134: The Role of Writers as Torchbearers for Their Readers: Interview with Nancy Duarte
Whenever we tell a story, anytime we write a book, or publish a blog post, we’re trying to effect some kind of change. But the future is scary for your readers. They need you to light the way.
Torchbearers communicate in a way that conquers fear and inspires hope.
So begins the first chapter of Illuminate by Nancy Duarte.
Nancy has helped leaders from the White House to Apple create compelling presentations through her creative agency, Duarte, for decades. In that time, she has learned to lead creatively, and how to train creatives to lead.
This week on The Portfolio Life, Nancy and I talk about the role of the writer as a torchbearer, five key moments along the journey, and how stories of failure can move people out of complacency.
Listen in as we discuss why it’s almost impossible to be a storytelling leader without authenticity, and how “arriving” doesn’t mean you are victorious.
Listen to the podcast
To listen to the show, click the player below (If you’re reading this via email, please click here).
In this episode, Nancy and I discuss:
- Counting the cost of declaring a new future
- Leading readers through transformative change
- The benefits and challenges of writing with a coauthor
- Why some leaders aren’t naturally empathetic (and how they can cope)
- Reinvention as a necessary strategy for enduring organizations
Quotes and takeaways
- “Those who light the path are the ones who change the world.” —Nancy Duarte
- “Chose what it is you are called to do and see it through to completion.” —Nancy Duarte
- “Everyone can lead something to leave the world a better place.” —Nancy Duarte
- You’ve written a good book if you have to reference it yourself.
- A calling is bigger than you.
- Illuminate by Nancy Duarte & Patti Sanchez
- Supplemental resources for Illuminate
- Resonate by Nancy Duarte
- Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte
What change are you trying to affect in the world? How are you illuminating the path for your readers? Share in the comments
“ND: So, there is something to be said for it’s really almost impossible to be a great storytelling leader and not be authentic because it is a lot about exposing your own challenges to others and what you did to cope with them.”
[0:00:26.2] AT: Welcome to the portfolio life podcast with Jeff Goins. I’m your host Andy Traub. Jeff believes that every creative should live a portfolio life. A life full of pursuing work that matters, making a difference with your art, and discovering your true voice. Jeff’s committed to helping you find, develop, and then live out your unique world view so that you too can live a portfolio life.
Nancy Duarte has been helping creatives create great presentations for many years through the work of her company. Along the way she’s learned how to lead creatively and also lead creatives. Her latest book Illuminate, it is a must read for any leader.
Here is Jeff Goins and Nancy Duarte.
[0:01:11.8] JG: Nancy Duarte, wow, thanks for being a part of the show. I am a big fan. What do they say? Long time listener, long time reader, first time interviewing you. I don’t know? Welcome.
[0:01:24.1] ND: Thank you. Thanks for having me, what a treat.
[0:01:26.6] JG: Well, what I love about what you’re doing right now. Usually we talk about you and stuff and you go, “Oh, by the way, you’ve got a book,” and we just have to shed the pretense and talk about this book because it’s so good.
[0:01:43.7] ND: I had a good time writing this book. I had coauthor which was so fun. I grew as a writer and I grew in a friendship with someone, it just was really fun.
[0:01:54.0] JG: The book is called Illuminate and I didn’t know what this book was about. I don’t know what you’re calling this book, but listener, you have to get this book because this is how I’m going to call it — and then Nancy you can tell me what it really is — I was reading it from my perspective of being a creative who has kind of fallen in the entrepreneurship as a lot of people have these days and there’s incredible opportunities to build amazing organizations and share your creative gifts and art with the world in a way that can make an impact and also make good living.
To me, this is a book about creative leadership, especially for people who live off of ideas like they make a living of off their ideas, which I do and I think you do as well. So I think of it as like a creative leadership book, which was really fun. What do you call it?
[0:02:47.4] ND: I’m glad you see it that way because my other books have been about how to make the individual a better presenter and this is a leadership book. So I’m so happy that you see that as self-evident because anybody who is a creator that gets called into business, you’re constantly in a state of innovations.
It’s one thing to be innovating your ideas, it’s another thing to have to be innovating an organization, which means you had to lead in mass, which is different you know? Not everyone has to do that and not everyone accepts the mantle of leadership. So, I’m glad you saw that and they can see the connection because the reason we’re communicating ever is most of the time it sparks change, you know?
