Link to podcast episode:  EL35 Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within  | with Achim Nowak

JESSE LAHEY:  Welcome to the show, leaders!  Do you connect deeply with others? Do you inspire people?  Do you make a lasting impression? Beyond strategy, beyond business expertise, what people ultimately respond to is you; your energy; your vision; your ability to move hearts and souls.

To help us expand our leadership influence, our guest today is Achim  Nowak. He is the author of the book Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within.  Achim leads a firm called Influens, an international training and coaching company founded in 2004.  Prior to that he served for over a decade on the faculty of New York University where he also studied Organizational Psychology and International Relations.  Achim, welcome to the Engaging Leader.


JESSE: Why did you write a leadership book about infectious energy?

ACHIM:  About eight years ago I wrote a book called Power Speaking.  People consider me an expert on speaking and leadership presence.  Very often folks call my firm and I and say can you help so and so with their leadership presence.  I love that we’re leadership presence but it’s also a code word for a lot of things that it’s hard to put words on to.  When I really drill down, very often what folks want me to look at is why folks don’t connect so well with colleagues, with their teammates; why they don’t know how to motivate and engage people.

When I wrote Infectious, what I think is what is it that good connectors do really well and what can we learn from people that connect really well?  The starting point was really the kind of questions that come up in my practice as an executive coach.

JESSE: You kick off your book with this great story about five executives at a cocktail party and it features Alex Sandy-Pentland who, just by coincidence, only a couple of weeks ago I heard an interview with him so I was immediately sucked in to your book.  Could you share that story about the five executives?

ACHIM:  This is research that was conducted by Alex Sandy-Pentland and Danielle Oldwin at MIT.  They have a wonderful place called the Human Dynamics Lab.  This research really substantiated something that I see in my practice as an executive coach all the time.  They took these five executives that you mentioned and these five had to do competitive pitches in front of a committee.   The winning businessman was going to get a good chunk of money for a business project.

Three days before at a cocktail party they measured what they call their vital signals; arnal signals.  Those are how much we sweat, how much we gesture, how close we move to people, how much energy we have; all of the unspoken things that we send out.  They call them vital signals and they say this is very unique to human beings because we organize ourselves socially in a relationship through these signals that we receive.  These signals go deeper than traditional body language; which we’ve talked about for years.

Upon measuring the vital signals of these five individuals, they said we know who’s going to win this pitch on Friday.  And they correctly predicted the winner.

JESSE: What sorts of things were they looking for when they were evaluating the behavior of these five executives?  How in the world could they predict that outcome so accurately?

ACHIM:  When Sandy Pentland was in the Harvard Business Review, they said what’s the one thing that you discovered that distinguishes the most successful person?  Pentland said his personal energy.  The devices they used measured all of these unspoken things that are hard to quantify.  On a gut level, as a coach, that completely made sense to me.  The challenge then is how do we work with all of the unspoken elements that are significant success determinators?

So when I wrote Infectious I said I know what we say matters but the unspoken things; because I really second the research that was done at MIT; matter more.  The folks who are successful leaders and communicators know how to work well with the unspoken elements of a connection. That’s what I really dive in to in my book Infectious.

JESSE: This research by the MIT Human Dynamics Lab basically said it may be hard to describe but we can certainly measure it quantitatively. In your book, you’re actually putting some words and somehow to’s and some tips behind creating that infectious energy.

ACHIM:  I talk about five basic principles that apply to connecting really well with people in the spoken realm but the deeper levels, the unspoken levels we have to do and the second one is how I understand my personal power and use it well and how I play with the power of other people.  The third level is my relationship to intent and how I use intent consciously.  And also how I accept the intent of other people.  But the deepest level at which connections happen or don’t happen is the energy level.  I talk about how we can access energy consciously and how we play better with the energy of other people.

These last three levels: Power, Intent and Energy— those are the unspoken levels at which we get to the deeper connections with folks.  My premise is, based on the work that I do, the moment I connect more deeply with folks, folks are more motivated by me, more engaged with me and they’re going to work harder.  It’s going to create more success for all of us.

JESSE: When you say the ability to connect, you’re not talking about networking or communicating, are you?

ACHIM:  I’m talking about the ability to stir people, to get people excited about something.  So yes, I’m not talking about the kind of quick connections that are important in a networking event but they just lead to the next phone calls. I’m not talking about sales situations. I’m talking about deeply engaging clients, deeply engaging your team, deeply motivating your colleagues so they’ll want to work with you; they’ll want to follow you.

