Talk to Your Outer Circle


David Sturt

In addition to his role as our Executive Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, David Sturt is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Great Work: How To Make A Difference People Love.” He has been a leading innovator in the industry, helping to pioneer the first-ever web-based recognition programs, and leading how the world's top organizations think about accomplishing and appreciating great work. With a bachelor’s degree in human resources and an MBA focused in strategy and marketing, along with experience as the Vice President of Product Development and Technology at and over 18 years at O.C. Tanner, David is uniquely qualified to lead out on our marketing and business development efforts. He frequently consults with Fortune 500 leaders and speaks to audiences worldwide. He has been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, Human Capital, and is a regular contributor to

Webinar Transcript

Male: Best-selling author in employee engagement expert David Sturt writes about people who make a difference, what they think about, what they do, and how their leaders help achieve extraordinary results. Sturt regularly consults with industry leaders and speaks at conferences in the US, Canada and the UK. He has studied and analyzed the effects of people being recognized for great work and has distilled that new information into his new book Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love from McGraw-Hill. Sturt's keynote focuses on how difference makers think and what difference makers do to make a difference people love.

David: Welcome, everyone, to this session around collaborative innovation and sharing the power of conversation to drive great work.

I want to start out by just sharing a story, an example of somebody that we interviewed that really inspired me. This is a guy by the name of Skip Holtz. He's the superintendent of the Newcomb School ant it's based up in the Adirondacks in New York, in Upstate New York. Some of you may have been there, just a fabulous place. I went there to interview Skip. This is the sign to the beginning of the little town, and it's just such a small town that you see this big grand sign. As you go that main street of Newcomb, you drive through that for a mile or two and then you get through to the other side and you see another sign, and that's pretty much it. If you look at a Google Earth view of Newcomb, it just looks like tons and tons of trees, a few lakes, some mountains, just a fabulous place.

And the story behind this, Skip had gone to Newcomb in that area, in the Adirondacks to go hunting and fishing every summer. And he thought to himself toward the back end of his career, he thought, "Man, I'd love to go work in Newcomb so I don't have to take vacations there, so I could just live there. And at the end of any day I could go fishing or hunting and just enjoy the surrounding area." So he applied to take the job of principal and he ended up getting the job as both principal and superintendent of the little school there in Newcomb. And as we drove up, I took this picture of this school, and it actually surprised me how big the school was. It was built for about 350 students, and it was built back in the heyday of Newcomb when there were pretty good size community and lots of students, and that's because it was a mining town and there were a lot of people who were there to work in the mine and, hence, the community that was built around it.

Well, many years ago the mine closed and gradually the little tiny town of Newcomb began to shrink more and more. Well, as their community shrank so did the school. By the time Skip took over as superintendent and principal of the Newcomb School they had 55 students K-12. Actually, the day he took over they were 57, and within two weeks of him joining and taking over as principal, two more ids left and moved out, and they were down to 55. Fifty-five students in this school. And as he took over, as you would expect any smart educator, and he had been an educator for many, many years, he started jumping into his role as principal and started doing all of the things that principals do. But one of the things that he started really asking himself is, "What are we going to do about the shrinking school? This has been shrinking now for years and year and years. And what can we do to turn this around? How can we make a difference here at the school?"

Well, he really racked his brains. There were not a lot of answers. The demographics of that little town were problematic. Not a lot of new kids coming in, and certainly not enough new kids being born in the community to really increase enrolment. He looked at the zoning requirements in the area and there was just no way for businesses to move in that might attract more employees. So, he just kept coming up again and again with just no answers as to how he could help the school grow. Because you all know what happens, right, when a school continues to shrink, ultimately, it doesn't make any more economic sense to manage a school, and you end up having to bust the kids out in the surrounding communities. And he really didn't want this to happen.

So he was thinking to himself, "What do I do about this? I've got to innovate here. I've got to find a way to increase school enrolment." So, he had talked to a number of people in the community, and what he discovered was like many difficult problems, people had stopped talking about it because it was such a difficult problem to solve. And it had become just inevitable that this school would ultimately just continue to shrink and then ultimately have to close. Well, he decided to broaden the types of conversations he was having. And one day, he was talking to his brother who happen to live in Australia. And they were having a conversation about the economy, and schools, and so forth. During the course of that conversation, his brother had mentioned to him that, "While we were in the midst of a recession," he said, "One of the sectors of the Australian economy that's doing well is actually the international school programs."

