5 ways you can move outside your comfort zone

After 20 years as an investigative agent, I found myself in a comfort zone. Safely ensconced in familiar territory, I balked when asked to be the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California. It sounded like fun and even a little glamorous because I would be interviewed by local and national news media. So why did I hesitate when offered the job?

I would move from being the senior agent on my squad, where I knew everything about my job, to a new situation where I knew absolutely nothing. None of my former skills as an investigator prepared me to handle probing questions from reporters.

Over the years, I’d worked counterintelligence, espionage and terrorism cases. But the only time I felt truly terrified was in front of a live TV camera. The FBI needed someone who could come across as witty, credible and polished.

I’m the type of person who comes up with the best retorts about 20 minutes after the question is asked. I needed to learn how to think quicker on my feet.

I had to learn the ropes from the bottom up. I was tempted to feel humiliated by my lack of experience; instead, I felt humbled by all I had yet to learn. There was no resentment, only a slow understanding that we are all students of life.

One of the dumbest things you can do in your career is stay, for years, where you’re comfortable. Not only will you get bored, you’re likely to forget that no job is secure.

The only thing that is secure is your belief in yourself and your ability to contribute to something that matters to you in life. If you maintain that mindset, you’ll find rewarding work no matter where you end up. But to land on your feet, you need to continually push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Successful entrepreneurs, leaders and small-business owners understand that if they want to stay ahead of change, they’ll need to do things that have never been done before. This means taking risk and having people ready to step out of their comfort zones. Innovation requires a mindset that is willing to dive into new and unproven areas.

Here are 5 ways you can move outside your comfort zone:

1. Adapt or die

When you move into the unknown, it’s essential that you adapt to the situation if you want to land on your feet. Assess the best way of interacting with your team. Analyze new information in its context. To be a successful leader, you must evaluate what you think you heard and understand it from different angles.

How to make it work for you: Take what worked for you in the past and modify it to match your new situation. Chances are good that this is not the first time you’ve adapted when you’ve moved into the unknown. Grab and pen and paper and write down your survival tactics and why they worked. Mine your  experiences and let them guide you as you move out of a comfort zone in your current circumstances.

2. Keep your ego in check

Ego looks for ways to prove it is right and others are wrong. When we keep ego in check, there is room for the wisdom of others to get in. We are able to listen more deeply, learn with an open mind, and adapt new skill sets.

The ego is always asking “How will this make me look? How will I benefit?” This is one of the reasons ego resists change. It reminds us that the devil we know is sometimes better than the devil we don’t know. We fear that when we step into the unknown, we will discover painful secrets about the world and about ourselves.

We keep ego in check when we allow ourselves the luxury of trial and error. Like a child who learns to walk, we experience a feel-good neurological response that can be stronger than our ego’s fear of looking like a loser. When we tackle new and difficult challenges, we experience a rush of adrenaline -- a hormone that makes us feel confident and motivated.

How to make it work for you: You can step out of your comfort zone and move the focus away from the ego’s discomfort at the same time. Simply ask yourself, "What am I learning about me? What am I learning about the other people in this situation? How can I use this information in my professional and personal lives?”

3. Summon courage

It takes courage to slap down your ego because you may end up in a situation where you feel awkward, clumsy and alone. This can be especially difficult if you’re in a leadership position and feel you need to continue to hone your core competencies. It’s essential that you realize your comfort zone is a tremendous enemy of peak performance.

When people in leadership get into a comfort zone, they strive to stay right where they have found success. But it is the average leader who stops at success because success and peak performance are often two different things. Whole lives are spent reinforcing mediocre performance.

It takes courage and mental toughness to continually move in the direction of your biggest goals and ambitions and not stop at success.

How to make it work for you: Keep a petri dish of new experiences near you at all times. Pick one of them each day and experiment with it. If it scares you a little, that’s even better. You’re scared, yet you still act. Repeat. Over time, you’ll be amazed at how what once scared you is now a commonplace experience.

4. Avoid stagnation

The more accomplished we are at something, the harder it is to learn. Once we become experts in our field, the need to learn is no longer either urgent or necessary. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that we will fuse our skill with our identity.

When we walk into a discomfort zone and risk failure, it threatens to unravel our identity. Our reaction to learning something new is often fierce and visceral because it can strike at the core of who we believe ourselves to be.

Stagnation often breeds complacency -- you begin to feel a little too comfortable with the status quo. Once we choose not to learn, we risk stagnation. Unfortunately, the only difference between a rut and a coffin are the dimensions.

How to make it work for you: Intrapreneurship is a term coined in the late 1970s. It incorporates the risks and innovative approaches in personal leadership that are associated with entrepreneurship. Start with setting specific goals that define your personal brand, which is the first step in intrapreneurship. These goals define who you are, what you do and for whom you want to do it.

