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Keith Ferrazzi on How the Pandemic Taught Organizations to Be “Crisis Agile”

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Keith Ferrazzi, founder of the consulting firm Ferrazzi Greenlight, has done research on thousands of transformational leaders. He’s seen how different organizations weathered the past years’ storms and identified strengths of those doing it right, including being distributed, inclusive, resilient, empathetic, and, above all, agile.

HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Ferrazzi, coauthor of the new book Competing in the New World of Work: How Radical Adaptability Separates the Best from the Rest, in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:

  • Using this inflection point to not go “back” to work, but forward
  • Ways to inspire and encourage bottom-up ideation and solutions
  • Recent crises have exposed leaders’ limits, forcing them to express humility—and that’s a good thing.

The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooryi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.


ADI IGNATIUS: Keith, welcome. Let’s go right into it, in terms of the topicality of the moment. Where I am in Boston, we’re basically at “mask optional”, people are coming back to work who had postponed that. So where are we now and who seems to be getting it right?

KEITH FERRAZZI: Well, the principle of our research and the principle of this book was really simple. I kept hearing people say back in 2020, “When are we going back to work?” And it kind of pissed me off. I didn’t want to ever go back to work, because I didn’t think work was serving us in the way in which we were working. I said, “No, let’s use this as an inflection point. Let’s learn, let’s step in and let’s go forward to work, not back.”

And so we had 2000 executives crowdsourcing what they were doing that they never wanted to let go of, but hold onto. And I do have to say that there’s some sadness to me. I’m definitely seeing organizations as they are going back into more flexible, more hybrid work environments, where people are allowed to be remote and physical, but I don’t think people have sufficiently reinvented the fundamental underpinnings of how we work.

So I’ll give you a quick for-instance. Still people think that collaboration means a meeting. We’ve got amazing tools available to us today that actually allow us to start collaborating before we ever have to have a meeting, get massively more people involved, have more psychological safety. People don’t have to be on the hook for immediate response in a face-to-face environment, whether it’s virtual or physical. And fewer than 15% of companies have really scratched the surface of what’s called asynchronous, non-meeting-based collaboration. To me, the big thing that I’m concerned about is that we still haven’t learned our lesson in terms of the stepping into the inflection point and true reinvention of ways of working.

ADI IGNATIUS: But let me ask why you say that, because we’ve been remote. Those of us who have the option to be remote have been remote, have stayed remote, and many people will tell you business has never been better. We’ve never collaborated more effectively. So it seems to me we’re using those tools you’re talking about. Now, is your point that you’re afraid we’re going to blindly go back to the old way of working?

KEITH FERRAZZI: No, we didn’t go far enough. We didn’t go far enough. Look, everybody I talk to, we say we’re collaborating well, but everybody I talk to says we’re fatigued with this incessant meeting after meeting after meeting, as an example. When we do our research, we show that even in a remote meeting of 12 people, only four people feel that they’ve been fully heard in that meeting. And yet a very simple practice of a meeting, which is snap your fingers, have the entire group of 12 people go into a breakout room on a critical question, open up a shared document in groups of three, answering the questions, right? And then come back into the main room. You have fundamentally transformed the amount of candor in that team, the amount of transparency in that team, the amount of willingness of the people to critique each other.

I’ll give you a quick idea. If you were to, in the middle of a meeting, ask people “What’s not being said that should be said here,” you’d hear crickets. If you send them into a breakout room, and turn that into an assignment, and you have them open a shared document and write what’s not being said that should be said, and then you come back into the main room, you’ve totally reinvented the dialogue. And all I’m saying is the tools we’re using, we’re using them as we were using them prior to ’19. We’re glad we can have meetings at the same time with people around the world, but how we actually think about collaboration has not changed as much as it should.

That’s just one area. By the way, everything we’re talking about right here is in one chapter of the book around collaboration and inclusion. And it’s one chapter. I’d love to span out beyond that as well, but it happens to be right now probably one of the most important things that we get right, which is reinventing the way we think about work, not just slapping tools onto old ways of working.

ADI IGNATIUS: I’m tempted to say, and you’ll see what I’m paraphrasing here, but maybe the future of work is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed. Are there people who are doing it right?

KEITH FERRAZZI: And I’ll go ahead and flatter you again and appreciate you, because back in 2010, we started this work. So I was coaching the executive team over at Cisco with John Chambers, and I heard about this thing called telepresence and this thing called WebEx in its early stages of development. By the way, I met this young man named Eric Yuan who was over there, now is the CEO of Zoom, of course. And so I started talking to these folks, and I was like, wow, the world of work is going to change. Called you, and I said, “Let’s do a series on that.”

The future of work has always been there. We’ve been talking about this for decades, and I wanted to land it during the pandemic to say this is the opportunity. We had this amazing laboratory of remote and hybrid work. And this is only one component because it’s not just the use of the tools—the tools have always been there. But it’s how we reinvent the way we think about work to leverage the tools effectively.

I had 300 CIOs of some of the most prominent companies in the world, unicorns, Fortune 50s, etc. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but shame on us for having put tools in place without a roadmap. Without a roadmap for how to change the way we work with them. Right? And that is the big concern.

And there’s another myth, which is that culture erodes in a virtual or remote landscape. Meaning we don’t bond together. Right? We don’t connect as well as we used to. BS. Just not true. The reality is: in the olden days, when we were physically walking around the world in the offices, culture was organically marbled in the things we did serendipitously without us thinking. There was a walk in from car park. It was the meeting after the meeting, which I never thought were appropriate anyway. All of those things were how culture was created.

Boom. We snap into remote environment. And then if we don’t figure out purposeful ways to build culture–simply asking your team put into chat on a scale of zero to five where your energy is today, and then anybody who has a zero, one, or a two, you pause and say, “Jane, are you okay? Dave, are you okay?” That is a simple practice that turns purposeful this sense of combined commitment to each other’s energy, creating a safety net under each other, a sense of esprit de corps among a team that cares about each other. That stuff used to happen in the hallways, and at lunch rooms, and at coffee hours. Now, it needs to be a purposeful practice.

