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“People Don’t Burn Out Because They’re Working Too Hard, They Burn Out Because They’re Having Too Little Impact”—Liz Wiseman and Doug Conant on Leading in Ambiguous Times

by | Apr 21, 2022

Earlier this month, at ConantLeadership’s third bi-annual BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit—a virtual meeting of top leadership luminaries—Liz Wiseman, CEO of the Wiseman group and New York Times bestselling author of Multipliers and Impact Players, and Doug Conant, Founder & CEO of ConantLeadership, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and bestselling author of The Blueprint and TouchPoints, came together for an enlightening discussion about leading in our ever-changing world.

Together, Wiseman and Conant discussed a root cause of burnout and how best to combat it, as well as how to lead during times of uncertainty, and how to become an Impact Player through exercising courage and making incremental changes. Enjoy the following tips for increasing your impact in ambiguous times, pulled from their conversation. You can also watch the full discussion here (fast forward to 08:00 to skip housekeeping and intros).

     Liz Wiseman at the BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit

When work is rewarding and has value, there is energy to spare

Both Liz Wiseman and Doug Conant have years of hands-on experience in organizations and corporations—with Wiseman spending nearly 20 years at Oracle, and Conant with over 45 years of leadership experience in the Fortune 500 including a decade as CEO of Campbell. This background and combined knowledge came out early in the conversation as they both shared their love for their work but also how they’ve frequently seen “bad bosses” turn work into drudgery.

Wiseman shared how often, “inside of our organizations is more intelligence than we’re using . . . companies work hard to hire really smart, capable people, but then tend to underutilize them.” She says it’s not just intelligence and capabilities that leaders are leaving on the table by not fully engaging their staff—but it’s also drive, passion, and desire to contribute. People come to work wanting to make a difference. Yet, so often leaders focus solely on “maximizing use,” as Wiseman says, instead of tapping into people’s deeper desire to contribute. Wiseman’s research indicates that this phenomenon leads to burnout.

Contrary to popular belief, burnout isn’t always about long hours or working too hard. More often than not, it’s about having too little impact. Work can be challenging and tiring, but also invigorating. Wiseman compares it to exercising at the gym: Like a good workout, work has the potential to be exhilarating and re-energizing, even when it’s hard. What makes the difference? Connecting to meaning and value. “When you’re doing something that has meaning and efficacy and is delivering tangible value, we tend to have energy to spare.” Wiseman notes, “When we find our work isn’t making a difference, that it isn’t going anywhere—that’s exhausting.”

Leaders who are what Wiseman calls “multipliers” enable their people to find meaning and contribute at their fullest; they help them to have a greater impact at work. When you are a multiplier, your job is “not just to get top performance and capability from your team, but to be the leader for the well-being of your team.” The counterpart to “multipliers,” are what Wiseman calls “diminishers.” Diminishers define people by their capacity for production—focusing only on outcomes rather than connection.

Building on this, Conant emphasizes the importance of genuine connection now more than ever in an age of uncertainty: “You have to connect with people in a different way—a way you probably should have been doing all along.” He celebrates how high-trust and purpose-driven organizations have fared better during the pandemic even when their leaders didn’t have all of the answers or made some missteps along the way. Tough situations are easier to navigate when the foundation of authenticity and connection within a team is already there. Whereas, if a leader starts from a trust “deficit” with their team, it becomes much more challenging to inspire and engage that team during difficult times. People are more willing to work through problems if they know their boss genuinely cares.

There’s no amount of energy you can transfer to a team if you aren’t personally connected to them

So, how do you connect to and lead people in an age of uncertainty? Wiseman and Conant offered up some practices that have worked for them over the years and throughout the pandemic

Lead with authenticity and vulnerability. The world of work has recently gone through major upheavals and that will only continue. Wiseman says it’s best to acknowledge this and to not pretend to have all the answers. She recalls a seminar she once attended, where the speaker jumped on the table, reached out their hand to the audience, and yelled, “I’m going to lead you to a better place!” While that kind of showy bombast may once have been viewed as the ideal form of leadership, it is unrealistic in today’s world. No one can predict the future and create a perfect plan to “rescue” their people from potential problems. In fact, doing so can make you a diminisher.

Wiseman points out, “most of the diminishing that’s happening across our workplaces is not necessarily coming from these bossy, tyrannical, narcissistic kinds of diminishers. A   lot   of it is coming from the really well-intended diminisher, the well-intended manager, who’s doing something that looks and seems helpful . . . yet it’s having a diminishing impact.”

