How To Be An Impact Player, With Liz Wiseman
An ordinary contributor in a team performs well according to the responsibilities given to them. On the other hand, an impact player goes above and beyond, proving to be a true asset, especially during dire times. J.R. Lowry explores how to become the latter with researcher and executive advisor Liz Wiseman of The Wiseman Group. She explains how one can shift their mindset to become an efficient impact player who knows how to quickly address team challenges, fill in the gaps caused by unclear roles, and take advantage of potential opportunities as soon as they arise.
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How To Be An Impact Player, With Liz Wiseman
Bestselling Author And CEO Of The Wiseman Group
In this episode, my guest is Liz Wiseman. Liz is a researcher and executive advisor who teaches leadership to organizations worldwide. She has written four books, Multipliers, The Multiplier Effect, Rookie Smarts, and Impact Players. She is also the CEO of The Wiseman Group, a leading research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley. She’s received the top achievement award for leadership from Thinkers50 and has been consistently named one of the world’s leading 50 management thinkers in its biannual ranking.
Liz has conducted significant research in leadership and talent development. She writes for Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and various other business and leadership journals. She’s a former executive at Oracle, where she worked as Vice President of Oracle University and the global leader of Human Resource Development. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management and a Master’s in Organizational Behavior from Brigham Young University. Liz, welcome. I am glad that you were able to make time to do the show with me.
I’m delighted to be here. What a fun topic.
It was nice meeting you at the Thinkers50 Conference. I mentioned to you how valuable I found impact players. I know you’ve written other books but maybe we’d start there. I want to get into a little bit more detail but can you give our audience a brief overview of the premise of the book and who it’s aimed at?
The premise of the book is that you can work hard and still not have an impact. The people in the workplace who are having an impact, making a difference, and delivering work of extraordinary value aren’t necessarily smarter than anyone else, more capable, or working harder. The way that they approach some of the perennial challenges of the modern workplace means that they’re doing work that is making a difference and they’re having a different work experience.
In essence, they’ve learned how to play the game. They gravitate toward the right work and do it in the right way. They make sure people notice it.
Their work gets noticed. Part of it is because of the type of work they’re doing and how they’re doing it but they also make sure their work gets noticed.
What I appreciated is that so many books get written for leaders and managers but most books are not written for individual contributors. That’s who this is aimed at. It’s valuable to you, almost irrespective of the level that you’re at but it probably has the most value for somebody who’s thinking about, “How do I start to get traction in the work world?” It can make a huge difference, as you point out in the book, how valued these people are relative to their peers, which is what a lot of people aspire to but don’t always know how to achieve.
The book is written from the contributor’s side of what we do. It’s for new to the workforce and people out of college in a new role who are trying to figure out, “How do I not get stuck turning a crank? How do I make a big difference in my work? What are some good career strategies?” It’s also written to managers at all levels who find themselves in the player-coach seat on the team. There’s part of what they do, which is the managerial role and the coach but almost all of us have the contributor side, the work that we do, the presentations we give, and the influence that comes from our contribution, not just from leading and coaching the team.
Even if you’re a pure manager, you’re not doing the player-coach thing as you were describing. There’s a section in the book about how to have a high-impact team and we’ll get to that. As a manager, if you can teach your team how to be higher-impact players, it benefits you even if you’re purely managing people.
I haven’t found or run into a manager who has read the book and hasn’t said, “How do I build a whole team of people who think and work this way?” I have run into plenty of people who have read the book and are mad that their manager wants them to think and work this way. Sometimes, they write reviews on Amazon or such. The managers are like this way of working and thinking. It would be a dream team if this were the native mindset and approach.
You can shape that by thinking, “How do I hire for this? How do I hire people who think this way?” Even if you get a few of them on a team, it can be a massive benefit for you.
With all my research, I’m looking at the practices that differentiate good leaders from diminishing leaders. I’m also looking for the mindsets. What are the assumptions that we tend to bring? Some of those can be taught. Some can be taught quite easily but there are a few that tend to be deeply ingrained that it behooves a leader or organization to hire people who are predisposed to think this way.
What are the big differences you distinguish between contributors and impact players?
Contributors are people who are doing a fine job. The contributor is not someone who is not performing and struggling. They’re someone who is doing the job reasonably well but often, they’re just doing the job and turning a crank. They often experience work as tiring and frustrating or feel like using the vernacular of the day, unseen and unheard, whereas the impact player is someone who delivers extraordinary value. These are the people on the team who are contributing at high levels and delivering work of extraordinary value but it’s not just about the value they bring. It’s about the value they create around them. They’re people who raise the level of play on the team.
