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697: How to Make Your Point and Communicate Like a Leader with Joel Schwartzberg

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Joel Schwartzberg walks through how to sharpen your communication to maximize your impact.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to know if you even have a point 
  2. The simple phrases that make you more memorable
  3. Word substitutions that increase presence 

About Joel

Currently the Senior Director of Strategic and Executive Communications for a major U.S. nonprofit, Joel Schwartzberg teaches communication and presentation skills to clients including American Express, State Farm Insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Comedy Central, and the Brennan Center for Justice. Joel’s books include The Language of Leadership and Get to the Point! and his articles appear in Harvard Business ReviewFast Company, and Toastmaster Magazine. A frequent conference presenter and workshop leader, Joel is also a former national champion public speaker. He can be reached at www.joelschwartzberg.net. 

Resources Mentioned

Joel Schwartzberg Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Joel, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Joel Schwartzberg
Thank you, Pete. It’s my pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear what you have to say, as well as to hear the tale about your Wheel of Fortune appearance. How did this come about?

Joel Schwartzberg
Well, when you live in Los Angeles and you don’t have a job, you don’t go to unemployment, as most people do, more often you go on to a game show. Why not? This was back in the day, we’re talking about the ‘90s. So, I was out of work at the time, living in Los Angeles, and I just took a chance. Even though I was local, I auditioned, they picked me. And a year and a half later, I was on the show. And, Pete, it was one of the most doomed experiences of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
Doomed?

Joel Schwartzberg
Doomed.

Pete Mockaitis
How so?

Joel Schwartzberg
I did not fare well. I think they do a week’s worth of shows in one day, at least they did, and I was clearly the big loser of the day so much so that they gave me some extra consolation prizes. So, all I took from it was not the $20,000 annuity. I didn’t even know what an annuity was at the time. I just took my memories from it, really. And those served me well, but it was not my finest hour in terms of being a successful contestant.

Pete Mockaitis
So, there is an episode of you but you didn’t do well on it, is that what I’m hearing?

Joel Schwartzberg
That’s basically the bottom line. Right, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. But I want to know then, so we’re talking about The Language of Leadership: How to Engage and Inspire, I’m curious if some of your skills, you think that won you the spot on the audition. What do you think sold them on you?

Joel Schwartzberg
One of the things I have to say, I’m not often asked that question, but one of the things that helped me is, I think, was eye contact. I maintained eye contact with the other competitors as we did sort of rehearsal rounds, I definitely gave eye contact to the people who were in the decision-making role, and I just sort of flooded them with my engagement through my eyes. Now, as we went through, these are things they’re looking for, “Am I going to be mousy or am I going to be confident and assertive? Am I going to ask for vowels in a strong voice or in sort of a small voice?” These are things they’re looking for.

So, as you ask that question, it’s interesting, a lot of the things I talk to my clients and students about are things I employed there that I think, yes, I think they did make a difference in them, ultimately, picking me.

Pete Mockaitis
Decisively buy those vowels, that’s a good takeaway right there. So, let’s sort of zoom out. In your years of working and research looking into how leaders communicate well, what would you say is one of your most surprising or counterintuitive discoveries?

Joel Schwartzberg
My biggest discovery, and this is sort of the bread and butter of what I train, is the concept of making a point. Now, obviously, leaders need to make points but, really, everybody needs to make points not only in our professional life but also in your personal life. We make points to our mother’s-in-law and our children, and to our neighbors.

And what I discovered, after a few years of training public speakers, was that, while they were doing everything right in terms of their gestures, they’re planting their feet, their volume, their articulation, when I asked them, “What point are you trying to make?” they would reply with something that wasn’t a point, which forced me to build a definition of what a point is, as well as a simple test that people can use to find out if they’re making a point or not.

And to be very clear about this, what they thought was their point was actually a theme, or a topic, a notion, a category, a catchphrase. For example, podcasting is not a point. If you asked me what my point is, and I said podcasting, I’m not telling you the value of podcasting, who I’m trying to reach through podcasting, the future of podcasting, how podcasting impacts culture. None of that. So, I’m giving you a theme but I’m not really making my point.

And once I sort of came to that realization, I turned around my training and I wrote this book called Get to the Point! which really helps people understand, A, what a point is and what it is not; B, how to sharpen that point; and, finally, how to champion that point. And that is an imperative for leaders, but it is certainly a benefit for anybody who needs to make a point, which is all of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s just a huge learning right there. Let’s dig into it. So, some things that are not a point would be a theme, a category. So, then what is the definition and the test for whether a point is a point or not a point?

Joel Schwartzberg
A strong point is a proposition. I’m sort of putting myself on the line to put something out there and suggest or recommend something to you. And within that, I’m also explicitly conveying the value of it. Now, this gives us sort of an ambiguous idea of what a point is, so let’s take the podcasting example. A topic is podcasting, a theme is communication, a catchphrase is “the power of podcasting,” but a point is, “I believe that podcasting is the most effective way to reach our millennial audience.”

Now, how do we get from one of those to the others? That’s a test that I have in my book that’s very simple. It’s called the “I believe that” test. And I know it’s simple because my daughters, when they were in middle school, they used it. And it goes like this. You take what you believe is your point, and you put the words “I believe that” in front of it. Now, it’s a mild tweaking, if any. What you want to have is a complete sentence, not a fragment, not a run-on, something that will impress your fourth-grade language arts teacher – a complete sentence.

So, if we put that podcasting example into play, “I believe that podcasting…” not a sentence, even “I believe the importance of podcasting…” not a complete sentence. It forces you to say, “I believe that podcasting will enable us to X,” “I believe that podcasting will change the world in these ways.” And that’s where we talk about having a point and sharpening it.

So, I’ve ran this test many, many times for people in nonprofits, for people selling a product, for people in PR, for people running for office, for people interviewing for jobs, and it works the same for each person. You want to make the point so you basically want to make a belief statement that says, “If this happens, then this other thing will result,” “If you hire me, then your environment and your work product will be improved in this way.”

And then, when you use that test, when you have that complete sentence, you’re on your way to making a point. But if you fail that test, you need to go back and reimagine your point so that it can pass that test.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, can you give us some more examples of things that are not a point? I guess what I’m thinking here is I’m thinking about a lot of slide decks. So, back in consulting, we had our headlines at the top of the slide and that was kind of the idea, it’s like, “That headline, it’s about two lines maybe, up to a dozen-ish words, and it should say sort of the point of the slide.” And that was really instilled into us.

And so, it shouldn’t just say, “Revenue over time,” or, “Customer breakdown,” because that is a label of what is on the slide. And so, fair enough, that is what that is but it doesn’t sort of tell you, “What are you trying to tell me about the revenue over time or the customer breakdown?” So, what are some other ways that you see this not working so well in business and professional contexts, like common non-points that come up again and again that need to be improved?

Joel Schwartzberg
There are a lot of settings for it. One of the ones where you’ll see it most obviously is in conferences, “Hey, Pete, what are you talking about today? I’d like to come to your session.” “Oh, I’m talking about podcasting,” or, “I’m talking about income inequality,” or, “I’m talking about Coca-Cola.” Well, you’re not telling me what point you’re going to make. And if you do tell it to me in a form of a point, “I’m going to talk about the ways we can tackle income inequality so that everybody has the same opportunity in America.” You see how that’s more compelling and resonant?

You mentioned another place, and I’m glad you mentioned because even just PowerPoint, and you can get a million recommendations, but the one I never see, which is key to me, is what you said. In the title of a PowerPoint slide, what we’re often seeing is categories: what’s next, background, history, statistics. And then in the example you said, “Yeah, PowerPoint slides can say ‘Our feedback survey’ or it can say, ‘Results of our feedback survey,’ or it can say, ‘Feedback: Our community prefers Coca-Cola.’” Why not put the exact point into the topic or the title page of that PowerPoint?

Another place is in email. People are using subject lines that often read “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Tuesday” when they’re actually trying to convey a very important point or a very important recommendation for a tactic that the team should take, but it’s submerged under a subject line that is not expressing that point.

So, really, in all settings, whether you’re writing, you’re speaking, you’re creating a video, you’re texting, you’re posting, these all benefit from points. And what I often say in my training is, “Tomorrow morning, when your manager says, ‘All right, let’s go around the room and if you have recommendations or if you have feedback, what happened over the weekend, please share it,’ and people will hem and haw, ‘Well, I think this happened and I don’t know if that should’ve happened,’ why not set yourself up for success by saying, you can say, ‘I believe that if we had done this, we would’ve had more impact on our customers,’ or, ‘I believe that what happened over the weekend was a great example of what happens when we take this approach to our audience.’”

Now, I want to make something clear, Pete. I’m not saying you always need to use the words “I believe that.” It’s merely a test to make sure you’re making a point. However, if you do say “I believe that” you’re putting your reputation behind it so there is value to saying those three words.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so that’s a big idea right there in the book Get to the Point! Let’s talk about your latest, The Language of Leadership. What’s the big idea here?

Joel Schwartzberg
So, the big idea behind The Language of Leadership, it’s really taking the ideas of Get to the Point! and it’s asking, “How can leaders use points to do the two most important things they need to do with their teams? Engage their teams and inspire their teams.” Now, that may seem obvious. Obviously, leaders want to engage and inspire, but those are the only two words I picked. I would’ve preferred one word, but for the purposes of broadness, I wanted those two words.

So, what words didn’t I pick? I didn’t say that leaders want to inform, entertain, impress, graduate. There are a lot of words that some leaders may think they want to do for their audience. But, to me, the two most important are engaging and inspiring, especially inspiring. And one of the biggest places where they don’t do that, because we want to talk about examples where people are just missing the mark, is leaders who think that information on its own inspires.

And we often see this in presentations or in PowerPoints, if I tell you the history, “All right, this is what we did in the past, this is what we’re doing now, this is how many, this is how many people, this is how much we’re going to spend on it. Thank you very much.” There is no point there. They merely thought by merely sharing the information, it would sell itself. And what you’re really doing is putting the burden on the audience to receive a point that was not conveyed when, really, that burden is on you to inspire and make the point. I call these book reports. You’re sharing something but you’re not selling something.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then merely information, like, “This is what happened before and what happens now and what happens in the future…”

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. Details. Data. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
So, a point would be like, “We have made tremendous strides and we’re so excited about what we’re going in the future.”

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. Or, let’s say data, we’re always sharing data and slides. I wrote an article about this for Harvard Business Review. The data, just like a story, storytelling is a big deal also, they share one attribute, and that is they don’t sell themselves. They only sell, and you’re only selling them when you say these words. And, in fact, these words are more important than the data and more important than the story. It’s the point at which you say, “This story demonstrates why we should,” “This story is an example of how we can,” “This data proves that we ought to take these steps.” And people leave that out.

And I have one really good example, if you don’t mind my sharing it. I had a client who created all sorts of collateral material. She created hats and calendars and brochures, and I said, “All right, give me your best pitch. Make your point to me.” And she said, “All right. You see these brochures? Well, they are a special material where they won’t crumple. And I’ll give you your logo in three colors all around it. And you see this hat? This hat, if an elephant stepped on this hat and it won’t crush. And this pen, this pen is made of a special nanotechnology. It’ll only pierce your shirt. It won’t pierce your skin. And I tell you what, I’ll give you three colors on the logo of your pen.”

And she went on and on describing her inventory, and she finished. And I said, “Do you think you made your point?” And she said, “I did. I described each and every piece of my inventory and why each of those pieces were great.” And I said, “That’s okay, but you know what I never heard from you? I never heard you say that if I buy your product, I will be more successful.” And that’s what she was selling, that was her big point but she never said it explicitly. What she was doing was sharing details, giving her inventory.

A good example of this is, also, imagine a book. In the book, there are two things, there’s a table of contents and there are blurbs. The blurbs sell the book. The table of contents just shares the inventory. So, what leaders want to do, what anyone giving a presentation or a speech wants to do, is they want to be the blurbist. They want to sell the idea, not just share it as like a table of contents.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s excellent. And it’s interesting, in the collateral materials example, like, “This pin is great because of that, and this hat is great for that,” I suppose if what the information you wanted was, “Why should I pick you instead of the other penmaker or hatmaker?” then that might be helpful. It’s like, “Oh, okay, the hat is more durable than others, or less likely to pierce flesh with a pen.” But if your question is more like, “Should I buy this at all?” then that doesn’t do the trick, versus if you could say, “We had a client who got these hats, and there are millions of impressions now on Instagram where people are being photographed in these hats which has driven their brand awareness a whole lot.” You’re like, “Oh, wow, that’s cool. I guess people are into hats and photographing themselves.”

Joel Schwartzberg
Exactly. What did the hats enable you to do? What did the service or product, not just what it is, but what it enables you to do? And you talk about, “Sell me this pen,” that’s really the basis of that exercise. The value of the pen is not that it’s blue or has a great cap or has a good design, and we’re using it as an example, but it empowers you to express yourself in ways that have impact. And, at the end of the day, what you often want to ask is, “If my audience can only take away one thing, what would that be? What do I want them to leave with?” And if you can answer that question, then you know what you need to do as the speechmaker or as the conveyer or the communicator.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, so that’s a great perspective right there in terms of not falling for the trap that information alone inspires, really thinking what’s the one key point you want them to be left with and going for it. Can you share with us a couple other key communication best practices and worst practices that really make an impact when we’re trying to engage and inspire?

Joel Schwartzberg
Sure. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is they think more is better. We know from writing, the writers amongst us, in your audience, we know less is more. But what we need to understand is that, also, more is less. When we add details or words or descriptions to our point or to even a sentence, we are doing a disservice to ourselves because here’s what happens. When you or I, he, she or someone, that has a lot of adjectives, a lot of points, all those points compete with each other for your attention. And then that competition, they’re diluting the impact of each other.

And we can just say an example. Let’s say I was the CEO of our company, and I said, “This new approach is going to make us more successful and experienced and powerful, effective, efficient, memorable, and brilliant.” Now, not many people are going to remember all of those words and, even if they could, they wouldn’t know which one was more important.

If an executive says, “This approach will make us more effective. Let me show you how,” because there’s only one idea, it really sinks into our brains. Now, I’m not saying that every presentation can only have one idea, although it’d be a beautiful thing, but if you have multiple ideas, you want to separate them and delineate them, “First thing, I’m going to talk about this idea. Then we’re going to move on and talk about this idea. And, finally, we’re going to look at how this affects the world around us.” So, I’ve delineated these instead of attaching them all together.

Remember, all we need to do, as speakers and communicators, is say the words that we’re familiar with. What does an audience need to do? A lot. They need to hear it. They need to process it. “Is this relevant? Should I write this down? Should I tweak this? Do I need to remember this? Should I share this with my direct reports?” So much needs to happen in their brains, as we say something, that by the time they processed it, we’re another six points down the road. So, we need to make it simple. We need to understand that more is less. We need to speak more slowly. We need to introduce pauses so that people have that critical digestion time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, those are some things that are common mistakes. And what do you see as some of the best-in-class examples or things to do to really do a fine job of engaging and inspiring?

Joel Schwartzberg
Our job, the most important part of a communication is the point because that’s where you’re doing the hard sell for your product or your service that creates this solution that you’ve matched in advance to whoever you’re speaking to, whether it’s potential clients or partners or customers. So, there are ways to reinforce that point in the middle of your presentation. And this is what I counsel leaders to do, and these I call attention magnets.

So, attention magnets include, “I recommend,” “I propose,” “Here’s the thing,” “Look, if there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this,” or, “My point is this.” And one of my public speaking idols is Michelle Obama. Now, when she spoke at the Virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, she said these three things, and they seemed repetitive if I just pull them out and say them to you now, but these are direct quotes.

One, she said, “And let me, once again, tell you this.” Later, she said, “Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can.” And then before she finished, she said, “If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this.” Now, these are attention magnets and anyone can do them, not just Michelle Obama, so I encourage people to use those.

What they are are shortcuts to your point. But in front of any audience, if I said, “Oh, we talked about a lot today, but here’s the thing,” you could tell by just that example that that sort of drills attention to the point, you’ve captured it for a moment, and you want to fill that spot with your point, not with some detritus, some detail, something irrelevant. And to do that, you need to know your point.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, as you say those words, I could just sort of imagine an audience of people looking at phones and then looking up, and sort of like, “Oh, I feel kind of guilty that I’ve been semi-ignoring you.”

