Lori Michele Leavitt | Creating Your Own “North Star”

The only constant in business – in life too, for that matter – is change. It’s how you confront change that matters. 

For Lori Michele Leavitt, the “Pivot Catalyst,” that means careful and considered decision-making. Your next step could be bold… you might even make a complete 180 degree turn.  

But, says Lori, you don’t have anything to fear if you’re in the right “environment.”  

We unpack all that, as well as…

  • The 6 indicators that tell you if your business is moving forward
  • The group every entrepreneur needs to learn from and “lean on” 
  • Discovering the people you don’t need in your life (and they could be very close to you)
  • The key difference between consulting and coaching
  • And more

Listen now…

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Transcript

Welcome to the Unstoppable CEO podcast! I’m your host, Steve Gordon, and we’ve got a great interview for you today. I’m talking with Lori Michele Leavitt, and she is known as the Pivot Catalyst for organizations that are well beyond the startup phase. She’s the author of The Pivot: Orchestrating Extraordinary Business Momentum, and she’s currently working on her next book, Pivot to Clarity. We’re going to be talking about a whole range of stuff, and we just had a little chat before we turned the recorder on. There’s a ton coming your way, so hang on. We’ve got a lot coming, and I know you’re going to get a ton of value out of it. 

 

So Lori, welcome to the Unstoppable CEO. I’m really excited that you’re here!

 

Thanks Steve, I’m happy to here.

 

So before we dive into all the great things that you’re doing, tell me a little bit, and tell everybody that’s listening, a little bit about your background, how you got to this stage in your career.

 

Sure, happy to. Well, as a person, and I think it’s really important for someone to be fulfilled in the work that they do to know who they are, so as a person, I am both creative and disciplined. And I talk about this in my book, The Pivot, about an organization needing to be both focused and nimble. So it’s a similar thing, and it’s amazing how you’re wired creates your journey.

 

So everything that I’ve done, I ended up majoring in accounting of all things, with a lot of focus on econ. I’m a very, again, curious person, so back when I graduated, I became an analyst. 

 

Now, did I care for accounting? No, but as an analyst, I could be the person that supported decisions for the executives, and worked throughout the entire organization to really understand what’s happening from other’s point of view, and make sense of it all. And that was fun, but it also served me very well, and I’ve basically been doing that all my life. Every single role I have is supporting decisions, whether it’s in the books that I write, in the leadership peer, business and peer groups that I run, in the programs, consulting and coaching, that I do. It’s really all about making choices and decisions for oneself.

 

Getting to that level of understanding of yourself is … I think it’s sometimes challenging. I probably did not have that at an earlier stage of my career, and looking back, that caused a lot of spinning of wheels and confusion, and going in the wrong direction. Is that something that you think most people have, or is there a point at where we sort of just acquire it through experience? How have you experienced getting to that level of clarity?

 

Let’s go back to those words I used, and I’m going to use the ones in the book, focused and nimble. What I’m talking about is not a straight line. Knowing yourself helps you get through those tough times when it’s feeling like you might be on the right track, or you’re just uncomfortable. Many, I think, people on the line will be entrepreneurs or wired as entrepreneurs, and they know what that resistance feels like. And if they’ve been doing it long enough, they know that if the end of that journey is important enough to them, that they can get through it.

 

Others may be new to that journey. Our kids, we can help them understand hey, if you know, if you’re feeling true to yourself with what you’re doing, then don’t listen to the naysayers and keep going and there might be some tough times. So no, it’s not a straight line, but that purposefulness about it helps you get through anything and helps you decide when you are on the track that fits you, and when it’s not what fits you. If that makes sense.

 

Aiming for Your Own North Star

 

No, it does. It’s almost like you create your own north star to continue to follow that, even as the reality on the ground is causing you to zigzag back and forth to get there.

 

Yes, and you can also check in with it. So I know that you like to hear what people, some problems, some setbacks people had. Mine was other people. I grew up in a very trusting family. Respect, all great traits, and they bit me as an entrepreneur. And bit me in that not they’re good traits, you cannot be a good coach if you’re someone who doesn’t trust first. You just can’t. But you have to, as a leader. You have to know where your, I don’t know, weak spots might be. Discernment, for example. And fill them somehow.

 

Yeah. Just in reflecting on not only my own journey, but I talked to entrepreneurs all the time. I feel like half of our job is marketing, and the other half is counseling for entrepreneurs, because often times, the marketing is at that intersection of how they’re going to represent themselves in the world, which is all wrapped up in mindset and things. I think there’s really a lot to that. The idea that … You’ve got the way that you came out, and you’ve got these traits and all that, but they don’t always add up and serve you in the way that you think they would. And I would imagine, as you’ve dealt with that, that had to be challenging as you went through. There had to be some times where people saw the opportunity and took advantage, where you were a little, maybe too trusting and paid the price.

