In This episode I’m speaking with David Nour.
David is a senior leadership/board advisor, educator, executive coach, and best-selling author.
David is internationally recognized as the leading expert on application of strategic relationships in profitable growth, sustained innovation, and lasting change.
David’s unique insights have been featured in various prominent publications. He’s a professor in Emory University’s Business School and he’s the host of the popular Curve Benders podcast.
Today we will speak about the evolution of leadership, what are the key trends that the global pandemic has accelerated and what are the new pillars of thinking and leading differently.
Keren: So, David, I’m really excited for our conversation. Thank you for joining.
David: Keren, it’s good to be with you.
Keren: Thank you. So, David, I really like to start by asking you, how do you see the key trends that the global pandemic accelerated in the workplace? As in for leaders and managers?
David: Yeah, I think it was a pivotal moment for many leaders, particularly if you maybe learn many of your leadership skills in the old school. And I’m dating myself, right? So, we had these preconceived notions. One example is we equated productivity with you showing up in an office, and the pandemic obviously blew that up, and then we equated productivity with how quickly you responded to emails, and then we figured out that people had these lives outside of work that they didn’t bring to work. So, I think in many ways it’s really evolved. Hopefully the way we think about how to lead. Hopefully we think more about not just output of work, but outcomes and impact of work. Not as much about when people come in. Again, when I started working, you have to be the first in the office and you worked to be the last person to leave and I think this next generation, and increasingly most of us, really want what I call ‘work life blending’. I like my wife, I like my dogs, I want to spend more time with them. I’m comfortable working from my Home Office. So, if you’re going to make me come in, for example, it better be for a compelling reason. And there’s certainly several, but this is an example of how leadership has to adapt and has to evolve. So, number one, is many of our perceptions, preconceived notions about really quality of work. Number 2 is around talent. So, think about it.
We used to have job descriptions and we would try to fit talent in. Now I’m coaching a lot of leaders to find the talent and wrap the job around them.
So, a little thinking about talent differently, and really how to communicate. I think our communication style, our communication approach instead of long emails or memos or all those, I’m coaching leaders to really share insights more visually, much more succinct, really ensure that the signals you’re sending are the signals that are being received. So those are just some of the ways that I think leaders have to adapt and evolve specifically from the global pandemic.
Keren: Yes. I can agree with you. Actually, what you are saying is that nowadays we are looking to show up fully to the workplace to bring on different parts, and not only the functional aspect, into fragrant balance for our professional and personal life. And to be present every moment. It can be at home with our kids and wife and husband and the professional life in the workplace.
David: You’re exactly right, and what many leaders are realizing is that there’s this really interesting person in Keren who doesn’t bring the fact that she paints, or she does pottery, or she’s into adventure sports, to work, because she comes in and does her functional roles. And it goes to a deeper topic, Keren, I’ve been a student of business relationships for almost 20 years. And when you say business relationships, many people think outside the company, right? Customers, vendors, investors, media, outside the organization. One of the most powerful, one of the most impactful opportunities are relationships inside the organization.
McKinsey just published a paper that people who build friendships, genuine friendships, inside the company, are less likely to leave because they weather the storm, and they weather the ups and downs that every job has. And yet, pre pandemic, I don’t think we invested enough in really getting to know the people, the colleagues that we work with, not just next to us, but in other functions and other parts of the organization.
We will exchange emails with them all day, maybe text message with them, but we didn’t really know them.
Keren: So, I have a question for you. You say that places are starting to understand that people have private lives. They have their hobbies, their passion, and they feel they don’t bring them to the workplace. Why do you think it’s essential for them to bring it to their workplace? What is the added value for the organization or for the person, the individual?
David: Yeah. What I was going to say is during the pandemic, we saw their dogs on videos, or we saw their homes and we saw the pictures of them rafting or hiking or cooking. And what we didn’t understand was that whole self, we didn’t understand that entire person pre pandemic. The reason leaders want to get to know all of Keren, not just what do you do, but what do you do when you’re not working? what do you do on weekends? What do you do with your loved ones? is that it increasingly helps you create a deeper connection, a more meaningful connection back to the organization. One example is I’m talking to a lot of leaders about this increasing trend of employees doing side hustles. So, I love to cook. I’m in a marketing job so I do my marketing job during the day and at night I have a little catering business and I cater parties, or on weekends I cater parties. I started asking a leader if you know that about the person, why couldn’t their side hustle be inside the company? Why couldn’t they cater the next company party? Or why couldn’t they cater the next company luncheon and give others a chance to see that there’s a whole different side of this person that we’ve never met, we never knew. So, all those opportunities create again a deeper connection to their colleagues and to the organization.
