330: Sara Canaday—Can You See The Gaps That Are Holding You Back From Being A Great Leader?

Hear how to change the way you and others think about you

In my look back at some of the great podcasts I’ve done with amazing women in our five years of On The Brink, I’ve wanted to highlight ones that really raised the bar in terms of innovative thinking and leadership. Today I’d like to revisit my interview with Sara Canaday from December 2017. Sara is the author of the thought-provoking book YOU—According to Them: Uncovering the blind spots that impact your reputation and your career. She and I talk about how to make the critical move from manager to leader, and that the power to change the way you and others think about you is in your hands. By the end of the podcast, you’ll have learned how to strengthen your leadership skills, improve key business relationships and bolster your performance. Enjoy.

Sara C bookWe can be our own best coaches

Sara tells us that, unfortunately, we’re not necessarily going to find people that will tell us what we need to hear at work. In her book, she chronicles what she considers to be some common yet nuanced blind spots that are holding people back in their careers. She emphasizes “nuanced” because these aren’t obvious. As she descibes it, “This isn’t the blowhard that likes to hear him or herself speak at meetings. This isn’t the bully at work. These are more nuanced blind spots that are creating hidden hurdles for those who want to get ahead…very well-intentioned, well-meaning, very sharp individuals that simply can’t see what’s holding them back.” Is this you? It might be all of us. Thankfully we have Sara to help us work through it.

Get to know Sara

Sara is a speaker, author and former corporate executive who helps companies arm their leaders with winning strategies that work. Her career spans more than 20 years, including senior executive positions in sales, operations and organizational development with USAA and Texas Mutual. After forming her own company, Sara began sharing her expertise in leadership development, executive presence, branding and emotional intelligence. Her insightful guidance has led hundreds of teams and individuals nationwide to make strategic changes with impressive results. To connect, you can find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, her website and her blog, or email her at sara@saracanaday.com.

Key points from our discussion:

  • How emotional intelligence can be a real advantage as a business skill
  • Helping high performers prepare for future leadership
  • Assuming responsibility for ourselves as leaders by cultivating our own abilities
  • Eliminating and reducing certain things in order to create new solutions and approaches
  • The importance of cognitive diversity in companies
  • Addressing blind spots that impact our careers and our effectiveness as leaders

Here’s more on how to achieve all you can in your career: 

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon. I’m your host and your guide. As you know, I’m a corporate anthropologist and author of the award winning book by the same name, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights. And in this podcast, we bring together experts, leaders, people who are really changing the way we are doing things and leading. So I invited Sara Canaday today who has been so gracious to join us to talk about the work she does with businesses and leaders so they can see, feel and think in new ways. You know, that’s a bit of my mantra because if they can’t see it in new ways, they don’t know what it is. And if they don’t feel it, they can’t begin to adjust. And the times are moving so quickly now that we need to help leaders lead better. Sara, thanks for joining me today.

Sara Canaday: Happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Andi Simon: Why don’t you tell our audience a little bit about your own background because your own career journey has led you to see things with fresh eyes.

Sara Canaday: It has, it has. Gosh, I really go back to even my years in university. And the reason I bring that up is I came from a town that was a smaller town, high school that was small in number and then went to a university with close to 60,000 students. At that point, I was a social security number, that was my identity. It was very difficult to compete, to rise to the top to get noticed. That was my first foray into recognizing that, given the playing field of sheer competitive intelligence, I know how there had to be some other ways to set yourself apart. And that was kind of my first glimpse into that idea.

And then upon graduating, I guess I liked the big number idea and I went to work for a company that you may know of: USAA in San Antonio, and that building at the time was the second largest building, the first being the Pentagon. So there again, I found myself in a sea of professionals, and knew that it was going to take more than a title, more than a degree, more than an advanced degree to get ahead. And I really had some great role models at the time in terms of leaders or colleagues. But I also had some models, if you will, that were not great. And I was very observant of the difference between the two, and what made some to be more motivational and influential as leaders, as in colleagues, and others fell short. So I was just a really keen observer through all that time, and also knew that it was going to take more than the technical tangible to move ahead.

Andi Simon: So simply having an MBA wasn’t going to be sufficient, right?

Sara Canaday: And you know, I did the classic route, right, I worked my way up the corporate ladder. I was fortunate enough that at that particular company, they would pay for your MBA program if you worked full time. So I did take advantage of that opportunity. But even so, you hear it nowadays, is an MBA worth it because of the sheer competition and the fact that there are certain viral ideas and renegade approaches that have nothing to do with your education.