 

All of it. One trusting, two a woman, three, single. All the things that you hear can be trouble in doing your own thing and leading your business, and following your goals, I might have got hit with. These are all gifts, and if you’re feeling that you’re getting hit by something, if something’s always happening to you, well guess what? The theme in all of that is you. And this is why, one of the reasons why, I love running peer groups is that everyone grows as people as well to be in a group, and to have people around you that you truly can trust, and you can be safe and you can point out your blind spots. It’s so powerful.

 

In my case, early on, I didn’t have that. So it took a while for me to recognize where my blind spots were. I could easily tell you right now, was I too trusting? Well, I don’t think someone could be too trusting, but I was letting my discernment down. I was letting others make decisions for me, even though I’m this high paid decision support person. What’s going on with that, right?

 

So you have to step back and be willing to look at yourself and see the themes in your life, and pivot. Make some changes. Which I did, I actually had to entirely … I was already 50 years old when I had to entirely shift … Not had to, but chose to entirely shift my circle. Who I was keeping close to me. And I’ll tell you, it has made a huge difference in how I feel every day.

 

Yeah, I can imagine. Interesting. I always like to listen to the language that people use, and you just corrected yourself. And instead of saying had to, you said chose to. Whenever I hear someone do that, that’s usually an indication to me that here’s somebody who is very intentional about the way that they think, and the decisions that they make. And not everyone is, but you can hear it in these little things, so it’s very interesting. And I think that in and of itself is a lesson, you know? 

 

The Group Every Entrepreneur Needs for Their Business

 

So I always like to listen to, when we have guests on, I’m listening for the lessons that you’re saying, but maybe other people wouldn’t hear, and I think that’s an important one. I want to talk a little bit about this idea of peer groups. We both are believers in them, and I think for entrepreneurs who are facing all the challenges that go into building a business, there’s sort of this value within a peer group that I don’t think you could get in really any other format. And I know you’ve run them in the past for a long time, you’re running them now both locally and virtually, and you’ve been a member of them. So tell me a little bit about … Because you’ve got that unique perspective, tell us a little bit about the value you see in these peer groups.

 

And even if there’s not a formal group, it’s about connections. I can’t … When I run into people who don’t get, or don’t understand the value of just connecting with a person, I … it depends on are they worth it? Are they worth my time? But if they are, just giving them that gift of connecting with others in a way other than superficial, is so rewarding. So whether it’s a formal peer group I run or if I’m just connecting people, getting them with someone who can be safe and help them grow, and it usually helps both of them.

 

So in a peer group, one reason I do them is one, it’s not about me. So I can coach someone, I can be a consultant to someone. And the difference is when I’m consulting, I am the person who is helping to model the way, providing guidance. People don’t know what they don’t know, so filling in that gap. 

 

When I’m coaching, I’m working through them so that they’re the ones taking the action. As a consultant, I found that when I worked with leaders … And it wasn’t sustainable. I’d walk away, and maybe they wouldn’t do what we had all agreed to do. But as a coach, if I’m doing my job really well and if I’ve selected the clients properly because I’m highly selective in who I work with, then they are becoming a certain way, so they are creating that new context around them, and it lasts. And this is also, it sounds like I went on a tangent, but it wasn’t. So stick with me.

 

In a peer group, you get this as well. There’s these ah-ha’s that happen within the group, and as each person gets them, because it’s a safe place, they’ll bring others along, or they’ll have different stages in their business when they’re applying them. And then they have something to talk about. I remember when I first formed a peer group, and then I left that one and I started something else on my own. One of the things that surprised me the most was the marriages improved.

 

I was like, “What’s this? How did that happen?” And that just gives you a sense of what can happen in a peer group. Did we directly talk about relationships? Not really, but they came up. And people are talking with each other, and it was all in that context of a safe place and how it’s effecting their leadership and their business, and they grew. And I will have people coming back to me saying, “Lori, you changed my life.”

 

And I know I did not change their life. Wouldn’t that be nice if I did it on my own? I did not do it on my own. But the creating that new context for them, that peer group as well as maybe how I worked with them, that different context allowed them to shift. Which is, and I know I’m talking a long time, if I may, that’s what I talk about in my book. Is how you as a leader can create that … You can’t change a person, but you can change their context. And I promise you that when you spend focused time on your role as being that context creator, powerful things can happen from that.

