This week Chris and Gina are joined by the President of Digital Transformation Service at NTT DATA, Aaron Millstone. They discuss managing client relationships, being a leader, and why empathy is a key skill in difficult-to-navigate situations.
Aaron Milstone Like I— I joke fifty percent of my job is being a shrink, right? [Hosts laughing] That’s what it feels like [laughs].
Gina Trapani [Laughing] Oh that’s so interesting!
Chris LoSacco That’s not much of a joke, honestly.
GT [Laughing] It really isn’t!
AM The software part is easy, it’s the humans that are the hard part [host laughing].
CL The humans are definitely the hard part.
GT It’s so true. It’s so true.
[Intro music plays for 18 seconds, ramps down]
GT [Over music] Hello world! Welcome to the Postlight Podcast! I’m Gina Tripani, CEO of Postlight, and, as always, I’m joined by my partner of this business and the President of Postlight, Chris LoSacco. Hey, Chris!
CL Hey, Gina.
GT How’s it goin’? Happy Friday!
CL Happy Friday! [Music stops] It’s going great! I’m very excited about the guest we have on the show today.
GT Uh, me too! This has been on the calendar for a while. I’ve been waiting for this one.
CL Yes! If I can sing this person’s praises for a minute?
CL This is the President of The Digital Transformation Services Group within NTT Data, which is the group that we roll up to, Poslight was acquired by NTT Data a few months ago and we’ve gotten to know this person. They are incredibly smart! And empathetic and a tremendous technology leader. It’s been— even in the short time that we’ve known him it’s been great to see how he leads a group of thousands of people to redefine how we approach technology services in the market. He spent nearly 23 years at Accenture; then did a stint at Oracle; and now is at NTT Data. So we are super excited to talk to Aaron Milstone. Welcome, Aaron.
AM Hey, thanks Chris. Thanks, Gina. That’s a super kind welcome, so I appreciate that [chuckles, Gina chuckles].
CL It’s all true.
GT It’s all true. You know, when Chris and I were talking to potential acquirers during our process before our deal closed, you know, so— There’s a lot of factors that go into, right? But a big factor for me is the people, right? My connection to the people; the people that we’re talking to and how I feel like, “Oh, is this somebody that I wanna work with and who I can learn from?” And Aaron, and I mean I’m not just saying this cuz you’re now basically my boss’s boss, for real, [others laughing], I’m saying this because it’s true.
AM Maybe a little bit that.
GT Maybe a little bit that but I remember when we hung up on a few calls with NTT Data and you were in the group and I remember turning to Chris and saying, “Ok, that guy, Aaron, that guy is smart and he’s good—”
CL He gets it.
GT “And I’d like to work with him. He gets it.” Yeah.
GT I mean, it’s absolutely true. My racquetball coach in college used to say like, “You should always play up. Play with people who are better than you. Like, you will get beat, and you’ll feel humiliated by that, but you will learn because you’ll see them do things that you didn’t know were possible.” That’s really a driving principle in my career. I always— I never wanna be the best one in the room; I always wanna play up and work with leaders who are way ahead of me on their journey and I really see you as one of those people and I’d love to talk about that with you.
AM Well, and it’s funny because when we do acquisitions, right? When we look at companies we wanna acquire, the same thought process is going on in mead [Gina laughs]. Right? Like, I wanna surround myself with unbelievably talented, unbelievably good people. And, like you said, right, it is all— it’s all about the people. Right?
AM Technology— Technology continues to change but at the end of the day it’s actually kinda all the same. Um, like [yes] what you can do with it becomes increasingly more and more magical but, like, the thing that makes this job unbelievably interesting is it’s— it’s the people element of this.
AM And, right? So that’s— that’s the thing— part that, you know, gets me excited as well.
GT And we’re certainly in the people business— I mean, you know, “Our business is people,” we say all the time, even though we’re, you know, it’s about technology, or leading in technology.
CL So, let’s rewind a little bit. Take us through your journey, Aaron, as you sort of got off in your career. How did you start at Accenture? And you were there for, you know, 20-plus years. Tell us about that experience and the good, the bad, the ugly. Like, what you’re taking from it going forward.
AM So, I joined— I joined Andersen Consulting which automatically dates me. Um, so, [Aaron chuckles], right? But like I joined that outta college and it was one of things where, you know, I’m doing my undergraduate degree, I’m like, “Ok, I can either go to grad school or I can go find a job.” At the time, right, like, you know, I didn’t know what— I was a kid. What did I know what I wanted to do?
AM And I see this informational session on campus and I’m like, “Wow!” Right? Like all the people that had graduated the year before come back in suits and sharp outfits [Aaron and Gina laughing] and they do this [chuckles] presentation, I’m like, “Oh my goodness, this consulting thing is incredible!” [Yeah] I didn’t even know what it was, right? “I’m a consultant!” I don’t know what that means. So I— [Gina chuckles] I put in my resume, and I get a— I actually don’t get a phone call back. Like, they were like, “Oh, no thanks, we don’t wanna interview you.”
AM Right, which is like—
GT Ah, that’s terrible! That happened to me—
AM Oh, it’s an awful feeling.
