A conversation with Maria Giudice. Founder, Executive Leadership Coach at Hot Studio, and Co-author of Rise of the DEO
“Transitions are scary. Change is scary. So depending on the context, it could be a good thing, it could be a bad thing. And all of that can activate our fear response and our grief response. So there’s a lot of neuroscience theory and brain science theory around transitions and change that we can talk about. But I think for me personally, I always feel like I step into the light. I’m very curious. I’m very curious, and I very much try to stay aware of those moments in life that can become lightning rods to go somewhere different. I’m a “yes and” person. So because I’m so curious and I’m really obsessed with continuous learning, if I trust the universe and I trust my intuition, it has led me in places that I have never anticipated.” – Maria Giudice
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Maria Giudice about her decades of experience leading design, creative, and business leaders. She begins with reflections on how a Professor reframed her perspective on design and its value to others. Later, Maria shares her thoughts on transition and how to approach it best. We also discuss one of Maria’s learning experiences leading design initiatives at a large software company in detail. Listen in for tips on how to keep making progress even during failure.
[1:50] How Maria Got Her Start In The Design World
[16:42] Stepping Into The Light
[27:45] How To Defuse Tense Meetings
[36:00] Post Trauma Growth
[43:25] Leaning Into Progress
Links | Resources
Maria on LinkedIn
Maria on Twitter
Maria on Instagram
Maria on Facebook
Change Makers By Design Book
Hot Studio Website
About the Guest
For three decades, creative teams and business leaders have sought the provocative vision and mentorship of Maria Giudice. After founding the pioneering experience design firm Hot Studio and leading global teams at Facebook and Autodesk, Maria’s mission today is to build the next generation of creative leaders. Through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, and team-building workshops, Maria unlocks the potential hidden in executives and the people they lead. A popular speaker at design and business conferences, Maria is also the author of four design books, including “Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design,” and, most recently “Changemakers: How Leaders Can Design Change in an Insanely Complex World.”
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control the Room Facilitation Lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab.
If you’d like to learn more about my book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings quick start guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at magicalmeetings.com.
Today I’m with Maria Giudice, a popular speaker and coach, unlocking in potential and executives and the people they lead. She’s also the co-author of her latest book, Changemakers: How Leaders Can Design Change in an Insanely Complex World. Welcome to the show, Maria.
Maria: I am so happy to be here, Douglas.
Douglas: I’m thrilled as well. And I got to say, I was totally honored and beside myself when Sonny Brown told me that she was reviewing a book and I was mentioned in it and I was like, “Wow, someone noticed the book.” So that’s super cool. And then getting a chance to look over the book and get excited about it coming out. And by the time listeners hear this, it’ll be out. And so super thrilled to be with you and talk about it today.
Maria: Yeah, I’m so passionate about this topic and so I can’t wait to talk to you about it.
Douglas: Excellent. Well, before we get into the book and all of the details of change, let’s hear a little bit about how you got your start. How do you even get to this place of writing books and helping design leaders become awesome?
Maria: Yeah. Well, I’m almost 60 years old, so that could be the podcast all into itself, just to let you know, but I’ll try to synthesize it as much as possible. So first of all, I grew up in New York City. I was born in Brooklyn and lived in Staten Island. And as far as I could remember, I wanted to be a famous artist. Really, at a very young age, I started painting, I started painting when I was eight years old. And I’d had an uncle who’s, in certain circles, is a well-known painter, his name is Frank Rizzetta. And I just had this dream that I was going to be a famous artist, so then I took the path and went to art school. And while I was in art school, I was studying painting plus sculpture, plus photography, and then I started taking graphic design classes.
But I really struggled with the concept and the notion of graphic design when I was in art school because it just felt so formulaic. It felt like, “Okay, I got to pick a good font, I got to pick a good picture, add a lot of white space, slap it together, call it a day.” It just felt really empty to me. And when I was in my senior year of college, I was taking a class and there was a guest speaker named Richard Saul Wurman. And first of all, he didn’t look anything like what a typical designer looked like at the time. And he walked in and he looked at our class of young designers and he said something to the effect of, you are all full of shit. And it was like mic drop for me. It was like, “Who is this man? I’m in love with him.”
