In 1989, Liz Wiseman took her first job out of business school at a mid-size startup called Oracle. With no previous experience, she was recruited as a technical trainer, charged with teaching programming to all of the company’s new engineering recruits. She admits she barely knew what the company did, much less how to teach engineers. A year later, she was promoted to manage the training department and make CEO Larry Ellison‘s vision for what he called ‘Oracle University’ a reality. She was 24.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing. All I knew was that this was a grown-up job and I wasn’t quite grown up yet, but no one seemed to be bothered by that but me,” says Wiseman. It was scary then, but looking back, she sees clearly how being a rookie made her an ideal candidate for the blue-sky project. “My real value didn’t come from having fresh ideas. It was having no ideas at all. When you know nothing you’re forced to create something.”
Little did she know that she’d spend the next 17 years leading the University effort and Oracle’s global human resources. Since then, Wiseman has written three books about what makes people effective as employees and leaders, and has conducted extensive research on how management can maximize performance inside organizations. Now president of the Wiseman Group, training executives around the world, she recently spoke at Stanford’s Entrepreneurship Corner and shared her findings about the advantages of the rookie mindset, how knowing too much can be dangerous for innovation, and what leaders can do to help everyone around them achieve their potential.
The Power of Being a Rookie
Harkening back to her experience spearheading Oracle University, Wiseman breaks down why her beginner’s mind was such a strength: “When you’re forced to create something and you don’t know how to do it, you go out and you ask,” she says. “All I knew was how important product knowledge transfer was inside of the company, so I went out and talked to every single one of the product bosses. I asked them what problems they had getting people to learn. I talked to the people who needed the knowledge.”
Based on these interviews, she knew she needed to keep things simple to lower the barrier to entry, and she needed to leverage the incredible amount of knowledge existing employees already had. “Instead of hiring instructors and technical experts that we’d need to bring up to speed, we went back to the product bosses and asked them to take on the additional responsibility of teaching trainings. We knew they’d be the best at it. It was the best, most accurate, fastest solution.”
Eventually, the program got so big that management made moves to replace Wiseman with a more seasoned executive, but the experts she had recruited to teach stepped in and demanded that she stay at her post. “It turned out that by not really knowing anything myself, I was able to stay much closer to all of the important stakeholders. And, because I needed to prove myself, we operated in thin slices — what we would today probably call a lean or agile approach — to deliver quick wins. We were giving people what they needed when they needed it because I knew no other way of working.”
When you’re a rookie, you’re also a pioneer. You’re out there on the frontier without confidence, so you have to focus on the basics. You end up operating very lean.
While researching her book ‘Rookie Smarts,’ Wiseman studied 400 different scenarios where people were new to something or not: Taking on pieces of work, debugging a program, writing a proposal, teaching a class, etc. Her team looked at how experienced people handled tasks and compared it to people doing them for the very first time. Here’s what she found:
Experience creates a number of blind spots. “With time, we obviously gain knowledge, wisdom and more data points to inform our power of intuition. We build confidence and networks, but we’re also creating blind spots.” When your mind recognizes a pattern, it tends to stop innovating. You’re no longer looking for outlier possibilities, you miss opportunities. Generally speaking, you stop making things up. You gloss over the gaps.
Studies have shown that if misspelled words are strung together in a sentence, people can still read them with ease because all that matter is the first and last letter of a word. Our brains fill in the rest. The same thing happens when we face situations where we have experience. Our automatic response is to reach for what we already know. “We start answering questions before they’ve been asked. We stop seeing new data points or contrary points of you. We stop seeking feedback and input from others.”
We develop scar tissue. The more experience you gain, the more likely you’ll have some bad experiences that will leave scars behind, continually reminding you of your mistakes. “I have a whole set of scars that remind me not to do things that didn’t seem to work out very well the first time,” Wiseman says. “You also have to realize that you will have ideas that touch on other people’s scar tissue. They will quickly say, ‘No, no, we tried that and it didn’t work.’ This is a major way that experience can create a number of troubling blind spots.”
Ignorance can drive top performance. “If you envision a really steep learning curve, it starts in a phase of ignorance, this really gentle part of the curve. This is where, even when we’re given important and hard tasks, we can say to ourselves, ‘How hard can this be? I can do it,’” says Wiseman. “It’s only when we start to dig in and become more aware that we realize how hard something is. We start seeing the gap between what we can do and what the people around us can do. Then we move into a state of desperation. We start to panic. We look around for someone who knows what they’re doing who can help. This is where we start to reach out.”
