Dealing with stress from work and the daily burdens of personal life can literally take its toll on anyone. As an outcome, most companies support work-life balance and encourage their employees to take a break and recharge. Jessica Higgins of Gapingvoid Culture Design Group could attest to the value of this sense of balance. As the COO of the only end-to-end culture design firm in existence, Jessica gives away some of their management principles that are effective in a trust-based organization and her top communication tips. A leader with the growth mindset, she imparts why it is essential to fully detach from everything related to work and how education is being disrupted in today’s digital world.
Work-Life Balance: The Importance Of Taking A Break And Recharging with Jessica Higgins
Jessica Higgins, the COO for Gapingvoid, a culture design group based in Miami has an amazing story to tell. We had a fun interview. Jessica and I met at a Genius Network event. I was at first enamored with her company because of the art they do, but I didn’t realize the depth of the actual culture consulting they do for major brands and they do some fantastic stuff. Definitely check out Gapingvoid.com and some of the cool artwork, but also read the blog to some of the leadership tips and business stories she can give us. Jessica has got her MBA. She also has a law degree. As the COO for Gapingvoid, it’s the only end-to-end culture design firm that’s in existence. Her team gives all the strategies, methods and tools you need to make your ideal culture become a reality. She’s also an author, a public speaker and a board advisor for organizations in technologies and the arts. She wrote a cool piece on the Twenty Tips for Becoming a Woman Executive before 30. Let’s dive into this conversation with Jessica and me.
We have Jessica Higgins, the COO for Gapingvoid, which is a culture design firm. Jessica and I met at a conference called the Genius Network and I was impressed with her skill set and talent as an executive and also understanding about culture. I’m excited to talk to you, Jessica. I want to find out from you about culture, but how did you end up in this role?
I ended up in this role completely by accident, how all great things happen. It’s being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage. Every entrepreneur I talk to has that story. You hear the story of their great success, but the truth is most of us are in the right place at the right time. I was running my own firm and I was hosting a technology event in Miami where I live, bringing Silicon Valley concepts into Miami. Somebody came up to me and said, “You need to sit down and meet my boyfriend.” I thought, “I’ve never heard that before, sure.” The boyfriend was Jason and he was looking to start a consulting firm. I previously ran a consulting firm and at the time I had my own. He asked me to build a consulting firm on the side of his business. I took him on as a client. I said, “No problem.” I built his consulting side, handed it off to him and said, “Here’s your consulting firm.” He was like, “I need you to run this thing.” That’s how we’ve been working together for a few years.
What’s the tie-in with the consulting firm with Jason, with Gapingvoid, and with Hugh Macleod’s art? Is that part of what you do? Are you involved with his art? How does that tie-in work?
We have a long history and an interesting business. It’s a lot like IDEO started as a design firm and then rolled into this consulting side of their firm. We started in a similar way. Hugh and Jason have been working together since 2004. Hugh was a blogger and artist. Jason hired him to do some marketing and then they ended up working together doing transformative and disruptive stuff inside of businesses. They also had a product side and they were selling his work online as art products, tee shirts and things like that. The idea and the concept were why don’t we take a more formalized approach to this disruptive business idea and disrupt business in specific ways guided towards specific outcomes. That was an idea that had come from a consultant they had worked with who found their work and said, “I want to bring this into Roche Pharmaceuticals.” The work they did was transformative. She was one of the innovation leads at Roche. She says to this day it was the best thing that ever happened to their business, allowing people to think differently and more innovatively.
Is the big corporate your focus on the consulting and then this culture consulting? Are you still tying into the tech sector?
I came from a background in restructuring healthcare and high unemployment governments. I love helping people. My mission is to help people. I’m not tied to any particular industry. Allowing a big company to be nimble as a startup is interesting. Allowing healthcare to be more human is also amazing. We do a fair amount of work in higher education. I got back from Tulane University. We’re looking at how we bring the future of work and what work will be. Bring that into the mindset of the students and allow them to think differently as they transform from being a kid to going to college and then going from college into the working world. What are the new skill sets? What are the new mindsets? What are the new behaviors?
I wrote two posts before this interview. The first one was how frustrated I still am with the education system in the US and how it needs disruption. The second was I was excited about talking to you on the show and seeing who else we wanted to interview for it. Tell me about what you see coming that needs to either change in education or what the kids in high school or university need to be preparing themselves for.