Keren: I couldn’t agree more with you. I think the ability to give opportunity for their employees to grow in the company, to bring different parts of themselves and they to feel fulfilled because maybe they’re doing something now that they’re not so passionate about, but the passion is delivered outside. But once they enable them to bring this aspect to the workplace, they want to stay there. The guy who was the head of Mindfulness and Compassion in LinkedIn, he wasn’t the head of Mindfulness and Compassion. He was a VP of Customer Success, I think, or Customer Relations and he started bringing them meditation to the workplace. And during the road he started bringing meditation and people were joining the meditation groups. And at one point he went to his manager and asked to
tailor a new job for him. Head of Mindfulness and Compassion. This is amazing because this is what engaged him, making him stay in the workplace, and bring his added value to the work, for the organization to grow with them. So, it’s a growing power, the individual growth, and the organizational growth, right?
David: And that’s exactly right. And just for your audience, it’s estimated that over a million knowledge workers left the workforce in the US alone (Keren: The Great Resignation). That’s right. So, if you think about that talent pool leaving the force, leaving the job force. Others really using the pandemic to figure out that they like their kids and their grandkids, and they wanted to spend more time with them, and they’re not interested in going back to the 60-80 hour a week grinds that we grew up professionally doing. All that combines into that talent agenda is, Keren, I believe is going to continue to be a really top priority for most leaders.
Most leaders have figured out they cannot get to their strategic priorities, they cannot accomplish the outcomes they’re after with mediocre talent, with so-so people. So, if I really want exceptional talent, I have to change the way I lead, to make this place, make this team, make this organization a more attractive place for, not just for those that are here to stay, but then to be able to attract and retain other talent that we need to get to our goals.
And this is all about adaptive leadership, that has to understand, the pandemic wasn’t just a blip. It’s really changing the way we work, the way we think about work, the value, the benefit that we get from work. I’m not interested in 80–100-hour weeks anymore. I don’t want to do that. So how do I make sure that work is more satisfying.
Keren: So that’s great. I want to ask you another question. How do you see what’s happening right now post pandemic. You started with the great resignation, and then there was the quiet quitting, and then there’s a mass layoffs. How do you see this thing going on and what’s the impact?
David: Yeah, in Curve Benders, I wrote an entire chapter on 15 forces that, Keren, we believe, our research shows are going to continue to disrupt the way we work, the way we live, the way we play, and the way we give to others. So, they’re not necessarily all bad. I actually have some clients that did really well during the pandemic. Their markets had fewer choices and fewer options and they had more discretionary spend. So, they spent the money. So, I believe these not just economic times, but every disruption, is a potential headwind, tailwind, or turbulence. It depends on the company, depends on the sector. So right now, the technology sector is going certainly through some layoffs, but you know what? those are still talented people, those are still competent, capable people and good talent doesn’t stay on the sidelines very long, right? They’re going to find the next thing. They’re going to find other companies, other industries, to go to. And guess what? Technology is going to come back and they’re going to want to hire these people all over again and find and develop and nurture that talent. So, I’m not as concerned about these big layoffs. They’re kind of a big headline news makers. But in terms of talent, we’re hiring. I know several other clients that are hiring. You’re always, the great leaders are always looking for exceptional talent. They’re always looking for talent that can plug into different parts of the organization. So that talent agenda, again, I’ve had almost 100 executive conversations in the last three months. It is definitively in the top three, you know, with supply chain and with concerns over economic and geopolitical issues. But talent is going to continue to be a challenge.
For the audience, what’s critical is if you’ve been laid off or if you’re thinking of changing jobs or even as a manager or leader, you’re thinking of the next chapter. This is the time to upskill. This is the time to rescale. This is the time to really think about what do you need to unlearn? So, then you can relearn new skills, new knowledge, new changes in behaviors that make you that much more attractive to other employers.
