Our three big takeaways from Niall's conversation with Mike Robbins on leaderships were
Let us know what you thought of the episode?
Maybe the logical place to start is if you tell me a little bit of work you're doing right now.
That sounds good. Well, actually, a good way for me to talk about the work that I do now, sort of incorporates my story and how I got to it.
I live in California in the US, and I grew up here, and I grew up playing baseball. I was pretty good at it. I know there's not a ton of baseball out in in your part of the world.
I got drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees. I didn't end up signing with the Yankees because I got an opportunity to play baseball in college at Stanford, which is about an hour from where I grew up in Oakland, California.
I got drafted out of Stanford by the Kansas City Royals, another one of our pro baseball teams right here in the US. And I signed a contract with the Royals at that time, and the way that it works in baseball, whether you get drafted by the Royals, or the Yankees or the Blue Jays or any of the teams in the major leagues, here in North America, you have to go into the minor leagues.
I go into the minors with Kansas City, I was a pitcher working my way up trying to get to the major leagues. Unfortunately for me, my third season still in the minors, I went out to pitch one night, I threw one pitch, I tore ligaments in my elbow, I blew my arm out, right, I was 23.
Two years, three surgeries later, I was finally forced to retire at the age of 25. And I was devastated. Right. I mean, this had been my life. The thing that was my identity was my passion.
But as much as I was really disappointed, devastated by the injury, I also had no idea what the heck I was gonna do with the rest of my life.
In addition to loving the game, I was fascinated by a couple of things.
The first thing was, it wasn't always the most talented people that were the most successful. And it also wasn't always the most successful people that seem the happiest and the most fulfilled. So I was really interested in that.
And, how come it's not always the players, the guys I play with to have the most talent that can turn that into success. And then even the ones that are the most successful, they don't always necessarily seem the happiest. So that was on a personal level.
On a team level, I was fascinated by team dynamics, because I was on some teams sometimes where the talent was amazing. But the team wasn't very good. Because the egos or the coach or the something just didn't work.
And then I was on some other teams where, you know, talent was decent. And the team was fantastic. We would beat other teams that had better players than we did, which didn't make sense.
I didn't totally understand.... we talked a bit about it. We called it chemistry. No one knew what the heck that was. But you knew when you had it, and you knew when you didn't have it, and I was really interested in that.
And I erroneously thought that was a sports thing - taking your talent, turning it into success, and then success into fulfillment.
And then on the team level, thought that the team chemistry thing was specific to sports. I got my very first job in the late 90s, working for an internet company based in New York sales office in San Francisco, and I figured the business world, the tech world would be way different than the sports world. And it was, but immediately I realized right away, oh, no, those things are true in business.
Just like in life. It's not always the most talented people that are the most successful. It's not always the most successful people that are the most fulfilled. And on a team level, that whole team chemistry thing in sports, we just call it culture in business. It's the same thing. It's all that intangible stuff.
So after just a couple years, working for a few internet companies in the 90s, I started my consulting business with some questions and some curiosity about again, what does it take to turn talent into success and success and fulfillment for individuals.
And then on a team level, what does it take to really create that kind of chemistry, that kind of culture where teams can thrive.
I've been studying performance and leadership and teamwork for the last 20 years. And that's what my five books are about. And all of these corporate clients that we have, like Google and Microsoft, and Wells Fargo, and Chevron and eBay, and on and on, - that's the work that I've been doing with them for the last 20 years, focusing on empowering teams, and leaders to be able to not only succeed, but figure out how to navigate team dynamics, and ultimately create that sense of success and hopefully some fulfilment along the way as well.
I've worked in sport for a long part of my career and right, a big part of my focus was in athlete transition, and understanding why are athletes so bad retirement? Terrible?
There's an assumption that an athlete struggles to retire because they've missed the adulation or they miss the crowd and the adrenaline of a major performance. And of course, those are factors. Sure.
What I found was a huge issue at the core of all athlete transition, which actually informed my work now in the corporate world.I think it's the core of all change in our lives, it comes down to identity - Who are you? Who am I?
I’m writing a book on transition and the first question I asked every athlete was ‘Who are you?’.