I once asked Nick Saban to give me his definition of an impact player. He goes, “Good players make plays and great players make great plays consistently.” The impact players on a team, according to this legendary coach, said, “They’re the people who not only make great plays consistently. They’re the people who make the entire team better because of the attitude and work ethic they bring.” Kobe Bryant, the Olympic redeem team, shows up and goes, “We’re here to win. We are going to work hard and not take anything for granted.” Soon, everyone is down in the gym working out and putting in a little bit of extra and raising the sites. That is what an impact player is.
You have a stat in the book about how managers view these players in terms of the force multiplier that they put. It’s something like three and a half times.
When we ask managers to quantify the value being contributed by the impact players, it averages to 3.5 times greater than the ordinary contributor and 10 times greater than what I called the under-contributors in our study, which weren’t danglings smart, capable, hardworking people who were getting it wrong and maybe working hard but aiming at the wrong target.
It’s greater than the under-contributors and three and a half times greater than rock-solid contributors. The promise of thinking I’m working this way is that you don’t necessarily have to be any smarter, more capable, or hardworking. Unless you’re on an Olympic basketball team, it does show up as a little extra time in the gym. You can do work that is recognized as delivering greater value.
The thing that was interesting was not how the managers talked about and quantified the value of the impact players. I was fascinated by how the managers were talking about what I call the ordinary contributors or typical because they said things like this, “This person did their job. They did their job well.” I often heard them say, “They were brilliant at their job.” I’m like, “Why is that ordinary?” They were loyal and followed directions. They were good leaders. They took responsibility for things. They were focused. They carried their weight on teams.
The profile created by the managers of the ordinary contributors was that these were strong team players. These were sharp people, people that you would want to hire. That’s what I began to see. This is where I thought the research got interesting. What I began to see is that the ordinary contributor was stellar in ordinary times. It’s when things are clear, straightforward, and predictable.
Once things start to get messy and a little chaotic, ambiguous, fraught with uncertainty, and things are moving and you’re in a very dynamic and volatile situation, that is where the ordinary contributors tend to fall short. These were the situations that the impact players handled differently. They thought and acted differently than the ordinary contributors. That is where that three-and-a-half X value differential comes from.
I was thinking of 350% more. They’re four and a half times the value of an ordinary player, which is even more of a difference. There are five attributes. The first one that you talk about is doing the job that’s needed. There are a few aspects to this that you make around seeing what’s needed and doing a job that’s needed, even if it may not be your own. It would be great if you could provide some color on that one.
It’s the beginning of this value cycle that ensues for these. It’s how they deal with the messy problems of the workplace. By messy problems, I mean a problem that doesn’t have a clear owner, where it’s not this department’s charter and it’s not that department’s charter either. It’s not my job or his job. It’s that messy work that sits in the middle. It flows through the cracks of the org chart.
What we find is that in these situations, the ordinary contributors are doing their job, their part, and their piece of that work but the impact players are doing the job that’s needed. They are people who have a healthy level of disregard for their job description. They don’t see their job description as a box. I hate the way that we represent the organizational structure, like people in these boxes and names in boxes. They don’t see their job description as a container but more as a platform.
This isn’t the end of what I can do. This is my base camp. This is where I hang out so that when something goes wrong, I’m in a position to do something about it. They’re flexible with how they handle that. It’s not that they forsake their job. It’s not like, “My job isn’t to do my job. My job is to do the high-profile work.” They’re not abandoning their posts. They’re willing to step beyond the confines of the job description. They work where they’re needed.
You use the acronym of finding the win. What’s important? It’s a good way of remembering that you need to go where something needs to be done, even if it’s not what your box says you should do. You can do that without trampling other people because, often, what you’re doing is stepping into that white space that falls between the cracks of the organization and gluing it all together a little bit better than what was otherwise happening.
The way I like to think of it is this healthy disregard for the org chart and job descriptions. It’s having some regard to understanding why they exist but organization structures and job descriptions are like our organizational tool for the problems of the past. It’s a little bit like when you go through TSA security or an airport. Those processes are all put in place to solve historical security issues but they’re not good at catching future threats.