You tell a story, anything you communicate is like it’s because you want to have people align with you and go to this new place in the future with you and thrive there. So yeah, I’m happy you saw that because that is the intent of the book.
[0:03:39.9] JG: You use this word “called” — I love that word — in the book, really, at the beginning, there is this mantra, I’m a big fan of that word calling. You have this little mantra, the torchbearer’s calling and I love this little thing. I’m actually just going to read it and then you tell me what is this and how does it fit in to the big idea of Illuminate. The torchbearer’s calling is this:
“The future is a formless void, a blank space waiting to be filled and then a torchbearer envisions a new possibility. That vision is your dream, your calling, and it burns like a fire in your belly. But you can’t create the future alone; you need travelers to come along. Yet the path through the unknown is dark and unclear. You have to illuminate the path for travelers. Torchbearers communicate in a way that conquers fear and inspires hope. Some say being a torchbearer is a burden, some say it’s a blessing. Either way, those who light the path are the ones who change the world.”
Where did this idea of being a torchbearer come, from? What does it mean to you?
[0:04:39.7] ND: You know it’s funny because the torchbearer, you think of the situations when you need a torch, it’s usually dark and clammy, cave dwelling kind of…
[0:04:47.4] JG: Dungeon.
[0:04:48.2] ND: Yeah.
[0:04:48.2] JG: I’m thinking dungeon.
[0:04:49.6] ND: What a torchbearer does is, the future is scary right? Even though you have hope for it, it’s really hard to unseat people from their current place and be willing to go there and a torchbearer casts just enough light in any situation to make the next few steps seem bearable and doable. One of the reasons we liked the word bearer is it is something you have to accept, it’s like Frodo right? Suddenly he was a ring bearer and he had to deal with it. It’s like, “Here’s this problem in the world, am I willing to be the one to bear that and choose it to be what I’m called to do to see through to completion?”
It’s been interesting to move from a presentation book to a leadership of how many people are like, “Oh, you wrote a leadership book? I might not be that interested.” Okay, I think everyone can lead something that can leave the world a better place and it’s just simply based on how they communicate. That’s where it came from and the torch bearer and travelers, we didn’t want to say leaders and followers, we didn’t want to say managers and teams you know? My publisher kept trying to get us to do that and I was like, “You know what? This is bigger than that.”
This is like you know, we did kind of rely a little bit on Frodo right? He’s like launched this great, epic journey and his friends came along. His travelers came with him and the big thing is that if Frodo had understood what that journey would be like through their eyes, he would have begged them to stay home. Leaders today don’t count the cost, we just make this declaration of a new future and we just expect everyone to be like, “Whoopee, let’s go,” and they’re not, they won’t because it’s a total journey, it’s a whole venture scape that you’re going to take them through with its own versions of drama and high speed chases.
[0:06:32.7] JG: Dragons.
[0:06:34.0] ND: Dragons that need to be slayed and this transformative change that you’re leading people to. It’s fun and for me, it’s my own coping mechanism. The models in the book are partly for me so I can see through the eyes of my own travelers as an empathetic tool, because there’s not that many leaders that are naturally empathetic. So this is my own coping mechanism.
[0:06:57.1] JG: Yeah, and you said something that I thought was interesting, you said you’re not a naturally empathetic leader, which surprised me and I don’t know why it did. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
[0:07:06.1] ND: You know, people challenge me on that, right? It’s like, I would say I’m a heartfelt leader. But what happens is like, you wouldn’t believe this stuff that bursts out of my mouth before I even for one second consider how the people might be on the receiving end of it. I’ve been on a little bit of a personal journey through my own gift of lacking empathy and it started in college.
A lot of people don’t know, I made a C minus in speech communication. I made an A plus in the visual aids. We didn’t have PowerPoint so it was like props and posters and stuff. I got an F in bringing content to the table that connected to the audience and through my own journey, I’ve come to figure out, there was an early problem because my mom was a narcissist and narcissists, it’s a genetic dysfunction where they’re actually missing the empathy gene where they can’t ever process anything from someone else’s eyes, it’s all through their own eyes.
So growing up, I never had empathy modeled for me and so you can see my body of work, if you’re familiar with Resonate, it also has a model of empathy, this has a model of empathy, you can kind of see me clawing away at reclaiming an ability or a wakening ability in me to have empathy. So believe it or not, this is going to sound so funny, I had to pull out my own book twice already so I could orient myself to it, communication situation where I was like, “Well, I want to say this, is it the right thing to say?” And then I whipped out my book and I was like, “Ah, maybe I could frame it this other way.” It’s funny but it’s true.
