Troy Blaser: (00:05)
Hello, welcome to today's episode of simply feedback, the podcast from learning bridge, where we talk about all things feedback. Our guest on the episode today is Nancy Knowles, who is a principal and owner of Knowles Consulting Partners. She partners with clients and other consulting associates to deliver executive coaching team and organization effectiveness solutions. Nancy draws upon over 25 years of global industry experience in human resources, executive staff, and consulting roles, working with senior leaders to enhance individual and organizational performance. She brings a range of business industry and leadership experience to her engagements and a spirit of innovation and fun in partnering with clients to achieve sustainable results. Her approach is pragmatic yet thought-provoking with a keen focus on translating intentions into positive impact Nancy's coaching clients include high potential and newly appointed senior leaders in early-stage to high-growth complex organizations across a range of industries and non-profit institutions. She uses 360-degree assessments, custom diagnostics, and a suite of psychometrics with her clients as a baseline for their future development. Nancy is motivated by helping leaders build trust, strengthen relationships, and elevate those around them. One conversation at a time. Nancy, welcome to the podcast today. It's great to have you with us.
Nancy Knowles: (01:27)
Thank you, Troy, I am delighted to be here with you today, and I really look forward to our conversation.
Troy Blaser: (01:31)
I'm fascinated as I read through your bio, to hear some more about some of the things that are in there. And I think we'll get into that a little bit, but, maybe just to start and kind of help our audience, our listeners get to know you just a little bit. I wonder if you could tell us about a time that somebody gave you feedback that maybe had a significant impact on your life, your career, whatever it might be.
Nancy Knowles: (01:52)
Sure. Just to set some context for the feedback, you know, at the time I was chief of staff to the vice-chairman at a major pharmaceutical company. And in that role, one of my responsibilities was to ensure that she was, thoroughly prepped for corporate board meetings. And so along the way, you know, a lot of people went into, a lot of people went into preparing those board books at the time. And we had a major, transform transformational initiative going on. And I was working with this one woman very closely and inevitably every single board meeting, I would be at the office until midnight waiting for her materials. And as it would get closer, I found myself, you know, constantly in our office, checking on what was going on, trying to prevent the, you know, the, the rush at the end.
Nancy Knowles: (02:46)
And so it was a frustrating situation for me. And fast forward at a dinner one night with my mentor and an executive coach who worked with a lot of the leaders in the organization. And admittedly I was of complaining like, you know, what else can I do to try to turn this around? And he looked me in the eye and he said, "Let me tell you what I see." And he said, "You are so focused on getting this board book ready that you, you start ticking up into that stress mode and you get kind of domineering. Like you, you approach her, you approach this woman and you are shutting her down at a time when you need her to be on your team." And so what he described to me was almost fundamental when you look at Myers-Briggs and some other assessments, but, you know, he's, I realized that she was extremely introverted, a brilliant deep thinker who needed space.
Nancy Knowles: (03:48)
And I was shutting her down every time, you know, I would approach, I could just imagine here she comes, she's coming again. But, but what struck me in that moment was, you know, at that point I had gone through workshops. I had trained in assessments, and I realized I had a blind spot. I had not translated that into my own self-reflection and paying attention to how I was showing up. I intellectually got it, but I wasn't showing it. And that was so impactful to me. I was so grateful to, to get that feedback. And it, it actually informed a lot of how I approach my coaching today in that regard.
Troy Blaser: (04:32)
I love what you said about blind spots because it's really true for all of us. You knew it intellectually, but as soon as a third-party could look and said, "Let me tell you what I see..." And then it clicks in your own head like, "Oh yeah, that's what I would have said if I had been in, you know, in that person's shoes too."
Nancy Knowles: (04:51)
And actually after I, after I realized it, I scheduled a meeting instead of racing into the office. And we had a really thoughtful conversation, and I apologized. And I just said, "I had no idea." And to this day, I, I love working with her and partnering with her at times. And, she's a respected colleague and friend.