People had come from all over the Pacific Rim to send their kids to attend school, and Australia had a very good school system, and so that part of the economy was thriving. Well, that little conversation caused something to click inside Skip's mind, and he thought to himself, "Huh, international student programs. They're able to draw international students in from around the world that really added to their educational community." And then he thought to himself, "What if we could do that for little tiny Newcomb?" And that really was a pivotal moment for him to come back and talk to the school board and then say, "Guys, what if we try to attract international students? They would have a great experience here in Newcomb. It's probably the safest town in the entire United States. There's literally no crime there, it'd be a great experience for them, and it would be great for the community to have some more diversity and people coming in from different backgrounds."

So this is the photograph that I took of the international students that were at Newcomb a couple of years ago when I interviewed Skip. And these are kids from all over - Serbia, Thailand, China, France, Zimbabwe. All over the place. These kids had been drawn in to what ultimately Skip started as an addition to this school of bringing in these international students. And I just thought it was such a fascinating example of somebody who really made a difference. As we look at some of the numbers, it just was amazing. As I mentioned, within two weeks of Skip starting, he had 55 kids in his entire school, and this is K-12, by the way. By the time I interviewed him he was up 105 students. In fact, it was such a big success that when they hit 100 students then a huge party in the school, in the cafeteria of the school, this big potluck dinner, to celebrate the school being over 100 students for the first time in many, many years. Such a significant difference that he made.

Now, when you think about that difference, not all of those kids were international kids. Many of them were now starting to come in from other communities because they had heard that Newcomb was such a great place to get an education because of the diversity of education. I talked to the geography teacher and the history teacher, and said, "How is it different now that you have these kids coming from around the world?" And the history teacher was fascinating, she said, "You know, the conversations we have are totally different. When you have a kid from Vietnam in the class, and you're talking about the Vietnam War, you have a totally different conversation than if you're just reading the textbook and talking about the dates and so forth of those experiences. Same thing with the Cold War when you have a Russian in the room, totally different conversation. So much more rich and powerful and multi-dimensional."

Fascinating to see what has happened over the last five years as he's had 61 kids from 25 different countries join their school. What a difference that he has made. And if you trace that difference back, it came from a conversation he had with his brother, particularly at that time about the economy that led to the kind of aha moment around, "What if we bring international students to this little tiny town of Newcomb?" And you talk to the members of the community and they're thrilled to have whole new topics of discussion that's going on around their community because of this diversity of thought and experience and background.

When you think about making a difference, that's the heart and soul of doing great work. Think about your greatest days at work. There are times when you were making a difference, the times you're happiest, the times when you're most engaged, or those times when you are making a difference for other people that they love, whether that's coworkers, whether that's your leaders, whether that's your customers. When you're doing things that cause people to say, "Man, I love what they just did. I love what this company is doing. This is why I choose to bring my business to this organization." That's the heart and soul, the very essence, the lifeblood of every organization, is its ability not just to do what's expected, not just to do what they did yesterday, but to start doing those things that move the organization forward, that come up with new innovations, new ideas that help drive new value. And it's that value that will differentiate you and help you to succeed, and the same is true for every employee in your company. When they're doing the kind of things that make differences for other people, that's the time when you're growing, when you're thriving at an organization.

And so I think we're all pretty good at identifying what does great work look like, how does it appear, how does it come across, how do we receive it. But the big question is, how is it done? How is it, that great work is done? What we can do differently in the work we do each day that helps create those moments of opportunity, those moments of new value? And how is that actually created? Well, we embark on a huge study that tried to answer that question, "How is it? What observable behaviors are people doing that lead to great work outcomes? Results that blow away the average. Results that blow away what was done before, but set new ground, new innovation that move the organization forward."

Well, we studied over 10,000 examples of award-winning work. I have the good fortune of working with the O.C. Tanner Company, and the company has an institute that does research and publishing. And so we studied 10,000 examples of people who had been awarded for having made a significant difference, so much so that their company gave them an award for that difference that they made. And after studying those 10,000 examples where people had written specific nominations for that individual about what they did and the impact that was created. And what we looked for was observable behaviors, actions, things that people were doing that led to extraordinary outcomes, and we found some very powerful patterns, specific behaviors, one of which we're going to spend a lot of time talking about over the next number of minutes.

We also then went out and did a huge study with Forbes, studying the perspective from a leader's perspective, from a recipient of great work, and from the doer of great work, again looking for observable behaviors and actions that people are doing that lead to extraordinary outcomes. And we found that they matched. We found the same exact thing in our Forbes research as we did in our huge database. Then we went out and did 250 one-on-one interviews with difference makers just find out what did they do, how did they do it, and what led to the kind of extraordinary difference that they were called on. We did another big study of Fortune 100 executives, and we found some very fascinating things. And one of those is the thing I want to talk about today. And that is what we call Talk to your Outer Circle. Talk to your Outer Circle. Now what do we mean by that?