GT It’s an awful feeling! The same thing happened to me at Google. I was like, “Oh, they don’t want me. Ok, great!” [Laughs]
AM So, and— but, like, it’s one of those things, it’s like it’s in my head, “Boy, I really, really enjoyed that presentation.” I got excited about it. So, I did, actually, something that I didn’t realize was something they really desired. What I did is I proactively sent a note off to the managing partner of one of the offices and said, “Hey, I was in the session. I really wanted to— I was really hoping for an interview. Disappointed I didn’t get one. If there’s any chance that you’d reconsider, I’d love to come in.” And oh, by the way, that’s like one of the two or three key recruiting things that the company looks for. Like, they want a bias towards action.
GT & CL Mmmm!
GT Mm hmm.
AM So, like that’s one of the— So— so— so the partner immediately responds like, “Absolutely, come on in.” Right? And then that was sort of my introduction. And then, you know, you go through Andersen Consulting, Accenture was a fantastic place for a career. Like they just have such an unbelievably great program to bring people in at junior levels and groom them, right? And they dangle out these promotions and they dangle out opportunities in front of you and you get incredible opportunities. What they don’t sell you in is actually the whole program is structured to fire at 99 percent of you. Um, right? [Others laughing] Cuz that’s—
CL What do you mean? Describe— what do you mean?
AM Well, it’s a pyramid. Right? Like [yeah], it’s the ultimate human pyramid scheme. [Chuckling] Which is— [Gina laughs] They’re just whittling and they’re making everybody work really, really hard to get to the next level; then they whittle down; they work really, really hard at the next level; and they whittle down. And people choose and opt out cuz they realize this isn’t the career for them or sometimes they get out. But it’s just a constant grind and grind and grind. So you get to these [sure] really senior. Of course, again, as you’re telling stories, that’s not the story you’re ever gonna choose to tell.
AM You’re employee base which is, “Yeah, 99 percent of you are gonna get fired.” What you’re gonna say is what a great opportunity this is, and if you reach the upper echelons right? You’re a partner, you’re a managing director, whatever it is. But yeah, it was absolutely a tremendous place and I had the initial view that said two years, right? “I’ll go do two years then of course I’ll go get my MBA,” like almost like some dumb college kid. [Gina laughs] [Mm hmm] Right?
CL Mm hmm.
AM And after two years I was like, “Boy, this was kinda fun.” Right? Like I liked the work. And, you know, I was an economics major in college. I didn’t know how to code. I came to Accenture, Andersen Consulting. They stick me in a boot camp, I learn how to code, it turns out I have an affinity for it. I’m coding like—
AM — message. Yeah, I’m coding message-oriented middleware; I’m coding TCP IP ethernet to proprietary network communications like I’m at very low levels.
AM And I’m like, “Man, this is awesome!” And then, like, you know, so I kinda geeked out on it a bit but then, you know, I kept getting different opportunities, they came to me, you know, three years in, they said, “Hey, how would you feel about moving to Europe?” “Well, ok. [Chuckles] Like, I feel great about moving to Europe!”
GT Oh, that’s great. When it’s the right time in your life and you’re open to it, that’s a beautiful thing. You wanna take that offer. Yeah.
CL Yeah! Aw, it’s fantastic, right? So, I went and did that and then another opportunity comes along, another opp— next thing you know, 23 years has gone by.
CL Right? Um, and I— Honestly, I was loving it. I had a great time. I was— I had a variety of roles, all of them interesting; all of them different. And, you know, my best and biggest career jumps happened when I would scare myself. Right?
CL & GT Mmm!
GT Mm hmm.
CL So, I always looked for the thing that said, “You know what? I haven’t done that before. I’m a little nervous about it.” That was actually—
GT Just a little uncomfortable.
CL Yeah, just that little bit of being uncomfortable it was like, “Ok, that’s the sign I should probably do it.”
AM That was my internal mantra, right? That I would just repeat to myself. And then, you know, and then I got headhunted to go over to Oracle. The CEO at the time was Mark Hurd, right? Working with his co-Ceo, Safra Catz. I worked for a guy named Rich Geraffo who was the head of technology sales in North America. And I remember thinking to myself, I was like, “You know what? Oracle has the chance of being the last— the last global public cloud because it’s such a capital intensive thing to go invest into.”
AM And, you know, I had been focusing on Oracle as a technology for years inside of Accenture. You know, I was like, “Wow! What an interesting place to go! And be part of the leadership team that says, ‘Ok, either we’re gonna make it or, boy, I’m gonna front row seats to not making it.’”
CL Yeah! [Gina laughs]
AM Either one of them is kind of a cool— it’s a great experience. And so I sort of took the chance and went over there and ran their Proserv team for the technology space for a bit and then took on channels and alliances team for a little bit as well and then when it was clear to me at least that Oracle’s position in the public cloud wasn’t necessarily gonna become a world leader. They weren’t gonna go up and, you know, beat AWS’s clearly— despite maybe Larry Ellison’s announcing in the quarterly earnings [Gina laughing]. I just— I just saw— It’s sort of one of those things like he announced that they’re stealing market share from AWS and I’m like, “Woof, that is a big statement to make.” Um [chuckles] —
GT Yeah, yeah.
AM That’s a fun— like I’m not even sure AWS has them on their radar.
GT On their radar, yeah.
AM Yeah. So, but anyway, so I went over there. I was all excited but when I saw it wasn’t really gonna happen I started to think about my next pivot in my career. And, again, I actually had the choice. I was looking at going to Deloitte. I really thought highly, and I do think highly, of the people at Deloitte. I had been working with their teams for a long period of time and I had a lot of respect and admiration for what they were doing and then I got a headhunter call saying, “Hey, have you thought about this NTT thing? Or would you look at this?” And I was like, “Boy, I don’t know. Right? Like—” Actually, honestly, my first reaction was, “NTT who?” Like what?
