Today, my guest is Sally Helgesen. She’s been cited by Forbes magazine as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership. Her Mission for the last 30 years has been to help women leaders around the world recognize, articulate, and act on their greatest strengths. She’s coauthored her most recent book, which is one of seven. She’s written How Women Rise, Break the 12 habits, Holding You Back From Your Next Raise, Promotion or Job with Marshall Goldsmith. I think this is a really amazing book. I read it and I really liked the perspective she has, that successful people very often don’t need to do more of any one thing. They’re already successful. What often gets in their way? It was, of course, themselves and in this conversation, we explore not only that concept, but the specific behaviors that women often do to impede their own growth and progress at work. And even if you’re not a woman leader, if you’re a man listening to this, I still think you’ll find a number of things that are very useful in your own leadership journey and things that will help you be more aware of the women you work with.
0:03:27 – What is life about?
00:12:22 – What will happen in the next five to ten years concerning leadership.
00:19:55 – Precision and correctness.
00:26:18 – How the book idea began.
00:30:59 – How the title of the book developed.
00:46:01 – Does writing ever get easier?
00:53:31 – How often does Sally write?
00:57:14 – Qualities of a great sentence.
Books by Sally Helgesen:
Wildcatters: A Story of Texas, Oil, and Money
The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership
The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations
Everyday Revolutionaries: Working Women and the Transformation of American Life
Thriving in 24/7: Six Strategies for Taming the New World of Work
The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work
How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job
What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith
In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development by Carol Gilligan
Sally Helgesen on LinkedIn
Adam Grant – Are you a Giver or a Taker?
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert
BRYAN: 00:01:06 Today, my guest is Sally Helgesen. She’s been cited by Forbes magazine as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership. Her Mission for the last 30 years has been to help women leaders around the world recognize, articulate, and act on their greatest strengths. She’s coauthored her most recent book, which is one of seven. She’s written How Women Rise, Break the 12 habits, Holding You Back From Your Next Raise, Promotion or Job with Marshall Goldsmith. I think this is a really amazing book. I read it and I really liked the perspective she has, that successful people very often don’t need to do more of any one thing. They’re already successful. What often gets in their way? It was, of course, themselves and in this conversation we explore not only that concept, but the specific behaviors that women often do to impede their own growth and progress at work. And even if you’re not a woman leader, if you’re a man listening to this, I still think you’ll find a number of things that are very useful in your own leadership journey and things that will help you be more aware of the women you work with.
BRYAN: 00:02:15 Also, in this conversation, Sally and I talk about what she’s learned about writing over the last 50 years of writing professionally. You think about it, anybody who’s done something with passion and intensity for five decades, there’s something to learn from that person. For sure. Salley’s clients include big, big companies like Chevron, Google, Morgan, Stanley, Lincoln financial, IBM, Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer on and on and on. Recently, Sally has released a leadership master class for women. It’s an online course you can find at Udemy.com, and you can learn more about Sally at Sally Helgesen.com. I hope you will listen to this podcast all the way, especially if you’re interested in writing you’ll take away, some gems about the creative process, and I hope that you will apply what you learned from Sally in this conversation to your life, your career, to improve not only the results you produce, but also your experience along the way. With that, please enjoy this conversation with Sally Helgesen.
BRYAN: 00:03:21 Sally, welcome to the School for Good Living Podcast.
SALLY: 00:03:23 Thank you, Bryan. It’s wonderful to be here.
BRYAN: 00:03:27 So I want to start with a question that I like to ask all my guests, which is what’s life about?
SALLY: 00:03:33 What’s life about life is about making a contribution and achieving your fullest potential that is using your talents for whatever you find your specific perfect purpose is in life that is using your talents for whatever you find your specific purpose here is in life. Doing that to the utmost and making peace with that.
BRYAN: 00:03:59 So I want to follow that up by asking. Uh, and that’s a beautiful description. So thank you for sharing that. How, how can people know what their purpose is?
SALLY: 00:04:07 I think you have to. Wait, I think it becomes apparent. I think that when you’re searching for a purpose or when you’re going to, you know, a lot of people say, I’m going to go to a weekend workshop and find my purpose. That can be helpful. I’m not saying that that’s not a useful way to use your time, but I believe that people who really find what their purpose is very strongly, it comes to them as they work and they’re not quite sure when they’re on a path and then suddenly it seems, oh, this is the path I’m on. Joseph Campbell, who wrote a wonderful series of books about the hero’s journey back in the back in the seventies and eighties, he said something really beautiful that had an influence on me. He said that when you find what you’re supposed to be doing in the world, it is as if helping hands appear to guide you along. So when something feels right and when you feel those helping hands, they can move you forward. Uh, then you’ll know you’re on the right path. But I think there’s not much point really trying to force it.
BRYAN: 00:05:22 I love that description. I love Joseph Campbell. I understand you were an English major.
SALLY: 00:05:26 I was an English and classics major, classics being a Greek Latin and ancient history. So I had a very, um, rich academic background and was actually pursuing, um, was getting ready to pursue a PHD in comparative religion when I decided to take a few years off and right. And that few years turned into quite a few years over over time.
BRYAN: 00:05:53 Well, it seems like you’ve made good use of that writing time. You’ve written six books.
SALLY: 00:05:57 Uh, this is my seventh, seven books now, thousands of articles and blogs and been interviewed many, many times of course. And uh, it’s been, it’s been quite a path.
BRYAN: 00:06:12 Amazing. And I suspect the way you answered this next question will change depending on who asks or where you are, but when people ask you who you are and what you do, what do you say?