JESSE: In your book, as you mentioned, you talk about four levels of connection.  The first one being language. Can you give us an example of a technique that works at that top level?  I think you’re talking about that language level of connection.

ACHIM:  The most sophisticated technique I talk about is the ability to elegantly reframe conversations.  We talk about six different reframing questions.  These are questions we can ask when a conversation is stuck and not flowing. Instead of doing battle with a person, a reframing question elegantly shifts the conversation to a new direction.  It’s a wonderfully sophisticated technique.  It’s invisible.  You, Jesse, wouldn’t know that I’m reframing the conversation.  But it’s a way of really powerfully influencing where we go with something.

On one hand we start with something very simple such as adjectives to something much more sophisticated like the ability to frame and reframe conversations.

JESSE: Reframing a conversation sounds similar to changing the subject but, as you say, it’s definitely more sophisticated and elegant.  Can you give an example of how that might work?

ACHIM:  We talk about six different techniques.  Let me give you a very simple one. I call it widening the lens.  I’m going to give you a Miami example because I live in the Miami area.  Let’s say we’re talking about real estate in Miami.  You keep hammering away about how real estate prices are rising so rapidly in Miami and that’s all you’re focusing on and I feel like we’re having this very narrow conversation.  One option I have is to disagree with you and we could start a little fight. Or widening the lens would mean just asking a question such as how do you think real estate prices in Miami compare to real estate prices in the rest of the country?  See what I’m doing? I’m steering you away from Miami.  I’m not saying that you’re wrong, but I’m widening the conversation to a more broader focus.  It’s very elegant.  You probably don’t even notice that I’m broadening the conversation but it’s a masterful way of changing the flow of things instead of getting stuck somewhere.  People who do this well really have a way of strategically moving conversations forward; which is an incredibly important skill for leaders.

JESSE: Then you also described that there are times that it’s appropriate to do the opposite; to narrow the lens.

ACHIM:  Yes. For example if somebody is throwing sweeping generalities at us about a topic, my mind just goes.  I work with a lot of global corporations and people love to complain about HR, human resources, and they don’t like this and they don’t like that.  Let’s say somebody is generalizing about that.  One way of getting away from sweeping generalizations is you say what is one specific thing that your HR professional does that frustrates you the most? You’re focusing on one thing and you’re getting rid of all the other stuff.  You have a more focused conversation.  Those are ways, again, of framing things that are very elegant without doing battle with a person; instead of saying you’re full of crap for not liking HR, right? (Laughing)  You could say that and we’re going to have a nice little fight.

In the early 90’s my first career was in show business.  I was an acting coach in New York.  My first job after I switched out of that was as a mediation skills trainer in New York City.  We were training students throughout the New York City school system.  I was trained by lawyers to be a mediator.  It was three day training and those are all skills about shaping conversations.  I don’t go in to any of these skills in my book but what I learned with my teenagers was when I said I was trained as a mediator and learned these skills, they suddenly felt incredibly empowered because they had tools for shaping the conversations they had. They knew how to strategically move a conversation forward; because I learned some basic mediation tools.  The ability to reframe conversations is not a mediation skill but it’s a strategic way of feeling empowered to move conversations along.  People who do this well are much more successful in conversations.  It’s a simple tool and it can be learned.

JESSE: That tool and several others in this part of the book talking about language, I think, are very helpful in moving us beyond simple conversations to a richer, deeper, more energetic connection.  This past weekend I was at a family wedding where both sides of the family getting married were Catholic.  I had a cousin who was visiting from out of town, California.  I had not seen her in the last several months but in the meantime I had heard that she and her husband were separating and were probably going to get a divorce; which can be a painful topic; especially given the family background on both sides of the family it could be a dicey subject.  I forget how you say it in the book but just because something is typically considered taboo, it can actually connect people if you’re willing to discuss those in a helpful, learning type of manner.

I thought about what you had said and I went ahead and started the conversation with her. I said hey, I hadn’t really talked to you since hearing about this. How do you feel about that?  She immediately said pretty crappy actually.  It was the start of a very rich conversation that really connected the two of us together.  I found this part of the book, even though it’s just the first level and you might say it’s superficial stuff, it’s actually very helpful.