GT I’m so glad— I didn’t wanna say that out loud so I’m glad that you said it because we also were like, “Wait, who?” Right?
GT Because in The States, right? It’s just not— it’s not— like every single company name you’ve said so far like I was— I would’ve said, “Yes, I know exactly who you’re talking about.” [Yeah]. But you’re like, “NTT who?” Right, yeah, exactly [chuckles].
AM Yeah, that was the reaction! I have to imagine when you’re looking at companies that could potentially acquire Postlight, you guys have gotta be like, “Wait a minute, so—”
GT Yeah, “Who is this?”
AM “I have this company I recognize, this company I rec—” Then, “What?” So—
CL I know [Gina laughing].
AM Yeah and that was my reaction. Right? It was literally— and I said to the recruiter, it was a [?] guy, I said to him, “Really, who?” And I was like, “I think— Aren’t they the data center people?” I think it was my actual message to ‘em. And he was like, “Just go listen to what they have to say.” And again, so then I’m debating and effectively what my choice came down to was like, “I could go to a known brand, with a certain—” That had a fully functioning everything. And actually all I had to do was to learn how to be an operator inside of Deloitte which again very fulfilling, would’ve been a great place to go, or, you know, when I see what NTT’s trying to do in the market, and I get to build something—
AM And, oh, by the way, it’s a little scary cuz, again, like that nervous factor, right? So I was like— I used the same decision making process I always use, which is I wanna get myself a little uncomfortable and push myself because that’s when all my greatest growth happens.
GT Yup. Yeah, and this idea that you get to put your finger— you get to influence, you’re making something new, right?
GT You’re creating something. That was also very, very interesting to us as well.
CL Yeah, it’s such good advice. The easy way is not always the right choice because you’re— you know, you’re gonna be so much fulfilled if you look ahead and feel like, “I’m not sure I can do this but if I can, it’s gonna feel amazing.” And those points of inflection where you can take a big— you know, take a big leap and say, “This isn’t a sure thing and that’s what’s gonna make it satisfying on the other side.” I mean it’s the same thing when we go talk to, you know, a CIO or a CTO who’s like, “I need to make a material change in my business and I’m not sure if I should, you know, if I should do it. It might eat into our existing revenue streams, it might, you know, require a big upfront investment. Like I’m not sure if I can do it.” But it’s the same decision making process because if you’re— if it’s a sure thing, then it’s probably not gonna be the right move or at least as satisfying as if you take that risk.
AM Nah, it’s proportional. Like, it’s—
CL It’s proportional.
AM The effort you put in is equivalent to the reward you get out. And like you guys have to know that as like you know having built up Postlight, right? As a— Right? As a company. Like what a risk—
GT Risk and reward is related. That’s right.
AM Yeah, of course it’s related. And it’s— you know, it’s funny I’ve got a teenage— well, I guess, one kid who is no longer a teenager, he’s 20. But I’ve got two teenage girls and a 20-year-old. And, you know, they watch social media, they have this false image of like these instant paths to success and riches and it’s like, “Guys, it’s just not real.” It’s not.
GT It’s not real. It’s absolute fiction. It’s true.
AM Yeah, maybe it happens one in a billion or greater— maybe in one in several hundred million where someone’s just like, “Oh yeah, you got the look. And you’re gonna go be famous and whatever.” But like, the reality is it’s totally proportional to the effort you put in. And there’s no such—
AM — thing as overnight success. Like Postlight, were you guys an overnight success?
GT Oh no. No.
CL Not at all.
GT No, there were some dark, dark moments, for sure, along the way [others laughing]. And a lot of uncertainty.
AM Of course!
GT Yeah, yeah, a lot of uncertainty.
AM Of course!
GT Yeah, I mean, you know, I have a theory: I think that people who love being in client services, and love being in consulting, have a higher— have a higher comfort level with discomfort and a lower tolerance for boredom. My line is like my personal life is pretty boring. I love my family but it’s stable and boring [Aaron laughing] but I need a little— I need a little bit of chaos, a little bit of adventure at work, right? And particularly in client services you’re just— you’re facing problems and risks and you’re managing relationships and it’s— it’s incredibly engaging right? And I think that if you have that mindset of like, “Ah! I’m gonna be a little bit uncomfortable.” Getting comfortable with discomfort is just kind of part of it. Not everybody’s looking for that path. Like the pyramid that you talked about some people are like, “You know what? I just want a calm, stable job, where I am good at what I do and I do the same thing every day and I’m secure in that and I don’t need to—” And that’s ok. I mean—
AM That’s ok!
GT — this is just about temperament, and I mean I think you can take the entrepreneurial route or go to a big company. It really depends on who you are but yeah I mean that being a little bit uncomfortable, taking a risk, and going, “You know what? I’m gonna do this thing and if it goes well, oh! It’s gonna be great! But you know what? I also might get fired. Like this [others laugh, Gina chuckling] might not go well and I might—
GT “I might look like a clown!” Like, we often talk about like the position that our clients are in where they’re like advocating for big budgets and they’re putting their reputation inside the organization on the line and, you know, they’re general resume and that’s— those risk takers are the ones that can make the big changes, like those are the ones we look for and we try to say to them, like, “We will increase— maximize the chances that this will actually land, right? That this will go well.” That’s a huge part of it. You don’t see that a lot. Especially in big companies.
