118: Take the Swiss Army Knife of Management from Tania Luna

Tania Luna is the co-founder and chair of LifeLabs Learning and the best-selling author of The Leader Lab: Core Skills to Become a Great Manager Faster. We talk about the making of a great leader, coaching as the most important skill in leadership, and how too much entrepreneurship can be a bad thing.

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Take the Swiss Army Knife of Management from Tania Luna

Our guest is Tania Luna, the co-founder and chair of Life Labs Learning, the author of two best-selling books, including The Leader Lab: Core Skills to Become a Great Manager Faster. Welcome to the show, Tanya.

I’m so excited to be on the show. I share your nerdiness for frameworks, so this is the best use of my morning.

Yes, it’s probably going to be a framework overkill today.

Do you have a framework for frameworks?

Yes, I work for frameworks. Let’s see, hopefully we won’t confuse the listeners with too much information. That’s going to be our challenge to keep it down. So let’s start the discussion with your story. So you founded two companies, you authored two books. How did you get here?

I ask myself that question every day. So it depends on kind of how you want me to answer that. The first thing that comes to mind is sort of the process by which I got here, which is asking a lot of questions and then integrating different perspectives and pieces of feedback and input and just, you know, kind of repeating that process over and over and over again, asking as many people as I can questions, asking my own team questions when I was writing the books, asking potential readers questions, and then whatever feedback I get, I kind of marinate, digest, integrate, and then go back to asking questions. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s kind of my go-to formula for pretty much anything I achieve.

I love it. That’s kind of a research process. You go out and you talk to people and you synthesize it and you basically look for the system in the answers.

Yeah, and so my background is in psychology and organizational psychology in particular, though I’ve studied all sorts of things. I’ve studied the psychology of emotion, of language acquisition, of assertiveness, group creativity, psychology of surprise, psychology of leadership. And so that psychology background, I think, has come into the foreground for me in the sense that I look at everything kind of thinking like a scientist about it.

Yeah, no, for sure. That’s fascinating. So why did you start a company? Most scientists, they don’t actually want to run a business. They just want to do their research.

So the true story is that I was finishing my undergrad and I was about to start my PhD in organizational psychology. And at the same time, I won this young entrepreneur contest for a business idea that I had for my last company. And so I was like, hmm, do I pursue the academic route? I had just spent four years of my life working in a lab, doing research, doing my own research. So do I go academic or do I try this whole entrepreneur thing? And I figured I could always go back and get my PhD. I never did. Maybe one day I will. Or I could go down the path of actually building something and applying it. And I just fell in love with the practice side of things. I continued doing research. So I was able to start a lab and recruit research assistants to continue doing research while I was also running my business. So I think of myself as like a scholar, practitioner.

That’s really interesting because, you know, there’s a different style of writing when you’re an academic and you write books for college students and for, you know, for PhD papers and professional advancement. And it’s a different style when you write for the layperson so that actually the, you know, the simple business person should understand and be able to take action on it. What do you feel is the main substantive difference between the two ways of working?

I think one is better. I think the reality is that having worked in academia and kind of lived in that world, it shouldn’t take hours and hours and hours for someone to have to decipher what something means. And unfortunately, in academia, there is sometimes this overvaluing of using the right language and demonstrating just how complex the process was versus just getting down to the very simple, practical points. So I’m being facetious, but I think one is better. I think that simple, practical, something that I can apply right after reading it is essential, no matter what you’re writing, no matter what kind of audience it’s for.

One of the things I very much love and miss about the academic side of things is that it also gives you the behind the scenes. So very often when you read like a more general audience book, they’ll just give you the conclusion. When I read an academic paper, I’m able to follow along that journey to the conclusion. I can see how did they analyze this data? How did they gather the data? You know, if you see, you know, something that says, this is what makes great managers different. I don’t believe that until I understand how did you define manager? How did you define great? How did you measure difference? And so I think integrating those two is what gets me really excited, is understanding how was something measured? How did we get to the end point? But then once we get to the end point, how do I use it? How do I make it practical? How do I actually get results out of this finding versus having a finding just for the sake of curiosity?

