Episode 58: How to Master Collaboration with Liz Kislik
Mind Your Leadership
Mind Your Leadership
Episode 58: How to Master Collaboration with Liz Kislik

In This episode I’m speaking with Liz Kislik.

Liz is a management consultant and executive coach, and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Forbes. Her TEDx “Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It” has received more than 400,000 views. She specializes in developing high performing leaders and workforces, and for 30 years has helped family-run businesses, national nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies like American Express, Girl Scouts, Staples, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Highlights for Children solve their thorniest problems.

She received her BA from Yale University and earned an MBA in Management from NYU.

In this episode, Liz will offer surprising insights and successful techniques for mastering collaboration, conflict, talent development, and employee engagement.

You can find Liz on her website lizkislik.com and LinkedIn. Also, Liz is offering a free Field Guide and Checklist to get road-tested techniques for recovering damaged relationships, strengthening communication, and changing employees’ thinking about conflict.

Episode Transcript

Keren: You know, I like to start from the personal aspect because it’s the most engaging. So I wanted to ask you what was the highest or lowest part of your career, life and what have you learned from it?

Liz: It’s funny, Keren, how what you think is happening at the time is not what’s happening at the time. You know, it’s part of it. One of the things that I say to my clients all the time they say, but this thing happened or that other person made this problem etcetera, etcetera. And I say to them that’s accurate. But it’s incomplete. There are always other things operating, and sometimes we understand them and sometimes we don’t understand them. And I would say that the lowest points in my career have always come from feeling out of control. Like I didn’t know what was happening. I knew I didn’t understand enough. Sometimes, you know, you have more to learn. You’re not sure you feel a little in over your head. And you can go forward, you can grow into it, I do believe. Fake it till you make it is fine, so long as it’s not, you know, an everyday occurrence. Not about everything, but sometimes you’re just thrust into situations you don’t expect. Or they’re really like  sizes too big instead of  size too big, one of the longest, lasting hardest, but also kind of boring. So I don’t think I’m really going to tell you about it. Is when I was very young, I was  and I was promoted to be Vice president of this call center and I was responsible for  employees. And it just goes to show you that there was no bench that, you know, they took this little girl and I was very smart little girl, but still you wouldn’t want to do that today. But that was just a kind of grinding. Experience learning to make my way. And I never enjoyed it because it was never good enough. There was always so much wrong that I just couldn’t feel good about it. So that was a low. I mean, there would. I came home crying many days, but that’s boring. You know, that’s the grinding struggle.

Keren: I don’t think it’s boring. You know when you speak with me, tell your story, it resonates with me with the flow experience. You know, when I’m working with leaders and management and I believe that you are also we want to help them be in the flow state of mind, right? Invest minimum effort and gain maximum results. And in order to do that, you need to hold attention between the opportunity and the ability in order to win this flow. And it sounds from your experience that the gap. was too big. I don’t know if you felt anxiety, but it didn’t feel comfortable and competent to do what you needed to do. So it couldn’t be in this flow. And I think it’s a a great example for us as leaders, as individuals to know to hold this tension and to say, OK, it’s not a a good fit for me, OK, it’s very complimenting to me that they gave me this job, but will I be happy with it? Will I be successful? Do I want this job from the right reasons? What do you think about it?

Liz: That’s a very good analysis. I in many ways am a structuralist. And what I would say is you are correct, I was almost never in flow, partially because it was the kind of role where every other minute was an interruption. You know, there was there was never any deep calm time. That was part of it. The other thing was there were multiple many constituencies, all of whom had needs. And they couldn’t be satisfied. The trade-offs were constant, ever present. That was very painful. But as a structuralist, what I would say is the people who were in charge at that time threw me into that job as their best hope. Which is a judgment about them. The guy who had been in that job before me was really, he had the age, seniority, he came from the outside. He had other experience that should have been relevant. He was just the wrong human being. And it went badly almost right away. I don’t think he was there more than days. So they took their best shot and put me in, but they put me in. And no one thought, oh, we should be actively supporting this child in this big job. Here’s how we’re going to check on her. Here’s the training we’re going to give her. Here’s it was completely under resourced. And so I had to draw from myself. And thank goodness I had friends. I had a kind of mentor in my grandfather, who was a business, small business. Owner. But. The grinding was not great, and I learned so much. I mean, it really was in hindsight. You couldn’t have paid for the training, in a sense. I learned to deal with people trying to manipulate me. I learned hard things about rules of operation, all kinds of stuff. Fantastic. I could not be doing what I’m doing now without that experience. But it could have been a better experience. And as the company grew, it was growing. And as there was a guy who reported to me who was an instinctive operations person, I mean, you could see him. And he didn’t take any of this stuff emotionally at all and so over time we were able to work out with the senior leadership. I became responsible for all of client services and he took on operations. and then the place hummed much better. We were in more natural settings for our talents. So it’s not that it was a total loss, but man, it was painful.

