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Author Robin Moriarty, Ph.D: “I would like for us to change how we measure success today”

I would like for us to change how we measure success which today is characterized by comparing ourselves to others, competing, and focusing so much on external validation and material wealth. This would require shifting our social structures and systems and values and idols to drive behavior and incentives to foster collaboration, support, and joy. I […]


I would like for us to change how we measure success which today is characterized by comparing ourselves to others, competing, and focusing so much on external validation and material wealth. This would require shifting our social structures and systems and values and idols to drive behavior and incentives to foster collaboration, support, and joy.


I had the pleasure to interview Robin Moriarty, Ph.D. Robin is a global business executive, speaker, author, adjunct professor, and thought leader for businesses and non-profit organizations. She has lived on four continents and traveled to 60+ countries. Over the course of her career, Dr. Moriarty has focused on aligning businesses with opportunities to create positive societal impact in North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. As adjunct professor at The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, Dr. Moriarty taught cross-cultural leadership to future global leaders. She regularly shares her observations and advice on navigating complex work and life questions through speaking engagements for students and professionals and on her website, www.gutsy.world. Her book, What Game Are You Playing?: A Framework for Redefining Success and Achieving What Matters Most released on September 10, 2019.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Robin! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

From my first trip abroad when I was 11 years old, I was fascinated by how big the world is and I wanted to be a part of it. I studied international relations and economics and then focused on international business. Since then, I’ve lived on four continents and traveled to more than 60 countries selling cellphones, tampons, toilet paper, and information solutions. The industry doesn’t matter to me as much as the ability to work in different countries and with people from different cultural backgrounds. That’s what really excites me!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In my first big C-Level job, I was based in Hong Kong and charged with accelerating growth and delivering profitability of the business. This meant revamping the strategy and also driving a change in the company culture to emphasize empowerment and accountability. The leadership team and I went offsite for a working session about these issues, and in the session, we divided into small groups to talk about our vision for the organization and for how we’d work together. Each group was to create a poster with images and words that reflected their conversations. When we came back together, the groups were to present their posters.

Two of the groups presented posters with photos and symbols of teamwork. Then third group presented a poster that had a HUGE photo of my face and a CROWN that they had cut out of a magazine and pasted onto my photo. I was taken aback — somewhere between horrified and hysterically laughing — and then after I got over the shock, I listened to what they said. They were being very clear that they wanted teamwork and success in the market, and they expected me to be the leader who would take us there. They shared that they wanted top-down, hierarchical leadership not the consensus-building, collaborative kind of leadership that Western cultures are known for. And it was then I realized that in order to be an effective leader in that company, I needed to adjust my style in order to be the kind of leader they needed. This meant being more hierarchical than my natural style, but it’s how I needed to shift in order to be effective.

Over the course of a year and a half, we evolved the company culture to be a hybrid between the super hierarchical style they’d previously known and were expecting from me to a more hybrid style of empowerment and collaboration within defined guardrails.

And that lesson has stayed with me whenever going into a new role — understanding how I need to be willing to adjust my style to be effective in an organization while simultaneously helping drive a better organizational culture in order to win in the market.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When first starting to work with East Asian cultures, I knew that hierarchy was a big deal but I didn’t really understand what that meant. In my first big meeting in Korea with the head of a billion-dollar business, I met first with two members of his team and they accompanied me into his office to meet with him. I immediately marched across the room towards him and reached out to shake his hand and say hello. While I was shaking his hand, I looked over my shoulder and the two members of his team were still standing by the door. Genuflecting. And that was when it hit me that I had completely blown the first impression because I was not aware enough of hierarchy and the deference that I should have shown him. Fortunately, he was very understanding and handled the situation with humor and grace. But it was a lesson I never forgot — that when going into new cultures and new environments, I needed to be extra aware of how to interact if I wanted to be effective — because not everybody would be so forgiving!

Another funny story has to do with working in Latin America and trying to learn Spanish to be able to conduct business more effectively. I was tired of going into meetings where everyone switched into English just for me. So I studied hard and practiced and would try to follow their Spanish and try to speak and contribute. I thought I was doing well and understood 70–80% of what they were saying but looking back, I probably understood 20–30%. And sometimes when I would speak up, people would chuckle and I knew I’d butchered something. People were always encouraging and say, “You speak well!” But once my Spanish really improved, people were less forgiving — correcting me and increasing their expectations of my ability to communicate and conduct complex negotiations in my second language — and I realized the importance of not just making an effort but actually learning a language and a culture and being fluent in order to be effective. And I also realized how many people were speaking English as a second language so I needed to cut them some slack as well.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’ve written a book called “What Game Are You Playing?” which can help people think about how they measure success and make adjustments in their lives to achieve what they really want rather than what everyone else seems to expect them to want. There’s a website (www.gutsy.world) and other materials that are designed to help navigate complex personal and professional situations with some perspective, some humor, and a different way of looking at things.

From the moment we are born, others’ expectations shape our behaviors, choices, and definitions of success. We build our personal and professional lives around those expectations and at some point, many of us wonder if we are on the right path. We may want to make changes, but it’s difficult and we don’t know how to start.

In What Game Are You Playing?, author Robin Moriarty, PhD shares her views on what being “successful” really looks like, and those views will be a surprise to many. According to Moriarty, life is a game, and it is up to each individual to determine just what kind of game they want to play. The author guides readers through a process that shows them how to assess their current state and outlines the steps they need to take in order to achieve their new game and own version of success. The book enables readers to — Through a series of examples and exercises designed as a game, Moriarty helps readers recognize — and then step away from — the expectations of others so they can define and pursue their own versions of success in work and in life. Through this process of finding and designing their own games, readers will no longer be a pawn in someone else’s.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

The best advice I have is to hire good people and then get out of their way. This sounds simple but it’s quite difficult because it requires deciding who is good and also managing your own ego about having people work for you who are better than you!

