Pushing Boundaries to Achieve the Impossible with Vivian James Rigney and Deborah Wahl
This week’s World Reimagined podcast explores the qualities leaders need to tap into to overcome monumental tasks. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.
Whether you’re looking to climb a mountain in sub-zero temperatures or reverse decades of economic hardship, leading in impossible situations requires stepping outside your comfort zone. How can leaders create a culture that encourages people to bring all their strengths to the table? How can authentic and vulnerable leadership inspire a team to work together to achieve the impossible?
In this episode, host Gautam Mukunda speaks with Vivian James Rigney, President of Executive Coaching firm Inside Us LLC and the author of Naked at the Knife-Edge and Deborah Wahl the Global CMO of General Motors about what it really takes to defy the odds and accomplish larger-than-life goals.
This word: vulnerability. This is a strength, and it's a strength to want to be curious, it's a strength to ask for help.Vivian James Rigney
I think failure has so many negative connotations in business life. No one wants to fail, but yet it's the failures that drive us to the most incredible successes.Deborah Wahl
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Vivian James Rigney is President and CEO of Inside Us LLC, a boutique executive coaching consultancy operating throughout five continents. He has helped implement leadership development initiatives for some of the world’s leading companies and their executive teams.
The quest for personal success can often be a lonely journey. As an executive coach, Vivian becomes a trusted partner, known for building strong rapport and asking tough, incisive questions, with an uncanny ability to help people reveal the best version of themselves.
A graduate of École Nationale Des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris, he is a renowned speaker and expert on mindset and behavior whose talks and presentations have inspired audiences globally. A native of Ireland, he has lived in the U.K., Germany, South Africa, France, and Finland, and currently resides in New York City.
Deborah Wahl was appointed General Motors Global Chief Marketing Officer on Sept. 1, 2019. She previously served as the Global CMO of Cadillac.
Prior to joining General Motors, Deborah served as the Senior Vice President and CMO for McDonald’s from 2014 to 2017, where she played a key role in the brand’s turnaround, proudly bringing All Day Breakfast to McD consumers. In addition to McDonald’s, Deborah has held a number of CMO and marketing leadership positions, including at PulteGroup, Chrysler and Lexus. She has been nominated to the Forbes Most Influential CMOs list and received the CMO Club Hall of Fame Award in 2021, as well as receiving the Automotive Hall of Fame Industry Influencer Award.
Deborah has a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Wellesley College, an MBA from The Wharton School, and a Masters of International Studies from The Lauder Institute, University of Pennsylvania.
Deborah is an active business leader who serves on the board of Groupon and is the Chair of the MMA Global Board. She is passionate about contributing to her community, serving on the Board of Trustees of Cranbrook Educational Community, Friends of the Children – Detroit as well as the Wellesley Business Leadership Council and the Parent Leadership board of Santa Clara University where her son Alex is a freshman.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
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Gautam Mukunda (00:15):
How do you lead your team to do the monumental, the transformative or even the impossible?
Vivian James Rigney (00:23):
You never know how strong you actually are or how much capability you have until you're in a situation of crisis.
Deborah Wahl (00:28):
No one wants to fail, but yet it's the failures that drive us to the most incredible successes.
Vivian James Rigney (00:34):
This word, vulnerability, this is a strength, and it's a strength to want to be curious. It's a strength to ask for help.
Speaker 5 (00:44):
World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world, an original podcast from NASDAQ.
Deborah Wahl (00:52):
I always have to remind myself, okay, if we're not moving forward, there's someone I'm not hearing.
Gautam Mukunda (01:09):
26,000 feet above sea level, the air gets dangerously thin. Oxygen levels are 60% lower than normal, making it difficult to walk, eat, sleep and even think. Muscles and organs get weaker with each passing day, and the air is so dry and so thin that it's common to crack a rib just from coughing. Combine that with persistent subzero temperatures and perilous terrain, and it starts to make sense why climbers call this part of the mountain the death zone.
Gautam Mukunda (01:46):
Human beings are not supposed to be here, and yet, every year, you can find them at Camp IV, 3000 vertical feet below the summit of Mount Everest. People from all over the world are drawn to this place, looking to test themselves by attempting one of the most difficult and dangerous climbs on planet Earth. Everyone here has already been pushed to their mental and physical limits, and they still have a long way to go. Looking at this prompts the question why. Why are they here? What compels a person to do this?
Vivian James Rigney (02:23):
Yeah, I think the question is why do we do the things we do is the big question. I think there's a big hunger out there to achieve.