[0:08:34.0] JG: Well, it’s honest right and I think it means that you’ve probably written a good book, I don’t know how you feel about this but like, I feel like when you’re writing a book, initially it’s like you have this idea of this thing that you want to say. But as you keep sort of chipping away at the idea, you discover something and you go, “Whoa, guys, check this out. Look at this thing that I discovered, isn’t this really neat?”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was listening to some conversations, interviews and what not with you and your coauthor Patty but it sounds like you guys discovered things together by passing the baton back and forth, as it were, as you were writing this together.
[0:09:06.8] ND: Yeah. We had very different creative styles. I’m the kind of person that will be like, “Hey everyone, look at this models, they’re only partially baked and you need to look at it more like a sonogram, but react to it,” you know? Yeah. Whereas she writes by just going really deep. She could just write for hours and then she sees it. So, I’m like a humming bird, she’s like a fox right? What was interesting is to iterate because here I am, a leader, I’m a bit of a seer, I have a prophetic imagination, I can see the future.
I pretty definitively know exactly the direction I need to take my firm in the next 18 months. Pretty clear. That’s kind of rare, right? I’m very future, I live in the future, I’m focused on the future. Patty’s 100% present and she’s an end path. If you look up the definition, it’s someone with a super and natural ability to be empathetic and so she’s fully in the present and can feel everything. So there is time to write in the book, I’d come in and something would be going on at the office and I’d be like, “Oh my god, can you,” — “Let’s pause for a moment and consider things from their perspective.” It was hysterical. I think the book wouldn’t have turned out to be what it was without both of those. This keen ability to see the future and this empathetic voice in the whole thing. It’s a completely different book having work done it with her for sure.
[0:10:19.4] JG: I was so excited to read this book and I love Slide:ology, I loved Resonate, I love the work that you’ve done in helping empower and encourage communicators on how to connect with audiences through visual communication, through storytelling. I love that you love the Hero’s Journey, I love that that was in this book. I just love slides of Yoda, let’s be honest.
[0:10:41.0] ND: I know. I think I’m the only person in history that actually asked permission and paid money to use that picture. They did, they gave it to me before it was still Lucas Films for reals, so that’s funny.
[0:10:56.0] JG: What I love about this Nancy is you tell your story starting Duerte, Duerte Inc. and the different evolutions and iterations of the business and I just have to be honest with you. The language that you used in here, calling, burden, maybe you choose this, maybe it chooses you. We live in this age where you don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.
You used different language, you used the language of I think leadership, “torchbearer”, this idea that I have a certain responsibility that I’ve been given this gifts and abilities and opportunities. I may have a responsibility to, you know, going back to the Frodo thing, even if I don’t want to. Again, I don’t think you need to like hate your life or anything but it might be bigger than me.
At times, the things that I’m doing feel that way and I go, “Well, why can’t I just like go you know, write all the time, why do I have to grow an organization?” And I wonder if we could maybe spend the remainder of our time kind of breaking down your journey into this three act structure and you talked about going back and having to read your own book to remember things to do and in the book, you’ve got this process that organizations need to go through and it’s this, my understanding is, this constant cycle of reinvention and I wonder if you could share a little bit about how did you get started in business? I want to call you an artist. I don’t know if you accept that moniker?
[0:12:21.2] ND: Yeah, someone keeps putting up in Wikipedia that I’m a graphic designer. I have no idea. My poor team, they have to go up there all the time. They think I’m a math major and a graphic designer. Like, “Could just take a lid out because I don’t know where that comes from?”
I would say I’m a creative soul, I’m a systems thinker that loves to visualize stuff. It’s funny because we’ve been around 28 years now and most small business, the US labor, they do a census and it says most small business is less between four and five years. I do think it’s kind of fascinating that in 28 years, I’ve been through eight reinventions. That’s a reinvention every years basically.
Why do you have to reinvent? It’s because you’re travelers, whoever your customer base is, the people who you’re wanting to have follow and be loyal to you, there needs change. 18 months later they just might not need what you have, you know? Especially on a whim right now, one tweak can change the sentiment of a country practically and you have to be so on top, you either have to be driving your industry or you have to be so on top of what your customers need so that you’re evolving.
