Michele Parrish: Not Pushing Back on the Client’s Framing of the Problem
Joining me for Episode #32 of “the My Favorite Mistake” podcast is Michele Parrish. She is a consultant and she is founder and managing partner of the firm Parrish Partners. Michele was previously an executive at Intel and one thing we share in common is that we're both graduates of the MIT Leaders for Global Operations Program.
In today's episode, Michele tells a story related to advising a CEO who called her in with a very particular problem in mind. Michele learned about the need to push back and to not be shy about disagreeing with the client about what the problem really might be. We'll talk about the importance of “emotional intelligence” (something she teaches about), systems thinking, and the need to slow down to pause and reflect.
You can listen to the episode below. A transcript also follows lower on this page.
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Automated Transcript (May Contain Mistakes)
Mark Graban (0s):
Episode 32, Michele Parrish, consultant and managing partner of Parrish Partners.
Michele Parrish (8s):
My favorite mistake? It's one that made me better and it made me think bigger.
Mark Graban (17s):
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 myfavoritemistakepodcast.com. It would be a mistake to not enter to win a free My Favorite Mistake coffee mug, go to MarkGraban.com/mistake 32. And now on with the show.
Mark Graban (57s):
Hi, everybody. Welcome to My Favorite Mistake. I'm Mark Graban and we're joined today…. our guest is Michele Parrish. She is the co-founder and managing partner of Parrish Partners, which is a leadership and management consulting firm. Previously, Michele was an executive at Intel and one commonality we have in our background… she's also a graduate of the MIT Leaders for Global Operations Program. Michele, thank you so much for being a guest. How are you?
Michele Parrish (1m 24s):
Thank you, Mark. I'm doing great. And thank you for having me today. I'm looking forward to it. Yeah.
Mark Graban (1m 28s):
So a lot to talk about, and I guess as always, we'll just jump right to the main question at hand. Michele, what is your favorite mistake from your career?
Michele Parrish (1m 37s):
I love your directness, Mark. My favorite mistake… so it's one that made me better and it made me think bigger. And as you know, markets, consultants and coaches, we need to be systems thinkers, and we need to frame problems in terms of the system dynamics, not point problems or individual problems. And we also need to be able to deliver solutions that can scale quickly, right? So can transform things, not just an individual level, but at a system level at a company level. And so I'm going to share a story with you at a time when I learned about, you know, making sure that we frame that problem correctly, right. And can start moving on the bigger problem from the very beginning.
Michele Parrish (2m 18s):
And as you know, I built this expertise and coaching emotional intelligence over the years. And while the proactive leadership development is the majority of our coaching work. At times, we are called in to help us struggling executive to turn it around, whether that be addressing an individual blind spot or lack of performance by their team. So a few years back, a CEO called on me to help a key C-suite executive who was struggling. He was struggling to work effectively with his peers, and he was also struggling to produce the needed company results in the time that they needed them. And this companies, while this executives relationships were really degrading fast and his stress was increasing really to an unbearable degree, the very seasoned CEO was also really frustrated because he had tried everything that he knew to turn this around and nothing was working in this particular case.
Michele Parrish (3m 17s):
And, you know, he had kind of gone through his list once or twice and said, okay, I'm I'm I need help now. And he did this executive to produce results faster and to do so with the team that was already in place. Like in other words, there was no changing people at this, at this stage in the game. And everybody on the team, everybody in the seeds seaweed was an industry expert. And so essentially they were, they were each, they were a team of champions, but they weren't yet what I would call a championship team. Right. They had been performing well together. So I was able to come in and work with this, this executive able to quickly gain the trust of this troubled executive and make strong progress. And within a six month period, this particular executive had improved quite dramatically.
Michele Parrish (3m 59s):
However, the executive team as a whole still struggled to perform and the company eventually went out of business, which of course is devastating. And I was devastated. I was devastated for them. They were great people. They were doing something great in the world and was so sad to see all of that go away. But as I had worked with them, I had seen that there were a number of other executive team issues that needed to be addressed. However, the organization wasn't able to allocate more budget or time to work on those issues. And so after the fact, I had to ask myself what I could have done differently as a coach and consultant to help produce those faster results, right.
Michele Parrish (4m 40s):
At an organizational scale. And while it was clear that the one executive needed help. So did many of the other executives, many who also struggled with <inaudible> skills. And so I, I had long thought before that, about creating a course to teach EEQ skills at an executive level, but I hadn't executed that plan yet. And it was the pain of seeing this organization fail that really spurred me to do that. And I, it helped me accelerate that EQ course development. And now we train and coach and consult EEQ much faster and more economically as results. And we've also developed executive training and other key areas as well, where we've seen teams struggle, whether it's in communications or change management, sometimes it is conflict management might be even just time and energy management.