AM No. It’s funny, right? Cuz you’re looking for the entrepreneurial spirits [yes] that exist in corporations, right? So it’s this weird thing cuz to survive and thrive in large corporations, you’re actually constantly having risk being beaten out of you effectively.
GT Yes! [Laughs]
AM But reality is like you need those risk takers to actually move organizations forward.
AM And finding those folks, right? You’re right. Gina, it’s like finding like-minded— you’re like, ok— consultants are— you said it really well, right? Like you have to be super comfortable with being uncomfortable and you have to be super comfortable with taking degrees of risk but it’s about managing that risk in a way that like, you know, you can’t control all the things but you can start to— there are definitely ways to be aware of it, mitigate it, constantly track against it and then, and then take that leap.
AM And it is, right? It’s a weird balancing act and my god, when you find the client that gets that, and is like, “No, I have to take this risk,” that’s like you wanna hug ‘em and hold onto ‘em.
GT Cus you can move mountains together. You can move mountains together.
GT Like you can do it together, yeah.
CL “Let’s go do big things.” Yeah.
GT Yeah, I mean when you’re in a constant state of potential failure and discomfort there is some element of having to like manage your own psychology [chuckles] around what is happening and what’s going on and Aaron you sent out a book. Uh, I loved this because I’m a bit of a self-development nerd. So I absolutely loved this. You sent out to your leaders, including me and Chris, you know some nice NTT Data swag and a book called Be the Hero which I will— well, actually for those of you listening we will link to the book in the show notes. And you included a note which said, you know, “This book has been part of a journey that I’ve been on and it influences the way that I lead and it’s about storytelling,” which we’ve talked about on this show. And I read the book in one sitting. I absolutely gobbled it up. I loved it.
CL Me too.
GT And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what that journey has been and why you shared this book versus all the others out there with your leaders and how you think about it.
AM Yeah well it comes back to that risk taking, right? And the scariness of what we have to go do at times, right? So the reason I share the book is I really do think that everything in life and our internal narratives that we have, the external narratives that we have, the way we talk to clients; the way we talk to our teams, the way we have to act as leaders, we are constantly framing up stories, right?
AM And you can go back to, I think, as far back in history as you wanna go to, this is sort of the art of being human which is crafting these narratives for people to rally around or at least to identify with and to start to say, “Ok I slot in here and now I’m part of this greater story and I understand where this greater story is going.” And you know so I think this is so fundamental to being human. And then if you step back from it, right? Maybe at the most simplistic level, you know, what I like about this Be the Hero book and we should actually say there’s not even a sponsorship from the Be the Hero book here on this thing, we’re just selfishly plugging it.
GT We like it.
AM Selflessly— selflessly plugging it. Noah Blumenthal should pay us some type of residual. The author, right? [Others laugh] But like what he puts in that book is there’s effectively, again, at the most binary level: two types of stories. There’s the hero story and there’s the victim story.
AM Um and you know we’ve all seen people, whether again it’s in our family, whether it’s at work, whether it’s with a client that embrace both those types of stories and it changes their outlook on life, it changes how they engage with people, it engages— it changes their interaction with the world because it’s basically the view that says, “Things are done to me. And therefore [yes] all out of my control and I can’t figure out how to get past any of it.” Or, “I’m gonna take control of my destiny.” Right? Those are the two possible story lenses.
AM And so, again, I— coming into a new organization and again like, we get great companies like Postlight as an acquisition and we pick up Vector Forum, we pick up Nexiant, we pick up— our latest acquisition a company called Apisero, a MuleSoft company. We get all these great companies, and it’s scary, right? So now— it’s scary. It’s scary as the company being acquired, it’s scary as the leader that has to bring all the stuff together, and so the way we tell and build common narratives and what’s our mission and what’s our journey and like this isn’t being done to you. This is a chance for you to imprint back onto the bigger organization. It is so important to get right for ourselves. And then so important to get right, you know, again, as we learn how to tell stories to our clients around the journeys that we’re on. So, to me, storytelling is like, I don’t know, it’s like breathing, right? We have to be able to do it and again, it’s happening in our heads whether we realize it or not, so might as well vocalize it.
GT Right, our brains make meaning, right? Our brains take in all the observations and information that we have and then we make meaning in our brains and by creating that narrative, right?
GT And it’s so easy to make the narrative [laughs] the victim narrative, right?
CL Of course.
GT Like, “This client is being unreasonable. This is not what we agreed to. This person is so cranky.”
AM “This is the hardest client I’ve ever had!”
GT “Hardest client I’ve ever had [Aaron laughing]. This is never gonna work out. Why are we doing this work?” Like, this is— This is stuff— things that I have thought, that I’ve sunk into and then—
AM Oh! Every day of the week [laughs].
GT Every day of the week, right? And you know and then there’s an opposite story which is like, “Here’s an opportunity to learn something; here’s an opportunity to do something better.” And I think— One of the points that the book makes is that either one of those narratives actually might be true. Like, that the client actually might have bad motivation.
CL But you can’t know the truth.
GT You can’t actually know the truth but what you can do is choose which— which narrative you’re gonna tell yourself and your team about because and— and the one that you choose is going to affect the way that you react and behave. Right? And that’s what kinda matters. It’s like it’s actually not about truth, it’s about managing your psychology which is kind of like the ultimate, you know, ninja mind trick.
