Marisa Keegan interview

This interview took place after Marisa Keegan’s keynote at the Global Kanban Summit in Alexandria US, 2019.

Marisa is a Certified Executive Coach with her Masters in Industrial Organizational Psychology. She helps CEOs design, implement and achieve their strategic plans. She has an extensive career working within Fortune 500 and high growth technology companies such as Rackspace, Modea and Webmail.us, where she played a key role in designing, implementing and achieving their strategic plans. These companies earned positions on Fortune 500, Fortune 1000, Fast Company and National Best Place to Work lists; Representing their ability to achieve strategic, cultural and financial success.

Along the way, she has been named one of the Top 100 Employee Engagement Experts in the U.S., was commissioned to write the book Culture: More than Jeans and Margarita Machines, designed a Customer Experience Model to transforms the way companies build products and services and hosts the Leadership podcast Utter Brilliance.

Q: Hi Marisa, please say a few words about yourself.

A: Hi! I’m Marisa Keegan, I’m an executive coach and I help organizations scale and grow in the most effective and efficient manner.

Q: In your session you said that at one time you had transitioned from a very young and dynamic start-up like company, where people were running around like crazy, to a well-established, 100-year-old company. How did it feel?

A: It was so different! The big thing is that when you are in a company that’s just found product market fit, what you see is people always trying to scale, always trying to grow. So they tend to hire people who have a mindset of scaling and growing. People are used to change and the chaos that comes with it, it’s just a par for the course. 

With the 100-year-old organization, there hadn’t been a lot of change for years and years. The people who had been there for a pretty long tenure hadn’t signed up for a lot of change. Instead, they liked their patterns and consistency. So, the biggest change that I noticed was the mindset of the teams that were there.

Q: Do you think this lack of change in the 100-year old organization was due to corporate inertia or the teams simply believed that they were doing the right thing?

A: I think that it was that the organization had been on a course for so long they forgot to look up and ask themselves what they needed to do to be prepared to exist for the next 100 years. The Board finally asked for more dramatic change and decided to bring in a transformational CEO. She was the real driver behind the change that was happening. 

Q: You also said that when people get invited to talk about emotions, they cringe. Why do you think that is?

A: I think that it’s uncomfortable. People most often associate emotions in business with the negative – anger, stress, tears, etc. They don’t often hear the word emotion and think “passion”, “engagement”, “inspiration”. Additionally, so much of the business world is male-dominated and most men aren’t comfortable talking about emotion, at work or beyond. Because of that, business as we know it has been a place where most people prefer to leave the emotion out of it. For hundreds of years the idea of bringing emotion into the workplace has been considered weak. 

We live in a different age now where people show up because they choose to show up. In fact, the new generation of employees are demanding that we allow them to show up authentically and that means that they get to bring their most human side to work. This includes a full range of emotion. 

You get someone to show up by choice if they feel safe and in an environment that allows them to be authentic and takes care of the tenderness of their emotion. 

Q: Would you agree that companies that turn out to be successful in the long run are the ones that ensure psychological safety for their people?

A: You just had a trigger word for me – psychological safety. It’s one of those things I really geek out about. Yes! Hands down, if you have created psychological safety in an organization I believe it will be more successful.

Q: And do you have some tips on how to get there?

A: Company leaders must be willing to have the honest and candid conversations. If they are willing to talk about emotion and ask about emotion and to care about their employees’ emotion, this thing will create psychological safety. 

Q: You mentioned a really nice tool “Structural Tension”. You demonstrated how a rubber band creates more tension and resistance the more you stretch it. I loved that metaphor but I was thinking how does this work with stretch goals, evolution and progress in general. 

A: I think stretch goals are fantastic. I love a good stretch goal. There’s something so inspirational about thinking that there was a point where putting a man on the moon was some huge and possibly impossible goal. It was a total stretch goal but with the right people and strategy in place we made it happen. Stretch goals have a real place in an organization. If they’re done well and led by the right people they can be very inspiring. 

However, stretch goals sometimes make people say “How are we possibly gonna do that?”, so that initial stretch goal causes a lot of tension. But if you think what can we do this year or this quarter or even this month, then this structural tension is not that strong and you find a place where it is actually motivational and inspiring. 

Q: I learned something today that I hadn’t heard before. Tell us more about the Jahari window.

A: It’s a tool that was created in the 1950s and it’s main purpose is about teaching people how to understand how they show up including not just what they know about themselves, but what they don’t know about themselves that other people might be seeing. It’s a tool that helps you understand blind spots, but one that can also help leaders create a new philosophy around how they interact with their teams and their people. If, as a leader, you go into every situation trying to understand the whole picture you’re going to be able to make the best possible decisions. However, that first means acknowledging that you don’t ‘know it all’ already. 

