Liz Wiseman: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 31st, 2015 by bobmorris

Wiseman, bio-lizLiz Wiseman is a researcher, executive advisor, and speaker who teaches leaders around the world. She is the author of three best-selling books: Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools.

Liz is a former executive from Oracle Corporation. She writes regularly for Harvard Business Review and Fortune and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Inc. and Time Magazines. She has been listed on the Thinkers50 ranking and named as one of the top 10 leadership thinkers in the world.

She holds a Bachelors degree in Business Management and a Masters of Organizational Behavior from Brigham Young University.

Her latest book, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work, was published by HarperBusiness (October 2014).

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Morris: Before discussing Rookie Smarts, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Wiseman: My husband, Larry, has fueled so much of my personal growth. He is a kind person who sees the best in other people. He believes in me, laughs at my jokes, supports my work, and makes me feel like a genius every day of my life.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Wiseman: One of the great privileges of my career has been to work with and learn from Dr. CK Prahalad, the great management thinker from the University of Michigan. CK was a brilliant educator whose gift was never in telling people what to think – it was in teaching people how to think. He taught me how to question and how to hold my ego in check as I uncovered answers. He put me into situations where the demands of the role far exceeded my capabilities, and then he gently coached me as I grew into them.

When I nervously shared the research for my first book, Multipliers, with him, he responded with genuine curiosity and delight, helping me to see the impact it could have. When I asked where I should do further research, he said, “You’ve done your research. It is now time to publish.” There is nothing like having a brilliant person believe in you and push you to be better. One of the reasons that I wrote Multipliers was the hope that everyone would have a leader like CK in their career.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Wiseman: My big pivot came when I left the comfort of a great corporate job (I was the VP of Oracle University) to go out on my own as a consultant and executive advisor.

I had joined Oracle right out of business school and spent seventeen years in various management jobs. Oracle was a company that was not only growing in size, but one with a true growth mindset – a belief that smart people could figure hard things out. As a result, I faced a steady stream of stretch assignments. I was 40 years old before I had a job that I was actually qualified for! While I took some teasing from my bosses (who had to occasionally explain to others why they had given a big job to one so young and inexperienced), I found the work as thrilling as it was challenging.

At the end of those seventeen years, I realized that I was, at last, qualified for my job. I felt like I had come to a standstill and began resenting my job. Sure, my colleagues and work conditions were still fantastic, but I wasn’t being challenged and the exhilaration was gone. But I had to wonder, does the thrill ride have to end mid-career? Fortunately for me it didn’t. I took a pivot step out of my comfort zone in corporate management and set out to research and write a book on leadership based on a lingering question I had: Why do some leaders drain intelligence in others while other amplify it? Writing a book was honestly something I had little understanding of how to do. Fortunately I again found people willing to take a chance on a rookie (or perhaps my publisher just didn’t realize that I had never written anything longer than an email when she agreed to work with me on my first book, Multipliers).

Nine years ago my colleagues and friends couldn’t understand why I would choose to leave a great gig at a great company to work solo and in obscurity. But, in venturing out, I’ve found greater impact and personal satisfaction.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Wiseman: Honestly, I don’t think I use much of what I learned in my formal education; however, I constantly use how I learned. I was fortunate to attend a school and a graduate program that knew their job wasn’t to stuff our brains full of facts but to teach us a way of thinking. Dr. J. Bonner Ritchie, who is one of my intellectual heroes, used to say, “our goal is to teach you how to think and how to manage ambiguity.” I learned to look at issues from often-overlooked perspectives and to understand the unintended consequences of purposeful action. I suspect the real curriculum of college is learning how to learn by quickly mastering a subject, applying what we’ve learned, and then moving onto the next learning challenge at hand. Our formal education can never stay current, but the real value of education is learning to analyze, question, debate, and discover – which are timeless skills. And, there’s an added bonus: learning how to figure out the idiosyncrasies of each professor is great preparation for figuring out what your bosses and other stakeholders expect from you (it changes constantly). I hope our universities don’t succumb to the mounting pressure to become trade schools.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Wiseman: I wish I understood from Day 1 that my job was to help my boss solve his/her problems. Fortunately, I had a mentor, Bob Shaver, a VP at Oracle, who taught me this early in my career. I was contemplating an internal transfer and was interviewing for a job in Bob’s division. I described the kind of work I wanted to do and what I hoped to accomplish in the job. Bob assured me that my intent was indeed worthy but that it would be far more helpful to him and the company if I figured out my boss’s biggest challenge and helped her solve it. I reoriented my thinking away from what I wanted and toward what the business urgently needed. While the initial work wasn’t my true passion, I dove in wholeheartedly. I think I built a reputation as someone who understood the strategy and got the most important stuff done. This, in turn, opened up many career opportunities to do work that I truly love.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Wiseman: The Lego Movie is a fun illustration of a major shift that is taking place in how we organize and work. The workplace is shifting from a place where we go and becoming something we do. We used to optimize our learning and development efforts to enable people to work in company structures and in teams that had a life of their own. Going forward, we need to optimize around discrete pieces of work to be done and ready the workforce for reconfiguration.

In the movie, the villains build the Lego kits per the exact instructions and then super-glue the pieces into place, creating a spectacular but static object. The young protagonist wants to use the Lego pieces to build something original (and less elegant), dissemble it, and then build something entirely different. Spoiler alert: reconfiguration wins!