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. That’s why I call them attention magnets, not even getters, but magnets.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nice. Okay. And I’m also curious if there are any particular words and phrases that you really love or really hate in terms of being extra effective. So, we’ve had some attention magnet phrases, which are great. Any other key bits that should be on the do’s or don’ts list for our own vocabularies?

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. Well, the first thing I would say is authenticity is critical. Even if you have speechwriters working for you, as many leaders do, you should never say anything, nothing should come out of your mouth that is something you wouldn’t ordinarily say because audiences can pick up on that. It’s artificial. So, always scrutinize whatever you’re saying or reading to make sure it matches who you are and how you normally talk.

In terms of specific words, and, Pete, I really like to give nuts and bolts sort of tactics, not just broad encouragements, so there are things where leaders know that people are saying one word and it actually falls just short of what they intend. I’m talking about when people say allow when they really mean enable. What does it mean when we say allow? Well, we sort of stood aside and we let something happen. We didn’t play a part in it, an active part in it, but maybe we did. Maybe we made it happen. Maybe through our lobbying, that law came about. So, then we enabled it, but we often say we allowed this to happen.

Another is avoid versus prevent. If you actively prevented something, don’t go smaller and say, “We just avoided it.” Another is when we address things, “We addressed this problem.” What does that mean? We looked at it, we read it, we talked about it. But did we act on it? So, if you did act on it, if you overcame a problem, that’s act versus address. And there are a few of these, I call them strategic word swaps. This is another article I wrote for Harvard Business Review, where you can scrutinize a speech, especially ahead of time, or as you’re practicing, to talk about things, like, “We want to overcome goals versus face them,” “We want to accomplish a goal versus meet it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, those are handy word swaps. And then that’s interesting in that those words are all okay, and you took them to great. I’m curious if there are any words that are just kind of terrible For example, one word I frequently coach people to not say in a presentation is “obviously” because it kind of suggests, like, “Hey, if you didn’t know this, you’re an idiot,” and it can sort of be off putting and feel maybe patronizing or arrogant to say obviously, even though sometimes people use it innocently as a vocal pause, or even if they’re a little bit bashful, like, “I’m about to say something that you probably already know, and I don’t want you to think that I think this is a super insightful thing so I’m going to soften it by saying obviously.” I recommend just not doing that.

So, I’m curious, are there any other words, like obviously, that you recommend kind of striking out?

Joel Schwartzberg
Yeah, one of the words I really don’t like is “additionally” or “clearly,” not even because of the impression that people make out of them, which may be haughty, but they’re generally unnecessary. Remember when I said that more is less, and less is more? We often don’t need words like “additionally” or “clearly,” or “it need not be said that.” Often, “that is” a two-word phrase that can be removed. Remember, people are listening to it for the first time so we want to make that language as simple as possible.

I find a lot of people using synonyms all the time, “We want to make this television advertisement more powerful and resonant,” or “reach more people and to be truly resonant.” Well, those are virtual synonyms, but your audience, they’re deciding between two things. So, really scrutinize, when you give multiple things, for those synonyms so you can get closer and closer to the one thing.

And you probably know, Pete, and many of your audience know, in advertising, they often try to take out as many adjectives as they can, and adverbs, because, let’s remember that, adjectives only give the briefest kind of description to something, and it’s always going to be a generic one. What does it mean that something is great, awesome, interesting? I call these badjectives because they’re easy enough, we love them, “This product is great,” but to an audience, what does it mean? Lots of things are great. “I had a great tuna fish this afternoon.”

So, to solve that problem, ask yourself, “Well, why is it great?” “Well, this product is great because it allows us to make sure food doesn’t go bad in the refrigerator?” Aha, so now you have this product as great because it keeps things fresh in the refrigerator. Now, you don’t even need the great word, the badjective, why not just say that this product keeps your food fresh in the refrigerator. So, what we’ve done is we’ve spotted the badjective, we’ve asked why to get to the real outcome, and then we’ve removed the badjective. It’s almost mathematical in the approach.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. That reminds me of resumes in terms of if you have a lot of adjectives about yourself, it’s sort of like, “Well, okay, says who? And I guess you think you’re great but that’s…” versus if you have actual sort of results, accomplishments, responsibilities, then they’re just facts, and facts don’t tend to need a lot of adjectives. And I guess if you do use an adjective, kind of like I’m thinking about sort of like movies that have…or blurbs, again like the books. When movies say, “Hey, we’re great,” they like to grab it from such and such reviewer from the New York Times that said, “A masterpiece!”

Joel Schwartzberg
“Go see it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Then that packs a little bit more weight, so maybe on the resume it might be like, “Received stellar remarks on reviews including…” whatever. That can make more sense

Joel Schwartzberg
And I’ll tell you something really interesting or sort of ironic that struck me when I was looking at a particular word. The word is hope, and leaders use the word hope a lot, and they should. It’s their job to have vision and point to a future. But here’s the funny thing. Hope works best in leadership as a noun and not as a verb. If we say, “I hope this will happen,” “I hope that this product will succeed,” you’re sort of taking yourself out of the role of making sure it succeeds. You’re sort of gambling on the future when you use hope as a verb.

But when you use it as a noun, you’re creating a vision and a future and a goal for your audience, “Our hope is that we will reach this level of success,” “We have hope that this product will sell,” or, “…that will reach this audience,” or that, “We have hope now that we’ll save the planet,” as opposed to, “I hope we can save the planet.” There’s a subtle difference even though it’s the same word. So, as we scrutinize these words, the language of leadership, as I like to say, there are often many ways to look at it but only one way to use it successfully to, like I say, engage and inspire.

Pete Mockaitis
And we’ve sort of been talking, and this is I’ve been visualizing or even talking about sort of like an in-person face-to-face context. Do you have any thoughts for when it comes to email, Slack, text messaging, how to think about communication that engages and inspires there?

Joel Schwartzberg
Absolutely, but each one of those is sort of different. I like to focus on email and I like to focus on Zoom or video meetings. In terms of email, a lot of it boils down to the subject line, “Am I making myself clear? And in making myself clear, am I engaging the people I’m trying to reach? In the body of an email, am I writing a novella or am I making it easier for my audience, my reader, to engage with me and understand the points I’m trying to make? Am I using bullets? Am I bolding things or using colors?”

One thing I say about email is it’s a hard and fast rule and it shocks people at first, and that is no No paragraph more than three sentences. I often use paragraphs of one sentence. What it does, it allows you to break up your ideas for your own conveyance but it also really helps the audience understand the breakdown of the points you’re trying to make, and that builds engagement.

There are also a lot of things we already discussed about hope and vision and authenticity that sort of create that inspiration. Now, on Zoom, there are a lot of other practices that really help what I like to say elevate your presence on Zoom, and much of it is visual. I see a lot of Zoom calls where leaders are way back, or their head is cut off, or they have a messy room behind them that distracts. So, when I train my clients and my leaders is to show your head and your shoulders, to understand that eye contact means looking into the camera not into the Brady Bunch grid as I like to call it, and to really check your environment, because anything in your environment that doesn’t support your point steals from your point.

And so, these are ways we can not only elevate our leadership but avoid some of the things that may hurt and injure and sabotage our leadership because they’re working against us.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
Know that the one thing I’d like people to take away, and I’m going to use one of those attention magnets, is that it all boils down to having a point. If you don’t have a point, you are literally pointless and you should be nervous, and you should be expecting yourself to ramble because you need to know the one idea you need to get across to make that point, to champion it, so that you can really have an impact on your audience.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
I’m not sure who said it. It could’ve been a high school chum, but something that I keep coming back to is “It’s not about you being best, it’s about being the best you.” And, to me, what it means is we are all super qualified, uniquely qualified, in each communication setting to make that point. Even Michelle Obama or a famous CEO cannot do the job we do if we’ve prepared and practiced and have experienced to make a point to an audience.

And that quote about being the best you, connects a lot to a mistake people make when they give speeches, when I say, “What is your goal in this speech?” They’ll say, “My goal is not to screw up. My goal is not to embarrass myself.” Well, that really isn’t your goal. Your goal is really to move a point from A to B, not to be thought of as brilliant, or as the next Michelle Obama, or the next head of industry unless you want more public speaking gigs.

You’re more like a bicycle delivery person moving a package, which is your point from here to there. And guess what, you’re the one person in the world most qualified to do it. And that’s what it means to be the best you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Joel Schwartzberg
My favorite research is probably the research that was done on mindsets, and the difference between having a closed mindset and an open mindset. And the closed mindset means you’re not open to learning, and an open mindset means that you’re open to experiencing new things and learn from them. And I forget the name of the study. I think it’s fixed mindset and I forget the name of the other.

Pete Mockaitis
Growth mindset.

Joel Schwartzberg
Growth mindset. You’re exactly right. That sort of blew my world because it goes back to your childhood, the way you were raised. Sometimes kids are very, very smart but what they learn is, “I’m going to stay in my lane because I’m good at this and I’ll never be good at that, so I’m never going to try something new.” And often, those kids, overall, will not do as well as the kids who were not told they were geniuses but told to learn as much as they can.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Joel Schwartzberg
My favorite book is Les Miserables probably because I read it in high school. I’m more of an article reader than I am a book reader because of my time. So, the places I like to go to get sort of my research is Harvard Business Review. It’s a place where I see a lot of data-driven stories, sometimes I go to Fast Company. But there’s a lot out there.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
Probably my to-do list. I can’t rely on my memory, and most people cannot either, so I’m constantly making to-do lists. And by that, I mean a physical to-do list, the yellow sticky notes, but every computer also has a digital to-do list. And the nice thing about that to-do list is it doesn’t go away until you close it. So, even if you put multiple screens, that to-do list, that digital sticky note will always be there. So, I rely on actual sticky notes as well as the digital sticky notes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Joel Schwartzberg
I really like editing. I’m not sure if you can call that a habit. I’m really a grammarian at heart, and nothing sort of interest me more than using Grammarly, which is another tool I really enjoy, to look at a document and to discover the ways it can be improved by making it tighter, by making it more focused, and by making it more grammatically correct. I know that’s not a habit like cooking or fishing, but I live, eat, and drink, as my wife likes to say, the world of expression and the world of making points. So, everything I find myself doing and interesting are in that universe or in that sort of frequency of thinking.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
The idea of less is more, and simpler is better. One thing that CEOs I worked with go back to me is this idea of get in, get out. When you need to make a point, it’s easy for leaders to start to elaborate on it, talk about case studies, talk about things they’d read, talk about meetings they have had, because that’s where their mind goes. So, I often have to remind them, “Get in, get out. Make your point and get out so the audience has time to receive that and process it.”

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

Joel Schwartzberg
I would point them to www.JoelSchwartzberg.net. A lot of what I talk about is I like to call it open code. I like to share it. I don’t like to keep it to myself. So, that’s one place where I put all the articles I’ve written, the books I’ve written. I share ideas there, podcasts I’ve been on. So, if you want to get a deeper dive into all of these ideas about how to engage and inspire, how to make and champion a point, there are a lot of resources there that I prove, because I wrote most of them, that people can utilize right away.

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

Joel Schwartzberg
I would tell people to think about what they’re going to say before they say it. The worst thing, the biggest mistake you can make is to wing it because you think you know it backwards and forwards, because you’ve studied it, you researched it, it’s your job. A lot of lawyers, nothing against lawyers, but a lot of lawyers I worked with often think they’re so knowledgeable about these areas that they are automatically good communicators, and that is not the case.

Communication is using another part of your brain. So, my one takeaway is really, before your next meeting, or your next communication, take a moment to think, “What is my point? Did I make it clearly? Will it have impact? And if there’s one thing I want my recipient to do, to think, or to take action on as a result of what I say, what is it? And what can I do to make that possible?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you, Joel. This has been a pleasure and I wish you many fun encounters of engagement and inspiration.

Joel Schwartzberg
Thank you, Pete. This has been fun.

696: How to Separate Truth from Bullsh*t for Smarter Decisions with John V. Petrocelli

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John V. Petrocelli discusses the communicative perils of bullsh*t—and what you can do to stop it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why BS is more damaging than you think 
  2. Three ways to sharpen your BS detector
  3. Six clarifying questions to help you call out BS 

About John

John V. Petrocelli is an experimental social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University. His research examines the causes and consequences of bullshit and bullshitting in the way of better understanding and improving bullshit detection and disposal. He is the author of The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit. Petrocelli’s research contributions also include attitudes and persuasion and the intersections of counterfactual thinking with learning, memory and decision making. His research has appeared in the top journals of his field including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Petrocelli also serves as an Associate Editor of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

Resources Mentioned

John V. Petrocelli Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll get a few seconds of silence for the audio engineers and away we’ll go. John, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

John Petrocelli
Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into the wisdom of your book The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullsh*t and we’re going to be ducking the S word a bit just so that the podcast will not be censored and unavailable in certain countries. So, BS or bullsh*t, that’s what we’re talking about. And you say you’ve come from a long line of bullsh*tters. What’s sort of your backstory here?

John Petrocelli
Well, I think everybody does actually. When I tell people what I do and my work, most people have readily available examples of how their friend or their colleague or their Uncle Larry is the world’s greatest bull artist, or half the time it’s Maurice on the second floor in marketing in their company, and people usually have these ready-made examples, and they’re convinced they all seem to know the same person.

So, I’m convinced that we are constantly surrounded by BS artists and, in general, I think most people are, I wouldn’t call most people BS artists, but the average individual, I think, generates their fair share of BS themselves. So, it’s everywhere, it’s in every walk of life, and it’s something that I think is not as harmless as we like to think. Usually, we kind of say, “Oh, Pete’s just BS-ing us,” or, “We’re just sitting out here on the porch BS-ing.”

But we often think that it doesn’t have the devastating effect that it can actually have for our wallets, or for our career decisions, for our interpersonal decisions. Really, all over the place, you’re going to find this insidious communicative substance that we often refer to as BS.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I want to definitely hear about the impact and the damage and what’s at stake here. But, first, you’ve got a bit more of a precise definition than I think most of us do. So, how precisely do you define what is bull? And how is it distinctive from just straight up lying or fraud?

John Petrocelli
Yeah. So, I use Harry Frankfurt’s original definition. He was a philosopher at Princeton University. And, in 1986, he wrote a book, or actually in 1986 he wrote a small article-turned-book 15 years later, and the title of the book was called On Bullshit, and that’s where he defined BS and the definition that I use, which is simply a communicative substance that emerges when people communicate about things that they know little to nothing about, and in which they have no regard or concern for what we would call truth, genuine evidence, or established knowledge.

And so, the behavior of BS-ing is often characterized by a wide range of rhetorical strategies designed to communicate without any regard for truth, evidence, or established knowledge. And that might come out in the form of exaggerating one’s competence or their knowledge or their skills in a domain, or it may come out in the form of trying to impress others, fit in with others, influence or persuade them, or to embellish, or to confuse, or to simply hide the fact that they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

And that’s a pretty broad definition but the core of it, again, is simply talking about things that one really doesn’t know much about, and doesn’t have any regard for truth, evidence, or established knowledge. And that’s very different from lying because, when we lie, to do it successfully, we have to know what the truth is. If I wanted to detract you from the truth, it’s a good idea to know what the facts are. So, the liar is usually concerned about the truth or they know the truth, whereas the BS-er doesn’t care. They pay no attention to truth and they could care less.

And, in fact, by definition, what the liar says is categorically false to the extent that they do know the truth, and they successfully tell us something that’s false. But if the BS-er is truly BS-ing, they may, by chance, accidentally say something that is correct. But even the BS-er wouldn’t know it because they’re not paying any attention to truth, established knowledge, or evidence.

And the social reaction, too. The social reaction that people have towards BS-ing and lying is completely different. So, usually, if a friend or a colleague lies to us, and we find out that they’ve lied, we respond with anger or great disdain, and they’re going to have to tell quite a few truths in the future to gain our trust back. But, with BS-ing, often we let it slide. We give the BS-er a social pass of acceptance because we often think it’s harmless.

Rarely do we say, “Oh, we’re out here sitting on the porch lying to one another,” or that Pete is lying. Because lying oftentimes is associated with fighting words, but BS-ing is we assume that it doesn’t have the same kind of negative effect.

But not only my own research but certainly lots and lots of examples where people have lost money, they’ve made very poor decisions in their life, in their work, in their interpersonal relationships, that are truly grounded in BS. And I’m convinced, I’ve got treasure troves of data now, Pete, in my experiments from thousands of participants, and looking at what they write about no matter what types of events I ask them to write about and explain why they have the opinions and attitudes that they have.