And the answer I got, without exception was, I used to be a pitcher. I used to be an athlete, I used to be a pro footballer…
That's what you used to do. But who are you now, right?
I think to a degree in the corporate world. In the sporting world, there's a unified purpose - there's a World Series to win and there are extrinsic rewards that are easy to identify.
But the problem is, in order for you to be successful, you've got to look after the intrinsic. And the challenge in the corporate world, I feel, is that managers don't really know what they are. big picture stuff are obvious, if you're a sales director, you've got your sales goals every month.
You're absolutely right, sales is the closest thing that tracks back to sports in that it's a very clear objective, it's like win the game, win the championship in sports, you know, hit the number, produce the result in sales.
You'll appreciate this because one of the distinctions that I talked about in my work is the difference between your job and your role. We use those words interchangeably. But the way that I describe it is that our role is what we do like our title, you know, I'm the director of sales in this region or I'm the VP of Marketing over here, I'm the Senior VP of product, whatever. And again, our roles matter.
And the further up you go, the more it matters, people are really like athletes are very attached to that identity. In the corporate world, people are very attached to their titles and roles and those things do matter. But on a team on a winning team, my belief is that everybody has the same job and that is your job is to help the team win.
If we put our role above our job, now I'm more interested in how I'm doing or how the sales team in this region is doing.
I was just talking to a senior leadership team about this the other day, and they were nodding their heads but then one of the leaders said I think an issue that we have is we're not clear what winning is. It got us into this whole deeper discussion to your point that in sports, even in a really complicated sport, even in a sport where there's a lot of internal politics in the team or in the league, it's super clear what winning is, maybe it's like track and field it's
In business, though, there aren't seasons that end with championships. And winning is harder to define. So one of the things when I'm talking to leaders about this, and I use my sports background, I do say there are some limitations to using sports analogies because ultimately, it's a different game. And again, a team of 25 baseball players is very different than a corporation like Google that has 150,000 employees around the world. Maybe the CEO and the executive team, or the members of the board are looking at the company winning, but down through the organization, it becomes more challenging for people leaders and team members to really tie into what does that mean for us to win collectively.
I know that my frustration in sport was I would sit with performance directors of major teams, and talk about mindset and the importance of understanding how wellbeing is a foundation of a high-performance mindset.
And they would understand that, and they would totally agree and buy into it. They would say, yeah, we see mindset as 20/30/40% of the battle to get somebody to perform.
But their investment is like, 1%, right?
And people will say to me, what evidence is there that it works. And the challenge you have when you work in psychology is that an awful lot of the evidence of success is anecdotal. It’s people telling you, I did this, and I got this out of it. Trying to make that into an actual metric that is scientifically solid, is quite challenging. There are 10 other reasons that could have changed performance.
When you're walking in the door with what you do how do you position your offering to companies? Everything we do is about performance. So how do you sell that?
Well, I think a couple of things.
I went into sales for a couple of years for a few tech companies. I didn't love it. People would ask me, ‘hey, what's it like to be in the business world after the sports world?’. I would say, I was young, I was in my 20s, ‘you know what? nothing I'm doing scares me.’
I realized that there was part of that adrenaline excitement that I missed from playing sports that I wasn't getting in my career. When I went into doing this, and I started speaking publicly and getting up, then I would get that same feeling in my body that I would often get when I go when I would go out to pitch.
I think there's been some progress that's been made over the last couple decades, because I do think a lot more of this has been quantified. There is more science, but there still is definitely skeptics. in a lot of places, right? And people would say to me sort of condescendingly ‘Oh, Mike, that's nice. But those are soft skills, right?’ When we are talking about communication, or mindset or motivation.
After a while, my response to that would be ‘Well, listen, soft skills are hard. connecting with other humans is difficult, communicating effectively is difficult, motivating yourself and other people is really difficult’.
I remember reading a book early on when I was studying some of the psychology of peak performance. And one of the things that I read in this book, they were talking about the 80:20 rule, but in kind of a different way. The things that are above the line are mechanics, like what we do. And the things that are below the line, are more psychology or mindset This book, and a lot of this research on peak performance that I was reading at this time, was basically saying about 80% of success is a below the line phenomenon.