To avoid being an accidental diminisher, you need to be honest with your people—both in good times and bad. When you as a leader are authentic and vulnerable, you open the door for others to follow suit. Conant says, “this invites people to go a level deeper and create that vulnerability with the team that actually creates a wonderful bond.” If you look at people only on the surface level, you are missing so much.

Model introspection and growth. If you want your team to be open about where they can improve, it starts with you. In Conant’s words, “you lead from in front.” It might seem counterintuitive—but you need to create a forum for people to be open about their mistakes and to be able to ask for help and feedback.

Wiseman’s research shows that, “when leaders talk about their own mistakes, it is the most powerful thing that they can do. It’s the most correlated with people taking risks . . . it’s going to go way further than all the other things you think create innovation or risk-taking. That’s the number one determinant.”

This requires leaders to introspect and examine their own performance. Wiseman encourages us to look into the mirror and to ask ourselves these questions:
o What are my practices?
o How am I showing up?
o Where might I be an accidental diminisher?

Conant notes that sometimes it’s easier to approach growth by not focusing on what you want to change, but instead focusing on where you want to go. Ask yourself, how do I want to lead? How do I want to show up? And then focus on how you’re going to get there. Then, Conant says, “you’ll see the things you don’t want to do, that are probably the diminishing things, go away.” Wiseman adds that focusing on your lived experiences with multipliers and diminishers also helps. As you reflect, you’ll be inspired to be like the multipliers who changed your own life for the better.

How you show up determines whether you are a position holder or a difference-maker

While being a multiplier is crucial, it is also important to look “at the other side of the equation” according to Wiseman, and focus on being what she calls an “Impact Player.” She asked over 170 managers to identify someone who was making a huge difference for their organization. Then she studied these high-impact contributors to discover what set them apart. She found that, “it doesn’t take more talent. It doesn’t involve working harder. Our mindsets and our practices, and how we show up, determines whether we are a position-holder or a difference-maker.” Wiseman shared her five practices of Impact Players—all centered on how people respond to uncertain or ambiguous situations.

  1. Do the Job That’s Needed. While others do their job, Impact Players do the job that needs to be done.
  2. Step Up, Step Back. While others wait for direction, Impact Players step up and lead.
  3. Finish Stronger. While others escalate problems, Impact Players move things across the finish line and build strength along the way.
  4. Ask and Adjust. While others attempt to manage and minimize change, Impact Players are learning and adapting to change.
  5. Make Work Light. While others add to the load, Impact Players make heavy demands feel lighter.

Wiseman compared being an Impact Player with her experience at the beach with her son. When waves approach, her instinct is to run from them, only to get pummeled by the surf anyway. However, her son, who is a surfer, does the opposite and goes into the waves. The result? He comes out on the other side of the waves unscathed. Impact players do the same thing as her son: Instead of running from problems, they embrace them, going into the rough waters. “We can’t control whether there are messy problems, and unclear roles, and unforeseen obstacles, and unrelenting demands, and moving targets,” Wiseman said, “but we can control how we respond.”

Conant and Wiseman both explained that it takes courage and time to develop this mindset. Conant says that the more experience you get with facing challenges head-on, the more proficient you become. Wiseman echoed his words saying, “Courage is built with incremental success and carefully mitigated failure.” As you step into the gray areas of your work—you can give yourself little opportunities to practice skills until you’ve mastered them.

Both leaders agree: We’re never going back to our pre-Covid circumstances so we must become masters of leading in ambiguity and uncertainty, in Wiseman’s words, “because that is where the emerging ideas, and business, and growth opportunities exist.”

As you head back into work tomorrow or step into a meeting with your team later this week, the advice from these leaders is clear, practical, and immediately applicable. Examine your mindset, exercise courage as you make incremental changes, and lead others with vulnerability and authenticity.

About the Author: McKinlee Covey is an educator, coach, and co-author with Stephen M.R. Covey of the WSJ bestseller, Trust & Inspire.

Enjoyed these insights? Watch the full video recording of this summit session here.

For more advice from our panelists, check out Liz Wiseman’s books here, engage with our suite of written leadership resources here, or start your Blueprint journey by getting your signed copy of the book here. And, you can enjoy our library of previous summits’ sessions here, including conversations with Indra Nooyi, Amy Edmondson, Bill George, and many more.

Ready to step into your full leadership potential?  Apply to our signature leadership development program, The BLUEPRINT Boot Camp by ConantLeadership, a 2-day leadership intensive offering elite level, highly interactive training with Doug Conant and a community of your peers. Learn more about this premium tier of transformational leadership development here or set up a complimentary consultation call here.

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

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