Because if you’re staying still, a pool of water will become foul rot if it just sits there. You do not want an organization that ever turns into a foul rot. So you need to be infusing it with innovation and that’s the leader’s role is to do that. So yeah, we’ve been like positioned in the right place over time, most creative agencies right now have either sold themselves to corporations or to conglomerates. I’m one of, at this scale, I’m one of the few left that’s still independent and I think that’s because we were making the right moves at the right time.
[0:14:00.6] JG: So, the journey begins with this word “dream”, the moment of inspiration when you kick off a vision, initiative product and I think creatives, we creatives love that word, I love that word “dream”.
[0:14:12.5] ND: I love that word.
[0:14:15.4] JG: What does that mean, beyond just coming up with ideas, what does that mean for leaders?
[0:14:19.5] ND: Yeah, we have in the book, it’s the journey through innovation. Now you’re going to apply this to a movement, we looked at social movements, business movements and it does have a three act structure and we call it a venture scape. The first act is dream and leap. Dreaming means that what you’ve done as you’ve listened, like it starts in empathy, you have listened and you have vetted what you think is a different future than the current future.
The leader’s role is to traverse back and forth between present and future. Then be able to knit those two together in a way that makes it feel like it’s been bridged for the people. So you declare, I think there’s so much power in the spoken word. It’s hard to point to a movement that didn’t start with a spoken word. The dream is not only coming up with a dream through your imagination, but then you have to declare it, which puts a marker in time that’s like, “Oh, she just stated this new thing will be real.”
So the dream is very important phase and then hopefully if you do the dream real well, the leap phase may happen right away. The travelers buy into your dream and they commit in some way. Now, what happens though is a lot of people are like, “Wait a minute. I think you’re a freak, I don’t agree with you. That future is too different than the one I imagined in my head,” or whatever and they’ll resist and then that’s the interesting dance that the communicator has to navigate. The goal in act one is to dream and leap.
Then the middle of the story, like any story, is where all the action happens. It’s where the fight happens, the climb happens, the clawing away. The killing the aliens, usually there’s a high speed chase, someone gets impaled with a near death blow like Frodo got in the shoulder, and then you still have to climb something huge, this mountain, Sauron. It’s this fight-climb, fight-climb. I put it sequential like it goes fight-climb but in reality, it’s like a steep incline.
Some people can climb the face of a mountain, most can’t, but you would do switch backs, right? You have like fight-climb, fight-climb and then you ascend out of this kind of challenge that you’re trying to overcome and then the third act is that you arrive. It’s at the arrival phase that you reflect. When you arrive, it’s only in western cultures that we have all hundred percent happy endings. Most cultures, you know, you win some, you lose some. Even when you lose, you still need to celebratory, sense and arrive and in the arrival phase you reflect and you curate and collect all the stories that were told in the process.
[0:16:44.2] JG: Did you see that recent new sort of Rocky reboot movie Creed?
[0:16:48.4] ND: I heard so much about it.
[0:16:49.8] JG: It was great.
[0:16:51.6] ND: It’s so hard to write a book and launch it, so that’s one of only like three movies in my queue that I’ve got tagged because I’ve been hearing such great things about it.
[0:16:59.0] JG: It’s great and it sort of, I don’t want to ruin the ending, but beat for beat kind of follows the original Rocky movie, which doesn’t tie everything up with a bow but the point of the movie is it’s about endurance and about believing that you can do something more than, like everybody’s saying that you can’t do it.
So in this dream phase — anyway, highly recommend it. Forget about the book launching stuff. You’re not like going to a movies every afternoon?
[0:17:23.8] ND: You know, I became a grandma. So I just obsess over this little grand baby so every spare minute I have, I want to be right up in his face.
[0:17:30.4] JG: Yeah, well that’s a good enough excuse. In this phase, you talk about something that sort of threw me for a loop and I thought it was fascinating. One of the jobs, and I think a job of a leader is to cast vision, share the dream. You talk about warning. That’s interesting, tell me about that?
[0:17:49.9] ND: Yeah, there’s motivating tales and cautionary tales and there’s times where you need to be like, as a leader, it’s like, “Look, I worked at two other companies where I made that same stupid mistake and here’s how it turned out. Let’s not make that mistake.” I think in our culture and especially in leadership, we purge those stories from our vernacular because we don’t want to standup and say, “Tried that, failed at it, let’s use that as a cautionary tale so we don’t make this mistake. I need to warn you that this isn’t good.”
