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 the ‘News’ Category

Nov
5

Why We Think Learning Is Boring

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about learning: how we learn, especially as adults; why the ability to learn well and easily is so important now; what gets in the way of our learning.

And one thing I’m noticing is that most people have a rather limited and not-very-positive view of the word “learning.”  For instance, I’ve noticed that if I put “learning” in the title of a post at Forbes, I get – at best – a couple of hundred page views. If I then go back and change the title, removing “learning” and substituting a phrase like “How to….” or “5 Ways You Can….”, the page views jump dramatically.

So I’ve started asking people what they think of when I say “learning.” Generally among the first few words out of their mouths:  “school,” “boring,” “classroom,” and “teachers.”  As a result, I’ve come to believe that for many (most?) of us, our associations with learning have been deeply tainted by our early, negative associations with schooling:  our memories of being scrunched into uncomfortable desks with a bunch of other bored 9-year-olds while some boring grown-up drones on about something that’s infinitely less interesting than whatever is going on outside the windows of our too-warm, over-crowded classroom.

And it’s really unfortunate, because – in the words of Arie De Geus – “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”  I’ve come to believe that this is true not only organizationally, but personally as well.  In this highly disruptive, fast-changing era, people who master the art of learning new things quickly and well have a tremendous advantage. Emerging technologies? Changed business models? Different employee expectations? New ways of working globally? Cultural mash-ups?

All doable if you’re a kick-ass learner.

To find out how to be a truly excellent learner, go back before you got stuck into school, and think about how you were as a little kid.  Since lots of people don’t have much memory of themselves at this age, I’ll remind you.  Little kids are driven to learn.  They want, deeply, to be like the bigger kids and grown-ups they see all around them. It’s aspiration in the simplest, most direct sense. It’s also a powerful survival mechanism – from the beginnings of humanity until a few hundred years ago, the children who most quickly became skillful, contributing members of the tribe were most likely to live and reproduce.

And the impulse that focuses this aspiration to learn, that catalyzes real change in understanding, is curiosity. Anyone who has ever been around a 4-year-old has experienced this firsthand:  Why?  How did that happen? Does that always happen? Is that a good thing? What if I did that? Can I do it? Why not? It can be exhausting to the adults involved, but it’s a remarkably effective way to figure out the world, how it works, and one’s place in it. Curiosity is the impulse to understand. It’s part of that survival mechanism – understanding our environment as deeply as possible is key, not only to not getting killed by some aspect of that environment, but also to using what’s available in that environment to increase the likelihood of our safety, comfort and health.

There are two other things that kids have (at least when they’re little) that we tend to lose as adults: they’re willing to admit when they don’t know something, and they don’t care about making mistakes.  We call those learning capabilities neutral self-awareness and willingness to be bad first.

Learning language is a great example: “What’s that?” my granddaughter asked me last summer, pointing at a radish I’d just pulled from the garden. “It’s a radish,” I replied, handing it to her. “Rabish,”  she said with satisfaction, inspecting it. “Radish,” I repeated.  But she couldn’t quite get that combination of letters – and didn’t really care. Her focus was on pure acquisition of understanding, and she wasn’t at all embarrassed about her difficulty with the pronunciation, as an adult would have been.

I’m deeply convinced that if we, as adults, can re-connect with those four childhood capabilities – aspiration, neutral self-awareness, endless curiosity and willingness to be bad first – we will be far more successful at navigating through this ever-changing world.

I’m planning on writing my next book about this whole arena, so I’d love to hear your stories of how you used any of these four capabilities to get better at something, to develop a completely new skill, or to find out about something you didn’t know.  I’ll also be writing about this at Forbes, so if the topic interests you, please join us over there as well.

And as always, thank you for reading…it inspires me to get as clear as I can about what I observe and experience, so I can share it with you as usefully as possible.


Oct
15

Caught By The Wind: When The Familiar Changes

Just this week we had our annual Proteus company meeting – something we’ve done every fall for many years.  I believe it was the best one so far: great energy; lots of fun; useful conversations and clarifications; really good connections among all of us.  But for me, the most wonderful thing was this: I didn’t make the arrangements; I didn’t manage getting everyone there; and I didn’t run most of the meeting.

My excellent team members did much of the heavy lifting, and I showed up with everyone else and participated.