So often we incorporate a scarcity mentality into our thinking and as a leader, you have to remember that the world is big, opportunities are endless, and your job is to make the pie bigger for more people.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

As you move farther and farther up an organization, you cannot do things on your own. You must get them done through others. Micromanaging goes out the window. Being superwoman goes out the window. Getting the right team, the right structure, process, and roles / responsibilities becomes the key.

This also means you must delegate. And even when you disagree with one of your team members about the decisions they’ve made with that delegated authority, as long as you can live with it and it’s not going to wreck the business, you need to let it go.

One little example here was when I delegated the annual party to the HR leader. She wanted me to choose a theme but I declined as she was now responsible. She created a committee of employees and they chose “Pajama Party.” I was thinking, “This is a horrible idea that could go seriously wrong, but the message I’ll be sending by overriding the decision is that delegating doesn’t mean anything.” So I privately shared with her what I considered to be appropriate dress code, she agreed to communicate and enforce that, and we had a pajama party where everyone showed up in full-body footie pajamas that looked like cows and ducks and other farm animals. It was actually hilarious and great fun. And it was important as a leader not to micromanage!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Early in my career, I was working in a strategy role that gave me a lot of exposure to very senior executives in my corporation. When one of them needed a Chief of Staff, my name came up and I was offered the role. It was an incredible opportunity to sit at a table of very senior executives at an early stage of my career. He gave me open door access, I was in all of the highest-level meetings, and he trusted me with huge transformational initiatives. I handled issues across the business and I saw how senior people interact, what issues they do / don’t pay attention to, how they handle Wall Street and investors, and how to see across the business while diving deep when necessary (instead of always diving deep). This was core to my development as an executive and I’m grateful to him for that opportunity and to the other executives at that table for their guidance and counsel as well.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

On a personal level, I’ve funded several scholarships and been charitable in giving to organizations that I think do good work.

More importantly, I have been a mentor and advisor to people of many walks of life across many countries. I have counseled on issues related to discrimination in the workplace, harassment, and other kinds of unfair treatment. I have counseled on salary and promotion issues, personal relationship issues, and those weird gray areas that so many women talk about.

And more expansively, I’ve identified business opportunities to address systemic problems particularly through financial inclusion initiatives in developing markets. I’m a firm believer that as a business leader, it’s my responsibility to find the spaces where we do good work for our company, our consumers, and the communities in which we operate.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Your job is to inspire your team to do great work. As a leader, you can’t motivate people. They motivate themselves. But you can inspire them to do great work and you can make sure they have the resources they need to do it!
  2. Hire good people and get out of their way. After turning around the business in one of my C-Level roles, I realized that the business was basically running itself and that I could start taking Wednesday mornings off (which was great!). I had put in a great team who was delivering such amazing results that my life got easier. And so did theirs. That’s success in my mind — achieving results and also time for everyone to enjoy their lives!
  3. People are going to psychopath you. While living in Latin America, I had a really difficult time with two people in my organization. One had wanted my job and the other was his sidekick. They both worked tirelessly to derail my efforts, my team and their projects, and my results. They retaliated against me, spread rumors, and did everything they could to make me quit. And I got defensive and angry and thrown off track. Until someone came into my office one day and explained to me that they were “psychopathing” me — a verb — to psychopath — and I was falling right into their trap. This person told me that they were psychopathing me to thrown me off my game because they knew I was a force to be reckoned with and they felt threatened. This helped me see the bigger picture and adjust my approach, coming from a position of strength rather than from a position of weakness.
  4. Do what’s right for the business. Someone once told me that if you’re always doing what’s right for the business, things will work out ok. You may screw up and fail, but people will know that you were trying to do the right thing. I remember this often as I see people around me playing politics and advancing personal agendas. I keep my focus on what’s right for the business and what’s good for the enterprise and use that as my guide.
  5. Businesspeople have a responsibility to do good things for the communities in which they operate. In very large companies with shareholders, decisions seem to be made in a way that is disconnected from the communities in which they operate. My experiences show that businesses thrive when the communities in which they operate — and the citizens of those communities — also thrive. Businesspeople need to identify the needs of those communities and challenge themselves to find innovation solutions to meet those needs. I’ve done this in telecom with marketing programs and work with NGO’s designed to keep kids in school, with a diaper company to help with orphanages and foster kids, and with an information services company through better analytics to help enable access to loans for people who previously had been denied.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like for us to change how we measure success which today is characterized by comparing ourselves to others, competing, and focusing so much on external validation and material wealth. This would require shifting our social structures and systems and values and idols to drive behavior and incentives to foster collaboration, support, and joy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Life’s tough. Get a helmet. — Jennifer Aniston

I read this quote and I think it was while she was separating from Brad Pitt and the tabloids were brutal. I was also going through some difficult personal and professional moments and it reminded me that I’m strong (not weak) and I can just toughen up and keep going.

Another one of my favorites is from Oprah Winfrey. She says don’t ask why something is happening TO you. Ask why something is happening FOR you.

This has also gotten me through some times and helped me find a new way when doors seemed to be shutting all around me.

Finally (and I think this may be from a country song?!?!) — Thank God for unanswered prayers.

I have definitely prayed for stuff that I’m now so grateful that they didn’t happen because they were not been the right path for me.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

There are two people who jump out in my mind.

The first is Ai Wei Wei because of his ability and willingness to challenge the status quo and put a mirror up to our social and cultural realities in an effort to help us gain awareness and then to push for change.

The second is Tiffany Haddish. Not only do I know it would be great fun and full of laughter, I also would want to tell her that I admire her. She has lived through the unspeakable. But she speaks it. And she can even laugh about it.

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