Learning Not to Make the Client Look Terrible: Jeff Gothelf

Learning Not to Make the Client Look Terrible: Jeff Gothelf

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My guest for Episode #78 of the My Favorite Mistake podcast is Jeff Gothelf, author of books including Sense and Respond, Lean UX, and Lean vs Agile vs Design Thinking. His latest book is FOREVER EMPLOYABLE: How to stop looking for work and let your next job find you.

Recently, he co-founded Sense & Respond Press, a publishing house for modern, transformational business books.

Today, we hear his “favorite mistake” story from his first consulting gig. Why did he end up making the client look terrible in front of their bosses? And what did he learn from that incident to make sure he never does that again?

Oter questions and topics include:

  • Job search mistakes
    • Reducing the “panic” that comes with company uncertainty
    • Building a safety net around yourself
    • Pull opportunities to you – grow your presence
  • Startup mistakes – wasting time and money on ideas that don't work
  • Why the magic ingredient is humility
  • Find Jeff on Social Media:

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  • Video of the Episode
  • How to subscribe
  • Full transcript

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Automated Transcript (Likely Contains Mistakes)

Mark Graban (1s):

Episode 78, Jeff Gothelf. Author of books, including his latest, Forever Employable.

Jeff Gothelf (7s):

It's interesting to call it your favorite mistake because you know, I think about it, it's, it's, it's super cringy and it's one of those things like you learn from these things, right?

Mark Graban (20s):

I'm Mark Graban This is My Favorite Mistake. In this podcast. You'll hear business leaders and other really interesting people talking about their favorite mistakes because we all make mistakes, but what matters is learning from our mistakes instead of repeating them over and over again. So this is the place for honest reflection and conversation, personal growth and professional success. Visit our website at myfavoritemistakepodcast.com. For show notes, links, and more. You can go to markgraban.com/mistake78, and we're joined today by Jeff Gothelf. He is other things, a coauthor of books.

Mark Graban (1m 1s):

He is coauthor of Sense and Respond, Lean UX and Lean versus Agile versus Design Thinking. And he's got a new book titled Forever Employable, how to stop looking for work and let your next job find you. So again, amongst the different things Jeff does, he recently, co-founded a publishing house called Sense and Respond Press that's for modern transformational business books. So Jeff, thank you for joining us. How are you?

Jeff Gothelf (1m 26s):

I'm great, mark. Nice to see you again. And it's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Mark Graban (1m 30s):

Yeah. Well, I want to, you know, learn more about your, your book and your other work, but we generally dive right in. So I guess I'll ask from your work experiences, what would you consider to be your favorite mistake, Josh?

Jeff Gothelf (1m 42s):

Yeah. It's interesting to call it your favorite mistake because you know, you think about it and it's, it's, it's super cringy and it's one of those things like you learn from these things, right? Assuming your ego and your business recovers from them, which generally speaking it, should you learn from them and it's super cringy, but so this was right. This was five years ago and it's, it's, it's scarred me so much that I think about it a lot actually, because five years ago is when I took my business out on its own. The previous four years, I had built my business inside a services business that I was building with some colleagues. And then when we sold that the buyer didn't want my little bit of the business.

Jeff Gothelf (2m 23s):

And so I took it out and I got a new client. It was a traditional American department store, retail store, one of the big ones. And they had asked me to come in and do a five day training with their entire product development department. So product design engineering, everybody at the same place, it was a big engagement. It was a high dollar engagement. And part of it was an upfront discovery phase, sort of, kind of classic consulting discovery, where you come in, you do some interviews, you do some, maybe some retrospectives, you synthesize all your findings and then you read it back out to the team.

