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How to Be an Impact Player: A Conversation with Liz Wiseman

businesswoman busting through wall

Photo credit: (MicrovOne)

Liz Wiseman is a researcher and executive advisor who teaches leadership to executives worldwide. She is the author of the New York Times best-sellers Multipliers and The Multiplier Effect, and Wall Street Journal best-sellers Rookie Smarts and Impact Players

She joined us recently to discuss her most recent book and more. 

Q: What are the roots of your interest in leadership and talent development

Well, there’s my work on the surface, and then there’s the work under the surface. I work on the surfaces around leadership and talent development, and I don’t know what drew me to it other than maybe a natural proclivity for business and taking charge. I also have to attribute a fair bit of it to a wonderful professor: Kerry Patterson, the lead researcher and co-author of Crucial Conversations.

And I had a gruff father who lacked any sophistication regarding interpersonal skills. He had a way of offending people and making people feel bad. For whatever reason, I looked at my dad differently. I would say, “No, he’s not hurtful. He’s trying to show his kids and family how much he loves them, but he’s having difficulty doing it.”

This began my life’s work of understanding the difference between people’s intentions and their impact. 

Q: What advice do you have for women leaders who sometimes feel pressure to be nice and hold everybody else up, even though they may not be respected for that?

Great leadership can be both supportive and demanding. Let’s look at a very stereotypical role of women, like a parent or a mother. This tends to be best done when you know the parent is supportive and loving but has high expectations and clear expectations and holds people accountable.

I want leaders to be so comfortable with their intelligence that they can walk into work going, “Okay, I’m brilliant. And I know it, and other people know it, so I’m over it. I don’t have to spend my days proving it.” 

Now, of course, women carry an extra burden around demonstrating competence. And we want people on the other side of that anxiety, and the way to do that is with authenticity. There’s a lot of power in saying, “I am not trying to put on a persona. I don’t have a work persona. I don’t need to be anything but a thoughtful, careful, and best version of myself.”

Q: In Impact Players, you observe that since organizations have become less hierarchical, many books have focused on leadership – but fewer on the fact that people want to have more of an impact. Would you talk about that?

From all my research, I’ve learned that People all around the world want to contribute and play a significant role, and when they can, the organization’s culture, leaders, and we allow it. 

And, you know, it’s easy for women to become what I might call the missing impact player–meaning they want to contribute but maybe do it behind the scenes or in less visible ways, and the organization doesn’t see it. While I wish the world weren’t this way, we must ensure our contributions don’t go on behind the scenes.

That’s true of anyone who works in a background role where they’re not centerstage bringing in the revenue. Their name isn’t on the patent, so to speak. While I wish leaders were hyper-vigilant about ensuring that people who work quietly or behind the scenes don’t have to self-promote, they aren’t. If we want to do work that has a lot of meaning and makes an impact, we must ensure that our impact is seen.

We don’t need to do it in loud, self-promoting ways, but we must do it with savvy. For example, I love watching skilled waiter servers, whose job is to be invisible often. Still, they’ll occasionally go into the foreground and remind you what they do on your behalf. They’re saying, “Don’t let my quiet service go unnoticed.” For women wanting to make a big contribution, particularly those who work in quieter ways, it might behoove us to think like a waiter.

Q: Having an impact today also requires the ability to navigate uncertainty. What helps you deal with it?

The greater the levels of uncertainty, the more you can take charge, and the rules don’t apply. When there’s a lot of certainty inside the organization, people are bound to rules. “This is who’s supposed to be in the meeting. This is how it is supposed to be done.” But when there’s a lot of uncertainty, it’s a chance to say, “Okay, we should do this. And I’m happy to take charge, and the three of us will figure this out.” When things are messy and uncertain, it’s easy to take charge.  


Liz Wiseman
Liz Wiseman