[The following is the full raw transcript of a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Kevin Kruse: What's the first step in decision making that almost everyone misses? Today on the show, you're going to hear from someone who cold contacted me on LinkedIn. She had a unique viewpoint on one of our prior episodes. We were talking about values and decision making and I just said “Hey, let's bring this conversation from the LinkedIn platform onto the show.” We talk about the power of and not or and also why super candor is the start of great decision making. First, today's tip core values. After five grueling years, I sold my company, got a big payday, and quit. Brief elation, but on about day three I woke up, and I just felt weird. Why should I get out of bed? Literally. I would've started a new company to make this uncomfortable feeling just go away.
I would've pushed it down. I had a noncompete, so I couldn't start a new company. I was forced to decide what will I do with my time. Why should I get out of bed? I had chased success or achievement or fill in the blank for so long, I'd forgotten to slow down and ask what's my purpose? What's the purpose of all of this? What do I really value? Every day, we all decide, maybe we even struggle with how to spend our time. Should we stay late at work? Should we go to the gym? Should we rush home and eat dinner with our kids? Too often, our decisions leave us feeling guilty or stressed. We forget to ask what do we value? What are our values? Many people use the Five F Framework. They focus on faith, fitness, family, friends and finances.
Seven F's if you add fun and future. Other people identify their values from a long list of value words like authenticity, adventure, balance, compassion, contribution, humor, love, religion, security, trust, wisdom. Now, I'm a simple guy. I always tell everybody if it's more than three, I ain't going to remember it. My values are health, wealth, and love. Now each morning, I wake up, I recite my purpose, my personal purpose statement, and then I think about how I'm going to live my values for that day. Each day is different. There's no right answer, but I think about it in advance. Health, treadmill. Love, date night. Wealth, film a course for LEADx. Then, I get out of bed, core values.
Our guest today is the founder of Lead Above Noise, whose mission is to empower leaders, to catalyze performance and deliver business results. Through consulting and workshops, she ignites the activation of micro changes. The tiniest increments of change that maximize impact while minimizing disruption. Leveraging both her academic background in organizational psychology and her corporate experience in a Fortune 100 company, she's worked with such organizations as American Express, Cisco, Scholastic Books, Audible, and many more. Our guest is Rachel Cooke. Rachel, welcome to the LEADx Show.
Rachel Cooke: I'm thrilled to be here, Kevin. Thank you.
Kruse: Now, we were talking a little bit before we officially went on air here how you became a guest is a little bit interesting because you listened, you heard the episode where I was actually interviewing Dina Dwyer-Owens. We were talking about values and I happen to mention I was working on my next book and I've got a chapter about no rules. You cold emailed me to join the conversation or on LinkedIn, I think it was. Right?
Cooke: It may have been.
Kruse: I thought that was really cool because I always encourage listeners to reach out to connect, tell me what they like, what they don't like. I thought you handled it great. You basically were disagreeing with me in a very agreeable way. Before we get into that conversation, as you know we have the tradition of asking a couple of questions up front. The first one's always will you tell us about a time when you failed, so we can hear the lesson learned?
Cooke: I have a story I'm going to tell you from the really early days of my career. I chose this story not to distance my present self from it, I assure you I fail regularly, it was a foundational moment for me and it also pitted me as the punchline of a joke. I want to tell you the story of the first job that I ever took coming out of graduate school. I had just wrapped up my degree in organizational psychology and I took a job in industrial distribution, which is exactly as unsexy as it sounds, but the hook was they had this management rotation program.
What they said to me was “Listen, we've industrial distribution covered. We have lots of people that do that well. What we're looking for is the aptitude and appetite for leadership. So we'll teach you the basics of our business, but we want you to help us find ways to make our business better.” To me, a young whipper-snapper ready to show the world what I had to offer, this sounded amazing. I came on and I show up on day one and get my assignment, and I am now the manager of a 50 person department out in the warehouse operation.
I now have 50 men, all men, reporting to me, all of them older than me, many of them older than my dad. I'm standing out there in my steel toe boots and my hardhat and I'm ready to show them that I'm going to teach you guys a thing or two. About halfway through my first day, one of the members of my team comes up to me urgently and he's like “Rachel, we have a problem. We really need your help. We can't find the pallet shrinker anywhere.” My inner Clark Kent jumps up and I'm ready to be the hero and I'm going to find this thing. I realize I have no idea what it looks like, and so I whip out my walkie-talkie and I start calling around to my colleagues and the managers of different departments, and I'm being met by what I can only describe as a lot of apathy, which doesn't really make sense to me until I finally pick my head up and look around and see smirks and chuckles and a lack of eye contact.
