1. What was a pivotal moment of reinvention for you?
My big pivot came when I left the comfort of a great corporate job (I was the VP of Oracle University) to go out on my own as a consultant and executive advisor.
I had joined Oracle right out of business school and spent seventeen years in various management jobs. Oracle was a company that was not only growing in size, but one with a true growth mindset – a belief that smart people could figure hard things out. As a result, I faced a steady stream of stretch assignments. I was 40 years old before I had a job that I was actually qualified for! While I took some teasing from my bosses (who had to occasionally explain to others why they had given a big job to one so young and inexperienced), I found the work as thrilling as it was challenging.
At the end of those seventeen years, I realized that I was, at last, qualified for my job. I felt like I had come to a stand-still and began resenting my job. Sure, my colleagues and work conditions were still fantastic, but I wasn’t being challenged and the exhilaration was gone. But, I had to wonder, does the thrill ride have to end mid career? Fortunately for me it didn’t. I took a pivot step out of my comfort zone in corporate management and set out to research and write a book on leadership – honestly something I had little understanding of how to do. Fortunately I again found people willing to take a chance on a rookie (or perhaps my publisher just didn’t realize that I had never written anything longer than an email when he agreed to work with me on my first book, Multipliers).
Nine years ago my colleagues and friends couldn’t understand why I would choose to leave a great gig at a great company to work solo and in obscurity. But, in venturing out, I’ve found greater impact and personal satisfaction.
2. Who has been a valuable mentor or sponsor?
I’ve been fortunate to have leaders who believed in me enough to both push me and support me. Ray Lane, former president of Oracle gave me roles that were at least two sizes too big and then let me suffer a bit while I figured it out. When I grew into role and delivered, he then sang my praises. Another was Phil Wilson, a wonderful boss and mentor. Because I was given big jobs at an early age, my responsibilities were often far ahead of my pay. I will never forget the time Phil proactively advocated with the top execs for a sizeable raise for me. It was initially rejected, as the percentage increase was far outside any reasonable range. He felt so strongly that I should be paid at the level of my responsibility (regardless of my age) that he put his own job on the line. It was approved. I was deeply touched by this stunning display of sponsorship – the kind particularly needed to support women willing to stretch themselves and take risks. Lastly, CK Prahalad, the late, acclaimed professor from University of Michigan, taught me to ask the hard questions and opened doors that allowed me to pursue my current work in research, writing, and teaching management.
3. What is your biggest goal right now?
My biggest job right now is helping my children (three teens and one who is eleven) navigate the choppy waters of the teenage years. But my next closest priority is launching my next “baby.” I have a new book coming out October 2014 called Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. The book explores why we are so often at our best when we are doing something for the first time and why knowing nothing can be more valuable than knowing it all. My hope for the book is that we begin to see the term “rookie” as a badge of honor and that more people will be willing to step out of their comfort zone and take a rookie assignment. Those who do venture out, will likely find that in the process of learning new things and overcoming challenges, they engage their creative energies, perform brilliantly, and find their greatest satisfaction.
4. How do you unplug – how often do you unplug?
My husband and I love to travel to new countries with our children. We travel at every opportunity, but in particular, we take two to three weeks each July and go with our children somewhere in the developing world (My 11-year old son’s birthday is in July so he has never celebrated it in the United States!). We don’t turn on our cell phones and typically have spotty Wi-Fi access. It is a chance to meet interesting people and see lands full of challenge and promise. I am a learning fanatic, so I love being dropped in a place where I know little and must make sense of things. It’s hardly relaxing, but it’s certainly fun.
5. How did you feel on your 30th birthday?
I was pregnant with my first child on my 30th birthday, so I felt as if I was making a major life shift. I had spent the first thirty years of my life focused on me (my education, my career, etc.). I realized that I would now spend the next thirty years putting many of my needs and goals on hold while I put my family first. It felt right. But, ironically, in focusing on others in these last twenty years, I think I’ve learned more and achieved more professionally than in the first thirty.
6. Cause to advance?
I am not-so-secretly trying to rid the world of bad bosses. I’ve spent years studying and writing about the effect that leaders have on the intelligence and capability levels of people around them and I’ve seen first hand the devastating effect bad bosses (many of them well meaning) have. People come to work each day ready, if not desperately willing, to give 100% of their capability. But many face a cement wall of management where their ideas aren’t heard and their true capability isn’t seen. We need to make our workplaces safe havens for people to truly contribute. We face so many seemingly insurmountable challenges (in both the public and private sector), but I believe we have the collective intelligence to solve them. My mission is to develop leaders who can take on the world’s toughest challenges by deeply using all the intelligence and human capability inside of those around them.
7. What challenge / achievement are you most proud of?
I suppose it would be writing a book as a novice and having it become a best seller.
8. What is the latest business book you read?
I just finished A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger. This book is a great tool for those seeking to lead through inquiry. Berger helps us see that our natural state is one of curiosity and asking why. I think the best leaders are able to see their world through this once-natural state.
9. What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Bob Shaver, a VP at Oracle gave me some guidance that has shaped my career. I was contemplating an internal transfer and was interviewing for a job in Bob’s division. I described the kind of work I wanted to do and what I hoped to accomplish in the job. Bob assured me that my intent was indeed worthy but that it would be far more helpful to him and the company if I figured out my boss’s biggest challenge and helped her solve it. I reoriented my thinking away from what I wanted and toward what the business urgently needed. While the initial work wasn’t my true passion, I dove in wholeheartedly. I think I built a reputation as someone who understood the strategy and got the most important stuff done. This, in turn, opened up many career opportunities to do work that I truly love.
10. Secret indulgence?
Baths. They are inefficient but thoroughly delightful.
You can read more about Liz here.