Erika Andersen Of Proteus International: “Leading so People Will Follow”

Leading so People Will Follow: People look to see whether leaders deserve to be followed, especially when those leaders are asking them to do great things. People want leaders who are Farsighted, Passionate, Courageous, Wise, Generous, and Trustworthy. When leaders demonstrate these qualities consistently, people will coalesce around them to create strong teams that get […]

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Leading so People Will Follow: People look to see whether leaders deserve to be followed, especially when those leaders are asking them to do great things. People want leaders who are Farsighted, Passionate, Courageous, Wise, Generous, and Trustworthy. When leaders demonstrate these qualities consistently, people will coalesce around them to create strong teams that get excellent results.


As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erika Andersen.

Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. She and her colleagues support leaders at all levels to get ready and stay ready to meet whatever the future might bring. Erika advises senior executives in companies like Spectrum Revolt Media, Spotify and Amazon on organizational visioning and strategy, team development, and their own evolution as leaders. She also shares her insights through her books, speaking engagements and social media. In addition to her latest book, Change from the Inside Out, she is the author of four previous best-selling books: Be Bad First, Leading So People Will Follow, Being Strategic and Growing Great Employees; a popular leadership blogger at Forbes.com; and the creator and host of the Proteus Leader Show, a regular podcast that offers quick, practical support for leaders and managers


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’ve always been interested in understanding how things work, why they don’t, and how to make them better. When I was five years old, I tried to make a stuffed animal out of a pillowcase filled with my mom’s nylon stockings, with fur that I had cut off another stuffed animal and glued on with Elmer’s glue. My first failed experiment — but such a great example of who I am and “how I got started.”

Fast forward about 25 years, to getting a job working for Tim Gallwey, the creator of the Inner Game approach — where I was able to focus my “making things” impulse into discovering my passion for helping people improve their lives and their organizations.

Ten years later, I started Proteus, a coaching, consulting and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. And so, for the past 30+ years, I’ve had the great good fortune of working with wonderful, smart, authentic colleagues to help our clients clarify and move toward their hoped-for future, organizationally and individually.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When I started Proteus, I had two young kids and was the primary breadwinner for my family. It was often tough to start with…there was one month in our second year where I made a grand total of zero dollars.

I never considered giving up, though: I knew we had something really valuable to offer, I believed our plan was sound, and our early clients were mostly very positive — and some of them quickly became both advocates and friends. I’m so glad I kept going; we’ve built something wonderful.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

A big mistake I made early on — and I didn’t consider it funny at the time; it was mortifying — taught me a lot. A client had told me that he was leaving his current job to become CEO of another company. I called the new company to congratulate him. When I said to the operator, “Can I speak to Joe Schmo, your new CEO,” she connected me to another guy, who asked — in a very irritated voice — “Who is this, and why are you asking for Joe Schmo?” I said, “I’m Erika Andersen, a friend of his. I just wanted to say hi and congratulate him on his new role as CEO for your company.” The guy just blew up: “I’m the CEO of this company,” he yelled, “and I don’t know anything about any Joe Schmo, and if this is some kind of joke….!” Well, as you can imagine, I mumbled an apology, said that I must have misunderstood and got off the phone as soon as possible.

It turned out that my client had told me the wrong start date and they hadn’t yet let the former CEO know he was being let go. I felt so terrible.

That happened almost 30 years ago, and it has made me conscious every day since of the importance of making sure that I’m only sharing information that should be shared: I’m really good at keeping things confidential!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I’m proud of us for many things, but especially that we practice what we preach. We hold ourselves accountable to use the skills and demonstrate the behaviors that we encourage in our clients. It offers a kind of authenticity and moral authority that’s really powerful. For instance, I was talking with a coaching client a few weeks ago who was having a really hard time being open to a change he was being asked to make. I was able to share with him a situation I’d been in just the day before, where I had seen my own resistance to a necessary change and had to acknowledge that and consciously shift my mindset.