It’s being that meticulous. And that’s what we tried to do. We captured not just dozens, hundreds of these practices from executives. We then applied them in a laboratory setting with other companies. We measured whether or not those practices were efficacious through diagnostic tools, and then we created the high-return practices that we talk about in Competing in the New World of Work. I’m going to try to get in as many of them as I can here, but I’m trying to do two things in this conversation, give you the practice you should use, but awaken your insecurity, your FOMO that you haven’t gone far enough because you haven’t. And that’s one of the things that I want to make sure we don’t miss.

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah. I like that a lot. Let’s imagine, entirely hypothetical situation, a publishing company in Boston that’s trying to figure out what do we do in terms of coming back to the office physically. We can come up with a number. Two days a week, three days a week.

KEITH FERRAZZI: No.

ADI IGNATIUS: But that would be probably sort of arbitrary.

KEITH FERRAZZI: I love this.

ADI IGNATIUS: In terms of thinking about what we do to maximize all the positive effects of culture, of collaboration, of all these things, how do we get to the answer there?

KEITH FERRAZZI: I’ll send you the bill for the coaching after the session.

ADI IGNATIUS: This is a hypothetical company.

KEITH FERRAZZI: Hypothetical situation. Okay. Here’s the situation. We are in the middle of what a lot of people call the Great Resignation, and I roll my eyes on that term. First of all, it’s so hackneyed, and everyone’s talking about it. It could be boring. But here’s what I want you to think about, Adi. We’re not in the Great Resignation. The Great Resignation is something that will be the outcome of companies that aren’t proactive in the movement that’s really going on. And this movement title was named by Mike Clementi, one of the members of our research institute who’s the head of people operations at Unilever. He’s one of our faculty in the research institute that this book created. He calls it the Great Exploration. That exploration of, “What do I really want for myself? What is work to me? What kind of flexibility do I require for myself? How do I deal with the fact that I’ve been home with my kids, and now I’m being asked not to be?” That’s the Great Exploration. If you don’t meet that face to face, you will be the victim and suffer the Great Resignation.

Adi, what I would suggest is, first of all, you say to your team, “Here are the questions that we don’t know.” One of the beautiful things from the pandemic is that leaders stepped off their podium and became humble enough to say, “I don’t know.” And I love that because that willingness to say “I don’t know” is really just an invitation to co-creation with people.

What I want you to do, Adi, is to send a message to your people that says, “Listen, here are some questions that I think we have to answer that we’re not sure about yet. We think we are, but we’re not sure about.” By the way, ask your people, “What are the questions that you have that you think we should be exploring collectively as a team?” And we want to turn this from a policy dictate that we figure out centrally and then hand down to you, which is very old school, pre-2019. “What we want you to do is we want you to be a part of the exploration and the co-creation of the answer.”

We just wrote an article about this. What are we going to do differently when we’re in the office that looks different than ’19? Because what we learned is a lot of the stuff that we used to do when we were together in the office, we now can do virtually and remotely perfectly well. What makes being in the office that much better that we want to dial up on? That is a beautiful question that I’m encouraging leaders to ask their people to co-create. What does office connectedness look like? What do we do there differently?

Another question could be how do we effectively leverage the tools that we were using? Where didn’t we go far enough? Where didn’t we go far enough? Now, a lot of our writing tells you where you didn’t go far enough, so you could see that conversation with them.

But what I really just want everybody to start doing is open their aperture, just like we did in our research. Asking the questions and then using two-way dialogue. Federal Express had a meeting with their 3000 executives, and instead of being one-way broadcast communication, like so many other companies were, they turned it into two-way dialogue. They snapped their fingers and people were in breakout rooms and opening shared documents, giving answers to questions that Federal Express wanted to co-create with associates. That idea of moving to crowdsourcing, moving to shared exploration in any strategic question, whether it’s how we go back to the office, or where risk is, or where growth opportunities are.

Unilever, instead of doing a cascading business plan from the top down, decided to ask their top 300 leaders, “Where are growth opportunities that we’re not seeing?” So they moved their business plan to bottom-up from top-down because they now had tools that allowed them to do that.

That’s changing the way we work in the new world of work.

ADI IGNATIUS: You were talking about how companies should maximize whatever it is they can do that they do well physically together. And obviously every company is different and it does different things, but what are some possibilities? What are some examples, even generic ones, for how to use this physical space?

KEITH FERRAZZI: I coined something: the social-chemical connection. It’s a made up phrase, but what I was trying to say was: when we’re face to face, it is different, right? When we’re literally, tactilely in the same room together, it’s different.

By the way, in one way, it’s also intimidating because you get more psychological safety in a virtual format than you can do in a physical format. I think it goes back to our reptilian brains of fight/flight and “Am I in danger here?” etc. But I think we should lean in when we’re face-to-face and in person. Lean into an agenda that’s emotional. Lean into an agenda that’s emotional. Celebratory. Celebrations are the best things to have when you’re together, right? Bonding, connection, caring, committing. Those are wonderful things.

For instance, during the pandemic when I’m coaching a team, I’ll have a bonding dinner. And a bonding dinner is literally an hour-and-a-half, and sometimes, depending upon the time zones, it’s at the end of the day. So maybe we get a bottle of wine sent to everybody. Social lubricant for vulnerability is very powerful, but not suggesting that’s necessary. And everybody goes around and says, “What’s going on in our life personally and professionally that is most poignant?”

Now, as the coach, I’ll lead with something vulnerable in my life, right? And I encourage you to open vulnerability in that kind of a shared dialogue. Now, if you move that into a physical realm, it’s going to be so much more powerful. On the other hand, if you in the physical realm still have an offsite, and everyone’s doing a dinner party, but it’s just small talk, you’re totally missing the boat. In the olden days, we used to do small talk, but we did enough of it, and we would serendipitously fall into a real conversation. Don’t leave anything to serendipity anymore, right? Do a purposeful bonding dinner in a physical environment where people actually share what’s going on in their lives. It’ll be significantly more impactful than what we used to do in 2019.

Similarly, you can move some of that stuff online, and it’s better than it was physically when we were only doing small talk. That’s just an example of this idea of bonding or connecting this.

