Erika Andersen on how to accelerate personal growth and professional development: An interview by Bob Morris

andersen-erikaErika 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.

Erika Andersen advises senior executives in companies like NBCUniversal, Tory Burch, GE, Madison Square Garden, hulu and Viacom, focusing with them on organizational visioning and strategy, team development, and their own management and leadership evolution.

She also shares her insights about leading people, staying ready for the future, and creating successful businesses through her books and speaking engagements, and via social media. Erika is one of the most popular leadership bloggers at In addition to Be Bad First: Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future, she is also the author of Leading So People Will Follow, Being Strategic, and Growing Great Employees, and the author and host of the Proteus Leader Show, a regular podcast that offers quick, practical support for leaders and managers.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write Be Bad First?

Andersen: I had just published my previous book, Leading So People Will Follow, and I was talking to someone about what I might write about next. I expressed my opinion that the key capability for success in today’s world is the ability to learn new skills and acquire new ways of operating quickly and continuously.

After that conversation I started to reflect on what I knew about how to develop that capability. And I realized that, as I was doing interviews about the Leading book, and explaining how people can become better leaders, I kept talking about three things – self-awareness, curiosity and what I called at the time “acceptance of not-good.” As I thought through these, it came to me that aspiration – wanting to learn – was a necessary precursor to the other three. Once I had a clear handle on these four skills, and named them to form ANEW – aspiration, neutral self-awareness, endless curiosity and willingness to be bad first – I knew I had something useful to share.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Andersen: Head-snapping may be too strong a word, but as my research assistant and I collected relevant data, I was thrilled to discover that recent findings in brain science, sociology, and psychology fully supported my conclusions. My previous books had grown out of many years of practical experience in the field, and so I didn’t feel the need to do a lot of research. Since I was just developing the ANEW model in Be Bad First, I felt the need to make sure I wasn’t wandering down some rabbit hole completely unsupported by any other findings on learning! It was fun to find researchers operating in a variety of arenas who were coming to many of the same conclusions I had come to, based on their explorations and data.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Andersen: Unlike my other books, the final product differs quite a bit from the original. I decided to practice what I was preaching in the writing of this book, and be brave enough to try some new approaches in how I constructed it. Incorporating research, for one thing, and also making it more like a “Dan Pink book” – that is, faster-moving, more bouncing back and forth from story to example to model, and at the same time with more set-up devoted to the “why” behind the core concepts.

I wrote about a third of the book in this new way (and it felt pretty uncomfortable – “bad” if you will, but more on that below); I couldn’t tell if it was working. So I had my agent, Jim Levine, read it. His kind but firm feedback was “This is a great idea, but it’s not there yet in terms of the execution. You’ve lost some essential part of your own writer’s voice.” So I started over again, incorporating more of my previous style while still keeping the new elements: this time it worked, and I created a book that satisfied me, my publisher, and – it seems – my readers.

Morris: As you know, I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites that I dislike use of the word “bad” when the subject is self-improvement. Why was “bad” selected for the book’s title?

Andersen: It’s a valid question. And as you know, “bad” isn’t just in the book’s title, it’s incorporated into the “W” in the core ANEW model: Willingness to Be Bad First.

I use the word bad to shock readers (and learners) into full acceptance of the reality of the novice state. As adults, we so much don’t want to be bad at anything – and not being willing to use that word becomes part of our resistance. We prefer to say, “Well, I just haven’t done this much” or “This is something I’m not very familiar with” and then we’re not open to the extent we need to improve – because we’ve convinced ourselves we’re already pretty good. I’ve found, as I’ve used this model over the past few years, and taught it to others, that to fully acknowledge our initial “badness” – our current inability to do something or our current lack of knowledge – can be tremendously liberating if it’s paired with a deep faith in our ability to eventually get good.