Education is being disrupted. You look at these online universities, Singularity University, and it was originally the idea. Education and healthcare are the two areas we need the most in this country. They’re the two areas that are the most behind in this country. There’s this idea that vocational schools are schools that teach you real-world skills. You go to these third-tier universities, these two-year universities for vocational skills and then a proper education is enlightenment in a lot of ways where you show up and you randomly learn for four years. That’s no longer the case. Singularity University is a direct by-product. Education has to change, teach people real skills and new ways of thinking. I want to hear your thoughts on that and your thoughts about the future of education.
I’m similar because there should be a trend back towards more apprenticeship and more working with great companies and in great fields instead of going to a university or college to get the theory. I liked the whole practicality of some of the two-year programs because there is more hands-on experience gained there. You’ve got an undergraduate degree in psychology. You went to law school and then an MBA. Law school is probably the most practical hands-on you have to go. You can’t go on an apprentice and learn to be a lawyer. I look at an undergrad in psychology and an MBA is things you could almost get by apprenticing. A lot of kids end up in these four-year programs, me being one of them, not knowing what I wanted to be doing and I leave going, “I learned stuff, but I could have learned if I was going to work for four companies for free for four years. I would have come out with no debt, lots of experience and I still would’ve been partying and hanging out with kids my age.”
I have to disagree with you on the law school thing because even law school, you think it’s an apprenticeship type of situation, but there was a fourth tier law school next to me. I remember I graduated from a first-year law school and I remember working as an intern with a fourth-tier law school student and she knew how to do things and I didn’t even know how to write a brief. I graduated from law school and nobody ever taught me how to write a brief. They’re teaching you how to think. Those skills are great. I did get through law school off of Google. I have to be honest with you. When I figured out I can Google things, I was like, “Why would I bother reading all these books?” When you can teach yourself anything on the internet and information is free, the democratization of information is going to transform how we look at school completely. We’ll be the last generation who forces our children to go to college.
I’m definitely not a fan of forcing my kids to go to college for exactly what you’re saying. I went to college when there was no one in my residence at the first-year university who had a computer. There are 67 guys in my residence. None had a computer. We all had typewriters. That was the era you had to memorize things to be smart because there was nowhere to look it up. You couldn’t go to the library to answer every question. There was no Google. You had to memorize it all and then you fast forward many years later, everybody has computers. Why are we teaching kids to memorize stuff when the answers are either in the textbook or online? There is a huge movement even in the business world to hiring kids or adults who can work together, collaborate, research, solve problems, can figure out how to work together as a team and can almost divide and conquer versus being the whole smart person in the room. There’s almost a trend against being the smartest person in the room versus the person who can collaborate and research faster.
Where is that space for creativity? We still have to learn to create it and learn to work together. There is that space that’s missing. Many of my friends who are major entrepreneurs dropped out of school at fourteen or fifteen, definitely by the high school because the educational system wasn’t serving them well. It does not serve brilliant people well.
I was out for dinner with a CEO here in Vancouver and he’s telling me about his brother in Chicago who’s cashed out of his second company at $250 million is what he sold his two companies for the total. He dropped school when he was seventeen years old and started working in restaurants and bars and ended up building chains of restaurants and bars. There’s a huge movement towards it. Tell me what you’re doing inside of Gapingvoid around culture. I know you go into big companies to teach them about culture. What are you doing inside your own company? It can’t just be hanging the art. Give us the real stuff you guys have codified internally.
Internal codification is around creating a fully mobile-first workforce, first of all. I’m a huge proponent of letting people do their best and give them the space they need to be creative. We’ve tried and tested out various things, but what we’d find is we adopt one of Verne Harnish‘s management principles he always talks about. One of those principles is having a 30-minute check in every day. What we’ll find is that 30-minute check in everyday life starts to swell. The codification system is loose and we each go off and do our thing. We come together for 30 minutes in the morning, check in with each other and see what’s going on. We stay connected. It works on different things. We don’t collaborate unless we are in a culture design project.
In the middle of that, we’ll come together and collaborate. Discussing and work through what the problems are together and how do we solve them together. Other than that, we work individually and loosely on our own. We send emails. We try not to bother each other by phone. I’m a big fan of a high trust environment and I believe in a high trust environment we have to operate under good intentions always. Believe we’re each doing our best and it allows me to do my best and it allows everybody else to do their best. It’s great because I don’t have to micromanage anybody.
