New Leaders: Watch Out For This One Common Mistake

Photo courtesy of Bill Erickson

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Hey, everyone, welcome back. I'm Kevin Kruse. Welcome to the LEADx Leadership Show, where we help you to fulfill your leadership potential. We help you to become the boss that you wish you always had. Today on the show, now this is special, you are finally going to hear from my personal leadership mentor, the person most responsible for turning me from the worst boss in the world into a Best Place to Work winning boss. We talk about how rules take away choice, nature versus nurture, and, because we really geeked out on leadership, this is going to be part one of two, because we have so much to share.

Now, before we dive in, I do want to remind you to visit to check out the LEADx Academy. No hard sell today; it is just simply the best way for you to fulfill your full potential. Our quote this week is this: “If you have 10,000 regulations, you destroy all respect for the law” — Winston Churchill.

Now, our guest today has studied great companies and great leaders for over 40 years. After 15 years as executive vice president of the Gallup® organization, he co-founded Human Resource Innovations, which was later acquired by Kenexa. Before Kenexa was acquired by IBM, it had quickly become the largest provider of employee research on the planet. Our guest is currently a founding principal of Workforce Science Associates, and his new book is No Pegs, No Holes: The Psychology of Elite Performance. He's been my friend for 20 years now. Our guest is Bill Erickson. Bill, welcome to the show. You're not used to me being so official.

Bill Erickson: Oh, god. Now I'm nervous.

Kruse: This is going to make the B-roll, I think, all of a sudden.

Erickson: Okay.

Kruse: So Bill, listen. I have mentioned, actually, my listeners know you, even though they've never known your name. I've recorded almost 200 interviews, and I always talk about how when I was young and dumb in my early 20s, mid-20s, maybe I'm older and dumb, but back then, I had no management training, no leadership training, I was just this entrepreneurial driver winging it, and I was a horrible boss. The first couple of businesses didn't do that well. I had one employee threaten to beat me up in the parking lot, and he was right. He was right. But later in my career, I ended up winning a Best Place to Work award in the state of Pennsylvania, my employee engagement scores were strong, the last business, in particular, did very well, we had some success together at Kenexa, and people say, “Kevin, how did you go from bad boss to award-winning boss?” and I say, “I stumbled on a mentor.”

Erickson: Oh, wow.

Kruse: And I said, “When I was the ripe old age of 30, my company got acquired and another company came in and for the first time, I got exposed to some crazy ideas,” and I usually never mention your name, but I say, “There was one guy in particular who taught me 90% of what I know about leadership and engagement.”

Erickson: Okay.

Kruse: And back then, Bill, I thought it was voodoo. You would say stuff that I thought was magic.

Erickson: All right.

Kruse: So my listeners, this is a big episode. After all this time, they get to hear from you directly.

Erickson: Okay. I'll do my best.

Kruse: All right, now, but here's the thing. We do have a tradition on the show. I always ask everybody the same first question, which is what advice would you give to a first-time manager, a young first-time manager?

Erickson: Kevin, I love that question, and I'm going to make a serious effort to say something significant. But first, I feel just a little bit of an obligation to kind of alert people to all the myths that exist about management that actually make people worse instead of better. I don't have time to do that, but that's where I plug the book. My book, No Pegs, No Holes, I have chapters on the myths about management that actually make people worse instead of better, but even beyond that, I'd like to alert people to this idea of sort of all the conventional wisdom that exists around management. Now, conventional wisdom is a little bit different. Conventional wisdom leads to conventional results. It shrinks everything to average, okay? The value in it, maybe it helps you avoid some pitfalls and problems, but it avoids elite performance. Okay? It gets in the way of elite performance. So if you want to have elite performance, you've got to come up with some unconventional methods. Okay?

So my recommendation for first-time managers is a little bit unconventional. It's unconventional because it's not always fair, and people put a lot of value on fair. Okay? So here it … and I can summarize this recommendation in one word, and it's a powerful word, and the word is: individualize. People always underestimate the differences in human beings. Sigmund Freud a long time ago talked about a defense mechanism that he called projection. He said it's a natural human tendency to see ourselves in others. It gets in the way of great management. It interferes with great management because it's never true. No one is like us, okay?