Every one of us has an inner circle both in our personal lives and also in our work lives. Think about your personal inner circle for just a minute. Statistically, it's between two and five people for most individuals. They're people you trust. They are people that you can pick up the phone and just have a conversation with that you can connect with. They are usually people that are a lot like you, they think a lot like you. It's interesting to note that most of your family members are not in your inner circle. Kind of interesting, huh, when you think about that? You're related to them but most of them are not in your inner circle. Maybe one or two are. Hopefully your partner or spouse is one of those members of your inner circle. But, usually, it's people who think like you, who you can really connect with, and they are a powerful and wonderful source for support, for understanding.

However, the downside of the inner circle is that they are a very small community of like-minded ideas. That's the downside. They typically will agree with you rather than argue with you, that's the downside. When it comes to looking for fresh, new, innovative ideas, it turns out that your best ideas will come from conversations with people outside your inner circle; or, in other words, in your outer circle. Those may be acquaintances. They may be friends of yours that you're not talking to about solving a work problem or an innovation problem in whatever facet of your life you're trying to solve. Sometimes they come from conversations with people far outside your inner circle. Those can be the most valuable sources of fresh, new, innovative thinking.

And it seems at the outset that it's maybe a little bit counterintuitive because who are your go-to people? When you have that difficult problem to solve, you typically tend to go to your go-to people, the people you're talking to all the time. Well, the challenge with that is, again, they represent a collection of ideas that are much more similar to the way you already think. And so it's not terribly useful to go and consult those people that you're usually talking to. Again, so much more powerful to talk to people far outside your inner circle. Those conversations force new thinking in your mind. Think about it. As you're even trying to describe the problem to somebody who doesn't work in your same field, hasn't grown up with your same life experiences, just the process of trying to describe the problem forces you to describe it in a different way. And hence, open up avenues of conversations to lead to new innovative, fresh thinking ideas.

Let me give you kind of a crazy example that I just love that points and illustrates the power of this principle. This comes from a children's hospital in London called The Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. It is the best pediatric hospital in all of the United Kingdom. And so when families have children that have severe health issues, they bring them there for the best treatment that they can find. Well, there was a group of doctors, heart surgeons, at the hospital who were gathered together to solve a very vexing, difficult, and critical problem. What they had discovered was they had a number of children, of patients, die following heart surgery for reasons that were only attributable to hospital error. The worst kind of problem, right? You've done all of the surgery, you're there to help the kid and then because of an error, either technical error or communication error, they found that they had lost seven patients to these errors, and it was time to put a stop to that and figure out where it was happening.

And as it turned out, they discovered it was happening in this critical transfer, this transition between the operating room, where a child would've just had a three to four-hour heart surgery, they've got to then unplug all of the life support systems, plug it into portable equipment, transport the patient across the wing to another section of a hospital where they could be in the intensive care unit to go to the post-surgery process to then begin the healing for that patient. And then when they get there, they've to re-plug in all of the equipment. They've got to transfer all of the critical information from the surgeons and those who attended the patient during the surgery, and make sure that the new attending nurses and physicians completely understood what needed to be done. And it was in that critical handoff that they discovered that's where these errors were occurring.

And so they were now trying to go to work fixing it. Well, there's a lot of complexity in these handoffs and they were struggling with how to get through that and how to tackle the complexity of this. Well, after one of the surgeries, a couple of the doctors were relaxing in the doctors' lounge, and in the background, on the television, was playing a Formula One car race, and they were watching it. And one of the doctors was paying particular attention to the pit crew. And you've seen this in these NASCAR races or in Formula One races, you see this car, in this case in the Formula One car, a Ferrari pulling in, 20 guys scramble around that car. They jack it up with a lift. They pull off the tires, put new wheels on, fill it up with gas, clean off the air intake, drop it back down, and had it back out on the race track, and this would all happen in a matter of seconds. And it just blew this doctor away as he watching this in a bit of disbelief, thinking, "How do you get 20 people like that to work together? They weren't even talking with each other. It was so fast. All of the handoffs, it was just flawless." And he's marveled at it.

And he thought to himself, "Wow. What could we learn from such precision? What could we learn in our hospital and in our handoffs and transitions from this lesson?" And it kept bugging him to the point that he thought, "You know what I ought to do? I have to reach out and talk to somebody on that Ferrari pit crew. I bet we could learn something from a conversation with them." And then he actually did it. Right? Sometimes we have great ideas like that but we don't execute on them. And that's what he chose to do. He reached out, contacted the head of the pit crew, and said, "I want to talk to you about this." That led to a conversation which then led, ultimately, to a visit where a couple of doctors went and watched this pit crew practice and watched their process and they were fascinated by it.