Michele Parrish (5m 31s):
You know, there's, there's things right that we can always get better at and sometimes need the whole organization to get, get better at. So this is what we do today. We teach, we coach, we consult, we leverage all three disciplines for faster progress. And just actually last week we were onsite teaching and executive team emotional agility and helping them embed EQ into their culture. And then the month prior, we were working with their emerging leaders and training them as well. So it's been really to see the positive feedback and the results from that, especially when you're able to work at, at an organizational level.
Mark Graban (6m 5s):
Yeah. So, well, thank you for the story. I think, you know, maybe we can dig into that story a little bit and we will, we'll also talk later about EQ and emotional intelligence and some of the things that you do to help others there. So what, what, what I hear in your telling of the story is maybe the CEO was, was framing the problem in a way that wasn't really the correct framing. If the CEO was framing it as I need you to come help that executive, maybe there were fingers being pointed in one direction when we fingers could have been pointed maybe in the mirror and all around. So I guess, you know, the general question or, you know, a question about lessons or takeaways from that, what are your thoughts on, you know, you get called in as a consultant.
Mark Graban (6m 51s):
I ended up in this situation where the problem is being framed in a way that doesn't seem the way that you, as an outsider, see the problems. And sometimes as an outsider, you've got the benefit of fresh eyes or not having a bias about the problem definition, but what, what, what, what are your thoughts when you have to not just come in and help with the solution, but maybe try to coach around, Hey, what really is the problem here?
Michele Parrish (7m 17s):
Yeah. So, so another part of what I do differently now is let them know that the, the early stages really doing our assessment of what the problem statement is and how important I feel it is to get the problem statement. Right? And in fact, actually when we teach in our classes, we talk about how Einstein had said, you know, if 80% of your time should be spent on a problem statement instead of the solution, because if you can get the problem statement, right, right. Everything moves along so much faster and you can move through that solution space a lot quicker and get to that end result. And so with that fundamental belief in mind, right, it's how you frame, it does matter how you scope it as a problem. And, and a lot of times, yes, people are there and when they're working within the system, they don't see the system.
Michele Parrish (8m 1s):
So they do see it as point problems. They don't see it as the interrelationships. And so you have to come in and help them see that and how you do that is through that assessment process and some of those upfront conversations, right. That, that, that needs to be broader and scope.
Mark Graban (8m 17s):
And you mentioned earlier systems thinking what, what's your elevator speech definition of systems thinking and, and what that means from a business perspective?
Michele Parrish (8m 29s):
Yes. Okay. So systems thinking is when you look at all the elements and their interrelationships with each other, and how do you get the whole system to perform right, by looking at those interrelationships and resolving conflicts within. So a systems thinking is really requiring you to step back from it, right. And be able to look at all of the different components and not just the, maybe the part the, that you're seeing right now we're experiencing right now is problematic. Right. It's to step back and look at the whole holistic thinking is what it is essentially at its at its most, I would say basic level.
Mark Graban (9m 8s):
Yeah. And I, I liked the way you framed that, that it's hard to describe the system that you're a part of. Like I've sometimes heard the analogy of like, you know, the goldfish in a fishbowl, explain the water because it just, it just is, it's just their normal surrounding. And sometimes maybe you can help me build off this analogy, but water that the leadership team is swimming in there might be problems with the water.
Michele Parrish (9m 40s):
Well, sometimes I think the water's getting hotter and hotter and they don't know it. Sometimes the, the water is getting more polluted and they don't know it. Right. And so, you know, there there's, there are these different things that are happening and it really that's a lot of times the, a big advantage of having an outsider come in and help, you know, whether it's coach or consultant is that you are not in the system and you will notice things right away that other people don't simply because they're used to, it, it is the kind of the boiled frog frogs from fish to frogs. So, and, and I, I find that people find them a lot of relief in that too. Right. It's just being able to have somebody else come in and say, this is what I see.
Michele Parrish (10m 23s):
Right. And here's another approach or here's what you could do about this. And it's, it really is hard to see things from where you sit, right? You're in the middle of it. You're in the, in the dynamics and the pace to sometimes an organization it's going so fast. Sometimes people need to be able to slow down to see it as well. What are the, one of the things that we teach in our courses is this concept of becoming the observer of yourself and what that means is, and it relates to systems thinking in a way, and that if you stop and you start looking at yourself in the context of your environment and how you're behaving and how you're reacting, you start to see it differently.