Now, so take something as simple as recognition, okay? A lot of people even deny that it works. They say, “I don't need that. That's not necessary,” okay? You know why that is? That's because they have never been recognized in a way that fits them. Okay? Everybody's different. You know people who have the kind of ego that just craves a crowd of people and a standing ovation. There are other people, if you do that to them, it's the most embarrassing thing you could do. Some people have their trophy wall, they need another plaque or trophy to hang on the wall. Others take that plaque and put it in the bottom drawer, never to see the light of day. Okay? For some people, the best recognition they've received was actually a note of appreciation that wasn't even to them. It was to the people they love the most. Okay?

It's different, person by person, and that's true of every area, to the way people define growth. Some people want to be the very best at one thing. Others need to learn something different all the time. For some people, it's about added responsibility. It's about earning your trust. People define growth in a million different ways, but what do managers assume? They assume everybody wants my job. It's never true.

Now, one of the best interviews that I've ever given in my life was with John Wooden. I got to spend one hour one-on-one with John Wooden, arguably the best coach to ever live, okay, and he said one thing that I will never forget. He said the worst form of discrimination is treating everyone the same. There's a genius to that. Now, you've got to be careful with it, okay, but there is a genius to that. When you treat everyone the same, you miss the bull's-eye at least 95% of the time, probably more. Okay? So my advice is individualize. Talk to your people, sure, but more importantly, listen to your people. Learn their hot buttons. Write them down. Take notes. Keep note cards or computer records to remind yourself, what are their hot buttons, what are the things that trip their trigger? Individualize. That's my advice.

Kruse: Great advice, again, and that's where when we first met, so much of what you said, I said it was like voodoo or magic because it was not the normal stuff that everybody just tells, like, “Treat everybody fairly, you can't single anybody out,” all that kind of crazy stuff. And this leads right to another one. Back when we were together at that company Kenexa early on, and Bill, I'm writing a whole chapter in my next book about no rules, right, no rules, which again, I have to thank you for enlightening me to this. The story I tell in that chapter is when I sell my company to Kenexa and the CEO at that time was Rudy Carson and of course, they're wooing me in and I'm going to be a top 10 shareholder and a partner and I don't know, VP or whatever it was, and everybody has a vote, all this stuff. And the very first time I submit an expense report, it comes back unpaid, rejected, with no information on it. So I ask-

Erickson: Did you ever watch a movie in your room? That was…

Kruse: Yeah. You know where this is going. So I ask our CFO of the time, like what the heck, and he says, “Oh, you tried to expense Post-it notes. Well, we have a ban on Post-it notes at this company.” So all of a sudden, I'm the partner, I'm an owner, I get an equal vote, and I can't get reimbursement for my two-dollar Post-it notes. Shortly thereafter, and I don't know if it was you or someone on your team, got rejected because they were traveling and bought a beer with their dinner at the airport. Well, we don't reimburse for alcohol. So this started the whole Post-it note, no beer at dinner war inside of Kenexa. And this is when you taught the senior leadership and many of us that the downside of rules are that every time you put a rule in place, you're taking away the opportunity for someone to make a decision, to have a choice, and it becomes their company, not my company. Right? Tell me about, go deeper into this around what rules have to do with this idea of psychological ownership.

Erickson: You really highlighted it. But first of all, I've got to say about rules, I'm not an advocate, but the first thing is, just so there's no understanding, every company has to have absolutes. They have to have principles that they stand for that are unbending, that are unbreakable, that are uncompromisable. Things like, “We tell the truth,” “We put customers first,” whatever they are. That's a necessity. And you could call those rules, but they're what you stand for. Okay? And then I will say this. There are times when you need a lot of rules, and I will tell you what those times are. When you find yourself in a situation where your people aren't very good and they don't care very much, okay? Then you need a lot of rules, okay, and you need a lot of enforcement and a lot of supervisors, okay, and it gets very, very expensive.

But if you have good people that have the potential to make a real contribution and they care, then what you said is right. You've got to remember, every time you make a rule, you take away a choice, and choices are the basis, the cornerstone of psychological ownership. And you really did nail it. I mean, until I have choices and decisions to make, it's not my job, it's a job. It is not my company, it's your company. But once I have choices and decisions to make, that somehow magically translates. Now all of the sudden, it's mine. It's my company. It's my career. It's my job. Whether I own a share of stock or not, it's still my company at that point. So one of the definitions that I really like about outstanding management is outstanding management is the appropriate distribution of choices, because that leads to big ownership, okay, and if you've got people with the potential to contribute, who better to decide how to do their job?

