Will Bachman: Hey there podcast listeners, welcome to Unleashed, the podcast that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top-tier independent management consultants. Umbrex is short for UMBRella of EXcellence, and the mission of Umbrex is to create opportunities for independent consultants to meet, build relationships, share lessons learned, and collaborate. You can learn more at umbrex.com, that’s U-M-B-R-E-X. I’m your host, Will Bachman, and I’d love your feedback on the show, and questions you’d like to see us investigate. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our guest today is Ravi Rao. He is a neuroscientist, a alum of McKinsey & Company. He’s been an independent consultant for about a decade. If you meet him in person he might tell you that his name is like ravioli without the oli, as a mnemonic. He is the author of Emotional Business, and today we talk about purple hair. Talk about emotions in business. How to diagnose the level of trust in an organization, and Ravi’s work, a bunch of other stuff. I really enjoyed my conversation with Ravi, and I hope you do too.
Hey Ravi, thank you so much for joining. I’m really excited for this discussion.
Ravi Rao: Happy to be here Will.
Will Bachman: Awesome, so first Ravi, before we dive into some of the more business related stuff. I got to ask you, tell us about the purple hair.
Ravi Rao: Oh gosh Will, when I was 15 I told my teachers and my parents, “I am going to be an actor.” “I am going to be a playwright.” “I’m going to do something deeply creative.” And that was my natural personality, and I think teachers who knew me well understood that’s who I was, but in the mid-1980s, in the Midwest, to say being a brown-skinned teenage kid that you’re going to become an actor, people sort of looked at that sort of with a bit of skepticism to say, “What kind of parts can you get. You can’t do Macbeth. You can’t do Richard III,” and I said, “Why not?” And at that point it was still a, “Well, that’s not who we usually see doing those parts.”
So the next thing I know it’s 30 years later, and I have followed traditional paths. I have gone to college and graduate school and went to work in one occupation and then went … It was very traditional, and then went to McKinsey Consulting which was also very traditional, but that creative bent was always there. Suddenly I’m 46 and in LA about a year ago, and I’m 48 now, and I was going to try to reboot my life and say, “I want to be an actor.”
So in doing so people kept saying to me, “Well, you don’t look very creative,” and that again caused by this, what does it mean to not look creative? “Well, you just got a very traditional conservative look and I can’t see you doing comedy. I can’t see you doing all these other things,” and then I would tell a joke and they’d be like, “Oh, you’re funny. I didn’t think you’d be funny,” so then I said, “Well what does somebody creative look like?” And people started to give me examples, and one of the things I noticed was they had something atypical about them. They had something kind of eye catching about them.
So I don’t live very far from the West Hollywood neighborhood in Los Angeles, and there’s a bunch of hair salons up and down Melrose, and not far from where Melrose Place used to take place in that TV show many years ago, and I walked into a salon and said, “I want to look totally different,” and this very vibrant hair stylist said, “Let’s go turquoise or purple,” and I said, “Let’s go purple.” So I did that. Now it’s interesting, I decided very recently, I cut my hair very recently, so the purple is gone for the moment, but now everybody who I’ve met in auditions and going to acting things in LA it’s like, “Where did the purple hair go? We want it back. We want it back.”
So I’m like, okay so I’m growing the hair back now. It’ll hopefully be purple by this summer.
Will Bachman: That’s awesome. I think that you’re a fan of Seth Godin. I’m a huge fan of Seth Godin, and one of his books was the Purple Cow and I thought man, Ravi has taken that a little bit too literally with the purple hair consultant.
Ravi Rao: Indeed.
Will Bachman: Hey, so one of the things that really stuck with me, so last year you presented … led a session at top-tier New York, that I’d organized, and at the time I think some of the people might have rolled their eyes a little bit. You led a session for grown-up management consultants professionals on how to shake hands. Some of the people might have rolled their eyes a little bit, but I got to tell you, that has stuck with me over the past year, and every single time I shake someone’s hand now I’m thinking about that session, and it’s changed the way I interact with people, and I am also much more noticing how other people shake hands, and how they don’t do all those things that you taught us to.
Just before we kind of get into your bio and so forth and all that, tell us a little bit about that session that you led and why you chose to do handshaking as an entree into kind of the world of emotions and business.
Ravi Rao: Sure, well I’m happy to hear that the session was meaningful. My goal always in every workshop session I’ll do with clients or with any audience is to actually allow people to have something that creates a breakthrough for them. It’s actually sort of disappointing for me, I feel like I have failed an audience if people walk out saying, “Oh, that was intellectually interesting. I have gotten a chance to think about something differently.” To me, I have not done enough. If someone says, “Wow, a year later can still remember that I’m going to actually change something about the very nature of the way I interact with others,” then that’s hugely rewarding for me, so I appreciate you sharing that back to me.
The nature of what I had started to realize while doing management consulting work is we typically will categorize challenges an organization has into different buckets. We’ll say, “Okay, this organization. These clients or personnel. This particular question. This is really a strategy issue. They have to figure out what the risks are. What the cost benefits are.” For other times it’s not a strategy issue, it’s a systems issue, so I trigger out the right technology, the right operations.
But I was always curious that even when I was at a large firm and then on my own, people would periodically run into this issue of well actually not anything technical or structural or something that a traditional consultant would address. It’s actually fundamental that these people don’t trust each other. These people won’t interact in such a way that they can make decisions with a basic premise if they’re in it together, and that was undermining one client I saw more than 10 years ago, then I started to notice it’s actually affecting a lot of different clients.