5. Enlarge your core competency

When we move out of our core competency, we often feel vulnerable and weak as leaders. We’ve been successful, and we’ve become inured to having the right answers and confidence in our choices.

A beginner’s mind, on the other hand, is flexible and agile as it leaves behind old assumptions and gropes for new ways to move forward.

This is exactly the mindset we need when confronted with obstacles and adversity! We may not be able to rely upon our developed skills when facing a new barrier or challenge, but if we’ve continually and deliberately placed ourselves in situations that are beyond our core competency, we are more prepared to deal with them.

With experience and practice, we can predict our response to the unknown with greater accuracy. This is another important component of mental toughness -- the ability to choose our response when confronted with the unknown rather than simply react to our circumstances.

How to make it work for you: A beginner’s mind is opening up to the possibilities of what might be. It is a non-grasping, patient and confident understanding of what it means to live our fullest potential. It is having the mental toughness to always be humble and always strive to reach peak performance.

How you do anything is how you do everything.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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Are you undermining your leadership credibility?

I have had the opportunity to coach a number of different leaders. Sometimes I am asked to observe how a leader interacts with their team members and then provide the leader with feedback about the impact of their behavior on the team. When I observe a lack of engagement in a leader’s meeting, I interview team members to discover the reasons for their lack of engagement in team meetings. 

My observations have led me to identify a number of behaviors that can hurt a leader’s credibility with their team. I hope by sharing some common ways leaders undermine themselves, you can look for similarities that may be negatively impacting your leadership and make any needed course corrections.

1. “You can tell me anything!”

This statement is made to solicit input or feedback on a particular idea or course of action. However, sometimes leaders will completely discount the idea or opinion offered, especially if it’s something they don’t immediately agree with.  They don’t take the time to honestly consider the proffered information or to understand the reasoning behind it.  I have even observed leaders going so far as to label the idea as “stupid” or completely unacceptable.  Shutting down the conversation so abruptly and negatively will not promote continued sharing of ideas.  Rather, people will be so intimidated they will say little to nothing, or just tell you what they think you want to hear—correct or not.  People will learn that there is a price to be paid for speaking up and may decide it’s just not worth it.

2. Don’t coerce support.

Sometimes in an attempt to win approval for an idea or decision, leaders will say something like, “I need you to support my position today in the meeting. You have to back me up!” Often there’s an implied, “Or else.” Such behavior destroys candor, honesty and team morale. Negative interactions such as these will permeate your environment, and people will end up doing what they are told rather than honestly participating, speaking up and offering ideas.

3. Give up the rescue mission.

Sometimes leaders feel like it is their duty to rescue or excuse the poor performance of certain people. If a leader is on a rescue mission, then they tend to intervene to “save” the same individuals repeatedly. This leads to others interpreting that the leader is playing favorites. While such attempts to help others who are continuously struggling may seem like a nice idea at first, this behavior does not establish clear parameters of responsibility and accountability for the offending party.

In addition to enabling the poor performance of the individual, constant rescuing also signals to others that they don’t matter or their poor performance will also be forgiven. Rescuing a few may lead to a loss of morale, trust and discretionary effort from others.  

4. Solicitation implies action.

When a leader solicits ideas or solutions, it is implied that the leader will do something with the ideas or solutions that are provided. This doesn’t mean that a leader has to implement or take action on every idea that is offered, but it does require that the leader share what they might do and why. This reinforces the importance of contribution and collaboration. To solicit ideas or solutions and then do nothing signals to individuals that their ideas are not important. Do this, and it won’t be long before people quit speaking up or offering ideas.

5. Avoid manipulation.

I have seen leaders ask people for ideas and then use them as evidence that their original idea was the best idea. This ends up feeling like manipulation. If leaders ask for ideas, then they should be open to exploring those ideas. I have often wondered if the act of asking is used as a strategy to create respect. Then, perhaps, the increased respect will lead to the acceptance of the leader’s idea. Rather than soliciting ideas on a decision you’ve already made, it would be better to simply make a command decision, explain the rationale behind the idea and then move on.

6. Make a decision.

I once noticed that a leader I was coaching seemed to go out of his way to avoid making a decision. I confronted him about his inaction and asked him why he was so slow to move forward and commit. He responded with two words: “Plausible deniability.” He explained that his organization did not tolerate mistakes well so, from his perspective, it was better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. By stalling, however, this leader was undermining his leadership credibility through his inaction and causing a loss of respect from both his team and his superiors.