 

I want to take a break right here. I want to come back and have you take us a little deeper with that idea. Let’s come back and make it practical for everybody, because I think this is going to be really powerful. So we’re going to take a quick break, we’re going to be right back with more from Lori Michelle Leavitt.

 

Hey everyone, welcome back. This is Steve Gordon and today I’m talking with Lori Michele Leavitt. And Lori, we left off talking about the idea of a leader’s role as the person who sets the context. To me, I feel like you’re about to really share with us some groundbreaking stuff, and I hope you take us a little deeper down this line of thinking, because I know it’s going to be powerful for folks. 

 

So help us understand exactly what you mean by that. What would be a practical example?

 

And we started off with the practical example of talking about peer groups, where a leader is now in a group of peers where it’s safe and they have no other agenda than helping each other. That’s changing the context, the energy, the environment that they’re in, and they’re able to share. Kind of shed that persona of being the top person, because everybody’s the top person, and they also are in a now place where they know that their voice is heard, but their voice is heard in a way where people are curious about it, not just as a command.

 

So just the context. So in your organization, as a leader, things you say, you communicate, one, and I have a couple pet peeves. One is you and your leadership team have spent weeks, probably longer, talking about strategy plan, etc., and then you communicate it once and you think everybody’s going to get it and embrace it? Come on. 

 

Or worse, you hand that to finance, you translate it into budgets, and you think that is going to be inspiring. Excuse me? Have you ever seen, Steve, and I’m sure you’ve seen a budget. Have you ever seen an inspiring budget?

 

I don’t even like to look at them.

 

The things we do. So this changing of context is … It’s all part of orchestrating change. And when I say orchestrating change, it’s like this continuous, it’s just like what we talked about, of growing as an entrepreneur and leader. It’s change, but also, it’s continuous. That’s why I like to use this word orchestrating. Here’s where we want to be as an organization. Not only where we want to be financially, but how do we want to be working with each other? How will it be when myself, as the leader, likes office time?

 

Don’t discount that. If you’re not liking your office time, then there’s probably something even more wrong with your organization. And we get fearful of making those changes, or we get complacent or lazy, and don’t take the time to be really consistent. Consistent with our message, consistently clear, taking the time to really explain in a way that others will understand it, so that everybody’s moving together. 

 

And you asked about context, so context is how … If I want the organization to look and feel like this, then how does it need to be structured? That’s the simplest start. How does it need to be structured? When we put an organization together, what do we do? We pull down an org chart that has boxes in it that’s a hierarchy. Guess what, not all businesses have to be hierarchies. And I’m not proposing any one type is better than the other, I’m proposing that you may not have the right fit for where you want to be right now.

 

So that’s one type of context. How’s communication flowing? And then the other is the social context. How are people behaving? My friend, Jim Bergquist, who was the coach of the Pike’s Place Fish Market, that helped them become the world famous Pike Place Fish Market. I mean, they have a corner in the Pike Place Market. They haven’t even changed their square footage, and who are they to decide they’re going to be world famous? Really?

 

Well guess what they are? We know them as the world famous Pike Place Fish Market, not just through name, they actually are world famous. People know of them, they go to visit them, they speak in … How did they do that? Well, they didn’t just do it by creating new rules. They didn’t change their office space, it’s just a fish market. They changed their intentions, their context of how they’re being with each other. And that is probably the hugest improvement you can make in your organization, is to orchestrate that type of intentionally change of context.

 

I’m sitting here thinking through this, and trying to put myself in the position of someone listening to this who’s running a business, and sees the vision for how this could help them, but is a little bit fuzzy on translating it into the real behavior of their people. How would you work with that CEO, with that business owner, to begin to identify the really tangible things that they would need to begin to change to influence the context? Particularly context around the behavior of their team.

 

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I use the phrase best next steps a lot. Once we create this vision, when … It’s okay if you don’t know how on earth you’re going to get there. In fact, you shouldn’t know all the details of how you’re going to get there. You just have an idea of this is where you want to go, and as a leader, that’s what you’re looked to for. The vision and the direction toward it. Then you’re deciding your best next steps, and I’ll give you a concrete example, something very recent.

 

Saying the Same Thing Two Different Ways

 

So I was recently working with a government that is finding that their police department is not … They’re not treating the community the way they would want their police department to treat the community. How do you express that to the police? Because they are law enforcement officers. So where we’re starting is just a simple phrase that will change, shift how police officers feel about their role without saying that they’re no longer enforcing the law. And just follow me with this. So rather than, and between quotes, “We enforce the law,” to, between quotes, “We keep our community safe. We care about the community, and that includes enforcing laws.”

 

So it’s almost just like a reframing.

