Judith Humphrey: An interview by Bob Morris

Humphrey #1Judith Humphrey is the Founder of The Humphrey Group, a Toronto-based firm that teaches leaders at all levels how to be influential and inspiring communicators. Since its establishment in 1987, The Humphrey Group has expanded globally and is recognized as a premier leadership communications firm that works with clients in Canada, the US, Mexico, Europe, and Asia. Today Judith is a sought-after executive coach while continuing to design programs that expand The Humphrey Group’s leadership communication intellectual property. She has published two books: Speaking As a Leader: How to Lead Every Time You Speak…From Board Rooms to Meeting Rooms, From Town Halls to Phone Calls (2012) and Taking the Stage: How Women Can Speak Up, Stand Out, and Succeed (2014).

Judith also publishes a regular on-line column for Fast Company. In 2015 Global Gurus named her number 11 on its list of the top 30 Communications Gurus in the world. Judith received an M.A. in English from The University of Rochester and taught communications at York University before entering the business world. She also was awarded the 2012 YWCA’s prestigious Woman of Distinction award for Entrepreneurship.

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

Humphrey: My mother. She was a housewife but her vision was not confined to the home. She taught me the importance of having aspirational goals. This has led me to reach high in life and in my career and take the stage wherever I could.

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

Humphrey: My first boss. He was tough on me and would question every statement I made. I later realized that his “Socratic approach” enabled me to learn how to make a case for my work and my ideas. That allowed me to lead from below early in my career, and develop a business that coaches even the most senior executives.

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.

Humphrey: Yes, it was when I began playing the violin at the age of 12. Before that it was difficult for me to have my voice heard in our large family. I would speak, but felt no one was listening. When I began playing the violin I suddenly realized the magic of reaching an audience. That has shaped my entire career and now my colleagues and I in The Humphrey Group teach others how to reach their audiences.

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

Humphrey: It was not the content of what I studied that was of lasting importance. Most of my courses were in English literature, and my focus for much of graduate school was on Medieval English. Needless to say, reading Chaucer in the original is not a key business requirement! But my formal education taught me to think clearly and present my ideas – and that is a skill I will always use and teach others!

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?

Humphrey: I’m actually glad I didn’t know then what I know now. Today I know how challenging it can be to reach and gain the support of decision makers. But then I was naïve – so when I decided I wanted full-time work in the business world, I simply made a cold call to the senior vice president who was head of HR for one of Canada’s most dynamic companies — Nortel Networks. I introduced myself, asked him if his company would be interested in someone with my academic credentials, and told him I’d love to work for Nortel. Within weeks I had a great position with that company, and that job launched my career. So it’s a good thing I was boldly naïve.

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.”

Humphrey: Yes, leaders lead by inspiring followers, and followers are far more likely to buy into the leader’s vision if they have been part of it. So we in The Humphrey Group teach leaders to speak by engaging people, drawing upon their experience, building upon their knowledge, using their language, and commending them for what they have accomplished. We call this audience-centered leadership. It is the essence of great speaking and inspired leadership.

Morris: From Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Humphrey: I love that quotation. Bravery is such an important quality in business and in life– whether we call it boldness, courage, bravery or daring. Every significant move I have made over the years has been shaped by this willingness to take risks. We encourage this quality in our clients. Every time they step onto the stage, they need a sense of boldness. This is the concept that underlies my book Taking the Stage. To take the stage means to put yourself out there, to be daring in ways that will allow you to express your voice and enable others to be inspired by you.

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?

Humphrey: The Great Man theory of decision-making is dead. To begin with, there are many Great Women out there, and organizations need the best leaders. But it’s not just a matter of having both genders in the executive suite. It’s also time for leaders to draw from the collective, encourage people at all levels to contribute their ideas, and work with teams to find collaborative solutions. These goals require great communication skills, and leaders must be able to listen, draw ideas from their teams, and articulate what they discover clearly and inspirationally.