7. Pick the proper place to give feedback.

The proper place to give any kind of negative feedback is in private! Some leaders feel it is appropriate to give negative or critical feedback to a person in front of others. I have had some leaders say that they like giving feedback in this way because it is motivating to others. Such behavior strikes fear into the heart of any conscious team member who learns to dread interactions with them. Sharing negative or critical feedback in front of others is highly disrespectful and does not inspire candor or openness. In fact, it will likely cause people to keep bad news to themselves and hide their mistakes. 

8. Be vulnerable.

Some leaders think that to express their doubts, thoughts or insecurities is a sign of weakness. Consequently, such a leader may be more guarded in their interactions with others. Employees who work with a guarded leader tend to feel disconnected, have a hard time relating to the leader, and may even mistrust them.

When I asked them why they feel this way, they said that, because they don’t know their leader well, they don’t know how she or he will react, leading them to be more hesitant, especially when sharing a difficulty or challenge. While it seems somewhat counterintuitive, showing some vulnerability as a leader will encourage others to be more candid with you, to share questions and concerns, and to feel more connected with you -- allowing you to have greater impact as a leader.

9. Recognize the repercussions of your behavior.

Sometimes I am asked to coach leaders who are oblivious about how their behavior affects others. This presents a real challenge. It is difficult for us to experience ourselves as others do — we all lack a degree of self-awareness. Effective leaders are great at soliciting feedback from others about what they do well and what they could improve. Doing so communicates to others that you are serious about being an effective leader, and you are willing to make changes to do so. 

10. Keep your composure.

There is much to be said for keeping your composure when you are stressed out and everything seems to be going awry. Emotional intelligence is critical to being an effective leader. Losing your temper, calling people names, and using negative emotion to make a point will sabotage your credibility. Once you lose it, people timidly watch for the shoe to drop the next time that things don’t go as planned. They will struggle to trust and respect you. The next time you feel those “hot” emotions bubbling to the surface, remove yourself from the situation if at all possible and figure out how to calmly address the circumstances in a respectful way.

I believe that people are generally well-intended. However, seemingly small behaviors can negatively affect your leadership effectiveness. Take the time to candidly assess your leadership practices and make any needed changes, and you'll go a long way toward increasing your credibility and becoming the type of leader that people will respect and work hard for.


John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.

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How often do you try to meet new people when you travel?

SmartPulse -- our weekly nonscientific reader poll in SmartBrief on Leadership -- tracks feedback from over 240,000 business leaders. We run the poll question each week in our newsletter.

How often do you try to meet new people when you travel?

  • Very: planes, lounges and hotels are great places to meet new people: 18.0%
  • Sometimes: I’ll occasionally make an effort to meet new people: 40.1%
  • Not very: I’d rather keep to myself most of the time: 32.3%
  • Not at all: leave me alone: 9.6%

Networking opportunities abound. Look around you when you travel for work. You’ll notice many people who look like you. They’re business travelers too. Meeting them could create great new opportunities for you in the form of customers, partners, employees or future employers. But you have to make the effort to meet them. There are many examples of great connections to be made while traveling. All it takes to get started is a polite “hello” or a simple offer of assistance. The vast majority of you report that you don’t take these steps to expand your network. You could be missing out on your next big opportunity. Next time you travel, offer a kind greeting and introduce yourself to someone new. At the very worst, it will make the world a friendlier place.

Mike Figliuolo is managing director of thoughtLEADERS. Before launching his own company, he worked at McKinsey & Co., Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He's the author of three leadership books: "One Piece of Paper," "Lead Inside the Box" and "The Elegant Pitch."

Praise your employees: 5 ways to reward and recognize

Studies show that people are far more motivated by positive reinforcement than by the fear of failure, yet many workplace cultures are still buzzing with the daily energy of “just not screwing up.”

If you work in one of these offices, where employees are frequently distracted from the goals of the organization by anxiety about being called out for mistakes, what can you do? The good news is that no matter what level of leadership you currently hold, you can help to create a more positive workplace culture just by adding two words to your routine: Thank you. It seems simple, but praise and recognition are often overlooked by busy professionals focused on the bottom line.

If you want to draw people to you with positivity and motivate your team to strive for greatness, read below about the art of offering up positive recognition in the workplace.

Offer praise one on one

Research shows that employees today, especially millennials, crave one-on-one attention from their managers and superiors, and most feel they don’t get enough. Make sure that the interactions with your team aren’t strictly about corrective feedback -- make time for praise and recognition in a solo setting, too. Give people time to recap and review the success with you, highlighting what went well, and what they learned or would do differently next time. Give them a few minutes to talk about their wins, and congratulate accordingly.

Give praise publicly

Recapping in a one-on-one setting will set you up well when you speak publicly about your team’s accomplishments. Now you have all the details to sell their successes to your superiors, other teams and the organization as a whole. Give praise and recognition to others in multiple forums, making sure that others are seen as trailblazers, innovators and problem-solvers.