Michele Parrish (11m 4s):
Even just yourself, looking at yourself, let alone somebody else looking at you for you. Right. So it's that pause. And then it's that gaining a different perspective that can often very often shift you in new directions.
Mark Graban (11m 18s):
Yeah. It's that pause creates the space and the opportunity for reflection. And that's one thing that other guests have brought up this process of reflection. I think that's what allows us to learn from mistakes. Whether we have a formal framework for reflection or not. I imagine one trap you might see leaders get into is they're so busy that maybe they don't have time for reflection, and that might lead to mistakes being repeated. What are your thoughts on, you know, trying to, how do we open someone's eyes up to the need to take that pause for reflection or how to reflect?
Michele Parrish (11m 58s):
Yes. So that's actually one of the things I do often an executive coaching sessions and especially with, especially with executives who are very fast and, you know, they're, they're moving fast all the time. They've got always a lot on their plate. They're juggling. Right. And they don't have that time to reflect. So we kind of take a deep breath at the beginning and said, let's slow this down. We're going to slow this down. Right. This is the idea of analyzing, reflecting. It's not to power through it. Right. And to check off another meeting or another thing done it's to step back and think and have a thought partner. And so literally the process helps us do that. Right.
Michele Parrish (12m 38s):
And then I'm there to help guide that process. And you can do that with teams too. Right. Slow them down, let them think. It's, it's really how you come to the table and do that. Right. And people need to know that you're doing that too, because if you try to slow somebody down and they don't know that you're trying to slow them down to get that time to reflect and analyze, then there'll be frustrated. So you have to let them know that this is part of the process, right. That we go slow to go fast.
Mark Graban (13m 7s):
Right. So that phrase, yeah. I mean that, that's, that's a phrase I've, I've heard and repeated a lot. Like I think of it as a Toyota ism and they're probably not the only company that teaches that in the context of is as you brought up earlier, problem-solving the, the, I think it's attributed to Abraham Lincoln. The idea of I'm paraphrasing it. If I had eight hours to chop down the tree, I would spend the first seven hours sharpening my axe or, or something like that. Right. It's not going slow to go slow, but I think that's really insightful on your part is that you've got to create a little bit of visibility into what's coming. We're not going slow just to front.
Mark Graban (13m 47s):
We're not trying to frustrate you. It's it's going slow so we can then go faster.
Michele Parrish (13m 52s):
Right. Exactly. Yes. And I think what happens too, and this is part of like the whole system thinking if you're in an organization that's moving fast and that becomes, that's the nature and the culture, then everyone thinks that slowing down is a bad thing. Right, right. You don't want to slow down overall. So it is counter-cultural in some cases, right. To just to slow people down and to get that kind of reflection going. So it is a matter of like building that capability to even do that. In some cases I wanted those people and you probably know this about me because I go fast a lot. Like I love to go fast. And I, and I'll talk fast when I noticed that I'm really, really talking fast and moving thousands, actually the times that I need to slow down the most and stuff, so I can be guilty of it too.
Michele Parrish (14m 38s):
I just said, I'm pretty good at catching myself, but not always. And that's why we need the help of it.
Mark Graban (14m 44s):
Yeah. I mean, I think back to days, you know, pre GPS of, you know, being on a vacation, being on unfamiliar, you're following a map or a printed out directions back in that day and age. And I think of like, if you're, if you're not sure if you're on the right path, let's say, you know, you and your spouse are debating, are we on the right road or not, probably better to stop and figure it out. And so of like, well, I'm not sure, but let me speed up.
Michele Parrish (15m 11s):
Yeah. The next road gets us there. Right. Yeah. I mean, that's another great analogy. Right. So what does the map do? The map helps you get perspective, right? So slows you down. You take a broader look. We can all benefit from that. That's why I think even the process that you're doing here, you know, you're, you're slowing people like me down and to think through things that we've gone through and reflect and has immense value. And it helps when somebody else is asking you the questions when somebody else's sometimes even challenging you're right. On what you're saying. And if that, if there's not another way to see it, so we, we all need each other, right.
Michele Parrish (15m 52s):
We all need each other to be better to do all of this and we need the different functions, so to speak, right. We all play your role and to play our role well, and to be able to serve in the capacity that we're, we're supposed to in that moment. I mean, I think a lot of times, again, going back to this story and coaches and consultants, like we, as outsiders will have an, a view on things or an objective that might be very different from everybody else who's in the system. Right. But that's our rollouts. Our extra value is to provide that different really radically in some cases different.
