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Liz Wiseman on Rookie Smarts


Liz Wiseman is the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. She teaches leadership to executives and emerging leaders around the world and she’s the president and founder of the Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley … you’ll know many of their clients, Apple, Disney, eBay, Google, Microsoft. In this conversation we explore:

  • As a leader, is there a downside to knowledge?
  • Why feeling “legit” was a plateau for Liz
  • How digging into your “rookie mode” can help you stay fresh and keep learning


Is it possible to contribute value and insights even when you are under-qualified or doing something for the first time? Is it still possible, even after decades of experience, to recapture the freshness and fearlessness of youth to take on new challenges? Liz Wiseman and I discuss her book, some of the rookie mindsets, like Hunter/Gatherer and Firewalker, and how to thrive in rookie mode as well as support others.

If you are strapped for time, download it as a free podcast on iTunes and listen later or scroll below for extended notes.

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Full Transcript

Michael Bungay Stanier: So this is a world we’re living in at the moment when most of us feel overwhelmed by information. You can go on to LinkedIn, you can go on to Google, you can go to Facebook and there’s all these articles and videos and the like giving you ideas, giving you advice, giving you solutions. It’s a little easy to feel overwhelmed by that and also to feel that what I need to learn more, I need to be the expert in my field.

It’s an interesting conversation we’ve got lined up today. We’re talking to Liz Wiseman. She is the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. Let me tell you a little bit about Liz. She teaches leadership to executives and emerging leaders around the world and she’s the president and founder of the Wiseman Group. That’s a leadership research and development firm headquarter in Silicon Valley and you’ll know many of their clients, Apple, Disney, eBay, Google, Microsoft, lots of big names that are familiar.

Liz has also been listed on the Thinkers 50 ranking and named one of the top ten leadership thinkers in the world. So that’s high praise indeed. And that kudos comes from the three bestselling books that she’s written, The Rookie Smarts, the book she’s just come out recently that I just mentioned. The first book I got to know her by which is called Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. And then following on from that The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius inside Our Schools.

You may have come across Liz’s writing in things like the Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and the like. So she comes in with a wave of credibility behind her and that’s only reinforced by the fact that she was an executive at Oracle Corporation, where she worked over 17 years as vice president of Oracle University and global leader for HR development. So fantastic, I’m looking forward to Liz and Liz thanks for being on the call with us.

Liz Wiseman: Oh Michael, it’s my pleasure.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Liz anything I missed out in that introduction so that people have a sense of who you are and how you came to be here now talking about rookie smarts?

Liz Wiseman:  Oh no, no, boy that covered everything. It almost made me sound interesting to me. You know, I guess I would add one thing which is probably the hardest job that I’ve had through all of that is being a mom. I’ve got four kids and I spent a lot of years in an executive role, I spent a lot of time researching leadership. You know, I read, I write, I teach but I think I have learned as much if not more from my children about leadership.

Than I have from all of my research and all of my own experience. They’re a little Petri Dish for leadership, alright. Some people joke, that’s why I have four of them – trying to get a large sample size!

Michael Bungay Stanier:  Oh that’s nice. Well there’s certainly something about for all of us who have a stand on things about how work things work at work. If you can pull any of that off with the people you’re closest to in your family then you’re truly masterful at it. So I completely understand that. So you know, in many ways the study of leadership is about the study of expertise, of people claiming that mastery of a subject but you’ve taken it in a different direction. So what first hooked you into this whole idea of why the rookie mind-set is so important?

 Liz Wiseman: Well I think this research behind rookie smarts you know, very much like my first book Multipliers, it honestly it came out of my post Oracle therapy.

I had worked there for so many years and just worked around brilliant people and you know, my whole book multipliers was looking at why is it that sometimes really brilliant people and as leaders dumbing down everyone else around in an organization. In essence I was looking at what are some of the downsides of knowledge.

And can a leader’s own intelligence or knowledge get in his or her way and block them from seeing and using the genius of others. So that was kind of therapy session number 1. You know, having come out of this organization of brilliant people. But when I left Oracle and I ventured out on my own, to the dismay of many of colleagues who thought I was crazy for leaving this amazing company… this good gig, I had a good friend and he asked me this question. He said what’s the question that you’re holding this year.

I’m like it’s a really nice question. This came from my very good friend Dinesh Chandra and I thought a year’s a very long time to hold the question. So I thought okay well you know, here’s the question that I’ve got. I just come out of 17 years in the corporate world where I knew absolutely nothing in my first job and then as soon as I barely figured that out they throw me into another job where I know absolutely nothing about what I’m doing.