Jeff Gothelf (3m 5s):

Not only to kind of give an external perspective on what's going on, but also to help you prepare the training a bit more effectively, right? To address the actual problems on the ground rather than a hypothetical generic set of problems. And so I did that and I spent about a month during the work and I synthesize the report and this is kind of my first, it wasn't my first consulting gig. Obviously me consulting for awhile. It was the first one on my own. And I was really trying to make a name for myself. And one of the things that I, I struggle with personally is sugarcoating. I'm not particularly good at that. I've got a, you know, I'm going to call it. Like I see it as they say, and, and I wrote the report and I, I sent it over and I guess, I guess they didn't really read it.

Jeff Gothelf (3m 51s):

So, so two there's the two part, right there was send over the report and then do a call with my project sponsors and their bosses. And whoever else would join the conference call as well. And I guess they didn't really read the report prior to the call. I didn't make sure that they'd read it. I didn't, I didn't send a draft in advance. And so I sent it and then I get on this call and I start going through the report and, and it's, it was fairly brutal. I mean, they, they were, they were pretty broken there, there was a, it was a, it was a fairly autocratic, heavy engineering top-down kind of shop. We're going to build this, these things because we think this is the best thing to build and customers be damned and, you know, forget testing and learning and design.

Jeff Gothelf (4m 33s):

That's all stuff that can get cut out of the backlog. And, and so I kind of told us like, this is, this is an anti-pattern, this is causing you to have these kinds of challenges with your customers, et cetera. I'm seeing these kinds of politics eroding. And at some point my project sponsor cut the call short. So I'm going through my delivery and he's like, Jeff, he's like, we're going to have to, we're going to have to cut the call short. And I said, okay, I don't, I don't, I didn't really get why at first. And so he cuts the call and he's like, and he's like, I'm going to call you right back. And then he called me right back after he gets everybody off the call and he laid into me, like, I mean, I T it's so visceral, like to this day, I can still feel it, like in my chest, he lays like, how could you do that?

Jeff Gothelf (5m 22s):

You're embarrassing. All of us in front of our bosses. You're making us look awful. Right. It's not that bad. Like on an all in all, like the big boss was on the call. I mean, I just had, and he's right. I made them look terrible in front of their bosses and he fired me on the spot. Like, like that was it. I didn't come in. I didn't, I didn't, I didn't do the training. I didn't deliver the rest of the gig. And I took, I took a severe lashing, verbal lashing for that. And, and I guess it's my favorite mistake because I've never, I've never made that mistake again. I've done that work multiple times since then, but I've learned how to have the conversation in a, in a more constructive way, I suppose, is the best way to put it.

Mark Graban (6m 13s):

Well, yeah, I'm sorry. You know, gosh, I feel like I need to buy you a drink or something after, I mean, you know, kind of dredging some of this up. Yeah. Cause you know, the, the intent and the goal of the podcast is, you know, to reflect on mistakes that we've learned from. And it's, you know, I applaud you for one for sharing the story. And then secondly, it sounds like, you know, to the point of never making that mistake again, learning from it. Can, can you go into a little bit more detail of maybe, you know, some of the approaches you've taken to be a little bit more constructive or to think about the context of, you know, there's the reports and there are facts and observations and then the setting in which things are delivered and internal politics being what it is.

Jeff Gothelf (6m 59s):

Yeah. So, I mean, there's a lot about language. So first of all, in, especially, I mean verbal obviously, but, but also in written communications, there's a lot about language, right? So it sounds ridiculous and a little, you know, appreciated and cheesy, right. But like instead of, instead of sort of challenges in the organization, it's opportunities in the organization that sounds, you know, you could smile and you could laugh at that and kind of wink, wink kind of added. But, but that's what it is. It's an opportunity for improvement, right? It's supposed to challenge, here's some opportunities that we've seen where things will be a little bit better. I think that like aggregating information as much as possible so that there can't be any specific finger pointing, saying, oh, it was that guy who said it was, she talked about me.