So sometimes it's little things. I think in a great company, everybody, for example, ought to have the latitude to spend a little money without being scrutinized. I think people would be amazed at how appropriately that money gets invested, because they're close to the action and they know how they can spend a couple bucks to be more productive. They know that better than anybody else. Now, if you can't trust your people or they're not good enough, you can't operate that way. But if you get the right person in the right place, that's the way to go, and I don't think people realize that. I think that there are a lot of good people, great people, who get frustrated unnecessarily about things like Post-it notes, for god's sake.

Kruse: And beer. More importantly, beer.

Erickson: And beer. And beer, yeah. So what you said is right, and I can only kind of pile on.

Kruse: Yeah, that was a big one for me. And then another area, I know we can go really deep into these things. You write in your book, No Pegs, No Holes, a lot about people debate whether success comes from nature or nurture. They frame it as an either/or, and you really make the point, it's not either/or. So tell me about your thoughts on nurture and nature.

Erickson: Yeah, well this was really one of the things that was a turning point for me, and it is kind of a cornerstone in the book. There's this ongoing raging debate about nature versus nurture, which is more important, which is more causative? It really misses the point, okay? Let's start with the nature side. First of all, just to clarify definitions, this is really about personality, and personality does exist. It persists. It even persists in most cases over a lifetime. It doesn't change, and if you try to change it, it is frustrating for both the manager and the person, because sometimes it can make you … First of all, at best, you're going to get a low return on investment. At worst, it's going to frustrate people and make them worse. Okay? You can't change Mother Nature. You can't fight Mother Nature.

Now, I've worked a lot of hospitality companies, for example. There are a lot of areas where this applies, all areas, in fact. Like for example, in the restaurant industry, I always like to poke a little fun, and I always like to … Everybody in that industry understands the importance of friendly service. They know that people will drive an extra mile or spend an extra buck to be treated the way they want to be treated. Right? So I like to poke them a little bit about all the time, money, resources, and energy that will be wasted in that one industry today trying to teach crabby people to be friendly, which never works. Okay? You can give them the technique, you can make them practice, you can make them memorize it and learn it, but it won't last. The real person is going to eventually come out. So the big idea, and this applies to so many situations, you want to have the friendliest service in town? Hire the friendliest people in town. Okay?

Now, that's where the nurture side comes in, okay, because the nurture side is about all of our enormous capacity to change and grow and learn and get better, okay, and when you hire those  friendly people, the next thing that happens is your trainers become geniuses, because everything that they do sticks all of the sudden. Any coaching that you do, any development that you do, it matters more, because you're bringing out the best of who people already are, and that's powerful.

But the biggest thing about nature times nurture, the biggest point that I want to make in the book, is there's a magic to it, and that magic I refer to as the interactive effect. So here's what an interactive effect is. Let's say you want to lose a few pounds, which I do, okay? So you hear about a diet, and the diet sounds, you know, there's some foods on there you like and you think, “Well, I think maybe I can do that,” and so you learn, if I stick to that diet, I can expect to lose a pound a week. Right? Then you hear about an exercise plan, and it's like, “Well, that fits my schedule. Maybe I can do that,” and if you stick to that, you can lose a pound a week. But what happens if you do both? Do you lose two pounds? No. You lose like two and a half, three pounds, okay, because if you eat healthy and eat right, you have more energy, your workouts are better, you burn more calories, that interactive effect is where the magic is.

And when this nature times nurture thing, when that interactive effect occurs, it is a little magical. It is exponential growth is what it relates to. It's when the natural traits, tendencies, preferences, instincts, relationship styles of the person find a match with the demands, the opportunities, the support systems that are available in the workplace. When you find that match, it's magical. That's when growth goes up exponentially and all of a sudden, it's not five plus five equals ten, it's geometric. It's not arithmetic anymore. It's five times five equals twenty-five. That's the power of it.

And the good news is, that match doesn't have to be perfect. If you're in a situation where there's some match, it is vitalizing, it is energizing, and you're better equipped to do the chores, the things that you don't necessarily look forward to, but when there's that match, you know if you do those chores, you get to do more of the things you love to do and you get a chance to practice and get even better at it, and it's exhilarating, it's vitalizing. So that's the real power of nature and nurture. It's when they interact appropriately and you don't deny either one of them, you don't try to make one more important than the other. They've both got to be there.