My job as co-CEO of Proteus has changed dramatically over the past year or so, and I’m
very excited about it.  The metaphor I’ve been using in describing the change: for 20+ years, I felt like I was running with a kite, trying to get it up in the air.  Now, the wind has caught the kite, and my job consists of paying out the line, keeping the proper amount of tension on it so that the kite stays in the air and can go higher and higher.

The ‘wind’ is composed of a better-than-ever team of smart, well-intentioned, skilled people; better and better internal processes for doing our work; ever-more-clearly-developed and useful IP; and a wonderful momentum of satisfied and vocal clients who keep calling us back and referring us to others.

So even though I’ve had the same job on paper for 23 years, “Founding Partner and CEO” of Proteus is very different now than it was even a few years ago.

And I’m seeing that the most important way for me to make this shift is to talk less, listen more, and get very curious. In fact, I think that’s key to making any shift, but it’s especially important when something you think you know very well is shifting under you.

When we’re involved in learning something brand new to us, we tend to come in with a helpful “novice” mindset: e.g., “I don’t know know much about this; there’s a lot I need to find out.” That mindset moves us in the direction of listening and curiosity. Unfortunately, when it’s time to learn something in an area where we already think we’re experts (e.g., doing our job, running our company, raising our kids), we tend to be much less open and curious, much more focused on how it should be, on what we know (or think we do), and on telling others what we know and how it should be!

I suspect that, in today’s world, most people’s jobs change pretty significantly from one year to the next, and that no matter how long you’ve been in a particular job or company, it’s probably a good idea to come in every day with that learner’s mindset.

Michelangelo, arguably one of the most brilliant and productive people in Western history, had a stock response he used throughout his life whenever people complimented him on an achievement or an idea: he said, “Ancora imparo” – “I am still learning.”

If it’s good enough for Michelangelo, it’s good enough for me.


Sep
17

You Had It Right When You Were Two Years Old…

My daughter just put something wonderful on facebook the other day.  It’s about 7 minutes long, but I strongly encourage you to watch at least the first 5 minutes. Then we’ll talk about it…

I love this so much. I had no idea such a thing existed, and I’m truly fond of finding out new stuff.

I have an almost childlike joy, a sense of excitement and wonder, at discovering new things. I feel very fortunate to have retained this quality as an adult; I believe we are all born with it (watch any two-year-old exploring a new object), but too many of us have it thoroughly socialized out of us early on. We’re told that our enthusiasm is childish; we’re made fun of for not knowing things; we watch others (parents and teachers especially) act as though grown-ups are supposed to know everything…and our openness to and enjoyment of new learning gets squashed.

I used to work with someone who simply refused to acknowledge when she was hearing new information.  Whenever I would tell her something that I was nearly positive she didn’t know, based either on things she had said or ways I’d observed her behaving, she had one of two responses.  The first was, “Yes, that’s just like this other thing (that I’m very familiar with)” – even if it wasn’t at all like that other thing.  I believe her deep aversion to admitting that she didn’t know something caused her to unconsciously shoehorn new information into old frameworks, just so she could claim prior knowledge.  Her other response was simple rejection; she just wouldn’t accept the new idea or information.  Sometimes she would voice her disagreement, but more often she would simply purse her lips and look disapproving.  Over the years, I came to understand it as her “this is a crock and I’m not buying it for a minute” look.

Both of those responses kept her effectively blocked from learning.  Over the many years we worked together, I saw how painfully slow and difficult it was for her to open up to new colleagues, acquire new skills, change her mind, see another’s perspective, acknowledge changes in other people or the business.  In fact, she finally left the organization because she was unwilling or unable to make a major change that was being asked of her.

Are you in touch with your own wonder?  Here’s a way to find out. Reflect on how you felt as you were watching the video above, and then answer these four questions:

•    On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Whatever, dude,” and 10 being “Holy crap!”  how impressed were you by what you saw?

•    On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “I pretty much knew that,” and 10 being “I had no frigging idea,” what were you thinking as you watched this? (Recuse yourself from this question if you’re a) a physicist, b) a glassblower, or c) the maker of the video.)

•    On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Huh,” and 10 being “I can’t wait to show this to somebody,” how excited were you about sharing your learning?