When I used to have difficult times with one of my peers at Deloitte, when I was chief marketing officer there, the CEO, Greg Seal, who is a dear friend and mentor of mine, would say to me, “Keith, the two of you need to go have a long slow dinner.” And that is a very powerful piece of advice. Go have a long slow dinner. When you’ve got grist or anxiety with somebody, the ability to go sit down and have a long slow dinner and a face-to-face dialogue is game changing. Again, where social-chemical connection advantages you is anywhere that there is an emotional heightened-ness, celebration, bonding, grist or anxiety or frustration, that’s where we should definitely dial up and then do it very purposefully in the process.

ADI IGNATIUS: You mentioned anxiety, and I think a lot of us feel we have gone from crisis to crisis in the last couple years with the pandemic, with some disturbing social developments, certainly in the US. And now watching what’s happening in Europe, in Ukraine, what are your thoughts on how to create the space, create the opportunities for employees to connect, to grieve if that’s the emotion? Can you do that remotely?

KEITH FERRAZZI: 100%. 100%, but before I get there, you said something that I want to give people a fun term for. What we practiced during the pandemic was what I call “crisis agile”. I’m assuming your audience understands what agile is. It’s a framework of operations that is typically used in software organizations, program management organizations. And it’s about breaking your work down into bite-size sprints, negotiating very clear outcomes for those bite-size sprints and then giving autonomy to the teams to achieve those during that sprint. And at the end of that sprint, you stand up and you look very authentically, very vulnerably at: what do we need to do differently? Where are we struggling? What did we fail to do? What did we do and where are we going? That’s done in a standup.

Well, I was coaching the Delta Airlines team going into the pandemic. And then that was on a quarterly basis. We were working on quarterly agile sprints to reinvent the travel industry. Boom. We lose 90% of our revenue in a single day. And all of a sudden, now we’re doing daily sprints, sometimes two times a day, we are doing daily agile sprints because of the velocity of change. In a world of volatility, in a world of volatility, we’ve got to start practicing a more sustained agile process. I fundamentally believe, and it’s an entire chapter of the book, I fundamentally believe that we have moved into a world where we need, up and down the organization, to practice a sustained agile operating system. And there’s lots of books written on the topic. We really tried to summarize some of the best practices of leaders who were capturing crisis agile, and then turning that into a sustained process. You can’t be in crisis agile forever. You’ll be fatigued, you’ll be frustrated, you’ll be fractured.

And that’s why you need to buttress that with a sustainable agile process in your teams. And also focused a lot more on resilience, which is another chapter of the book, which we can get into some of the practices around. But I did want to heighten this issue. Radical adaptability is the methodology that emerged from all of this research. The teams that were successful were the ones that adopted these core aspects, significant foresight, looking around corners, learning how to adopt a sustained agile way of working, real inclusiveness and collaboration in ways that we’ve never seen before, particularly leveraging the hybrid tools. And finally, recognizing that resilience is no longer an individual sport, but it’s a team sport and it’s no longer in the shadows, but mental wellbeing and the wellbeing of a team is now out into the open and shared. And that was one of the things I got really excited about as well.

ADI IGNATIUS: You have a great line in the book where you say, “Disasters don’t just destroy. They also reveal.” And I think you’ve talked about some of what Covid revealed, but talk some more about that. Because I think that’s true, and I like how you phrased that.

KEITH FERRAZZI: Yeah. I think, if I’m not mistaken, that would’ve probably been early on as an umbrella for the book as a whole. What we were looking for was what was being revealed that we wanted to jump on and reinvent. I’ll just pick one area because I feel so strongly about it. It’s just mental wellbeing. Depression, strain, stress, this has been in existence for decades and yet the volatility and the pressure, societal pressure, what was going on with individuals’ personal lives, parents who were in assisted living that you couldn’t get to, children that are around the world. All of these things created a heightened degree of “I just can’t handle it anymore.” Now, I thought it was beautiful, to be honest. I’m not a sadist, but I thought it was beautiful to see white shoe grizzled old men breaking down in front of their teams in a level of vulnerability and humility that they had never done before.

And it’s interesting, because in the previous book I’d written about one of the great leaders that I know, a guy named Mark Reuss at General Motors, who works with Mary Barra in the beautiful turnaround that they’re initiating there. And Mark, early on, was willing to step into vulnerability in front of the organization of General Motors when they were coming out of bankruptcy. And it rallied everybody around him. Here he was an engineer now being responsible for the commercial operations of the company. And he said, “I’m most afraid that because I’m an engineer and I’m a bit of an introvert that I won’t be heard.” And it was so beautiful that that kind of vulnerability was shown from a leader at General Motors. And it wasn’t traditional. That was one of the most beautiful things.

And what we saw as the water levels went down, we saw that issue of emotional and mental wellbeing became raised. Now, I think now a lot of what the book does and a lot of what our research says is it renegotiates a social contract with your team. Meaning there were old ways of behaving that are being rebooted in this new world of work. And one of those is that mental wellbeing is no longer an individual responsibility alone. It’s a team sport. And that means that leaders need to check in, and it’s not just leadership where every leader checks in with every individual playing whack-a-mole with people’s energy. But I’m saying that the leader needs to put that out on the table and saying, listen, let’s make sure we all cross the finish line together.

The word that I used in the book is “co-elevate”, and that’s what we saw teams that were co-elevating going higher together, lifting each other up. And it’s a renegotiation of that social contract. It’s not a hub and spoke to the leader. It’s a team committed to a mission and each other. And that includes energy check-ins, bonding, sharing vulnerably, where are we struggling? Those kind of dialogues now need to be purposeful. And when they are, you’ve re-engineered a team’s commitment to each other, which unburdens the leader in a world where they’re not walking around the office, seeing everybody’s eyes and seeing where somebody may be off kilter. Now the team’s responsibility is each other. It’s a big deal.

ADI IGNATIUS: You also talk in the book about how companies need to future-proof themselves. All companies are different. A lot of the challenges are unforeseen. What are some generic ways that we can try to future-proof ourselves?