Andi Simon: So you learned early on that being smart by itself was necessary, but not sufficient. And as you and I were preparing for this, we were talking a little bit about the nuances and the intuitions. And what were some of the aha hours that you experienced that began to move you in a new direction?

Sara Canaday: I have to tell you that this idea of not being just smart, or having the know-how, really affected me personally because I would not describe myself then or now as the smartest person in the room. I am a hard worker. It always took a lot of effort and energy and diligence on my part to do well in school and to do well as a graduate student. It didn’t come easy or natural to me. And actually, I was excited by that prospect. I was excited by the prospect that there were other things and gifts that maybe I did have that could help propel me forward. Those things were my intangible skills, things like my emotional intelligence and my insights into how people might respond to certain situations or to certain people, and my conscientiousness with how to adjust my behavior to better suit, manage and even influence others. So I have to be honest and tell you that it was kind of very personal, selfish and even it felt good to know that there was this other side that would actually serve me very well.

Andi Simon: But it sounds like a coming of age of Sara Canaday. Now, as you said, a couple of things, I’d like to dig a little deeper in because I think our audiences are also struggling with the same kinds of challenges. You know, they’re smart, but maybe not the smartest. They get their degrees and come out of good schools but never seem to be necessarily moving along as they might like. One is emotional intelligence. And I must tell you, I know about it, but I’d love our audience to hear from you a little bit more about what this is, and why it’s so important to have self-awareness of what your own style is in emotional intelligence. What does that mean, should it help us?

Sara Canaday: Sure, I think, you know the term, I think it turns people off in the business world, because we don’t necessarily use emotion and business in the same sentence. And so for many of us, in fact, I think we were brought up in generations that were run from combining those two and we leave who we are at the door. We leave our personal business at the door. I think things have changed. But for the most part, there are sort of two ways to look at emotional intelligence and two schools of practice.

One is that emotional intelligence is your ability to read emotions in others and be able to recognize the emotions that you have that are bubbling to the surface. If you’re in touch with your own emotions, and how those impact your decisions, your behavior, your outlook, then you’re better equipped to see that in others. But there’s another aspect of emotional intelligence and sometimes I use the term behavioral intelligence. To me, it’s the more important aspect of EQ when it comes to work. How do we use the information about understanding our emotions and others, and adjust our behavior so that we can better relate to, understand and collaborate with the people we work with? That takes a lot of conscious effort because you’re conscious about your own reactions, your own thoughts, but you’re also conscious enough to understand and try to either prevent or adjust them in the moment depending on who you’re working with, and what the situation is.

Andi Simon: Now in our experience as anthropologists working with leaders and companies that need or want to change, there are some key challenges that we often see in healthcare. For example, we watched people be promoted from a nurse to a nurse manager and they didn’t know what to do. They became a nurse who now managed but didn’t know quite what that meant. We’ve watched managers who now move into leadership roles, and are put there to change an organization. They look at me and roll their eyes because emotionally, they were good at something and now, technically, they may have all the head skills, but their body language, the communication. The next thing they know, they have a 360 coming back that says they don’t have good social skills, and they don’t read their teams. Well, you know, help me help them. What would you begin to help us share?

Sara Canaday: I think we do a disservice to people who are high performers because we assume that that performance is going to carry them to the next level. And what we do is we promote them. And then we try to train them. Even then, this huge responsibility of a new team, and we tell them to build a high performing team. Oh, and while you’re at it, learn how to do that. Learn how to manage and learn how to be a leader. And so I think that’s why companies now, a lot of them, have these high potential programs because they’re seeing the benefit of focusing on these high performers and high potentials, and they are two different things. And they are infusing them with some really robust and concentrated learnings so that they can be ready to be the next generation of leaders.

And I think that’s one of the best things that we can do now as individuals who see themselves as high performers or or merging leaders. I think the one thing they can do is to take better charge of their own development. It used to be that we would wait for companies to send us to training or we would wait to reach a certain level in the organization to avail ourselves of a 360-degree performance review, for example, nowadays, that kind of information. And that kind of resource is actually much more readily available than people would ever imagine.

Andi Simon: You can go online and do your own.