SALLY: 00:06:25 I say that I am a writer, a speaker, a leadership consultant and coach. But I also say that my mission has been consistent for the last 30 years and it has been doing work that helps women to recognize, articulate, and act on their greatest strengths and helping organizations to build inclusive cultures in which women and other diverse people can have their full talents recognized.
BRYAN: 00:07:00 That’s a pretty big mission.
SALLY: 00:07:02 It is. But as you see what the big mission there is all kinds of work that can fit fit into it. So writing has been the primary vehicle that has brought me here, but I’ve had lots of other ways of manifesting that mission.
BRYAN: 00:07:20 What are some of the most rewarding aspects of doing this work or, or pursuing that mission?
SALLY: 00:07:26 The most rewarding aspect is speaking to so many people around the world. Uh, I do lots and lots of, um, women’s leadership conferences, inclusive leadership conferences, diversity and inclusion conferences, etc. I’ve done them all over the world from Tromso, Norway, which is up above the Arctic Circle to Kuala Lumpur and southern Australia and of course all over the Americas and a Middle East and Europe. Uh, so what that has done Is it really exposes me to people to men and women who are trying to be their best, who are trying to lead in a humane and compassionate, thoughtful and reflective way. And it’s a wonderful thing because often people get very down and gloomy because of the news. And, um, I find that my faith in humanity is continually renewed by the experience of meeting with, speaking to, listening to, receiving questions from so many people around the world.
BRYAN: 00:08:44 And I know as long as there’s been people, we’ve had questions, right? But I’m sure there’s maybe some different questions being asked now. What are some of The big questions that people come to us, whether it’s organizations or individual leaders? What are the questions that seemed most pressing the most urgent today?
SALLY: 00:09:03 You mean in general or in specifically in relation to my most recent work? The big general questions?
BRYAN: 00:09:09 I would say in relation to the, to the most recent work, and I would imagine that had some influence on why you wrote this book, How Women Rise.
SALLY: 00:09:17 That’s correct. The big general questions I’m hearing are generally about leadership and the way in which our model of leadership has really changed, I believe, uh, having worked in this field for over 30 years, uh, that we really look at leadership very differently than we did 30 years ago, 30 years ago a skill such as building strong relationships, putting yourself in the center of things, listening, coaching, facilitating. All the things we hear about today are being leadership qualities. Those were not necessarily recognized as leadership qualities 30 years ago. The idea was, you know, really take charge, um, get things done. It was all about, you know, performance ranking. Uh, it was a long time when organizations where we’re ranking the people internally competitively with the idea of constantly getting rid of the deadwood every, uh, every year, whoever was in the lower 10 or 20 percent. Um, so those are almost sort of punitive approach to leadership that was prevalent when I started working in the field and the late eighties coming out of having been first or journalists than in corporate communications.
SALLY: 00:10:39 Also writing books, etc. But when I really started honing in on leadership and I’ve watched it changed and I, I, I believe that it’s changed partly because of the nature of technology and how, how it connects people, you know, we don’t really have a hierarchical model because the technology is so instinctively nonhierarchical, uh, partly because of the nature of the economy, which is much more fluid, more talent dependent, which is something that Peter Drucker foresaw even 50 years ago. Uh, but I think also partly because of the very diverse nature of the workforce now, uh, that, that just different talents have been brought in and different talents are recognized and different talents are required to lead a more diverse workforce. So all those things have changed the nature of leadership. So a lot of the questions I hear are about where is that going, how will that impact organizations in the future and why is it so unevenly distributed? Why in some quarters is, um, is a very hierarchical and rather punitive model still highly regarded while in other, uh, other quarters, uh, not at all. So there’s a kind of an unequal distribution. Uh, we see in the world now there’s, there’s in many countries, there’s more authoritarian, top down structures that ironically, the technology has enabled. So I think the big questions I hear are about those issues.
BRYAN: 00:12:22 What do you see in the next five to ten years when it comes to leadership? How do you see the trends that you’ve just described being different over the last three decades? What does that mean for the next five to 10 years?
Speaker 2: 00:12:34 Well, in private sector organizations that are well run, they are the organizations that are hyper aware of being talent dependent. They understand that their real value is comprised in the talents of their people. They don’t need a lecture on that. The leaders get it and understand it, so they’re for the most part focused on trying to get, drive the highest potential of all their people and to create the conditions where that can happen. So in again, in most of the private sector organizations where I work, uh, whether they are corporations, global corporations, uh, whether they are very well run, but smaller companies that may be regional or a restricted to one nation, uh, or whether they’re professional services firms, et cetera. Uh, I think there’s an increasing recognition of that, uh, and that, that seems to really be driving things. So that’s where my focus is, I can’t address questions of authoritarian leadership in different parts of the world. That’s beyond my area of expertise. But I only raise that because I think people today are fascinated and to some degree stymied because they feel it developing unevenly in different sectors.
BRYAN: 00:14:18 Yeah, I, I see some of that in our own family business. You know, it’s, 40 years old now, but we’re changing, you know, we’re, we’re, uh, and I guess that’s the kind of a mantra of business, right, is that you evolve and adapt or die. So…
SALLY: 00:14:34 And that’s true are now, I think, than ever that it’s probably not true or now, but the cycles are shorter. So the need to adapt and to be able to adapt quickly, I would say is more acute than it’s been in the past.
BRYAN: 00:14:48 Yeah. In your book, How Women Rise in the, in the last part of the book, one of the things that you write about is about judgment, not being judgmental. Will you tell me why, why that made it into the book and how, like why does it relate to leadership and how can we… there’s like a three part question. So, um, why did you include it in the book and how, why is it important generally, I guess. And how can we be less judgemental?