Keren: So, two thing I have to say, I really like the unknown. I will come back to it. But you know how I see this phenomenon? I think it’s the same. I was reflecting upon it, and I said OK, I don’t see a difference because it starts with the great resignation. I see that individuals are looking for meaningfulness in the workplace, right? they don’t go to work, or any workplace, if they don’t feel fulfilled. And then there’s the quite quitting, talking about the right balance you can call it the right blend between the professional life and personal life. So, they’re looking to create boundaries within the organization. This is my viewpoint and then I say OK, so how is the mass layoffs resonant with it? and then I understood that just as the coronavirus pandemic caused us all to pause and ask yourself tough questions, I also think the mass layoffs are causing people to finetune the path. To find the right thing for them, and I really believe that it’s part of the process. It’s like as you said, you’re not concerned about it, because it would pass, and I see it as another cause to pause for talented people. To pause and ask themselves how do I want to bland my professional and personal life? Where is my real passion? Where do I want to invest my time? So, I see it continue the process. And another thing I see here that I think a lot of people will go on their own path, to be entrepreneurs, and organizations will change. I think it will be a hybrid workplace, that some of us will be full time, some of us off time. It’s a new blend that we are going towards. How do you see it?
David: You’re exactly right. So, if you think about it, if I’m driving and if I go down the wrong path, I’ll make a course correction. So, I’m going to, you know, get back on the right path to get to where I’m going. Similarly, I think we’re experiencing… A lot of people are thinking through, as you mentioned, I call it ‘Career Correction’. So yeah, again, we grew up watching our parents, we grew up watching other colleagues, and we saw them climb the ladder, the corporate ladder. I think increasingly we’re seeing more of a corporate lattice. We’re seeing more of an opportunity to go sideways, or go try a different business or, as you said… I have a family member who runs his own business and I’ve been thinking about running my own business for years, but I’ve never done it because I’ve had this really comfortable paycheck. Well, we’ve been smart with our money, and I’ve saved enough, and I think I could be really good at going on my own and pursuing other opportunities. So, I agree with you. I think increasingly talent, especially exceptional talent, is spending time on introspection. Maybe I want to go back to school and get an advanced degree. Maybe I want to go try something else. And I think they saw through the pandemic that they could be really productive without that physical structure of a building, or a company. They saw that they could be more creative and resourceful. They saw that they could do and try different things, and they had the safety net of this pandemic. So, I agree with you. I think a lot of people are really looking at what are my assets, what are my skills, what are the things that I think I can do well, by the way – what makes me happy? What do I enjoy doing? I read, you’re going to chuckle at this, I read a fascinating report by Gallup, the research organization, that said the number one reason most under 35 years old people don’t want to go back to an office, you’re not going to believe this one, during the pandemic they got a dog. They don’t want to leave the dog at home. And, again, old school leadership; Well, go find doggy daycare, we got work to do. But you know what? that dog is more than just a pet it’s a part of who they are. It’s kind of a security, it’s a comfort level. It helps their… (Keren: It’s love. What do dogs do? Bring love, right?) It improves their mental health. It reduces their stress. It centers them. They feel a sense of care and nurturing for this dog. So, I think it would be shortsighted to dismiss it. I think it would be shortsighted to say, well, you know what, we got work to do. If you want to work here, forget the dog, you got to come to work. I think it’s an example of understanding what’s happening, figuring out how to adapt. Listen, I’m a capitalist. Unapologetically. We still have a business to run. How do we make sure we do that with, as you said, the right mix of talent, the right mix of talent focused on the right kind of work that is fulfilling, that does make a difference where they feel not just good, but great about what they’re doing. And I tell my kids all the time, there’s no perfect job, there’s no perfect company, there’s no perfect team, there’s no perfect boss. I’ve haven’t met one yet. So, you got to figure out. And that’s where we build the resilience. That’s where we build the grit in our teams, in our individuals to weather ups and downs to really take away more positive from a role and continue to help them learn and grow in that process versus, again, many ways we used to think about work pre pandemic.
Keren: Actually, there are companies that allow you to come with your dog to the workplace so you know you need to walk with it. The new things that emerge, right? You need to be mindful to them.
David: And by the way, during your lunch, take the dogs for a walk and have a walking meeting. I mean, there’re creative ways, again, leaders and companies can adapt. It’s just a very different. it’s a changing, it’s an evolving workforce, it’s an evolving talent agenda that if you want employees if you want great people, to come work for your organization, you need to understand it. You need to figure out the best way to adapt to it while you still run a business, while you still have results and outcomes and things you’re responsible for delivering.
