Doing Business the Eleanor Roosevelt Way



Eleanor Roosevelt wrote “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” While she was encouraging personal boldness, the message is also applicable to corporate life. In 2010, Audi stated its bold goal of “becoming the leading brand worldwide in the premium car segment.” They aimed to overtake BMW, who has held the No. 1 sales position for the last decade, by 2020. This audacious goal has helped increase their overall performance significantly — courage pays off. Here are six ideas for bringing Roosevelt’s sense of bravery to the job:

Differentiate between smart risk and silly risk
Being courageous at work does not mean challenging the boss to a dual at the next board meeting. We would never recommend that you walk into a meeting unprepared, take an overly aggressive trading position or give your boss an ultimatum. While these are risks, they are not smart ones. A smart risk pushes you slightly out of your comfort zone without pushing others out of theirs. Smart risks include asking for the sale, asking for the promotion or asking for more responsibility. A manager, coach or mentor can be very helpful in encouraging you to take smart risks.

Have a strong vision of what you want
I used to be terrified of needles and would do everything in my power to avoid them. Then, when I wanted to have children, I had to have needles almost every day. Suddenly they were not as scary, as my clear vision of family life trumped my fear. The same thing happens at work. You might be terrified of public speaking, but if you want to take on more interesting work in your field, the opportunity to keynote at a conference will help you get over your fears. Have a clear vision of what you want, write it down and tape it someplace prominent. The daily risks you must take to get you where you want to go will not seem as scary.

Practice makes perfect
You can practice courage by taking small risks on a regular basis. This could mean anything from asking to be part of a new project, to writing an article for an industry publication, to offering to mentor a new employee. Take on small stretch goals and then climb, jump or borrow a ladder in order to reach them on a regular basis. You’ll get used to feeling brave.

Courage can be borrowed
In a third century B.C. parable from Zhan Guo Ce, a fox is caught by a hungry tiger. The fox, trying to figure out a way to save himself, tells the tiger that he is king of the beasts and should not be eaten. The tiger does not believe the much smaller animal so the fox challenges him to follow him through the forest and see how the other animals react. The two set off together and the other animals, seeing the tiger, run away in fear. The fox takes full credit for their fearful response and the tiger, believing him, spares his life. While this parable mainly seems to be about the gullibility of tigers, it also shows how we can borrow courage. Surrounding ourselves with courageous people can help us to feel bolder. We can attend conferences with like-minded people, join a mastermind group or invite someone we admire for lunch. There are lots of people out there who are taking risks and doing interesting things. Spend more time with them and you will find their courage is contagious.

Practice courage in your personal life
If you are nervous taking risks at work because the stakes feel too high, start building those courage muscles at home. Take the microphone on karaoke night, volunteer for that school committee or sign up for zip lining. If you learn the benefit of taking calculated risks in your personal life, you’ll be more comfortable taking them at work.

Assess the risk
Part of what makes bold actions scary is the inherent downside. Before doing something brave, it can be helpful to contemplate what might go wrong. It’s useful to look at the potential problems (what might go wrong) and the potential causes (why it might go wrong.) You can look at preventing these problems and minimizing the impact should the problem still occur. As an example, perhaps you are contemplating buying a house but are terrified it will burn down. As a way to prevent fire, you can make sure the electrical system and stove are in good working order. As a way of minimizing the damage of a fire, you can install an alarm system and sprinklers. Assessing risk can help you to be more courageous, as it’s easier to take a leap of faith when you are fairly certain it won’t lead to disaster.

We hope you do something today to flex your courage muscles — it’s fun, makes your job more interesting and can serve to inspire others. Most people regret what they don’t do more than what they do, so take a page from Eleanor and do that thing that scares you just a bit.

Engage the Fox: The First Review


The first review for Engage the Fox: A Business Fable About Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team is out and we were thrilled that it’s a great one. It’s always hard when you write a book to know how it is going to be received. So, you do your best and after edits and re-edits until its as perfect as you can get it, you send it out there with a wing and a prayer (and confidence in your publishing team.)

Here is Kaye Parker’s review in The Chronicle Herald.


Book Review: Leaders Eat Last



I adore the movie The Little Foxes with Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall. It’s based on one of those lovely 1930s morality plays about the dangers of unbridled greed. Its title comes from the Bible’s Song of Solomon:

Catch for us the foxes,
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards,
our vineyards that are in bloom.