KEITH FERRAZZI: This comes from the chapter called “Foresight” and I’ll give you just a little pitch of something that we did that I think would be beneficial to any listeners. When we wrote the book, we wanted to make sure that it got into your hands really quickly, and different mediums of consuming this information. We created a free course that associated with the book and the “Foresight,” so every chapter got a 10 minute video where we tried to consolidate all of the quick pithy advice of what practices you could get started on today. It wasn’t all of them. It’s just something you could get started on today. And if you want your listeners can go to radicallyadapt.com, and get that video. They buy the book, they get the video and you start to use it.

And it’s totally free. We wanted to give you multiple ways to put that to use. Now, in the “Foresight” chapter, I love this one. Prior to the pandemic, it was shocking to me that fewer than 20% of companies actually foresaw and acted on the pandemic before the shutdown in the United States on March 13th. And these are even companies that had operations in China, so clearly they had visibility. These are companies that had very thorough analysis and risk analysis of what was coming down the pike. It was sitting in some research department of strategic planning or the risk department, etc., but it was never actually acted upon.

Rick Ambrose at Lockheed Aerospace had a very simple process. And this is one that we’ve cascaded out to so many others. Once a month, Rick would have an agenda item for only five minutes. And on that agenda item, every member of the executive team would come to the table from a different vantage point. Now this is the real genius of it: one member of the executive team would look at customers. Another member would look at technology disruption. Another member would look at changes in competitive landscape, etc. And they would all come to the table from their vantage point, a five minute agenda item and say, okay, who has a risk that they want to put on the table to determine, we don’t have to talk about it now, to determine if it goes into an analysis meeting? Who has an opportunity that they want to put on the table from your vantage point, that decides if you go into an analysis meeting? Somebody in December said, “I read this blog about this virus going on in China. If we think to history, this could be serious.” They said, interesting. Somebody had seen the Bill Gates Ted Talk and said, yeah, let’s go ahead and put it in analysis. They put it into analysis in January. And by February they went fully virtual. This is a company that didn’t even have operations in China. They went fully virtual in February. They had had none of the PPE problems. They had none of the getting the technology in place problems, etc. Now imagine if your team, any team, does that on a monthly basis. I don’t care what level of a company you are, what size of a company you are, or even if you’re a solopreneur, getting your posse together and similar people in an industry once a month, just looking at having a foresight meeting, to look around corners and look to the future: what a genius, simple idea. Those are some of the practices that we’ve created that I think are really powerful that we capture in the book. And that’s one that we actually have a coaching tool for. You can send it around to your team. They’ll all get it. And then you start doing this immediately.

ADI IGNATIUS: I want to get to a couple questions from the audience. And the first one actually concerns Ukraine. It’s from James, looking at Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. Authenticity and honesty are key. The invasion and the disaster in Ukraine are revealing Zelenskyy’s innate leadership. It also, to my mind, in my colleague’s mind, it also shows the power of connections, which is something that you’ve thought about a lot and written about a lot. As you look at what’s happening and Zelenskyy’s leadership, what are you seeing?

KEITH FERRAZZI: Well, I’m not an expert on this, but if I look at it from the framework of the book and the methodology we’ve created, this is amazing what this man has done to bond the resilience of a country together. And not only that, but this is where, if you take a look at the resilience of the country, he has stepped off the podium. He’s with the people. He is opening vulnerably. He’s using all of the right strategies that we would give you to keep your people’s energy strong and determined and connected to each other, to a mission, to each other and a mission.

But let me also say that he’s also, in the chapter of collaboration, he’s teamed out. The team of Ukraine is not just the Ukrainians. The team of Ukraine is now the world. Now, he’s certainly working hard through personal relationships. And this is a beautiful part of the chapter of collaboration. You’ve got to lead with building the relationship in a world where you don’t have authority. What was beautiful about the pandemic is that leadership stepped to the forefront outside of org charts. Org charts didn’t matter. We saw companies where some of the most breakthrough solutions came way down from the coal face and individuals who had ideas of how to address a crisis were able to be acknowledged and rewarded and seen. The technology allows us. It’s the great equalizer. We are all just a tile. We’re not in the 36th floor of the headquarters anymore. We’re all in a tile and the ability to serve and to team out has been powerful.

Now that’s something that Zelenskyy has invited the world into. How are we? And you hear about the German who’s coming to the border to rescue people. It’s just beautiful how that process has worked. I think a beautiful analysis will be done and probably written about by somebody in your publications about his leadership and how emblematic it is. But I can tell you right now, just looking at the framework of our book and what he’s doing, the correlation is beautiful.

ADI IGNATIUS: Okay, so back to more relatively mundane things, back in the office. Here’s another question. This is from Alex. In this new world of work that you’re thinking about and helping to dream up, how do you think the role of leadership training and learning and development should evolve and will evolve?

KEITH FERRAZZI: God, that’s beautiful. Thank you. I’m going to address it directly and then I’m going to bring up another research project that we’re starting that eventually will see its way into the pages of an HBR publication, I’m sure. But the future of leadership development, one of the things that I’ve always been resistant to is the belief that traditional training was the way to change human behavior. The reality is that, if training changed human behavior, I wouldn’t have had that extra tequila that I had last night or the third glass of wine. Right? But I do. From knowing to doing is a big gap. And training is presumed that if you know, you do. But it’s not true.

One of the most important ways to develop and transform humans is through experience and coaching. And what I’ve seen in the past, and I’ve been an advocate of this for a long time and I’ve written a lot about it, is most organizations do not tap in to the immensely rich source of development that sits around our associates, ourselves, every single day, peer-to-peer coaching. Years ago I wrote a book just on that: studying peer-to-peer coaching. And what we saw during the pandemic was how much the guards were down and we were all open to hearing feedback, criticism, ideation, etc., from each other. And I thought that was beautiful. And we need to hold onto that. That is going to be one of the most precious forms of the future, of learning and development.