AM Well actually it’s funny cuz so that is completely the right message to take away from the book, right? Like, and it goes back from, ok so the book is sort of binary in terms of victim versus hero mentality but the point that you just made is actually it’s never that binary. You can have multiple truths.
AM The question— the question is so what’s the narrative that you’re gonna choose to deploy? That actually moves the greater good along to the better outcome. And as a leader, right, as leaders. Like you guys, me, right? As we lead teams of people, our ability to pick the storylines and narrative that helps the organization understand the heroic message is unbelievably important to people. Right?
AM It’s critical, right? And so, to me, that’s the— that is the crux of the whole message of the book. Absolutely.
CL I completely agree. I also— what I took away from the book is it’s very empowering actually to think I have more agency and more control over my choices than it sometimes feels in this moment. And it doesn’t require a change in the external circumstances. It is literally just about the story you’re telling about how you are approaching this particular, you know, event, or this particular situation. And it puts more at hand, like there’s more that you can do and we— again, we deal with it all the time: in our work, internally at the company. It’s people who say, “I can’t do X because this stakeholder doesn’t agree.” Or, “I can’t do Y because my team leader said I couldn’t.” But the reality is like you actually have a lot more control and a lot more ability than you think you do if you just change the approach.
CL And he illustrates it so well. He uses this example of trying to get a reservation at a restaurant that’s packed and they lost the reservation and you can react in a frustrated— from a frustrated, angry place and you’re not gonna make a lot of headway. Or you can, you know, really go into an empathetic place where you try to tell a different story about what that host is going through and the outcome, you can’t say anything for sure, but your chances that you’re gonna affect a much more positive outcome, go through the roof! And this— it’s something that everybody can do, you know: work, personal, whatever. Like it’s, it’s applicable in so many different areas.
AM You’re right. It’s work and it can become very deeply personal. And I know I shared a story with you guys off the podcast about the personal side of it for me. And this is something, again, this isn’t something that’s always natural, right? You have to kind of train your brain and you’ve got some deep, visceral reactions and— I’ll just share the story again because I think it brings it to life, right? It’s my personal example of the getting-into-a-restaurant-of-just-changing-the-mentality. So, my 20-year-old son came back from college last summer and he’s got a tattoo.
GT As 20-year-olds do!
CL Unbeknownst to you!
AM As 20-year— I’m not passing judgment! Yeah, totally unbeknownst to me. Well, actually, to be fair, he had talked about it but I thought he was bluffing. Um [Others laugh].
CL Ok. Ok.
GT I mean, it says a lot that he spoke to you about it at all. I mean—
AM That’s true. Yeah. We’ve got a good— He actually shares too much usually but yes. So— [Others laugh]
GT I’ll take that.
AM If he’s listening, don’t stop sharing! But yeah, like, you know, he shares way too much. But, right, and again, not knocking, not making judgment on tattoos but for my family, right? We actually had a pretty visceral— our immediate reaction was this viscerally negative reaction and again, getting very personal: my wife is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and in her mind, right? In her mind, right? Literally, going through her mind is the last person in our family to have a tattoo forcibly done to them. Right?
GT This is. I mean, this is very, very— Yeah, this is deep stuff. Yeah.
AM Yeah, this is at such a fundamental psychological level, right?
AM And, as a good supportive spouse, I’m kind of like, “Wow, I can imagine how—” You know, I’m trying to be empathetic, right? So I can imagine how my wife is feeling and I’m— and I can’t believe my son’s done this, right? And so we’re having this reaction. And when you look at the tattoo, it’s a tattoo on his ankle and it’s of a stingray and there’s a story there, right? So I’ll come back to that. This is the reaction and so my wife and I are in a mentally kind of dark place. Our son, who’s 20, is probably like yeah he’s a young adult but he still craves parental confirmation—
GT Approval. Confirmation. Yeah, of course.
Am So, he’s not getting that from his parents, right? He can see, right?
GT It’s a problem. It’s icy.
AM It’s a problem. Yeah.
GT Things are cold and icy in the house. Things aren’t good. He knows he hasn’t done something that you’re happy about.
AM Right, so just this awful thing. Awful reaction from us. You know, my son’s— he’s on ice. So interestingly, I’m referencing the book, right? So I’m reading the book at the exact time this is all happening. So I start to actually try to apply the book thinking on this stuff. So now I’ll tell the story, the same thing from a different perspective. So my son at the end of his freshman year in college got stung by a stingray like it scarred his— it scarred him. Right? Like it went into his ankle, big barbs, goes in, serates his ankle.
GT Yeah, it’s not a joke.
AM No, and it’s painful and he needs stitches and it’s a pretty— it scared him. It actually scared him away from surfing for a bit. You know, so he would’ve been thinking about, “Hey, I kinda wanna commemorate this sort of life changing event or that I got stung by something and oh, by the way, there’s a scar there and maybe I might wanna beautify the scar versus just having a scar on my ankle.”
GT So the tattoo is over the scar.
