The Principles Of Effective Consulting Business Leadership With Liz Wiseman: Podcast #297

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As a leader, it is important to adopt a mindset to allow your team to drive better results. In this episode, Liz Wiseman, the author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, discusses the principles of effective consulting business leadership to empower your team and drive exceptional results. She introduces two contrasting leadership styles: Multipliers and Diminishers. She delves into the characteristics and behaviors of multipliers and provides practical insights on how leaders can develop and embody these traits. She emphasizes the importance of allowing room for mistakes without necessarily creating severe consequences for your business. Tune in to this episode as Liz explores the concept of leadership and presents a framework for understanding and developing effective leaders who amplify the intelligence and capabilities of their teams.

On the show, Michael is joined by Liz Wiseman. Liz is a prolific author. She is best known for her impactful book, Multipliers. She has also penned several other noteworthy titles that have made waves in the business and management spheres. She has collaborated with premier brands such as Nike, Salesforce, 3M, and Target throughout her career. As you’ll discover, Liz faces initial challenges in creating a successful consulting practice and compelling offer after her seventeen-year tenure at Oracle.

If you’re struggling to find your compelling offer and go from 6 to 7 figures in your consulting business, we can help. You don’t have to go through it alone. If you’d like to work directly with the Consulting Success team and receive personal coaching and support to optimize and grow your consulting business, marketing, and revenue, visit ConsultingSuccess.com to learn more and apply.

Let me tell you a little bit more about Liz. In her work with companies like Apple, Disney, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, she has helped transform leadership cultures and taught hundreds of leaders to tap into the true potential of their teams, thereby increasing capacity and productivity within their organizations.

As you’re tuning into this episode with Liz, there are a few things I want you to focus on. One is how to leverage a book to win new customers, a counterintuitive way to become a better leader, a strategy Liz uses to help you inspire your employees, and a secret weapon to turn you into a better communicator and leader, how you can go from a Diminisher to a Multiplier as a leader, how to develop a productized service, and why you should avoid the trap of foe questioning. Without further ado, let’s jump right into this wonderful episode with Liz Wiseman. Enjoy.

Liz, welcome.

Michael, it’s good to be here.

I’ve heard you talk on other podcasts or publicly that your experience at Oracle was a positive one, and that you learned a lot from it. I’m wondering, what was maybe one thing that big company experience didn’t prepare you for or didn’t give you that you realized when you started your own company?

It did not prepare me to be a solo decision-maker. I remember when I left Oracle and I wanted to start a consulting practice, my plan was to hang up the shingle and say, “I’m available to do this kind of work.” I remember creating a website. It was a basic website that probably a lot of consultants have when they start out. I’m choosing colors. I remember stopping and thinking, “Who do I need to ask for permission to use this shade of blue?”

Literally, it was this knee-jerk reaction of I am not empowered to make brand decisions. I had worked for a large corporation where you didn’t change Oracle Red because you liked it a little bluer or pinker. There was Oracle Red. I remember feeling disabled to make some of those decisions because I had been so used to collaborating or going to the approved source for things. I struggled initially. I was like, “Wait a minute. I guess I’m the decision maker.” That was something I was ill-prepared for at first. Deep down inside, I channeled my inner bossy, know-it-all, and I’ve got this. It was hard at first to have all the responsibility and all the decision rights on everything.

Do you think that causes analysis paralysis in people? Now, because you are the decision maker for pretty much everything, especially at the early stages, you tend to overthink, procrastinate, or spend too much time on little things that may not necessarily move the business forward.

I think so, but both extremes are damaging. One is to overthink constantly. The other is to underthink and say, “I’m the decision maker.” In some ways, once I figured out that I was in charge, I’m like, “I like being in charge.” You can go out, but there’s a reason why you consult other people about things out of your expertise. What I had to learn was that sweet spot of, “Wait a minute. You’re now doing things you don’t know how to do. You used to know who they were in a big organization, but who are the people, whether they’re professionals, attorneys, accountants, or friends and family, that you should pause and say, “What do you think of this? Give me some feedback on it?” There aren’t that many jobs that are best done with a single brain.

That’s very well said. You left Oracle and in 2010, you started Wiseman Group, which I believe is the same year that you published Multipliers if I’m not mistaken. Hopefully, I’m correct on that. Did the company come first? Did the book come first? What did that launching pad look like for both the business and the book?

When learning is lighthearted, we open ourselves up to deep learning. Click To Tweet

When I left Oracle in 2005, I started a consulting practice and hung up a shingle. I called it Mindshare Learning Systems. I did some executive coaching and some strategy work, which was an extension of the work I had learned to do at Oracle. I had a range of things that I was available to do. I was pretty good at about 2, 3, 4, maybe half a dozen things that I would say yes to these projects. I then did the research behind Multipliers, and wrote that book.