What tools do you use? Do you use any tools internally to help make sure people are getting stuff done or to help give them the tools to get more done?
I hate these productivity tools. I tried them all. I have companies that I’ll say, “We’re using six different productivity tools. Come to help us. We have to work together.” I can officially say we use Basecamp and I can officially say I don’t love it.
We switched from Basecamp to Asana and I’m not sure if we’ll love it anymore either.
I’m a productivity expert. I should like these tools.
Maybe you’re more of a fan of hiring people that are productive versus forcing them to use tools. I’ve said about salespeople that a great salesperson doesn’t need a CRM. They need a phone, a laptop, a pen, a notepad and they’ll sell. The more time you waste of getting them to fill out stuff in a CRM, the less time they have to sell.
I hate fake productivity and I value real productivity. When we have a new salesperson onboard, they say, “Where’s the CRM? Where’s Salesforce?” We’re like, “No, be your own sales force manager, self-manage, however you like. Do you want to get Salesforce? Use it. Do whatever works best for you.”
Where do you find the people? What do you look for when you’re looking for people?
I am extremely fortunate in that people come to us. People who are huge fans of the company will say, “I’d love to come and work for you guys.” If they’re skilled, then we find a space for them and allow them to do their best. We have a small team of valuable people. I don’t pull in a lot. I don’t believe in a lot of FTEs. I don’t pull in a ton of headcount for the sake of doing so. It’s the same reason I don’t have a big oak desk for the sake of doing stuff. If you’ve got people who are great at what they’re worth, then you don’t need those things.
You don’t have to work hard to find people. They just come to you. That can’t be that easy. Do you look for something when they come to you? How do you filter them?
Most people hate their work. That immediately attracts people. The first step is somebody skilled coming to us and saying, “I hate my job. I hate what I do and I want to come work for you.” We each meet with them and we all agree then they’re on-boarded. I’ll work with them to get them up to speed. That’s as simple as it is.
Do you work with a lot of freelancers as well?
I have some freelancers from time to time. Our mobile development team is a team of freelancers and they are in Eastern Europe somewhere, but mostly collaborators. We’ve got a few full-time folks and a lot of great collaborators, freelancers.
With the collaborators, I’ve heard a lot of people in the past and I disagree with them saying it’s hard to find collaborators or hard to find people off Upwork. It’s easy to find them as it is to find good employees. Do you have any systems or tools to filter those people out or to find out who you’re going to start giving more projects too?
We are smart people and we use our best judgment and look at what are your outcomes? What’s your work been like? We’ve not had any bad luck with good common sense so far.
You’re operating under a pure meritocracy.
It’s a trust space.
It’s like you hang around all day, smoke pot, sit in a lotus position and go say, “Om,” and everything works. It sounds like Vancouver.
I don’t smoke pot and we’re all busy and productive. I would say the opposite of that.
How is it easy? Is it because of your culture or because you’re focused on outcomes and you don’t get bogged down with all the stuff the rest of companies do?
Our culture is defined as doing exceptional work. It’s not easy at all. Most of us are stressed out most of the time, but we’re stressed out for the right reasons. We’re stressed out because we’re pushing hard, going hard and doing such great work that we stress ourselves out oftentimes. I’m working and grappling through that. How do we each shutdown? How do we each take time? In a fully trust-based organization, it’s fully work-life integrated. The parents can be parents and they can do their work when they can do their work. The single people can be single people and they integrate their work as they go. It’s like, “How do we all shut down in this environment?” It’s been a question for me and something I’m working through. Do you have any tips?
I was talking to a friend of mine about this and she hasn’t had a vacation in a couple of years. I’m like, “That’s insane.” She’s this driven, focused, high-performing exec inside of a company that says they can take as much vacation as they want, but it seems no one does. What do you guys do to ensure people are taking their vacation time or are disconnecting? Are you good at that?
I haven’t had a vacation in a few years. When I realized that, I booked a vacation for a weekend. The fact my weekend is a vacation tells you.
