The way we approach our career affects our success and fulfillment, says philosopher, author, and thinker Don Watkins. In his conversation with me, Don discusses common misconceptions and mistakes about career success and what motivates people to high performance. We talk about how to properly view achievement and pride and what is the proper role of money and status in your career decisions. Don discusses the reason why equality is not necessarily the fair way to manage your team (based on insights from his new book, Equal is Unfair). Business performance is not a zero-sum game, so we shouldn't compare it to sports. He also shares the key benefits you can gain by aligning your philosophy and your actions and drops a great action tip that can get you started right away to achieving greater success.
What you’ll learn:
- What are the two main types of ways that people approach their work, and why one of them will yield far superior results and one leads you to say “is this all there is?”? (Which one are you using?)
- What is the definition of a successful life and career?
- What are the three elements to aim for in your career to achieve the feeling of success?
- What is a common mistake people make when they make career decisions (and why money is great but can also lead to disastrous results that will undermine your success)?
- What are the kinds of things that really motivate high performers?
- What should be the philosophic link between work and a happy life?
- What is the proper way to think about inequality at work?
- Why does Don think comparing business and sports is really dangerous?
- How should you properly view achievement and pride in your success?
- What should you do when a team member is not meeting expectations?
- Why should we all see ourselves and our team members as entrepreneurs with mutually-beneficial gain?
- What are the most important ways that people can benefit from aligning their philosophy and actions?
- What’s Don’s suggestion for one actionable takeaway that will help you upgrade your own success right away?
- What’s habitual functioning and the one great drawback of it?
Go buy Don’s new book, Equal is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality, co-authored with Yaron Brook!
My interview with Chip Joyce, who made his own job when he didn’t find a job that was the perfect fit.
Download the 10 Mistakes Leaders Make and How to Avoid Them free tool!
Intro/outro music for The TalentGrow Show: "Why-Y" by Esta - a great band of exquisitely talented musicians, and good friends of mine.
About Don Watkins
Don Watkins is one of today’s most vocal champions of business and free enterprise. He is coauthor, with Yaron Brook, of the national best-seller Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, and of Equal Is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality—the first book to challenge the crusade against economic inequality. A fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and a former Forbes.com columnist, Watkins writes for The Guardian, USA Today, and FoxNews.com, among many others.
Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.
Halelly: Hey there, welcome back to the TalentGrow Show. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist with another episode and this time I actually have a very unique guest. I have a philosopher. This is a friend of mine, Don Watkins, and he is releasing a brand new book today and I hope that you will go grab a copy of it right now or right after you listen to this show. It’s called Equal is Unfair: America’s Unguided Fight Against Income and Equality. But we don’t talk about economics and we don’t talk about politics. We talk about stuff that you can use in your job today. Because we drive down the connection between philosophy and your work. And Don and I have a really interesting conversation about what’s the right kind of philosophy to guide you as a leader and to help you guide the people that you lead to have the most productive and enjoyable relationship with you with the work that they do, and to get the best results. We talk about the sense of purpose people need to have. We talk about the importance of mastery in work and we talk about how important it is to have the right fit, and what to do if you don’t. So I hope that you’ll check out this episode. I hope that you’ll go buy Don’s book, and in the end don’t forget to download my free guide about the 10 mistakes that leaders make and how you can avoid them. That is all on the show notes, but here we go, today’s episode of the TalentGrow Show.
We are here with Don Watkins who is a friend of mine and also one of today’s most vocal champions of business and free enterprise. He is co-author with Yaron Brook, national bestseller Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Big Ideas Can End Big Government, and his newest book which was just released by the time you’re hearing this, is Equal is Unfair: America’s Unguided Fight Against Income and Equality. This is the first book to challenge the crusade against economic inequality. Don is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and a former Forbes.com columnist and he writes for The Guardian, USA Today and FoxNews.com among many others. Don, welcome to the TalentGrow Show.
Don: So great to be here.
Halelly: It is excellent to have you and I appreciate you joining us. We are actually in uncharted territory here, because most of the time my guests are not professional philosophers as you are! So I think you’re going to bring a very interesting and different angle to this show. But before we get started, all my guests always describe their professional journey in just a couple of sentences – which is of course a difficult challenge but I know that you can do it. So tell us, where have you been? How did you get here?