We’ll come in and we’ll do fantastic strategy work and everything, but it never gets implemented or it doesn’t get implemented in a way that creates value, and it’s typically because we create layers of workarounds and other undermining problems when we actually don’t trust each other. So when I started to try to figure out what creates trust? What is that? And I wasn’t satisfied with this kind of ethereal, squishy notion of, “Oh it just means we all can get along and we can fall backwards and people are going to catch us.”
I get that there’s a value in doing such exercises but I come from still a technical educational background, and so I was looking at this trying to understand, well what is it? What is that thing? And I started then an exploration to realize that it comes down to very basic human behaviors that are wired into the brain, and once I started to understand what those are, things like the way we use touch. Things like when we slow down our speech when speaking to someone for the first time. Like how we make eye contact.
One of the techniques, I’m sure you’ll remember, is when you make eye contact with someone for the first time, you shouldn’t just sort of look them in the eye, everybody can do that. My standard is if you can’t tell me what eye color they have, is it a dark brown? Light brown? Light blue? Greenish? Then you haven’t made enough eye contact, just simple things like that. When I started to observe people who were described as, “Oh so trustworthy. Oh so trustworthy.” Or, “Wow, I feel like I’m the only person in the room when they’re talking to me.”
I started to try to figure out, what is it that they are doing to create that effect where other people don’t? I came upon this set of behaviors, and so now just as a very basic element of how do you try to actually transform organizations to improve their emotional capabilities? To improve their trust in order to then to create innovation, to create value creation et cetera. It starts with some of these basic building blocks, and so I’m so happy to hear that it was meaningful for the audience with Umbrex, but I’m also very gratified that client after client, learning some of these basic behaviors, which interestingly children do instinctively, but then are told stop doing many of these things, because they have to conform with other adult expectations.
So it’s actually about relearning things that our brains would do instinctively anyway.
Will Bachman: Yeah I got to say, your session just made me so much more mindful and observant of it, that now you shake someone’s hand and you just notice how while they’re shaking their hand they’re already looking away, looking at something else, trying to figure out what’s next. If people get nothing else out of this discussion here, what’s sort of the four or five pointers that you gave us, if you can kind of just summarize. Summarize what were those four or five pointers?
Ravi Rao: Sure, so if you’re at a networking event, if you’re at a first time meeting a group of clients when you’re at a new project, there are five basic things you can do that will … even though the person may not recognize it, will actually create physiological effects in that person’s brain to allow them to trust you, and those five things are eye contact, smiling, slowing down when you speak, using intonational musicality, sort of a cadence up and down, and touch. So when we meet somebody for the first time, we want to make eye contact. Eye contact that is strong enough that you can tell what their eye color is, and that they feel like you’re not distracted.
The absolute worst thing is to be shaking somebody’s hand, meeting them for the first and looking in another direction, even if you’re easily distracted. Having the discipline to look at them and make them the sole focus of your attention for just that half a second or full second. Smiling, particularly when you say the other person’s name, “Robert, nice to meet you. I’m Will.” The third thing then is to slow down when we speak, particularly if we’re meeting people from a cross-cultural or international type cross-section.
One of the difficulties is somebody whose native language is Mandarin, is not going to easily be understood speaking English by somebody whose native language is Swahili, and so one of the things we can do is to just create small pauses in between our words to enunciate them, to give some extra little bits of time for the other person’s brain to take it in. Musicality prevents it from being monotone so, “Hello my name is Ravi. I’m from Los Angeles. I do this kind of consulting blah blah blah.” People are already tuning out like, “Oh, when is this guy going to stop talking.”
But to use sort of pitch raises and then to bring it down. To create some volume crescendos and then to break it softer, these are techniques actually that actors use, but it’s how we keep an ear and audience engaged. Then the last one is touch, that is the firmness of the handshake should create more than just like, “Okay, I have an obligatory handshake here.” But it actually creates some degree of physical messaging by the way we shake the hand. That is not only the firmness of the handshake but then what is your other hand doing, touching the elbow, touching the shoulder, reinforcing kind of the pressure on the person’s wrist.
These techniques are just creating that extra amount of focus, intensity and contact, along with the smiling and the slowing down of speech and the musicality et cetera, these all together create this impact. And people say, “Well where did you get this list from? Did you scour the academic journals to find that these are the five most researched things that have been proven statistically?” And I’ll be very honest I’ll say, “No, where I got this from was trying to understand what is happening in the brain.” And the neatest way to know what’s happening in a human brain is to watch brand-new brains that aren’t a year old yet, in other words, watch babies.
And as we watch babies, what we see consistently across every culture, doesn’t matter if you’re in Moscow or Mumbai or Minneapolis, is that babies respond to the same five things. They respond to eye contact. They respond to smiling. They prefer it when adults speak slower, they’re more engaged. They like musicality of tone, and they like being touched when being spoken to. So even when we are talking to a small baby in any culture, in any language, parents, adults do the same thing. We do these five things, we look at the baby, we smile and we say things like, “Oh, you have a poopy diaper,” and it sounds silly to do it, but every culture does it in every language, and it’s because there’s something fundamental about these five behaviors in the human brain that allows us to trust someone.
