Erika Andersen: An interview by Bob Morris

Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. She and her colleagues at Proteus support leaders at all levels to get ready and stay ready to meet whatever the future might bring.

Much of Erika’s recent work has focused on organizational visioning and strategy, executive coaching, and management and leadership development. She serves as consultant and advisor to the CEOs and top executives of a number of corporations, including NBC Universal, Gannett Corporation, Rockwell Automation, Turner Broadcasting, GE, Union Square Hospitality Group, and PwC.

She also shares her insights about managing people and creating successful businesses by speaking to corporations, non-profit groups and national associations. Her books and learning guides have been translated into Spanish, Turkish, German, French, Russian and Chinese, and she has been quoted in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and The New York Times. Erika is one of the most popular business bloggers at She is the author of Leading So People Will Follow (Jossey-Bass, 2012), Being Strategic: Plan for Success; Outthink Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change (St. Martin’s Press, May 2009), and Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers (Portfolio/The Penguin Group, 2006), and the author and host of Being Strategic with Erika Andersen on Public Television.

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Who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Andersen: I think my dad was and is my greatest professional influence. He was a lawyer – a labor negotiations counsel – and he loved it. He had wanted to be a lawyer since he was a young teenager; he went to law school on the GI bill after WWII, passed the bar, joined a firm and practiced till the day he died. I always knew he felt grateful and fortunate to do work he enjoyed and was good at doing. It was a great model for me – both about being able to accomplish your dreams and being able to find a career that’s satisfying and challenging.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’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.”

Andersen: I love the Tao Te Ching; it was my constant companion in college. I’ve always been especially fond of this particular quote – even as a teenager it resonated for me. And the core idea – that great leaders are deeply collaborative and empowering – has shown itself to be true again and again. The best leaders I know catalyze a sense of personal accomplishment in their folks.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Andersen: I’m a big fan of Oscar Wilde (anyone whose last words were supposedly “either that wallpaper goes or I go” has got my vote). And I agree 1000% with him: authenticity is the starting point of any kind of greatness. So many people spend huge amounts of time figuring out how to be what they think they should be, or what they think others want them to be…imagine what would happen if that energy was freed to figure out how to be the best possible version of themselves: their unique gifts and strengths taken to the highest potential.

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

I think it’s a combination skill and mindset problem. Many managers (C-level or otherwise) don’t have good delegation skills: they don’t know to consistently and effectively transfer a responsibility to another person. And some people have the skills but their mindset doesn’t support delegation: they assume they have the only right way to do things, or that no one will ever come up to their standards, or that if they delegate key responsibilities, they will no longer be indispensible. Quite often when we coach executives, we end up both teaching them delegation skills (using the model in Growing Great Employees) and helping them clear up their mindset.

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

Andersen: Stories are central to our evolution as human beings. Think about it: until a couple of hundred years ago, very few people could read. All the information that needed to be passed along was passed along verbally. Stories are the easiest and best way to share important information: they’re memorable and replicable. So: we’ve been telling stories for tens of thousands of years, and the people who were best at telling stories about the most important things were valuable. Fast forward to today: we still find great story-telling valuable in our leaders!

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Leading So People Will Follow. When and why did you decide to write it?

Andersen: I started thinking about writing it in early 2006, right around the time I finished writing Growing Great Employees. But I decided I wanted to write Being Strategic first but I knew this book was “in the queue.”

I wanted to write Leading So People Will Follow because I knew that our model was helpful. We’d been using it with leaders at a variety of levels and stages in their careers; they found it a great practical framework. So I wrote it for the same reason I wrote my first two books: to bring skills and knowledge I thought people would find useful to a wider audience, and to support our clients better.

In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics or attributes of a leader that others will follow?

Andersen: They’re the six attributes I focus on in the book: Far-sighted, Passionate, Courageous, Wise, Generous and Trustworthy. In other words, people want leaders who can articulate and guide them toward a compelling and inclusive future; who are deeply and clearly committed, yet still permeable; who can make tough decisions and take full responsibility for them; who are both curious and objective and who learn from experience; who share credit, power and resources; and who can be relied upon to tell the truth and deliver on promises.

Morris: By what process did you select those attributes?

Andersen: In the mid-nineties, I was starting to work with very senior leaders, and I noticed that there were some leaders who evoked deep loyalty and commitment, and for whom people did great things…and other “leaders’”who didn’t. And it didn’t seem to be about competence: or smarts: some of the “appointed” leaders were as intelligent and had as much experience as the “accepted” leaders. I started to think about what the difference was. And I realized that for most of our history, deciding who to follow was a life- and-death decision: choose poorly, and you were much more likely to starve to death or be killed by the invading whoevers. On an almost instinctive level, we still take that decision very seriously: we need to see those time-tested qualities in a leader before we’ll fully “sign up.”

At the same time, I was reading a lot of fairy tales to my kids, and I started to notice a kind of story that I came to call “leader tales” – stories in which a young hero has to demonstrate a handful of attributes in order to slay the monster, win the princess, become the king – and live happily ever after. And all around the world these stories are amazingly similar in terms of the attributes they describe. I came to think of these stories as our looking-for-leaders wiring made explicit: they are saying, in effect, “Only allow those people to lead who demonstrate these qualities.” Once I had come to that conclusion, I read literally dozens of these stories in order to find the pattern and extract the core attributes.

Morris: Which of them is most difficult for aspiring leaders to develop? Why?