I’m convinced that the personal, interpersonal, professional, and societal problems that we have are often rooted in indirectly or directly in mindless BS reasoning and communication, and being so closely married to BS preferences and so adverse to truth comes at a great consequence to decision-making.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then let’s hear it then if lies or fraud really does sound a lot worse than BS, but you’re saying there’s a lot at stake. Can you share with us some of the most hard-hitting data points of studies that show, “Hey, this is actually really damaging”?

John Petrocelli
Absolutely. So, what I’ve focused on in my own research is what people believe to be true because truth, what you believe to be true, is fundamental to the decisions that you make. So, in my experiments, I’ve used very simple statements that can be readily recognized as true or false, and demonstrated as true or false. And I give people false statements like, “Sydney is the capital city of Australia. How interesting is that?” “Steinbeck is the author of The Agony and the Ecstasy. How interesting is that to you?”

Now, both of those statements are false. And when you mix those with a lot of other statements, what you will find is what we call an illusory truth effect. So, people will overestimate how true something is just because it sounds familiar.

And what we find is when we say that, “Well, the author of those statements that you read, the author was told to lie on some of them. They were told to write half of them that are true, and half of them that are false. All right? Now, we want you to determine whether or not these statements are true or false.”

And another condition, what we do is we say, “Well, the author of these statements, they were asked to write half of the statements that are true, and then the other half not to really worry about truth and not to worry about fact-checking, how true these things are. You can really just write whatever comes to mind.” And then we looked at the illusory truth effect in that case.

And what we find is that when the author is BS-ing, you get a stronger illusory truth effect, so people are much more likely to tag things as false if they’re told, “Well, some of these things are lies.” But they do treat the BS differently. It’s tagged as potentially true or potentially false. It’s not categorically tagged mentally as false as we do lies. Like, if I tell you, “Hey, I just lied to you about a fact,” well, then you know that it’s false. But if I said, “Hey, I just BS-ed you on that,” it’s possible, to the extent that it sounds feasible and plausible, it could be true. So, people treat those things differently.

Then we also find that in some cases the conditions are right, that BS can be quite persuasive even in comparison to strong arguments for an issue. So, we have compared what we call evidence-based communication with BS communication. So, evidence-based communication is the exact opposite of BS. It is grounded in truth, genuine evidence, and established knowledge.

Now, if I give you two arguments that are strong, and in one case I tell you, “I’m concerned with the evidence. I’ve actually looked this up. I’ve actually considered what the data looked like, what the readily available data looked like.” That’s the strongest strong arguments that you can produce. But if I said, “I don’t care what the research suggests. I don’t care what the data is on this issue. This is what I believe,” and I say the same exact thing. Now, I’ve weakened the strong arguments, so that makes sense.

But with weak arguments, I could say, “Yeah, I think we should have comprehensive exams at our university as a requirement for graduation for these reasons. And one of the reasons is, well, Duke University is doing it.” That’s a weak argument. Now, if I give you evidence-based cues to that same argument in comparison to BS-based cues of the same arguments, there’s no difference. There’s no difference in evidence-based and BS-based cues and the potency that it has on your attitudes.

So, BS tends to weaken strong arguments, but if anything, it strengthens weak arguments. And we think that this happens because people tend to shut down. When you know that someone is BS-ing you, they’ve given you enough cues that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, and they really don’t have any interest in the truth, people tend to shut down. And, if anything, they will change, their attitudes will be influenced by what we call peripheral cues, how attractive someone is, maybe how tall they are, how quickly they talk, what their authority position is, their perceived credibility.

That’s not where people recognize the difference between strong and weak arguments. So, BS tends to get people in a perspective or in a mode of thinking in which they’re really not thinking very well, and they’re not thinking very clearly about the strengths of arguments, and they don’t even recognize the difference between the strengths of arguments. So, those are really big problems.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess therein lies the danger, is that because we’re susceptible to this, weak arguments plus a lot of BS, results in many, many suboptimal decisions being made everywhere and at all times that discourses is occurring and, thusly, it’s a whole lot of damage accumulatively. Is that kind of your take?

John Petrocelli
Yeah, and we’ve studied this also in a procedure that we call the sleeper effect. So, if I tell you really great things about an attitude, what we call an attitude object, in our studies we’ve used a pizza, a gluten-free pizza, and we tell you all these great things about this gluten-free pizza and how great it tastes and how healthy it is.

And then we tell you, “We want to know what your attitude is.” Well, we’ll see that people have attitudes about Ciao’s pizza that’s rather positive. But then we say, “Oh, you know, there’s a consumer protection agency that did a study and they found out that Ciao’s pizza marketing team, well, they lied. They lied on three things, and here they are.”

Now, over time, you have two pieces of information now. So, initially, the attitude was positive but then you’ve been given a discounting cue. They tell you’ve been lied to. So, immediately people reduce their attitude, they say, “All right. Well, Ciao’s pizza is not so great then.” But, two weeks later, when we survey people’s attitudes about Ciao’s pizza again, what we find is sort of a rebounding effect, which is the attitude becomes more positive, closer to the positivity that it initially was. And the idea is that people forget the discounting cue faster than they forget the initial information that was positive.

So, now, if I tell you, in the same paradigm, “Oh, consumer protection agency found that Ciao’s pizza marketing team was bull*, and they don’t even know if it’s true that most people loved this pizza and has all of these great qualities.” Again, the attitudes are reduced, but two weeks later it’s even stronger and actually at the same level than a control condition who had never gotten the discounting cue in the first place.

So, here now, we have a case where what discounted the initial information is completely forgotten and it’s no longer worked into the attitude. So, people will say to you, “Well, you’ve got to hear these false things maybe 16 times,” I used to believe that. Well, it’s not true that you have to hear it 16 times to believe it. You only have to hear it one time.

The same thing happens in the illusory truth paradigm. You only have to present these falsities one time for people then to confuse them, either confuse them as true because they sound familiar or they forget the false piece of the information, and the part that sounds true remains. And it comes back to shaped attitudes. And, again, what we think is true would be devastating to decision-making.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, so that paints a really clear picture then in terms of just given how we interact with information and conversation, how we can form perspectives on what is true that are not at all appropriate or actually true, and that can sort of have all kinds of cascade negative impacts. So, then what do you recommend we do in terms of as we’re navigating life, doing research, making decisions, to as much as possible become immune to the negative effects of this BS?

John Petrocelli
Yes. Well, one of the first things I think that is critical to that is accepting the possibility that we are susceptible to BS and the unwanted effects of BS. So, that’s one of the biggest problems with BS is that people feel, one, that they can detect it, and that, two, it really isn’t harmful and it doesn’t affect them very much. But my research suggests they couldn’t be more wrong.

So, the first step would be accepting some susceptibility to it. And, in fact, there’s a lot of research, we call it the Dunning-Kruger Effect that has been studied for over 20 years now, that suggest that the people who are most confident in their abilities in a particular cognitive domain are oftentimes the most susceptible not only to BS but, also, they’re most likely to overestimate their actual skills. So, the cognitive skills that you need to be competent in a domain are the same cognitive skills that you need to recognize competence.

So, often the most confident people, sort of they think that they’re protected against BS and deception, often those are the easiest people to dupe with the BS. So, that would be the first thing. The second thing, I think, is recognizing the difference between explanation and evidence. Explanation and evidence are two totally different things. If you asked people why they believe what they believe, oftentimes they will go into explanation. They’ll give you reasons why they believe what they do. They’ll talk about values, they’ll talk about things that are rather abstract, and sort of the heady things. They’ll talk conceptually.

They won’t give you boots-on-the-ground hard evidence demonstrating the process as to how they came to the conclusions that they’ve come to. So, evidence is something that verifies or demonstrates or supports a claim or an assertion. And people often treat the two things very similarly but they are very different. So, recognizing the difference between those two things.

And then I think the third thing would be to ask questions, to simply just ask questions. I cannot tell you how much money I’ve actually saved myself showing that asking these basic questions actually work. And they’re really basic critical-thinking 101 skills. And the first question that I would ask, when you suspect, “Well, I may have just been exposed to some BS,” is to ask the communicator, “What? What exactly is the claim?” to clarify the claim.

And what you’ll often find, and my research shows this and my own personal experience, I can tell you that people will often take a couple of backpedal steps, and they’ll start to clean the bull up immediately because they see, “All right. Someone is interested in my claim, and maybe they kind of want to hedge it, they want to qualify it in some ways.” So, clarification is a strong antidote to bullshit, so just ask, “What?”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you clarify the claim, can you give us an example? Is that as simple as saying, “Wait a second, John. So, were you claiming…?” precise sentence. And then they say, “Well…” You’re saying that’s all it takes?

John Petrocelli
Well, oftentimes, that’s all it takes. If they tell you, “Well, there’s going to be some changes in this company but no jobs will be lost.” “Well, what do you mean? At what level? What exactly are you talking about? Are you talking about this month or this year or what?” And just to ask clarification, “What?” questions just to get people to talk about it, to clarify the claim.

And once you get through “What?” which is nice because you can immediately expose yourself to less BS if they are willing to clean that up for you, then you’d ask, “How? How is it that you have come to this conclusion? I’m really interested in your claim or your assertion. How do you know?” So, if you ask, “How?” what people will usually do is they will provide for you a more concrete level of abstraction, and they will talk about actual evidence if it is readily available, or if they can recall some from memory, or if they can access it.

Now, a lot of times they’re not able to do that. If they’re truly BS-ing, they probably haven’t really thought through or gone through a logical rational process to come to their conclusion. So, you just ask “How? How do you know this?” or, “How is it that you know this?” And then the third question would be to ask, “Well, have you considered any other alternatives? I hear you saying X, Pete, but what about Y? Don’t this conflict? How do you reconcile these differences?”

And all three of these questions are essentially designed to diagnose the communicator’s actual interest in truth, genuine evidence, and established knowledge. If they’re unable to answer these questions, people are very reasonable when they’ve got enough information. Now, if they rely on what they usually rely on, which is just their own personal or professional experience, they’ll often ignore the fact that personal experience is often very, very messy. It’s a very, very messy data collection method. It provides data that’s random, that is unrepresentative. It’s ambiguous. Oftentimes, it’s incomplete or inconsistent, indirect, and often surprising or counter-attitudinal, not something that we necessarily want to think or want to believe.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

John Petrocelli
And that’s not a good way to collect data.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. And I love that example associated with, “Hey, there’s going to be some changes. No jobs will be lost.” The distinction between BS-ing and a lie, it’s a lie if he knows darn well that dozens of people are going to get laid off within a few months, versus BS-ing which is like, “Hey, he’s got a general sense that we’re probably going to be okay.” But if you’re considering your own job opportunities and economic situation, that’s not good enough.

And so, with those questions, the “What?” and the “How?” and “Have you considered?” I could really just kind of imagine what a great answer versus a poor answer. It’s like, “Are you saying that no jobs will be lost over the next year?” He’s like, “Well, yeah, we’re pretty sure there probably shouldn’t be any.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s a bad answer,” versus, “Yes, we’re absolutely certain that there’ll be zero jobs.” “Okay, that’s a commitment.”

And then, “How have you come to know this?” This is like, “Well, hey, we’ve taken a look at our cashflows, with our reduced revenue situation that we’re at from the pandemic or whatever, a negative event, and we’re still cashflow positive, so we have no trouble making our payroll over the course of the next year.” And then, “Have you considered, well, hey, what happens if it gets a little bit worse?” Like, “Yes. Well, we have a couple years of reserves in savings to work with so even if it gets a little worse, we should be okay.” Now, those are great answers versus, “Yeah, we’re feeling pretty good about this. Hey, this thing should turn around any week now, really.” Like, “Oh, okay. You don’t actually know.”

And then, yeah, that kind of makes it all clear for me, the distinction between the lying and the BS-ing is that’s where it is. And then, in some ways though, John, what would be your take on this? If someone sort of acknowledged upfront, like, “Hey, I’m just speculating about this but here’s my read on things right now,” it seems like that could diffuse a good amount of the dangers of BS. Is that fair to say?

John Petrocelli
Absolutely. I’m totally agreeing with you, Pete, because in that case, you have communicated that you are actually interested in the truth and in reality but you don’t actually know for sure. You haven’t given this vague, ambiguous, pseudo-profound kind of answer that everyone is hoping to hear, and you’ve been specific about your interest in the truth. And so, exactly, if you say it, if you qualify, “I’m only speculating. I don’t actually have the data. I haven’t consulted other available sources yet and I don’t know this for sure, but here’s my sense, here’s my opinion so far but it’s not well-informed.”

That’s one of the problems with BS is that the people are often so ready to offer BS because our communicative culture, there’s an underlying implicit assumption that we are supposed to have opinions about everything but it’s impossible to have a well-informed opinion about everything, and everything is so large now, especially since the dawn of the internet. We’re supposed to have opinions about seemingly countless things now or, otherwise, we don’t sound interesting, we are non-factors in conversations, and that doesn’t bode very well especially with people with a high need to belong to the various groups that they do belong to.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the need to belong, to appear competent, and like you must have an opinion on these things. It’s funny, as I’m imagining if someone asked me…you’re changing my worldviews, John. Good work. If someone asked me a question, I don’t really know the answer to, I think it might be refreshing if I were to say, “You know, I can only offer you speculation on that. Would you like to hear it or not?” And then it’s like, “I’m not going to be offended if you say, ‘You know, no, I don’t want to hear your speculation.’” And I’d probably appreciate being asked if I’m on the receiving end of that.

John Petrocelli
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, tell me, any other? I love those three, they’re very prescriptive questions, the “What?” the “How have you come to know this?” and the “Have you considered?” Any other key words, phrases, questions, scripts that you find super helpful as you navigate this, both as the BS-er or the recipient of the BS?

John Petrocelli
Yes, I gave you examples of when you can communicate directly with the potential BS-er but there’s lots of cases where we’re exposed to BS where we can’t communicate directly with them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, just on the internet.

John Petrocelli
And there’s another basic critical-thinking skills, 101s, three-point question, and that is, “Well, who? Who am I getting this information? Who is telling me this? Or, who is the claim coming from? What is their expertise? What is their credibility?” So, you start with “Who?” Well, then the next question is now, you’re back, “Well, how? How do they know? How is it that they possibly came to this conclusion? Is there anything in their presentation or their assertion, their claim, that they have communicated that would hint at how it is they would know this given their credibility, their level of expertise?

And “What?” back to “What?” But this time it’s “What agenda might they have? What are they trying to sell me? What are they trying to sell us?” So, now, instead of “What?” “How?” and “Have you considered?” you can sort of just mentally go through, “Well, who’s telling this? How do they know? And what are they trying to sell me? What’s their agenda?”

And it’s also useful to turn these kinds of questions onto ourselves because one of the most potent BS-ers that we’ll ever meet in our lives is ourselves, it’s the BS that often goes unchallenged, it’s the BS that we tell ourselves things that we would like to believe, that just ain’t so half the time, probably half the time.

So, it’s good to turn these questions onto the self, and say, “What level of evidence do I actually have? And do I have any? What am I basing this on? Do I have anything conclusive that actually leads me to this conclusion? And what about other people? What about my friends and colleagues? Do they have the same beliefs? They have an important perspective too. What about asking them?” Collecting more data instead of just remaining in one’s box and one’s head can do wonders for the types of data collection that are needed to combat the BS that we hand ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
What this brings back for me is I remember I needed to get a new roof and I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was having trouble getting someone to show up, so it’s like, “To heck with it. I’m calling every roofer that I can.” So, I called like 20 and, sure enough, I had like five show up, so I was like, “Hey, that worked. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

But then they were telling me contradictory things, like, “Oh, you got to tear this off,” “No, you don’t need to tear it off. You can put another layer.” And then it’s like, “Oh, you can just put a coating on the top. You don’t need to do more material at all than a coating.” And so, I was like, “Well, how the heck am I…? I don’t know anything about roofing. You’re the roofing masters and you’re telling me completely different things. How do I get to the heart of this?”

It was tricky, it’s sort of like…but I guess I followed your principles in terms of what was their agenda. And so, when someone told me, like, “Hey, I can’t work on your roof until you’ve fixed this masonry situation over there because you’re just going to have leaking.” I was like, “Okay. Well, this guy is walking away from perfectly good money, so I think that’s probably true.” So, looking at the agenda part of the story.