I’ll give you an example. I had been coaching an executive who was truly terrible at listening. She interrupted, finished people’s sentences for them (usually inaccurately), continually said “uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh” to chivvy people along when they were speaking. As a result, people had pretty much stopped bringing her ideas; she couldn’t get her folks to talk in meetings; and her boss was getting progressively more irritated with her. When I gave her the feedback that she was poor at listening, she interrupted me to say, “Oh I know I need to improve, but I’m really OK.” After a long conversation, with a number of examples, with her repeating versions of her original resistance and offering a variety of excuses, I didn’t feel as though she was any closer to acknowledging her actual current state.

So I shared with her the idea of “being bad first” – and noted how deeply uncomfortable it can be to be a real novice…especially in an area where we think we’re already supposed to be good. She frowned, started to answer, and then closed her mouth. She looked down at the feedback sheet, back up at me, and then, suddenly, laughed. “I’m really bad at listening,” she said. She seemed relieved and lightened, as though she had set down the burden of convincing me, and herself, that she was really pretty good at listening, and only needed a bit of improvement. As soon as she fully accepted her “badness,” she was able to move on to, “OK, how do I get good at this?”

Morris: What differentiates your book from all others that offer advice on self-improvement?

Andersen: At the risk of seeming self-aggrandizing, I see this book as being foundational to self-improvement. There are lots of books that focus on how to improve yourself in specific areas: to take better care of your body, be more confident, improve your relationships. Or my own previous books, where I offer help to become a better manager, or think and act more strategically, or become a more followable leader.

I’ve come to think that building the ANEW skills is key to improving in any realm. So, for instance, if someone wanted to learn to be a better leader, I’d probably encourage him to read Be Bad First, to build his learning skills, and then read Leading So People Will Follow, and apply the ANEW skills to developing the attributes of a followable leader.

In other words, I believe that getting good at the skills in Be Bad First is a wonderful way to turbo-charge the impact of any self-improvement advice you encounter.

Morris: In my opinion, the most valuable lessons to be learned are from failure rather than from success. What do you think?

Andersen: I think the learning value of a situation depends more upon the mental state and the learning skills of the person experiencing the situation than upon the situation itself. For instance, someone can fail at something and not take any learning from it at all: blame others; deny that the failure occurred; become demoralized and lose faith in his or her own ability.

On the other hand, someone who is attuned to learning can get tremendous value from success: focusing on what worked and why; looking for ways to replicate the success and to improve upon it. And of course, someone who is an excellent learner can also learn a great deal from failure. My point is that any circumstance becomes an occasion for learning to someone who has and uses the ANEW skills.

Morris: Of all that you have learned during your life thus far, which lesson seems to have been the most valuable? What were the specific circumstances? Please explain.

Andersen: It’s very hard to choose any one lesson as being most important I’ve learned. So many people and situations have proved hugely valuable to me as a learner. If I had to pick one, though, it would be learning the power of assuming positive intent.

That is, of starting from the assumption that others are acting out of positive intentions until they demonstrate that they’re not. I didn’t learn this in a specific situation, although I’ve realized in retrospect that my dad – who was my most important positive role model – was very good about this. I never heard him gossiping negatively about people, or talking about how anyone was “out to get him” or “only in it for themselves.” He genuinely behaved as though people were innocent until proven guilty. As his child, that was especially lovely for me – whenever it looked as though I had done something foolish or broken a rule or an agreement, he almost always listened to both sides of the story before coming to a conclusion.

It was so nourishing to feel that he believed in my essential trustworthiness and good intent. I’ve always tried to give that same gift to others. Assuming positive intent doesn’t mean putting yourself in a position to be taken unfair advantage of (both my mom and my dad also taught me to be strong in standing up for and protecting my rights) – but beginning any conversation or relationship with the assumption that the other person is well-intended has been a key element, I believe, in my ability to build a great business, great relationships, a great life.

Morris: Why did you decide not to share your core ANEW model until Chapter 3 of the book?