•    On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all, and 10 being a lot, how happy/excited were you to find out there was such a thing as a Prince Rupert’s Drop?

Because, in my mind, these are the key elements of childlike wonder: being impressed and charmed by new learning; being willing to admit that it’s new to you; and wanting to pass it on.

But why does this matter?  I think it’s key to success in the world today. If wonder is your primary reaction to new skills, new knowledge, and new possibilities, you’ll be much more likely to thrive in this time of ours where massive, disruptive change is a constant, and where roughly 95% of all human knowledge has been discovered since World War II.

So: re-engage your inner two-year-old, and have at it.


Jun
14

Bundles of Pure Potential

Charlie & GrameeMy second grandchild was born last week – Charlotte Autumn Van Carpels.  And when I met her, I was stunned (as I always am by babies, but it’s even more stunning when they’re somehow related to you) by her unsullied beauty and sweetness.  As I held her in my arms, I thought about all the possibilities ahead of her: a hundred years of learning, love, accomplishment, joy and insight.  The future world she’ll both be a citizen of and help to create.

It’s made me reflect on the traditional Christian doctrine of ‘original sin,’ the idea that all humans are born in a state of sinfulness, based on Adam’s fall from grace in Eden. I’ve never been able to understand this; it just doesn’t resonate with my experience of babies and young children. Looking into Charlotte’s gorgeous little face, I could only think: this is innocence and purity. In fact, my main impulse toward her is to do whatever I can to help her maintain some portion of that marvelous simplicity and light intact as she grows.

She seems to me to be a bundle of purest potential: full to bursting with life; her curiosity ready to be engaged; surrounded by a thousand thousand circumstances, objects and people that can ignite the process of her personal evolution.

And I like to think that we are all still that, 10 or 30 or 70 years later: bundles of potential, able to keep reaching new levels of understanding throughout our lives.  I believe we stop ourselves, assuming that we’re too old, too big, too stuck, too tired.

But what if those 2nd century Christians had it exactly backwards: that instead of coming into this world tainted with sin, having to work our way painfully to some state of grace, we arrive in the most complete and lovely state of grace, and have the possibility of staying at least partly in that state while we figure out how to acquire the knowledge, insight, skills, experience and capability to live our best and most satisfying life.

Looking at Charlotte, I believe that’s true.


Apr
15

Invite Inspiration…

Last week my “co-mom” Becky  Fall put this marvelous video on her facebook page. [BTW, Becky is my daughter Rachel’s mother-in-law, and when Rachel and Becky’s son Will got married 5 years ago, we realized there was no word (at least in English) for our relationship to each other, so we coined one: “co-mom.”]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n1GtOaL7XU

I found it hugely inspiring; I fully intend – barring illness or death – to be as active, loving and full of interest and joy in my nineties as Ms. Porchon-Lynch.  It’s wonderful to see it in action; it makes my intention seem more grounded in reality, more achievable.

And it made me realize how helpful it is, when you’re trying to do something that defies common wisdom, to know that others have done it.  It’s much easier for us to break through to a new possibility if we have even a single example of it being possible.

A few weeks ago I was talking to my son-in-law to be (my other daughter’s fiance) about this – he was saying that he felt most people were stuck in old ways of living and thinking, and that even if there were a few innovators here and there, it didn’t really matter.  I disagreed, saying that I see each of those “few innovators” as having a huge ripple effect of positive influence on society.  I gave him the example of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile. Before Bannister’s achievement, in 1954, it was widely believed that running a mile in less than 4 minutes was physiologically impossible.  The record for the fastest running of the mile had been stuck at just over 4 minutes for 9 years.

Once Bannister broke that record (on May 6, 1954, running a mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds), it was only 46 days till someone else broke that record – the psychological barrier was down.

So if you want to do something that most people think is unlikely, or even impossible – be vital and active in your 90s; become a great leader if you’re not a “born” leader; start a successful business without much (or any) business experience…find all the examples you can of others who are actually doing it.

And break through.


Mar
20

The Healing Power of Story

A colleague of mine sent me a really interesting article from the NYT other other day, about the importance of ‘shared narrative’ in making people emotionally healthy. About 20 years ago, some researchers noted that kids who knew a lot about their own families tended to do better in challenging situations.  They then created something they called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children 20 questions, such as, “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know the story of your birth?”