And this one is building blocks with you, this little bit with new people, it then opens up the ability to share ideas which will lead to innovation. It opens up the ability to have people talk about what is going to go wrong, so we don’t get blindsided by risks, but if we don’t fundamentally have that good first impression that, “Okay, I can trust this person and go from here,” at the beginning, instead we build up all kinds of systems and walls and countermeasures to make sure we’re protected because we don’t trust the person.
We’re spending so much time creating those countermeasures in case of the person screwing us over. We don’t have enough time or effort or resources to then actually collaborate with the person, and that happens over and over again for consultants. It happens over and over again internally in teams, and so if we can change some of these basic dynamics of trust and how people collaborate by literally rewriting their behaviors of how they connect with one another when they meet them for the first time. We can start to move gradually the entire direction of an organization.
Will Bachman: Yeah, that’s very powerful. So Ravi you’re talking about how children’s, how an infant’s brain works, and this is not something that you just kind of picked up from a magazine, I know you researched this. Maybe just use this as a pivot, could you kind of walk us through kind of a snapshot, a thumbnail of your career from the time when … researcher through McKinsey, and kind of your path to becoming an independent consultant, and then we can kind of dive into some of the project type work that you do. Just kind of give us an overview.
Ravi Rao: Sure, the usual path for most consultants is major in something business-related as an undergraduate student, get an MBA at some point, and have work experience in the variety of corporate settings or startup settings, and then go from there. My path was atypical, not unusual or rare these days, I think there are more people coming from atypical paths, but mine happened to be that in the ’90s after finishing college I went through four years of medical school. I also then did research in brain injury in children. Earning a PhD from that, from Johns Hopkins, and then I actually began the process of becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon.
So I did a couple years of residency at Harvard, at the Children’s Hospital of Boston, where I was just the junior guy, not a professor or not a full-fledged faculty member, not in practice yet, but simply just in the training program. After a couple years I realized clinical work wasn’t the right path for me, but that was nine years into the process, after college of learning and understanding the brain. From there I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew clinical medicine wasn’t the right place, but as it turns out, fortuitous set of happenings and meetings, it was really great for me that I happen to meet someone who was from McKinsey, and when he talked to me, the next thing I knew, I was applying and then I spent five years at McKinsey.
What was interesting was as much as I so valued and truly really cherished all the learnings about economics and finance and business operations, things I had never learned because I hadn’t been to business school. I found such value in just understanding human, from the way we construct these paradigms. From there, after spending five years at McKinsey, I realized I wanted to somehow integrate management consulting with what I knew about the emotional nature of the brain. One of the big lessons for me in the ’90s when I was going through all that clinical training is wow, emotion does not happen in the heart. As much as we say things, “I love you with my heart,” and, “Oh, you have such a good heart,” and, “When you left me, you broke my heart.”
The heart is a muscular pump that gets blood to organs, but things like love and connection and understanding and empathy, these don’t happen in the chest, they happen in the brain. And so understanding the nature of the brain, which is it’s always adapting. It’s always learning. It’s always improving. It’s always shifting in dynamic. That ability to shift means that we can also change the nature of people’s emotional capabilities, so I left McKinsey in 2005 and created an independent practice, where my focus is, if you have a strategy question, great, here are five people I think you should call.
You have an operational need, I can help with that but here are the brilliant people to do it better, but after you’ve gone through towns and structure and process and all those other kinds of efforts to try to improve the performance of your organization, if things still just aren’t clicking, the question I will come and ask is, “Is it fundamentally an emotions and trust challenge?” I’ll come in with my own checklists of symptoms that reflect issues with trust and emotion, and if you got more than six or seven out of the nine, then what actually needs to happen is not restructure the organization or create a new strategy document or do some kind of alignment session between the leaders. But it’s actually they start to shape how people interact with each other, and what they do during those interactions, because that’s where I get brought in.
Sometimes it’s with a partner who’s a strategy consultant who says, “Look, you’ve got a great charge here but I don’t think there is a position to implement it yet, because they don’t trust each other.” I can be an adjunct person, supplement resource, but often it’s people who ask a basic question like a strategy question or an operations question or a structure question or a finance question and realize that for some reason that isn’t getting at what the real issue is, and that’s when people ask me to come in.
And when I’m brought in, I think it’s a little atypical but my first topics are not PowerPoint slides, my first topics are, let me just observe behavior here. Let’s talk about some of the fundamental behaviors, and so that behavioral approach and then actually correcting behavior as a means of creating value in an organization is sort of my niche area, and I’ve been very happily doing it now for about a decade.
Will Bachman: Yeah, and you told me Ravi, I know that really each one of your projects tends to be very different, so there’s not one standard thing, but could you maybe pick a case example for us and walk us through, to kind of give us a real-life example. Start with perhaps … just think of an example and give us a situation of what you found when you were brought in.
Ravi Rao: Sure, if we think about what I do from sort of … again I’m using this language as a means of contrast, but if we think about emotion and trust as somehow as some touchy-feely kumbaya singing thing that, “Oh yeah, we’ll do a little bit of that.” I heard one organization called it, “Oh yeah, we’ll do some enrichment activities.” Nobody wants this. The employees don’t want it. The leaders don’t want it. It feels forced down their throat, nobody wants. And in fact I don’t want to walk into a situation and do kumbaya singing, that doesn’t help anybody.
