All posts by Paul Yost

Paul Yost
Paul Yost is Associate Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Seattle Pacific University and Principle and Founder of Yost & Associates, Inc., which specializes in strategic talent management, leadership development, and transition management. He has worked at Microsoft, Boeing, GEICO, and Battelle Research in a variety of roles, including executive assessment, leadership development, and human resource research.

For the Sake of What?

As we climb the ladder of success, let’s make sure it is leaning against the right building.

ladderMy reflection on the pursuit of success began in a hallway when a colleague grumbled, “I-O psychologists and HR professionals have done nothing to make organizations better!” After much discussion, we agreed, I-O psychologists haven’t changed the direction of leaders or organizations, but they have helped them get wherever they are going a lot faster.

I’m afraid this is often true of our role in leadership and professional development. We debate how to speed up development most efficiently and how to figure out when acceleration rates are too fast, but we fail to help leaders discern the contribution they want to make.

In his book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (2001), the poet David Whyte says, “Speed has become our core competency, our core identity. We do not know what powers we would be left with if we stopped doing what we were doing in the busy way we were doing it. Besides, there is a deeper, older human intuition at play that knows any real step forward comes through our pains and vulnerabilities, which is the reason we began to busy ourselves in the first place, so that we could stay well away from them” (p. 128).

Likewise in his classic The Career is Dead—Long Live the Career (1996), Tim Hall noted that the dynamic, ever-changing careers that employees face today require two overarching competencies: adaptability and identity. Organizations love highly adaptive employees because they can be pointed in the desired direction and will figure out how to get there as they go. Yet, the second dimension is equally important. Without a strong sense of identity—an internal compass—employees can get used up, never going anywhere of significance but getting there very quickly and efficiently.

What if instead of accelerating adaptability, I-O and HR professionals found ways to accelerate a person’s purpose? What would that look like? What questions could someone ask to ensure they are heading in the right direction? Here’s a start to prime the pump:

  • What are you doing today that will be the thing you remember 20 years from now?
  • What purposes are trying to find you today?
  • What is so important in your life that it is worth doing, even if done poorly?

What are the questions that you use?


Sometimes I get stuck. I go to work, look at my to-do list, and sit immobilized because I am overwhelmed. The same is true when I think about my development. The things I want to get better at look like big changes from where I sit now. Where do I even start?

But there’s good news: In the last year, I have adopted a new DSC_0660practice that’s helping me get unstuck. I added a category called “jumpstarts” to my daily task list. Jumpstarts are five-minute tasks that get me moving on the big ugly projects and development activities that I am likely to avoid. Here are some recent examples:

 To help me delegate instead of micro-manage…
  • I will only ask questions in the team meeting later today.
  • I won’t say anything and just listen to other people’s ideas unless they ask me a question.
 To strengthen my network…
  • I will email one of the key stakeholders and set up a lunch next week.
 For feedback…
  • I will have lunch with one of my direct reports this week and ask what I am doing well and what I can improve.

Why do jumpstarts work? Psychologically, these small wins build the self-efficacy and confidence to continue engaging in the targeted behavior. They also trigger a learning orientation—with    these more manageable tasks, it’s easier to see what works, what doesn’t, and why. And they prime creativity and trigger energy to try the next step.

What are the jumpstarts you can add to your to-do list today?

3 Behaviors of the Antifragile Leader

Last year, I had a conversation that gave me an interesting new lens to think about leadership.

David Peterson, who directs coaching and leadership development at Google, steered me to Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Taleb suggests that objects fall into three categories when they are exposed to volatility and stress:fitness2

  • Fragile: Objects that weaken and break under stress. Think of glass that shatters under pressure.
  • Robust: Objects that are robust and resilient under stress. Think of a rock that remains unchanged under stress.
  • Antifragile: Objects that grow stronger under stress. Think about muscles that are strengthened when exposed to stress and resistance and, conversely, atrophy under low-stress conditions.

Antifragile leaders, then, are those who can be thrown into any situation and will not only survive but thrive. They will grow in their capacity and abilities over time, in an ongoing cycle of stressors and strengtheners.

Which begs the question:

What are the behaviors that lead to antifragile leaders?