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

Humphrey: It’s true. In fact, the very first poem in the English language was called Caedmon’s Hymn, and it was the story of creation delivered by a humble shepherd in a mead hall. Stories tell a narrative that engages the audience. There are two kinds of story lines that we teach our clients. The first is the narrative that takes an audience through the speaker’s central idea. It involves a set of points that elaborate the main message. The second kind of story is one that is more personal—it brings the speaker into the narrative, and provides the audience with insight into his or her character. So there is a “macro” story line and a “micro” story line in a good script. Both are critical.

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?

Humphrey: There is only one way to overcome resistance, and that is by communicating as a visionary leader who can take people to the “high ground” and inspire them with the new perspective. If you believe in the future your organization is creating, then speak clearly and passionately about it, not just once, but again and again. Eventually others will move from resistance to responsiveness. This is ultimately what leadership is about.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Humphrey: This won’t come as a surprise to you. I’d say communications training should be more front and center in MBA curricula. Anyone coming out of business school should be able to advance an idea; persuade others; deliver a compelling message that inspires listeners; and give a PowerPoint presentation that does not disappear into the “weeds.” Yet there is still a false assumption that bright people can communicate well naturally. This simply is not true. In fact, the more knowledge people have, the more difficulty they often have communicating clearly.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Taking the Stage. When and why did you decide to write it?

Humphrey: I wrote this book for women because we in The Humphrey Group saw that in general women’s communication style was inhibiting their progress through the ranks. Women tend to be more cautious about putting their ideas forward. When they do speak up their style is weaker than it should be—small gestures; closed body language; weak voice, minimizing language and unwillingness to promote themselves or their value. The Humphrey Group developed a program for women called Taking the Stage and the book is based on that program and the strides women in that program have made.

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

Humphrey: Yes, I learned a lot about myself. This was a total surprise to me, since I thought the book was about other women. But as I wrote, I realized that the book was my saga too, that taking the stage was really a metaphor for my life. And as friends and colleagues read drafts of my book, they kept urging me to “tell more about your story.” So I began inserting stories about myself, my childhood, my decision to become an entrepreneur—every chapter of my life. And I learned things that I had never realized before—such as the fact that there was a unifying force behind my career and my life.

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

Humphrey: The book follows the structure I had envisioned, focusing on how women can take the stage (1) mentally,(2) verbally, (3) vocally, and (4) physically. But as I wrote the book I became increasingly aware that men can play an enormous role in the woman’s journey. Some of the men I interviewed emphasized that to me. So I added a section at the end of each chapter on “Advice for Leaders of Women.” It shows those who lead women in organizations how to support, encourage, coach, and develop them.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a “center-stage mindset”?

Humphrey: That’s a critical question for anyone interested in this book, because taking the stage does require a center-stage mind-set. It involves a willingness to come out from the “wings” and put yourself forward for whatever opportunity presents itself. It also means not walking off stage when others dismiss you or when competing demands summon you.

Morris: To what extent (if any) is there a danger that someone who develops that mind-set will become a narcissist?

Humphrey: This center-stage mindset is quite different from narcissism. A narcissist is someone who is in love with himself or herself. This leads to self-preening behaviors that can turn off an audience. Who can love a narcissist? A center-stage mindset, on the other hand, characterizes someone who seizes an opportunity and puts herself forward for it. It leads to self-fulfillment and recognition from others that she has done something admirable.

Morris: Presumably you have received an abundance of feedback from those who have read your brilliant book. What about feedback from male readers? What have they found to be of greatest interest and value to them?

Humphrey: Men have told me that this book “speaks” to them as well. Some say that they, too, have difficulty speaking up with confidence, or expressing themselves clearly and persuasively. They say that the techniques in the book are ones they can use. As well, men are quick to pick up on the fact that their daughters need to develop confidence and can do so from this book, or their wives can gain from it in this way.

Morris: In the Introduction, you quote a woman who told you, “I’m in a male-dominated industry and petite. What I’ve learned is that I have to be able to stand up to men that are three times my size and say, ‘Look, I’m serious. I know what I’m talking about and this is how it’s going to be.’ ‘Yes, Ma’am’ is their response when I talk that way.” What do you make of that?