It turned out that the “Do You Know?” questionnaire was an astonishingly accurate predictor.  The article goes on to say, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

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This reinforced a deep personal intuition I’ve always had as a parent: when my kids were small, we spent time talking about my parents and siblings; the experiences I’d had growing up; how their dad and I met; what we did in the world of work.  We also talked about what they had been like as babies and small children, how they were alike and different from other members of the family.  Finally, we told them about difficult things that had happened, and trials and tribulations overcome.  Somehow I knew this was an important conversation for them to be a part of – and I was often surprised and saddened by how little the kids’ friends knew about their  families: they often didn’t even know what their parents did for a living.  We’re continuing that into the next generation, telling our granddaughter stories about ourselves and those who came before.

But it also reinforces something I’ve observed as a business consultant for the last thirty years: companies and teams that have a strong, mainly positive shared narrative about themselves also tend to be healthier, more flexible and more resilient in response to difficulty. For example, we worked with someone last year to help us further clarify our Proteus brand.  She interviewed a number of staff members and consultants to find out about our current understanding of our own brand.  And one thing she found is that each of us said very much thing same thing about what it was like working as part of our team, how we treat each other and our clients, what’s important to us.  In other words, even though we needed to get crisper about our brand communication (we did), we had a really strong, consistent shared narrative about Proteus and ourselves as “Proteans.”  I feel the power of that every day: it draws us together and helps us overcome the challenges of distance, the inevitable misunderstandings and disappointments of human interaction, and the ups and downs of growing a business.

We’ve been gathering around the campfire to share our stories since time immemorial…and it sounds like we need to keep doing it.


Jan
15

An Exaltation of Larks

There’s a name for phrases like this: in the English language, collective nouns for groups of a specific animal are called “terms of venery.”  For instance, “a pride of lions,” or “a gaggle of geese.”  As I understand it, this tradition began in Europe in the middle ages – and it became a fun and fashionable thing to do to create whimsical and ever-more-exotic terms of venery.  In fact, in the 15th century there was even a fad for extending terms of venery to groups of human beings (“a sentence of judges,” “a melody of harpers”).

Some of these terms are simply wonderful.  “An exaltation of larks”  is one of my favorites, but I also like “a murder of crows” and “a clowder of cats.”  I love how these terms were created to capture some essential quality of the animal described.

Over the past couple of days, I was in Austin to attend 800CEOREAD’s Author Pow Wow – an absolutely marvelous, fun, useful yearly conference of business book authors and the people who support and partner with us in the creation of our books: publishers, publicists, social media consultants, presentation skills experts, ghostwriters, agents.

It’s so great.  Spending two days with 40 smart, curious, funny, collaborative people who are trying to figure out how to teach and share important ideas in an industry that’s changing faster than we can name the changes: Exhilarating. Inspiring. Reassuring.

So, my extreme thanks to 800CEOREAD, and Pow Wow sponsors Cave Henricks Communications, Shelton Interactive, and Greenleaf Book Group.

And I’ve decided that the proper term for our Pow Wow group is “an insight of business book authors.”


Jan
10

Six Years and Counting

I started this blog six years ago today (time flies when you’re having fun…)  on the advice of a young publicist who worked for the publisher of my first book, Growing Great Employees, which had just been launched.  I remember clearly being daunted by the suggestion: I knew what a blog was, I had actually read some blogs.  But to create my own?

She recommended that I go to TypePad, where there was a really good, remarkably simple set-up-your-own-blog tutorial. A few hours later: voila!  Blogging!

So here we are, six years later, and social media is not only not daunting to me – it’s fascinating, fun and useful.  My social media platform  has become a big part of my brand – this blog, my Forbes blog, twitter, facebook, the Insider List, our LinkedIn group, Pinterest – and a great way to interact with people who share an interest in our work around leader readiness.  A big change in a fairly short period of time.