He saw I was having the same problem he was having and was working on solving it just as I was encouraging him to do — and that was clarifying, motivating and reassuring to him.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

What a great question. The best advice I can offer is to observe your own point of diminishing returns and step back. That is, when you get to the point where your effort is not yielding joy and good outcomes, figure out how to stop and take a true break until you feel back in balance. It could be that you just need 15 minutes playing with your dog or a half-hour walk in nature…or you might actually need a real vacation where you turn off your phone and turn to your loved ones. Sometimes it’s easy to convince ourselves we can’t take a break — and we just dig ourselves deeper and deeper into “doing.” But, I’m convinced you can always take a break, even if it’s just a mini-one. And sometimes even a little break will provide the nourishment or change of perspective you need.

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?

I am grateful to so many people, for so many things, it’s hard to choose. My dad and my husband Patrick are at the very top of the list, though. My dad has been gone for many years, but I think about him almost every day. He taught me to be curious, to believe in my own potential, and to know that I’m a wonderful person. I remember one conversation I had with him when I was in high school — we were having a pretty significant disagreement about the role of government (I was quite a bit more liberal than he was). He listened to me so carefully, asked such good questions, and at the end said, “We really see this differently, but I love how you think.” What an amazingly nourishing way to argue with your 16-year-old kid!

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

A good company is one that hits its marks: serves its clients as promised, is financially sound, behaves ethically.

A great company is one that consistently exceeds expectations: clients feel like they’ve gotten even more than they thought they would; employees love working there; it adds significant value to the world in terms of new services or products. Great companies have good, simple, effective systems, processes, structure and culture — and those yield excellent results. And great companies are great citizens of the planet, as well — they’re actively seeking to do well by doing right, whether in terms of their impact on the environment, their support of diversity, equity and inclusion, or their high standards for just and ethical practices.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

At the risk of sounding enormously self-aggrandizing, I think my five books capture those five most important things to lead a company to greatness — Growing Great Employees, Being Strategic, Leading So People Will Follow, Be Bad First, and Change from the Inside Out.

Growing Great Employees: When leaders get clear about the kind of employees they need in order to make their company great, and then hire, support and grow those employees consistently — those employees become the basis of greatness: creating the products and services that will make the company stand out, and offering the creativity and energy to break through to new levels.

Being Strategic: Creating a compelling vision for the future of the organization and bringing people together to achieve it establishes a practical path to greatness. When leaders consistently communicate where the company is going and invite their folks to make it happen with them, greatness is much more likely.

Leading so People Will Follow: People look to see whether leaders deserve to be followed, especially when those leaders are asking them to do great things. People want leaders who are Farsighted, Passionate, Courageous, Wise, Generous, and Trustworthy. When leaders demonstrate these qualities consistently, people will coalesce around them to create strong teams that get excellent results.

Be Bad First: In order to become great and make their companies great, leaders need to be great learners. To “be bad first,” — that is, to be willing and able to be a novice in any new areas that arise, is a key skill for leaders…and one that tends to be difficult. By the time people get to senior leadership positions, it can be hard to admit lack of knowledge or expertise…but it’s essential.

Change from the Inside Out: Going from good to great — and continuing to grow in greatness — requires change-capability — the skills and mindset to be open to and capable of making change. Leaders who want to build great companies need to re-wire themselves, those they lead, and their organizations to become better able to make necessary change.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

My experience really supports this research. Having a mission or purpose that’s meaningful and that’s compelling to those in the organization serves two important functions: it inspires and motivates people to do great work in service of that organizational purpose, and it makes it more likely that the company will have a positive impact on the world.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

I’d suggest they investigate their relationship with change. Often, business stagnation results when leaders get protective of the status quo — even without knowing it. Most of us are wired to believe change is a threat, especially when it’s imposed on us by others. As a leader, notice how you react when someone suggests a major transformation to your business. Is your immediate thought that it will be “difficult, costly, and weird” to make change? Do you then respond from that mindset? If so, you may be holding your company back.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

To continue the thought from my previous answer, I think the key strategy is to re-wire yourself to be more open to necessary change. Here’s how that works. You find yourself thinking that a proposed change will be difficult — meaning you or others won’t know how to do it, or things will get in the way of you doing it; costly — meaning it will take away things you value, like time, money, relationships, identity, or reputation; or weird — meaning strange, unnatural, “not how we do things around here.”