There are software tools being developed. I saw one in our research called MentorCloud, which helps to tap into organizational, inherent mentorship that exists inside of organizations. But eventually we’re going to have to start recognizing that coaching is not going to sufficiently come from our managers, particularly when the work we’re doing is in networks. I wrote a book about networking a number of years ago, Never Eat Alone. Today we work, we wake up, we work in networks. So where does our development, where does our feedback come from? It’s not going to come hierarchically and it’s not going to come centrally. It’s got to come from the fabric of the network that we’re working with. That’s the big change.

The thing I wanted to pitch to this audience, because this is a rarefied audience, is during the pandemic, one of the things that occurred was the tragic death of a dear friend of mine named Tony Hsieh. Tony passed away and very tragically. We’ve all heard about the stories. But what’s most important to me was not to lose the legacy that Tony had on radically innovating on the edge of human capital.

And so what I did with my foundation and with his family and a number of friends is we started the Tony Hsieh Award. And what we’re looking at in this award is where are the entrepreneurs, where are the leaders that are innovating on the radical edge of human capital and elevating human capital? Tony did it around employee engagement. Tony did it around self-managing teams with holacracy. Tony did it around resource allocation with creating a matrix to resource allocation inside of companies. He was way out there.

So now I’m really, if you want to go to thetonyhsiehaward.com, you can see some of the winners. And I would like to invite people to really think about how we fundamentally rethink human capital in the most radical ways. We’re working with a lot of unicorn CEOs, because I feel like these individuals are disrupting business models. They should also not just be accepting human capital models from large organizations that they are disrupting and just making them disruptable. How are we reinventing human capital models as well?

This is an area that when I start thinking about how we’re learning and growing, we need to be much more proactive. This inflection point gave us an opportunity to dive in, but I want to even go further in that world of how we as individuals and organizations fundamentally leap forward, not just organically grow.

ADI IGNATIUS: First of all, I want to really applaud you for remembering Tony Hsieh. He was at Zappos and was a contributor to HBR. And as you say, really, very tragic ending.

You talked about the Great Resignation or whatever we should call it. But we are struggling to find people. There seem to be certain skills that are in-demand and a lot of us are struggling to find and retain talent in certain areas. What’s your advice?

KEITH FERRAZZI: I’ll tell you what I advise: the curiosity that I have and the methodology that I’ve applied, I would highly recommend any leader doing the same. So here’s a very simple methodology and I’ll tell you what we’re doing with the Great Resignation. Number one, I said, “Okay, we’ve got this problem. How are we going to solve it?” I pulled together a group of 15 CHROs, predominantly, people like Mike Clementi I mentioned to you before, but others like the CHRO of MasterCard and others. We got into a room, and really simply I seeded the conversation in advance with a blog on my own part and said, here’s what I’m thinking about relative to the Great Resignation and how we preserve people from exiting our companies. And this is what I did with Mike Clementi. We wrote about this idea of opening up curiosity in your company. What would it mean to meet people in their exploration so that they don’t have to leave to explore. They could explore while they’re here.

And then I got into the room and I said, “Okay, we’re going to narrowly focus on best practices that all of you are doing to open up exploration and curiosity among their people so that they don’t have to pursue it elsewhere.” And we went through it. And one company, it was Unilever, was doing purpose training. Had nothing to do with purpose of the company. It was people’s purpose, helping people do coaching and training around finding their purpose, training and then coaching as well, where they were giving them a coach to find their purpose.

Another organization was providing variety in people’s jobs, not only variety in terms of helping them raise their hands if they’re getting bored and looking for other places inside of the company, but actually doing joint ventures with other companies where people could spend a day doing a project for another company. Intel provided one day a week for everybody to pursue a passion project. It could be a philanthropic project. It could be a passion project of some new business venture that they wanted to create for the company or outside of the company. It didn’t matter. But they just wanted to provide ability for 20% of people’s time to be pursuing their passions.

What we’re doing is we’re crowdsourcing these ideas. And then we’re going to aggregate them in a methodology around what it means to be a member of the Great Exploration. What does that methodology look like? And then we’re going to go start applying that at other companies. This methodology is the kind of curiosity that I want you as a leader to pursue. If you have a question, stop trying to answer it yourself. If you have a question, answer it as much as you can, and then claim to everybody else, “I’m humbly speaking. This is less than 30% of the answer. Let’s co-create the rest. Let’s crowd source the rest. Let’s invite other brilliant minds into solving the problem.”

The question is how all of us need to open the “I don’t know”, and invite people in. One of the other things I’ll just note. I go to a lot of these research round tables, and most of them are BS. Most of them are staying at the conceptual BS level. What we talk about is what we call HRPs, high return practices. You hear a good idea. It’s a best practice. Now what’s a best practice? A best practice is only something you could close your eyes and imagine another person doing or you doing to completeness. So don’t let it stay at the conceptual level. See it being done again so another person can do it. Now it’s a best practice. Then take that best practice and apply it and measure it before and after. Diagnostics or actual outcomes. And then once you know repeatedly that a best practice is getting outcomes, now it becomes an HRP, a high return practice. That’s the kind of exploration that I hope.

And back to your question about employee training. I even sit in trainings where I sit in an entire training that a client will have. And I’m like, “I don’t know what I would do differently.” It’s a bunch of conceptual BS. Until it lands in a practice, it doesn’t exist. That’s just my philosophy. And that’s why we call our research institute an applied research institute. It’s all about the HRPs.

ADI IGNATIUS: Keith, I want to thank you. We’ve gone over time, but I really can’t think of a better person to have on for the first week of the new season of The New World of Work.

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Rekindling a Sense of Community at Work

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For decades, we’ve been living lonelier, more isolated lives. As our social connectedness has decreased, so has our happiness and mental health. And with more aspects of our lives becoming digital, it has reduced our opportunities for everyday social interaction. The nature of our work, in particular, has shifted.

In 2014, Christine and Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz partnered to learn more about what stands in the way of being more productive and satisfied at work. One of the more surprising findings was that 65% of people didn’t feel any sense of community at work.

That seemed costly (and sad!), motivating Christine to write Mastering Community, since lonelier workers report lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Lonelier employees also tend to perform worse.