So it’s almost like pure research and applied research.

Yeah. I love the applied path.

Okay, so let’s talk about applied research. So one of the frameworks that you teach is the CAMPS, it’s in the abbreviation of acronym, CAMPS principle, which leverages five brain cravings to create engaged and motivated employees. So what’s this CAMPS stand for and how does it work?

This is one of my favorite models that we teach at Life Labs Learning and we wrote in the book, the Leader Lab as well. This is a model based on our own observations as well as at this point, over a hundred years of research on what motivates human beings. Most importantly, I would say Edward Deci, never asked him, unfortunately, how to pronounce his name. But the camps model, you could think of it as, do you want your team to be in the engaged or disengaged camps? And if you want to create an engaged environment, what you want to create conditions around is to get camps, people’s camps scores up. So Ccamps stands for certainty, autonomy, meaning, progress, and social inclusion. Do you want me to get into each one to sort of crystallize what they are and why they matter?

I mean, a little bit, not too deep, but in a nutshell, if you could just summarize them.

I’ll give you five nutshells. So, certainty is essentially, do I have a sense of safety, security, predictability in the workplace. These are things like, what is my role? What are the processes here in this company for how high stakes decisions are made? Will I have a job tomorrow? Do I feel secure that if our company is at risk, I’ll have that information early on? So certainty, safety. The next one is autonomy. This one is incredibly, incredibly important. Autonomy is do I have a sense of control over my own work? Do I have choice? Do I feel like I’m in charge of the things that I want to be in charge of? And sometimes you could do overdue autonomy.

Do I feel like I’m overwhelmed by options? Do I have the right amount of kind of both freedom and support? That’s autonomy. Meaning is does the work that I do matter? Do I understand why this company exists? What is our mission? And then, even more importantly, how does the work that I do link up to that mission? Do I have evidence that I’m doing something meaningful every day? Then progress.

So this is, do I – am I getting those dopamine bursts in my brain? Do I feel like I am achieving things both in the workplace, but also do I feel like I’m learning and growing? Am I progressing in my career, whatever that means to me. And then finally, social inclusion. This is, do I feel like I belong here? Do I feel seen? Do I feel heard? Do I feel valued? Is there a sense of fairness? And ultimately, am I part of a community where I am seen as an important member?

Wow, this is this is fascinating. You know, as you were explaining the camps, the CAMS words that go into it, the certainty, autonomy, meaning, progress, and social inclusion. I was thinking about the framework behind me, the Pinnacle framework, and how we achieve this for our clients, and actually we are ticking all the boxes, which is quite amazing because we didn’t know the CAMS framework, but somehow we managed to get the name.

I bet that’s why it’s working.

Possibly, yes, exactly. So that’s fantastic. So you wrote this book, Leader Lab Core Skills to Become a Great Manager Faster. So what does it mean a great manager and what are the misconceptions around the management and leadership roles as they are designed?

I love that question. I get very excited about the misconceptions piece and I’ll tie in camps to it just to show kind of how it works in practice. So I think one of the things that’s really important to step back and recognize is that when we talk about managing, most people think that means manage people. Manage means control, it means handle. Most of us don’t want to be managed. So what we find when we study great managers, and by the way, in our research methodology, we didn’t just interview managers. We recruited managers who were achieving consistently great results and were getting consistently positive feedback from their teams, but also managers who were doing kind of average, not terrible, but average.

And we tried interviewing them, but we actually didn’t learn much. So we actually learned through observing and through seeing what are the behaviors that differentiate these great managers. And what we saw again and again among these great managers is they weren’t managing people, they were managing conditions. They were trying to figure out how do I remove any obstacles and provide all the resources that the people on my team need to be able to do the thing that’s incredibly natural for us. We don’t need to be motivated to, someone doesn’t have to forcefully motivate us to want to do great work.