Gautam Mukunda (02:30):
Vivian James Rigney is the president of executive coaching firm Inside Us LLC and the author of Naked at the Knife-Edge which he wrote after making this very climb. He is one of a handful of people on Earth to have climbed the seven summits, the tallest mountains on every single continent including, most recently, Everest.
Vivian James Rigney (02:51):
Depending on somebody's drive, depending on their aspirations, one can pursue goals that push them further. They grow. They learn. Sometimes, we're pushing goals where we don't even know why we're doing them, and that's the key thing. Just one takeaway from Everest, one has to have a clear outcome, and that sounds like a basic question, but the clear outcome is not necessarily always obvious. The primary outcome of climbing Everest is to come down alive, and summiting is the secondary goal or secondary outcome. That's one key takeaway there.
Gautam Mukunda (03:24):
Nothing about climbing to the top of the world's tallest mountain comes naturally. Everything about Everest, the landscape, the temperature, the air itself is inhospitable to humans. To say that the journey takes people out of their comfort zones is an understatement. When the task in front of you runs counter to every instinct you have, it can seem impossible. That's true whether you're climbing a literal mountain or the metaphoric one of turning around the most economically devastated city in America.
Deborah Wahl (03:56):
I love the way you're thinking about that. It changes the whole perspective.
Gautam Mukunda (04:02):
Deborah Wahl is the global CMO of General Motors and, on a personal level, a Michigan Native. When she accepted her new position at GM, she viewed her homecoming not just as a chance to lead one of America's most iconic companies in the 21st century, but as a chance to revitalize Detroit into a vibrant, equitable city of the future.
Deborah Wahl (04:23):
I think, too, when you think of monumental tasks that I know when I was young, and I always thought it was just about sheer force of individual will to accomplish something great. I still remember my first review at the company I worked for in France. My manager drew a picture of me actually knocking down walls all by myself. Of course, my last name is Wahl, so I never know if it had something to do with that or not. Later, I learned that it's actually all about the power of human connections and having something that's personally important to each of us that then helps us understand why we're all in this and going forward to a task and working together to prioritize that outcome and staying focused on that.
Deborah Wahl (05:15):
For us, even as I think about my work here at GM and being in Detroit, a turnaround in a business sense becomes much more personal because we're personally motivated to see the impact that it has in our community and the people we know and love around us.
Gautam Mukunda (05:30):
I'm struck by something I could tease out from both of your answers in the sense that it's easier to motivate people for something that's incredibly hard and incredibly big than incredibly easy.
Vivian James Rigney (05:41):
Yeah. People are ultimately motivated by growth and stretching themselves. There's a passion around that goal, a passion around that outcome. It's way to engage people. Certainly, in terms of leadership, if we can hit those nerve endings about how do you get people to be motivated around something that fulfills them, where they feel as though they're a better person from it, they've learned something, that's where you get that extra motivation and you get a passion. We're all chasing that level of passion through an organization where a vision can be realized through individual engagement and doing that collaboratively, people feeling like a team. That, obviously, strengthens culture and goes all the way through the organization and becomes very meaningful, but also very personal.
Deborah Wahl (06:26):
Yeah, and I think that's really important because, to achieve momentous change, it's really hard. It's not something that happens overnight or just with the flip of a switch. It requires an incredible commitment. I always tell my team it takes all of you. To achieve transformation that makes a difference, it really takes all of you and, therefore, we need that extra motivation that can keep us that star up there that really helps us go, but then we take it down because none of that happens if on a day-to-day level we're not actually connecting with our group across the board. Everyone working together on that incredibly human micro level is how we actually get there on that journey on a day-to-day basis.
Gautam Mukunda (07:18):
Whether you're looking to climb a mountain in subzero temperatures or reverse decades of economic hardship, leading in impossible situations requires doing things that don't come naturally. Sometimes, that means carrying your own air supply with you on the last leg of your journey. Other times, it can mean unlearning preconceived notions of what it means to be a leader in the first place.
Deborah Wahl (07:41):
When I first started my career, I thought it was all just about you achieving things alone and being this powerful leader and having a vision that everyone would follow. The more I've actually engaged in real transformation, it's exactly that it's actually knowing everyone, knowing what role everyone plays, hearing their perspectives on it. It has changed for me my entire view of what truly successful leadership is about. It is much more of a shepherding, understanding, empathetic and continual communication which, in this world of the metaverse and all these other things, actually, the basics are even more important than ever as we really, truly try to attain incredible and authentic transformation.
Vivian James Rigney (08:32):
Yeah. That word, authenticity, Deborah, is a big word. I think there's a propensity for people to feel as though they have to be different people. That can be exhausting, so people tend to carry around different personas. I've got to be one person with my team. I've got to be one person with the board. I've got to be one person at home with my family. They have all these different personas, and it's quite exhausting, and inauthenticity creeps into that where people feel that they're not being transparent enough, not being real enough in the current times. They're not being human enough, not having enough empathy.