During the pandemic, many of us became even more isolated. Community, which we define as a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare, has proven challenging to cultivate, especially for those working virtually. To learn more, we conducted a survey with the Conference for Women in which we asked nearly 1,500 participants about their sense of community at work before and since the pandemic and found it has declined 37%. When people had a sense of community at work, we found that they were 58% more likely to thrive at work, 55% more engaged, and 66% more likely to stay with their organization. They experienced significantly less stress and were far more likely to thrive outside of work, too.

People can create community in many ways, and preferences may differ depending on their backgrounds and interests. Here are several ways companies have successfully built a sense of community at work that leaders can consider emulating at their own organizations.

Create mutual learning opportunities.

After creating an internal university for training years ago, Motley Fool, the stock advisor company, realized that the teachers got even more out of it than the students. The feedback led to a vibrant coaching program in which about 10% of employees act as a coach to other employees. For many, being a coach is a favorite part of their job. Chief People Officer Lee Burbage said, “When you think of progress and growth in a career, your mind tends to stay boxed into ‘What is my current role? What am I doing?’…we really try to encourage side projects…taking on a teaching role, taking on a coaching role, being a leader in one of our ERGs, that sort of thing.”

Burbage went on to describe how the company helped foster a sense of community by enabling employees to learn from one another in a less formal way:

We’ve had incredible fun and incredible effectiveness going out to [employees] and saying, “Hey, is anybody really good at something and would be interested in teaching others?” All it takes is for them to set up a Zoom call. We’ve had everything from DJ class to butchering class. How to make drinks, how to sew. Tapping into your employees and skills they may already have that they’d be excited to teach others, especially in the virtual world, that makes for a great class and creates an opportunity again for them to progress and grow and meet new people.

Tap into the power of nostalgia.

Research suggests that shared memories from past positive events and accomplishments, such as birthday dinners, anniversaries, retreats, or weekend trips, endure and can help sustain morale. Nostalgia can help counteract anxiety and loneliness, encourage people to act more generously toward one another, and increase resilience. Research has also shown that when people engage in nostalgia for a few minutes before the start of their workday, they’re better at coping with work stresses.

Come up with ways to bring employees together for memorable events outside of work. Christine recently spoke at the law firm Jones Walker’s anniversary leadership celebration offsite. After meetings, we headed to the Washington Nationals ballpark, where we toured the field, feasted on ballpark favorites, and had the opportunity to take batting practice.

Eat or cook together.

In 2015, Jeremy Andrus, who took over Traeger Grills as CEO in 2014, decided to reboot a toxic culture and moved the corporate headquarters to Utah. There, Andrus worked to create a positive physical environment for his employees. As part of that, employees cooked breakfast together every Monday morning and lunch Tuesday through Friday. As he put it, “Preparing food for and with colleagues is a way of showing we care about one another.” According to pulse surveys in 2020, Traeger Grills employees rated the culture a nine out of 10 on average, with 91% reporting a feeling of connection to the company’s vision, mission, and values.

Cooking and eating together isn’t just a community builder. Researchers conducted interviews at 13 firehouses, then followed up by surveying 395 supervisors. They found that eating together had a positive effect on job performance. The benefits were likely reinforced by the cooperative behaviors underlying the firefighters’ meal practices: collecting money, shopping, menu planning, cooking, and cleaning. Taken together, all these shared activities resulted in stronger job performance.

Find ways to bring employees together over a meal. For example, invite the team to a lunch of takeout food in a conference room, or organize a walk to a nearby restaurant for a brainstorming session or a chance to socialize. You could also ask team members to cook an elaborate meal together at an offsite as a means of figuring out how to work collaboratively on something outside of their usual range.

Plug into your local community.

Kim Malek, the cofounder of ice cream company Salt & Straw, forges a sense of meaning and connectedness among employees, customers, and beyond to the larger communities in which her shops are located. From the beginning, Kim and her cousin and cofounder, Tyler Malek, “turned to their community, asking friends — chefs, chocolatiers, brewers, and farmers — for advice, finding inspiration everywhere they looked.”

Kim and Tyler worked with the Oregon Innovation Center, a partnership between Oregon State University and the Department of Agriculture, to help companies support the local food industry and farmers. Kim Malek told Christine that every single ice cream flavor on their menu “had a person behind it that we worked with and whose story we could tell. So that feeling of community came through in the actual ice cream you were eating.”

On the people side, Salt & Straw partners with local community groups Emerging Leaders, an organization that places BIPOC students into paid internships, and The Women’s Justice Project (WJP), a program in Oregon that helps formerly incarcerated women rejoin their communities. They also work with DPI Staffing to create job opportunities for people with barriers like disabilities and criminal records, and have hired 10 people as part of that program.

In partnership with local schools, Salt & Straw holds an annual “student inventors series” where children are invited to invent a new flavor of ice cream. The winner not only has their ice cream produced, but they read it to their school at an assembly, and the entire school gets free ice cream. This past year, Salt & Straw held a “rad readers” series and invited kids to submit their wildest stories attached to a proposed ice cream flavor. Salt & Straw looks for ways like this to embed themselves in and engage with the community to help people thrive. It creates meaning for their own community while also lifting up others.

Create virtual shared experiences.

Develop ways for your people to connect through shared experiences, even if they’re working virtually. Sanjay Amin, head of YouTube Music + Premium Subscription Partnerships at YouTube, will share personal stories, suggest the team listen to the same album, or try one recipe together. It varies and is voluntary. He told Christine he tries to set the tone by being “an open book” and showing his human side through vulnerability. Amin has also sent his team members a “deep question card” the day before a team meeting. It’s completely optional but allows people to speak up and share their thoughts, experiences, and feelings in response to a deep question — for example:

  • If you could give everyone the same superpower, which superpower would you choose?
  • What life lesson do you wish everyone was taught in school?

He told Christine, “Fun, playful questions like these give us each a chance to go deep quickly and understand how we uniquely view the world” and that people recognized a shared humanity and bonding.

EXOS, a coaching company, has a new program, the Game Changer, that’s a six-week experience designed to get people to rethink what it means to sustain performance and career success in the long run. Vice President Ryan Kaps told Christine, “Work is never going back to the way it was. We saw an opportunity to help people not only survive, but thrive.”