Great managers are managing conditions, not people. Click To Tweet

It’s incredibly natural for people to want to contribute, to want to do meaningful things. And so great managers are managing the conditions around that person. They’re saying back to camps, how can I increase certainty for you? What’s the right amount of autonomy in your role? How can I make sure that your work feels meaningful? How can we set up the systems that, and the workflows in your day-to-day role so that you are making clear progress toward goals that we’ve co-created together, that you’re learning and growing? How do we make sure we create an environment where every voice matters, where there’s an opportunity for everyone to connect and contribute?

So that’s what I mean by conditions. And I think a really important misconception to release is that people need to be controlled and managed and rewarded and punished and all these kind of words that imply that we as human beings are just walking around aimlessly until someone shoves us in the right direction or fuels us with motivation. So I’ll pause there for a moment to get your thoughts because I can go on and on on this topic. I think that’s one of the key misconceptions.

I love that concept. And there’s a saying that, you know, which is a cliché, and actually what you’re saying is you’re making it more precise because you say that you lead people and you manage things. So manage things, lead people, and that’s the difference. But actually it’s not the things that you manage. Maybe you manage your own task list and things this way, but I like how you focus this managing the conditions and the Circumstances the conditions which is essentially removing the barriers for people to unleash their potential.


And it’s it’s all inside. It’s inherently exist and We don’t have to do anything. We just have to make sure that it can come out


I love that that approach of management. So that’s wonderful. So these are the misconceptions. Now, you talk about in the Leader Lab book, I really love this. You talk about the Swiss army knife of great managers. So great managers have this kind of toolkit that they pull out and it helps them achieve that removing all the obstacles result, I guess. So what does this Swiss Army knife look like? What are the tools in it?

I love the Swiss Army knife metaphor because one of the things we found from our research is that not all skills are created equal. It’s very, very tempting to just spend your whole life adding more and more and more and more skills to your toolkit. But actually what we found is that there’s a small number of tipping point skills. Or another metaphor for it is think about you only need three colors to make all of the colors out there.

So we really wanted to understand what were the smallest number of things you can pack into your leadership toolkit that could help you overcome just about any challenge, just about any obstacle that’s out there. So there’s two aspects of it that I’d love to kind of give you a quick overview of, like you said, nutshells. So maybe two more nutshells. One is what we call behavioral units or BUs. These are micro behaviors.

And we found that there are seven that showed up again and again and again across the great managers we studied, different industries, different cultures. So seven of these behavioral units. And then after that, we recognize that there are core skills. So skills we think of as like packets of different micro behaviors. So I’ll start with kind of the Swiss army piece, these BU’s behavioral units. Do you want me to get into each of them or you want like top three?

Well, yeah, I don’t know.

How’s your brain feeling this morning?

My brain is fine. I know we are over teaching, we are running the risk of over teaching. Why don’t you start with the top three then?

Okay, I’ll do top three and then you can read the book to learn the others. So number one, if I was really only going to share one with you that we saw again and again, is what we call the Q-step. We call it Q-stepping because what we found is great managers, their first step in a challenging situation, in a high pressure situation, is to step toward a question. So average managers, let’s say I come to you and I go, I have this great idea for a project.

Average manager will go, but you already have so much on your plate. Or, well, this doesn’t fit our priorities. Great manager says, tell me more about the project or what’s important to you about that? Or how does this fit in with your other priorities? So we can talk a lot about question quality, but the number one most important first behavioral unit is that first step toward a question. And it is so, so simple.

You can learn it so quickly, but it completely shifts people’s environments because now you’re creating this environment where people are learning, where they’re exploring. And instead of me as a manager continuing to bulk up my problem-solving muscles by solving things for everyone, I’m now giving other people the opportunity to own that problem, own the solution and build their own ability to solve problems. So that’s the Q step, my favorite step.

Love it. So it’s basically, you know, approach it with curiosity and don’t jump to conclusion.

Yeah, and I think that it’s take that curiosity and make it explicit so that others can sort of be lifted up by that curiosity too.