But what business situation I find tends to come up fairly often and expose trust and emotional issues as it relates to loss of business value is in post-merger integration settings, so I found a couple of times in really the last five years, where I’m brought in after a merger, after the initial dotting of the i’s crossing of the t’s, checking all the boxes. Making sure the systems are compatible, all the technical structural stuff gets done, somehow all the expected value that was supposed to be created out of the integration isn’t happening.
One specific example I can think of was for an organization in the life sciences space, creator of molecular drugs, and in that organization they had had a very active acquisition based philosophy. That is, they had their own molecules, they were doing things, but the organization at the time I encountered them and really has gone through a major period over about four or five years of acquiring a lot of other smaller groups, and not just smaller groups of similar style but of different molecules and different therapeutic areas and vast across geographic diversity as well, those in the Western Hemisphere, Eastern hemisphere, Europe, Asia, South America, they really had this fully diverse portfolio.
One of the interesting things that they asked me to come in and do was that they had done the so-called technical parts of the integration, but they had just discovered on their own a couple of anecdotal examples of where millions had been spent replicating identical experiments in two different continents, and when posed the question of, “Wait, why did you spend three million U.S. on this? We just spent three million on that, to do the exact same thing.” And someone said, “Well, we didn’t know you were doing that.” “Well, we didn’t know you were doing that.” That kind of question they found ridiculous, but gosh all the consultants I’m sure listening will say, “Oh yeah, I have seen that in my client too.”
So what I ended up doing for that organization was first I wanted to do an actual assessment of some kind, so we gathered evidence, we gathered some case examples of where duplication had happened and so on-
Will Bachman: Talk to us a little bit about that, at the real, kind of detailed level, walk us through what you would actually do. How would you start day one, week one? Are you just observing meetings? Interviewing people? Surveys? How do you actually collect that kind of information?
Ravi Rao: Sure, well I think the fundamental first thing that I’m doing just as any other consultant is doing when you’re coming in, trying to do something transformative, is establish the case for change. So my first three days to first two weeks, if it’s a longer term engagement, is to establish the case for change. That is, “Well this is a really nice thing to have and we’re going to kind of over time incrementally get there.” Nobody is going to sign up for that. Nobody is willing to pay for that. Nobody wants that.
But if I can quickly figure out why the heck did you guys think you needed a consultant in the first place, they usually will say, “Well there was this disaster. This unexpected cost. This particular duplicative problem that influence regulators,” and so on. So in the first few days I’m conducting primarily interviews with stakeholders internally to understand what is the case for change, to build some sense of, what is disrupting externally? What is creating havoc internally? And then establishing that.
After that I’m looking for, and I’ll have a variety of frameworks and checklists, but I’m looking for operational indicators that trust may be lacking. As an example, I will go through minutes of particular leadership level teams. For a pharma company it could be a new product leadership, in terms of some drug that’s in the pipeline. For an insurance company it could be the operational leadership team for a particular region, and I will look at examples such as, what percent of the decisions that the committee or the leadership team has made get revised in the next meeting or meeting after?
So if for example we say we’ve made a decision and then it changes at the next meeting, that’s an example where there was either a lack of ability to state people’s perspectives upfront, because there was a lack of trust, or there’s a going back and second-guessing because there’s a lack of trust. The percent of decisions getting changed is a nice nugget just to sort of illustrate. Let’s just say you’re spending 20 to 30 minutes of discussion per decision, you’re wasting the entire committee’s time then, X number of minutes a month. That sort of metric helps people to realize that that’s an implication.
Decision reversals, only one. There are other things like, how many or how often are we creating reports in excess of 30 PowerPoint pages that end up not being used or not read? So when we start to indicate these kinds of operational indicators of a lack of consistency, a lack of trust, the lack of being on the same page, we can start to say, “Okay, so we have a minor problem, moderate problem, severe problem.” From there then the corrective actions. This is where I love partnering with traditional consultants, because to some degree some of the answers may be helped by traditional answers, that is, changing structure, changing who reports to whom or which unit of the organization has accountability and creating things like those RACI charts and stuff.
I think those things can be useful and I don’t mind doing some of them myself but I actually like-
Will Bachman: Just pause there Ravi, because RACI charts to some people might sound kind of a little sexy or something, just to remind us. Remind me for my ignorance. I think I’ve heard of it, but what does RACI stand for again?
Ravi Rao: Yeah, RACI is one of those management consulting tool kit things, which is taking each task on one axis of the grid, listing all the roles and/or people on the other axis of the grid, and then in each box, each cell of the grid, listing what exactly is that person supposed to do in that decision or task-
Will Bachman: That’s what? Like responsibility, accountability, something RAC-
Ravi Rao: Exactly, consulted or informed.
Will Bachman: Okay, got it. That’s really interesting to me, your two points about the kind of diagnostic of trust, those are things I might not have thought about, so like decision reversal, PowerPoint decks that are too long and never get used. Are there maybe two or three other things to include in a diagnostic for consultants listening to this discussion that people can go and look for? Are there typical things that you look for?