That’s what she was saying, “I have weekends.” I’m like, “Those aren’t vacations. Those are weekends.” You haven’t done that. What I’ve been trying to teach people for years and this is part of what I’ve tried to codify as part of the culture is we talk about this work-life balance, but the only way we can get there is to obsess about it. If people aren’t good at taking it, we have to force them to. The reason we force people to take vacations is I want them to recharge. Like an athlete can’t play in their professional sport eight hours a day, five days a week. Their bodies would break down. Their minds would break down. They’d make mistakes. They have to take time off between games, they take time off during games or they play different shifts.
I wanted employees to be the same way. I noticed myself with almost diminishing returns as well if I don’t take breaks where I can shut down for a week or a couple of weeks. I mean shutting down by no business periodicals, no business books, no business podcasts, no laptops, no emails. I love business. I’m a junkie. What’s wrong with reading a book for fun? What’s wrong with hanging out with friends? What’s wrong with going away for a week with nothing other than whoever you’re with?
I did this many years ago. I was running a big chain of collision repair shops in the US. It’s now known as Gerber Auto Collision. I left and went to India for a few weeks and this was in 1997. There was no internet. There were cell phones, but you weren’t running them out of India. My two business partners held up the fort and I came back a month later. There were about fourteen projects I was working on at the time. I remember coming back, looking at them and thinking there were probably eight I could delete, completely stop and never pick up again because I had time to think about the important, highly impactful things. All the busy stuff fell away. What do I do? We give all of our employees at all my companies I coach five weeks’ vacation that’s paid, but you use it or lose it. They have to take all five weeks. It’s mandatory that all employees take five weeks’ vacation.
In September, when they finish their first eight and nine months of the year, we sit down and we book out the rest of their days of vacation in their calendar for them. We try to get everybody to take one week during Christmas and New Year’s, one week during the spring break period, two weeks during summer. One more week we take the five days and spread them over three-day weekends to make them four-day weekends. We force people. We make them put them in their calendar. What happens from that is employees look at the leadership team and go, “You care about us.” It’s like, “I want you to de-stress. I want you to slow down.”
Our culture is not about forcing anybody to do anything.
Imagine if you forced them to take a vacation. They’d be like, “That’s bizarre. You’re not forcing me to work. You’re forcing me not to work it. It throws productivity into high gear.”
I have to accept it. As the leader of the organization, I set an example, whether I like it or not. We had on-boarded a new employee and had that exact conversation. It’s like, “Everybody, don’t email her after 5:00 and don’t bother her on the weekends because we are setting this example.”
This may be the coachable moment for you and maybe I’ll work with you on some accountability on it. I had a retreat with my leadership team several years ago when I was the COO for 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. I remember one of the guys on my team. We did a verbal 360 feedback. We did it out loud of each person that was twenty minutes per person. I’ve systemized it on my blog. One of the comments I got from Tyler and then from two other people was I can’t be a good role model as COO if I’m not taking vacations, I’m stressed out and I’m working 24 hours a day because it makes them feel the only way they’ll be successful in my eyes is to do the same.
It crushed me because I was like, “I’m working so much and none of us are getting out of this alive.” We’re walking each other home and we may as well have fun along the way. What happened when we started to push for that because that was the start of the five weeks’ vacation and the start of the true work-life balance were employees started to go through brick walls to build the company. They knew we cared about them as people. My assistant now books two Fridays a month clear in my calendar where I have no business calls, no emails, nothing. I’m taking the day off.
Coach me, please, go ahead. I always love our conversations every time we meet up at Genius Network or wherever it is. I always learn something from you. How are you going to do this, fly down and throw away my phone?
I’m up for the challenge. I’ll make it happen. One thing I’d like you to do is for the next quarter, for the next few months, I want you to block off at least one Friday per month where you’re not doing anything. I want 24 hours of no cell phone.
Are you crazy?
I want complete digital nothingness for that whole period. You can buy a second cell phone, you can afford it, but you can have your Instagram on, your Facebook on. I want no business, nothing for full 24-hour periods.
How do you listen to podcasts?