Publicly celebrate the achievements and invite the organization to mark their accomplishments. You have to advocate for yourself, too, at the right time, but don’t worry too much about highlighting your own role in most of these public situations. Noting the success of your team will show more positive leadership than taking the credit for yourself. Both those higher up and those high-performers you’d like to attract to your team will remember how you praised others.

Say "thank you"

On my local station, the news anchors, meteorologists and reporters thank each other when handing off from segment to segment. This is a lovely and simple expression of gratitude, and it goes a long way in enforcing a positive culture; don’t become a stereotypical boss who fails to use these critical words merely because the work is “someone’s job.”

The men and women we work with deserve appreciation for a job well done, and “thank you” should be delivered with intention, eye contact and sincerity on a regular basis.

Take a pause

It may seem the most obvious step when providing recognition for a job well done, but so many fail to properly take the time. When a task is finished, big or small, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the work.

Early in my career, I worked for a man who was smart, motivated and funny. He had assembled a great team to realize his vision, but he had a horrible habit of barely acknowledging what you said when you reported to him that a job was done. Invariably, you would get one word -- “great” -- before he would use the same breath to ask you about the start of the next task. It was painfully deflating for his staff, and in the end, no one was motivated to do a job quickly or even do a job well.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be a big production, but it’s critical to take minute to pause and celebrate milestones that have been reached. Teams that have no time at all to enjoy their success will hardly be motivated to chase more. Take a breath before moving on.

Include praise for those outside your team

Don’t forget to note the contributions of those outside your team, or your organization. If a vendor was a key player in your success, say so; if another team was critical in helping you get the job done, be sure to note it. These are your opportunities to spread positivity and goodwill beyond your direct sphere of influence -- don’t miss out.

It might seem like a lot, but really praising others and saying "thank you" probably won’t take you much more energy in the day. Regularly putting a few minutes toward making sure others feel properly acknowledged for their efforts will go a long way to building the positive workplace you envision. Make a plan on how you’re going to work praise into your every day, and before long, raising the visibility of your high-achievers will be a regular habit.


Joel Garfinkle is an executive leadership coach who developed these five steps to help a newly promoted executive who had received a lot of feedback about her lack of employee praise. Garfinkle worked with her to make reward and recognition a sincere and consistent habit in her day-to-day life. He has written seven books, including "How to Be a Great Boss: 7 Qualities That All Great Bosses Have." More than 10,000 people subscribe to his Fulfillment@Work newsletter. If you sign up, you’ll receive the free e-book "41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!"

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Make friends with your dissatisfaction

Dissatisfaction is a key driver of human motivation.

If humans were satisfied with one good meal or one good sexual encounter, the human race would not have survived.

In this regard, dissatisfaction is linked to natural selection, says Robert Wright, author of "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment," while speaking on NPR’s "Fresh Air."

On a personal level, dissatisfaction drives people to push themselves to achieve goals. Consider this more of a personalized natural selection.

Channeling dissatisfaction can be a challenge. Here are three ways to make it work for you rather than against you.

  1. Accept dissatisfaction. Humans are not engineered to be blissful. We have to work to achieve it. Seeking to accept it and make it work for us is powerful.
  2. Channel it. Do something with your dissatisfaction. Feeling stuck in your career, consider acquiring new skills to improve your current lot, or embark in a new direction.
  3. Stoke it. Achieving your goal may take months or years. Big things take time to accomplish, whether it’s going back to school or developing a new skill. You will be tempted to quit. Let dissatisfaction with the current moment push you to keep going in your new direction.

Dissatisfaction is indeed a key driver of human survival. Making it work for us is a challenge that can, at times, be unsatisfying. However, in the end, using our temporary discomfort to achieve a chosen goal is very worthy.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, Inc.com named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. Global Gurus ranked him No. 22 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including his newest, “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.”

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This Leadership Asset Is the Key to Building a Team of Peak Performers

Craft masterful language to catalyze the champion qualities within it.

Accentuate the positive!

Today’s managers shoulder the significant responsibility of delivering individual and organizational performance, and doing so in a fast-changing environment.

For many, accomplishing this mission involves sophisticated monitoring systems that provide real-time data about how results are tracking against goals, with a focus typically upon when the mark is being missed. Many leaders have become masters at minding the gap, evaluating the delta and assessing the shortfall. They then develop improvement plans, take corrective action and offer constructive feedback to those involved. Sound familiar?