The general interpretation of this passage is that anyone who does not allow others to flourish will be stopped. In the film, Bette Davis’s character, Regina, and her brothers plan to build a cotton mill that threatens the well-being of their town but will make the family very rich. Regina conspires against her husband and brothers and even her own daughter in order to seize a leadership position within the family. One of the most powerful scenes is when Marshall’s character, Horace, tells his ruthless wife what he thinks about her and her brothers’ relentless attempts to make money at any cost:

I’m sick of your brothers and their dirty tricks to make a dime. There must be better ways of getting rich than building sweatshops and pounding the bones of the town to make dividends for you to spend. You’ll wreck this town, you and your brothers. You’ll wreck this country, you and your kind, if they let you.

His speech reminded me of Simon Sinek’s terrific book, Leaders Eat Last.  After hearing Sinek speak at Leadercast in May, I bought the audiobook and listened to it twice in the car. I then bought a print copy of the book in order to digest the detail. So, yes, I liked it a lot.

Leaders Eat Last takes its title from the US military, where the highest ranking officers traditionally eat last as a way to show their people that a good leader puts the needs of his or her people first. The idea seems refreshing at a time when stories of corporate greed and CEOs stopping at nothing to preserve their own bonus pools abound. Certainly, today’s culture of relentless shareholder value creation has led to a sense that business is “building sweatshops and pounding the bones of the town to make dividends.” The news is filled with stories of dead peasant policies and regular layoffs and elaborate tax avoidance strategies and other examples of corporate leaders putting neither their people nor their broader stakeholders first. When Burger King and Tim Horton’s recently announced their partnership, the media focused on the deal as an aggressive tax play rather than as a strategic alliance (I like to call the tax angle the Double Double Irish with a Dutchie sandwich. Har har.) Perhaps the thought of marrying two companies for reasons other than a short-term goosing of the stock seems unfathomable even though there are potentially a lot of other reasons why the partnership might make sense.

Sinek blames this climate of cynicism on the fact that the social contract between leaders and their followers has been broken. Leaders are supposed to protect their followers and the need for such people is wired into our very physiology as part of our instinct to survive:

We … are not like crocodiles. Though we may share the primitive, reptilian portion of our brain with them, our brain continued to grow beyond its reptile roots. We are anything but loners. The addition of the mammalian layer of our brain helped us to become highly functioning social animals. And for good reason. If we weren’t adapted to live in tribes and cooperate, we would have died off long ago. We don’t have thick scaly skin to make us less vulnerable to attack. We don’t have rows of sharp teeth like a great white shark, able to keep chomping even after we lose a few. We’re just not strong enough to survive alone, let alone thrive.

In order to figure out how to best distribute food, we evolved into hierarchical animals and elected the strongest members of the group to act as leaders who could allocate the resources in a way that best ensured the survival of the group:

Those who work hardest to help others succeed will be seen by the group as the leader or the “alpha” of the group. And being the alpha – the strong, supportive one of the group, the one willing to sacrifice time and energy so that others may gain – is a prerequisite for leadership.

Based on his understanding of anthropology, Sinek has crafted this definition of leadership:

Leaders are the ones who run headfirst into the unknown. They rush towards the danger. They put their own interests aside to protect us or to pull us into the future. Leaders would sooner sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours. And they would never sacrifice what is ours to save what is theirs. This is what it means to be a leader. It means they choose to go first into danger, headfirst towards the unknown. And when we feel sure they will keep us safe, we will march behind them and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life and proudly call ourselves their followers.

There are not many leaders in the current corporate world who fit this description and, thus, it’s not terribly surprising that employees do not feel particularly motivated. As Sinek points out in the book, “According to the Deloitte Shift Index, 80 percent of people are dissatisfied with their jobs.” Although their dissatisfaction won’t necessarily drive them to quit, they certainly won’t be bringing their best selves to the job. According to the G20 Innovation Report, the US is down 7% in domestic innovation from 2003 to 2012: people who are dissatisfied do not bring their energy or ideas to work.

Sinek provides a powerful explanation of why we feel demotivated when we do not have leaders who care for us. He explores the role of  human physiology in connecting us to the leaders of our current tribes: namely our families, communities and the workplace.

Almost all the the systems in our bodies have evolved to help us find food, stay alive and advance the species. However, for a lot of the world, and certainly throughout the developed world, finding food and avoiding danger no longer preoccupy our days. We no longer hunt and gather, at least not in the caveman sense. In our modern world, advancing our careers and trying to find happiness and fulfillment are the definition of success. But the systems inside us that guide our behaviour and decisions still function as they did tens of thousands of years ago. Our primitive minds still perceive the world around us in terms of threats to our well-being or opportunities to find safety. If we understand how these systems work, we are better equipped to reach our goals. At the same time, the groups in which we work are better able to succeed and thrive as well.