And then someone else actually offered evidence, like, “Hey, do you see how this is sagging and do you see from this side angle there’s already three layers? Well, the Chicago building code only allows for this thing.” I was like, “Okay, now that’s some evidence.” And it was funny how in hindsight…

John Petrocelli
It’s a picture of your roof not someone else’s roof.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. It’s funny how, in hindsight, like that’s what cuts through the clutter, but because I felt overwhelmed and it was a large expense and these are the experts who are contradicting each other, I find it very stressful. But by following your guiding lights there, I probably could’ve been like, “Okay, I’m disregarding what you say, and you say, and getting the mason and we’re tearing it off and, hey, that was easy. Could’ve been a lot quicker.”

John Petrocelli
Yes. Well, I would say, Pete, you did 100% exactly the right thing in that situation. And it sounds like you asked a lot of follow-up questions, and that is another antidote to BS, because only through follow-up questions are you going to reveal the inconsistencies and are you going to reveal other things about a person’s personality and their agenda that will come through if you follow up with as many follow-up questions as you can.

I had a similar instance recently where I had to have a breaker box to our AC unit switch, and I had two separate electricians come out. The first one said it was basically a $2,000 repair, so they wanted to replace the entire two-breaker panel, and I thought, “Wow, gee, that’s really expensive. I’m going to have to definitely get a second opinion on that.” But I went out with him and we looked at it, he explained everything, and I asked him so many questions, Pete, by the time he left, he was coaching me on how to speak with the home warranty representative on the phone on what to say and what not to say because it ended up being really a minor repair that cost $80 with the second.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay

John Petrocelli
There was no damage. The breakers were actually a mismatch. They were sort of apples and oranges and we discovered this, but there hadn’t been any damage to the box itself. So, I could suspect that with something that I thought, “Well, this probably won’t be more than a couple hundred dollars of repair,” and, all of a sudden, it’s 2,000. My detector went off and I just asked questions. Again, I said, “Well, show me what that looks like,” because he said there was damage.

But when he pulled them out, they looked brand new to me so it was harder for him to then kind of continue following down that path because there didn’t appear to be any burning or there didn’t appear to be any kind of any marks. They looked brand new. And so, just asking questions. We did the same thing with what I’ve called the masters, the well-trained artists, the BS artists of all time must be people who sell timeshare agreements for vacations, hotels.

Pete Mockaitis
“It’s a marriage insurance, John. Can you put a price on that?”

John Petrocelli
So, these people are highly-trained BS artists. So, they will bring you in to maybe Myrtle Beach for two nights, they give you free two nights to stay, and they’ll say, “All right. Well, on Saturday, all you have to do is agree to watch a one-hour presentation that we’ll give you. It’s a marketing presentation and dinner is on us and all of this stuff.”

Well, what they do is they’ll bring you in at 10:30 a.m. because they know you’re not going to have lunch before 10:30 a.m. and they sit you in the waiting room until about 12:30 so now you are starting to get hungry for lunch, and then the presentation starts at 12:30, and then that takes an hour, and then they want to show you some of the properties. And then they want to BS you on how great all this whole package is going to be. Before you know it, it’s 5:00 p.m. and then they want you to make a decision. So, you’re exhausted.

And people, we know, are less likely to detect BS if they are fatigued, if their what we call the self-regulatory resources that are the resource, the mental resources that you use to maintain, to change and maintain your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. And when people are depleted of those basic psychological resources, they don’t always make the best decisions, they don’t always behave in the ways that they normally would if they are full of these resources. And detecting BS, and even producing BS, are affected by these resources.

And what they do is they drain them, and then they ask you to make a decision.

But even in those cases, if you ask enough follow-up questions, people will usually come to reasonable decisions if they’ve got good information. When they don’t have good information, or incomplete information, they often make very poor decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, John, this is a lot of great stuff. I want to shift gears and hear about a couple of your favorite things. Could you now tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

John Petrocelli
Yes, my favorite quote actually is by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he says, “When you know how to think, it empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

John Petrocelli
It’s got to be Harry Frankfurt’s On Bull, but I think a close second would have to be anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Just beautiful. The writing is just beautiful and that’d have to be a close second.

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

John Petrocelli
Well, I would say that what I’ve been trying to do with the book, too, is just to normalize calling BS. And when I think people have commented that, well, some of the things I’ve talked about in earlier talks, and in my research that they’ve read, they said, “You know, this actually works,” and you don’t have to use the word BS.

You can do it in a very considerate way and maybe even in a private way such that people don’t feel uncomfortable being called on their BS because, as you probably know, that calling BS can be a serious conversation-killer, and perhaps fighting words in some parts. So, I would think that doing it in a considerate way works best and maybe even in private.

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

John Petrocelli
Yeah, I’m available on Twitter as @JohnVPetro or you can look me up at Wake Forest University Psychology, you’ll find me there.

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

John Petrocelli
I’d say call to action would be to, I think, this would be for leaders and for managers especially, to try to create a communicative culture that is open to asking questions, one that is open even to possibly challenging. One of the most frequently used BS words in all of the workplace is best practice, to challenge things like that, and to just create the sort of atmosphere to make that kind of thing okay. And I think decision-making will be much more optimal in that type of communicative culture.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. John, this has been a pleasure. I wish you much success and BS-free exchanges.

John Petrocelli
All right. Well, thank you. Thanks so much for having me, Pete.

695: How to Take Risks Confidently with Sukhinder Singh Cassidy

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Sukhinder Singh Cassidy says: "When nothing is sure, everything is possible."

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy shares valuable insight on how to take smarter, more calculated risks with confidence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Two easy ways to build your risk-taking muscle 
  2. How to stop the fear of failure from holding you back 
  3. One question to help you make smarter, more calculated risks

About Sukhinder

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy is a leading technology executive and entrepreneur, board member, and investor with twenty-five years of experience founding and helping to scale companies, including Google and Amazon. She served as president of StubHub and as a member of eBay’s executive leadership team. Sukhinder is the founder and chairman of theBoardlist, a premium talent marketplace that helps diverse leaders get discovered for board and executive opportunities, and the author of CHOOSE POSSIBILITY. 

Resources Mentioned

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Sukhinder Singh Cassidy Interview Transcript

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your perspectives associated with your book Choose Possibility. Can you tell us, what’s the big idea here?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
The big idea is that we all have a rather terrible relationship with risk-taking and a rather kind of, I would say, ill-conceived view of what risk really looks like. And so, the book was written to help us reframe risk for what it is, really the pursuit of possibility, and offer really pragmatic ways to rethink how you approach risk-taking in order for you to be able to unlock more of its benefits.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’ll take right away the pursuit of possibility feels a lot better than the word risk just in the gut, as you sort of feel the words side by side and their valance. So, very cool. Now, your own career has had some interesting possibilities and risks and wild successes and disappointments. Can you give us a little bit of view for some of the wildest rides and how you’ve thought about risk and what happened for you?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Sure. Sure. Well, as you noted, I consider myself someone who’s taken hundreds of risks in my career. I have been at large companies when they were growing, like Amazon and Google. I’ve been a CEO of large companies like StubHub, but I’ve also started three of my own, been an early-stage investor, a mid-stage investor, a late-stage investor, a board member at startups, a board member at large public companies, and so I feel like I’ve navigated and traversed risk-taking throughout my career.

And if you said sort of, “What are some of the wildest rides?” Well, they include quitting my job as a president at Google when I was arguably among the top 15 executives in the company, and going to a startup as a CEO, and, honestly, having it fail ferociously as a career move within six months, only to have to figure out how to recover and navigate my way to my next career choice and, ultimately, find the unlock for myself in terms of the rewards I took for the risks I took. As you can imagine, that career left me feeling like risk-taking is not what people think it is, and the reward relationship with risk is anything but linear, which is how we tend to conceive it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I absolutely want to ask about that specific point, so let’s roll with it. So, the risk-reward relationship is not linear. What does it look like?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
I think of the relationship between risk-taking and reward is not only non-linear but, in some ways, very circuitous. And so, let me explain what I mean. When we make a move, any move, or take any choice, I bet you we’re looking for not just one reward but multiple rewards. We might be making a career choice that we’re hoping will fulfill us financially, that we’re hoping will unlock some outsized career, win like a title change, or step up in responsibilities, and maybe brings us a lot of personal happiness. So, we’re making a move that has effectively three choices within it that we’re trying to optimize for.

Yet, when it comes to sort of how things unfold, as we execute our way through a choice we’d made, the reality is we’re measuring it on these three different choices or goals we have, and we won’t get the results all at the same time. We maybe figure out if it’s going to be a financial win for several years. We may figure out if it’s a happiness win within a year. We may or may not achieve the career ambition we wanted in terms of title.

And so, when you think about all the reasons we take the risk to begin with, the rewards don’t unfold in sequence, they don’t unfold at the same time, and each reward may have its own relationship to our execution or to the factors that are entirely outside of our control on whether or not we sort of achieve we originally intended against that specific goal.

So, when I say it’s non-linear, I mean it unfolds at various points in time, big and little risks don’t correlate to the size of the ultimate reward, and so you look at the whole thing, and you say, “Gosh.” Whatever you imagine going in, you may or may not achieve it going out, but I bet you that you will still be able to collect the benefits of risks even if they don’t look like the rewards you originally imagined.

And I think that is the key, how you take risks and make sure that if it’s a non-linear and circuitous relationship, you can still gain benefit from the risk you take and understand what the relationships and the benefits might be every time you take a risk even if it’s not the ones you originally imagined.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, I think you could chew on that for a while and really get to some great places. It’s funny, when I was thinking about a non-linear relationship doing risk and reward, I was just thinking from a strictly kind of a finance thing, it’s like, “As there is a higher standard deviation and the returns of the given asset class, risk, there is a higher reward, like percent, money, return.”

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Yeah, percent return. Right. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
But as you sort of zoom out and think about kind of the long game and your life and time and how things unfold, it doesn’t look like that at all.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. So, actually, let’s back away, let’s look at your asset, my view versus your view, and back way. First of all, there is a thesis that I have in the book that if you actually look over the extent of your lifetime, you will actually find maybe that linear relationship but through multiple choices and multiple cycles.

So, if people were to chart my career, they’d say, “Wow, Sukhinder, there’s a pretty linear relationship between risk and reward because you started at one place and you took a risk and, gosh, look where you ended up.” So, it looks like a straight line over your lifetime but, really, what you’re doing is mapping through a bunch of cycles of choices and individual risks and individual rewards, each of which may or may not have worked out.

So, to your point, it’s like a stock pick. Any given stock pick may or may not work out. You and I would agree. When you’re building a stock portfolio, what are you trying to do? You try and actually make multiple choices. You’re diversifying your risks in order to maximize your overall return. By the way, as you keep picking stocks and watch pattern matching, I bet you become a more calculated stock picker over time.

And over the course of a long timeframe, let’s say 10 years, in which you are managing a stock portfolio, you’re getting better and better, though never perfect, at picking stocks, diversifying risks, taking parallel risks at the same time. And over the course of that entire period, you may say, “Wow, there was a relationship between starting to be a stock picker in my ultimate value of my portfolio.” But that doesn’t mean every individual stock you picked worked out.

And I think therein is the opportunity, and therein is the miscalculation of how most people think about risk. Most people think about risk as one mighty choice for one mighty reward. And I think, to take your analogy further, you will see the compounding benefits over a long period of time, but it will be an amalgamation of many individual choices or risks taken, each of which may or may not have worked out. And that’s why I think risk-taking has to become a skill rather than a single event we imagine.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when we think about risk-taking as a skill, how do you recommend we go about getting better at this skill of risk-taking?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
First and foremost, it’s probably no surprise, I think about starting early and often. I will say to people, you imagine and look at the biggest risk-takers in the world, and we somehow celebrate their biggest choices and we act like that’s the only choice they ever made and that’s why they’re such a mighty risk-taker when, in fact, most started taking risks long before we knew it, and they took risks of different sizes.

So, if I were to say to you, “How did you become good at managing your portfolio?” or whatever it is you’re doing, I bet that it started by doing it early and often. So, I say to people, first and foremost, find reasons to take risks in your everyday life, in your everyday career. And most people will say, “Well, I took a risk. I made this choice to go into this career. I took a right turn and decided to join a startup.” Okay, well, that’s one risk but we have opportunities to take risks every day.

I always say to people you could take the risk to learn something new. You could take the risk to discover more opportunities. You could take the risk certainly to achieve an outsized ambition, or you could take a risk to avoid harm. Like, those are four different reasons we might have to take risks every day. And so, I say to people, early and often is the way to really build your risk-taking muscle.

The second thing I talk about with people is many people believe that risk-taking first requires a lot of planning. I don’t know. Have you ever seen this, Pete, the person who plans a lot, and plans judiciously, and plans in great detail before they ever take a risk? Because we think the more perfect our plans, the better our risk-taking will be and the more we can control the outcome.

And one of the other pieces of advice I say to people when they’re trying to get going and just start to take risks is, “Hey, as oppose to the perfect plan from afar, spend less time planning, create a rough plan, and then the most important thing you can do is get proximate to the choices you’re thinking about making, or the risks you’re thinking about taking.”

If you’re thinking about taking a risk to be an entrepreneur in a big company, one of the best ways to do it might, first and foremost, be proximate to people who are entrepreneurs. Learn what it looks like to be an entrepreneur. Get proximate by joining a startup. Become an apprentice before you make a final choice.

And so, I think people presume that risk-taking requires a perfect plan. And, instead, I kind of advocate for a rough plan, what I call a whiteboard plan, “What’s the direction in which you want to head?” And before you make your choice, take the little risks to get proximate and closer to the opportunities you seek, and learn before making your final choice.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, we’re using the phrase take risk a lot, so let’s get clear with definition, shall we? When you say, “Take a risk,” what precisely do we mean by that?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, I think of a risk is anything that has an uncertain outcome in pursuit of a goal. So, if you look at the standard definition of risk in Merriam-Webster, it’s to avoid injury or harm. That’s the kind of risk-taking we all imagine that keeps us from ever acting. If you look at the definition of risk-taking, it talks about literally entering an uncertain situation for the pursuit of a goal.

So, for me, a risk could be speaking up in a meeting. That’s ego risk. That’s psychological risk. It’s not financial risk but why don’t people speak in meetings? It’s because there’s a risk involved to their psyche or to their sense of what others think of them. And then risk-taking obviously follows more classic definitions if you know. You might decide to, as we said, empty the money from your bank account and put it in your first startup. That’s a bigger risk but it’s still a risk.

So, I think of risks as micro-actions, medium-sized actions, and larger-sized actions, all of which are uncertain but they’re decisions you make to try and unlock more impact. And what keeps you from doing it is obviously these fears we have, whether they’re related to our ego, financial, or kind of personal risks.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, so let’s talk about the fear. And maybe we’ll zoom out for a moment and get to a conceptual or theoretical optimal relationship to risk. Like, is your take that we should neither be fearful and take zero risks nor reckless and just do every nutty thing that we think about? Or, what does optimal look like in the realm of risk-taking?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Sure. Well, let’s start with what I call the universal risk-taking equation.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
So, I want you to imagine two phrases, they’re pretty simple. One is FOMO, fear of missing out. I’m sure you know FOMO. The other of FOF, fear of failure. So, many people have fear of failure, many people have FOMO. So, I think of the universal risk-taking equation, put this in your head, the one that guides us all.

It’s goes something like this. If our fear of missing out on something is greater than our fear of failure, we’ll likely act, we’ll likely move in the direction of a choice we’re contemplating that has some uncertainty. If our fear of failure is greater than our FOMO, we’ll likely fail to act, it will equal inaction. So, let’s imagine risk-taking framework that looks like that.

First of all, you’ll notice two things. In that universal risk-taking equation, there isn’t the absence of fear. There are actually two fears that we are managing at any point in time – our fear of missing out, which is kind of what we would all think of as a positive fear, it’s the fear that induces us to act, and this fear of failure.

So, if you think about that concept, I think the world largely tells you that if you want to act, you just have to visualize the positive. Keep visualizing the positive because we’re going to ramp our FOMO. Makes sense. It’ll be like, “Hey, if you want to get that risk-taking equation working in your favor to act, just ramp your FOMO.” That doesn’t really do much for the way most people live, which is with a lot of fear.

So, just visualizing the positive doesn’t really do anything to help shrink the denominator in the equation, which is fear of failure. So, you could have a lot of FOMO, like you could have a lot of positive visualization, but if you can’t conquer or find a way to shrink your fear, you just won’t act, even though you know intellectually that there are all these things you’re excited about.

