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September 2014
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TD Magazine

Liz Wiseman

LV
President, The Wiseman Group
San Francisco Bay Area, California

Liz Wiseman is president of The Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm in Silicon Valley, California. Her clients have included Apple, Nike, PayPal, Disney, and Twitter. Wiseman is a bestselling author, and is especially noted for the multiplier concept about leaders making everyone smarter. She also is a frequent guest lecturer at Brigham Young University, Stanford University, and the Naval Postgraduate School, among others.

Tell us about your new book, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work, in which you write about a new breed of leaders you call "perpetual rookies."

It is a book about why knowing nothing is sometimes more valuable than knowing it all. In studying how we operate when we are doing something hard and important for the first time, I've found that we are remarkably effective. The size of the gap puts us in a hungry, almost desperate mode. A hyper learning process kicks in that brings out our best work.

In studying how we work in this rookie mode, I stumbled upon a very interesting breed of professionals that I came to call perpetual rookies. They're leaders and professionals who, despite years of experience and often phenomenal success, retain their "rookie smarts"—their ability to approach their work anew. It's not that they maintain a perpetually naive, clueless state; they have the ability to move between the state of knowing and then toggle back to a rookie state of not knowing.

Right now, business cycles are spinning so fast that most of what we know today is probably not going to be relevant in a few years. The speed with which we learn will be more critical than the extent of what we know. In this environment, our most valuable players must know how (and when) to play the rookie.

What's an example from your research?

Bob Hurley was a young surfer and surfboard shaper when he started Hurley Sports. He knew how to work a Skil planer, but had little idea how to build a company. However, he claims that at every junction his rookie status was a blessing. He asked questions nobody else asked and worked with a deep belief that anything was possible.

I asked Bob how, after 30 years and much success, he maintains this rookie mindset. He said, "I sometimes have days where I feel stuck in a rut, tired, and lacking fresh perspective. ... But I remember something I learned on Huntington Beach from a surfer named Rabbit." Rabbit Bartholomew was the Australian world champion surfer in the 1970s and a living legend.

Bob had been surfing on the best waves with the elite surfers, when he lost his board and swam under the pier. He spotted Rabbit surfing in the inferior waves and said, "Rabbit, come surf with us. The waves are awesome." Rabbit said, "That's kind of you, mate, but I want to surf over here with the kids. This is where I get my energy." The response struck Bob.

Whenever Bob gets stuck and needs an injection of fresh thinking, he grabs his board and goes down to the beach to surf with the amateurs. They help him renew his energy and mindset. Perpetual rookies like Hurley have mastered the ability to unlearn and relearn.

You were thrown into management at the young age of 24. As Baby Boomers retire, Millennials are filling the gaps. Can you offer some advice for young managers?

There's tremendous value in being new and fresh to management. I was just one year out of business school—and totally unqualified—when I was put in charge of training and tasked with building Oracle University. I had no experience running a corporate university and few preconceived ideas of what a corporate university should look like.

So I asked a lot of questions and figured out what the business urgently needed. Instead of following the norm at the time—having a large, dedicated campus with permanent faculty—we built a model that was simple and fast, which allowed us to globalize easily and be early adopters of e-learning.

When we are new, our value doesn't necessarily come from bringing new ideas; our greatest value comes from having no ideas. We're foolish and hungry, so we learn fast.

Similarly, the young who are stepping into management roles behind Baby Boomers have an opportunity to redefine the role of a leader and have a liberating effect on the workforce. For example, instead of assuming employees need management, Millennials in management are more likely to assume that, with good leadership and information, people can self-govern much of their work. The newcomers also will bring a belief that leadership can surface from anywhere and not just trickle down from the top. With these assumptions, we'll build flatter, more nimble organizations, where people lead and follow with equal ease.

New leaders also can dislodge a long-held assumption that ramping up new employees is a slow, steady process. For example, eBay/PayPal recently revamped its onboarding program and encouraged managers to send a clear message to new college grads: Don't wait to be asked; find something that needs to be done and contribute. A year later, they found that this pool of graduates offered ideas that led to patents at a 25 percent higher rate than their more established colleagues.

You speak and write about two types of leaders, multipliers and diminishers. Why do you think we don't have more leaders who are multipliers?

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When I first wrote Multipliers, I was focused on helping diminishing leaders become multipliers. This seemed like the obvious starting point because of the tremendous damage these diminishers were wreaking on their organizations. I've come to realize that this is not where organizations will realize their greatest gains.