ACHIM:  I really appreciate you sharing that example.  One of the things my clients are challenged with is how to show up at business dinners.  All last week I was at two business dinners and you spend an hour and a half or two hours with people; in this case it was a table of four; and we can kill two hours by superficial banter.  Sometimes that’s really nice.  Or we can take some risks. One of the big lies I see perpetuated in business dinners all the time, and that’s the social pressure; I call it the happy family conversation; in most business companies, I would say nine out of ten people tell a happy family story over a business dinner when we know that 50% of marriages are unhappy and end in divorce. That’s reality that’s borne out by statistics.  But you listen to business dinners— everybody is happily married.

So it’s very interesting when somebody breaks that code.  For example, over the dinner that we had last Monday in Chicago, one of my colleagues talked about the fact that his son, number one is gay and belongs to a pretty radical gay group and that troubled him.  So that was a big social risk.  He was there with our sponsor who hires him and me and another HR director.  The other HR director also revealed that her daughter is a lesbian and she talked about that.  Because Dan opened this door, the other colleague, our sponsor, felt comfortable mentioning that her ex husband was gay.  You see, there was a theme and people share things appropriately.  I’m sure there’s things that were not shared but somebody opened that door by saying everything is not that perfect in my family and I am worried about my son.  It was a completely enjoyable dinner and what happened was when we left the dinner, I did not feel tired. When I’m at a dinner where we just do the fake conversation for an hour and a half, I’m exhausted because it actually takes more effort to have the fake conversation rather than take a few appropriate risks.

What’s an appropriate risk? Obviously we each decide what that is but I know in my own life the more I take appropriate risks, the more rewarding my connections are with people.

JESSE: Isn’t that something? You have that deeper connection and it actually creates more energy for everybody involved.  The second level of connection is power.  This also struck me as fascinating.  Some of the topics that you cover I’d heard elsewhere but I really found it helpful that you broke down five different types of power that people may have. Can you explain what you mean by that?

ACHIM:  Sure.  I want to start with a little story first and then I’ll talk about how I break power down.  My personal aha moment around power was a long time ago. I was still working as a theater director in show business. I had a rather successful career in New York.  I was hot stuff.  For the first time in my life, in the late 80’s, I took a break and I spent six weeks in Sedona Arizona to do a personal exploration retreat; just sit up and look at myself. I’d never done that. I’d never seen a therapist.  I’d never really looked at who I was.  I was very much identified with being a successful theater director.

There’s a woman named Ramona who ran this retreat center and she looked at me at some point and said you know what? You need to stop being a door mat.  When she said that, she really pissed me off with that comment because I thought I had a good sense of myself. I was successful. The critics said I was good at what I did.  Once I stepped back I realized there were ways in which I played small; in which I didn’t really understand my personal power.  What I got for the first time is because I wasn’t comfortable with my power; I also didn’t play well with the power of others.  A bunch of years later I discovered that there are power models; our ways of taking this very abstract concept of power and breaking it down in to different power sources.  In Infectious; this is work I do with a lot of my clients; I look at the different sources of power that we have. I call them power plugs. We look at how we can plug well in to them and use them well.  I firmly believe that if I plug in to my sources power well, I bring more to the table and I engage better with somebody else.  The five sources we look at are:

  • Position Power
  • Relationship Power
  • Knowledge Power
  • Body Power
  • Charisma Power

We probably don’t have time to get in to all of them so you can pick any one of these and I’ll be happy to elaborate some more about how we actually play with these sources of power.

JESSE: Position power would be someone who has a certain level of authority; either they’re a boss or they maybe have a political level. I think that one we’re a little more familiar with.  Expertise or knowledge power is someone who is well respected and gets a sense of authority from their level that they’ve achieved in life; maybe they’re a medical doctor.

ACHIM:  I have a colleague named Joan Denvier who is a training director at the United Nations and she has a saying that really stuck with me. She said people want us to be the expert and they resent us for being the expert; which means if I’m an expert on something, if I own it too much people will say I’m cocky and arrogant and I’m full of myself.  At the same time I see people all the time who are experts at something and they don’t fully own it; which means they don’t share it enough and they’re not of service enough to others because they play small around it.  Because I wrote a book about public speaking I’m considered an expert around the world on this stuff.  But there’s still questions when I talk about it. How much do I talk about it? How much do I let other people talk about it; because we all know about this? I’m not the only one who knows about this topic.  So it’s not easy.  When it comes to talking to somebody else who has a lot of expertise power, the first thing I would say is to overtly and shamelessly acknowledge that.  Ask them for guidance.  Acknowledge their expertise.  Allow them to help you.   I’ve seen people who shrink around others with expert power.  Instead of acknowledging it, we pretend they don’t have it.  We don’t draw on it.  This may sound very simple but these dynamics get played out all the time.