Warning stories can move people out of complacency and it can also help them change the direction or the the mindset that they currently had. Somehow, a testimony or a story told from a place of personal conviction can change hearts and minds more than all the great speeches and presentations that are out there. That’s what that is. Each stage, dream, leap, fight, climb, arrive. They all have a type of a motivating story and they also have a type of warning story or communication that needs to happen.
Sometimes you could use two or three of each in one talk. You know? It’s just how you feel you need to combine it and how much you’re trying to have to push people out of complacency or out of entrenchment. Some people are like adventurist, you cast a vision, they’re like on it and others can become like Heretics almost, they’re like, they fight hard against it so you just kind of need to know who you’re talking to. Make sure you have the right communication toolkit to go with it.
[0:19:16.3] JG: How do you like not be a jerk boss or a jerk employee? Because I think we’re all leading somebody, at least we’re leading ourselves. So how do you not overuse the warning tactic where it’s all gloom and doom and I could see that being potentially a tool for manipulation or coercion?
[0:19:34.0] ND: Yeah, and I think the truly transparent and authentic communicators, it would never come across that way, I would hope. So it’s interesting since you’re talking about say the dream phase. In the dream phase, you may want to do a motivating — we got the dream phase, speeches, stories, and ceremonies. The speeches you would give in a dream phase, the motivating speech is the vision speech. The warning speech is a revolution speech. Now revolution speeches are still very inspired and powerful but what you’re doing is you’re creating a revolt. Like some big competitor just joined and you need to revolt against it, right?
So there’s times where you’re setting the vision and times when you’re needing to rage against the machine. So we had our own internal process where trying to do here and I tried to give people permission. This whole system was put in, and it was just terrible and I kept saying, “I give you permission to rage against the machine. I give you permission to rage against the machine.” I kept giving revolution speeches, it’s like, “We don’t have to adopt this. Please don’t make this terrible system our status quo,” you know?
So with the story types, the motivating stories “head the call story”, but a warning story is to neglect the call. That would be a time where you missed the opportunity. There was an opportunity in front of you, you chose a different path and you missed this beautiful opportunity because you neglected the call. So there is a beauty to them if you do them and tell them sincerely. They’re not manipulative in nature, I think.
[00:20:59.1] JG: Yeah and I remember my first job as a marketing director working for an non-profit organization and I had all these great ideas and was sort of unfettered and could just go do whatever I wanted to do, but I’d run into opposition or I’d start something and I’d noticed that some of the old guard of the organization would say, “Yeah, we tried the before,” and I was like, “Oh it will work”.
It will work this time, I know and I think sometimes the same old idea from five years ago can work with some different application or if you have learned your lessons but I just wasn’t sitting down and learning from those people at all and I think 18 months into that job, nothing was working and I was like, “Okay so tell me more about this? Why didn’t it work?” and trying to learn from that but that’s hard to do so that’s a warning and it can work.
[00:21:48.6] ND: Yeah, I agree. I think sometimes telling stories or being a great communicator, for some people it’s hard, it doesn’t come natural because we feel like we have to bring our best self to work so we could move up the chain, we could step up the ladder. I have to show up and pretend I am not flawed and storytelling pulls that back because the structure of the story is, “Hey there’s this likeable person who went through this hard time and came out different.”
And so many people don’t want to talk about roadblocks they had to master, challenges they won or loss and that. So there is something to be said for —i t’s really almost impossible to be a great storytelling leader and not be authentic because it is a lot about exposing your own challenges to others and what you did to cope with them.
[00:22:34.7] JG: So that was a great example you’re talking about, how you can communicate these things in ways that don’t come across as like turned and twist somebody’s arm, that’s the first stage, is dream. It moves into leap, then fight, climb, arrive, redream, we were running out of time and I’ve got a couple of more questions that we’re going to squeeze in here.
I would love to hear from you, what was the dream of Duarte when you started? You talked about, what did you say, eight different reinventions? I mean that’s probably a whole other conversation. What was the dream? What was the leap? What was the fight? What was the climb? When did you think that you arrived and then what did redream looked like? We might have to shorten it.