Jeff Gothelf (7m 40s):

Right. So that, that goes a long way. I think when presenting this there and it's, and I've gotten, I've gotten much, much better at it now, thankfully over the years, it's more about kind of, here's what we're seeing. Right. And, and sort of, instead of, you know, from our perspective or seeing people do this, is that what you're seeing, right? How is that working for you? Right. From our perspective, here's a worst thing. So there's a lot of, a lot of sort of confirming those observations first. So you're not, you know, shocking anybody with a new revelation they may not have heard about. And I think that ultimately when they come back to you with any kind of feedback, you can say, well, look what I'm hearing you say.

Jeff Gothelf (8m 24s):

Right. Which is always a very, very popular phrase these days. But what I'm hearing you say is this. And then the other day, what I heard you say was this. And so can you help me reconcile those two things? Because as opposed to, that's not what you said Friday. Right. And so that's, and so again, it's, it's, it's really about conversation, mellowing it out and I think really, truly being sensitive to the audience. Right? So if it's you, if it's you in the, in the sponsor, one-on-one in a room, you could probably be a bit more Frank, right? If it's you and the sponsor and their team, you're not going to make them look like an idiot in front of their team. Right. You're going to get fired and certainly not in front of their boss either. So it's about reading the room and I've learned how to do that now.

Mark Graban (9m 2s):

Yeah. Well, and, and, and again, the learning is, is key as opposed to stumbling through the same mistakes or Yemeni on an alternate universe or different consultant might have come out of that experience saying, well, that client was terrible. Those people were immature, they were irrational or pointing all sorts of fingers. And instead of stepping back and thinking about what you could do differently, you mentioned earlier, you didn't share a draft. Is that something along the lines of when I think of, of agile or lean startup, I think of iteration and I think of tests is, is sharing a draft, something that's more standard practice for

Jeff Gothelf (9m 39s):

You now? It is. It is absolutely. I mean, there's there's Hey, listen, here's what I'm saying. Take a look right before, before we distribute this more broadly, what do you think? And, and really like starting to get some of that early feedback upfront and, and understanding how from directly from the client had a better position is so that it's more assertive. I mean, look, you could, you could argue that, well, Jeff, you're not telling, you're not telling the truth or your dumbing down the content, or you're minimizing the impact that you might have on the organization. And initially it kind of felt like that, you know, but I think in hindsight, what I'm actually doing is I'm making, I'm making my argument in a way where I stand a much better chance of actually it being heard.

Mark Graban (10m 26s):

Yeah. I think that's a fair point. And you know, in recent years, in fact, I met a social worker who was at lean startup week a couple of years ago. And even though I'm doing improvement work in healthcare and she was starting up a nonprofit using lean startup methods, we were talking and she said, I said, I think you'd be interested in learning about an approach called motivational interviewing, which has its roots in counseling, which is her world as a social worker. But one of the key takeaways from me as, as an engineer and thinking about having the right answer versus being like, what, what, what, what really is your goal?

Mark Graban (11m 7s):

Is it, is it to be right?

Jeff Gothelf (11m 8s):

Or is it to help somebody change? And so whether, you know, and there are lessons that therapists have had to learn. And I think, you know, myself as a consultant, I don't think that's dumbing it down, but thinking about effectiveness, if you get kicked out and that ends the conversation, that's, you know, that probably wasn't good for that client, right? No, no, that, that was, that was bad for everybody in that, in that situation.

Mark Graban (11m 31s):

Yeah. You know, one other thing that you reminded me of when I think of being around hospitals and then in the language that's used, I've been in training sessions where nurses are people lower in the hierarchy are taught. They're not just lectured. You should speak up to a doctor or a surgeon using language. Like I have a concern can be really helpful because that that's a fact-based statement. And you could learn then from discussion that the concern is unfounded or yeah, there actually is basis for, for the concern or the other one that comes up a lot is, well, help me understand, like, if you disagree with somebody, help me understand why you say that in the word, the word Y gets loaded.