Andersen: Unlike my other books, I felt the premise of this book needed more set-up. It seemed to me, as I was writing my previous books, that someone who picked them up would already know they could be – and wanted to be – a better manages, or strategic thinker, or leader. But I wasn’t sure that anyone picking up this book would have a sense of how critical it is to become a better learner at this point in time, and that it’s possible to do that.

And I also wanted to give the reader a sense of how we’re wired to be good learners – and how we’re not. I particularly wanted to highlight those resistances to learning that can get in our way without our conscious awareness, most especially our resistance to returning to the novice state when we think we’re experts – to being “bad” at things before we can get good at them.

I wanted to help my readers be ready and able to understand the usefulness of the ANEW model before I shared it with them.

Morris: In what ways do you find people most often misunderstand what you’ve tried to communicate in this book?

Andersen: I’ve found that people tend to leap to one of two inaccurate conclusions when they first hear about the core concepts in Be Bad First. Many people immediately say something like, “Oh yeah, you’re talking about failing fast – I get that. I’ve read books about that. Yes, it’s important to be willing to fail.” But that’s not really what I’m talking about. Though failure is definitely a part of any learning – and of almost any attempt at innovation – being willing to fail is only one small aspect of the learning process. It doesn’t take into account the need for aspiration, neutral self-awareness, or endless curiosity, and it’s only one piece of being willing to be bad.

In fact, I’ve found that for many people, outright failure – trying something that doesn’t work out, even in a fairly public setting – is actually easier than the more day-to-day aspects of being “bad” at something: having to go slowly, do things over and over, feel clumsy, ask lots of “I don’t understand” type questions. I’ve also found that when someone is really using all four ANEW skills, massive failure in the learning process is less common. Failure is often a function of poor self-awareness or lack of curiosity, or – ironically – an unwillingness to be bad first. That is, I’ve often seen people fail because they weren’t able to acknowledge their novice state and instead, proceeded as though they were expert.

The second misunderstanding arises around learning itself. I’ve had a number of people say to me – “Oh, but I don’t resist learning at all – I love to learn.” If I have a chance to dig into this with them, though, what they most often mean is that they enjoy gathering information: they read a lot, or go to lectures, or wander around online. I agree; that kind of learning usually doesn’t generate a lot of resistance in us – because it doesn’t require us to behave differently or, for the most part, to question our current thinking.

The kind of learning that really requires the ANEW skills is learning new skills, new models, and new ways of operating – and that’s what most of us are having to do in order to keep up with the world around us, on a daily basis. Those things tend to be more difficult to learn, and easier to avoid learning.

Morris: Your response reminds me again of an observation by Alvin Toffler many years ago: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

For more than 30 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 Be Bad First, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Andersen: As the founder and operator – for most of that 30 years (!) – of a small business, I think having the four core ANEW skills is essential. One of the realities of being a small business owner or CEO is that you have to be especially nimble – more open and responsive to change than your counterparts in larger companies. Things move faster; small shifts can make a big difference; you have to be closer to your employees, and respond to what they’re doing and how they’re feeling.

So understanding and being able to apply the skills in Be Bad First – that is, being able to make yourself want to learn those things you most need for success; being really accurate about your own strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears; re-engaging your curiosity, that deep urge to explore and master; and being willing to go back to being a novice over and over again as you grow – I’ve found these skills essential to being a successful small businessperson.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Andersen: The question I always want to be asked, which is “What can a reader do to take best advantage of what you’re offering in this book?” And my response is: rather than just reading it as interesting information, just a new set of ideas for your brain to process on an intellectual level, really stop and ask whether building these skills could be personally helpful to you. I so much agreed with this line in your review of the book, Bob: “With all due respect to the potential value of the material in the book, however, it is essentially worthless unless and until readers apply it effectively in their lives.”

My goal is always to help people become who they want to become, and create the kind of life they want for themselves. I believe the skills offered in Be Bad First can be a huge help in that journey and are applicable to almost every facet of your growth as a person: you just have to use them.

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

Proteus link

Her blog link

Forbes link

Proteus Leader link

Twitter link

Facebook link

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