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Karin Hurt Takes on Soulless Managers

karin-hurtBusiness books can sometimes be too abstract; sometimes they’re too tactical. It’s like with Goldilocks: you’re looking for that perfect combination of not too much, not too little, but just right. Well, today I’m talking to Karin Hurt, co-author of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results—without Losing Your Soul and it’s one of those business books that is just right. Karin Hurt is an ex-Verizon person, as well as an MBA professor, and she effortlessly combines both theoretical concepts and practical experience.

Here’s what I really like about the book. The first section, the first 70 pages or so, is principle-driven. The remainder of the book is tactical and practical, outlining situations and possible solutions. In this conversation with Karin, we talk about:

  • The price of soulless leadership.
  • The four types of managers.
  • How to help managers stand up for what matters.
  • The secret to powerful feedback and interventions.

You can follow Karin on Twitter at @LetsGrowLeaders.

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Full Transcript

Michael:     So I certainly read a lot of business books. And by reading, I don’t mean I actually read them. I mean, pick them up, skim through them and then kind of throw them away, metaphorically at least, in frustration. Because honestly let’s face it, most business books aren’t very good. They’re kind of a little too abstract, there’s only one kind of half-baked idea in it. They’re sometimes too tactical, they’re sometimes too philosophical. It’s like Goldilocks. You’re looking for that perfect combination of not too much, not too little, but just right. And I think I have a recommendation for you. Today in this podcast, I’m talking to Karin Hurt. And she is the author of “Winning Well: Manager’s Guide to Achieving Results Without Losing Your Soul.” And it may strike a chord for you. It did for me anyway.

And when I was talking to Karin and reading her book, here’s what I really liked about it. The opening section of the book, the first 60 or 70 pages or so, are very principle-driven. They’re really, like, “Here are the key philosophies. Here are the tensions that you’re looking to navigate.” As a manager in a complex world, you need to be both a degree of confidence and humility, and other kind of tensions like that where there’s not a simple linear way of working; you’re just dealing with a number of principles and trying to figure out what matters. That’s good. But in the remaining kind of two thirds of the book, very tactical, very practical, very much, “In this situation, try this and see how it works for you.” And in this conversation with Karin, we get into that. We talk about the principles a lot, because I’m kind of more, kind of drawn to that sort of stuff. But we certainly look at three or four of the key chapters, the practical chapters, and go, “Let’s talk about that and unpack how you deal with these various difficult situations.”

So I think you might enjoy this call. It is with Karin Hurt, author of “Winning Well”, ex-Verizon person, MBA professor, really comes from a lot of theoretical, practical experience, and it shows up in this book and in this conversation. Okay Karin, I’ve given you the big introduction. So here we are. We’re starting the conversation. And I want to start like I do with all my conversations, is just by asking you, so what are you up against? You know, what are you fighting the good fight around? What do you—what’s the thing that you’re no longer tolerating and you’re kind of, you know, it stirred you to write a book and have a conversation with me? What are you up against?

Karin:         Soulless leadership. That win at all costs mentality that people engage in in trying to move the needle and track performance.

Michael:     Alright. I love that. And what’s the impact of soulless leadership? I mean, what’s the price you see it extracting?

Karin:         I see it play out in results that don’t sustain over time, that, you know, people get results for a minute and things improve. But over time, employees are disengaging. That’s why you see, you know, the statistics that we’re seeing with the Gallup and everything else that, you know, 70% of workers are disengaged. And managers who are burned out, you’re seeing it in illnesses that are creeping up. And I think you’re also really seeing it in the dramatic lack of trust in many organizations.

Michael:     So I’m just curious to know, I mean, for your point of view, are you trying to save people from soulless managers or are you trying to get managers to have a little more soul in their life? I’m sure it’s both, but if you had to pick one, which one would you go?

Karin:         I’m all about helping managers create what we call envelopes of excellence. And so taking a look at where they are in the organization, and empowering them with the tools and techniques to win well, to balance results and relationships, and to get the results that are demanded of them but do them in a way that they feel good about and that their people feel interested in following them.

Michael:     I love that. And, you know, the title of your book is “Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul”, and that’s a nice phrase, winning well. You know, it’s about winning, but it’s not about, you know, trading off your humanity as part of the experience

Karin:         Yeah.