We ended up renaming the company to the Wiseman Group in anticipation of this book launch. It was there that I went from being a consultant for hire and a range of things to finding out that the market wanted one thing from me more than any other thing. That was helping managers learn how to be better leaders and doing it with this Multipliers framework. I started to shed a lot of the small to medium-sized projects and skills, and put all of my energy behind what I was getting. The resounding feedback from the market is, “You have something that we want, and moved more toward productizing that.”

What did that look like or that feeling? What were you seeing to make the decision to narrow in, specialize, productize, and build around that? Oftentimes, people have a lot of experience. They have a lot of expertise. They’re offering a whole bunch of different services. If they do an analysis, they might find that the majority of their revenue or profit comes from one specific offering. In your case, you’re saying the marketplace was telling you. Can you give a little bit more detail about that? Was it just people saying, “This is what we want?” What was going on that helped you to make that decision to go all-in on that one area?

The book was getting traction. When I wrote this book, I hoped that more than a couple dozen people would read the book. I’m like, “I hope someone other than my mom reads this book.” I had a sense that tech executives, managers, and corporate leaders would appreciate the book. I figured it would get some traction in Silicon Valley where I have lived and worked the majority of my life, but then it started to get traction in healthcare. People from healthcare and doctors were calling. I’m like, “I don’t know one thing about healthcare.” School systems are calling, and then hospitality companies and manufacturing not just in the US. I’m finding that the idea was resonating around the world.

The first feedback I got was this idea that was captured in this book. Simply put, that idea is that the way a leader uses his or her own intelligence, know-how, and capability affects the intelligence, know-how, and capability of their team. A leader can either have an amplifying or a multiplying effect on their team. There are leaders who deeply use people’s intelligence, and people get smarter and more capable around them, or a leader can have a diminishing effect. There are a lot of people who are having a diminishing effect and are totally unaware of this. I call them the Accidental Diminishers. The idea started to get traction. The book is now having that initial success from its launch. Harper Collins would refer to it as the little book that could. It just kept getting momentum.

Were you finding that it was getting momentum even without you working as hard or trying to? You weren’t necessarily pushing it, but it was pulling or it was creating results even without your direct support and ongoing promotion of the book.

Absolutely. This is probably because I was raised at Oracle. I’m someone who knows how to push a boulder up a hill. I’ve got a pretty strong work ethic and a “can-do and make things happen” work approach. I’m like, “Let me get a book written. Let me get a book contract. Let me make that happen.” Suddenly, I’m finding that I’m not having to effort things. I remember when people would come to me and say, “I read your book, Multipliers.” I’m like, “No, you didn’t because I don’t know you. How is it that you’ve read the book and you’re not Oracle alumni, or someone I coached, or someone that came from a company like Apple or SAP that I had done a lot of work at? We’re not related. How is it that you know about this book?”

I had made all my friends and family read the book. I’m getting that over and over. There’s something happening, word of mouth. There’s a referencing thing. There’s a value that’s strong enough that other people are sharing it unprompted by a social media post, a tweet, or what have you. That’s where I’m seeing that there’s something. The first feedback I got from the market was, “This idea is valuable and we want more of it.” The second thing that I got was, “The way that you are presenting it to us works.” That’s where all the other types of consulting, that was the sum total of years of experience of how I worked at Oracle and how I was coaching. The way that I was finding how to teach the idea, how to speak about it, and how to share it in a way that connected with people.

Can you talk a little bit more about that? I’m wondering now that the book has been around for quite some time, it’s taken on a life of its own and made a big impact on so many people to the point that you’ve followed on with other books. You mentioned the way that you presented it. I feel like research was a big part of this book. I’m wondering, when you look at it now in hindsight, what do you think made the book so powerful, effective, and compelling to reach that level of success, the way you presented it, and the idea? Talk a little bit more about that because I’m thinking about everyone who’s tuning in, and the lessons there might be inside that they might be able to use with their own intellectual property, their next book, or whatever they’re working on.

The third term that I use, I certainly didn’t invent this term, but the term I use to think about this is signature experience. I don’t know who else uses that term, but I am pretty convinced I didn’t invent this. Someone else must have talked about this. I think about it as, “What is somebody’s signature experience?” I feel like I developed a signature experience, which is if you come to any one of our programs, whether it’s a keynote, a seminar, a workshop, or a coaching session. It’s going to have certain very predictable elements. If it doesn’t, I’ve failed to do my job and my team has failed to do our job, but it’s going to be thought-provoking. I started to pick up on this.