It’s paying attention not just to, “What am I expected to do per my job and what I was hired for this position?” It’s paying attention to what’s going on in the organization. What’s important is often not written down. We have to work on paying attention to the smoke signals about what’s happening. The impact player works like a heat-seeking missile. They’re looking for hotspots.
If you’re new in your career reading this and you want to be good at heat-seeking, you’re going to look for hot topics. What are the executives talking about? What are they talking about when it’s not on the agenda? What are the rubs or hot spots blisters when you’re hiking or something that people are angsty about? I don’t know why we can’t seem to solve this problem. This keeps coming up over and over.
People are frustrated. Not frustrated at you but they’re mad at the air. They’re venting hot projects and things that are getting funded and called out in earnings calls. You’re looking for hot buttons like pet peeves and things that people care about but you’re working where there’s heat. That’s why you don’t have to be smarter, more capable, or harder working but where you’re working on important things, you’re working where there’s potential impact. A little bit of effort goes a long way.
You make the point in that part of the book about finding the things that are the nuisances. Nobody can be bothered to fix the things that people recreationally complain about. We all have those in our workplaces. I’m curious to get your view. A lot of times, I’ll see people who gravitate toward those kinds of things because they want to fix some little problem but they don’t get a lot of credit for it.
They think they’re gravitating toward the heat because it’s one of those things that everybody does complain about but there’s not enough value in it that somebody bothered to fix it before. Do you feel like that’s a net positive for an impact play or were they diverting their attention away from something that could otherwise be spent on something much more at the forefront?
My view on this is going to sound a little hierarchical. It might rub some people the wrong way but the difference is it’s not about working on your pet peeves. It’s about working on your stakeholder’s pet peeves and seeing your leadership and shareholders. It’s not just saying, “Here’s something that bothers me. I’m going to go and fix it.” It’s, “Here’s something that is preventing us from doing the work that matters.”
One of the things we find, and this is where I have to admit, is that I’ve seen some people bristle to the ideas in the book. The bristle usually takes the form of, “I want to work on what’s important to me.” What I find is that the impact players work on what’s important to their shareholders, stakeholders, and bosses. What I find is, in the end, or not too distant future, it gives them a lot of influence, credibility, and power to start calling some of those shots and work on what’s important to them. It doesn’t start by pushing your agenda.
Influence tends to be built when we pay attention to the agenda of the organization, clients, bosses, and colleagues. When we solve those ambient problems, our influence grows. It doesn’t usually start with a self-orientation. It starts with another orientation. I have to admit. I’ve been surprised at how many people find that offensive.Influence is built when you pay attention to the agenda of the organization and help solve the team’s ambient problems. Click To Tweet
It’s interesting that you say that but at the end of the day, and I’m going to label myself somebody who sits higher up in the organization that I work in, you got hired to do a job for the company, customers, and shareholders. It’s not doing what you want to do. If you want to go into business for yourself, you get to do what you want to do but you have to have that other orientation. I don’t encounter the “I want to do what I want to do” so much in my line of work but I’m sure it’s out there. It’s surprising to me that you feel like people bristle at that point, the idea that they got paid to do a job for a company that’s paying them.
It is becoming more of a norm. It’s the years of programming people have heard, “Look out for number one. Pursue your passion. Figure out what you’re passionate about and go do it. The world is your oyster.” If you know what you’re passionate about, the world will open up and create a path for you. That can work but it’s a little bit like, “I want to be an MBA superstar.”
For most people, that influence, credibility, and impact come when we first figure out what is happening around us. We set our sights on others and take jobs. When we decide our job is to serve and solve problems for the people around us, we build a lot more personal credibility and influence. I have been surprised by this.
The next one in the book is stepping up and stepping back. What do you mean by both? How can you do both if you’re an impact player?
This distinction is how impact players handle unclear roles. We’ve all been in that situation where roles are unclear. We don’t know who’s in charge. The organization is matrixed and collaborative. You’ve got teams that rapidly assemble and disassemble. You drop into a meeting and there are 4 or 5 other people in that meeting but you’re not entirely sure who’s in charge of the meeting or who’s leading this initiative. You find yourself with this collection of people looking around, trying to figure out who the boss is.
What we find is that in these situations, roles are ill-defined, unclear, or fluid. The ordinary contributor tends to look upward for clarity or wait for direction. We hear this all the time in organizations, “We can’t move forward because we need role clarity.” It’s like someone above them is going to provide that clarity but what we find in these situations where there is a leadership vacuum is the impact players are very quick to fill that vacuum.