Yeah. And then it might actually override priorities. And this may be you might actually replace something that’s already on the plate with this new thing. Or it turns out that maybe it is not a priority or maybe it’s a way that the person who brings the topic can incorporate in their work without having to upset the existing priority.

Or, you know, maybe you’re absolutely right and your instinct is right that it’s not the top priority, but by asking genuine questions, not like, do you really think this is the most important? That’s not a great cue. Open-ended questions. By asking that, the person might go, oh, right. I’m not sure what the goal of this thing is, but let me still learn, why am I excited about it? How can I incorporate some aspect of this into my work?

That’s really cool. So what’s number two? What’s the tool number two?

The next one I’ll share is something we call de-blurring. So this is the practice of training your brain to notice any words or concepts that are either coming out of your own mouth or someone else’s mouth and kind of mentally underlining anything that’s blurry, anything that can mean different things to different people. Especially working across distance, across culture, across industries, we’re noticing again and again that the best managers are just de-blurring the heck out of everything.

So they’re saying, you mentioned that you need this as soon as possible. Just to make sure we’re on the same page, what does as soon as possible mean to you? Or by when do you absolutely need it? Or let’s say I say something like, we really need to scale this business. Typically, people will be like, yeah, right, we need to scale, we need to scale. A really good deblurring question there would mean, what’s an example of scale? Or could you share what it will look like if we have successfully scaled?

So it’s taking this sort of like, close enough, we kind of understand and let’s move forward, and it’s taking the blurriness out of it. And it applies in so many situations, feedback, negotiation, hiring is a really important one. Like this person’s not a culture fit. Well, let’s step back. What does culture fit mean to you? What specifically did they do or say that led you to that conclusion that they’re not a culture fit? So de-blur, de-blur, de-blur.

Love it. Again, you know, being curious, digging deeper, understanding exactly before you make up your mind what’s going on.



Okay, I’ll give you one more, which is the link up. So what we notice average managers doing is they’ll say, we have to do this thing, it’s important. What we see great managers say is, here’s why this thing is important. They’re constantly linking up to the impact, the goal, the purpose. It’s very rare that they will say anything without stepping back to go, what’s the link up? That is both in their statements. They might say, here’s the feedback I’m sharing with you. Here’s something I noticed you do, and here’s the impact of that. So let me link up to the impact of that. Here’s the goal we have for our company and here’s why that goal was set.

But it’s also in the questions they ask. So you can combine the Q-step, the D-blur and the link up. It’s actually really fun to start mixing and matching these to go, you shared that you wanted to get this thing done. What does that link up to? What is the priority that you see it linking up to? What is the personal development goal that you see it linking up to? It is very disorienting and overwhelming to do a whole bunch of work that we’ve forgotten the link up of. And very often we’ll just do the thing that’s right in front of us or the thing someone asked us to do.

And not only is that kind of demotivating, it also is not strategic. So this is why I get so excited about behavioral units. You can ask, you can teach people things like negotiation and creativity and strategic thinking and all that kind of stuff. And it’s important. But ultimately, it’s those behavioral units, those tiny, tiny micro actions that unlock your ability to be much more effective in those areas. And you can start doing them right away. You can do them today.

So it’s basically, it is connecting what you do to the big picture, making sure that you’re doing the right things. It’s not about efficiency, but about effectiveness and keeping with the priorities of the organization. That’s fantastic. So stepping towards the problem, the question, then clarifying the blurring, what do we mean exactly? And how does it make sense in the bigger scheme of things? Wonderful. So these are the behavior units, and then the Swiss Army knife, that’s the core skill. So just give me the top core skill of a manager.

Yeah, okay. So we found eight. The number one skill is coaching skills. You’re not gonna be surprised by this. This is something that you’re already a master of. So truly, if you’re not going to develop any other skills as a manager, start with coaching. And coaching, it’s like the advanced Q-step. It’s like the combination of some of those BUs we talked about. It’s how do you help people come to a solution on their own, develop the capacity to solve problems on their own? How do you give, essentially constantly amplify people’s internal capacity to solve their own problems.

