Liz Wiseman: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

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: When and why did you decide to write Rookie Smarts?

Wiseman: At the “height of my career” at Oracle after being perpetually under-qualified for a series of oversized jobs, I finally felt like I knew what I was doing. But, as I left this comfortable environment, I wondered how my hard-won knowledge and expertise might become a liability. I had this lingering (if not nagging) question: How does what we know get in the way of what we don’t know but need to learn? I wondered when experience was a liability and being inexperienced (and even under-qualified) could be an asset.

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

Wiseman: The most surprising finding was that in the realm of knowledge work, rookies tend to outperform experienced people, especially when the work is innovative in nature and needs to be delivered fast. There were also a number of counter intuitive findings. For example, we typically think of rookies as big risk takers; however, we found that rookies work more cautiously, biting off smaller pieces and checking in frequently with stakeholders to minimize risk. We also found that rookies aren’t actually bumbling and clueless – they have significantly higher levels of self-awareness and are more attuned to organizational politics, which causes them to reach out, build alliances, and stay connected with critical players.

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

The research findings were very different that my research hypothesis – in fact, I think about 50% of my hypotheses were wrong. However the final books very closely follows the original book proposal. I am persistent to a fault and have been accused of being “a dog on a bone.” In hindsight, there are a couple places I fell like I should have deviated more from my original plan.

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 the book, please suggest what you view as [begin italics] the most important point [end italics] or [begin italics] key take-away [end italics] in each of these passages.

First, The New Workscape (Pages 6-10)

Wiseman: “When there is too much to know, having the right question may be more important than having a ready answer.”

Morris: A Question of Experience (20-22)

Wiseman: “The upside of experience may be less pronounced than once imagined, while its downside may be even steeper. What we know might actually mask what we don’t know and impede our ability to learn and perform.”

Morris: The Learned and the Learners (22-24)

Wiseman: “Sometimes the more you know, the less you learn.”

Morris: The Rookie Smart Mindset: Backpacker, Hunter-Gatherer, Firewalker, and Pioneer (27-34)

Wiseman: “Rookie smarts isn’t defined by age or by experience level; it is a state of mind – it is how we tend to think and act when we are doing something for the first time. These four rookie and veteran modes are not an attempt to categorize people; they illustrate patterns of behavior. They are modes we can slip into and roles we tend to assume. We shift into and out of these modes based on our situation, mindsets, and assumptions.”

Morris: The Right Terrain (34-38)

Wiseman: “While rookies can play an important role, they need to be channeled and directed toward the right kinds of terrains for top performance.”

“Experts tend to outperform novices in the long game because they can recognize patterns and project into the future, but rookies are particularly well suited to deal with the immediate and the ephemeral.”

“In complex systems, where there is too much information for any one person to process or any one expert to know, the organizations that win will be those that tap into the greatest number of brains.”

Morris: The Fountain of Youthful Thinking (41-42)

Wiseman: “The most dangerous place to be might be at the top—whether it is the top of a ladder or at the top of your game…If you are at the top of your game, it might be time to position yourself at the bottom of a learning curve. It is on this steeper learning curve that we can rekindle our rookie smarts.”

“Are you learning faster than the world is changing?”

Morris: Caretakers Versus Backpackers (47-53)

Wiseman: “Too often our managers operate like the car camper, weighed down and burdened by the very experience that should embolden them. They become burdened by yesterday’s ideas, today’s resources, and the expectations for continued performance tomorrow. Instead of using their success as a launching pad, they become anchored in place, guarding and protecting the status quo. Professionals in this mode find themselves on a slippery slope from trophy to atrophy.”

Morris: The Backpacker’s Way (53-65)

Wiseman: “By asking extremely naïve questions, rookies not only rapidly acquire situational understanding; they also can assist their stakeholders in clarifying their needs and articulating new ideas. But, naïve questions are different than stupid questions. Naïve questions are natural, innocent, and unaffected. A naïve question has no preconceived assumptions or answers and often cuts to the core of an issue. Stupid questions lack intelligence and common sense. Asking naïve questions refreshes and invigorates thinking. Asking stupid questions is simply annoying!”

Morris: Building Rookie Smarts (65-68 and 92-95)

Wiseman: “Leaders often face pressure to be thought leaders for their organizations and to have ready answers. When they reverse roles and become the one who is seeking rather than the one who is sought after, they become more alert and strengthen their rookie mindset.”

Morris: Local Guides Versus Hunter-Gatherers (75-84)

Wiseman: “When dropped into a new environment, rookies become disoriented: not terminally confused, but unsettled and somewhat dazed. With much out of focus, they zoom in on the immediate problems, driven to make sense of their surroundings. While many of us might think that newbies are bumbling, clueless clods, we found the opposite to be true—rookies are keenly aware of where they stand and see their deficiencies to a far greater extent than their experienced colleagues (our study showed 2.5 times higher levels of self-awareness in rookies).”

Morris: The Hunter-Gatherer’s Way (84-92)

Wiseman: “When you ask one veteran, you get one expert. When you ask a smart rookie, you gain access to a team of experts. Our comparative study revealed that rookies seek out expertise 40 percent more often than experienced professionals. In addition to reaching out more often, when they do reach out, they reach out to far more people – 5X on average. This 5X multiple is the network effect of not knowing.”