Keren: Yes. So you instead of guiding you and helping you, they throw you through the water and you needed to figure out all along. So you learned at the end. But we can shorten the curve of the learning, right?

Liz: Yes. Yes.

Keren: I’m interesting also to open another issue because you refer to control. You talked about the lowest point in your career. Once you didn’t feel in control. And I think it’s, uh, interesting issue to elaborate and look at it because do we have control? What does it mean control? Because you know, in this active reality that we all live in now in this transformative period, we don’t really have control. But how can we gain the feeling of control? What do you think about this issue?

Liz: So for me, the idea that I could mess someone up outside of me and be responsible for damage or failures that I could not cover, that I couldn’t compensate for, et cetera, that kind of thing that was very painful to me. Once I had my own practice. And could make all my own decisions. If there was a problem, I took care of it and I could. To this day, I don’t know, for example, if in the story we didn’t record it was about a woman I had to fire. I don’t know if she got a proper severance package. That anybody I have had to fire, I give them money so they have time to find a job. You know, there are things you can do to make the path smoother for others, even when you’re not meant to be together. Managing the call center, the structures were not good enough for taking care of all these people. That’s a huge responsibility. And I felt that, you know, from a heart perspective and from a moral perspective. So in many ways, your question makes me think that the control is really a kind of control over myself and what I feel is moral and being able to do that.

Keren: amazing because it actually resonate with my definition of mindfulness. Because when we are mindful to ourselves, we connected to our emotions, to our feelings or sensations, right? And we have a free choice out to act upon them. Instead being acted about upon our emotions and the situation. And this is what makes you feel in control that we manage ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we know how it will impact the resident outside, but when I’m complete with my decision. In the mean lined with my values then I feel in control, right? Because you said OK because now when I let go and I do let go of people because this is part of doing business, I do my best to help them. But at the end of the day I don’t control what will the next job they land, but I I feel comfortable with what I did. So for you being in control is really having a free choice to choose our behavior and act upon it instead of acting from disconnected place. That’s right. You know, it’s interesting. We started talking about the flow because of the things you brought up. And you know, I know that you work with managers and executive and at the end of the day as we said, you want to have them be in this state of mind, right? Being in the right place, investing minimum effort, gaining maximum results and being creative and innovative. So what do you see the most challenges, things for leaders that you encounter? You’re laughing because they’re probably a lot, but you can pinpoint one or two struggle that you usually help them. To overcome in order to help them navigate to the floor space.

Liz: The real reason I’m laughing is because I don’t actually care so much about minimum effort. OK, OK, I care about proportional effort or productive effort change, which is what I’m dealing with executives. If they knew what to do the way it was, they wouldn’t need me. And it’s another illustration. Actually about self-control versus other control, because one of the things I love about my job is I actually know I am not in control of what anybody else does. I can prompt, I can encourage, I can advise, I can hold the space, all of that. But they choose, they choose their behavior and they choose how they want their business to be if I’m dealing with an owner or a CEO, etcetera. And so I can be really comfortable that if I’m doing what I believe is right, then they get to do what they believe is right. And if I don’t feel good about that, I don’t have to work with them anymore. So that feels wonderful. I can’t say it’s always minimum effort. Sometimes it’s really hard.

Keren: Yes. When I say minimum effort, usually for me it’s been in the accurate place because you’re doing invest energy. It doesn’t mean you don’t, but you know it always. Remind me, the dogs. That run after the tails, yeah, put in energy, wasted energy with no goal you know, so when we are really now the right path, it’s putting energy, but not too much. Like putting the piece in the puzzle that it’s not the right place, but you push it anyway. This is what I mean by too much energy.

Liz: The things that I see over and over, one is that people forget to think big enough. You know, it’s like if you’re driving on the highway and you are looking at the rear bumper of the car in front of you, you don’t know how to maneuver as well as if you are looking a little into the distance and you see where you have space and you see where you have opportunity and so many people are. Just focused on what they see as the problem or set of problems they have to deal with today. And that means they’re thinking is not expansive, it’s narrow. And then everything looks binary. And that makes it very tough because often the yes, no, they’re not good choices, but bigger picture, better choices. So that’s one and that is about trying to give people a sense. That curiosity is exciting, and that they have more access, more choices than they recognize. That then often leads them to see they don’t have to do it all alone, because then you’re using the brainpower of the people around you, and you let them participate, and you encourage them to participate and you come up with better decisions. Because it’s better to do it together. If you are working together, if you’re working with other people, get their best instead of having everybody tight and just focused on how not to screw up.