So, I often say to people, first of all, embrace both fears. I have an executive coach that I’ve worked with for 10 years through a number of my career choices, and he says to me, that I think is absolutely right, most people have a rather immature relationship with what he calls our inner risk manager, that voice inside of us that is, on the one hand, sometimes goading us forward, but more often our risk manager is trying to keep us from acting by sort of signaling all the dangers that’s going to happen to us, they’re trying to keep us safe.

So, he always talks about this immature relationship with our risk manager, and managing that formula I just talked about is about having a more mature relationship with your risk manager. And so, while it’s all good to kind of visualize the positive and ramp your FOMO, and I certainly recommend it when you’re creating goals, or when you’ve made a big choice and you’re trying to keep yourself motivated every day. What I often say to people is, “Let’s work actively on reducing our fear of failure,” and, “What are the strategies we can use that would help us reduce our fear of failure and allow us to act also?”

And there are a couple that I strongly recommend. One comes from our favorite risk-taker of all time, Jeff Bezos. Bezos wrote in his very famous shareholder letter to investors when he was going public, that most decisions Amazon makes, and he says that, “Most decisions we make, as people, are what we call decisions with two-way doors.” We often imagine that we make a decision and it’s a one-way door, there’s no way back. But the vast majority of things we do or try, there’s a way back. If you say something in a meeting that it doesn’t work out the way you want, it’s not like you can never say anything again.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re fired.”

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Yeah, “You’re fired. Are you kidding? You said that terrible thing. Nobody thought you were smart.” Like, that’s absolutely ridiculous. If we said, “Hey,” you want to take a new job opportunity and it’s at a startup. If you’re very employable, and your current company lets you, it’s not like there’s not a way back if you go and it doesn’t work out.

So, the vast majority of things we think about are not one-way doors; they’re two-way doors. And so, I often advocate, and I advocate certainly in the book, that if you want to have a good relationship with your fear of failure, let’s start by not avoiding what those risks are. Let’s name them. Let’s size them. And they get sized as big if they’re one-way doors. If they’re two-way doors, they’re likely smaller, medium-sized risks, and go one step further.

I say, like, imagine the choice after the choice. Imagine you say that thing in a meeting and it doesn’t work out. Well, what’s the very next thing you would do? Imagine you go to that startup and you hate the job. What’s the very next move you would make? And the minute you can imagine the choices after the choice, and if you can come up with several, well, that’s probably not as large a risk as you think it is. And imagining what you would do actually helps us confront those fears of failure as opposed to avoiding them.

So, I often think about that universal risk-taking equation, and while I’m all for FOMO, I actually believe that we own each strategy to sort of look and shrink our fear of failure in order to get us into action. And those are some of the things I think about a lot and talk about a lot when I advocate for people to take more risks.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you say you advocate for people to take more risks, is it fair to say that most of us don’t take enough risks and relatively few of us are wild and reckless? Or, what’s your take about the breakdown of the…we’ll just say United States professionals?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, you’re asking a question that’s near and dear to my heart. If you want to go to the website for the book called ChoosePossibility.com, you can take a risk quiz, interestingly, to figure out what your natural risk-taking style is because I wanted to know the answer to the same questions as I was writing the book and certainly bringing it to market as we launch it.

And so, we actually created a simple risk survey, and then we surveyed the US population, obviously not the entire population but a sample, before putting the risk quiz on LinkedIn and on the site where you can take it. And to your point, what we found is that we sort of named four archetypes for risks, and we found that the vast majority of people taking the risk quiz, like 60%, are what we call contemplators, which is very good at being calculated and measured in laying out the pros and cons of any decision.

But where they self-identify is having challenge is in actually making a decision. And these people self-identify saying, “Hey, I can look back and I have a decent amount of regret about choices I didn’t make and actions I failed to take.” So, the majority of the population in our risk quiz are contemplators. And then let’s think about what comes on either side of a contemplator.

A contemplator who is more negative, who sees more easily the cons of any given situation, who’s always trying to keep safe and keep away from harm, we call a critic. On the other side of being a contemplator is what we call the calculator, the person who also does the analysis of pros and cons in any big decision, and certainly probably does a faster analysis or more efficient analysis on smaller decisions, but is comfortable making a decision within a given time period. So, they’re always calculating and kind of biased towards making a decision more than the contemplator.

And then the last archetype we identified is what we call the change seeker. And you and I probably know lots of change seekers, which are people who are so easy to see opportunity that, in fact, they may move very spontaneously. Some would call them reckless, some wouldn’t. Some would say that they’re the life of the party and the people who never miss an opportunity even if it costs them overcommitting or, in some ways, moving rashly.

And so, when we look at these four archetypes, and as I said, you can identify which you are by taking the quiz on the site, I think the majority of people certainly are comfortable with the idea of a pros and cons list, but when it comes to action, they maybe sit on the sidelines a little bit more than they wish they would. And, obviously, that’s what prompted me to write the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s talk about some particular strategies and tactics when it comes to doing some decision-making. So, I liked how you discussed how we can shrink our fear of failure by thinking through, “Hey, is this a two-way door? If this went south, what would be the very next step?” What are some of your other favorite approaches? Or, do you have a master framework when you sit down and say, “Okay, Sukhinder, decision time”? How do you get to your answers?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, let’s put it this way. First of all, in our risk quiz, I’m a calculator, which means I’m never without my own spreadsheet. Make no mistake, I think of my own relationship with risks as, “Yes, here’s that formula.” But to answer your question, I do believe that for smaller choices, it’s about doing the rapid formula and moving yourself to action because as soon as you realize that a risk is of rather small size, hopefully you can get into action fairly quickly without needing a gigantic spreadsheet.

But, believe me, when it comes to bigger choices in my own life, I have a pretty gigantic spreadsheet too. And some of the things that you would find on it might surprise you. So, in my frameworks for taking risks and making bigger choices, there are probably two things that I do, and I weigh in my framework that most people don’t weigh.

When most people create a framework for making a bigger choice, they really do a pros and cons of like what we might think about like how they will execute, they say, “Gosh, this could go right and this could go wrong.” But they really act as if the entire risk and thing worth rating are like their own execution ability. Like you say, “Oh, this could go right or this could go wrong if I do this or I fail to do this.”

In my own risk-taking frameworks, actually, I not only look at how something compares to my goals or my own skills and capabilities, like, “Gosh, am I likely to succeed or fail in my efforts?” But I have two dimensions that I think most people fail to add. Number one is what I call the people factor. So, most people try and make a choice sort of on the what of the thing they’re pursuing.

So, let’s put it this way. I want to go to a startup. I’m thinking about the what that that startup does and is that startup likely to be successful or not? Is that a winning idea? I often, and this has certainly been something I’ve learned the hard way in my career, but I’ve also had the benefit of, I’ve really, in all of my frameworks, I overweight the people I am going to join in any new choice or endeavors. So, I call that the “I put the who over the what,” and that’s one big piece of advice I have for people when creating around framework and doing your own pros and cons list. You have to add and rate the people factor of any dimension.

And people say, “Well, why is that important?” I think it’s important because many of us have been told to take risks in the direction of our passions, as an example. Like, “Hey, go overweight moving towards something that’s in the direction of things you enjoy.” That’s great. But 99% of our careers and how successful we are on the job are done in collaboration with others, with peers, with a boss, with a CEO who might be guiding the direction of the company, so with people who share or don’t share our values, let alone complement our strengths.

And so, when I overweight the people, what I’m really overweighting is, like, “Hey, I’ll get to have fun in my job or do the things I’m passionate about or good at dependent on the people I go to work with every day. And if I go to work with extraordinary people, people who have skills I seek to acquire, or people whose values fit my own, there’s a far better chance that I’m going to enjoy the day-to-day of my job and do my best work.”

And, yes, all the better if it’s in the direction of my, let’s say, stated passions in terms of topic area. So, putting the who over the what is one big factor in my frameworks that most people don’t really rate enough or rate highly enough when they make their choices. And the other one that I often tell people is missing from their frameworks, and I would add to any framework or pro-con choice, is what I call the things that aren’t in your control, the headwinds and tailwinds of any situation.

We tend to believe that we go into any situation, and what I call the neutral state, like it’s just waiting there for our immense and amazing execution in order for us to be successful as if that is the only factor at play in things that work and don’t work. But if we take the time to rate the situation we’re entering, as it’s like, “Does it have momentum and tailwinds?” People often give me a lot of credit for my choices, but my friend, I came to Silicon Valley in 1997. Ahh, that was a good time to come to Silicon Valley.

Let me tell you, there are so many tailwinds that if I made a bad choice, I could still pivot into good choices. And, in fact, that happened to me in my first job in the Valley. I quit in six months but there was so much opportunity that I could pivot into and so many companies that had tailwinds, that I had plenty of what we call room to fail and still be successful.

And so, I think objectively rating the situation you’re entering, “Does it have headwinds or tailwinds? And what does that mean for your ability to execute?” is a huge other factor in the frameworks I build around any big choice.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that concept right there, room to fail. I guess I could just flip it around. As I was contemplating, “Should I launch this podcast? Oh, it’s going to be a lot of work. And, hey, I’ve tried a lot of business initiatives that didn’t work out.” And one of the things I loved about this, as a concept, was that there were just so many ways to win, financially. I already knew it was going to be fun talking to people like you about stuff I love.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Of course, right?

Pete Mockaitis
But I thought that there are so many ways that this can win, whether it’s just from sponsorship, or selling courses, coaching and training, licensing and monetizing. Like, there’s a lot of ways. As opposed to a lot of businesses are like, “Well, hopefully people like this thing,” whether a product or service, and if they don’t, then that’s kind of all there is to it.

So, room to fail or many ways to win is a cool parameter to embrace and to value and to consider.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
I love it. This comes into like embrace your inner calculator. Like, lay out all of these things because sometimes, as you know, like one of the things I found in the book is if you look at the research, people often make decisions quickly because uncertainty feels so uncomfortable.

But when you lay out all of these paths, as you said, all the ways your podcast could monetize, like you’re not only ramping your FOMO, you’re also, in many ways, like dealing your fear of failure. You’re saying, “Oh, my goodness, here are like the three ways. If this one doesn’t work, this one could work. If this one doesn’t work, this one could work.” So, I bet you, that thought process got you into action by confronting all of these thoughts early and being calculated in taking this risk, not just like a hope and a prayer, but laying it out in order to get yourself into action.

And so, I mean, I love it. Yes, room to fail all the time. But room to fail means you take the time to confront the things that not only you would love about doing this, but the things that you fear, and laying out all the possible paths you could pursue. That’s what gets me into action, it’s not just sort of dreaming in the abstract.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s a really compelling point right there about folks moving quickly because they don’t want to linger in the discomfort of those, the moments of uncertainty.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I think there’s some real wisdom there. And so, any pro tips with regard to if folks are in a position, like, “Ah, I’ve just been thinking about this too long. Aargh!” How do you recommend sort of calming the system, or, maybe just in general, like when emotions are running hot, like to get back to a place of calm, wise rationality?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, I’ll tell you what I do because I certainly love to act and I’m somebody who makes decisions, relatively speaking, fast. But when it is a weighty decision, or when there is something bothering me, the first thing I do when something is like I’m prompted to act quickly, almost too quickly, and I feel myself becoming reckless, is I try and step back and ask myself, “What am I trying to solve?”

And, often, what reveals itself is that there is not a one-stepper but a two-stepper. So, first of all, when we’re feeling anxious, it’s because something in our current situation is maybe feeling threatening or negative to us. You know people who are like, let’s say, take the first job offer they get. And you say, “Well, why are you going to jump into that job? Like, just step back. What are you trying to solve?”

And when you ask yourself the question, “What are you trying to solve in making the decision now?” usually, what you find is you’re trying to solve in a one-stepper something that’s effectively of two-stepper. So, what do I mean by that? Let’s say your current job sucks. Like, you’re fighting with your boss. So, the first job that comes up, you feel like, “I’m going to take that. That’s the one. I’m saying yes on Monday.”

I would say, “Okay, figure out why you want to say yes on Monday. Before you say yes on Monday, figure out what you’re trying to solve.” So, first of all, you’re trying to solve your current discomfort at work. That might involve going in on Monday and having an honest conversation with your boss about something that’s not going right. That is a distinct decision and risk to take from the risk of what job to go to next. That’s the two-per. Like, number one, solve the current discomfort. Number two, then decide if you were in “a neutral state” and try and pick the best possible job choice, “Would you pick this one? Or, would you now take the time, having solved your immediate discomfort, to go lay out five job choices because maybe you’re going to find one that’s even better?”

And, certainly, I say to people, like, “Step back. Forget what you’re trying to solve. And if it’s a two-per, lay out your two independent goals because they may be solved separately. And that allows you then, my friend, to setup the next choice, that next possibility, and I’m not like, “Hey, go live forever in uncertainty,” then I’m more in there like, “Hey, if you were in a neutral place, maybe you would have the time to go figure out the three jobs that would be your dream job. Go have two more conversations and set yourself a timeframe to still make the decision but it doesn’t need to be yesterday.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that is an insight that’s applicable in many circumstances, that this isn’t a one giant leap but rather maybe two or three or four steps and components. And in asking that question, “What are you trying to solve?” you can see that and take appropriate action. And what’s fun is that you may feel all the more empowered and emboldened and equipped to have that conversation with boss because, like, “I don’t know if this is going to go well.” It’s like, “Well, hey, if it’s horrible, at least I have something.”

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Yeah, I have something. I have a bird in the hand. Yes, absolutely. But it’s just about forcing those things apart when we’re feeling reckless. So, the point is that I think our relationship with risk tends to be risk is for the risk-takers among us. Okay, not true. Risk is a skill that anyone can build, point one. And then, number two, on this point of like, “Okay. Well, if you want to build those risk-taking muscles, think about these choices in increments.” You’re often not making, as you said, one choice. You often have the opportunity to make two, three, four choices.

And you know what that does for us when we know we have the ability to make two, three, or four choices? It frees us from the pressure of one big choice, which is what people think it needs to be – one big choice. I call this the myth of the single choice, “I’m going to make one big choice and it’s going to be either a raging success or an abject failure,” and then there’s so much pressure on that one choice. The minute you say, like, “I have multiple choices and risks to take or choices to make,” it really frees us up from this myth of the single choice. And, in fact, we can get the compounding benefits of choosing again and again and again.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, I think mostly it’s what I said. If you think that risk-taking is for the risky among us, reframe your thinking about what risk really is. It’s a small or big choice that you can make multiples times a day, a week, a month, a year that get you into action now and sort of unlock your learnings so you can choose again. And it’s about this freedom to choose and choose and choose again that really helps us create compounding benefit to the risks we take.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
My favorite quote is probably one from the book, which is, “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” And so, we often think about, as I said, this idea that uncertainty is daunting, but let’s just remember, like, uncertainty is literally the definition of possibility. When nothing is sure, everything is possible. So, that’s a pretty awesome place to dwell, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, thank you.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
And we don’t tend to think of it that way.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, one of my favorites is actually, I don’t know about, but have you ever read the book Good to Great from Jim Collins?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
So, that’s one my favorite older books, but one of my favorite newer books, in fact, I had it in our book club at StubHub. I made the entire leadership team read it, it was this book Growth Beyond the Hockey Stick from a set of McKinsey partners. It’s one of my favorites. It’s a 30-year study of companies that non-linearly outperform over time.

And what it really finds, which I think is so fun, is it sorts of reinforces or validates through data the research that the companies most prone to failure over a long period of time are companies that fail to take any move rather than companies that made multiple moves, some of which were wrong, actually have a much better chance of what they call, what McKinsey calls moving up the power curve to become non-linear, you know, outsize successes over time in terms of shareholder returns. So, failing to move is far more likely to have you, what we call go, whereas making multiple moves, imperfectly, is far more likely to get you to grow. Very neat analogy, obviously, to the book.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
My favorite tool to be awesome at my job, you would laugh, but it’s my iPhone notes. Like, when people talk about having, like, “I always have a plan,” but I’m moving all the time, so although I’d love to have a whiteboard. The reality is my iPhone notes is my whiteboard. If you went into it, you would see notes on everything from business ideas, to what I need to get done today, to my grocery list, to tips for what are the things I want to remember to mention on this podcast. So, I would say one of my favorite tools is a pretty simple one – iPhone notes. All the time. Goes with me all the time. I can erase it, modify it, but it’s always there.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
These days it’s tennis. I don’t know what your favorite COVID habit is but I have become much more regular as a tennis player, and I’m loving it.