When I started to map that back to my experience as an athlete, anecdotally to your point, I thought, Oh my gosh, that's so true for me as an individual. Ultimately succeeding or failing in the game was so much of a mental-emotional process.
On the team level, the whole team culture and team chemistry thing.
Just earlier today, I was talking to a group of engineers from Uber. And sometimes there's some skepticism or there's some eye rolls, or there's some language, why are we talking about this? This is all squishy stuff. But I will often ask a very simple question, which is this… “Think of the best, most high performing team you've ever been a part of in your whole life? What made that team so great? Why was that team such a high performing team?”
And then I just shut up and let them answer the question.
Inevitably, it does not matter where I am in the world, whether it's virtually, whether I'm in the US, I'm in Europe, I'm somewhere halfway around the world doesn't matter it, people will say ‘we really believed in what we were doing’, ‘oh, we had each other's backs’, ‘Oh, we were passionate’, ‘we had fun’ - they say all of this mushy stuff.
They very rarely say ‘our people were wicked smart’, ‘we had the greatest product’, or ‘the greatest service’, or ‘the most incredible technology’.
I mean, that may come up, but it'll come up about 20% of the time, at most. Mostly, they'll talk about trust and communication and collaboration and vision, and passion. All these things that you and I know are psychological things that are emotional things that aren't on a spreadsheet that aren't in a job description.
Even when I say ‘what makes a great leader?’
People don't usually say ‘the most brilliant person ever’.
No, they say things like they listen, they care, they understand, they can relate, they admit mistakes, all these things. I usually have them make the point for me in a lot of ways.
These things that we all know are super important on an individual basis, from a leadership standpoint, from a team standpoint, we know they're important. But how much time do we invest in developing those skills?
Almost none. And the truth is, we don't have anywhere close to 80% of the time, and there's not going to be 80% of the resource put into it.
But can we expand it from like your point from 1% to 2%? To 5%? Can we spend a little more time thinking about these things, talking about these things, developing these skills, because at the end of the day, if we're going to succeed, those are going to be the differentiators and whether we succeed or not.
It's like what Peter Drucker said years ago, culture eats strategy for breakfast. And companies spend so much time on strategy, which is important. But if you don't get the culture, right, just like in performance, if you don't have the right mindset, it does not matter how talented you are.
Over the course of my life, I have seen so many incredibly talented athletes way more talented than me have less success than I had and I could never quite figure that out. I'm like, how is that guy who is way bigger way stronger, has a way better arm, he just couldn't get it together mentally. And he was out of the game.
You always hear people get dismissed for being chokers, right? He went to pieces under pressure.
But never hear a guy get criticized for having hamstring injury, or for getting an illness that stops them from being able to perform.
We accept physical, active physical issues that get in the way of performance but we don't accept that on any given day any of us can get out of bed in the morning with a load a stress in our lives, relationship problems, financial worries, all these things going on.
My whole philosophy with all the athletes I've worked with, has always been about distraction control. I would always break it down to whatever is getting in the way of your performance is a distraction. Whether that is your lack of self-belief, whether it's you have relationship problems that you're bringing to the game, whatever it is, that's just a distraction. Right?
And we all have distractions.
My dad passed away about five weeks ago. And we were insanely close. And you know, and I'm probably talking about him all the time in podcasts. Because he's the reason I do what I do. He's the guy who made me love books and made me question things and made me think about psychology and a love of sport.
I found in the weeks after he died it incredibly hard to refocus my head into work. I had colleagues at work who were very kind. And they kept saying to me, be kind to yourself.
I didn't really know what that meant. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the fact that I was checked out of work, because work is very important to me. I only started to realize that my massive distraction from work was my dad's passing.
There's a phrase by a Greek philosopher Epictetus, which says that it's not the event, but your opinion of it, which causes suffering. I kind of sat down and thought about it. And I thought, you know, the thing that's causing me problems right now, is the fact that my dad is gone.
I reached the 50th year of my life with my dad in my life. And I thought, how lucky am I? People lose their dads when they’re kids or people don't have a dad growing up.