In most organizations, considerable energy and attention are invested in what’s off track as opposed to what’s working well. Perhaps it’s time to turn this upside down and heed the advice of the old 1940s song “Accentuate the Positive”:

“You've got to accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative …” ~ Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (1944)

According to research conducted by Gallup, only one out of three US-based workers strongly agrees that he or she received recognition or praise for doing good work over the past week. And it’s understandable. Given the time-starved world in which we live, today’s leaders must prioritize their efforts, knowing that they’ll likely never get everything done. Problems or "squeaky wheels" demand immediate attention; quiet, solid performance routinely goes unnoticed.

And all of this represents a significant and costly missed opportunity for managers and organizations alike. Affirming and appreciating employees cost literally nothing and research suggests that they offer a range of benefits, including:

  • Reduced stress and improved physical wellbeing
  • Heightened cognitive functioning
  • Enhanced decision-making, problem solving, and innovation
  • Greater trust, connections and bonds among people
  • Higher levels of engagement and retention

Affirmation and appreciation don’t just benefit the employee. They also benefit the leader. Research suggests that shifting one’s focus toward gratitude can improve the health and well-being of the giver. Simply giving what’s working equal air time changes the experience of supervision, infusing greater positivity, optimism and energy into the manager’s experience at work.

In his book "Extraordinary Influence: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others," Tim Irwin explains, “The word affirmation originates from the Latin affirmationem, which means to make steady, to confirm, and to strengthen.” Affirmation and appreciation let people know they’re on the right track and help to build focus, capacity and resilience for the future.

You likely already know the fundamentals:

  • What: It’s nothing more than a simple, authentic expression of appreciation for what a person has done and/or who he/she is.
  • Where: In private offers a more intimate, personal setting but public expressions can amplify the message while also communicating to others what you value.
  • When: As soon as possible after the contribution or episode, but don’t skip affirmation just because time has passed. This is one of those "better late than never" things.
  • How: Verbally -- in person or by phone -- is great; in writing provides a lasting record that people will look back on for motivation. In either case, personalizing it to the individual is key.

Highly effective leaders take these fundamentals to the next level with strategies that personalize the recognition, keeping it fresh and meaningful. Try one (or all) of these appreciation amplifiers.

Talk ‘em up. Offering expressions of affirmation directly to the individual involved is powerful. And you can build upon this by bragging about them to others. (This might be the only positive way to talk behind someone’s back!) Sharing your appreciation with others is sure to get back to the individual and reflect positively upon you as well.

Time tells. In the words of Tom Peters, "Your calendar never lies." Investing time and attention communicates powerfully about what’s important to you.

How do you spend the bulk of your day? What might happen if you redeployed just a small portion of that time toward connecting with those who are performing well? This doesn’t just send a message to them and your whole group. It also offers an opportunity for you to expand your understanding of what’s working and best practices that might benefit the rest of the team and, perhaps, the organization as a whole.

Lend your support. Words are powerful. But actions speak even louder than words. People feel deeply appreciated and affirmed when your words are backed up with support for what matters most to them. Resources. Tools. Roadblock removal. These sorts of tangible demonstrations of support buoy spirits and performance.

Identify the intangibles. Movie tickets and money are nice, but the half-life of such delight can be quite short. Instead, draw upon what you know matters most to these people and identify something that might be less tangible but more meaningful: A day to work from home. Time off. Visibility. Responsibility. Whatever it is, the intangible can be invaluable.

Want to optimize performance?  Continue this timeless and musical advice: “Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative.”


Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.

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What would you do if you knew your why?

When I knew that I would be moving on from my role of school headmaster five years ago, I considered two primary pathways forward.

One was another school leadership position. The other was to become a leadership coach and consultant. A variety of factors would point me in the latter direction, which I have been traveling on for the past five years. But this was only possible due to my willingness to open up to new possibilities and not allow myself to become stuck along the one path that I had come to know so well.

In their timeless presentation on the perils of leadership ("Leadership on the Line," HBR Press, 2002) authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky caution leaders to worry less about the form of their work and focus instead on the substance or essence of their contribution. We tend to come to think of ourselves by the form of what we do (“I am a mayor”, “I am a business executive”, “I am a professional athlete”, etc.) and struggle to make sense of things when our positions and status change, voluntarily or not.

Suddenly, the stay-at-home mom with an empty nest, the nonprofit leader who had not been renewed, the politician on the wrong side of an election, the retired technician or the laid-off laborer find themselves disoriented, with a reduced sense of purpose and unclear direction.

Without question, such periods can be difficult and confusing, particularly when they occur suddenly and are imposed upon us. But when a person chooses to identify first by who they are as people and what motivates them in the service of others, they can more easily and confidently move forward.

In my case, this meant focusing on my desire to coach clients to use their skills for the betterment of others around them. While my inner craving to teach and lead certainly could have found expression in a different school leadership position, I chose an alternative and exciting new path to bring these values to life -- a path that also offered me more freedom, control and the capacity to broaden my impact.