Mark Graban (12m 16s):

So maybe there, there, there are words that trigger people and, and I guess that's a good thing to reflect on, but so I'm kind of moving beyond, you know, the story and the consulting that you do. Jeff, I want to talk about the, the, your new book forever employable, again, the subtitle, how to stop looking for work and let your next job find you. What was, was some of the origin story of the book? Was it based off of job search mistakes for yourself or that you saw from others or what, what led to the book?

Jeff Gothelf (12m 51s):

So the book came from a series of ongoing inbound requests over the last five years, but people ask me how I built my business, how I get speaking gigs, how I got a book deal, that type of thing. And you know, after a while, right, this is a signal from the market, right? There's, there's, there's an inbound unsolicited flow of requests saying we'd like to know this story. And I was thinking about it for a long time, and it's kind of an item in my backlog for a long time. And it wasn't sure exactly how I was going to share. I was going to be a medium piece or a blog post or something. And then I decided to write a book about it because I really felt like there was an opportunity to not only share the story, but anything that I ever write or produce has always practical and tactical.

Jeff Gothelf (13m 40s):

And you can use it immediately after you read the book and apply it, apply the things in there. And so I wanted to really help folks reduce their stress and reduce their anxiety when it comes to career growth and development, job seeking job hunting, professional development, that type of thing. There is a, a target reader persona in my mind of essentially it's to be, to be perfectly honest, it was it's my, my best friend, my best friend is same age as me, a 25 year veteran of it, right? He's been climbing the corporate ladder, sort of every move was like a little bit more money, a little bit more responsibility. If you want people to manage kind of doing, doing the things that we've been we've been told to do.

Jeff Gothelf (14m 22s):

But every time that there's a merger and acquisition, a layoff market crisis, a pandemic, you name it. He panics crap. I gotta get my resume together. I got to start applying for jobs. And for me, I don't feel that panic. And I haven't felt that panic in at least eight years at this point. And so one of the things that I, I wanted to help him and the readers with was to help them understand how to build. I had to create a situation where you're leveraging your expertise and your experience and your reputation to build a safety net around yourself.

Jeff Gothelf (15m 5s):

And that safety net is it's a platform of thought leadership that's designed to work like a magnet and a magnet that pulls opportunities towards you. As some of those opportunities are going to be new jobs or gigs, but some of those are going to be speaking, gigs, book deals, writing gigs, podcasts, guests, whatever it is. But all of that is designed to, to kind of grow your presence so that you don't have to explicitly push yourself out into the market on a regular basis. But instead you've created this pulse system, that's continuously attracting things towards you.

Mark Graban (15m 43s):

And so that reminds me a little bit of companies like HubSpot or more broadly, like an inbound marketing methodology that a lot of companies use instead of pushing your company. You, you grow your presence as you put it. And that can be through blog posts and newsletters and podcasts and free content that establishes thought leadership or something approaching that, whatever that phrase thought leadership means is that seemed like a reasonable parallel to draw

Jeff Gothelf (16m 16s):

Or absolutely. I mean, look, there's some, there are a lot of phrases. Yes. There's a lot of phrases around this thought. Leadership is one personal branding is the other Dorie Clark calls. It recognized expertise. I mean, it's basically the same thing, right? You're saying, look, here's what I know. Here's what I'm good at. Here's how I can help you. And I'm proactive. Not only that I'm helping you right now, proactively sharing my expertise with you through whatever channels I believe will reach you the most in the most effective way so that when you need this I'm top of mind.

Mark Graban (16m 49s):

Yeah. And I think a lot of, yeah, a lot, a lot of people, you know, stereotyping, but you know, with technology backgrounds or engineering backgrounds, like myself included, we'll, we'll say like, you know, we, we don't want to be salesy. And like I found personally, you know, the, the, the comfort level of saying, well, I want to share information with you. And if that builds a relationship, and then at some point you want to work with me that feels more comfortable. Or maybe I should just find somebody to do more outbound type type sales. But yeah. I mean, I think, you know, a lot of times it's, it's more comfortable to say I've got knowledge or ideas.