Andersen: I don’t think there’s a single most difficult leadership attribute: we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. I actually think the most difficult and important thing for aspiring leaders to develop is accurate self-awareness. If you’re willing and able to see yourself clearly, then you’ll be able to target your leadership strengths and development areas, and figure out how to grow in the areas where you need the most improvement.

Morris: Now please share your thought about the importance of listening .

Andersen: Listening is the foundation of success in all things, as far as I’m concerned. Not only is it the only way to find out what’s really going on with any person and in any situation, it’s the single most powerful way I know to demonstrate openness and respect. It’s the core of wisdom, and the core of inclusion. I could go on and on…

Morris: What is “self-talk”? What isn’t  it? How best to develop and manage it?

Andersen: “Self-talk” is that internal monologue we all have that runs just below our conscious thoughts – like an audio version of the text crawl at the bottom of the screen on TV news channels. Sometimes it’s fairly benign (“nice day that guy has a big nose this orange is tasty my shoes hurt”) but often it’s not. Quite often our self-talk is unsupportive and unhelpful – talking to us about ourselves or those around us in ways that limit us or them. Because listening well and managing your self-talk are both so essential to developing the “accepted leader” attributes, I devote a whole “bonus section” to listening and self-talk at the end of Leading So People Will Follow. Here’s how managing your self-talk works:

• Recognize: The first step in managing your self-talk is to “hear” it. For instance, let’s say you’re thinking about a new project for which you’re accountable and about which you feel anxious. When you notice what you’re saying to yourself, it might be something like, “There are so many reasons this won’t happen. I should just give up.” Suddenly, your anxiety makes sense – you’re listening to that negative voice in your head.

• Record: Writing down your self-talk creates a useful separation; when you see it written down, it feels less like an intrinsic part of you. If you write down that self-talk statement, above, you’ll be better able to look objectively at how this negative self-talk affects you: perhaps making you more likely to abandon the project, or to feel cynical or hopeless about the possibility of accomplishing it.

• Revise: After you’ve recorded inaccurate, unhelpful self-talk, decide how to “rethink” it. Your goal is to create alternative self-talk that you’ll believe and that will lead to a more useful response. How about something like: “I know there are reasons this might not work. I’ll look at them carefully, so I have the best chance of understanding and overcoming them.”

• Repeat: Like any habit, managing your self-talk requires repetition. Substituting more hopeful and accurate self-talk for your negative self-talk will be helpful the very first time you do it. And you’ll need to consciously do it again the next time the voice in your head comes up with a similarly unhelpful statement.

Morris: Also, in your opinion, are great leaders born, made, or both?

Andersen: Both. Over the years, I’ve observed that leadership capability falls along a bell curve, like most things. Some people are, indeed, born leaders. These folks at the top of the leadership bell curve start out very good, and tend to get even better as they go along. Then there are the folks at the bottom of the curve: that bottom 10-15% of people who, no matter how hard they try, simply aren’t ever going to be very good leaders. They just don’t have the innate wiring. Finally there’s the big middle of the curve, where the vast majority of us live. And that’s where the real potential for “made” leaders lies. It’s what most of my interviewers assume isn’t true – when, in fact, it is: [begin italics] most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become very good, even great leaders. [end italics]

Morris: I also agree with you about the importance of asking the right questions. How best to determine which questions are the right questions?

Andersen: That’s a great question. And in fact, it’s a good example of what makes something the “right question.” The best questions are those based in genuine curiosity. The core of curiosity is the impulse to investigate, the movement toward “I wonder why…?” Or “How does that…?” That impulse leads to authentic questions that go to the heart of any business.

Morris: Whiled re-reading your book prior to formulating these interview questions, I realized again how important mutual trust and respect are to all human relationships. Alas, there are some people whose talents for deception and manipulation enable them to gain respect and trust, at least for a time. They attract followers whose trust they betray. Charles Ponzi, for example, and Bernard Madoff.

Here’s my question: How best to recognize such people early on?

Andersen: This may sound too simplistic, but I think it generally requires being truly objective, operating as what I call a “Fair witness.” To be a fair witness means to observe and assess your experience as accurately and neutrally as possible. What’s hard about this is, the more emotional attachment you have to something, the more challenging it is to be a fair witness of that thing. When someone offers you great wealth (as Ponzi and Madoff offered to people), it’s tough to be objective. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who were taken in by Madoff, and they both said that even while it was happening, on some level they knew that what he was offering was too good to be true – they just didn’t want to acknowledge that. The trick is to make every effort to be as objective as possible when you meet new people – especially if they’re asking for a high degree of trust.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Leading So People Will Follow and wants to establish or strengthen programs to develop leaders that others will follow. Where to begin?

Andersen: Well, at the risk of being completely self-aggrandizing, that’s one of the things that my company Proteus is best at. We offer leadership and management training that provides practical, real-world skill development, in a way that’s designed to help leaders build on their existing skills and learn new, essential skills. If your readers are interested, they can take a look here. The other important thing: leaders from the CEO on down need to model good management and leadership, and need to “bake” it into the organization by making it part of performance management – what people are held accountable for and rewarded for accomplishing.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Leading So People Will Follow, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Andersen: The attributes of a worthy, followable leader are the same whether you’re leading 3 people or 3 thousand. When I write books, I imagine that I’m writing to a small group of people – this helps me to make it more personal. In writing Leading So People Will Follow, my imaginary group consisted of a young woman in her first leader job in a large company; a 30-something male entrepreneur (I assumed his company was small); a middle-management guy in his forties; a female store owner; and a fiftyish male CEO. So, I actually wrote the book for leaders in companies of any size.

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

Proteus International homepage

Erika’s blog

Her Forbes blog

Her Amazon page

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