Mark Graban (16m 31s):
So you, you mentioned earlier, EQ emotional intelligence. You need to do a lot of work in this realm. Let's take another elevator ride. If w if you will, for listeners who are not really familiar with, with EQ emotional intelligence, how do you explain that to folks?
Michele Parrish (16m 49s):
So our definition is that emotional intelligence is the ability to use the power and the acumen of emotions to drive higher collaboration and productivity. So it serves that purpose of driving collaboration and productivity. It's about using the power of emotions. And you have to then understand and be able to dissect emotions, which is actually not very easy for us as human beings, as much as we like to think, because it's endemic to who we are and that, you know, we've been using our emotions since birth, that we're somehow good at it. The reality is, is that we are not, and that it helps for us to get, be trained and to learn how to, how to leverage our emotions and more positive ways.
Michele Parrish (17m 30s):
And then we talk about emotional agility as taking it a next step further, right? Th the ability to manage those feelings, to be mindful, to be values driven and productive, and to successfully navigate times of crisis and change and challenge, which, for example, the time that we're in is the time that we're in now with the pandemic and all it's, there's a lot going on for bit, they're struggling through it.
Mark Graban (17m 56s):
And so it's right there, there are two aspects to this. I am being more in touch with your own emotions and better relating to the emotions of people that you're with.
Michele Parrish (18m 6s):
Right, exactly. Right. So, so first, first taking care of ourselves and, and getting a handle on our own emotions, then being able to read and support others and their emotions and what a huge difference that can make right. In terms of the organizational productivity and results. And we, you know, same thing we were talking about earlier, sometimes in a given culture, we, we can get into some ways of being or bad habits that become very acceptable to everybody. When in fact they could be hampering the organization, right. And that if we make some tweaks and adjustments, we can turn those things around. So we look to do things along those lines when we study and, and teach and chain EQM and organizations is help them make those turnarounds.
Michele Parrish (18m 51s):
Mark Graban (18m 53s):
And I think back to some organizations, like, especially in, in my past, working in manufacturing companies, like compared to healthcare, as much as you can generalize, I think healthcare organizations are much more in tune with emotions sometimes not perfectly, but the word feelings gets used a lot more where in some companies there's a bias to talk about thinking, we hear things like, you know, w our organization is data driven, or we are analytical, or like that seems to be really valued. Is it a mistake to undervalue the emotional side of, of us as people considering that's what builds, that's what an organization consists of.
Michele Parrish (19m 33s):
Absolutely. I'm going to say to devalue that right. Or not understand the power of that, and when you need to shift. So we talk about being able to shift too, from a kind of the inside out. So if you think about how, you know, you're, if you're a technical person and you're doing a lot of problem-solving, or even like a busy executive, right. You're doing a lot of problem solving in your head and you're turned inside and that's fine. You may need to do to that for a while, but then you have to remember to turn that thought to the outside and be looking at the people around you. Right. And how they're, how they're doing, how they're interpreting things. What's the impact that you're having on them as a, as a key question, to ask yourself, especially in a leadership role. So it's, it, it really is a shifting of perspective often from the inside of your mind, to the outside world.
Michele Parrish (20m 18s):
And what's going on with the people who are all around you. And it's amazing what you pick up when you start to actually observe and watch like, we, you know, we all have these different levels of, of emotional intelligence just naturally. And we, we can all get better for sure. It's, it's something that's proven that when you, you can work on it, you can become stronger on, like, IQ where it's more set from birth. And, you know, some people are get that earlier in life, and they're able to navigate stronger with it, need to learn it much later in life. And that's okay. You can start at any time, but if you can realize the value of it and understand why it's so important, then you can understand why you would want to spend time there.
Mark Graban (21m 1s):
And I mean, it sounds like a parallel to organizations would talk about continuous improvement, that we can continuously improve our own emotional intelligence. And, and you work with a team, their parish partners. Do you lean on your colleagues a little bit to coach you and vice versa to continue developing it yourself?
Michele Parrish (21m 22s):
Yeah, absolutely. For sure. Because we're never done. That's the reality and leadership and these kinds of skills. It's a lifelong learning process. I, I, co-teach the emotional intelligence course with one of my colleagues, Jeanette, and, and we enjoy doing it together. And I think, and we enjoy putting, bringing new learnings to the table all the time. And I do think that we coach each other and we fight all the time. It's just a natural part of our process. And I think because we are both, we both value learning and we both value like that. There's, there's never a done state. Let's just put it that way from, you know, continuous improvement.