You can’t listen to any business podcasts. You can listen to podcasts about nutrition or fun. I had a CEO years ago. We were at a conference, a big Entrepreneurs’ Organization conference in Vegas. He was hounding these like, “Give me more business books. Tell me what else to read.” I’m like, “Stop. I want you to read three books for fun and then I’ll give you more business books.” I gave him three books off the top of my head that had nothing to do with business. I said, “When you finish those three, then I’ll give you more business books.” He goes, “What’s the point?” I said, “The point is you need to relax.” Even to have conversations with friends. You’re smart even to have with friends. They don’t want to hear about our work. They don’t want to hear about a business podcast. They want to hear about something fun that happened, some TV show we saw, some hike we did, some great adventure we had or some bucket list item we crossed off our list. No one cares about what we do for work.
You slammed it on something. Hiking, that’s going to be how I achieve this. I’m hitting here trying to grapple like, “How do I achieve this unachievable goal of hiking?”
Do you know the brand of Lululemon? The Founder of Lululemon, his name is Chip Wilson. He’s from here in Vancouver. I bumped into him at the Ted Conference. Chip is well-known for hiking a local hike called the Grouse Grind. Regardless of who you are, if you want to spend time with Chip Wilson, most people would be like, “Do you want to go for breakfast? Do you want to grab a coffee?” CEOs are like, “I’m busy.” If you want to meet with Chip, all you do is send him a note, no matter who you are and say, “I want to go hiking. Can you tell me a day you’re hiking the Grouse Grind?” He does it five days a week and, “Can I join you?” He will always say yes. If you’re prepared to go hike up this insane hike, you’ve got time with him. That’s easy to put into our schedule. That’s something I’m starting to do more of as well as if people want time with me, we can all spend time with you, but we’re golfing, we’re hiking, we’re going to go for a run, we’re going to go play tennis or we’re going to go for a bike ride. We’re going to go do something that does not involve sitting in a board room or me having another meal. I want to go to be active. That’s where culture comes from. It’s that true connection with people.
We love our walking meetings. We live in Miami Beach. We’re super fortunate. We do that on purpose. If you’re going to be training culture and giving culture to others, you have to yourself have a great culture first. Our culture is in this beautiful city where we can relax and be creative. We’d go on these walks over the pier. It’s beautiful. If you ever want to come, walk with us.
I’ll walk with you, but here’s what we’re going to promise is we’re both going to leave our cell phones on your desk. We’re going to take our socks and shoes off, we’re going to go walk barefoot, then I’ll go for a walk.
I’m way more into walking with you than I am the Lululemon guy. What does that do? His cultish group is creepy.
He’s a lot of bit into Landmark. He pushed that. He had an interesting philosophy around Landmark and I’ve never done it. I have a lot of my close friends who are CEOs here in Vancouver that has done it. His whole philosophy was if you can’t go introspective and work on yourself, you’re going to be coming into the company blaming things. He wanted people who were going to at least be introspective and look at their own contribution to problems and he thought Landmark could help them solve that. I was like, “I see that.” It’s definitely cultish. Talk to me about your leadership development. You came out of the classic education. Huge kudos to your law degree and an MBA, that’s unbelievable. I did my undergrad in law. What are you working on for your skill development? How do you stay current and relevant as a COO?
I am a huge growth mindset. I’m constantly pulling, learning and understanding better ways and being introspective. You have to honestly assess yourself on a daily basis and ask yourself what you could do better. I do that after every day. I say, “What can I change? What could I have done better?” This past quarter has been about communication for me. It’s like, “How do I communicate in a way that can be better, that can be more connecting with people and that can connect with motivating them deep inside.” I spent all this time researching this and then I was approached to write a book about communications and I said, “I’ll write a book.” I’ll have My Twelve Favorite Communication Skills published in September 2019.
Give us a couple of what your communication tips or your top three might be.
I like to use this term, reverse engineering your brain, which is essentially how I walk people through empathy, how to be an empathetic person if you’re not. I do believe empathy is a skill. It’s breaking down how you can reverse engineer your brain and step into the other person’s shoes, understand them, which requires simple micro behaviors like open listening. You’re not planning your next sentence while that person is talking and the things people do. Many things we do now are closed. How do you become an open listener, more open and understanding others? How do you communicate with them in their language? If you hear certain things, it gives you cues. I walk through what those cues are and then how you can communicate with these people, connect with them. It allows them to want to be led and you can lead them in different directions. I would say empathy, assertiveness because a lot of people come to me as a female executive and say, “How did you do this?”
