Leaders Need To Have More Straight Talk And Less ‘Strengths’ Talk

This piece was originally authored by Carter for Chief Executive.

For more than a decade, corporate hallways have echoed with the encouraging words of the strengths movement—enhancing employee strengths as a primary form of managerial and leadership development. Leaders have worked to incorporate the findings into their organizations and to create strong employee engagement. But now, another problem has surfaced. With all the focus on what people do well, managers are failing to give critical feedback, and the results are troubling.

One study shows as many as 67 percent of talented people will derail in their career at a cost of up to 20 times that of that employee’s salary. It’s an epidemic of underperformance.

I know firsthand how debilitating the problem is because I experienced my own career derailment event. Over 25 years ago, I was a young, promising executive at PepsiCo, certain I was on the fast track when my boss called me in and told me I was “unpromotable.” Why? Because I was “obstinate,” “resistant” and “insubordinate.”

In retrospect, that critical feedback was the best gift I ever received because it caused me not only to be more self-reflective about my own behavior, but to find out why talented people derail. What goes wrong? To that end, I’ve dug through the extensive research about career derailment, interviewed scores of HR leaders, senior managers and C-Suite executives and surveyed 100 people, who—in what should have been the prime of their career—had been fired, demoted or whose careers had plateaued. From managers and leaders to executive coaches, recruiters, CEOs and C-Suite executives, I listened to them talk about why and how good careers went bad.


The source of the problem
I discovered that two top culprits are an inability to work well with others and a lack of self-awareness about personal areas of vulnerability. The big question for leaders: Why aren’t we giving the kind of feedback to make people more aware of these shortfalls? I believe that often the strengths movement has been taken too far and used to the exclusion of other methods.

Leaders must look closely at 3 areas of their company to enact change.

1. Create a culture of frankness. If the culture of an organization is modeled around open and honest communication and clear developmental feedback, it flows down through the entire organization. It starts with the values and behaviors that are espoused by the firm’s leaders. What are the top 3 to 5 values stressed by senior leadership? Are you behaving in ways that are consistent with them? For example, when I worked at Walmart, “attention to detail” was stressed, for “retail is detail.” So I needed to ask myself questions like, “Am I really up-to-speed on the status of a particular initiative? Am I well-versed on the performance of a particular product line?

2. Give frequent, candid feedback. Having candid feedback sessions with employees once a year during the performance review cycle is standard practice, and woefully insufficient. Companies need to stress to managers the importance of giving immediate developmental feedback to their team members. Managers also should have weekly or bi-weekly one-on-ones with their subordinates, where they discuss performance against objectives and give clear developmental feedback, both positive and negative. Keep the process simple and brief, as most people can only recall and act on one thing at a time.

3. Embrace more weakness-oriented development tools. Effective personnel development assessments exist which include potential derailment areas that firms can use to initiate or further this conversation. The Hogan Development Survey and Korn Ferry / Lominger Leadership Assessment Instruments are both good, robust tools.

Organizations pursuing a developmental strategy focusing on strengths alone will not lead to the career ascension of their employees. Soon or later, unaddressed needs will limit the career progress of good people—hurting both employees and the organization.

It’s time to bring straight talk and candid discussions back into the company. Not just on performance review day, but every day.

Allbirds, How To Take A Leap Of Faith To Success

This is a piece authored by our Kellogg colleague Paul Earle for Forbes.  Allbirds was started in Carter’s New Venture Discovery class at Kellogg.  Both Carter and I thought the idea was a little nutty when Tim Brown first pitched it in class (He wanted to solve the problem of smelly athletic shoes).  Just goes to show you that with passion, drive and solid execution, wild ideas can turn into amazing businesses!  Enjoy!

Tim Brown had a crazy idea.

The former professional soccer star was troubled by what he felt was a lack of sustainable practices in footwear materials and manufacturing, not to mention the over-the-top nature of the branding landscape itself. And he wanted to change all that.

