Can you give a speech that actually inspires action? According to expert communicator Sean D’Souza, that’s exactly what every speech should do. Sean teaches us how to use the 13 Box System for constructing informative, engaging presentations that get people to take specific actions. Discover the best way to organize your speech, how to grab (and keep) your audience’s attention, and what to say in your conclusion to really ensure follow-through.


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Link to system: 13 Box System



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With us today is Sean D’Souza. Sean was introduced to me by my friend Howie Jacobson. Howie has introduced me to a few really interesting people. Sean is among them. And I don’t exactly know how to describe Sean. I will say that I learn a lot from him. He’s a tremendous communicator.

When I was just talking with him recently before the show, and we were sort of talking about how to describe him … He’s a dancer, he’s a chef, he’s a cartoonist, he’s a writer, and all of those things are true, and what I think we have to learn from him today on the podcast is is in his role as communicator because everything I’ve read from him I’ve really enjoyed, and I’ve learned from. And specifically years ago I read something that he wrote on the 13 boxes method of writing speeches, and I think he has a lot to say on the topic that could be useful to you as listeners.

So Sean, welcome to the Bregman Leadership podcast.

Sean: I don’t know how many times I’ve heard you say that on the podcast, but it’s a pleasure to be there. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Peter: I’m glad I say it with your name this time.

Sean: Well thank you.

Peter: So you and I both have a very very strong belief in communicating effectively and I want to start with the content in the 13 boxes method of organizing a speech because I think it’s really useful and I also know that you have some views on why create a speech in the first place. So why don’t we start there and we’ll go into some detail, and we’ll see where the conversation takes us?

Sean: Sure. So why do you create a speech in the first place? The reason why I think anyone should create a speech in the first place is to get one action. So you start off with the end of the speech. You go, “What is that end point?” And there’ll be many books on this topic about the end point, but so many speeches that I hear, I listen to, I know that the presenter hasn’t done their homework because they don’t have a specific end point. What they have are a bunch of slides. What they have is fancy graphics. But what am I going to do at the end of it? What is the audience going to do at the end of it? That should be absolutely clear. And that can only be clear if the presentation itself is very clear.

When I say the presentation is very clear, it means that technically speaking, the audience should be able to recall everything you said which means you can’t say a lot, and you’re going into a lot of depth into one, two, or three things that you’ve covered. So to put it down, now I just said two things. See how confusing it is already. So people see 25 things on a presentation and if you were to nail it down to one thing, it is what is the audience going to do when the presentation is done?
Peter: So in terms of a presentation to just share knowledge, or to be interesting, or to give someone a wider perspective, all of those things don’t necessarily demand action.

Sean: Correct.

Peter: Some of them are perspective. But you’re saying that mostly when you’re giving a speech you want to drive some kind of action. And if that’s true, then the question is that you have to start with before even thinking about what you want to say is, what is the action that you’re trying to drive?

Sean: Yeah. You think of yourself as a parent. Right? Every time you give a lecture to your kids. It’s not like you want to give them a lecture. It’s not like you just want to give them information. You have to be back … You want to be very precise. You’re saying, “I want you to be back home by 10 PM,” right? And then all the preview to that is leading to 10 PM and all the dangers of not getting home by 10 PM, or whatever. Now you can give information. That’s not difficult. But if I give you information on clouds, say “These are cirrus clouds, and cumulonimbus clouds,” and all these clouds. And then, what do I want you to do at the end of it? I want to go out there and look at a cloud and go, “I know that cloud. I know what that cloud does.”

So essentially everything does lead to one action when you think about it. If you don’t think about it then you put a whole bunch of slides together. You put a whole bunch of information together. And by and large information causes confusion in people’s heads. That’s why their scribbling so many notes. If you have ten speakers you should have ten points. That’s the end of the story. But instead you get three, four, five pages of notes and then no one acts on them and that’s the whole point. You have to act on it.

Peter: So we could do a whole podcast on how to listen to speeches too because I think what … Because so few people give good speeches and so few people are that focused. There’s a whole conversation that says, “When you’re listening to someone’s circuitous, filled with complexity speech, how do you find that one nugget that you can pull out of it that would help you act in a way that would bring you closer to your objectives?”

Sean: Yes.

Peter: So I think there’s a whole conversation in that and maybe even just saying it is useful, because maybe we’ll start listening to speeches slightly differently.

Sean: Well the short short version of that is very simple. I’m going to speak in Sweden in two days, but there’ll be other speakers as well. And I keep all my points down to a single page. If I have to go to the second page, I don’t need it. I mean, just one page. That’s it. All the points down to a single page.

Peter: And you’re making one main point. What’s your one main point that you’re making in Sweden?

Sean: You can increase your prices 15 minutes after you leave the room.

Peter: You can increase prices 15 minutes after you leave the room.

Sean: Yes, and not lose any customers.

Peter: Meaning when you’re selling to somebody.

Sean: When you’re selling to someone. So if you’re selling … Say you’re selling a product or service, you can leave the room. In 15 minutes … 15 minutes later, you can increase your prices on your website, on your documentation, and clients will pay the higher price and you don’t lose customers.

Peter: Okay. So you’ve intrigued us and maybe we’ll ask you … Maybe I’ll ask you a little bit at the end of the conversation how you do that. But let’s go to the 13 boxes method because it’s a method that puts some structure on what you’re saying. How do you give a speech that leads people to take an action at the end of the speech predictably?

Sean: So the first thing you’ve got to realize is that you can’t cover many points. You have to cover a maximum of three points. And the way I look at it is you have topics and you have subtopics. So say your topic is, I don’t know, photography. Right? Now that’s Now that’s too broad a topic. And so you go down to a subtopic. And we’re not going into the 13 boxes yet. We’re just on the topic level. How do you choose a topic? And you say, “Okay I’m going to talk about photography.” And then you go, “Okay I have all these nine points to cover in photography.” Now this becomes very hard for the audience to follow. This is why they start scribbling notes. But if you say, “Well we’re only going to talk about aperture, and then we’re going to cover these three points in aperture.” Now you have this clarity because at the end of it you want people to go, “Here’s my camera. I’m going to turn the aperture to, I don’t know, F2.6, or F16, or whatever, and this is the result I’m going to get.”

Peter: Now wouldn’t you want to take one step back from that and say, “The real topic of the speech is going to be how to make a subject pop in your photography, and in order to do that the one piece of the puzzle that I’m going to focus on is aperture.” Don’t you have to take that step back to say “What is the larger picture that we’re trying to achieve?”

Sean: Yes. You have to do that. But your end point is going to be, “Okay this is how …” When they step out of the room, what is that superpower that you’ve given them? What is that action plan that you’ve given them? And from there on you’re going to go, “Okay. Here are the three points that you have to cover.” So the 13 boxes really start off with an opening. And the opening is almost like a documentary. Sometimes when you’re driving home and you listen to the radio and they give you these points, when they’re doing documentaries, they go these very titillating points about what’s going to show up. And so what you’re starting out is with a story. I often start off with a story. And the reason why you start off with a story is because the audience is distracted.

They are always thinking about something else. They’re always checking their Facebook. They’re always doing something else, and you go on stage and say, “Did you know how Will Smith created blockbuster, after blockbuster, after blockbuster in a row? You would think that he was a great actor, but he science.” And immediately no one is looking at their phones because you’ve started to tell a story. So you’re first job is to tell a story or create a case study, or something that snaps the audience out. Because as long as they’re still locked in their world, they’re not in your world.

Peter: So you have to do something that grabs their attention. Can you do something other than tell a story? Are there other ways of grabbing attention?

Sean: You can do a lot of things. You can disagree with the point you just said. For instance you say, “How to make your audience faces stand out,” whatever, and then you go the opposite way. You go, “Here’s how you take a really rad photograph.” And that contrast creates drama. So essentially what you’re doing is you’re always creating drama. The story and the case study are easier ways than just … Say this pricing seminar I go, “Here’s what I’m going to talk to you about. I’m going to tell you to reduce your prices by 50%, and then I’m going to tell you to reduce it by another 25%. What’s going to happen to your business?” And immediately they go, “No no no. We don’t want to reduce our prices. We’re here to increase our prices.” So now they’re focused. And that’s the first box in that 13 box thing which is, you’re trying to get them to focus.

So you start off with the drama. You go on to the points that you’re going to cover. You go into a bit of an agenda. The audience actually needs to know, “Hi, I’m Sean D’Souza. I’m speaking to you today and I’m going to cover three topics. These topics are …” And how long is it going to take. Just very little stuff that gets them to know “I don’t have to sit for an hour and a half. He’s going to be 35 minutes.”

Peter: Right. So the first thing you do is you grab their attention in a way that says “I’m going to put down my phone, and I actually kind of want to listen to this guy, or this woman.”

Sean: Correct.

Peter: And then the second thing is you give them a map of what you’re about to do so they know they’re not going to be stuck in their seats lost.

Sean: Correct. And this is all the first box. So you have to see this visually, and unfortunately we can’t see visually but visualize a box and all of this information goes in this box. And what you then need to do, is you’re now going into a phase where you’re introducing the topics. So you’re saying “What we’re going to do today is going to make these faces look really grand on your camera. What we’re going to do is cover point one, point two, and point three.” And it’s very important that you first announce the three things that you’re going to cover. “You have to come to Auckland. In Auckland you get wine, food, and sightseeing.” Now I know this is my map. This is my clarity. You’re not talking about wine, or food, or sightseeing, you’re just saying, “This is the overview.”

Peter: Are you at risk of losing people because you’re giving them a table of contents and they might look at it and say, “I don’t really need to know about food and drink in Auckland,” but really you’re … I mean that’s the focus of your speech, but you’re going to do it a more interesting way than the table of contents seems to convey.

Sean: Yes. And again what you’re doing is you’re always enticing. You’re going … So if you were to say, “What we’re going to cover is food. Where do you find the cheapest food,” or “Where do you find the most expensive food? Where do you find the most exotic food? The second thing we’re going to cover is,” say, “Drink. There are some wines in Auckland that you get nowhere else in the world.” Right? So, again what you’re doing is you’re creating this … Always the audiences, they want to be entertained and informed. They don’t just want to be informed.

Peter: Interesting. And so every move you make at the beginning of the speech opens a mystery.

Sean: Correct.

Peter: So you’re going to say … You’re going to tantalize the audience in effect. You’re going to grab their attention, and you’re going to share the pieces that you’re about to share with them with a question. So it might be, if this was a corporate presentation and you’re talking about budgets … I’m trying to take something that listeners might find potentially a little boring.

Then you might say, you might frame it in terms of, “We’ve got a big challenge here in terms of closing the gap, in terms of being profitable.” Right? “Closing the gap between our …” Or, “Creating more of a gap between our income and expenses where a gap doesn’t necessarily exist.” This is a situation where you actually want a gap. You want much higher income than you have expenses. “And we’re going to see in the next 20 minutes of this conversation, we’re going to see why the money we’re spending on toilets might be the …” So you’re trying to pitch it in a way that you’re engaging their interest and you’re showing some gap of sorts, or some opening where they might want to know where you’re going with it. And you want do that in the very first box in the very beginning of the speech.

Sean: So the first box is about introducing what you’re going to say. But the next three boxes they’re your table of contents. How you make them interesting is totally up to you but you have to be careful that the audience doesn’t get lost in that chatter. So often you may sound really boring to just have a table of contents, but if you’ve done a really good opening your audience will give you that chance. Like you’ve entertained them with a story about Will Smith when you were going to talk about budgeting. You’ve entertained them with how Japan was closed for 200 years and now you’re going to talk about budgets. So when you start off with something that’s very interesting in a case study or a story, they will give you that extra time and you can just stick to the three … The next three boxes you can just go, “Okay what we’re going to talk about is one, two, three.” Right? “And let’s start off with the first one.”

You can go very quickly over those first three boxes. I’m sorry. The next … These boxes are crazy when you talk about them but you give the introduction. You go, “I’m going to cover one, two, three. Let’s start off with the first box.” You can go very quickly over to that next box. That’s when all the good stuff happens.

Peter: Why three?

Sean: Because I can’t remember more stuff. So you need to actually test your presentation if you have the chance to do so by getting the audience. So what I do is at the end of my speech I will get the audience to repeat what I just said. And I’ll go, “Okay, here’s the summary. And what did we cover the first thing?” And they go, “Yeah, this and then that.” And that’s when you know it’s not installed. It’s not installed in their books, it’s installed in their brain. And if you cover more than three, then … So even when you’re covering these three, you’re not really covering three topics. You’re covering three subtopics. “We’re going to talk about the budget, increasing the budget, lowering the budget, driving the budget crazy.”

Peter: And if you had only two, would that be okay? Or is there some magic to three?

Sean: Of course there is a magic to three. That imbalance is good. I mean we’ve always known there is this magic to three. It’s like “We’re going to fight them on the beaches. We’re going to fight them on the land. We’re going to fight them …” Whatever. There is this sort of imbalance about three that two seems to land with a thud. It’s like “I’m going to talk about this and this.”

Peter: And one is too simple so you really want three.

Sean: Yeah. One is your main topic anyway. The three subtopics. So three is –

Peter: Is there a rule of thumb in terms of how to choose the three subtopics?

Sean: What I tend to do is go deeper. So when I choose a topic I go, “Okay how can I go one level down? And then another level down?” So I’m not just trying to go … The broadest topic is, “Okay we’re going to talk about,” I don’t know, “Lamps,” or, “We’re going to talk about real estate,” or, “We’re going to talk over budgeting.” And that becomes very hard for the audience to go, “Oh this is a really interesting topic.” So you go down from budgeting to hard nosed budgeting. And then hard nosed budgeting in difficult times. And now you’ve got a focus.

Peter: So as you’re describing this I’m realizing for listeners it would probably be useful to have specific example that you’re talking through. Can you think of a speech that, either the speech that you’re giving or that you have to give, or that you had to give that fits this model so that they have a concrete example as you’re discussing it?

Sean: Yeah. So for instance this pricing thing, I will start off with the first section. And now I’m going to talk about the three topics. So what are the three topics? “What I’m going to talk about today is first of all why you need to increase your prices. Secondly, how to go about a systematic way to increase your prices. And the third is, pricing sequencing. How people tend to choose products and services based on a dinner sequence. Just how they go out to dinner. So let’s start off with why you have to increase your prices.” And that’s when I go into the next box. So now I’ve covered four boxes. I’m now into my fifth box where I’m talking about the first topic which is why you have to increase prices.

Peter: Or the first subtopic.

Sean: Correct.

Peter: So you wake them up, you grab their attention, you tell them the main area that you’re talking about which is increasing prices, and now you’re going to go into three subtopics of that that you’ve told them to expect which is … The first one of which is why to do it. So now what? Now what we do in … So now we’re in that first subtopic.

Sean: Correct. So no you have to really make your point. And what I tend to do is I use three here as well. I’m going, “Why do you have to increase your prices?” And then I will cover three points there. It’s not very clear so I don’t announce those points, but I cover three points. So I will say, “First of all, why you should increase prices is one, it helps in your … You attract customers because higher prices actually attract better customers.” Then I will cover the second point, and the third point. In that first subtopic I will cover three specific points, but not make it over that “Okay I’m covering three points again here.” Because that will confuse the audience. It’s like, “Three at the top, three in the middle.” No. But I know in my own brain that this is what I’m covering. Three points.

Peter: It’s a way also for you as a speaker to have grounded authority in a way too because it’s very simple. I mean I’m not giving the speech, but I get the structure which is I’m going to grab their attention. I want to focus on raising prices, now I’ve got three pieces and I can go deep. It’s a way of organizing in my mind that allows me to not get lost in my own talk-

Sean: Correct.

Peter: Which I will sees sometimes people do.

Sean: Yeah. And you get depth as well. So you’re not just making a point. But because you have to cover three points in that point, that subtopic … If we were to take it a subtopic A, B, C, now under A you have one, two, three. Under B you have one, two, three. Under C you have one, two, three.

Peter: And I imagine that in those subtopics, why you need to raise prices, you’re going to be telling stories, you’re going to give examples, you might give references, you might show times when it didn’t work and still paid off. You’re going to … That’s where you do a little bit of a dance-

Sean: Correct.

Peter: In exploring and painting a picture of this particular topic. And then you tell them you’ve done that topic and you’re going to the next topic.

Sean: Correct. So what you’re doing now is now you’re a full blown entertainer. Right? It’s not just information. The examples, the stories in between, what they create is this entertainment factor. And people … Why you have to … You got to recognize why people’s attention goes down. Now we can talk for a while and if I switch over to a story, immediately your attention goes up again. I switch away from the story, it stabilizes again. Again the story comes up … So what I tend to do is I tend to put in examples and stories at intervals within those sections. The one, two, three.

So I’m going, “Okay this point is about blah blah blah,” and then I will have either a story a demonstration. Now in this pricing I have to show them that a T-shirt costs $150. And I go, ‘Who’s going to pay $150 for a T-shirt?” And I show them a T-shirt. Well that gets the attention up again.

Peter: Right.

Sean: And here, and so –

Peter: So you’re asking them questions, you’re showing them surprising evidence, you’re again kind of them giving them the unexpected in a way that supports the story you’re trying to tell them.

Sean: Yeah. I mean it’s unexpected but you can also have something that they already know. For instance, the basic objection of increasing prices is that clients will go away. And what I show them is a Coke bottle. I show them the big Coke bottle, and I show them the can. And I say, “You know the can costs more than the big bottle. How much sense does that make to you?”

Peter: Right.

Sean: Right? And they go, “Oh. Never thought of that before but I’ve seen it a million times.” I say, “You know, you’re saying that everything has a fixed price, should have a fixed price based on the marketplace. Well you bought a house, right? So the real estate person says that the house is worth 200,000. You want 250,000. The buyer wants to pay 180,00. The council says it’s 120,000. This is a documented historical perspective of the house, and you have four prices there.”

Peter: Right.

Sean: So-

Peter: So you’re using examples that illustrate the point that you’re trying to make.

Sean: Right. But then as you’re going through you also have to make sure that you bring up … You have to consider their objections.

Peter: And you raise their objections for them.

Sean: Yes. You always do that. Yes. Because if you don’t raise the objections and kind of demolish them, then they’re stuck on that. You’ve gone to the next point and they’re still stuck on the old one.

Peter: Great. So now we’ve done the three … You’ve woken them up, you’ve given them the major topic, you’ve broken it into three subtopics, you’ve now gone into depth in each one of those three one at a time using story and entertainment and sort of surprising facts, now are we coming in for a landing?

Sean: Yes. You’re coming in for landing. Essentially you’re doing exactly. So every speaker that goes to any speaking place they tell them, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them what you are telling them. And them tell them you what you just told them.” And the summary is extremely crucial. It’s the opposite of the contents. So we started off with, “We’re going to cover three topics. One, two, three.” Then you cover those three topics in detail. And then you tell them, “What we just covered was this. Under A, we covered one, two, three points. Under B we covered, one, two, three points. Under C we covered one, two, three points.” And-

Peter: And any way to wrap it up beyond that?

Sean: Yeah. And then there’s the last box which is now what do you want them to do? How do you want them to do it? So it depends on what you’re presentation is. It depends on, “Okay, now here’s what you need to do. The next thing you need to do is break up into groups and find out the uniqueness of this company based on what I’ve just told you.” Right? Or, “You say, okay go to the ground floor and pick up a Coke can and look out it.” What do you want them to do so that they’re going to take a next step? If you’re in a … All presentations are not from the stage. Some presentations you’re in the room. You’re selling to investors, you’re selling to people. You want them to do something. You don’t want them clap here.

Peter: So be explicit. You’re saying be explicit about what it is exactly that you want them to do and tell them. Be upfront and straightforward about it.

Sean: Yeah. I tell the audience, “You know 95% of this audience is going to raise their prices within the next few minutes or within 24 hours.” And they go, “Why 95%?” I go, “Because 5% will listen to everything and do nothing.”

Peter: Right. And obviously that incites the 95% to want to be part of the 95%.

Sean: Exactly.

Peter: Or it incites the 100% to want to be part of the 95%.

Sean: Yep.

Peter: Sean if we, on our site, could we create a link to a 13 boxes form something that people … Because they’ve heard us talk about it, now is there a template or something that they could use to think about this?

Sean: Yes we can do that. For sure.

Peter: Okay. That’d be great so that people will-

Sean: Now I just want to make sure that this is not my invention. Okay. This is the work of my friend Eugene Moreau, and he came up with the 13 box system. We were sitting at a café and I came up with the name for it but that’s my whole contribution to it other than other stuff that I’ve added to it along the way.

Peter: Right. And it’s … Thank you for that, and it’s a great framework. And it’s a framework that I use that, again Howie who introduced me to you sent me a book on it maybe … Probably around the time that I came out with 18 Minutes and I structured my 18 Minutes, my book 18 Minutes I structured the speech that I’d given that and it’s such a simple, clear approach to organizing my thoughts. It also takes an hour speech and it cuts the timing so I know what I’m doing in these first five minutes. And each section takes about ten minutes, and it makes something that otherwise might feel unmanageable into something very manageable.

So thank you for sharing with the guests, with our listeners today. And thank you for sharing it with me years and years ago. And I’m glad that it’s spreading, and thank you for being on the Bregman Leadership podcast.

Sean: It’s a pleasure. It’s always a pleasure speaking to you.

Peter: I’ve been speaking with Sean D’Souza who was kind enough to, he’s in Australia-

Sean: New Zealand.

Peter: New Zealand. Sorry. That’s a terrible mistake to make. He’s in New Zealand. When we’re recording this it’s 5 AM, so Sean I appreciate you waking up early in order to to do the podcast, and thank you always for how generous you are with everything that you create because a lot of it is out there for people to just read, and I appreciate it.

Sean: You’re welcome. Thank you.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership podcast. If you did it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness. A lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.

How can you inspire motivation and loyalty in your employees? Through a series of fascinating experiments, behavioral economist Dan Ariely has begun to decipher the relationship between meaning, money and motivation. Discover one small habit that might be crushing your employees’ drive, the best way to deliver bonuses to instill loyalty, and an easy strategy for making tough decisions.


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Book: Payoff
Bio: Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, is a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. He is the author of Payoff and the New York Times bestsellers Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With us today is Dan Ariely. He is one of my favorite authors of all time and is someone who has actually helped me personally as I’ve written. I’m particularly appreciative of having Dan on the podcast. He’s professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke. He does such interesting experiments. He tortures children around Halloween candy. He does experiments that I don’t even fully feel comfortable describing completely on the podcast, but I love them, and they’re so interesting. He wrote Predictably Irrational, which I think is a terrific and engaging behavioral economics book. He’s also written The Upside of Irrationality, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, Irrationally Yours, and the book we’re here to talk about today, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations. He’s smart. He’s interesting. Dan, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Dan: Thank you for the kind words.

Peter: Payoff is about motivation, the hidden logic that shapes our motivation. I wanted you to start with the research that you did around the Bionicle experiments.

Dan: Before that, because I see myself on video, and I look a little strange, so maybe I should say a word about that. I turned 50 about a month ago, and I went on a month long hike. I stopped shaving at that point, then I grew a beard, and I kind of liked it, so this is a part of that story. This part is, of course, as you know, because I was badly burned many years ago. I have scars, so I don’t have hair on this side. It’s not a fashion statement where I’m trying to do half yes and half no, but we’ll see how long this beard would last.

Peter: I wondered for a moment whether it was also part of an experiment, and you wanted to see who asks you and who doesn’t ask you.

Dan: It is interesting to see the people who come and think it’s a fashion statement. When I tell them I was badly burned, who is upset with themselves, and who takes it naturally. It does create some interesting conversations.

Peter: I bet it does.

Dan: But, in terms of your question, when we think about motivation, there’s big motivation. Building roads, curing cancer, big things. But, most of life is around small motivation, right? Finishing a chapter, doing a presentation, and so on. We were wondering, what is the effect of these small motivations? Where does it come from? In this particular experiment, we had two conditions. We had people assemble Legos into a Bionicle, into a little robot, fighting robot. We paid people in diminishing ways. In the first condition, people came and we say, “Hey, would you like to build those? We’ll pay you three dollars for the first and 2.70 for the next, and 2.40 for the next, and so on, and so forth, down until you decide to stop.”

People said yes. We gave them the first robot. They kept on working on it. They finished. We took it from them. We put it under the table. We said, “Would you like to build another one for 30 cents less?” They said yes, we gave them the next one, and so on. Really, what we were trying to do is to find out at what level of payment they said no more, right? What is the minimum amount they would be willing to work? We told everybody that when we finished the experiment, we’ll disassemble all the Bionicles, put them back in the boxes for the next participant. This is what we called the meaningful condition. It’s not very meaningful, but we call it the meaningful condition relative to the other condition.