The most powerful form of learning comes when we’re desperate. When we have no choice but to learn.
Wiseman’s research showed that in fields requiring specialized knowledge, inexperienced people tend to outperform their experienced peers by a small margin. “But where they really outperform is when the work is innovative in nature,” she says. “Rookies are a lot faster than people with experience because they are desperate and uncomfortable. When we get comfortable, that’s when we start to teach and mentor other people.” But it’s also where people slow down and stop contributing as much.
“As I looked at top performing rookies, I found this really interesting type of person: the perpetual rookie. These are people who are successful professionals, leaders, entrepreneurs with years of mastery who, despite that, maintain their rookie smarts — their ability to think and approach their work as if they were doing it for the first time.” As she investigated the attributes of perpetual rookies, Wiseman identified several traits they have in common:
They are risk mitigators, not risk takers. They learn how to operate in thin slices, test, and de-risk their progress.
They are never satisfied. “There’s an abhorrence of mediocrity that they share.”
They are curious. They always want to learn about everything, even if it’s not related to their job or immediate challenges.
They are humble. “I don’t mean in the sense of low self-esteem. I mean willing to learn from anyone and everyone no matter where they are in the hierarchy.”
They are playful. “It’s not like they try to create fun amid the work. For them, their work is just fun.”
So how can someone go about holding on to their rookie smarts? “As I looked across so many of these leaders and professionals, they all had a deliberate ritual — something that helped them go back to their rookie roots,” Wiseman says.
She cites Bob Hurley, founder of a surf company called Hurley Sports that eventually sold to Nike. “He said that at every juncture of building his business he had no idea what he was doing, and it turned out to be an advantage.”
When Hurley finds himself stuck in a rut, he thinks back to something that happened many years ago on Huntington Beach when he was an avid surfer himself. He ran into Wayne Bartholomew, the reigning world champion surfer at the time, who said he preferred surfing with beginners because they gave him energy. “So Bob told me, ‘Now when I have bad days, I go out and surf with the amateurs,'” Wiseman says. “He spends his time talking to them, hanging out with them, and he says it revitalizes his point of view.”
Francois Truffaut, the legendary French film director, bought a book on directing film at the start of his career. Then, before beginning each new film, he’d go back to the same bookstore and re-purchase the same book, re-read it, and remember what it was like when he didn’t know what he was doing. To achieve the same effect, a successful tech CEO Wiseman knows, says that when he feels stuck, he goes for a long walk in one direction and doesn’t let himself turn around until he’s had a legitimately novel idea. “Some days those walks are really long, he told me.”
When we work in our rookie space, the space of the unknown, we tend to feel our greatest joy. So many people have said to me, ‘I want to be a rookie again because I felt so alive.
The best leaders increase the capacity of everyone around them.
“The question is, can smart leaders create dumb teams?” Wiseman says. “Sometimes the knowledge of a leader can be a disadvantage to an entire organization. You can ask the inverse question too: Why are we so smart and capable around some leaders, but not around others?” She calls leaders who magnify the abilities of their reports multipliers. Multipliers are people around whom others do their best work.
The opposite of a multiplying leader is a diminisher. The qualities common to diminishers include:
They micro-manage. “They tend to create a thinly-veiled ‘my way or the highway’ approach.” They are always right.
They talk at people, not with people. “They operate in ‘tell mode,’” and they often interrupt.
They emphasize their superiority. “You know how every meeting is going to end — with them looking like the smartest person in the room.” They remind other people that they don’t have enough experience or don’t know enough.
Evidence Wiseman has collected shows that people who work around diminishing leaders tend to access less than a third of their intelligence. “We find this is rampant across organizations,” she says. “When people are put in management roles, it’s very easy for them to conclude that they’re the smartest one on the team. That’s why they were put in charge. Therefore their job is to know better, to tell, to micro-manage, to interrupt.”
What do multipliers do in contrast? Here’s what Wiseman saw:
They support and trust people. They grant large amounts of autonomy and are always there to listen.
They make others feel important. They ask questions and go out of their way to show appreciation.
They are demanding. “They are not always cupcakes and kisses kinds of leaders. They have a hard edge. They have high expectations. They challenge people.”