Troy Blaser: (05:12)
I bet that came, that meeting, probably that apology probably came as a little bit of a surprise to her, like, "Oh, okay." That's a fresh start. That's a way to, you know, switch paths altogether and be on a new track.
Nancy Knowles: (05:25)
Troy Blaser: (05:26)
I love feedback like that. I love those moments that, that let us kind of do a double-take and pivot and apply what we know into our own lives. Tell us just a little bit to maybe help us get to know you better and some background. I know you have an MBA in industrial and organizational psychology that you've earned advanced executive coaching credentials from Columbia University. But, you know, I don't know if it occurred before or after you were in school. Is there a turning point in your career that kind of led you to where you are now?
Nancy Knowles: (06:00)
Yes, definitely. So before I launched my own practice, you know, I spent over a decade in two primary roles. My first role, early in my career was in consulting where I had this great opportunity to visit, you know, hundreds of companies over 13 industries. You know, I'd visit IBM and wear blue. I'd go to Estee Lauder and wear pink. You know, at a very early stage, I got a gauge of the different types of environments. And one of my clients was in the pharma industry. And, um, when I graduated from my MBA program, which I did at night, I moved directly into that firm. And so while I was in, in that pharma company, um, I had, I, I realized actually upon reflection, I went for the cool experiences. I went for experience. I, you know, I, um, joined them in HR, but I did mergers, acquisitions, divestitures.
Nancy Knowles: (06:54)
I was an executive on loan in a startup, which was super cool. Um, I, you know, worked as a transition partner to senior leaders during a lot of change efforts. And ultimately I was tapped on to be the chief of staff to the vice-chairman, one of three vice-chairmen. And I was so honored. And, and the reason I was tapped on was because there was a major reorganization in the works. So my skills kind of aligned with that cause chief of staff is kind of a funny role. Um, so, so with that, you know, fast forward, I had a great experience in that role and then the succession race hit and my vice-chairman didn't win the race. So I was at this pivot point where I thought, "I have been at the center of really interesting, innovative experiences, and my, my team didn't win. So I'm probably not going to have those same experiences in this company."
Nancy Knowles: (07:50)
So a few of us who knew that we wanted to leave it at that point. Um, we would go out after work and we'd sit around a table and we'd say, let's, let's put in the, put on these little sheets of paper, what everyone should do in their next, their next career. And so for me, people kept saying, you should be a coach. And I was like, man, I don't really know what that means. So it was kind of early when coaching was starting either a coach or a real estate agent, but clearly I didn't go in that direction. So, um, so, so it just so happened that my, my mentor that gave me that important feedback actually sat me down and said, I want you to work with me. You have a job tomorrow.
Nancy Knowles: (08:32)
I have assignments you could jump into and I'll help you transition to that consulting coach framework. So it was at that point in time, I was so, so grateful, um, that I had him, his name was Paul Gasky. Um, I just want to honor him for a minute. Um, but I was so grateful to his mentorship and I jumped into consulting and never looked back. But, but that was the time that I did go to the Columbia, um, executive coaching program, which was the first cohort. Like I wasn't, it was, these programs were just starting out. So I was in a guinea pig phase with them. And I will tell you that was the most transformative experience of putting yourself through all of the assessments and the discomfort and ripping off the bandaid as far as feedback, being in a fishbowl, you know, being critiqued for a year. And I didn't realize how uncomfortable with feedback I was until I went through the program and then it was liberating. It was like became curious and I'm a feedback junkie now. Um, so that was kind of my story of how I shifted, but it really informs who I am as a coach with some of those experiences,
Troy Blaser: (09:47)
That is interesting to me, my, in fact, um, my wife, uh, is, is doing a similar kind of transformation in her career right now. Um, she actually got certified as a coach last summer, and I, I watched the same challenge. You talk about that, that being critiqued and receiving all the feedback as you're learning and figuring out how to become a coach. She went through the same experience and it is difficult and it really underlines how difficult it can be to receive feedback, um, in any position that we're in, if we're trying to become a coach or if we're, you know, an executive in a company or whatever the case might be. Um, it's not, it's not always pleasant to receive feedback.