Speaker 2: 00:15:17 Okay, let’s break that down. Let’s go with the first one first. Why did I include that in the book? Letting go of judgment. I think that tolerance is really a key capacity, uh, for leaders. And that’s tolerance of other people’s mistakes. Recognizing that if you’re asking people to take risks, um, which is typical in an environment that’s fast changing, uh, that people are gonna sometimes be out of their area of expertise so that you need to, if you’re pushing people to take risks, you need to have a tolerance for that and that requires letting go of judgment. But the reason I put it in the book particularly or that Marshall and I, um, my co author Marshal Goldsmith and I put it in the book, is that we were writing this book for women, uh, addressing the behaviors most likely to get in women’s way. And one of the things that is a kind of pitfall often for women is that they tend to judge themselves harshly. Marshall always says that he has never worked with a woman, congressional medal of honor winner, ceo, whatever level where he hasn’t had to at one point say, please don’t be so hard on yourself. So when we included that in the book, we were really talking about letting go of judgment of others, but also letting go of judgment of yourself.
BRYAN: 00:16:58 Why do you think that’s something that women in particular, are they, they judge themselves so harshly? Why? Why is that?
BRYAN: 00:17:06 I think it has to do with, um, a certain degree of, of, of striving to be perfect, trying to be the perfect person. Some of that is nurture. I think there’s less tolerance for girls taking risk, um, and more reward for being the perfect little girl. Whereas boys have a little more leeway in terms of, um, of being a little naughty. So I think that, that some of it is that, uh, in the book, we also learned that in organizations, women tend to be promoted based on precision and correctness, whereas men tend to be promoted based on their vision, big picture and boldness. So that’s naturally going to make women emphasized precision and correctness and make them more vulnerable to falling into the perfection trap. Whereas if you’re valued for a big picture thinking, first of all, it’s about the future. So there’s no way of knowing really whether it’s right or not, but also it’s, it’s a little bit of a riskier place to be. So I think that, that, um, that striving for perfection which a lot of women internalize, um, makes it more likely that you’ll judge yourself harshly. So I think it’s tied to that,
BRYAN: 00:18:40 That makes sense. And then it’s one thing to understand that and then it’s another thing to be able to let go of that behavior. And it was one of the things I really like about this book is how it is very specific about behaviors and, and talking about what they are. And then of course the, the, the trick if there is one, is then to replace a limiting behavior with an empowering behavior. So when it comes to this one about being judgmental of oneself, how as a practical matter can we cease doing that?
SALLY: 00:19:12 One of the reasons I think the book has been so successful and really has to do with the fact that on one hand it’s diagnostic, it lays fourth 12 behaviors that based on Marshall and my combined here in this field, probably 65 to 70 years of experience are the most likely to get in the way of women as they seek to rise higher. And you can serve them well early in their career by can become problematic.
BRYAN: 00:19:43 And, and on that point, one thing I love, which is a very subtle but important nuance about it’s often for successful people not about doing more right, and it’s the fact that every strength has a weakness.
SALLY: 00:19:55 That’s exactly right. And, and that as you become more successful, you become more comfortable with certain behaviors that have helped you. We were talking about precision and correctness before. Precision and correctness can really help you, particularly as a woman get to a certain level in an organization, but they are going to make it more difficult for you when you get to a position where big picture thinking and in some kind of tolerance for risk and some kind of tolerance for your own and for other people’s mistakes is going to be valuable. Um, I have never now say this, I’ve never in 30 years of working in this field, her heard anyone say, I work for a perfectionist boss and I love it. No, never. So that’s problematic. um, and uh, so that, that can really get In your way. What I’m saying about the book is that I think on one hand we have a diagnostic on the other. We have a really good template for changing almost any behavior. Um, it’s honing in on something very specific, that one thing at a time. And I always tell people if you’ve got a couple things you don’t know what to choose, choose whatever’s easiest. Start there. uh, and then the second thing is really engaging help. And I think that’s, that’s really the power of, of Marshall’s stakeholder centered coaching model is that by engaging help, you really, you get fresh ideas, you raise an awareness among other people that they’re, that you’re changing. So they start to notice because otherwise they may not, um, and, and you just sort of lightened things up and get a little humor and flexibility and give and take in trying to address things that get in your way rather than it being so serious and feeling like you have to do it all alone. So I think some of the, what we have in the book about how to do that is really, really powerful and helpful.
BRYAN: 00:22:05 Yeah, that’s right. And you do talk about the power of working with a coach. Saying it’s great, if it’s available, if it’s within your means, but even that, like you’re saying, to enlist the help of others, whether it’s a coach or whether it’s friends or colleagues.
SALLY: 00:22:21 That’s exactly right. And there are all kinds of ways that you can do that. You can do it by working with a peer coach. Personally, I’ve worked with a peer coach for nine years. Um, when I tend to work with a coach, it’s something very specific. Like I’m working with a coach to get better at doing video right now because I don’t think I’m particularly great at it.
BRYAN: 00:22:41 Which is not why this is audio by the way.