But, on the other hand, some things are remarkably consistent over time.  My initial post was about Robert Nardelli, who had just gotten fired from Home Depot. And even that specific situation is no longer current, the point of the article (that leaders ignore the “people part” of business at their peril) is still completely relevant. An excerpt:

At the same time, we’ve relegated the actual nuts-and-bolts people part of leadership – finding great people, bringing them into the organization well, providing them with the skills and knowledge they need in order to support the organization’s success – to a kind of second-class citizenship; it’s there, but it’s not nearly as interesting or sexy. Even though we all nodded wisely when Jim Collins told us, in Good to Great, that the first task of a “Level 5 Leader” is to get the right people on the bus, sitting in the right seats (yes, we knew that! we said to each other), we still behave as though people management is a kind of necessary evil; something that middle managers do when they’re not doing their real jobs. Company sloganeering about “people are our most important asset” and “we grow and develop our people” aside, people leadership is just not that cool these days. Executives even say, disparagingly, of other executives, “Well, I guess he or she is a good manager” – implying that the person is a plodder, not innovative, not much of a leader.

I wrote a post a few months ago at Forbes titled “Manage or Lead? Do Both.” – making pretty much the same point.

In other words, 6 years and over 400 posts later, even though social media has evolved dramatically, creating new business opportunities and consumar expectations in its wake; even though the entire media landscape overall is morphing even as we speak; even though national and global economies are transforming; even though a new generation is coming of age…still, the core elements of leading and managing remain the same – they’re based on timeless human needs and aspirations.

In fact, I’ll make a prediction: I believe that six years from now I’ll still be writing about managing and leading well, in a way that inspires and elicits people’s best, that builds strong teams and organizations and creates great results. I’ll be talking about why it’s important, what gets in the way, and how to do it. I’ll be inviting you to share your experiences and insights as well, so we can all keep developing our understanding and putting it into practice.

I’ll see you there…


Dec
12

Why I Love Talking About Leadership

[NOTE: To all my long-time readers who are used to seeing a post from me at least once a week; we got hacked and had to clean and move the site – it took a while.  My apologies!]

Last week I did an interview about Leading So People Will Follow with Wayne Hurlburt on Blog Talk Radio. Wayne has interviewed me for each of my books, and it’s always a great conversation: he asks thoughtful, insightful questions, and he’s genuinely curious about the answers. Unlike a lot of interviewers, he reads his authors’ books thoroughly and tries to make a personal connection with what he reads…it makes for a great interview.

And I realized, as we were talking – I love talking about leadership.

Here’s why.  If you define leadership, very broadly, as influencing and guiding others toward a positive outcome, then we’re each called upon to lead in various ways throughout our lives.  The opportunity, and the responsibility, to lead well is an intrinsic part of the human condition.  Learning to lead well is critical to success – ours, our followers, our enterprises of all kinds.  It’s really important to help people do it as well as possible.

Those are the rational reasons.  The heart reason, the thing that makes talking about leadership feel like singing, at least to me, is: leadership is a noble endeavor that – done well – calls out the best in us.  It allows us to operate on all cylinders, to inspire and enable people to work together to go beyond their individual limitations and achieve great things.

I love helping people become the best leaders they can be. I get huge satisfaction from supporting people to understand the power of leadership, and their own potential to be leaders, and then offering them the tools they need to undertake that important journey.

So thanks to Wayne, and to all my interviewers, clients, colleagues and readers, who give me the opportunity to sing every day.


Nov
27

Beauty and Collaboration Through Technology

A friend just sent me a very lovely thing the other day.  It’s a ‘virtual choir’ performance of Water Night, a piece of music composed and conducted by Eric Whitacre.

What’s a virtual choir, you might ask?  In this case, it’s over 3,000 people from all over the world, each recording his or her part of the piece individually.  Then the individual voices are edited all together to form a musical whole.  Whitacre sent out an instructional video beforehand, first offering performance information (insights and direction about tempo, expression, style, diction, etc.), then conducting the piece for each singer to use as a guide in recording his or her part.

It’s an amazing accomplishment overall, and there are many wonderful individual stories contained in the creation of it, as well. A women whose village in Africa didn’t have internet spent two days downloading Whitacre’s conducting onto her cell phone. A man whose eyesight had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer see a regular conductor was able to sit close to the screen and blow up Whitacre’s image enough to follow his conducting. A woman who sat in hospice holding her mother’s hand while she recorded her part.

And the result is spine-tingling gorgeous, both aurally and visually. In the video, the thumbnails of the thousands of singers build into  a wall of faces before Whitacre as he conducts and as the haunting harmonies develop.

How marvelous that we can use technology not only to do things faster, better, cheaper – but to create new kinds of beauty, as well.