And I would say that going back to your misconceptions questions, one of the things that we see with managers where they really struggle in organizations is that you’ll figure it out just by doing it. Experience is the best teacher. When it comes to managing people, experience can be a really terrible teacher and it can be a really painful teacher. It could take you 10 years to figure out that you’ve been doing things poorly, especially if you’re an organization where power means that people don’t give you feedback. You might, we see this all the time in our workshops at LifeOps Learning, people show up in a classroom and go, why hasn’t anyone told me this?

Experience can be a terrible teacher, especially if you don't receive feedback. Click To Tweet

Why hasn’t anyone told me that I’ve had this effect on them? Maybe they’re telling you by quitting or maybe they’re telling you by disengaging, but very rarely does just experience alone get you to be effective quickly. You really need to think of leadership as a craft, as a profession. So that’s a big misconception is people will just, if you’re good with people, you’ll figure it out, or even worse, if you’re good at your job, you’ll be a good manager. Those are almost never correlated.

So really taking the time in your organization or for yourself as a leader to say, how can I treat leadership and management with the seriousness that I would treat any other profession? Imagine saying, oh, you’re a surgeon, you’ll learn it on the job. You’re a pilot, you’ll figure it out as you go. This is an incredibly high stakes, important role. And I think it’s time that we start treating it that way by saying, what are the skills we need and how do we get those skills quickly?

I’m thinking about my children. It’d be so easy if I could effectively coach them all the things that I think they need to know. But sometimes they trust their experience more than my coaching. Maybe that’s my failure as a coach.

Well, I think that, you know, ideally, coaching means helping people extract wisdom from their own experience. Experience is a very, again, it’s a very confusing thing, but a great coach goes, oh, tell me what you learned from that. What do you think worked about that? What do you think was bad about that? What might you try differently next time? I don’t know. I don’t have kids, but I imagine that just as you would with an adult, there are opportunities to help people make sense of their own experience in a way that allows them to really harness it versus just kind of, you know, swim in.

I definitely agree. So that’s great. I’m really dying to ask this question. So if you have all the Swiss Army knives and behavior units for managers, what about leadership? Is leadership a born trait or you also have a toolkit to become a great leader?

May I ask that question back to you? Because I’m curious to learn more about kind of your thinking on it and what’s maybe a little what’s behind the question.

So in my mind, leadership is really, you know, building your own vision and conviction and bringing people along and getting them want to share in that. That’s how I perceive it. But I’d be curious of your perspective.

Yeah, yeah. Well, I love the way you put it because what you just described isn’t a role. It’s a set of behaviors or it’s a set of skills. And that’s really the distinction that I see is management is a role. It’s an official authority that someone is given, and leadership is a set of behaviors. And increasingly what we’re seeing in the organizations we work with, we work with over 2,000 companies now, and more and more and more we’re seeing this swell in people saying, we need more people to be able to set goals, to be able to come up with solutions independently, to be able to gather a group of people and collaborate and achieve something and, you know, inspire and expand people’s capability.

So that to me is leadership. And it’s one of those things that it’s not a role, it’s a set of behaviors that increasingly more and more people need to take on. And then every once in a while you need someone with a more formal authority to be able to, you know, catalyze the effectiveness of a group. And to me, that is where the concept of management is different.

Leadership is not just a role, it's a set of behaviors that increasingly more and more people need to take on. Click To Tweet

So you want people to step up, to take initiative, to drive the agenda, but then someone has to channel that so that it all goes towards the mission of the organization.

Yeah, and I would say sometimes, you know, we have some organizations that we work with where there’s team leadership, where the team sets the goal together and they together review results, together refine their strategy. And sometimes that works really well. And in other organizations, it’s most efficient to have one person who is sort of the accelerant for a group of people. So, again, that kind of technique comes back to role. And then to answer your question of whether it can be taught, I mean, we probably wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe that it could be taught.