It just totally changed the perspective. It's about distractions.
How do we translate that message into the corporate world for people to understand that you're not hiring robots, you're hiring human beings.
First of all, you know, my condolences on the passing of your father.
I lost, I lost my dad, actually, when I was 27, we just, it was just the 19th anniversary of his passing, we lost my mom about 10 years after that.
And so knowing a little bit of that journey myself, and having some other significant losses, I think death, grief, loss is such a significant experience, as you know, you're right in the throes of it right now with your dad recently passing.
I have found in my own experience. It connects us as human beings in the sense that there's no human on the planet who isn't going to experience that themselves.
Ultimately, if we live long enough, we're going to experience the loss of significant people in our lives, parents, or friends, or family members. And what's interesting about that is circling back to distractions and focus with respect to our work, I do think that one of the things we forget whether we're talking about athletes, or we're talking about people in business is people are not robots.
What we have to do is be kind and gentle with ourselves as it sounds like you've been getting that advice, but also with other people. Words and ideas like compassion, and empathy, and understanding and vulnerability are seen as weak or soft. When in reality, we all know from experiencing those things or trying to do those are incredibly difficult.
Yeah, it's hard to be kind to ourselves, it's hard to be compassionate with others at times. It's hard to be empathetic. Itt takes a certain amount of courage, a certain amount of openness, and even to acknowledge not like an excuse, but when you're grieving as you are. It's not that we still can't show up and perform.
It's been a hard year, it's been a hard time. And again, that's not a cop out. That's not an excuse. But the reality is, I think it's important that we're kind to ourselves, because again, just like an athlete, there are times I went out and competed as an athlete, when I was 100%. And there were times I went out and competed when I wasn't. You can't use it as an excuse that, hey, I'm not 100%. But that is a reality that we all have to understand for ourselves. Just like we need to understand for the people around us.
When I was on the mound, and my arm was sore, or my back was sore, or my tank was low. I had to pitch differently than when I felt great. That's part of wisdom that comes from when I don't have my best stuff when I'm not 100%.
I think in life and especially these days, whether we're grieving very actively and acutely, like you are or just dealing with life and the weariness of everything that we've all been through. I think we have to learn how to care for ourselves, manage ourselves as best as possible and the people around us factoring in that we're not going to be 100% all the time.
I fact, over the course of 365 days, I mean, this would be an interesting experiment for all of us to do if we gave ourselves a rating from zero to 100. In terms of our energy level, I don't think that many of us would be 100%. The majority of the time, even if we take relatively good care of ourselves, I'd be like, Oh, I think I'm about a 65 the day or maybe I'm a 75, or whatever. And if we could do that, in a way of ownership, that would actually benefit us and the people around us if we could have that conversation. I think sometimes there's this fantasy we have, especially leaders, like I'm supposed to be motivated all the time. I'm supposed to be inspiring all the time. And that's just not the reality of life, at least as far as I can tell.
There's a soccer club in England, Leeds United, who would be from a fan base point of view would have one of the biggest followings, and for a long period were really, really successful. They ended dropping and for about 15 years they were in the lower divisions.
About three years ago, maybe four years ago, they hired, Marcelo Bielsa. The first thing he did was he introduced this principle of a team engagement index. He would get the guys to meet at training an hour earlier and hang out together, and spend some time with the canteen staff and you know, to get to know people around the place, and then everything they did they suddenly start to do it as a unit.
Basically what they were doing is recording information about the players on a daily and weekly basis, putin it into an algorithm, which is then giving them an index, which tells them that your team's engagement is up 10% this week. And then he's drawing a correlation between that and how they perform.
Just to use another sports example I'm a big basketball fan. And I grew up in Oakland, and our local team is the Golden State Warriors, who for years and years, weren't very good, loyal fan base, not a lot of success, like won a championship in 1975, the year after I was born. And then over the next 40 years, 26 of those 40 seasons they lost more games than they won and only made the playoffs a handful of times, never came close to winning another championship.