They’re not the kind of collaborators or leaders who always have to be in charge. You know what it’s like to work with that person who is like, “We don’t know who’s in charge. I’ll be in charge of that. I want to lead that.” We tend to mistrust those folks. What we find is the impact. They’re quick to step up and take charge.
They’re not waiting for someone to appoint them as the leader, anoint them, or give them formal authority. They just take charge. It might be as simple as a meeting without a clear leader where they might say, “Who’s in charge? We don’t know. I’m willing to lead this conversation. Would it be helpful if I framed this issue and led us through this?” They step into that void and provide leadership but they don’t need to stay in the lead role or always be in the lead role.
We find that when that service is rendered, they tend to step back and follow others with the same energy, commitment, and verb that they led others. They’re people who move easily in and out of this leadership role. I liken it to the way of a flock of birds migrating together in that V formation. It’s efficient. It’s not that the alpha bird is always up at that point of that V doing the harder work, creating that efficiency and drag. Flock is a role that rotates.
This is important. One is it builds trust. If you’re the person who always has to be the boss, people get very suspicious. People who are constantly taking on that leadership role end up exhausted and erode trust in their colleagues. They’re exhausted and in a diminished state. Meanwhile, other people are constantly following. They’re exhausted because they’re underutilized. What this does is it shares that load so it creates both rest for everyone and periods of deep engagement and allows organizations to have more agility and vitality. The role of a leader is not a position. In an organization, it is a role and it’s a temporary role.
It’s also a mindset, the idea that anybody can be a leader. You have to figure out how to lead from the seat you’re in.
You take turns very much like Peloton. The wheel takes turns up in the lead doing the hard work and you draft off your colleagues. They’re creating an easier path for you.
There are a couple of others in here but the last of the five is about making work light. Maybe this comes back to how you make the team better. One of the ways to do that is to create the tone and help set the tone for the team. It helps explain some of the things that these impact players are doing to make the work light for themselves and their teams.
They make work light for their teams and themselves. This is how the impact players deal with the unrelenting demands where work gets hard. The difference is that the ordinary contributor carries their weight but often makes work harder than it has to be. Sometimes, working with them comes with a bit of tax. We all know this. The smart, talented coworker who gets the job done but you know it’s going to be a little bit painful. “That ten-minute conversation is going to turn into a 30-minute conversation. I’m going to have to listen to them complain about how much they hate purchasing.”
I heard it over and over from managers. They’re easy and delightful to work with. They’re joyful. There are a lot of ways that you can make work light. One way is you can be a helping hand. “It looks like you’re overloaded. Can I offer to help,” which is always appreciated but not very scalable. That’s how we’re making work light.
We’re going to create a burden for ourselves but they also are making work light because they’re easy to work with. There’s no drama and politics. They channel their energy where it’s going to have an impact and they don’t drag other people into that. They’re low maintenance. It goes a long way. The biggest way this happens is they bring a sense of ease and joyfulness. They bring laughter. They make hard work feel lighter because they’re having fun while they’re doing it.Impact players bring a sense of joyfulness to a team. They make hard work feel lighter because they are having fun while doing it. Click To Tweet
I remember having a conversation with a boss who subscribed to a different coach, the Bill Parcells School of Coaching. I said, “We’re busting our asses. We need to have more fun as a team.” He comes into the next team meeting and says, “J.R. says we need to have more fun. That’s ridiculous. We got all this stuff to do.” It was discounted, which is so antithetical to him. That’s where I was coming from. We have this hard problem to solve. The least we can do is have a little bit of fun working through it. He didn’t get it.
Think about this. If you have an orientation, which is the harder the work, the more fun it needs to be, we gravitate towards fun things. If you’re setting that tone on a team, it can be anything from a tweet attitude to a whistle while you work like, “Let’s be cheerful about it,” the other is to laugh at the hard problems and your mistakes. It’s not to mock your colleagues but to make light of the mistakes you make. The foibles, the more fun you have. That’s going to draw people to hard problems. “This is hard but instead of avoiding it, this is where we’re going to be laughing. This is going to be fun. This is where people are going to show up doing crazy things.” That’s part of how it raises the level of play on teams.
You’ve described these five criteria in the book and you get into describing how you become an impact player. If I’m somebody who says, “I’m bought in. I get it. I need to change my behaviors,” where would you counsel them to start in terms of getting themselves on this path?