Keren: Amazing because it’s resonant with the control aspect, right? Because usually as leaders, as managers, we learn that we need to have all the answers. So I can come to a meeting and not know the answer because I’m the boss. So what should I say? But actually this is the new skills that we need to nourish nowadays, right? Their ability to. Presence with others show up to be vulnerable, to show up fully authentically and say, look, this is what we need to figure out. I don’t know what the answer. I feel that this is the right place. Or this is not the right place. I would be happy to hear your thoughts. Let’s figure it out together and create this space for the right solution to emerge. So it’s actually un learning, right? What we have learned that we need to know.

Liz: I think of it as compartmentalizing because you know, there are technical answers you need to have. There are historical things you need to know. This stuff you need to know. But there’s also stuff where there is no rigid knowing. There’s only looking and choosing. But if people don’t learn expansiveness and you don’t really learn that in school very well, that’s much more about the rigid knowing, right? And as a child, most of us were not encouraged in expansive knowing. We were encouraged. To look smart, which just as you say is having the answers. Yeah, forget the answers. What’s the path? If the trajectory is good, you can go back and forth within that a little bit and find your way. OK, so that’s a very big one. The other very big set of stuff, we’re just not natural instinctive relationship communicators. And so people don’t talk to each other. About what is true, and certainly again, come from a place of holding and tightness, more than well, let me hear what the other person has to say and I’m sure we’ll figure it out together. Or a place of please tell me what’s on your mind, because I actually want to know and some of that is the pressure. Of business requirements. But there’s a kind of impatience that’s sort of baked into business life. Everything has to be fast, fast startups. It’s all fast. It’s all scale. Sometimes what they’re scaling is not useful. More thoughtfulness, sometimes more deliberateness. Is helpful. I’m not talking about slowing things down or perseverating. But giving everything the time it needs to come into itself when you’re so scarce on time, executives become very high demand. They’re looking for fast responses from everybody else. These are the kinds of things that close minds and cause conflict, and people were afraid of looking stupid. We’re afraid of looking indecisive. We all know executives who change their minds. Based on the last person who spoke to them, you know they’re too easily persuaded they don’t have a good center. And they don’t explain. They don’t explain why they changed their minds. The time that is necessary for explaining what you want. I don’t mean for your soul. I mean for the business, for the business explaining what you want. What’s important? Getting people galvanized around those ideas so they can put their best thinking into it? No, there’s too much command then people can only do the thing you told them and not necessarily bring their best to it. And then they feel negative about it and that’s how arguments happen.  You know, there are so many reasons arguments happen and then you have these like unresolved, sometimes multi generational fights inside the organization that everybody knows this is there and they either walk around it or they participate in it all the time, but they don’t necessarily resolve. I love being part of resolving those things. :

Keren: Can you give us an example of working with the cofounders, I don’t managers that you helped them to resolve. And what’s happened there and what did they do differently in order to help make it happen?

Liz: The one that comes to mind is actually quite harsh. So. The CEO of the company had what was actually a broad and expansive vision of what was going to happen, and he had really great confidence in the product development team. He believed they were gifted in coming up with what the best products would be, and his second in command came from a more technical. Background and became responsible for revenue generation. Hmm. And that guy. Had a completely different idea about the structure of the business that would make the business successful, and he was less interested in the CEO’s big picture. He was much more interested in the revenue numbers. And because he had this belief about how it would work, he actually created a kind of shadow organization that did not subscribe to the CEO’s. Values did not understand them in some cases, didn’t even know about them. And the CEO and the development people are a little bit in a cloud planning these great things and the rest of the organization is going in a different direction. Unbelievable. And you can imagine lots of problems between the groups and. They all thought that it was just that they didn’t like each other and they had, you know, bad practices in each group. But it what it really was, was that they were operating out of different philosophies altogether. It took a lot of interviewing. I often interview a lot of the crucial players, lot of interviewing to even understand how different the belief sets were. And then do you mean this? Do you mean that, you know, like sometimes I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing and then putting that together in a big picture? And then saying this is what I found. What do you want? And it became clear that the man in command really did not want what the CEO wanted, and he ended up realizing. I mean, it was under pressure, but he actually ended up realizing. This was not useful and in effect that he was never going to win. And so he went and took a job someplace else. And then there was a sigh of relief. From the organization and the people who had reported directly to the second in command, some of them stayed and changed their philosophy and were happy and that was good. And some of them just couldn’t stay and either left under their own steam or their performance was bad because they didn’t believe in the actual direction.