SALLY: 00:22:44 So it tends to be rather specific and limited. But I’ve worked with a peer coach for nine years where we identify areas we want to work on and then we hold each other to account. But you can do it much more informally. An accountability partner at work, say say to somebody, hey, you know, I’m really working on this. You and I are in meetings together. I’m trying to become, you know, a little looser, a little less perfectionistic. I’m trying to become more concise in my presentation style. Uh, I’m trying to stop apologizing all the time. Something women often have an issue with whatever it is. Whatever you identify you can say, would you just watch me and bring it to my attention? How you see that I’m doing any suggestions would be welcome. What Marcia calls feet forward, you know, how might I do it differently in the future rather than, what did I do wrong in the past? Smart psychological way to do it, way to approach it. So there, there are so many ways you can enlist people. And I think, you know, even at home, if I have something that say has been irritating my husband that I’ve been doing, I will say to him, you know, I’m really gonna. Try to work on that. Would you please point it out to me when I do it, which totally switches things around because before it’s like, are you harping on that again? You know, rather than being defensive,
BRYAN: 00:24:14 You’ve invited .
SALLY: 00:24:14 I’ve invited it.
BRYAN: 00:24:15 You know, what a, what a change of perspective. I think many marriages could probably benefit from a little more awareness and invitation to that.. Okay. So tell me what was the moment you knew you were going to write this book?
SALLY: 00:24:32 Oh, okay. When I, I read What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. When it came out and I loved it. I particularly loved the idea that, you know, behaviors to serve you at one point in your career don’t necessarily work for you later, but in about 2014 or 15, I began doing… I added to the workshops, the leadership workshops that I do. I added a section on intention and that was addressing, you know, partly being intentional about your leadership style. Part of that was identifying behaviors that got in your way. So I was doing that. And again, all around the world with groups mainly of women, because these tended to be women’s leadership programs, although many of them also there were men there and I became cognizant of how many important behaviors have been left out of What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. And the extent to which these were behaviors that did become the behaviors had gotten left out, that really were pretty specific to women that they were behaviors that became increasingly problematic as you moved hire. So I had that awareness. And then, um, in 2015, a mutual friend of marshall’s and mine, a guy, I didn’t know him that well. Marshall didn’t know him that well, but you know, he was a colleague, he was in our circle.
SALLY: 00:26:18 He just wrote an email, let’s say crazy idea. Sally and Marshall, why don’t you collaborate on What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. But for women, I don’t know where he came up with this idea. It was really something. He copied us both. And I thought, what a fabulous idea. And so I wrote back and I said, if Marshall’s interested, I’d love to. And, you know, Marshall takes a while to get back to his email, sometimes it… he was probably in Kazakhstan or someplace like that and he wrote back and said, I think that’s a great idea. So as soon as he said that, um, I knew we’d do it. There were, you know, logistical and contractual things to work out, etc. But I knew it would happen and um, I just thought what a gift, what a gift to the world because we can really draw on our mutual strengths to provide something very concrete.
BRYAN: 00:27:15 That’s awesome. And really just to me a reminder of, you know, the power of language, the power of one’s speaking or intention. I mean just this crazy idea in the email. Right. And then here it is and being shared with many, many people. Um, what were your or what are your aspirations for the book?
SALLY: 00:27:35 My aspirations for the book are pretty consistent and pretty much in line with what my aspirations have been for all of my books and what has usually been the case, which is that it has a long life. First of all, a number of the books. I’ve written, still sell a after in the case of the Female Advantage Women’s Ways of Leadership almost 30 years in the case of the Web of Inclusion, uh, almost 25 years it still sells. Still in print,
BRYAN: 00:28:13 Still relevant.
SALLY: 00:28:14 Still relevant, still have influence and sometimes have greater influence as time passes. So that’s what I’m always looking for even more than, you know, a big burst of sales to begin with, which this book has had and I feel very fortunate about that. Uh, but I, I always wished for a long life because I, I’ve had the experience and I’ve watched material books become more influential. More part of the general world conversation over time, the longer they’re out there. So, so that’s what I, what I really hoped for. I also love the fact that it’s been translated into some surprising languages, uh, in the past, usually with my books. Um, you know, we started off, we sell Dutch, German, Norwegian or Swedish, northern European, and then some southern European, et cetera. Always UK, UK acquires a non North American english language. So that will also be an India. Dubai, Singapore, Australia, etc. Um, but with this book we sold Turkish and Mongolian and Korean and Japanese and Chinese and Taiwan Chinese and uh, you know, we sold a lot of Asian rights early or Middle Eastern rights. We sold Russian. Um, so that, that’s really been fascinating to me and one of the things that’s been consistently surprising to me has been how globally relevant the responses are and how they’re all, they’re often a little bit different in different cultures, but uh, this is to all the workup I’ve done, to all the books I’ve written. I’m always fascinated to see how they play out in different cultures. So that’s one of the things I’m learning here. Marshall and I did a How Women Rise India tour in the summer. That was quite fascinating. I’m going to Japan, a solo, a to do a similar tour in January. Going to do by a hope to go to Korea, going to Pakistan with book in addition to doing a lot in the US and Canada. So I, I’m really fascinated to see how that turns out.
BRYAN: 00:30:49 Wow, congratulations.
SALLY: 00:30:51 Thank you.
BRYAN: 00:30:51 That’s really cool. Tell me about the title. What was the working title for the book and how dId you arrive at this title?
SALLY: 00:30:59 The working title for the book was How What Got You Here Won’t Get You There for Women. And we had no idea about a title. I thought it seemed like a good title. Drawing on the strength of Marshall’s book. the publisher saw it only as a working title and we were rather desperate. Um, I would say it was seven months before publication and we didn’t really have a title and it came to the editor in a dream, if you can imagine. Yeah, that’s what happened. I’m not very good with titles. Um, I’ve only entitled a couple of my books. Most of them have been done by, by the editor. Um, and this was the minute she had been calling all summer, you know, Sally, how about this? How about that? Oh no, no, no, no, no. The minute she said How Women Rise, I said, oh yeah, that’s it. That’s obviously. And she said, oh, I’m so relieved. Um, it was so, it was so obviously the right title and the word rising has been catching on for the last year, year and a half and more and more describing how, how people feel about what’s going on in the world of feeling of rising. So I love it.