First of all, I would clarify that in our study, we looked at people whom managers described as ordinary contributors or impact players. Everyone reading is already ahead of me in this. They have figured out that this isn’t about types of people. This is about ways of thinking. I can tell you phases of my career where I was very much an impact player but I can also tell you about phases, weeks, or bad days that I had where I was stuck in this contributor mentality.
I remember one of them. I was in a meeting with Larry Ellison, the Founder and CEO of Oracle, who was a very smart and intimidating character. We were going through so much change. I’m numb at this point to all of this change. I remember saying something like, “Larry, at this point, why don’t you hire a monkey to do my job because I feel like I’m turning a crank in?” He’s like, “What are you talking about?” I felt beleaguered and tired. I was going through the motions. I was stuck in this contributor mentality.
I can tell you about conversations I had with Larry Ellison where I thought I’ve got to protect the past and do what’s easy, whereas he’s pulling me to think in different ways. I can also tell you about times when I was out there doing what was needed, stepping up, leading, and working with joy in that state. Work was miserable. I’m like a monkey turning a crank in the other state.
These are about mindsets that we tend to get pulled in and out of. If you want to have more impact at work, I would start by asking yourself, “What mode am I working in? Why? What has pulled me here?” If you feel like you might be stuck a little bit, a place that I would start with would be the core mindset of players and people working in this mode to see uncertainty and ambiguity as an opportunity rather than a threat to put on what I call in the book the opportunity goggles that impact players seem to wear.Impact players see uncertainty and ambiguity as opportunities rather than threats. Click To Tweet
You find that one of the most fundamental differences is that when things look messy, uncertain, and ambiguous, the impact players tend to move toward those and ordinary contributors tend to move away from it. It has everything to do with how we see that uncertainty. Do we see it as a threat to my productivity or my job? Is this an annoyance or a reason to look up? Do you see that white space, noise, and chaos are a chance to deliver value, demonstrate leadership, reinvent it, do it a different way, and build new capabilities? Does that unrelenting demand feel like a chance to build cohesion and belonging on a team?
Where I would start is when we find ourselves frustrated by ambiguity. I wonder what this situation would look like if I were to put on the opportunity goggles. How is this an opportunity for me to advance my career in some ways? How is it an opportunity for me to show that I can do more than maybe people have me pegged to be able to do?
Your point about that being a way of thinking, you described it. I’ve certainly had points in my life where I felt like I was clicking and firing on all cylinders. I’ve had other periods where my head wasn’t in the right place or maybe the environment wasn’t right. Not to overuse the sports analogy but you think about star players who get traded or signed as free agents by some other team. It’s like they don’t recreate the glory that they had in their prior environment.
The talents and the physical capabilities are there but something’s missing for them. They don’t work out for one reason or another. If that can happen to professional athletes, it can certainly happen to the mere mortals that the rest of us are. You’ve got to check with yourself and see, “Am I falling into one of those periods? Why is it?”
Not too long ago, I finished the Beckham Series. It’s when he goes from Manchester to Rio Madrid. He’s sitting on the bench. That’s this combination of him, the mental game he is bringing, some of the distractions that he’s dealing with, and learning a new coaching system. Whether we can show up and play big in our work, it’s a function of the mindsets and practices that we bring to our work and the way we show up.
It’s also a function of the way our leaders show up. That was a whole different piece of research and book. For me, why is it that some leaders seem to diminish intelligence, capability, and impact while other leaders seem to amplify them? If you want a team of impact players, the most important thing you can do is be the coach and impact players would play for.
My secret hope is that I’ll get you to come back at some point later and do a follow-up discussion about Multipliers, which is more geared toward that group of persons or that level of person. I’m switching gears. Let’s talk a little bit about your firm’s work. You’ve mentioned some of the research that you did in writing this book. You lead, as I best understand it, a workplace-focused R&D group. Is that a fair way of describing what you do?
We are a leadership lab, and research writes and teaches on how to create organizations where people can contribute at their fullest. That’s a theme across all of my work and our firm’s work.
What are the types of services that you provide and the types of firms that you work with?
The value is the stuff that you wouldn’t call a service. No one hires you or pays you to do it. That’s the research. We take on big questions in the workplace, like why some leaders seem to amplify intelligence and others shut it down. Why are some people stuck going through the motions while others are having massive influence?