You know, I was 24 when I got asked to build and lead a corporate university for Oracle and my only qualification was that I had you know, recently been at a university. And so I had all these rookie experiences but you know fast forward 17 years, I wake up and I realize I kind of am legit now. For the first time I feel like I know what I’m doing and it was such a sinking feeling for me. I felt like I was on a plateau. It’s why I ended up leaving Oracle not because I didn’t like the company. It was because I didn’t like knowing what I was doing. So my question that I offered to my friend Dinesh is how does what we know get in the way of what we don’t know but need to learn.

For me it wasn’t supposed to be some poetic or even insightful question. It was just the little panic that I was having of wow as I go out on my own, what part of my experience is going to become a liability? And am I going to be so convinced that I know how to do something that I can’t build new skillsets because I had come out of the tech world. You know, the tech world is now spinning really, really fast which is causing all of our business cycles to spin really fast and we all feel it. We’re facing new problems every day and sometimes we don’t even get to tackle the same problem twice just when we figure that out.

The world shifts a little bit and we have a new toolset, and new players and I think I just reflected back on my own experience thinking you know, I feel like I was at my best actually when I didn’t know what I was doing. Because I don’t know somehow it puts you in this…You get the gift of disorientation perhaps.

Michael Bungay Stanier:   I like that. That’s a great metaphor. And you know what I’m hearing is actually two subtle things coming out here. One is the limitation as you said, in the subtitle why learning beats knowledge. So it’s a limitation of expertise and how that can – what you know now can shut off what you might know or what you might achieve in the future. But there’s also something to say and your expertise is going to be disrupted and you’re particularly close to it in that fast churning Silicon Valley World.

So not only is your expertise getting in the way but you know what, you will become a rookie at one stage. So you also need to know how to survive as a rookie as part of that.

Liz Wiseman: Well you know, and it’s funny. You know, as I was doing all this research studying how people without experience and the way I define it rookie is simply someone regardless of age you know, be they 25 or 65 years old or beyond someone who is doing something hard and important and we’re doing it for the first time. You know they’re facing a big challenge and a steep learning curve.

And as I’ve studied scenarios where I looked at how rookies performed particular pieces of work versus that trend so people with years of example I got this sense that they were sort of rookies and veterans.

And I realized that’s really the long way to look at it. In today’s reality we’re all rookies.

The question really is do we continue to operate with what I call rookie smarts? Meaning the way that we tend to think and act when we have a big challenge and a steep learning curve. Because we find that in this mode, again regardless of age, we tend to operate in really predictable and powerful ways.

Michael Bungay Stanier: So one of the – as you unfold this in the book, and you talk about this insight that rookies bring to it often because they know no better, a number of ways of operating that are often countered to kind of conventional ways of working. You actually frame up four different kinds of modes and mind-sets that rookies can have and they’re the backpacker, the hunter/gatherer, the fire walker and the pioneer. So they’re all kind of aspirational titles. Maybe you can give us a sense of what those four different modes are? I’m wondering if there is one of those modes that is particular kind of – do you have a favourite mode? I mean I know it’s like kind of pick a monster for children but it’s like it’s one of the ways we go let me tell you about this mode because it’s particular great.

Liz Wiseman: Well you know, honestly I do have a favourite amongst my four children.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  [Laughs] and they listen to this podcast even as we speak.

Liz Wiseman: [Laughs] Yeah, no I can say these kinds of things because I know they don’t listen to any of it. You know, in fact I can do all sorts of trash talk and they would never know.

Michael Bungay Stanier: That’s good.

Liz Wiseman: But I actually heard someone I think it was a broadcast journalist say that she goes yeah I have a favourite child, we all do, we all know there’s one you would rescue first in the fire. I just I had thought that was funny and maybe a bit revealing. But, they are all my favourite these ways that they work but —

Michael Bungay Stanier: What taught you that firewalker because I love the metaphor. You know, contrast fire walker to marathoner and you know what I think it’s such an insightful comparison because I know for many of us, work feels like a bit of a marathon. You know, it’s an endless charge. You know we keep going, we keep going, we keep going the finish line always feels so far away. But you’re saying something else. You’re saying the firewalker approach. So tell us a bit more about being the fire walker?

Liz Wiseman: Well you know, Michael it’s interesting you chose that because that metaphor certainly is my favourite that you know, when we know what we’re doing we know how hard it is. So we know to pace ourselves. You know, I did run a marathon, I ran it at 40 which I realize is very trite, a very trite time to run a marathon. But one of my friends who was a multi-time kind of marathoner triathlete, he told me how important it was to pace myself.