Michael:     So you actually—as—what I like about the book is it’s both principled and tactical, you know? The first half of the book really lays out some kind of core understandings about what we mean by, how do you get things done and kind of, what the world is of winning well. And then a lot of the rest of the book’s are much shorter chapters, kind of really practically, here’s how you do—here’s how you achieve these things, everything from trusting your people, giving confidence and, you know, even kind of letting somebody go if you needed to do that. But I want to start off by just asking you about the four different types of managers that you see. And you’ve got the user, the gamer, the pleaser and then the manager who wins well. So take us through these four different types of managers for us.

Karin:         Yeah. So the winning well model is all focused on an internal balance of confidence and humility, and then external focus on results and relationships. So the four types of managers then emerge that—if either confidence and humility or results and relationships are out of balance. So if you have someone whose confidence is overshadowing their ability to be humble—so they’ve got a great vision, they’re setting clear expectations, they’re holding people accountable, all good things, but they’re not balancing that with inviting people who will challenge them, admitting that they have vulnerabilities too, admitting their mistakes, if you see that get out of balance and you see more of a focus on results than relationships, you’re going to see a user manager. And that’s someone who will—may win in the short term, but will ultimately burn out their team.

Michael:     Right.

Karin:         And will not have results that last.

Michael:     Right.

Karin:         And so I think of, like, Darth Vader as a, you know, a …

Michael:     As a particular admirable role model (inaudible) on that one. Okay, great.

Karin:         He’s a user, yeah. A pleaser on the other hand goes the other direction. They’re maybe overly humble and not showing up with as much confidence in the organization. They’re more concerned about what other people think about them and they’re looking to please people all the time. And they’re more focused on relationships than the results. And they may not be holding people accountable or setting the expectations and bar high enough. And so that would be a pleaser manager.

And then a gamer is where someone really doesn’t have strengths in any of these areas, right? They don’t hold people accountable, they’re not focused on results, they’re not focused on building real relationships and they don’t have real confidence nor humility. And when you have all those things missing, that’s when you see people showing up in organizations playing games, trying to manipulate people to get what they need.

Michael:     Got it.

Karin:         And so a winning well manager is someone who’s really focused on the balance of all of those in an “and” world. So a balance of results and relationships and focusing on confidence and humility. And when you can get all that in a nice balance, that’s where you’re seeing these results that last over time and being a leader that people want to follow.

Michael:     So I like the kind of the pairings that you’ve got there. Confidence and humility, and results and relationships, because I suspect in many people’s minds they’re not—you can’t have one and the other. It’s either confidence or humility. It’s either results or relationships. So let’s pick that first pairing, confidence and humility. How do you guide people to walk the line between two things that you could say are actually in tension with each other?

Karin:         Well the first is knowing that showing up with confidence, confident humility, is not showing up weak. It is—having the confidence to have an audacious vision and help people see what they may not even think is possible as doable. And so when you do that—so it’s knowing your strengths and feeling confident in your strengths. It’s being willing to stand up for what matters and being able to speak the truth. But on the humility side of it is knowing your vulnerabilities, admitting mistakes, inviting challengers. And so you can see, when you break it down that way, they really aren’t in conflict. And in fact it takes real confidence to be willing to show up humble.

Michael:     Ah that old trickiness, telling the self-confident people they can be self-deprecating. I love that.

Karin:         Yeah. Yeah.

Michael:     Alright, so the three factors you have under confidence, you know, knowing is your strength. Well that’s great. People will have heard that if they’ve been around this work at all, you know, Marcus Buckingham and the like. Stand up for what matters and speak the truth. Now those are good things in principle, and they are really hard to do in practice. So let me ask you about that first one, standing up for what matters.   How do you—I mean, that takes a degree of courage and resilience to be able to do that. How do you support the managers and leaders that you train and you consult to and you speak to? How do you help them find that ability to stand up for what matters?

Karin:         Well a couple of ways. First, it’s giving them specific tools and techniques to do that. So for example I have a model we call the persuade model, which is, you know, it’s how do you have a tough conversation with your boss, you know. And P is for do it in private, E is take out the emotion. So it’s really a step by step way of having a tough conversation with your boss.

There’s also a model in the book about, how do you give your boss bad news? So—and that’s the Darn model.

And so, you know with these—so these—I think if you give people really specific techniques and then give them an opportunity to practice them in hypothetical situations, then when they actually have to do it in real life it becomes easier, because you get better at standing up for what matters and speaking the truth by practicing it.

And so, you know, I think that’s part of it. And also encouraging them to take the risk with something small and then realizing that they survived it.

Michael:     Mm-hm.

Karin:         And their boss actually appreciated it, or their peers appreciate it. Or even their direct reports who they just had a tough accountability conversation with actually is grateful from the conversation that they’ve had.