In the other condition, what we did was it started the same way. We gave people the Bionicle, say, “Would you like to build this for three dollars?” They said yes, and when they finished, we took it back. We asked them, “Do you want to build another one for 2.70?” If they said yes, we gave them the second one, but as they were building the second one, we were taking apart the first one. They were seeing their work destroyed in front of their eyes.

Peter: There was no lasting pleasure that they got from the sense that this might exist in the world for a few more moments.

Dan: That’s right. Then, we broke it. It went back in the box, and then, we asked them after they finished this second one, if they wanted to build the third one. If they said yes, we gave them the first one, the one they built, we disassembled, and basically, we just kept on exchanging those two. Now, this is not about big meaning in the sense that in the first condition, they were building it. They knew it will be destroyed later. In the second condition, it was destroyed a little faster and in front of their eyes.

We found three things. The first one is people stopped much faster. We call that the Sisyphic condition. We found that people stopped much faster. The second thing is that we gave some students, some MBA students at Stanford, we described to them this experiment, and we said, we asked them to predict how many Bionicles people would build in each of the two conditions. We’re basically asking, “Can you intuit the effect of this level of meaning?” People intuited the direction. People said, “Oh, I think in the meaningful condition people would build more than in the other condition.

But, people thought the effect will be tiny, when in fact, it was very large. This is another important thing. Yes, we do understand the importance of meaning. You asked everybody, “How important is meaning?” They say, “Yes, it’s good to give meaning,” but how big is the effect? The effect was about six times larger than what people predicted.

Peter: They constantly underestimate what meaning means to other people.

Dan: That’s right, in terms of their desire to work. When you look at this, you say, “People work for money, and they work for meaning.” But, how big is money, and how big is meaning? They say, “Money is the main thing. Meaning is going to explain a very small part of the variance. Mostly, it’s going to come from money.” But, they were wrong. Money is still important, but meaning plays a big role.

The third thing that happened was that if you look at the correlation between how much people naturally love Legos and how long they persisted, you would expect the correlation would be positive. Some people love Legos, some people don’t. The more you love Legos, the more you will persist. We found that the correlation was positive in the regular condition, in the meaningful condition, but the correlation was basically zero in the Sisyphic condition. What does that mean? It means that as long as people are allowed to express … That having their work not destroyed in front of their eyes, people express their love of Legos by building more for less money. But, the moment something was destroyed in front of people’s eyes, they were so heartbroken, that the people who love Legos did not produce more than the people who did not love Lego, right?

It’s a good starting point to think about meaning and to say meaning is important, more than we think, and it is so easy to eliminate the joy that people can get from meaning, right? Sadly, we do it all the time. Not intentionally. I don’t think anybody who runs a business says, “Let’s eliminate the joy from my worker’s life.” But, we do so many things that at the end of the day do that. Of example, administration is one of those things where you give people different tasks, and bureaucracies, and so on that what they do, essentially, is putting people in the Sisyphic mindset where they feel that they are building stuff for no good reason, that they’re working for no good end. It might be good for compliance, or it might be good for legal, or for all kinds of things, but it’s destroying motivation to a higher degree than we think.

Peter: Talk about the role of appreciation as a surrogate for meaning or as a communication of meaning.

Dan: Yeah. We had the related experiment like this with the same diminishing paid wage. People got paid less, and less, and less. Only, this time, people worked on a piece of paper. We gave piece of paper and we said, “There’s lot of random letters here. There are 12 instances where you have a pair of letters next to each other. Find those 12 instances, circle them each, and we’ll pay you. We’ll pay you more for the first, less, less, less, less. You can work until you finish.”

This time, we had three conditions. The first condition was what we call the meaningful condition. People basically filled the paper. They wrote their name at the end. They gave it to the experimenter. The experimenter scanned it from top to bottom, said “uh huh,” put it next to them, and said, “Would you like to do another sheet of paper for a few cents less?” That kept on going. This was the acknowledged condition. The second condition we called the ignored condition. People came, they showed the piece of paper, the experimenter didn’t look at it, didn’t scan it, just took it, and put it on the big pile of paper next to them. In the third condition, people gave them the sheet of paper, and immediately put it through a shredder, destroyed immediately. If you think about the results of the Bionicle, you could say, “Well, people in the shredded condition worked much less. People in the acknowledged condition worked much more.”

That’s obvious. But, what about the ignored condition? The ignored condition was somewhere in the middle, somewhere between them, but where between them? Would it be like the shredder? Or will it be almost as good as the acknowledge. Because, after all, you didn’t really destroy things in front of people’s eyes. You just didn’t look at, and said, “uh huh.” The result was that this condition was almost as bad as shredding. What does it mean? It means that if you really want to demotivate your employees, shredding is the right way to go. That’s the best way to demotivate people. Not acknowledging their effort is almost as bad. Almost as good, if you want to demotivate. If you think about this, how often do we acknowledge people? How often do we give compliments to people? How often do we even say thank you?

I think we treat thank yous and compliments as if we have only 50 of them to give in our lifetime, and we cherish each of them, just not to waste them. Simply eliminating this level of acknowledgment eliminates motivation. The good news in all of this is how easy it is to get people to motivate simply by looking at the sheet of paper and saying “uh huh.” Think about what it means. It says I’ve seen your effort. It didn’t say I appreciate it. Those simple things create the big difference in terms of motivating.

Peter: Interesting, so it’s not even appreciation as much as it is acknowledgement.
Dan: Yeah. It’s not. Of course, appreciation would be even better.

Peter: Have you tested appreciation against acknowledgement?

Dan: We haven’t, but I would think that it would be more powerful, but it’s amazing that even acknowledgment can get you so far ahead.

Peter: Some what you hear with people in business is, “Look, this is what I pay them to do, so I don’t need to go above and beyond. I pay them well, and they’re doing their job.” You have a particular view backed by research, of course, as all your views seem to be, on payment and the role of money in motivation.

Dan: Yeah, and of course we should pay people. I don’t think we should stop paying people, but what we should ask ourself is to what extent, what can money buy you? Money can get you to get people to show up at work. Some of it can actually get people to really care. But, when you think about the knowledge economy, when you think about people’s hearts and minds, you think about dedication and so on, it turns out that money can not only not provide you that, it can in fact backfire. Consider the following case. Imagine you work for me, and I said, “What would you prefer? I can either give you another thousand dollars, or I can send you to a week for the North Carolina beach.” What you might say is a thousand dollars is a thousand dollars. I can go to a different beach and buy an iPad. If I go to the beach you’re sending me, it’s just not ideal. Give me the thousand dollars. It’s a better way to maximize my wellbeing.

But, the question here is not just about money transfer. I’m not just trying to get you to maximize your life. I’m trying to get you to be more dedicated and caring about work. Let’s ask this time a different question. If I either gave you the money or I sent you to the beach for a weekend, which one of them would you stay late in two weeks from now? The answer, it’s the beach. What happened is that money is actually a short term exchange. When you think about money, it’s basically a very simple exchange. It’s work for money. That’s the exchange. We spell it out, and the framework is finished. But, the framework that we actually want to create in the modern workplace is much more long term and less restrictive. We say, “I want you to care about work when you’re at home. I want you to think about work when you’re driving. I want you to help your fellow workers, even if you’re stuck on a weekend, and they need your help on something.”

That doesn’t come with money, because money is a tit for tat exchange where if I say, “How much are you paying me for this.” What we need is we need an exchange that is not about short term, and it’s not just about backward looking. But, it’s fact, it’s a relationship that you build forward over a long term. Here’s an example. Let’s say I want to give you a 5% salary increase. I could give you that money in a bonus. I could give you that money as an increase in your salary per month. I could give you that salary as a fund to pay for your vacation, and I could give you that money in a fund to pay for your kid’s college tuition. Those are not the same thing. You could say the best one would be the fungible one. Give it to me in a monthly payment, because I get this to get fastest. Financially, it’s the right way to go.

It turns out it’s not. The monthly payment is perfectly fine, but very quickly you stop thinking of it as an increase in salary. You just get used to it. You think to yourself I’m just spending a bit more on groceries. When you get to the annual level, as a bonus, you can start spending it on other things. Basically, the money that you count doesn’t belong to the same ebbs and flows of money. All of a sudden, you can permit yourself to get a new bicycle, or vacation, or something like that. When I give you money that is dedicated to a vacation, all of a sudden, I say, “I care about you relaxing.” It isn’t when I give you this money toward your kid’s college tuition, I say, “I care about you in your really long term, and I care about your whole family.” That’s a very different statement.

If you think just about the efficiency of money, it goes in one way. But, if you think about what money says in terms of our relationship, that’s a very different story. Companies need to think about not just about how do I pay you back for what you did for me today, but how do I get your loyalty moving forward, which is what you should really care about.

Peter: That means spending money in ways that indicate your long term care of the person, of them personally. Here’s what I find so fascinating, Dan, and this goes to the predictably irrational. We know we’re better off with the thousand dollars from an efficiency standpoint. That’s obvious, if you’re just looking at pure economics, not behavioral economics. Yet, the truth coming out of these experiments is that there’s so much more value in receiving motivational payoff in other ways. Meaning is more important than just pure money coming in. Yet, to choose between the two often times we make the wrong choice. We often don’t know what it is that will actually give us pleasure.

How do we get better at making choices that trade off what we know is in our best interest for what we know will actually feel the best, ultimately, which is long term in our best interest? Let me tie one more thing into that, just to make it complicated for you to answer, which is I love the research of asking the executives, having the executives look at experimenting with bonuses, but when it came to their own bonuses, they said, “No, no, no. Thank you, we’re not interested in experimenting with our own bonuses. We like it just like we have it.” It plays to the same issue for me, which is what risks we’re willing to take with that trade off what we think we want with what we actually want?

Dan: One of the things that you’re saying is that we actually do very real experiments with motivation and payoff and payment. It’s shocking that salary is the biggest line item for a company. I can’t imagine one where it’s not the case. You ask people, what do you really know? What do you really know about the relationship between how you pay people and how motivated they are? Most people have to admit, almost nothing, because you have some people hire some consulting firm to tell them what other people are paying. In terms of truly understanding the nature of motivation, companies like Zappos, and Google, and P and G, everybody has their own theory, but nobody can tell you they’ve tested that theory or they actually understand what’s going on. It’s kind of shocking how little we know about the relationship between payment and motivation, and how little we invest in learning more about this.

The most extreme example for this was I talked to a consulting company, a very large consulting company at their bonuses. I said, “Let me do a survey. We’re not going to do experiments with bonuses. Let’s do a survey to understand happiness, expectation, and so on.” What they said was, “No, no. We can’t let you ask people about the bonuses.” I say, “Why?” They say, “It’s such a miserable period in a company that we don’t want people to think more about their bonuses. We want them to think less about the bonus.” I said, “Look, the whole theory of bonuses is you don’t want people to think about them. You want people to think about the bonus, and your theory is by thinking about the bonuses a lot, they’ll work harder and be more productive. Otherwise, you wouldn’t do it if they don’t think about it. The fact that they think about the bonus and it makes them miserable, doesn’t it suggest that it’s the wrong payoff structure?” They said, “Yes, yes, yes, but we have to do it.”

By the way, consulting companies, people who give advice, presumably … The other thing is, why are we so wrong? When you ask people about themselves, and you say, “Under what conditions would you go to somebody’s house and give them cash instead of a bottle of wine? Under what conditions would you offer your significant other $50 if they did the laundry or scratched your back?” People understand that those are not the right terms, but for some reason, when we look into our lives, we understand some of this. But, when we look into other people’s lives, we are not active participants. We are observers. As observers from the outside, and sometimes it also happens for our lives in the future, when you say, from a distance. When you’re in a particular situation, you understand how you feel in that particular situation. But, when you predict from a distance, your situation, or you look at the lives of other people, we think much more cognitively and much less emotionally.

Things like reciprocity or revenge … Here’s an experiment in reciprocity, a very simple experiment called the trust game. Two people, different rooms. They don’t see each other. You give player one $100, and you say, look player one, you can either keep the $100 or you can send it to player two. If you send it to player two, the money will quadruple. It will be $400. Then, player two could either walk away with the money, in which case you get zero, or they can send you back $200. Now, what happens is that the prediction is that player two … The economic prediction is the player two will walk out with all the money. If they got $400, and it’s anonymous, why don’t they just walk?

The reality is that people send the money, and people who get the money almost always send the money back. We have this need to reciprocate. I did some studies on people who were panhandling. Some of the most successful beggars basically come to people and put their hands up to have a handshake. They say, “When somebody passes you by, they just try not to look. They try to pretend you’re not there, that you’re not human. But, if you put their hands, it’s very difficult to ignore you. They shake your hand. They look into the eyes. Then, they have no other option but to give you money.”

We have this incredibly wonderful … By the way, usually, we think about irrational is the same as bad. Irrational is not bad, right? Falling in love, and respecting a handshake, and sticking to our word. There’s lots of wonderful things, being altruistic, helping each other, reciprocation. All of those things are irrational from the standard economic perspective, but they’re wonderful, and we’re full of those tendencies. The thing is that we don’t recognize those tendencies when we’re far away from it. If you’re in a particular social situation and somebody did you a favor, you feel the need to reciprocate. You understand it in that moment. But, if you’re far away from it, you don’t understand.

If you’re asked a question of how can leaders of any organization basically have a better insight into what strives us, one thing of course is research. I think this is what research is supposed to do. It’s supposed to give us some hints about, here are the directions you’re going to likely to get things wrong. Let’s be careful. That’s one approach. The second approach is to make decisions about situations only when we’re experiencing them. Right? So, if you say, “How do I understand real motivation?” I would say, “Try to understand it when you’re on the job, fully immersed into it.”

Peter: In the heat of the moment.

Dan: That’s right. When you think about running, you can say, “Oh, it’s going to be terrible.” Maybe the first few minutes are terrible, but then you get used to it. You maybe enjoy the pain or the difficulty of breathing, or music, or whatever it is. If you want to understand the first two minutes, be in the first two minutes. If you want to understand running, you have to be in the mode of running. If you want to understand the joy of anything or the challenges of anything, you have to be in that situation. We’re not just good predictors.

Peter: Where in fact, we’re particularly not good predictors. What you’re saying, which I’ve found very much to be true in the advisory work that I do, which is, if someone’s having a hard time making a decision, they should just make a decision that is hopefully reversible in some way so they could experience it, and then they could decide. Because, they’re not going to figure it out in their heads.

Dan: That’s right. We simulate in our heads different situations, but we have a hard time simulating the emotional element in lots of ways, which is of course why women have multiple kids, and why we keep on falling. All kinds of things that are good and bad. As somebody who had lots of pain, and you say, “What do I remember from my three years in hospital?” I remember being in a lot of pain. I remember some of that, but it’s at a descriptive level. If you ask, “At what intensity do I really remember it, and at what intensity can I actually make reasonable decisions about pain?” I would say, “I can’t.” I really can’t. To truly make those decisions, I will have to experience the pain again. I remember it was terrible. I remember some elements about it, but thankfully, most of the quality, most of the feeling of the emotion is gone. You just can’t simulate it, no matter how much you try. When you try to say, “How much do I care?” Anything that has to do with …

We can simulate how much do I like $100, or what else can I buy with $100? That, I can always do. But, to simulate joy, commitment, a feeling of improvement, a sense of meaning, you can’t do it without feeling that sense.

Peter: Dan, thank you so much. The book is Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations. All of Dan Ariely’s books are incredible, and fun to read, and interesting. I urge you to go out and get them. Dan, I so appreciate you being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Dan: My pleasure, and looking forward to next time.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you, Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.

How can we use our voices to show up more powerfully in a room? Voice and public speaking coach Tracy Goodwin, author of Captivate the Room, says the most important thing isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it. Tracy has a wealth of insights into how to connect with your most compelling, authoritative voice. Discover Tracy’s easy exercise for finding your most confident voice, why speaking loudly does not equal speaking with power, and how you can make a vocal change stick.


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Bio: Tracy Goodwin is known around the globe as the go-to expert when it comes to bringing the words to life with your voice. Tracy loves building massive confidence in her students through her teaching and speaking and has a deep understanding of the crucial role the voice plays in captivating the room. Tracy teaches people not only how to tap into their full voice potential but how to get past their fears of using their voice and what it takes to reclaim the real voice that is lying dormant inside.

Tracy draws from 30 years of training and experience as an educator, entrepreneur, facilitator, and speaker. She taps into her deep knowledge and education and her foundation, her own voice story to show participants exactly what they need to do to catapult their success. Her keen ear for exactly what is going on in the voice and her ability to link it to our past experiences is transformative for everyone who hears her speak.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With us today is Tracy Goodwin. Her book is captivate the room with your voice.

It’s a niche area that she’s focused on that is such an important niche area which is how we use our voice and what our voice says. Not just the content of what we say, but so much of what we communicate everybody by now knows is how we communicate and the authority with which we speak. What the way we speak communicates about what we’re trying to say about ourselves.

Tracy is here to talk about that with us. She has a background in acting, in speaking. She has a tremendous number of degrees. Everything from child drama to corporate communications. She is the woman for the job to help all of us figure out how to show up in a way that brings the best of who we are into the room. Tracy, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Tracy: Oh, I’m so delighted to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

Peter: Let’s start with the basic question of why the voice is so important.

Tracy: The voice is the instrument that has the ability to make me feel something. The voice is the orchestra of the heart. It is the instrument or the tool that expresses exactly how we feel. The interesting thing about the voice is there’s five vocal variety elements. There’s five senses. We use our voice to touch other people’s senses which in turn affects their emotions.

That’s how we create connection. That’s how we get … Compel people to get action. In my world, the voice is the most powerful tool we have.

Peter: I want to reflect already because I’m attuned to it now having looked at your book and also just heard what you said that you’re expressing the idea with subtle voice technique that you’re expressing your emotion around. You’re expressing the word that came to me was “wonder” as you were describing it. I think already I’m beginning to hear things differently than I would have heard them. Otherwise, you mentioned five elements. Can you describe them?

Tracy: Yes. There are five elements in vocal variety. Pause which is the most powerful tool in the toolbox and the one that most people avoid. There are shades of loud and soft, shades a fast and slow, shades of high and low and elongation. There’s five of them. There’s really a little bit more than five, but I put it in the group of five and the big problem is because of our psychology of the voice, most people gravitate to one.

When you gravitate to, “I go fast, I go fast, I go fast.” Or “I get up here and I stay up here.” You’re so predictable and you’re not touching our emotions, but when you roll in all five, you take us on a journey.

Peter: I’m curious, aside from those five, about the robustness of the voice itself. There are certain people who have a low baritone voice – can we cultivate more authority in the sound of our voice. Am I asking even the right question?

Tracy: I think that it’s ultimately about confidence. I think that that confidence comes in controlling the conversation. I think that when we get locked into one thing, one, we are predictable. Every 90 seconds, our brain tells us to check out. When I know where you’re going and what you’re doing and that 90 seconds kicks in, I got to see what’s happening on Facebook.

We want that unpredictability. We want that journey. By stepping beyond that one thing, we are conveying more confidence because when we get stuck in one thing, we’re asking for permission and we’re being really, really careful. What I hear you saying in your question is, “What do you think about bold choices?” I think bold choices is how we get people fired up.

It doesn’t have to be my version of bold choices, I’m a little large. I’m vibrant. This is what I do, but I need your version of bold choices and yet we work in the safe box of, “What are they thinking? I don’t know, I’m not sure. I don’t want to cross the line.” You’re never going to get the result you want when you stay in that voice box. No pun intended.

Peter: You’re saying something very powerful which is that it’s not just about how you breathe or how you lower your voice. You’re saying that it has to do with the intention with which we speak or the groundedness from which we speak and that ultimately if I’ve made a decision and it’s a clear decision that that’s more important in terms of the authority of my voice that will come through the authority of my voice as opposed to if I’m a little wimpy around my decision, I’m unsure of it or I really want your approval.

Tracy: Oh you better believe it. You better believe it. The minute I start worrying about the words and worrying about what you’re thinking, see what happened to my voice, I’m not sure what’s going on here. I’m playing it safe, but if I can connect to that message, forget about the words, connect to the message and bring it to life. Trust that.

Okay, I’m going to get past here and trust that I’m going to get quiet here and trust that pause. Just getting people to take a pause sometimes is massive and when they do, they see the power of it, but yeah, trusting the journey, trusting yourself.

Peter: It’s actually great for coaches who are listening because as coaches, you’re certainly in a position of helping someone show up powerfully, but you’re also in a diagnostic position. You can hear through the hesitance of the voice that maybe they haven’t totally committed. You could use that data in order to ask them a question that can get them to see that they haven’t committed or they’re ambivalent and to address that ambivalence. That’s very powerful.

Tracy: Oh absolutely. I feel like and I train my people, “You’ve got to be the tour guide.” I don’t know what you know even if I’m in your field. Let’s say Peter you and I went to the same school, we’re in the same field, I don’t know what you know. I didn’t walk your path. I didn’t have your journey. You have to be my tour guide, you have to let me know with your voice what you feel and what I should feel and when that happens, there’s a connection, then you compel me to take action and you’ve got me. I’m a fan.

Peter: It’s not what you’re saying, but it’s how you say it that generates feeling.

Tracy: Absolutely. I think that’s the biggest mistake I see people make is they give all the power to the words. I have a saying the words are everything and they are nothing. It’s how you bring them to life that changes me.

Peter: Is there a way of conveying voice in writing that does the same thing?

Tracy: That’s a great question. It’s certainly not … I’m certainly not a writer and I would never say that’s my expertise, but I can tell you about a couple of experiences that I have had where people have sent me their material to look at and I read it and what I felt was the same thing that I hear. I don’t understand how important you are, it’s your about page.

I don’t feel your importance. Can you go back in and toot your own horn and your words a bit or an energy healer friend of mine, she sent me some material and I read it and I said, “I need more additives. I need more additives because I get it and I like it and it’s good, but I need you to get me fired up, put in those words.” It is the same.

Peter: Give us some hints now. How could we improve our voice? One of the things that you’ve already said is get grounded in what you’re trying to say, what emotion you’re trying to convey in people, how you feel about something before you speak. What other advice could you give us to improve our voice?

Tracy: First of all and yeah, grounding is huge. Connecting to that message, getting in your body because when you are up in your head thinking about those words, your voice and your body cannot work. You’re disconnected and that’s where … People come to me, they say, “I’m not captivating. I have no confidence.” They’re focused on the words every time. That’s major.

Peter: Sorry to interrupt. When you tell people to ground, how would they do that for people who don’t know how to ground?

Tracy: Well, I’ll give you the best, one of the very best ways I teach it and it’s going to sound absolutely crazy, but you got to trust me on this it works. You sit on a hard chair, feet on the ground, hands, palms down, sit right … Sit on your hands, palms down and speak out loud for two or three minutes. That forces your sound straight out of the pipeline.

See, because the voice is the most vulnerable tool we have, it’s trying to go out the jaw, it’s trying to go out the hands it’s trying to go out the nose, but when you sit on your hands, it’s like those rings. You have children, you stack those rings on the stick. It’s like stacking those rings on the stick.

You sit there on your hands for three minutes in a hard chair, you’re putting everything together and your sound will flow out and you will connect into your body. Taking in a breath is another way. I don’t believe. I think it’s really a slippery slope to say just remember to breathe. You’re not going to because you’ve laid into your muscle memory.

We’re in brace mode. Hold our breath, not let it out. Maybe we’re going to breathe, but we’re not going to let it out connecting to the breath, but if you can start with some fuel, if you can start with a breath, ground it, sit on your hands, talk out loud. Your sound is going to flow out of your pipeline. It’s got to flow to me for me to connect with it. All right, that’s one of the major ways I teach this.

Peter: Does it matter if you breathe through your nose or through your mouth?

Tracy: They call me a little unorthodox Peter. I believe what works for you works.

Peter: Great.

Tracy: I’ve always felt that about everything. We find your solution.

Peter: Great. What’s next? We’re grounded. What else can you give us?

Tracy: Okay, speed is not your friend. I hear from so many people that they go fast because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their audience. You’re doing something that’s never going to get you the result that you want because and I go back to. I don’t know what you know. If you start hurrying up, you’re trying to think about the words, you see me looking at my phone, you’re dozing off.

No, I’m gone, I’m out. I don’t know what you’re even talking about. That 90 seconds kicked in, you’re blazing along. I got to see what’s happening on Facebook. Speed is not your friend. The goal is to calibrate that speed at what I call a five on a scale of one to ten. Ten is an auctioneer, one, you’re asleep, you got to go at a five.

You can give me pops a fast and you can give pops a slow, but your core has to be a five. Going fast is not solving your problem. You got to calibrate that five.

