The Coaching Habit Podcast

The Coaching Habit Podcast

The best strategies for leading yourself and others by tapping into the wisdom of thinkers, leaders, writers and coaches.

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Mark C. Thompson on Scaling Yourself & Your Organization

Meet Mark C. Thompson, founder of Sir Richard Branson’s entrepreneurship centres, New York Times bestselling author and executive coach. He’s part of countless impressive projects, and is a faculty member at the World Economic Forum and a member of the Clinton Initiative. But what you may find most interesting about Mark is that he understands that “business as usual” is essentially dead and buried. As leaders, we need to be the instigators of our own change.

In this fascinating conversation, Mark outlines:

  • How to find your mojo, and rethink about how to grow.
  • Why you can’t scale a business any faster than you can scale yourself.
  • The secret to success and creating a life that matters.

Listen in now, or bookmark it here to listen to later. And don’t forget to rate it on iTunes.


Also mentioned in this podcast:

Full Transcript

Michael: Yes, this is The Coaching Habit Podcast. Yes, I am Michael Bungay Stanier. Yes, I have an awesome guest for you today. It is Mark C. Thompson. If you have followed the world of entrepreneurism, of keynote speaking, of the work that I’m lucky enough to be associated with the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches, you may know Mark Thompson.

If you don’t, let me introduce some of his cool background. He is and was the founder of Sir Richard Branson’s entrepreneurship centers and acts as an advisor to Virgin Unite Entrepreneurs. He was part of and ran in the early days of the internet where there was basically Amazon and and maybe four other websites.

He is a founding advisor to the Stanford Real Time Venture design Lab. He’s a visiting scholar at his alma mater, Stanford University, and has been a faculty at The World Economic Forum and World Business Forum, a member of The Clinton Initiative. This is something else that he and I share in common is as an executive coach for TED Fellows as well.

He’s New York Times bestselling author and executive coach, a venture capitalist. How lucky are we to have Mark as a guest today? So Mark, welcome.

Mark Thompson: It’s so great to be here and you really inspire so many people that you touch, Michael. I think that as people listen to this podcast and as they’ve had the opportunity and privilege to listen to you on stage you’re making a big impact on peoples’ lives, so thank you for doing the work that you come to be called to.

Michael: As you hear, I’ve primarily brought Mark on to make me feel good, but we’re also going to find out ways where Mark is having impact in the world. Mark, you’ve had a really interesting journey, touched many different things, been on the cutting-edge of lots of different things, but now in 2017, 2018 what’s the focus of your work these days? What impact are you seeking to have?

Mark Thompson: Well, I’m finding that everyone is going through this huge, swirling period of change in their personal lives, in their professional lives. Do you know anybody who’s kind of doing business as usual?

Michael: Right.

Mark Thompson: I don’t know anybody.

Michael: I don’t know what business as usual even is anymore.

Mark Thompson: Exactly. Right. Anyone here not going through any sort of remarkable change at the office?

Michael: Right.

Mark Thompson: Has anybody not been facing maybe even a crucible or an existential crisis, or something that’s really changing the game?

Michael: Right.

Mark Thompson: I’ve been excited to be on the edge of that crazy world having been a part of, out of Silicon Valley. I’m a Silicon Valley kid who saw this valley turn from orchards into a space program, and I’ve been on moon missions ever since. It really kind of inspired me to think about how could we be the leaders of our own change? How could we drive change before it runs us over, right?

Before it makes decisions for us. As coaches, you and I, and those who have been really called to this idea of being able to empower others, the privilege we have is everybody listening to this program has got an expertise, they’ve got a role that they’re playing in the world with their family, their community, and their office. They’re trying to find their way through change. They’re trying to embrace those changes, and what we call in business, scale up the business quickly, grow their career.

I found as a coach you just can’t scale a business any faster than you can scale yourself, so the journey that I’ve gone on has been to actually join the disrupters, or be the disrupter, rather than be the disrupted. I started out in the Valley watching the space program take off. It’s amazing how that’s still considered one of the mother of all mission statements, right?

Michael: Right.

Mark Thompson: Put a person on the moon by the end of the decade, really darn clear. It’s a approach that I use in my coaching to think through how to help people have their own mission statement, their own vision for the future. What I do is I help individuals and organizations find that mojo and find a way through this wild and wacky change environment.

Michael: I love the phrase that you offered up, which is your organization can’t scale any faster than you scale yourself. Tell me more about that.