Michele Parrish (22m 3s):
We're always going to find more that we can learn where that something else that we can add that will hopefully connect with somebody and add value. You know, we even in this last round, we picked up, I picked up at the grocery store, you know, lines in the magazine racks. There's a time magazine about a edition, special edition about emotions. Right. And I thought, well, do I need to pick this up? I mean, like I read it that all of this, you know, this material, but I did just have a curiosity to see what they had in there. And I felt all sorts of fabulous tips and more new things and share those with Jeanette. And we just, you know, we ha we, and we share that with other people pick that up at your new standard.
Michele Parrish (22m 44s):
It's just another tool, right. That you can use. So there's, there's always more, you know, you're again, you're never done, and it's fun to find those new things that work for people.
Mark Graban (22m 57s):
Well, and, you know, you mentioned virtual workshop as we wrap up here, let's talk about some of the other things that you do through parish partners. I mean, I'll tell the listeners in, in July, I had the opportunity I, I chose to do the executive emotional agility was that the, The two-week workshop, it was two Fridays. And that was really good tuneup, you know, just thinking in terms of both, you know, professional circumstances where I could be better of my own emotions, if I get frustrated or impatient with things, what really is driving that I think there are parallels to systems thinking or operational excellence to try to think through, well, what are the root causes of that frustration so that I, you know, it's one thing to recognize, okay, I am getting frustrated, but it's good to understand why and workshop in the discussions.
Mark Graban (23m 51s):
Yeah. What are the triggers? And one, the, one of the, I think the best takeaways for me, from what you and Jeanette taught was going through and thinking about values and when something is happening, that's misaligned with your own values that can create a level of discomfort. That can be hard to explain, you know, and I found that very helpful. So, you know, for that, and other reasons, you know, I really recommend the workshop, the virtual workshop for folks
Michele Parrish (24m 19s):
Learning your triggers is a really important thing. And it can change at different points in life, right? So you want to revisit that periodically and revisit your values periodically, but we do see that clear link between triggers and values and those things that mean the most to us, we'll get the most emotional response. Right. So understanding that in ourselves and within your family, I mean, that's the nice thing about this type of a topic and material is it's relevant, not only in the business, it's relevant to your family life as well, family and friends and, and whatever other organizations that you're a part of. So it can serve you well, in all aspects of life. I mean, we, we are emotional beings, it's who we are, and we need to learn how to leverage that and, and pay attention to that.
Mark Graban (25m 5s):
Yeah. I mean, that's, that's part of who part of, you know, who we are as fully formed complex individuals. And, you know, I think back when it comes to systems thinking or quality improvement, you know, one of now late great gurus w Edwards Deming often gets labeled as a statistician. So you think, Oh, well, here's the realm of the mathematical, the logical, this is what we experienced at MIT, but MIT also did teach us to focus on teams and people. And what Dr. Deming would, would, you know, he said the most important thing for a leader to understand is the psychology of their people and what makes their employees unique.
Mark Graban (25m 46s):
And there are different ways of trying to then translate that goal into practice. And, you know, I think what you were, what you were teaching, you know, it was really helpful to, to turn what might seem to sort of conceptual into something really practical. So thank you for that.
Michele Parrish (26m 2s):
Absolutely. Yes. And I like, you know what you're describing, right? There's, there's the data piece, there's the, there's the tangible piece. And then there's the less tangible piece that we need to get out under our belts and, and Isaiah, it's the three domains, it's the IOE and the it, and we're all very comfortable with the it world and talking about data and all, but we're not always comfortable talking about I, and we, and that's at least two thirds of it. So we need to make sure we're getting all the slices of the pie that we're taking it all into account.
Mark Graban (26m 31s):
Yeah, that's really well said. And our guest again has been Michele parish from parish partners, the website where you can learn more about everything they offer, not just that virtual workshop, but services, as Michele mentioned, being onsite with a client. Again, recently, you can learn more www.ParrishPartners.com. So I'm Michele again, thank you for sharing your story and for sharing your other reflections. I guess it's, you know, reflections about reflections. That's a good thing.
Michele Parrish (27m 1s):
And thank you, Mark for slowing me down and making me reflect in a way that I enjoyed and I enjoyed being able to share it. So appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.
Mark Graban (27m 9s):
Right. Thanks again. Thanks for listening. I hope this podcast inspires you to pause and think about your own favorite mistake and how learning from mistakes shapes you personally and professionally. If you're a leader, what can you do to create a culture where it's safe for colleagues to talk openly about mistakes in the spirit of learning, please subscribe, rate, and review the podcast. Our website is myfavoritemistakepodcast.com. See you next time.