Humphrey: This is a great example of just how difficult it is for many women to have their voices heard and respected. Men are often used to dominating discussions, whether that is because of their height, their voice, their rank, or their gender norms. This young woman was in a tough-talking manufacturing environment, and it took guts for her to stand up to her male colleagues. She did it and they heard her! “Yes, Ma’am” was not the ideal response on their part, but that’s better than the non-response she would have gotten if she hadn’t spoken up in such an assertive way.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye.

For those who have not as yet read your brilliant book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these passages.

First, How Women Will Advance (Pages 7-9)

Humphrey: Women will advance by leaving behind their traditional way of communicating and by courageously speaking up with strong, clear voices in situations where they wish to be heard. This will not be easy nor will others immediately reinforce this new-found style. These women may well encounter resistance, rejection, and stereotyping. But by taking the stage, they will eventually find that others do take them more seriously, and they will have opportunities for advancement that would not otherwise be possible.

Morris: Why Women Are Reluctant to Stand Out (16-18)

Humphrey: Women have been socialized to define themselves through others—to be pleasing, helpful, accommodating and likeable. Women executives and managers therefore often feel most comfortable in guiding and nurturing roles where they can focus on others rather than on themselves. But when they have to sell their own ideas and earn others’ respect for what they have done, they pull back. This tendency toward reduction and self-effacement is the greatest single deterrent to women’s advancement in the workplace.

Morris: Three steps to develop a “center stage” career (29-33)

Humphrey: Developing a center stage mindset takes work. Step 1, “Know that you deserve to shine,” goes against our upbringing, which taught us to be modest and not call too much attention to ourselves. Step 2, “Seize opportunities to shine,” challenges our instinct to go along with what others want from us, rather than defining our own aspirational goals. And Step 3, “Don’t retreat to the wings,” flies in the face of what many women believe: that we should retreat to a safer place when things get tough or too complicated. All three steps tug against our socialization, and so women really have to be strong if they are to develop a center stage mindset.

Morris: Avoid Aggressiveness: It Doesn’t Work for Women or Men (44-46)

Humphrey: Women are frequently called “aggressive” when they are only being assertive. I tell women not to worry about this label or any other—after all, labels have only the power we give them. But I say that whether you are male or female, be sure that your behavior is not aggressive. Aggressiveness means going on the attack, and that is never good. It intimidates others, and does not create an atmosphere for the best decision-making.

Morris: The Mindset Needed for Promoting Yourself in Every Situation (53-57)

Humphrey: Self-promotion is something men tend to do well and women need to do better if they want to get ahead. They must sell themselves into new jobs, pitch themselves to potential mentors or sponsors, and claim credit for their contributions on a daily basis. How to do it? It’s a delicate art that goes beyond a “me, me, me” approach. In a nutshell, it involves showing how you have made or can make a contribution that has meaning for your organization, your boss, or some other entity in your audience.

Morris: Five domains in which courage may be needed (60-64)

Humphrey: The book speaks about five areas where women can demonstrate courage. And there are many more. The point here is that courage must be a daily expression of our leadership, whether that means putting one’s hand up to express a contrary idea or deciding to apply for a position even though you only have 4 of the 6 qualifications specified. Think of courage as a breakaway strategy for those who wish to achieve something that cannot be achieved without that gut level bravery.

Morris: How to hold your ground when challenged (67-74)

Humphrey: I am often asked by women in audiences how to deal with push-back. Some of them say they have been ignored, interrupted, challenged, or denied a request when the next male to speak is granted the same request. These women tell me that they wonder if it is all worth it—speaking forthrightly only to encounter such rejection. I feel for them. But I also tell them to keep putting forward their views. If it takes many tries, then do so. Keep coming back to your point—not in a dogged way but in a self-assertive way that shows you refuse to be ignored or put down. Persistence will pay off and people will eventually hear you.

Morris: Self-defeating behaviors (80-86)

Humphrey: Women have a tendency to diminish themselves in other people’s eyes by calling attention to their flaws and their insecurities. Nobody tells us to do this, but our upbringing is such that we do not want to sound too proud, too strong, or too self-aggrandizing. So we let others see our vulnerabilities. This undercuts our leadership and diminishes our credibility. .