He said something to the effect that design isn’t about you, it isn’t about decoration. Design is about helping people make sense of the world. That was that lightning bolt moment for me where I really understood that design was about being in service to others. And that idea of using your creative capabilities to be in service to others, has really been the through line throughout my entire professional career. It really has been my guiding North star with everything that I’ve done in life.
And so I worked for him right out of school, worked for him in New York, designing guidebooks. And while I was working for him in New York, he got the gig to redesign the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages, which is in California. And so I thought, “Oh, I could go out to California for a couple of months.” And it was road trip kind of feeling. And I thought that the project was really interesting because think about it. You remember having Yellow Pages growing up?
Douglas: Oh yeah.
Maria: They don’t exist anymore. So a lot of the young people who are listening right now are going to be like, “What is this?” But it was the only thing that connected people and communities together at the time. It was this book that every human being gets delivered once a year on their doorstep that contains information about your community and the people who live in that community. And I consider the Yellow Pages sort of the first version of the internet. And I thought it was a fascinating problem to solve, how do you reimagine something that everybody has? The constraints are enormous, but the benefits can be incredible. I say I accidentally moved to California to work on the Yellow Pages, and this was late eighties.
And then shortly thereafter, suddenly, Macintosh computers appeared on everybody’s desktop, and basically it was like, “Okay, go figure this out.” And so it was one of those seminal moments where everybody was a pioneer. It’s like, “What is this tool and how does it connect and relate to what I do for a living?” And it was just this amazing pioneering time because nobody had the context or a clear understanding. It was a democratic playing field of really trying to discover how to use PageMaker and Illustrator and Photoshop eventually, 1.0 versions and using just two fonts and just really rudimentary software to create beautiful design work.
And that was the first like, “Oh wow, I really love this intersection between design and technology.” And I was really fascinated about the promise of technology. And then I left… I’m going to jump ahead. I left The Understanding Business, that’s what it was called, went traveling for a couple of months, came back, started freelancing. I just basically kept getting busier and busier, so I started hiring people. So the next thing you know, I was leading an organization.
And then eventually that turned into Hot Studio. 15, 20 years later, it was a large interaction design studio that had everybody from business strategists to engineers. And in 2013, I sold that company to Facebook when I turned 50 years old, which was one of the largest acquisitions that was done to date of a design studio to a technology company. And I worked at Facebook for two years. I learned a lot. It was hard. And then shortly thereafter, I went to Autodesk to be VP of Design, really helping the company become more human-centered in its approach and methodologies. So that’s the quick cliff notes of a lot of years.
Douglas: I want to come back to something that you shared in the beginning around when you were visited at school and had this epiphany that design was about being in service of others. And I think that’s a really pure way to describe what so many miss about the term, human-centered design. I think people hear it and they think that it’s tools and techniques and ways of showing up, but they miss the underlying driver, which is really, we need to be in service of others. And that could be customers or it could be coworkers, it could be other people in the organization, partners. And so I don’t know, I just want to underscore how profoundly important that is and people miss it.
Maria: Yeah. No, I totally agree. And even like, “Oh, we’re going to…” Fast forward to my current life where I’m an executive leadership coach, you can see the through line of my career. First I was designing guidebooks, the Yellow Pages, talk about creating something that’s in service to everybody. Then creating a design studio, building a culture, working with and for clients to create things that are going to help their customers, supporting employees and making sure that they have an excellent quality of life and that they’re motivated to continue to make great things in the world.
And then my corporate experiences, and then now as a coach, it’s almost like a pure purpose, which is to help motivate and bring out the best in individuals and groups. So it’s really this underlying purpose in life was to be in service to others. Oh, and I’ll just leave this here, I’m also an applied Shamanic counselor. So not only do I help people from the outside, but I can help them from the inside as well. But the through line is about being in service.
