Achim Nowak is an internationally recognized authority on executive presence and interpersonal connections. His just-published book Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within (Allworth Press) has already received acclaim in Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Leadership Excellence, and Forbes. His first book Power Speaking: The Art of the Exceptional Public Speaker has becomes an essential leadership development tool with Fortune 500 companies around the world.
Influens, the international training and coaching firm Achim founded in 2004, is based in South Florida. It has guided thousands of leaders from organizations such as Sanofi, Dover Corporation, HSBC Bank, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield to better connect and be more influential.
Achim holds an M.A. in Organizational Psychology and International Relations from New York University. He served for over a decade on the faculty of New York University and has been a frequent guest speaker at other universities and industry events. Achim and his work have also been featured on 60 Minutes, The Today Show, NPR, and CNN.
Here is an excerpt from my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Before discussing Infectious, a few general questions and then a few others about high-impact communication. First, who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Nowak: In 1992 I was trained at the Brooklyn Courts to become a mediator. Mediators are highly skilled at shaping the flow of a conversation and using language with strategic precision. The skill sets – validating, paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, identifying underlying issues, speaking in neutral – are priceless. These skills instantly elevated the quality of the conversations I was having, anywhere. They should be required study for any business leader!
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Nowak: I spent six weeks in the late 1980s at a retreat in the Arizona desert. I had never done anything like this before. I had never just stopped to take a look at myself – I was your classic results-driven alpha male. The retreat center sat atop an old Anasazi burial mound. The Anasazi spirit energy was electric. I soon had daily visits from power animals. In one very long night I had repeated visions of a white house on an island, overlooking a sparkling dark blue ocean. I knew instantly that this house was not a metaphor, it was a real place. Six months later I had left my life as a theatre director in New York City and was living in a small white house on the island of Tobago, overlooking the Atlantic. This was the first time in my life that I listened to deep inner guidance and followed suit – even though at no time prior had I ever had a yearning for island life. This was the start of my journey into a life and career that looks different from anything I might have envisioned for myself.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Nowak: My formal education has been marginally valuable, at best. There are great minds whose work I cherish – Peter Drucker, Daniel Goleman – and I greatly believe in continuous learning, but my most meaningful lessons happened while working in the trenches: Doing transformational work in North-American AIDS communities, facilitating co-existence dialogues in countries that are at war – and in every one-on-one coaching conversation I have with a C-level leader!
Morris: From which business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.
Nowak: FLOW by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is my favorite book about business – and life. Distinctions between business and non-business are often artificial since we tend to spend more time at work than we do in our non-business life. The common denominator between both is that we are in constant relationship with others. Csikszentmihalyi’s insights about how we attain peak performance, and how our engagement in peak performance leads to a state of flow, are instantly relevant, in all parts of life. I recommend to everyone.
Morris: Here’s one of my favorite quotations from Oscar Wilde to which I ask you to respond: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
Nowak: There are tantalizing questions behind this clever quip. Do I know who I am? Is this knowledge of who I am growing and changing over time? (Yes – I hope!) And most importantly – which parts of myself do I choose to reveal in public? The ability to be myself at all times and make enlightened choices about how I show up – that’s the mark of a mature leader.
Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which [end mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?’” Your response?
Nowak: I love the title of this book – Brilliant Mistakes. I tend to be a risk-taker, and the moment we take risks we will make mistakes. Only when we test deeply-held assumptions do we get to the unknown – which is a world that we, by definition, do not know before we know it. How many mistakes we can tolerate, well, that’s the personal frontier everyone one of us needs to explore. I’m thinking of a few situations in my life just recently where I feel like I pressed for results a little too hard. My job is to learn from that experience. Were my actions mistakes? It’s up to me to decide how I frame it up for myself, isn’t it? It always boils down to assuming responsibility for my actions without beating myself up for having taken a risk. That’s my personal bottom-line.:
Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?
Nowak: My experience doesn’t entirely match your statement. I know quite a few C-level executives who do know how to delegate. The key, of course, for all C-Level executives is to be secure enough to surround themselves with amazing talent – and to let this talent shine. Part of letting the talent shine is having real, tough, challenging conversations when everyone meets in person, without ever denigrating the brilliance of others. And, of course, there has to be the willingness to let go of those who do not wish to play your game or support your vision.
Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?
Nowak: They’re smart. Well-told stories tap into our deepest yearnings and desires. They stir us. Leaders who are unable to stir folks, especially in a democracy, simply will not get elected. Because we know that stories work, every modern politician these days has been coached on telling stories. The key now is to move from the easy and predictable stories – rags-to-riches, immigrant-to-success – and tell stories that involve taking a true personal risk in the telling. Stories that are mere marketing clichés come across as mere marketing clichés. They fail to stir!
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Achim cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Why Ann Curry was Replaced on the Today Show:
NBC News chief Steve Capus candidly told THR that he thought Curry had not been right for the job in many respects. He said he agreed with interviewer Marisa Guthrie that Curry had faltered in the cooking segments, movie star interviews and fluffy features that make up a large portion of “Today.”
“I think her real passion is built around reporting on international stories,” he said. “It’s tough to convey a sincere interest in something if you don’t possess it … and you could tell with her, you can tell with any anchor, whether they’re into it or not. And I think we’ve now come up with a role that will play to her strengths.”
Capus said that, although he felt it was right to give Curry a chance at the top “Today” job (she had put in fourteen years as newsreader and already been passed over once before), he had had no choice but to make the change.
“We gave her a year to prove herself, and ultimately we came to the conclusion that she had played at the highest level she could,” he said. “When you’re in the major leagues of our profession, you’ve got to continue to be at peak performance in order to stay there.”
Ann Curry’s ‘Today’ Exit: Steve Capus, NBC News President, Says ‘We Gave Her A Year To Prove Herself’
(First, a disclaimer – I have not watched a norming news show in years. I am an early morning NPR listener. So, I’m just reflecting from what I have read).
So, who do you hire next?
That is always the question, isn’t it? The jury is in – the right people doing the right work in the right way make all the difference. And the wrong people? – Well, that can lead to disaster in a hurry…
Recently, the high profile “hiring fail” was Ann Curry at the Today Show. Don’t you just know that the folks at NBC wish they had gotten this right. But, they didn’t. And their mistake, their “bad hire,” cost them viewers, and advertising dollars, and profits. And as I have read through the many accounts, I suspect that it really did boil down to two things:
#1 – She had a Passion Mismatch.
Ann Curry really is a news person, not a “fluff” person. And the Today Show is a combination of the two – no use complaining about it.
And #2 – She was a Team Member mismatch.
She never quite “connected” with the “right chemistry” with Matt Lauer.
In other words, Ann Curry is a great, hard-working, professional – but not quite the fit for this particular job. And, you know – I don’t think we should blame Ann. I think it was a bad hire…
When I teach my students about how to do well in interviews, I tell them that every interviewer wants the answer to these four questions:
#1 – Can you do this job?
#2 – Can you do this job better than all those other folks I am considering for this job?
#3 – Can I trust you?
#4 – Are you a good team player?
When we think about Ann Curry, there is so much “good” –
• Work Ethic — ✔
• Competence — ✔
• Trustworthiness — ✔
• “Chemistry” – not quite a ✔
The folks at Express Employment Professionals have come up with the five greatest threats facing businesses today:
• inability to innovate,
• losing competitive advantage
• high costs of reckless hiring
• poor leadership and communication, and
• regulatory nightmares
It’s that third one – the high costs of reckless hiring — that is so very hard to get right.
If you are good at making the right hire, you’ve got a rare gift. If not, get better. Especially if you are in the hiring business in any way.
Nancy Lublin is the Founder and Executive Director of Dress for Success, the not-for-profit organization that provides suits to low income women when they have job interviews. After graduating form Brown University in 1993, she received her Master degree from Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar. She founded Dress for Success in 1995 (while a full-time law student at New York University School of Law) with a $5,000 inheritance from her great-grandfather, Poppy Max, to honor his memory and legacy by using his hard-earned money to help other people blaze new beginnings. By fall of 1998, there were nearly 20 Dress for Success programs. A year later there were close to 50 Dress for Success affiliates in three countries. Since then, Dress for Success programs have been launched in more than 100 cities in eight countries. Dress for Success and Nancy have been featured on 60 Minutes, Oprah, The Today Show, People magazine, The New York Times, and most other major publications.