Keren: So you say that each and every one like kind of worked in silos and once you came there you had them to connect to the broader. Picture and to have clarity of where they’re heading and then they could see if they’re fitting in this first of all to choose what the right way, right? And connect back to their vision, mission, whatever. And then to choose if they are feeling in alignment between their values and their bigger picture or not and let go. So I think you’re talking about really the process of creating clarity and connecting to the bigger picture. And it’s amazing how in the day-to-day we can lose grab of it right each and everyone. Is thinking about it is project is narrow sight and is not connected to the broader picture and then you can use it as a company. And you know, I know that you work a lot about communication and conflict management. What tools can you give our listeners that if they feel that they need to confront right now a colleague at the boss or whatever, how can they start unpacking it and finding the courage to confront? So what tools can they use in order to do it? To show up.

Liz: Sometimes the analysis of the situation is completely separate from the idea of the communication and what are you going to stand up for. Sometimes in the moment you see something happening in front of you that you actually believe is wrong and you feel you need to speak because you are prompted by your values. That’s a very different kind of situation. Say you observe truly terrible behavior, racist or sexist, or, you know, ableist, ageist, whatever it is, some kind of bad behavior that is hurting people here and now, and you feel you must speak, then you’re not. Thinking of the consequences as much in the moment and you’re saying the thing you need to say and you hope it ends up OK. In most cases though, what you are talking about. Is a business case for what would serve the organization better. Hmm. And so, it helps to really do analysis st and get your data before you even think about who am I going to present this to and how am I going to say this in a compelling way? Because you need to be able to show both the upside of change and the downside of what’s happening today, and you need to be able to do that in varying ways. Sometimes all at once. Sometimes you need quantitative data because the decision maker cares about the numbers. Then you better know your numbers. Sometimes though, having the numbers is not as evocative as being able to give, say, customer example of a customer who suffered a big customer. And so it’s really hurting us. The story can be very important. And all the factors that are connected, but you don’t necessarily see in the meeting room when you’re making the plan, say we keep annoying our customers and therefore our employees are suffering because they’re dealing with the annoyed customers and so the turnover is too high. Well, that’s money going out the window. That you might not even count toward this problem if you weren’t looking downstream. So analysis is really important. I’m not talking about six months, I’m talking about figuring out what’s really going on. Making sure, if you can, that you are not the only one who sees this. Check your judgment with other people, and definitely before you make the case. It’s so helpful to have colleagues who have experience dealing with whoever the most senior people are and know how they like to hear bad news, because the ability to present bad news, that’s crucial.

Keren: You know, I want to challenge you because when I hear you, I hear a lot of analyzers rational aspect in order to promote the change. But I really believe the change is even more based on our emotional aspect and being able to process it into to work with the emotions. Because maybe I can understand it in my mind that this is the right path. But I feel resistance in my body. So I really think that being mindful and showing up fully, it’s not only having the. National language in the talk, but also showing up fully with our emotions and speaking, our frustration, our excitement or whatever. Seeing the other person and telling them look, I see that you’re really passionate about this process, however I want to show you. What the amplification are. So I think it’s the combination of both because this would create the movement, otherwise it can create a stagnation. What do you think about it?

Liz: I absolutely agree in both. What I’ve seen over and over though is that if you haven’t done the analysis, unless you already have an extraordinarily good relationship, a trusting relationship with the person or the group that’s going to make the decision, they can poo poo you and send you out. Because that’s your personal reaction. I think people need to be armed with the business premise, the facts, et cetera. Maybe this is truer in larger organizations, but I think both are necessary and that’s when you then get to, OK, now I’m armed. How do I make the case? Hmm. It is rarely good to show up in anybody’s door and tell them that they’re wrong. Very few people want to hear that. There are some people who can take it to your point. They have very good self knowledge. They have a level of equanimity. Already most people, you tell them they’re wrong, their defensiveness goes up. It’s just hard to deal with them. You need the relationship and the sense of safety and trust first. Your point? It’s an energetic point. If someone’s excited about something, they hold it tight. You know, we’re so happy to have that kind of joy in work. Terrible if somebody puts the pin in your balloon. So recognizing who you are talking to, because we need to talk to different people in different ways. It is not just about being true to yourself, it’s about recognizing who the other person is and going to where they are. If you can’t be with the other person the way they are, they will not hear you as well.