Kruse: Now, I want to ask a follow-up and sort of challenge this a little bit. Clearly, from Gallup® and others in the last decade plus, like the strengths-based leadership movement, very popular, sells a lot of books, a lot of training. Overall, I get it. I often feel like that is now being used as just the comeback from people who don't want to work on any faults or limitations, and I think, again, Bill, it really is fun to talk to you like this because it caused me to think back to some of our early lessons, and I'll get the details wrong, but you often would give lessons based on children and our children, all this stuff works in our personal lives the same way, and I remember you talking about, you know, look, you've got two people, two kids. One's a strong reader, reads really well, reads really fast. The other one's not a strong reader. You can try to make the not a great reader into a super reader, and maybe they'll get 10% better, but the damage and pain you've done to them and your relationship to them, is it worth it? And that same time could make the already great fast reader exponentially faster.

But I'm afraid people are taking this lesson and being like, “Pfft. I don't need to work on that. I'm only going to work on my strengths. I don't need to worry about all the things I'm bad at.” So how do you balance that out?

Erickson: Well, you've got to do the chores and you've got to take out the trash. The real value of the whole strength based psychology is it gets us away from remediation, okay, and remediation is frustrating. If you've ever had to really focus on it, I remember teaching and every year, I'd have to meet with the principal and talk about my developmental opportunities, which were always my weaknesses, and it always came down to lesson planning. It just made me so angry, because I said, “What do you mean I'm not a … I was up all night thinking about this. I know every kid. I knew when to use humor, when to use drama. I knew exactly what I was going to do. How can you tell me I'm not a good …” Well, what he was talking about was my lesson plans looked like I'd wrapped my lunch in them or something, and what he was worried about is, what if I called in sick and we needed a substitute? So we worked it out, I just made a list of films and I said, “If I ever get sick,” which I hardly ever did, “Just use these, okay?” And then he was okay.

So it gets you away from that remedial type of approach, but that strength-based approach is hard, because people are who they are and the work doesn't change, and the work's got to get done. So I think people try to make it about the job, but it's also about the support for the job, okay? One way to build on strengths is to do what we talked about earlier, find out what are the hot buttons in people, how do they like to be recognized, how do they define growth and learning, what inspires them, what makes their clock tick, so to speak? That's strength-based management, okay, and you're not changing their job definition.

I think the other things that it gets people thinking about that has enormous potential is the power of teaming, the power of complementary relationships, when your strengths and my weaknesses somehow compensate for each other, so it gets you thinking about that, and it doesn't always work, okay, because there's not always the right complements readily available, but if you're aware of them, and that's one of the magics of great managers. The best managers understand the power of team. They understand the power of partnerships. The very best managers, if they play tennis, they would rather play doubles. It's more fun. It's more fun to play off of somebody else and to figure out. That's how they think, and because they think that way, they see more of those matches, okay?

So that's the real power of the strength-based approach to me, not that you're moving people around into jobs until you find the one that they love. You can't do that. But it's finding out all those little things that work for that person, that hit on one of their preferences somehow. I think that's the bigger value and the more practical way to think about it.

Kruse: Yeah, that makes sense. When I think back 20 years ago now, the other big aha I had was you and your team really taught me about how to hire people correctly, how to hire great talent, and it was completely different than I had ever heard, starting with the way you would write the job ad back in the day, the classified ad in the newspaper. The fact that you would have candidates before you had really even screened the resume call into a phone line and get asked these weird questions, it was all magic. Now of course, what we're talking about is the importance of traits and the value of implementing a good pre-hiring selection process. So tell us, who this is all new to, it's like, “What, it isn't just my gut after an interview?” What are the secrets to this pre-employment assessment?

Erickson: Yeah, again, this could be a life's work and you still wouldn't know it all, but the thing about recognizing traits and identifying traits in humans is anything you do to get a little bit better at it can make a big difference, so it's worth the time, okay? I've spent a lifetime on it, and I still don't know as much as I wish that I knew. So traits are really, again, this is the essence of the nature side of the equation. It's about personality, it's about the things that don't change, and it's about getting smart about those things.

So a couple of tips that I give you, I think there are some magic questions that really hit people in different kind of ways. If everybody answers the same to a question, if there's a right answer, don't use it, because it doesn't help you discriminate. It doesn't help you learn anything about traits of the person. I was thinking about in my career … because there's so many clues to traits. I fly a lot. I spend a lot of time on airplanes, and what I do is I observe. I watch people. That's why I wrote the book that I wrote.