Don: So for the last 10 years, I’ve been writing. Been at the Ayn Rand Institute, writing about the intersection of philosophy and particular moral philosophy with business and economic issues. And this really is kind of uniting my two past lives, which is I’ve always been really interested in ideas, and I was always really fascinated with business. And before I came to the Institute, I was working in business. I worked for a couple of different tech companies writing business proposals. And so one of the things that I realized when I was in business was there was a lot of consequences of these ideas, both politically but also at an individual level. People not being as successful and happy as they could be. And I saw that philosophic ideas were playing a really critical role there, and so I had this wonderful opportunity to be able to write about the philosophic ideas that really influence us, whether we know them or not in business.
Halelly: And I know that I met you, gosh, I think over 10 years ago, so we were both in the D.C. area, and soon after we met, you had moved out to California to take that job and you’ve been out here for 10 years, right?
Don: Yeah, that’s it. I never set foot in California until I arrived in my car with all my worldly possessions and said, “I guess I live here now!”
Halelly: Well it’s amazing. Obviously I followed you and I’m loving it. And so this is really interesting, because a lot of people do this kind of as a side hobby and don’t pursue it. So this is something I know we’re going to talk more about. How do you make sure that you feel a sense of purpose and you follow it in your work and how do you actually make that work? You said that you felt a sense that there was maybe a lack of alignment between how people think about business and how people think about success and I know that a lot of our listeners sometimes struggle with that, where they feel like, “How can I feel good about my success? Or how can I make sure that I help others be successful?” And what is the proper even definition of success? So what do you think are some of the common misconceptions that today’s leaders in business have about success and what would you want them to think instead about?
Don: I’ll start with my own experience, which was I think like a lot of kids, when I was young, I wanted to do something important with my life. And the kind of images that would come to mind are like policeman who saves likes or something like that. One of the things that really fascinated me when I discovered the philosopher Ayn Rand – who I’m a huge fan of, obviously – is that you saw that same sense of “I want my life to be about something good and important,” but you saw that one realm in which people can do that is in business. And so you had these really successful businessmen, but they had the sense of being on a crusade, that their life was about a mission in the same way that a policeman’s might be. And when I got into the business world, one of the things that was so striking to me was that basically people fell into one of two categories. Even if they have that same attitude towards life as kids, which they often did, their work was either kind of “this is what I have to do to earn a living and I’m kind of living for the weekend, so work is a paycheck,” and the other is people who were more ambitious and took their work seriously, but that there was no ultimate why. What is it all for? It would be, “I’m going to make a lot of money or I’m going to get a prestigious position,” or something like that. But these are the kind of people who I would see, they would reach that kind of achievement and then the phenomenon of the midlife crisis. They would get there and go, “Is this all there is? What did this really add up to?”
And here I think philosophy actually plays a big role. Because philosophy, one of the things it tells you is what is a successful life? And it’s only by having a conception of a successful life that you can ask, “What is a successful career?” Because really a career is just a piece of your life and it’s a pretty big piece. So if there’s this tension between a successful career and a successful life you’re not going to get either. And so the way I think about it is, you should think of a successful career as one that is enhancing and making possible a successful life. And I think it has basically three aspects. One is money, but it’s not the amount of money per se. It’s not, “If you make $1 million you’re successful and if you make $50,000 you’re unsuccessful.” It’s rather you need to be self-sufficient. You need to be able to, through your career, meet all of your basic values. And so for let’s say a musician who is happy to live in a one-bedroom apartment so that he can play music every night, that’s the money that he needs and that’s what success, financially, consists of. For somebody else who say wants to raise a family or who has really passionate hobbies like mountain climbing, might need to be making significantly more.