Sara Canaday: Right! It’s not nearly as costly. I can just hear some emerging leaders say, Oh, yeah, but I can’t spend thousands of dollars on an assessment or a career coach, and you don’t have to. You can go find some assessments. Maybe they’re $199. Maybe they’re $200. But this is your career we’re talking about. And usually they have development suggestions attached with their results. And there are some incredible resources out there that can help you close the gaps between what your report said and what you want for yourself as a leader.

Andi Simon: Now, if you continue along this thread: waiting for others to do to us and doing it ourselves is tied into how we really do learn. We’re big experiential learners. We are active learners. I tell people, Until you experience it, you won’t know what those words really mean. I know you do a lot of workshops on this. Can you begin to help me with a little bit of how you go about doing it? Because unless I see it, I don’t know what the words are. If you tell me what to do, I’m not quite sure what that means. We do a lot of performance training, as if they’re actors on a stage and they have to go and try it. Do you do some of the same kinds of things?

Sara Canaday: I wouldn’t say that mine are as intensive or experiential, so to speak. What I do try to do is when we’re talking about certain leadership competencies, I try to give examples that make those competencies come to life that people can hear, see, smell, to relate to what do those look like in action as a leader, give some examples of what it means to be good at interpersonal relationships.

What does it mean to have good emotional intelligence? An example I’ll give you is, people with a refined sense of good emotional intelligence are the people in the room who can sense when it’s a good time to deliver a message or throw out an idea versus hold back. Those are the kinds of things that I’m constantly trying to give throughout a workshop so that people get the idea of what it means in action.

The other part that is more experiential is, I put people into perhaps peer coaching where they get to experience coaching the person on what they see as their growth areas right after they’ve taken some sort of a 360. Or in my case, I have my own proprietary brand leadership brand assessment. They have to give me an example of when you found that to be true, or what kinds of things make you believe this is so, and then I give instructions to the coach. As leaders, we need to be better coaches with each other and with our followers, and then I give them instructions on how to be a better coach, and how to give feedback. So in that way, it’s more experiential.

Andi Simon: We do the same. We ask them for small wins. We ask them, What will you do more of and less of, to your point about the story. I tell them that they have a story in their head, and usually, they’re the hero in it. And if it’s going to change, how will they change the story? Because if it doesn’t change, somebody else can’t get inside that to be part of a team or a collaboration. And then we ask them to come up with a story about a small win where they will change the way they’ve always done things. So with a very direct approach.

I work with one hospital CEO who signed every check. Needless to say, it was very directing. And he wanted to be more innovative and collaborative. I said, “Dan, give me one thing you’re going to do differently.” And he looked at me and it was like, “Oh, I have to do something differently?” Well, you can’t be aspirational. And when this is about what will be innovative, how much empowerment will there be? At which point I realized how hard it is to go from saying the word to doing it. And this was a CEO whom I’ve known for quite a long time and he had to begin to change how hard it is.

So this is all really important to things that you and I are both very much into: the next level of leadership that’s coming for change, and who need new skills. And I’m finding that they are often frustrated and running away.

I’m just finishing a blog post about the times are changing, and if you’re frustrated, you’re going to have to get used to it. And rather than begin to go out and discover and explore and see these things as they are, they’re digging deep into, “No, that won’t happen.” I have them say, “Yes” and “It will happen,” so they can begin to see it in some fashion. Are you finding leaders that are opened up to the innovations that are coming? Or do they really just want to do their job a little bit better and be incremental in some fashion? What do you see happening?

Sara Canaday: I think leaders are very open to the innovations that are coming. But what you’ll hear is, I’m still being asked to be a working leader. So where I want to be part of the innovation, where I want to be part of creating solutions, I’m still expected to meet quarterly numbers. I’m still expected to spend hours on this report that needs to go up every month. And so there’s a little bit of disconnect in their mind between what they’re being called to do, and what the habits and the protocol is of their organization. And sometimes, you know, those habits are our own.

In fact, I just wrote a piece today about leaders doing more, or rather doing less, working for leaders as a solution. And when I look back at when I was a leader in corporate America, and now, and I’m asked what are the differences, I used to say, There aren’t that many differences, there are still the things we need to do. We just need to do them at an elevated level. And I used to say, Yes, things like innovation are important, and creativity.

Well, if you were to ask me now, I see some very distinct differences. In fact, in the way I would go about my day, I was very much a doer, which I think leaders tend to be rewarded for. We are production machines. We deliver. And so that was something that I think I was rewarded for, for years. I was also rewarded for not making any errors, which meant that I wasn’t taking any risks. And I wasn’t allowing my people to take risks. And I was rewarded for being in the know, and having the details at the ready.