Mark Thompson: Yeah. Yes. Well, what I found is that we have in our personal lives and in our professional lives, and in the companies that we have, we’re trying to grow quickly. We’re trying to grow in circumstances of outrageous change.

I remember having the opportunity to work with Chuck Schwab, Charles Schwab and company in the early days. He was thinking about, “How can I bring a better deal, a fairer deal, a more ethical deal than we often would see on Wall Street?” There’s been a certain amount of controversy in that industry over the years.

Michael: Right. No kidding.

Mark Thompson: He was one of the original disrupters. He basically said, “Can I create the most useful and ethical financial services firm? Can I touch people 24/7?” In other words, be there when they need to be helped. “Can I do that? Can I touch them at home? Could I touch them on the line? Could I have a trusted person to go to?”

These were all ways that that company tried to scale. It wanted to grow by being able to be in a person’s life and be a trusted colleague and partner in all the different ways that that customer wanted to do business with you.

The challenge always is how do we as individuals think about how to grow? How do we think about how to rise to the next level of what our vision might take us to? I’ve been on this lifelong mission of talking to successful people about how they scaled up the work that they do, and how they found the mojo in themselves and found the inspiration to try to make a better life for themselves and others.

Michael: Is it a starting point for scaling yourself that kind of mission and vision piece? You’ve mentioned it a couple of times. Is that where you go to initially to help people see that, or do you go somewhere else?

Mark Thompson: Well, I found that people will tend to set goals a little bit too soon, that we will often set goals based on what we think we should do for ourselves, what our parents or our colleagues might’ve thought would be good for us, or what we grew up thinking was the appropriate thing to do.

It’s easy to get kind of the goals set. When you’re thinking about those New Year’s resolutions, how often do those work out for you?

Michael: Yeah. Like on a good day, never.

Mark Thompson: Yeah. I can come up with a great list of those. One of the things is we realize in the work that I do is I help people start to think about what’s actually worked for them in the past? How have they grown in the pas? How have they gotten scale in the past? What are the things that they’ve done that they’re the proudest of that they’ve been able to actually get done? Look at those as a way to start to read the tea leaves for a better future.

One of the things that we found with extremely high achievers, we interviewed people as diverse as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, but also the Dalai Lama and other people who had had huge impact in their field profession. People who were artists, sports leaders, academic leaders, people in the sciences, Nobel Laureates.

When we did that work for Success Built to Last, we found is that they always focused on creating a life that matters. In other words, first taking a look at what has really mattered to you most about your greatest achievements, or the moments that you’re most proud of? Because usually when we’re asked to look at our values and our goals we put down a fairly political correct list.

Michael: Right. Exactly. Like motherhood, apple pie, integrity.

Mark Thompson: Yes!

Michael: And you’re like, one of those… you can’t argue against any of those.

Mark Thompson: Yeah. No, I’m not in favor of any of those, right?

Michael: Right. But my bet – and to your point – is almost never are those core values that really drive a sense of identity and vision and the impact that people are wanting to have in the world.

Mark Thompson: Yeah. Exactly. What happens is that the person who’s setting the goals is not the person who does them.

Michael: There’s a great distinction. I love that.

Mark Thompson: In the neuroscience of this it was often described as being left or right brained. Now, it turns out that at the many great brain centers, like Stanford, looking at neuroscience, it’s not just so easily distinguished between the left and right brain, but basically it’s true. The left brain has a great sense of organization. It’s the one that has the skills to write down that list of goals that you don’t do and those values that don’t really drive you.

Michael: I love that.

Mark Thompson: But it has the power of language. The right brain, that has the power of behaviors and actions is not fluent in its speaking capacity. It’s not that we’re necessarily lying to ourselves or others. It’s just that we’re asking the person who’s not doing the work to do the work.

What we need to do is look first at what were those proudest moments? What were the things about those that mattered the most to you? We found when we looked globally at trying to find the definition of success among the world’s highest achievers we found that the secret to success was to find and create a life that matters to you. Not necessarily to others, but that is uniquely firing up in three important capacities in your life.

We found that everyone who had been successful for at least 20 years or more had three ways of defining success, and maybe I should just go through those quickly because it gives a little bit of a frame of reference.

Michael: Yeah, perfect. I’d love that.