I remember this moment. I was teaching a class at Genentech/Roche. There was this Roche executive. He was a scientist. He’s in the session. There are a lot of Europeans in the session because there are a lot of Roche executives. As an American, I’m always nervous about running seminars for Europeans because they experience learning in different ways. They interact with classes, workshops, and presentations in different ways than in America. They don’t hoop and holler. They’re not like, “Great.” They don’t react this way. Canadians are maybe somewhere in between. I don’t know.

CSP Liz Wiseman | Effective Consulting Business Leadership

He’s stoic and looking at me. He comes up afterward and I’m like, “This is the part where he tells me this is wrong.” I think he was Swiss. He said, “I’ve been managing for 25 years. In this last hour, you’ve caused me to completely rethink what it means to be a good leader. Twenty-five years of experience, I am now questioning everything I thought I knew as a leader.” He thought that leaders use their intelligence in a way that inspired other people, “Were strong, and were capable.” Now I’m saying that might be having a diminishing effect. He was like, “This has fundamentally changed my worldview.” That is the first thing I noticed that people would say, “That messed with my mind.”

You get them to think and you challenge their assumptions or prior beliefs.

That’s the first thing. It needs to be thought-provoking. If it’s like, “I know this,” I’m going to stay away from that territory. I’m going to look at what we can do that will cause us to rethink deeply in ways that are often unsettling. I still get this feedback from the book. People say, “I read your book. It was painful.” I hear that a lot. People say, “It was painful.” I’m like, “Painful, as in a bad book?” They’re like, “No.” Occasionally, some people will say bad book. I get those reviews on Amazon every now and then, but it’s like, “That made me question myself. In some ways, it made me feel a little bit bad about how I’ve been operating as a leader, but then it left me hopeful.”

That’s the first. It’s thought-provoking. An element of that is everything I try to do is evidence-based. I’m not making stuff up. I’m going to research things diligently, and that’s what creates that thought-provoking. The second thing is relevant to practical. Everyone should walk away with something very specific. This has become part of this signature, and I hear it over and over from people, “That messed with my mind. I felt I walked away knowing exactly what I needed to do.” I call it top and tail. You’re top-level thinking, but then something very specific on the ground. The third part of that signature experience is fun and funny. If people aren’t having fun, we shouldn’t be doing it. I have this deep belief that when learning is lighthearted, we can open ourselves up to deep learning.

I found it very interesting as you’re explaining these three things because as I think of my time reading Multipliers, I got those three things. There are a lot of elements of, “You’re provoking my thoughts. I didn’t know that.” It’s challenging my prior beliefs or views. It was light in the sense that it was easy to read. It wasn’t a dry textbook or too heavy with research or data. The research and data were there. There were a lot of very practical, easy-to-implement, and clear, “I want to test this. I’ve already been using it.” I see that. I appreciate you breaking that down because now I have a different perspective on that. That’ll be very applicable to many people.

You talk about research being very important to all of your work and especially this book. Many people see the value in doing research, but they don’t feel that they have the time to do research. Take me back to that point where you’re running this other consulting business that you had. You’re working with clients. You’re doing a whole bunch of research. I know you had a research associate or assistant, Greg McKeown, who has gone on to do a whole bunch of stuff as well. How would you counsel or advise somebody who is busy with life and busy with business? They want to work on a book or they want to dive deeper into research, but they may not feel they have the time to do thoughtful research. What have you learned about that and what might you suggest?

I air towards “Do the research.” To me, it’s a lazy strategy. I know a lot of people look at that and go, “Rigorous research, I don’t have time for that. I don’t have the energy for that.” I look at it as if I don’t have the energy to not do that.

What do you mean?

I’ve done rigorous research for all my books that usually involves the shorter end, three months of intensive research, and then three months of sense-making and analysis in that research. Probably another three-plus months of model building. That can be even longer than that. That’s a huge time investment and nobody pays you to do this. It’s all self-funded, but I look at that and go, “I would much rather invest my time doing that, and then come out of it confident in the product.”

When you’re standing in front of a group of people and someone says, “No, I don’t think so. The world doesn’t work this way,” you can sit back, listen, hear their point of view, and help them move forward from that point of view without getting defensive. I look at that and go, “You can sling any arrows you want at me and my work,” I don’t worry because the evidence doesn’t lie. I didn’t make this up. This is how people think and work. This is what leaders do to have a diminishing effect. When somebody is getting defensive, I don’t have a panic moment. To me, once you stand on a platform of truth, then everything else is easy. Don’t waste any cycles trying to make stuff up or create proof points or extensive case studies because we’ve done that work. It’s foundational.

How do you manage your schedule during that time? Whether it’s writing Multipliers or any of your other books, are you carving out time every morning? Are you taking chunks of time out of the business? How are you structuring that? What have you found works best for you? I know that it’s different for different people, but in your case, how do you navigate that?