In the Game Changer, members are guided by an EXOS performance coach and industry experts to address barriers that may be holding them back from reaching their highest potential at work or in life. Members learn science-backed strategies that deepen their curiosity, awaken their creativity, and help sustain energy and focus. The program structure combines weekly individual self-led challenges and live virtual team-based huddles and accountability, which provide community and support. People who’ve completed the Game Changer call it “transformative,” with 70% of participants saying they’re less stressed and 91% reporting that it “reignited their passion and purpose.” 

Make rest and renewal a team effort.

Burnout is rampant and has surged during the pandemic. In our recent survey, we found that only 10% of respondents take a break daily, 50% take breaks just once or twice a week, and 22% report never taking breaks. Distancing from technology is particularly challenging, with a mere 8% of respondents reporting that they unplug from all technology daily. Consider what you can do to focus on recovery, together.

Tony Schwartz told Christine about the work his group did with a team from accounting firm Ernst and Young. In 2018, this team had been working on a particularly challenging project during the busy season, the result being that the team members became so exhausted and demoralized that a majority of them left the company afterward.

To try to change this, the 40-person EY team worked with the Energy Project to develop a collective “Resilience Boot Camp” in 2019 focused on teaching people to take more breaks and get better rest in order to manage their physical, emotional, and mental energy during especially intense periods. As a follow up, every other week for the 14 weeks of the busy season, the EY employees attended one-hour group coaching sessions during which team members discussed setbacks and challenges and supported one another in trying to embrace new recovery routines. Each participant was paired with another teammate to provide additional personal support and accountability.

Thanks to the significant shifts in behavior, accountants completed their work in fewer hours and agreed to take off one weekend day each week during this intense period. “Employees were able to drop 12 to 20 hours per week based on these changes, while accomplishing the same amount of work,” Schwartz told Christine.

By the end of the 2019 busy season, team members felt dramatically better than at the end of 2018’s. And five months after the busy season, when accounting teams typically lost people to exhaustion and burnout, this EY team’s retention stood at 97.5%. Schwartz told Christine that his main takeaway from that experience was “the power of community.”

. . .

Community can be a survival tool — a way for people to get through challenging things together — and helps move people from surviving to thriving. As we found, it also makes people much more likely to stay with your organization. What can you do to help build a sense of community?

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How to Handle Office Gossip … When It’s About You

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Gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes. When it’s used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts, it can incite workplace drama. So what should you do if you find out a colleague has been gossiping about you? First, let the messenger of the gossip know you’ll be discussing it with the gossiping colleague. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace. Second, when you confront the person gossiping, focus first on the content of their gossip, rather than their method. If there’s merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback, and you also demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns. Finally, ask them for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself.

Imagine a colleague of yours, “Beth,” approaches you one day and tells you that “Gareth,” a relatively new member of your team, made disparaging comments about you to her — referring to you as a “lightweight who wouldn’t be in the job if not for getting hired before the company could attract those with credentials.”

Beth reports this in hushed tones, then adds, “He can’t know where you heard it, okay?” What should you do next?

As I’ve written about before, gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes:

  1. It can be a source of information for those who mistrust formal channels.
  2. It can serve as an emotional release for anger or frustration.
  3. It can be used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts

It’s this latter form that incites a lot of workplace drama. This kind of gossip is communication minus responsibility. It is a collusive counterfeit to problem solving. In the example above, someone is telling you that you’ve been gossiped about — and they’re using gossip as the vehicle to do so. They’re passing along information on condition of anonymity.

The most crucial moment in addressing gossip like this is not after you hear it, but when you hear it. In an ideal world, Beth would have informed Gareth in the moment that she would need to share the information with you, unless he was willing to do so himself. But given that didn’t happen, you as the subject must decide whether you will continue the gossip or invite responsible communication.

When you tacitly or explicitly agree to engage in gossip so you can get access to gossip about you, you become part of the problem. You also prevent yourself from taking the only kind of action that could lead to resolution: a candid and respectful dialogue that produces mutual understanding. The way you handle this moment — the instant you’re issued an invitation to participate in gossip — becomes crucial. Here are three things to do when someone else is gossiping about you.

Don’t listen if you can’t act.

I adopted an ethic years ago that I always use to set a boundary with those who want to pass along information about another person. When I can see the conversation is headed in the direction of gossip, I politely stop the person and let them know that I’ll likely act on the information I’m given. This helps them understand that speaking implies responsibility and gives them an “out” to decide to keep the information to themselves.

In the situation above, Beth has already shared critical information. At this point, you could say, “Thanks for letting me know Gareth has concerns about me. I’ll be discussing that with him. I don’t feel a need to share your name, but he might guess you shared it.” If that makes her nervous, you should still hold your boundary. You might say, for example, “I’m going to address this with Gareth one way or another. If you want a day or so to let him know you shared it with me, you’re welcome to take that time.” If she chooses not to do so, you’re free to move forward.

Of course, the risk in this approach is that people will think twice before sharing gossip with you. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace.

Address the right issue first.

Next is the conversation with Gareth. A gossip episode like this involves two conversations: one about process and one about content.

Most people’s first instinct is to address the process problem — i.e., the fact that Gareth is talking negatively behind your back. You assume the content of the gossip in meritless and move to immediately confront what bothers you most: the inappropriate way he’s peddling his “fabrications.” A better way to proceed is to focus first on the content issue — Gareth’s apparent concerns about your competence — and not the “talking behind my back” issue.

Be humble. Don’t frame the conversation (even implicitly) as “Shame on you for talking behind my back,” but rather as “If I have failed you in some way, I really want to understand it. Or if my skills are coming up short, I need that feedback.” This approach helps in a number of ways. First, if there is merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback. Second, you transcend tit-for-tat reactions in a way that might prevent this from escalating into future personal conflict. And third, you demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns.

Don’t be deterred if the person starts by claiming misunderstanding or minimizing their statements. Reiterate your desire for feedback and urge them to be forthcoming about any concerns.

Discuss the process problem.