Mark Thompson: I don’t think you’ll find any of them frighteningly different from what you’ve heard, but the definitions are actually quite specific. A lot of people talk about having a compelling purpose, having passion, and then being focused on performance, but what we found is that high achievers defined those three things entirely differently. They are unique and discrete drivers of high achievement and a sense of meaning in one’s life.

Purpose would be perhaps best characterized by being connected with something greater than ourselves, a community, a customer, a market, a way of life. It’s something that we are a part of but that we are not only going to be benefiting from, that it is something you could describe even as your legacy.

Michael: Nice.

Mark Thompson: It would be a part of who you are, but it’s really about what we’re doing together. That sense of purpose and defining that purpose. It’s something that goes forever, so it’s not ever something in a sense, like the second piece, which would be performance. It’s never done. A purpose is never completely done, but performance we found that all of the high achievers were also connected with a sense of high performance around delivering on their promises and setting expectations around what they’re going to deliver to the world and for themselves.

Frankly, that most people who get engaged with something that’s powerful for the long-term will feel a sense of wanting to try to win at that. It’s something that you feel like you want to do, that when you fail you’re resilient, that when you try this and aren’t good at it the first time you don’t use it as an excuse not to continue.

Michael: Right. You can see how that connection between purpose and performance is a… It drives resilience because you know what you’re trying to do, you know whether you’re succeeding and failing, and you know that you’re playing the bigger game, which allows you to go, “It’s worth getting back up off the floor and trying again.”

Mark Thompson: Right. One of the things I find in my coaching, and one of the ways that I find that people get out of balance, is when they index maybe one direction or the other too far. It’s one of the things. We talk about balance often being an equal distribution of maybe community, family, and work, but that’s not how we found high achievers really though about balance in terms of what drives them, that they needed to make sure that they were always reconnecting with the why, the purpose. How am I going to have larger impact? Then, the sense of performance. Well, that ought to be specific to the purpose rather than having to win at everything.

Michael: Right.

Mark Thompson: Which are things that you and I as coaches help coach people off the cliff of.

Michael: Right. Exactly.

Mark Thompson: As Marshall would say, “You don’t have to win at going , ‘which restaurant?'” or maybe how our spouse dresses tonight.

Michael: Exactly, which is good because my spouse always wants to go to the same restaurant that she loves. I always lose that battle, so I’ve learned it over time.

Mark Thompson: And you’ve decided that you want to be with the spouse that you still love.

Michael: Yeah. Exactly. That’s exactly right. What’s the third element, Mark?

Mark Thompson: Well, the third element is surprisingly not embedded in the other two fully. It’s passion. What we found was that there are those things that drive you, that you care about, that you find yourself thinking about that aren’t necessarily about winning or about a higher purpose.

I think sometimes that’s the other thing that gets out of balance, that drives us a little bit nuts, is we think that’s being selfish. We think that having this quiet time or this extroverted time, that having this activity that just feeds us, and not for any outward purpose or highfalutin cause, or even to points on the board… We found that high achievers had that also as a part of this three pillars of their equanimity and their happiness was that they were willing to pursue what we called a portfolio of passions.

I think that’s the other thing that often gets people out of balance. When you’re trying to perform, to deliver on a purpose we often get obsessive about one thing, and we have to. We have to work hard on it, but it’s so critical to realize that there are other passions in your life beyond that main obsession. We found that we almost never found a person who was just a one passion person.

Michael: Right, right.

Mark Thompson: That it’s important to find out what those are and to explore them, and realizing that you get a whole dimension of healing and benefit from recognizing what those things are. It could be a half a dozen other things that you need, that feed you, that need to be built into your schedule, that need to be a part of your life.

For some people that might be family or it might be going to dinner with your spouse, or it might be playing cards or writing books, but to… We take people through a process where they think about these three different dimensions of their life and apply them to the what’s next in their life.

Michael: If you can write a book about playing cards with your spouse then you’ve got all three knocked off in a single thing, which is perfect.

Mark Thompson: Exactly. That’s where we found… Actually your point is right on because we were really fascinated with what created super success that is high achievement for a 20 year period. We found it’s when all three are clicking.

Michael: Nice.

Mark Thompson: When it’s hard to distinguish between the why or the purpose, and the passion and the performance, that’s when you get the great actor or the Nobel Laureate whose…or you get the Jane Goodall who was willing to sit with the chimps in the wilderness for endless hours to understand every nuance of their humanity. Because that was as much a passion as it was the way she wanted to serve the world and the way that she wanted to win at communicating that the ecosystem and that these primates were our nearest brothers.