AM The tattoo is over the scar, it’s of a stingray. It incorporates the scar into the tattoo but what’s cool about it too, so then what I didn’t know cuz I didn’t actually seek to understand at the time, is that my son had reached out to my youngest daughter who, you know, 15-year-old girl living through two and a half years of COVID. She’s got, you know, whatever 15-year-old girl, two and a half years of COVID things going on in her head but like she’s not in the best of places mentally but she really likes art and she really likes drawing stuff and I didn’t know that he had approached her and said, “Hey, cold you design a tattoo?” And so—
CL That’s amazing.
AM Aw, it was unbelievable, right, so she sent him— she sent him three different possible stingray designs, he picked one ‘em. Again, I never got into this initially cuz I was in such a bad place. He picked one of ‘em. He chose her design to put on his body permanently, right?
GT I mean—
AM To beautify the scar and now you step back as a parent, right? As a parent, the coolest thing in the universe is when your kid decides to uplift one of the other kids—
AM Right? He chose to do that. Um, and, you know, now, Gina, to the earlier point, right? Both things are true. Right? Both things are true. My wife’s family: horrible, horrible experience in the Holocaust. My son has gone out and done this beautiful thing and a tribute to his younger sister and has made her feel incredible and is beautifying a scar on his body. And both things are true. The narrative that I choose to go forward with is gonna reframe how my family views this stuff and how we operate as a family and once I kind of mentally got through all that stuff, of course, the narrative I’m gonna pick is the second narrative and I went from being ashamed of what my son had done to being unbelievably proud of what my son has done.
GT I mean that’s a total 180, right? Pride is the opposite of shame. I mean, that’s incredible.
GT And the facts on the ground had not changed.
AM None of the facts had changed. The story changed. And the lens in which I chose to view the story had changed. And all the facts are exactly the same. Right?
AM Anyway, so, to me that’s the very, very personal example of thinking about— applying it in my own life and then also then so how do you keep applying it in the work— in the work environment. I don’t get it right initially [chuckles] all the time. I’m a human, right? Like we get these negative reactions, like, “The client said what?!?” [Others laugh] “The client wouldn’t sign the change request that was completely reasonable?”
AM Like, yeah, ok. Ok. Right? So we get this stuff but like— again the constant training of our minds to tell the right narratives, and to pick the right narratives out of this stuff, that really advances everybody in a much, much better place. To me, that’s it. That’s the whole deal. That’s life.
GT That’s the whole game.
CL That’s life.
GT It’s really true. When you shared this story with us it was a leadership meeting and I remember I sort of perked up because I was like, “Oh, this isn’t your run of the mill like, ‘How you doin’, Aaron? How’s the family?’” Right? Cuz, you know, you have those sort of like right before the meeting, “How’s it going?” And it’s actually interesting to listen to how people respond to the question how are you? How’s it going? Cuz you get a little peek into the stories they’re sort of telling themselves. But this I could tell that this was a very conscious and you know I’m thinking as a leader there’s some vulnerability in saying like, “This happened with my kids and this is how I felt about it.” But it was such a good example of this reframing. I mean, we were talking about some challenges in the business right? Like the market— there are challenges right now. And like how do we reframe— that was really meaningful. I mean, one of the things that really stuck out for me in the book and what you just said when you were in a frustrated or stressed position it is very difficult to try to seek to understand or be curious about why— like about the person’s motivation. Michael Shane who is our head of strategy on our team he always has: assume positive intent. Start from the base level that everyone involved is just trying to do their best. Right? And like— and so— I turn to Chris now and I actually use this phrase, “I’m telling myself the story that this person left us with a box of garbage. [Others laughing] Ok? Help me reframe this story.” Like I think I said this to him this week.
CL We had that conversation yesterday.
GT We had that conversation literally yesterday. I’m like, “I’m telling myself this story that this person left me a box of garbage because they just don’t care. I know that that’s not true. Like, how did we get here? Let’s be curious about what—” So when you got curious, you started to understand. You got this whole other context about your daughter, and the design, and you know, even just it’s so key but it is very difficult that your brain— especially just in the course of business— when you just have a million things flying at your face, it’s so difficult to get to stop and say, “Woah, woah, woah, I’m having a very sharp negative reaction here. Lemme just assume positive intent, be a little curious, and open up and wonder a little bit about what’s actually happening here and what we can do about it.” Um.
CL I mean, one way to do that is just to give yourself a minute. Like give yourself time, because so often when you’re just reacting on the fly, and I’ve been in this position with clients where something comes at me and my gut is like, “Push against that! No, we shouldn’t do that. We can’t make that change.” You have that visceral reaction and then you just go to that place. And you go with it. Sometimes you gotta step away for a second and give yourself. I mean even 30 seconds. You know? But it’s like, “I wanna write this email. Let me draft it and then I’m gonna [Gina laughs] wait until the morning. And I’m gonna reread it.” And sometimes you’re like, “I can’t believe I almost sent that. Like, I need to reframe things.” But it can be really hard to reframe like on a dime and sometimes you need that minute.
AM Oh yeah like you’re effectively fighting fight or flight instincts, right?
CL Exactly! Exactly!
AM Your blood pressure’s up, your heart rate is elevated, you feel like you’re under attack, so what do you do? You’ve got two possible responses— and actually I would argue that being a senior leader, and being an executive, whether it’s, you know, of a startup, whether of a design/engineering agency, whether it’s a multi-thousand person organization, we all have to learn how to actually stop the fight or flight instincts, become curious—
AM Assume positive intent. And navigate right into a solution. I remember I was in— right after I joined NTT Data, I was in a meeting with our CEO Bob Pryor and it was to deal with a conflict, right? We had a bunch of consulting teams that were really pissed off at IT. Right? [Chuckles] Like, they felt like they weren’t getting any support. And Bob immediately diffuses the opening meeting by saying, “Ok, so, Barry,” who’s our CIO, “Barry, you’re playing the role of the villain in this meeting because someone has to play the role of the villain. So it’s your turn right now.” And like it immediately reframed everyone’s fight or flight instincts into — “Ok, like now—”
GT “We’re all playing our roles.”