Michael:     Yeah, I love both of those suggestions, certainly that whole one around, okay, do a small, safe experiment here and see how that works for you, because, you know, you don’t want to risk it all …

Karin:         Yes.

Michael:     … on a win everything, lose everything conversation because you just know how that’s going to work out. But it’s, like, so what’s the safe way to test this out and try this out and build up confidence?

Karin:         And I think often we build up these conversations in our mind to be harder and we create a whole story that says, “Oh, this person’s never going to be receptive to this feedback.” And the bottom line is if you have the conversation well in an organized fashion from a non-emotional place where you’re grounded yourself in your own confidence, you—it’s amazing the impact that you can have. And I know this because I have done this throughout my own career and I’ve taught these skills with others, and people come back and say, “You know, what was really interesting is I thought this conversation was going to be a disaster.” And the employee actually thanked me.

Michael:     Right.

Karin:         Yeah. For being so honest.

Michael:     Okay Karin. The three questions around—I love this little section. But here’s the very first question. What’s the crossroads that you came to that made all the difference?

Karin:         It was by screwing up, by showing up at a meeting not authentic and having it totally be a train wreck.

Michael:     Nice. I can just imagine you’re, like, “Okay, let’s not do that again.”

Karin:         Right.

Michael:     Yeah. Fantastic. Okay, that’s great. Whose work has influenced your work?

Karin:         Seth Godin.

Michael:     Yeah, he’s awesome, isn’t he?

Karin:         He is. I read him every day.

Michael:     Well so I—one of the books I published called End Malaria, I published with Seth, as part of his—the Domino Project. And I can give you this insight that Seth is about 80% genius and 20% crazy madman. (Inaudible) just a great combination working with him. Okay, third and final question, what’s the great work that you’re currently up to?

Karin:         It’s operationalizing the work that we’re doing in online courses. We’re finding that’s making it incredibly accessible to people and scalable and affordable.

Michael:     Fantastic. Karin, that was great. Okay, let’s get back to the regular interview. Our field is in this whole world of coaching and practical coaching skills for busy managers. And one of the things that becomes obvious to us is that whole piece around, how do you help people say the hard truth to someone? Because what becomes a defining moment for lots of people’s careers is when somebody’s had the courage to say, “Hey, okay here’s the thing. You need to know I’m on your side, but here’s where you need to step up and do things differently.” And that can be an extremely powerful intervention.

Karin:         Yeah.

Michael:     So one of the sections in the book is all about mastering the metrics maze. And I love that you pointed to this, because I’m going to say that the majority of books that I’ve seen that kind of cover what you’re covering here, they’re all about kind of tactics and the like, and they kind of tend more towards the self-empowerment, self-fulfillment, step into your potential. And on the one hand, I love that. On the other hand, there’s a reality out there which is, “How are you doing?” And that’s about understanding what’s being measured and figuring out how do you meet those requirements? It’s about that tension between what needs to be done and what you want to do. So to start off with the (inaudible) how do you—if this is something that’s not your strength, if you haven’t really got clear on this, where do you even start in terms of mastering the metrics maze?

Karin:         Yeah, so the most important thing is—and we talk about, focus on the game, not the score. And, you know, what I see in so many organizations is people are so hung up on their stack rankings or their balance score card, which are all important indicators of how well the team or the organization is doing, but they’re communicating about the score to their employees as opposed to isolating one or two strategic behaviours that if everybody did consistently over time, it would make the score improve. And so the importance in this managing the metrics maze is really isolating the behaviours that will make the biggest impact. Not 27 behaviours. Like, two or three, you know?

That you are consistently going to reinforce and develop over time. And anytime I have been involved in a real turnaround where the results went from a disaster to, you know, really best in class, it’s always involved isolating the right behaviours that would make an impact.

Michael:     Yeah, so that’s great. Can you give me an example of what that looks like? I mean, I love the shift when you go, “We need to master metrics. But here’s the thing. It’s about playing the game, not obsessing about the score.”

Karin:         Yeah.

Michael:     You know, I just listened to an archived interview with John Wooden, the famous basketball coach. You know, super successful. I mean, the best of the best. And his whole piece is around—it’s about how we’re playing the game. It’s not really about our win-loss record. But make this real for us. Give me an example of a really specific behaviour that might drive to a key metric that would matter to people.

Karin:         Yeah, so I’ll give you an example back from my sales days. I was leading a large sales team at Verizon Wireless. And it was right when we were first starting to sell the iPad out of the Verizon stores. And so my sales team had only sold phones before. Phones and accessories.