Multipliers are leaders who amplify the intelligence or support their team, while diminishers drain the intelligence or energy of those around them. Click To Tweet

I want to give credit to luck for some of it. For the first book, Multipliers, a lot of it was luck. Part of it was I happened to be starting this research as the 2008 global economic crisis was unfolding. I remember getting the call, and SAP was one of them. They’re like, “We’re going to take our business with you down to zero.” I think it was doing $200,000 worth of business with that company. They’re like, “We’re not cutting it by a little. We are going to take it to zero.”

I had a lot of client-driven business dry up, which is a hardship financially, but it was a blessing on the calendar, which is great. I am starting this big research project, now I can devote myself entirely to it. I was fortunate. When I left Oracle, I left with enough of an equity position in that company, and a nest egg that my husband and I had set aside ample money for this.

No stress around finances at that time.

I don’t need to describe that because everyone knows what that feels like. I was able to make a multi-year investment in something. I can’t give myself a lot of credit other than I probably stayed at Oracle a tad longer than I should have emotionally. Financially, I wanted to leave when I was in a strong position to be able to start this company and be able to do the work that I wanted to do. That’s easy to say. It’s hard for someone to replicate that. I realized that.

With every subsequent piece of research, this work we do operates very much like a pharmaceutical model. That’s where everyone was like, “The drug, how could that possibly cost $50 a pill or $200 for a month’s supply?” People look at the little pill and go, “I know it only cost you $0.25 to manufacture that or $12 or what have you.” There are ten years of R&D work that lead up to that. A book is very much this way. There’s all this unpaid investment in knowledge and IP. That then gets recovered with workshop fees, etc. I was a little bit smart about how to manage that and how to recoup that investment, and then continue to deliver the value in all the work around the book. It then funds the next piece of research.

If I’m hearing you correctly, during the writing of Multipliers, you had the time because all of a sudden, the business that you had started to dry up. In more recent books, are you taking time off? How do you fit in the actual writing of the book?

I’m sure someone has put a better name to this, but it’s that time and horizon striping. I try at any given time to be spending some of my time doing immediate, and probably what would be revenue-producing work. I was doing some things that are mid-range projects that don’t deliver value or revenue in the immediate term but are midterm investments. I then try to have a stripe of my time dedicated to something that’s not going to bear fruit for years to come. I try to generally stripe my time that way. There’s a stripe in there for doing work that contributes to your community or a profession that brings you no revenue, credit, or anything like that. I believe very importantly that a big stripe of my time should be spent doing that.

When I go into book mode, a big research project, I realize not everyone listening is involved in book work, but most everyone has something where there’s a product they’re investing in. We’re going to enrich our products and services and make this R&D investment. I’ll then heavily skew it where I’ll block out entire days and entire weeks. We’ll leave in little bits for that revenue-producing work. Selfish is probably not the right word, but I call it lockdown mode. I lock down my schedule and I say no to everything that isn’t essential short-term revenue-producing work, fulfilling commitments to clients, and everything else is R&D book related. I was just saying no to clients, “I’d love to have lunch with you, but no. I’d love to be on this, but no.”

That’s helpful to see that perspective. When you’re focused on something very important and it’s going to take focused time, you have to say no to a lot of things to give it the time and attention that it needs. I want to get into the book in a little bit more detail. There’s so much inside of it that people will benefit from. One of the core themes inside of the book is you have Multipliers or leaders who amplify the intelligence and support their team. You then have Diminishers or people that drain the intelligence or energy of those around them.

The Multipliers or those leaders that amplify the energy and intelligence of their team and the team loves to be around, the big idea behind that is that a Multiplier will ask questions of the team. They’re not telling them what to do. Could you elaborate a little bit more on that? Set the stage for people so they understand who a Multiplier is. I then want to get into a few questions to try and make us a little bit more specific to the world of consulting.

We found that there are a number of things that Multipliers and Diminishers do very differently. It begins with their core assumption. What they are telling themselves when they walk into a meeting or walk through the threshold of the office and start a day. Diminishers tend to be operating from this belief that no one is going to figure it out without them. It puts them in this mode of hiring smart people, but then telling them what to do, giving answers, making decisions, micromanaging, and getting it done.

CSP Liz Wiseman | Effective Consulting Business Leadership

They’re very hands-on and prescriptive. They operate primarily from a place of knowledge and certainty, and they direct other people. I have lots of days where I’m working this way. I fall into this pattern a lot. Particularly when I lead an organization that’s based on knowledge and intellectual property. It’s pretty easy to be, “I have answers. Let me tell you what to do.” We find that Multipliers are operating from this belief, “The people that I lead or the people I work with are smart and can figure this out.”