At the end of the visit, as they were getting ready to go back, the head of the pit crew said, "You know what? We're happy to help you in any way possible. We're just a bunch of car guys. We don't know hospitals. But why don't you do this, why don't you tape, why don't you video one of your next handoffs and send us the video? We'll watch it and we'll see if any thoughts come to mind. Again, what do we know? We're not hospital guys. We're not doctors. We're not surgeons, but we may have some thoughts just watching your process." And so they did. They sent the video off to them, they watched it, and then they called the doc back and are just horrified, they said, "We watched this video and we can't even believe it. Like we're amazed more people don't die in your process. It seems somewhat haphazard, it's different every time, it looks like nobody is in charge. There's not a checklist that anybody is following. We've got some thoughts that might help you with this."

And that led then to a series of conversations that ultimately produced a dramatic drop in both the technical and the communication errors that had been occurring in that critical handoff between the operating room and the intensive care unit for that hospital. Fascinating story. I was just intrigued by it. Because you could say to yourself at the surface, "What on earth could a conversation with somebody in such a different field yield to help us solve a complex issue in a hospital?" And I think that's exactly the point that I'd love you to take away from this. That the further out you go, the further away from your area of specialty, the better the chances are that those conversations will yield fresh, new, innovative thinking. It's fascinating when you compare social interaction, conversations between people, they look remarkably like conversations between neurons in your head, in your brain, right?

We each have about a hundred billion neurons, or brain cells, in our heads. And the power of the brain is just unbelievable, but its power is not so much in the hundred billion neurons. It's in the trillions and trillions of connections that are made and forged between these neurons. That's the power and magic of the brain, that basically they're having chemical or electrical conversations between these neurons. And as neurons begin to connect with each other, those provide opportunities for new thinking and fresh thought. Those aha ideas are coming from new connections that are being made between neurons that have not previously been connected. Fascinating, isn't it? When you compare that again to social interaction. They look remarkably similar. And so what can we do to help drive those connections? That's at the heart of this question.

We also discovered some other research that just like what we had seen in ours, others have studied this too. Dr. Karim Lakhani from Harvard studied hundreds of innovations from an innovation center and also saw the same pattern. He said, "The farther the problem was from the specialized knowledge, the more likely it was to be solved." Again, isn't that counterintuitive when you think about it for the first time? We think, "Oh, we got to get more and more of the same level of experts and deeper experts in the room." But it turns out, if you're going for innovation, fresh new thinking, think about what can you do to bring somebody else into that dialogue and discussion that doesn't know the same level of specialized knowledge. Find other types of specialized knowledge and bring that together, and you will find the same principle at play. It begins to open new thinking.

We found, in our research, that employees who talk to their outer circle were 3.4 times more likely to impact the bottom line, to impact the finances of their organization, 3.4 times more likely just by having those outer-circle conversations and not being confined to talking with the same people about the same things, and then wondering why they can't be more innovative; an important principle to know and think about. So why don't we reach out? Have you thought about that? What is it that's holding you back? I think we all know intuitively that it's a powerful principle to drive fresh innovation, to talk to people that don't think like us. Why don't we reach out? What causes us not to do that?

If you're in HR, here's what I've heard as some of the biggest reasons, and they tend to center around this one thing - fear. Fear holds us back. Let me give you an example. If, for example, you're in HR and you think, "You know what? I'm working on a people issue that I'd love to just get a broader perspective around and not just rely on other people in HR or in my work team, but to kind of get a completely different perspective." And you think to yourself, "Man, who could I go talk to who doesn't think like me, or maybe has a completely different background or discipline?" So let's say the CFO pops into your head, or somebody over in your finance team. And then you think for a second, "Well, ugh, maybe if I go talk to them, and say, 'Hey, I'm working on this problem,' they're going to look at me and think, 'How come you don't know the answer to that? Isn't that what we pay you to do? Aren't you like our HR expert? Shouldn't you know all about that? Why are you asking a finance guy? Like you're scaring me a little bit, right? Isn't that what we pay you to do?'"

That's the fear I think we all carry around. Like we're supposed to be the expert, so talking to somebody else may expose us in some way that, all of a sudden now, we don't look like the expert that maybe we're hoping other people believe we are. That fear stops us, and it turns out that that fear in its various forms is actually mythical. It's a myth. We just tend to carry it around and believe it. I can prove it's a myth in this way. Think about a time in your life recently where somebody has come to you, and say, "Hey, I'm working on this problem, or I've got this challenge, and I just thought of maybe coming over and just picking your brain for a minute. Can I just kind of... I just want to run something by you, and just get your perspective. Maybe you bumped into something like this before. Maybe there are some idea that you may have that can just help me figure this out."

