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TD Magazine Article

Kathy Cramer

An interview with Kathy Cramer, Founder, The Cramer Institute


Fri Aug 08 2014

Kathy Cramer-696cac092d0ecc7bd7423a0a192edd3178a9d27a0d6e4fd627cc5d95d76948df

Founder, The Cramer Institute

St. Louis, Missouri


Kathy Cramer is the founder and managing partner of The Cramer Institute, whose mission is "to inspire positive change in leaders, teams, and organizations." She holds a doctorate in psychology from Saint Louis University. Cramer and her colleagues have pioneered the development of asset-based thinking, which helps leaders and their teams make small shifts in thinking to produce extraordinary impact. Her latest book is Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say and Do.

How has your career evolved?

My professional focus has always been to take the best of psychology—what we know in the field—and turn it into principles and practices that real people can use to make their lives better, and more specifically, their lives better work-wise.

I founded the Stress Center at Saint Louis University Medical Center. In the 1990s, the general parlance included the word stress as it related to work and also as it contributed to heart disease and even cancer. I initially worked with corporations; IBM, AT&T and the Bell operating companies, and Bank of America were interested in seeing how managing and preventing stress could add to productivity and job satisfaction.

My work evolved over the years into The Cramer Institute, a consulting and coaching practice. We've moved from the stress work and are now on the positive side of the spectrum, helping people change their brains as they change their mindsets so that they are able to counteract the negativity bias, which is very much related to stress. The negativity bias in the brain makes us more sensitive and reactive to what we don't want, what's coming at us that's problematic, and what is frustrating us. That starts the stress response cycle.


Rather than dealing directly with the negativity bias like I did in the beginning of my work, I now am helping people focus on how to create a "positivity bias."

What is asset-based thinking?

Asset-based thinking is our term for how to be more sensitive and responsive to what's working, what's valuable, and what's best in yourself, in other people, and in any situation.

We have an algorithm based on research by John Gottman. The algorithm is five to one. If I'm looking at what's working, what's best, what's possible, I'm in the asset-based thinking zone. We would like there to be five times more attention and effort on the upside than on the problems—what's missing, the mistakes, the weaknesses—which is what we call the deficit-based thinking zone.

Even problems have assets hidden within them. An asset-based thinker is a person who can see the value in solving the problem. The first step is to see the solution: What would this problem look like if it was solved? Then all of a sudden the solution becomes a very motivational asset.


Asset-based thinking is really all about the growth mindset, and deficit-based thinking is really more of a fixed mindset. In that way, I'm borrowing terms from the work of Carol Dweck at Stanford University and expanding on them a bit. So the growth mindset from Carol's point of view is sort of the lifelong learning, to develop and improve oneself. I think that asset-based thinking is the foundation of learning and being creative.

How does asset-based thinking fit in specifically with today's workplace?

The biggest complaint that we hear from the people we work with is how to create a productive, engaged culture when there's so much uncertainty. This uncertainty is not going away, right? Sometimes the uncertainty brings a windfall. Sometimes it kind of pulls the rug out from under you. Whichever way the winds blow, you have to be ready, willing, and able to take advantage of what's happening.

I believe that leaders who are agile and adaptive, who are inspiring to people, are able to do just that. They're able to take the vision and strategy—and even the execution plan that's in place—make sense out of why it's shifting, and give people kind of a rudder.

It's almost like the asset-based thinking approach becomes what we rely on to keep moving, to go further faster in this very volatile, uncertain marketplace.

Your new book advises leaders to consider what they see, say, and do as leaders. Can you expand on that?

We have found that the see-say-do framework helps leaders know where to start. Whether they're speaking from a platform in a big conference or having a one-on-one, a leader needs to examine what she sees before she opens her mouth: What am I looking at, what am I paying attention to that prompts my impulse to speak?

Most leaders know that even when something tragic happens—and I'll use the most tragic event that I've ever lived through as a citizen, 9/11—there is something positive also occurring. Even in that crisis, \[former New York City\] Mayor Giuliani was able to to see acts of heroism in large supply. He noticed it, and he spoke about it, and he acted on it. The first responders, the actions of the people in New York, the people around the world who were pouring their support in a variety of ways, he shined the spotlight of his attention on that.

He definitely spent five times more intention and effort talking about what was working and possible after that tragedy than he did the acts of terrorism that precipitated it. Even in that stunned, traumatized state, that is something a leader can do to help people do something in the right direction.

My best piece of evidence of this was his first press interview, which was at the police academy near Ground Zero. He and Governor Pataki were on the dais and a journalist shouted out, "Mayor, how many people have perished?" Giuliani said to them in a very clear acknowledgement, "Too many people have died for us to even fathom." Then, the next words out of his mouth were, "However, we know there must be survivors, and our job is to find those survivors right now."