You know, and then I get started. So I’m in a rookie marathon, I’m doing it for the first time. Do you think I pace myself? Of course I didn’t. I got convinced that I was this –you know, that I could actually take the 40 to 50 years old age range or whatever. You know, because I had turned 40 literally a week before the marathon — I thought wow I’m actually the youngest person in my category. Maybe I can win. So all of my framing, all of the advice gone. I think I took a minute or two off my mile time for the first half.

And yet you know, as I get back to sort of midway point through the marathon I’m like okay, I’m done. Like that was fun. And then the latter half was hard. What we find is that rookies don’t tend to pace themselves. They tend to be sprinting. You know, when we have experience, we know how hard it is so we distribute our effort. We pace ourselves and we can very easily start to plot along. Not paying attention to what’s going around us, not necessarily even competing. We find that when we’re in this rookie mode and again I want to emphasize it’s not about being 24 years old. It’s the way we tend to think and work when we are in a little bit of a panic.

And we’re facing something hard and important. The data came back as I studied with my research team how people operate, I got this very confusing data. We found that in this mode we’re extremely cautious, bordering on paranoid.

Like how am I doing, what’s going on. How is it going? Am I doing it right? You know, am I going to be able to form? And but we found that we’re also really really fast.

That we move fast when we don’t know what we’re doing and it’s not because we don’t – we have skills. It’s because we’re a little bit desperate. And I think that the best learning happens when we’re just a little bit desperate.

And so we’re going to this heightened learning. So we’re cautious but we’re quick. And as I looked at this, it’s the way that someone would walk across hot coals, very aware that they’re doing something dangerous and that it can go wrong but man do you move fast because you don’t want to get burned. You know there are no such thing as hot coal standards.

There’s only hot cold walkers. Because you’ve got to move fast in order to not get burned. And we find this mode that we operate in thin slices lean and agile trying something out, getting feedback, making mistakes and correcting them. We operate in the ways that so many companies are trying to operate to be able to innovate and to be nimble.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  Well that reminds me of the whole process of kind of rapid iteration around that whole innovation mind-set which is move fast, keep trying stuff but keep seeking feedback. The way you frame caution is actually a way of kind of probing out to get that kind of immediate feedback from the environment and from people around you . It’s just why is it wrong? Okay if it is, great move ahead if it’ not adjust and move down a different path. So I really like that link you made to what successful innovation processes to the mind-set of the rookie there.

Liz Wiseman: Yeah. And it’s easy once we know what we’re doing to stop doing that and to say I know how to do it. To go off in our cave to invent something and to come out and maybe it’s wrong. Maybe it’s arrogant and narcissistic but maybe it’s just old. That meanwhile while you’ve been in your cave inventing something, the world has changed.

And it’s no longer needed. It’s no longer fit for use.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  Yeah. I mean this reminds me very much of how can you make the connection beforehand but as soon as you got into this conversation, it’s a slap of the bleedingly obvious. The second book I wrote is called Do More Great Work and we set off this comparison between good work and great work. Good work where every day you get things done type of job, great work that work that stretches you, that grows you that is more strategic often a bit more innovative. And just that tension between those two worlds. Whereas the good work is more comfortable and more familiar and pretty much of what you talk about I think in the veteran mind-sets that you lay out. But the great work is much more that rookie world where you step out and do the edge of yourself, the edge of your knowledge, the edge of your capacity and go woo, a bit scary out here but great things are possible from here.

Liz Wiseman: It really is and I think in this –you know, what I found in essence from this research is that when we’re new to something our learner’s advantage kicks in and in this process of seeking and reaching we tend to do our best thinking and we tend to do our best work. It is the zone from which great thinking and great work tends to come.

But I would also say that clearly what I found in this research is that there are some disasters that come in this rookie space, this realm.

Michael Bungay Stanier:   Fantastic. Because I wanted to ask you about what’s the dark side of this kind of rookie mind-set? So take us there.

Liz Wiseman: Yeah. Well the dark side that’s a fun way of looking at it. Well first and foremost, I should clarify that where it tends to prompt great work is in the knowledge world. You know, where the world is changing fast. You know, some of the research I did for the book I looked at what was happening in the stem fields.

And given the rate that information is coming at us faster and that information is also becoming obsolete, I put a few data points together and I found that if you work in any field that is technology related or infused about 15% of what you know today. So that’s not 5-0. That’s 1-5. 15% of what you know today is likely to be relevant in five years.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Oh my goodness. I thought you were going to go the other way saying 15% will now become redundant. But you’re saying 85% of what you know will be redundant.