And I love to watch little kids, which sometimes, they can be really irritating on airplanes, as we all know, but you can see such differences. When kids get on an airplane, you can kind of put many of them into one of two groups. There's the kids who they get into the seat and they want to melt into it and become invisible, or their parent's lap, wherever they are. Then there's the other kids, they get to their seat and pretty soon, they're peeking through to look at the person behind them or they're standing up and they're trying to get them to wave, everybody that walks down the aisle, they look at them, they smile, they look them in the eye. They make these connections.

So what if you could take two groups of nine-month-olds, what if you had 50 of each, okay, and you did a longitudinal study. What's your prediction about which of those two groups is going to produce the most salespeople, okay? Well, it's obvious, okay? I mean look, if at the age of nine months you already have a need to connect with people around you and you start practicing when you're nine months old, by time you get to adulthood, you're going to be a lot better than everybody else. Okay?

That's the way traits work. It starts with what's inside you and then you orchestrate your environment around those things, and that's one of the few secrets to truly great leaders, because there's so many ways to be a great leader, but one consistency among great leaders is they figure out something that they're good at, that feels good to them, and at every level, they use their influence to get themselves into more and more situations where they get to do more and more of the things that feel the best and that they're best at. Okay? If they're a great speaker, they do more of that. If they're a great writer, they do more of that. Whatever it is, if you're Jack Welch and you just understand business, you do … But it's different for everybody. That's why leaders are so different. But that's the thing, they get themselves into more and more situations like that.

Now, in terms of identifying traits, I think one of the biggest mistakes that people make is that they think that when they're hiring people, they think it's about they're trying to assess, can they do it? Can they do this job? That is wrong. That is a mistake. Turns out, there are lots of things I can do. The question is, will I? For example, I can keep my desk a lot neater, but will I? Probably not.

So years ago, and you probably heard me tell this story, it was one of the most impactful studies I was ever involved in, I got to study 300 of the best nurses from an entire country. It was for the NHS in England, and I learned that there are three types of people in relation to the nursing profession. There are people like me, who really can't be great nurses. If you're in emotional distress, I can connect and I feel like I can help a little, okay, but if you're in physical distress and you're really … I just feel helpless. I'm pretty useless. I kind of get immobilized in that situation. I wouldn't make a good nurse, obviously. I can't do it.

Then there are the people who can do it, and for them, it's like, “I'm a trained professional. I know what to do. I take pride in it. I can help.” That's all good and well, but what I learned, there's a third group, and for these people, in that situation of physical distress, they can't not help. They can't not respond. It's like, “If I don't respond in that situation, I don't want to look in the mirror. I don't like me as much anymore. Somehow, my self-concept is diminished if I don't respond in that situation.” I didn't know those people existed. So that's the power of traits.

It applies everywhere. That was a huge discovery. Do you know anybody who can't not sell? It doesn't matter whether you're talking about the basketball game or the weather or whatever, they're going to sell you on something. Do you know anybody who can't not be friendly? We talked about that. You know anybody who can't not be neat and orderly? If you have a job that demands neatness and orderliness, look in their trunk, for example, okay? Because there are people who just don't feel right until everything is in its place. Everything has a place and everything has to be in its place. So if you have a job that demands, find them. There are clues in all parts of their life about that trait, and that's where the science comes in. Asking questions that elicit a wide range of responses and then figuring out which of those responses is really predictive of a trait that's going to find expression over and over and over again, and then getting the right traits for each job.

Kruse: So Bill, to make sure everybody understands, I want you to use an example. Now, and we're not saying that anybody should just try winging this. There's a science to it, people are trained in how to do this kind of screening, but I learned that your trained people back in the day would ask, word for word, the same question and then there would be, I think you guys called them a listen for, like you were listening for a certain phrase or a time frame or whatever it is. Is there a question that is a predictive question that you could also share, like what you would be listening for or what's triggering you?

Erickson: You bet. You bet. This matters in sales, this matters in education, for example, a good question is, it sounds so simple, okay, “Are you a good listener?” Now, if you're in a job interview, no one's going to say no, right? If you want the job, everybody says yes, so that's just the setup. The follow-up is, “How do you know when you're doing a good job of listening?” And what we've been able to track in several different professions is there is a performance difference between those people who tell you about how they listen. They talk about techniques like reflective listening and they talk about eye contact and they talk about what they do, and some of it's pretty smart stuff, right? But what we've learned is the predictive part of that is when they don't talk about what they do, they talk about how the other person responds. So it's when they say, “How do you know when you're doing a good job of listening?” and they tell me more than they intended to tell me. They open up, okay, when they put the frame of reference on the other person, that's what we call predictive. That would be a good example. Okay?