Nancy Knowles: (10:29)
But once you do, it's transformative, right? When you rip the bandaid off and you said, okay, I've got the feedback, you know, gotta pay attention on the blind spots. But I, I, you know, they've spoken.
Troy Blaser: (10:43)
And, and it's a chance to say it comes with that growth mindset, right? If it was hard to receive that feedback, but now that I have it, uh, I can move forward. And if I never had it in the first place, I would be stuck, you know, unable to grow. Well, you work, uh, I think with a lot of different organizations, um, whether that's in an engagement or on retainer, but as you work across these different organizations, what are some of the difficulties that you see? What are some of the challenges that you're helping them with?
Nancy Knowles: (11:13)
You know, I think right now there is such a recency effect with the disruption that we're all facing in this past, you know, this past year. So sitting in New York, we're about, you know, 15 months into the initial shutdown in the city. And now as we are energized by things starting to open up, not everyone is in the same place. And, you know, when everything shut down and you think of, um, some of the things that trigger people to be, to feel that they're in a sense of threat. Like I think of David Rock's SCARF model, right? In that, in that SCARF model, the, you know, status and certainty and so on, you know, certainty took a major hit this year. You know, nothing was certain from global, local, personal, um, sense of relatedness took a hit, you know, there are a number of factors that people are dealing with.
Nancy Knowles: (12:08)
And, um, I'm really seeing the, uh, several of my organizations struggle with how to create the right situation to enable people to come back to work comfortably and the important role of the manager in staying really connected to their employees and, and kind of, you know, staying on top of where they are in the process. Um, and, and it's not always job-related as you know. I mean, I work with museums too. I mean, they need to be in the museum to do their jobs. So it's, um, it's a fascinating time, you know, high stress. And, uh, I, I think I just appreciate that a lot of our conversations go back to what's your latest plan on opening up, but, um, you'll get there, you know, things have changed. I think one point on that is one of the things I've been focusing on is people have adopted, um, new habits in the last 15 months. And now it's a question of thinking about what new habits again, you know, will they adopt to help shape, you know, shift them to, to their new ritual?
Troy Blaser: (13:20)
And what habits do I want to keep that, that I didn't use to have, and now do, and, and still make sense and, and make another adjustment. You know, the, the lockdown happened so quickly that there was really no other choice. You were forced to change things. As things open up, it's a more gradual process. And so we can be more deliberate about it, but we still have to be sure we're thinking about it and not just, you know, going on as if, if things weren't getting a little bit more open.
Nancy Knowles: (13:48)
Troy Blaser: (13:49)
That is an interesting challenge. And, you know, there were, I'm sure many employees who flourished under this idea of, "I'm working at home, and I have fewer interruptions in my day." But you talk about managers who are sort of leading this, this idea of reopening or getting back into the office, whatever that means exactly. Um, and their challenge of being connected with those same employees that were like, no, I'm fine. Leave me alone to work, you know, at home and, and without the interruptions.
Nancy Knowles: (14:21)
And the managers, in some cases, are those employees that don't want to come back. So there's these extra, you know, added layers of complexity.
Troy Blaser: (14:29)
It is complex. I agree. In all of your work, I know, you know, we talked about in the bio that you use a lot of different instruments to provide feedback to the people that you're working with, whether it's a 360-degree survey or, um, other organizational assessments or diagnostics. Um, but I wonder if there's a time that you can think of a story or a time when worked with someone who was receiving feedback and similar to your feedback, but this person received feedback that maybe was a turning point for them, um, that had an effect on their career.
Nancy Knowles: (15:02)
Sure. Um, so I'm thinking of, one particular woman that I worked with who, um, it was, it was part of a leadership program and I was her coaching partner for this program. And she went through the 360 online and we did some interviews. And, um, and from the data--you know, she, she actually was someone who was newer to this organization and came to this process feeling a bit like an outsider. So she had a unique, fabulous set of skills, and yet they were different. And it, and it, because of that, she looked at things differently and she would challenge things in a different way. And so when she started in this process, you know, she basically said, "Oh, I can be kind of tough. We'll see what the data says." So, you know, in LearningBridge, you know, "Puts people at ease" that was not a high mark for her.
