With his unique brand of edgy leadership, Dr. Todd Dewett is one of the most in-demand keynote speakers in the world, an internationally sought-after expert, a four-time TEDx speaker, and has been quoted in TIME, The New York Times, Bloomberg, Business Week, Forbes, CNN, and many more outlets. He is the author of “Dancing With Monsters, a Tale About Leadership, Success, and Overcoming Fears.” In this interview, Todd talks about the challenges of work including: facing our fears to build confidence; the generational challenges, boundaries, and when quitting should be considered. Listen in to hear how to deal with your mistakes, how to find “fit,” and the importance of outside counsel.
[1:56] Todd’s bio. (See at the end of the show notes.) Todd comes to The Leadership Podcast through a mutual friend, Dean Karrel; both are phenomenal LinkedIn Learning instructors. Todd and Jan share a publisher.
[3:29] Todd is a proud father of two; a sophomore in high school and a sophomore in college. They’re the best thing he’s ever done. Todd and his wife are besties and business partners. She is going through a battle with cancer and they don’t know what’s going to happen. Todd strives to understand it and be useful to her as she tries to beat this thing.
[5:25] Todd likes most to speak about universal experiences; to take a thing we all know and give it a fresh perspective. Wanting to quit is a universal experience. Is it bad or good? It depends. Giving up too easily is a problem for some people. But quitting isn’t simply bad. It can be strategically very useful. If something is not working out, it may be time to stop investing in it to invest in something better.
[7:58] If fear is common at work it may be due to a poor culture or poor managers. But even in great work cultures, fear of what to say and how to act in a new situation is wired into us. We want to please people and be liked. Fear at work is an important topic to explore. Work is affecting people’s physical and mental health in ways that are not productive. We need to learn how to mitigate the experience of fear.
[10:33] Fear can manifest as indecision. We walk through a large system of interlocking expectations from ourselves, our parents, our partners, our peers, our supervisors, others at work, and our family. We don’t always know how to navigate it successfully. Sometimes it’s indecision, sometimes it’s rash poor decision-making, and sometimes it’s overreaching.
[11:03] What is the reasonable, measured way to deal with that normal anxiety we feel in the middle of all those expectations? Good coaching and some thought will get you through that. The real problem is people who haven’t done the work to narrow down the possibilities and don’t know what their career goal is at all so they defer the decision to someone else.
[12:31] Todd delivered a TEDx talk at Texas A&M, long after his Ph.D. there. It was based on his experiences as an employee and a professor, that lots of people love to talk about creativity and innovation but the gap between the concepts and the practice of embracing them is enormous. When people innovate or tweak a process, they receive pushback and criticism. Change may be seen as a threat.
[14:28] Confidence is both a personality trait and a skill that can be built over time. Todd recommends the repetition of engaging these risks and learning from them in an environment that is supportive of innovation. People like Todd have a job because much of what people do doesn’t naturally mesh with their environments. They don’t fit without some effort.
[16:21] The pandemic accelerated thinking about these issues and it came at a time of a generational shift we’ve never seen. There are five generations represented in the workforce. The definition of success is slowly shifting toward what makes the employee happy and find purpose, more than what others think.
[16:49] The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting seem to support that shift. Millennials and Zs do have different professional values in terms of wanting to be a partner and be heard rather than being subordinate and following orders. They want more leisure but also want to feel more purpose than earlier generations. People respond fantastically well when they believe they are heard.
[18:26] The key to “fit” is objectively getting the skills that you need to do the work you want to do, and finding people that you enjoy, no matter the thing you’re working on. The skills and the people both feed into your experience of “fit.”
[19:36] Todd agrees that there is both a corporate responsibility and a personal responsibility to provide meaning to work. He says, “Never believe the simple narrative.” Millennials and Zs find it shocking that when starting a job, it is important to learn the norms, the rules, the expectations, and what it takes to be a top performer there, before demanding to be heard. It goes both ways.
[22:19] People are aging out of the labor force faster than workers are entering it. Jobs have changed over the last 30 years. We lost many jobs and replaced them with service jobs. It may be harder to find purpose and alignment with a low-paying service job than it did with a high-paying manufacturing job.
[23:54] No one’s perfect all the time. We have moods, moments, and external factors that impact us. Even on our best days, we’re imperfect. One of the themes in Dancing with Monsters is that “You’re wonderfully imperfect but still perfectly capable of doing amazing things.” Talk about it more than less. It leads to empathy, authenticity, and vulnerability.
[24:21] The world of our fathers and grandfathers placed an uncrossable line between the personal and professional. There are some holes in the wall now, but it hasn’t come down. Humans want to have authentic human connections that are meaningfully fulfilling. But instead, we put on a polished, professional version of ourselves that we hope will keep us out of trouble and maybe even get us ahead.
[25:04] You don’t have to hide. Most people through conversation can make teams meaningfully better. We need to be validated a little more, understood a little more, and be better listeners. We learn that everybody’s imperfect, and that’s OK. The key to great teams isn’t finding the best talent, but talent is still required. The key is chemistry and getting the best joint performance out of the people that you do have.
[26:45] Leaders are sometimes going to go too far. It’s normal. What do they do to show vulnerability? Don’t run from it. Own that. If apologies or statements are needed, make them sooner than later. But first, assume you do not see yourself and the situation perfectly. Find people who have insights into what just happened and ask them for their insights. They see you differently than you see yourself.
[27:25] Take time to think about a path forward for using the error to make yourself better. Todd shares a story of embarrassing himself as a young professional speaker by bombing onstage in front of thousands of people. He used it as an opportunity to check his emotions, step back, examine the things he did wrong, and make a plan to fix them and not repeat the same mistakes. He used it to make himself better.
[29:02] Writing a monster story is unusual in the leadership space. It came from a mistake! Two years ago, for the third time, Todd wrote a novel, and “It was not good.” He is done trying to scratch that itch! The story involved a vampire in an office and he still loved the idea. After thinking about Patrick Lencioni and others, Todd got excited about a fable and started writing his book. Six hours later, he had the first draft.
[30:49] Whatever your generation may be, the “more” that you search should be defined by you, whether it’s just about work, or larger issues in life, Todd still says, “More is always possible.”
[32:32] Millennials and Zs have seen all kinds of financial adversity. No one understands success without understanding failure. Todd says he had so many big, fat, ugly failures in his career, it’s hilarious! If you have one or two moderate successes people think good things about you. It’s the halo effect. Todd loves talking about failures.
[35:02] Leaders want to be aspirational but sometimes don’t live the values. The gap between rhetoric and reality causes a massive cultural problem in organizations. Todd promotes more realism with high levels of candor and kindness. When employees make mistakes, discuss the mistakes with kindness and candor and admit your own mistakes. With kindness and candor, you can deal with reality a lot better.
[37:27] We’re not great at understanding ourselves or others as much as we think we are. Outside counsel is essential in any success story, for sure! Growth starts when you leave your comfort zone. That’s just a truism. Allow your boss and allow yourself to push yourself, into areas that make you a little uncomfortable. That’s where growth comes from.
[38:49] Todd’s closing thoughts: “Having what it takes to become an effective leader and finding success in your career, is not about what you’re born with, it’s about the skills that you build. And with the right effort and the right people around you, any of us can find those things and build those things. It is within our reach. I love sharing that with people.”
[39:37] Closing quote: Remember, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” — Rosa Parks