Kruse: That's great. Great example.

Erickson: Yeah. Another one, a real simple one, and there's a lot of great answers to it, but, “Are you a good loser?” Okay, well, some people will hear that and they hear, “Are you a good sport?” They say, “Well yeah, absolutely. You've got to be mature, you know.” But there are people, that question triggers something inside of them, okay, and they just go, “I hate that.”

Kruse: I almost said no out loud in the middle of your answer.

Erickson: And it really does discriminate. I mean, you'll get such a wide range of answers and responses, and the thing is, it works at all ages, okay? It translates, and it is predictive. So those are a couple examples. Of course, I could always give more.

Kruse: Well, I'll tell just a funny story about traits. This was several days ago, and it's the end of the day and I'm getting ready to do these podcast interviews. My girlfriend Christine had come in and she says, “What are you going to do? Are we making dinner?” I'm like, “I still want to work,” she's like, “All right, I'm going to hit the treadmill.” So I'm working, and then all of a sudden, I don't know, an hour goes by … My office is in my basement, so I hear her footsteps again above my head, meaning she's done with her workout, she's going to want me to come up and start evening, right? So I don't go up there, I just text her, and I say, “I know you're done,” I say, “I'll be up in three minutes.” She texts back and says, “You are very precise,” and then the next thing I do, in the next three minutes, I'm getting ready for our interview here, and so I'm going through the many dog-eared pages in your book, and I get to the part where you're talking about how some people have a weirdness about time and others don't, and about it's just like the clock is always running. So within minutes of me saying to her, “I'll be upstairs in three minutes, I'll be done working in three minutes,” and her saying, “You're very precise,” I'm reading about that odd trait that some people have.

Erickson: That internal clock. People have either have it or you don't. Some people, when they fly, you can tell. Some people, boy, they cross a time zone, they've got to … Other people, “Eh, you know, if I don't change it now, I won't have to change it when I get home.” That's just … I had an associate who you knew, who I thought was a master of conventional wisdom, okay, so we didn't always agree, but in negotiation or arguing with him, I'd always try to make sure it was in his office, and I would sit across the desk from him and I'd kind of lean over and I'd start moving things around on his desk, okay? He had that neat, orderly, and it would drive him crazy and he couldn't wait for the conversation to be over again so he could put things back where it was.

Kruse: That's funny.

Erickson: That trait just couldn't not come out.

Kruse: Right. I want to ask you, so about personality, as I think you know with the start of the new company, LEADx, we've been rolling out all kinds of things, and one of the things I've been excited about is working with a mutual friend, Dr. Roger Lipson. We've launched this Big Five personality assessment that drives a lot of other things. When I read the other versions of Big Five that are out there, the Five Factor model and other personality assessments, it always says there is no one right personality. It's not about right or wrong, it's about role and fit and just self-awareness and working with others. Largely, I get that, but I feel like look, when it comes to the Big Five, would I ever want to hire someone low in conscientiousness instead of high? Would I really want to hire the high in neuroticism instead of the low? There kind of is a right profile in Big Five, isn't there?

Erickson: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah, I don't think in that regard it's adequate. You take something like conscientiousness, it's not the situation where it's either there or it's not there. There are different things that trigger conscientiousness in different people. That's why I think you've got to get kind of beyond that.

Kruse: Yeah, deeper.

Erickson: You can't just know about conscientiousness in isolation. There are different triggers for different people, and that's the secret to it. That's kind of where this whole thing started out. You've got to individualize, and that's what I would say about that. That's why I like assessments where it doesn't rely on the recognition of a response, multiple choice, true false, whatever, where the person has to spontaneously generate the response. We ask a question sometimes about focus, and the question is, “When you're alone late at night, early in the morning, driving someplace, what do you think about?” Okay? Well, I've asked that question thousands of times and I've heard everything from their fantasy life, what music they listen to, to whatever, but again, the best predictive response is, “I think about where I'm going and what I'm going to do when I get there,” or “I think about the meeting I just had and what I could've done better.” It's rehearsal or review. If that comes out spontaneously, that's great.