BRYAN: 00:32:25 It’s beautiful and you don’t want to hear that when I hear the email introduction and you know, the email connection and then I hear the title and I think back to what you said at the beginning of the interview about those, those guiding, helping hands.
SALLY: 00:32:37 That’s exactly. That’s exactly it. It you, you, you know, you know.
BRYAN: 00:32:42 Yep. That’s, that’s really wonderful. So what I’d like to do before we go to the portion about writing is I, I want to ask you just a few lightning round type questions, so totally unrelated to anything we’ve talked about. Okay. So the first question, if you’re ready, you’re ready. The first question is using some answer other than a box of chocolates. Please complete the following sentence. Life is like a…
SALLY: 00:33:11 Like a gift that takes a long time to unwrap.
BRYAN: 00:33:16 Okay. Question number two, and I’m going to end a sentence with a preposition here, so I’m going to ask you to forgive me in advance, but what do you wish you were better at?
SALLY: 00:33:26 Well, right now I wish I were better at doing video. That’s why I’m working with a coach because more and more has been done on video and I’m not a, I don’t have the sort of tool kit to be really comfortable with that yet.
BRYAN: 00:33:44 Okay. Number three, if you were required everyday for the rest of your life to wear a tee shirt with a slogan on it or a phrase or a saying or a quote or quip, what would the shirt say?
SALLY: 00:33:58 What came to mind immediately was talk to me. Talk to me.
BRYAN: 00:34:04 Why do you think that came to mind?
SALLY: 00:34:05 I think because I, I so enjoy listening to people when I’m speaking to readers who write me, who reached out to me on Linkedin. Uh, I so enjoy hearing what they have to say. So I think that my instinct is it would say, talk to me now. I can’t imagine really walking into a hotel lobby or through an airport, both places I spend a lot of time these days, wearing a tee shirt that says talk to me because it sounds like asking for trouble, but. But that’s what comes to mind.
BRYAN: 00:34:43 Yeah. I maybe you’ve seen that video online of somebody that has the sign that says free hugs. It might. It might be something similar and get yourself in a lot of conversations. Okay. So what book other than one of your own have you gifted or recommended most often?
SALLY: 00:35:02 I would say book that really inspired me was Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice, which was really the first book that looked at how women made judgments and showed how there were distinctions in that. It was a brilliant book. It was written in the mid eighties and it really had a big impact on me and it may just have been timing because it was when I was starting to get interested in women’s leadership through different kinds work I was doing and I thought, boy, if I could do something like this for leadership. So I’ve recommended that book many, many times.
BRYAN: 00:35:46 All right, thank you. So you travel a ton, as you just described all the places you’re going to go. What’s one travel hack, something you do or maybe something you take with you, when you travel to make your travel less painful or more enjoyable?
SALLY: 00:36:03 Well, you know, I really try to read books when I’m traveling. Um, I do work. I always have my laptop and I always, um, we’ll put in a couple of hours of work, but I, I enjoy, I enjoy reading and I don’t read that many magazines and I check the news online, but I don’t anymore. I don’t buy physical newspapers, but I really like to read books. Um, I’ve always been really interested in history. So I’ll go through stages. I’ll be reading medieval history or I’ll be reading, you know, about twenties or thirties in Europe or a certain period in American history. So for me, I really enjoy that and I like having a real book, not, you know, a, a, a tablet because I’m online so much. So that’s, that’s really something that um, makes traveling a pleasure for me because I don’t have that much time. It’s enforced leisure. If I approach it as leisure and forced time for reflection.
BRYAN: 00:37:20 There is something really special about holding a book, isn’t there?
SALLY: 00:37:23 There is. I, I enjoy that. And uh, and at people say, I can’t believe you still do that, you know, you travel and you have to carry books. Um, I enjoy, I enjoy that. So, so that’s just, it’s a little bit counterintuitive. I try to not constantly be checking my phone. I am amazed the minute an airplane lands, everybody whips out their phone and they’re staring at their phone, they’re going through scrolling through checking, you know, I was thinking, what a disaster are you expecting? Um, so I really try to be present as much as I can even though, you know, today travel is not that delightful an experience. I try not to spend in ordinary time staring at my phone. I don’t look at my phone when I’m walking through an airport and I arrived here in Salt Lake City. I looked at the mountains, I looked at the clouds moving through the mountains. So again, it’s trying to maintain a kind of reflective and grounded way of connecting to the world even though you’re in this travel bubble, which limits that in some ways.
BRYAN: 00:38:38 What’s one thing you’ve started or stopped doing in order to live or age well?
SALLY: 00:38:43 Oh well, uh, I have a morning routine and I don’t think I really had a morning routine until I was almost 60. Uh, so, and I try to do the same thing except walking the dog. If I’m in a hotel, I don’t walk my dog. Obviously my dog’s not with me. Uh, but I try to do the same thing. Meditate, do a series of floor exercises. Um, I take a cup of coffee before I meditate, so it doesn’t feel quite as demanding. Uh, I do a little bit of reflective or contemplative reading for maybe only about 15 minutes while I’m having my coffee then meditate. So that gets me grounded. If it’s possible, I go outside. If it’s not possible, I open a window. If I can open a window, I step out on a balcony, I try to connect to the, the actual world that’s there. But what I find is that I’m very attached to this routine, that it connects me physically in terms of the exercises spiritually, mentally. It wakes me up, it connects me to my day. Um, I, I give thanks for my day and uh, I have an intention about what my aspirations for how I use the day is and I find that wanting to do that.