We saw this over and over again where all three were driving their life and that people would have a portfolio of passions. I saw this with Richard Branson, has a big portfolio.

Michael: Right.

Mark Thompson: You see someone like Oprah who has actually a rather large portfolio of passions. It has to do with serving the world, it has to do with, you know, showing that a way of life or a way of thinking should be popular, so she works for popularity, but then she knows how to feed herself from a sense of passion.

Michael: I love it. Mark, let me shift the focus away from this wonderful model and tools and shine the spotlight on you because one of the things that I hypothesize about people who have got to a certain point is that there have been kind of crossroad moments in their lives, moments where they’ve come and they made a decision to go left or go right, go this way, to say no to this, to say yes to that that’s made all the difference.

I’m always curious to know what those critical moments are, those peak moments. For you, as you think back on your interesting and varied career, have there been any kind of crossroad moments that have really shaped the journey you’ve been on and the person you’ve become?

Mark Thompson: Many times. I think that we find that if you can explore both the pain and the passion that you have it can be a huge unlock. For both Bonita, my wife who’s also my coauthor and a researcher at University of Pennsylvania Wharton, she does work on career strategy, and I being based at Stanford, have been focused really on this, how do you scale yourself and scale an organization? Where we’ve come together was that in each of our lives we had a moment where there was this crucible or this threat that we realized helped us identify a deeper sense of passion and purpose.

For me, my father wasn’t around in my late teens. I had to really support a family and work as a janitor at night, go to public school during the day, and help keep a roof over our heads. That’s a long story, but the short of it was I realized that we as individuals would have to come to our own rescue. It gave me this fascination with the fact that we have to start with what we believe in and realize how we can connect with others and serve the world. Sometimes that’s best identified from when you feel that what’s most important to you is threatened.

Michael: Right.

Mark Thompson: And so I when I went on a journey to… When I wrote my first book, Success Built to Last, the reason I was crazy about this idea of lasting success not short-term success, and meaningful success, not superficial success, is because I’d just been hurt too much. I wanted success that lasted ten years, 20 years. I wanted to have a sense of passion, purpose that would last a lifetime. I didn’t want to settle for anything less. That was a transformational moment.

For Bonita, her brother, her older brother, died at 21. He was a kid who as a teen was already biking to NASA here in Silicon Valley, and a savant, a genius. For her, the biggest cost there, in addition to this being a family member, was just all the incredible contribution that was lost because he couldn’t continue to serve a full life. We both became very much committed to this idea, how could we create a sense of meaning and success for ourselves and those around us that was lasting? How could we create a life that matters? I’m confident that’s how we both ended up being coaches.

Michael: I love that. That’s a great story. Thanks for sharing it. I appreciate it. Now, again, it’s another hypothesis of mine that at a certain point it’s not that we need to keep learning new things, but in some ways what we need to do is keep learning the same damn lesson over and over and over again.

Mark Thompson: Yeah.

Michael: You know, as I’ve got a little older and maybe, allegedly, a little wiser, and I look at myself, I go, “Gosh, I’ve got a few patterns I just keep playing out.” I master one version of that pattern and it just shows up in a slightly different way. That’s my work is to keep working on that, whatever it might be. I’m curious for you as you’ve created success that lasts what’s the hard lesson you’ve had to learn along the way? Or maybe the hard lesson you keep having to learn?

Mark Thompson: I think that the most important lesson when I think long-term about finding success and meaning has been to realize that we share a human experience with others that allows us to get really fed by observing people, that if you want to find yourself, serve others. If you want to find yourself, look at those things that you find yourself daydreaming about and that you find yourself returning to.

One of the things to check in with yourself on is whether you really are finding a sense of purpose, passion, and something that you can make progress at. One of the things that makes us terribly frustrated is when we don’t feel like we’re making progress. It might be progress that’s self-determined, but if you could feel like you’re making a little bit of progress each day I think that’s probably one of the things that helps us feel connected and makes it feel like it’s worth showing up for what we do.

Then, finally, I’d say that this idea of service, there’s nothing that feeds you more than getting that feedback as you mentioned earlier about someone’s listening to your podcast and there was a shred of an insight.

Michael: Yeah. Right.

Mark Thompson: I met Maya Angelou years ago when I was doing my original interviews. I went out to her home and met her, and didn’t realize she was a six foot tall beautiful Amazon. I met her when she was 75, had this deep, rich voice that you could hear from outside the house when I was approaching.