Our organizations and team structures need to be built for reconfiguration rather than built to last. We need workforces where talent can be identified, rapidly deployed, and redeployed and where work processes are scrappier. In this more dynamic environment, rapid learning, rather than knowing, will be the most critical skill.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Wiseman: I recently read The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (yes, I can’t believe I just learned about it). It is such an insightful tome disguised as a children’s book! In it the author Norton Juster celebrates what he describes as “the awakening of the lazy mind.” In the story, Milo, a young, bored boy, passes through a mysterious tollbooth to find himself in a strange land. He meets a king who sends him on a difficult, dangerous mission that involves a secret matter that the king will tell him about when the boy returns.

When Milo returns victorious, he asks the king to reveal the secret matter at last. The king said of Milo’s mission, “It was impossible….but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” Sometimes not knowing is better than knowing. People often do amazing and innovative things in business simply because they don’t yet know they are impossible.

On the darker side of business might be The Great Gatsby – it’s an interesting illustration of pretense, greed, and misguided loyalty.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Wiseman: This is a noble idea, but I wonder if this passage has become a major source of anxiety for corporate managers. I find so many managers who yearn to be Multiplier-like leaders (who find and unleash capabilities in others) but are held back by the fear that if they shine the spotlight on others, they will fade into the background and become seemingly unnecessary. We need to recognize that the top of the intelligence hierarchy isn’t the genius but the genius maker – the leader who uses his or her intelligence to raise the level of contribution from everyone else.

Morris: I think that is Lao-tse’s key point. And now from Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Wiseman: Agreed, but not because we’re fickle, but because knowledge doesn’t stand still for long. Technology is causing our business and innovations cycles to spin so fast that, in many cases, leaders don’t face the same problem twice. In this environment, the ability to learn is far more critical than one’s accumulated knowledge.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Wiseman: While a Eureka moment is exciting, it is the end of the learning process. When someone says, “That’s odd….”, the learning process is just beginning. Stuart Firestein wrote an interesting book called Ignorance: How it Drives Science that shows how it is actually ignorance not insight that leads to scientific discovery. I suspect this is why “intellectual curiosity is so critical for leaders.” In my research for Multipliers, I found that intellectual curiosity was the top characteristic of Multiplier leaders. I also found that professionals who maintain what I call “rookie smarts” throughout their career all share this trait.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Wiseman: When leaders offer great vision but don’t lead their teams to execute, they stunt the learning process of the organization. We only really learn when we complete a performance cycle and get feedback on the efficacy of our ideas. The most intelligent teams have vision and execution.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Wiseman: It is the job of the leader to focus the capability of their organization and set the strategic challenge. A bad leader will tell people what to do. A good leader will ask questions and let his or her figure out the answers. A great leader asks the questions that focus the intelligence of their team on the right problems.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Wiseman: So much of our work has become so complex that it exceeds the capacity of one person’s knowledge and expertise. We’re seeing interesting research that shows that a group of non-experts can outperform individual experts. For example, behavioral scientists at the University of Chicago showed that expert pathologists poorly predict a cancer patient’s survival time based on viewing a biopsy slide; yet when the decision of a group of less experienced individuals is aggregated, the readings are much more accurate than the predictions of individual experts. I think it is becoming increasingly rare for a really smart person to be smarter than the rest of us collectively.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Wiseman: Managers have dual challenge here. To drive innovation, they must lead their organizations to the edge of what they know and then experiment. However, they need to create safe places for their teams to test assumptions where the outcomes aren’t business ending (or life ending).

There’s a physician leader who offers a useful example. This attending physician (who oversaw a residency program at a top medical school hospital) asked direct, pointed questions that explained very precisely what was needed from the resident physicians. Without giving up control, he clearly stated the limitations of what he and the team knew in a given situation and what data they needed to gather. Any idea that was not contrary to known data was tested, regardless of its source. When someone posited a theory that was incorrect, he depersonalized the miscalculation and related an anecdote when he made a similar mistake during his training. He turned potential errors into an opportunity to teach everyone. But as you might hope, the extent of this inquiry was carefully sized to fit the urgency of the medical situation. No patient wants a team making mistakes on him or her just to explore assumptions!

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Wiseman: Most senior executives have the dual asset of high intelligence and high drive, but this can become a liability when they can only delegate work but not true ownership for that work. They may talk as if they are delegating, but they retain majority voting rights. The best leaders carve out a reasonable segment of the operation to entrust to someone on their management team and then offer them 51% of the vote and 100% of the accountability.

But, I think the most prevalent problem is that managers delegate initially but later, at early signs of distress, jump in and take it back. I worked closely with Ray Lane when he was president of Oracle and was always amazed at how he kept the people of his team accountable for their work. When I asked him why he was able to resist jumping in and taking over when things weren’t going well, I was struck with the simplicity of his answer. He said, “If I took over when someone else was failing, that would be a failure of leadership.” Smart, driven leaders need to remember that a failure to delegate is a failure of leadership.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Wiseman: The most engaging stories are typically about overcoming obstacles and conquering difficult challenges. Great leaders need to create a shared understanding of the challenge at hand and build belief within the team that they are collectively capable of overcoming that challenge. Stories are powerful carriers of this information.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Wiseman: Moving out of our comfort zone is hard. Even when we do step out, it is all-too-tempting to step back to what is familiar to us. The best way to ensure we move forward is to eliminate the possibility of stepping back. Consider what explorer Hernán Cortés did when he landed in Veracruz on the eastern shore of Mexico in 1519. He feared that those men who were still loyal to the governor of Cuba would rise against him in mutiny. So, on the pretense that the vessels were no longer seaworthy, Cortés ordered the ships to be scuttled. With the ships sunk and the option to retreat removed, Cortés led the march two hundred miles inland to conquer the legendary city of Tenochtitlan. With retreat no longer an option, one must forge forward. To ensure we don’t retreat, sometimes we have to burn the boats.

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Liz cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Rookie Smarts link

Multipliers Books link

The Wiseman Group link

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