Douglas: Yeah. And firm believer that it’s really impossible to help an organization, help a team, help others, if we haven’t taken care of ourself first. It’s put on your oxygen mask first. Also, as I’m hearing the story, it makes me think about how you’ve lived so much change, learning the formulaic approach that was distilled down and generalized and almost commoditized, and then being shown another path that can be in service to others, and then getting into building a large agency and selling it, and then moving into enterprise and leadership and now coaching. So lots of transitions for you personally. How much does that influence you as you think about change and helping others synthesize their own change?
Maria: That’s such a great point, and I love what you said about transitions because that’s what it all is. And transitions are scary. Change is scary. So depending on the context, it could be a good thing, it could be a bad thing. And all of that can activate our fear response and our grief response. So there’s a lot of neuroscience theory and brain science theory around transitions and change that we can talk about. But I think for me personally, I always feel like I step into the light. I’m very curious. I’m very curious and I very much try to stay aware of those moments in life that can become lightning rods to go somewhere different. I’m a “yes and” person. So because I’m so curious and I’m really obsessed with continuous learning, if I trust the universe and I trust my intuition, it has led me in places that I have never anticipated.
Who would think that a girl from Staten Island, New York would become a shaman? That is… I’m shocked that I even gone down that path, myself. But I wound up going down that path because I was following my curiosity, I was following… I was looking for… I wouldn’t say looking, I was just curious about, “Oh, how does X connect to Y, and how does Y get you to Z?” And when I coach people, so much about our ego and our careers, we keep thinking that we have to follow a ladder. You start out as a junior designer, you move to a senior designer, then you have to do this path. You have to say, “Oh, I have to become a manager because otherwise I’m not going to make the money, or I’m not going to go up the ladder.”
So a lot of people go into management even though it’s not really what they’re passionate about doing. And then they jump into director and then they VP and the CDO, if you’re really lucky and you’re at that point in your career. The problem with that, it’s this linear expectation of growth that we have. And the word “should” becomes really important in our lives. “Oh, I should be doing this. I should be making this much money. I should have this job title.” And people go up the ladder and you can get there and you can be very successful and you can be very happy, but you could also be very unhappy and still have everything and the money and the title.
And the problem with that is people lose sight of what’s really important to them and what their naturally inclined to do and what their natural sense of purpose could be in life. And if you can get back to basics and help people figure out what is the thing that lights them up, what is the thing that you do where you completely lose track of time that doesn’t feel like work? Why are you on this planet? Why do you think you were put on this planet, for what purpose in life? These real probing questions. And if you put that in the center of a mind map and you start there and you go out… Classic mind map exercise, right? It’s like a ray of sunshine. You start with what’s in the center and then it leads you to these other connections.
If you start looking at it that way, you might surprise yourself that you might be happier in a completely different job, doing something completely different that brings you joy. And so that really excites me to help people find that and to help them overcome their inner critic voice that is always telling them that they should be doing something else based on their position in life. And yeah, it’s just really powerful stuff. But all of the things that I’m telling you right now are really hard to do. We have a very strong inner critic that can dictate or send us down pathways in life that aren’t necessarily the best pathways for us.
Douglas: I think there’s a couple of forces at play. There’s the inner critic plus there’s just this flow of momentum that’s happening. There’s expectations with inside organizations and industries and people expect you to do things. I bet there’s numerous consultants out there that are on the speaking circuit and hate speaking and they’re just doing it because ’cause they’re supposed to do it or whatever. Yeah, exactly.
Maria: They should. Right? Yeah. This is what I should be doing right now.
Douglas: 100%. It’s like, “I’m following the playbook.”
I was thinking about your use of the word “rays of sun” and emanating from the center of this mind map that you’re describing to us. And it brings me back to your comment earlier about you stepping into the light. And so I’m sure that’s not a coincidence that you use that metaphor twice. And I think that curiosity is so key and it’s one of the things that we often are looking to imbibe and in our trainings and when we’re bringing people together to try to pull that curiosity out and how can we be appreciative of what’s been successful? Because it’s so easy to… With all the change that’s happening and all the loss and sacrifice associated with change, it’s so easy to just get worn down. And so there’s a lot of stuff we can’t control, but what we can control is the moment and what we’re seeing and the path that… What light do we lean into?