One of the techniques we have in the book for leaders is called the ASA shift: acknowledge what's wrong; scan for what's possible; and act on what's possible. It doesn't mean you have the whole thing figured out. That's what Giuliani did at the press conference.

How can a leader do that in everyday situations?

There's not one person who hasn't been stopped dead in their tracks by traffic. Or someone's late—it could be you or somebody else. All of a sudden, the best laid plans have just been turned over. Oftentimes, we think of it as a small, but really annoying act.

For example, I have two or three ways that I drive to work. One of them has electrical digging going on, so that traffic is down to one lane. I was there this morning and I said to myself, "Oh, Kathy, how long is it going to take you to learn that they're working on the street?" I was right in there, deficit-based thinking about how I am making myself late.

Here's what I do. I acknowledge that, and then I scan for what's positive and possible. I'm a lover of early summer weather in the Midwest. It was 71 degrees this morning. I said to myself, "Kathy, your car's top is down. It is a beautiful morning. Look at this and think about what it is that you want to say that could make a difference to the reader." That's what I did. It didn't change the fact that I was stuck in one-lane traffic, but I used that moment, that setback, as minor as it was. Unless you tackle those small things, you're not going to be resilient in the moments where bigger things happen.

When you think about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours for mastery in his book The Outliers, it's not that you're gifted and born with this talent; it's that you've spent 10,000 hours mastering it. I believe that this is a mastery process.

The other thing to do, in small matters and large, is the exercise that I call scan, snap, savor. Scan for what is working—anything. Take a snapshot of it in your mind's eye. Take in the sensory details: who is involved, who's in the room, the setting, what time is it, how you are feeling. Then spend a few moments, maybe 30 seconds, savoring it, imprinting the moment into your memory.

I could look back to my morning, which is not that far away. The moment I would scan, snap, and savor would be when I got my yoga mat out at 7 o'clock. I'm scanning, snapping, and savoring that. You might just think, "Oh well, that's a nice reminiscence." Yes, and you're changing your brain.

While you're doing that, in the prefrontal cortex—where working memory resides—you are reminding yourself of something that worked, that was positive, that you might have done or somebody else might have done.

If you look on the flipside—the memory of what didn't work—there are many people who have commuted home where they are thinking about what they have to do tomorrow because it didn't get done today, or what was frustrating that they now have permission to vent about. When you do that, you release stress hormones. I always tell people, if you do this on the commute home, you're giving yourself a stress cocktail.

These everyday acts of asset-based thinking are what really prime the pump for you as a leader to set forth a vision of what's possible. I call it a moon shot, the legacy of going to the moon, John F. Kennedy's project. We have to have moon shots.

We do have risk factors that we have to mitigate. But going back to five to one, if as a leader I'm engaging people to spend five times more interest and effort achieving their moon shots, many of those risk factors actually disappear.

Deficit-based thinking is exhausting, but it's so natural. So we just have to welcome ourselves to the human race. Just know that our first thought might be very deficit-based, but it doesn't have to be our last thought.

How do leaders go about determining their signature presence?

Leaders tend to leave themselves out of the picture when it comes to what is going to drive positive change, what's going to motivate people, what's going to engage people. They think it's the vision. They work hard on strategy; they work hard on execution.

Of course, you have to have a good strategy. I don't want to underestimate or undervalue that, but what is often left out is the power of the leader. Signature presence is the knowledge of, when people are in your presence, what they experience that is related to your strengths and your talents. What do they experience that makes them want to get on board, join forces with you, do whatever it takes?

Let's say I'm a great listener. I know I have that talent, right? But what's somebody's experience of that? It's happening in the follower. That's what we need information about.

Signature presence is the abiding suite of unique talents, strengths, and capabilities that create the best positive impact on people. One thing I know for myself, just to give a real granular example, is when I carve out time to talk to people on my team about what they're doing, what they're worried about, and what they're excited about. It takes their performance to the next level. They have an experience, in this case with me, of really feeling seen.

I am not wired to do that naturally. I have to intentionally carve time out. Otherwise, left to my own habits and inclinations, I'm off working with clients. I'm writing. I'm doing all kinds of things that I believe will advance the cause, but I'm not really talking to my business partners. That's an example of my signature presence. It has such a powerful impact when I remember to leverage it.

What do you do outside of work for fun or relaxation?

I love to walk at least three miles a day. While I'm walking, I listen to interviews that are fascinating to me; I might listen to a book. I use that time to just not have an agenda, but to be open, receptive, curious; to let somebody else inspire me for a change. And just being outside is something that really I love.

The other thing I do is cook. I'd love to go to culinary school someday. Those are the things I love to do. And to be by the water.

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