AM He called out the victim mentality at the very beginning of the meeting in a very gentle way.
AM But it makes everyone sort of sit back and go, “Ok, Barry’s not— IT’s not evil. Like we should all assume positive intent. That’s a good reminder.”
CL That’s a great technique!
AM Oh, it’s a great technique, right? Like, you know, and Barry laughed about it but Bob diffused everything and got us to a point where we could talk productively. Right? At the outset.
GT Yeah, oh it’s so true. I also—
CL I love that.
GT Being empathetic, being curious, like, you know, when a client comes to us and they’re being unreasonable, like you have to put yourself in their shoes and think, “Maybe they’re having a tough day. Maybe their boss is really coming down on them. Maybe they have to lay off people tomorrow.” Like, there are so many possibilities of where they’re at and when you’re feeling that empathy, I mean, our business is so much about relationships, right? We partner with our clients. And so if there’s trust in that relationship and connection, chances of success are 10X, right?
GT And in order for there to be that connection and in order for there to be that trust, if you approach somebody with empathy and say like, “Hey, it sounds like you’re in a tough position, what can we do together?” Versus, “No! This doesn’t work for us. Like, what’s going on? What do you got for me?” Just the tone and the approach. There’s relationship building and then there’s, you know, “You’re killing me right now. What are you doing to me? Like [Aaron laughing] you gotta come meet me—” You gotta meet people kinda where they are and god, I mean, in the business world, there’s so many factors and there’s so many pressures, um and it’s impossible really to know what’s going on with someone but if you assume that they are dealing with difficult bosses and all the things, right?
AM Budget pressures. Yeah.
GT Budget pressures. Then you can come to them and say, “Let’s solve this together.” I mean that always should be our approach with our clients especially and this is true for internal teams too. I mean we’re always, particularly in this remote world, how do we get our people together and build trust and get to know one another and just feel comfortable enough that when things are hard, that they can approach one another with empathy and understanding and a collaborative, “Let’s find a solution,” versus finger pointing—
GT This is, you know, the whole stack. You know? Internal, at leadership level, and also outside, external with clients.
AM So it’s funny— my reaction— it’s funny you say that— when you think about clients that are looking for potential companies to work with them, what do they do? They put out RFPs, they put out RFIs, all of those RFPs and RFIs are focused on asking what it’s gonna be like to work together.
AM Right? And it’s all like, “What’s your methodology? What’s your approach? What’s your team structure? What’s your governance model? Blah blah.” All that stuff. They all ask the same things to be fair. The most interesting clients I’ve ever had have been focused on, “So what’s it gonna be like to work together when things go horribly wrong?”
CL Yeah! [Gina laughs] Exactly!
GT Yes! That’s right!
AM [Laughs] Cuz that’s actually the right question because guess what? Everything’s gonna— like there’s always gonna be some project that doesn’t go per plan. The plan is wrong the first day of the project [all laughing].
GT That’s right! It’s true! It’s true the thing you sold, it’s already changed by the time it got signed and kicked off. That’s right. That’s right. Things are gonna be different.
AM Yeah, it’s different.
GT That’s right.
AM So always the questions and then that’s becoming the real dialogue— I used to actually tell my teams. I was like, “Force the painful stuff to happen as early as you can in the project. Just [yes] even if it’s not a serious thing but just force the test of the process so that you get used to it.”
CL Cuz then you work through it.
AM You work through it. Yeah. And it all comes back to the mentality, the empathy, the storytelling techniques that we use, and who would’ve thought, right? Who would’ve thought— cuz, again, I started as a coder. Doing ethernet to proprietary network protocols.
GT That’s so good.
AM To go from that to like really psychological type stuff, right?
GT Oh, I didn’t know that you— That makes me feel closer to you, Aaron. I love that you were a coder and you were mid level network programming. That’s amazing.
AM I love coding.
GT That makes me very happy.
AM And I will say when I get stuck in my victim stories, right? When I get stuck in those, I will mentally fantasize about life being back as a coder again. I was like— life was so simple but I had code, I had bugs, I could debug it. I didn’t have to worry about— there were no humans. There were no humans in the complexities.
CL Exactly, you either— you run the program, and it works or it doesn’t. Very lovely.
AM Super satisfying. No complexity.
GT That’s alright, that’s alright. As we wrap this up, this has been such a good conversation I feel like we could go much longer, but I’m thinking about keying off this last point that you made is like figuring out how are things gonna go when things go wrong. If you’re a leader, you’re a CIO, you’re looking at a partner to get something done in your organization, you got a big budget, it’s multi-year, it’s high risk, you might get promoted or fired at the end, what would you look at, you know, through your RFP process? You get a bunch of responses or you start to talk to vendors, what are some of the things that you look for and the things that are flags for you? As you do that.
AM Boy, that is a great question. I’ll answer by giving you kind of a story of what I think was the best RFP process I participated in to actually answer that question.