Maria: Yeah, yeah. A lot of us, including me, we have lived in the future. We’re always thinking about the future and where we should be, again, should come back, that a lot of times we have to really get present and stay in the moment and see what’s there. And that has something that I have been really working hard on doing for myself over the last couple of years. It’s so hard for me to stay in the present.
But I work on it every day and I meditate every day to force myself to start in the present moment. But you talked about curiosity and one of the things I have talked about, starting with my third book, Rise of the DEO, I talked about that designers have these inherent superpowers, these incredible superpowers, that when they apply it to the business context, they can make incredible things happen in the world. And it’s not just designers, it’s people who embrace their own creativity, because we’re all born creative.
So when I say anybody could be a designer, in the abstract context, we could all think designers. And when we think about these superpowers that designers have, being a natural change agent, the whole definition of design is to change something, so it’s in us. Then there’s risk, being intuitive and analytical, being a systems thinker, being incredibly people-centered, and finally getting shit done. These are things that we are trained to do as designers. And when you take those out, and curiosity is part of that, it’s part of the creativity process. When we take out those qualities and we apply them into business, you can make incredible things happen not only for products, but the people that you serve and the people that you work with.
And one of the classic mistakes, talking about changemakers, I think one of the classic mistakes we tend to make when we are applying design strategy to changemaking is designers are so focused on serving the customer that we often forget that we are working with collaborators and stakeholders. So because we are inherently, we love to change, we will run into the light. Like you said, like I said, you run into the light because you love to see change happen. We often forget about, how do we become compassionate and empathetic to our coworkers and stakeholders who may or may not believe in the change that you believe in? This is the classic mistake that changemakers make, and designers make in general.
Douglas: Absolutely. I think there’s two things there. One is the classic, as a CTO and having to coach developers to work better with designers and designers to work better with developers. Early in my career, the classic example is where the designer’s so obsessed with delivering value to the customer that the laws of physics just aren’t relevant. They’re like, “It doesn’t matter that it is incapable of doing this, we have to serve the customer in this way.” And I think that’s an example of what you’re talking about, being empathetic to the fact that the developers have constraints they have to work with and it’s not because they’re trying to be difficult. I mean some are, but just understanding that there’s sacrifice that people are having to make and change and there’s work that people have to do. And just honoring that and just being attuned to it, it’s really important.
Maria: Well, you said, and even if the developer, who’s your coworker, is difficult, this is one of the things that I’ve learned from doing this book, Changemakers, is if they’re difficult, you have to ask yourself why are they being difficult? What are they afraid of? And this is one of the classic mistakes I made when I was VP of design at Autodesk. When I was the VP of design at Autodesk, I was so passionate and so fired up to change a 35 year old engineering led culture into becoming a human-centered design company. That was the thing that I was so driven to do and I was so passionate and I had all these initiatives, but I didn’t pay attention enough to people who did not believe in the same ideology that I believed in. I didn’t pay attention to the people and organizations that have been there for years and years and years who are tired of people like me coming in and saying, “We’re going to change everything.”I didn’t pay attention to stakeholders who had competing priorities.
So I made all of these mistakes. And again, I’m a senior person. I have been in the design industry for about 40 years and… 35 years. I don’t want to make myself too old. But it’s been a long run. I have seen a lot, I have lots of wisdom, I have lots of experience. And yet I went into an organization and made these rookie mistakes, not being compassionate or empathetic around the conditions to which I’m working in, with the coworkers and the stakeholders and the entire environment. And I think it’s so ironic, because I started off telling you design as being about in service to others, but we make that classic mistake that we think, “Oh, we are serving our customers.”
Maria: And so when we talk about change, in a lot of ways, change starts with us. Change starts with our own self-realization and actualization and how we show up. And when we show up, are we showing up where people… Are we showing up as our best selves? Or are we showing up as our worst selves? If we’re showing up as our best selves, we’re going to be open-minded and curious and empathetic and open to other people’s ideas. If we show up threatened, we’re going to be an entirely different person. When we show up threatened, people mirror those emotions and so they become threatened. So it’s like these two threatening people trying to get things done instead of these two people who are open to what’s possible. So there’s all of these things that I’ve learned along the way from my experiences that I’ve put into this new book that I’m working on.