When I turned 30 years old, I published this thing and it was the Twenty Tips for Becoming a Woman Executive before 30. I became a female executive at the age of 26. These twenty things, I published it on Facebook. People started publishing it. It’s published in a couple of places. One of my law professors said, “Can I hand this to everybody in my class?” I was like, “Sure, do whatever you want with it.” At the end of law school, she teaches bar classes for people who are becoming lawyers and she gives them this list of these things. Practicing assertiveness is transformational for anybody, especially for women who want to be in leadership roles.
Give me more on open listening. What exactly does that mean?
Open listening is asking questions that dive deeper into the topic, whenever it’s your turn to speak and stay on topic.
Instead of saying what’s next on your mind?
Exactly. Diving in with people and the more you can ask questions directly related to what they’re talking about, the more they feel heard and the more you have to listen. That’s a great little hack.
I’ve started taking notes when I’m talking to people. Instead of me wanting to jump out with my question, I write my question down that I can try to stay on the train of thought. I am on the spectrum for Tourette’s. Thinking out loud is on the spectrum. I don’t have a lot of thoughts in my head. They come out of my mouth and then my ears hear them. It’s hard. I’ve also learned to sit on my hands, which is bizarre. I’m an expressive talker. I use my hands when I’m talking even when I’m talking to you now. I find when I sit on my hands, it prevents me from talking quickly. Anybody who’s an expressive out there, try it. It’s weird.
I’m a big fan of neurodiversity. I think we’re all neurodiverse.
When we go on camera all of a sudden because we’ve been off camera, the energy shifts. There’s an energy shift. There’s all of a sudden the human connection and you’ve got a smile. There’s somebody who’s interested. We know you’re not sitting with your feet up, staring at the ceiling. I use video all the time with my clients. Every coaching client I work with, when I start a podcast interview, when I’m chatting with friends, it’s always over video and I’ve got that human connection. When we go off video, all of a sudden something changes and then there’s this disconnect that happens where it’s like, “We don’t have that human thing happening again.”
That’s what I’ve been trying to get all my clients to do with their employees, with potential employees. Doing job interviews over video if you can’t have them in person, then also with your customers and suppliers. What I’ve noticed is when you have a video call with your customers and suppliers, you’ll never lose those customers and suppliers because you build the relationship. It’s a free tool, say, “Do you want to hop on Zoom? If you don’t use Zoom, can we do FaceTime?” You’ve covered 80% of the population. The old argument of Baby Boomers or seniors don’t use it, they’re all using it now. The highest growth demographic in using video is seniors because they want to talk to their grandchildren on video.
The more human you can make an interaction, the better. There’s an entire chapter on how much communication gets lost that you don’t even realize because only 20% of our communication is the words. The other 80% is body language. It’s the tone of voice, all these things.
You don’t see that over the phone. For anyone who’s reading, before we started the show, Jessica and I both laughed and smiled. I’m wearing a sweatshirt and she’s wearing a tee shirt. We both read what was on each other’s shirts and it was part of an interaction that was normal over the video that doesn’t happen over the phone, over email or over Slack. We’re missing that. I’m a big fan of mobile and a big fan of distributed workforces, freelancers, but I’m also a huge fan of the human connection. Where a lot of the communication breakdown happens are we don’t take the time to connect.
The CEO of a company decided for an entire week he was going to respond to every email by saying, “Pick up the phone and call me.” He said he learned more in that entire week about his employees than he had ever known because when you have somebody pick up the phone and call you, there’s such a deeper connection made. You understand things differently. I can’t say it’s a productivity hack to pick up the phone because it does take more time. The quality of communication greatly increases. That’s what happens when we send text messages or emails. At times things can escalate or get misread. Stop and pick up the phone because you can start a war with a text or an email.
I’ve annoyed people saying the words happy birthday in an email and they’re like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “Happy birthday.” They’re like, “That’s it?” I’m like, “I just said happy birthday.” They’re like, “I know. That’s it?” I’m like, “I’m busy.” They’re like, “You didn’t have enough time to say happy birthday and how things are going?” I’m like, “I gave you a two-word email and I’m getting trouble for it.” Try this. Here’s a communication one I’ve always loved. Write down this six-word sentence. The sentence is, “I didn’t say you were beautiful.”
What is the point of this?
Read it and put the emphasis on the first word. Change the word beautiful to smart.