Peter: I guess you’re probably very intentional about where to be a ten, where to be a one and where to be a five. Five would be normal. What kinds of situations might we want to pop up and what kinds of situations might we want to slow down?

Tracy: I’m getting really excited. I am getting really excited. I want to speed up a little and I might role in a little loud there. Loud is what everybody … Everybody goes to loud. I think we must have learned that in third grade or something. Be loud, be loud. No, loud is the weakest tool in the toolbox. I get excited or I really, really want to make a point. People go fast with anger. No, no, no, you want to get some power, you slow down. I need you to understand how I feel.

We get to more intense moments, we get to more feeling moments, we get to more power moments when I slow down and that’s where it gets really fun Peter. You have these five elements and you start regulating them and you start controlling the conversation, not the outcome.

Peter: It’s great. Give us another tip.

Tracy: All right, let’s see. I think one of the trickiest ones, but one of the most important and powerful ones is melody because melody is where the trust is built and we fear melody. Melody is scary. Melody, that’s I think one of the reasons that we jump into that I got to keep it all under control. We got to keep it … Really say … If I got to … Don’t let anybody … They’re not trusting you, they’re not going to learn from you, buy from you, following you et cetera. I think it becomes important that we start playing around with melody. The best way to do that is for me to say, “Start being yourself because in life you do it.”

Peter: Help me understand melody. I understand it in a song, but I don’t understand it in speech.

Tracy: You see, I just went up and now I’m back down. I want to tell you something. Did you hear how I went up and down?

Peter: Maybe this is a blind spot for me around melody. Melody is when it’s pitch or it’s not pitch?

Tracy: It is. It is. It’s pitch. It’s the ups and downs. It’s the highs and lows. It’s the roller coaster. I need you to see this. I want you to know how I feel. I really like where you’re going with this question. I honestly think that pitch is … I personally in my experience think that pitch gets tricky for men and I have a theory why.

Peter: Why?

Tracy: Because of what I teach, I believe in what I call psychology of the voice that our experiences in life starting from childhood lay in our voice and to our muscle memory and every bad experience, every negative shut up, be quiet you’re no good, that shapes our voice. I think because men go through that voice change and they had that the girl laughed, the boys laughed.

They had this one ding and that went into that subconscious mind and laid in, “We got to be careful. We got to be careful here.”

Peter: Men become more monotone in order to avoid the melody. But melody is so effective because it makes speaking and listening more interesting and also accentuates a variety of points.

Tracy: Yes. Women have an albatross with pitch as well because they get stuck up here. A lot of women do. They get stuck up here so they can’t utilize the lower. I think it’s one of the most fragile ones, but I think it’s really important and I think that the best way in a short podcast to tell the listeners to work on it is about being yourself because the closer you get to letting me in, because you use more pitch in real life than you do when you make a business presentation.

Peter: Now, if you can crack this one, I’ll be very impressed, but saying to someone be yourself and actually them being themselves is very difficult and I think the gap has to do with stress, it has to do with the situation. In fact, the more types of situations you say to someone just be yourself, those are the kinds of situations where they would find it most difficult to be themselves.

What tips can you give people that could help them in those moments when they are least likely to be themselves to increase the probability that they will actually be themselves?

Tracy: Yeah, that’s a great wonderful rubber band ball question. I think a lot of it has to do with some inner work. I think just based on the people that I have worked with, what I have seen with them as they are exceptionally bogged down, we as a society are exceptionally bogged down with what other people think and I think that that plays a big part in, “I can’t be myself because what if they don’t like me.” I think you have to answer the question. I’ll never forget, I’ll never forget the time I said to someone, “What are they going to think about me.”

She looked at me and she said they’re not. They’re thinking about themselves and that cracked open a whole can of freedom for me because I had been … I was raised in a family where I wasn’t allowed to speak. The irony that I’m a voice coach right? All of a sudden it was like, “Oh my gosh, everybody is not obsessively thinking about whether I’m doing a good job or not.” I think we have to wrap our minds around something that resonates with us that gives us the freedom to say the people that are going to like me are going to like me and the people that don’t aren’t and that’s okay.

Peter: I can imagine in sales for example, you always care what the other person thinks because what the other person thinks makes the difference between whether you’re going to be able to accomplish the sale or not. On the other hand, being too concerned about what the other person thinks is probably the thing that will counteract the sale, will be counter productive in sale.

In effect, you have to not need that sale in such a way where you could be yourself which means that the rest of your life has to be in order so that if you don’t get the things that you want, you still know that you’re okay and the rest of your life will be OK. Ultimately you may need to be able to give up things in order to be able to show up and not care too much or not shift your behavior in order to get somebody to think about you in a certain way.

Tracy: I love that so so much and I cannot wait to hear this podcast. I’m going to replay that over and over because that’s it exactly and that’s what I was talking about earlier. We have to give up the outcome. We have to play the journey because if I start focusing on, “I got to have this sale. I’m going to use your sales.”

I got a habit you’re going to hear the desperation in my voice. I call that voice barriers that’s going to push you away. I’m going to start implementing vocally what I think is going to get me the result that I want that is never going to get me the result that I want, but if I let you connect with me, if I let you in … I’m not saying, “I don’t care about your sale. Who cares? I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying, “Let us in. That is what bold choices and vulnerability is all about.”

Peter: You’ve had a little bit of time to get to know me at least on this podcast and I know that you’ve looked at some of my work because you mentioned that you’ve seen some of my speeches. I would love for your unadulterated feedback. What do you see that works and what do you see that I could do better in my voice from your experience?

Tracy: Great and I do love your work and that’s one of the things that I love about your work is I’m taking Scorsese to a movie. I’m a stickler] on voices because I need to … I want to be affected emotionally and that’s one of the things that I have enjoyed so much about your work especially your videos which is really an albatross for many, many people and I don’t believe in bad voice. I believe in voices and I believe in amazing voices and you’re tough. You’re tough.

You are putting me on the spot only because I’m … There’s not a lot of obvious things. I will say this you. I want to ask you a question first. Do you feel like your sound is stuck in the back of your throat sometimes?

Peter: I do.

Tracy: Yeah, okay. That’s the main thing I hear. What has happened is something along the way in your life has and this is very, very common and people don’t even realize it and it’s a ding that came in and your subconscious mind said, “Hold up, hold up. We got this. We’re going to lock this sound down a little bit.” You’re having to work a little harder than I want you have to work to let that sound out so literally, it becomes about tapping into a different layer of muscle memory.

It’s like your pipeline has a little bit of a clog in it. It’s very, very slight and the audience is going to be like, “What is she talking about? I don’t hear that. Peter is great.” You are great. You are so great. This is such a subtle thing.

Peter: I hear it and I feel it. How do we solve for it?

Tracy: You want me to …

Peter: Yeah. Fix me.

Tracy: Okay. I’m going to fix it. Okay, I’m going to spell a word for you. Where are you from? Are you from New York originally?

Peter: I’m from New York originally.

Tracy: Yeah. Okay. Sometimes region has to do with it as well. I want you to say a word for me. I’m going to spell it because I don’t want you to say … I don’t want you to mimic me in any way. It’s spelled C-O-O-L.

Peter: Cool.

Tracy: Okay, say it again.

Peter: Cool.

Tracy: Alright, you feel that in the back of your throat?

Peter: Yup.

Tracy: Alright, now we’re going to do something silly. You’re going to bring your mouth really far forward, almost like you’re puckering up to kiss someone. There you go. Now say it again. Say it three times in a row.

Peter: Cool. Cool. Cool.

Tracy: One more time.

Peter: Cool.

Tracy: Now say it normal.

Peter: Cool. Totally different.

Tracy: Totally different.

Peter: It feels different to me.

Tracy: Yeah, it sounded totally different. It should have, it felt like probably it was flowing out a bit easier.

Peter: Yeah.

Tracy: Which is great. I’ve got these people that come, they speak six to eight hours a day and ragging their throats out. It’s because they’re having to drag their sound out. Literally all I did was I just propped your pipeline out a little bit. It wasn’t bad. We tapped in to a different layer of muscle memory that the pipeline had forgotten.

Peter: That’s very cool.

Tracy: Isn’t that cool?

Peter: How do I integrate that into my everyday speaking?

Tracy: Okay. The way muscle memory works is we got to lay it in, we got to get it set and then you make it your own. Now literally, this can happen in a months’ time. What we do is I give you some words and I’ll send you some words and you’re going to repeat those every morning. You’re going to repeat those words every morning for about two rounds. You’re laying it in.

It’s like Jim for the face. Alright? You’re doing your exercise, you’re doing your exercise, but it’s not warm ups. We’re laying in a new layer of muscle memory because you’re tapping into a layer that’s not serving you as best as it could. You’re going to get this list of words. It sounds like cool, fool, things like that.

You’re going to practice them every morning for four minutes and then it’s going to start integrating itself.

Peter: Is it only operative for words like cool or does it end up affecting all of my speaking?

Tracy: It will affect all of your speaking because what I’m doing is I’m using that set of words to pull that sound out at the back of your throat.

Peter: I have to say it actually already feels to me as I’m speaking that there’s a difference.

Tracy: Yeah, because what I’ve done is I’ve tapped into the middle muscles of your face that were a bit weak. The lower part of your face was holding your sound in, it was holding it in. I just propped that pipeline up. It really, it’s not even about what words are we using, it’s about what muscles I wanted to tap into to get that sound flowing out.

You practice that for literally my people can get their sound unstock in about two weeks.

Peter: That’s fantastic.

Tracy: Yeah, it’s really cool. Some people, it’s the jaw. Some people it’s a nasality. I could just hear it in the back of your throat. Once you free that, what I love about you is I’ve heard you do an amazing job with vocal variety which is my thing and I’ve heard you do a great job with that. That sound being stuck a little bit is inhibiting the maximum variety that I hear inside of you. I hear glimpses which is great when that sound is unstuck. Oh my gosh … Going to the next level is what it’s about is.

Peter: It’s about flowing. You unclog your voice in a way that it more freely and completely conveys what it is that you’re trying to express and that ultimately is they key to using your voice. I’m so delighted to have had you on the podcast Tracy. Captivate the Room with your Voice is her most recent book. We will show you how to link up with her in the show notes. Tracy Goodwin, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Tracy: Thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed being here.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our big arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos and podcasts, visit Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode and thank you for listening.

Do you have a dream you’ve been waiting to make good on? Bernard Roth, co-founder of the Stanford d.School, noticed that his students talked about achieving great things but never followed through. In his book, The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life, Bernie lays out his formula for following through on your most ambitious goals and dreams. Discover the one thing that is getting in the way of changing your behavior, how to deny a request without letting the person down, and the story behind the creation of the d.School.


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Book: The Achievement Habit
Bio: Bernard Roth is the Rodney H. Adams Professor of Engineering and the academic director of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the at Stanford University. He is a leading expert in kinematics, the science of motion, and one of the world’s pioneers in the area of robotics. In addition, he has created courses that allow students to directly gain understanding and experience about personal issues that matter to them. Bernie is also the primary developer of the concept of the Creativity Workshop. For more than thirty years this workshop has been a vehicle for him to take the experiential teaching he developed at Stanford to students, faculty, and professionals around the world. He is an in-demand speaker at conferences and workshops globally, has served as a director of several corporations, and has been a leader in professional societies.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

With us on the podcast today is Bernie Roth. He is a professor of engineering at Stanford, he’s the director of the D School, which is the Design School at Stanford University. He’s a leading experts in kinematics, the science of motion and one of the world’s pioneers in the area of robotics. He’s written a book that I absolutely adored, The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life. It’s not a book that I would normally expect a professor of engineering to write, and yet it is so clearly the outcome of thoughtfulness of design and the clarity of thinking and the discipline of thinking that brings you to say, what is it that I’m trying to achieve and how do I break this down and be thoughtful about in the very many facets of my life, breaking it down and moving forward step by step to achieve what it is that I want? It was really a terrific book. I highly recommend that you buy it. The podcast I’m sure will be great, but the reading of the book was really great for me.

Bernie, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Bernie: Thank you and thank you for the nice introduction.

Peter: It was easy. Bernie, The book is based on a course that you teach. I’m curious to start with what need that you saw that led you to both design the course and write the book.

Bernie: Sure, well, the design of the course came from my experience as a young professor, coming from New York out to San Francisco and to the Bay Area and to Stanford and I noticed … Well, first I can say in those days, Silicon Valley was not the Silicon Valley that we know today. And what was happening then was a lot of my students would say, “Well, I’m going to start a business after I graduate.” And none of them did, actually. They mainly went and worked for large companies like Hewlett-Packard, companies that don’t exist anymore, Ray Chem, and they would always have this pipe dream. And it really reminded me of that O’Neill play, The Iceman Cometh, where people in the bar all play along, and they’re going to go out and cross the street, and nobody ever leaves the bar?

And I just felt … I didn’t really care if they started businesses or not, I just felt that they had this pipe dream that they should go on and have other pipe dreams or they should fulfill it. So, I decided to make a course where one of the things was you have to do something you always wanted to do in your life and never done before. And that was a project and you selected. The other thing I noticed is people came to me with problems that I really didn’t think belonged in an engineering school and that, they were kind of personal issues that would probably be taken care of at home and I was surprised they hadn’t learned how to handle that stuff. And they were stuck with these sort of life-long issues that they needed to get rid of.

And I had some experiences here that led me to feel I could help them with that kind of stuff. So, the course was made up, you had to do something of your choice that could get rid of a problem in your life or do something that you’d always wanted to do and not done. And as people were doing that over the years, I noticed it was a terrific idea in that it was this empowered them, once you realize you can do this stuff once, you can do it again and again and again and again and the world changed around this. And people started, starting living a lot of their pipe dreams.

So that’s sort of how the course started. Also there was an influence of wanting to bring more human-centeredness into my teaching, which I had some experiences with [Esalin 00:04:20] down here which awakened me to the idea that people are what it’s all about, not machines. So those all came together and I did the book and I did the course and then the book is just one of these things, I wanted to go on sabbatical, and my wife said, “Look, we’ve gone on too many sabbaticals, I’m not going again, I want to stay in my study and work, you can go, but, you go and come back, but I’m not going,” so I figured, “Well, I’m not going to do that, but I don’t want to waste a year just sitting around doing what I always do when I’m not on sabbatical,” so I figured well, it’s about time I wrote this stuff up, and that led to the book. So it’s thanks to my wife.

Peter: I love it. So this huge achievement that you had was based in this desire to go, “Ah, I don’t want to waste the year, I might as well write a book, whatever.”

Bernie: Yeah, and there’s a lot of, there’s a lot into it, actually. I didn’t know I was going to write this book. I actually had three books in mind and I spent about six months talking to everyone I know, I have a lot of friends who write books, getting their advice. And at the end, there was no resolution. So I invoked one of the principles we have in the D School, it’s called bias towards action. And I made up on September 1st, when my sabbatical starts, even if I don’t know what I’m going to write, I’m going to get up early in the morning, 6 AM, I’m going to put my butt in front of my desktop computer and I’m going to start writing. And literally, that’s what happened. I had no real resolution. I sat down and I started typing. And this book came out of me, came pouring out of me, so it was kind of a really interesting experience.

Peter: It’s a great mirror to what you talk about in the book.

Bernie: It is. I mean, literally, I could still be, three years, four years later, I could still be thinking about what book to write.

Peter: Right.

Bernie: If I had waited to get that information.

Peter: And it’s one of the principles in the book. It’s also one of the very clear principles of leadership. There’s a lot of research and my own experience in working with a lot of leaders that points to the fact that bias towards actions is one of the key competencies of the most effective leaders.

Bernie: Yeah, well, it worked in this case. And we actually have a lot of examples at the D School where it sort of produces miracles and if you didn’t do that, it would, you would never realize the magic, yeah.

Peter: Well, you get data from it. You could think about things and again and again and again and you’re not getting any real new data even though that’s what you’re looking for. But when you take action, you have data.

Bernie: Absolutely. Totally. That’s totally my experience.

Peter: You write towards the end of the book, I think it’s the first line of chapter ten, “I take the view that life is basically a problem-solving activity and you can learn to make both the process and results better.” It felt to me as I was reading it that that summed up a little bit the point of this book, is that right?

Bernie: I agree with you totally, yeah, it is. It is that way. I see a big parallel between what we call life and between my professional work which is sort of not life, people think of home and work. And in my case, I think they’re all the same, really, and we shouldn’t compartmentalize it. And if we use the same processes, they work very well.

So I came to it first by not knowing life was a problem-solving activity and just thinking life was life and I got involved in designing machine, robots, and things of that nature, and the more I did that stuff, I realized it was a parallel in my real life to my professional life. And at some point, I got the point that it’s really the same thing. And that was a big breakthrough in my thinking.

Peter: So I found myself as I was reading the first few chapters very intrigued to go to your acknowledgements because I wanted to understand better the influences that led you to think about this very human based approach to action. And I’ve taught at Esalen and I understand a little bit of EST, though I never did EST, and both of those showed up, and it made a lot of sense to me. And I wondered if you could just spend a minute sharing about the connection between your personal transformation, your influences, and how they brought you from where you were to where you are.

Bernie: Sure, I’d be pleased to. Yeah, that’s true, and the acknowledgement is actually the true story. As far as I know, the whole book is the true story, but I was very careful to how I got there and the people I owe a lot to. So what happened in my case, I grew up in New York and I went to engineering school. I went to City College of New York and Columbia University, and I accumulated three degrees in mechanical engineering. And after my PhD I went out to work at Stanford. And I had a very straight engineering background and I was sort of, when I came to California, it was a little bit of culture shock. People didn’t wear jackets. People called each other by first names, all that kind of stuff.

And eventually, a colleague of mine had a connection with Mike Murphy, who was one of the founders of Esalin, and he arranged, my colleague arranged for a weekend of Stanford professors to go down to Esalin. And he didn’t invite me, ’cause I was too straight, but somehow, at the last minute, someone dropped out, and reluctantly, he included me. And when I went down there, it was a weekend, a sort of sampler weekend, Fitz Pearls, Bill Shoots, people like that, did their shticks. And it was very eye-opening to me and I started to understand how that really relates to my work, as I said before. So that was the beginning and the same friend, Bob McKim is his name, my colleague. He was sort of the guru, he was into all this weird stuff and California things. He grew up in California, so he was way ahead of me. And he introduced to me to EST and to Werner Erhard, and we became good friends, Werner and I, and I actually did some co-leading workshops with Werner and got to understand it.

So for me, I would say Esalin was sort of the opening up of the experience and then EST sort of made a intellectual framework around it, so that’s kind of what happened to me. And in between, what had happened is my friend Bob decided we should have an Esalin at Stanford program, so they arranged to bring up the speakers from Esalin for the weekend, and for forty dollars, you could do a weekend workshop at Stanford with one of the Esalin gurus. And another friend of mine, Doug Wild, he and I decided we should put a course in the dorms based on these Esalin classes. And the students had to go to one of these weekends during the ten-week quarter. I went to every one of them, ’cause I was the teacher, so. That was another part of my training and getting used to these things, so it was a very intense part of my life. We offered that course for about eight years, three times a year. It was very popular in the dorms.

That’s how I got to get a good background in leading these kind of workshops.

Peter: And when you’re leading the workshops and teaching your class, it seems like you are willing to be “out there.” One of your exercises, you open up the book with it, is holding a water bottle and trying to get a student get it out of your hands. Later in the book, you talk about people moving around and moving their bodies.

You’re doing a lot of stuff that other people might consider weird. I’m curious, emotionally whether you feel fear when you’re doing it, whether you’re super grounded in it and you know this works and this is why you’re doing it, whether you’re a little hesitant about how it’s going to be received by people. I’m curious about your personal experience in closing that gap.

Bernie: Sure. Yeah. It’s hard to remember how I felt back in the beginning. I don’t feel any fear or concern at this point in my life. I’ve done so much of it. I do remember one part early on, the dean of engineering was somehow concerned that I was going to harm people. So, he sent me to the psychological service center at Stanford to talk to two professional psychiatrists to make sure I’m not mucking around things that I shouldn’t be doing.

Peter: So was he wanting you to get advice from them for your students, or was he wanting to check you out?

Bernie: He wanted them to check out and say it’s okay for me to do that before he shut me down.

Peter: But he wasn’t trying to check you out? He wasn’t saying, “Maybe Bernie’s lost his rocket, let me quietly get these people to assess him.”

Bernie: No, it’s just maybe Bernie shouldn’t be doing this, ’cause he’s not qualified. He never took a psychology course.

Peter: Got it.

Bernie: And so, I went, and the interesting story is one of the guys became so enthralled, he decided to co-teach a class with me. But what they taught me and I always remember, “Don’t worry about it, Bernie, people are not made of Dresden china.” Which I loved that expression.

And this fear of, you know, it’s okay if people cry. It’s okay if people get emotional. In fact, it’s kind of useful. So, I don’t … I’d say the only place I’m hesitant is … I do a lot of this stuff for professional groups and in that case, it’s like if they’re calling me into talk about creativity, what license do I have to muck with their psyche? And so, I try and frame it in a way that is what they bought into, but then I go beyond where they would normally go with that. And you know, I make it that you don’t have to, you can opt out. I don’t force anyone to do anything. There’s a certain amount of social pressure in a group to do things, but in general I am concerned about not pushing people beyond where they want to go. I make it, I don’t embarrass people, I make it open, and some people are resistant in the beginning, and those are the people I’m most worried about in the strangest way.

Because what happens is if it’s in a class, and I get someone in the graduate school of business who’s too totally analytical and all of that, and very resistant the first day or two, I think, “Oh, this guy’s going to be trouble, because he’s going to be such a groupie at the end, it’s going to be an embarrassment.” And that’s what happens. I mean, people who are really resistant tend to flip totally to the point where you’re the voice of God. It’s embarrassing.

In general, I can say I’m not aware of any harm I’ve ever done and I certainly have been told by a lot of people it’s done a lot of good. So I don’t feel any real concern that way. It’s more appropriateness in the setting and how I frame it. But basically, it’s the same thing, but I may spin it out in different ways.

Peter: We are speaking with Bernie Roth. His book is The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life.

Bernie, I want to do throw out a couple of statements that you make, mostly chapter titles. And I want you to speak about them a bit.

I’m going to start with the first one, which is Reasons Are Bullshit.

Bernie: Yeah. So, where that comes from is my realization that reasons are really not useful in life in general and that they get in the way of ever changing your behavior or changing, period. Because they’re basically generally excuses.

I can tell you the insight. The insight came from, I was on the board of directors of a company in Berkeley and I would invariable come late to the board meeting. And I would invariably, the reason was there was a lot of traffic on the highway going up between Stanford and Berkeley. And it was all true. I was late and there was traffic. However, that was not the real reason I was there, I was late. And when I thought about it, I realized of course, there were lots of reasons, including my taking, in those days, there weren’t, I had a teletype in my office, so doing the origins of email, I was doing tele typing, and I had to send a few more messages before I left, and in those days, there were no cell phones, there were desk phones, so of course I had to be at my desk to use the phone, to make some very important calls before I left. And now when I left the office, of course, I met someone at the elevator, and we had to have a little important chat about something.

And by the time I got to my car, if there was at Stanford, and no traffic at Berkeley, and no traffic on the highway, I would have made it. But of course, there was, so I never made it on time.

Peter: I am certainly all too familiar with that dance.

Bernie: Yeah, so I realized at some point that I was really being abusive to these other people on the board. And they were kind of nice about it, but I realized that my behavior was wrong. And I realized I should either get off the board or I should give it enough valance in my life to get there on time, which wasn’t rocket science, you just had to leave earlier.

And once I did that, it was … First of all, it was great, I didn’t have to worry about death-defying, cutting people off on the highway, and getting angry if someone was in front of me, moving slowly. I could go a relaxed person on the highway. And if I got there a little early, it was a pleasure. I could talk to these people and have, schmooze around a little bit. And if not, and if there was a lot of traffic, I’d still be on time. So that kind of was a big insight. And from that, I changed my behavior from someone who was always late to someone who was always on time. I’m now the pain in the ass who starts everything on time.

So that was a big change. And from that, I went to realizing that all these things we say about human behavior, we don’t really know it. There’s no one reason for any human behavior. It’s very complicated. If you weren’t born, you wouldn’t do any of the things you do. So if someone says, “Why’d you do it?” You can say because you were born. Well, that sounds wise, you know, it’s not an appropriate answer. But in fact, there are many, many reasons for everything you do, so saying the reason for something is a lie, basically. And what you do is you pick out the reason that makes you look good or makes you feel good. It’s a kind of, I have some friends I grew up in the Bronx who are badasses. They’ll give you a reason, were they really bad? Whatever it is. You know, whatever your self image is, you’ll get a reason to support that.