In identifying antifragile behaviors, three criteria seem important to me. The behaviors should (1) increase a leader’s potential over time; (2) be self-reinforcing, causing people to want to engage in them even more in the future; and (3) be learned skills. Based on these criteria, I’ve come up with three key behaviors so far:

  1. Feedback Seeking. Feedback seeking is more than passively being open to feedback. It involves strategically identifying the key people in one’s network and scheduling specific times to ask people for their feedback. The type of feedback that is sought is also important. For example, strong negative feedback might decrease the likelihood of it being sought in the future. An appreciative inquiry approach to feedback is more likely to be self-reinforcing. For example, rather than just ask for strengths and weaknesses, an antifragile approach might ask, “What are my strengths?” and “What could get in the way of my future success?” In this way, negatives are always discussed in terms of one’s future potential.
  2. Systems Thinking. Systems thinking is the ability of leaders to identify the dynamics at play within an organizational system. Leaders are able to think beyond themselves to identifying the key stakeholders in the system, what they value, and how their goals play out dynamically in the larger organization. When people seem irrational, a systems thinker doesn’t get angry, but thinks, “How interesting” – knowing the behavior is completely logical from the others’ perspective. Systems thinking also means finding a way to solve today’s problems in a way that also solves tomorrow’s problems or prevents them altogether.
  3. Critical Thinking. Critical thinking, among other things, is the ability to argue with oneself. Strong critical thinkers ask themselves, “Why am I wrong?” They don’t think one chess move at a time (What is my opinion?), but plot out at least three at all times (What is my opinion? What are the best counter-arguments? What is my rebuttal – if there is one?). Critical thinkers are willing to live in the dissonance of not having the perfect solution to a problem because finding the truth is more important than winning the argument.

What do you think it takes to develop antifragile leaders? And is antifragile a useful way to frame what is needed to prepare people to face unknown challenges that they will encounter over an entire career? Talk about it with your colleagues – and let me know what you think.

Stepping into the Unknown

taking a stepWhen leaders talk about the key events in their development, they almost always recount trial-by-fire experiences. The implication is, if people want to develop their leader potential, they should be prepared to throw themselves into difficult, not-sure-if-I-ever-want-to-live-through-that-again kinds of experiences.

Why would anyone want to do that?!

Several years ago, I led a project where we had the opportunity to ask leaders that very question. The answers were surprising.

Some leaders muttered, “Dear Lord, to be honest, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. If I had, I never would have done it, but I’m glad I did.” Other leaders said they saw an opportunity and took it just to see where it might lead. One referred to this as the “barnacle theory of leadership development.” Like a barnacle, he would float a while until an interesting ship came along. He attached himself to it for a while, and then at some point, would detach until another interesting ship came along.

A bigger title, a bigger office, and everything that came with it, or a strong sense of purpose drove other leaders. And some were bored and figured anything was better than plateauing in their current dead-end job, so they took the next interesting one that came along.

Knowing how they got into their challenging situation was one thing; however, we didn’t want to stop there. We followed up with a second question, “What allowed you to navigate successfully into and through these kinds of experiences?” Looking back, leaders reported a range of strategies. (See Real Time Leadership Development, Yost & Plunkett, 2009). Here are four that were regularly mentioned:

  • Focus on the strengths and potential in yourself and others. Know your strengths and look for ways to leverage them. Look for the strengths and the potential in the people around you. Don’t ignore your weaknesses, but find ways to get “good enough” so they don’t get in your way.
  • Adopt a learning focus. Don’t try to perform at 100 percent all of the time. When you are navigating the unknown, you need to give yourself permission to learn as you go. Find ways to try out new ideas, to figure out what works, and adjust as you go. In a dynamic environment, the person who wins is not the one with the “right” answer at the start, but the person who is open to feedback, learns from it, and adapts.
  • Focus on what you can control. There will always be a lot out of your control. Look for the things that you can control and the ones where you have some influence.
  • Draw on the people around you. Surround yourself with people who can provide advice, give you honest feedback, provide perspective, and contribute emotional support. Listen. Give back. Say thank you.

In today’s turbulent world, every employee at some point or another will be challenged to step into and navigate in the unknown. Change is now the rule; stability is the exception. As you think about your career, what are you drawing on to learn as you go? What can you provide the leaders and people who you support to help them lead their teams into the unknown?