Pete Mockaitis
And it sounds like you may have already shared a couple of these, but is there a particular nugget that you articulate that gets quoted back to you frequently and people are loving?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
I have a quote I often give people that does get played back to me all the time. It’s called, “You manage me or I manage you. Which would you prefer?” And when people are like, “What do you mean by that?” I often say in leadership talks, “Okay, like literally, if you’re a leader, you have a choice, you can say to your people, ‘You manage me or I manage you. What would you prefer?’”

And most people presume that the right answer is, “Well, gee, like I would prefer to manage others.” And I say to folks all the time, I’m like, “Really? I prefer for somebody to manage me.” They’re like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “No, no, I really prefer that they manage me. Like, I’m a CEO, so if you walk into my office and expect to be managed, and I’m an opinionated person, there’s a pretty good chance I’m just going to spit out whatever is in my head and tell you to do it. That doesn’t mean it’s the right answer. It’s also not a super empowering place to be.” So, if you presume that my job is to manage you, that’s not a particularly fun place to be.

Now, let’s reverse it. Now, if I say, like, “Gosh, your job is to manage me. That means you’re likely to walk into a meeting with me with an agenda of your own. You take control of the conversation. You probably have a problem and a solution you’d like to propose. You’ve thought it out. You lay it out.” Now, guess what that means for me as your leader and manager? It means that I get to have a really highly leveraged interaction with you where you’ve clearly thought it through. You get to lay out your vision. I get to respond to it and add to it my vision and my insights. And then you leave out my office in 10 minutes versus an hour. You’re feeling super empowered. And guess what? I’m feeling pretty leveraged and we both go on to have a better day.

So, I always say to people, like, reverse your thinking on management. If you think the purpose of management is for you to manage down to others, imagine what life looks like when you ask people to manage up to you, what it looks like for them and what it looks like for you. That, to me, feels like real leverage for both parties.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a beautiful perspective. And one of my mentors, Victor Cheng, in episode 500, he said that that’s how he would approach his conversations with new direct reports. So, he’s the boss, he’d say, “I work for you and here’s how it works. You tell me what you need, what resources, what decisions I need to provide to you so that you can do your best work. And then that’s what I want to with them, and get out of your way, and we’re going to have great things happen.”

It’s sort of a reframe but it is lovely. I could tell you, with employees, it is refreshing and wonderful for all of us when they say, “Hey, Pete, here’s what I need from you.” I was like, “Okay, cool. Well, hey, you’ve got it. Is that it? That was quick.”

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Isn’t nice? It’s awesome, right? It’s quick and efficient. Now, make no mistake, your friend sounds pretty graceful and patient. My problem is I’m actually impatient and fairly opinionated. So, I always say to people, “The problem is if you walk in with a blank sheet, you’re far more likely to walk out with my sheet, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It may or may not be but the problem is I always have something to say, so I would much rather you come in with what you have to say because that is a fun place for me to be as well.”

And sometimes personalities like mine, you definitely don’t want to be walking out just presuming that because I have an opinion, it’s always the right one. What I’d really love to do is get into an interaction with someone, which is quick, efficient, highly leveraged, and fun because we’re both learning something from it.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, you can always find me on LinkedIn, just at Sukhinder Singh Cassidy. You can find me on Twitter but, honestly, I hang out more on LinkedIn because it’s a fun place to have career conversations with folks. And, certainly, you can, if you are so inspired, you can always preorder the book Choose Possibility on the website, and it comes out August 17th.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
I would say my call to action is take the risk quiz but, more importantly, understand that it doesn’t matter what your natural style is. Every single one of us can be what I call a chooser. And so, my call to action is be a chooser versus kicking the can down the road. Make the little choices today that unlock incremental possibility.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Sukhinder, thank you for this. This is a real treat. And I wish you lots of luck in all your possibilities.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, thanks so much. Thanks for having me.

686: How to Make Your Next Career Move Your Best Move with Kimberly Cummings

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Kimberly Cummings shares her top tips on how to make career transitions easier.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make the next best move for your career
  2. The key indicators that it’s time to explore other options
  3. How to identify power players–and become one yourself 

 

About Kimberly

Kimberly B. Cummings is a leading career and leadership development expert and an accomplished speaker and podcast host whose mission is to empower women and people of color in the workplace. Her personal and professional development company, Manifest Yourself, LLC, provides in-person and virtual workshops, trainings, and coaching to professionals looking to lead a dynamic career and life. 

Kimberly has had the opportunity to speak to and create workshops for many organizations, including the New Jersey Conference for Women, Ellevate Network, Urban League, Princeton University and National Sales Network, SXSW, among others. She is also on the Board of Directors for The Power of You Teens organization. Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning into a Career You’ll Love is her first book. 

Resources Mentioned

Kimberly Cummings Interview Transcript

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

Kimberly Cummings
Thank you so much for having me. Very excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. But, first, I want to hear a little bit about how you’ve studied vocal jazz for 10 years. What’s the story here? And any interesting adventures come from that?

Kimberly Cummings
So, definitely, I think growing up, I was a kid who always liked to sing. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “Whitney Houston.” That’s what I thought was going to be the career path for me, and I took piano lessons for a bit but I kept on trying to sing. But piano takes a little bit more skill to kind of learn the chords and all those things. My voice clearly was much more advanced than my hands were so I went to vocal lessons. And, oh, my gosh, I absolutely loved it, all the great Ella Fitzgeralds, the Sarah Vaughans. I actually performed a 26-song concert in 2005 to raise money for kids.

Pete Mockaitis
Twenty-six songs.

Kimberly Cummings
Yup, I had a pop set and a jazz set. And I say that I’m retired after winning every talent show in undergrad, mind you. I retired. So, now, I only sing for folks who know that I sing. Sadly, it’s more funerals or weddings and things like that. But you can hear me in the shower or in the elevator. There’s great acoustics there too.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you sing in your speaking on stage?

Kimberly Cummings
Oh, no. I’m fully retired.
Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so there we are. So, you’ve retired and you’ve moved on into the world of career and leadership development. So, yeah, tell me, when it comes to people and their careers, often you end up working with folks who feel stuck. What leads to people feeling stuck in their careers?

Kimberly Cummings
Many times, I really believe it’s not having a plan. If you don’t have a plan to take yourself to the next level, it’s very easy to get stuck in your career. Not knowing what your next move is, not understanding what your own skills and strengths and how those manifests in the workplace, a lot of times people can find themselves being underemployed or unappreciated because they have no idea, they’re essentially treating jobs like old boyfriends or girlfriends, romantic partners, in that they’re just like they keep going on to the next. They get a little bored, they go to the next, they go to the next, hoping that it will get better and better and better and it never really does if you don’t have a plan in place to make strategic career moves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then when it comes to forming that plan, where do you recommend we start?

Kimberly Cummings
So, the first stop is really understanding your own skillset and your strengths. I like to have folks who work with me go through a full assessment of all of their strengths, all of their opportunities, all of their weaknesses, their gaps, and really get clear on, “What are the skills that they’ve gained from every single job that they’ve had?” Every single job. That long resume that no one really ever looks at, the one you probably can’t even send to anyone that has every job on there and literally look back and say, “What have you learned? What are your strengths? What are the things you want to continue to use?”

“And what are the things that you no longer want to use? And how can we start to build a career based upon your strengths? And if you don’t have the strengths that you need to get to the next area, what are the things that we need to work on? What are the gaps that we need to attack in order to make your next move?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, you mentioned a full assessment. What are some of the key tools or resources or questions or things folks work through to get that picture?

Kimberly Cummings
So, the assessment really begins with you. Where are you? What have you done? What are the key skills you’ve gained from all of your jobs? What is the feedback that you’ve consistently been receiving from leaders? And if you don’t have that feedback, we walk through how to get that feedback using a simple start-stop-continue exercise with people in your industry and people who worked with you.

Of course, there are traditional assessments we can do. I’m a big fan of StrengthsFinder or Strengths Profile by Cappfinity. Those are also great as well but I want the baseline to always be the experiences because, generally, where you’ve gained your experiences, how you gained your experiences, what you’re taking away in terms of skill sets and strengths, that’s the baseline for you making your next move. So, the assessment really focuses on where you’ve been and what you’ve learned.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you talked about how to get that feedback. So, start-stop-continue is a good way to organize the conversation. But how do you recommend folks specifically say, “Hey, tell me what I should start, stop, and continue doing?” Or, how do you recommend approaching that?

Kimberly Cummings
So, I always recommend finding time to have career conversations with your management. Many times, folks have one-on-ones, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or team meetings, and those are focused on doing the work but career conversations are a little bit different. So, I always recommend that people reach out to their leader, and ask, “Hey, I’d love to have a one-on-one with you but focused on my career.” And ask them simple questions like, “What is it that I should continue to do in my role? What are you seeing as good skill sets that I’m building? What do I need to stop doing? What is going to prevent me from moving to the next level? And what do you need to see more of?”

And the big question I always ask for folks who are thinking about making their next move before it’s time for them to make their next move is the big question of, “What do you need to see from me in order to know that I’m ready to get to the next level, I’m ready to make the next move?” so you’re not asking that question when you’re applying for the new job. You want to ask that question well before it’s time for you to have to apply.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a fine question. And, yeah, as I imagine that scenario, I think there’s probably any number of unsatisfying answers you might get, like, “Oh, you’re great. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

Kimberly Cummings
That’s a fan favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s not quite the right…that’s not helpful.

Kimberly Cummings
No, not at all.

Pete Mockaitis
So, how do you recommend pushing or digging a little more?

Kimberly Cummings
Now, 100% just like you said, that is the age-old, “Oh, my gosh, you’re fabulous. Things are great. End time.” It’s like, no. If you’re not getting good feedback from your leader, I recommend asking other folks, asking your peers, asking other people who’ve also been promoted, and sharing your experiences so they can share a little bit more insight on what it takes to move to that next level.

And then, also, honestly, having a candid conversation advocating for yourself, like, “Thank you so much. I love hearing that you think I’m doing really, really well. However, I want to make sure that I can be extremely planful, that I actually have a plan. Is there any direct feedback that you’d be able to provide me? Like, what is it that means that I’m doing really well? How do you know that I’m doing really well? What are the indicators for that?”

Or, even if you could call up someone else, like, “I saw that Joe got promoted last year into a similar role. What was it that made you know that Joe was ready?” Try and push back to advocate for yourself just a little bit more because feedback is hard. It’s very hard. Leaders don’t like it, employees don’t like it, so it’s really pushing the needle. And if they say that they need a little bit of time to think about it, make sure you circle back and push again.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And I think that is the perfect response along those lines of, “Oh, you’re great. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” It’s like, “Well, I couldn’t help but notice I wasn’t promoted,” in the nice or professional diplomatic way that you get there because, yeah, those are the realities, is that there is something…well, unless the organization is just broken, which I’ve seen some of. There is something that causes people to move up, “What is it? And am I doing it? And how can I do more of it?” Perfect.

And then you mentioned doing this prior to when you start applying to other jobs because you’re ready to be out of there. What are some of the key indicators that it may, indeed, be appropriate to move on and out from a current role or organization?

Kimberly Cummings
So, I’m really big on role mastery and impact. So, when you have essentially mastered your role, when you are doing things with ease, when people are asking for assistance because you know that you have it down, when you’ve built relationships in your role so you have…I always talk about four key relationships that you need. So, you have great peers that you’ve networked with, you have teachers who can help you if you need help, or sometimes people call them coaches, and you have mentors, and you have sponsorships. You have those four key relationships.

If you know where your role fits within an organization, like, “What does your role do?” Every role has a purpose in helping the company reach some type of milestone, even if you feel like it’s a small piece. Like, there’s a reason why that role was hired. Once you really know those things and you could think about, “What is the value you contributed to that role? Have you been able to innovate? Have you been able to move the needle?” Once you’ve been able to do some of those things, then it’s time to start thinking like, “Okay. Well, I think it’s time I start exploring whatever the next move is in this role, whether it’s internal to the company or external.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then if we are looking to transition away, what are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Kimberly Cummings
The most common mistakes I see are people relying on the amount of time that they’ve been at the company. Many times, people are like, “Oh, I’ve been here a year,” or, “I’ve been here two years. It’s time for me.” It’s like, “No, there’s people who’ve been in roles for 10 years who still aren’t ready.” The reality is you have to make an impact. You have to articulate value and what you’re going to do moving into that area.

And I’m not sure what your feedback is on what I’m about to say next, but I think that, many times people want to not do a tinge more work to showcase that they’re ready for the next role, especially for folks who are moving internally. They’re a manager, want to be a director. An analyst, want to be a manager. Whatever it is.

But what I explain to folks is that in your role, you’re essentially in a box. Like, this is the role of the manager. You’re doing everything that needs to be done within this box. When you’re ready to move to the next box of the director, you have to showcase that you’re ready to leave that box to go to the next level. And in order to showcase that, you almost have to show people like a little bit. Give them a touch of what they’ll see from you as a director. And it’s important that you start doing a few of those things, making sure that you’re aligning more to a director role than you are to a manager role so people can literally see you in it.

A lot of times, when there’s a job search that’s happening, I used to work in talent acquisition as well, and when you have someone who is internal applying to a job, and you have someone also who’s external, the internal person, you’ve essentially been in the longest interview of your life. They see you every single day. They know you. And if they have questions, like, “Well, why didn’t so-and-so start doing this already? Well, l really don’t see them doing this. They’re doing so well in their current role.”

Versus an external person can come in and just sell them the world because they don’t know them, they’ve never seen their work, and they can easily align to that director role. So, I think it’s really important that when you’re thinking about moving, you start thinking a little bit more on the level you’d like to be on versus the level that you’re currently at.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And, well, if you wanted my feedback on what you said with regard to doing a touch more work, I think that’s the right answer to advance in your career. But I think it’s also true, what you said is that a lot of people don’t want to do it, yeah, because it’s like, “Well, I’m not getting paid for that. I don’t have the title. It’s like they’re not paying me to do that, so it’s unfair or not justified in the give-and-take relationship between me and employer to do that while being paid what I’m currently paid.”

But what I’ve seen is that frequently your fastest movers and shakers are already doing the next job, and the promotion is kind of a formality, like, “Hey, you’re already doing this. We’d be embarrassed if we didn’t give you the title or the raise, promotion, etc. associated with that.” So, yeah, I think that’s kind of how it shakes out.

Kimberly Cummings
Oh, God, I’m happy we’re aligned there because some folks are like, “Nuh-uh, don’t give them a preview till you get the paycheck,” and I’m like, “Nah, you get the paycheck when you give them a preview.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. Indeed. And so then, when it comes to the networking world, you’ve got some perspective on identifying power players. Can you tell us how do we find them and build great relationships with them?

Kimberly Cummings
So, in every industry, I strongly believe that there are power players. They are people who are at the head of the curve, the people who are the key stakeholders who everyone listens to. There are always a few key people that are great to really look at as sponsors in your network. So, the way I always try to identify them are looking up professional associations. Who’s speaking at the conferences?

If you’re at the conferences, virtual or in person, whose room is packed out every single time? Who is it that has your boss’ ear or your skip leader? Who’s the person who really has the power to make the decisions and you see being frequently called upon? Those are what I call the power players, the people where a business doesn’t happen unless you hear from them first, where they have a significant influence over whatever is happening in the workplace.

When we’re talking about power players, one of the key words there is influence. Same thing with sponsors. They have to be able to influence and impact change. Otherwise, they really aren’t a power player in the industry. So, when you start seeing people speaking at events, or people always tapping that person, you know that person has power in the workplace. And my key is always finding a way to get in the room with them. How can you get as close as possible, again, virtual or in person?

I think you could still do it virtually. In some respects, virtual can even be a little bit easier than trying to navigate yourself into a room in person. But find a way to get in the room. And whether it’s interacting with that individual at the event, even as simple as asking a really great question, or being super active in the virtual chat. Find a way to get involved with that power player and initiate some time, whether it’s a 15-minute meeting to introduce yourself, learn more about them, or attending quite a few events.

If I’m very honest, there are some people who I have relationships with now where it took me years to build a relationship. It wasn’t one time to get on their radar. It was multiple events, multiple things before I reached out and got any individual time with that person. I think, especially when you’re looking for someone who has influence, it’s going to take some time. It’s not going to be a quick one, two, three the first time you try to hear back.