In essence, a lot of people are familiar with this idea of a growth mindset. This was Carol’s observation about Multipliers. She says, “It’s like you’ve taken this concept of growth mindset and looked at what that looks like in the work world and what that looks like when leaders hold that belief not about themselves but about the people they work with.” They say, “I’m capable of learning. I could figure out harder things. I may not have all the answers, but I can figure things out.” That’s a growth mindset that one’s intelligence isn’t fixed.

Is this different? Is the application of this idea of asking questions rather than giving direction, but asking questions as a Multiplier would do, different based on the size of the company? Let’s say in a large organization, you have a lot more people. Maybe you have people that have even more experience. If you have a smaller company, you have 5 people, 10 people, or whatever that might be. Have you seen anything in the research or in your own experience and observation in working with clients? Is the application of that different in a smaller company?

I haven’t seen that it’s different in a smaller company, but it does pose particular challenges when your company’s product is a person’s knowledge. In most consulting companies, that dynamic comes into play. Let me go back to what you said. The Multiplier leaders are leading through inquiry. Instead of telling people what to do, pointing people in the right direction, and then asking people good questions. Instead of giving people directives, they give people problems to solve.

Rather than, “I want you to write a white paper that we can publish next month,” it would be like, “What kind of paper do we need to write that would reach the right audience and communicate this idea in a compelling way?” It’s not like, “Knock yourself out.” It’s not a hippy form of leadership like, “I don’t know. Do what you want. Be creative. Do something valuable for our clients.” It’s being prescriptive about what you want people to think about, but being a little open about how people go about thinking of it.

You’re asking a question, but the question has some guardrails. You’re giving direction within the question, but it’s still a question. It’s what I’m hearing you say. In terms of writing a white paper, you’re not saying, “Let’s get some publicity” or “Let’s create something.” You’re saying, “If we were to create a white paper, how could we structure it so that it would have the most impact?” It’s something along those lines.

It’s asking questions that focus the intelligence and energy of the team on the right problem. It’s asking questions that shift the burden of thinking from you as maybe the proprietor of the business and share that burden with your team. I want to give you my favorite example of this. It comes from a movie scene that most of us have seen. It is from the American NASA program. The movie is Apollo 13. Have you seen it?

I have, yeah.

There are some memorable scenes from this movie. The plot of the movie is NASA is trying to send a manned spaceship up to the moon and things have gone wrong. Now, they’re trying to get the astronauts back to Earth. A lunar landing is not possible. They’re trying to get them back. The module or the capsule that they’re in is now filling up with poisonous gas. Do you know the scene that I’m talking about?

I have a memory of it. It’s there.

I bet a lot of people tuning in have a visual memory of this. Here’s the scene. The engineering manager calls his team together and he dumps a box full of parts onto a table. These are parts like a space suit, hoses, and a bunch of stuff. He dumps this on the table. What he says is, “The guys upstairs have handed us this one and we have to come through because this capsule is filling up with poisonous gas.” He says, “We have to find a way to make the hole for this fit into the hole for that using nothing but this.” It’s this square peg-round hole kind of problem because these two things don’t naturally come together. He says, “Let’s build a filter.”

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I think it’s such a great visual of what managers can do. It’s like, “How do we solve this problem? We didn’t create it. How do we solve it with nothing but these resources?” Essentially, what this engineering manager is doing is giving his team a puzzle to solve. It’s like, “How do we increase our market share in this space with no new products by the end of the quarter while not having any deterioration in our customer satisfaction in this segment of our business? How do we do that? There is a lot of guidance built into the question.

One of the advantages that smaller companies have is that they’re more nimble. They can move very quickly. What about in the situation where the leader or the owner of the business who, in this hypothetical situation, knows the most about the market, the clients, or whatever? If they believe they know what needs to be done, how should they think about that in terms of giving direction or guidance to team members?

They believe in what they need to do, yet they’re trying to be a Multiplier, not a Diminisher. Is there ever a time when a leader should say, “Here’s what we need to be done” or “Here’s what I need you to do. Can you please get that done?” Have you found that even in those situations, it’s still not a good idea to do that, rather, the Multiplier leader should always be asking questions. What do you think about that?

Here’s what I would suggest. A good leader should try to lead by asking questions as much as possible. I have a little exercise that I like to give people the extreme question challenge. We can come back to that in a moment. I would say push yourself everywhere you can to try to help guide your firm and your team by asking good questions rather than giving answers. Make that the rule rather than the exception. There are a couple of notable exceptions. The first of which is if you’ve already made up your mind about what you want to be done and how you want it done, then you should tell people and not practice faux participation.