When we do not feel protected by our leaders, we are hardwired to feel anxious and distrustful. Every time a corporation announces a round of layoffs to increase their quarterly numbers, it quite literally makes us feel sick. Sinek briefly discusses what we have learned about human behaviour from the fields of neuroscience and anthropology (also described in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Andrew O’Keeffe’s Hardwired Humans). He then spends considerable time describing the powerful effect of hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, cortisol and dopamine:

Mother Nature figured out a lot earlier than our bosses…to use an incentive system to condition us to do certain things to achieve desired results. In the case of our biology, our bodies employ a system of positive and negative feelings – happiness, pride, joy or anxiety, for example – to promote behaviours that will enhance our ability to get things done and to cooperate. Whereas our bosses might reward us with an end-of-year bonus, our bodies reward us  for working to keep ourselves and those around us alive and looked after with chemicals that make us feel good.

Good leaders understands how people tick and know that when employees feels secure and valued, they are much more effective than when they feel threatened. A good leader provides opportunities for employees to release feel-good chemicals by giving out praise, making people feel part of a team, building a sense of pride in one’s work, and helping people complete assigned tasks. A good leader also understands how to  minimize the release of negative hormones that flood the nervous system when people feel unsafe. This can be accomplished through having open communications, providing a sense of job security, and helping people navigate change.

Sinek believes that building a culture where employees feel safe and valued is critical to a company’s long-term success. Unfortunately, this can be hard to do when a CEO feels pressured by shareholders to continually trim costs by firing staff, decreasing levels of customer service, and making people do more with less in order to increase profits. And when executive compensation plans reward executives for putting the people they are meant to protect in harm’s way, the leader is no longer fulfilling his anthropological purpose:

When cultural standards shift from character,values or beliefs to performance, numbers and other impersonal dopamine-driven measurements, our behaviour-driving chemicals fall out of balance and our will to trust and cooperate dilutes…. We lose our sense of history, of responsibility to the past and shared tradition. We care less about belonging. In this kind of weak culture, we veer away from doing “the right thing” in favor of doing “the thing that’s right for me.

Sinek is an excellent storyteller and whether he is telling the story of military hero Johnny Bravo or Bob Chapman of Barry Wehmiller or the culture at 3M, he shows us clearly what good leadership looks like. More importantly, he shows us how effective it is at achieving long-term results. Sinek’s belief is that “capitalism actually does better when when we work as we were designed – when we have a chance to fulfill our very human obligations.” Sinek knows that the key to strong leadership lies not in understanding management theory – Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. all lacked an MBA –  but rather in understanding human behaviour. Great leaders have a deep understanding of the social code between leaders and the led. They understand what followers expect of them and uphold their end of the bargain.

At the end of The Little Foxes (mild spoiler ahead), Bette Davis’s character gets her way. She bests her husband and her brothers and will likely become a very wealthy women. But she is left all alone, the punishment for the alpha who has been blessed with many gifts but does not protect those who rely on her. She is expelled from the tribe and ends up the leader of nobody: according to Sinek, an anthropologically fitting end.




8 Habits of Effective Critical Thinkers

Critical thinking is the ability to make decisions, solve problems, and take appropriate action in a systematic fashion. It has been identified as one of the key skills required for future success by educators, business leaders and governments. 97.2% of managers surveyed by the American Management Association for its 2012 Critical Skills Survey believed that critical thinking skills were important to drive future growth of their organizations. The same group, however, believed that only 10% of their employees were fully competent in critical thinking. As most of us could improve our thinking skills, here are eight simple ways to become a better critical thinker at work and in life:

  1. The five second rule.  Nope, this isn’t about the edibleness of that cookie you just dropped on the floor. We are talking about the brief pause you should take before making a decision. Some decisions require the triune or instinctive brain (“Hungry!), others the limbic or emotional brain (“That cookie would make me feel better”), and the rest the neocortex or rational brain (“That cookie fell where the wet dog was sitting and therefore should not be eaten.) By taking a brief pause of a few seconds, we allow the appropriate brain the time to function.
  1. There is no “I” in Critical Thinking. (Scratch that, there are several of them.) Thinking is, in many ways, an individual activity (“group think” and “sharing a brain” are not overly positive terms.) This does not mean that most decisions should be made in isolation however. The more people who are involved in making a decision, the more successful it tends to be. With differing points of view, you will get better ideas on the table as each person can draw from his or her experience (“My aunt once got very sick from eating a cookie off the floor.”) Effective critical thinking involves four key skills: gathering information, generating ideas, evaluating options and gaining agreement. Nobody has equal strength in all four areas. The best thinking happens when several people pool their individual thinking strengths to arrive at a collective solution.
  1. Not my circus, not my monkeys. You can waste a lot of time and energy trying to change what is outside your sphere of influence. Take a page from the oft-quoted Serenity Prayer: accept the things you cannot change; change the things you can; and learn to recognize the difference. Put your time and energy into the issues over which your have control: your team, your clients, your product line… If someone else’s cookie falls in the floor and they eat it, that’s not your concern.
  1. Assume nothing. Have you ever been at a training session where the guy at the front of the room reminds you that to assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” Annoying, huh? It’s also totally correct. Critical thinkers never assume. They ask open questions to find the information they need, rather than trying to confirm what they already think (“Cookies on the floor are fine to eat, right?”) Don’t assume that other people think the same way that you do: ask them for their perspectives. You’ll arrive at better solutions this way.
  1. No bandaid solutions. Often we are so eager to fix the problem that we don’t take the time to figure out what the problem really is. A big trap here is correlation versus cause. Correlation means that two things happen at the same time. Cause means that one thing causes the other. Let’s say that ever since your birthday, you’ve been dropping cookies on the floor. Has age made you clumsy? Perhaps. Or perhaps the new hand cream your aunt gave you for your birthday is making your hands slippery. Critical thinkers always seek root cause.
  1. Stay at the reins. Plato, a 5thC BC philosopher, used the concept of a charioteer driving two horses to describe human nature. One horse had an ethics-driven code of conduct. The other one simply followed his emotions and appetites. The job of the charioteer, Plato’s symbol for the rational mind, was to keep these two horses going in the same direction. Critical thinkers keep a tight hold on the reins to bring reason and emotion into balance. They know that just because we want to believe the cookie is edible, doesn’t mean it is.
  1. Don’t jump to conclusions. Perhaps your significant other always eats the last cookie. So when you get home from work and see that the cookie you have been craving all day is gone, you blame your spouse. He looks guilty. There are crumbs all over the floor. Jumping to conclusions too quickly can lead one to wrong information and poor decisions. Before you start to yell, take a look at the dog in the corner with the oatmeal-cookie crumb beard… Critical thinkers draw conclusions from their evidence, not evidence from their conclusions.
  1. Consider the risk. A lot of life focuses on risk mitigation. Think about fire safety: we install smoke alarms, fire hydrants, fire extinguishers and emergency exits. While these things reduce the damage of fire, they do nothing to prevent the fire in the first place. In order to prevent a fire, you must do complicated things like update building wiring to prevent electrical fires, initiate strategic ground fuel burns and tree cuts to prevent wildfires, and disallow smoking and campfires in high risk areas to prevent controlled fires from spreading. Installing a couple of new batteries in the smoke detector each year is so much easier. Effective critical thinkers know how important prevention is, however. They will keep their kitchen floors sparkling clean so that if someone happens to drop the cookie, there is little risk it will make them sick.

Keeping the above points in mind will make you an effective critical thinker: you will solve problems more easily, reach better decisions, and will have more agreement from stakeholders. Your life will be easier, you will be more popular, and your enemies will have more reason to hate you. But hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

Talent Planning, Chef Style

I’m excited to announce that Engage the Fox: A Business Fable about Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team, is now available for preorders. I cannot wait to share the story of Thaddeus P. Fox and how he saved The Toad Hollow Gazette.

Recently, I was interviewed about talent planning by search consultant, Nancy Massey. I’ll share my comments in this reprint from The Headhunter Chronicles. I apologize that the chef discussed is not a vegan but I think the message is still relevant to readers of The Gazette.


In the movie Chef, Chef Carl Casper is a talented but hot-headed chef who threatens to leave restaurant-owner Riva high and dry on one of the most important nights of the year. Riva is calm as he thinks he has a competent sous chef and line cook who can step into the void. While Riva is by no means an ideal manager (it’s never good when one of your key employees regularly sleeps in his car) common kitchen hierarchy, known as brigade de cuisine, means that there are always a couple of understudies who can help out if a key contributor leaves.

5c637500-a7e8-11e3-b2bb-b940b4e3c814_chef_sxsw_gsSource: Merrick Morton/Open Road /via/

Even if you do not employ temperamental chefs, it’s smart have have a talent management strategy in place. Over the last six years, the baby boomers have started to retire. According to a US survey released earlier this year, 21% of employees plan to change jobs in 2014. Employers should be prepared to rehire almost a quarter of their workforce this year just to preserve the status quo (those in growth mode will have even greater hiring needs.)