Ravi Rao: Sure, I mean in that diagnostic I usually, like I said, pull out a few different frameworks, but some of the consistent ones are decision reversal, overproduction. Another one that is very telling is to actually go to HR and sometimes it’s a bit of legwork, sometimes it’s easier on other organization’s data systems, but to pull up every high potential identified person, and track how many people leave within the first 12 to 18 months. So what’s interesting is if you’ve got a trust and culture/emotional capabilities problem, what’s interesting is your lower performers will stay and your higher performances will say, “I don’t want this. I don’t need this. I can go somewhere else where I don’t have to deal with all this.”
And so if you’ve got a track record where high performers tend to leave much more than middle or lower performers, then you’ve got another trust issue there. So these are kind of very specific things you can look for in your own diagnostics, and any consultant can do this, sort of looking just even thinking to ask this kind of question. Now let’s say you identify it, some of the other ones are, are there more than one example where issues are not brought up because the organization has a track record of sort of punishing people who bring up potential problems? So that’s like-
Will Bachman: Shoot the messenger.
Ravi Rao: Exactly, if there’s a lot of shooting of the messenger, you’ve got another indicator there that there’s … A fundamental problem is not strategy or operational or organizational structure, it’s just the basics of the human behavior and trust equation. So these kinds of things are what I’m looking for when I’m showing up at an organization, and then if I don’t see any of these, but I see, okay we aren’t really aligned because the different units have different strategies, I’m like, “Let me call the traditional consultant, and here that would be perfect,” or if it’s really just a matter of structure and reporting, it’s great. There are people who are well set to do that.
Will Bachman: And then kind of beyond trust, are there other dimensions that you’re looking for? I mean maybe people all trust one another but there’s some other kind of emotional issue … motivation or I mean are there three or four other dimensions that you’re looking at beyond trust?
Ravi Rao: I’m using trust as an umbrella and a proxy to say any and all things that allow humans to collaborate effectively to achieve the aims of the organization including delivering financial results to the shareholders, so I’m saying trust at that broadest level. There are naturally going to be 20-sub elements of what goes into trust. Everything from people’s reliability, people’s adherence to their promise, expected deadlines, there’s a lot of ways to spin that word of trust.
What I’m really looking for though is, is it behavioral? That is if I’m watching people and I can see over and over again, other people are either confused by what they’re saying or in disagreement in such a way that they don’t want to actually directly bring it up with the person. I’m watching for these behavioral factors because it’s helpful to know that that’s the issue, if you’re willing to do the diagnosis, but then for me the thing that I’m fortunate to have is the toolkit then to fix it.
So what I’m really trying to do then, if I’m coming into an organization either on my own or as a partner to a management consultant who has clear sense that here’s the new strategy, here’s the new operations, but we’ve got to do something about the leadership trust level, the behavioral issues that make the organization effective or not, then I’m coming in to figure out whether it’s through coaching, whether it’s through small group discussion, whether it’s through large group seminar, and I’ll sometimes do seminars for 400 or 500 people in a room in some organizations.
The purpose of those is to create that impact at the individual, personal behavioral level. So even on small things like how they shake hands and smile it’s important, but then even more profound and robust things such as what behaviors am I doing that are undermining the people around me, and if I want to be an effective leader, what some of those superlative, best-in-class emotional behaviors that allows me to go from just being a manager to being the next Mandela? To being the next Steve Jobs? To being the next kind of person who can inspire something truly distinctive?
Will Bachman: So talk just a little about that. So it’s one thing to kind of diagnose the issue and probably a lot of consultants or executives will say, “Yeah, I know we have a trust issue.” What are some of the practical things that you do to actually transform that emotional environment of a business? What are some things that … and also maybe you could something about for people who haven’t gone through 10 years of medical and neuroscience training, what are some things that we can do to help transform those emotions in business?
Ravi Rao: Fundamental thing that I have observed now doing this for more than a decade is a lot of it is just a lack of self-awareness. Part of that stems from, we are bombarded by stimuli from the moment we wake up to already be engaged outside of ourselves. So not everyone, but a large percentage of people sleep with their phone or Blackberry right next to their bed, and the moment their eyes open the first thing they’re checking is, is there any urgent email that I have to take care of so I don’t have a problem or get viewed negatively or have the worst case scenario happen?
If from the moment you wake up, your stress hormones are oriented to the idea that, today could be the disaster, today could be the disaster. It’s going to be very easy to be outwardly focused, to be just trying to put out fires all day long. The problem with that is the neurochemical hormonal impact of that is that we’re really raising our blood flow level of catecholamine, that’s the adrenaline and noradrenaline and our blood values of cortisol, the stress hormone that has a number of effects on blood vessels and organs and blood sugar levels.
And when those hormones are constantly working on us, it actually makes us less self-aware. We are just in survival mode. To take a step back and say, “Wait, why am I behaving the way I am?” In a meeting, with a particular colleague, with a particular topic. To be able to step back and say, “Ah, I get it. This is making me anxious.” I’ll give you one just anecdotal example is, I was working with a client in the U.S. who we had gone through the effort to work on a 20 page PowerPoint key messages document and a template that we would use with different stakeholders to track the progress on customer experience, exciting work, glad to be a part of it.
And then basically about 24 hours before we were set to do the launch discussion with all the different work stream leaders, he wanted to actually say, “You know what? I think we should do the template every other day instead of once a week.” I said, “Okay, tell me why.” “Well I just feel like more data will be better,” and I’m like, “Okay.” And I understood to some degree that kind of general premise that more data would be better, but these were time intensive templates to figure out. And if he had actually gone through with that, the organization would not have adopted it so easily, and people would have found it burdensome and been a little resentful of this headquarters guy telling them to just spend so much time every other day filling out a template.