For others, their newfound focus on essence may also take them in a different direction. Stories abound of people who left the corporate world and started new lives and businesses around their passions (such as healthy living, the great outdoors, podcasting, blogging and much more) and of retirees who chose to use their golden years to better the world through love and service. The key is to focus less on what you have been and more on what you want to become, give and share. There is never a shortage of ways in which to serve.

Knowing your why

In addition to “substance” and “essence," this concept of focusing inward to identify our deepest beliefs and passions is often referred to as “knowing you why.” Leadership expert Simon Sinek says that it’s not enough to know what you do and how you do it. At our essence, we are most motivated by knowing why we do things. And it’s through that awareness that we can best connect with and sell to others.

While the exercise of knowing one’s why can demand some real inner work, there are some shortcuts to connecting more with one’s essence. Think about the causes and opportunities around you that speak to you. Perhaps you want to get more involved in a local nonprofit or become a corporate trainer who can leverage experiences in a way that helps people grow and develop. Maybe you have had this inner pull towards maintaining a garden and want to bring such awareness and opportunities to others.

Whatever it is, think about how you can serve and start to take steps towards that end. It will be transformative.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to do this before things go sideways on you. No matter where you are in life or how secure your future feels, start to identify opportunities for service and self-fulfillment. These opportunities will bring you joy and purpose long before you think you need them, and they will make your life and interactions that much more fulfilling.   


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new e-book, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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Rob Reiner: “Every movie is a startup”

Rob Reiner stopped by the SmartBrief office in Washington, D.C., on Monday to discuss producing and directing movies, the creation of Castle Rock, and his newest project, “Shock and Awe" (a DirecTV exclusive from June 14 to July 11, in theaters July 13).

The film explores the efforts of Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief John Walcott, played by Reiner, and his reporters before the 2003 Iraq War as they questioned the true nature of the Bush White House’s justification for the invasion. Walcott, now at Reuters, has also served as chief content officer and editor-in-chief at SmartBrief.

While Reiner is well known for his many television  ("All in the Family") and movie roles ("This is Spinal Tap"), he has also been a successful director and producer for decades.

SmartBrief CEO and President Rick Stamberger spoke with Reiner about his role as a business leader in a highly competitive industry. Excerpts of that discussion follow.

Why make "Shock and Awe"?

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

RICK STAMBERGER: I asked John [Walcott], “Why should a conservative Republican watch this film?”

ROB REINER: What was his answer?

Because nobody should go into war lightly. And they ought to go out to Section 60 Arlington [Cemetery] and see the cost --

There’s a line in the movie that I say, playing John, and that John actually in fact said to his journalists, right there at the newsroom. They had been watching this “Meet The Press” show in which Dick Cheney was giving the rationale for the war to Tim Russert, and the main journalists Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel were starting to question their reporting, wondering, were they getting it right? And John gives this incredible speech, which he actually gave and we wrote it.

But the line’s that’s the most important and the line that really resonates not only then but now is, “If the government says something, you have only one question to ask: Is it true?”

And that is the job of the journalist, to find the truth. Because unless we inform the public as to what is true and what is not, we cannot hold our elected officials accountable for the policies that they might put in place that could cause people to meet with their deaths. Especially when it comes to life and death, you really have to hold public officials accountable. That’s what the movie’s about.

Leadership lessons from film-making

You did “A Few Good Men,” which was also, I think, a leadership and moral lesson. Thinking of yourself as a businessperson, you’ve watched this film. What’s the message out of this?

I think the message is the American public not having the truth can be extremely costly. And even on a business level, if you don’t have something that is a truthful product in some way, you may have short-term gains but, ultimately, you’ll have big losses if you don’t put out something that’s based on honest research, honest performance, and so on. And I think that’s what this is about. It’s about telling people the truth so that we can have better-informed lives and less costly, in terms of life, blood and treasure.

And, when you looked at and heard what was going on with the leadership of Knight Ridder during this time period, what’s your take on that situation?

Tony Ridder, what I heard from John, was that he said, “Go get ‘em.” He trusted John, that John was gonna do the right thing, and he gave him full support, and that’s great leadership.

The reason I started Castle Rock with my partners was because -- again, when you’re starting up a new company, you have to find something that you’re gonna do that nobody else can do.

And so our thought, and the reason we had the lighthouse as our logo, was we wanted to send a beacon out to artists, filmmakers, creative people, that this was a safe place to come. That studios are cookie-cutter, they’re a certain kind of mentality, but if you wanted to come to our company, we were gonna respect you, we were gonna allow you to do what you do, we were not gonna be intrusive. Just like Tony Ridder did with John Walcott, saying, “OK, you can do your thing. I’m hiring you to do your thing.” And that’s why we did it.

