need to allow our employees to fail in a controlled manner if we want them to learn and develop and become better.

Pete Mockaitis

Can you give us some examples in practice of folks failing in controlled manner, specifically in terms of what’s a person’s normal responsibilities versus new stretch responsibilities? And how is that controlled manner executed?

Jon Rennie
So, in my case, I’m always looking for leadership potential in employees, like someone that can maybe step up to the next level. And so, one of the things I like to do is to give them a stretch assignment. So, this might be anything from, “Develop a marketing literature for this new product that we’re coming out,” or, “Give me a market study for this particular region for this product,” or, “Lead this effort to setup pricing for this new product.”

So, I’ll give them a stretch assignment that might be outside, which is almost always outside their comfort zone, and then I want to get a chance to meet with them and assess how they do with that, so how did they with the project that was outside their comfort zone. And you learn a lot from those sessions, so you get a lot of feedback. A lot of times, the employee is excited, they get an opportunity to do something different. They’re going to mess up and it’s a great chance for coaching.

You find some employees aren’t ready to step up, and they even say that, like, “Wow, that was way beyond what I want to do. I’m maybe not interested in that.” And others are just energized by it, “Can I do it again? This was fun. This was what I want to do in my career.” So, I think finding great employees and giving them stretch assignments is a great way to evaluate their skills and give them a chance to do something kind of exciting and different.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. So, then with the marketing study, for example, I suppose if they give you a terrible study, nothing disastrous has happened there, it’s just like, “Okay, we’re not going to use this information to make any decisions,” like nobody has died, injured, or millions of dollars have been destroyed. Like, they just said, “Okay, you’ve produced a document that is of no value,” so that is a failure, but it’s controlled in the sense that no major damage has been done. Is that how you think about it?

Jon Rennie

Yeah, I think so. And, again, the more you get a chance to see somebody in action, the more you’re going to give them more responsibility that may have higher risks associated with it. But, yeah, so you do where failure is not going to be fatal.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, so failure is not going to be fatal. And then you’re sharing with them great feedback associated with, “Hey, thanks for taking a crack at this marketing study. Here are some ways you can make that useful for us, etc.”

Jon Rennie

And also, too, is the feedback of learning from them, like, “How did it go? Where did you struggle? Where did you have a hard time finding information? How do you think you did on this?” Just hearing their experience helps you understand kind of their mindset going into it and coming out of it, and how you can coach them to even be better.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And do you have pro tips for how you do deliver that coaching?

Jon Rennie

I think it’s kind of being honest. I think being honest is really important. Obviously, you’ve got to be sensitive to people’s feelings. I’m maybe a little more sensitive to that. I don’t want to be too harsh but I do think we need to give them the honest feedback. And I would tell you, I’ve had people where I’d given them stretch assignments, and they have failed, and when I say to them, “This isn’t really working out,” and they know it’s not working out, they’re like, “Yeah, I recognize that, and it’s probably not something I want to do more of.” So, I think both parties recognize when this is not a good fit.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Jon, just for thought, I’d love to zoom in. Let’s say I handed you a marketing study, which clearly appeared to be assembled in 45 minutes with Google and ChatGPT and had factual inaccuracies but a couple of cool-looking charts, and so it’s no good. How do you share that with me?

Jon Rennie

Yeah, I would ask the process, “So, how did you develop this? Where did it come from?”

Pete Mockaitis

“Oh, I did some research across the internet.”

Jon Rennie

“Yeah. Well, what kind of research?”

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, I was looking to see different competitors and their potential revenue associated with these offerings.”

Jon Rennie

“Did you talk to anyone else as you went through the research? Did you talk to anyone in the marketing department or anybody in our sales department?”

Pete Mockaitis

“Oh, no, I didn’t talk to anybody.”

Jon Rennie

“Okay. Why not?”

Pete Mockaitis

“Oh, it didn’t occur to me.”

Jon Rennie

“Hmm,” so I think there’s the discussion, there’s the sort of finding out what and where that they could do…where they see the aha moments, like, “Maybe I should’ve talked to more people.”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so, I’m wondering, how do you also convey kind of the standard or what good is?

Jon Rennie

Does it answer all the questions we’re looking for? Typically, with an assignment like this, we have things that we want to get out of it, and if they fall short, then we’re going to have those discussions.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, there you go in terms of, “Okay, the study to go into a little bit more detail, these are the particular questions we were looking to get answers for, and this deliverable does not presently answer those questions, or has false answers to those questions.”

Jon Rennie
Right. Exactly, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. You also have the turn of a phrase “earn your oxygen.” What does that mean and how do we apply it?

Jon Rennie

So, we have an expression on the submarine that was, how do I say it, it’s a little controversial because there was a high level of positive peer pressure on a submarine. I mentioned earlier, every sailor has to have, “We have to trust you with our lives.” And so, when you first come on a submarine, we call you a nob. A nob is a non-useful body. Until you could earn your oxygen, until you could be responsible for some area of the submarine, then you were a useful body.

So, you were taking in the oxygen and the food from people that were useful, and so there was a high level of positive peer pressure to get qualified, to become a qualified operator. And so, what qualification meant on a submarine was for the sailors, junior sailors, to work with more senior sailors to prove their competencies in various operations, procedures, watch standing.

And so, as they prove their proficiency, they would actually have, what’s called, a qualification card, a qual card, and they would get signatures that, “Okay, a senior watch stander says this person understands how to use the torpedo launch system. This person knows how to repair a steam fitting.” So, you would get qualified over time and become qualified.