Morris: Seekers and Finders (95-96)

Wiseman: “Those who seek knowledge will find it. When we authentically ask experts to guide us, they give willingly of their expertise. To would-be Hunter-Gatherers: Look outward, talk to strangers, and seek mentors to guide you. As you do, you will expand your network and multiply your own expertise.”

Morris: Marathoners Versus Firewalkers (101-107)

Wiseman: “The rookie’s reality consists of a glaring, gaping hole between what they’ve previously done and what they must now do. They don’t necessarily lack self-confidence (in fact their natural self-confidence is probably what produced the courage necessary to venture into new territory). What they do lack is situational confidence—the easy assurance that you’ve successfully completed a similar task in the past….Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, states, “After many years of researching and consulting on talent, I’ve come to the conclusion that self-confidence is only helpful when it’s low. Sure, extremely low confidence is not helpful: it inhibits performance by inducing fear, worry, and stress, which may drive people to give up sooner or later…Just-low-enough confidence helps people recalibrate and causes them to pay attention to negative feedback, work harder, and prepare more thoroughly, and avoid the appearance of arrogance and the delusions that often accompany hubris.”

Morris: The Firewalker’s Way (107-118)

Wiseman: “Because rookies lack confidence, they operate cautiously but they also operate quickly, seeking to close the knowledge gap. Through feedback, they rapidly convert information into intelligence. This anxious, cautious, and quick approach does more than just benefit the rookies’ learning and performance. Their mindset and skill set are perfectly suited for the lean and agile movements that are sweeping businesses, especially across manufacturing and technology organizations.”

Morris: Building Rookie Smarts (118-119)

Wiseman: “What at first looks impossible can be accomplished with a rookie tactic: Be cautious but be quick. And keep moving.”

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

Wiseman: I wouldn’t need to go back too far in history. I’d want to spend an evening with the prolific thought leader, Peter Drucker. He wrote 40 management books during his career, but what is most interesting about him is that 2/3 of these were written after the age of 65 – a time many people consider retirement age. Drucker was known for his insatiable curiosity and desire to make the world of work a better place. I’d like to know more about how he maintained his vibrancy and how he stayed “interested” when there was so much pressure on him to be “interesting.” I’d like to hear about the questions he held still unanswered.

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

Wiseman: While it might be tempting for a CEO to want to strengthen their workplace culture by ensuring their employees are learning, their efforts will go further if they start with themselves and make sure they are learning. While it might feel temporarily comforting to think the executives at the top of a company have all the answers, it is a false sense of security. The reality is that in fast times everyone is winging it — even those at the top.

If you are a CEO or a senior leader, instead of pretending you know what you are doing, let people know that you’re a bit clueless, but learning. When senior leaders let their organizations know that they don’t have answers, it doesn’t create panic – actually it creates deep engagement as employees step up to help find answers to their senior leaders earnest questions. Wise senior leaders should maintain an “I don’t know” list that forces them outside their bubble and deepens their thinking.

CEOs should then expand their efforts by ensuring the members of their leadership team are getting rookie assignments and are periodically kicked out of their comfort zones. In our research, we found that the highest-performing rookies were most often in executive roles. These were smart, seasoned executives who had made internal or external career moves and were now leading in a new domain—a new business segment, an unfamiliar industry, or a function in which they had no experience. They brought the best of both worlds: a veteran’s wisdom of experience, leadership skills, and organizational savvy and a rookie’s tendency to ask naïve questions, learn quickly, build new networks, and unlock new possibilities.

When the CEO and the senior management team continue to think and act like rookies, it not only establishes the norms and expectations for a learning culture but also for a culture of unlearning and relearning.

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 Rookie Smarts, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Wiseman: In a small company, there are rarely enough resources to go around and surely none to waste. It is a challenging environment, but it is also exhilarating because it gives everyone an opportunity to step up. One of the critical roles of owners/CEOs is to lead in a way that allows each person to contribute fully – offering their best ideas and 100% of their capability. When owners/CEOs hire for and nurture rookie smarts in their company, they create an environment where people are willing to step up and tackle jobs that are a size (or two) too big and grow with the business. Leaders will get more from their people while creating an agile culture that allows the business to adapt rapidly changing environment and thrive in the new game of work.

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

Wiseman: Here’s a question: “How does Rookie Smarts relate to Multipliers?”

While Rookie Smarts tackles an entirely new topic, it is a logical extension of the ideas behind my first book, Multipliers. Multipliers examines why some leaders bring out the best thinking and work from their teams. As I continued exploring the conditions under which people do their best work, I noticed a pattern – they were typically outside their comfort zone, often new, inexperienced, and operating in the realm of the unknown. Rookie Smarts explores this idea.

But there was another reason I was driven to do this research. In Multipliers, it was clear that the best leaders play the role of “challenger” – inviting people to do hard, uncomfortable things. However, from the 360-degree assessment data we’ve amassed over the years, we find that this “challenger” role is the weakest skill area in managers around the world. Most leaders aren’t fully comfortable with the idea of making others uncomfortable. Given that this rookie zone is so often where people are at their best, but where managers tend to be at their worst, I couldn’t resist the topic.

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To check out Part 1, please click here.

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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