Mark Graban (17m 34s):

I don't want to share as opposed to quote unquote selling in a, in a more,

Jeff Gothelf (17m 40s):

No, listen, I mean, in many ways, I mean, this, this is, and I hate selling. Like I hate this. I hate being on sales calls. Not, not because I don't like talking to people just don't I don't enjoy the chase and the negotiation aspect of it. I think a lot of people feel that way. This is, this is exactly that this, this, this kind of reverses that, and instead of you having to go out there and be like, Hey mark, I got this great thing you want to buy it. Right. And so you're saying, you're saying, Hey, mark. Here's what I learned at work last week. Here's what I learned at work this week. Right. Here's something that I tried and, and, and kind of, kind of didn't work out, but I learned something from it and someone trusts me different next week. And then next Mark's like, Hey, I need somebody who knows something about, you know, lean startup and be like, oh, that guy, Jeff, he keeps sharing about that stuff.

Jeff Gothelf (18m 22s):

I'm gonna, I'm gonna reach out to him, see if he knows anybody. Right. And so all of a sudden, you're not doing any of that proactive selling. If the leads do come in and it does absolutely work. And, and, and look, again, I, I'm certainly not unique in this, and I'm certainly not the most successful at this, but nevertheless, there is, there's the, the folks who have particularly now in, in kind of this pandemic reality that we're living in, the folks who are thriving, the folks who are not panicking are the ones who have built this platform because they're continuing to drive in these inbound opportunities. Yeah.

Mark Graban (18m 59s):

And sometimes those inbound opportunities, you know, in my experience, someone will reach out and say something to the effect of like, well, you know, you're probably really busy right now, but you know, somebody who could help with such and such, and if circumstances are such where I say, well, you know, actually I've got some capacity, maybe a week. I could help you with this, that, that has led to an opportunity. And there's something besides to be a helpful resource when it's not a good fit or when you don't have the time, because that builds and strengthens that relationship future.

Jeff Gothelf (19m 28s):

Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that I've done, that's been one of the more, in fact, one of the most successful things that I've, I've created in the last five years. And since I've been officially self-employed is a community like employed and like employed individuals like myself. So typically they're solopreneurs consultants, coaches, trainers, speakers, authors, that type of thing who are in either exactly in my area or in adjacent markets. And all of us are learned from each other and build off of each other, refer work to each other.

Jeff Gothelf (20m 9s):

And those relationships grow and thrive from there to the point where that has become one of the most valuable assets in my, in my professional life, but also my personal life too, because I consider these folks, my friends. Yeah. So one of the things I want to touch on before we end is, you know, going back to work that you've done, like I've seen you speak, you know, lean startup week, and you've done working with agile and other related methodologies related to startups, entrepreneurship. And, you know, as you said on your website too much money, too much time is wasted on ideas that don't, so that evaluation at some point like, well, that didn't work that product business, we could call that a mistake, but I'm curious from your experience, you know, what, what do you see that's helpful in kind of striking the balance of saying, well, we learned from his mistakes, we might want to mitigate the risks.

Jeff Gothelf (21m 7s):

As, you know, if we want to completely eliminate mistakes, we would never try. So like where, where do you see entrepreneurs finding a balance? That's, that's helpful to me the magic ingredient. If there is one magic ingredient to make this mindset shift, stick it's humility and entrepreneurs, aren't exactly known for having tons of humility. I think those that do are the ones that ultimately succeed. Now, I want to be clear about what humility is. Humility is not the application of vision, and it's not the advocation of leadership either, right?

Jeff Gothelf (21m 50s):

So if you're, if you're a manager or an executive, right, it doesn't mean that you're giving all that up. Humility simply means that while you may have strong opinions based on your experience and your expertise, you're willing to change your mind in the face of evidence. That's it, that's all there is to it. So look, I have a lot of expertise in particular fields. I go out there, I try something and if it fails miserably, I will admit that it failed and I will learn why it failed. And I will try something different the next time that's the missing ingredient for a lot of these folks is to, to make this stick is to be able to say I was wrong and I learned something and we won't do it.