So, earn your oxygen means that everywhere you go, not even in the Navy, but in the civilian world, “What are you doing to earn your oxygen? What are you doing to add value to the business that you work for, the organization that you work for?” So, I often talk to high school students, and that’s one of the messages I say, is, “Don’t be a nob.”

And so, the concept there is that there are so many people in our world that are consumers and not creators. They’re consumers and they’re not builders. And so, I really encourage high school students to “Not be a consumer, not spend your time online just entertaining yourself. What are you doing to build? What are you doing to grow? What are you doing to add value?” So, the idea of earning your oxygen is becoming valuable to your organization, whoever you work for or whatever you’re doing in the world.

Pete Mockaitis

And I think that’s important to consider. And I think about in business-y terms, there’s the value you consume associated with there are costs, associated with keeping you employed with a salary and benefits, equipment, office space, etc. and then there’s value you, hopefully, are creating through your work. And so, I guess if you talk about oxygen versus dollars, it’s interesting that in some fields it’s very clear, like sales, like, “Okay, man, this is what you sold, this is what I’m paying you,” or a fundraising, it’s very clear.

And then it gets a little fuzzier the farther away it gets from that in terms of, it’s like, “Oh, well, I am doing accounting or finance work.” And so, it’s like, “Okay, well, that needs to be done, we have to stay compliant, that’s valuable.” And so, it’s tricky to precisely assess that, and yet I think, it’s my belief, as we see layoffs and such, that the more clear and massive the value you’re contributing is, the safer your job and the more likely you’re going to be on an upward trajectory there.

Jon Rennie

Yeah, absolutely. And I would say a lot of people will kind of come into a job, and they say, “Well, this is your job responsibilities,” and people will do the bare minimum, or they would just do that job responsibility. And I also say look for the extras that you can add value to in the organization. So, I started out in corporate world as an associate design engineer in a cubicle. And five years later, I was running a manufacturing plant.

Well, it didn’t happen that I just magically got there. It was through earning my oxygen and adding value in everything that I did. And, in my case, going from a cubicle to the corner office was all about volunteering, learning new skills, being there when the company needed me, and doing anything I could to support the organizational objectives. And that eventually got me the opportunity to lead a plant.

But I think if you haven’t put the extra work in, you say, “Well, I want to be promoted, I want to move up the corporate ladder but I’m not willing to put the work in,” you’re not going to get there. It does take extra effort if you want to get noticed, if you want to achieve goals that you have in your career. I didn’t necessarily have a goal to run a manufacturing plant at 32 but it happened because I was adding a lot of value in everything I did.

Pete Mockaitis

And, Jon, I’d love to hear the counterpoint to that in terms of if employees are doing that and have seen, “Hmm, the meritocratic forces do not seem to be operational here. My added value appears to amount to squat and it feels like I’m just sort of burning the midnight oil for no extra compensation, and it feels like a raw deal,” how do you speak to that perspective? And how do we assess whether extra efforts are likely to result in extra goodies?

Jon Rennie

Well, it doesn’t always work out that way, does it? So, I have a good friend, John Brubacher, who always said, “Go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated.” And I think a lot of times that we are in positions, or in organizations, that don’t recognize that kind of extra effort, you have bosses that don’t care necessarily, or they’re looking out for themselves and not looking out for their team, so there are times when you can do a lot of extra work and not get noticed, and maybe that’s not the right organization that you should be in.

But I think it’s good to have a discussion. You’re always going to have those opportunities to have a one-on-one with your boss, and a lot of companies it’s once a year. During annual performance review, you get a chance to sit down with your boss. And at that point, you can have that discussion, “Hey, I’ve been trying to do this. I’ve got this dream, or this desire, or this goal, to get to this level. I’ve been doing a lot of extra work. What else could I be doing to try to earn or move into the position I’m looking to do?” Have that frank conversation. But I would also say is be willing to move to find those opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Jon Rennie

I think the one thing I would say to this, when it comes to like a similar analogy from the Navy to the businesses is that without a crew, the ship is just a hunk of steel sitting in the harbor. It takes a crew to bring a ship to life. It takes people to bring our businesses to life, our plans to life, the things we’re trying to do. So, I think people are very critical to our business, and without them, we’re not going to go anywhere. So, I think we sometimes overlook the importance of people in our organizations.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, now, Jon, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jon Rennie

Well, I like Teddy Roosevelt just as many of the things he said, but “The Man in the Arena” quote is probably been best for me. So, the idea of being in the arena is where I want to be, not a critic in the stands. And I always say be a builder, not a critic. It’s hard to be a builder. It’s easy to be a critic.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And could we hear a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jon Rennie

I’ve been doing a lot of work right now in my Ph.D. program on perseverance and grit, and, especially, in small teams, “How do you develop grit in a team?” So, Angela Duckworth did a lot of work on grit. I love her work. So, yeah, perseverance has been something I’ve been into lately.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite book?

Jon Rennie

First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham. It’s the one book that sort of changed my outlook for how leaders can lead.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite habit?

Jon Rennie

I get up at 4:00 a.m. every morning. So, I write until 5:00, and I work out from 5:00 to 6:00. So, I’ve been doing that for about 10 years, and so I feel like I get a lot done in the early morning.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; you hear them quote it back to you often?

Jon Rennie

The big one is leadership is a people business. I see that quite a lot.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Jon Rennie

My website JonSRennie.com, and I’m on every social media @jonsrennie. I’m pretty active on Twitter, so. X, I guess, now.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Jon Rennie

Hey, you want to be awesome at your job, don’t be a nob, don’t be a non-useful body. Be useful in everything you do.

Pete Mockaitis

All right, Jon, thank you and good luck.

Jon Rennie

Thank you, Pete.