Many employers are reactive when it comes to staffing: they do not think about hiring until someone quits or a skills deficiency causes a problem (these are the clients who call me asking if I can have someone hired within a couple of hours.) As a recruiter, I love the challenge but the trouble with this approach is that you are starting out behind the eight ball — the cubicle is empty, the skills deficiency is obvious, the client has nobody to call — and you need to fill the role as quickly as possible. You don’t have the luxury to think about who the best hire would be and so simply try to hire someone who most closely represents the last person who filled that position. Each new hire represents an opportunity to make organizational change and having a talent plan in place can help you optimize the recruiting process.

We asked Jen Lawrence of Process Design Consultants about the key components of a talent management strategy and turn the blog over to her…


Hello there. Thanks for this opportunity to share my views on strategic hiring. While it is often a huge inconvenience and expense when an employee quits or retires, it is also a wonderful opportunity. Every time a position becomes available, you have the opportunity to rethink the role. The natural reaction to a resignation is to find an exact replacement as quickly as possible so you don’t disrupt the status quo. In some commodity-like roles (think outbound telemarketers who follow a tight script) hiring a immediate replacement is exactly what you want to do. In more senior positions, however, chances are you want to disrupt the status quo as each new hire represents the opportunity to more closely match your talent pool to your company’s current and future goals.

For example, when a company is in start-up mode it might need lots of employees with a strong lead generation capability whereas when the company matures it might need to add people who can manage the order pipeline and mine existing relationships. A company that once had an engineering competency might have morphed into one with strength in technology and therefore might need to shift the hiring profile to reflect the company’s new direction. Perhaps a company is expanding into a new geographic market and needs people who speak other languages. Or your vertical manager might need less of a focus on oil and gas and more on alternative sources of energy. If you don’t have a talent plan in place that aligns people with your overall strategy, you might miss out on an opportunity to move your organization closer to its vision through your hiring practice.

I’ll keep with the Chef theme to illustrate my point. Think of your company as a cake and your people as the ingredients that make the cake a success or a failure. A good cake is the result of mixing together the right ingredients in the correct amounts and then baking it at the right temperature. You don’t just randomly start throwing sugar and butter and eggs into the oven: you need some sort of plan.

First, you need an overall vision for your cake. Is this cake for a bachelor party or a five year-old girl’s princess-themed birthday party? Each requires a very different kind of cake. How many people does this cake need to feed? In this case, our vision is that we want to bake a cake that will dazzle a group of 15 princess-crazy party-goers.You want to see the face of the birthday girl light up as you carry the cake to the table. What is the vision for your company? Are you a luxury hotel chain where the care and comfort of your guests is your focus? Are you a company that brings the latest technology to the masses? Who are you? What do you bring to your customers? Why do your employees get out of bed in the morning?

Once you have a vision, you need to figure out a strategy that will bring that vision to life. If you want to dazzle pre-school princesses, look is probably more important than taste. You might do some market research to discover that sweet and sugary is popular among the Dora set. You are going to need a big fancy cake, preferably with a lot of glitter. Subtle flourless chocolate cakes need not apply. What strategy is going to bring your corporate vision to life? Are you the low-cost provider or do you provide white glove service with a smile? If you are the low cost provider, you need to manage your margins and your volume. How are you going to do that?

Now that you have a general idea of the type of cake you require, you need to make some concrete plans. You research “fancy princess cakes” on Pinterest and decide on the pink glitter castle cake. Perhaps there are detailed instructions for decorating the cake but no recipe for the cake itself. You know that you will need a stable base for the heavy fondant icing and glitter. You ask around and get a recipe that has worked for other people’s castle cakes. You now know what ingredients you need. Once you have a clearly defined vision and strategy and start to think about action planning, you are ready to think about the skill sets you need to make your vision come to life. These are your ingredients: you need someone who is great at managing an international supply chain; you need someone who is excellent at negotiating vendor terms; or you need the best concierge in Paris to look after your guests’ needs.

Now you can source the ingredients to make your cake. How full is your pantry? If you have been minding the kitchen you should have the basics in place. Hopefully your have an oven and some bowls and a spoon. Perhaps there is some flour around. And some butter. If you are new to baking or things have changed (perhaps you used to avoid sweets entirely) you may need to bring in a lot of new resources. In the leadership and development world, we call this a talent audit. What skills do you have? What skills do you still need? Who can you train? Who must you hire?