Vivian James Rigney (09:06):
Just one example, one leader that I was working with a company during the pandemic. They, very smart, super talented, very driven, dynamic. We were in the Zoom world that we were all in, and in the back of their Zoom screen, you had the dog coming in, wagging their tail, and they would just say, "Excuse me. I got to let the dog out," and then coming back and chatting about the dog for a few minutes. This is to the entire company, and the reaction to small things like that of a leader letting down their guard, showing that they, too, are handling things just like the rest of us were during that time period and, three minutes later, the leader was back to serious stuff. As a leader, you can move from being empathetic and personable to being stern and serious where necessary. You do that in the same discussion.
Vivian James Rigney (09:57):
I think, as leaders, the ability to be that one person is profound. I think there's a lot of things that have come out of the pandemic and, when we step back and think about them, how can those things live in the corporate world going forward? How do we take those elements of almost like the veil came back, the veil was revealed and, underneath that, we saw much more real people in their real worlds, their whole worlds of everything, the messiness, the confusion, the balancing, everything and somehow having to figure it out.
Vivian James Rigney (10:29):
How do we make sure we don't go back to a more formal, a more staid leadership style, and how do we keep that authenticity going? I think there's a hunger for it. Everyone is trying to figure out how that can be, but just on a personal level, it's so much easier to be one person. At the end of the day, everybody else is taken, so it's much easier to just be yourself.
Deborah Wahl (10:52):
I am smiling ear to ear actually hearing you say that because I do believe that the slowing down and how much time we spent with each other even on Zoom was profound. I know it's impacted the way I lead, the way our teams are interacting. I learned more about the people that I've been working with in the last year and a half than I had ever known before and versus any other teams. I think then that's allowed us to pull out these strengths and let people bring their true strengths to work instead of trying to fit into a culture that was fabricated. That's why I've seen actually, I work in the marketing world, more creativity, more growth, more ideas, more innovations come through in this period that we've been through that's forced that view of everyone, and I've been able to relate a lot closer. My team knows a lot more about me than they ever did whether they like it or not.
Gautam Mukunda (11:57):
There's a class at Harvard Business School that teaches team dynamics by simulating a climb to the top of Mount Everest. To succeed, teams of students need to solve puzzles real climbers might face. Every person on the team has a different role, and one of them is designated the team leader. Sometimes, that leader decides it's their job to make the decisions. How should they ration supplies? What should they do about a sick climber? Are the conditions right to try for the summit? They think the choice rests with them. They are the leader after all. Those are the teams that fail.
Gautam Mukunda (12:35):
Making it to the top of the mountain requires effectively sharing information to solve those problems. Every year, most of the teams get them wrong. The teams that succeed have leaders with a very, very different vision of their job. Those leaders see themselves as information managers. Their job isn't to make the decisions. It's to make sure that everyone is heard and that every team member who has key information gets a chance to contribute to the team's collective choices. Those teams rocket up the side of the mountain. This illustrates perhaps the single largest finding in the research on team performance. The less hierarchical a team is, the more effective it is. It may go against common wisdom and even our own instincts, but being at the head of a team with a monumental task ahead of it demands more willingness to listen, not less. The tougher the task, the humbler you need to be.
Vivian James Rigney (13:34):
People think leaders, I think, when they develop their careers and people develop their careers, there's this feeling of the more I grow, the more I progress, the less of me that comes with that. At the end of the day, it's nonsense. Of course, when you move up in the organization, you take on additional responsibilities. It's a bit like parenting. Think about parenting. You have young children. You're going to be offering them, you're going to be giving them the guide rails of how to behave, what's right, what's not right, and you can still hold them, so the feeling of connection, feeling of love, that your interest is at heart, but the guide rails are there. They live together. The child feels loved. The child feels guided. You're making decisions that are right.
Vivian James Rigney (14:16):
It's fascinating that, a lot of leaders I work with, they do this at home effortlessly. They balance effortlessly. They come to work and they put this metaphorical suit on, and they feel as though they need to be buttoned down. They have to watch every word. Again, it's bringing that in. Authenticity can flow through your career right the way to the top. We see some inspirational leaders who do a very good job of doing this. There's something about them that draws people in. There's something about them that attracts people.