Nancy Knowles: (15:53)
Um, so with that, we went, we digested all the feedback and came up with, you know, an action plan. And we also attached, you know, a metaphor to what her plan represented. And her, her metaphor, um, which, you know, some of the other consultants, I work with the visualization around that, the metaphor that, that she chose was, um, catch, catch lightning in the bottle, then don't let it out. And what that represented was that she would, she would, um, she was a miracle maker on some of the things she would do. And she said, you know, sometimes it's like catching lightning in a bottle when I get this over the finish line. But then she would in the way that she expressed herself and spoke with her peers come across as condescending, you know, it was clear, she didn't agree with them and it would shut conversations down.
Nancy Knowles: (16:43)
So she was saying, you know, I need more self-control in how I express. Okay, fine. But she was still very uncomfortable in her place in the organization. And, you know, as you know, Troy, like going through these 360 processes, you can leverage them in so many ways where it's a pivot point for people. And so when, when, you know, we talked about the value in sharing the feedback and using it as a way to build relationships in the organization, you know, use this moment. So she said, "Great, I'm going to start with the CEO," who was a couple of levels above. I was like, "Awesome!" So she goes traipsing into his office, puts that 360 action plan on the desk and says, "I want to talk to you about this and I need your support." And he looked at the metaphor, and he immediately said, "No!"
Nancy Knowles: (17:33)
And I thought she started telling me this. And I thought, "Oh, did we miss the mark in some way, but, okay." And he said, um, "I don't want you in any way to stifle your voice." He said, "We hired because you're part of our future, your expertise, your--we see you as a change agent for our future." So in that moment, you know, they, they actually then had a really thoughtful conversation of how he, over time learned how to show up at the right, in the right way with others. So it didn't shut down the conversation, but it opened it up. Yet still could be that change agent and the, the shift that happened for her, where she went from being an outsider to an insider with the permission and, and the confidence, um, that she was part of the future--It was transformational. It was transformational for her. And yeah, it gave her, gave her the ability to be more deliberate from a good place in how she showed up, because she saw her role in that.
Troy Blaser: (18:44)
That's really interesting. So, so, you know, she received the feedback, made an action plan and took it to the CEO and, and it wasn't the, the vision he had in mind, but it was the reason for the conversation that allowed her to, to start to fit in and find her place in the organization.
Nancy Knowles: (19:03)
Right. And, and actually everything in the action plan held up. It was the metaphor that ignited him, because everything else made sense. We weren't saying you should not have a voice anymore. It was more saying, look at your, the intention you have in those moments, but the impact they're not matching. So we've got to do some work there. I don't want you to think I totally led her down the road.
Troy Blaser: (19:29)
So it was just the metaphor, but that caused a conversation that, yeah, there were two moments of feedback. One was the feedback in the 360, and then there was feedback from the CEO in response to the, to the 360 to that really cemented things much better.
Nancy Knowles: (19:44)
Yeah. And I think it reinforced too, just staying open and curious during that coaching partnership, because new perspectives emerge, context changes, and you need to dance with your clients and, you know, move with that.
Troy Blaser: (19:58)
Well, and it shows again, the importance of sharing with others, your, what you're planning to do with that 360 that you've participated in. And, you know, that's such a vital part of the process is to share with those around you. "Thanks for the feedback. Here's what I'm planning to do, you know, watch for these kinds of changes that are coming because of the feedback."
Nancy Knowles: (20:23)
Right. Or else you don't get credit.
Troy Blaser: (20:29)
You don't get credit, and it might not be exactly on track either the changes that you're planning to do, or they might need some tweaking. Nancy, I understand that you've been an early adopter of some innovative coaching techniques, things like conversational intelligence; that you like to leverage technology to really drive the connection and improve communication in the organizations that you're supporting. Can you tell us about some of the interesting initiatives that you've helped with that, that our listeners would like to hear about?