And then a few years ago, the Warriors started to get good. T
hey had a couple of young players Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and then they fired their coach, Mark Jackson after the 2014 season which we were all really mad because they were starting to get good.
They also had a reputation of always making bad decisions on players and on coaches and drafts and just right when they get good they blow it.
So they hire this guy, Steve Kerr right who's played for the Bulls, played for the Spurs had won five championships in the NBA is kind of a role player good shooter had gone to the University of Arizona, went to the Final Four was a general manager in the NBA and was a broadcaster very smart guy, very well respected.
But had never coached before so we were all worried.
Maybe this is a bad move. What if he doesn't resonate with the players? What if the Warriors go south? Well, they ended up winning the NBA championship his first season, back in 2015.
And then the Warriors went on this incredible run where they won three championships in five years and went to the finals every year.
Steve Kerr is a fascinating leader. He now has won three NBA titles as a coach, and won five as a player. The guy is just a champion at heart and listening to him. I love to listen to him talk about leadership and talk about teamwork. And one of the things I heard him say early on, in a radio interview that he did here locally, he said, Look, I play he played for Phil Jackson with the Bulls, he played for Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, two legendary NBA coaches.
And he said, look, I had a chance to play for some of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball, and their styles were all very different.
But what I learned from them was the importance of relationships. He said, I have all these great players and the Warriors have incredible talent, but my job is to manage all those relationships because I had a chance over the course of my career to be a starter, and, and a real significant player on the team. And sometimes I was the last guy on the bench, I actually understand what almost everybody except maybe for the superstars, what they're going through mentally, emotionally, because I've been in so many different roles, he said,
So my job is to talk to them, connect with them know about their lives, and their families and what's going on individually, and help facilitate the relationships amongst the team. If I can have, like this football team you were talking about, everyone engaged from my superstars all the way down to the last guys on the bench, and the whole staff, and we're all part of the same thing that's going to allow us to be successful.
To use the Warriors as an example, their best player over these last number of years, has been Stephen Curry. And the thing about Steph Curry, he's this guy who like wasn't supposed to make it to the NBA, he's not big. He doesn't look like an NBA player in a lot of ways. He won MVP back to back years and has been incredibly successful beyond anybody's expectation.
But the thing that I admire about him so much is and this is really important, and it circles back to the corporate world, I say this all the time, if you can get your star players on your team to really buy into and invest in being part of the team that sets the tone for everybody, because the leader has a big role.
Take a sales team, if your top salesperson is a jerk, and they don't care about anyone, and they don't treat people well. But they produce results. And they just keep making more money for the company. And the company keeps bonusing them and rewarding them, it sets the tone that you can be a jerk. And it doesn't matter if that top salesperson is really kind and considerate and carrying it as a team player and really supports the team to be successful. It makes everybody better. Even if you have a great leader who's preaching that if your star player or players aren't buying into it, you don't have anything. So you have to have both strong leadership, and then your key players buying into the team that can help it permeate throughout the whole team.
That's such a lovely message. And actually it is really interesting one because Steve Kerr is such a great example. In order for Michael Jordan to win the championships, he won, he needed Steve Kerr on his team. In order for Steph Curry to win he needs Draymond Green and guys who are willing to do the shady stuff, not to be seen not to need the limelight. That creates a platform then for years, right?
But that goes back to the job versus role thing and in life, not just sports, but in business there are times people have to make decisions. You could go be a star player on a mediocre team in business,, or I can go over here on a winning team on a really successful team. My role might be a little bit diminished. But the question then is what's most important to me and I'm not making a judgment either way.
You see this in sports all the time. I say to people all the time in business, it's in your best interest to be a good team player and to be part of a winning team because when you're part of a winning team, it makes you more valuable. It teaches you how to win again,.
Steve Kerr, as a player was a good player, a really good shooter. he happened to be In some good situations, he won five championships, the same player with maybe just as much or more ability than Steve Kerr, when he was playing wasn't as valuable and isn't seen as valuable, because they weren't part of those winning championship teams.
I think in life and in business, and in success, it's a lot about balance.
There are times that we really need to work really hard. And that's super important. And we can overdo it. And there's times we need to really lean on our talent. And we have to combine those two things.