We do that research, the analysis of that, and write books. The rest of what we do is based on what we learn in those research projects and ideas that we share in the books. People hire us to deliver a keynote speech, a seminar, a workshop, or assess their workforce. That’s the downstream stuff of what we do but it only exists because we’re willing to go in and do these multi-year research projects.
You mentioned Oracle, and you worked there for a number of years in HR and leadership development. What was it that led you ultimately to start the firm you’re running?
I was at Oracle for seventeen years. I loved working there. The reason I loved it is that in sixteen and a half of those years, I’d never had a job I was qualified for. Every single job was a stretch. One of my first jobs was when I was thrown into management at a very young age. I’m at a cocktail party with a bunch of Oracle clients. I’m running Oracle University, which is now a global operation.
My boss introduced me to a client like a proper mature executive with gray hair and looking like an executive. He said, “This is Liz. She runs the university for us.” The guy did a noticeable flinch. He was shocked that they had a child with this big responsibility. Bob said, “Liz isn’t particularly well qualified for her job but she’s killing it.” I said, “Bob, first of all, thanks for the air cover. I don’t ever want a job I’m qualified for because there would be nothing to learn.” He said, “Wish granted.”
For the next dozen-plus years, I’m being given these jobs that are so much bigger than my capability. Every one of them, I’m thinking, “Are these people crazy? Do we lack adult supervision? Why are we putting the children in charge? Why am I having such a big responsibility when I feel so underprepared for these?” This isn’t Imposter syndrome. I was legitimately underqualified for every one of these roles.
I got to a point where I knew what I was doing. Honestly, work felt miserable. That was back to where I felt like I was turning a crank. I found that I was at my best when I was new and a little bit underqualified where it was a stretch and a real reach. I left Oracle not because I didn’t like the organization or the people I worked with. It was a great job but I left to go experience that thrill of bigger challenges. That’s what led me to the research.
In some ways, I went to do something that I felt half qualified to do. There was a whole lot I still needed to learn. That’s my happy place. That’s how I ended up doing executive coaching, researching, and writing. The first book I wrote, as I was signing the contract with the publisher, HarperCollins, Harper Business Imprint, I was like, “I wonder if they know I’ve never written anything before other than this book proposal and this chapter I wrote for them.” That was a stretch. That’s what I’ve loved in my corporate life.
It sounds like you liked it in your corporate life. They talk about this Goldilocks zone. You’re either in between boredom and complete discomfort. There’s a zone that works for you. It sounds like your zone is probably further toward what other people would view as discomfort in terms of the level of stretch. You had a number of roles that you played at Oracle where you deliberately stretched yourself and sought out those opportunities.
I’m as lazy as anyone else. I like it when I get good at something and I don’t have to think too hard. I enjoy that. It’s not like I want all stretch. There was a little piece of research that I did. It was from another book project called Rookie Smarts, where we asked about 1,000 professionals across different industries a bunch of questions, including, “What’s the degree of challenge in your work right now?” Another question that we then correlated with that first question was, “How satisfied are you in your job and work?”
What we found was this near-perfect linear correlation between the two. It’s a little wobbly at the ends but as the challenge level goes up so does our job satisfaction. When the challenge level is low so is our job satisfaction. This is true for almost everyone, barring some life circumstances that make it difficult to sign up for stretch responsibilities. For the most part, getting a nice degree of stretch is our happy place. It’s very similar to working out. There’s no stretch, which creates injury. There’s overstretching, which creates injury. That nice consistent, gentle stretch tends to feel good.
This is your first entrepreneurial experience. Were you a natural or did you learn a lot of hard lessons along the way?
If you look at the profile of entrepreneurs, there are a few things that I will probably share. One is I’m good. I’m an incremental learner. Let’s take a bite out of this and figure out how to do this. I’m not a big visionary. I don’t share that with entrepreneurs like, “I’m going to build something huge and get venture money.” I went in to meet with someone at Kleiner Perkins, my former boss at Oracle, who was a venture capitalist. I tell him about what I’m doing. At the end of the conversation, he says, “Liz, you’re the only person who’s been in my office who hasn’t asked for money.”
I’m much more bootstrap, incremental success rather than thinking big and bold. I think lean. What’s the minimum viable product? How do we try something, experiment, and get some feedback? That’s natural for me. I’m a natural risk mitigator, not a big risk taker. How do we get the data and test things out so that we know we’re on the right track rather than wing for the fences? You find that’s a part of that entrepreneur profile. My focus has always been on how we have a big impact but stay small.