“I” didn’t say you were “smart.”
Read it again and put the emphasis on the second word.
I “didn’t” say you were smart.
Read it again and put the emphasis on the third word.
I didn’t “say” you were smart.
Read it again and put the emphasis on the fourth word.
I didn’t say “you” were smart.
Read it again and do the fifth word.
I didn’t say you “were” smart.
Read it again and say the sixth word.
I didn’t say you were “smart.”
That’s why written communication is hard is because a six-word sentence can mean six completely different things depending on which word you put the intonation on. You take that into a business environment where we’re all scanning emails, reading quickly, moving fast, dealing with Slack and 120 emails a day. It’s no wonder people are annoyed is because we’re rushing through life and we don’t have time to have human connection. My communication tip is because of this written communication is to get on video more than anything else. The second one is to listen twice as often as we speak. It’s that whole phrase that God gave us two ears, one mouth and we should use them in that ratio.
Leaders need to speak last. The most senior person in the table or in a meeting should speak last. They should get the most junior and new people to speak first. Often the ideas are going to get heard, but when the leader is always speaking first, you’re never growing people. You’re never truly listening to them. Those would probably be the big two.
One of the roles of the COO, we started a group called the COO Alliance. It’s the only network in the world for the second in command. You’ve got all these groups for entrepreneurs with YPO, EO, Vistage, Genius Network and amazing places for the CEO to go grow. There was never a group for the second in command. One of the things we worked on at our last event was the relationship between the CEO and the COO. I’ve always said the role of the COO is to make the CEO iconic. How do you work with Jason as CEO? How do you guys work to stay on the same page to keep a strong relationship with each other? What systems do you use? Walk me through that.
I always say I’m an execution person who’s never had a brilliant idea. Jason, you know him well. He’s full of brilliant ideas. It’s as simple as he gives me a brilliant idea. I say yay or nay. I run with it and make it happen. That’s worked well except that this time in 2018, I said no to a brilliant idea and he went around my back and made it happen anyway and it was amazing. I realized I’ve got to try at least to say yes more than I say no. We tend to be on the same page I would say. If we have miscommunication or something, I am a big fan of squashing it immediately as soon as possible because life is short and I don’t like drama. That’s my personal move with everybody.
Good for you to be able to say no because that’s one of the things the CEO wants in a second in command is someone who will say no when everybody else is being their yes man and being political. How do you say no to the CEO when they’re passionate about an idea? A lot of these entrepreneurs are the squirrel with a big shiny object. In the absence of a way to put their idea somewhere, they want it started. How do you say no? What do you do?
I just say no. Somebody was interviewing for me and they said I was the weirdest COO they’d ever met because I said no four times then I said yes on the fifth time. I’m an open person. I don’t like to pick sides. I like to stay in the center in an open space and allow people to come to me with ideas. If the answer is no the first time, it doesn’t mean it will be no the third time. Everybody knows that even when they work with me. If their idea is good enough, they’ll get to a yes with me.
One of my old mentors was the founder of a group called College Pro Painters said, “True leadership is saying no much more often than we say yes.” I never understood that. It wasn’t that he was this autocratic dictatorial leader. He’s far from it, but he was trying to be the filter for ideas. What I’ve tried to do is take an approach that I’ll often say no, but I’ll more often say not yet. I’ll take the idea and try to run it through a decision filter where I look at the impact on the business, why we could be doing it and what it would look if we did it. I’ll look at a quick ROI.
I have a one-pager called the decision filter. The idea is I want to look at it and say, “Green light, yellow light and red light.” Green meaning yes, let’s do it now. Yellow meaning we may do it, but not right away. We’ll put it on our list and every quarter we’ll look at which projects to start. Red meaning no, we’re deleting it. That seems to have worked well with CEOs because they want their idea first considered and second if we’re not going to do it, they need to know it’s being taken care of and kept somewhere. They don’t want to lose track of it. Their hard drives are already full. We can’t let them sit with their own ideas.
There is caution. I say it’s a simplified discussion I had with you, but there is caution with shutting down people’s brilliant ideas. That’s the last thing we want to do is shut down somebody’s brilliant idea. We want to have people feel empowered, that they’re heard in the company. The example I gave you where I said no and he went around me. If your idea is good enough, you have to have that empowerment to go around people and make it happen.