It’s okay, except you’ll never change your behavior if you rely on these reasons for it. So that’s kind of where it all came from. And then I experimented with it. And I see, like a simple thing happens in my life, I get maybe three emails a week from someone in the world, nowadays Iran or it’s China, India, who wants to come and do a PhD with me at Stanford. And I don’t have to answer them, but generally they’ve put a lot of work into it, and they’ve researched me, so I don’t want to just ignore them. So, I used to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t take you because I don’t have any money,” or, “I’m sorry, I can’t take you because I’m going on sabbatical.” And any time I gave them a reason, they’d push back. If I don’t have any money, they have a rich uncle. If I’m going on a sabbatical, they can come a year later. And it would go on and on until I just truncated out of weariness.

Nowadays though, I have my insight, I don’t give them a reason. I just say what I’m going to do or not do, which is, I’m sorry, I can’t help you, good luck. And what happens is about 85% of the time, I get back an email saying, “Thank you very much, Professor, for answer my email.” And that’s the end of the discussion. And I feel good about it and they seem to be okay with it, also.

I’ve taken this thing in my administrative work in the D School. It’s totally that way. I don’t give people reasons for what I do, I just say what it is. So we have an example where we were, someone who has been with us for awhile, teaching classes, things didn’t work out in her teaching, and we were going to tell her that we didn’t want her to teach the next quarter. And someone wrote a sample letter, and it was like three pages of apologies. And I said, “No no, let me handle it.” And I just said, “I’m sorry we’re not going to use you again. We love you, stay in touch. Bernie.” And this person’s in my life for a year and a half now. Every time I see her, she hugs me, and it’s friendly. And if we had given the reasons, it would have just turned to muck. It’s really interesting to try it. Furthermore, I’ll say one other thing, there are a lot of experiments where they put people in MRI machines, and they ask them to do a task, and they ask them to explain why they did the task. And it turns out, they look at the parts of the brain that fire, and the ones that make up your mind to do the task fire before the ones that make up the reasons.

So, we do what we do. We’re habitual, most of the things are just habitual, it’s what they call thinking fast. And we just do it. And if you say, why’d you do it? Well, I have to think up some nice thing and I would do that. Don’t use reasons. You’ll never change your behavior. And if you do that, I find, if I give someone a reason and it’s bullshit, I say to myself, “I’ll never do that again.” And then of course, I’ll do it again. But eventually, I change. If I just give a reason and don’t tell myself it’s bullshit, I will never change, because I will use that reason to protect my behavior, even though I don’t want to have it.

Peter: Two questions about the reasons. One is, I would imagine as a problem solver, there’s some element of reasons that are useful to say, you know, maybe there’s the reason that you are late is that you’re trying to get too much done before you leave and understanding that that was the reason, then you can solve for it. Do you believe in that, or do you think that’s bullshit too?

Bernie: Well, when you say the reason, I’d say it’s bullshit. If you’d say it’s a reason, it’s a factor, there’s a lot of factor. Yeah, one factor may be very strong and it may be the thing that you want to, give you an insight. I have no problem that way. I just realize it’s not the reason to do that.

For example, you asked me to do this podcast, right? So I could say, if you say, why did you do it? Well, Peter asked me. But that’s not why I’m doing it. Because you could ask me, I could say, no, I’m sure some people don’t accept your invitations. So, what it is about … Well, there’s a whole history of me and podcasts and maybe the way you approach me, maybe the fact that you live somewhere that I like, I don’t know. It’s so complicated, it really is. But it doesn’t matter most of the time. Who cares? You ask me a question, I give you a reason.

But the point simply is, it can be destructive and prevent you from changing. And that’s the point, and what I always tell people to do is don’t use reasons. Just say what you’ll do and don’t do and your life will be much better. You really don’t need them. And if you need them, don’t be a jerk if someone’d a reason and you don’t want to offend them, but for yourself, tell yourself it’s not the truth.

Peter: So I think you just answered my second question. Two, which is, that there’s research that says that people are more willing to comply when there’s a reason. If you’re going to cut someone in line, if you just say, I’m cutting in line, they’re going to say no, if I’ give a reaason, even if the reason is bullshit, they’re a lot more willing to say, yeah, okay.

Bernie: It is bullshit, of course it’s bullshit. And yeah, you use it, people use these things to justify behavior that they, isn’t exactly what they want, so they give you a reason. And they may be fine. If you want to keep cutting in line, use your bullshit reasons. I hope no one punches you out. But basically, if you realize that the reason you’re cutting in line is not what you’re saying, it’s that among other things, you got there too late or you’ve been procrastinating for filing your taxes, and it goes on and on and on and it’s not because you got a flat tire.

My favorite thing is I tell the students, if someone comes into my class and she’s late, and she says, “Gee, I’m sorry Professor I’m late, I got a flat tire on my bicycle,” even if she had a flat tire, that’s not the reason she’s late. You understand? If there really was … You get flunked out of Stanford if you come in late, you would not come in late if she had a flat tire, believe me. Or if I had an Uzi machine gun and I blasted people who came in late, they wouldn’t come in late. It’s a matter of giving it enough valance in your life to give it the priority it needs to get it done. And that’s the part you don’t want to say. You know, you come in late to someone’s house for dinner, you give them some excuse, but you didn’t give it enough priority. You didn’t get into the shower early enough when you should have, you were too busy finishing something on your last podcast or something like that.

So, it’s that kind of thing. It’s just useful to understand it and to do it. It’s not life and death but it will improve your life and it will let you change stuff and in your work, it’s also true. Often, even in technical things, you think the reason is something and the big breakthrough is you realize that wasn’t the reason for it, and then you realize you’ve kind of worked around an obstacle and you’ve got a big insight. So, this whole idea of attributing cause and effect to a single thing is really hard when it comes to people. It may work a little bit better with mechanical things, but even there, it’s sometimes questionable.

Peter: Bernie, it’s such a pleasure to have you. There are so many more questions I could ask, but we’re coming to the end of the podcast. I want to share with listeners that Bernie’s book The Achievement Habit is filled with this kind of clarity of insight and engaging stories and I’m not going to give you a reason to read it, I’m just going to tell you to go read it. And to let you know that it was well worth my time and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Bernie, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Bernie: It was a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem I see in companies is a lot of business, a lot of work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow Process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.

What is leadership presence and how can it be developed? That’s the question Lisa Bloom is asking senior leaders for her yet-to-be published book, Demystifying Leadership Presence: Mastering the 4 Core Stories. In this special episode, we not only learn about the four narratives that define our leadership; Lisa also turns the tables and interviews me for my take on leadership presence. Discover when “fake it till you make it” actually works, the significance of your inner and outer stories, and my best insights on how to develop leadership presence.


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Bio: Lisa Bloom, founder of Story Coach, works with organizations developing Transformational Story Leaders, creative yet resilient cultures, and leading powerful change processes with the power of storytelling. She works with entrepreneurs and business owners to help them find confidence, attract ideal clients and find their success story. And she trains coaches to use storytelling as a powerful approach to impact their clients and grow their business.

Lisa is a professional Storyteller, accredited Coach, Author, Mentor and Leadership expert. Her groundbreaking techniques have enabled her grow her business and take to the stage where she speaks internationally about this approach to business, leadership and coaching. Lisa is the author of the Amazon bestseller “Cinderella and the Coach-the Power of Storytelling for Coaching Success!” and the creator of the Stories That Sell Mastery & Certified Story Coach Programs.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

With us today is Lisa Bloom. I met Lisa through a mutual friend, Ron Friedman, who has also been on this podcast so if you haven’t heard his podcast it’s well worth listening to. Lisa wanted to talk to me about a book that she was writing. When we began to talk about it over email I thought it would be interesting to have her as a guest on the show. This is going to be a little bit of a different kind of show. She’s going to start by telling us a little bit about the book that she’s writing, and I’ll ask her some questions, and then we’ll be in conversation about it.

The book is about leadership presence. She’s a storyteller and was really interested in presence. When she talked to people about it and said what is a leadership presence, the leaders that she was working with would respond with something about charisma, but they couldn’t quite understand exactly what it is. Yet they could identify people who had it. I imagine that you as listeners could probably do the same. Lisa’s goal in her new book is to unpack that, and understand what is leadership presence.

The title of the book is “Demystifying Leadership Presence. Mastering the Four Core Stories”. She’s interviewing people, myself included, around understanding that and I wanted to turn the tables on her and interview her back so that we can learn about it before the book comes out about what this thing called leadership presence is, what the four core stories are, and then we’ll be in a conversation. With that long introduction, Lisa welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Lisa: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here. I’m looking forward to this conversation.

Peter: Tell us about demystifying leadership presence. You may want to start with the four core stories, or maybe about some background around leadership presence.

Lisa: Sure. As you said, I come from a storytelling background and I’m often hired to come in to senior leaders before they have a really big event to help them with their stage presence. To help them with finding the right story to tell that’s going to engage the audience and make them feel comfortable, and really have that level of interaction that they’re looking for. I think we all recognize that many great leaders are great story tellers so it’s a skill that people are looking to acquire, but what I started to notice was that the leaders who really struggled most with stage presence were actually also struggling with leadership presence.

As you mentioned I would ask, “What is leadership presence?” People would say, “Oh it’s charisma,” and I’d say, “Well don’t you know any leaders that the typical the leader walks in the room and we feel her presence? What is that?” I would say, “Don’t you know any leaders who have that sense, who have that presence, but are not particularly charismatic?” They would all say, “Oh yeah. Sure. Absolutely.” That’s when I kind of set off on this journey to look at what is presence. When I looked at the research, and when I spoke to people, I seemed to find two almost extremes in the field. One of them would be well leadership presence is all about how you look, what do you wear, how you stand, and your voice. All about kind of high level presentation skills.

The other area would be it’s all about how zen you are. If you practice yoga, and meditation, and mindfulness every single day. It just seemed like the model out there was two major extremes, and that something had to be there that would encompass everything. That would be more holistic and that’s when I discovered these four stories, which I believe is really a way to not only understand leadership presence, but also to develop and to master it through mastering these stories.

Peter: Share the four stories with us.

Lisa: Sure. There’s two different levels and there’s two different focuses. There’s the higher level, and there’s a lower level, and there’s the internal focus, and the external focus. Let me just give you some background to that. What I notice also is that when people talk about story, very often they’re talking about the story out, as in the story that people are impressed by. What do you tell about yourself? The story that’s focusing outwards. I remember I was at an entrepreneurial event a couple of years ago in California and I noticed that there was such a huge dichotomy between what I see as the outer story and the inner story. In the room full of happy, abundant entrepreneurs there was all this talk of success and how everything is in flow, and everything’s wonderful.

Every time I would go to the bathroom I would hear these women talk about the divorces, the drug addict kids, and the counselors. All the real stuff. The inner story. I just thought to myself there’s something about authenticity around the integration, and connection between the inner and outer story. That’s where, again, another starting point for all this research and a lot of the work that I do. The four stories really focus on the external focus, and the internal focus.

Peter: Let me interrupt for a second and ask you a question about the way you’re using the word story. I tell bedtime stories to my children. The way you’re using story it sounds like: what is our story? What is the story that we’re living? Am I thinking about this correctly?

Lisa: Yes, and it’s also what’s the story we’re telling because whatever you do, if you are a leader, or if you’re in the business of supporting leaders, coaching leaders, and interested in leadership, we are telling stories all the time. Within an organization, stories are just ripe with, I mean organizations are just ripe with stories and stories are often decors of both positive and negative huge impact both culturally and in terms of even sales and revenue. If a product has a good story it tends to succeed. If an organization tells strong stories, the culture tends to be a positive culture. When you shift a story you can end up with a very negative or toxic environment.

Peter: It sounds like that would be true for the external story. Is the internal story also a story that we actually tell, or is it a story that we tell ourselves?

Lisa: Very often it’s the story we tell ourselves. It has huge impact on the story we tell out, particularly if there’s a big differentiation between the two. If there’s a distance between the two. It’s a misalignment and one affects the other. Some people call it, when you think about the imposter syndrome, where people are hugely successful but have this inner story that says I’m successful until they discover that I actually don’t know anything and I’m faking. That’s being written about quite a lot. We have many internal stories, inner stories, that sabotage our success or that hold us back. Hold us from reaching out greatness. That is true of leaders, and it’s true of everybody.

Peter: I would guess that you are not a fan of the fake it until you make it kind of concept that ultimately the fake it til you make it is: I’m going to project an outer story that I don’t actually yet feel internally.

Lisa: I think it can work as an exercise. I can definitely recognize that you can grow into a story and I definitely believe that we can create and co create stories that are visionary, that are inspirational in order to reach that, and often times I’ll work with teams and organizations where we’ll create a fantastic future story, which inevitably once they’ve created it they will reach it. Once they’ve envisioned it they will create it. So yes, there is a sense of you create the story then you turn it into reality. Because that’s what we do. Whatever story we tell becomes our reality. If we want to craft something that really inspires us as a way to move forward or a goal, then there’s must more likelihood that if it’s a solid story we’re actually going to be able to make it real.

Peter: Got it. There’s this external story and the internal story. Those are two of the core stories?

Lisa: Well it actually breaks down further. There are two that point out, there are two that point in. The first level of the external story is simply the story people tell about you. Often times people will say, “The story people tell about me, well what do I have? What influence do I have on that?” People tend to think, “I don’t have any influence.” They’ll tell whatever they want to tell, but of course the model breaks down the ways in which we can deeply influence the story that people tell about you. A huge percentage of that story is something that we can control and we can influence, so that’s the first story.

On the second level of the external focus, it’s the story that you tell them. We are telling stories all the time. Often times we’re telling them quite unconsciously in terms of the effect it has on other people. In leadership, if you are focused and you can master the story that you tell them, then you’re going to have much more success and much more presence. They’re the two externally focused stories.

Peter: What are the two internally focused stories?

Lisa: On the first level, the internally focused story it’s the story you tell yourself. That’s part of what I’ve already described is sense of the inner voice, what you believe, and it’s the kinds of commitments that you have. The convictions you have. The mindset and so on. On a deeper level, the internal focus is what I call the story you are. This has much more to do with your self development, your personal mastery, your purpose. More on the being level. That’s a deeper, that one for managers who are not quite at that senior level that’s harder sometimes for them to grasp, but it’s fantastic in terms of creating a developmental plan because at the senior levels, they get it. They know what that means. The story you are is that solid base from which you take a stand and from which you feel confident.

Peter: If you could do this in a minute or two, give us an example that you could use as you think about her use of these sort of four stories?

Lisa: I think we all recognize, I’m not sure I understand the question. You want an example of a leader in a situation?

Peter: Right now it’s conceptual, it would be interesting to see it or hear about it in an example of someone who has these stories.

Lisa: Sure. I have a great example of a CEO that I am worked with who told me kind of an anecdote of something that had happened to him as he was a young manager, before he got to a senior level. He said that he was involved in a negotiation for a very big deal between two large companies. The deal kind of was about to be clinched and the two most senior leaders who were basically about to sign the contract were going to go out for dinner, and spend time over dinner discussing the fine details and come to the actual agreement. What happened was, the leader who was I think he was either the president or the CEO of this company, he had invited the other person and he was going to make this final decision whether to buy this project, buy this company.

He invited the guy for dinner, and the guy sat down, and they were in a very nice restaurant, and the server came along and began to serve them water and ask them if they were ready to order. Something in the way that this other leader responded to the server, and was very offhand and quite rude. The man refused to sign the contract. He actually did not sign the contract as a result of the fact that this leader was not this kind of decent human being who was willing to treat people, treat serving staff as human beings and in a way in which they needed to be respected. That to him reflected a level of leadership that was not acceptable. This guy held a standard to the way you treat people.

Do you know the name of the person who cleans your office? Do you take time to acknowledge the people who serve you at the lowest levels, not just the ones at the highest level. That was part of his leadership presence and the model that he wanted to give to others.

Peter: That makes sense to me entirely. Connect it to the four stories, the four core stories because I’m missing that connection a little bit.

Lisa: That fits in with the behavior around the story that you tell them. The story that you’re not just your business knowledge, not just your level of risk taking but actually your interpersonal skills. How you acknowledge other people, how you listen, how you connect, how you respect people. That’s one of the ways in which we break down and teach the story you tell them.

Peter: You’re not actually literally telling them a story, but your actions tell them a story. What you do, how you show up in the world creates a story for the outside world to see.

Lisa: Because presence isn’t a once upon a time story. Okay it’s not a once upon a, it’s how you show up. Much of it is wordless. The way in which you have an impact on somebody is often not about what you say to them, it’s about a lot of things. One of them is the story you tell and the way you show up, and the way you act towards people, and the way you connect with people, and how you respect people.

Peter: Got it. Okay great. I understand. I think listeners probably understand these four stories. We’re about halfway through, let’s switch over and have a conversation about it. Do you have questions for me that you want to ask?

Lisa: Absolutely. Absolutely. I actually want to ask you what your opinion is of leadership presence. Because I know you’ve come across it, I know you probably work with it quite a lot. How would you describe leadership presence?

Peter: It’s interesting that you talk about this feeling that someone walks in the room and you just notice them. To me, there’s something very energetic about that. This might for some people feel woo woo, but you feel it from someone. Yes, maybe it has to do with their size. We all know 6’4 people who walk in, it’s hard not to notice them, but I also think, if you remember Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”, we have these instantaneous reactions to people, and in a millisecond I’ll feel like I either like them or I don’t like them. I know enough to say these might be connected to my prejudices or my biases, and the stories that I tell myself. All sorts of things so I can question that, but there’s an immediate energy you get from someone.

That’s very much the internal story. it’s very much the sense of groundedness. Are they in their bodies? When we teach leadership, when we work with leaders, we do a lot of physical work because if you’re not in your body, in my view, you’ll never have that leadership presence. Because we’re physical beings. Someone walks in the room, they’re walking in the room. If they’re in a wheelchair, they’re wheeling in the room with their physical body. That physicality is important. How you inhabit your body, I think, makes a big difference. My view of leadership presence has to do with the physicality, and the emotion, and the intellectual mental piece, and the spiritual piece.

When we talk about the four stories integrating, I think it’s important to have integration in your physicality, your emotion, your mental intellectual aspect, and the spiritual aspect. We know people who are comfortable in themselves. They’re just comfortable in themselves. When someone is a little too formal, then they have in effect a mask. They’re wearing some kind of a mask that allows for that formality, and my view of leadership presence is the mask is attempting to hide a vulnerability, and in hiding vulnerability weakens leadership presence. I think we connect with each other emotionally in vulnerability, not really even in strength.

A mask is trying to project this story out into the world of strength, and great if you feel it and if you have it, but if there’s vulnerability, and compassion, and empathy, and connection, that’s how we connect with people. We connect with people in points of pain. Probably more than we connect with people in points of admiration and strength. To me, I think all of that fits in to leadership presence.

Lisa: Beautiful. Yeah I love that. I love that. Thank you. Do you think it’s learnable? Is this something that people are born with or do you think that they can learn it, and develop it, and master it.

Peter: I always think that the dichotomous question is somewhere in the middle. Are you born with it? I had Jim Kouzes on the show – he wrote “The Leadership Challenge” – and we were talking about leadership. He spoke to this are you born with it or do you learn it. He says, “Well everybody’s born, so we’ll start there.” If you’ve been born, you’ve been born with something. I think it’s a combination. Is it learnable? Absolutely. Will some people be able to go further with their learning than others? Probably, right? Some people are so uncomfortable with themselves that just increasing their comfort with themselves, finding yourself in your body an additional 20% will increase your leadership presence.

Will you have as much leadership presence as people who have been comfortable in their bodies for 40, 50 years? It’ll probably take you some time to get there. Are there things that you can do to become more comfortable and grounded in your body? 100% absolutely, no question. I think the question of are you born with or can you learn it is too black and white. My answer is you can always learn it. You can always get better from where you are. You can always show more leadership presence. My view is that the distinction between showing leadership presence and being comfortable and connected in your life is a very thin line. To me the advantage of gaining leadership presence is you walk in the world with more confidence than you would otherwise.

Lisa: I love that. I love your focus on the whole grounding and the body side to it because as a story teller that’s something that really speaks to me. We train, my background as a professional storyteller is training to be able to tell from your body, to embody the story. That’s so much about leadership. Thank you.

Peter: How do you help people really ground themselves in their bodies?

Lisa: From storytelling, I have all these techniques that I do from walking barefoot as you practice the story to visualizing the actual physicality of the story in terms of time and space. There’s lots of techniques. With leaders, and for stage presence similarly we do a lot of actual physical work. Moving around the stage, moving your body, getting to a place of comfort. You’re so right. It’s about the person’s individual comfort with themselves first and foremost. If that’s not there you have to work on that before you can move forward to great stage presence and leadership presence.

Peter: It reminds me when I was in college I took a class on storytelling and we all chose a story to tell, and there were a number of things that we did. This was not a class for credit by the way, this was an extracurricular thing, but we all chose a story to tell, and part of the process, the part of the process that I remember most is we had to draw out the story. We basically drew cartoon versions. We had 30 boxes, and we had to fill each box with elements of the story.

Lisa: Story board.

Peter: Story board. Thank you. We had to story board it and I’m not a great artist. That’s never been my forte, maybe I could probably improve on it because I think you can learn things and not just be born into them, but I remember how surprising it was. How essential it was to storyboard it, and how clearly I saw what I was saying when I was telling the story, how clearly I saw it as though I were there. I wonder what you think of story boarding as a way of getting ourselves really in that story. Maybe even creating storyboards about our own story. About who we are in the world. I wonder have you thought about that or tried that?

Lisa: Yeah. I mean I’ve played with the idea a little bit. I tend to, because as a story teller, I like the activity of story. For example for me, when I’m practicing preparing for whether it’s a speaking event or at my speaking events they’re all full of stories, I’ll be out walking. I’ll put on headphones because I’m going to be talking out loud and I don’t want to look like an entire lunatic to my neighborhood, but I’ll be out there talking, telling the story, doing movements and so on. For me it’s not so much putting it on paper, although I think story boarding is I mean it’s a fantastic tool, but definitely they say as a story teller they say if you see your story, your audience will see the story.

That is absolutely true. In fact now neuroscience is proving that. There’s this whole mirroring affect that happens. If you can see the story as you tell it, if you can truly embody the story, then the story is going to come across as authentic, and real, and compelling, and resonant for people. I believe that it’s the same with any type of communication for leaders. It’s such a critical skill to be able to do that. Another quick question because I’m conscious of the time and I’ve got so much to ask you here. Okay we’ve established it’s learnable.

Everything’s learnable. Do you think that there’s a particular method of learning that’s going to be more powerful. Maybe this is a skewed question because we’re both leadership coaches, but do you think for example, teaching, coaching, mentoring, putting people in a certain environment so that they’re exposed to certain situations is the best way to teach this skill of leadership presence.

Peter: Yes to all of those questions. I think that we learn in so many different ways and so many elements of learning come into play. I’m not a huge advocate of sitting in a classroom and having someone just teach me something from a PowerPoint and write it down. On the other hand I want to say that it’s useful to learn a new concept. It’s useful to understand new things intellectually. Now if it stays intellectual, you probably won’t be able to integrate it. I think there’s space for everything. There’s space to teach new information. There’s space to try it out. I think ultimately we never really learn it until we’re taking real risks with it because the challenge in taking a risk is am I willing to feel something. If I’m not willing to feel something, if I’m not willing to feel the risk of showing up authentically and in vulnerability, and I’m not willing to feel that at all then when I’m standing on the stage I definitely won’t project it.

I think we have to grow our capacity to feel a variety of things. That has to be part of the learning process – it’s what I call emotional courage. If we’re not growing our emotional courage, then we’re probably not going to show up in the way we want to show up in real life. I think mixing it all up, and certainly real time, real places, real people is how we end up fully integrating the new behavior and go from something that’s sort of consciously we’re working on to something that unconsciously becomes a part of who we are.

Lisa: Right. Right. Right. Yeah. I love that. In terms of leadership capabilities, do you think this is a big one? Do you think this is important? Personally do you think it’s an important capability to have leadership presence? Do you think that it’s recognized within organizations as an important capability? Again, when I say leadership presence I’m not talking about necessarily standing on a stage and addressing 2,000 people, I’m talking about the way you interact and show up in all parts of your leadership. How important is this?

Peter: I think it’s a critical skill in my view. You have to be careful not to be a shell of leadership presence. Meaning to have leadership presence without anything underneath it. The truth is I think that’s impossible. If you’re going to show up really with leadership presence, there has to be an authenticity to it, otherwise energetically you’re going to convey that. I can see through people, you can see through people, everybody listening here can see through people all the time. That doesn’t mean they won’t be in very senior leadership roles in the world, and politics and whatever but at the same time you don’t necessarily want to follow them.