 

And how did that land? I mean, how do those two land with you? If you were in that organization and you went into the organization and they were told, “We enforce law,” that’s your number one, enforce the law, as opposed to if you were told, “We keep our community safe, and that includes enforcing these laws that were created to keep the community safe.”

 

The first observation I have of that is that the first statement is an action or activity, and the second is an outcome. When you expand it to the outcome, I think it opens the possibility of creativity and all kinds of different approaches to achieve that outcome. And I don’t know if that’s where you were going with that, but that’s the first thing that came to mind.

 

Yeah. No you’re absolutely right. Barry Schwartz wrote a book called Why We Work, and his premise was similar, and he gives examples of how … Well, his main premise is that we’re still stuck in reverting to the old industrial revolution ways. Hey, if people aren’t performing, then let’s add a financial incentive. Let’s make the work simpler. Let’s add more oversight. 

 

And what he was saying is that people really will shine and step up when it’s more purposeful, when they feel part of something. We all kind of know this, but as you said to me when you said you were trying, it was a little fuzzy about changing the context, it’s still a little fuzzy. So we all, in our situations, have to come up with our own more concrete best next steps. He gives examples of, say, janitors in a hospital where they … If they were under the straight rule, you’ve got to follow this job description and you’ve got to follow this timeline, and you sweep this hall at this time, then they wouldn’t have a person who is saying, “Oh wow, so-and-so is out of his room. He hasn’t tried to walk in weeks. I’m not going to sweep the hall later, I’m going to let him walk up and down and then I’m going to go sweep.”

 

And which do you want in your organization? And I will say that some organizations still want, “Nope. Sweep it at this time.” 

 

And then other organizations will say, “Absolutely. We want … This is about making people better. So great, make that great judgment call to not sweep the hall yet.”

 

Does this help?

 

The Second Stage Business

 

Yeah, completely. And to me, the value in getting to that second stage of how you operate in your business is that you get a business that’s smarter, that is more nimble, can react, and can think for itself so that you as the entrepreneur don’t have to make all the decisions. There’s nothing more frustrating than having stuff come back to you that other people should be able to make decisions on. And it’ll drag you down, and it’ll bring the business to a halt, I think.

 

That’s really what you’re describing here, is how to really align people around what you’re trying to accomplish, and giving them that as your primary role in leadership. Is giving them that context for why they’re there, why they’re being employed, why they’re part of the team, where everybody’s going. Is that sort of a way to encapsulate it?

 

It is. And now, when we’re talking best next steps, it’s one fear, and it’s a valid one, that an employee will make changes without really understanding the whole picture, not being strategic, and cause a lot of disruption. And that’s a real fear, and I’m not saying that you should be just having everyone disrupt when they don’t have the full awareness, and they’re not keeping everybody involved that’s going to be impacted by this change. 

 

So there’s absolutely nothing wrong, in fact, everything right with having a process for this. Ari Weinzweig who is a co-owner of Zingerman’s, which is a well-known deli, but they own many other businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he has a process of creating change. And so people learn that process.

 

They also, they truly are empowered, but empowerment includes if you see a change to be made, you write down what your vision of the change is, and you go out and talk to the people that are going to be affected by this, and then if everybody thinks that’s great, then it moves forward. 

 

And the CEO doesn’t always have to be involved, but they’re saving that … I’ve seen organizations where interns, say college interns come in, and decide their going to change the whole inventory system without asking anybody. You don’t want that. 

 

No, you don’t. I’ve witnessed that in the past with some of our clients that have internal marketing teams, and they hire interns over the summer or for a semester from college, and all of a sudden, disaster’s fallen upon the business because the intern went and did something without context. So yeah, I think to your point, having a process to allow that to happen makes complete sense. And it mitigates so much of the risk of it. While at the same time, you get to tap into the power of all the smart people that you’re paying.

 

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

So yeah, I’m loving all of this. This is, I think, very good stuff for everyone to hear, because we … A lot of times, we get wrapped up in running our businesses and we don’t step back and think about how are we going to apply some of these ideas that are there, and they’re in front of us, and make sense, but sometimes they’re difficult to both internalize and then figure out how to implement.

 

So I know you’ve got a book coming up soon that you’re in the process of publishing. Tell us a little bit about that book and how it builds on your earlier work.

 

I will. And I’m going to say one more thing before that, just because you sparked something in me.

 

Sure.

 

It’s really exciting now that talking about culture, and how people are being, even though it still feels a little new to many organizations, it’s okay. I grew up helping huge organizations go through, for example, mergers and acquisitions. And I was really good at it, but I had to hide the people part. I knew that I was looking at the people to see if the merger was even going to work. I had to just show them this great financial modeling and use all my financial terms, because it was not okay to talk about culture. It was like, “Save that for HR.”