Morris: Self-defeating language 89-92)

Humphrey: The words women use are unnecessarily weak. They apologize too much. They ask questions when they know the answers. They use minimizing modifiers, such as “a little bit,” “only,” and “just.” They frequently use weak verbs such as “I think,” “I feel,” “I hope,” and “I need.” They use caveats, like “I could be wrong about this, but…..” or “It’s only a thought….” or “I’m not sure, but….” And women weaken their language by asking permission when they don’t need to. These language patterns are designed to make women sound more inclusive by not presenting themselves as too sure of themselves. But the image they create is that they don’t have conviction or certainty.

Morris: Self-assertion script (96-101)

Humphrey: The book provides a scripting template that readers can use to engage their audience, get to their point, and build a strong case for their message. This is a great tool for all leaders, but it is particularly important for women who often take a circuitous route to their message. The great thing, too, is that this template is scalable: it can be used for an off-the-cuff comment or a 30-minute presentation. It is “The Leader’s Script,” and as its name implies, it will enable you to lead every time you speak.

Morris: Master interaction script (103-107)

Humphrey: Everyday interactions are normally not scripted—but if we want to sound smart and persuasive, we need to structure our thinking even on the fly. This chapter explains exactly how to do this. It shows readers how to sound savvy whether preparing a talk in advance, jotting down a few notes before a meeting, or speaking totally impromptu. This mental preparedness is a critical skill for all leaders.

Morris: How to craft career-advancing conversation (109-115)

Humphrey: Women have so many opportunities to advance their careers in networking situations, conversations with mentors or sponsors, and job interviews. The book shows readers how to make a strong case for themselves during these critical career situations. The secret is to approach these conversations not as informal encounters, but as strategic opportunities in which you show mastery of clear and compelling messages about yourself.

Morris: How to elevate an “elevator script” (117-122)

Humphrey: Elevator conversations are often lost opportunities. “How’s it going?” “Not bad” is often the refrain one hears in an elevator. Instead, think of these as opportunities to share a “win,” build a relationship, express appreciation for a referral, introduce yourself, or show that your team has done something spectacular. The key is to deliver these messages in a way that is clear, concise, and compelling. The chapter on elevator conversations shows you how to do just that by elevating your elevator conversation.

Morris: Of all the great women throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Humphrey: Amelia Earhart. Why? Because when I was a young girl, I got a book out of our local library that was a biography of Amelia Earhart. I remember being inspired by her bravery, her determination, and her vision of what a woman could do to break away from the mundane world. She was my champion, and I would love to meet her, and talk to her about her passion for flying and what she feels about women today. I’d also love to know about her disappearance.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Taking the Stage and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. In your opinion where to begin?

Humphrey: I would love to see this enlightened CEO begin by talking about his or her commitment to a more inclusive culture, one where people don’t compete for the limelight, but they support each other and encourage each other to speak and share their thoughts. This would mean that the CEO establishes new protocols for meetings—draws the quieter voices out, discourages interruptions and cross talk, and recognizes the importance of everyone’s views. There would be no name calling or stereotyping allowed. Right now, these behaviors are tolerated and even encouraged. A CEO, or any leader, can make changes like these and in so doing show that the workplace culture is a place of ideas, not of position or power.

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 Taking the Stage, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Humphrey: The most important takeaway for them is the notion of staying on “center stage” and not letting anything keep them from having their voice heard by employees, customers, and the marketplace. Small, growing companies need leadership, and that leadership must convey the CEOs vision and excitement about the future. In this sense, any leader who wants to mobilize a team or a company must take the stage constantly and inspire stakeholders with high ground thinking and compelling messages that others can believe in.

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

Humphrey: I thought you might ask me what my next book will be. But since you didn’t, I’ll save that for when we get together again. This has been an enjoyable and intellectually provocative conversation. You were very kind in your references to my book, and I appreciate your allowing me to share so much of my book, Taking the Stage, with your readers.

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

The Humphrey Group link

Taking the Stage program and book link

Twitter link

LinkedIn link

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