Now, how do you feel when somebody comes to you and says that? I'll guarantee you, you're flattered, you're honored, and then you put on your very best thinking cap to think, "Now, what can I do to really help this person because they sought me out? And I want to deliver on that." That's how everybody feels when somebody approaches them to pick their brain to have a conversation about trying to solve a problem. You want to help, and that's true of everybody else. And so I think we've got to all learn to set aside that fear and to overcome it and reach out and talk to people. So, what could we do as a leader, as an HR expert, specialist? What could we do to help facilitate and encourage these outer-circle conversations?

I think number one is help people learn how to collaborate, every one of us. I talk to organizations all over the world, and just about every one of them has some corporate value, organizational value around collaboration, around teamwork, and yet I don't think we're very good as in explaining what we mean by that. And I think if you can help people understand, that's just having conversations. That's going and having conversations with people you're not usually talking with. It's that simple. Help them learn that's what it is, and then how to do it. It's actually pretty simple.

The second thing I think you can do is set the cultural expectation that that's what we do around here. And I had a real aha when I climbed all over this data and saw this principle emerge about how powerful it was, and it's changed how I lead. I find that when somebody comes to me, and they say, "Hey, this is what we need to do. We've researched it, we've looked into it, now we need to make a decision. This is my recommendation. Can we get your approval on it? Or lay in on it. Or what have you." What I have found to be one of the most powerful questions to ask is, "Who have you talked to about this?" And then the next question, I think, can be even more revealing, "Who haven't you yet talked to that might help inform this decision?" And I'll tell you, every time I've done that, and we've just brainstormed together, "Who could you go talk to, to get another perspective to weigh into this decision, whether it's a smaller decision or a bigger decision?"

And then they go talk to those people, and then we say, "Let's come back after you've had a chance to talk with those individuals, then come back and let's talk about making that decision. And in every case, that individual comes back way more informed with many more perspectives and often a much better decision because they've had those conversations. And I think if we can begin to set that, not only lead out as a leader to do that, but then set the cultural expectations, the norms for that, that we have multiple conversations before we make decisions. And those conversations need to be had with people outside your work area. And I think if we start all, not only encouraging that but setting the expectation of that, you will start seeing way more conversations happening, way more innovation happening as you do that.

A third thing I think we can do is to share the stories of the conversations that led to the new innovation and the great work around us. People are doing extraordinary things across our organizations on a regular basis. Go find those, talk about them, share them, email them out, put them on your intranets, share them in your company newsletters, in a company meeting, in your individual team meetings. Point out the examples of people who, because of that collaboration, have done some fabulous work, work that causes other people to go, "Wow, love what they did." Talk about how they got there and I'll guarantee you, you'll find examples of them reaching out and talking to people that helped sparked the ideas that led to the innovation.

Fourth, use your recognition programs to inspire thousands of conversations about innovation and great work. The goal of recognition is not just to communicate value for what the person did, but allowing peers to encourage and recognize one another generates conversations. It generates conversations about, "This is what I saw this individual do." And then those conversations precipitate others, and the more conversations people are having in your organization about great work, about innovation, the more innovation begins to take hold and become part of the cultural fabric of your organization. Simple things that every one of us can do to help bring that about and make that happen.

So, in this session I've talked about talking to your outer circle. We found other practices, other actionable things that people are doing when they're innovating. And we just encourage you, go for it. Do the kinds of things that lead to making a difference that other people love. That is, I think, our deepest desire when we come into a job is, "What can I do here to make a difference?" Whether we're just stepping into a new role, or whether we've been in the same role for a number of years, and we're thinking, "What difference can I make in the role I have right now?" I just hope that you'll take some of these ideas that we've shared today and go try them on. Go and actually have those conversations and make the kind of difference that other people will love.

And that's my hope and wish for you at the conclusion of this session here today, that you'll go out and actually do it. I've got some resources here that I just make available to you, the book that we wrote Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love is available at all the bookstores, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etcetera. Tons of examples of how you can be a difference maker. You can go to where you can see some interviews and examples. I did a TEDx Talk on this very subject. You're welcome to use that as you converse and share some of these ideas with your team. And you're welcome to follow any of our blogs. We write a weekly blog for Forbes and share some of the insights that we're constantly researching and sharing. So, wish you all the best, and get out there and make the kind of difference that people love.