5 Questions with Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina, Authors of Rebels at Work

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I’ve been looking forward to this interview for some time. Lois and Carmen are two thought leaders I admire and respect a great deal. Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within is a great read, and their insights here are powerful. Enjoy!

What or who inspired you to take on the challenge of helping rebels in the workplace?

Lois: A giant light bulb popped for me when I was at an innovation conference and heard Carmen talking about being a heretic within the CIA, and how hard it was to create change inside the “belly of the beast.” I realized that day that I had throughout my career I had either been helping clients create change inside their big organizations or had been shaking things up in my own organizations. I also realized that I had been winging it my entire career, and felt kind of sad about that.. What else might I have been able to do if someone had coached me on what it takes to move new ideas through the politics of any organization? Could I have enjoyed work more? Could I have been kinder and more empathetic? This melancholy motivated me to help others.

Carmen: Well, as Lois said when I retired from the CIA the first significant public speech I gave was about being a heretic at the CIA. I not only connected with Lois, but also with many other people trying to make innovation occur inside big organizations. We too often talk about entrepreneurs and startups, but as hard as that is, I think making change inside existing organizations is harder. Like living in your house while you’re doing a big remodel. When I was at CIA, I was always reflecting on what I was doing. A lot of those reflections evolved into better practices for Rebels at Work.

What keeps you up at night regarding this mission? Are there any storm clouds we should be looking out for?

Lois: how do we reach BOTH the rebels and the executives to whom rebels report? We can teach, mentor and inspire rebels. But for organizations to adapt and grow executives have to create an environment where new ideas are welcomed and they have to know how to coach their rebels. Maybe even more fundamentally, they have to want rebels on their teams, not just tolerate them. The storm cloud I see is that as changing market contexts upend business as usual, most people get scared. And when they get scared they double down and try to make what’s worked before keep on working, shunning the people with the new ideas. Related is that people stop raising new ideas because they know business is not good and they are afraid of losing their jobs.

Carmen: What keeps me up a lot is the worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity. For the most part, it’s not an explicit conspiracy, although people who believe things like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” are suggesting that we should just settle. All of us, at one time or another, are unwitting members of this conspiracy. I also worry a lot about how hard it is to get people to accept diversity of thinking. This is something I had to deal with during my career. And sometimes I worry it isn’t really improving.

In Chapter 8, you write about the importance of Rebel Self-Care. From a wellbeing perspective, can you expand on that?

Lois: We rebels tend to be passionate and that passion can morph into obsession. Obsession can eat you alive, causing all kinds of bad behavior and blinding us from being able to rationally see what’s what. Taking care of ourselves is the only way to not fall into an obsessive dark hole. It’s the only way to keep a positive perspective and sense of humor. When we lose those, we’re losing our ability to be effective. Maybe we’re just plain losing ourselves. The more committed we are about excelling at our work, the more we need to look after our mental, spiritual and physical well-being. That’s our fuel and our safety net. It’s also what gives meaning to our life and work. (And meaning is a much more satisfying outcome than money or status.)

Carmen: I flunked Rebel Self-Care in my career, so I’m excited that we discuss this in the book and that so many people respond so positively to the message. I lost some of my best friends at the Agency during my time there because I didn’t pay attention to my emotions, that I was approaching a breaking point. All rebels need to avoid that breaking point. When we become cynical and negative, it takes a lot of effort to recover. And sometimes we never do.

Can the strategies found in the book apply to multiple areas of a rebel’s life?

Lois: Ha! Anyone who has teenagers knows what it’s like to be the “boss” of rebels. You love their fresh thinking, their creativity, their intolerance for school and societal rules that just don’t make sense. And yet they make you crazy when they break the rules, do stupid things without understanding the bigger context, and let their emotions run wild. When we coach our teenagers and help them learn how to navigate, they develop capacities for being effective, meaningful citizens of the world. If we simply insist they follow the rules, they just get angrier and more frustrated. Same with rebels and their bosses. As for rebels, the strategies in the book apply to many areas of our lives where we’re trying to get groups of people or organizations to consider new and better approaches than what exists. Parent-Teacher Organizations, church councils, school committees, condo associations, boards of non-profits. It’s about people influencing people.

Carmen: I use my “lizard brain” mantra to control my emotions ALL THE TIME. It really works. One recommendation we make is for rebels to not dominate conversations. In everything we do, we need to listen more.

When you think back on your career, can you recall a manager who once looked negatively at rebels, and then changed their mind? What brought the change on?