The second two aspects I think are even more critical. That’s number two, you need to be using your mind to the fullest extent. You need to be able to feel you are fully intellectually engaged with your work, and that therefor you can grow when you’re at work. Because for human beings, happiness really requires that sense of growth, the sense that each day is a step higher on this ladder to infinite improvement of your life. And then finally, you need to feel that your work is meaningful. The kind of highest expression of this is when you’re doing something that is your total all-encompassing passion and you think, “Yes, nothing could be more important in the world.” So if you’re Steve Jobs, that can mean I want to create products that are just beautiful and people love to use. But I think at the very minimum what you need is, “I’m doing something worthwhile,” and that can even be, let’s say you’re a carpet cleaner. This is a need that human beings need. It’s not like we get super excited when we have to have our carpet cleaned, but it’s something valuable. And as long as you see it as valuable, that’s enough to have a successful career. And so those are kind of the three things you need to aim for in your career, and if you get them, then that is a success.
Halelly: So what is this, what do you think is behind this drive that some people have to climb higher in the organization? A lot of people think about their career as a series of progressions on the ladder, and when you think about your definition – which I really agree with – sometimes that should probably not even include any kind of change in terms of an upwardability.
Don: I mean, so there’s a legitimate desire to grow and to take on new responsibilities and new tasks. And that’s a very positive thing, but there can also be a negative side where it’s rising as an end in itself, distinct from, “What do I actually want to do? What kind of career do I want to have?” And I mean, the classic case of this is very often going to be something like somebody who is a great engineer and then they reach kind of the height of being an engineer and then where is there to go up? I’m going to go into management. And they’re often not very good at it, but they’re certainly not very fulfilled by it. And I think what happens is that you lose sight of the goal in those kinds of cases. You lose sight of the fact that the goal isn’t just to keep advancing for the sake of advancing. It’s advancing for the sake of taking on greater challenges. And so I would say somebody who is in the position, let’s say they’re a really great engineer and they reach a ceiling at a given company, they should really be thinking about, “Is there another company where I can take on an even wider, more difficult or more exciting engineering task?” So as with so many things, the key to making good decisions here is always being clear on your purpose. And one way you can go really wrong is if you make money your primary purpose instead of an important secondary purpose that you can be led to say, “I must go into management, otherwise my paycheck is not going to get any bigger.” And that’s just really disastrous. Money is awesome. Money is a great thing and you should be really exciting about earning more of it, but if it becomes a primary rather than a secondary, rather than something that should flow from your primary concern of doing work that you find fulfilling and challenging, then you’re going to really undermine your happiness and you also undermine your performance.
Halelly: Say more about that, that last part. I agree.
Don: One way to think about it is doing productive, creative work is really, really hard. And part of it being hard is you have to have the motivation to push through it. I don’t think you’re going to become an Olympic athlete – let’s say a swimmer – if you don’t like swimming, just because you want this gold medal. And you’re never going to become a great manager if you don’t love managing. Because you’re not going to be incentivized to spend that extra time thinking about it to push through the really hard parts or the skills that you haven’t developed and need to develop to do a good job. And so I think quality requires motivation and that’s why you want to pick a realm in which you can be really, really motivated. Motivated by love of the work, not love of the reward that comes at the end of the work.
Halelly: So an intrinsic motivation of the mastery itself. This is very aligned with the work I’ve often talked about from, well, Dan Pink doesn’t do the work but Dan Pink wrote about a lot of the studies that are coming out of social psychology and social sciences that show that people beyond a certain basic threshold – just to take care of their needs – are really not very motivated by money. They’re much more motivated by having this sense of purpose and by mastery, by actually getting better and better and better at their craft, and then the third motivation he was describing is autonomy where they have the flexibility to decide how they do their work or with whom they do their work or where they do their work or when they do their work, to the extent that they can, so that they don’t feel compelled or confined by their environments to do things in a certain way that doesn’t fit with the way they would prefer to do it.
Don: I agree with all that. And this is … from the deeper philosophic perspective here is that as human beings, we need to create the values that we need in order to live. And the wider way to think about that is your productive work is what you’re really trying to do is transform the world in a way that makes it more hospitable to your life, or remake the world in the image of your values, to paraphrase a line from Ayn Rand. And how do you do that? It is through creative, through the actual act of creativity that really the driving force behind what we get out of work and what we should seek to get out of work is being creative, creating something that we think is good, and then the rewards should flow from that. So there’s nothing bad about rewards, but there should always be this link between my productive creativity and my ability to consume as a result of that creativity. And if you drop either side of that link, if you’re producing without rewards or you’re focused on rewards without the joy and fulfillment of producing, you’ve gone wrong somewhere and you’ll find that you feel unfulfilled and so you’re undermining the larger purpose of living a happy life.