Jeff Gothelf (22m 36s):

We'll do it differently the next time. And I think that's the key. That's the key. I think people are scared of the word because I do believe that people don't really know what it means. I think they believe that it means that they become sort of subservient or I'll just will consensus driven. Right. And again, I don't believe that that's true. I just believe that that you're, you're simply being, you're simply admitting that in, if the market refutes your idea, you're willing to admit it, that's it.

Mark Graban (23m 8s):

Well, and to me, one of the things that makes the lean startup lean, or it puts the lean in lean startup is this notion of humility. You know, there's a great book that I love on the shelf behind me called Toyota by Toyota. It's a series of essays written by different Toyota north America leaders. And in the very first chapter in boy, they emphasize this a lot. And mentors I've worked with leading with humility or there's, there's an expression. You know, this often attributed to Gary Convis, who's an American who shifted from the Detroit automakers to Toyota, you know, and he would say lead as if you have no authority, it doesn't have. So to your point, you're not abdicating decision-making responsibility, but we're, we're relying less on autocratic hierarchy as a leader, as we're going through and learning and, and framing experiments, which again, to me is very Toyota.

Mark Graban (24m 4s):

Like even though that's a manufacturing setting shifting from being so anchored in what I know versus what we're going to go discover, or what we're going to test, I think is a really powerful mindset shift.

Jeff Gothelf (24m 17s):

And look at what you're doing in that sense as a leader is you're modeling the behavior so that you're the people who work with you and for you see that it's okay to behave that way as well. And so all of a sudden that humility drives learning, right? And so all of a sudden the capacity, the psychological safety for learning starts to cascade down through the organization as well. And so there's, there's so much value in this and it's still such a, a missing quality in a lot of the folks that are the organizations that I work with. So I'd love to see more of it. Sure. And it's kind of final thought I'll throw at you is yeah.

Jeff Gothelf (24m 58s):

It's interesting combination of like having enough ego to go and take the risk of starting something, but yet having enough humility to learn what you're doing, that's a unique combination, for sure. For sure. It's, it's tough. It's, it's, it's a tough balance, but, and look, we all love our ideas, right. I think my ideas are awesome. I think all of them are awesome. Right. But if they don't work at some point, you have to let them go. Sure,

Mark Graban (25m 23s):

Sure. Well, again, our guest today has been Jeff Gothelf his most recent book again, is Forever Employable: How to stop looking for work and let your next job find you. So it's available all the places you would find books and Jeff tell the listeners, your website, where they can learn more about the book. Can you and your work

Jeff Gothelf (25m 44s):

Absolutely. JeffGothelf.com. So easy, easy to find gotten health.co will take you there as well. Everything's there books, videos, articles, resources, and links to everything. And please, please do connect with me on LinkedIn. I'd love to see you there as well. Okay. Well great. And I'll make sure that link is in the show notes. Jeffgothelf.com. Jeff, really good talking to you and thanks for being a guest, sharing your story, sharing your reflections. Really appreciate it. My pleasure mark. Thanks so much.

Mark Graban (26m 12s):

Okay. Well, thanks again to Jeff for being such a great guest for links to all of his books and show notes and more, you can go to markgraban.com/mistake78. And I hope this podcast inspires you to reflect on your own mistakes, how you can learn from them or turn them into a positive I've had listeners tell me they've started being more open and honest about mistakes and their work. And they're trying to create a workplace culture where it's safe to speak up about problems, cause that leads to more improvement and better business. If you have feedback or a story to share, you can email me myfavoritemistakepodcast@gmail.com. And again, our website is myfavoritemistakepodcast.com.

Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus. He is also a Senior Advisor and Director of Strategic Marketing with the healthcare advisory firm, Value Capture.