Like, they’re, “Nobody …” The mentality was, “Nobody’s going to want to come into a Verizon store and buy an iPad. That’s just not what they’re thinking of.”   Right? That was the negativity that I was hearing from my sales team. And so we came up with this idea and said, “Okay, well what’s the behaviour that will actually help to sell iPads?” And we determined that it was getting the iPad in the customer’s hands.

And so what we would say is, “Oh, while I ring you up, would you mind holding this for me?” And putting the iPad in the customer’s hands, right?

Or we would say, “Well why don’t you let little Susie watch, you know, SpongeBob on the iPad while I show you the phones?” And so you demonstrate by just very casually getting the iPad in the customer’s hands. And by just isolating that behaviour, what we found is we ended up leading the nation in iPad sales. But I wasn’t talking about the score. I was just talking about the behaviour. And if I was walking around into one of my stores and I didn’t see the iPads in people’s hands, I wasn’t saying, “Why are you only at 7% iPad sales?” I would say, “Why is the iPad not in the customer’s hands?”

Michael:     Yeah, I love that. That’s a great example. And I’m curious, because I’m, like, “Make this real for us.” And that’s a perfect way of doing that. Karin, I know you do—part of the work you do as a consultant is around helping call centers become more effective. So is there perhaps a similar example you can give me about, again, a key metric and something that’s a behaviour that might show up in a call center? Just as another example for us.

Karin:         Absolutely. So repeat calls—anybody who’s in the call center space knows the very worst thing that you can have happen for a customer experience is having the customer have to call back a second or third time to get their issue resolved.

And so what we were finding is that one of the behaviours that was creating—leading to repeat calls was that the service reps were not answering the call with confidence. And so the customer would call in and say, “Oh, this lady does not know what she’s doing.” Just because of the non-confident start and they would immediately hang up and dial back in to get somebody who they thought had better skills.

And so what we did was we isolated the behaviours and we really focused and said, “For the first ten seconds of the call, I want you to have a really confident start. I want your tone of voice to sound like this. I want your words to sound like this.” And we would give them several different openings and we would talk about tone of voice and just ten—the first—mastering the first ten seconds of the call. And then what we would do is we would listen and have these blitz days where we would just listen to the first ten seconds of reps’ calls. And if they had a confident start, we would come out and we’d say, “Thank you,” or we’d give them a balloon or give them some candy and we isolated the behaviour.

Michael:     Brilliant.

Karin:         We found that the repeat calls went down so dramatically. And once people had practiced that behaviour, then it became ingrained and they saw that it was successful and their metrics were improving and their stack ranking was improving. So they kept up the behaviour.

But first we had to practice and reinforce it.

Michael:     And how did you figure out that it was the lack of the confident tone in the first ten seconds that made the difference? Because that’s one of the challenges I find with metrics and behaviours is, like, actually picking the thing that makes the difference. Because I’ve had times where I’m, like, tracking 98 metrics. And I suddenly realize that I don’t care about any of them.

Karin:         Yeah.

Michael:     Because they feel important, but not really. So any insights around, how do you figure out what really matters?

Karin:         Yeah. So in this case what we did is—I’m always a firm believer in asking—first of all, asking the supervisors, the people who are living this day-to-day out—day in and day out and trying to coach to the—you know, to improve the numbers, what do they think is the metric or the behaviour that would really, really change the metric? That’s the first thing. It’s just, ask who’s—very likely they will know what it is.

Michael:     Right.

Karin:         And, you know, it wasn’t me who came up with, put the iPad in the customer’s hands, right? It was the guys on the floor who were watching their successful sales people, what was the difference between the people who were selling and those who were not? So that would be the first thing, is just to ask. And sit down in a room with your people and say, “Which are the main—which one or two behaviours really change the game?” And I ….

Michael:     And if I can jump in, Karin.

Karin:         Yeah.

Michael:     Because what you’re saying reminds me of the whole principle around change… called appreciative—no, positive— deviants, which is an interesting approach to change which is, within any system, when people are struggling there’s always a subgroup that is flourishing.

Karin:         Absolutely.

Michael:     So how do you figure out what they’re doing and then how do you get them to teach the others around them to say, “Hey, this is what I’m doing. It works. Try it out.”

Karin:         Yeah. Exactly.

Michael:     Sorry, I interrupted you. You had a second piece you wanted to say.

Karin:         No, I mean, I think that’s really true, looking for those positive deviants is important. Looking for the best practices. So, you’re right.