Vivian James Rigney (14:50):
I think, at the end of the day, energy is one resource we all have a finite amount of. Time is one, but energy is another. It's so much easier when we can bring ourselves to work, albeit, understand who's the audience I'm talking to, what are the limitations of what I can share, thinking ahead of things, giving yourself that permission to think ahead a couple of steps and then managing ourselves accordingly, but this should not come at a cost to being one's self. I always push back on that when I hear that people think that that's impossible. It is totally possible by really getting out of our own way.
Deborah Wahl (15:27):
That makes me think. As we do this, a lot of the underlying is we have to start recognizing all the feelings that are there. I mean, I think of it when we're thinking about trying to transform. There's no longer like we're going to be all electric at GM and everyone is there to tomorrow. I mean, not everyone at the same time believes an all-electric-future is inevitable. We know that it is about this discussion and recognizing people, what they bring, that their values are as valid as anything else, but finding the common ground so that we all do move together.
Deborah Wahl (16:07):
I think that's, again, the unlock in leadership these days, the unlock in how we all do move faster together. I mean, we have an enormous organization that we're bringing incredible legacy things that are great, but also a lot of change to everyone, so I always think of that.
Deborah Wahl (16:28):
I remember learning leadership like you show no emotion. You're always calm, cool and collected, that it's sort of disparaging if people react too emotionally to things. I think that's part of the challenge of how do you lead authentically. How do you bring that part, channel your emotions for good, certainly show them, but keep moving everyone forward and not get to the extremes or edges of conversations or disagreements, but help continue to funnel all that energy into a positive place?
Deborah Wahl (17:04):
I don't remember learning a lot of that in business school. That was back in business school many decades ago. I just had my 30th reunion, but I think it's a topic today that people are exploring and doing and that a lot of us in leadership spend a lot of time on. I think it's going to be great for everyone. It just brings out core productivity and ideas and helps us all feel more engaged about facing the challenges and obstacles.
Gautam Mukunda (17:34):
I want to probe the two of you on this a little bit. I think back to my first time in the classroom at Harvard Business School when I was teaching. For my first few classes, I was nervous. I mean, I like being in front of an audience. I'm a ham. I totally admit that, and I was nervous because I've got a bunch of HBS MBAs there. I was younger than most of them. It was a little bit there, and what I said was I have to act like I'm not. I acted like I was not nervous and, eventually, I stopped being nervous, and that became natural to me. Was I being inauthentic by essentially hiding my nervousness from my students until eventually I became the person I was pretending to be, or is that part of a growth process? How do we balance that?
Vivian James Rigney (18:15):
Look, there's always a bit of fake it till you make it. They say we're, if we're looking to move up in a role, we're acting in that role ahead of time ideally. We're in the shoes already. We're acting like we're a VP if we're one level below, and that's how we get promoted. I think that's natural. I think we can learn so much from people around us. I think, when we're in situations we're unfamiliar with and natural anxiety, you speak to any actor, before they get on stage, they'll say they're always nervous, and they say, "Vivian, the time I don't feel nervous is probably the time I need to move on. There's something good about being a little anxious or a little nervous. It means we're on our toes. It means we're listening. It means we're present."
Vivian James Rigney (18:57):
Now, that spins a little too much that obviously it's not great, but having a few butterflies in our stomach, it's... We're alive and we're there, so that's positive. I think a lot of the anxiety is around that other people know more than us, meaning, there's more information in the room, more wisdom, knowledge, and then our little insecurities perhaps kick in about how am I versus that curve in their room? At the end of the day, everyone has positive intent for the most part. Everyone is doing the best they can. When we have that propensity to be curious, I call it wildly curious, it means we can listen more, not have to opinionate from the get-go. It sounds like, Gautam, in your example, that you absorbed and then, through absorption, the anxiety went down and you were okay. Giving ourselves permission to listen a lot, ask people questions, get curious with them, they'll talk, they'll be taken aback by your curiosity as much as your presence, and that's very, very empowering in that situation.
Deborah Wahl (20:00):
Yeah. It seems to me like what you're talking about is fear. We all have so much fear, fear of failure, fear of who we really want to be, fear of a new situation. I think we got to help people have a resilience to that. Anytime that I've seen myself have personal growth, I remember the moment that I went through that my hands were sweating, I was terrified, I was going into something that I'd never been into and that absolute terrified feeling. I can cite five times in my career when I was doing a big thing to try to get in front of people to do something that I felt completely out of my element, but it's then always the realization, after you get through that and make yourself do it and get through it, that suddenly a whole new level of capability opens up. I try to encourage everyone. Fear is normal. You should have it. You should embrace it. You should just understand it as part of the process of growth and embrace it and try to put yourself in those situations more and more.