I used to complain about my husband. On Friday nights, we’d always take the kids out to dinner. He’s like, “Where do you want to go for dinner?” I’d be like, “I was thinking maybe we could go to Chevy’s.” He was like, “I was thinking maybe Thai food.” I’m like, “You already knew it was Thai food before you asked me.” He was trying to be a good husbandly. He knows what his wife does for a living. He understands these principles. He was practicing faux participation. If you already know you want to go to Thai food, you just say, “Let’s go to Thai food.” Don’t insult me with a question. I’ve done that so many times myself.

One time, one of my kids busted me. I was walking outside with my young son. He was probably 8, 9, or 10. I’ve got lunch. He and I are going to eat lunch outside. I’m like, “Do you want to eat there at the table or over by the fire pit?” I’m walking to the fire pit to sit out the tray. He goes, “Mom, it looks like you’ve already decided. We’re eating at the fire pit. Why did you ask?” It’s easy to get into that trap. If you already know it’s Thai food, just say, “Let’s go to Thai food.”

That’s helpful.

The second is in times of crisis, these may not be Multiplier moments. I get a lot of people who push back on me and say, “You can be a Multiplier even in times of crisis.” Let me share an experience I had. This was off at the Yale Medical School and then Yale New Haven Hospital chain. This is a quad and very academic medical center. I’m doing a class on Multipliers for all the physician leaders. They’re the people who lead all the residency programs. We’re having a great time. They’re loving Multipliers. We break for lunch, and then suddenly they’re not loving Multipliers again.

They come back and there’s a mutiny and they’re like, “We get it. We want to be a Multiplier, but maybe you don’t understand what we do, Liz. We deal with life-and-death moments. We hold people’s lives in our hands. When someone’s flatlining in the OR, this isn’t a Multiplier moment.” They then describe what they maybe have to do. They’re like, “We not only tell people what to do. We yell and we scream.” Fortunately, I had the sense to ask a question. I said, “I get it. What percentage of the time are you dealing with those life-and-death moments?”

They conferred amongst themselves and they’re like, “Probably 3% to 5% of our time.” I’m like, “In those 3% to 5% moments, I recommend you yell. Tell people what to do.” If it were my child on that operating table, I would want you to do whatever to save that child’s life. Short of something abusive. What about 97% of your time? How do you need to lead then? What happens if you lead in the same way in those moments, and you’re treating everything like these high-stakes moments?” This is a group of people who are surgeons. I had that same conversation with a group of military officers. They said 2% to 3% of their time is life or death moments.

If you had asked people more generally, they probably initially would think it’s a much higher percentage. If you give some real thought to it, it’s probably a much smaller percentage of the time. That’s helpful. I appreciate you presenting it that way. One question that comes up a lot with people is how to get the most out of their team. You talked about in the book this idea of the liberator. How do you generate pressure but not stress?

CSP Liz Wiseman | Effective Consulting Business Leadership

My question is, how can you get the most out of your team? Maybe you’re applying pressure because you want them to do their best. You want to challenge them. You want them to feel proud of what they’re accomplishing. Without creating stress, overwhelm, burnout, or mutiny, what are some of the best practices around that?

Let me start with the principle of this. What’s the difference between working in a tense environment versus an intense environment? What’s the difference between pressure and stress? The pressure is good. Stress tends to cause us to shut down. The best way this was explained to me was by one of the Multipliers I interviewed. He made reference to the William Tell story with, “We’re now back to another Swiss example here.” He said the story of William Tell, the famed Swiss archer who has to shoot an apple at the head of his son. He said in that scenario, William Tell feels pressure. His son feels stressed. The difference is control. If you put pressure on people to do their best work, but you don’t give them control, they’re in an environment of stress.

Could you make that a little bit more granular for those who are joining us? What can they do to challenge or apply that pressure to their team without stressing them out? Are there certain expectations that need to be set? Do they have to have a certain conversation? How do you put that into practice?

To put it into practice, what you want to do is give people two things. You want to give people ownership, meaning control over their work, and then you want to hold people accountable for that. The control keeps it from debilitating stress. The ownership is what applies the pressure. Let me give you a very concrete example. This is one of my favorite examples. It’s not Swiss. This comes from John Chambers.

At the time, he is a new CEO at Cisco. This is the networking router company. He’s making his first executive hire. He’s hiring a man named Doug to run customer support. Chamber said to him, “Doug, when it comes to this part of the business, you get 51% of the vote and 100% of the accountability.” This is the best shorthand I know for giving someone ownership and accountability. What he’s saying is, “You get 51% of the vote,” meaning you have final decision rights. You’re in charge. You get to make the decisions. This is yours to be in charge of, “You, Doug. Not, I am in charge.”