Excited and Scared at Exactly the Same Time

If the research is true—that most development occurs in stretch assignments—then it naturally begs the next question: What is a really good stretch assignment and what is the right amount of stretch?

Cindy McCauley and colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership have done a lot of work to answer the first question. Some of the key elements of a really good stretch position include taking on unfamiliar responsibilities, inherited problems, influencing without authority, and working across cultures, to name a few. (See Chapter 3, “Identifying Development-in-Place Opportunities” in Experience-Driven Leader Development).

Answering the second question—what is the right amount of stretch?—is still under debate. Business leaders and leadership development professionals have wrestled with this question for a long time.

Several years ago I was excited to find a reference that said CitiCorp tried to place their high-potential leaders in positions for which they were 60-70 percent prepared. This seemed like a good guide, but the next question was: 70 percent of what? At least it was a place to start!

In working with leaders since then, I have come to rely on three rules of thumb:

(1)    Pair “good enough” with “chance to excel.” Is the assignment one where the candidate has the skills to perform “good enough,” but the assignment will also require him to develop new capabilities to really excel?

(2)    Push the leader to the edge of her comfort zone.  If the leader is too comfortable, then she won’t need to stretch herself to grow. If the assignment has too much stretch and pushes her outside the comfort zone, learning is likely to be hit and miss. She is unlikely to process the learning very deeply—and might even take away the wrong lessons!

hang glider(3)    Look for “excited and scared.” A leader that we interviewed several years ago described the right challenge this way: “The most developmental jobs I ever had were the ones where I felt excited and scared at exactly the same time.” This rings true for many leaders. In my own life, these were the times when I found myself excited to get up in the morning, where I knew I was doing something that mattered, where I was never sure what the day would bring, but I was confident that I or the people around me could figure it out.

So, what are your rules for the right amount of “stretch”?  What opportunities for challenge and learning are on the horizon for you? How can you help create those kinds of experiences for others?

Do You Collect Catalyst Questions?

Asking the right question is a lot more powerful than finding the right answer.

In my career I have found that if I can get the question right, the learning and personal insight will follow. With the right question, I can ask it again and again. The right questions always force me to tell myself the truth.

I call these catalyst questions because they unlock possibilities and new insights. Catalyst questions also appear to be less threatening, so we are willing to hear them and answer them. When we get the questions right—rather than rushing to a solution or answer—we have the chance to learn and make new choices.whycatalyst-question-front

The secret to a good catalyst question is that it creates energy. “What did I do wrong today and what did I learn?” is probably not a catalyst question. It just makes me tired. “What potential in myself and others remained untapped today and what is getting in the way?” is better. I’m still looking at weaknesses, but it’s in the context of my potential.

Collecting “catalyst questions” has become something of a hobby for me. Claudia Hill suggests that after an experience, individuals or teams are more likely to benefit from it if they ask three questions: (1) “What happened?” (2) “So what?” that is, what was important about the experience? What were the underlying reasons why it happened? What lessons can be taken away? and (3) “Now what?” that is, how can the lessons be applied to meet future challenges? (See Chapter 36, “Scaffolding Reflection: What, So What, Now What?” in Experience-Driven Leader Development).

Some of the catalyst questions that have been the most powerful for me are:

  • What is so important that it is worth doing poorly? Sometimes fear prevents me from even getting started. I avoid situations that will stretch me or I find myself paralyzed in the middle of them. This question gets me unstuck. For example, at work, the question might free me to have a tough conversation that I have been avoiding. At home, I find myself willing to go fishing one more time with my son even though every previous trip has ended in failure.
  • What purposes are trying to find me? I spend so much time making my own “to do” lists that I sometimes forget to listen to the people around me. This is the question that keeps me open to others. I suddenly find myself playing a minor, but important role in someone else’s story.
  • If I were smarter than I am, what would I do? Surprisingly, I always seem to come up with an answer to this one, and it’s often rather good.
  • What are three things that I did well today? I am the type of person who finishes every day by thinking about what didn’t get done. I set unrealistic goals for myself and then give myself a passing grade (C+) if I reach them. This isn’t very healthy for me or for anybody else in my life. Taking time to celebrate a few of successes every day reminds me to be grateful and thank others for their contributions.

What are your catalyst questions? And what questions will you add to your collection?