For hardened diminishers, change is hard and their numbers are fewer (and they are easier to spot, thus avoid). I worry more about the "accidental diminishers," those who aspire to be good leaders but who are having a diminishing impact, totally unaware. For these leaders, being a multiplier is a matter of self-awareness and experimenting with a few new management practices, not rewiring an entire mindset.

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How can leaders more fully appreciate and use their employees' talent—in other words become multipliers?

There are a number of small but powerful shifts that can enable managers to fully utilize the talent of their teams. The first is to begin to see intelligence in a broad spectrum rather than as a binary state. When we have a problem employee or are struggling to work with someone who's very different than us, it is easy to question their intelligence and ask, "Is this person smart?" A better question to ask is "In what way is this person smart?"

The answer may not come on day one. But two weeks into this, a manager usually begins to see the employee very differently. Once she sees that he has a native genius in a particular area, she learns how to better utilize him.

The other fundamental transition is shifting from having the answers to asking the questions. I discovered this a dozen or more years ago at home. I confessed to a friend of mine at work that I was constantly barking orders at my kids and was worried that I'd become a bit of a dictator. I describe bedtime to him. "Kids, put that away. Leave her alone. Brush your teeth. Get a book for story time." It was a barrage of telling. And they were dragging their feet to get into the bed. My buddy said, "Liz, why don't you just ask them questions?" I was intrigued. That night, I asked, "Kids, what time is it?" They knew. What do we do first? Who's ready for bed? Suddenly, they're clamoring to get into bed.

When I shifted out of the mode of having the answers into the mode of asking questions, I found that my kids knew how to do so much that I had been doing for them. And when I made this same shift at work, I discovered that people on my management team didn't really need me telling them what to do either. The leader's job is to ask the right questions.

What will be the greatest challenge to, and change in, the workplace in the next 10 years?

The workplace is shifting from a place where we go and becoming something we do. We used to optimize our learning and development efforts to enable people to work in company structures and in teams that had a life of their own. Going forward, we need to optimize around discrete pieces of work to be done and ready the workforce for reconfiguration.

The Lego Movie is a fun illustration. In the movie, the villains build the Lego kits per the exact instructions and then super-glue the pieces into place, creating a spectacular but static object. The young protagonist wants to use the Lego pieces to build something original (and less elegant), dissemble it, and then build something entirely different. Spoiler alert: Reconfiguration wins.

Our organizations and team structures need to be built for reconfiguration rather than built to last. We need workforces where talent can be identified, and rapidly deployed and redeployed; and where work processes are scrappier. In this more dynamic environment, rapid learning, rather than knowing, will be the most critical skill.

Are you pleased to see a growing number of leaders seeming to debunk the myth that we can have it all?

Yes. "Having it all" is a destructive myth. The only way to have it all is to truly have it all: all the stress, all the anxiety, all the self-doubt and the burnout. We face an abundance of career and life options. But without clear choices, all these options can be overwhelming. Sanity comes when we are mindful and transparent about the tradeoffs that we are making.

When I returned to my work at Oracle after the birth of my first child, I could feel the impending conflict. I knew I needed to resolve it before it got stressful. I told my boss, who was a senior VP, "If my work and my family come into conflict, I have to choose my family." It changed the whole game. Because I had already made the tough decision, the tension was lifted. And my boss became an ambassador, helping me prevent a war between work and home. He knew which would win and he wanted me to keep working.

When we are personally clear on our choices, our confidence and power increases. But when we keep our choice private (as might seem appropriate), we still shoulder the burden of managing that choice. When we make our priorities transparent, we invite help from our colleagues.

I think one of the most exciting developments is that companies are now seeing work-life balance as a human issue, as relevant for men as it is for women. I have seen so many of my male colleagues choose to be great leaders in their homes and not just at work. I was struck by a comment made by a man who was interviewing for a job on my extended team. He said, "I wanted to join this group because I've heard it's a great place to be a working parent. I want to be an active father and around for my kids." He knew we kept travel to manageable levels and flexed schedules around family commitments.

When people get to come to work as whole people, it benefits the workplace as much as our homes.

What do you like to do for relaxation or fun?

My husband and I love to travel to new countries with our kids. He's an ardent explorer and needs new hills to climb. I am a learning fanatic, so I love being dropped in a place where I know little and must make sense of things. It's hardly relaxing, but it's certainly fun.

About the Author
Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).
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