The leadership presence, I want to go so far as to say I think it’s a life skill. Not only is it important in leaders, I think it’s important in anybody. I am attracted to people who have presence. Who are able to be confident in themselves. Be generous with others. People who are a little scared and insecure often show up as arrogant. They might even have presence. They might have a lot of presence on stage, but that arrogance kills the relationship. There has to be an authenticity, and the clarity from the inside out. You’re talking about the inside story and the outside story, I think they have to match because otherwise it’s thin. It’s very easy to see through it. It doesn’t hold up under pressure.

Lisa: I see such a connection between authenticity and leadership presence in that if it’s not the real deal, you sense it a mile away. You can just know that that’s the case. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. You’ve answered a ton of questions and I’ve loved your insights. I really appreciate it.

Peter: Thank you too. This has been a really fun podcast. I really enjoyed hearing about the four core stories at the beginning and then being in a conversation about it. I’m excited to read this book when it comes out. You’ll have to let me know and I’ll let the listeners of the podcast know. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Lisa: Thank you.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness. A lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our big arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode and thank you for listening.

How do you turn around a company? For this podcast, I interview one of my clients, Brian Gaffney, the former US CEO and managing director of Allianz Global Investors. The year we began our work together, his organization had an annual loss of $30MM. In four years, Brian turned that into an annual gain of $140MM. One of the key things we did in our work together is bring five disparate organizations (and leaders) into one collective force, aligned and accountable. Discover Brian’s formula for meetings that dig deep, why star talent is not the most important thing, and how he eliminated tension between functions.


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Bio: Brian Gaffney served as Chief Executive Officer US and a managing director with Allianz Global Investors, which he joined in 2008. He is a member of the firm’s Global Executive Committee and US Executive Committee. In a previous role, Mr. Gaffney was CEO of the firm’s US distribution entity, responsible for retail distribution and marketing for Allianzowned asset managers in the US. He has 26 years of investment-industry experience.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host, and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

We have with us today, Brian Gaffney. I know Brian, for many years, having worked with him. Brian is the retired CEO and U.S. Managing Director with Allianz Global Investors. Brian and I started working together in 2011 or so.

To give you a sense of what Brian was able to do, he was facing a loss, and the organization was facing a loss of about $30 million in 2012, and his goal was to reorganize and turn that around. Again, to give you a sense of the success that Brian had, one year later they made a profit of $40 million, the next year it was a profit of $92 million, the year after that it was a profit of $113 million, and when he retired in 2015 the business was on track for $140 million.

So, there are some things to learn from Brian. How do you turn around an organization that’s losing $30 million a year, to one that’s making $140 million a year? Again, as I said, Brian and I have worked together, I know him well, he is every bit a good person as he is a successful person. He achieves these results with deep integrity, and passion, and vision, and all things that we look for in leaders and we look to emulate in leaders.

So, without further ado, Brian Gaffney, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Brian: Hello, Peter. Thank you. That’s a terrific introduction. Thank you, I appreciate that.

Peter: Brian, let’s go back to 2012, or maybe even a little before 2012, and you’re facing an organization that’s losing money, a tremendous amount of money, and you’re in the CEO role here to turn it around. What are you facing, what are you looking at, what scares you or disrupts you, and what do you do to begin to shift the organization forward?

Brian: Well, maybe, Peter, I’ll take a half step back. When I joined in 2008 I was brought in to run the distribution company, I was CEO of the U.S., running third party distribution for the multi-affiliate structure. PIMCO, Nicholas-Applegate, RCM Capital, Oppenheimer, these were all companies that really comprised the Allianz asset management, also including PIMCO in the United States, and that had been built over the years through a series of acquisitions and one of the selling points was, “We’ll acquire you, and they’ll be some benefits at scale, but we really want you to continue to do things the way that you’ve always done them when you were independent.” These were, really, quite independent companies.

The distribution business went very well, but in 2012, we launched a project called Project Decade at the same time I was appointed CEO for the United States, so it was beyond distribution, it was CEO for all the business functions, for all of the multi-affiliates. Frankly, when I looked at it Peter, it was one of the most daunting challenges I had seen. I was quite comfortable in the distribution company, but because of the multi-affiliate structure, and because of the autonomy, the idea of trying to pull together such disparate businesses, and yes, we’re all in the same industry, but the cultures in all of these organizations had been formed over many years, and we’re really quite different. In some cases, senior leaders of these organizations had never met each other.

Peter: So, Brian, let me pause. Just for listeners who don’t really know what it means, what distribution means versus the broader CEO role that you took on, can you in a sentence or two describe, that people who aren’t in finance and don’t understand, can get a grasp of it?

Brian: Sure. Allianz products need to find their way on to platforms such as 401K platforms, the Merrill Lynch system, independent financial advisors, and that’s done through a sales organization, and my job was to lead the sales and marketing effort that allowed Allianz products to make their way on to those platforms, and then be sold to end consumers.

Peter: And example of products would be asset portfolio managers, and funds that-

Brian: Mutual funds.

Peter: Mutual funds. Great. So, when you stepped into the larger role, what was that increase? So, right now you’re, in 2008, you’re running a sales organization to get the mutual funds into 401K plans, and into larger retail-based financial organizations. What is the step-up represent?

Brian: In each of the independent companies, they had their own institutional sales force, and as you might imagine, if you were a small company, when you talk to institutional buyers you’re only able to bring those products that are affiliated with your company.

The challenge was to create an institutional sales organization that could bring all of the solutions to a conversation instead of the smaller solution from one company. That was part of it, but there was also infrastructure. Every one of these companies their own legal, complaints, IT support, all the things that went along with operation an independent asset management business. That created tremendous complexity and tremendous regulatory challenges, and the biggest thing that it impeded was the ability of us to bring products that were manufacture by Allianz and other parts of the world into the United States and vice versa, this complexity would not allow us to take products manufacture in the Unite States and get them distributed in other parts of the world, and therefore, Project Decade was launched.

Peter: Got it. So, you’re basically faced with having the multiple disparate businesses, in effect, run by multiple disparate people with multi disparate objectives and goals and personalities, and you need to integrate them in such a way that they’re working together effectively, so that you can then bring them as a holistic offering to spread the sales more broadly across the U.S.

Brian: Correct. I think it leads to the natural question, “Why would these independent companies want to agree to become part of one company?” They like their independence. The challenge was they were each running their own separate P&L, and it really forced them to make very difficult decisions because of scale, or lack of scale. If we could combine all that into one P&L, we could make longer term strategic decisions for each of their operating entities, and they wouldn’t be stuck with having to navigate the up-and-down cycles of an investment management company with very specific mandates. It would give it a broader opportunity to participate in a bigger P&L and longer term strategic discussions.

Peter: So, it’s like you’ve stepped into an organization that has done, in effect, conceptually, a tremendous amount of M&A and never integrated any of the companies, and everybody likes operating independently, and everybody likes their freedom, and, maybe they’ve been bough out, in effect, but nothing’s really changed for them except a little safety, and so they like it that way. You’re coming in, and you’re basically saying in order to make this thing run effectively I’ve gotta get people to play together, and work together, and roll up what they’re doing, in such a way that we could have economies of scale and a market strategy that looks much more unified than we currently look.

Brian: Yeah, that’s correct. It was interesting that people were cooperative and supported this effort and really did understand that this could lead to broader distribution in other parts of the world, and obviously accepted the fact that, that would require change. Change was always acceptable on the surface, it was until you had to touch their particular operating entity that you caused a lot of friction, and that was the challenge that really had to be overcome. Mentally, people thought they were in the place that they thought change was appropriate, but when you tried to touch their organization there was quite a bit of resistance. The challenge was, how do we really get people to understand everybody has to accept that some change will affect their organization and to be willing to support that, with the eventual goal of being able to create life for the organization and eliminate drag that was embedded in the organization just because of the autonomy.

Peter: Great. So, how’d you do it?

Brian: As I said, it was quite daunting and I was given some guidance by Dr. Joachim Faber, who actually built the asset management business. Early in 2011, I didn’t know I was going to be appointed to the CEO position, but he encouraged me to really make my way around to all the separate affiliates, and make sure I had good and growing relationships with all the key members with those companies. So, I got on the planes and I made the trips, and I made sure to get to know everybody. Then, when I was appointed CEO I understood why he did that. So, I had built up some relationships that really made the going, in the beginning, a little easier than had I just stayed focused on the distribution company. That was terrific guidance.

The next thing we did is, one appointment was made very quickly after I was appointed CEO, and it was from a retiring general legal counsel who appointed who would be next in charge of legal. Really, thanks to guidance from you, Peter, that night that that appointment took place I sent out a memo, there would be no more appointments. What it took to be successful in your operating affiliate, may not be the same traits that are going to be required to build this bigger one organization, and to find those people we were going to have an interview process, we were going to have a committee. We were going to use some of the same things that had been expressed globally, and we had expressed it loud in the distribution company, that we wanted core values of respect, integrity, passion, and excellence, and you were going to be interviewed on that basis and we were going to gauge your ability to be collaborative and cooperative.

There were nine functional head positions that had to be filled. There were people that had the natural talent, or either guided in organization that was large enough, that would tend to indicate that they should probably get that post. As you got into the interview process, because of the different cultures, there were people that were just not geared up to try to build a collaborative and a cooperative environment. So, we didn’t necessarily get the most talented people, but the view was if there’s a talent gap we can close that, but if we have a cultural gap, that’s not something that’s easily changed or easily … You can’t really direct that. So, we leaned very heavily on finding the leaders that we thought could collaborate and be cooperative, that would ultimately, make it’s way through the organization and create the lift that was required. That turned out to be one of the most important moves that happened, was to eliminate that appointment structure and to take control of what the culture needed to be for the new, one organization, and to make sure that the right people get into the key positions for those roles.

Peter: You know, it’s an amazing signal to send to the organization when you’re willing to say what you’ve said, which is, “I’m willing to take someone with less capability, if they exhibit the values, because we can develop capability, but it’s much harder to develop values.” It takes a leap of faith on your part to do that, and it sends a message to the organization about how important the values are. That even the people who are already there realize, “Wow. This is being taken very seriously,” as opposed to what happens in a lot of organizations, which in order to know the values you have to pull out this sheet and look at them to figure out what they are.

Brian: I think a side benefit to it is, it made people that were either potential leaders or thought they were potential leaders, stop and think a little more clearly about where we’re going next. Not necessarily try to think about how you’ve been doing what you’re doing, and you just need to do it a little bit better in the new organization. If you wanted to interview for one of these positions, you automatically had to think differently before you even got into the interview process, if that makes any sense to you.
Peter: Okay, so, now you’ve established this and you’ve sent clear signal to the organization, the values are going to be the most important, how we work together is going to be critical. What happened then?

Brian: Next, we formed an executive committee, and this was probably the second biggest challenge, but maybe it was the biggest challenge, because I was the CEO over the business functions, but I was not the CEO over the investment functions. The investment professionals and all of these affiliates reported to Chief Investment Officer that was located in London. So, I needed to bring them to the table, because it was critical to get their support. When I sat at a table in San Diego, and I sat at the head of the table, my knees were literally knocking under the table, to try to figure out how do I get some of these people, and you have to understand that there’s a natural tension between sales and investment professionals. The investment professionals never really quite think that sales and marketing do enough for them, and sales and marketing are always challenged to get product that perhaps haven’t hit the threshold of performance that make them saleable. So, I found that tension in every organization I’ve ever been in, so it wasn’t unique to this particular challenge, but to try to get cooperation to move this into a one company with lift instead of drag, there had to be some method to try and break down some of those natural tendencies.

In other cases, we had competing entities at the table, if we were gonna build a new product there was always a discussion about which one of these operating entities should lead that effort and should own that product. So, in some cases, we had people who didn’t like each other at the table. So, I would say that our first few meetings, Peter, were really quite miserable, and really functioned quite poorly. We used the function to, I think, partially to avoid controversy, which is absolutely the wrong thing to do. So, we used it as a reporting function, and after sitting in two days of reports you could see, people had their iPads out, investors were investing, and there was absolutely zero collaboration that was taking place under that structure.

Fortunately, you and I talked a lot about that, and you helped me formulate the type of a meeting structure that would promote a real engaged dialogue. That made a very significant change. We followed your instructions, we said look, keep the iPads at home, turn them off. More importantly, think about leaving the cap of what business you operate at the door, because you’re really in this meeting to help think about how we take the greater organization forward. The most important thing is we’re going to circulate a series of questions and you might be surprised at the questions, because they’re going to be the un-discussable’s, they’re the things that are really important to move the organization forward, but we never really talk about them because they’re painful, they’re uncomfortable to talk about. That’s what we’re going to do in these meetings and you’re all smart enough to read the reports. We’ll post those on a site, you can read them, we hope you would before the meetings, and if you have questions bring them to the meeting, but the meeting is to discuss the very, very tough subjects that have to be dealt with if we’re really going to take the organization to a better place.

Peter: How did you, I’m curious, what was going on for you emotionally around that too, because you’re suggesting that they go places that they’re all trying to avoid to go, and your kind of on the line for it. I’m curious whether you felt that pressure, whether you were scared, or concerned, or anxious, or whether you feel like it was the right thing and you knew what you were doing. Where were you in this?

Brian: I wouldn’t say I was exactly confident. I was somewhat excited, because it did become clear, as we thought through this exercise that these were the smartest people in the organization, sitting at this table. That if we could get them engaged, we really could get something out of this that could be very valuable for the greater organization, simply because of the high quality of the people that were in that room. What made me nervous, was I capable as a leader to bring about that kind of dialogue, and I was very uncomfortable with that because I had never done it before in my career.

What I think was happening inside, was people were embracing this idea, because they thinking about their own pet peeves that they were finally going to get on the table. Not so much about how they might collaborate and cooperate, but I can finally talk about the crummy sales organization and what we need to do to make that better. The sales people are thinking, oh good we’re finally going to talk about the poor performance and why we can’t sell, and we’d like to know what you’re gonna do about it. So, I think people came to the table thinking, I’m gonna knock some things off my list that have really been bugging me, and not necessarily thinking about this is really a great dynamic and I’m a participant, and I’m going to really contribute in a positive, constructive way to this. I don’t think people really brought that mind set to the table.

Peter: So, how did you shift it?

Brian: I’m not so sure that I shifted it. The dynamic that I hadn’t expected was that when you put the tough subject on the table, it didn’t really concern everybody at the table, but when somebody was on the hot seat there was a certain degree of empathy that started to emerge. People would feel, and they would also hear, misunderstandings, as the facts were placed on the table, people may have had a few, and when those misunderstanding were cleared up with facts, it made people see things through a slightly different lens. This didn’t happen over night, this was numerous meetings, but it also made people more comfortable over a drink to talk about some of the difficult conversations and issues that the firm was facing. That also started to build trust. So, little by little, empathy started to build and trust started to build, and then the conversations took on a much more lively pace, and I say pace because they sort of slowly moved in the beginning and as people began to trust each other the pace started to move a little more quickly, and we could get to potential solutions and potential new ideas faster as the trust and the empathy started to build within the group.

Peter: You know, it’s interesting what you say about drinks, because I remember the first time I really became aware of this, that I really noticed it. It was one of the very, very early meetings I was running, maybe two decades ago, and I had run a meeting where we were trying to air a whole bunch of issues. I thought that we had resolved them and that people seemed to be forthright and open, and then we took a break. We literally didn’t go to drinks, we literally stayed in the same room, but we took a break and there was some food that was brought in and now we weren’t “meeting,” we were having lunch in the meeting room. I said, to one person, “How do you think it’s going?” He said, “Oh, I don’t think we’re airing any of the issues we have to air.” I thought to myself, why is he telling that to me now, while we’re having lunch in the same room, in the same seat he was in ten minutes ago, when he was part of the conversation but not bringing this up?

I think there’s something about the formality and the informality, and that if you could talk about the work in an informal way, people are much more forthright than when they think we’re having the formal conversation.

Brian: You know, it was interesting, some of the more tense conversations we had were in the early days. With the drinks before dinner, or the drinks after dinner when people really started to dig a little deeper into an issue that we had talked about during the day, but maybe, we sort of, scratched the surface, but in a more relaxed environment the really deep digging really started to take place. It was interesting to watch. It was great for me, because I could sit back and observe the dynamic and start to think about things that I could do to improve the dynamic, instead of necessarily having to feel as though I needed to resolve all these challenges on my own.

Peter: That’s great. How did this come to fruition. How did this work end up helping you get to these results that I described in the beginning, where you’re going from a $30 million loss to $140 million profit?

Brian: Well, good results always require a lot of variables falling into line. As far as getting people pointed in the right direction, this dynamic and appointing the right leaders at the beginning really started to get people pointed in the right direction, because to get the kind of results we did get, you needed to do some difficult things. There was a tremendous amount of complexity in the organization and we needed to get rid of the complexity. We had four separate companies once we had separated from PIMCO, but we had 15 operating legal entities that needed to be compressed. You needed cooperation to be able to do those things, you could not effectively improve the results if you had resistant at every point of change.

The leadership and the executive committee created a clearer path to accept some of the tougher decisions that had to be made to eliminate the complexity in the organization. It lent itself into a good year, the first year, where we … Nobody had really put all the pieces together and added it up as one P&L. Honestly, people thought their operating entities were making money, and everybody was quite surprised to see that when you put the pieces together that we were losing $30 million, in fact, it was quite shocking for the operating entities. There was one operating entity that was really supporting the other three.

So, it became clear on paper and on a factual basis that things had to be done, so, that supported cooperation. Then, we pretty aggressively moved to make the changes and eliminate complexity with the support of the executive committee and with support of leadership. The next three years, continued to be record breaking years for the United States, and I believe the last year, I retired at the end of 2015, before I left, I left at the end of the year, the results indicated through November that we were on track to meet the objectives of the year, which were a substantial increase from the year before, and would be the fourth consecutive record year for the United States.

Peter: It’s amazing. It feels like from what you’re saying that a tremendous amount of it was get the data, get the right people in the room, have conversations where you require a level of openness and honesty and that you create the environment to have that level of openness and honesty, and that you put the difficult issues on the table that are getting in the way, and that you make them unavoidable, in fact, the undiscussables become unavoidable. Then, you have those conversations, and then people emerge both edified and having learnt more, but also realizing that the pain of having these difficult conversations are, in effect, much better than the pain of trying to avoid having them, and then taking the loss.

So many times I look at organization’s, Brian, and I see that everybody, individually and quietly, will talk to you about what the problems are, but they’re not having those conversations together, and so they get stuck in the problems. I think what you’re describing is the courage that you showed to say, I’m going to take these conversations that are happening and I’m going to commit to the culture that we say we have, and to the values that we talk about wanting to see. I’m going to commit to them in a real way where I’m hiring and firing based on them, and then I’m going to take the conversations that people are having quietly in the side lines and I’m going to bring them to the front, and I’m going to shine some light on them. I’m going to bring the right people in the room to have the conversations that we need to have and me move them forward.

So, that takes a lot of courage, I want to say. It seems very simple and straightforward, but it’s following through on decisions based on commitment to values, and based on the data that leads you to make tough decisions about who to hire and who to fire, and how to reorg in a simple way, and how to get people to work together.
Brian: Not to belabor this, but a subtle change, that I think made a difference, is we really pay a lot of attention to the core values, the respect, integrity, passion, and excellence. There was a lot of work done around those core values, but most importantly, there was enforcement of those core values. Where I had control, and bad behavior was evident, and change needed to be made, we made it, and in the earlier days we made it aggressively so that it would serve as proof statement that we’re really taking these values seriously.

In a smaller organization, depending on the leadership of that organization, different styles of behavior were allowed to coexist. When you got into the bigger, one organization, and the core values had been expressed so loudly, it was much more challenging to demonstrate bad behavior, and also you knew that if you did demonstrate bad behavior you’re probably not going to stay around for too long. That was very helpful, as well.

Peter: Brian, thank you for sharing this story with listeners. Thank you for sharing both accomplishment and the … I know, because we were together, that it wasn’t always easy. That you sweat through some of this, and that’s the nature of it. It’s your demonstration of your integrity, and respect, and passion. That you’re living those values, that … I don’t even know if you know how important it is, and was, to the organization that they can look at you and that they see someone who exhibits passion, and respect, and integrity. That it’s not just hiring and firing based on that, but it’s really living the values yourself, as the leader that sets the tone that people realize they have to live up to it.

So, thank you for doing that. Thank you for sharing your wisdom here on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Brian: Thank you Peter. I’ll just take one more second to say, the work that we did together was very, very critical to the success. One of the keys that you taught me was, you had to stop and think. I’ve always had a tendency to react through my gut, through my instinct. Through the work with you, you got me to stop in critical instances and, in some cases, either react and do something that I hadn’t thought through, or in some cases, don’t do something that I naturally would’ve done. You were very, very helpful in helping me think through the proper approaches to this, and I’ll be forever grateful for your help.

Peter: Thank you so much Brian.

Brian: Thank you Peter.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review.

A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization, as a whole, forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow Process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts visit

Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.

What is most important to the success of your business, talent or organization? According to Dave Ulrich, founder of RBL Group, structure & process have four times more impact on a business’s success than level of talent. His new book, Victory Through Organization: Why the War for Talent is Failing Your Company and What You Can Do About It, examines thirty years of data on how HR professionals can help leadership solve this critical process gap. Discover the three ways HR can help your business win, what to do to get them more involved in the conversation, and how we can pick up on the “weak signals” that give our companies their edge.


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Book: Victory Through Organization
Bio: David Olson Ulrich is a university professor, author, speaker, management coach, and management consultant. Ulrich is a professor of business at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and co-founder of The RBL Group.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. Dave Ulrich is on our podcast, today. He wrote the book, Victory Through Organization, Dave, has been a hero of mine for decades. He’s been working in this field of impact in organization, of impact of ideas and insights.

This book, Victory Through Organizations, the subtitle is, Why the War for Talent Is Failing Your Company and What You Can Do About It. Dave has tremendous insight into what enables us to help an organization make the right kinds of choices, so that it will be successful, and what are the competencies. It’s based on a study that he’s been doing for decades called, The Human Resources Competency Study, HRCS, which he’ll talk about, today. Dave, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Dave: Thanks, Peter. It’s absolutely great to be with you and to connect after seeing the great work you’ve done in your books and your articles.

Peter: Thank you. The basis of so much of your work is The Human Resources Competency Study. Share a little bit of background, so that people know what this research is based on.

Dave: A number of years ago, we wanted to figure out, it’s not about human resources, in fact the last book that you just got, the hardest paragraph in any book, and the hardest sentence, as you probably know is the first one. The first sentence is, HR is not about HR, dot, dot, dot. It’s about the business. So, we’re intrigued, not with what does HR need to know and do, but what does HR need to know and do, so that the business wins. We’ve been intrigued with that for 30 years.

We started in 1987, and we’ve done seven rounds of data collection that are fairly large. The most recent one is 32,000 people, 22 partners, around the world from 1400 business units, and we want to know what are the HR talent leadership and organization practices, and the skills of HR people, so that businesses are more effective.

Peter: You know, in reading your work, and reading this book, in particular, and spending a lot of time, myself, with HR people in organizations, I can tell you that there’s such a clear distinction, so obvious, such a gap between the HR people who are strategic partners with the business and who are business minded, and ones who are vendor focused, and really trying to respond to a need of a business in an HR way. The distinction you’re making is so visible in the marketplace and I see in the research that you’ve been able to see the same thing.

Dave: You know, one of the most fascinating things we published in HBR about a year and half a go, in the magazine, we had data from Korn Ferry of the 15, I think it was, dimensions of a CEO, and they have a huge dataset, so we looked at the top 20% or 10% of CEO’s, here’s on 15 dimensions, their profile. We compared that profile with a head of HR, they had a manufacturing, the head of IT, the head of marketing, and the head of HR. Here was the shock, the profile of the CEO’s who were most effective matched the head of HR more than any other function. Heads of HR, who are good, in the top 10 to 20% have the same leadership profile as CEO’s. More than marketing. More than finance. More than manufacturing. More than IT. Good HR people are really great business people.

Peter: That’s great. I mean, I love that research. I hadn’t read that article, and I will.

Dave: I should tell you HBR didn’t like the conclusion, so they turned it from a full article to a research note in the magazine, because one of our conclusions was, the top HR people, who also know business well, to be a CEO you’ve got to know finance, you got to know strategy, you got to know customers. Our argument was, the top HR people who know those other business requirements are the next generation CEO’s. That’s a long step. We ended up getting cut from an article to a research note, because they didn’t like our conclusion-

Peter: Why do you think they didn’t like that conclusion?