Douglas: It reminds me of one of our maxims, which is inquiry over advocacy. And when folks are in a mode, because clearly empathy is a word that gets thrown around a lot and it’s easy to say, “Let’s be empathetic with our coworkers.” But if we just take that one maxim and apply it to our coworkers, and let’s go in with an inquiry mindset versus a advocacy. Let’s not just advocate for what the customer needs, let’s inquire about what it means to do some of the things that we’re considering that the customer might need. And then that way we learn, we start to understand some of the constraints, and that way we can find a solution that’s more integrated because advocacy tends to be a either/or scenario, and we get into this contentious conversation versus an expansive one.
Maria: That’s absolutely right. And it’s one of my tricks, actually, that I’ve learned also, is when you feel threatened, start asking questions. So there was this story in the book from Sarah Brooks, who worked at the Department of Veteran Affairs. She was a Obama’s Presidential Innovation Fellow, and she found herself at the VA. Again, we are all these gung ho young people who are going to go in and change these big organizations. And she did all the things you’re supposed to do. She was getting ready for a big presentation. She shared the presentation ahead of time. She went into a meeting thinking that people were on board with whatever she was going to present. She followed all the steps that you do.
So she walks into this meeting and she gets sabotaged. And I think we all have this story in our careers where you actually go into a presentation thinking that it’s going to be fine and suddenly there’s somebody in the room who is going to just tear you apart. And she called it the pinata party, which I absolutely love because yeah, I’ve been there, where you go into a presentation thinking, “This isn’t going to be contentious. I’ve done all the logical things. How could anybody not see the objective logic that I used to apply and get to my conclusions?” And you suddenly get attacked. And then what do you do?
We tend to… Our response is fight, flight, or freeze. We get threatened, like animals, and it’s one of those three things. And again, our worst self shows up and then we try to defend ourselves in some context. And I had a coworker at Autodesk who gave me this incredible advice. When you are in a meeting like that, when you are in a pinata party, the best thing you can do is take a breath and start asking questions. And when you ask questions, you will diffuse the temperature in the room. So that is a trick. You get curious.
Douglas: Yeah, it validates them. If you try to explain yourself, it sends a signal that you’re invalidating what they have to say.
Maria: Yeah. It’s like when you are threatened, and like I said, there’s mirror neurons that go on. When you show up energetically threatened, people pick up that and then they get threatened and then their fight, flight, or freeze response will happen. And so everybody shuts down and you can’t make progress because you’re in a closed mindset. You’re in a protection frame of mind.
Douglas: Wow. Yeah. That’s super powerful technique. And unfortunately people don’t have a lot of opportunities to practice it because those moments come at you when you least expect them.
Maria: Yeah. So that is one of those tricks, which is, if you find yourself scared or threatened and you’re in a situation like that, ask a question.
Douglas: So I want to come back to how you got to the place of writing the book. It’s always fascinating to me to hear what was that needle that broke the camel’s back kind of thing. I think I might have mixed my metaphors, but anyway, what was that origin story of the book?
Maria: Yeah, we were using the metaphor, ray of light, so how could you attach that metaphor to this question?
Douglas: Yes. Yeah. What was the ray of light that seeded the book?
Maria: That sense of realization?
Maria: Yeah. So I was telling you I was a VP of design at Autodesk. In my view, my job was to again, change this culture to become much more human-centered and for people to start thinking about designing products from a people first perspective rather than an engineering first perspective. So that was my charge. This is why I was so attracted to joining Autodesk. And I loved this job so much. I loved my boss, Amar Hanspal. And he was like the chief… He was a chief product officer and he reported directly to Carl Bass, who was the CEO, another man that I deeply admire as a CEO. And as a matter of fact, I featured Carl in my book, Rise of the DEO. So I deeply admired Carl’s… He was an engineer by training, but he was deeply creative and deeply curious.