Halelly: And this is where it becomes really tricky when you’re a manager, a leader in an organization, because you’re trying to figure out how to get work done through others, and to meet certain goals and criteria to generate whatever the results the customers expect, but knowing that every person has maybe a different range of abilities and certainly different values and different motivations, I often try to get leaders to see that what they need to do is get super curious about what are the individual motivations of each of the people that they lead so that they can help them find a way to express that in their work, or to gain that in their work, to the extent that’s possible within that organization and that team and so forth. And I think this is where maybe there’s a little bit of a crossover between this and the topic of your latest book, which I know probably is a lot more about the political system and things that are kind of in a larger society, but there are many implications also for the workplace about this idea of are we striving for equal – like equal pay for everyone or equal rewards for everyone or equal treatment for everyone – or should I try to treat each person differently, and then am I being unfair? What do you think about that?
Don: Well, let’s take it, so there is a respect in which equality and equal treatment is crucial that is in respects that people are equal, they should be treated equally. And so for instance any sort of racial discrimination or gender discrimination, I mean, those are obviously corrosive and immoral. That should be off the table. But when we’re talking about differences in rewards, differences in money, then the fact is that we’re very unequal. People create different amounts of economic value. And so you can set aside the political context, just think in the realm of the business. Imagine a business that said this, let’s say they had three salesmen. One brings in a million dollars a year in business, the other two bring in $100,000. And I’m a CEO who just, I believe in equality. I’m not a crazy radical who is going to make everybody fully equal, but I’m just going to say 50 percent of the rewards achieved by my best salesman have to be dispersed to my less successful salesmen. What are going to be the consequences of that? They’re not going to be very good. But at a deeper level, how is that fair? And so the basic guideline, the basic moral principle that’s relevant from philosophy here is justice. And in justice, the key insight is that achievements should lead to rewards, and failures or to do things that are wrong should be met with punishments or certainly they should not be met with rewards. And so the bottom line is that achievement is unequal, and so equal is unfair. And this is an insight that great leaders have had. I’m not the first one to make this point. John Wooden, who is one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time – he used to coach UCLA – and he’s a very interesting thinker in his own right and very philosophic. He pointed out that he needed to treat his players fairly, but that did not mean equally. That he had to respect that some players contributed more to the tam and some players contributed less. And if he had treated them all equally, his view is that actually would have been unfair and I think he’s exactly right on that point.
Halelly: So this entire generation of people that are entering the workforce now or maybe already in the beginning of their professional career came from what we like to joke about as the “everyone is a champion, everyone is a winner, participation trophy to every kid on the soccer team” kind of environment, where there was almost like a backlash against achievement. And I know that a lot of people almost feel like they’re supposed to be ashamed of or hide achievement, so as not to make others feel bad about themselves. And this is something that I’m sure really disturbs a lot of top performers and certainly the top performers are usually the ones that rise up into leadership. So what do you think are some practical ways for us to overcome this?
Don: I think, so first of all, I would say that this idea that one person’s achievement is going to make other people feel bad, there is a certain kind of person – and we can talk more about this – who when they see other people’s achievements do feel bad, and indeed sometimes actually want to punish those people for those achievements. You can think of just at a simply level of the bully who beats up the straight A student, because he’s envious and jealous. But for most people, and for all good people, the best thing you can offer others is the sight of achievement. That is actually inspiring. Think about your own motivations in your work, and I can certainly relate to this, that when you see people who are really good, it makes you want to up your game, and maybe even in a friendly way be competitive and say, “I’m going to outdo you.” Not by crushing you into the ground but by excelling and becoming better in my own life. So if we keep that in mind, I think that is a big piece of the puzzle, that actually achievement is something great. The sight of achievement is something great and inspiring towards others.