SALLY: 00:40:24 I don’t mind getting up earlier in order to have that time. So that really, I, I never had anything like that, you know, I just woke up, I woke up, I did what I did and I might read, I might read the paper or I, you know, since I’ve had a computer go on my computer, whatever, I didn’t have a set plan and that has, that has been very, very grounding and positive for me.
BRYAN: 00:40:50 That sounds like a really nice routine every morning. The only thing missing for me is food.
SALLY: 00:40:59 Well I get to the food, I can’t do the food before I exercise and do the floor exercise or before I meditate. Um, but have the coffee, I meditate, I step outside if possible. And then I have breakfast here.
BRYAN: 00:41:11 That’s beautiful. That’s great. What’s one thing you wish every American knew?
SALLY: 00:41:19 I wish every american you had new history, better. Uh, both our own history and the history of conflicts in the world. I wish we had a better understanding of that. Um, I think it’s really important so that you don’t repeat mistakes that have been made in the past. Um, and I think it’s something that, that tends to be neglected along with really civic education. I’m glad I grew up in an era when we were taught civics in school and what our responsibilities were as Americans, um, and I, I don’t think that is something that has been maintained and, and I wish it were. I have a feeling that’s going to come back. I don’t know if the teaching of history will come back.
BRYAN: 00:42:11 Yeah, there’s a lot we don’t teach in school.
SALLY: 00:42:13 Yes.
BRYAN: 00:42:15 And what’s one piece of advice that your parents gave you, that’s really stayed with you or made an impact on you?
SALLY: 00:42:22 Oh, my parents were wonderful. They were really supportive and they always said, just be yourself and do what’s right for you. They were not the kind of parents who would have said when I said I wanted to be a writer, oh, well what else are you going to do? Oh, you need to whatever, teach or think about another kind of career. Um, they always gave me the feeling that, that I could do what I wanted to do and that I should do what I wanted to do and then I would find a way to do that. And uh, I think that that was for me, that was very good advice.
BRYAN: 00:43:04 That’s wonderful. I wish everyone had parents like that.
SALLY: 00:43:08 I do too.
BRYAN: 00:43:08 I think it would be a very different world.
SALLY: 00:43:10 I do too. And I think that, um, that people that people often carry concerns about disappointing their parents into even much later in life.
BRYAN: 00:43:22 I think so. Okay. Well, I do have a few more questions I want to ask you before I end up about writing. I want to be sure that I get this in. So I’m going to do it now, which is I want to let you know that as a way of expressing my gratitude to you for making time to talk with me and everyone who’s listening that I have gone online and made a $100 micro loan, through kiva.org to an entrepreneur in a developing country. This is a. I’ve actually made a loan to a lady named Rahaba in Burdwan, India, so she will use this money to purchase threads and expand her, suarin weaving business father by improving the quality of life for herself and her family and her community.
SALLY: 00:44:05 Thank you. So thank you. That’s it. That’s beautiful. And I’m so glad you’re doing that. And that you told me.
BRYAN: 00:44:12 Yeah, it’s my pleasure. Thank you. And I also want to be sure that I get this in here. So I want to ask you if people want to learn more from you. Where they want to connect with you, what should they do?
SALLY: 00:44:23 They can connect with me on Linkedin. That’s the social media forum I tend to use. They can go to my website, sallyhelgesen.com. Uh, there are plenty of articles, lots of information about me. There’s a contact button so you can get in touch with me if you might be interested in working with me or having me to speak. Uh, so I’m, I’m, I’m pretty accessible both ways.
BRYAN: 00:44:50 All right. When you’re in the country.
SALLY: 00:44:53 That’s pretty worldwide right now.
BRYAN: 00:44:55 Awesome. Yeah, that’s great. Okay, well I want to now turn our discussion to talking about the process of writing. Which, you know when I say this I have, I don’t know if you’re the same way, but, and I didn’t tell you that I was an english major also.
SALLY: 00:45:11 I thought you might be because you brought it up.
BRYAN: 00:45:15 I have, I don’t know if you’re the same way, but I just have this love hate relationship with writing. Right? Like on the one hand I recognize it’s, it’s magical and it’s mysterious and it’s very special. Somebody even pointed this out to me recently about even the word spelling, right? Like a wizard casting a spell. There seems to be something in, in language as magic, but my experience is although with practice we might improve the quality of our writing. My experiences, no amount of practice makes the act any easier. It’s, it’s constantly the, okay, I’m going to sit down, do this, and it’s a little bit like meditation for me in that way. What’s, what’s your experience just generally, is that true for you? That writing never really gets easier.
SALLY: 00:46:01 Yes, that’s true, and I have been a professional writer for 50 years and it has never gotten easier. It’s always hard. If anything your standards go up. Um, and so it does not get easier. What has gotten easier however, is this, in the process of writing either a book or an article? In my experience, there comes a time when you think, oh, this isn’t going to work, this isn’t coming together. Um, this was a bad idea. I can’t make this work. In my experience early on, I used to take that seriously. I thought, oh, it’s not going to work. Now I recognize that as a stage in most with most books, with most articles that in fact you’re just getting to a little bit of a deeper level and that it will work out. But in a way what got you here won’t get you there. So whether you have an outline or an idea of where it’s going or structure in place, which is very important to begin something. I never began just writing. I began with a structure in mind, but at some point I realized, oh, that structure doesn’t, isn’t really gonna work here. Um, so now I’m confident that I’ll come a resolution because I’ve been through that enough. So it’s less, it’s less emotionally engaging. It’s still difficult. It’s still something I prefer not to go through, but I don’t really take it seriously.