Liz Wiseman:  It is and what’s even scarier if that’s not bad enough I don’t know which 15% it is for me.  You know, like what part of this do I hold on to? That’s in the knowledge industry and particularly things that are fuelled by tech and scientific innovation that is speeding up. Now in the physical world, the world of bridge building, the world of concerts , violin performances.

Obviously experience trumps inexperience. You know, you don’t need my research to know this. You know, there’s no one who wants a rookie dentist or surgeon or flight instructor. You don’t want to strap yourself to a first timer and go okay let’s jump. It will be great.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  In fact you have a pretty chilling story in the book about a novice pilot with a novice pilot instructor flying together which ended up in disaster I can remember.

Liz Wiseman:  Yeah it did. It was this confluence of rookie conditions.

So where it tends to be disastrous, where there’s only one way to do something. You know, if there aren’t multiple paths, you probably want to put someone with experience on that. When a single mistake means game over — you know, like a pilot situation like that, you know, not being able to stabilize at the end. It was that Korean air flight that landed in SFO a few years back. You know, that’s going to be a disaster.

But where rookies tend to be brilliant is when there’s too much for any one person to know. When the world is changing fast. When you need to step back and ask questions rather than jump in with ready answers. When there’s a lot of ambiguity. Actually this is where rookies do well because and this is where they go into that hunter/gatherer mode which is —

Michael Bungay Stanier:  Right. You just set one of the four mind-sets. Yeah.

Liz Wiseman:  It is. It’s another one of my favourite of the children so to speak. Is we find that when people lack –you know, I think it’s so funny. All of our conceptions we have about newcomers, you know, one of them is this idea that newcomers bring in new ideas. And the truth is newcomers don’t really bring in new ideas. Newcomers greatest value comes from the fact that they bring in no ideas.

You know, like they’re coming in empty and you know, because they come in empty, it puts them in this asking, seeking mode and we find that if you put an experienced person on a problem you get one person’s experience. But if you put an intelligent rookie on a problem, they’ll bring in on average five times the amount of experience.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  That’s interesting.

Liz Wiseman:  Yeah so there’s this kind of multiplier of expertise and they go out. They ask a bunch of people and then they have to reconcile which is how we get really smart in this this rookie mode. So those are some of the dark places. Some of the brighter places for rookie and I would say that leadership matters a lot.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  What do you mean by that?

Liz Wiseman: You know, if you just throw a rookie out there on something important and hard, —

Michael Bungay Stanier: Right they sink.

Liz Wiseman: They do sink. You know, they’re kind of sink or swim and they need a very delicate kind of coaching. They –you know, probably the most important thing they know – they need is to be told that they’re in a rookie space.

Like hey you know what, Liz, we’re putting you on this because you’ve never done it before. But we think you’re smart and you’re capable and you’re going to figure this out. So go ahead and like go into your rookie mode. Ask, experiment, you know, get feedback fast. Go ahead and be scrappy and improvise.

Question everything. So they need permission to be in that rookie kind of mode.

Michael Bungay Stanier: And kind of some foundational support around that as well which is that whole insight about creativity is parameters are what allow creativity to flourish. And it sounds what you’re saying is not necessarily parameters around the challenge that the rookie and the rookie team is facing. But just parameters around this is the way we will give you support here. We’re not going to let you wander off into the desert and never see you again. You know, we’ll provide that form of support for you.

Liz Wiseman: Absolutely and I think it does come in very clear boundaries and I think this is one where my experience as a parent and if you’re listening and are a parent you know this. Is that the younger that your kids are the more you give them bounded choices and boundaries are critical for actually not keeping people safe but letting people know how far they can go and how far they can explore.

So one of the most important things a manager needs to do is provide really clear direction. Not telling them what to do but telling them – not telling them how to do but telling them what to do. An officer in the Navy that was in my research he said you know, rookies are all thrust no vector.

Which I thought was brilliant.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  It is brilliant. That’s funny.

Liz Wiseman: Yeah and it’s like they’ll go really rapidly take the wrong hill. You guess that people in the navy don’t take hills but —

Michael Bungay Stanier: [Laughs] that’s why you’re not a rookie because they’re trying to take a hill and they’re in the navy. They’ve really got it wrong.

Liz Wiseman:  Right. So this is where you know, as a leader, like let someone know that they’re in a rookie assignment. Tell them to get their rookie on. Give them clear directions like hey you know what, this is the hill that we need you to go take.