Vivian James Rigney (21:13):
Adding to that, this word vulnerability, this is a strength. It's a strength to want to be curious. It's a strength to ask for help, to even share. Look, this is an area I'm not familiar with, but absolutely focused on figuring it out, and I'm curious what you think or, I'm curious, could you help me with this, or I don't know. I think that there's a lot of energy burned in terms of us being afraid to say these things, afraid to ask, afraid to share. We internalize it all. At the opposite end of the table, most people are more than willing to help. They're more than willing to. Again, us, coming with good intent, wanting to engage, wanting to learn, most people respond in extremely positive way, so we're burning all that fuel for nothing if we don't do that.
Deborah Wahl (22:04):
It's funny you said that, Vivian. There are times in my career where I've been able to help a group get over a major obstacle is when I've simply gone in and asked a team for help, which is very humbling because then, suddenly, you don't have the answers. I remember, when I worked in Brazil, we were about to do a car launch. A massive change needed to happen, and we needed to change all of our future components pretty much at the last minute for a vehicle launch.
Deborah Wahl (22:37):
I flew to the factory in Argentina. I didn't know people. I was a young marketer. I met with these grizzled manufacturing veterans, and I started the meeting. I just said, "I'm simply here to ask for your help." I thought they would throw me out of the building. I was terrified. That was one of those heart thumping. Your hands are cold and shaky. They all looked at me, and the conversation changed. I mean, they didn't come in with charts and rationale and all this. I just asked for help, and we had an incredible session. We got everything changed. They came in, pulled full force with all their creativity, and we launched the car and gained four points of market share.
Vivian James Rigney (23:20):
Yeah. They wanted to be included. Your move there, Deborah, was to include them, and then they found their voice, and then you heard their voice and then you were able to join the dots, and everyone was able to figure it out. Wonderful move.
Speaker 5 (23:35):
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Gautam Mukunda (24:26):
Almost everything about this mountain is counterintuitive, but one of its most surprising and most dangerous attributes is that a full 80% of all serious accidents happen on the way down from the summit. Making that final push from Camp IV to the top is exhausting, but it's only half the journey. When people are worn out and depleted, when they've achieved that amazing goal and burned a lot of energy doing it, they tend to make mistakes. To get your team to the finish line and back safely, you need to be smart about where and how you use your bandwidth. That means acknowledging your own limitations rather than trying to muscle through them to the point of collapse.
Vivian James Rigney (25:10):
Alpha behavior is mostly around leaders thinking, using the word I, me a lot. I have to deliver. I have to be the smartest person in the room. I have to decide. There's a feeling of wanting to control too much, and through that control comes domination, and voices aren't heard. That's fading in the world we're in. It's fading. It's less and less accepted. It comes at a great cost. The downside of that behavior when somebody is in too much of I, I or me, me, when decisions are made, more emotional decisions are made. They're not inclusive. You don't build engagement. Rash, impulsive decisions can be made. For all those reasons, unless as I said it's a period of absolute crisis and it's an immediate need to solve, then it's not effective.
Vivian James Rigney (25:53):
The opposite to that, the antidote to that as it were is about listening. It's about absorbing. It's about incorporating data, incorporating perspectives. That's a much smarter way of operating. Certainly, it's more smart in terms of emotional intelligence, but also allowing other people in the room to have their share of the oxygen and not taking the oxygen. That leads to a richer decision-making, leads to engagement, and it absolutely reduces anxiety. Again, when somebody takes too much oxygen in the room, people either turn off or they have that fear of saying something that won't be as effective or strong as the person who's speaking. For all those risks, I think that is on the decline.
Gautam Mukunda (26:34):
Deborah, I'd be curious about your perspective on this because the automotive industry I think has a heritage of these kinds of autocratic leaders. You have no reason you would know this, but I spent quite a lot of time studying Volkswagen. I mean, Pierre was the archetype of this right there. I don't think he was the only one in the industry.
Deborah Wahl (26:51):
Yeah. It's certainly an industry that is going under incredible transformation. I mean, I'm privileged right now I work at General Motors where Mary Barra is our CEO. She's had an incredible impact on the overall culture. I mean, I'll just tell you a little story about her leadership just reflecting what Vivian has said. The first large meeting I was at, we had done a super secret project, of course, for the presidential limo. There were a hundred people that were invited to celebrate the achievement of the project. Mary came in and went up to every single person, knew their name, knew what they had contributed to the project, shook their hand and thanked them. That was one of my first exposures to her style of leadership. I think that quiet understanding of who is on the team, what they bring to the team, what their value is has dramatically changed the culture at General Motors.