That’s what I want people to take away from Jahari windows – be alert about blind spots and work towards eliminating them. The more you eliminate blind spots the better of a picture you have of the truth of what’s happening in the world, so you can act on it.

Q: One piece of your story made a big impression on me. You were telling us about an employee that you had a very honest conversation with. You told her that she looked like she didn’t want to be in that position anymore and that she looked tired. Then you asked her whether she really had the energy and stamina to go on that journey. I’m sure all leaders will agree with me when I say that approaching people in that direct and open way is challenging. Is there any advice you want to share with our audience about this topic. How do we ask the hard questions? 

A: I’ll tell you something; I love my people. I truly believe that my purpose in my professional life is to hire great people, grow them intentionally and then launch them into the next phase of their careers. 

Because of that I hire the best people out there, spend a ton of time coaching them, setting expectations and doing whatever I can to help them become wildly successful. 

I also care so much for my people that, once the role I have for them is no longer the next best step in their careers, I want to help them move on – into another company where they can launch forward even farther. 

The woman I was talking about in my story was a manager that I ‘inherited’ when I joined a new company. She had been there for a few years, had seen a huge amount of change, had been kicked around and was tired. I had a really big job ahead of me in this new role and I knew that I needed someone in her position who had the energy and grit to push through the muck with me. 

I wasn’t sure she was going to last and I was fully prepared to show her the door if she wasn’t going to be the right fit, but there was something about her that I knew would make her an important asset if I could just get her head in the right space. I needed her to believe that my vision was the solution to her problems and I needed her to trust that I was going to make her department a better place for all of her people. 

The way I approached the first few months with her was in a really honest and transparent way. I acknowledged that she’d been knocked around, that she was tired, that I could tell that she was laying on her back looking up at the mountain we had to climb ahead of us. I told her that I could see that she was tired. And I told her that I’d take care of her whether or not she stayed with our company or decided to move on – and I meant it. But I also let her know what I needed to accomplish in order to be successful and was very clear about what that meant I needed from the person who filled her role. I demonstrated empathy for where she was but also asked her to understand where I was. 

Week after week of honest conversations allowed us to bridge the gap between where she was and where I needed her to be. We began to solve for the challenges her team had been facing. I was able to show her that I had her back, that I was willing to fight on her behalf, that I was willing to work with her to create the team she wanted to create. And then one day I asked her to make a decision – to fully commit to joining me as one of my key leaders or to transition out of the company. She excitedly chose to stay and went on to become one of my star employees who had some huge wins, including being able to create and grow the largest international arm of our business. Pretty big stuff! 

Q: What do you think about leaders saying “It’s your job to be motivated, it’s my job not to demotivate you”. Would you support that statement?

A: I believe that every employee shows up to work for a company full of motivation. If you’ve hired the right person and put them in the right seat and have given them the ability to do their best work every day then they’ll stay motivated. Every obstacle that pops up, every frustration, every unmet expectation has the potential to whittle away at that motivation. It’s a ratio. People have to feel positive emotions more than they feel negative ones. Too many negative moments at work and the motivation begins to nose-dive. 

In my experience, too many managers and leaders spend more time crushing motivation versus building. And then they like to tell people that it’s up to them to ‘be motivated’. I think it’s a cop-out. Great leaders understand people, psychology, business and how to inspire people to do great work. If people aren’t motivated, inspired and passionate about what you need them to be doing then you as the leader are doing something wrong. 

Keeping employees motivated and inspired is really hard work – it’s why I’ve been so successful when it comes to Executive Coaching. So few leaders understand how to inspire and motivate humans that there’s an entire thriving business out there where people who were the psychology geeks get to help the strong business leaders learn the soft skills. It’s fun! 

Q: One of the curious things you mentioned during your talk was that you hear shocking things from senior leaders when you talk to them 1 on 1, allowing them to show some vulnerability as all human beings do. What are some of the things you hear?

A: The emotions I hear are “overwhelmed”, “struggling to build strong, cohesive leadership teams” and I hear “lonely”. Those are three themes I hear all the time. CEOs carry a big burden. There is a lot they have to do and they have to put on a facade when they face their organizations in order to inspire and motivate, when they’re people just like us.

Q: What is your message to the world? What do you want to tell everyone?

A: My message would be that as leaders we have a responsibility to be good to the humans that come work for us every day. We owe it to our people to trust them, to be clear in our expectations, to hold them accountable for doing great work and to believe that they have it within them to do amazing things. 

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