But footwear is a notoriously difficult space. And his product concept—a hybrid runner made almost entirely out of wool—was so novel that it lacked any useful frame of reference. So when Brown pitched the idea as an exchange student in the New Venture Discovery class at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, clinical professor and venture capitalist Carter Cast had… well… a few concerns.

Ultimately, as recounted to me by Brown and Cast themselves recently, Cast believed in Brown as a principled business leader, and encouraged him to follow his passion. Which Brown did, forgoing other opportunities (such as competing on the Olympic soccer team for his native New Zealand).

This embryonic idea became Allbirds, which struck a nerve in popular culture almost instantly after its launch in 2014, and today is one of the hottest lifestyle brands in the United States. It was named by Time as the “world’s most comfortable shoe.” But were it not for a leap of faith, Allbirds might not have even survived as an academic project.

Faith. It is belief without proof, and irrational by definition. And even in this age of “big data” increasingly telling us what to do, faith is required for progress.

Faith is provocative as a business principle because the term is so closely associated with a different domain: religion.

Theologian John Buchanan, summoning Kirkegaard and others, argues that all your reason, all your logic, can only take you so far. At some point, to achieve anything meaningful, you have to walk through a door without knowing what is on the other side. This is the origin of the concept known as the “leap of faith.”

If you’re wearing Allbirds as you read this, it is thanks to the fact that a very small group of people actually took that leap, initially.

Faith in any context must have at least some grounding, of course. In the case of Brown and co-founder Joey Zwillinger, their faith in their idea emanated from a belief that if they made “better things, in a better way,” success would follow (note that this has nothing to do with shoes themselves; it is a higher-order ideal).  Like most great new consumer brands today, as I’ve chronicled in this space and elsewhere, Allbirds is intensely purpose-driven.

I visited Brown and the Allbirds team at their headquarters in San Francisco last month. Here are other observations about what is making them so successful.

  • Radical consumer focus. The company operates a retail store on the ground level of its main office, and all employees, from Brown and Zwillinger to junior staffers, regularly cycle through there as clerks and salespeople. Brown said that this direct daily immersion helps them deeply understand their fans, and allows them constantly experiment with new ideas. What might be some ways established companies can follow suit?
  • Team first. The human energy at Allbirds is palpable, and it’s driven by a true egalitarian sense of mission and team. It starts at the top; Brown—a former leader in a team sport—gets it. Everyone, for example, takes turns as the receptionist in the lobby. When I arrived, randomly on the desk was Allbirds’ VP/Marketing Julie Channing, one of their top executives. (She seemed a bit distracted by something big going on in her “other” job at the company, but she nevertheless carried out her receptionist duties admirably.)

[Note: The night before publishing this, I serendipitously had dinner with a Kiwi who told me that in New Zealand, the custom of “mateship” is particularly strong. It is “friendship” times ten, and apt here.]

  • Less is more. In nearly every vertical, simple has never been more compelling and relevant than it is today. In Allbirds’ case, they do simple well (which is difficult to do, as Steve Jobs famously said). The product design is minimalist, all the way to the logo appearing as a discrete small tag on the back of the shoe, not the side. Simple also applies to the sourcing guidelines for their materials, and nearly every other element of the Allbirds brand and operations.
  • Have some fun. I’ve always believed that the brands (and teams behind them) that are having fun will perform the best: it is attractive. There is a twinkle in the eye throughout the entirety of the Allbirds experience, from the animated sheep embedded in the confirmation email following an order, to the name itself (a reference to the fact that Brown’s New Zealand homeland is inhabited by an abundance of birds; “all” may be a bit over-the-top, but you get the idea).

As I connected with Cast and Brown, I uncovered a startling postscript to their Kellogg experience together. Cast eventually became sufficiently enthusiastic about the Allbirds opportunity that he personally invested in it. His investment thesis: “I believed in Tim Brown.”

Wait a minute, I pressed. What was initially an idea that elicited a healthy dose of skepticism ended up with you reaching for your checkbook? Cast’s second response was the same as his first: “I believed in Tim Brown.” He took The Leap, capital T and L intended. And so did Brown.