Perhaps your pantry is full and you only need vanilla extract. If you have vanilla beans and vodka on hand, you can make your own (think of this as employee development) Otherwise, you will need to go outside to source the vanilla extract. What type of vanilla extract do you need? How important is this vanilla extract to the success of your cake? Do you need the organic, hand-blended variety in the fancy glass bottle or is the generic label variety alright? (And as an aside, if you need the organic, hand-blended variety in the fancy glass bottle, you might want to hire a recruiter like Nancy to help you with that!) What is your budget? Does your local store have stock on hand? Are you willing to bring in the vanilla extract from another town? Your needs will dictate the sourcing strategy. Generic vanilla — such as the type required for our sugar-soaked princess cake — can be found quite easily. The fancy stuff requires a trip to a speciality store. A line manager should work with a recruiter (internal or third party) to draw up a list of specific skill requirements for the new role. It’s tempting to simply use the existing job description but if you want to maximize this hiring opportunity it makes sense to think about exactly what skills you need today and in the future.

So there you have it. That’s talent planning. It’s looking at where you want to go as an organization and figure out how your people are going to take you there. You need to train and develop the people you have and add in new talent whenever you need to. When you break it down into smaller steps, building a great organization through people is, well, a piece of cake…



Book Review: Think Like a Freak.



I loved this book. No, scratch that. I LOVED this book. Authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explore how the iconoclastic approach to data revealed in Freakonomics can improve the way we think. As they write, “This book steps out of the shadows and tries to offer some advice that may occasionally be useful, whether you are interested in minor lifehacks or major global reforms.” I have to admit that I became biased in favour of this book when I saw the early reference to Philip Tetlock, who I have loved ever since his piece, Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs (with apologies to the Publisher of this fine newspaper, of course…) But I will try to write an open-minded review.

Before researching this book, the authors naturally saw the world through the rational lenses of economics and statistics and were curious to find out why so many decisions seem illogical. The books starts by reviewing the thinking process of a soccer player who is about to make a critical penalty kick in the championship game of the World Cup. The authors turn to the data about penalty kicks to see where the player should direct the ball to maximize his chance of success. They then look at where he is most likely to aim the ball. “While a penalty kick aimed at the centre of the goal is significantly more likely to succeed, only 17% of kicks are aimed there. Why so few?”

The authors realize that the decision cannot be made based on statistics alone as the rational side of the brain is forced to contend with the emotional side. This is not, of course, new information. Back in about 370 BC, Plato was writing about the tug between the intellect and the heart. More recently, Jonathan Haidt wrote about the struggle between the rider (the rational brain) and the elephant (the emotional brain) in The Happiness Hypothesis. What makes Think Like a Freak so good is that the authors breathe life into this oft-explored slice of neuroscience through the art of storytelling, like the example about the soccer game. True, kicking a ball dead centre towards the goalie is statistically more likely to result in a goal. But if the goalie does manage to stop the ball kicked right to him, the kicker looks like a bit of an idiot (“Why’d you kick it righ’ to ‘im?” the hooligans in the stands will shout.) As the authors write, “Aiming towards the centre has a better chance of success, but aiming towards the corner is less risky to his own reputation.” And, as they go on to describe, humans (and, in our experience, animals) are rather more interested in “protecting our own reputation rather than promoting the collective good” in spite of claiming otherwise.  Therefore, most goalies take the riskier corner kick that is less likely to be successful but has the tried-my-very-best optics for the crowd.

In order to think like a Freak, the authors say that we need to be aware of, and overcome, some of the general biases that mess with our ability to think well. None of these ideas are original (I discuss a number of these issues in my soon-to-be-released book, Engage the Fox) but the authors’ gift resides in their ability to tell a memorable story. Instead of boring the reader silly with talk of confirmation biases and herd mentality and the gap between revealed and declared preferences, they walk us through memorable examples such as how the Smile Train charity raises funds by not asking for money, why Zappos offers new employees $2000 to quit, and why rocker David Lee Roth insists on a candy bowl containing no brown M&Ms.

This book will appeal to the business reader (our favourite line is “just because you are at the office is no reason to stop thinking”) and any reader interested in improving the way they think. Levitt and Dubner are not afraid to make bold suggestions such as why one should regularly say “I don’t know” and the benefits of being a quitter. They describe why it’s good to act like a kid as “there is no correlation between appearing to be serious  and actually being good at what you do. In fact, an argument can be made that the opposite is true.” Phew! That observation alone is worth the price of the book. The authors find wisdom in the most interesting places, such as studying why kids are better at seeing through magic tricks than adults: “by seeing things  from a literally new angle, you can sometimes gain an edge in solving a problem.”