Now, but if you put it on a list of things, you try to turn it into a multiple choice question, well, everybody's had that happen. It loses its predictive power. So I really believe in this situation where you put out the question or the stimulus cue and you let them figure out how they react, because that's who they're going to be day in and day out, not what they … In real-life situations, it's not multiple choice. You've got to generate your own response, your own behavior at that point. So that's really what I believe in, and it's not at the end of the day, it's not so much whether you have five or whether you have twelve or whatever, okay? It's about the question and whether it elicits that range of responses and whether those responses really do correlate with the kind of traits that are the best natural expression for this particular job.

Kruse: Yeah. Okay, so here's a question that is a legit, Kevin wants to know, I want some coaching here. It's something I've thought about and sometimes joke about. Using the things that I learned from you and back when we were scaling up this business really fast, Kenexa, in early 2000s, we hired some superstars and the business had some incredible success, and what I noticed is that we hired superstars and we also had a lot of wacky stuff going on. We couldn't hold a sales meeting without there being a bar fight and three people going to jail. We couldn't have a gathering without someone getting drunk and taking their clothes off in the Denny's parking lot.

And it isn't just salespeople. I had very talented young graphic designers and one said, “Hey, I need some vacation because I'm going to Burning Man out in the desert for a week.” They never came back. They just never came back. I guess they relocated, joined the Burning Man cult. I don't … They're gone. Another one, highly talented, really good guy, we hire him. The second day on the job, he gets his tongue pierced in so many places, it's so bad he can't talk for two months. So now we've got a talented employee who cannot communicate for two months.

Now, we remember these people that we've worked with and still know in some cases. What is it about this, I try to … sometimes have told people the short version. I'm like, “It helps you to identify people that like on the far extreme of the curve, but sometimes it's the wrong end of the curve, you know, the wrong end of the bell curve.” So what is it? Is that talented people are just wacky and it comes with the territory? Is it that we were not screening out for certain things? What's going on?

Erickson: Well, I think maybe there were some questionable decisions that were occasionally made, but I think there's also a culture. One of the defining sort of events of the culture in the city where we had our office of three hundred and some people was the annual golf tournament, and it had nothing to do with golf. It was a chance for people to let their hair down. I mean, it just wouldn't have been the same without that annual golf tournament. So it was a culture that attracted some people for not always the right reason, but I feel like the defining thing was it was based on… It was a performance culture, and we kind of stuck to that. So it was like a work hard, play hard culture.

So I don't know what to tell you about the guy… In the book, there's a chapter on the most unconventional manager I ever worked with. His name is Sean, and I intentionally misspelled his name, because that's just what he… He always had to screw with everybody. He had a knack for zeroing in on people's hot buttons, usually in a… He was just a prankster, and that was one of the techniques he used to manage. He really knew how to get to people, but he also knew how to do it in a really good way at times. There was some unconventional things at Kenexa, and you've got to take the good with the bad, I guess.

Kruse: Yeah. Yeah, I guess it just goes with the territory. So to wrap things up, and we could go on forever on this kind of stuff, I always like to challenge my listeners to learn something new every day, do something different every day, constantly be growing. I say it half-jokingly, but I say the robots are coming for all of our jobs. We need to keep our edge. Right?

Erickson: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kruse: So give us a challenge in the spirit of leadership and engagement and No Pegs, No Holes, so that we could go out and try to do right away.

Erickson: Okay. I'd love to. Okay, so this definitely puts us on the nurture side of the equation, because you can't go in tomorrow. If you want to start right away, you can't go in tomorrow and switch out your people, okay, so this is about the nurture side of the equation. This gets into this powerful concept of employee engagement. Now, one of the things that's going on right now in a lot of the popular press in business and management is there's this weird discussion about what's next after engagement, you know? The annual engagement survey is dead, what's the next fad that's going to replace it? Okay?

If you're having those kinds of discussion, I've got news for you. You're not defining it right, okay? You're screwing it up, because what we know about engagement … Engagement is about all those things that any manager or leader at any level of the company can impact and influence. So from the front line to the boardroom, and it's different at every level, but what are the things that I can do that cause my people to want to work harder, stay longer, and care more? Okay? That's what it's about. What are the things that I can do that cause people to be more motivated, committed, and conscientious? That is never going to go out of vogue. That is never going to become irrelevant. We probably ought to rename it every few years to keep it fresh, but it always is going to be relevant. Until that day that you pointed out when everything is done by robots, that's always going to matter. Right?