If it lives within your core values, within your competency and it’s good for the customer and it drives revenue, profit, customer-employee engagement, then go for it. How do you decide what projects to green light?
It’s tough. We believe in a place where candor is safe. That’s one of the core values that we live as a company is candor is completely safe here. We’ll get in a room, hash it out and the best idea will win. We all have that agreement with each other and we have a transparent conversation. Things can get messy and emotional, but isn’t that part of the fun at the end of the day?
What makes the idea better? Is it based on an ROI? Is it based on making some bigger goal or part of your vivid vision come true?
We’re always aiming toward our mission of helping transform our customers, providing them with influence and giving them better ways of doing business. That is first in mind, which it has to be for all of us. Where we land with that will be somewhere great and we trust that process.
The last question I’ve got is how do you guys measure internally? How do you measure your employee satisfaction?
You go down to all these productivity tools. We don’t need a tool. We don’t need to run engagement where I say, “On a scale of one to five,” those things generally are silly. We have an open policy of like, “Let’s talk to each other.” If somebody is unhappy or if they need something, then they know I’m always available and text me.
I was talking to a CEO and he was saying he was getting ready to start his annual review process. I said, “Don’t do an annual review or a quarterly review of employees.” He goes, “Why not?” I said, “You’ve got kids.” He’s got a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old. I said, “Do you do an annual review with your children?” He goes, “No.” I said, “You must have a quarterly review with your kids?” He goes, “No.” I said, “What do you do with your kids?” He goes, “If they do something wrong, I tell them right away. If they do something right, I praise them right away.”
I said, “Do the same with your employees.” Talk to your kids, talk to your employees and make sure they can talk to you. If you’re doing something wrong, make sure they can say, “Dad, you’re being a jerk.” My kid is fifteen, he goes, “You’re being intense.” I started laughing. I’m like, “What am I getting wrapped up about something stupid?” We don’t need the tools. We need to use our gut and be connected.
No different than I check in with myself. A great manager checks in. You have to check in on people and have a conversation. There’s this work-life falsity as if we’re not human. We are. If we do the most human thing and do the right thing, we know how happy we are and engaged we are in our work with each other. If we’re accountable to each other then we’re accountable to all sides, the human side and the business side.
Jessica Higgins, I want to do something that is human and accountable. I am going to take my socks and shoes off. I’m going for a walk outside for about five minutes barefoot. Are you going to do the same?
I’m going to have a call with my team. I have a call schedule. Can I take my call while I’m doing this? Does it have to be after?
No, you have to do it without your cell phone. It doesn’t have to be a long walk. I’m only going for five minutes. I’m going to walk on the grass in my bare feet so I can feel the energy of the earth and I’m going to disconnect for five minutes. No phone. Can you do the same at some point?
Let’s do it.
Jessica Higgins, the COO of Gapingvoid is going to send me a text message to let me know if she’s gone to walk barefoot in Miami. I’m doing the same in Vancouver. Everybody that’s reading, have an awesome day. Thanks, Jessica.
- Genius Network
- Twenty Tips for Becoming a Woman Executive before 30
- Roche Pharmaceuticals
- Singularity University
- Gerber Auto Collision
- Entrepreneurs’ Organization
- Twenty Tips for Becoming a Woman Executive before 30
- COO Alliance
- College Pro Painters
About Jessica Higgins
Jessica Higgins, JD MBA is a serial entrepreneur and highly credentialed and experienced advisor, marketer, author and political activist who has created companies in, finance, consulting, marketing and healthcare. Her first book, 10 Skills for Business Communication, released at #1 in Amazon New Releases for communication and social skills.
Higgins built six businesses in January of 2019 and three businesses in 2018. She has been published in over 1,000 media outlets including Entrepreneur, Thrive Global, Huffington Post, Forbes, CBS, Newsweek. She is a political advocate for non-partisan equality and fair representation. Her portfolio of work can be found at CuratedGroup.co and her personal website at JessicaHiggins.co. Join her political advocacy group at Disapprove.org
She has a Juris Doctor of law, a Masters of Business Management, a certification in Behavior Design from BJ Fogg of the Stanford Design Lab, a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt Certification with a specialty in systems design (DMADV), and Bachelors of Arts Degrees in Behavioral Psychology and Political Science.