Learning from Experience and a Trip to the Moon: An Interview with Dick Richardson
Haleigh Williams and Stefanie Mockler recently had the pleasure of interviewing Experience to Lead co-founder Dick Richardson to learn more about his background, discuss all things “leadership,” and get a preview of some topics detailed in his new book Apollo Leadership Lessons: Powerful Business Insights for Executives. A peek into Experience to Lead’s popular Apollo Leadership Experience program and a deep dive into NASA’s history, the book demonstrates how leadership, management strategies, and decisions made by a small group of scientists, flight directors, and administrators took Apollo from the vision of a martyred President to a seemingly impossible technical reality.
And all this in less than a decade.
Dick himself brings a rich history of experience in Human Resources for legacy firms such as ITT and Fortune 500’s IBM, holds two patents for innovations in organizational learning, and is a recent Gold Stevie Award winner for Entrepreneur of the Year. Needless to say, he had some great stories to tell – but three things in particular really stuck with us. Take a look, and check out an edited transcript of the discussion below.
Emotional Connection is a Differentiator
“The best way to successfully impact your team is not only through intellect, but emotional connection.” Whether that is achieved by relating a company goal to a historical space mission or bringing leadership development initiatives to life through immersive experiences, it’s advantageous to appeal to your audience in a way that is multi-faceted and emotionally compelling.
Steely Determination Can be a Good Thing
As a leader, you will come across internal company dichotomies that pose threats to your organization. Establishing an unwavering and non-negotiable mindset in the face of destructive behaviors is key. When you understand your organization’s values and mission, you can quickly recognize behaviors that run counter to the culture and experience you’re looking to create for your employees. Addressing these behaviors early and often to avoid broader impact is a key factor in being a determined leader.
Challenging your Own Perceptions & Knowledge is Critical
In this era, the majority of us are inundated daily with news, information, and knowledge. It’s everywhere and certainly right at our fingertips with smart phones. Dick recommends that leaders avoid confirmation bias – the tendency to pay attention to and look for information that confirms our existing beliefs – by performing daily environmental scans. He actively seeks to challenge his own knowledge. Not only does this help a leader get a broader snapshot of the world, but making it a deliberate process can also provide insight into where to take your department, organization, or your industry.
Our Interview with Dick Richardson
Vantage: Why were you motivated to compile these insights and write a book for executives?
Dick Richardson: My motivation comes in two forms. One is that I grew up in the space age; I once aspired to be an astronaut. I’ve always been interested in space flight. The other is that when I joined IBM, I was on a track where you work for a few months or so in different functional areas. When I did a stint in HR, I had a choice of a couple of things, so I did what was then called “Management Development” and fell in love. I’d found what I wanted to do for my whole life. From that moment on, I have been in leadership development in one form or another and haven’t regretted it for a moment.
V: Tell us a little bit about what led to the development of Experience to Lead, your theory/concepts on experiential learning, and why they have a lasting impact.
DR: A lot of the traditional programs that executives and leadership developers go to are focused on the intellect, but the intellect is only part of it. The left side of our brain is only half of our learning process. The other side is the emotional side. So, when you go to places like Gettysburg and hear stories, or when you talk to a blind Paralympic athlete who just won a gold medal the year before – this also touches your heart and you’ll remember those conversations. You’ll remember those places, and those stories, because there is both an emotional connection and intellectual connection. The odds of it taking root in your brain are much higher.
When I hear a certain song, if that song meant something to me, I can tell you who I was with, where I was, what I was feeling when I first heard it. The idea of marrying leadership ideas, approaches and principles to locations, events and people is simply a cuing device. When I see a certain kind of problem in my own business, then it cues me to think of the time in someone else’s business – NASA’s or Olympic Movement or D Day – when someone faced something similar, and I’m able to draw upon those thoughts that come from that. I am able to label it. I am able to remember it and I am able to apply it.
V: Are there specific learnings from previous workshops or Experience to Lead that helped inspire/contribute to the book?
DR: There are two things: there are the artifacts and there are the people. It’s hard not to be in awe when you’re standing next to the largest rocket in the world. It makes you realize that the problems that you and I face are manageable. I’m not trying to leave this planet and do something else; I’m just trying to make leaders better.