At which point, it dawns on me that pallets are made of wood and shrinkers are not a thing and I have been hazed. It was official, and it was really painful. I wasn't the first and I wasn't the last, but what they were reminding me of—and what really lines up with the core of the work we do today—is that leadership is not about how smart or heroic you are, but it is about what you can catalyze and leverage from your team. The way that you do that is by building relationships and watching how they work and asking questions and having conversations and hearing their ideas. It was exactly the experience I needed to have and that is what I take with me today.
Kruse: That's a heck of a story. I'm curious. Were you eventually able to build some rapport and connect and contribute as a leader or was it all bad with that team?
Cooke: I was. Like I said, I appreciated their willingness to almost slap me in the face a little bit. Because in a lot of organizations, they just hear you and pretend and these guys weren't about that, and so I really figured out quickly these guys have been here for years. They know what they're doing. I need to help them find the opportunities to enhance and be a partner with them and that's kind of how we rolled going forward.
Kruse: That's great. Unfortunately, I didn't have anyone slap me in the face until much later in life. I think it's true. A lot of high achievers, you do climb the ranks of the organization, you go into leadership roles, and it's natural for us to be that superhero. Let me fix this. Let me make that decision. Let me solve all your problems. But, that's not really what we're supposed to be doing.
Cooke: It’s not.
Kruse: It's against our nature and sometimes against what got us into the new role, but that's a great story. Let me build on that and just ask another follow a more generic question. What advice would you give to other first time managers out there who are trying to go and become effective leaders?
Cooke: I would say certainly there is the humility piece, which I think I just demonstrated painfully through that story. I think hand in hand with that another piece of advice I would give to first time leaders, and I'm seeing this everywhere, is letting go of the idea that busy is a badge of honor.
We're in this culture now where “How are you?” “I'm so busy,” translates to I'm so important, I'm so in-demand. The reality is being busy is not a badge of honor and it’s a signal that you're not focused, you're not prioritized, you're not in control of your day, and my story goes to show that being a great leader is about listening and observing and engaging. When you are so focused on being so important and so busy, you miss those opportunities to really build those relationships and gain those insights. That would probably be my biggest piece of advice. If you are so busy, see that as a symptom of something and not as a badge of honor.
Kruse: Now Rachel, when you sent me the message on LinkedIn, I'm going to read just a piece of it. You said “I've worked with clients of all sizes all striving for enhanced results from their teams and decision making nearly always shows up in the list of capabilities requiring repair. Some teams do it too slowly, analysis paralysis. Some do it too quickly, uninformed and with unnecessary risk, and all are seeking a refinement to the process. We do that to facilitate that process enhancement, but only after we begin with a foundation of super candor.” I love that. It's like one smashed together word, supercandor. What is super candor?
Cooke: First of all, that's really an earful. I did say that, didn't I? What I meant by that, Kevin, is when I think about decision making within an organization, I think of something that we do in service of getting someplace new. When an organization is making a decision to buy a new capability, it's really in service of getting to a new place, a place where we have this capability, a place where our process is more efficient. It's about getting to that new destination. For me, the way that I think about that is I liken it to a directory you would find in a shopping mall in the United States. Let's say you have a destination in mind, there’s a store that you want to go to.
You go over to that directory and you find the store. You find your destination. Before you can start marching ahead, there's one more thing you need find on that directory. Any guesses?
Kruse: Where I am right now?
Cooke: “You are here,” right? You've got to find that little box that says “You are here,” because you can see the destination, but you still don't know how to get there. Where I see decision making so often go wrong in organizations, is when leaders are really great about having a vision, having a destination in mind, and they start charging ahead. What they fail to capture is a clear picture of the “You are here.” Before any organization can start successfully marching toward that new destination, there needs to be this clear picture of the current state of things. If we're going to revamp a process because we want to gain in efficiency, well what's causing the inefficiency right now?
We need to get under the hood of that and without that insight, we're never going to make our decisions. We think about super candor as, describe it as the very sexy and uncensored truths about the way that things operate today in the current state. There's this concept out there called psychological safety that you may be familiar with and it's a phrase that was coined by Amy Edmondson, who's a professor at Harvard. She describes psychological safety is a state in which it is safe or okay or permissible for people to take risks and share ideas and ask questions. For us, super candor is built upon that, but what we think is it's not just safe or permissible it's okay, but it is absolutely imperative that whatever level you're at in the organization that you're willing to share the honest gritty truths about how things operate today.