Lois: As a lifelong rebel, I pissed off more than a couple of my bosses and most of them came around because of two reasons, and sometimes a third. They realized how much I cared for the organization and wanted all of us to succeed. Second, they often couldn’t believe how many risks I took to make new ideas work. I didn’t just have skin in the game, I had a whole body commitment. From my observations, no manager needs to give rebels the “you have to be accountable” talk. Because I spent my career working for ad agencies and consulting firms, the third thing that turned my bosses into believers was revenue. When my ideas produced new revenue, there was only happiness and support.

Carmen: It’s always surprised me how well I get along with gruff, no-nonsense people. I think I had a couple of managers in my career who first thought I was nuts and then came to believe in what I was doing. This is going to sound arrogant, perhaps, but I think what changed their mind was that they began to appreciate that I had been right all along. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been wrong many, many times. But in the late 1990s, I appreciated what the internet was going to do to “knowledge work” sooner than many people in my organization. I had so many arguments with people about applications such as Wikipedia and Social Media. Years later, some of them now ask me how I saw it coming. Well, I can’t explain that at all. Really, I don’t understand why they didn’t see it.

 

Carmen

 

 

 

 

 

Carmen Medina 

Carmen spent 32 years as a heretic at the Central Intelligence Agency. Despite this, she held several senior positions at the Agency, including serving on the executive team that led the CIA’s analytic directorate. She thinks most organizations don’t have a good way of determining when it’s time to transform and/or “sell” their current business model. Heretics, mavericks, and rebels at work can provide organizations with the important early warning system they so desperately need.

Since retiring from CIA in 2010, Carmen has continued to write and speak about Rebels at Work, analysis and strategic warning, the emergence of new global norms in the 21st century, the future culture of work, and cognitive diversity. She is Puerto Rican by birth and Texan by nationality.  She tweets under @milouness and @RebelsatWork

 

 Lois

Lois Kelly

Lois Kelly has been a creative rebel throughout her career, helping some of the most respected companies in the world create new ways to launch products, communicate complicated issues, influence public opinion, deal with crises, go public, adopt innovative business practices, and occasionally try to move mountains.

During this journey, Lois has become a student of change, learning what it takes to get people to embrace new ideas. Her obsession is creating clarity from complexity. Her most meaningful work is leading workshops where people create the future they want for their organizations and companies.

Lois lives in Rhode Island, the smallest and most creative state in the United States, and tweets under @LoisKelly and @RebelsatWork.

 

The Problem with Conforming

Celebrating the best of the Epic Living Blog, 2012. Enjoy!

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OK, you've got that feeling of safely, relief and security. And best yet, you didn't get in trouble. You wipe your brow and let out a quiet "whew." You just conformed and all is well with the world.

Or is it?

Often we associate conforming with other words like "doing what's practical" or "sometimes you have to compromise." We're good liars. Choosing conformity is usually the result of a lack of willingness to make a stand or plain old fear-fear of loss. 

Our brains are complicit in this too. It sends those feelings, hormones, etc. to confirm we've made a good decision. But we forget that over time our brain is just responding based on our habits and tendencies. So, if you're used to not making a stand, then your brain wants to protect you and conforming is the result.

Conforming seemed "right" when we lived in the industrial age. You remember, do the same thing day-in and day-out. The factory or office didn't require much more from you, other than showing up. But things have changed and now conformity is not what's needed (if it ever was). The problem with conforming is staring us right in the face. And in many areas of our culture we're looking away.

If you're a non-conformist (like me), be encouraged you're not alone. Check-out this site as an example of this. If you find yourself being more of a conformist, then I would seriously consider the dangerous place in-which you reside. In the age we find ourselves in, conforming is a block and a hindrance.

Some final thoughts that warrant your attention:

  • The context around today's post are the Big Things. I realize we conform everyday when we stop at a traffic light is red. I'm speaking to the issues when we are given a chance to influence (business, family, community, governance, etc.).
  • This book/manifesto from Seth Godin is one example of what's at stake here.
  • Safety and security is temporary for the conformist.
  • If change is warranted for you, then go slow and get someone to come along side of you to advise and coach. Drastic and big movements rarely work.
  • The world we live in has changed. Beware of those who preach that the past can be resurrected.

5 Questions with Lois Kelly of Rebels at Work

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Welcome to our 5 Questions Series. These are interviews I'll be putting out there in the coming weeks for your digestion and inspiration. There will be a variety of interviews with thought leaders from many different walks, so buckle in.

I'm honored that Lois Kelly is our first interview. I've known Lois for some time now and she never ceases to inspire me. The following conversation is no exception. Enjoy!

Why do rebel thinkers so often feel miserable inside of their organizations? 

Three overwhelming reasons. Restlessness, loneliness, and self-doubt. 