Only after you’ve explored the other person’s concerns can you productively hold them accountable for the indirect way their feedback came to you. Ask for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself. If you’ve humbly solicited feedback in the previous step, you’ll have the moral authority and safety needed to hold them accountable for their bad behavior.

There is no guarantee that approaching gossip in this way will eliminate it. But it does guarantee that you become part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem.

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Managing Up When Leadership Is Stuck in the Weeds

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Many of us have been in situations where we’re managing a project or advancing a new initiative at work and the leaders supervising the work get lost in unnecessary details. How do you manage up so the project doesn’t lose momentum? Using a real-life scenario of how a director at a tech company built a propensity model to streamline sales and presented it to his leaders as well as the salespeople using it, the authors present three strategies to get leaders out of the weeds on a project: 1) Work with your “users,” 2) sell the big picture, and 3) create self-service content.

Amidst high growth, the salespeople at a global technology company were confused about which accounts and opportunities to focus on. Mark, a rising director on the go-to-market team, was leading a project to build a propensity model to solve this problem. The model took in numerous data points across disparate systems to give salespeople directional leads. Leaders were excited about the model and the problem it would solve, but they often ended up getting stuck in the details during presentations. Mark was beginning to get frustrated. How can he get his leaders out of the weeds so he can keep advancing this important work?

Individuals at all levels in organizations will encounter situations where leaders lose the big picture. We have encountered it across our careers, from starting out when we worked with our bosses on small projects and later, when we presented to boards on transformational programs. While the particular questions in those situations were different, the underlying challenge remained the same. Based on over 30 years of influencing leadership decisions, we recommend three steps that individuals can take to reset the conversation with leaders. We’ll demonstrate these steps with a real-life example of how Mark, a rising director in a $10 billion global technology company, successfully advanced his work amidst a cascade of detailed questions.

Getting Stuck

When talking with salespeople, Mark kept hearing the same thing: “I don’t know where to focus.” Most salespeople had dozens of accounts, and the company sold a range of products with new releases coming out monthly, meaning some felt overwhelmed by what they had to sell. As a result, the company’s sales pipeline was not developing in line with expectations, and the leadership was beginning to get nervous.

Mark had been at the company for over a year and had just been promoted. He had the internal support and desire to take on a big problem, and he excitedly thought this was it. Working with a data scientist, Mark overcame significant technical challenges, quickly building a dashboard that clearly showed salespeople where the opportunities were in their territories. Salespeople were enthusiastic when the dashboard was released on a small scale, and leaders wanted to hear more. The meetings quickly became a drag though, as many leaders focused on adoption data (one of the data types used in the model) and systems issues, as the company had numerous reporting tools. Their concerns were valid, but Mark didn’t believe that necessitated stopping the work. Disappointed with how the situation was unfolding, he resolved to change tactics.

Pushing Ahead

After a wave of internal meetings with leaders, Mark adopted a three-pronged approach. We’ve found that these tactics work in many circumstances when leaders get stuck.

1. Work with your “users.”

Individuals must think of themselves as product managers, treat their work as a “product,” and move with their users. The leaders who get stuck in the details are rarely the ultimate users of the work. Individuals should continue to work with users, taking in requirements, making updates, and demonstrating value. The lack of full leadership buy-in should not be an impediment. Rather, leaders will be more supportive when there is strong enthusiasm from the actual users.

In Mark’s case, though he was presenting to leadership, the users of his work were in sales. Mark decided to keep working with salespeople to understand what they liked about the dashboard and what should be improved, just as if he was a product manager. He kept developing the tool based on their feedback. In addition, when he gave enablement trainings to sales or was in meetings with leaders, he had salespeople present with him. This positive feedback demonstrated to leaders the value of the project and led to them spending more time considering how to scale the work and less time questioning the data nuances.

2. Sell the big picture.

When presenting, project leaders sometimes resort to talking about the work in a project management context where they’ll assume buy-in to the vision and then jump into execution aspects, sharing GANNT charts and discussing roles and responsibilities. This is a mistake. Individuals should instead paint a picture of how the work will solve a pressing problem by discussing the vision and use cases, and tying the work to leadership’s priorities.

After some initial discussions with leaders, Mark created a separate presentation for them. The presentation focused on how the tool would make salespeople’s’ lives easier, which would improve pipeline, increase employee satisfaction, and reduce turnover, a priority for leadership. Mark was still prepared to talk about release schedules and workstream owners, but he never led with those points. The meetings began to go smoother, and the executives were relieved to have an initiative that could help stem the flood of employee departures.

3. Create self-service content.

Project managers should create self-service content that addresses technical questions. If two or more leaders ask the same question, it is a good indication it will come up again. Individuals should prepare simple FAQs, descriptions, or video tutorials that address these issues, and they should publish them in an accessible forum. This will reduce the time they spend responding to the same questions.

The propensity model included data on product adoption, as it was a company priority to monitor client adoption of newer products. Mark realized that leaders were getting stuck on how the adoption data was calculated. He worked with the data scientist and product team to create a page on definitions and another on commonly asked questions about the data, and then he posted them on an internal company site. For more technical audiences, he sent out the self-service content in advance of presentations. Questions from leadership about adoption slowed to a trickle, and Mark was better able to focus the meetings on key items.

Gradual Payoff

Of course, challenges will arise no matter what. Leadership will likely want to make changes to the work or they will want to tie it to other related projects that are also underway. That is just part of working on an important initiative. In Mark’s case, leaders originally wanted Mark to align with other data initiatives that were internal. These initiatives were slow-moving though, and aligning fully with them would have jeopardized his project’s ability to quickly deliver value. As Mark successfully used the three tactics, leadership got on board, and leaders began to tell other project managers to follow his work — not the other way around.

The benefits to overcoming these challenges are significant. The company is better off when this kind of work is implemented, and the team that completes the work will reap the benefits. More importantly though, the individuals on the project will have improved their skills, having overcome internal hurdles and won over leaders in the process. In this case study, change took time. But weeks after deploying these tactics, Mark realized that the tone of these leadership meetings had gradually transitioned from skepticism to excitement. His project’s potential was still not fully realized, but he knew that he had developed a new skillset and that the company’s leaders were on his side.

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