And if you can’t get in touch with that person, I recommend also looking at who’s around them. So, let’s say there is a senior SVP in your workplace and you want to get in touch with them but you know you have not had any luck on getting on their calendar. Well, then who are their direct reports? Let’s see if we can get in contact with them and work your way around, so the next time when you try, you already have some relationships that are close and someone else who can refer you or make an introduction. Sometimes it takes a little bit more time to get that power player.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And so then, so you stick with it and you keep your eyes open. You ask for those recommendations and you’re watching. And then how do you yourself become such a power player?

Kimberly Cummings
Again, I think that’s so much about impact and value. It’s about being a subject matter expert, being the SME in your area. Many times, people believe that leaders have to have this big title, they have to be the SVP, the director, the super long title that is confusing, and you can barely say it yourself. But I really believe that everybody has the ability to be a leader.

You are hired for any particular role. That role has tasks and responsibilities. Regardless of your seniority, you need to be the subject matter expert for your role. Nobody needs to do that role better than you are doing that role. You have to lead in that role. When you are leading in your role, so you’ve mastered it, you are the person who they come to for questions or concerns, you have networked yourself appropriately so people also know that you are the best at that role.

You’re not just behind closed doors or in your virtual office, not speaking to anyone. That’s really how you can start positioning yourself as the go-to person and, ultimately, positioning yourself as a leader or the power player in your area. And, also, having that strategy, so knowing what’s next, which means having some of those tough career conversations even if your leader isn’t kind of giving you what you need, making sure that you kind of push forward or find someone else who can give you that feedback.

Having that strategy so you can continuously be evolving your career and moving to the next level, that will slowly but surely be able to position you. And, you know, for some folks, it takes time. For me, even thinking about my own career, for a long time, my goal was to be a director of career services in higher education. I spent nearly 10 years in career services offices working with people at 18 who don’t know what they want to do with their entire life, to people who are in their 60s who want to use all their experience and use that to kind of launch into something that just makes them happy in the world of work.

And I wanted to just be a director of career services running a large office. That was it. And I knew that in order to move to the next level, this wasn’t an arena where I’d be able to stay in one office unless I wanted to stay in one office for like 10 to 15 years to slowly work my way up. So, every two years, I made sure I knew what my next move was, I understood the skills that I needed to gain with each strategic move in order to build a career for myself, and also increase my influence.

I participated in conferences. I spoke at conferences. I always made sure I was able to level up in my career. And, ultimately, I did not get that director of career services job, but I became a director in a global Fortune 100 company in financial services leading some of their diversity talent acquisition recruitment efforts. So, you just have to make sure that you’re continuously leveling up and having a strategy for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thanks for sharing your story there. And could you share also the story of someone you think did a fine job of kind of integrating all of these learnings and seen some cool results?

Kimberly Cummings
Definitely, success stories. Like, everyone always loves success stories. I have a current client who I was working with who came to me because they were feeling stuck, they’re in one of those jobs that we talked about earlier, Pete, where they were just kind of over it. They felt underemployed, definitely underpaid, and they really wanted to start positioning themselves for leadership roles.

Then when we first started working together, she just wanted to get on track. So, we went through the assessment, we went through kind of understanding all of the skillsets, was she in a career that was aligned to what her goals were. And at that time, she was but she didn’t have the level of seniority that she wanted. She didn’t have the impact that she was looking for.

So, for that particular person, we worked a lot on the relationships. How can we start making sure people know about the work that she’s doing, networking, cultivating some of those sponsors, some of those mentors? And, in about three to six months, I think probably around the five-month mark, if I have my memory serves me right, she’d been applying to jobs and she finally landed a role.

And because she’d done so much work with building relationships, understanding her own personal and professional brand, she rocked this interview process, making sure that she was finally positioned for a role. A lot of it was the language she was using to make sure that she was no longer underemployed and being in a role that was in much better alignment.

She negotiated a $35,000 salary increase. She got added to a committee right away that was aligned with some of her career goals. And she was able to speak a lot about career pathing even in her interview process, so she knew what would be the next step for her, being very candid about looking for longevity in an employer and not just for a defined role.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, thank you.

Kimberly Cummings
No problem.

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

Kimberly Cummings
No, I think this is good. I think you had me cover it all. I love how actionable all of our questions are.

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

Kimberly Cummings
Yes. So, there’s a quote by India Arie. It is, “The only thing constant in this world is change.” I put it in my high school yearbook, and I think it’s so, so, so true.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Kimberly Cummings
I really like the research on diversity, equity, and inclusion when it comes to privilege. I’ve been doing a lot of research on that, kind of looking into more of the privilege walks. I know Drexel has a lot of information on that arena.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Kimberly Cummings
So, my new favorite book is Winning is Everything by Tim S. Grover.

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

Kimberly Cummings
I think StrengthsFinder, the assessment, is one of my favorites. It helps you understand yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Kimberly Cummings
I live and die by a planner and a task-list system that I use. I have it every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m now intrigued. What’s the system?

Kimberly Cummings
So, I use Asana but better than that, I really do it in my notebook every single day. I prioritize my tasks by functional area, and for my business, by revenue impact in order of importance. I have a little color code system too. I’ll have to take a screenshot for you, but it helps me knock out even more every single day by having all those priorities in line and make sure that I’m working on what actually needs to get done versus the mini-tasks that we do all day that keep us from doing the big thing that we should be doing.

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

Kimberly Cummings
A lot of it is around confidence. I think I have a quote from my business, my manifesto that I always share. It’s, “You must believe in yourself and your vision. When you do this, you’ll manifest the life you desire.” And I share this a lot because when we’re trying to make any type of career change, I think the number one thing you have to do before we get into all the strategy pieces is believe that it’s actually possible for you.

And a lot of times, when we start talking about that, people are like, “Oh, my gosh, like that really resonates. Like, I didn’t even think that that was important. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been moving.” It’s, like, you have to believe that whatever you want to do is possible for you.

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

Kimberly Cummings
I would point them to KimberlyBCummings.com. I’m also on all the social places. So, Instagram and LinkedIn are probably my favorite. LinkedIn, it’s my name, and Instagram is kimbcummings.

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

Kimberly Cummings
Yes. So, shameless plug or not so shameless because you said I can share. But I’m a very brand-new author. So, in June 2021, I wrote a book Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning Into a Career You’ll Love and it is available wherever books are sold. And this is the process to help you put together a two-year career strategy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Kimberly, thank you. This has been a treat and I wish you lots of luck in each of your moves.

Kimberly Cummings
Thank you so much.

685: How to Manage Conflict and Work Peacefully in Virtual Teams with John Riordan

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John Riordan shares practical strategies for overcoming the unique challenges of conflict among virtual teams.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three best practices for preventing conflict 
  2. How to face conflict head on with the SBID model
  3. The three options you have when working with a jerk 

 

About John

For over 30 years, John Riordan has been committed to challenging people and organizations to reach their full capacity – first as a leadership program founder and director in East Africa, and now as an organization and leadership development consultant. He has consulted with a broad range of federal, private sector and non-profit organizations conducting hundreds of planning, team building and training workshops ranging from large conferences (200+) to small intact teams. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

John Riordan Interview Transcript

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

John Riordan
Absolutely. My pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom but, first, I want to hear about the Marine Corps marathon that you did. How is that different than a normal marathon and what’s the backstory there?

John Riordan
Well, yeah, so that’s a good question and the backstory is interesting too. So, first of all, I’ll say a former friend, I don’t like this guy anymore. I went out for a jog one day and I’ve never ran more than three miles in my life, and he says, “Have you ever thought about running a marathon?” I laughed out loud, like, “Are you kidding me? Five miles would be a stretch and I have no interest in running a marathon whatsoever.”

He says, “Why not?” “Well, I couldn’t think of a thousand reasons why not. I don’t want to get injured as well.” “You don’t have to get injured. If something hurts, you stop.” I’m like, “Okay. It’s boring. Running for hours is boring.” “Well, could you do something about that?” Well, long story short, you could listen to things and learn things, and you’d be amazed how much you can learn while you’re running for two or three hours at a time.

Long story short, he coached me simply by saying, by asking the ultimate coaching question is, “What could you do about that?” And, ultimately, he’s sort of helped me dismantle all my own defenses to the point where I kind of had to do it. And so, I like to say I completed the Marine Corps, meaning I walked-run, not run the whole way. I had all this mental models. I thought everyone who ran any marathon would be super athlete fit runner. Nope, not the case whatsoever.

You look at any marathon, but the Marine Corps especially, I mean any size, shape that you would be shocked at who is capable of completing a marathon. I thought you had to die at the end, because as the first marathoner, I thought that was the requirement. You had to run with all your strength and then collapse and die. Nope. Apparently, that is not a requirement so I couldn’t stick to that one.

And so, just dismantling all these barriers that I had in my mind, some of which were simply like, I guess you’d say excuses, but many of which were just misunderstandings, misinterpretations, or assumptions I was making. And it was such a powerful metaphor for my own experience because I do this kind of coaching with folks all the time, and so to experience it for myself and realize how many assumptions I’m making, how many misunderstandings, how many barriers, artificial barriers I’ve put in my way. And when you remove those, it’s like, “Oh, shoot. Now I guess I have to do it because I have no more excuses.”

And the Marine Corps is, they call it America’s Marathon. It’s the beginner’s marathon. It’s a very flat course. They promote first-time marathoners so you get kind of bumped up if it’s your first one. And there’s thousands of people cheering you the entire way, and so it’s just a high the whole way that you’re being cheered on and encouraged and all that stuff, and so it’s a great experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Well, yeah, there’s lessons right there and metaphors and excuses.

John Riordan
Well, I tell you, so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, “What could you do about that?” is a fine question.

John Riordan
Yeah, it’s a great question.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so you’ve got a boatload of experience when it comes to leadership development and you’ve got many courses. And we had several conversations with folks about virtual teams and virtual leadership and virtual meetings and overcoming distractions when you’re working from home, etc. What intrigued me about you is you’ve specifically got courses on dealing with conflict in virtual environments and facilitating in virtual environments.

And I think those are probably two of the toughest things to do with folks who are in different places. So, let’s dig in and talk about conflict resolution stuff in a virtual context. And, maybe, could you kick us off with a juicy story? Like, what’s a good, good, meaty, reality TV-grade drama or conflict that you’ve seen or heard about from your clients resolved through virtual media?

John Riordan
Yeah. Right. So, as I say, conflict is typically challenging for most of us regardless even when we are in person, and it’s uncomfortable and awkward and all that other sort of stuff.

Well, you layer on the virtual context and it just changes the parameters, and there are some upsides. There are some upsides to the virtual context. We might not annoy each other as much, my personality might not grate on you because we’re not across the hallway from each other, whatever. But clearly, the downside is, the big challenge is, that the little misunderstanding in that email goes unaddressed and we have to be intentional, very intentional, about bringing it up because, otherwise, when we’re in person, we’ll bumped into each other in the hallway, I’ll see you as we walk, we’re walking out, I’ll see at lunch, whatever, at the next meeting, “Hey, Pete, about that thing, about that project, about that whatever…” and we have these, otherwise, even unnoticed interactions.

The volume of interaction that happens in person, that is in the Ethisphere, really, it has been very interesting to watch the literature emerging in the past 18 months because, prior to COVID, you had intentionally virtual organizations, people who chose to work virtually, their organization wanted them to work virtually, their job was structured for virtual work. Well, the past 18 months, for most of us, has been suddenly virtual without choice, without option, without structure, and, basically, chaos.

And so, all that Ethisphere interaction just vaporized and, all of a sudden, you and I are exchanging emails, we have that misunderstanding, but we don’t see each other, at best on a video conference, if that, once a week, and so I’m not going to setup a meeting to address this minor thing with you, and so it grows, and so that distance grows. And pretty soon, you start to have the wedge that develops.

So, turn to the juicy stories, geez, I don’t even know where to begin. The one that pops to mind is we’re sitting there on a meeting convened by a full-bird colonel, and one of the participants is on video, and he’s clearly distracted. And as the colonel is presenting, this guy is talking to other people, he’s looking all over, he’s like obviously not paying attention. Well, this doesn’t go over well with the colonel who finally stops and says, “Hey,” I’ll call him Joe, “Joe,” awkward sound, “Joe.” This guy is talking, he doesn’t even hear himself, he’s probably muted the whole thing.

I mean, it’s a good couple of minutes before Joe finally looks down and awkward, and, “Oh, I’m sorry…” And he’s like, “So, are you with us, Joe?” “Oh, oh, sorry, sorry.” Well, there’s too many people on the call, the colonel is not going to address Joe right there and then, which is good. So, what’s the colonel going to do? Is he going to make an appointment with Joe? Is he going to setup another call to have this discussion, what happened? I mean, this whole thing was like it just snowballs. The whole team is involved because everybody watched it.

If you were in a conference room and someone was distracted and that happened, it would essentially get resolved real-time, probably, optimistically, just by virtue of the interaction. In the virtual world, that meeting is over. Boop! Everyone disappears. So, we all witnessed it and then it’s over. There’s no hallway discussion, there’s no post-chat discussion, and so you have this awkward thing. And the only way to resolve it is reconvene and have a discussion, both the colonel and the individual, and then bringing it back to the group.

I mean, the processing of that conflict in the virtual context too so much more effort than it would have real-time, optimistically. Real-time, you just interact, resolve, address, move on. And so, in the virtual world, it is challenging to be intentional, to lean into it, for those of us who it’s not a natural strength. There’s a few people where conflict they’re just good at it, and then there’s the rest of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, we have to know how things conclude. So, what happened with the colonel and Joe here today?

John Riordan
Well, let’s just say Joe kind of wrapped it up with this, which is, in his mind, his perspective was that this was urgent, this was…I don’t know if he used the word crisis but, in his mind, this was urgent and he needed to address it right away. Well, I don’t know how familiar you are with the military, but with a full-birded colonel, like you could pretty much use rank, unless it’s a general, you pay attention to the colonel first or you interrupt to say, “I’m sorry, sir. The building is on fire. I’m going to have to step away for a few…” and so, his lack of awareness of the protocol and how to handle his situation on his end.

Now, the colonel is very reasonably gracious but it definitely clarified that this guy, and so he was two steps down from the colonel, he’s a civilian so he reports to his boss, his boss reports to the colonel. Well, let’s just say it was clear he has a lot to learn, so now he’s kind of – what’s the right word – not demoted positionally but he didn’t show up well. He showed up really badly so now he’s going to have to overcome that. It’s going to take time for him to demonstrate that he has learned and sort of overcome that experience with folks.

And, again, in the virtual world, he only has very limited opportunities to do that. In person, you’d have more meetings, you’d have more interactions, you’d have the hallway. Now, he’s like he has to lean into it and really reestablish his reputation in a lot of ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

John Riordan
So, he’s still there, as far I know. It wasn’t that bad but it was not good.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that does kind of paint a picture in terms of things that can occur and the extra challenges that ensue. So, lay it on us, what are some of the best practices you’ve discovered when it comes to managing conflict when folks are remote?

John Riordan
First and foremost, intentionality. Paying attention. It’s so much easier when we’re virtual to just dismiss it and let it go and it’s no big deal, and it might not be a big deal. It’s just that clumsy email, or maybe they didn’t really mean it, or maybe I’m misinterpreting what Pete said in his text, and just let it go. Okay. But, however, it’s so tempting to do that because when we switch off the call, I’m back in my own world and I’m not going to see you in the hallway, I’m not going to bump into you in the coffee break, and so it’s easier to just dismiss it.

So, paying attention, intentionality, “Is this worth addressing? Should I address it?” And even before that, I like to say, “What’s my bias with regard to conflict in the first place?” I am conflict-avoidant, so I know that my bias is to let it go. And, therefore, given that bias, I may need to lean into this and step into this more than I feel comfortable with. That’s probably true.

There are some people in the world who are conflict-seeking who don’t mind. My father-in law was this way. He loved a good knockdown drill. Like, to him, everything was an opportunity for a very energetic debate. Anyone else would’ve said, “Gosh, why are you arguing?” And he’d tell them, “I’m not arguing. We’re just having a healthy debate.” So, he didn’t mind and he would lean into everything. Most of us, percentage-wise, I think most people are on that conflict-reluctant.

And so, how to assess yourself with regard to your style around conflict, and then in the virtual realm being attentive and intentional, being more open to it. And then third, I’d say, is talk about it. Talk about it. Like, for goodness’ sake, bring this up as a team with your colleagues, “So, Pete, you and I are going to work together for the next 12 months. Hey, can we talk about some operating agreements? How are we going to handle differences of opinion? How are we going to handle conflict? How are we going to handle our working practices? What’s our communication style? What can we do to help each other and find a good way through the middle?”