Keren: Yes, it doesn’t contradict each other. Once you will understand their intrinsic motivation, you can work with it and give them what they need to flourish. And the organization will also be creative and innovative. So, it goes together. But it’s a new paradigm, as you say. It’s not a common theme. Anyway, I want to go forward. Because I love the idea of your new book, the Curve Benders, if you can talk about a little bit for our listeners. What does it mean to be a curve bender and how can I use it?
David: Yeah, so I’ve been a student of business relationships for 20 years and several years ago I wrote Relationship Economics, which was all about how to become more intentional in the relationships you choose to invest in. Then, as you were kind enough to mention in my intro, I wrote Co-Create, which is none of us have all the answers. How do we Co create a solution? With a few but really strategic relationships. Then, I got to tell you, most of my books I start with a question and, in full disclosure, I’ll be 55 this next month and I’ve been thinking a lot about work for me in the next decade. A lot of what we’ve been talking about. What will work look like? What do I love doing, what do I not want to do? And the more I thought about it, and this was actually pre pandemic, the more I thought of the need to adapt and learn. Learn faster, learn more relevant. I don’t need to go and get a four-year computer science degree. I just want to learn the code, and I found out that there’s a lot of different places I can learn to code, and a lot of them are free. And, by the way, I can learn the basics within about 30 days.
The notion came that if you want to, and the supposition is if you want to remain relevant, you’re going to have to learn faster, you’re going to have to learn more, you’re going to have to reinvent yourself in many ways. In that reinvention, your biggest asset are a few relationships who know you, like you, have a vested interest in your success, and they want to help. They want to leave an imprint. And not just what you accomplish, Keren, but who you become in 10 years, in 20 years, the manager, the leader, the human being. And if you think about that old professor, or maybe that first boss you had, or people that really changed the leader that you are. Those are the relationships I call curve benders.
So, these are the people that change both our direction and ultimate destination. And in the book, I give the readers very specific steps on how to identify, how to nurture those relationships. And I got to tell you a quick story. One of my own curve benders asked me a profound question and he said, so you’re going to tell people how to find these curve benders, right? I’m saying, yeah. And I was researching and writing the book, he said, you know what? I think a more important question would be How do we all become, as leaders, curve benders in the lives of others? If you think about the pandemic, we didn’t focus on more relationships. We actually spent time with fewer relationships. But it was the ones we liked and trusted and wanted to spend time with. And increasingly we’re telling people what to do and how to do it. I’m not sure we’re investing in who they become. In the manager, in the leader, in the human being we want them to become 10-20 years from now. So that’s who your curve benders are and it’s a fascinating topic, I think, to read about, and to really think about.
Keren: So, give us an example who was your curve bender?
David: Sure. So, Three immediately come to mind. One was a former CEO. I was president of a company at 32, and at 32 you think you’re intelligent, and you’ve got a good education. But you just haven’t lived enough. And I tell my kids, I didn’t paint on the gray hair, right? So, you just haven’t been around long enough. And Bruce was a fantastic, not just a mentor, not just a coach, but he was the CEO of our company and he genuinely took me under his wings to teach me, to show me. And that’s what they do. They demonstrate, they kind of show you the way if you will, like a great Sherpa. So, they’re more than a coach. They’re more than a guide. And, funny enough, I asked a lot of executives about attributes of curve benders in their lives and, Keren, across over 100 executive interviews, the single most consistent answer was they saw the best version of me even when I couldn’t see it myself. So, Bruce saw the president at that time, that I could become. The president that I could be, combine my education and tenacity and intellect and whatever to really become this much better leader. Another one, guy named Marshall Goldsmith. Marshall is the number one executive coach in the world. He was kind enough to reach out several years ago. He created something called the MG 100 program and invited me to join that group. And I’ve learned a ton over the years from Marshall. And then another gentleman, Alan Weiss. I was in consulting before I left to start my own firm 20 years ago. I thought I knew consulting. Time with Alan has dramatically changed my lens, my perception on, not just how to consult, but how to be an advisor, how to be a coach, how to really work with senior executives and boards. So, these are three examples, three individuals that, again, didn’t just provide a skill or knowledge or didn’t just coach and mentor. They’ve shaped in many ways the leader that I believe I’ve become. And, by the way, it’s never done, right? We ideally would continue to learn (Keren: Work in process), grow and evolve, and the way you think, the way you approach your communication, your problem solving, your decision making, all has to evolve. And these relationships come into our lives that continue to mold and continue to shape, again, the leader I will continue to become.
