Welcome to our interview with Andrew Bennett. Andrew is a leadership consultant and executive coach partnering with leaders building cultures where people can thrive. Andrew Bennett began his career as Ross Perot’s personal assistant, and for over three decades he has been a leadership consultant and coach to organizations of all shapes and sizes around the world.
For almost 50 years Andrew has been a magician and is a member of London’s Magic Circle, the highest honor in magic. Founder of EDS and former US Presidential Candidate Ross Perot encouraged Andrew to use magic in his business presentations, and he has been wowing audiences for the last 35 years. Magic is the art of transformation, and Andrew uses it to teach people how to rethink possibilities and obstacles, opening the door to new ways of thinking and acting. Watch Andrew demonstrate his magic and the power of our words to create in The magic of words – what we speak is what we create presented at TEDx.
Welcome Andrew, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0.
Exploring the Forward Thinking Workplace with Andrew Bennett
Q1: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
First, what you described in your question has to be valued by leaders as a basic starting point. We credit Milton Friedman with saying the sole purpose of business is profitability and return on investment to shareholders. In his opinon, that’s the only obligation that a business has. I think his idea has been a prevailing focus for most businesses, but there’s a growing number of people and leaders who believe business can be so much more than that. It’s a shame when it’s not.
I’m very encouraged by the growing number of leaders and organizations that are creating the environment you’re describing. But it begins with a leader who values people and the human spirit. A leader who feels that it’s not enough just to have a profitable business. Someone who believes that business can be a place where people can become more of who they fully are. A place where people can bring their gifts and pursue what they care about – fulfilling that fundamental drive to make your life matter, and to have meaning.
Igniting the Spirit
On a more tactical level, I’ve been doing consulting, coaching, and speaking on leadership and culture for 25 years. I believe there are three parts to your question. The first part is igniting the spirit or the heart. That means unleashing the energy available to all of us when we deeply care about something that gives us joy and fulfillment. Not just for us personally, but to make a difference in the world, serving our fellow human beings, and knowing our life matters.
So how do we create those kinds of environments? From a leadership perspective, it’s looking at your organization for how it makes the world a better place and putting that first. Like all of our decisions about what we do and how we do it, is it in service of that deeper purpose? I come from Michigan, which is a big auto country. There are people who are making stuff. They’re making gaskets, mufflers and assembling cars. It all started with Henry Ford, but if you look at his vision, it wasn’t articulated as a vision statement. He talked about the automobile becoming a way of life. It was not about profit. It was about families enjoying God’s Great Open Spaces. Those are literally the words he used. He realized the deeper purpose of his work. No matter what your organization does, if you take the time to look, you can discover it. Finding your deeper purpose gives people something to connect with. If they don’t, then there’s some place else for them to do that.
Freeing the Mind
Another part is about freeing the mind. I think so much of what unconsciously is at play day in and day out is fear. No one wants to talk about fear. We’re afraid of talking about fear, but it shows up in the work environment. The workplace is fertile ground for fear to grow because of all the different power structures. Freeing your mind is about being aware of the role that fear plays in your life, but particularly as a leader in understanding how fear and anxiety influence how one leads. Becoming curious about that is super important. Being willing to have the humility and courage to lean into that and ask, where might I be unconscious of how fear is getting in my way? What can I do to not make it go away, but how can I work with it in a way that allows me to transcend it? And how do we address that as an organization?
Building the Culture
And that leads to the third part, which is building the culture. Building a culture where people lift each other up. Where we see the best in each other. Where the default assumption is that people do things because they mean well⏤not because they’ve got a sinister plot. So those three things have become the foundation in my practice for how you create the kind of environment you describe in your question. First, it’s inspire the heart and the spirit, second is free the mind, and third is build the culture.
Q2: How do we get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
You need to care about them as people. Be genuinely interested in getting to know them. That old saying came to mind just now of people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
There’s not a personal life and a work life, there’s life. We’re whole people but too many organizations treat people like they’re resources. The latest one I cringe every time I hear it is human assets or talent management. All these ways we are objectifying people as cogs in a wheel to be moved around and disposed of. It’s caring about people. Finding out what they care about and what are their hopes and dreams? What do they want for their family? What are they afraid of?