Multipliers are challenging leaders who have become really comfortable asking other people to be uncomfortable.
“These are leaders who let you squirm a bit,” Wiseman says. “They are leaders who, despite the fact that they are really good-hearted people, let you suffer a bit.”
Her research shows that diminishers stick to the belief that they are the only ones who can solve problems. “They operate from a place of knowledge and certainty,” she says. “They tend to be empire builders. They love to hire smart people. They scoop up the smartest, brightest minds they can find. But then what do they do with them? These brilliant, brilliant people become like knick-knacks in grandma’s curio cabinet — there to be seen but not used.”
To avoid this scenario, it’s critical that people looking for jobs shop for the right boss. “You want to shop for a boss or be a boss that sees talent very differently,” Wiseman says. “Diminishers tend to be tyrants — but not the yelling, chair-throwing kind. They just create anxiety and stress, and as a result they get less than half of people’s capability. The corporate world is replete with these kinds of leaders.”
Multipliers, on the other hand, operate from a belief that the people around them are probably smarter. “These are people who are talent magnets, liberators, challengers, debate makers. They give ownership and accountability to other people. They inquire. And we find that they get almost all of people’s intelligence and capability.”
Wiseman started her research observing leaders that fell into both camps, and one thing jumped out at her: “Most of the diminishing done in our companies is done with the best of intentions by people who think they are doing a good job leading.”
This manifests itself in several ways. There are bright creative people who constantly spout ideas because they think they’ll spark other people, but truly they’re not listening. This happens to the charismatic leaders who always have something to say and contribute. “There’s also the rescuer — the leader that doesn’t like to see people struggle or make mistakes or fail, so they extend their hand to help but really stunt learning. There’s the pace-setter who thinks it’s best to lead by example, but in reality no one speeds to catch up because they know they can’t win.”
All managers should ask themselves how they might be shutting down intelligence and capability around them with the very best of intentions.
So what should you do if you find yourself on a team headed by a diminisher? Your impulse might be to keep them at arm’s length, avoid them whenever you can, maybe even quit the job. But Wiseman has another recommendation: “The people who serve as multipliers to their diminisher bosses are the ones who end up building great relationships. Think about it — what does a diminisher want? Someone who values them. Someone who consults them. If they are the know-it-all, you might ask them for their point of view, for some help, for guidance.” This ends up being very effective for gaining more leverage, trust and autonomy.
If you are currently a leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is shift from a place of knowing to a place of inquiry. “Most of us begin our careers needing to find answers. But as we move into leadership, nothing is more important than being able to ask the right questions — the questions that share the burden of thinking with your team, the questions that focus the energy and intelligence of the group. That’s how you’re going to solve big problems at scale,” Wiseman says.
To build an enduring organization, you need to rely more on the brilliance of other people. The best leaders are the ones who not only give people a pat on the back, but also a push — a push out of their comfort zone, she says.
In reality, most managers exist on a spectrum between multiplier and diminisher. “In between you get accidental diminishers. When I coach leaders, I encourage them to have fewer diminishing moments and string together more multiplier moments. Ideally, you walk a fine line between making people suffer and keeping them motivated to work for you.”
Wiseman recalls a Stanford master’s graduate she hired at Oracle who went on to work for McKinsey. Eventually, he ran the consulting firm’s Seoul office, and Wiseman found herself interviewing him for her research on multipliers. “He said something very interesting: ‘When people are struggling, it’s irresponsible not to help. But you have to remember to hand the pen back.’” At first, she didn’t know what he meant, but then he told her this story:
It was 2 a.m. at the office, and his client’s team was finishing a critical pitch to be delivered the next day. But they were stuck. Dead in the water stuck. Finally, the project leader turned to him, the experienced consultant, and asked for help. He took the pen and started sketching out solutions on the whiteboard. “He starts to lay it out and is feeling great. There’s this intoxicating feeling that comes with saving the day,” says Wiseman. “But two-thirds of the way through his idea, he stops. The multiplier in him signals restraint, and he hands the pen back to the project leader, saying, ‘Here are a few ideas to get you started, why don’t you take it from here?’”
When people are struggling, you should help, but remember to hand the pen back. What’s the pen? Responsibility, control, accountability.
“Help people get out of the ditch, but always put them back in the lead,” says Wiseman. “That’s how you’ll keep them motivated, driving and learning.”