The good news is, once you realize you’re thinking like this, you can change your mind. You can think, instead, how it could be easy (or at least doable), rewarding, and normal to make the change. For example, in the situation outlined in the question above, let’s say your mental monologue is, We can’t possibly keep growing when our industry is so challenged (difficult). It will take investments we can’t make (costly), and we’ve never done this before (weird).

Instead, you can decide to think in ways that are more hopeful and change-supportive, but still accurate: We need to consider new ways to grow that are still possible in this environment (easy/doable) — and I want to figure out how we can get the best return for whatever investment we make (rewarding). Let’s find some examples of others who are doing things like this successfully (normal).

Changing your self-talk to be more change-supportive is key to leading through turbulent times.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Most leaders underestimate how critical it is to bring their people into the conversation and give them as much power and as much of a voice as possible. That’s especially true when a business isn’t just “steady-state,” but rather is looking to grow and evolve. We’ve all heard the statistic that 70% of organizational change efforts fail — and that the primary reasons for that failure are lack of manager support and employee buy-in. For instance, many years ago, I was working with a company that was merging with another company in order to support the growth of both. I asked the CEO what he was going to do to support his people through the merger, and he said “Oh, they’ll be OK; they’ll get with the program.”

As you might imagine, he was wrong — they lost a lot of their best people, and the targeted financial results of the merger took over three years vs. the 12 months they had hoped. He wildly underestimated how critical it was to get his folks on board.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Again, it’s all about becoming change-capable. If your sales folks aren’t turning enough visits into closed sales that means what they’re doing needs to change. Once you’ve identified what isn’t working and clarified the new expectations, you need to support them through their “change arc”– the process any person needs to go through to make any change. The stages of that change arc are proposed change, mindset shift, new behaviors and change occurs. To help them through “proposed change,” you need to share what the change is (that is, what it will require of them); why it’s happening — and the “why” needs to be meaningful to them; and what the post-change future will look like — that is, how their careers and the business itself will be different (and hopefully better) as a result of the change. Helping them make the “mindset shift” is what I talked about previously: moving from thinking of this change (or any change) as difficult, costly and weird, to believing it could be easy, rewarding and normal. When they’ve gotten the understanding they need in proposed change and started to make that mindset shift, then they’ll be willing to learn and do the new behaviors the change requires, and the change can occur.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

The most important and straightforward way to build your brand is to do what you say you’ll do. We like to define brand as “the promise of an experience.” If you promise an experience to your customers and then consistently deliver on that promise, your brand will be beloved and trusted.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

I’ll go back to what I said earlier about change of any kind. If you want to support your employees to provide great customer service and a great customer experience, first you need to get clear on what they’re doing that’s not that; what needs to change. Once you know that, you can let your customer service people know the “what, why and what it will look like” of that change, and then help them through their mindset shift, so they can see the new ways of dealing with customers as easy, rewarding and — most important — normal: as “the way we do things around here.” Then they’ll be willing and able to start providing that “Wow” experience.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The two most common mistakes founders make in my experience, are 1) underestimating the effort needed to build a team and get everyone motivated and pulling together and 2) not letting go enough as the company grows — either not hiring people who are capable of taking on more of the responsibility for the company’s success as it expands…or, what’s worse, hiring capable people and not allowing them to take on more.

As to how they can avoid those errors — I’d refer you back to my answer about “the five things”: grow great employees, be strategic, lead so people will follow, be bad first, and change from the inside out!

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

If I could wave a magic wand, I’d have every person in the world do two things at the beginning of every conversation: assume positive intent, and then listen. That is, assume that the other person is doing what they’re doing because they genuinely think it’s the right thing (vs. because they’re trying to screw you over or destroy the world). And then, actually put your agenda and point of view aside for a few minutes, truly take in what they’re saying, and try to understand it. Sure, occasionally, that other person will be genuinely bad, evil, or stupid (and you’ll figure that out if you’re really listening) — but in the majority of cases, they’ll be an OK person, just like you, and starting out this way will dramatically increase our ability to get along with each other and find equitable solutions to all kinds of problems.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I’d love for them to join me on LinkedIn, on twitter, at my Forbes blog, or at my website. And please check out my new book, Change from the Inside Out.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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