Because when we don't share these insights, when we don't demonstrate that super candor, our leaders are left making decisions from an uninformed perspective. They're missing important data, and that's really what super candor is about. I love to tell my leaders and anybody who's familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, if that rings a bell for you when you think about that pyramid. At the bottom, you've got your need for food and clothing and shelter and then only when you have that can you think about love and relationships and you ultimately work your way up to this idea of self-actualization. I always tell my leaders that naked hungry people will never self-actualize.
If you want to get your organization to the state of being self-actualized, you need to understand what's keeping them naked and hungry at the bottom. That's really what it's all about. We work with leaders to help build the culture of super candor. How do we create and articulate that imperative and how to model it? How do we reward it? How do we make use of the data that comes through this idea of being super candid? That's what it means for us.
Kevin: Is it more on leadership to create a culture of candor where people feel free to express different opinions, to take risks, to challenge their boss? Or is it on us as the individual to say “Hey, I really need to let the leadership know we are here before they go off and make that decision”?
Cooke:That's such a good question. I think the reality is that it's both. In all honesty, I think if it's not happening then I do think it's incumbent upon the leaders to start to take their team on that journey.
Kruse: Again, what sparked you reaching out on LinkedIn to begin with? When we're talking about values done right and that's what I write about in my book, because I'd rather not have all these rules, I'd rather have standards or values that are actionable and more like guardrails. You weren't saying that's bad idea, but you're saying that's not sufficient, and we need more than that because you could have values out there but if people don't feel comfortable to say “Hey, here's where we are, here's the real truth,” then we're still not going to be making good decisions.
Cooke: Absolutely. I remember when I sent you my note, I was very careful to write “Yes and,” and not “Yes but.”
Kruse: Right. I'm a big fan of that. For listeners who don't know of this, I don't know, it's not a trick. It's real, but you often when you say the word “but,” it negates everything that came before it. I'm sort of notorious for using the “and” word and I usually capitalize the word so people realize it's like “Yes and.” I think you did the same kind of thing and I chuckled at that.
Cooke: I totally did. I totally did and I'm glad you chuckled because it's actually a tool to the best of my understanding that comes out of improv comedy. I learned it from Tina Fey, my great mentor of all things.
Kruse: Of course, I was going to say that's the first rule of improvisation. If you negate what someone's handed you, the scene is over. There are no laughs. If you go with it, then you can build upon it and there's something there.
Kruse: I like to give your listeners something actionable, so let's say we've got our leaders out there who are listening. Let's challenge them. What's something they can do in the next 24 hours to start on this journey of creating some psychological safety to get their followers, their team members, not as naked and hungry? How do we start?
Cooke: I would encourage the leaders think in the space of naked and hungry and ask the lowest level question that you can think of. Ask somebody on your team what is the most small, irksome, annoying thing that makes you less efficient in your day, even it's only taking you 10 extra minutes. It's giving them that opportunity to show you the low hanging fruit, something that you can solve easily for them. I think doing that starts to build support from the ground up. That would be my advice for leaders wanting to get the ball rolling.
Kruse: I love that advice. Instead of picking something that's going to be a little bit more challenging or just a topic that's maybe too sensitive, something that's easy and actionable. I met a woman named Ellen, who was a great people leader, and she took over a very large IT department and did not have an IT background. She led with that question to great effect. When she did her “hello” one on ones; here's who I am, who are you, etc., she always ended by saying “What's something really small that's bugging you that might be taking you an extra five minutes a day, 10 minutes a day?” Then, she tried to action on all of those. Then, they would get comfortable bringing things to her. They got bigger and bigger.
Cooke: Props to her.
Kruse: Yeah. Props to her. That's right. Any other final wisdom, Rachel, before we wrap up this episode on the topic of decision making?
Cooke: The only last piece of advice I would offer would be think small. One of the things that we preach at my company in the work that we do is think about change from the perspective of what we call “micro change.” Don't think about trying to boil the ocean, but pull the finish line in as tightly as you can and think about the smallest increment of change you can make tomorrow other than thinking big, starting big, and three years from now you've arrived your destination.
Kruse: Love it. Micro changes. Rachel, how can our listeners find more about you and your company?
Cooke: Well, they can visit our website, which is leadabovenoise.com. If you click on our resources section, you will find a Leaders Guide to Super-Candor, which we have there. I also have something I would love to offer your listeners if they go to leadabovenoise.com/kevin, we have an 18-page guide that we use with our clients where we're taking them on a journey to activate their team's performance and that guide is available for download for anybody who's interested.
Kruse: Wow. I really appreciate that extra effort with the /kevin just for our audience, and I'm going to be downloading that guide myself. Rachel, thanks for modeling. Again, you were a listener who heard something and said “Hey, I've got something to contribute to this conversation,” reached out, and here we are. I hope you inspire others to do the same.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.