I did it for selfish reasons because I didn’t have a place that I felt I could go to do the kinds of work that I wanted to do. So, in a weird way, it was like protecting myself.

You had what, a couple hundred people on set [for “Shock and Awe”]?

No, no, that you would have on a big, big set. I don’t know what we had, 75, 80, something like that.

That’s still a good number of folks.

[Editor's note: Rob's wife, Michele Reiner, joins in here.]

Michele: He runs a very congenial, relaxed, very nice set.

You’ve been elsewhere to see other experiences, or you’ve heard, certainly, of others.

Michele: Yeah, and heard about a lot of other directors. And he’s just basically a really -- and I’m not just saying that because he’s my husband --  he’s a very nice guy. … And he tries to make the hours not grueling, and people love working for him because he doesn’t go over time, he doesn’t do a million takes, and he just knows what he wants and he gets it.

Rob: I want to hire people where I walk into work and I go, “Hey, there’s that guy! I like that guy.” Or, “There’s that woman, I love her,” or whatever. The other thing that I’ve learned that, if you create a good atmosphere, and it makes it good for everyone, it’s gonna be better for me!

On managing "stars"

It is a testament to you that you get a cast like the one in this movie, and you’ve done it before. [in jest] I can tell, you’re shy, reserved, it’s kinda hard for you to be infectious about anything. How do you get a Tommy Lee Jones? How do you get a Jack Nicholson?

I think the actors, the first thing they want is the script is something that -- if they’re of a certain caliber -- they want to be part of something that is of value. That has some kind of artistic value that will become part of the cultural tapestry and that they can be part of that. And there’s a part for them to play and they feel they can play it.

Secondly, they look to see a director that they respect and they feel is going to realize that script in a way that they’ll feel good about it. And, so, as time goes by and they see certain things I’ve done. It’s like, when Martin Scorsese -- I did a part in “Wolf of Wall Street” -- when he says he’d like you do be in the movie, you just say, where do I show up? Because you know he’s gonna do something of value, something that’s interesting and of value and you want to be part of it.

I’m lucky in that I made some things that people like and then they say, OK I want to be part of it.

And these guys and women are not exactly shy and retiring violets. The entire management of creative stars is its own subtopic for leadership.

It is. It’s well-known that actors have big egos. But if they have a respect for the work, the script, and they have a respect for the director, people tend to park the egos at the door and say, OK, we’re all in this together for this common good. And it’s rare, I mean, I do see it, I’ve seen it where people will act out. But what I find is that people will act out if they feel that the daddy or the mommy -- whoever the director is -- is wavering, is not sure. Then they’ll start acting out because then they don't feel secure.

What I tell a lot of first-time directors is, even if you don’t know what you want, say, “OK, we’re gonna do this.” Make a decision and do it, and then as you’re doing it, you may say, “Ooh, that was wrong. You know, wait a minute, we’re gonna do this,” so that at least they always feel that you are in control and you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t know sometimes.

Act as if.

And then you figure out what the right thing is. But give them a sense of confidence that you’re on top and you know what you’re doing.

Stamberger and Reiner
SmartBrief CEO Rick Stamberger and Rob Reiner (Joe Webster/SmartBrief)

On TV and movie production as an entrepreneurial activity

You’re an entrepreneur. I said this to John [Walcott] over the weekend, every time you’re putting a movie together, you’re going through the steps of starting a business.

Every movie is a startup.

And you’re actively involved in the whole experience of running the set, and the culture around that, and hiring.

Every movie’s a startup. And unless you’re in the studio business of franchise, they’re all new.

And the math on that, if you’re producing films, there’s a certain economics on that.

The economics on producing films is whatever profits -- you’re putting out production costs, you’re putting out marketing costs, you’re putting out publicity costs, and then whatever revenues you’re gonna get from, at that time, the theaters. At that time, there was DVDs -- not so much now -- and foreign sales, and all of that, and then whatever would come in, that would then cover.

Now, television’s different. In television, you’re producing all these television shows, and at that time you would be a deficit financer. In other words, you get a license fee from any one of the networks, and then if you ran over, you provide the deficit. And, as a deficit financer, you’d own the show, basically. Now, networks are allowed to own their own shows. But in those days, you owned the show.

So, we owned “Seinfeld,” so that was a good thing.

Everybody thinks you start a company, and it’s a home run and it’s automatic. But last night, I was watching the Tonys, and said, “You see those people who are coming up behind? Those are the investors.” And, I was sitting with a friend, and he said, “Why are they there?” And I said, “Because the likelihood of a success on Broadway is tiny. They want their moment in the sun.”

If it’s a new project, yes. ... for any kind of new project, it’s scary.

And I would think the same’s the case for film.