Dave: I think it’s a big stress for people to say when you’re beginning to look for your next pool of CEO’s, obviously look at folks who come through marketing, folks who come through finance, but also look at folks who come through HR, and the data was so fascinating that the skillset of the best CEO’s matched the skillset of the best HR people. I just think it’s a fascinating time for HR. Businesses, I’ll give you the quick headline, businesses win today when they have an access to capital, but you know what? Almost everybody in capital markets can find it, Kickstarter and other things.

They win when they have a great strategy, whether it’s blue, pink, orange, or yellow, you’ve got have a great strategy, but most businesses can figure that out, how do I win? Business win when they have great systems. They have great platforms for technology, and operations, but most can do that. The most difficult thing to copy, the most difficult thing to differentiate, and around strategy execution, that you know better than I by far. Here’s organization of people. That one’s tough. You could copy access to capital. You can copy strategy. You can copy platforms for technology and systems. It is really tough to copy organization of people.

Peter: Interesting. Micheal Mankins from Bain and Company, was recently on this podcast. He wrote Time, Talent, Energy, and he was making exactly the same argument, that there’s no longer a competitive advantage to financial markets, or capital markets. That really the competitive advantage is can you harness your time, talent, and energy more effectively than your competitor?

Dave: It gets really interesting. What does that look like? That’s the issue that we created in 1990, my first book, probably still the best title and book that nobody has read, it’s called, Organization Capability, but let me share some research we did in this Victory Through Organization. I’ll pull us back to this book. One of the fascinating questions, if you hold up five fingers on your left hand, you have talent, I have five great people, in your right hand you have a closed fist, so we began to ask the question, which one of those matters more for business results?

Is it the talent? The war for talent has been going on since 2000, the war for talent is a great study by McKinsey, is it these five individuals, or is it the organization? It’s the fist. Is it the system. Is it talent or team work? Is it people or processes? Is it workforce or workplace? The cool thing is we finally got data. We got 1200 businesses, we measured business outcomes on six dimensions, then we measured for those 1200 businesses, the quality of people in the business, the left hand, and we measured the quality of the department, the organization. When I teach, I often ask people to divide 10 points, which of those two, the talent, or the organization has the most impact on business results? Our results actually shocked me. Four over one, organization. Eight to two, organization has four times the impact on business results than talent. In order to fight a war, you need the people. You need time, talent, energy. In order to win a war, you got to have organization. That good people don’t win.

Then, we started to study this, and I’ll be quiet in just a minute, is that true, not just in organizations, but elsewhere? We looked at sports, which is a great case study, and in almost all sports, in team sports, in soccer, the winner of the golden boot is on the team that wins the World Cup, 20% of the time. In hockey, the leading scorers on the team that wins the Stanley Cup, 20% of time. I love basketball, in basketball the winner towards the most points is on the team that wins the NBA championship, 20% of the time.

In movies, the winner of the Academy Award for actor or actress is in the movie of the year, 20% of the time. I even studied Spice Girls and if you’ve ever looked at me, that’s a stretch. A band out performs the individual soloist, 80% of the time. You know what’s fascinating? Is there’s a lot of push in the HR field about, we deliver great people, amen. Amen. You’ve got to have people, but it’s the organization that ultimately wins in the marketplace.

Peter: Two questions about that, Dave. One, is how are you assessing the talent of the people versus the talent of the organization?

Dave: We have measures, and that’s the beauty of big datasets. We have 4,000 HR professionals, we measure their competence on 123 items by their associates, so we have metrics of what set of skills do these people have, that self report, self report is very dangerous. We have 28,000 people who measure their skills. Then, we measure the quality of organization. How well does the organization deliver this set of capabilities? So, we have measures of capability as well as measures of individual competence.

Peter: The second question is, what constitutes the organization, beyond a collection of talented individuals?

Dave: This is such a cool question and it’s one I’ve played with for a long time. I think there’s three ways in organization. Way one, is you look in organization you see the morphology, you see the structure, you see the roles, you see the boxes, you see the charts, when we tell people, draw an organization almost everybody draws boxes and arrows. That’s the re-engineering work, that’s the restructuring work, that’s the de-layering work. Way two, is alignment. You have the Jay Galbraith’s Star Model, which is so good, or the 7-S model, the McKinsey Work Health Model. You have an alignment model.

Way three is organization of capability. Jay Galbraith, just before he passed away, and I’m so sorry he couldn’t get this, he said, I have five points in my star, but what I’m really after, is what he called, Org Design Criteria. Well, those Org Design Criteria are the capabilities to an organization. I love Marriott Hotels, because their capability is great service. I love Apple, because their capability is design, is in innovation and design. I love Amazon, because their capability is consistent delivery. Organizations are not structure, or alignment systems, they’re capabilities, so we look at an organization and try to do capability audits. What are the capabilities or organization needs to win in this marketplace?

Peter: What have you found? We were talking briefly about big datasets, and data, and you found some interesting data about data.

Dave: We did. Let me get that with two ways. We identified 12, we wrote an article in HBR called, Competing Through Capability, and we kept pursuing that. We did a fascinating, again, study, and we love the data across these businesses, we looked at here’s 12 capabilities the company has, and here’s how well they do them, so you’ve got effectiveness and impact on the business. What we found is one of the capabilities that was the most critical in business impact was what we call, external sensing, or data, we dug into that, and what we found was today in the HR field, in the information field, the shiny object is analytics.

A few years ago it was some other stuff, but today, it’s my new shiny object I’m going to put an ornament in my house it’s analytics. When we did our research, we found that HR people, or business people, and organizations that did data didn’t produce better business results. It’s really counterintuitive. We finally have done analytics on analytics, and they don’t produce business results, unless its external information. That the goal of analytics is to provide information that has business impact, so we said, real quickly, there’s four ways of analytics.

One is a scorecard. I wrote a book with great authors, an HR Scorecard in the 90s, today that would be an atrocious book, because HR’s not about HR. Second, analytics, give me insights, that’s big data, that’s good, but it’s still inside the company. Third, analytics unless we make smart intervention, that’s better. Fourth, analytics should start with business impact, because it’s about external information that drives the business. If I’m a Marriott Hotel, and my goal is service, I want to know how customers measure guest experience. If that’s the business impact, then I look at HR data, what would be the data that would drive that customer or guests experience, or increase our net promoter score, but I don’t start with HR data, or HR insights. I start with guest experience.

Peter: Got it. Defining the outcome that you’re trying to achieve and then only looking at the data that either supports or detracts from it.

Dave: Yeah. Let me give another one, that’s so cool. You, and many of us have been excited about leadership, and finding what’s an outcome a company cares about? Well, we care about our stock price. There’s a resounding dot. So, when you look at market value you get an interesting quirk, two firms in the same industry have the same earnings, but they don’t have the same stock price. Why is that? Well, one of the issues is, a big field called intangibles, so a company says, I tried to increase my stock, that’s how I make money, that’s great.

I have intangibles. I have a great strategy. A great plan. A great industry position. That’s great. But, what we discovered in a lot of our research is one of the drivers of that important outcome is leadership. So, in another piece we’ve done, we’ve created a leadership capital index that you can now go in and move these index, measures your financial business discipline. Am I going to give my investor and the discipline with their financial returns? We can now measure your leadership capital and show an investor that the quality of leadership has an outcome on the results that investors care about.

Peter: I want to circle back to something that you said, that is, I think both profound and leaves me curious, which is that great HR people have the same profile as great CEO’s, and that HR people really should be a funnel to CEO’s, and I’m going to link this to a couple of chapters in your current book, because my two favorite chapters in some way were chapter six, where you talk about the credible activist, and chapter seven where you talk about the strategic positioner, You are not talking about them as models, you’re talking about the competencies that in order to really get a seat at the table you have to be a credible activist.

In order to do something with that seat at the table, in order to make an impact on the organization, you have to be a strategic positioner. I’m wrapping all of this into my question, which is, of all the CEO’s I know, have met, have worked with, which has got to be in the hundreds, I’ve never met one who grew out of HR. My question is, what can we do to close that gap? What can we do to show up powerfully in an organization with all of the capacity and capability that we have, whether you’re in HR, or in another part of the organization, and given that most organizations are matrixed, these days and that your power comes from personal power more than positional, what are some of the things that people could do to really show up powerfully in their roles in the way that they could line up to be CEO, or they’re acting like CEO in a way that’s supportive of the organization?

Dave: Two caveats, before I answer that. The first one is, I’m going to pushback a little bit on the assumption, I think sometimes people say, if you cannot become CEO you don’t have impact. I think that’s really false. I think it almost belittles the role of chief HR officer. Good heads of HR have incredible impacts around talent, leadership, organization that helps companies win, and you don’t have to lead the function to be good. Second, there are tons, but we have Lisa Weber, that head of MetLife. We have Mary Barra the head of General Motors. We have Nigel Travis, the head of Dunkin’ Brands. We have Anne Mulcahy, who is the head of Xerox. We have Bernard Fontana, the head of [inaudible 00:17:35].

There are cases where heads of HR have moved, Bob Wright, who was at NBC, the head of NBC, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to get HR professionals, who have insights that help the organization win. We think they help an organization win with insights on three things. One, is talent, and our research shows organization matters more, but it would be hard for, well, maybe for you, but if I took myself and 10 other people and was on a soccer team, no matter how good we worked as a team we wouldn’t win the World Cup. I’m just not that good of an athlete, so you’ve got to have good talent, and you’ve got to have committed talent. You got to have engaged talent.

You also got to have great organization. You got to build systems and capabilities that make the whole more than the parts, and you’ve got to have great leaders, who have great vision, and pertinacity, and HR folks bring insight into those skillsets that help organizations win. When they bring those insights, they help the discussion focus on what needs to happen and turn strategy into results. This is your area, where you’re so good and written about it, is strategy is not strategy execution, if I can quote someone, is not a strategy problem, but a people, and I would add an organization problem. That we know where we’re going, the problem is getting the organization and people together to make that happen.

Peter: I love that. Thank you, and thank you for the correction. I have to expand the number and provenance of CEO’s that I know, but I also really take to heart what you said, which is that a powerful, impactful head of HR, or frankly, a senior leader in the organization, no matter what they are, is critical to moving the organization forward if they have the right kinds of competencies that can add the impact, and take their function and apply the knowledge and capability of their function to the outcomes that the organization needs to achieve. Talk just a few minutes about this credible activist and the strategic positioner, because getting to the table is important and then what you do there is important.

Dave: Again, the place we like to start, and you’ve done this same work, and again, the place we like to start is in outcome, what’s the outcome we’re trying to create? And, there’s three in HR. This isn’t just HR, it’s any staff group, or even business leaders. One outcome is getting access to the discussion, that’s getting to the table, the metaphor, being seen is credible. What we discovered is, you’re not given access unless you’re a credible activist. What that means is people want to spend time with you.

I can assume, Peter, you’ve had experiences where you coached some of these great CEO’s and they begin quickly to connect with you, they trust you, they see you, you’re credible, but you also know how to push them. You’re not just a [inaudible 00:20:40] person [inaudible 00:20:41], your somebody who has an accuracy, has a point of view, you’re willing to be proactive. What we found is HR folks who are credible activists get invited to discussions. Then, the second question is, now that I’m in the discussion, what’s an outcome? Who do I represent? Who gets better, because I’m in the room? Who’s improved?

What we discovered is there is stakeholders to an organization, some of those stakeholders are the employees. If HR is involved in business dialogue at the table, the metaphor, and they want to serve the employees, stay a credible activist. I’m the voice of the employee. I help the employee get heard in the discussion, but if HR wants to serve the customers, the investors, their communities, the business stakeholders, they’ve got to shift gears. Credible activists get you in the room, and it lets you serve employees, but to serve those business customers, you’ve got to be a strategic positioner, and here’s what that is, again, I’m synthesizing a lot, here.

One, you got to know the business. You got to know the language of business, finance, marketing, strategy. Two, you got to know how your company makes money. What’s the money proposition? What’s are strategy? How do we win? Where do we play? Number three, you’ve got to really know your stakeholders. Who are our key customers? Who are our investors? Who are our communities? What do they want? How do we win with them?

Four, to be a strategic positioner you’ve got to know the changing business contents. What are social, technical, economic, political trends that will give us opportunities in the future? When HR people can work up those four stages, the first one is just knowing the language. You got to know business. You got to know strategy. You got to know stakeholders and then you’ve got to see what that future looks like, so that you can help us play to win. Those strategic positioners deliver value to customers and investors in unique ways.

Peter: I want to give a shout out to your business literacy test, which you have on page 156 – One of the big questions I have is, to what extent is this developable? I mean, in what way can you, David McClelland, who, I don’t know if you knew him-

Dave: I know that everyone knows his work, it’s phenomenal work.

Peter: Everyone knows his work. He was asked, once, can I develop achievement orientation in people? Can I develop the drive to achieve in people, and his answer is still one of my favorite answers of all time, which said, you can teach a turkey to climb a tree, but you’re better off hiring a squirrel.

Dave: That is so good.

Peter: Sometimes there’s squirrels you have to teach to climb a tree. People have the capability, but they still need the development, but you create this framework, or a series of questions that say, you know, here are some things you should be looking out for that can help you to understand the field that you’re operating in. My question, in terms of development, is you can gather all this information, and you can see the data, but trends aren’t always so simple to interpret, and I’m wondering whether you’ve noticed anything about the people who are most successful at doing that.

Dave: Your questions are so good, we could go hours with this. Let me try to replay back your question, two points, real quick. Point number one, McClelland was so smart, I never had the privilege of meeting him, but everybody who’s popular has read his work and I know grounded in his insights, there is research, nature versus nurture, born verses bread, and in general the research is 50/50. I like to talk about the nature stuff, what your born with is a predisposition. Many people have done the Myers-Briggs introvert, extrovert. I am predisposed to be an introvert, but I can learn the skills of an extrovert, so that 50/50 is so helpful, that’s the turkey, squirrel question. You’re predisposed to be a turkey or a squirrel, you can learn some of the other skills.

Second, in learning the other skills, the other 50%, sometimes you need framework, and I’ll do it with an anecdote. We were with a group, recently, and we said, when you look at the changing marketplace for your industry, what are the trends that are weak signals, that are happening? The group came up with 10 of them. All 10 were around technology. Internet of things, digitalization, new technology, and I said, you know you’ve done brilliant job going deep into one of six trends.

That’s why, and I don’t care if you call it step, or steep, just call it something. You know, there’s also trends in your industry around social trends, lifestyles, around family, urbanization, religion, wellbeing, diversity, there’s technical trends, there’s economic trends around global markets, and new competitors, new economic cycles, there’s clearly political trends, you cannot turn the television on today and not recognize political, regulatory shifts. There’s environmental trends around social responsibility. Community. There’s demographic trends around age, education, and millennials. This group, immediately turned to technology, because it gets a lot of air time, and you missed a whole bunch of stuff. When we look at SCPD, we gave that to business leaders when they visit a country or when they try to go into a new market, is to say, look at the weak signals in these areas, that enable you then to begin to predict what you could do differently.

Peter: I imagine that the more time you spend both playing with it and talking with people about it the more clarity you end up getting to some degree.

Dave: That’s really fun. What’s fun about weak signals is they’re weak signals. For example, social trends, if I’m in the beverage industry, people want food that has less calories, so the governor, or the mayor of New York had even tried to prescribe some of that, so how do I begin to play in that space, if I’m in a carbonated beverage space? Because that’s a weak signal that’s coming out. I got to say this thing, I was going to say it earlier and I let it go, because I was talking too much. In the world of data and information there’s two kinds of data in the world.

Some of the data is called structured data, it’s problem solving, it’s statistics in a spreadsheet. I love statistics, my PhD is basically statistics, I did numerical taxonomies. I love data, it gives me insight, but 80% of the data in the world is mysteries not puzzles. Its unstructured observation. Good HR people should not only be analysts of the statistics, I can do the analysis and figure our insights, we should also become anthropologists. A great anthropologist looks at stuff other people don’t see, and they begin to look at weak signals.

I think you spend, in fact, I’d love to ask you, Peter, weak signals is you hear something and it just goes ding, ding, ding in your head and it may not have a lot of data, but it’s a note, it’s an insight, it’s an observation and you go, holy smokes, I got to dig deeper into that one. I’m jealous, Peter, of your job, you get to talk to smart people all the time, I bet once in a while you hear something that just goes, whoa, that’s a good one, and it may not be data based, in terms of traditional and empirical data, but it’s an observation that just grabs you. Does that resonate with you at all?

Peter: It resonates with me from this very conversation.

Dave: Well, don’t me as the conversation. By the way, this is why I’d love to be in the field. I was talking to a head of HR, he came into HR from manufacturing, and operations, and he said, Dave, every change effort, and again, you would know this in your strategy work, has an S curve, you start small and you move up, and you flatten out. He said, I’m new to HR, but in my 30 days, all my HR people have talked about is talent, talent, talent, talent, I think we’re 70 to 80% of the S curve, we know where to find people, we know how to bring them in, we know how to orient them, we know how to pay them, we know how to train them.

And, he said, here’s my problem at [inaudible 00:29:13], if we don’t change our culture, we’re going to have great people, that was my left hand with five fingers, who don’t work well together, my right hand is a fist, and he said, on the culture curve we don’t even know how to think about it, yet. We’re 10% up. He says to me, why do HR people spend all their time on talent, when we’re pretty good at it and almost none of their time on culture? Inside my head was going, bing, bing, bing, bing, duh, and he just, Paul, is his name, he captured for me some of the issues I’ve been ruminating on. That for me is the 80% of data that’s found in observation. We need to learn to become anthropologists who observe what other people experience, but don’t get recognized.

Peter: It’s great. I’ll give you one, actually, that’s been simmering with me-

Dave: Oh, I’m waiting for that. Yeah.

Peter: Everyone has always been busy, but the level of busyness that I’m seeing in organizations, right now, and the multiple priorities, the overwhelming things that people have to do, and the overwhelming number of priorities that people have is leading to a situation where, and it’s not that people are hiding behind multiple priorities, it’s that the priorities are hiding them, so everybody’s working very, very hard.

They’re all accomplishing something, but because of how busy they are, and because of the multiple priorities, that all of the work they’re doing isn’t moving the ship forward. It’s related to what you were talking about in terms of talent versus organization, that you’ve got incredible talent working on important problems, but because none of that work is clearly, effectively aligned and because everyone can be so busy on real priorities, but they differ from each other, that the organizations are struggling to move forward.

Dave: You know, somebody could draw a lot of arrows, and then put a big arrow around it that gives you an integrated overall focus. That was the joke, that’s you work and it let you know I did a little homework with you-

Peter: Thank you. I’m seeing it even in clients that we’re working with, now, that were working with the big arrow system, and I’m still seeing how extreme this problem has gotten and how the necessity to say no to things seems to be a critical strategic capability.

Dave: There’s out there this complicated scene of complexity and confusion, you just seen it. The next question is who have we seen, you or me, that seems to manage their way through that? The next question is, Kurt Lewin once said, and it’s brilliant, nothing is as useful as a good theory, so don’t just jump to a practice. What’s in an approach to managing that, and one of the approaches is your big arrow, take a big arrow and have a shared purpose with different agendas, that’s great. Are there three or four others?

Then, we begin to search through. For example, I love you question, and I don’t have an answer to it, but one of the pieces is the economist that want to know about price, Herb Simon, satisfice, F-I-C-E. Not everything worth doing is worth doing well. Somethings are so important to do, they’re worth doing poorly. So, when you’re overwhelmed with to dos 60 to 70% are worth doing poorly, just get them done. Now, I’ll stop with that. What we’re trying to illustrate is listening as an anthropologist to a problem that doesn’t have a solution, and then beginning to create some ideas that may help us resolve it. That, for me, is great external sensing, and great HR focus, and great business leaders both tend to have that knack.

Peter: Dave, I could talk to you for hours. I try to keep these podcasts to less than 30 minutes, and we’ve hit the mark, but I want to certainly continue this conversation and maybe we could have you on the podcast more in the future, but also outside the podcast I’m happy to continue it. His book, his most recent book, is Victory Through Organization: Why the War for Talent is Failing Your Company and What You Can Do About it. Dave Ulrich, thank you so much for being on The Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Dave: What a privilege, Peter, to connect. May we both learn from our future.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole, forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our big arrow process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.

How can we become more aware of our own biased thinking? Mahzarin Banaji, co-author with Anthony Greenwald of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, helps us uncover biases and stereotypes ingrained since childhood. Discover why racism and antisemitism aren’t dead, how we can dilute stereotypes, and the effectiveness of rational arguments against tightly held beliefs.


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Bio: MAHZARIN R. BANAJI received her PhD from Ohio State University and was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Washington. She taught at Yale University for 15 years, receiving the Lex Hixon Prize for Teaching Excellence. She is currently Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology at Harvard. She served as the first Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. At present, Banaji also serves as Cowan Chair in Human Social Dynamics at the Santa Fe Institute. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Diener Award for Outstanding Contributions to Social Psychology and is Herbert Simon Fellow of the Association for Social and Political Psychology.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With us today is Mahzarin Banaji. She has written the book Blindspot, Hidden Biases of Good People. She’s a psychology professor at Harvard. The book is fascinating. It’s fun because there’s all sorts of tests in the book that reveal your own biases uncover your own blind spots. That’s what we’re here to talk about with Mahzarin. Mahzarin, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Mahzarin: Thank you very much for having me, Peter.

Peter: What is a blind spot?

Mahzarin: All right. It’s actually quite simple. The reason we selected the term blind spot is because it’s a word that’s well-known to people, and it has a very specific meaning. We all know that our eyes, our retina consists of a blind spot. On it is a blind spot. When information falls into it, we don’t see it. We use this word as a metaphor to speak about many aspects of our minds where information may reside unbeknownst to us that may affect our decisions but that we do not know about. That’s the only reason we use it. Increasingly these days, I extend this out to speak about the blind spots that we also encounter, most of us everyday in the blind spot that our cars have.

The reason I like the automobile example even better is because that one, we are fixing. We are figuring out ways of giving people information that otherwise would be lost because it’s in the car’s blind spot. By doing so, we know that we will make driving safer. That involved a certain kind of outsmarting. We know that the car will have a blind spot. Our eyes will have a blind spot. Likewise, we will have biases. They’re a part, an integral part of our daily thinking and decision-making. We can’t just wish them away or even want to have them all disappear because in many cases, they may serve a very useful function.

Peter: You’re reducing the defensiveness around the blind spot which is such a critical piece.Everybody has them like a car has them. You don’t look at a car and say, “That car is not a good car because it has a blind spot.” You just expect it’s going to have a blind spot that you have to work around. Can you describe a couple of examples of some blind spots? Then, let’s talk about some ways of getting at them that may short circuit the challenge of defensiveness and also help ourselves, help others see what’s in that blind spot.

Mahzarin: There are many, many examples of blind spots that we could call on. Some of the most obvious ones come to us in the form of stereotypes. Stereotypes are nothing but beliefs that we have about large groups of people that may or may not be true about the groups. For example, the stereotype that men on average are taller than women is true, and yet the question is in the given case, are we applying that stereotype enough that we end up not selecting somebody or not see them as viable. For example, airlines used to say that seats are set up in such a way that only a man could fit in them. That’s why women couldn’t be pilots. Well, maybe tall women could have been pilots, but we never thought of it that way.

The best example I can give you is a riddle that we have used that you, I’m sure, are familiar with and your listeners are familiar with. It’s a very simple riddle, and it goes something like this. A father and his son are in car accident. The father dies. The son is rushed to the hospital. The attending surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.” You ask people, “How can this be?” We discovered that even recently, 80% of people cannot answer this riddle. I couldn’t answer it in 1984. When I was asked this riddle, I said, “It’s possible that the father who died in the car was the adoptive father, and then the surgeon who was called in to do the surgery could have been the biological father.” Increasingly these days, people give a very interesting and correct answer. That is two dads. Certainly two dads is logically possible, but you and I know that the much more statistically correct answer, by correct I mean just more probable, is that the surgeon was the boy’s mother.

Why does this escape us? Why does it escape people whose mothers are surgeons? I just met a woman who didn’t get the right answer and was absolutely annoyed because her mother is a surgeon. She could not think of this answer.

Peter: How can that be a blind spot of a person whose mother is a surgeon?

Mahzarin: Because the culture leaves its thumbprint on our brain. That thumbprint is so powerful that it can even obliterate your own personal experiences because you can say … Your mind probably says, “But that’s my mother. She’s very special.” You put her in a different little place in your brain and she doesn’t count. What’s interesting is that as the number of women surgeons is increasing, you know, it’s something like 80:20 or 70:30, why does our brain act as if it’s 100:0? It does. That’s the way it works. Knowing that is important. Fixing it so that you don’t rely on the stereotype when it comes to thinking about possible people is very important.