JESSE:  You also go in to tips on relationship power; which would be someone who just does a great job of connecting with other people and they have lots of influential relationships.  Body power is somebody who has their health in good position or maybe has a glamorous body.  Am I describing that correctly?

ACHIM:   That was the hardest one to write about.  The powerplex model I developed with a psychologist in Miami, Dr. Margarita Guri, and we really kicked this one around because talk about body power tends to make people very uncomfortable because it’s about attractiveness or the perception of attractiveness but also health and the perception of health.  Let’s talk about somebody who’s very physically attractive by mainstream standards.  I see people do two things.  Either we tend to gravitate towards them because we want to be around them because we’re attracted to them or we can get very competitive with them and totally shun them.  The perception is that folks that are very physically attractive have it easier but they have to make decisions about how they own their attractiveness and their power and if we don’t feel similarly about our body power, people can easily shrink and become smaller about how they show up.  For example, if I have the flu for 3 weeks and don’t feel well, I feel less powerful.  I don’t engage as well with people.  I don’t have a magic answer around it but the impact this has on us is profound.  We need to figure this one out.  I have some tips about how to play well with our body power. It’s not about attaining some standard of beauty.  But also, if we talk to people who exude a lot of body power, there are probably some values behind it and we can play with them and engage with those values they place on it; which will deepen our connection with them.

JESSE: I think that rings true. I’ve already had one conversation with a friend on that topic of body power.  They agreed.  It is a difficult thing to talk about and it feels sort of superficial. But I think it’s a reality that you may have some body power and you may be able to use your own body power better but certainly we’ve all been in situations where we’re intimidated or maybe jealous or, for whatever reason, having a difficult time in connecting with somebody because of their physical attractiveness.

ACHIM:  Those of us who have looked at our source of power and relate to them well, always connect better with folks than those of us who haven’t looked at it. So we’re getting to the unspoken blocks of barriers and that’s one reason to look at it.  Folks who are comfortable with their own power just connect better with other people and the connections tend to go deeper.

JESSE: The third level of connection is intent.  You talk about how we can sometimes play a role, either professionally or socially, and when we do that without clean intent there is a risk there. Can you explain that?

ACHIM:  I’m glad you asked about intent.  The last 20 years or so a lot has been written about the power of intention in public life.  Gwen Dyer is an author who has done some amazing writing on this whose work I highly recommend.  But I’m really interested as somebody who coaches successful people on how we show up intent moment by moment. The hardest thing to talk about when it comes to intent is how we inhabit the role of the professional. An example I will give you is a woman named Maria whom I mentioned in the book.  I use this example all the time.  I’m talking to somebody, let’s say in the hallway or cafeteria and we’re having a silly little chat about absolutely nothing and 15 minutes later I may be with Maria in a business meeting and Maria has to make an announcement about something.  I would say eight out of ten times Maria acts differently.  The fact that we act different in different social settings is a good thing.  But Maria, likely, acts in what she believes to be how she should act as a professional.  I call it about stepping in to the professional blueprint but most folks have not really consciously examined what it means to step in to the professional role so we step in to it without conscious intent. This is the part that’s most frustrating for me; for most of us, stepping in to the role of professional without conscious intent means we show up diminished. We step in to what I call a professional box.  We show less of who we are. Because we have this unspoken blueprint of what it means to be a professional.  So what I would invite all of us to do; and this is a big part of the work I do with folks I coach; is have fun and play with how you show up in different social situations.  Make conscious decisions rather than stepping in to the box of the perfect professional; which is always a limiting box.

JESSE: If you’re going to step in to a professional role in a given situation, what is a less limiting way to do that?