BRYAN: 00:47:45 Yeah. I realized with that opening question about writing here, that’s maybe kind of a downer about… No, it never gets easier. You’ve got 50 years of experience to confirm this, but I love what you’re saying here is that this, these thoughts that we all grapple with, the inner gremlin, you know, this self doubt about this isn’t in fact Adam Grant, if you know, has a great Ted Talk where he talks about like, this is, I don’t remember the five or six stages of a project, but it always starts, this is great. And then it exists is in that same thing. But I think about what Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Big Magic about that fear or the doubt that it’s always there like a passenger in the car, but she doesn’t let it drive.
SALLY: 00:48:27 Well, that’s a good metaphor and I think your metaphor about it being like meditation is also a very good metaphor in that with meditation, the kind of purpose is you watch your thoughts and then let them go. You don’t get invested in them. You find your mind wandering and you just go, oh, I’m thinking, let it go. And so you’re not getting what you learned fairly early. So you don’t go like, I can’t believe I’m not focusing on meditate… You know, you just, you just let it go. You just let that thought go so you don’t take it seriously that your mind was wandering. Of course your mind is wandering, you’re human being, you’re trying to do something hard. So I think it’s a little bit similar in terms of that, you know, you just don’t take it seriously. Okay. This is that stage. I remember when this has happened so many times before, um, and it will evolve. So it’s, it’s a way of not getting emotionally invested in or attached to what your fears are.
BRYAN: 00:49:32 What’s the best money you’ve ever spent as a writer?
SALLY: 00:49:36 I don’t know how to answer that. I’ve been buying books my entire adult life.
BRYAN: 00:49:45 Pretty good investment.
SALLY: 00:49:45 I guess that would be it. Yeah. I’ve been buying books and uh, other than that, I mean my husband’s an artist so I have to look at all the stuff has artist test buy paints and canvases or materials for collages and they have to have a barn and they have to have something to transport the stuff. And so it’s made very vivid to me how really writing doesn’t require anything except at its essence, a pen and a piece of paper. Um, we have a laptop that makes it the work of editing and revising so much easier, uh, but really you can be a writer with just a pen and a piece of paper. So I never think of it as something that requires much of an investment at all. And especially in contrast to other arts where there’s so much you have to put into what I now that’s said. I never studied writing, I never took courses in writing, I never went to invest in a writing workshop or a getting a degree in writing, so I never spent, you know, basically just spent some money on some books.
BRYAN: 00:51:12 That really is a great investment. So you talked a little bit about having a structure when you approach a project and um, you know, I’ve heard people say always know your ending, you know, there’s a kind of different, different piece of advice. Um, what, what advice do you have for somebody who is thinking about getting, you know, they, they’ve been meaning to write a book for a long time or maybe they’ve got this idea and they just kind of don’t know where to begin or how to even concept the project. What, what advice do you have for somebody at that point?
SALLY: 00:51:48 Well, I do find for myself, and I Think people are very different, but I do find for myself that having some kind of structure is essential. And as I said to you before, half the time you get 50 or 100 pages in and you realize that structure isn’t going to work. So don’t feel like you have to come up with the perfect structure to begin with. Just think, what would the parts of this book be? Say it’s a book, you know, what would be the parts of it? What are, you know, how do I, oh, how would I open it? What is the sort of meat of what I want to say and what conclusions, would I draw, what I want to draw from that. You don’t go in with your conclusions drawn, you really learn what your conclusions are as you write. But I, for me, I know I just could not do a project unless I sort of sketched out what I thought the structure was. And then that gives you a place to start. You start. Some people would start in the middle. I would start sort of at the first chapter and the difficulty for me has always been not getting bogged down in trying to make the beginning perfect. When I’ve gone astray on a project, it’s been because I’ve spent an insane amount of time on the first page, the first five pages, the first chapter, whatever it is. So for myself, I just have to, I have to trust my structure, I have to start filling that in and then I have to be open to letting go of that structure, if and when it becomes apparent to me that it won’t work.
BRYAN: 00:53:31 Do you write every day?
SALLY: 00:53:33 No, I write when I’m writing, I write when I have a book to write and then I write every day or if I have an article to write then I ride every day. But if I’m not working on something, I tend to, to, you know, I’m writing things like I’m rewriting my bio or I’m posting something online, but I don’t have a discipline where I put in a certain number of hours unless I’m working on something. If I’m, I spend a lot of time speaking. So I’m on the road a lot. I’m preparing my, my talks. I’m varying them. I’m learning about what that this audience that audience might need so I can adapt it. So that’s a kind of, you know, writing. Certainly writing speeches but um, or preparing talks. But, uh, it’s not the same as when I’m writing a block and when I’m writing a book, I really tried to not do very much else because I need that with them. I need that consistency. I need to get up every day. I need to work from nine to five, pretty much. And, and, um, make progress or just it. I can’t sustain that, sustained the rhythm. So I think that’s the other thing when people say, the most common thing I hear is people will say, I’d love to write a book, but I don’t have time. Well, you know, basically you probably won’t write a book then because it takes a lot of time and you’ve got to find that time. You’ve either got to give something else up and your schedule. Um, you can’t, in my experience, you can’t kind of cram it in.