If you think about all of those things, they are somewhat counter to what we need to do today as leaders, and in this simple post I had today was about three things which were letting go. We need to let go of those things that no longer serve us. As writers know the term, Kill Your Darlings. We hold some things very close to our hearts. Sometimes it’s the same old reports. We’ve done the same old metrics that we’re measuring without even asking, are they still serving us? Are we hiding behind these? Is there a deeper conversation that needs to happen? So letting go is one rethinking habits and priorities is another. And standing still. Instead of doing, giving yourself enough time on the calendar to think ahead, to think about the implications of certain things that are going on, to think about what may be around the corner. And I think those are very easy to hear, but very difficult to do when you’re trained as a productive, efficient leader.

Andi Simon: I want our listeners to hear those things because I couldn’t agree with you more. We use an exercise as Blue Ocean Strategists called Four Actions: what will we eliminate and reduce to raise and create a new focus? Because in the absence of a process for it, the steps that Sara was just talking about somehow never happened. What will we change in some fashion systematically? What will we eliminate focusing on when we create new metrics? What are the right metrics?

You know, you’re hanging on to what you’ve always done as if they were sacred but they were good for another time. And the other part is, how do you take a thought walk? You know, there’s great research that if you take a walk, your creativity goes up 60%. It’s just the idea that comes out when you walk 10,000 steps. And if you never get away from the office, there’s no time to let the brain begin to think.

And then we play Innovation Games with them. And ideas come flying from all kinds of places just because they’re in the game mode, so that the tools to begin to move an organization or a person in a new direction are really powerful. The question is whether or not you can embrace them and begin to get your boss to embrace them too. Because often, they say “I want you to be more innovative. You are supposed to be a discoverer, not just to deliver. But I don’t have an extra hour in the day to do anything, thank you. Your reports that you want, and manage my folks so they don’t make any errors.” This is a very interesting time. Isn’t it fun? Are you having fun, too? Because I am.

Sara Canaday: It’s amazing. And you know, I reflect back to some things that had I adopted some of the strategies, the effectiveness that I could have had. I thought it was pretty effective. But you know, some of these new habits could have really served me well.

Andi Simon: You wrote a great tweet today about how tribalism hurts companies and what to do about it. I don’t want to lose that. Because humans are herd animals. We’re tribal: birds of a feather flock together. And I want to come back to t his because you have a great blog about how cognitive diversity, not just ethnic diversity or gender diversity, but bringing people together who think differently requires a lot of skills, and how do you take the ideas and begin to embrace them as diversity in thinking? Because people get into groupthink. They prefer to hear everyone say the same thing. Are you working with companies that are embracing this? And can you share with us some of the things you’re watching happen?

Sara Canaday: I do think that companies are embracing it. I don’t know that it’s even conscious on their part. I work with companies that are global. As a result, they have a mix of diversity from the classic sense, but also from cognitive thinking diversity. I do think that over the years, we have been told and encouraged more than ever before, not to hire like-minded people.

For example, there was a post not long ago by, I believe it was Adam Grant, he tends to do a little bit of shock and awe. But you know, he even argued about this idea of culture fit and whether or not that was harming companies because they were hiring for culture fit. Now, I think he was doing that to get some attention because I think at the very core, the values of the individual and what they want should align with the company. In some ways, there has to be a fit, but I get where he was going.

We have to seek out on a broad scale diverse thinking. But even as individuals, I tell leaders, that as a strategy, they should purposely seek out the input and advice of people who they know have counter opinions. This should be just part of what they’re doing when they’re planning for an executive debrief, or when they’re looking at launching a new idea or project, that they should purposely seek out counter advice, counter thought. So there are things you can do as an individual to make sure that you’re bringing in a more diverse set of thinking and perspectives.

Andi Simon: One of the things I have them do is stop going to their trade shows. You all go to your trade shows to see what everybody else is doing and you mimic them. You benchmark yourself against them. And you all look alike, nothing like being a commodity. And they say, “Well, where should we go?” I say, “Go to a show on robotics, or medical devices, or on technology, innovation. Go anywhere on social media. You gotta fill your head with what’s going on in society, not simply what’s going on in your mind or industry.”