(Oh, and for the class: Brown got an “A.”)

4 Keys To Becoming Your Company’s Next CEO

Below is an article published in Forbes on Carter’s new Book (by Ashley Stahl).  Enjoy!

It was a brisk LA morning as I hopped on the phone with Carter Cast, former Walmart.com CEO, to discuss his new book that’s coming out, The Right (And Wrong) Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made And Unmade.

The theme of our conversation was failure, and the questions that surround it:

What causes failure?

Why does it happen?

…And how do we bounce back from it?

It can be hard to remember that failing doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. In fact, success lives around the corner from failure! And most entrepreneurs know this all too well.

Overall, our conversation was full of gems, and served as a big reminder: you are not your circumstances.

Here are four keys to move from employee to CEO, thanks to Carter Cast:

1. Understand your dark side.

In a world that’s plagued with messages about “staying positive,” we’re almost encouraged to ignore the darkness that’s inevitably ingrained in our personalities.

After all, no one is all sunshine.

Cast warns that one of the biggest vulnerabilities potential leaders face is the failure to seek out areas within themselves where they must grow in order to efficiently adapt to people and situations.

The CEO Genome, a 10-year study that discovered essential behaviors shared by top CEOs, revealed that people who excel at adapting to rapid change are 6.7 times more likely to succeed.

We all have behaviors that pop up when the going gets tough—you may tend to rebel, lash out, freeze, or even bail on responsibilities.

And these destructive tendencies have the potential to seriously damage a career when they go unseen.

Cast didn’t realize he had an anti-authority gene himself until he was 34-years-old. At the time, he struggled with a particularly heavy-handed boss. His own urge to rebel got him kicked off his team, which temporarily derailed his career. Needless to say, Cast had to come to terms with his own personality quirk so he could avoid future failures.

2. Know your motives.

Far too often, we’re so focused on “finding our passion” or “figuring out who we are” that we fail to connect to what motivates us–a key factor to unlocking your best career path.

Cast listed five indicators for motives: the desire for autonomy, achievement, purpose, relational closeness and power; and, he explained that people derail in the wrong work context.

You could be driven by purpose, but if you can’t connect with the mission of your company, that purpose is lost. Or maybe you strive to achieve. If you’re stuck at a job with no room for growth, you’ll never reach that feeling of accomplishment.

Cast himself is driven by autonomy, so this affirmed that being the CEO of a multi-million-dollar company didn’t make sense for him. Once he determined his own key motive, he pursued his passion for writing and teaching.

What motivates you?

3. Find what gives you energy.

Cast suggests paying attention to where you get energy from every day. Take note of the emails you open first in the morning, or what activities you naturally gravitate towards when you have free time. And start journaling your discoveries so that you can refer back to them as a guide for where you get your joy.

Cast recommends color coding the journal– happy tasks throughout the day are green, and neutral or indifferent ones are yellow. And of course, the moments that suck the soul out of you are CODE RED.

After a few weeks of this, flip through your journal. Notice the color patterns. Themes will pop up, and they’re not only work-based themes—they’re your life motifs.

Eventually, you’ll begin to recognize trends that help you determine what fuels you the most. As a result, you’ll have the tools you need to land a job where day-to-day tasks sport minimal “code red” moments.

4. Know how to get present.

I asked Carter Cast what big factor defines a good leader and he emphasized the “be here now” attitude.

Show your attentiveness through good eye contact and listening skills. Adopt a mindful presence, which allows you to truly BE with the people around you.

I’ve heard this same piece of wisdom in interview with other CEOs, so presence must be deeply underrated.

You should seek to understand those around you before being understood.

Successful leaders master this level of listening and authenticity.

Bring your full attention to the table and people will notice. They’ll naturally translate your active presence into the ability to lead.

As I wrapped up my conversation with Cast, his final words sat with me all day: good leaders tap into the dormant aspiration in others and present it as their own mission.

What a powerful gift.


Ashley Stahl coaches job seekers to find their purpose and land more job offers. She also runs CAKE Publishing, a ghostwriting house that helps influencers create content.