So here's something you could do, and it works and it's important, okay, and you could start tomorrow. It's going to probably take you a month or two to get through it, but with respect to each person that you feel responsible for in the organization, have a one-on-one. Could be spontaneous, it could be an appointment, but the purpose of it is to kind of discover the answer to this question, and the question is for each person, one-on-one, “Describe the time in your work life when you were the most engaged, motivated, committed, into it. What was that like? What were you doing, and why was it like that?” Okay? And then listen closely, okay, and here's what you will learn. If you have decent people at all, first of all, I'll tell you what you won't hear, okay? You won't hear much talk about the conventional wisdom stuff. You won't hear much talk about work-life balance, “It was when I had no stress,” you won't hear that. You won't hear much talk about money. You won't hear much talk about some of the basics, like respect and fair treatment.

Now, I'm not saying those things aren't important, but those are disengagers. Those can be bummers, okay, that bum you out, but they're never the things that engage you. What you will learn, and it'll be different for everybody, but you will hear about challenge, learning, inspiration, a chance to be stretched, a chance to take on more responsibility, to get better recognition, to be more successful than you will have been, to make a difference. You will hear about hard. You will hear about a time when it was hard, but I did it and it was vitalizing, it felt great. So that's one thing. That's one thing you can do.

Now, that's really more about managing, okay. Okay? And it's kind of one by one. If you have aspirations to lead, which is a little different, okay, I kind of discriminate between those two functions, then here's something to think about. Here's what the literature is saying probably more strong than ever before, what our research, not the literature, what our employee research is saying right now. Here's the basis of it. If you could equalize everything else in the work environment, money, working conditions, management, if you could equalize everything else, many, many people would rather work for a cause than a company.

So if you as a leader can identify that cause, what matters around here? Why is this important? Who wins when we win? Who are we helping? How are we making the world better? If you can do that, you can gain a big competitive advantage over your competitors if you can do that better than them. Okay? And even more importantly, if you can inspire people with the mission of this business, why does this matter, beyond the paycheck, beyond the P&L, beyond the stock price, why is this work important, and then take the second step of helping them know how their job contributes to it, how they're a part of it. Look, if you can do that, many people will follow you anywhere. Okay? It's that important. It's that big a deal, and right now, with things going on in the world, the data would say that it's more important than ever. So that's not one thing, that's two, and those are two things that you could start on tomorrow.

Kruse: Fantastic stuff, and when you say the data suggests it's more important than ever before, is it that the times we are in, or is there a generational element? People like to trash the millennials, I often get, “How do you manage millennials?” And I have not seen a lot of data that millennials are that different than other generations in terms of what they want. They're younger, so they might want growth more than an older dog or something, but do you think this is a generational thing, or we're all feeling this need?

Erickson: This piece I do not believe is a generational thing. Sometimes I think that gets overplayed. There are generational differences, but it's like every other stereotype. When you apply it to an individual, you're mostly going to be wrong, okay, because the variance within the category is always so much greater than the variance between the categories, and people don't get that. So if you try to treat all millennials the same, it's the same mistake, okay, it's just a different variation on the same mistake, I'll put it that way. So with this need for purpose and to see how your work fits into a bigger picture, I don't think that's generational. I think there are people that that is extremely important to in every generation.

Kruse: I'm glad to hear you say that, and I want that in my own life and I try to lead with that element. I just interviewed earlier today a professor and former entrepreneur guy, and I don't think it was on the record, but he said, I'll leave his name out of it, but he said that one of the things he is seeing generationally, he was complaining that kids these days talk about purpose and cause, and what happened to just wanting to be a capitalist? So I thought that was kind of funny. I thought that was interesting.

Erickson: I think that might've been more about him than the millennials, yeah.

Kruse: I think so. I think so. Yeah, it wasn't hard to uncover his motivators.

Erickson: Yep. Yep.

Kruse: So Bill, I've got to, unfortunately, wrap this up, but tell our listeners how can they find out more about your book and your work?

Erickson: Our company is Workforce Science Associates. Our website is We have some white papers and you can buy the book on there. They can read the book, and we'd love to talk to you. We love to work with groups of managers and talk about these ideas and put a little more meat on the bones, so to speak, make it a little more practical. A lot of these are great ideas, but people don't immediately see the practicality to it. I tried to give a couple of examples of questions to ask and things that you could do, but it's worth more time and we love doing it.

Kruse: Perfect, and I'll put that link and links to the book on Amazon in the show notes, and the articles. Bill, thanks for coming on the LEADx Leadership Show.

Erickson: All right. It was more fun than I thought it would be.

Kruse: Good. Well, we'll do it again soon.

Erickson: Okay.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at