One of the examples that we have of this bias in action is the story of a woman called Tamika Cross who was on a flight. When the flight attendant asked for a doctor who could help a patient, and Tamika Cross offered help and was told to please sit down and not bother her because the flight attendant was looking for a real doctor. Several times, you know, Dr. Cross offered her help and was denied until somebody, another doctor, I think, figured out that she was one of the tribe. I think of this as a very interesting extension of the riddle problem, that we capture the riddle problem in some abstract way, but these are the ways in which blind spots actually materialize in ways that could cost somebody their life.

Peter: I was teaching my daughter about moral licensing. This idea that if I do something good, it almost gives me permission to do something bad, that that’s how our mind works and that it happens with bias, right? If I have a friend who is Jewish. I’m Jewish, so that’s an easy one for me to use. I have a friend who’s Jewish. Then, i could say, “Look, I’m not anti-Semitic. I have a friend who’s Jewish.” That allows me to psychologically be discriminatory towards other Jews because I’m not one of those. You know, I’m on the right side.

Mahzarin: Some folks just call this subtyping. The idea is, the word is subtyping, you take somebody who doesn’t fit the stereotype, and you could do two things with it. You could accurately update your stereotype so that your stereotype now becomes weaker. Instead, we put the unusual one in a separate little bucket so that we can keep the original stereotype intact. That’s certainly one theory of how we do this. Yes, my mother is a surgeon, but that’s my mother. Some of my friends are Jewish, but they’re not like other Jews. They don’t keep kosher or whatever it might be. I think it’s actually good for you to bring up anti-Semitism in this context because I think it’s on the rise. I think we should talk about it because so many Americans believe that it’s gone, that a case between Boston and Washington, you really would not see any evidence.

Then of course, we have to explain how the day after the elections, so many New England towns seemed to sprout Swastikas in public places, showing us that these stereotypes were always there and that different events in our culture allow the stereotype to pop out. That’s a very powerful function that senior leaders have in their hands, that presidents and CEOs and leaders have because what they’re doing by their words and by their actions is saying, “You can release the control that you otherwise exert on your thinking.”

Peter: Of course, it’s the same for Islam or Muslims. You know, I have a friend who’s Muslim, but they’re a different kind of Muslim than these other Muslims. You could use the evidence of your relationship with someone to dilute your stereotype or to reinforce your stereotype by creating a distinction between the person you know and everybody else in their tribe.

Mahzarin: That’s exactly right.

Peter: I love this idea of diluting the stereotype or diluting the blind spot and recognizing that when there’s evidence contrary to the thinking that you have that it’s not just an either/or. You said 0:100. It could be that, you know, most women are shorter than most men. I mean I don’t know what the statistic is around that, but when you meet taller women than men, you realize that that actually doesn’t hold water in terms of making decisions about a woman or a man or size in general.

Mahzarin: That’s right. The brain is a categorizing machine. It loves categories. We feel very good when we can see green as different from red. We like to put people into those categories. You remember the Saturday Night Live skit that used to involve this androgynous person called Pat. Pat would come very close to reveling his or her gender but never would. Every viewer wanted to know. We all want to know. Is pat male or female? That’s so important to us. We ask that as the very first question when a parent says they’ve had a child. We say, “Girl or boy?” It’s impossible, even from day one, we want to know where to place them.

Peter: How do you help reveal your own blind spots or the blind spots of others without heightening their defensiveness or while getting around the defensiveness so that people can actually see them?

Mahzarin: You raise a very good question. Look, why should people not be defensive when you tell them about their blind spots, especially the kind we do, which is not even about, “You don’t take criticism well,” which is one that I think would be a lot harder, a lot easier to deal with than the harder things that we say. We say, “You’re not the good person you think you might be,” or rather you’re good at the conscious level. Somewhere there in your brain is information. That information, without your knowledge, is a part of who you are. You can deny it all you want, but we can show you it’s there. Of course people are going to kick and scream. Why shouldn’t they? If somebody said that’s to me, in fact, I showed real resistance to the result of my first test. When I took the test, the first IAT in 1994-

Peter: Describe to our listeners what an IAT is.

Mahzarin: Yes, the Implicit Association Test is something that I’ve co-developed with Tony Greenwald who actually invented the test, sent it to me by e-mail and asked me to just take it. Both of us had been collaborating for many years on building these kind of methods that would allow us to get at what lies outside of our conscious awareness. I took the test, having taken many others, but none other was like the IAT or the Implicit Association Test. This was a test that required me to sort faces into two categories. Hit the left button if you see a black face. Hit the right button if you see a white face. Easy enough. Then, I was told to put things into two categories that are good and bad things. Words like love and peace go to the right, and words like devil and bomb go to the left. Easy enough to do. Then, I was asked to do them together. White and good goes to the right. Black and bad goes to the left. Easy peasy.

Then came the switch where I was asked to associate white with bad and black with good. Easy peasy, I thought, until I actually tried to do it. My fingers couldn’t find the right key. I couldn’t remember. I took much longer to complete the test. I made many more mistakes, and I was in a sweat. My first thought was, “Something’s screwed up with the test.” It took me a full five seconds to realize. This is after doing this kind of research for 20 years. It took me a good five seconds to realize that maybe it wasn’t the test that was screwed up. Maybe it was my head that was screwed up, and yet I took the test in many different forms before I was willing to actually believe that it was telling me something real about myself, but something that I was not going to be able to see.

I want to go back to this question you asked about resistance. I think we should try to place this resistance in the context of many, many, many other resistances that our species has shown in the face of difficult information. For my students, I often begin with Galileo, and I say, “Okay, here’s a great man. He finds a telescope, and he takes it away from children who are playing within the streets. He turns it to the heavens, and he sees the moons of Jupiter are dancing around in ways that the Vatican is not going to like.” Talk about resistance. It took the Vatican 350 years to write an article that said that they agreed with Galileo. Who am I to complain when people don’t believe what it is that we’re saying? Look, in psychology, just as with moral credentialing that you spoke about, there are thousands of little results that I think all add up to a very similar picture of human nature.

Take the Milgram experiments that human beings will shock other people and put them through intense pain just because somebody’s asking them to do that. Now, isn’t that a shocking result? When you tell people that they’re likely to do that or that 66% of them are likely to do that, of course they’re going to resist that. I’m not that one. I would be the good person. Take the Darwinian revolution. We still haven’t come to terms with Darwin. You know, I still go to places where they’ll ask me to say that evolution is just a theory. Look, anything important that says we are not special. Our planet is not at the center of the universe. Ur species was not placed here by God himself as the best one. All of these have met with resistance, and what we’re saying, as psychologists today is yet one more step in the same direction. We are not the good people we think we are.

Peter: It makes sense that we would have that resistance. The question then is how do we help ourselves get over that resistance? How do we help others get over that resistance so that we can show up as the people we want to be, because if we stay in that resistance, then we’ll be in what we call unconscious incompetence, right? We will, in effect, have maintained a really happy view of ourselves while doing damage in the world. The question is how do we get over the defensiveness, the resistance to seeing that so we could actually become the people that we see ourselves to be?

Mahzarin: Right. The district attorney of New York City, Cyrus Vance said it very well. He said, “There is no shame in having implicit bias. There is only shame in not doing something about it.” I very much agree with that because what’s the value of knowledge, new knowledge if we don’t do something with it? Look, how do we change minds in general? Sometimes, technology helps. Galileo had a telescope. It’s very hard when you stick people’s faces in front of a piece of glass and have them look at Jupiter and see something and still deny it. I always envy scientists who have a technology like that because it’s so much easier for them than it might be for people like me who are dealing with things that are a bit hidden. In a sense, the IAT is like a baby telescope. It is incredible crude. It is not in any way direct. The interpretation of Galileo’s results went on for centuries, right? It wasn’t the data. The data were there, but people were trying to explain them off in all these different ways. We’re seeing that exactly with the IAT.

The New York Magazine wrote an article. Somebody who’s not an expert spoke to a bunch of non-experts who just decided that this can’t be true because it doesn’t agree with their politics. We’re going to face exactly the same issues as anybody saying something difficult. Your question is, “So how do we move forward?” I do believe that the IAT is an arrow in our quiver that is priceless because 30 million tests have been taken, and we are the sole recipients of e-mail that comes to us from the people who have taken these. I can give you just a few examples.

Yes, we have naysayers. Yes, we have Neo-Nazi groups that target the lab, but we also have thousands and thousands of people who have written to say that it changed how they thought about themselves and that they have taken action to do certain things. Now, I’m not going to put any credence because we don’t have studies that have been done to show, “Did they really change?” I believe that there is a coming-to-terms with it. I’ll give you an example. 25 years ago, I would ask my introductory psychology class a question. “Are you a biased person,” on the first day of class. Something like 1% of students would answer yes. Today, over 65% say yes. I think that’s not because they are more biased today than they were 25 years ago. If anything, I think it’s the opposite, but I think today, there is a deep recognition that we are biased. It comes from people like Danny Conoman, Herb Simon, the huge amount of work that’s been done in the decision sciences, the moral credential work you mention. All of that together, I think, is teaching us that we are boundedly rational.

Peter: It’s the behavioral economics that says that we don’t act in rational ways. Although what you’re saying which is also very interesting is that in order to help people recognize the irrational ways in which they may respond or act to expose their hidden biases, we have to use very rational responses to it. We have to show evidence that this is what’s existing, and that in the face of that evidence, their rational minds could interact with their biases in such a way to say, “Wow, I see what’s happening here. I do. I get it.” As long as we can appeal to the rational in disobscuring, in revealing the irrational, then we believe it. That’s part of what I’m hearing from you.

Mahzarin: I agree, but you and I know so well that rational arguments are limited. When I speak, I have to decide how much of just the evidence and the evidence and the evidence I should present. I know what that would do. Certain people will believe. Even everybody would believe the data, but they would not say, “That’s me.” They would say, “Yes, that’s true of other doctors. Other doctors don’t give black men the same level of pain killers as they give white men, but that simply isn’t true of me.” My frustration with organizations and institutions is that they’re not collecting data on individuals and showing it back to them.

Think about this. We know that there is enormous evidence now that pain medication is prescribed differently to African-Americans and white Americans, even though they report the same level of pain. This is true across the country, in many parts of the country so it’s not just in particular regions. It’s true up and down the disease spectrum, in every disease that you can see where [inaudible 00:23:59] is involved. To me, the solution to this problem is extremely obvious. First of all, hospital systems have the data. They know it, okay? They will speak about it in hush tones. My feeling is that if we really want to be rational, and with doctors, there is no reason not to be because doctors are absolutely consciously unbiased. They take an oath. Unlike any other profession, they take an oath that they will treat everybody the same and will treat them in order to relieve their misery.

What can they do? I think it’s very simple. I think a hospital system needs to have two little graphs, two little bell curves that show the average pain killer given to black people and white people in that hospital system from their own data. Whenever a doctor is prescribing a pain medication, that little graph should pop up. We should say to the doctor, “You get to decide what you want to do as an expert. Just be aware that in our hospital, this is the average milligrams we give to white people. This is the average milligrams we give to black people, and you decide.” I’m very interested in trying out what I’m calling interventions in the moment, because teaching people in a two-hour seminar is not going to get them to change their behavior. What we teach them is too far removed from their daily actions. I do believe that if we can insert these reminders in the moment that we could see dramatic changes in behavior because conscious attitudes are pure.

Peter: it would be really cool to have a graph that says, “Here is the average of what we’re prescribing. Here’s where you fall in that average.”

Mahzarin: I would love to do that. The technology allows that. You type in the letters, Percocet and [up-ken-pop 00:26:16], the graph for all pain killers or just Percocet. This is not hard to do. One of the things that I will agree with you on on change is that I find many organizations screaming about how much they would love to be able to fix this. “Tell us, what can we do.” When we get close to telling people what they might do, I’m not seeing them do it. I think that we are in a moment when either we will break out of it and do it or we won’t and because it is now a question of will. As I always say to them, “You don’t need yet another study.” There are now thousands of studies using resumes, for example, that show that with exactly the same resume, people get very different callbacks.

My colleague, Devah Pager did a study where she sent black and white men in person applying for jobs. She showed that the likelihood that a black man in New York City was going to get a job was exactly the same as that of a white man of the same age, same education level but who was also a felon. Now, in the mind of the hiring manager, these two become equal. When I say hiring manger, I mean you and me. I mean us. I mean that in my mind, the two now look roughly the same. I ask myself, “Which one would be the better deal?”

Given those data and given that there are hundreds of these studies that are called audit studies where we see differences in hiring and promotion. We see differences in whether you get a loan in a bank or nor, whether you’re told you can stay on a bus if you don’t have enough money or you have to get off the bus where doctors look at the same CAT scans and decide differently about whether you need surgery or not. I think the data are there. It’s now a matter of deciding that we would like to do something about it.

Peter: Interestingly, it seems like closing that gap has to do as much with our own personal development, drive for growth, humility, as anything else. The willingness to look at our own behavior and say, “I don’t know. I have things I need to learn. I can get better at this. I will believe that I have these biases or I have these blind spots.” The blind spots could be cultural as you’re describing most of these or they could be personal. Somebody says I yell at meetings. We have to approach it with a sense of humility that says, “I’ve got something to learn here, and it’s worth learning.”

Mahzarin: Yes, but why should you believe them over what you know about yourself? Here is my claim. In the individual case, you are just as right as they are. We don’t know. It’s your word against theirs which is why I think you should want to collect data. I think you should tape your meetings. You should have a blind coder count how many times you yell. I have had people sitting in the back of my classroom counting who I call on. We show them the data, yes.

Peter: Bringing data out of the lab and into the actual work environment.

Mahzarin: I call this the small data movement.

Peter: I know. I love that. I think it’s important. I could think of clients for whom recording their meetings and then playing it back to them would surprise them. And using a blind coder which is the example you give having women in orchestras play behind a shade. You don’t know if it’s a man or a woman. Suddenly, more women are getting hired into orchestras than they would otherwise.

Mahzarin: Yes. Somebody other than the harp player, yes.

Peter: My guest today is Mahzarin Banaji. Her book is Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Mahzarin, it’s such a pleasure having you on the Bregman Leadership Podcast. Thank you. You have a lot to teach all of us, including me. I’m so happy that you’ve been here as a guest.

Mahzarin: I learned a lot. Thank you very much, Peter.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos and podcasts, visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for the next great conversation.

How can we be vulnerable without losing credibility? It’s an important issue addressed by Sheryl O’Loughlin–former CEO of Clif Bar, cofounder of Plum Organics, and current CEO of REBBL. She’s written Killing It! An Entrepreneur’s Guide To Keeping Your Head Without Losing Your Heart. Discover the importance of having a support group of fellow entrepreneurs and how to stay grounded during the tough times. Sheryl also discusses her battle with anorexia and how she eventually realized she had a problem.


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Book: Killing It
Bio: As a child, Sheryl O’Loughlin was best known for rushing everywhere and being too impatient to pour milk into a glass before drinking it. As an adult, Sheryl is no less eager. She served as the CEO of Clif Bar, where she introduced the world to Luna bars; she was the cofounder and CEO of Plum Organics; and she is currently CEO of REBBL super herb beverages. One of her favorite roles was mentoring budding entrepreneurs when she was the executive director at the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. With her book, Sheryl is able to share her advice with a wider group of current and aspiring entrepreneurs all at once, which delights her because, well, it’s faster. And that means more time for drinking wine at her Santa Rosa home, and hanging out with her husband and two sons.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host, and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

With us today is Sheryl O’Loughlin. She is the CEO of Rebel, which is a super herb beverages company. She was previously the CEO of Clif Bar, which our family somewhat lives on. She developed and introduced Luna Bars, and she has written the book, Killing It: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping your Head without Losing your Heart.

Sheryl, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Sheryl: Thank you, Peter. I’m so honored to be here.

Peter: Sheryl, let’s start with the subtitle, Keeping your Head without Losing your Heart. Can you tell us a little bit about why you came up with that and its relevance to your experiences as an entrepreneur and a leader?

Sheryl: Yeah. I think, in a lot of ways, entrepreneurship is a little bit of a head and a heart game. Many people go into it with such passion. They’re doing it, they want to do it, because they have something that just burns in them that they want to be able to accomplish. To me, there’s so much heart in there, as we start, but then, over time, the game becomes so complex and complicated and there’s so many ups and downs, that I think, many times, we lose ourselves in that process, and it just becomes this whirlwind of activity.

As we’re trying to even just keep our head around what’s going on here and how do I stay in my leadership, but many times with that, and with investors around you and all of the pressure on profits and everything, that you start to lose what even brought you there to begin with.

The heart, I think, is so essential, but that’s the thing that, many times, gets lost.

Peter: This is going to sound like a strange question, but why is that important? Meaning, if you’re running a business and there’s a bottom line to it and you can think rationally and strategically about your next moves and you make those next moves, why is the heart an important piece of it?

Sheryl: I think one of the things that we have lost over time, and that there’s many business now that are starting to bring back, because quite frankly, millennials are demanding it, is that there’s human beings in these companies. We forget that. They’re people with lives that have emotions, and we’ve so much separated business where everything’s just about keeping thing at arms length and thinking through logically, and decisions.

What we’ve forgotten is that people are still at the end of that. What I’ve realized is, when I haven’t kept myself, my whole self, as part of this, my head, my heart, my spirit, I leave my people lost and that I no longer have that connection as a leader with them.

I think it is so critical to be able to stay connected with our teams and really provide purpose and meaning in our work.

Peter: I want to reflect back to you what I read in your writing which extends what you’re saying one step further, and which I agree with, and that’s that you’re not just doing it for them, for the employees, but you’re doing it for yourself, meaning, if you’re going to continue to be a powerful, present leader, to the internal world, to the external world, it’s not just showing up in that so that you don’t lose them. It’s showing up in that way so you don’t lose yourself, which is something that I think comes out loud and clear in the writing, and the struggles, frankly, that you’ve had as you’ve run the companies.

Sheryl: Yeah. I think that, taking a step back from it, we have created this culture around entrepreneurship that is all about how great everything is all the time, and we, as entrepreneurs, we need to many times be like, “Everything’s great,” because if we don’t believe it, nobody else around us will. We’ve got to bring investors on board and suppliers and employees to join our team, and we’ve got to be out there, positive about this journey, but there has to be a time where we can take a step back and talk to other people and get the support we need to say, “I’m worried. I’m scared. I feel like I’m falling apart. I can’t sleep at night.”

You talk to so many entrepreneurs who have been through this journey, and they will all say, “That was hell. That was going through hell and back,” but no one talks about it as a part of the process and even the media … I’m so grateful that you’re doing this, because even the media doesn’t give us that impression, that anything is hard, because it’s all about the money and the success.

Peter: Right.

Sheryl: What so many entrepreneurs are going through is they have lost themselves in the process, and experiencing things like depression, and bipolar disorder is highly associated with entrepreneurs, and drug abuse, and we hear all the callings of alcoholism, and suicide and divorce. It’s because you’re in such an intense situation and if you’re not keeping yourself grounded as part of it, it will take you away.

Peter: One of the things that I hear from people when I have this conversation with them, and this is especially true of women, who are leaders in organizations that I have conversations with, which is, “I can’t openly say that I’m scared. I can’t openly say that I’m feeling out of control. People will lose faith in me. I will lose credibility. That kind of vulnerability risks my power and my leadership, especially as a woman in an organization,” though, I think it’s true that men feel that in organizations, also.

I wonder, as a woman who is a leader, who is a CEO, who’s run several companies, how do you respond to that? How do you address that concern, which feels very real?

Sheryl: In some ways, I want to answer that question in two different ways. One is where I think the envelope is pushing out, in terms of more progressive companies. I would like to go back there after, so I want to stay really grounded in where many people probably are right now in exactly what you stated.

There is a time and a place to be vulnerable. It can’t be that, if you’re in the middle of a crisis, and you’re absolutely falling apart in the moment, to go up in front of your whole company and say, “I am in the middle of the crisis. I haven’t figured it out. I’m completely falling apart.”

That’s going to scare a lot of people. I think there’s different ways to approach this. One is to make sure that you’re finding people, a tribe of people, that you can be vulnerable with, that you can open up to to be able to get that support, and there’s many organizations like that, there’s starting to be many, that are out there, whether it be the Entrepreneurs Organization or Young Presidents Organization, YPO, or even just finding a group of entrepreneurs that you feel like you can open up to and that can support you.

You need to have that so that you can think through, “Okay. How can I get grounded again so I can go in front of my team and be able to say, ‘Hey guys. I’m going through a rough time here. Going through a rough patch, but I want to let you know I’m here with you, I’m focused on being with you, but I need to let you know I’m feeling this way because you’re going to see it.'”

I think that’s the thing that we forget in our companies, is that people see it. They know it. When we’re walking through our companies and we’re completely shaken up by things that are going on, they take those signals for the leader. Without acknowledging them, we’re making it so it becomes scary.

I’ll give you an example of something that just happened today. I was dealing with a little bit of a crisis in our marketing group, and it was pretty intense, and then I went into this meeting that, ironically, was on our culture committee. It was a committee of people who works on, “How do we continuously improve our culture?”

It was about five minutes into the conversation, and I realized, I have been really intense, because I’m thinking about this other conversation, so I reeled back to them and I said, “Look, I’m really sorry guys. I am just coming off of a very intense conversation, and I know I’m bringing it into this one. Let me dial this back and take a deep breath and start over.”

It’s acknowledging what’s happening with you in the moment, and making it so that people understand what’s happening, and then making sure that you’re coming down and grounding yourself again.

Peter: That actually takes strength. In effect, what that communicates is, “I’m not weak. I’m strong. I’m willing to admit what’s going on for me that’s getting in the way, and I’m willing to correct it.” The asset in that situation is you were able to correct it in the moment, which is great, because that shows an incredible amount of groundedness and strength.

I think the challenge people have, that I talk to, is when they’re feeling that out of control, and they don’t know exactly how to correct it yet, so they’re in the middle of it, and it’s in that middle of it that feels really scary, and maybe the truth is, when they’re in the middle of it, they don’t share it broadly. They find their small tribe. They find people who they can share it with, until they feel like they’ve gotten their ground enough to be able to come out more publicly, and course correct in that way.

Sheryl: Yes. I think there’s a difference between letting it all out and who you let it all out with, and coming to terms with it, and what you are presenting every day in the company. In other words, when I was going through, and we can talk about this, some of the struggles that I had, it took a very long period of time to be able to come to grips with what was happening with me and to be able to even figure out how I was going to approach it myself.

Peter: Let’s be specific, because you’re right about it, and it will help listeners who haven’t read the book yet, to have a sense.

Sheryl: When I was at Plum … We can dialogue a little bit about the story, Peter, and tell me where you want me to go more in depth and less in depth. I had co-founded a company called Plum, and it was … It came after I was leading Clif Bar and it was all about nourishing kids from the high chair to the lunch box.

It was a company I co-founded with somebody, a guy that I had worked with … Hired, over at Clif Bar, brilliant product innovator named Neil Grimmer. We were both so passionate about feeding our kids healthy and organic and doing it in a way that it was great tasting and well-designed food.

I’m going into this thing, starting a company from scratch, and funded by VCs right from the beginning, and going through the typical ups and downs that you go through, everything from seeing your products out there in the world, which is a great high, to manufacturing problems where you can’t even get the product off the line to be even able to ship it to customers, so ups and downs.

At the same time, my husband decided to start a business, to, and his was called Blue Sky Family Club, and why we ever decided to do this at the exact same time, I will never fully understand. Warning to readers: not smart with your significant other to start a business at the same time.

The idea was great. Blue Sky was this indoor play space for kids where kids could eat healthy and do physical activities and creative activities, and parents could have a glass of wine or a beer. Every parent drooled over the concepts.

Peter: Let’s fast forward a little bit, because his concept failed.

Sheryl: His concept failed big time. The whole thing blue up in such a short period of time, and it was all self-funded, plus a lot of debt. We almost went personally bankrupt. We lost everything we had, every single penny we had. We moved immediately out of our house, had to sell it, and it wasn’t until a year ago, eight years after we closed the doors, that we finished the rest of paying off our SBA loan, and it was super intense and super stressful.

Then there went to the way I dealt with that. I started running and running a lot, and I felt like, “Wow, if I’m out here on the road it’s kind of clearing my head. I’m not hearing all the debt collectors calling,” and it was just my space, so very healthy in terms of the idea to begin with. What started to happen is, I would run more, and then every day I would run more than that, and I was up to … I was running hours every day.

