About Erika Andersen

Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.

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Archive for February, 2013


Hermit Crabs and Human Beings

Every year, my husband and I take a break from the New York winter and spend some time unwinding on a beach.  For the past four years we’ve gone to Jamaica.  Mostly it’s pure lovely downtime – I really make the effort to “contain” work, so that I just have one 30-60 minute session of emailing or blogging each day.  Like right now.

photoMy brain really never stops considering things, though – that’s just how I’m wired – so I thought I’d share something cool with you that I just found out.  Yesterday at the beach, Patrick brought me this fascinating creature (the picture at left); a big sea shell with a claw sticking out of it.  He said it was crawling along the beach by pulling itself with its claw.

I looked it up just now, and I believe it’s a hermit crab. They have long, soft bodies that they curl into an abandoned shell (whose original occupant has died), and then grasp into the shell with their “tail” – really the end of their abdomen. As they grow, they need to find progressively bigger shells. But then I started wondering – how do they find a shell that’s the right size when they need it?  They must be very vulnerable to predators, I reasoned, when they’re between shells.

Then Wikipedia gave me a really interesting answer:

Several hermit crab species, both terrestrial and marine, use “vacancy chains” to find new shells: when a new, bigger shell becomes available, hermit crabs gather around it and form a kind of queue from largest to smallest. When the largest crab moves into the new shell, the second biggest crab moves into the newly vacated shell, thereby making its previous shell available to the third crab, and so on.

And I started to think about how “vacancy chains” are a big part of human life, as well. It’s just that they’re somewhat more complex, so harder to see.  But, for instance, every time someone moves to a larger/better house, it starts a vacancy chain.  Every time someone moves to a bigger/better job: a vacancy chain. And we’ve used the internet to create more efficient vacancy chains, too: to sell stuff we no longer need because we’ve acquired a newer or better version, to let other people know that we’re wanting to move on to a better relationship, organization, dwelling.

There’s an internal analogue as well.  When we learn something new, or understand something that previously eluded us, we’re moving to a bigger comprehension of the world and abandoning our outgrown worldview.

That kind of internal change is difficult; we feel vulnerable when we’re ‘between understandings.’ But here’s an inspiration to keep growing and ‘moving along the chain’ mentally and emotionally: when we cling to a smaller understanding of ourselves or the world around us, we’re actually getting in the way of evolution.

Keep moving…


Do As I Say AND As I Do – 02/18/13

Last week was pretty important in the history of Proteus.  On Thursday and Friday, we had our first financial deep dive with our new CFO/COO, convened the inaugural meeting of the Proteus Design Council, and conducted a vision and strategy session for Proteus LATAM (Latin America).

Yesterday, Jeff and I had a debriefing call about all these meetings, and we agreed: this is a critical inflection point for the company.

You see, for the first 10 years of Proteus’ history, I was more focused on building a practice.  My kids were small, so I wanted to balance home and work, and the company was starting from zero.  I wanted to create something simple, solid and grounded, to offer services that could truly help my clients create the future – individually and organizationally – that they most wanted for themselves.

For the second 10 years, we were focused on building a small business.  Jeff joined Proteus in 2000, and we began, slowly, to add consultants and staff and to clarify our offer. I started writing books to share and codify our unique IP, and we began to create a business infrastructure.

Now, in this 3rd ten years, we’re building an enterprise. We’re focusing on how to grow it significantly while maintaining the core elements that make us uniquely valuable to our clients. We’re getting much more organized and intentional about processes and priorities, and thinking deeply about what to carry forward, what to change, what to let go of, what to build.

Shared experience with others = better able to help them…

One of the very cool things I’m noticing about this: as Proteus grows, our experience becomes even more applicable to our clients’ world. As a company, we’re now dealing with the problems and opportunities they face every day. And because we always try to practice what we preach, we can test drive our skills, guidelines and recommendations in our own business as we employ them with our clients.

One of the first pieces of advice I heard about writing was “write what you know.”  I’m seeing now the business version of that truism: it’s generally most useful to teach, coach, manage and consult based on what you know.  Not just what you know intellectually, but what you’ve lived through and know how to do.  When I encourage a course of action based on my own personal experience, I can offer so much more support to my client – not only here’s my suggestion, but also here’s how it works, here’s what to watch out for, here’s what you might have to do after that.