Keren: That’s right. So as you said, there are more emotional people and more rational people. So I think you need to. Figure out we’re going to stick with and to know how to navigate between the source. So if it’s a rational person and you will come with all your emotions and emotions he won’t know how to process it right. But if you can’t do an emotional person all the data you it will be disconnected from you. So I think this is the ability to be mindful to really listen to also ourselves, how we feel regarding the situation into the other colleague or individual that we are dealing with and then to navigate this conversation in a complete way that. It really will resonate with them and will engage them.  Otherwise we will lose them and it will be a disconnection and it can create even a bigger conflict, right?

Liz: Exactly right. You gave me such a strong memory of an early boss of mine who was emotional, and I wanted to please her very much. Of course, I was a young person. I was eager. So if there was a problem, I would take care of it and I would go to her and tell her I had taken care of the problem, but she didn’t like that because. She didn’t really believe me. She didn’t have confidence. I learned that if I went to her, I could take care of it. But if I went to her and I said there’s a terrible problem, OK, I’m not sure what to do. Will you help me? Then she would be more confident. She would relax because she needed to have her hands in it, you know, she needed. To be upset first, yeah. And then, you know, to calm herself. So if I went to her and said it’s terrible, please help me, then she would be calm to show me what to do.

Keren: Interesting, because it seems like she was really emotional, as you said, and you came with the language, so then she would connect with you and she could feel better once you came and you figure it out. She’s staying with her emotion and she didn’t know what to do with them. So actually in this process, she needed you to help her deal with her emotions and find the right solution, right? Exactly to your earlier point you have to figure out for each person. I want before I have to ask another question that I had in mind before our strongly do you believe that self-care for leaders in the necessary part of any leadership? Self-care, yeah. How do you see it?

Liz: So I believe in it very much, but I believe the term. Or the beliefs about it have become a little trivial and maybe even corrupted like. It is a very nice thing in a tense time period to bring in somebody, to give massages, you know, to people who are working. That’s very lovely and it is very good for a person to get a massage, but that’s not enough self-care if what you need is time and rest and health. And being able to think quietly. And all those things. So again, it’s different for everybody. But also, a surface veneer. Whatever is popular in the culture is not enough. There’s a sense of true health. That people need to have to think their best and to do their best. There is also. Really a need to not be under threat. And in our capitalist society, most businesspeople feel a little under threat a lot of the time. And it is very hard to get to real health. That way. So part of self-care is actually figuring out how to minimize or reduce the amount of threat you take in, in the course of a day. And that’s tough. That’s really about self-awareness, self-regulation, mindfulness is approach. There are many, many approaches, but being aware of yourself and learning how to create safe space for yourself, that’s really crucial.

Keren: So it’s amazing, you know, it all connects for me also the communication aspect and the self-care because they ended there. You say there’s there fake harmony, that everything is OK, but we don’t dare to speak with each other. And there’s the self safe self-care and this is also fake because it’s only their maneuvers that we see on the surface. But the end of the day being mindful is the ability really to listen to ourselves, to our needs, to the space, to create our own space. There’s the saying goes to be our own mothers. To accept ourselves, to to nourish ourselves and not accept anybody else. Good for us, even though our boss. Because if we won’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be able to put boundaries and we won’t be able to take care of others, right? So we start within ourselves the ability to go deeper beyond what is expected and from this place, to navigate our jobs, our day-to-day, our relationships.

Liz: This is what is worth maximum effort. Because when we are OK. And strong and not brittle and fragile and just surface when we are really OK, other people can be OK with us. We create more space around us. And then that’s, you know, there’s a flow in that coming back to the earlier conversation, there’s a joy in that, knowing that you provided that for somebody. Oh my God, that’s a tremendous boost.

Keren: Amazing. So we close the circuit, right? We start with the flow and we came back to flow. In order to have flow, we need to have our presence, our anchor, our ease. And from this place we can really invest you. And now you understand many more effort by gain maximum. Is that because we’re having more value and impact on ourselves and others? Yes, it was a great joy speaking with you. So I see times flying. We need to wrap ourselves before we wrap up, is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you don’t want to say?

Liz: I loved the conversation. I’m very happy. The only thing I would say is if it’s helpful to members of your audience. On my website, there is a free ebook about the interpersonal aspects of managing conflict, and there’s just, I don’t know,  years, maybe  years. I don’t know of writing about all kinds of aspects of organization and communication, network, and how you make workplaces. Recent places. So that people can really give their best and also as much as possible feel their best.

Keren: Amazing. So where can they found you? Can you say your website or LinkedIn?

Liz: It’s lizkislik.com And they can also find me on LinkedIn. Of course, you know all of that.

Keren: Liz, thank you very much. It was really a joyful conversation. Inspiring.

Liz: I loved it. Keren. Thank you.


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