So I felt like we were all in alignment when it came to how we could imbue human-centered design within this company culture. And I was crushing it. I was so committed to this job. I got to work with 400 designers worldwide, and we were standing up initiatives. We started design ops, which wasn’t a thing back then. I called it how to activate a design community. We talked about quality. We talked about how to improve the design discipline. We had a lot of initiatives going concurrently, and we had incredible results. And it wasn’t just for design, it was really imbuing this idea of design throughout the company culture. Crushing it, I thought.
And then one day, I get to work and Carl Bass announces that he’s going to step down. That was a shock to the system. But I didn’t know that that was the beginning of the end. And my boss was up for the job to become the CEO. He didn’t get it. So he abruptly quits after he realizes he’s not named new CEO. The new CEO, Andrew Agagnost, becomes the CEO. And he was also at Autodesk. And I felt like I had a good relationship with him. I have deep respect for Andrew. He’s the business guy. Amar was the product guy. But it was a change of leadership. And what I’m telling you is something that happens to so many people in positions of power, suddenly there are champion leagues and then some new leader can come in who doesn’t believe in your mission at all, which was the case for me. It was like, “Yeah, Maria, I like what you’re doing, but you know what? I really don’t think what you’re doing is the priority of the company.”
He was very frank about it, but it was brutal. And I got pushed out. Or you could say, I got laid off. You could say I left on my own. But at the end of the day, you are fired. You no longer have the job that you loved. And this happens over and over for people who are in high level positions it. But I didn’t… At that point, I was crushed. I was absolutely crushed. I was shocked. And then I went through all of these… Because I was like, “Hey, I’m a high performer. I did everything right and yet I no longer have a job that I love.” And I went through the stages of grief. And I didn’t understand. It was anger, sad, blame, shame, all of these emotions.
And I felt really lost because holy shit, I no longer have a VP title. I suddenly no longer have a job. I no longer am in a position of power, I’m no longer making X number of dollars. Who am I, if I don’t have all these things? Again, these classic latter questions. And I got really sad and I didn’t understand it, and I’ve always been this overachiever type. So then I read this book called Transitions and the author’s last name is Gibson, Managing Life Through Stages of Transitions. I don’t remember the exact title, but it’s called Transitions. And I read this book and it really helped me understand, “Oh, every transition starts with an ending.” Even if you’re getting married, there’s an ending of the life that you had, stepping into this uncertain future of what your life could be. And whenever there’s an ending, it triggers stages of grief because it’s about loss.
Douglas: That’s why we have ceremonies around that stuff. That’s why there’s bachelor parties and we memorialize these moments and allow people to somehow acknowledge that transition. I always like to tell people, “Superman just doesn’t move from Clark Kent to Superman. He goes into the telephone booth.” There’s something that’s happening in that transition. And I think that’s an important concept for folks to embrace and understand.
Maria: And to recognize it’s emotional and you’re going to feel all the feelings. And it’s like grief. You can’t rush grief. You have to move through it. So you go through this period of loss in… So that’s the first step. And I went through that period of loss, confusion. The inner critic came up. “You’re too old to get a job.” All of these things. Once you get through the stages of grief, you get to this place that I call… You get to acceptance, but it’s reflection. And I like to define it as if you are lying in a coffin above ground, you are waiting to get reborn. You’re waiting for your soul to rise. Your body is in a coffin and you’re just waiting for that moment where your soul will rise. And you could be in this moment of reflection for a really long time.
But it is so critically important to get to that place because when you get to that place, eventually you’ll get to this place which scientists call post-traumatic growth. And it’s actually, there’s this moment of post-traumatic growth when your creativity kicks in high gear. When you can make space for yourself and reflect, it is a moment where there’s an intense amount of creativity and possibility that could be reborn. Because you come to this place of acceptance, it’s like, “Okay, I accept this. Now what?” You can fire your creativity and you can create these new signals of possibility and then you’re onto the next thing. And it’s an incredible moment. And there’s a lot of data that shows people who have had traumatic experience get to a place of post-traumatic growth where they are highly creative.