The environment I seek to create is a place where people can talk about their fears. They know they’re not at risk of exposing themselves to someone using their fears against them because when we do that, then we can support each other in rising above those fears. We can even take those fears and use them to inform creative thinking.
I think the leader-employee relationship really isn’t any different from any other relationship. Good relationships are those where you trust the other person. You trust the other person has your best interests in mind. You know you’re safe with them. If we did a study, we’d probably find that most employees do not feel safe with their leaders. The way to get people to engage in the business is to engage with them sincerely. You can’t fake it. It’s not a technique. Either you care or you don’t.
Q3: What do people really lack and long for at work?
It’s feeling valued, and that comes in many forms. Rewards and recognition are fine, but being valued and appreciated is the experience of being seen as a person. We need to get paid and health insurance is important. I don’t belittle that at all, but I think that’s a minimum way of living. I don’t want to come across as judgmental because we need to make a living. I think human beings have so much more that we’re capable of than just taking that 40 hours a week to go do something we don’t feel really matters above the pay we get for it.
I believe if we can use all of our abilities to serve people to make the world a better place that’s really not a huge expectation to want that. But for a variety of reasons that’s not the case for most people. Many people feel their 40 hours a week really doesn’t create something that gives them joy and satisfaction.
But respect and appreciation from leaders and peers is such an uplifting experience. The simple act of saying, “Bill, you know what I really admire about you is the way you listen so deeply. I know that you are really with me and that we’re really connected because you ask questions that reveal that you’re hearing something even deeper. I feel valued by the way you listen.” To have someone give you feedback like that where they see something in you and they name it and share their admiration, it’s not just a generic pat on the back. It’s not a certificate of achievement. It’s not a gift card for dinner at a restaurant. Those things are nice, but you don’t have to spend money. It’s just being seen, recognized, and appreciated genuinely and sincerely. I think most people at work lack that. Many leaders are afraid to do that because they don’t want to make you too full of yourself. Or they want you to have a little of fear about whether you’re safe around here, so you don’t slack off.
Q4: What is the most important question leaders should be asking employees?
I think on one level it’s, how can I help you? How can I support you to use your gifts at work, and help you share your ideas? How can I create an environment where people aren’t afraid? How can we make the world a better place is also a good question because it facilitates a connection between the employee and the purpose of the organization. Leaders can learn a lot about how people view their work and how it’s impacting the world.
I worked for Ross Perot for 10 years, and for my first six months I was his personal assistant. He would call six people each morning. He had 20 minutes blocked out on his calendar to call six people each morning. He sat down and dialed the phone. He randomly selected people from all over the world. He would just ask people, “What are you working on right now? How does it help our customers?” He wasn’t looking for the employee handbook or a canned answer. He could tell when people weren’t being authentic with him. There would be times when I was in his office for some of those calls. He was a straightforward guy and would say, “No, what are you really working on?”
People felt safe with him. He was a very demanding man, but you also knew he had your back. So I think that question of, what is this we are all creating together? What good is this? What good are we doing? What’s the legacy that we’re leaving in this world? Those are all good questions for a leader to ask.
Q5: What is the most important question employees should be asking leaders?
I think it’s a question reflecting reverse servant leadership, “What can I do to support you?” What are your biggest challenges as a leader? I always think the vision question between employees and leaders is important. There was a survey by an organization several years ago that asked employees all around the world, do you know the strategy for your organization? 86 percent of them said, no they couldn’t. Then they had a corresponding question with five different strategy statements. One of which was their own company’s strategy, and you were supposed to pick which one belonged to your company. It was the combination of those two questions and still, 86% didn’t know. It’s such a basic observation to say well, how can we really do that well if only 14% of people know where we’re going?
When an employee is with a leader, a good question to ask is, where do you see us going? Even if there’s a vision statement or if it’s talked about in Town Hall meetings, I still believe it’s important for employees to ask, where do you see us going and what’s important to you?
Q6: What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves?
Fear has become a big topic for me in the last few years as I see the influence it has on everyone. As a result, I think one of the most important questions to ask ourselves is, how can I learn more about how fear is influencing me?
I’m reminded of the work of Kurt Lewin. He was considered the father of social psychology – behavioral science. He had this concept called force field analysis, which was the simple model or observation that there are forces pushing things forward and there are opposing forces. As forces push against each other, it creates resistance. What behavioral scientists took from this was that we focus on how to push harder instead of looking at those opposing forces and reducing them.