A lot of managers tell other people they’re in charge, but they don’t let go of ownership. The metaphor I love to think about is transferring the title when you buy a house. The previous owner has to relinquish the title before you can take the title of that house. A lot of bosses don’t relinquish titles. They never sign away the title. They’re like, “Here you own it, but I own it too.”

Why is that? Are they scared of things going wrong or a non-optimal result? What’s holding people back from letting go?

A couple of things. They’re scared that people are going to fail, which means you haven’t sized the task right.

What do you mean by that? Tell me about that.

I’m a business owner of a small team too. I know this feeling of I want someone else to own it. In the end, I’m the one who pays the price. I would much rather see people give someone 51% of the vote on something small, on this report, on this meeting, on this service delivery, or on this client interaction. Rather than, “Welcome to the team. You own it. Act like an owner,” give someone something small that if they screw it up, they can recover from this. He didn’t say, “Doug, welcome to Cisco. You get 51% of the vote around here.” No, you don’t. Give someone something small as they prove themselves. Let that grow so that you always feel like it’s incremental trust being built there.

Second, I wouldn’t give someone 100% of the ownership. What was brilliant about what Chambers does is he gave them 51%, which means Chambers holds 49%. Meaning, “Consult me. I’ve got an opinion on this. Listen to me. Keep me informed. Consult with your colleagues. Play as a team. In the end, we’re going to back you on the decision you make on this.” The other reason why people don’t give people full ownership is they’re in this collaboration mishmash, which is like, “We’re all going to be in this together.” I am not a fan of jointly held ownership. I love collaboration but I want to know, of the five people working on this project, who owns it?

The most powerful thing you can do as an owner of a business is to make it clear where it’s okay to make mistakes and where it is not okay. Click To Tweet

Some people call this one throat to choke or whose neck is on the line. I call this the hungry cats problem. When I say to my kids, “Whose turn is it this month to feed the cats?” “We’re all going to feed the cats. We love the cats.” “No, I need one name.” When everybody is in charge of feeding the cats, the cats go hungry because someone else is like, “I thought they were going to do it. It’ll create collaborations, but parse it in a way like, “Who owns this meeting?”

People to feel comfortable around this. When you’re giving somebody more room to make decisions and to take action, it also means that you’re introducing the potential for more failure because you’re trying things that you yourself aren’t as confident about. You’re letting them go with it. What do you say to people around that? Should they welcome and understand that as part of the process? You might encounter a little bit more failure or learning experiences and that’s going to ultimately make you stronger. Is there something else they should be thinking about when they’re moving through that process?

I’m not a big fan of joint ownership. When people jointly own it, that has to be a proven track record of we can jointly own something. I’m also not a huge fan of, “Make mistakes, fail fast, fail forward.” I don’t think that’s a great business strategy. Here’s what I am a fan of. It’s clear delineation and sizing things right. One of the most powerful things you can do as an owner of a business is to make it clear where it’s okay to make mistakes and where it is not okay. Every organization has its freeways and playgrounds. The freeways are like, “You make a little mistake here and it’s going to have severe consequences.”

That’s what those doctors were talking about. The 3% to 5% of the moments where it’s like, “I can’t let someone experiment at this moment. I can’t let someone debate this. I can’t let someone else own it. I have to be prescriptive.” Let people know, “This is a place where we have to get it exactly right. We have to follow the procedure. We have a fiduciary responsibility. It has to be done. I might be a bit of a perfectionist and I need you to be a perfectionist.”

There are not many organizations where that’s all they do. Most have what I call the playgrounds, which is, “Here’s where you can try some things, you can make mistakes, and you could recover from them. These are not business-ending, career-ending, or life-ending. These are our playgrounds.” When organizations can separate these, then people are like, “Now I know where I can fail, recover, and where I need to avoid failure at all costs.”

I like that distinction. I’m glad that you share that because it gives a breath of fresh air and a little bit of room to relax. Once you create that separation or get clear about that inside of your business, what is the playground, what areas of the playgrounds, and what areas are the highways, that creates so much more opportunity for alignment.

Here’s a real practical example of this. I was going through that exercise with the executive team for the Banana Republic. We are in their office in Manhattan, I remember. I did it with Post-it notes. This is somewhere where you could do this with your business team. We said, “Two boards. Not okay to fail. Okay to fail.” We had everyone write their ideas down on Post-it notes. We put it all up there, and then we debated it. We’re like, “You could fail at that and recover.” People were like, “You can’t fail at that.”

We get them all on the right board. It’s all this consensus process, and then we step back and look at it. It was so clear this thing that emerged where it was not okay to fail. It was so enlightening for people because it was one word. I imagine people might be guessing what would that be. Where could an organization like a clothing retailer not fail? The word was December or holiday. It was this biblical decree of eleven months out of the year, changed products, try new promotions, and do all these kinds of things but do not screw up holidays.