Nancy Knowles: (20:55)
Sure. I think, you know, conversational intelligence, which is, um, I'll explain what that is in a little bit more detail, but I first off want to give credit to Judith Glacier, who formulated the conversational intelligence framework, um, which basically was translating kind of the neuroscience of conversations and interaction dynamics. And what's happening between two people, you know, the conversations and the patterns that exist that will build trust and lead towards higher quality relationships versus the types of conversations and interactions that would detract and reduce trust. And, you know, gnaw away at that psychological safety that, you know, teams strive for. Um, and, and I got really interested in the neuroscience angle a few years back, and now it's exploded because it's so important. But I work with some really smart, analytical people. And I found that we would get to the point of 360 feedback and you would constantly hear, "Well, that's not my intention."
Nancy Knowles: (22:02)
Like that's not what I intended to do. And I was like, Well, that's great, but it doesn't matter, you know, because the impact you're having and how other people are perceiving you based on your behaviors is what does matter." And what I found in the work under conversational intelligence--I totally immersed myself in it--is that I was able to bring the concepts into individual coaching, to help people understand what they were doing and the impact they were having. So they could more deliberately choose how they showed up in certain situations. And so I explained the framework, which includes a number of different types of levels of conversations, and there's kind of a whole lot there, so I didn't want to oversimplify it. Um, but what I, what I found was when I introduced the concepts and challenged the clients to experiment, like, just try different things--try with your kids, changing how you ask a question and see how that either opens them up or shuts them down.
Nancy Knowles: (23:08)
And so when we shifted to an, everything being an experiment and being curious, I found that the, um, the, the framework of conversational intelligence, it gave people a way to think about things that they could then try. It wasn't so general. Right? So they started understanding, um, you know, I'll give you an example: There are like three levels of conversation and, you know, one would be transactional, very directive. And there's times for that, right? You're ordering a cup of coffee. You don't need to go into an extensive debate or brainstorm. Um, the second level is more positional, you know, when you're trying to influence and kind of hopefully seek a win-win, but if people think you're kind of waiting for them to finish talking so that you can talk, and you really don't care, you know, on the listening side that probably won't get you to where you want to go.
Nancy Knowles: (24:03)
And then there's a third level, which is really asking questions for which you have no answers; opening up the dialogue, brainstorming. That's one of the, besides feedback asking questions for which leaders don't have answers is one of the hardest things for them to do you. Think about it, like as opposed to, "Hey, this will work great, right, Troy?" Right. So it, so it kind of taught, you know, kind of challenged and, and leaders to be, have the courage to go there and, and especially innovative teams to open them up and brainstorm. But by working with some of the different models, we've had some good success in bringing that into, you know, teams or keynote speech, you know, speeches and things. But then on the technology side, you know, going back to my example of when I went through all the Myers-Briggs workshops, but I didn't bring it into my life really with my blind spot.
Nancy Knowles: (25:06)
Um, I am, I am keenly focused on getting some sustainability, uh, after these workshops or events; like I do not want to do one and done, right? So, um, one of the technologies I use is called Actionable. And I'm a partner with them and they have a tool where people can make commitments in the session. Or I use it in my one-on-one coaching sessions where we'll say over the next 30 days, what are you going to work on? So I'll give a simple one. You know, if I say yes to something, I'll say no to something else, right. For somebody who's overextending themselves, and then I'm wired to them. And the manager's wired to them. So I get pings where they, it, it says some, "How are you doing on a scale of one to 10 on this commitment thing?" And it's like a two-second check-in. They can write a little journal. They can write anything else, but it's, it's staying connected. And it gives them a 30-day loop to work on changing a habit after they've made that commitment. And for some people it's very powerful, for some they find it completely annoying because they see it as another app interrupting their day. But those that are really committed to doing the work, it can be really helpful. And especially, you know, in one-on-one coaching engagements, where they're working on specific feedback, uh, you know, behavioral changes that they're looking to make. It can be a very powerful tool. So that's like one example.