Finally when I got through to talking to him and just understanding, I just stopped and said one important question, I said, “Are you afraid of anything?” And I think the question was just so startling because people don’t tend to ask that question of each other, but when I asked him, “Are you afraid of anything?” And he got the opportunity just to voice that he was worried about what his bosses would say about this, that it was such a dramatic shift on how they were going to focus on customer experience.
That it could actually have some degree of risk, that people might not meet the metrics that now had been so progressively put forward, and so for him that anxiety was translating into, “Well I just need daily updates. I need every other day a template for that,” and I said, “Okay, so you’re saying, so let me just make sure I clarify with you, is that the logical thing you think that is the best way to approach for the organization?” And when I paused there and just let him contemplate that he goes, “Yeah, no it’s not good for the organization. I’m just scared.” Having the ability to identify that.
He actually then backed off, “Okay, I think the once a week is more than enough, but I want to be more engaged with them, so if there’s a way instead that I can be more touching base with them.” I said, “Let’s do that.” And that both met his own anxiety level need, but also then the needs of the organization. But if he had not had the ability to just take a step back and be self-aware, because he was just in that constant stress, put out fires, overwhelmed mode. He could have actually led this down the wrong way which would have affected customers and ultimately affected the business. So in that situation my role as a sort of pseudo counselor but really just as a listener was important.
Will Bachman: Yeah, so I mean let’s say listeners are encountering situations like that where people are constantly stressed out, and I’m interested to hear this as well. What are some practical tips that you have for how we can help clients be more self-aware and to pause and step back? Are there things that you do Ravi, sort of is it one-on-one? Or will you help kind of whole teams go through some exercises or some practices that they do on an ongoing basis? What are some ways that you actually address that self-awareness thing that you mentioned?
Ravi Rao: Sure, what I propose as my value offering to clients, to other consultants I’ll partner with is, other people are well suited to deal with all the other elements we discussed, but it’s my job to actually get behavior to change, not just sort of provide people some intellectual, interesting ways that they could change their own behavior, but to actually get it to change. To do that really takes three or four very straightforward techniques, but it needs somebody who knows how to do them. One is the training component that is … When I say training I don’t mean standing up in front of an audience with PowerPoint slides, I mean actually doing participative behavioral exercises.
Strange enough, coming back to our original question about the purple hair, a lot has been coming from theater. When you’re trying to teach a new actor how to relate to a character, you give them an exercise they have to actually act as the character, but then when you probe and really push the actor and say, “Why is the character acting like this?” Suddenly insight forms. So I’ll use a lot of techniques from theater to actually get people to do exercises together and then have them stop and pause and reflect why are they behaving the way they are in this exercise? As means of-
Will Bachman: Ravi I think that is so cool Ravi. You started out the conversation talking about how as a teenager you’re interested in the theater and how it’s really come full circle, and now you’re using those skills in your consulting work. What are some of those, sort of theater based exercises that you would do in actual client situations?
Ravi Rao: One of the most powerful ones that I will have people do is to actually take on the exact persona, mannerisms of someone that they know they need to confront, so one of the most difficult skills is the idea of speaking up. If you look at babies all around the world, babies have no problem speaking up. They’re hungry, they will cry. They’re sleepy, they will fight the sleep but they will let you know whatever it is they’re thinking. We slowly then get people, in the opposite direction, to be afraid to speak up, to ever state what their own need is. To actually confront someone to say, “I need you to change because this is upsetting me.”
So one of the theater techniques we’ll do is I will stand up and I’ll ask the person, “Give me a few clues as to how this person who you have to confront acts.” I using my own acting skills will try to do just that and then in front of the whole group of five or 10 or even 50 people. I have had some people come right up to the front of the room with me and their heart will be pounding and pounding because I will be, really as best as I can, taking on the personality of that person they are terrified to confront.
And they actually, in front of other people, have to come right up to me without throwing spears or without just picking a fight, they’re going to have to confront the fear by actually talking through and practicing something like, “Jerome, there is something I need to tell you that you may not want to hear. Your interruptions during my statements in the meetings is leaving me feeling frustrated that I’m not able to finish my point. Can we discuss this?” Sounds simple, but when you actually have to practice doing it and confronting the person, and Ravi is taking on the gruff personality or the disinterested look or the sexist joke or whatever it is that is intimidating, and you actually have to face it as if you’re that person [inaudible 00:45:07] facing.
People will tell me after that they feel like crying, because it’s actually that emotionally intense to actually try to do that, but it’s part of the practice of actually having to break through. You can talk about it in a handout but to actually then get up and do it with an actual human facing you is a very different experience and people have found it very valuable.
Will Bachman: I mean I totally agree. I mean role-playing I think is such an underused technique. I mean I had hundreds and hundreds of hours of classroom discussion in business school talking about cases, but the handful of minutes where we actually did role-play exercises in negotiation class or in leadership class, where you actually play the role of someone, you just feel it in your gut in such a much more compelling way, that I can remember it now more than 10 years later what it felt like in those moments. And so much of the case discussion like, “Oh if I were the president I would do this,” or, “If I were the head of sales I’d do this.”