BRYAN: 00:55:14 You know, I have a friend who is, um, he’s in New York Times bestseller and when I called him a few years ago telling him that I was thinking of making a change in my career, basically being a writer, being more of a student of coaching and leadership, and he said two things that I thought were really interesting and you what you said, just raise both of them for me. One was, he said, well, you’ll probably be gone to a lot fewer Jazz games then. And I thought there’s only like one or two a week at most, like really? And he’s like, really? Really? Right. That was one. And then the other, he talked about stamina, you know, you’re talking about writing from nine to five when you’re in the middle of a project and he’s now in his, he’s probably in his late sixties. And he said, I don’t have the stamina to write like I used to. And I thought writing takes stamina. I didn’t…
SALLY: 00:56:01 Oh, writing takes stamina. In fact, it was very interesting to me. You never hear about writers retiring, you know, you kind of write and then you die basically. And I’ve always thought of it that way, but Philip Roth retired when he turned 83 or 84, he retired and he’d written about 30 books and you know, it was really one of america’s most substantial novelist of the 20th century and early 21st. And he said, I read an interview with him and he said I just didn’t have the stamina for writing anymore. So that really made me think I do have the stamina still. I’m probably older than your friend, but I do have the stamina for it and as long as I have the stamina I’ll keep it up. And maybe like Philip Roth, if I don’t have the stamina, then you know, 15 years or so, I’ll, I’ll find something else to do.
BRYAN: 00:56:58 Maybe golf.
SALLY: 00:56:59 I don’t think so.
BRYAN: 00:57:00 With all your free time. Alright. So my last question…
SALLY: 00:57:04 I’d be more likely to go to a basketball game.
BRYAN: 00:57:09 Well, you’re welcome to, any time in season you’re in town.
SALLY: 00:57:13 That would be great.
BRYAN: 00:57:14 I actually have two last questions. One is about what are the qualities of a great sentence and how can we write them?
SALLY: 00:57:21 Okay. I think the great. The quality of a great sentence is that it accurately and clearly and concisely conveys one idea that supports the larger narrative. That is the paragraph that is the chapter or section. It’s. It’s got to be clear. I always feel that my major task is being clear in what I convey and that I’m most likely to be clear if each sentence has one idea. Small, because it’s only a sentence, but that it’s distinctive and that it moves it on one hand it connects to the sentence before and the sentence that follows, but that it has its own standalone integrity and idea and is essential, essential that if you pulled it out the sentence before in the sentence afterwards wouldn’t make sense.
BRYAN: 00:58:30 Thank you for that. I love that. It’s easy in the process of drafting for me at least to just because I love the advice. Don’t get it right. Get it written. Yeah. You talked about are important and then there’s that balance of coming back and making sure the sentences are clear and concise.
SALLY: 00:58:46 And it’s all, you know. I always say that my experience is it, you know, people will say, oh, you’re so much better writer than me. No, actually, I just have so much patience for going back over and over and over and over what I’ve written to make sure that it all works and coheres. That’s really all it is.
BRYAN: 00:59:11 From that perspective, it’s maybe not even so much a talent, although I think that’s true, but it’s a willingness, right?
SALLY: 00:59:17 That’s exactly right. It’s, it’s a yes, you have to have some talent, but lots of people have talent. It’s a willingness and a patience to be able to go over and over and over and not be satisfied until, until it’s right. Without being obsessive about it.
BRYAN: 00:59:36 Yeah. Okay, so final. This is the final question. What advice will you leave me with and our listeners about writing? It’s a big, big question so you can answer it any way you want. Anything from like the publishing world to the marketing world, to the drafting world, but if there was, if there was a piece of advice that you just gave to say a beginning writer, somebody near the beginning of their career, what, uh, what would you say?
SALLY: 01:00:04 I think it would be to have faith in your ideas if you have an idea, but then really clarify the idea. Make sure that that idea is, is strong and is distinctive and isn’t something that people have said before because that’s, that’s where you’re going to have some success if you have an idea. The Female Advantage, for example, uh, the book that really kicked off my career, The Female Advantage, Women’s Ways of Leadership. It had one distinct idea and that is that women had something to bring to leadership that was missing, that had been missing from the conversation. When that book came out, women were advised if you want to be a leader, you know, if it moves, salute it, leave your values at home. Lead exactly the same way that the men you’ve been observing lead. And I do think that was very good advice. So that’s what I tried to address in that book. So it was one idea at that time, it was a fresh and original idea. Nobody had ever come at it from that angle. And so it worked and it became successful. Often you learn your idea as you, right? So it’s a, it’s an art, not a science. You want to have an idea, you want to make sure it’s clear, you want to make sure it’s distinctive, then you want to invest in it, invest the time and the patience and the willingness in it. Um, but be prepared that it may shift and change and grow and move in some new directions and that there’s a sense of discovery there not just, you know, you’re following your structure, or your template.
BRYAN: 01:02:07 Part of the of the magic. I think of the creative process.
SALLY: 01:02:09 I think it is. I think that that’s true and I’ve watched it in many different arts take place.
BRYAN: 01:02:17 That’s great. Okay. Well thank you again for making time to talk with me today. I’ve enjoyed our conversation. I could, I could talk to you for another hour at least about about writing and leadership. So I really appreciate you making time to talk with me and, and everybody who’s listening to this School for Good Living Podcast.
SALLY: 01:02:35 Thank you, Bryan. You’ve been a wonderful interviewer. I’ve really enjoyed it.
BRYAN: 01:02:38 Thank you.