Troy Blaser: (26:34)
Yeah. I love to hear about apps like that. That allow me to use my phone for something that feels a little bit more productive than just, you know, scrolling through Instagram or whatever it might be. Um, but to, to really use that technology in a way that can change a career, change a life, change habits, for sure. You know, that's fascinating. Uh, um, are there other projects that you're working on right now that, that you can share with us that are, that you're passionate about?
Nancy Knowles: (27:01)
I have some amazing projects going on right now and working with some, some great leaders. I'm actually really fortunate to be a, do a lot of transition work, transition, partnering work, and I'm working with, um, four women just happen to be four women, um, up-and-comers in their careers that boards have appointed to CEO or executive director positions. And, um, and I'm working with them as a transition partner. But in this one case, I'm working with an organization that is a not-for-profit medical technology company. I'm working with their full team. I had done an organization assessment with them before the prior CEO had left and then continued working on retainer with them. And the new CEO--a fabulous woman--has this vision of really being a very transparent feedback culture, feedback culture with the customers, the clients, the physicians that they work with.
Nancy Knowles: (28:04)
It's a global organization. So they, they work between New York, you know, uh, Africa, India, and are at the forefront of COVID right now, given the, um, technology that they deliver to low-income areas. They are saving lives by the work that they do. So I'm incredibly invested in this organization and am honored to work with them. But recently we kicked off a program, you know, they kept talking about, we want to be a feedback culture. We want to have a feedback culture, and we took a step back and said, "What does it really mean?" And so we, again, going back to that early stage feedback for me, you've got to start with self-awareness, you got to start with people understanding themselves in the way in which they prefer to communicate, the way they prefer to be communicated with, how they might deliver feedback, what their tendencies are, how they need to receive it, to really be heard.
Nancy Knowles: (29:02)
And we did a workshop recently, and I used Lumina. I don't know if you're familiar with Lumina, but I, I love Lumina because it blends the Myers-Briggs in the big five, but it has the technology for the stickiness where for a global company working across lines, we now have the, you know, Kenya and Tanzania group can compare their profiles with the New York, India group and have these conversations. So we are in the process of, um, everyone going through the group settings and the individual settings, but then we will build on that, and embed that in the organization going forward, as far as what does that mean and the culture and the values and how they operate as an organization. Truly with that transparency and feedback orientation. And they use the phrase. Everyone has to feel the psychological safety that we know we have here, uh, current and new employees to come. So we're working on that, um, right now, but it's just--they are eating it up. They're just, they're just so great. And they're so invested in it. So it's, um, you can tell I'm pretty passionate about that.
Troy Blaser: (30:18)
Yeah. Well, I love the idea of being able to be a part of those early stages and watch a kind of transformation that's happening that, you know, you're, you're associated with and helping to drive forward. And that it's a global kind of thing that it's happening, not just locally in a, you know, in a single location, but elsewhere in the world as well, um, to bring those kinds of connections together. I think that's fantastic. Nancy, I've loved the conversation. But if there are others out there who have also enjoyed listening to us discuss these things, if they want to know more, is that something that you're open to?
Nancy Knowles: (30:56)
I'm very open to, um, connecting and networking with other coaches or just, you know, potential clients who are interested in some of the work we talked about. But I think that's really important. It keeps all of us fresh when we stay connected. The best way to reach me, I would say is LinkedIn and reference--so if you, if you just put in Nancy Knowles, Knowles Consulting Partners. When you go in, just shoot me a direct message and let me know that you heard the podcast and I'll be sure to accept you as a contact and connect with you. Just definitely referenced the podcast because you know, you get a lot of, a lot of people, a lot of---
Troy Blaser: (31:34)
Yeah, I know what you mean on LinkedIn. You review my--"Oh, I don't need that message. Don't need that message. Don't need that message." Like I said, Nancy, thank you so much for being here with us today. We appreciate your time and your thoughtfulness and your responses. And thank you so much!
Nancy Knowles: (31:49)
Well, thank you for the opportunity, Troy. It was great to get to know you for a bit on this conversation.
Troy Blaser: (31:57)