The second thing, though, the piece of the context that is really important here is we often draw parallels between business and sports, and I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do. Because there’s a sense in which they’re similar and you can draw parallels. But there’s a sense in which they’re not. So in a sports competition, there’s going to be a winner and a loser. Again, unless you destroy the joy of sports by making everybody a winner. But in a business context, in the big picture, there are no winners and losers. You might lose in any narrow endeavor. You might not get that job or your business might even go out of business. But you can go and do another job. You can find another avenue for success, and everybody can win because what we’re doing is we’re not fighting some zero sum game, over a fixed set of rewards. We’re creating rewards. We’re creating economic value. And so if you’re going to use a parallel to sports, it’s really like little league sports where everybody is going to make the team. It’s just a matter of what position are they going to have? And that’s really what happens in an economy is that we’re all trying to find the place in the division of labor where we can add value and where we can gain value by finding fulfillment and economic success. And everybody can do that and the best way to encourage other people to do it is excel yourself. Be the best that you can be and help show them what’s possible.
Halelly: I love that. That’s so important. It really isn’t a zero sum game. And I totally agree with you, the idea that there’s really only one outcome. And I often talk about this to people – there’s no way that both teams can win. There’s no such thing. But I teach win-win for an outcome for negotiations all the time, but that would never happen in sports. You just cannot both say, “Let’s both take the trophy.” So in the real world, it’s rarely this kind of a zero sum game and the pie is always expandable. We can always grow it. And if you can’t find a single job that seems to allow you to shine, then you can make your own job. In episode 22 I actually described how one of my friends and colleagues, Chip Joyce, he couldn’t find a job that he liked so he made one! He kind of made his own success, that allows him to thrive. So, I agree about that and I think that leaders sometimes if they let go of that, I think it probably is also very helpful to them when they find someone who isn’t performing up to their standards or isn’t really needing the requirements of a particular job that they’re in. So while you want everyone to be successful in their own way and to thrive and to use their strengths and to feel great, at some point there is a certain way you need them to perform and if what they’re doing – even if it’s their best or best-suited for them – doesn’t meet your needs in that job, on that team, then that might not be the best place for that person. So it’s good. I mean, it’s actually a good thing. They can go and find a different team to be on where they can thrive or where their gifts add the most value and they’ll be happier than on your team.
Don: I’m so glad you brought up that example because I was actually going to bring up that very example, which I do think anybody who is in any sort of management or leadership position encounters. Somebody who is not a right fit. Part of thinking win-win is that you want to make sure that they benefit and that you benefit, and if you don’t see that they’re benefiting, then that is a really problem and you’re going to suffer from it in the long run. But if you’re not benefiting, you also can’t tolerate that and what you need to recognize is that doesn’t mean the person, you’re treating them as a bad person or you’re throwing them out into Siberia. And indeed, one of the things you can do and that a lot of great leaders do, is when they see somebody who is failing because they’re not a right fit, instead of just firing them, it’s, “Here, let’s find where you could be a better fit.” And I think that’s a really positive way to approach things. But it all comes from this framework of thinking that we’re looking for an area where we have mutually shared interests. And so for instance there’s kind of this traditional view in business, particularly when people talk about business in the 50s or 60s, where the relationship in a company is paternal. Where it’s “our job is to take care of our employees,” and they’re basically supposed to be drones that follow orders and that’s kind of their payment for being our employees. But the way that I think about it is that we’re all entrepreneurs. We’re all seeking our own independent vision of what we want. Some of us, many of us, are just entrepreneurs with one customer and that customer is the organization we work for. And with entrepreneurs, what you’re seeking is to find relationships where you gain and your customer gains. And that’s exactly the kind of attitude you should have within an organization. I want a relationship where I gain and where the members of my team gain and you either find that or you have to unfortunately help them find another avenue.
Halelly: Oh my God, we could talk about that for another hour! But we are quickly running out of time for this episode, so I really enjoyed speaking with you, Don, and I hope that people will seek to learn more from you. Because you really do have a lot of fantastic insights to share. Before you share one specific action and also how people can get in touch with you, what’s new and exciting on your horizon? I know that you’re in the throws of book promotion and book tour and all of that. What else is going on?