 We’re a restless bunch, always seeing new ways to do things better, easier, faster, better. Yes, I say better twice because we’re wired to keep raising the bar on excellence. Needless to say our ideas and relentless energy often exhaust or threaten our colleagues and bosses. So people often keep us at arm’s length, even those who appreciate the value we bring. This can feel lonely and lead to self-doubt, “Why aren’t they moving now on  this idea? Am I off base? Am I not communicating the value well enough? Is it me or is it the idea? Why can’t I just slow down and take it more slowly like everyone else? Do I belong in this organization?” 

What value do most rebel thinkers bring to the table?

 Rebels have the courage to name the elephants in the room, see new ways to solve problems, bring outside ideas into the organization, and be the first to try new approaches.  My research has found that rebels call out problems others are afraid to (92%) and challenge assumptions and sacred cow practices (92%), both of which are essential to real innovation, but often shunned in organizations.

The other overlooked value rebels bring is devotion to duty. Rebels care more about their organizations than most people. That’s why we ask the difficult questions that most people feel more comfortable avoiding, and risk being snubbed for suggesting unpopular ideas.  We want our organizations to be the very best and we believe that our colleagues and we have what it takes to achieve more than our competitors.

(see the following chart for more)

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Why are many managers afraid/intimidated by rebel thinkers?

We tend to trigger three threats that are wired into every person’s pre-frontal cortex, including those of our bosses.  Our ideas often threaten managers’ sense of status, certainty and autonomy. 

An overwhelming number of managers believe that they are supposed to create the strategy and have the answers — and employees are meant to execute on those ideas. Not question them. I’m the boss. I’ve got the senior vice president title. Hence, I know more and you should respect me for it.  It sounds silly in this day and age of empowerment and collaboration, but protecting our status can lead all of us to act in illogical ways. 

We humans are also wired to crave certainty. So when we rebels present innovative ideas that have no best practice precedents or haven’t been Six Sigma’d we trigger fears about certainty. Managers worry, “How will we know this will work? What if we make a mistake?” You get the picture.

The last threat is autonomy. Our managers like doing things their way. To suggest something different is to violate their sense of control and autonomy over what they know and like.

What are the consequences of not engaging with the rebel thinker?

Missed opportunities, a complacent corporate culture, and a talent deficit.

Rebel thinkers see risks and opportunities earlier than most people. This is a tremendously valuable competence in age of such rapid change and smaller windows to seize and capitalize on opportunities. One way to look at rebels is as your “intrapreneurs” bringing entrepreneurial thinking, speed, and competitive instincts inside the organization. They spot ideas and see ways to make them real.

The other consequences are that shutting out rebel thinking sends a signal to the organization that creativity, diversity of thinking and change are not welcome. When that happens, your best talent usually leaves, and the culture becomes complacent. Not rocking the boat. Accepting good enough as good enough.  In today’s hyper competitive world, few organizations can survive with a “good enough” approach.

What is most surprising about corporate rebels?

Rebels are not motivated by formal recognition or financial incentives, nor are they “troublemakers.” They’re self-motivated to want to make a difference to their organization and to solve things that are not working as well as they could. My research found that just 27% want formal recognition. What they do want is to be asked their opinions more often and be invited to work on teams to solve specific issues. They don’t want to just talk about ideas, opportunities and problems, the want to make things happen.

The second surprising thing is how many closeted rebel thinkers there are in companies. People are yearning to do more – and they know more about what to do than most executive teams realize.

About Lois

Lois Kelly is an international marketing strategist, organizational change facilitator, successful author and dynamic speaker. She’s passionate about helping leaders at all levels make innovative ideas real, and serves as a creative outsider, igniting organizations to see new ways to accomplish important goals.

 

My 2011 Finds

The following are my 2011 finds:

  1. Rebels at Work-a great work from Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina.  It really is a movement that will have impact in the years to come.
  2. Hootsuite-yes, I know I'm late with this one.  Great app to manage your social media.
  3. Broken Music by Sting-A great book for me personally.
  4. The Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls-a spot where I gave a couple of workshops. I don't think there's a better spot to do this.  A great place to stay as well.
  5. Take Time for Your Life-maybe an obvious, since we offer their experience.  The program has elevated my life.
  6. Gallup-Healthways-eye-opeing statistics and research.  Informs much of our work in the well-being arena.
  7. Joe Gerstandt-this ” target=”_blank”>video explains a lot about why I like him. Authentic, authentic and authentic.
  8. PenUltimate-this i-Pad app has been a game changer for me.  Haven't used paper for over a year.
  9. Gotham Gal-a great writer that is very tuned into the life she's living.
  10. AnyMeeting-my preferred method of conducting webinars and such.