Exclusive Interview with Organizational Psychologist, Laura Gallaher

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How does organizational psychology relate to being an entrepreneur and starting your own business? As I said in a previous column about How I Used Life Maps to Hire Over 50 Valuable Employees, I have been taking a course over the past month focused on leading a grounded life. The course is led by Laura Gallaher, who has become a good friend over the past year and who I have learned a tremendous amount from when it comes to understanding your self image and how you can re-structure your understanding of self to achieve a greater outcome.

I asked Laura to answer 5 simple questions that I could share with you about how her expertise in organizational psychology applies to the lives of entrepreneurs. The following is a question and answer with Laura that dives into the intricacies of understanding your own psyche and working with others in your entrepreneurial journey.

If you’re interested in learning more about what Laura and her company provide for growing organizations, visit Key Talent Solutions.

Question: Tell us a bit about your experience, education, and entrepreneurial journey. How have you become the person that you are today?

Answer: I’m an organizational psychologist. Organizational psychology is all about understanding, explaining and predicting behavior at work. Organizations are just people and organizational performance is a product of the behavior of its employees. To improve organizational performance, we focus on maximizing the effectiveness of individual and coordinated behavior.

laura-gallaher-phd-key-talent-solutionsHow did I get into this work? In 2003, Space Shuttle Colombia disintegrated upon re-entry over the state of Texas killing all 7 astronauts on board. The Colombia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) Report dedicated an entire chapter to the cultural influences on this tragic disaster. NASA Kennedy Space Center worked for a couple years to identify the types of leadership behavior required to create the culture where voices are heard and better decisions are made. Then they realized…this is not just a “one and done” effort – we must have continuing expertise in the area of organizational psychology to ensure our culture does not contribute to another tragedy.

NASA hired 3 PhD candidates in Industrial-Organizational Psychology to build up the function. This is how I began my career…as an organizational psychologist working for NASA Kennedy Space Center.

Because it was a brand new function, I had a disproportionate amount of responsibility in building up the group and our internal consulting capacity. At the time, I had no idea that I was, in fact, an “intrapreneur” – or an entrepreneur working inside an organization. I helped define our services, created content for our website, made brochures, networked with NASA leaders to help them learn about Organization Development (OD), and helped staff up the team. In hindsight, that level of responsibility and many of those experiences prepared me to start my own company.

In 2013, I created Key Talent Solutions and began executive coaching and consulting on the side. I loved my career at NASA, but I always thought I could have a bigger impact and I wanted to work in the private sector. While coaching and consulting with Key Talent Solutions, I made a move to work for Disney where I worked on executive assessment and development, talent and succession planning, and change management to fundamentally help leaders at Disney change the way they think about leadership. Key Talent Solutions was growing and soon I didn’t have the capacity to continue with a full time job. In 2015, I left Disney and Key Talent Solutions became my full time work.

Question: What are the most common issues that you witness entrepreneurs running into as they are expanding their companies? — specific to your field of expertise.

Answer: The biggest struggle I see entrepreneurs grapple with as they grow their companies is effectively transitioning from individual contributor to leader. In the beginning, the founder(s) is doing everything and wearing multiple hats. When they have the good fortune to grow, they start to take some of those hats off….or at least they intend to.

The Dinner Plan Metaphor

One of the metaphors I use for people is to ask them: “if they were going to have dinner all by themselves tomorrow night, how much would they plan that out?” Most people say, “not at all”. Occasionally, they say they might think about it for 2 minutes to decide if they will eat in or out and if they need to go to the grocery store.

Then I ask, “if you were going to have dinner with another person tomorrow night, how much would you plan that out?” Now there is a bit more to their answer. They definitely need to plan a time and location and we’re now thinking not only of our own preferences, but factoring in the other person’s as well.

Next I ask, “what if you were meeting 10 people for dinner? How much would you need to plan that out?” At this point, there is a decent amount of work that must go into it. You are coordinating the schedules of 10 people, or at least clearly communicating to all 10 of them the exact plan – time and location. In some cases, making a reservation or at least calling ahead will be critical to maximizing your evening as you don’t want to have a big herd of people hanging out in the lobby of a restaurant forever while the host waits for 2 tables near each other to clear out simultaneously to push them together to sit everybody. And in really extreme cases, sometimes restaurants even put together a specific menu just for your party so that any dietary restrictions can be factored in. You can bring 10 people together without factoring in their preferences and without doing a lot of planning, but you will likely enjoy the evening much less. What could be an enjoyable 2-hour event could turn into a 3-4 hour “situation” that leaves people grumbling.