A big chunk of their business happens during that period of time.

A little change like introducing some crazy new product line, rearranging stores, or changing the website with a new shopping cart, “You were not going to scare away our customers at the time when we’re bringing in the bulk of our profits and revenue.” It’s hugely liberating to the team, “We can go back and tell people. You can experiment, but just don’t screw up now.” It’s probably November and December. Every organization has it. That’s the delineation.

The other thing is getting the size right. I don’t mean the size of the khakis or the size of the challenge. I’ve come to see this as one of the master skills of good leaders. It’s knowing how to size challenges right. Sizing it right for your team. What’s the hard thing you’re asking people to do? How do you give someone a challenge that is sized right for them? I’d like to think of this as getting the wave right.

CSP Liz Wiseman | Effective Consulting Business Leadership

It’s a story that I share in the book Multipliers, but this comes from my experience as a mother. We’ve got three young kids. We’re at the beach. Our three-year-old is the youngest. This is an accident waiting to happen. There’s a near-drowning waiting to happen because this kid is drawn to the waves. This kid is a surfer today and loves the ocean. He would keep going out into the big waves. I’m trying to keep him to the baby waves, he keeps venturing out, and I keep pulling him back in. People are laughing at us. It’s like a comedy on the beach.

Finally, I’m like, “This kid is not going to learn this from his mom. I am failing at teaching him this. He’s going to have to learn this one from Mother Nature.” I’m looking now for the perfect wave like the right size wave. I need a wave that’s big enough that it’s going to toss him, but not so big that it’s going to sweep him out to sea and drown him.

When that wave comes in, I step back and I let him toddle into it. It takes him and it’s tumbling him. I’m close by and of course, I’m getting some looks from other parents on the beach. My son is getting tumbled around in there and then the wave recedes. I pulled him up, and then he is spitting out sand, and a little surprised. I’m like, “Let’s talk about the power of the ocean.” That needed the right size wave. We do not want to let people fail spectacularly. We also need to let people toddle out into a wave that feels a little bit big for them.

I’m looking for one that creates a teaching moment, but not a life-ending moment. Good leaders are looking for, “How do I give people something to own that’s just big enough that it’s going to stretch them, they’re going to learn, but not career-ending and not business-ending for me?” I think sizing challenges or sizing how much failure is about failing your tolerance. People needed to learn, but it can end something.

That’s definitely something for everybody to think about. One of these things often, to use the wave analogy, is to get swept away. It all gets lumped together. Spending some time to think about that distinction of what size is the right size? How do we test something? What’s a playground? What’s a highway? How do we look at all those things? There’s so much that we’ve literally scratched the surface in our conversation. I appreciate you for coming on. I’d love to continue the conversation, but I want to respect the time that we have. Where is the best place for people to go to learn more about you, the Wiseman Group, and all your books? Where should we send them?

The Wiseman Group is TheWisemanGroup.com. If you go to WisemanGroup.com, you will find an interior design firm in San Francisco that I guarantee you have a much more interesting website.

That probably has gotten quite successful from all the businesses that you’re sending their way when people type in the wrong URL.

They send people to us. We’ve sent people to them.

It’s a good strategic alliance.

My books are at their headquarters because sometimes they end up sending them to people. We have a wonderful relationship. TheWisemanGroup.com, there’s some information about what we do, but there’s information about the books and resources.

Is there any other resource or anything else you want to guide people toward that might be helpful for consultants specifically or smaller firm owners?

We do not want to let people fail spectacularly. But we also need to let people toddle into a wave that feels a little big for them that creates a teaching moment. Click To Tweet

There’s something we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about, but there is a resource there on the website. There’s a little quiz, Are you an Accidental Diminisher? We don’t have the time to dig deeper into this, but let me scratch that surface. We find that most diminishing is not coming from bossy, know-it-all, narcissistic, and mega-ego kinds of leaders. It’s coming from what I call the Accidental Diminisher, who is maybe what I call the fountain of ideas. They’re always on, rescuing, quick to respond, pace-setting for their team, protecting their team, or things that we do at the very best of intentions that look good leadership that has deeply diminishing effects on others. There’s a quiz there. That’s something to probably go scratch on.

Liz, thank you so much for coming on.

Michael, it’s absolutely my pleasure.

Thanks for tuning in to this episode between Michael and Liz. If you enjoy this episode, then be sure you hit that subscribe button wherever you tune in to your favorite shows. If you love this episode and want to help support the show, I would encourage you to head over to Apple Podcast, where you can leave a rating and review, or share this episode with a friend or colleague you feel would be truly impacted by this show.

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