Similarly, when you think about a team, i you can only push the team so far, again, to what we were talking about earlier, understanding where people are and what's going on and how much they have in the tank. I've worked with a lot of leaders over the years that will reflect, especially as they move further along in their career, saying, You know what? I think at times, I pushed a little too hard, because there's the balancing of caring about people, and challenging people simultaneously.
This is the final pillar in my most recent book.
For managers and leaders in business, you got to care about people first, and constantly reinforced, that they're cared about and valued as humans. And if you do that, they will give you permission more than you even imagine, to push them as hard as they need to be pushed in order to get the most out of them individually and collectively. Oftentimes, what happens is, though, the care isn't established. So it's much harder to push. Or when we do push, we push too much, and then people push back and it doesn't work.
And actually, that's really important. I was going to ask you about the key advice you would offer to leaders of teams and in a corporate environment.
I would say this, know the difference between recognition and appreciation. Both of which are important, both of which motivate people and are essential as a leader, but they're distinct.
Here's the difference.
Recognition is positive feedback based on results based on performance based on outcome - good job way to go, here's a raise, here's a bonus, here's an award.
Appreciation is about people. It's about valuing people, who they are, appreciations about who we are.
The example now that I use, when I'm talking about this is an example from my days playing baseball as a pitcher. So even people listening even if you don't know much about baseball, you may know what happens to the pitcher in the baseball game, when the pitcher doesn't do well they literally stop the game and remove you from the game and then someone else comes in, and then they start pitching.
I often say when I'm talking to people in the business world about this, imagine you're in the middle of working on something like a proposal or you're in the middle of a presentation and you'd like screw it up and your boss burst on the scene and says stop right there, and you have to leave and some other person comes in and picks up where you were and keeps going. It's embarrassing.
The worst part of the whole experience when we get taken out in the middle of an inning is when I would go sit down on the bench and my teammates would all leave me alone. Because it's like it was like an unwritten rule. Leave him alone. He's upset and usually, especially if I did really bad and I got pulled out and like the second inning and we were already losing seven and nothing. I was very upset.
What I needed In those moments was some appreciation not for my performance. I didn't deserve any recognition. What are they gonna say great job Robins were down seven, nothing. That was awesome.
No, I did a terrible job I did not perform. So you don't want to recognize people when they don't perform. But what I needed was some appreciation for me, like - ‘Hey, man, that was rough. But you know what, we got your back here an important part of the team’ - some way of authentically communicating to me that I was still valued and cared about as a human.
If we separate these things out, we recognize people when they deserve it, only when they deserve it, by the way, because it's finite, it's scarce. And then we appreciate people all the time
I did a TED talk on this, I wrote a piece for HBR that has been a foundational piece of my work for years now.
It's so simple, but managers and leaders who get this, especially in the midst of challenging stress, and uncertainty like so many of us have been facing. So you focus on appreciating, caring about valuing people all the time, whether you like them or not, whether they're performing or not, whether they're easy to manage or not, whether you live in the same location or not, that you value them, you care about them, you listen to them.
And then you recognize people only when they deserve recognition. So then the recognition actually means something, and it matters and it's valuable, then people can thrive.
Glassdoor did a survey a few years ago, and they found 53% of people who left their jobs would have stayed longer if I felt more valued, more appreciated. 81% of people said ‘I'm motivated to work harder when I know my manager, cares about me and values me’.
So these things matter in terms of people's motivation, engagement, and ultimately, their performance. And the truth is appreciating people recognizing people, that's 100% up to you, as a manager, you can do that their performance will dictate the recognition if they deserve it or not. You looking for in finding things to value about them and letting them know, that's up to you. And that's something we can all do.
And that's a really powerful place to leave it. And I can express appreciation for you. That was so cool. I couldn't agree more with everything you said. I thank you for taking the time. It really, it's been a very positive conversation. And plus, I got to shoot the shit about basketball.
Thanks for having me on. I love what you and the team at PepTalk are doing. I really appreciate being able to be on the podcast and chat with you and everybody listening. So keep up the good work. And thanks for having me.
Awesome. Thanks, man.