I believe fear is one of those huge opposing forces. For example, you can work longer hours or learn more to develop yourself. Fear is insidious because its influence is invisible, it’s unconscious. We’re not aware of how fear is showing up and how it’s holding us back and influencing other people.
So, how is fear influencing me? Where is it getting in my way? What makes it particularly challenging is that many times our fear reactions show up as strengths. I have a tremendous fear of rejection because of how I grew up and because of that I have become great at pleasing people. I’m a pleaser. I’m great at getting people to like me and make them happy. You know, “Andrew is a great guy. He’ll go the extra mile for you. He’s always there.” So what’s wrong with pleasing people? It makes me a good husband and good friend, but in a leadership role it got in my way.
I had an experience when I was working for Ross Perot that’s a good example of how fear can get in the way. I was managing a business for Ross in Australia. I said yes to everything the customer wanted. I wanted to please them and make them happy. But the list just kept growing of things they wanted from us. We were so busy managing the list. Even though I had a team of 24 people, we couldn’t get any of the work done! They were growing more and more angry and finally Ross had to meet with them. He came out, and he said, “You trying to make these people happy is making them very unhappy!” Then he said that the minute you can say “No” to them because it’s in their best interest, we’ll stop being a vendor and start being partners with them. So that’s what I did, and we then grew that account from $5 to $65 million dollars a year in two years because of that shift! But I was not conscious of how my fear was getting in my way. When Ross pointed it out, then I could work differently. I think everybody has an issue with fear. Actually, I don’t think, I know. I know everybody has an issue with fear.
Q7: You recently posted a fascinating quote on social media about the meaning of the word Abracadra. You said almost all magicians use it but don’t really know what it means?
It’s true. My non-scientific observation is 99.9% of magicians do not know Abracadabra is an Aramaic word that means what I speak is what I create. I was journaling one morning about ten years ago and for whatever reason this question just popped in my head, what does Abracadabra mean?
This past Christmas Day I celebrated 50 years of practicing, studying and performing magic. Even though I’ve practiced magic for that length of time, I never used Abracadabra in my act. I thought it was a goofy word and was so cliche. But this one morning, I thought what does Abracadabra mean? I did some reserach and didn’t really find much other than it’s an incantation. I eventually found my way to the MIT Linguistics Department and sent them an email asking for help.
Within the hour it surprised me to get a phone call from Noam Chomsky. Now Noam Chomsky is an intellectual force. I’ve read his books and have seen documentaries featuring him, however, I didn’t know he worked at MIT in linguistics. He told me it was almost like a newsroom environment where something comes off the ticker tape and people ask who wants to run with this story! An administrator received my email and asked, “Does anybody know what Abracadabra means?” Noam said it really caught his attention because he didn’t know its meaning. He called me and said I will research it but just wanted you to know we’re on it. So a couple days later he calls, and he says, “Are you sitting down?” He then said Abracadabra’s history is Aramaic, which is pre-Hebrew. They say Jesus spoke Aramaic, and he said it means, “I create that of which I speak.” There was a really long pause on the phone and he said, “Can you believe it?”
That’s how I discovered the meaning of Abracadabra, but I rephrased it so it would be easier to understand and more accessible. I changed it to “what I speak is what I create.” I actually have a trademark on it. But that’s the way I discovered it. It’s part of a much bigger story about my search for meaning in magic that’s coming into the spotlight now. A year ago, I formed a group of magicians from all over who are using magic for deeper purposes beyond entertainment. We meet twice a month online to support each other. We don’t talk a lot about tricks. We talk about the purpose we’re using our magic for and help each other think about ways to use magic to help people think in different ways. We have our first three-day event in Chicago in October. The Magic on Purpose Group will work with the Association for Managers of Innovation leading a three-day meeting.
Unfortunately, magic has been trivialized over the centuries. Its roots are in ancient tribal communities where shamans and medicine women and men would use simple magic tricks to give people a “Wow” – a sacred moment. It was a moment where you’re in touch with the Divine. It’s the experience of seeing something you thought was impossible being made possible. It’s this invisible force that is greater than your understanding of the material world.
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