V: What is the most critical thing leaders need to learn to be effective, not only now but also in the future?
DR: I think that one of the toughest things for leaders is to decide when to step up and when to step back. On the one hand, you want the executives to step back and let other people lead and grow and make decisions and empower the organization. On the other hand, you can’t just leave people to their own devices because there’s frequently counter-productive workplace behavior. If you just let people go, then those things can grow and all of a sudden you have a difficult time correcting the behavior. It’s really understanding when to step in and step back, assessing if this person is ready to handle this situation and what’s the risk if they fail. Then the question becomes: If I decide I can assert my influence, what is the most effective way that addresses the problem but is gentle on the people? And that’s not easy to do.
V: We really enjoyed some of the key points and suggestions from Chapter 2 around nurturing a vision and effective public speaking. In your experience, what one or two things have the most impact when it comes to influence?
DR: Simon Sinek does a popular TED Talk on the question of “why” and how important that is. So I think what people always want to know is “Why?” I’m meeting with some potentially new facilitators today, and the place that I should start is “Why am I in this business when I don’t have to be? Why are we doing this?” And they should understand my personal “why” and hopefully that will resonate with them and is something they also hold in their hearts.
Also, most of us are not speaking to a stadium with 40,000 people. We’re speaking to much smaller groups, and the ability to connect individually or with some commonality is the most important thing.
V: You share the perspective that a good leader has a “steely determination.” Can you expand on that?
DR: As leaders we need to be adaptive, we need to be able to take the view from the balcony. That said, people also want to know what are the things that are absolutely non-negotiable. An example would be from the Apollo 13 Mission, the famous line from Gene Kranz: “Failure is not an option.” He was saying, We will not even consider failure, losing our astronauts is not an option, we will not back down on this.
Overall, it’s about being very intentional where the line should be drawn. You have to define your measure of success, define your measure of failure. Then stick to it. Don’t be drawn into the siren song of opportunities that don’t match your objective. And keep communicating it to your organization. Again and again.
V: As detailed in the S-Curve Innovation Model in Chapter 12, there are three stages of change — 1) Ending, losing, and letting go; 2) The neutral zone; 3) The new beginning. Which of these three pivots would you define as the most crucial?
DR: I think the most difficult one is the second inflection point between the straight line of the S-Curve and the top. That is because you are in a mode of success. Everything is going well. You have figured out how to make cookies and now you are making cookies like crazy. Then all of a sudden the world is changing and you need to have a new way of making cookies and everything in you says, “No, I have finally perfected what we’ve got.”
One way I anticipate this awareness is with environmental scans. I’m always trying to look and see what other people are doing in our area. What are people doing in adjacent markets. It’s not just looking at threats, but also looking at changing trends. I try and look at economics and business. What’s going on in Europe, sociology, millennials vs baby boomers. I really try and go around a whole environmental scan and open my mind up to things that challenge my assumptions.
One of the things I do personally is I have thirty news websites bookmarked in my browser, and every day I pick about four random ones to get my news. I will look at the same stories and I will see very different views of reality. The best leaders are the ones that challenge themselves every day and fight confirmation bias.
Speaking with Dick left us with some ideas worth reinforcing. First, emotions – not just good ideas – are powerful tools for learning from and connecting with others.
Second, we must find ways to challenge ourselves to continuously improve and reach for goals that may seem unattainable or even impossible – like putting a human on the moon. By bringing to life a momentous, and still-unprecedented event in human history, Apollo Leadership Lessons illustrates how the tactics employed by the program’s key decision-makers can be applied in business and leadership today.
The book arrives at a fortuitous time, as well: this July is the 50th anniversary of mankind walking on the moon. There’s no better time than now to stop and reflect on where we’ve been and where we’d like to go.
On behalf of Vantage, we want to thank Dick Richardson for his time and insights during this interview and look forward to his future contributions in the executive leadership space.
What about you? Have you had any experiences that unexpectedly provided great lessons in leadership? Tell us in the comments below!