One of the most powerful sections in the book covers the art of persuading someone to change his or her mind. The authors are not optimistic: “As hard as it is to think creatively about problems and come up with solutions…it is even harder to persuade people who do not wish to be persuaded.” They dissect a $1 billion anti-drug campaign that not only did not turn people off drugs, but possibly made drug use appear more appealing. They then outline the most useful strategies for getting others to change their opinions (hint: don’t start campaigning with the so-called smartest guys in the room, but not for the reason you think.) In keeping with their Freak perspective, they show how pointing out the flaws in your own arguments is one of the most effective ways to convince people you are right.

Not surprisingly, the authors find that the most effective way to change someone’s mind is to tell them a compelling story. And this is, of course, the heart of the book’s success. All three of the books in the Freakonomics series sing because memorable stories illustrate potent theories. At the end of this book, the authors, firmly embracing the idea that it’s OK to quit, threaten that this is their last book in this series. I hope that this is not, in fact, the case. The authors succeed in bringing thinking to life which, as a fox-like thinker, is something I take quite seriously. Hopefully the early success of this book will convince the authors to do more work in the field.






The Best of Leadercast 2014

First, there is some exciting news on the book front. I received a copy of the final draft of Engage the Fox, which will be published in October 2014! I am looking forward to telling the behind the scenes story of Thaddeus P. Fox and The Toad Hollow Gazette.

IMG_4894 On May 14, I had the pleasure of attending a simulcast of Leadercast 2014. For anyone who has not attended a Leadercast, it’s a day that features a broad range of speakers including Desmond Tutu, Laura Schroff, Malcolm Gladwell, Dr Henry Cloud, Andy Stanley, Simon Sinek, Bill McDermott, Laura Bush and others. The broadcast site is in Atlanta and there are 746 remote sites across 21 countries. In the past, Leadercast was geared towards a mainly Christian audience but they have shifted the audience to people interested in leadership in general. The only mention of religion came from Braveheart writer Randall Wallace who seemed to assume a Christian audience and, while entertaining, he did not seem to be as on message as the others. Leadercast focuses on Beyond You leadership and reinforced the emerging idea that the old way of making decisions focused solely on profit is not working anymore. In a study they commissioned from The Barna Group, they found that only 1 in 5 employers think they have a good leader and poor leadership is the reason most of them will leave their jobs. Too many companies kick down whereas good leaders put their teams first: “Let them rest, while you dig your boots in the mud and carry on,” a Leadercast video implored. Beyond You Leadership recognizes that it’s far better to grow legacy companies that will make a difference over the long term rather than to lurch from quarter to quarter. Here were some of the highlights of the day: Andy Stanley. Stanley is the lead pastor of North Point Church, but don’t let that put you off. He’s a heck of a leadership expert and his Leadercast talk was entirely secular in nature. He is very quotable and here are some of my favourites:

Beyond You leaders fearlessly and selflessly empower leaders around them as well as those coming along behind them. Beyond You leaders make as few decisions as possible and empower other people to make decisions. Beyond You leaders load people their influence and ask others, “What can I do to help?” Beyond You leaders empty their cups. Ask yourself what talents can you give away to bring up the next generation of leaders. If your leadership isn’t all about you, it will live beyond you.

Dr Henry Cloud. Dr Henry Cloud is a clinical psychologist who counsels CEOs about leadership. He has written some excellent books on setting boundaries both in and out of the workplace. I have started reading Boundaries for Leaders, which promises to be an excellent book about effective leadership. He emphasizes that leaders lead people: real human beings with brains and hearts and lives. He said, “The human heart, above all else, wants to be known and understood.” Leaders who understand this will have teams who are happy to follow them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The most delightful speaker was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His laugh was absolutely infectious. He spoke about the leadership qualities of his good friend Nelson Mandela. I loved these particular quotes:

Imagine a world where leaders … had a pure motive of doing what’s right and improving the lives of all. A person is a person through other persons. You are you because of others.

Laura Schroff. Laura Schroff was the most moving of all the speakers. She wrote The Invisible Thread, the story of how her decision, as a young sales executive, to treat an 11-year old panhandler to lunch changed both their lives. She talked about personal leadership and how making transformational change does not always have involve grand gestures. My favourite quotes from her speech were as follows:

All we have to do is open up our eyes and heart to see the opportunity to help our lives and others. We can teach people to be kind, but we must live by example.