 

Well, that’s just ridiculous. Why do mergers and acquisitions fail? Because the cultures don’t mesh, is the biggest reason. So it’s an exciting time when we can talk about how we’re being at work, and I promise the leaders, if you do think about that, you will be more fulfilled in your business as well.

 

Keeping It Moving

 

In my first book, called The Pivot: Orchestrating Extraordinary Business Momentum, I talk about six aligned momentum key indicators. That’s where you have alignment of everyone towards this common goal, and you’re continuously moving. It’s not stop and start, stop and start. It’s momentum. Aligned momentum.

 

And the six, the first three help you determine if you are ready. Your organization is ready for brilliant execution of strategy. Your strategy can look great on paper, but if your organization can’t get it done, it’s really not that great of a strategy, right? At least not yet.

 

So the first three are clarity, mastery mindsets, and nimble decision making. And then the next three, I’ll just finish this loop of these six, are help you identify if you’re ready for a brilliant and better future, and those are strategic thinking, talent adaptability, and coaching. So my second book is Pivot to Clarity. And clarity in this case is two things.

 

One, getting clear about where you want to go, and then being clear so that the person and person’s you’re communicating to, and you’re usually … Each person, individual, gets that communication and does something with it or not. How do you communicate in a way that they can truly get clear? So if you’re going to that process of really understanding clarity, saying, “How do I get clear?” 

 

Then put yourself into someone else’s shoes to say, “How can I communicate in a way that they can get clear just in the same way I got clear, then …”

 

Where do you have issues in your organization? Communication. So this book is about clarity, and rather than being as instructional as the first one, it’s going to be much more … Or it is, it’s much more …stories, and more, it’s really personal. So hopefully, when the readers read this book, they will feel inspired to take some steps and make some changes in their life.

 

Well, isn’t that really the most essential piece of getting anything done through other people? Or with other people? Is first, being really, really clear about what it is that you want, and then second, that important next step, is communicating that clearly so that they can go and execute? I mean, that really gets pretty fundamental, right, to everything we do in business.

 

Yes. 

 

Yeah. I’m looking forward to that, and I hope you send me a note when it’s out so that I can go get a copy, because I know it’s something that I struggle with all the time, and always have. And I think we all do. Particularly, those of us who are wired as entrepreneurs. I’m just a constant stream of ideas. They come so fast I can’t catch them all the time, and getting clear on them, and I’ve watched this. As I’ve tried to describe an idea to somebody on my team who isn’t wired this way, at first they look puzzled and confused, and then their eyes glaze over because I’ve beaten them into submission with this stream of consciousness of an idea.

 

And they don’t have any of the context that I had, right? So I had all of the context of whatever’s going on in my brain to make that up. And I know I’m not the only one that experiences that, by the way. Because I’ve talked to other business owners about it, and I don’t think it’s that we employ stupid people. We employ really smart people, but they do need the benefit of us being clear. 

 

Us being clear meaning, and you’ve already mentioned this, clear meaning in a way that it resonates with them. So you may have to try it a bunch of different ways. You may have to ask questions. You may have to have them feed you back something. And the other tactics I’m giving, and this isn’t just all about tactics. I mean, the first step is to care enough about the individual you’re speaking to, to understand how they need to hear something. And how to get through to them.

 

When we talk about pitching, right, we’re learning that we have to say things in a way that it’s going to be embraced and not going to be thrown out by that monkey mind that says, “Don’t want to know it. Already know it. Don’t care.”

 

Or in the case of your boss talking to an employee, “I’m fearful about it. Oh, now I’m in blame because they want change, that means I must have done it wrong before.”

 

And all of these things keep people from truly hearing and embracing what you’re trying to say.

 

Yeah, absolutely. Well, this is a topic we could go on for hours on, and explore all the different rabbit holes. Unfortunately, we don’t have that much time because I know you’re very busy. So before we wrap up, I would love for you to share with folks where they can get in touch with you, where they can find out more about the work that you’re doing and find your books, and those sorts of resources.

 

Sure. I’m going to give you two websites. One is for the initial book called ThePivotBook.com, and the other is LoriMicheleLeavitt.com. 

 

Perfect. And we’ll link those up in the show notes so folks can find them easily in case you missed it. But it’s ThePivotBook.com and LoriMicheleLeavitt.com. Lori, this has been a lot of fun. Thank you for investing a little bit of time with me. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve got notes that I’m going to have to go back over now, and then try and improve our processes. Thank you.

 

Thank you. Steve, I appreciate your work as well, thanks for asking me to do this.