How the Metaphor Relates to Entrepreneurs

An organization can absolutely take the same approach. Leaders can make the time to get clear about where they are going, what their people prefer, and make sure everybody has received clear communication about the destination and the plan.

Think back to the restaurant example again for a moment. Wouldn’t an evening in a new location be that much easier if people communicated to you the best options for parking? Would it help if they took the time to point out landmarks that you will see as you walk from a parking garage to the restaurant? Everybody would be much more likely to show up on time in the right location. Right?

Therefore, as leaders grow their organizations, it becomes that much more critical that they are clear about their future destination, how they are going to get there, and what each person needs to do to make it happen.

Why Entrepreneurs Fail as Leaders

There are 2 primary reasons why leaders typically fail to do this.

One – they believe being clear about expectations is micro-managing.
Two – They fear that having a clear picture of the future means they can’t be agile and pivot as the market changes.

Let’s break these down…

1 – Mistaking clear expectations for micro-managing

Be honest with yourself for a moment. Let’s say that you have an idea in your mind about a task, project, or work you want to begin. When working for yourself and by yourself, how often do you begin without making the time to think through the path you want to take?

You likely start down a particular path and maybe realize partway through that you want to tweak or modify it in this way or that. You are working for yourself so you can continuously work and shape your efforts as you go.

Once you are in a situation where you must delegate, without a crystal ball, your employees can’t predict exactly what you want. As much as we wish they could, they can’t always read minds. And here’s the kicker – even if they could read minds, maybe your mind is still a bit chaotic about what this project would even be!

Don’t make the mistake of sending your employees off to work without thinking through with them some of the basic parameters of the effort. Most importantly, make sure you are always clear about exactly what problem you are asking them to solve and what it will be different (from a results perspective) when the problem is solved.

If you make the mistake of failing to provide clear expectations, your employees will likely disappoint you. In frustration, you may become this uber-micro-manager, annoy the crap out of everybody, and drive away your top performers. Roll up your sleeves, get in there, and help them get clear about the problem they are working to solve. Make sure they are headed in a good direction before you let them loose.

2 – A clear future vision inhibits organizational agility

If anything, the clearer you are about your future vision, the easier it will be for your organization to pivot when the market shifts. Specifically, it will be easier for you to identify what changes in the market mean for the future you have outlined and your plan to get there.

If we barely know where we are going, then we certainly don’t know what to change when it feels like a change is warranted! Imagine I say to you… “Let’s meet up in Chicago in July. See you there!” First of all, what is the chance that you and I will actually find each other in Chicago in July? Second, now let’s say we find out that there is a massive convention (not for us) in Chicago in July and we want to know how this affects our plans. If we don’t know exactly when or exactly where in Chicago we are planning to meet, it is really difficult for us to know if this convention changes things for us.

Do the hard thinking proactively. Make the time to get clear about your future vision and get everybody marching in the same direction. When your organization inevitably needs to pivot and shift direction, communicate one clear message to everybody to orchestrate that turn.

Question: There is a lot of pressure to deliver on results for entrepreneurs. What are the best practices for entrepreneurs to stay positive about the future of their company?

Answer: Viktor Frankl managed to stay positive even while surviving 3 years in Nazi concentration camps. Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it. That quote is on my wall at home. Framing is everything.

Most entrepreneurs identify as “achievers” which means they have learned to set a high bar and continuously raise that bar. A big mistake that achievers make is failing to celebrate success. And specifically, they fail to take credit for the things they have accomplished.

Many achievers claim that this is why they are successful – because things are never good enough and they are always on to the next ladder. They fear that taking the time to celebrate and acknowledge where they are will somehow magically make them complacent and all of their drive will go away.

Here’s the reality though. That innate drive is a part of them and celebrating success will not change that. Unfortunately, failing to celebrate success means they have less resilience when things aren’t going as well. Their inner critic takes over and beats them up. Imagine trying to climb up a ladder with somebody throwing tomatoes at you. “No thank you, critic. You are not helping me right now.”

Entrepreneurs have to cultivate stamina and resilience to keep momentum and they need that inner champion voice cheering them on and giving them a boost when the ladder feels impossible or they just fell down a few rungs. But if they never give their champion a voice — like when times are good and they’re crushing it — that champion voice keeps its damn mouth shut when it is needed the most.