Malcolm Gladwell.  I was most looking forward to Gladwell’s speech as his newest book, David and Goliath, talks about unlikely leaders who push through hardships and climb seemingly insurmountable obstacles. His talk focused on why people follow certain leaders. “The real reason people follow leaders is that they perceive that authority to be legitimate,” he said. People won’t follow a leader simply because of a job title. “Unless you enact authority in a way that is fair, respectful and trustworthy, people won’t follow your lead,” he said. Bill McDermott. McDermott runs SAP’s US operations. While his leadership style seemed a little more old school than the others (consistent with SAP’s reputation) he was an entertaining speaker. My favourite quotes were:

Everyone is so busy telling everybody what to do, they forget to listen.

The first thing that has to change is the headset about what’s possible.

Have an audacious, bold dream for who you are and what you mean to this world.

Simon Sinek. My favourite speaker was Simon Sinek, who wrote Start With Why and is a popular TED talk speaker. He defines leadership as “the daily practice of putting others before ourselves.” He talked about the golden circle where you start with asking the question Why. Rather than asking what do we want to sell, ask why are we in business? Why do people want to do business with us? Why do our employees want to come to work? Once the why is established, figuring how to do this and what products and services to offer is easy. I’ll be offering a review of his book shortly. Here are some of my favourite quotes from his talk:

Leadership is neither a rank nor a title: it’s a choice. Give employees the opportunity to be the leaders they wish they had. Leadership is a responsibility, not a rank. Military leaders eat last. Don’t refer to head counts, refer to heart counts. Are you going to reduce the number of hearts in your organization to balance your books? Leaders will sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. Take responsibility for your actions at the time you commit your actions, not when you get caught.

Next year, Leadercast is taking place on May 8, 2015. If you are interested in leadership, you may wish to consider it for your calendar.

Storytelling to Make Your Case

A little while ago, I had a chance to review a number of business cases that people had submitted as part of a workshop. This was not a theoretical exercise: students submitted real requests to initiate a major project or task with the idea that after their cases were critiqued, they could submit them to their managers or departments or boards. All of the cases were well written: the analysis was sound, risks were contemplated, ROI was calculated, and all of the alternatives were discussed. Some business cases, however, were more compelling than others.

The difference between preparing a good business case and a great business case lies in one’s ability to compel people to embrace the change proposed. After I read each case, I’d ask myself if I felt change was needed. If not, then no matter how solid the analysis that followed, the case simply did not sing and in the real world would have less chance of being approved.

John Kotter, in his change model, discusses how most people shy away from change and try to find reasons to preserve the status quo. He discusses the need to create a burning platform to outline the reasons that the status quo is no longer viable.  In order to encourage change, it is important to engage both the hearts and the minds of the powers that be. One of the most effective ways of addressing the intellect and the emotions is to tell a good story. People who need to convince people to do things on a regular basis – politicians, lawyers, marketers, CEOs – know that storytelling is a powerful tool. As Robert McAfee Brown wrote, “storytelling speaks as no other mode of communication can do.”

Good leaders are often very effective storytellers. One of the videos that makes the rounds from time to time is Steve Jobs’s speech to Stanford’s graduating class. He tells three very simple stories about his upbringing, his career, and his illness to illustrate his point that in order to succeed in life you must stay open to all of the changes life throws one’s way. Recently, Stephen Elop’s burning platform memo to Nokia employees painted a very clear picture that change (in this case embracing Windows 7) was needed in order to survive. There is much debate as to whether Elop’s strategy was sound, but his case certainly was compelling.

From a creative writing perspective, good storytelling basically boils down to mapping out the following four things:

1) Who is the story about? As an example, Homer’s Odyssey is about a Greek soldier, Odysseus, who has been away from home for 10 years fighting the Trojan War.

2) What does he want? What is his motivation? Odysseus wants to get home to his family in Ithaca.

3) What obstacles are in his way? Mythological bad guys: Calypso, Poseidon, Sirens, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis…

4) What are the consequences if he fails? Odysseus’s son will be killed and long-suffering wife Penelope will have to marry one of the circling suitors wishing to take over his kingdom.

This marries nicely with the way a business case is laid out:

1) Who are the stakeholders? Who will be impacted by the change? Who will benefit most?

2) What changes do they want? This is a chance to outline the changes being proposed.

3) What are the impediments to change? This addresses that change will be hard — maybe not Scylla and Charybdis hard, but hard nonetheless.

4) What happens if change does not happen? This is an opportunity to discuss that burning platform, to outline what will happen to sales, profits, market share, or the stock price if change does not happen. If this change is personal, it’s even more compelling.

Llewellyn Powers wrote that “A trembling in the bones may carry a more convincing testimony than the dry, documented deductions of the brain.” While not every business case has to carry the same emotional weight as a good book or movie, if it is created with slightly more passion and energy than a standard wireless contract, there is a significantly better chance it will be approved.