So, for me, there are kind of two insights that I found through our own research. One is that just because it could be taught doesn’t mean everyone should do it. I do think everyone needs some degree of leadership skills. Even if you think of leadership as just the capacity to get something done, to achieve, especially something that has a degree of uncertainty to it, we all need that skill. However, should everyone have the formal leadership role? I would say that’s the same as saying everyone should be a ballet dancer or everyone should be a surgeon. Some of us will just be drawn to this craft of accelerating the effectiveness of others more so than others.

Some of us will have more of a talent for it than others. So I think everyone can get better at it. I don’t think everyone should do that role. And then the other piece of it, I think, is yes, everyone can get better at it, but the really interesting thing is how do they get better at it faster? Because again, just practice, unfortunately, won’t get you there. So really developing a discipline of figuring out what is the very, very small number of skills that I want to get good at, and how do I get good at them very, very deliberately and systematically, I think, is something we rarely talk about. It’s not enough to just say you can learn to be a better leader or a better manager. It’s like, how do we not waste time to get to those really strong skills?

Everyone can get better at leadership, but not everyone should take on a formal leadership role. Click To Tweet

I love it. So while you were explaining this, I remember I read somewhere about entrepreneurship, which is also a leadership way of being a leader, is that statistically, approximately 1 percent of a society is entrepreneurial in nature. Then you have a higher proportion of entrepreneurs, then actually creates chaos. It’s kind of the ideal, this is how evolution kind of set this parameter. Because if you have less than 1%, then progress stalls. But if you have more than 1%, then it becomes too much of a dog-eat-dog world and that’s pretty chaotic.

Wow, that makes me think of like the crossing the chasm concept of you have your like very small percentage of your early adopters, and then you have your very small percentage of the laggards but then there’s everyone in between so yeah there probably needs to be some sort of curve of who is, you know, sparking and driving the new ideas and who is catalyzing progress toward those ideas.

The reason America is going through these gyrations is because we have more, probably more than 1%because there are too many immigrants.

They tend to be entrepreneurial

They tend to be entrepreneurial in a larger proportion. And then we have all this energy, this excess energy that is looking for an outlet and that creates sometimes conflict and gyrations. I don’t know.

The scientist’s brain for me is like, how do they define entrepreneurship? What do they mean by that? One of the ways that I can imagine that chaos being used for more good is if we all started asking what problems are we trying to solve? I think linking up, if we could all just link up as a society, because I agree with you, there’s just so much kind of chaos in the marketplace, but it’s very much like product and service based, like buy this thing, do this thing, go here, do that. And instead it would be really exciting to see what are the problems we’re trying to solve. And maybe we shouldn’t be solving too many problems at the same time.

They then have to decide, okay, whose ideas should be in the forefront? Which problems are more important? I think then we get to the political side of it.

Do another 30 minutes and solve the problems of society.

Or, yeah, under 30 hours. hours would not be enough. Anyway, so I had some other questions, but we can’t squeeze them in because I think that’s going to overwhelm our listeners. Maybe we have to do another episode of surprise. So if listeners would like to learn more about the Leader Lab, they want to read your book, they want to connect with you, where should they go, what should they do?

Yeah. So the Leader Lab is available anywhere. Books are available. If you are interested in leadership management team training for your organization, you can check out lifelabslearning.com. And if you just wanna follow, you know, kind of the slightly random, but somewhat cohesive things that I’m working on, my website is tanialuna.com. And it’s T-A-N-I-A, luna.com.

Okay, wonderful. So definitely check out tanialuna.com and also the Leaders Lab and read the book. The Leader Lab, Core Skills to Become a Great Manager Faster. I’m gonna have to read this book again because I’m now curious about the number five to eight on the behavior units and the Swiss Army knife or the tools as well. So stay tuned. Next week, we’ll have another exciting entrepreneur coming to the show. And Tanya, thanks for joining us today. That was a very inspiring discussion.

Thank you so much. I had a great time.


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