And so, having a conversation about how we will handle conflict, before we’re in the middle of a big conflict, is so, so critical for teams. It’s so helpful to get it out on the table so it’s not some awkward taboo subject that nobody wants to broach.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s just so huge when it comes to aligning expectations in many contexts in terms of, one, upfront we kind of know, hey, what we’re dealing with and what the standards are. And, two, it just sort of prevents a lot of that stuff. It’s like someone is mad because someone else has not fulfilled their unspoken expectations, and it’s like, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize I broke a rule that was never mentioned as being a rule. Oops!” So, that’s just a great practice to do in many contexts.

And so, when it comes to, “How are we going to address conflict?” have you seen any particular best practices that have been in a lot of operating agreements and been really helpful for folks?

John Riordan
Yeah. Well, that would be the first one, is to establish a set of operating agreements. Now, I would offer, prior to that, a really good practice is to do that, have that conversation and do an assessment. I don’t necessarily mean formally, just as a team, just discuss, “Pete, what’s your style? Are you more conflict-avoidant or are you more conflict-seeking, somewhere in the middle? Help me understand your style. I’ll explain to you that I do tend to be conflict-avoidant. I get uncomfortable but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to do it. It’s just I get all sort of uneasy, so bear with me to the extent that you can encourage me and keep me going in the conflict. That’ll be helpful to me. So, let’s have that discussion. Where are we as a team?”

And there are some really simple models that will help folks have a conversation. There’s from Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He has this conflict continuum, and one end is artificial harmony where we’re all avoiding it, “Oh, it’s great. Everything is great. Yup, we’re all good. Yeah, no, no, no, there’s no problem here.” “Like, really? Because it sure sounded like there was.” So, artificial harmony on one end.

And on the other is destructive conflicts, mean-spirited attacks and backbiting and all that sort of stuff. And so, the ideal is healthy and constructive conflict is somewhere in that middle ground where we’re able to have the hard conversations and we’re open to that. So, assessing, with a small A, you don’t have to take a big instrument or anything, just, “Where do you think we are? And let’s talk about it. And what would it look like for us to maintain a healthy and constructive conflict culture?” And then that can lead you into, “Okay, so how do we do that?”

And I would say that that becomes a matter of operating agreements where we can talk about it, like, “What does that look like?” “Well, we should respect each other.” “Okay, what does that really mean? What does that really look like for you?” “Well, it means we don’t interrupt each other.” “Well, I’m a strong extrovert. I don’t care about interruptions, but if you do then I’ll try to pay attention to that. If I interrupt you, don’t take it personally. I’m not trying to dismiss your point. I’m very extroverted.” “Okay, good.” We can learn about each other, come to some agreements, and then try to put them into practice.

And so, when it comes to what those agreements are, I would say there are clearly some general ones, like respect, taking responsibility, addressing things early, not letting it fester, criticism in private, constructive critique in private, affirmation in public, those types of pretty general stuff. And then you get into specifics for a given team based on their situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And so then, let’s say we’re in the thick of things and someone did something that maybe we didn’t have the good fortune to have listened to you earlier and then, thusly, those operating agreements were not formally established. Someone did something. I am miffed. What do you recommend are some of the best ways to go about cleaning that up and addressing the matter? Any go-to scripts, words, phrases, principles?

John Riordan
So, there’s a feedback model that is a nice…I like that word script. I like the model of a recipe. So, I use this metaphor a lot. You have a recipe, how to make something, once you’ve done it a number of times, you can play with it. You don’t have to follow the recipe exactly and you can add something or try something different and see how it goes. But the basic recipe, at least, is a guide.

And so, this model is from the Center for Creative Leadership, SBID – situation, behavior, impact, desired outcome, SBID. And so, what’s the situation? So, I don’t call you and leave a voicemail, and say, “Pete, we need to talk. I’m just not happy with how you attacked me at the meeting the other day.” “Whoa, what on earth?” That’s like you’re already going to be on the defensive. You don’t even know where I’m coming from.

So, give a little context to this. What’s the situation? “So, Pete, we’re in that meeting, we’re on that call, we’re having that discussion. Do you remember that? And I was presenting, do you remember? Do you remember how you asked that question to me? I don’t know if you knew. So, that situation.” “Okay, yeah, I’m with you. We’ve got it. I understand the context.”

Now, the behavior, the B, that’s critical because it’s not an accusation. It’s simply a statement of behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re a jerk.” Not that.

John Riordan
Exactly, “Pete, you keep criticizing me in public. You keep dismantling my argument.” “What? I’m not trying to…I don’t even know what you’re…I’m not dismantling you.” “Well, you asked that question.” “Ah, yeah. That’s all I did was ask a question.” “Well, you’re trying to undermine me.” “Whoa, I’m not trying to undermine you. I just had a question about your data. Like, really, I’m not…”

Okay, impact. The impact was, “It felt to me that you were trying to undermine my credibility. It felt like you were questioning my presentation, questioning my data.” “I was asking a question about your data I wasn’t trying to embarrass you in public.” So, that impact helps you understand how your behavior impacted me, but it also is important for me to own that, assuming good intent, unless I have enough record to believe that you actually are out to get me.

And the other possibility is that you didn’t do it intentionally but this is how it impacted me, and can we have a conversation about that. And that is a huge, huge – what would you call that – a sea change, a really big distinction. And here’s the question you can write down, “Did you do this on purpose?” Did the person, whoever they are, did they do this to you intentionally? Did they do it to you on purpose?

Pete Mockaitis
Now, is that a question you ask yourself internally or a question you ask of the other party?

John Riordan
Well, kind of both ends. That’s a good point. It starts with me asking it of myself. So, my example is somebody cuts me off in traffic, “Aargh, can you believe that? What an idiot.” And then my wife says, “Well, maybe their wife is having a baby. Maybe their house is on fire. Maybe they have all kinds of reasons.” Well, the person didn’t roll down the window and say, “Hey, are you John Riordan?” “Yes.” “Oh, okay, I’m going to cut you off because I can’t stand you and I want to ruin your day.” That’s not what they’re thinking. They are just being self-centered, they’re just going about their day, they’re not paying attention to me, and they cut me off. It doesn’t mean it’s okay but it wasn’t about me. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah.

John Riordan
You’re asking a question in the middle of a presentation, your mindset might be, “I don’t really like those numbers. I wonder where he got those.” There’s all kinds of reasons why you might be asking that question other than, “Watch this. I’m going to ask this question and dismantle John’s argument. It’s going to be great. He’s going to fall apart,” because that would be intentional and then we’re adversaries.

But there’s a lot of other possibilities as to why people do what they do. And so, having that discussion, disarming – I love that metaphor – disarming the conflict so that it becomes instead of a capital C, we’re having a full-blown argument, it’s a small C, “Can we talk about this?” “Well, I didn’t like your numbers.” “Well, I appreciate that and, of course, you have the right to ask about my numbers. I would ask you to respect the fact that this is a presentation in front of senior managers, and could you have followed up with me later, or I ask you to review the material ahead of time. I don’t know if you did, but I would’ve appreciated you asking me that question before the meeting, etc.” So, there’s all kinds of ways we might address it to resolve the distinction without it getting to a capital C, conflict.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, as I step into this scenario that you’ve created, John, I just sort of wonder, like, what do you do when the other party…? I won’t say that they’re like malicious evil jerks trying to get you, but they just think your concern is dumb, they’re like, “Look, John, this is a data-driven organization. We try to make the best decisions. If I’ve got a question about your data, I’m going to ask the question about your data, I don’t care where we are, who you’re talking to. It’s just how we get to the truth and optimal business results. So, pull up your big boy pants and get a thick skin and stop whining to me about this inane bull crap so we can go make insane value for shareholders.”

Let’s say you get a pretty rude but not like maliciously, “That’s right, buddy. I’m out to take you down, so watch your back.” So, a pretty brute and dismissive response. How do you think about those?

John Riordan
Yeah. So, let me emphasize the distinction that you just made because, again, one is, “I have reason to believe that this person is an active adversary. They are literally out to take me down.” And those do exist. I’m not talking about being naïve and pretending that everybody is your best friend. There are a few, and hopefully a few, adversaries that you should watch out for. If you have a lot of adversaries, then you got to decide whether you can sustain that lifestyle and that career, and some people can, but for many of us, that might be a signal for a job change. If I’m surrounded by people who want to take me out, you either sign up for that or you don’t. So, that’s the first distinction.

The second, the way you’re describing it, is, “Look, it’s not about you, John. I really don’t care. I’m going to keep asking those questions. You just have to get over it.” So, they’re not out to take me down but they’re not also going to handle me with kid gloves. Then it becomes a question of power – power and influence in the organization. Because if that voice is coming from a full-bird colonel, and I’m the low person on the totem pole, then, guess what, I have to either live with that and go about my business, or I have to decide I’m in the wrong organization.

If that person is a peer, and we’re on equal footing, so to speak, then that’s a whole different scenario, “What influence do I have? Do I continue the discussion? Do I counter with, ‘Hey, I’d just be down. I think that’s a great way for us to work, because if I did that to you, you wouldn’t be happy. Can we not find a better way of working together?’” That’s the D in the SBID, the desired outcome is, “Can we learn to work together well?”

Now, option three, if that voice was coming from a subordinate, somebody who reports to me, I’d say, “Okay, have a seat. We need to talk. You need to decide whether you want to stay here or not because this is not how we’re going to operate in my sphere of influence.” So, it depends on who that individual is and what power and authority relationship we have.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s handy. Thank you. Well, tell me, John, any other key things you want to make sure to mention about conflict resolution and in virtual settings, maybe any sort of tools or favorite apps, software, or things that you find handy?

John Riordan
That’s interesting. For me, the resources, they’re now showing up online. Apps-wise, it doesn’t come to mind but in terms of models. So, one is by an author named Peter Block. And Peter Block’s partnership model lays out this distinction between trust and agreement. And so, you ask yourself, “Okay,” and I go through this exercise, a great exercise for everybody. You’re mapping out, especially in the work context, but of course it bleeds over to the rest of our lives as well. How much trust is there in the relationship? And how much agreement, in terms of the content of the discussion?

So, we disagree about the numbers and the data, but I don’t distrust you. I trust that you’re just asking a question about the numbers. That’s okay. Versus, if there’s no trust, then we have a serious problem. Trust is obviously far more critical than agreement. If I trust you, we can disagree about anything but I still trust you. We trust each other. And that distinction is huge.

So, Peter Block has a great article. I’ve got summary worksheets on this on my website but it’s the kind of thing that really helps you lay out, “Okay, who are my allies that I trust, we agree, we’re working in the same direction. I can really rely on these folks. There’s other categories and there are some unknowns, and then there’s this adversaries. We disagree on the direction and, guess what, we don’t trust each other so watch out.” Okay, let’s not be naïve. Let’s map this out. So, that’s a really helpful, sort of getting the lay of the land.

Let’s see, Patrick Lencioni’s material around conflict is fantastic. That’s all available on his site. Good stuff.

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

John Riordan
First and foremost, in practical terms, from two authors, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. And there’s a lot of different ways to say this but the bumper sticker for their material is, “Be yourself with more skill.” Be yourself with more skill. And I tell you, if I gave them a nickel for every time I’ve shared that thought, I owe them.

And what I love about that is five words. It’s amazing, five words. But, boy, you talk about a life journey, and this applies so powerfully to the work, in your career, and what I’d like to say your calling, but it also applies equally to your personal relationships, family, friends, community, you name it. Be yourself, be who you are made to be, figure out who you are, bring yourself to the table, your values, your strengths, your personality, but do it with more skill.

I spent years trying to be something else, be more of this, be less of that, as opposed to, “Okay, who am I? And then how do I show up skillfully? How do I bring my strengths to bear in a skillful way?” If that makes sense, it’s such an interesting but very powerful nuance.

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

John Riordan
I really appreciate the stuff that they did around this piece around authentic leadership, so Goffee and Jones. And, essentially, one of those harbingers, there’s been plenty of research around this, but the culture of leadership, and the shift from command and control. So, my dad was a marine, World War II, Korean War marine, and let me tell you, you did what the boss told you to do – command and control. “Why should I do what you tell me?” “Because I’m your boss. Because I’m above you. I outrank you. You name it. You do what you’re told.”

Well, clearly, we take it for granted, but leadership culture has evolved tremendously. Their article was called “Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?” It kind of flips it on its head.

And so, leadership now is about respect and response, and people choosing to follow you, choosing to allow you to influence them. And that’s what leadership is about now and it’s really evolved tremendously. And so, that piece of research, that kind of encapsulated that and demonstrated that, amongst men, but, to me, it’s a real – what would you call that – a milestone, a marker, that we have really shifted as a culture.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite book?

John Riordan
Currently, the one that is making the biggest difference in my life is called The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin.

She calls them tendencies, these ideas of, “How I operate? What makes me tick? What moves me from ideas into action? And how different that can be for different people?” And that has been super insightful for me and in sharing that with clients and helping people understand and, of course, it overlaps with personalities and all those other things, but, essentially, focusing in on moving from thought into action.

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

John Riordan
Yeah, I would repeat that one, The Four Tendencies. So, for me on that, the huge lightbulb for me is that I am motivated by external factors, and I spent years trying to be more self-disciplined, trying to develop kind of just put my nose to the grindstone and get it done. Not bad to have self-discipline. That’s great. But she distinguishes that some people are internally motivated, and they will, when they decide to do something, they’ll go do it.

Other people are externally motivated. So, I can have a great idea, and something I’d even like to do, but if nobody else is involved, if I’m not accountable to anybody, if I don’t have to answer to anyone, if no one else is there, then the likelihood I’ll be doing it is much lower. As soon as somebody else is involved, I’ll do it.

So, I’ve harnessed that, I got myself an executive assistant who is my professional bulldog, and I say, “Jorie, make sure this happens.” I’m on this podcast because of her. I love doing these things but I’m not going to do it. She says, “You’re going to do it. Make sure it happens,” and then I do it.

And so, harnessing that tendency, for me, of external motivation, I mean, I can’t even tell you everything I’ve been able to accomplish simply because it’s gone from ideas, the long list of good ideas in my head, and actually turning them into action.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

John Riordan
I would say two. Exercising has been huge.
I can’t say enough about it just in terms of de-stress, in terms of getting all that energy out in the negative sense, and then coming back and being ready to go. But, also, what I love about going to the gym, one of the big upsides, is little incremental small victories. So, I keep track of my workouts. I’m only there for half an hour, 40 minutes tops, but I try to just keep incrementally improving.

And it’s very cool to start the day by adding a few more reps, or adding a few more pounds, or adding a few more whatever to that weight or to that exercise, and to feel like, “Okay. All right. This is something I can win at.” And so, now I can go back into the day and bring that same sense of energy and motivation into the rest of what I got to do. So, that’s number one.

And then number two, what I listen to. I can’t say enough. The same thing, through the 18 months, like God bless you if you grew up with lots of positive encouragement and I had a very affirming upbringing. But my dad worked for IBM, very neutral, not an entrepreneur, just went to work and came home, so I never had somebody, a voice in my ears saying, “Hey, you got this. You can do it. Get in there. You’re great at this. You can…” whatever, all that sort of coaching and positive affirmations. And so, it’s been huge to tap into just little YouTube clips, different motivational stuff that suits my style, and to really have that voice in my ear, literally, cheering me on, coaching me on. It’s been fantastic. Very, very much a game changer, especially over this stressful time.

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

John Riordan
Oh, that first one, “Be yourself with more skill.” That’s number one, absolutely.

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

John Riordan
JR@JohnRiordan.com is the email address and JohnRiordan.com is the website.

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

John Riordan
That journey of self-discovery is absolutely, I can’t say enough about what a starting point that is. And it’s a journey, it’s not like you take two weeks off and learn about yourself, and then that’s it. But to delve into that, “What are your core values?” and contemplate on that. Really define it, writing it down. Everybody, almost any American is going to say, “Oh, I have core values.” “Okay, what are they?” “Ahh, I don’t really know.”

So, what are your core values? Write them down. Think about them. Define them. There’s different ways to go about that. What are your strengths that you bring to the world, to your work, to your family, to your…What are those? Do you know what they are or you just kind of know? And what’s your personality traits? What makes you tick? What motivates you? And sort of capturing that, collecting that awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, John, this has been a treat. Thank you for sharing the goods. And keep on rocking.

John Riordan
Thank you. My pleasure. My pleasure. I really appreciate the opportunity. I hope this is encouraging and challenging and useful for folks.