Michael:     Okay, so as I said at the start, you know, one of the things I like about this book is it starts philosophically. So it lays out kind of core principles, lays out the importance of metrics, which is again kind of principle-based. It’s, like, what really matters here? But then section three and section four are really quite tactical around going, “How do you …” Actually, section two as well. So, “How do you make stuff happen around here?” And I’m going to jump all the way to section four, which is close to the end of the book. And one of the chapters says this: “What if my boss doesn’t want to win and doesn’t care about their soul or mine?” Ah man, so we’ve all had that boss. So what do you—how do you manage when your—when part of you goes, “I just need to give up because my boss is a nightmare?”

Karin:         Yeah. So first of all, you know, don’t run away. You—because your boss will change. You will not have this boss forever. And so you can learn as much from a bad boss as you can from a good boss. And I know that sounds very Pollyanna, but I mean the truth is I’ve had some really bad bosses over the years. And I have found that in those circumstances, it really made me become very clear around my own leadership values and what I really wanted to accomplish as a leader. And so watch for the behaviours that you dislike and don’t emulate them.

Michael:     Right.

Karin:         Because the worst thing you could do is let them trickle down. Like, if you’ve got an intimidating boss, then turning around and intimidating your team, which I see happen all the time.

And then the second piece of it is, you will—if your results—if you are achieving really great, strong, breakthrough results, it is very likely that you will be allowed to manage like a decent human being because it’s working. And so if you can create a pocket of excellence and say, “I am not going to try to change the whole organization. I am just going to concentrate on leading my team and interacting with my peers the very best way I possibly can.” And if you’re balancing results and relationships, your results will improve. And so people will watch the fact that your results are improving and they will say, “Keep doing what you’re doing, because it’s working.”

Michael:     Nice. Karin, ridiculously enough, our time is almost done. So here’s what I want to ask you. We’ve barely scratched the surface on the book. But if you were, like, “Okay, this is the thing that people need to know. This is the key tactic that’s going to make all the difference.” I mean, I know it’s an impossible choice, but I’m putting you on the spot nonetheless. What’s the one thing that we haven’t talked about that you’re, like, I need to get this out there?

Karin:         The most important is to lead authentically, to be very, very clear on your own leadership values. Write them down. And how you want to show up as a leader. And work as hard as you can to do that consistently. And even if you don’t—even if you’re struggling with it one day, go back and try again the next day. Because, you know, great leadership really starts by being very, very clear on leading the way that you know will work and not succumbing to behaviours that you think others are demanding of you.

Michael:     Alright. I can’t let that go without asking you another question. So where do you find that insight about who you are and what are the core principles and the values by which you lead?

Karin:         Yeah, so I—there’s an exercise in the book which we call building a leadership credo. This is an exercise that I actually do with my MBA students as well. And I’ve had my MBA students come back and say it was one of the best things they experienced in their program. Because they actually had to think about, what do they value and write it down. What are their operating principles about? How do they want to show up?

And then what is their goal, you know, what is their goal for their leadership? And just, like, really reflecting on that. You’ve had enough interaction with other leaders to know what you like and what you don’t. But the act of writing it down and then taking it out from time to time and looking at it and being honest with yourself of how you’re doing can really make a difference. This is something that I actually did throughout my career at Verizon. And every time I would start a new job, I would pull out my credo and say, “Is it changed?” And over time it did for a while, and then, you know, after many years it’d start to say, no it pretty much is what it is at this stage.

Michael:     Right. Let me share with you, and others may have heard this from previous interviews, but I have a similar thing. I call it the This Not That list.

Karin:         Mm-hm.

Michael:     And it’s a combination of pairs of words. Like, eight or nine pairs of words about what I look like at my best, but also what I look like at my sub-optimal. Not at my worst, but when I’m just kind of playing small or I’ve kind of lost the sense of myself. So, you know, it would sound something like curious but not a know-it-all. Confident but not sycophantic.

Karin:         Nice.

Michael:     Playful, not too serious. And what I found was useful about that is it pointed not only to what I was aspiring to, but where I got a little stuck so that I could notice that and get out of it faster.

Karin:         Nice. I love that.

Michael:     Well on that perfect note, hooray. I want to finish the conversation with you. But Karin, I do want to say this. For people who want to find out more about your work or about the book, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul, where can they find you on the web?

Karin:         Yeah so my website is And you can actually download the first couple of chapters of the book for free at

Michael:     Brilliant. Karin, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you.

Karin:         Oh, thank you so much, Michael.

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