[00:23:13.4] ND: Yeah, it’s funny because I have been through eight different dream, leap, fight, climb, arrives. I have been through eight of them. Interestingly, people think I started the business but my husband did actually and he had this dream. He bought a Mac plus to go to college and he’s like, “Oh my gosh, I can draw on this,” and this is when it first came out. They’d only been out a year or two. Just a couple of years nobody had them, right?
And I had a real job. I had a real job at an electronics distributor and he would come home and be like, “I think I can make a business of this.” I’m like, “What a joke, I work a real job. This is a toy.” I mean I’d worked my butt off to abort his dream. I was very pregnant, very angry, coming home every night he is reading computer manuals? “What is this? I work on a real computer at my office.” Just so terribly mean and I’ve had his resumes piled up. I’m like, “Look, you know, you’re going to get yourself a real job.” He goes, “Nancy please just read Mac World Magazine. Just read the magazine and then come back and tell me that you don’t think this is actually an industry.” I’m like, “Fine, look I’ll read it.” So I read it.
I come back and then I’m like, “Okay look, if I can sell it you could keep it. If I can’t sell it, all these resumes are going out Monday, right?” So I pick up the phone in one afternoon, we picked up Apple, NASA and Tandem which is now HP in one afternoon. Then I joined his dream and then his dream became mine. I mean every single one of our little reinventions has this crazy story to it and the crazy thing about what we’ve just finished, so my husband worked real hard all summer long with a bunch of big guys, moving furniture from a failing company here in the valley, 1987. He works all summer long at 1987. There is a failed aerospace company here and just works his butt off really moving furniture. We just moved into the 35,000 foot building he moved furniture from.
And to this day, he said, “Nancy while I was moving furniture, if I had an open vision that I would be running a business from here, I would have run.” Like sometimes things have to stay concealed and secret because they will freak you out too much. You just can’t. So he was like, “I would have freaked out. I would have used that money for something else and not a Mac, you know?” And so there has been a lot of little full circles that are actually kind of beautiful overtime. So poor thing, Mark’s dream, leap, fight, climb, arrive was mostly just with me.
[00:25:33.4] JG: So that sounds like the dream and you picking up the phone is the leap. Well talk about the fight and the climb.
[00:25:39.2] ND: Well fight, oh my gosh, you know this is like when we were — this is our first little S curve of innovation. We jumped in the fray, so I didn’t know what I was doing. Lind of a smart mouth — not smart mouth, but smart. I mean I’ve read everything. I have no degree. I have a high school degree, one year of college. I read everything. I subscribed to HBR, Harvard Business Review. I read every new book on strategy, business, marketing.
I have two small children at home, so for the first 17 or 18 years of my business, I only got one REM cycle of sleep. That’s one four hour sleep cycle. That’s a lot that is the sacrifice worth the reward, right? Well I had to do that to be credible. So part of the thing that was driving me was the own voices in my head, “How can you stand in front of these people and pose like you know what you are doing? Because you don’t have an MBA and Silicon Valley was built on the backs of MBA’s.”
You know, not one single person has ever asked me what my degree was in, not one because I worked hard to show up smart and overcome those and then Mark and I, we would stay up until midnight. We’d watch all the late night shows, stay up until two in the morning just working. We’d be listening while they were doing it and we made a lot of sacrifice as we worked in tiny conditions so we could save enough money to move into another building.
So the fight, climb; one of my big VP’s at Apple, he came to our pitiful little apartment. So many people were rooting for us back then. He comes to our apartment, sits down, we sit on the couch, have this whole meeting, he stands up and apparently my son’s baby bottle had been squirting his pants the whole time. He stands up and drips inside his pants and down his leg. It’s like, “Oh so sorry about that.” But it was pitiful. It was really ugly gritty yellow shed carpet, and these are people that are very successful coming into our home to work on their presentations and we just kept at it I mean tenaciously pursuing and pursuing and pursuing.
And then I don’t know that I ever really realized that say we arrived in that sense but to pause and there’s moments where we were like, “We’re kind of a big deal.” We were the young digital upstarts back then and people don’t even remember. You are way too young to know but before computers, people literary took an exacto knife to electrical tape and cut shapes out of it, stuck it on a piece of paper and did an electrostatic image. That’s how stuff was done. So we were the digital upstarts that could do all of that in a computer and our business grew.