Since 2003, Lublin has been CEO and Chief Old Person of DoSomething.org a non-for-profit organization that provides inspiration and opportunities for young people to improve their communities. Three of its programs include one launched by DoSomething.org and the CLEAN & CLEAR® Brand, Join the Surge is a national campaign that empowers teenagers to take action in their communities. DoSomething.org and Sprint are declaring a war on thumbs. Car crashes are the leading killer of teens in the US and texting while driving makes a crash four times more likely. This summer, Staples and DoSomething.org are launching the third annual Do Something 101 School Supply Drive. Volunteers conduct school supply drives in their communities from July 4th through September 18th. Contributions of school supplies can be dropped off at Do Something 101 collection bins at any Staples store across the US.
For more information about these and other programs, click here.
Morris: Before discussing your book, Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business recently published by Portfolio/Penguin, a few general questions. First, what prompted you to create Dress for Success?
Lublin: Being miserable in law school was a big motivation. Seriously. I was really really unhappy. The, one day, out of the blue I received a check for $5,000 from the estate of my great-grandfather. II had the idea for Dress for Success while standing there in that elevator, check in hand. It was a moment that changed my life forever.
Morris: To what extent (if any) has Dress for Success’ mission changed since you founded it?
Lublin: In the beginning, it was just about helping women land jobs. Now Dress for Success has extensive programs to help those women keep their jobs. It is one of the only organizations that don’t just cut off women once they transition from welfare to work. I’m really proud that Dress for Success cares enough to stick with those clients and help them succeed.
Morris: To what extent (if any) has your leadership style changed in recent years?
Lublin: When I started Dress for Success I was 23 years old. When our lawyer told me I needed a secretary I thought she was making an obscene suggestion about someone making me coffee–I didn’t know it was a legal term. Now at (almost) 40, I have extensive knowledge to guide me and my team. I still lead with passion and instinct, but it’s balanced by experience.
Morris: What do you know now about business that you wish you had known 15 years ago when you launched Dress for Success?
Lublin: Actually, it’s kind of the opposite. I wish that I could recapture some of my youthful energy and optimism. Entrepreneurship is about sleepless nights and an evangelical pursuit of a path. I miss being 23 and wide-eyed.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to DoSomething.org. As with Dress for Success, I am curious to know to what extent (if any) DoSomething.org’s original mission has changed since you founded it in 2003.
Lublin: It has changed completely. When I arrived here there were offices scattered around the country. I shut them all down and moved everything online–because that is the most cost-efficient and effective way to grab teens. So the model is completely different and I find myself running a not-for-profit media company.
Morris: I checked out the DoSomething.org website and was especially interested in the three “campaigns”: Join the Surge! in alliance with CLEAN & CLEAR® Brand), Thumb Wars in alliance with Sprint, and Do Something 101 in alliance with Staples. Please explain what the objectives and strategies are for each. What are they for Join the Surge!?
Lublin: Join the Surge is our campaign to enlist 1.2 million teens to do something in their community in 2010.
Morris: What are the objectives and strategies for Thumb Wars?
Lublin: This is our anti-texting-while-driving campaign. We literally made little socks for your thumbs–because you can’t text while you wear them! It’s a fun way to get people talking about the serious hazard of driving while distracted.
Morris: What are the objectives and strategies for Do Something 101?
Lublin: This is our big back-to-school campaign, collecting school supplies for kids in need. We’ll create backpacks for 30,000 kids. All three of these campaigns are centered on a cause and the call to action doesn’t require money, an adult, or a car. (Those are our three basic rules.)
Morris: Now please shift your attention to Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business. Please explain the book’s subtitle.
Lublin: Not-for-profits have small budgets (“zilch”) and have to effect major change. We are used to doing more with less–because we know how to leverage the power of zero.
Morris: Now a follow-up question. As I began to read your brilliant book, having been a CEO of a non-profit organization with more than 40 projects throughout the U.S., I immediately agreed with you that there is a great deal that for-profits can learn from not-for-profits. Here’s my question: Based on your own experience as well as what you have observed, what are the most important lessons that for-profits can learn from not-for-profits?
Lublin: It’s really a mindset change–stop thinking that throwing money at a problem is the most effective solution. There are better ways to motivate employees, build a brand, etc. The book lays out 11 lessons and each chapter ends with very practical questions.