Without question, without question. What I say to people who want to be in the film business is, you should want to be in it for other reasons than to make money. I don't know now, but there was a profit margin of like 3%, which is not a business. But, if you own a studio, a huge library, you have an asset, and you’re building an asset. You may not have, on an ongoing basis, you may not have great returns, but you’re building the asset. It’s like owning a sports team. And so you’re adding value to the asset by putting new material into the library.

On the challenges of financing a movie

So in this movie, you decided you wanted to do this, and you figured out, here’s the angle. And, my understanding was it was a little challenging getting the financing on this. Is that correct?

It’s always challenging when you’re independently financing, because you start out with no distributor, so you’re cobbling together pots of money from different places --

You’re selling a vision, basically.

Yeah, and many times you’ll do foreign presales. You’ll hire a foreign sales agent. They’ll give you guarantees based on what they think they can sell in foreign presales, and then you can bank like 75% of those foreign sales towards production costs, and so on. So you cobble together all this stuff.

Now, luckily for us, we had a relationship with Matt George, who was one of the financiers of the picture I did before about LBJ. We had a good relationship and a good experience there, so we were able to put together a similar kind of package for “Shock and Awe.”

Michele [Reiner] and I, there was a shortfall as we were heading toward production … when we put up some of our own personal money. And they tell you never, ever, ever, ever put your own money into your own films.

That’s what they tell entrepreneurs.

But to me, it’s like you have to accept the idea that every penny you’re gonna put in is never gonna come back. A lot of things that we do -- we do political things, we’ve done many things over the years -- we do put a lot of own money into those things because we think there’s value, that there’s value beyond whatever artistic, intrinsic value. There is societal value on some level.

And we felt that way. We said OK, we want to tell this story because it’s important in this day and age. And the election actually was going on while we were making the film … so we saw what was happening there, and it became all the more prescient and resonate.


SmartBrief publishes more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, including those covering leadership, satellite broadcasting, and cable industry marketing.

Bring the power of progress into your one-to-one meetings

Acknowledging team success via a “Friday Wins Meeting” like this one at content marketing tech firm Percolate has become standard practice at many companies. Many teams also informally share wins at their daily huddle meetings.

There’s something exciting about celebrating a win with members of your team that can start the day off right, or wrap up an especially busy week.

Beyond the momentary buzz that celebration provides, focus on success aids in a broader goal: enhanced performance.The late social psychologist Kathryn Cramer coined the phrase “Asset-Based Thinking” in which she encouraged people to focus on what’s going right in their world, rather than focusing solely on problems that need fixing. When leaders shine the light on what’s working, it opens up the potential for even bigger gains.

In addition to group settings, there’s another way you can use the idea of “wins” in your leadership role: during one-to-one meetings. Here’s an example from my home life. Every Sunday night, I check in with my 17-year-old son, who will soon start the college application process. We review the week’s progress and set goals for the upcoming week. At the start of each meeting, he lists three wins (he defines what constitutes a “win") for his week and we talk about it.

This process works well because:

  • It starts the meeting on a positive note
  • Incremental success is recognized, which maintains momentum as he works towards larger goals
  • He decides what serves as a win; therefore it’s more meaningful to him
  • It’s part of an established process that perpetuates framing of activities in terms of success
  • Although he dislikes public praise, my introverted son is comfortable sharing his wins in a one-to-one setting

Although I stumbled into this “wins” process on my own, it turns out that research backs up my hunch that a positive focus aids in goal achievement. In the Harvard Business Review article "The Power of Small Wins," researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer describe the “progress principle” — the human desire to feel that one is making progress on work that matters.

 “Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how [workers] feel and perform,” the authors write. Leaders who act as “nourishers” providing respect, encouragement and recognition are those best poised to help their team members capitalize on their daily (or weekly) wins.

If your one-to-one meetings with staffers have become bogged down in detailed status updates and problem-solving, consider changing up the agenda. Ask your team members to start the next meeting with a list of two or three wins. Listen carefully and without judgement. Assure them that you aren’t looking for huge, blue ribbon achievements. If you continue this process for a while, you’ll discover precisely what each of your employees finds worthy and rewarding.

As Amabile and Stevens point out, their progress principle only works if people feel that their work is meaningful. Luckily, “meaningful” doesn’t have to be “life-altering.”

"Meaning can be as simple as making a useful and high-quality product for a customer or providing a genuine service for a community,” they explain.

As a leader, it’s up to you to help connect the dots between team members’ wins and the value their work provides to your company and customers. In the process, not only will your team members experience satisfaction, their output will improve as well. And that’s progress everyone can feel good about.


Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Read more about leadership and AI on her blog The People Equation from the post, "7 Reasons Leaders Should Focus on Developing Employee Soft Skills."

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