Peter: The idea is, in some ways, you had no control in so many different aspects of your life, here was an aspect of your life that you could have control over, and you could have control over what you ate and how you exercised, and it led to the extreme, eventually, of anorexia.

Sheryl: That’s right. Yeah. The scale … I could control those numbers even though nothing else was in control.

Peter: Right. Were you able, in those moments, to talk about it? We could talk about it now. Were you able, in those moments, to speak about it? Did you know what was going on? Were you able to see it?

Sheryl: I didn’t. I didn’t know what was going on. What I felt like is it was such an out of body experience. I couldn’t think. I didn’t have the energy to think, and literally, I felt like, “I can not run this company anymore,” but I didn’t fully understand what it was that I was really dealing with.

Peter: Why I think this is such an interesting question to explore is because it’s in those moments when people feel the most out of control. Once we have a grasp over it, and we know how to move forward, we’re approaching life with a certain amount of strength. When we’re in the midst of it and it’s a blind spot and we don’t exactly know what’s going on, and we know we’re losing some control, we know we’re not showing up the way we want to show up, but we don’t quite have our arms around what’s happening.

That’s such an important moment, because that’s, in my view, the most vulnerable point in our leadership, where we’re leaders, and I’ve seen people hit this in so many different ways, where we’re leaders and we’ve lost … We’re a little lost, and from that place, we have to move on and we have to ground ourselves and do that thing that you were talking about doing in the meeting.

My question is, what advice do you have, from your own experience, of moving through that space without losing everything, moving through that space to get to a place where you can get re-grounded?

Sheryl: In hindsight, one of the things I should have done was I should have said, “I need a little time off.” I should have gone and said to my team, “Hey, I got stuff going on in my life. I need to take a week, a couple weeks off, to get re-grounded, and come back to you to be the leader that I should be with you.”

Peter: I have to say, I love … Just to reflect to you, when you said, “Time off,” I was thinking, “Yeah, when someone’s at that place, they might need a year sabbatical or something,” and you’re saying, “One to two weeks,” which talks to your drive. You’re saying you didn’t need that much time. All you needed was a couple of weeks of completely separating yourself from the business to re-ground.

Sheryl: That’s right. Now, would it have fully solved it? Probably not, but it would have given me the time to slow down, to think about what was happening, and to be introspective and talk to the people that I needed to talk to, my family and friends, to be able to understand what was happening with me.

I had people telling me that something was terribly wrong, my friends and family, that I was losing too much weight, but I didn’t even take the time, and I think a lot of driven people do this, to slow down enough to be able to be reflective of that. After that one to two weeks, I might have said, “Wow, I really need some massive time off,” that you’re talking to. “I need to take a leave of absence. I can’t do this anymore right now,” or I could have come back and said, “You know what? I understand exactly what I need to do in order to resolve this. I need to see a therapist. I need to work on my nutrition, that I can come back fully into this space,” but I never did that. I never took the time to pause and understand what was happening.

Peter: It’s a powerful lesson. Really, the first step is to recognize that something’s not working, and one of the ways in which you recognize that is feedback from other people, because you might be so deep in it that you don’t recognize it, but another way that you recognize it is you have a sense. You know internally something’s not right. You don’t exactly know what it is.

You’re probably feeling a little scared. You’re probably feeling a little uncomfortable. You’re probably feeling a little depressed or unhappy, but you know that something’s not quite working, so maybe there’s a combination of an internal knowing and some external feedback from people who are close to you to say, “Something’s not right here,” but if you haven’t been able to put your arms around the whole thing and understand it and move forward, step two is to say, “I need to remove myself from the system that I’m in,” to take a pause, to take a break, to give yourself a time out, in order to create a little bit of space from what you’re experiencing and to let what’s going on sink in and settle.

Maybe have some conversations with people, to get a better grasp over what’s going on and what your next steps might be, and then step three might be, follow through on those next steps or take some more time if you haven’t figured it out.

Sheryl: That’s right. I think we’re talking about an extreme situation in this case, but regardless, I still think that being willing to be open with people and say, “Look, either I need to take some time,” or, “Hey, in this moment there’s a lot going on right now, in my personal life, in my professional life,” whatever it is, that acknowledge it, because I think it’s in those moments where we’re not acknowledging what’s happening within us that we’ve got to know that each of those moments, our whole team is seeing that. They’re experiencing it with us, and not giving voice to it makes it scary. That’s what we have to do, is give voice to it.

Peter: I think what’s scary about that for us as leaders, entrepreneurs and leaders, is that it’s hard for us to give voice to something for which we don’t have a solution. I can give voice to something and say … The example that you gave in your meeting earlier, “Sorry, I’m bringing my last meeting into this meeting. Let me take a breath. Let me reset. Great, I’m here.”

To say, in that meeting, if you said, “Look, I’m totally frustrated, annoyed, I don’t know why, but you people are bugging me, but let me try to be present anyway,” that wouldn’t land so well, in effect. The challenge, when we don’t really know what’s happening, if you don’t realize you’ve brought your last meeting into this meeting, is you’re just feeling annoyed and you don’t exactly know why, and I think that is a very, very hard place from which to operate.

Sheryl: Yes. It’s a very hard place, but you said it earlier. You know it in you. You know it in your body. Something is not feeling right, and if we’re not feeling that and paying attention to ourselves, we are going to miss it, but I still think that in that moment of saying, “I’m feeling really intense now,” to be able to ground ourselves, literally, in our chair, and stop, and take a breath, a physical breath, and say, “Guys, I am trying to get present with you. I’m feeling un-present right now. I’m trying to ground myself.”

Voice it, because when you voice it, it gets out of you. It settles with it the group so they know what’s happening, and you can restart the meeting. It doesn’t mean that you have to say, “Here’s everything going on. I’m totally frustrated with everything that’s happening.” It’s just taking a pause and a moment to say, “I need to ground myself,” and give voice to that.

Peter: Do you have a regular meditation practice?

Sheryl: I don’t myself, although I will breathe in at times, and I think what my meditation practice … Let me put it this way. Everyone has their own meditation practice. For me, it might be defined differently than what you’re traditionally saying is meditation, but to me, my meditation practice is, as soon as I go into my house with my family and I ground myself with being in them, that, to me, is my meditation, when I can be fully focused on what’s happening with them, it brings everything back to me as to what the most important priorities are in my life, and I bring that energy back into work.

It also, quite frankly, reminds me about love and being able to bring my love into my work, into my interactions with my people, is a part of my core philosophy as a leader. My connection with my family is what reminds me as to what’s important to me as a leader.

Peter: That seems like it’s very useful to have some kind of regular practice, and that practice might be being present with your family. That practice might be what you’re calling traditional meditation, which would be to sit on a cushion or chair and breathe, but something that gives us a practice in coming back to being present, so that in the heat of the moment, we actually have access to the internal tools that allow us to say, “Something’s not right. Let me take a moment and go inside and be present and figure out what’s going on.” If we don’t have some kind of a regular training in that in some ways, then it would be very hard to do in the heat of the moment, I imagine.

Sheryl: Yeah, and I think that it all boils down to, at the end of the day, what’s most important to us, as people and as leaders? To me, gosh, if those two things are totally separate, then there’s a core issue in terms of leadership, because you can never be bringing your authentic self. To me, my mantra is love. We talk about, in my work, being rebel-hearted, and to be able to keep grounding myself in what brings me that feeling of love and joy so I can make sure that I’m bringing it into my company every day is what is critical.

I think when you talk about grounding yourself in some ways, through meditation or whatever it is, it’s being able to dig deep inside as to who you are as a person, who you are as a leader, what’s most important, and what are the practices that allow you to keep bringing that back out, and making sure that that’s front and center for you as a leader.

Peter: Her book is, Killing It: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping your Head without Losing your Heart. Sheryl O’Loughlin, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Sheryl: Thank you so much, Peter, so, so much. I really appreciate the conversation.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos and podcasts, visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and to Brian Wood, who created our music. Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for the next great conversation.

What separates extraordinary leaders from those who under-perform? Over thirty years ago, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner set out to answer that question. Their research led them to five fundamental practices that, when frequently employed, accounted for as much as 22.8 times more cohort engagement. On this week’s podcast, I spoke with Jim Kouzes about these five practices and other insights from their seminal leadership manual, The Leadership Challenge, now in its sixth edition. Discover the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, tips for successfully transitioning between companies, and concrete steps to develop a compelling vision for the future of your organization.


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Book: The Leadership Challenge
Bio: Jim Kouzes is a bestselling author, an award-winning speaker and, according to the Wall Street Journal, one of the twelve best executive educators in the United States.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

We have with us today Jim Kouzes. He has written, with Barry Posner, the seminal book The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations. This book came out first a little bit more than 30 years ago, and it became, in a sense, an instant classic, and that’s true because 30 years later now, we have the sixth edition coming up, and it is as applicable as it was back then.

Jim, thank you for writing this book with Barry and also thank you for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Jim: Peter, it’s a delight. It’s a real pleasure to be with you, and you were speaking about technology and the use of technology in our interview, and when Barry and I wrote the first edition of The Leadership Challenge, we didn’t have this technology, actually we didn’t even have a computer or a software program that would allow us to share files, so back then you’d have to actually give somebody a physical hard copy.

Well now, of course we do much of our writing where we share it back and forth over this platform. The second edition of the book and the second book we wrote, Credibility, was actually written over the Internet using a program called Kermit before this technology existed. Kermit was a university and research center platform that allowed researchers to share files and back and forth. So technology’s played a role-

Peter: I remember that, and if I remember correctly, this was the ’80s now.

Jim: It was the ’80s, yeah. Yeah, so we’ve been using it but that’s part of the change in context now of course for leaders. Now the President of United States can send tweets on a daily basis and impact how people feel about policy or world affairs.

Peter: Which arguably is something we need to learn how to do a little bit more effectively, but we’re able to leave that for-

Jim: Absolutely.

Peter: … another conversation. Let’s jump into the book here, Jim. Briefly share the methodology that you used in coming up with the content in The Leadership Challenge.

Jim: Well, I met Barry at Santa Clara University in 1981. We started to work together that year, and I was the director of executive education and this tall guy comes and knocks on my door and introduces himself, and we have become best friends almost since that moment. In fact, Barry and his wife Jackie and my wife Tae and I do things frequently together. Just last weekend, we went to a movie together. We have dinners together. We’ve remained close friends since then.

But Barry and I found that we had a common interest in managerial values and he had written a paper, a research paper with Warren Schmidt on how values make a difference and invited me to join them in writing up one of the research papers. That began an exploration of that topic and then corporate culture. We had an opportunity to present this at Santa Clara University.

On the second day of a two-day program, the first day was done with Tom Peters and on in search of excellence, on organizational excellence. So Barry and I had the second day on managerial excellence, and we didn’t have a book like Tom, and we didn’t have necessarily a methodology yet, so in the pre-work for the seminar, we ask participants to write a personal best leadership case because we wanted to explore whether or not people were doing some things in common when they were, in this case, early on managing.

We had the assumption that you don’t have to be in excellent company to be an excellent leader. That was kind of a breakthrough moment for us, just making that assumption, that not all excellent leaders are in excellent companies, that the context doesn’t make the difference. And so-

Peter: Although I’m kind of curious whether there’s a correlation between the number of excellent leaders in the company and the excellence of that company. Ultimately leadership excellence should lead to company excellence. Have you found that?

Jim: Yes. So that is true. That is very much true. In fact, in our data, if you take a look at our data, in organizations where if you take our scale, we developed then an assessment instrument after we had done the case studies and developed the model. We developed an assessment tool. That assessment tool has a one to ten scale.

Those individuals at the bottom end of the scale who essentially get scores of one or two on the frequency with which they use leadership practices have only about a 4% level of engagement among employees, whereas those who score a nine, ten, at the high end of the scale, the top 20% having 95.8% rate of a high engagement among employees, so yes, it’s absolutely true. So the more leaders there are who engage more frequently in leadership practices, the higher the engagement, the higher the performance profitability, lower the turnover or higher the quality, et cetera.

Peter: What you’ve done is you’ve reduced it to five practices right? So when you’re looking at this leadership practice as inventory, you’re assessing, as I’m understanding it, people’s demonstration of these five practices and the ones who are rated as frequently using these five, those are the ones who have a 95% highly-engaged direct report cohort, and then the ones who rarely use these five are the ones who are more in the 4% which is such a massive-

Jim: Huge.

Peter: … distinction. Such a gap.

Jim: 22.8 times.

Peter: Right.

Jim: 22.8 times.

Peter: It’s amazing.

Jim: Difference. Amazing, yeah.

Peter: You’ve administered this leadership practice as inventory to 3 million people. Am I correct in that?

Jim: We’ve administered it to 5 million, we’ve analyzed data from 3 million. Our current database is about 1.2 so we use the most current respondents but the database itself is 5 million total, 3 million have gone through some rigorous psychometric testing and this is where we get the data that I just shared with you.

Peter: So with those 3 million, The psychometric data that you have includes, in effect, 360s from their direct reports.

Jim: Yes, correct. So the Leadership Practices Inventory is the tool we use to measure effectiveness, and we both use it in research. Over 700 research studies have been done using that instrument, and we also use it as an assessment tool so leaders get the feedback from that instrument to help them develop their own goals for growth and development as leaders.

Peter: Okay, so you’ve convinced me that there’s some credibility to this model. Let’s look at the five practices. Could you give us a very quick, brief, dirty synopsis of each of the five so that people have a sense of context and certainly the book has a tremendous amount of depth and examples of it. Let’s get the big picture.

Jim: So we’ll do the four minute version.

Peter: Four minutes, perfect.

Jim: Yes. The first of those five practices is what we call “Model the Way.” So we ask people, what do you do when you’re at your best as a leader? Tell us a story about one example. People say that one of the things they do is model the way. They are clear about what they believe in. They clarify their personal values, and they strive to reach consensus on shared values within the organization. They set the example. They align their own personal leadership practices, what they do with the values that are shared by the organization.

The second thing leaders do is they inspire a shared vision. Out of this case examples and then the testing that we did, it’s clear that leaders have, they envision the future. They have ennobling and uplifting picture of what the future can be like, and then they enlist others in it, but it’s not just their vision of the future, it’s a shared vision of the future.

The third thing leaders do is they challenge the process. They search for opportunities to grow, to innovate, to improve, and then they experiment with new ideas, try them out, they don’t always work so they have to learn from those experiences.

The fourth of the practices that emerged from our studies was what we call, “Enable Others to Act.” Leaders foster collaboration by building trust in teams and then they strengthen individuals by building their competence and their confidence to do their work.

And fifth of the practices, in terms of how we talk about it, not necessarily fifth in terms of importance is what we call “Encourage the Heart.” Leaders recognize individuals for their contributions to the values, the vision, and the goals of the organization when they celebrate the values and the victories with the teams who perform the work.

Those are the five. Model, inspire, challenge, enable, and encourage.

Peter: If you step out from a 30,000 foot view , it makes a lot of sense: “They have to have a foundation of strength in themselves. They need to see where they’re going. They need to challenge everything that’s getting in the way. They need to help other people rise to the occasion to support them, and they have to recognize in a human way those people who are doing it.” It’s a satisfying and clear picture of how we have to show up.

Jim: Thank you, that is a great summary.

Peter: How come so many of us fall short?

Jim: Let me just say that it is a lot easier to write about it than it is to practice it.

Peter: Thank you for your honesty on that because I struggle with it myself too.

Jim: I think leadership is an aspiration and that’s something for all leaders to keep in mind. We are never doing everything as well as we should be doing it, and so we always must aspire. It’s like any athlete who … You watch the … We Love basketball here in the Golden State with the Golden State Warriors, and so we’re watching basketball all the time. They interview the players afterwards and they may have won the game, but they say, “But we have to do better at the not turning the ball over,” or “I wasn’t as good as making shots.” They’re never satisfied with how well they’re doing. The same for exceptional leaders.

To answer your question, if you ask people … In fact, the most frequently asked question we get is, “Are leaders born or made?”

Peter: Oh, that’s interesting.

Jim: Well, yes and then as you know, we have an answer to that question after being asked it so often, and that is we’ve never met a leader who was not born. All leaders are born, so all people are born whether you’re an accountant, an engineer, or a leader, it doesn’t matter. We’re all born. So the real question is what do you do with what capabilities you have before you die?

Peter: Jim, I wrote a quote down that I’m just going to read back to you. It’s from page 302, “Here’s the rub. Leadership can be learned; however, not everybody wants to learn it.”

Jim: Yes. And I think that is the first two steps in this process of learning leadership are you have to believe you can, first of all. The question of, are leaders born or made implies that there’s some element of it, people still have some sense of “maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a leader.”

In our research, we found that the number of people at the low end who score at that lowest possible score is .00013%.

Peter: There’s very few people who have only 4% of their direct reports engaged.

Jim: Yes, that’s right. Those are the people at the low end. So if you combine the score of one and two, it’d be a little bit more than that but the point of that number is to communicate to people that you do have the capability. In fact, you’re already doing it.

Peter: Right.

Jim: It’s just not doing it frequently enough, and that’s an important message for people to start out with. You have to believe you can. A lot of people who don’t believe that they can. That’s a hurdle for them to have to get over.

But once you believe that, then the second thing is that you need to do for yourself is have aspirational goals for your leadership development, not just for your team, not just a vision of the future for the organization, but for yourself. Where do you see yourself five years from now, ten years from now as a leader? Not in terms of a position or a role but competence. And do you see yourself performing at a higher level in the future than you do right now? What is your ideal picture of yourself. That’s an important stretch goal for all leaders to have in mind, so-

Peter: And you just alluded to one of the points you make in the book which is leadership isn’t just a role, or it’s better not to think of it particularly as a role, but to think of yourself as a leader and that you take these five characteristics and you can bring them to any level of the organization in any role that you’re in, in any task, and developing yourself as a leader is a job that, in your view, obviously requires context for implementation because you have to lead somewhere in some way in a particular culture with a particular group of people, but your ability to demonstrate those behaviors is agnostic of your role.

Jim: Absolutely. That’s a great word to use. In fact, that’s why we include in our books cases of high school students or college students or even eight year olds to say it’s not about your age. It’s not about your gender. It’s not about your position. It’s not about whether you have an MBA or not or a PhD or a bachelor’s degree or no degree. It’s not about whether you’re a male or female. It’s not about whether you’re from one country or another country. Those are all contextual elements that have to be considered when you are leading, but importance is your behavior. Context only accounts for approximately .3% of why people are engaged.

Peter: I know leaders, you know leaders who are incredibly successful in one context, and I’ve seen this happen with someone who moves from one bank to another bank. From one top three investment bank in New York on Wall Street to another top three investment bank in Wall Street, and in one of them, they’re a great success and in one of them, they fail. It’s the same person. It’s the same leadership characteristics. They only thing they’ve changed culture and context. How do you explain that?

Jim: Just to broaden that context a bit, let’s say I’m tasked to go to Turkey and run an operation for the American company. I go to Turkey, and I immediately assume that everything in Turkey is just like it is in United States, and all I have to do is replicate what I did here and do it over there. I’m likely to fail because the culture’s different, the people are different. I’m imposing on them some assumptions about what works where I come from should work here. When in fact-
Peter: Tell me if I’m thinking about this correctly. Great leaders whether they’re in Turkey or in New York or Goldman, Morgan, Citi, Merrill, wherever it is.They need to define and articulate the vision. They need to address the challenges. They need to be clear on their own values. They need to get the most out of people and enable them and empower them, and they need to celebrate them.

Everybody needs to do that everywhere. How you do it differs in Turkey than in the US or at Morgan, Goldman, Merrill Citi. How you approach it, the words you use, the way you celebrate successes, the manner in which you empower someone to act could be very, very different based on your context and your culture, but if you can understand and work with the context or culture, those are the underlying five foundational competencies or skills or characteristics that you see everybody, no matter the context, doing. Am I thinking about this correctly?

Jim: Yes. The data that I described that we’ve been talking about, talked about earlier is 4% to 95%. If I do an analysis just of one country or even one organization in an industry and then compare that data about the frequency of behavior in another like company or like country, I will find that the performance is the same. At the low end, you get low engagement. At the high end, you get higher engagement. This is universal.

We’ve collected data from 72 different countries, and the pattern is exactly the same in all countries. However, when you ask for specific examples of how do you do this in your country, the examples can be very different and distinguishable from the other. So we have to be sensitive to cultural context, and that’s particularly true when you’re talking about things like religion.

If I’m working in a Muslim country or a country where people are Hindu or Buddhist, I have to be sensitive to their context, in their cultural context. If I’m working in a country where there’s a difference sense about how you treat elders, I have to be sensitive to those issues, but I still need to make sure that I’m clear about what we believe in. I need to make sure I, as a leader, set a good example and a role model of other people that we’re clear about where we’re headed and that other people already listed in that, that we are working together as a team and we trust each other, that we work to develop skills and competence and help people to be in control of their own lives, and that we encourage people, we recognize them.

So the practices are the same but how, as you said, we do it can be very different.
Peter: You’ve just given this beautiful scaffolding or process for moving from one company to another, one culture another, which is that you leave your one context and you go into another context, and the first thing you do is your clarify yourself. What are my values? What is my vision? What are the challenges? How do I empower people? In what way do I need people to be empowered? And ultimately, celebrate them?

The next question you ask is, “How are those five things done in this culture?” If you go from “I’m going to do these things” to answering the question, “how are these things done?” How is it that people are celebrated here? Do you yell from the rooftops and copy everybody or do you take them aside and say, “Hey, I just want you to know, I noticed how you spoke in that meeting and it was tremendous, and I want you to know that I was impacted by it. I noticed it. Just keep doing that.” How is it done in this culture … And then you can just take those five that you’ve honed and apply them to the particular context that you’re in.

Jim: Yes. Absolutely.

Peter: That’s great. Let’s do a very, very quick case study. I have a client and we were talking about vision, and he said, “Yeah, that’s my problem. I don’t do the vision thing. I’m really terrible at vision. I’m never been good at vision. I can’t do the vision thing.” And I know how I approached it, but I’m curious to get your perspective because it seems to me that “vision” is the hardest to learn in some ways because it’s not just about digging deep and asking “what are my values?” it’s about seeing a future that some people may have a hard time seeing. How do you help people to develop that?

Jim: Well, you are correct. In our data, that is true, that the practice which scores lower compared to others consistently and over time is inspire a shared vision. It is the most challenging for people to learn and to master, and so it requires more attention, and that’s the first issue. You can’t learn to do it better if you initially say, “It’s not my thing. I don’t do it very well, and so I’m not going to really try.” You have to try.

The average senior executive spends only about 3% of their work time on that question, issue. “Where are we headed? Where are we going?” Yet at the very senior levels, you should be spending about 25% of your time. That’s a big gap. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so challenging for people is one, we don’t spend time on it.

We also don’t have the sense … We have this daily barrage of emails that come in and we tend to be in the present all the time. Now, it’s one thing to be mindful and pay attention to how you’re feeling and behaving at a particular moment in time, but leaders have to have outsight. They have to not just have insight into themselves, but outsight, the ability to look beyond what’s currently going on, and we’re not spending enough time thinking about five years from now, ten years from now because of all of the demands on the present. That just sucks us into not paying attention to the future.

It’s important the first step is to spend more time. The second is don’t rely just on yourself. We tell people leaders have to have a vision of the future. That is true. But your vision, it doesn’t have to come just from you. So the second thing you need to do as a leader is not only spend time but talk to others about their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the future.

A technique which was borrowed initially from the insurance industry many years ago asked teams of people … So if you’re a manager in an organization and you want to improve your capacity to inspire a shared vision, have a process in which you assign everyone on your team to read different magazines or different newspapers or watch different programs and once a month, come together with one little snippet of news about where your industry is headed or where society is headed or what’s happening in education or what’s happening in the arts, and talk about that and then share what do you think the implication of this is, of this technological change for our business.

So we’re going to have self-driving cars in the future. What’s the implication for the business that we’re in? And if you have your team do that on a regular basis and talk about that, over time, you will start to envision a different future. So it’s not only about yourself, you have to spend more time, but also engage your team in a conversation about where things are headed that impact your business.

Peter: Jim, you remind me of why I love to do podcasts because there’s so much that I get from the book and then the richness of having the conversation helps me to see things in a different way. I so appreciate you coming onto the podcast.

The book is The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. It’s the sixth edition of this book originally published in the ’80s, How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, and it’s clearly just as pertinent to our work and leadership today as it was 30 years ago.

Jim, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast and for writing the book.
Jim: Well, Peter, thank you very much for having me, and it’s been a delight talking with you, and you remind me of why I love to do podcasts because I learn so much from you too. So thanks a million for this opportunity.

Peter: Thank you.

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Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood, who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.