Deborah Wahl (27:55):
It's why I chose to come here and work here especially in this period of transformation, and I think it's the only way it goes. I am seeing massive change in how we do things. I mean, we have a board that is now over 50% women. It is probably one of the most diverse in corporate America. It reflects all the changes all the way down and how the company is run. That vision of inclusivity allows us to hear a lot more ideas and to make sure that, in this period of rapid transformation where a lot of mistakes can be made when you're moving fast to bring the new in, bring new technology, do that, there's got to also be room for mistakes. Having a much more inclusive perspective, hearing a lot more voices from different areas I think has helped us bring incredible things in. If you follow the EV world and have a chance to drive a Hummer or the upcoming Lyriq or see what we're doing with a truck and then a $30,000 EV across the spectrum, you start seeing how this all comes to life.
Vivian James Rigney (29:06):
It's interesting, Deborah, just the image of the company, General Motors, it's unrecognizable. I've been in the US 15 years, and the General Motors of 2007, when I was here, too, it was just a brand. Today, I think of that brand and I read articles on it. It's dynamic. It's confident. Dynamic. Confident. It's clear. There's clarity there. It's a huge transformation.
Deborah Wahl (29:32):
Yeah, and I give Mary an enormous amount of credit for that. She established that vision, and now we've all been worked working on it. She didn't tell us how to achieve every part of that vision. It is really here's the vision, put that front and center, and then let's make sure that that drives every action our team takes. It's really exciting actually, too, to work in that kind of an environment because it unleashes so much productivity and creativity and gives everyone a chance to be part of the transformation.
Deborah Wahl (30:06):
The biggest thing we're working on now is, and it's my personal mission, I want to de-stigmatize this word failure. I think failure has so many negative connotations in business life. No one wants to fail, but yet it's the failures that drive us to the most incredible successes. Recognizing that, celebrating that is also a critical part of what we're actively doing now. I think that helps, again, further the speed, the path, everything that happens.
Gautam Mukunda (30:36):
I'm struck by that. I'm reminded of an interview Jeff Bezos did after the Amazon's Fire Phone failed spectacularly and he was asked about it. He said, "That's nothing." He said, "If you think that's a failure, you just wait what we'll do next. We're going to fail way bigger than that," and he said, "I think that's a good thing because that means we're taking risks." It's so rare for a business leader to say something like that. It's stuck in my memory ever since I read it. It sounds like you're pushing for that same sort of attitude.
Deborah Wahl (31:03):
Yeah, we definitely are. As we look back, so Mary set out a vision in 2016 of a world of zero crashes, zero emission and zero congestion. That's the role that GM and mobility can play in the future of the world. I think she was one of the first leaders who said let's understand the negative things that have arrived from the growth of our industry. It's not that there was intent on that, but these are the things that have happened. Let's acknowledge them publicly and say we have a plan to address it and make it better, make our contribution to the world productive, healthy, transformative.
Deborah Wahl (31:40):
I think the best leaders do that. They acknowledge the things that have happened in the past that were not the right path, but what did we learn? How do you build off that, and then what grows out of it? I think that's such a valuable lesson for all of us because there are unintended consequences of everything that we do, and you can't predict everything. Let's be authentic about it. Acknowledge it. Move forward and create something spectacular.
Vivian James Rigney (32:06):
Yeah. Just to add that, the propensity to reflect and learn is big, and you see that with the most successful companies in the last 10 years. SpaceX is a good example. When those rockets blew up, the initial reaction in the media was that the rocket blew up. That's a disaster. That's a failed mission. The reaction from SpaceX was we need to fail to succeed. That's going to get us there faster. They had all the sensors. They had all the data. They went through the data. For them, they were feasting on this idea of failure gives us answers. Answers gives us confidence to do it better next time and that idea of thriving on failure. Failure is a vehicle to improvement, to innovation, to being a better version of ourselves. Whether you'd be building a rocket or building a team, as long as that learning is motivating people, is moving them, is adding to a sense of drive, a sense of purpose, then it can be incredibly valuable. What it does is it shortens the period of attaining your ultimate goal.
Gautam Mukunda (33:11):
No one likes to fail, but very few failures, as unpleasant as they may be, deserve to be treated as a crisis. What about when you have a real crisis on your hands? What happens when, say, you have to suddenly lead your team through an unprecedented global health catastrophe? Navigating something like that means reexamining what you should expect from your team and what you should expect from yourself.
Vivian James Rigney (33:37):
I think, a bit like Everest, you never know how strong you actually are or how much capability you have until you're in a situation of crisis and then you're really tested. It's tested all of us the last few years. The opportunity exists there to embrace those situations. I think most people want to be stretched. From the outset, they might not want to be stretched because people are generally adverse to change, but when you put them in a situation and invite them to change and give them a purpose to change and they see what's possible, there's enormous pride that can come from that.