But if you’re actually playing the role of the head of sales, talking, trying to … boy, you just feel it in your gut in a way that’s so memorable, and it’s very cool that you do that in your practice.
Ravi Rao: Again, it’s because my value proposition is behavior will actually change. People will actually become different people, and other people may hear that and say, “How is that even possible?” I came upon this from the combination of neuroscience, McKinsey and theater, that’s an atypical combination which allowed me some of these atypical approaches to work. I find it very gratifying. The dilemma still always is in how to convince the client to undergo it or to go through it, because if you use words, even things that sound reasonably neutral like role-playing, a lot of consultants frankly will be rolling their eyes very queasy about it, “Oh, too touchy-feely. Doesn’t fit in a PowerPoint. Doesn’t fit in Excel Sheet. I don’t want any part of that.” And there is that dilemma.
So I usually just phrase it back as like, “Okay you know what? If what we’re doing is having intellectual discussion, but not really worried about actual impact for the organization, let’s just stick to the PowerPoint.” But if we’re actually trying to say, “Look, this is going to be hard and people need to actually do this and it is going to be hard but we’re going to consider our reward the actual financial impact and success of the organization,” I do not see that possible, without some degree of behavioral capability building.
Will Bachman: Awesome. I interrupted you earlier, you were talking about kind of some practical things you do to implement this stuff, so kind of some role-playing exercises, although maybe you don’t use that term because it’s a loaded term. Any other kind of two or three thoughts that you have there? Techniques that either that you use or that you think other consultants can think about using as they try to drive that emotional behavior change and not just come up with the right answer?
Ravi Rao: I will tell you one technique that I find very helpful for clients, and anybody can do this, you don’t need specialized training to it, is when you’re particularly working with a senior leader who is going to have to be the person in charge of managing the rollout of the new strategy or the operational improvement. One of the things, again to build that self-awareness that we just almost have, only now it’s a luxury I wish was more commonplace.
One of the ways to do that is ask and then do for your client is say, “Hey, why don’t we just have a practice discussion here where you tell me about this effort. Tell me about this new strategy. Tell me about this improvement program. I’m going to do the following, I’m going to take my Android or iPhone. I’m going to stack it up next to some books over there on your desk, and we’re going to video record you doing your two-minute explanation of this.” When clients see themselves saying things and they get to observe their shifting eyes, their fidgeting hands, their body posture that looks uncomfortable, they’re suddenly struck by, “Oh my gosh, is that what I’m putting out when I’m speaking?”
That very simple self-awareness tool I think is something every consultant could do and I think we can do more often. Even delete the video if there’s any worry about it getting anywhere, but even if just the client gets to watch it with you once for a minute or two, can be very powerful for them to have that greater self-awareness.
Will Bachman: I love that idea. Actually I did that. I remember when I was preparing for interviews for consulting, long time ago, and watching an interview of yourself preparing for an interview or perhaps videoing yourself when you’re practicing for a negotiation or any kind of thing like that just makes you so much more self-aware. I’ve been remiss we didn’t actually mention your book right? So I love your book, Emotional Business, and I see we’re kind of coming up to the end of the hour here, so I think we don’t have time to kind of really dive through that whole book right now.
I think we need to do another session on it, but just tell us a little bit about the book and I’m curious, has that led to client projects? A lot of people think about writing and publishing, wondering … what’s been the impact for you of having that book out there? Maybe give us a quick description of the book.
Ravi Rao: Let me be very matter-of-fact about the reason for having a book. For me it’s a 200 page brochure. To be a … I would call it a traditional strategist, where you are looking at issues and risks and assessing potential benefits. I don’t think you need a book necessarily to differentiate yourself. I think people understand what strategy consultants are and I think they understand the basis of functional expertise and the industry expertise. If you’re trying to do something atypical or niche, whether it’s in technology or innovation or emotions or things that people wouldn’t say normally like, “Oh I get that. I really understand that topic.” The book can be helpful.
So, I wrote it five years ago. It’s actually still in the top 3,000 books in the business section on Amazon-
Will Bachman: That’s awesome.
Ravi Rao: … we’re very happy to say, and so for me it was really a consolidation of what I had been learning from client experiences as opposed to a theoretical book or just a data driven book. It was actually an accumulation of wisdom.
Will Bachman: Yeah, and what was the process like of going through, writing it, getting it published? And then how do you use that in your practice? You kind of send it to people? Do people find you through it? Just tell us a little bit about the whole process of creating it and then how you use it.
Ravi Rao: If you’re a consultant who has an industry expertise or a functional expertise, and really wants that to be part of your branding, a book is a very effective, straightforward way to do it. To write a book is actually much easier than one would think, in that it isn’t writing a screenplay or a novel. A screenplay or a novel everything has to fit in perfectly. You have to know that when you raise the eyebrow of the character in a funny way on page eight it’s going to have implications on page 295. Writing a content related business book can be done very much modularly by chapters. So if you have a particular set of thoughts about customers you can put them chapter four, and if you have particular thoughts about technology or innovation you put that in chapter eight.
You can write it in a manner in which you see fit, and today particularly for business books, the traditional path of going through a large New York publisher, still very attractive, still very valid. Very top-notch books still follow that route, but if what you’re intending is not to be a author, but your intent is really to be a well-known consultant or at least a very busy consultant, then taking the path of just getting your book written, outline it, write the chapters modularly. You can do that within a matter of months, and today, these days, you can also then follow the path of just getting it out there by using a variety of different self-publishing options. I personally went with iUniverse, but there are many out there.