AM And at the time I don’t think I appreciated it fully. But— and I’m gonna mention a client here I probably shouldn’t mention. Well, actually, I won’t, I’ll just say it was a large, San Francisco based clothing retailer which—
GT Right. That works.
AM That narrows it in. So large, San Francisco based clothing retailer was doing a heart surgery new implementation of fulfillment and predictive applications and really like the heart of what assortments are getting sent out to their stores, et cetera, et cetera. So, it was in the guts of their business and had a material impact on whether they increased revenue, decreased revenue, increased cash, decreased cash. So it was a pretty important project. They had on their side, they had assembled 250 people to be in the project, right? Within the client, this is just the client and they were looking for a partner to help guide them. They did the normal like here’s an RFP, let’s respond, whatever. But then what they did is they said, “Ok, now we’re gonna come play house together.” Right?
GT Oh, interesting. Let’s try it out.
AM They selected two, right? At the time I was with Accenture, so Accenture was one and I think IBM was the other, I forget who it was. And they said, “We’re gonna play house with you guys. And we’re gonna come in and we’re gonna do a week of project work together.”
CL This is so smart.
GT I mean, this is really smart.
AM Oh it was fantastic. Right? And as a consultant, right? Like there was no BS-ing your way through a really nicely written response.
GT That’s right!
AM There was no one-hour presentation that sort of said, “Ok, here’s our governance model. We’re gonna do two in the bots,” like none of that stuff, right? It was—
CL You’re in it together.
AM You’re in it together and you know, it’s like speed dating. Right? Like you just know.
GT Yeah, you’re doing the work.
AM Yeah. There’s either chemistry or there’s no chemistry.
GT That’s right.
AM And there’s either you handle the stressful stuff, you don’t handle the stressful stuff. And—
CL Mm hmm.
AM And you deal with the problems, or you don’t deal with the problems. And how do we navigate this together? And how do we reframe the teams? And you know, all that stuff. And so, to me, that was probably one of the more interesting proposal processes I had ever participated in and ultimately very effective, right? Like, you know, the project— they selected our team. The project was ultimately very successful, you know, just an incredible way to really know like what’s this gonna be like? So, I think it’s really hard to figure it out through written responses because ultimately, at the end of the day, like this is about trusting that the people that you’re looking across the table from are gonna work with you to get to the outcome.
GT That’s right.
AM That’s it! At the end of the day, again, the tech is kind of the tech and yeah you can do— technology is like religious wars, like they all kinda work. They all kinda work.
AM They all do the same thing.
GT Right, basically, yeah.
AM Like what you can do in Java, what you can do in C, what you can do in React. Like, ok, whatever, like they’re all just various factions of different religions but whatever [laughs].
GT [Chuckling] Right.
AM It’s— it is ultimately, the people to people connection. Are you Gina, are you Chris gonna do what you say you’re gonna do? Am I gonna say what I’m gonna do as the client, right? Like, is this gonna work? And, to me, that’s where it gets the most interesting. You know, I joke with our team— and, by the way, when our teams produce proposals, when they do sales pitches, whatever, you know, I’m like, you know, a methodology is not a unique sales proposition.
GT That’s right.
AM It’s a belly button. Everybody has a belly button.
CL Everybody has a belly button.
GT It’s true. It’s so true.
AM Right? Like that’s not different. So like you gotta reach deeper, right? And you gotta keep going— and so, “Why are they gonna believe that we can do this? And why are we the right partner? And what’s really gonna be unique about it? And how are we gonna get through this?” And so to me that’s the crux of it, and, you know, there’s clients that are new to the process and they don’t know how to ask that stuff. There are teams that are new to the process, they don’t know how to sell that stuff. But at the end of the day—
GT That’s what matters.
CL That’s what matters.
AM —that’s what everybody’s looking for.
GT That’s right, that’s right. I mean, it’s true, the proof is in the pudding. It’s very, very well said. And I mean a true partner is gonna make you, the client’s problem, their own, they’re gonna be clear communicators, and they’re gonna push toward outcomes and deliverables. That is all true. It’s true.
GT I think it’s great advice. I would love to be in a playhouse situation. It’s funny, we actually don’t like to take some information, go off to our little cave, make a shiny proposal and then present it back. We try to sit with our clients elbow to elbow and understand and do some of the work even upfront because you just get to know how we’re gonna work together after we sign. But it’s not— the processes aren’t always set up that way. You know, if you haven’t hired a partner or if you haven’t done it a lot, I mean this is great advice to really understand how we’re gonna work together.
GT Aaron, this has been [music fades in] amazing! I’m so glad—
CL Thank you so much.
GT— that we got some time in your busy schedule.
AM Thank you, guys.
GT I was really looking forward to this, some just really, really great stuff here. Yeah, I just really enjoy talking with you. Thank you.
AM Likewise. I really appreciate it, guys.
CL Great. If you’re listening and what you heard resonates and maybe you’ve got something you wanna talk through: a tricky proposal; a big risk that’s coming up; you’re thinking about that scary thing that’s in front of you and you wanna talk to somebody, please reach out. We love this stuff. We would love to talk to you and hear about your challenges. You can hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love reading those emails. We may even pull Aaron into a first call or two.
CL Depending on the problem.
AM I’d love it!
CL Cool! Thank you again. This was great. And we will see you all soon.
GT Thanks, everybody [music ramps up, plays for five seconds, fades out to end].