Gautam Mukunda (34:14):
Vivian, I want to continue with you because I know you counsel a lot of leaders who are taking on these big tasks. What's the biggest and most common mistake you see them making?
Vivian James Rigney (34:24):
Am I right on this or am I not? We tend to allow that negative inner dialogue to take too much thinking time, which goes back to what I mentioned earlier about energy. It reduces our energy and reduces our ability to make decisions. The second thing is discarding the ego. This idea of I, me, it's coming from a good place, a place of positive intent, of course, but we can lose track that it's not about I and me. It's as much about we and us and being aware of that and not being caught on that trap, asking for help, engaging people, getting curious, incorporating, yes, decisions need to be made in a timely fashion, of course, but it's far more impactful when we get people to follow us and create followership in parallel with what we need to do.
Vivian James Rigney (35:09):
The third thing is harness intuition. A lot of folks I work with, I ask them, "When you have a very strong, intuitive feeling about something, strong, intuitive feeling about something, what percent of the time does that turn out to be correct?" The answer they give me, "Normally, about 80 to 90% of the time." Think of it. 80 to 90% of the time, they have a strong, intuitive of feeling about a decision or some person or a situation. They're going to be absolutely right. Then I ask the question, "What percent of the time do you act upon it unreservedly?" There's a gap. They take a big breath, and they go, "40 to 50%," and I say, "Okay. Tell me about that," and they go, "Vivian, the stakes are so high. The stakes are so high."
Vivian James Rigney (35:47):
What do they do? They go in. They double check. They triple check. They sleep on it. They just see what somebody else says first. They tap the break instead of the accelerator, and that idea, when you're rising in the organization, you've got experience, you've got a sense of season and maturity and you have just a lot already in your tank, and they're tapping the break instead of engaging, and that's a huge cost to them where they're a little too focused on what people think of them or they're, in their own head, judging themselves by perfectionism as opposed to what's necessary. The pass grade is 70%, and they're going for a 100% or 90%. That delta is extremely expensive in terms of time and leadership as well.
Gautam Mukunda (36:33):
Deborah, does that resonate with you?
Deborah Wahl (36:36):
I was like I should just be taking notes right here. I'm like, wow, even now. No. Yeah, because I think the most interesting thing is, especially if you take out the I, you're trying to work as a team, and then how do you handle conflict because, in some of those things, when your instincts are different than what the momentum in the group is, it's how do you create conflict in a positive way? I think that's the biggest lesson to learn. The best leaders I know are the ones who are able to keep pushing that, not backing down from a belief that they hold. The people that I find most valuable are those that I know I can count on to have a strong point of view, but then it's the next part of, in the dynamics of however each organization works, how do you productively manage that through?
Deborah Wahl (37:33):
I like how you reference energy, Vivian, because I find even personally or for my teams that it takes an enormous amount of energy to be the one countering the momentum because it's the right path to do or how do you get that through, and then the second thing that I'll add onto that is, every time you run into an obstacle that goes against what you know is the right thing to do, then it's really a matter of, two pieces, one, you have to think about, all right, what am I doing wrong that's not helping get this message through? What am I missing here? It's usually because I'm not listening enough or I'm not speaking enough or having the one-on-one discussions about it, and then understanding that maybe I made a mistake, taking a step back and coming at that, to use the Everest thing, coming at the mountain from a different route. How are we seeing that there might be a different pathway up, and how do we have the energy to keep pursuing that? That's the hardest part because it does take a lot of energy.
Gautam Mukunda (38:40):
This degree of difficulty, sacrifice, self-scrutiny and even loneliness merits the question why? Given all of that, why would someone want to be the leader who takes on these impossible tasks? According to Deborah and Vivian, the effort may be great, but when you do it right, the rewards can be even greater.
Vivian James Rigney (39:03):
I think an enormous pride can be released by a reflection of the journey. What we did to figure that out, huge goal, massive effort, toil, pain, reflection, just stepping back and actually really understanding what are the constituent elements where we got to that result, the things we achieved together? Super important. Make it fun. Exclamation mark. Underline the word fun. That playfulness energizes. It reinvigorates. It brings authenticity. It brings ourselves to things. It's so important even in corporate world during very difficult times and significant projects and massive goals to achieve to have fun along the way. Have people be themselves, incorporate their full selves to do that. It energizes. It allows people to participate in a different way. Again, it makes that journey, all that huge epic effort, it gives it a sense of being worthwhile and meaningful.