So I read this book. It really inspired me. It gave me the context of reflection. And while I was in reflection, I started thinking, “Okay, what can I learn about this experience? Okay, I’m past all the emotions. I’m lying in the coffin. What did I do right and what did I do wrong to lose this job?” And I was like, “You know what? This is a new paradigm for leaders, design leaders. This place where… Okay, coming back to Rise of the DEO. All right, we’re at the seat at the table right now, but now what? What are the skillsets? What are the things that we need to know to be impacting change at scale, redesigning change at scale?”
And I started looking around and I made a list of people that who are in similar positions in companies, and this is where curiosity kicks in. I said, “Okay, what did I do right? What did I do wrong? Let me get curious and interview all of these people and hear their story. How did they figure it out?” Because I didn’t have a playbook. Nobody has a playbook when you’re in that position of power. You lean on your strengths and you find your way through the process. What if I unlock that for other people? What if other people don’t have to go through what I went through? And what can I give back to the world? How can I share my experience in a way that’s going to benefit others?
And my partner, Christopher Ireland, she and I wrote Rise of the DEO together and we have co-taught a bunch of things together. We’re incredible collaborators here. So together we interviewed these people, we got incredible rich stories of successes and failures and learnings. And then we spent the last couple of years putting this book together that we can now happily share with the world.
And what I love about this book is it’s not your typical change management book where they tell you all the steps and they tell you all these success stories about business cases. No. These are snippets of real world experiences and they’re sharing their vulnerabilities with us. And that’s a gift. And that’s why I’m so passionate about this book because I think it’s really important. I think it’s going to help a lot of people. And this is the next step for leaders. This is the next step. As you step up and you are in positions of power and you’re in a position where you can make culture change happen, this is the playbook that’s going to help you get there.
Douglas: So incredible and couldn’t recommend it anymore. So hopefully listeners check it out and share. I’d love to hear how people are learning from it. And I think there could be opportunity even to do something with the community at some point around how are the tools and the concept surfacing for them. So maybe we’ll have to come back to that once the book’s out.
We’ve got time for another story. You had mentioned the Angela Lang story, and I thought it was really fascinating too, hearing about your points around the transitions and this post-traumatic growth and having to be okay with the fact that we’re not going to always be successful, but there might be progress, they might be learning that, it might still be beneficial to do the work we’re doing, even though we don’t get the outcome we’re anticipating. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.
Maria: Yeah. Well, one of the things about designing for change, you are never done and you will fail. Those are the two things you’re going to need to know, that you’re going to join a process, you’re going to make progress, you will ultimately fail. A lot of these people who are in these positions of change, changemakers, they go in knowing that it’s going to be a short tenure. And so it requires a lot of what John Maietta calls courage and audacity. It takes a lot of courage to be in a position of change and it means that you have to change your own internal point of view about what it means to be successful. And it’s not about accomplishing a goal, it’s about making progress. It’s about moving the goalpost forward so that the next changemaker could take that goalpost and go further down the field.
And so that’s something to get used to is it’s like, “Yeah, you are never going to be done. You’re ultimately going to fail, and then you’re leaving the mark for somebody else.” And so one of the people I interviewed in the book was named Angela Lang, and she’s the executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities in Wisconsin. And so her organization, it goes into neighborhoods, low propensity voters, people of color, and young people in particular, and they go into communities and build relationships with the local community so that they can be more informed and get out and vote and vote for the candidates that they believe are going to come into power to create change that they want to see in the world.
And she’s been doing this, young leader, and she’s done it for a couple of election cycles so far. And the thing about election cycles is the winners and losers are really clear. At the end of the day, it’s pretty binary. You’re either going to be on the winning side or the losing side. And when you’re on the winning side, great, but there’s a lot of being on the losing side. And so you put your heart and soul into these election cycles. You give it everything you got. You put everything out on the floor. You are passionate and persevering, and you’re getting through and you have to stay positive and you got to activate groups of people. It is a lot of energy to put out there in the world. And ultimately, there’s going to be a judgment day where you’ve won or lost.
I asked her about, “God, that must be so hard. Put years and years of work and into an election cycle, and then suddenly your guy or girl doesn’t win. What is that like?” That’s where she said it’s really about progress, that we have to acknowledge that… It’s like, “Are you making progress? Are you coming back full circle? Are you doing the things that are meaningful and have purpose in your life?” She really believes that she can help change the state of Wisconsin, which incidentally, has an impact on changing the US, which then impacts the world.