It grew like crazy and a big moment for us was when Apple did a big layoff in ’92 and a lot of my main contacts there all went to other businesses. So you could look at that as our business dipped for a while and we were nervous for one summer. But all those people scattered like seeds all around the valley and they took us with them and that’s a flash point in our business where this terrible thing that you think is terrible winds up reshaping who you become.
[00:28:39.0] JG: Yeah, that’s interesting. You know I was thinking arrival moment like when Steve Jobs is presenting one of your slide shows, for example. But I love that like you said in the book, “To arrive doesn’t necessarily mean you are victorious. Many times you simply need to call it quits and admit you’ve lost, yet still gather to recall what you’ve gained from the experience.”
In this case, it wasn’t a defeat. But, as you said, it was a pause where all these clients were laid off and it ended up being a really good thing. But at the time, it was the end of one thing and the start of something else. That’s cool.
[00:29:13.5] ND: It was scary. We actually did lay off one employee on a Friday and by Monday the phone was ringing. It had been a slow summer and that was so hard and I promised myself I would never ever do that again, you know? It was hard, and then we hired him right back and he stayed with us forever.
[00:29:31.1] JG: That’s cool. Well, I know we were running out of time, so one of the things that I struggle with as a leader is this — like I want to be done and at the same time, I never want to be done. Like I am climbing and I want to get there and I go, “Oh yeah, I’m still restless.” So one of the things that you talked about that what was illuminating to me is the fact that you’ve been reinventing your business all along.
On the outside looking in, I think that is harder to notice but as we’re hearing more of your story, it makes more sense. So the final stage, you arrive and then you redream and you think of what’s next, what’s the next hill to climb, what does it look for you and Duarte today?
[00:30:13.0] ND: Yeah, that’s interesting. A lot of times I am redreaming while everyone else is still in the climb phase. So I am like, “Come on, come on, come on,” and that happens to other leaders where it’s like, “You’d better hurry up and finish this climb because the future is about to move on,” and so it is interesting and there is this one phase. Most of our innovations have been forward focused, driving the industry, inventing new things.
And then the one that we just finished it was this phase called getting us global ready. It was so painful, so brutal, oh my God and I was writing the book at the same time and I could overlay all the insights from the book and see how miserable I was leading everyone in this phase. But one of the things that I did in that really hard phase is I kept the place infused with innovation. So even though I was asking them to do these hard tasks, putting in these MIS systems that were just terrible and all of that was I had innovation labs.
We did 22 different labs over two summer where I said, “How am I going to present in the year 2040? What does that look like? Let’s sit smart people in the room to dream about that.” Super rich, exciting ideas that I’m actually patenting, came out of that and then it fused this miserable season with enough hope of innovation that now we’re launching to a new season called leading through Story. And we really are literary helping organizations transform their leaders and transform their culture into being really brilliant communicators.
[00:31:34.1] JG: That’s awesome.
[00:31:36.3] ND: Yeah, it’s fun.
[00:31:37.1] JG: Well I really would just like to keep you on and disregard our commitment to time but this has been great.
[00:31:42.1] ND: It was totally fun, I lost track of time.
[00:31:44.3] JG: I love this book. Listener, please go get this, Bob, Jane, Leonard, go get this. I’m sure there’s got to be people with those names are listening to it, Illuminate: Ignite change through speeches, stories, ceremonies and symbols. Nancy you included, you and Patty, concluded the book with this little conclusion and I just love this little line. I think it’s a great place to end.
“When you chose to lead, or are chosen, your ability to see the way and illuminate it for others sets you apart. Torch bearers are dreamers, pioneers and scouts who are energized to light the path for travelers”.
Nancy, thank you for being one of those torch bearers.
[00:32:23.0] ND: Thank you. So great to talk to you Jeff.
[00:32:25.3] JG: It was my pleasure.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:32:33.2] AT: Nancy has reinvented her business again and again, and that requires leadership. We hope you all go pick up a copy of Illuminate, her latest book on creative leadership. We’d also love your feedback on today’s episode. You can leave a feedback at goinswriter.com/134 or you can message Jeff on Twitter @jeffgoins. Be sure to use the #portfoliolife.
We appreciate the time you take to listen to our show. I’m Andy Traub and on behalf of Jeff Goins, thanks for spending some time with us. Now, go build your portfolio.
“ND: You’re constantly in a state of innovation. So it’s one thing to be innovating your ideas. It’s another thing to have to be innovating and organization, which means you have to lead in mass.”