Because much of the time the reluctant mind won’t change. People are going there, and they feel good because they all are there. And they’ve always been there. And clearly no change comes out of there. And so even not going to the same trade shows becomes very interesting.

And the second thing is, I say, “You’ve got to go to different cultures.” The global companies are exciting, as long as they don’t try to make all of the different programs in different countries look exactly identical. And that always worries me because it’s a McDonald’s approach and in business, you can’t do that. You have to really take the richness that’s there and make it a real energy source as opposed to, Let’s commoditize it all in. But this is complicated.

The other thing, and maybe you have some perspective on it, when you have a diverse group of people of all kinds, is: listening to them. You know that stuff on gender is very clear. A woman says something and nobody listens. Guys say the same thing and they agree with it. We work on, “How come you didn’t hear what she said?” And they didn’t even know they didn’t hear what she said. So there’s a lot of work to begin to realize your own biases. Are you getting any sense of it or you’re not even self-conscious of it? It’s a habit that got trained early on, and you just discounted. But I’m also excited. I’m watching groups of women who are beginning to now change the dynamics that are going on. So interesting.

So as we are beginning to wrap up here, I know you have a great book, YOU—According to Them. We didn’t talk about it. At the beginning, I thought maybe you’d tell the listeners a little bit about it because it is a really good book.

Sara Canaday: Thank you. I’m happy to talk a little bit more about it. It came about because of this idea I mentioned earlier, where I have a firm belief that we can take matters into our own hands. That we can be our own best coaches, if you will, career momentum coaches, leadership coaches, that unfortunately we’re not going to necessarily find people that will tell us what we need to hear for a number of reasons.

But in this book, I have chronicled what I consider to be some common, yet nuanced blind spots that are holding people back in their careers. And I want to emphasize nuanced because these aren’t obvious. This isn’t the blowhard that likes to hear him or herself speak at meetings. This isn’t the bully at work. These are not very overt, they’re more nuanced blind spots. But nevertheless, they are creating perhaps hidden hurdles for those who want to get ahead, very well-intentioned, well-meaning, very sharp individuals that simply can’t see what’s holding them back.

And so I’ve chronicled several of these blind spots that I witnessed as somebody in corporate but also somebody who then became a leadership and executive coach, and told the story of the person, what they were doing, what their intent was. But, then the disconnect between their intent and the impact and the effect it was having on how others saw them. And then each is followed by a very concise action plan, if you will, if you see semblances of that blind spot in yourself.

Some people have told me they’ve seen themselves in a number of the blind spots or a combination of them. And obviously, I’ve been told by leaders that it’s helped them address their followers in terms of, they’ve seen it on their teams, these blind spots. And so that’s how I’ve taken readers through the book. And at the very end is a capsulation of a broader process that I do on-site with companies. And I have the process online through an academy for people who want to go through understanding how they’re being seen by others, being very intentional about what they want to project in the workplace, down to very specifics of what they want people to say it’s like to work with them, the adjectives they want others to use when describing them, and then testing out their theory and then understanding what their value is in terms of their differentiators and what sets them apart.

I think those are the key ingredients for moving ahead is to be able to see the gaps, be intentional about targeting some development around your gaps, and then getting people to support you in that process as well. I think you mentioned it earlier. You advise your attendees to broadcast what they’re working on, to get to people to be their advocates and their trusted advisors. I think that’s very helpful.

Andi Simon: And initiating a change is scary. It’s easier not to, and that doesn’t get you where you need to go either. Sara, it’s been absolutely a pleasure. I’m glad you and I can see each other. I wish our listeners could see Sara, it’s great fun, but you can reach her and she’s got wonderful workshops and speaking engagements. She’s a great keynote, and you’ve got to see her videos on her website. So Sara, tell our listeners where they can reach you.

Sara Canaday: Absolutely. My website is saracanaday.com. And that’s Canaday with a Y. They can reach me on Twitter @saracanaday and of course on LinkedIn. And I also have authored several courses on LinkedIn Learning. So any of those places I would love to engage with your listeners.

Andi Simon: She’s got a great video on leaders in innovation. And so many leaders say they’re innovative but when you ask them what they’re doing, they don’t know what they’re doing that’s innovative. I have a perfect short video that you guys and gals all ought to take a look at. It’s really wonderful. So I want to thank you all for coming today and listening to our podcast On the Brink With Andi SImon. If you want to send your questions, please send them to info@andisimon.com. I look forward to hearing from you and have a great day. Bye bye now.