So what is my invitation to you? Cultivate it. Celebrate success, take credit (you don’t have to brag or be boastful), and enable the positivity you will need when it gets hard because it will get hard.

Question: What are the most important factors in building a trusting relationship with co-founders and employees?

Answer: I want to first break down this question of trust into competence and character. These are two very different things. You likely have people in your life that you know have great intentions and great character. They are honest with you and they do what they say will do. But some of those people may not have the capability or competence to tackle every task or project your business requires. On the flip side, you have people that you know are really good at their job from a functional perspective, but you question their motives and intentions. You aren’t always sure they have the collective best interest at heart.

The two most important factors in building and maintaining a trusting relationship with others are empathy and vulnerability.

  • Empathy: One of my favorite books that encompasses empathy even though this word is not frequently used in the text is “Leadership and Self-deception: Getting out of the Box.” The punchline of this book is this – If you look at others as objects in your way, you are “in the box” and you are looking at others as being inferior to you in some form or fashion. That mindset is a trust killer. Remember that people are human beings with hopes, dreams, wishes, and feelings. This simple mindset keeps you in collaboration and problem solving mode versus a mode of self-preservation and defensiveness. This keeps you in a mode of healthy conflict. Absence of conflict, or artificial harmony, is just as bad for a business as destructive conflict, which is exhausting, demoralizing, and leaves an expensive wake.
  • Vulnerability: Vulnerability is all about our willingness to admit our fears and our weaknesses. When we admit our fears, we enable others to see us with empathy – to see us as people with feelings. We also provide them with information that prevents them from making up a story in their heads. We all create stories in our heads to explain situations. Don’t be fooled into thinking you don’t do this; it’s our brains way of “helping”. If I’m having a bad day, and I don’t smile at my coworker when I pass him in the hall, he might think: “Wow, what did I do to upset Laura? I guess I have go talk with her and fix whatever went wrong.” This story plays out when the reality is my behavior had nothing to do with him. When we prevent others from making up stories, we create shared understanding and trust. People may understand our decisions and behaviors on a new level that enables them to believe in our good intentions. The other reason vulnerability is critical to building trust is to demonstrate that you care more about what is good for the company overall than your own preferences or desires for yourself.

Question: How does one define happiness in their entrepreneurial life?

Answer: Some of the simplest advice that I have had to learn and re-learn is the importance of focusing on the journey. It’s great to have an end game in mind, but if you’re not enjoying the journey….

1 – life is too short to not enjoy it along the way
2 – the journey will feel incredibly long if you’re only fixated on the end game and miserable all the way there.

Do whatever you can to keep a growth mindset, which means you understand that with effort and time you can learn and get better at anything. This can help keep you stay motivated and encouraged when you are experiencing difficulties or setbacks. And finally, I strongly advocate for determining your personal core values. An intentional focus on your core values and bringing yourself into alignment with those values daily will increase the happiness and satisfaction you get from your entrepreneurial life.

In Conclusion

If this is your first time reading about how psychology can impact your life as an entrepreneur, I highly encourage you to read each answer a few times through. It is important that you have an open mind when thinking about how the psyche plays into the growth of your role and your company. When I first started meeting with Laura to share our stories and learn more about her background, I was going through a tough time. I was in a position where I was going through multiple rounds of layoffs with my company, Portlight, and my view on things were definitely not bright.

Through many conversations, activities, books, and reminders of what is most important, I have been able to re-center my life as an entrepreneur so that I am pursuing visions that I am passionate about with people that I both trust and know can help make our vision a reality.

I italicized a quote from Laura above that particularly spoke to me:

Therefore, as leaders grow their organizations, it becomes that much more critical that they are clear about their future destination, how they are going to get there, and what each person needs to do to make it happen.

I have read handfuls of books centered on self-growth, self-understanding, and personal discovery. They all tell their story in a slightly different way using different metaphors and experiences, but they all circle back to this one universal truth. As entrepreneurs, and simply as humans, we must be clear about who we want to become. If we take the time to truly envision who we want to become, map out the key steps that will help us get there, and stay resilient in our pursuit, we will make that vision a reality. If we cannot be determinant on who we want to become, we will stray from the path and find ourselves stuck in a revolving path away from our ultimate vision.

As an entrepreneur, discovering that vision is as important as clearly communicating it to your team. The greatest power that we have as entrepreneurs is transferring our belief of the future to our team members so that they can make it a part of their life as well.

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