ACHIM:   The starting point is to be aware of what we do when we are on, when we’re the center of attention.  If there is a very big switch or gap between how we show up in a professional role versus when we are off stage, then we’re probably overcompensating. I would say the first thing is be aware.  Do you change yourself a lot when you’re in a meeting or when you give a speech? Then you’re probably overcompensating.  You’re stepping in to a professional role that is too divorced from who you really are.  Notice the gap. The other stuff that a lot of us tend to take away when we don’t examine the professional role is we tend to take away having a clear opinion, a clear point of view.  We tend to water down what we really think or feel because we think it’s too risky to say that.  I think leaders who are more successful are not afraid of owning their point of view. They do it responsibly and appropriately and they make conscious decisions around it.  I cannot tell you how to play the professional role but make some decisions about it that are authentic for you and that are not limiting to who you really are and what you really think and believe.

JESSE: I like that.  And I like in the book you provide some definite tips for how to have the intent that you’re creating the impact that you want and that you have the tone that you want and of course, as we’ve just been talking about, that you have the role that you want to play.

ACHIM:  If I may just tease the listeners for a moment, I’m not going to go in to details because I was an acting coach for many years at some big acting studios in New York.  Actors work a lot with intent and there are some very specific techniques that actors use to shape the intent when they engage with another actor.  In Infectious I take some of these techniques and relate them with how you can play with the same intent in a business situation. They really translate beautifully and really sharpen the impact we have in situations.  It’s very simple.  It’s very powerful.

JESSE: When you get to that last topic of energy, it’s almost overlapping with what some might call New Age Principals.  I wonder, do you have clients that when you are getting to that point of energy, what kind of feedback do you get? Is it a struggle to sometimes get them to pay attention or believe what you have to say?

ACHIM:  The traditional conversation we have about personal energy is still based on the Junging notion that some of us are introverts and some of us are extroverts and the notion is that introverts tend to get most of their energy from the thoughts and ideas, from being private and quiet time and extroverts tend to draw energy from other people.  I find this notion completely limiting and not helpful at all. All I offer in the book is all over the world other countries and cultures have a very different notion of energy.  Most countries play with the notion that there is something called a life force; a big innate energy that we all have. There are almost 100 terms for the idea of a life force all over the world.  In India the people call it prauna. The Chinese call it Chi.  The Japanese call it Ki.  There are very specific techniques for accessing this bigger energy. All I do in the book is mention some of the different approaches and I invite people to look at which ones work for you. The main message is this, what I call the big energy, which all other non Western cultures talk about is available to everybody and it’s available to introverts and extroverts.  Instead of being stuck in this very limiting introvert/extrovert dichotomy; which just keeps us limited in our thinking about energy; I invite all of us to look at what the bigger energy is and then I talk about specific ways of accessing those.  They’re very specific techniques.  Which ones to pursue? Well, that’s up to you.

JESSE: I think in the book you’ve mentioned that at least in your younger days you would have been considered an introvert and yet through many of the stories in the book I can tell you connect with people on an energetic level and probably recognizing that you can connect energetically with other people regardless of introverted or extroverted.  I think that would be empowering to a lot of people.

ACHIM:  Yes.  In the last few years lots have been written about the fact that we are in a business culture that celebrates team work and collaboration; which requires social engagement with others; and that we don’t spend enough time on honoring and valuing the quiet and private time that people need to get work done; which tends to be the strong area of so called introverts.  I say that because I don’t like those labels. I don’t think they’re helpful.  Here’s the deal, because I’m a writer, when I write I am completely in introvert mode. It’s me, my thoughts, my ideas and my computer.  I love that.  But the moment I engage with a client outside, it does not help for me to stay in introvert mode.  I need to find ways of meaningfully engaging with another person.  The reality of the business world; and I agree with the accesses that we have too much emphasis on teamwork and constant engagement; but at some point if you’re going to have a one on one conversation with me, please find a way of engaging with me.

JESSE: We’ve been talking to Achim  Nowak.  He is the author of the book Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within.  We’ve been looking at four levels of connection: Language, Power, Intent, and Energy.  Achim leads a firm called Influens; An international training and coaching company he founded in 2004.  Achim, you mentioned a weekly message you send out called The Energy Boost. Can you share with us how our listeners could sign up for that?

ACHIM:  You can just go to my website.  You can sign up and get a weekly message called Energy Boost.  It gives you some very specific tools for working more deeply with a concept of my book Infectious.

JESSE: Wonderful.  Achim, thanks for joining us today.

ACHIM:  My pleasure. It was great to talk to you Jesse.

Link to podcast episode:  EL35 Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within  | with Achim Nowak