And I believe the same is true for any manager or leader.  If you speak to your folks from your own experience, and behave as you expect them to behave – not only will they be more likely to accept your counsel and guidance, it will simply be better.  It will be grounded practically and empirically, tested in the fire of your own life.

So here’s to gaining real-world experience, and here’s to passing it on.

Very warmly,


Posted in Insider List


Work, Love and Poetry – 02/04/13

Just over 20 years ago I read a wonderful little book called Love and Profit by Jim Autry.  The title caught my eye as I was walking through a bookstore; I opened it to the first page of the introduction, and it snared me completely:

“First, a few straightforward statements about some of my beliefs regarding work and management:

  1. Work can provide the opportunity for spiritual and personal, as well as financial, growth.  If it doesn’t, then we’re wasting far too much of our lives on it.
  2. The workplace is rapidly becoming a new neighborhood, and American businesspeople are helping make it happen.
  3. Good management is largely a matter of love.  Or if you’re uncomfortable with that word, call it caring, because proper management involves caring for people, not manipulating them.

Those who have read this far and think what I’ve said is too crazy for business should stop reading now.”

Jim had recently retired as CEO of the Meredith Corporation; I had just started Proteus.  I was thrilled and inspired to know that there were successful executives who felt this way. I had hoped it was true; they were the ones with whom I wanted to work.  I sent a copy of the book to Leo Kiely, at that time the newly hired President of Coors Brewing; it resonated for him as it had for me.  Leo worked with Proteus for many years – he was one of first “caring-focused” CEO clients.

Keep Your Standards High…

The moral of this story: trust that work, and your work relationships, can be what you want them to be.  You can have trust, transparency, honesty, affection, curiosity, and joy at work.  Not everyone wants that – but some people do.  You can find them.

And for your reflection, two haikus about what’s possible:

Imagine a world
Where all are paid a good wage
To do useful work

If bosses were fair
And cared about their people
Work life would be great

I invite you to focus on how to make this happen, rather than believing it can’t, or complaining about the fact that it doesn’t.

Very warmly,


Posted in Insider List


Odd Coincidence Department

Last night I was throwing out my Google net to see what I would catch.  I do this regularly: Google search terms that have to do with our business (“leading so people will follow,” “erika andersen,” “executive coaching”, etc.) just to see what’s out there, and to respond when appropriate.

So I googled “proteus” and the first few entries that came up were about a newly released online game called Proteus.  It sounded intriguing, so I bought it ($10 on their website, if you’re similarly intrigued.)

It’s a little hard to explain; you use your mouse pad to wander around and explore a world of islands and seas.  It’s extremely primitive graphically (think early 80s pixelated video games), but somehow it seems more like the beauty of a primitivist painting than programming laziness.  Each island has its own character and background music, and little pixel creatures who make their own sounds and do their own activities. There don’t seem to be any clear rules or objectives; you explore and see what happens.  I haven’t spent much time in Proteus-land (remember, I just bought it last night), but the only cause-and-effect thing I’ve noticed so far was when I got onto an island that had lots of weather (rain, wind, rapidly moving clouds overhead – hauntingly beautiful), I discovered that I couldn’t move against the wind.  And when I moved into what looked like a little dust-devil circle on the ground, I was transported to another island.

Because this is how my brain is wired, as I played, I was looking for similarities to “my” Proteus. There were a lot of dissimilarities: most of our work with clients is pretty goal and outcome focused.  We help clients get clear about where they want to go and who they want to be, and help them build the capability or walk down the path to get there.

But then I noticed, as I moved around the world of Proteus, that I felt soothed and focused, drawn in, and very, very curious. Which are actually some of the effects I hope that we have on clients.  And when I looked at some of the reviews on the site, I thought, These are some of the things clients say about us. I especially loved these two:

What surprised me most about Proteus was I found myself going back to it over and over. There’s something delightfully intoxicating about it.

…you definitely will want to explore Proteus’s island – trust us on that.


I like to think that we also create an environment that’s attractive to people, where they feel safe, and calmed.  In our case, though, it’s a means to an end: it’s for the purpose of then breaking new ground, being illuminated and strengthened to live the lives and create the enterprises they want.

Maybe they’ll develop Proteus II, Leader Readiness…