And those publishers can actually literally from the times they’ve had working the Microsoft Word 180 page document which is my book, from the time you send that in to the time it’s actually in a book that can be sold on Amazon and given to clients, that can be as short as 90 days. Mine was a little longer because I went with the word by word editing approach, but all of those are options they’ll handle with social media for you in most of these publishers. So you don’t have to worry about getting a copyright and all that stuff, and they’ll put up all kinds of links for you to do the search engine optimization.
And for me I give out the books to potential clients, like I said as a brochure. If I’m doing speaking somewhere, I’ll bring 10 books with me and I’ll say the first 10 people to tweet that they heard my talk will get a free book, and that invariably leads to further conversations.
Will Bachman: Very cool, and some people, they want to write a book. They’ve been planning on it, thinking about it. They’d like to. They have a topic, but then tough to find the discipline, especially if they’re busy. How did you manage? Did you say, “Okay, an hour every day. I’m waking up early and I just write for an hour.”? Or did you just say, “Three weeks, I’m going to get 100 gallons of coffee and just knock this thing out.”? How did you get it done?
Ravi Rao: For me, I’m enough of a planner and not quite really a strong J on the Myers-Briggs, but I’m enough of a planner to know I didn’t want to write from page one going forward. So for me it was much more important to spend a month writing the Roman numeral outline. Chapter one is, here are the five major points of chapter one. In Chapter two, here’s the three major points of that et cetera, all the way through all the chapters, and then go back to the beginning and then fill in at the next layer down and the next layer down.
If I just sat at the computer and started writing sentences, I would have a panic attack because I wouldn’t know where it’s going and I would have stops and starts, so for me it’s critical to get the entire outline written first and then once that was in place, it’s just a matter of filling in sentences to further illustrate the point in writing some of the anecdotes that support some of the concepts. That came easier because I knew exactly where it was heading in each chapter.
Will Bachman: Awesome, as we kind of get towards the end of the session here, I want to make sure I ask, how can people contact you? Do you want to give out a website or a Twitter account or social media? What’s the best way if people wanted to follow up to get in touch with you?
Ravi Rao: I’m happy to answer any questions at any time, even if it’s just as a phone consultation, at no charge. If somebody has a particular question about their client or organization and what kinds of techniques they might want to use, the best way to get in touch with me for things like that is either through Twitter. My Twitter handle is, because from Emotional Business, it’s EmoBizGuy E-M-O-B-I-Z-G-U-Y, and I’m also on LinkedIn, and I’m happy to receive a LinkedIn request, just let me know that you want to get in touch regarding potential discussion of organizational change, and I’m happy to do it that way too.
Will Bachman: Awesome, and Tim Ferriss’ question here, you have a billboard what do you put on it?
Ravi Rao: Oh you mean as in like for everybody to see just as they’re driving by or whatever.
Will Bachman: Yeah, that’s what billboard are for.
Ravi Rao: Thank you. If I have a billboard I would try to make it clever and still profound about what I believe in. There’s that whole phrase about, ‘t’s the economy, stupid.’ I would actually put up on a billboard, ‘It’s each other, stupid.’
Will Bachman: Nice, awesome. Do you have a morning routine?
Ravi Rao: I do have a morning routine, but it comes out of neuroscience. I actually try to activate three of the emotional neurotransmitters in my own brain every morning. So I will intentionally find a task that I can finish within 10 minutes and finish it, whatever that is, it doesn’t matter if it’s personal, administrative, errand, mailing a letter, paying a bill. Every morning I find something I can just finish, because that activates my serotonin centers.
I try to find one thing that allows me to express gratitude to other people, so that is every single day I literally either on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger or email whatever, find one person and I say, “You know what? I haven’t said thank you to you because of this. Let me just say thank you right now.” Tell them in one or two sentences why I’m thankful for them, that activates my oxytocin centers in the brain. And then thirdly I try to figure out something to dream about, “Oh gosh, I would love to dream about being on the stage and singing this particular type of music,” or I want to dream about actually being able to lift this much in the gym or whatever it is, because once I start to get the excitement about what could be, my norepinephrine centers are going as well.
So just by doing those three things, something that is about finishing a task, expressing gratitude and getting excited about something of the future, that gets my brain off to a good start, and I’m actually sort of happy and peppy and bouncy all day. It’s a West Coast LA thing I know, it’s not going to go over as well on the East Coast to be happy and peppy all day, but for me it works.
Will Bachman: Ravi I love that. I love that taking that neuroscience training to have a deliberate start to the day, and provides a great place for us to wrap. I hope we can have a follow-up session, because there’s so much more to cover about what you’ve done. This was great, really appreciate your time.
Ravi Rao: Thank you Will. Look forward to hearing from everybody out there.
Will Bachman: Thanks for listening to this episode of Unleashed. The podcast that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. I’d love to get your feedback and hear the questions that you’d like to see us answer on this show. You can email me at email@example.com, that’s U-M-B-R-E-X.com. If you found anything on the show helpful, it would be a real gift if you would let a friend know about the show, and take a minute to leave a review on iTunes, it really helps. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top-tier independent management consultants. Our audio engineer is Dave Nelson and I’m your host will Bachman. Thanks for listening.