And then size the challenge right. Something that’s uncomfortable, that involves a steep learning curve but something that they can tackle, something that they can you know, ascend up this curve. Often when someone is really knew in the role, we need to just give them a bite sized micro challenge something they —

Michael Bungay Stanier:  Sure.

Liz Wiseman:  -take on in two weeks.

Michael Bungay Stanier: I love that.

Liz Wiseman:  It’s a good rule of thumb.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  Well Liz, I mean some people have rookiness thrust upon them either because of their age or they’ve been –you know, things have shifted and suddenly they’re in that new space but there will be some people listening to this conversation going you know, honestly I feel like a veteran, I feel like an expert, I feel established. I feel like I’m doing a lot of good work not necessarily a lot of great work.

If you’re seeking to kind of reclaim the rookie mind-set to go some sort of renewal process, is there anything you can suggest to try and shake you out of that from wearing the heavy mantel of expertise?

Liz Wiseman:  Well yeah there really are. Now do you want the easy way or the hard way?

Michael Bungay Stanier:   I would like an easy way and a hard way, please.

Liz Wiseman:  Okay. So I’ll start with the hard way. I think the hard way is to condition yourself and you know ironically a lot of the book kind of covers something of the things that I consider the hard way. They’re important but they’re hard. Is to condition ourselves to continue to think and act like rookies.

You know, some of the things that you can do in this space is throw away your notes. You know, things that you’ve come to rely on standard speeches, agendas, templates for quarterly operations reviews things that have you stuck in a rut.  Toss one or two out and reinvent something or go into a meeting and ask the questions instead of offering the answers.

Make an I don’t know list. Things that you don’t know that you need to understand. Let somebody else take a lead. You know, maybe instead of being the leader, maybe you’re in a rut because you’ve been leading for a lot of years. Maybe you take a follower position on some projects and you let someone else lead. Maybe you reverse the mentoring. Now these are the things you can do to continue to think and act like rookie but I’ll give you the easy way.

Michael Bungay Stanier:   Yes, please. [Laughs]

Liz Wiseman:  The easy way is maybe it’s just easy for me because it’s what’s been thrust upon me my whole career. Is simply to disqualify yourself. To take a job that you’re not fully qualified for.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  I love that. I mean it’s really – it’s actually a great word. What I read in the book I – it resonated for me which is that you know eliminate your easy options and leave yourself the rookie option.

Liz Wiseman: Because what happens is when we say yes to a job that’s a size or two too big and we are aware that we’re a little out of our league all those rookie smarts will naturally kick in. Because we once knew how to do this.  And it will happen. So I think the hard way is to kind of condition your mind. I think the easy way is to just say yes to something hard and those rookie smarts will tend to follow. Now the trick is is when you’re in the situation where people around you aren’t willing to give you new and hard things to do and sometimes you have to go and advocate for ourselves.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Uh-hum. Yeah. I love this and Liz you know, I’m noticing the time our time is all but up and of course we’ve just – we’ve really only just touched on some of the great insights in the book. We haven’t talked about three of the four mind-sets. So all of that is a great encouragement for folks who are listening to go maybe I need to go and pick up this book rookie smarts by Liz Wiseman, Why Learnings Beast Knowing in the New Game of Work. Liz before we go and firstly thank you very much for your time. It’s a great conversation. Where can people find out more about you, your books and the Wiseman group if people are curious?

Liz Wiseman:   Oh you know, I think if you go to the, there’s stuff there about our firm. There’s a little bio on me. And or you can go to and there’s all sorts of resources. You can meet some of the people in the book. There is a fun little quiz are you in the learning zone.

You’ll get a little information of are you perhaps in the performance zone doing what you’ve been doing for a long time? Are you in the learning zone or maybe you kind of – are you revving way too fast, too far out into the rookie zone? That’s kind of fun.

Michael Bungay Stanier:   Nice.

Liz Wiseman: And there’s just a whole bunch of tools and resources for learning.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  Great. And you do a great newsletter as well which I subscribe to. So I would encourage people to sign up for that as well.

Liz Wiseman:  Oh thank you or you could follow me on Twitter. I try to tweet out leadership strategies, simple little easy things that people can do to lead like a multiplier and to really execute like a rookie.

Michael Bungay Stanier:  And is @LizWiseman?

Liz Wiseman:  @LizWiseman very simple.

Michael Bungay Stanier:   Perfect. Liz it’s been a pleasure.

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