Keren: Amazing. There’s a saying goes that you need only one person to believe in you in order to grow. So, it’s kind of the traits that these curve benders have. From your stories, they really believed in you and saw who you are when you couldn’t see who you are. So, I think it’s crucial. What came to my mind with my curve benders, I also have a lot, but one of them was the CEO of the company that I conducted my PhD. I conducted a case study in his company for two years. So, I actually learned in the case study how to lead mindfully. How to give you an example by doing it, and opening the door for me to learn. And I think it created a leap in my carrier, to bring this new wisdom and knowledge to the world, so I think this is kind of a curve Bender.
David: You’re exactly right and your comment “they showed me”, right? Curve benders don’t just tell, they demonstrate. They do it naturally themselves and when we observe them doing it, it becomes so attractive that we want to adapt. We want to adopt that approach, that style. And we see this in our best leaders that you see someone solve a problem or deal with a difficult situation, and you say ‘when I’m in that position, that’s what I want to do. That’s how I want to behave’. By the way, there’s also negative directions. There’re negative behaviors that we see and actually call those Fender benders because you don’t want to go that direction. You don’t want to be that jerk of a boss. You don’t want to be that person that first thing they do, as soon as they come in the company, is cut everybody out. You don’t want some of those bad behaviors to impact you and to influence the way you think, the way you lead, the way you engage and influence others.
Keren: So actually, they do influence you by understanding what you don’t want to do. And I also have a few of those come to my mind. So, this is also a good way to learn, right? We learn what we don’t want to do. Another question I have regarding the curve benders, when I started listening, sorry, I’m listening to your book in audio… So, I was thinking that the curve bender is not only someone who shows us by example, but also open doors for us, helps us to go to the next, to have our leap in our career. What do you say about it? Did I get it right or wrong?
David: You’re exactly right. So, in the seventh steps I talk about, you know, you have to have a strong personal foundation and a professional commitment. But also talk about a catalyst. So, something happens in our lives, either we feel like we’ve reached a ceiling, or we aspire today- I want to become a vice president. I’m a vice president, I want to become a division president. There’s an aspiration that’s very innate in most of us, that we want something not just bigger but better or different. And then we immerse ourselves. I talk about immersive inquiry, so jumping in and really learning. A lot of people, you brought up entrepreneurs, want to be entrepreneurs that have no idea what it takes, that have no idea the ups and downs, and again, it’s amazing. You run into friends, and they tell you it’s amazing what an overnight success you’ve become and I’m like, it’s taken 20 years! So, most people love the idea of being an entrepreneur. They don’t realize what it takes. So, if you immerse yourself and I talk about go fine 10, 15, 20 entrepreneurs and ask them what frustrates you, what takes you too long, what can you do now that you couldn’t do before and vice versa.
So really immerse yourself in understanding what is it that you’re seeking and then the next step is exactly right. It’s just few relationships that will accelerate. Keren, if you throw enough time, effort, money at any goal, you’ll eventually get there. One of the incredible values of a relationships is that they accelerate our ability to get there and by opening doors, exactly right curve benders, once they see the commitment that you have towards this, I call it “your journey from now to next”, When they see that true commitment, when they see that this isn’t just a passing fad and you really are committed to this. Yeah, not only they give of themselves, but they’re also open doors.
And they introduce you to others who might be in that role or researching that role or have ideas and examples and best practices in that role. And that accelerates your ability to get to not just the knowledge, not just the place, but the relationships you need to really help you understand and help you get there and help you get chances that you wouldn’t often have otherwise.
Keren: Yes. So, before we need to wrap up, because we can continue for hours, It’s really interesting, what our listeners can do differently in order to find their curve benders and in order to be, as leaders, curve benders for other people, and help them.