Michael: Wow.

Mark Thompson: This incredible spirit. She talked about how we’re being given all these incredible senses, the sense of feeling and smell and deeper senses of being able to love. She said that if we decide to do anything short of just living full-out that it’s almost like we’re not thankful to our creator. Not thankful for the life that we have, and that the most grateful thing we could do for the life that we’ve been given is to serve others and to live life full-out.

Michael: Yeah.

Mark Thompson: And it’s so easy to forget that because you get in the weeds, right? You get tactical.

Michael: Right.

Mark Thompson: You get cheap. You get superficial. You’re annoyed about going to that same restaurant again.

Michael: Exactly, and then, I mean, somebod put this a different way to me, which is like you’re dead a lot longer than you’re alive.

Mark Thompson: Yeah. Yeah.

Michael: So you’ve got to make the most of it, whether you believe in a higher power or not. This is your one and precious life, so how do we make the most of that while we’re here?

Mark Thompson: Exactly. That has been I think the biggest thing to realize, that when I had a journey where I went out because I had had trauma in my early life, went out to try to meet people who had been achieving lasting success. I would always hungrily go ask. I remember sitting with Jeff Bezos. This was at the turn of the century. This was in the 90s when he was just having his initial frustrating successes at Amazon.

Before he started consuming the world. I said, “So, what’s your secret to success?” He looked at me and he says, “You just don’t get it, do you? You don’t achieve success by copying or just trying to mirror the artifacts of somebody else’s life, that we have to live our own lives. That the biggest challenge is figuring out you, figuring out what drives you, what you are passionate about, what you do like to win at, what has hurt you most in your life that you could turn into a sense of higher purpose that you want to serve in this world.” That’s the big challenge is not trying to copy others. That’s going to be endless envy and disappointment. We see a lot of that around us.

Michael: And seeking a silver bullet that doesn’t exist. I remember hearing Seth Godin talking, being asked, “When you write your book, Seth, what pens and paper or technology do you use?” He’s like, “You know what? I’m not going to tell you because it just doesn’t matter. If you’re creating you use the tools that help you create. Whether I use a pencil or a pen, or a yellow pad or a pink pad, who cares?” It’s like, find your path. Don’t think my path is your path, and that’s what your point is too.

Mark Thompson: Right, right. I think we don’t probably spend enough time trying to unpack what that means. As people think about having an opportunity to live a full life, what’s the most satisfying thing you’ve ever done in the past? What was the most terrible moment you ever had in the past, and why was it terrible People will look at me strange, but I’ll say that. Saying, “Well, it should be obvious.” Well, but what value was violated that you can now serve? What was about that that you now could lean into? Because both the hard points and the gifts in our lives can be used as a direction to find out what matters to us most.

Michael: Mark, for people who want to lean into your work, to find out more about who you are, what you’re do in this world, because it’s been a great conversation but I bet it’s just whet peoples’ appetite, where can they find out about you? A website, a Twitter. Whatever you want to point them to.

Mark Thompson: Sure. Well, I’ve done three major books that might be of interest for the range of the conversation that we’ve had. They could be found at my website, which is just my full name, On those you’ll see work around three areas.

One of them we talked about today was Success Built to Last: Creating a Life that Matters, which is the journey of high achievers and what we can learn about ourselves from the ability to have a life that is filled with meaning and a sense of purpose. I also did a book that just helped people figure out how to run a business. And I realize this is a public podcast, but please forgive me business schools, but there’s a way to do this other than going to business school. You could read Now Build a Great Business. Brian Tracy, the entrepreneurial thought leader, and myself wrote that book.

Michael: Brilliant.

Mark Thompson: It’s seven chapters to help people think about how to serve others through a business that rocks. Then, most recently I wrote a book called Admired, which we were looking at how people who have been able to build value into their lives and are admired by others, how do brands and people go about doing that? We reverse engineered the Gallop poll of most admired people and Fortune Magazine’s most admired companies and came up with a wonderful short list of ways you could make sure that you’re valued, admired, and respected for what you do.

Michael: Wow. I know the first two books. I don’t know that third book, so I’m going to look to track them down. That’s great. And, and that’s Thompson, T-H-O-M-P-S-O-N.

Mark Thompson: Right.

Michael: Mark, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for your time today.

Mark Thompson: Thank you, Michael. Such a pleasure. Thank you for your great work.

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