Don: So I mean the book is coming out and that’s kind of the main focus, but one of the things, like I said I’ve written mostly on the kind of political and economic aspects of philosophic ideas, but I’ve become more convinced that what’s most crucially needed is the ideas that any given individual can adopt in his own life to make his career more successful and more enjoyable. And so one of the reasons I wanted to come on this podcast is I’d like to really start focusing on that, because when you can see really good people take these ideas and run with them and achieve amazing things and feel more confident about their mission, and in effect recapture that childhood sense of “I want to do something great and important with life,” to me that’s the most rewarding thing. So that’s kind of what I’ve been obsessing about for the last few months.
Halelly: Very cool. It’s definitely the kind of thing that I focus on, helping people where they’re at. Thank you for that. I always ask podcast guests to share one actionable tip that listeners can take right away that will help them ratchet up their success in their leadership or in their career. What do you suggest?
Don: So this is actually something I learned early on when I started working professionally as a writer is I think a lot of your listeners probably have read people like Napoleon Hill and they know that it’s important to have your purpose, your major goal that you’re after. But I think that a key step is to realize that you should always be on the premise of asking and answering, “What’s my purpose?” And even in really small tasks, so I’m about to send an email – what’s my purpose. We’re about to have a meeting – what’s my purpose? Because it’s very easy to be unclear about that, and your purpose is going to determine the means that are necessary to achieve it. And so whenever you find yourself in a situation in which, like, this meeting just isn’t getting anywhere. I can’t figure out how to write this email. Asking what my purpose is, and then you can ask bigger questions about is that the right purpose? Does it feed into my larger goals and purposes? That is the number one thing I found in my own experience and with other people’s experience that allows them to really have a super high leverage in pursuing their goals. Because you’re just being goal directed every step of the way and in every aspect of your day, which is, we’re creatures of habit. And if you aren’t actively purposeful, you’re going to fall back into habitual functioning, and habitual functioning has one great drawback. Which is you don’t know if it’s heading you in the right direction or not.
Halelly: It’s like the distinction between doing things right and doing the right thing. You have to put those in proper order or else you could be doing all things really well and going nowhere fast, right?
Don: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that is the error that good people get trapped in the most, that they’re really, really productive in the sense that they’re putting out a lot of really high quality effort, but it’s directed in the wrong directions. And so taking control of your life really means just being on purpose all of the time.
Halelly: I love it. Good. What a great way to end. Be on purpose all the time. Don Watkins, thank you so much. How can people get in touch with you and learn more about you? I will link to your new book and your former books in the show notes and what else should people do to get in touch and learn more?
Don: So www.equaiIsunfair.com is where they can find my writing and more information about that. But the best way to interact with me and just kind of keep up to tabs is on Twitter, @DWatkins3. DWatkins was taken, unfortunately, so now it has to be counterintuitive.
Halelly: This is a problem I never encounter.
Don: I’m jealous!
Halelly: One of the few benefits of having a very weird name. Very good.
Don: You make everybody uncomfortable because they don’t know how to pronounce it until you do.
Halelly: Exactly. That’s my life! So Don, thank you. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. Thank you for coming on the TalentGrow Show and sharing it with the listeners. And listeners, I hope that you take Don’s advice and do everything on purpose. And in the meantime, as always, make today great.
Who’d a thunk it, philosophy can actually be useful, right? So I love that action item that Don suggested – be on purpose. Always question yourself about what is it that you’re trying to achieve before you go after it? And then you’ll be much more likely to achieve the things that are important to you and your business. And in the meantime, make sure to grab my free download tool that I’ve created just for you. It’s called “10 Mistakes Leaders Make and How to Avoid Them.” It is totally free. It’s on my website and I really want to hear what you thought about this episode, what you think about the tool, what you want to hear more about. Please send me feedback. You can comment in the bottom comments section of the podcast page, which is where I have the links to Don’s book and to the things we’ve mentioned. That’s at www.TalentGrow.com/podcast/episode26. But of course you can always tweet at me or send me an email and I’m really, really going to be happy to hear from you. So let me know how you applied what you’ve learned, what you’d like to learn more about, what you thought about this, what I could do differently, and in the meantime, as always, make today great. I am Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist and this has been the TalentGrow Show.
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