David: Sure. So, number one, read the book, just might give you a road map on how to think about these differently. Number two, think about it a second. We often make to-do lists, right? whether it’s a New Year’s resolution or our weekly calendars or whatever it is. Here’s all the things I want to do. We seldom make relationship lists. So you brought up the pandemic. At the onset of the pandemic, Keren, I sat down, and I made a list of my top 100 business relationships. And I reached out to them, and I said, just checking in. How are you doing? What are you seeing? What are you hearing? What’s going well for you? Where are you struggling? What can I do to help? I didn’t ask for anything. I didn’t try to sell them anything. I used this antiquated device called “the telephone”, where you actually pick up the phone and dial a number and you get them, and their voice comes on at the other end. It’s fabulous. So, I called them, and we had these great conversations. And early on I found myself connecting people. I call them seekers and solvers, right? This person needed PPE equipment. This person had extra. I I’m not in that business, but I just got them together. This person unfortunately had a lot of people in Travel lost their jobs. Well, you know what, there are people in manufacturing that were looking for help. So, I connected people and then it kind of turned around. And by that, I mean 19, 20, 21 were really good years for our business because I invested in those relationships very early on.
If you want to identify curve benders in your life, you have to start by leading with relationships. The results, you know, we all have goals. We all have things we got to accomplish. Those will come if you lead with the relationships first.
If you invest in those. You can’t invest in everybody equally. But if you invest in a few deep, meaningful relationships and you’re open, you’re candid with them on here’s where I want to go, here’s what I want to do. We’re so afraid of showing our cards. We’re so afraid of being vulnerable that we hold back, and we don’t share our aspirations. We don’t share our dreams. We don’t tell people that I want to be President of this Division One day. Why not? Because those few relationships that demonstrate a vested interest in your success, want to help you, are going to help you, they don’t know how to help you. They don’t know what it is that you’re after. So, you need to think about relationships more intentionally, business relationships more strategically, and really start thinking about them as an investment. How do I invest in these relationships? How do I nurture these relationships consistently? How do I not do dumb things to damage or destroy my relationships? Those will all help you identify a few, I cannot reiterate this enough, curve benders aren’t everybody. It’s a few people that don’t have an agenda. They’re not political. They’re not trying to stab you in the back and get your promotion. These are the people that want to see you succeed. They want to see you do great things and they’re willing to help you.
Keren: So, I really like it. And if I can summarize what I heard, I think what you’re saying it’s really, first, we need to be courageous enough to show up and really say what we want, and what our passion is. And you can say to a lot of people and, at the end of the day, maybe they will be only a few curve benders, but you were resonated outside and then something happened. Because if you stay with it in your own mind, nothing will happen. So, you also need to be active in this, in creating this curve benders. Another thing is really about connections. At the end of the day, we’re human beings coming into the workplace. We need to connect in a deeper level, and once we are connected in a deeper level, we can do everything together, and we can help each other. Next thing that I heard is been as a servant, as you said. I come in really being authentic and ask them how they’re feeling and learn from them. You also talked about to unlearn. I really liked it. Be able to say OK, I don’t know what the answers. I’m also struggling right now. how are you handling this situation and to learn from each other, because there’s a wisdom outside of us, right? So, when we are not leading from ego, but from the ecosystem, a lot of thinking emerge and much more innovative and creative solutions, right?
David: You’re exactly right. And the combination of that vulnerability, the combination of the proactiveness, the combination of authenticity, those are the things that really endear us to others. Those are the things that, and I want to reiterate for your audience, for your listeners, you cannot do this with everybody. The average individual can proactively manage about 100 to 150 relationships. So, the million-dollar question becomes which ones? How do you know? And if you can’t invest in everybody equally, how will you then prioritize which relationships you invest in? That only you can answer. And I would submit it’s based on your aspirations; it’s based on that journey from now to next. Where are you going? How do you believe you’re going to get there? What are the relationships that are most relevant to both, helping them, supporting them, loving, and pouring support into them. So, when they want to reciprocate, when they want to help you, they’re helping you in the right direction, they’re helping you in the right journey that you want to be on.
Keren: Amazing, David, it was such an interesting conversation. Thank you for your time. I believe people will want to reach out for you. Where can they find you?
David: Sure. So, the easiest is our website, just Nour, NOURgroup.com. You can also just Google my name, David Nour, and you’ll find all kinds of videos and articles and columns and podcasts and all kinds of great interviews.
Keren: Great, David. Thank you very much.
David: My pleasure.