Vivian James Rigney (40:09):
It's a growth opportunity. Each member can attain a growth opportunity because each member is learning through that, so that power of reflection. Every time, if you're doing one mountain, another mountain, your whole goal is that the mountain you do next, how do we make it even more efficient to what we did last time? What did we learn from that where we can be smarter, be a little more clever? Just having that in the back of our minds gives us a feeling that we're improving, we're a better version of ourselves both as individuals, but also as a team.
Deborah Wahl (40:42):
Vivian nailed it. I do want to hear how do you get down the mountain step by step because that is...
Vivian James Rigney (40:50):
With great difficulty.
Deborah Wahl (40:50):
Yeah, I can only imagine. I love the idea of celebrating and fun cannot be underestimated, and then I think, as leaders, really remembering who catalyzed the project at different parts and making sure you recognize them, because it's often just the team that takes it to the end that gets all the glory, but that there were usually a lot of people who started it out, who played a role who might not even be on the team anymore, but who were really good catalysts for it. The more we can remember that, I think that becomes very motivating because then people know you haven't forgotten the hard work they put in at different points.
Gautam Mukunda (41:32):
After hearing about the monumental tasks they have taken on in their careers, I wanted to know who had brought Vivian and Deborah along on their journeys? Who had most impressed them and why?
Deborah Wahl (41:46):
I'm going to go back to Mary Barra, first, because she's the only woman leading a global automaker. She transitioned from the factory floor to the top of the boardroom. She's setting a vision that's changing the world, but also because I think her approach is so right for the times and motivating. I've seen her be able to achieve enormous transformation without ego. Without that, she really enables it through her team. I think her leadership style is one that, in my time here, I've learned an enormous amount from. I see the impact it's making not only in our company, but she's leading the business round table right now and business impact in our future and our world across the board. I think, her lessons, she just spoke at the Duke graduation and shared lessons from her kitchen table which I see in her leadership every day that we interact. That's the kind of leadership I'd like to see more of. I think she can teach us an enormous amount.
Gautam Mukunda (42:56):
Oh, thank you. Vivian, the same question for you.
Vivian James Rigney (42:59):
It's got to be Richard Branson. He's just wildly curious, wildly curious. He thrives on solving things from the customer's angle every single time. It's just a muscle he has. That's his frame of reference. He's also very good at recognizing his strength, but, more importantly, backing off on all the things that he's not good at. He empowers others to do those things, and he employs the best of the best, and it's just proven he has his focus area and everyone else works around that.
Vivian James Rigney (43:32):
He also promotes authenticity in how he gets up out of bed every day and how he shows up, how he leads, how he communicates. Vulnerability is part of that authenticity. He draws people in. He is the example of somebody, a leader, who becomes the lamp and not the mouth. He draws people in. People want to know more. They want to know more about him and what he's doing. Above all, he has fun. He's playful. It's oxygen to him. I think it creates this unique culture within the company and beyond. I think he's 70 this year. He just looks as though he's having just as much fun as he was, when you look back at videos, 25. The same amount of fun, same curiosity. It's pretty impressive.
Gautam Mukunda (44:17):
Plus, he had a character on the Simpsons based on him, which I got to say is a [inaudible 00:44:21].
Vivian James Rigney (44:20):
Which is a life achievement, right?
Gautam Mukunda (44:33):
It's 11:00 PM at Camp IV. Your team is gathering their gear, checking their supplies and getting ready for the final push to the top. Most clients up the final stretch of Everest begin around this time, much closer to sunset than they are to sunrise. The idea is to have daylight when you reach the top, but also enough sun for the trip back to make sure that everyone who goes up the mountain can make it down again, too.
Gautam Mukunda (45:03):
The biggest things we ever accomplish in life can feel like this. Months of planning and struggle with an end point that you can't see and can't touch, separated from you by yet another stretch of grueling work while your ultimate goal stays out of sight, hidden somewhere in the darkness. Turning back would be easy. Objectively speaking, it's the sensible thing to do, but the people on your team are counting on you to be resourceful, resilient, creative and humble, to know your limits and work around them with their help so that all of you can make it to the top together, because the people who are willing to examine everything they've been taught, everything they think they know about being a leader and change it when they have to are the ones who get to stand in sunlight and look out from the top of the world.
Gautam Mukunda (46:06):
You're cold, diminished, exhausted, but the summit is closer than it's ever been, and your goal isn't nearly as impossible as it once seemed. Conditions are right. The wind is dying down, and your team is ready. It's time to go.
Speaker 5 (46:30):
World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world, an original podcast from NASDAQ. Visit the World Reimagined website at nasdaq.com/worldreimaginedpodcast.
Speaker 6 (46:49):
Gautam Mukunda does not speak on behalf of Rose Park Advisors LLC or any of its affiliates and is not soliciting investments or providing invest advice.