And she’s like, “A lot of this is about resilience, courage, and audacity, but also self-care and making sure that you’re taking care of yourself and making sure that you could be disappointed and you can go through the stages of grief, but eventually you’re going to have to pick your pants back up and you’re going to have to go out there because you got to do what you believe in.” And it just inspired me greatly, this idea, this notion that failure is inevitable and yet this very, very courageous woman is getting out there and the fight continues and just lean into the progress.
Progress goes backward too, so it’s not just about moving forward. In these election cycles and you can see it in the world, there are cycles where you feel like you’re taking leaps backwards. And that also you have to realize is part of the process, that progress is not always about moving forward, but you have to have the belief and resilience to keep pushing that goalpost, moving goalposts down the field.
Douglas: I think that’s a great thing for folks to keep in mind. And what a motivating story because inside of an organization, we’re not limited by these four year election cycles. Things move a little bit faster than that. And it reminds me of, in the software development world, if we constrain our iteration cycle, so our testing loop, the tighter we make our testing loop, the more we can fail quickly and learn. And hardware nowadays, they can do more rapid prototyping with 3D printing or quick PCV boards, et cetera. And I think organizations have that luxury too. We don’t necessarily switch out CEOs every year or every week, but there’s certain cycles that we can lean into and learn more quickly and people can do it on these four year election cycles and still have the courage to keep going. I think we can do it inside companies too.
Maria: Absolutely. Absolutely. And just remember, you got to be persistent and be resilient and you got to be believing that you’re doing the right thing in service to others.
Douglas: Absolutely. And there is, I think, a tendency for folks to look elsewhere when some of these failures or challenges pop up. And I think sometimes that can be more difficulty because the same challenges are going to be found everywhere you go. And I think it’s really making sure to dial in that the sensors and the signals that you’re picking up on and making sure that, “Hey, is this just difficult because it’s difficult or is there something really unworkable here?”
Because certainly in your story, Angela’s not moving out of the country because then you get the country because they didn’t get the results they wanted. So something to think about because there could be a reason to stick around because of the social capital and all the successes you’ve already made and the learnings that you have, you’re going to have to repeat all those somewhere else.
Maria: Well, and then also she’s a leader, so people need her. So she knows that the way she shows up and her modeling resilience and disappointment is going to help the changemakers behind her that are watching her and are learning from her.
Douglas: So unfortunately, we’re getting to a point where we’re going to have to end and I want to give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought.
Maria: Yeah, I guess my final thought is, coming back to what I was saying in that we really need to be aware of our own humanity and how we show up and making sure that we are taking care of ourselves and showing up as our best selves when we’re working with others. And it’s okay to be… Put those inner critics, they’re going to come, those inner critics are going to come and tell you, you can’t do something. They’re going to tell you, you’re not enough. They’re going to tell you, you failed, you suck. You’re going to hear all of the horrible things that inner critic voice does.
But keep in mind that the inner critic voice, its job is to prevent you from changing, is to prevent you from making the next move. It’s about protecting you and keeping you in status quo. So check yourself and make sure that if the inner critics [inaudible 00:48:13] stick it in a closet so you can step into the light and be your best self and activate curiosity and possibility. When you go into that space, you are going to attract other people who want to do the same thing. So I think that’s my final thought is that change really starts with you, and when you are in a good place, others will follow you.
Douglas: Love that. And Maria, happy to step into the light with you anytime. It’s been a total pleasure and hope the listeners check out the book and enjoy it as much as I do. Also, we’ll have to figure out a way to collaborate again sometime soon.
Maria: Well, I definitely want to come to your conference at some point.
Douglas: Yes. Absolutely.
Maria: It’s been on my radar for a very long time. I learned about it in the pandemic and I go, “Ooh, I want to go to this conference.” And so hopefully the stars will align and I will be able to join you in the real world one day.
Douglas: Yes, that would be lovely. Again, thank you so much. We’ll talk again soon.
Maria: Okay, thank you.
Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health, and working better. Voltagecontrol.com.