I was speaking at an event at the Harvard Business School. The person who was speaking along with me was the CEO and founder of a unicorn tech company. When it was my turn to speak, I was like, “He’s leading a unicorn. I’m more like my little pony.” Aaron was building this big organization. Our ambition has always been to stay small as an organization but have a big impact. Small footprint, big impact.
You’ve been doing this for a while. Is that still the mantra that you’re thinking about as you think about what the next few years look like for you?
Yes. My colleagues and I have been thoughtful in how we grow through partnerships and working with the company. Rather than try to do it all ourselves and take all of the stress that comes from building something big and having a building with the company’s name on it to say, “Let’s be good at what we do, which is researching and teaching. Let’s partner with organizations that have worldwide presences that can replicate, scale, sell, market, and do all those things that we don’t particularly do well.”
If you think back to the early part of your career, what do you wish somebody had told you then that you know now?
I don’t know that I would change anything about it. I feel like I got the advice when I needed it. What is that saying? When the student is ready, the teacher appears. I got advice in time and right when I needed it early in my career where I was pushing myself to do the work I wanted to do. I wanted to teach leadership.
I had a boss’s boss say to me, “Liz, that’s great if that’s what you want to do. We think you’re terrific but that’s not the problem your boss is trying to solve. She’s got a different problem. She doesn’t need to teach people how to be good leaders. We are hiring thousands of people every year and we need to teach them the Oracle tech stack. She’s got to figure out how to do that. What would be great is if you could help her solve that problem.” It was this profound advice and a way to reorient my career rather than gunning for like, “Here’s what I want to do. I’ve got to find people who will give me a chance to do what I want.” What he was saying is to look around you and see what needs to be done. Make it useful.
It comes back to the first of the five things in your book. It’s doing the job that’s needed.
That shaped me. We are on the eve of the American Thanksgiving holiday gathering in 2023. If you’re hosting a big gathering and you’ve been preparing for this, there’s always that last-minute moment. You think about someone who arrives and says, “I have this idea. We should do this and play this game.” You’re like, “You are throwing me.” I’ve got to do what I needed to do to host this party and entertain your idea versus the person who shows up and does not just come into the kitchen and say, “Give me a job what needs to be done.”
They look around and say, “Do you need help setting chairs? Can I set the table? Can I fill the water glasses for you?” They’re paying attention and providing service. That was the guidance I got early in my career. I had a selfish orientation. What do I want to do? It changed my career trajectory when I decided to make myself useful.
Any final words of wisdom?
There are two things that I’ve learned over all the research I’ve done that I’ll share. What I’ve learned studying some of the best leaders and worst leaders and looking at people with a lot of influence, those who are struggling, is that people across all different kinds of industries, across different continents and cultures come to work not wanting to do the minimum but wanting to be utilized. They want to have their talent, insights, and intellect deeply utilized. People are wired for challenge, contribution, and impact.
When we can create that environment, work becomes exhilarating and not exhausting. If you want to be someone who has a lot of influence, we’ve talked about a few of those things. A good strategy is to be someone who not only brings your best to your work but to be someone that other people do their best work around will create impact, reward, and opportunities than you could manage.
Thank you again for doing this. I appreciate it. I’m sure our audience will find a lot of value in the discussion and if they so choose, in your book.
Thanks for the conversation.
Thank you. Have a great Thanksgiving 2023. I want to thank Liz for joining me to cover one of her bestselling books, Impact Players, as well as the work of her firm and some lessons from her broader career journey. If we’re lucky, we’ll get Liz back at some point to discuss her equally popular book Multipliers. In the meantime, if you’d like to make the most of your career, you can visit PathWise.io and become a member. Basic membership is free. You can also sign up on the website for the newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. Thanks. Have a great day.
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About Liz Wiseman
Liz Wiseman is a researcher and executive advisor who teaches leadership to top organizations worldwide. She has written four books: Multipliers, The Multiplier Effect, Rookie Smarts, and Impact Players.
Liz is also the CEO of the Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley. She has received the top achievement award for leadership from Thinkers50 and has been consistently named one of the world’s leading 50 management thinkers in its bi-annual ranking.
Liz has conducted significant research in leadership and talent development. She writes for Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and various other business and leadership journals. She is a former executive at Oracle, where she worked as the Vice President of Oracle University and the global leader for Human Resource Development. Liz holds a bachelor’s degree in business management and a master’s in organizational behavior from Brigham Young University.