Reinventing Work: Dynamic Ways of Working, Learning and Collaborating For Emergent Organizations
Robin Zander, founder of Spring Space and The Responsive Conference, discusses the importance of reinventing work and the connection to diversity and inclusion. Robin shares his thoughts about what’s missing from the current structure of work and education, and what needs to change. Robin discusses his background as a performer and how that informs his work, and the unique way that he plans and organizes his conferences.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- A key experience that led Robin to his current work (5:35)
- How Robin’s performance background informs his curriculum design (13:35)
- A central problem with our educational system (14:05)
- What Robin looks for in choosing a space for conferences (16:45)
- What employers need to consider in order to engage top talent (25:20)
- An alternative to hierarchal organizational structure (30:31)
- How to create more inclusion without quotas (40:52)
- How Robin makes his decision about selecting speakers (41:30)
- The problem with TED conferences when it comes to inclusion and diversity (42:29)
- A key mindset shift Jennifer had to make to get onstage (44:50)
- A cultural trend that will flip the hierarchy upside down (48:10)
- A special discount code for the upcoming Responsive Conference (51:25)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown.
Robin P. Zander is a bestselling author, strategist, and performance coach. With a diverse background ranging from management consulting to the circus, he has spent his life working with individuals and organizations to maximize potential.
Robin is the founder of Spring Space, a transformation and coaching agency, which helps individuals improve performance. He is the founder of the Responsive Conference, which convenes annually to innovate on the future of work, and hosts several summits and retreats throughout the year.
He also runs Robin’s Cafe, a cafe and gallery in the heart of the Mission District in San Francisco.
As a self-taught performer, Robin has performed on national stages, including with the San Francisco Opera.
Robin presents nationally on emergent leadership and the future of work, including recent engagements at Stanford University, Brown University, Kaiser Permanente, and Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine.
Throughout his podcast, The Robin Zander Show, he interviews exceptional performers from areas as diverse as the arts, technology, and healthcare to understand how individuals and organizations can accelerate performance.
ROBIN ZANDER: Hi, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to The Will to Change.
ROBIN ZANDER: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to come onto your show.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. We met a couple years ago, and I feel like you were the first person that I could really have this stimulating conversation with about reinventing work. We went there, and it has been an incredible journey since then. We’ve been at several of your incredible responsive community conferences since then, and we’ve been part of an incredible and dynamic community that is passionate about reinventing the future of work.
You happen to be leading a very unique conference gathering in New York September 18th and 19th, The Responsive Conference.
As somebody who’s a passionate advocate for this whole concept of the need for work reinvention, tell me, in your view, what is broken about work today? How are you and the responsive community going after that conversation? Why a conference? Why an in-person conference?
ROBIN ZANDER: Yes. Lots of great questions. Even before diving into any of those, one of the things I’ve so enjoyed about you in the two-plus years that we’ve been spending a lot of time together and collaborating on various things is your enthusiasm to jump in.
We met in a very specific, pretty high-level intellectual diversity and inclusion conversation in the financial industry in New York. And when I started inviting you to some of the smaller little “unconferences” and self-organizing events that I put on, you were not the first person I would have expected to jump in. And jump in you did, and now you’re doing a ton of interviews, you have The Will to Change podcast, you’re doing Facebook Live pretty regularly, you published a book in that same time period, which is just amazing.
JENNIFER BROWN: There’s that. (Laughter.)
ROBIN ZANDER: In many ways, I actually think that you embody the “changeability,” the willingness to create dynamic transformation, change, in your life and your career that is what drew me to this future of work conversation in the first place.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Robin. That’s lovely. You’ve shown me how to create a conference experience that is the true unconference. That whole concept of breaking it and building it in a way that responds and resonates with some of us who want a different path forward.
ROBIN ZANDER: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: When I meet a change agent like you who’s really leading the conversation, putting in your investment in time, and then discovering the community all around you of people who share that passion. It’s been fueling me. I’m asked by companies, “How do we reinvent our way out of what’s not working?”
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally.
JENNIFER BROWN: There’s something in our work together and in these conferences that holds the key.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yes. Your first question was where did this journey start for me, or what is it about this future of work movement that gets me excited?
I think back to the first job that I had that wasn’t as a freelancer — and we didn’t call it this back when I was 15, right? The first time I ever had an employer, I was 13 or 15 and working at a chocolatier, a little chocolate shop in my hometown in Sonoma County, California. I was working alongside these two women who had been at the chocolate shop for two or three years, sisters. They knew the coffee and chocolate trade inside and out. They were apprenticed to the owner of this little chocolatier.
I took on the job. I loved chocolate, I liked tea, I was enjoying serving customers. But I took it on because I wanted to travel after high school. I wanted to save up enough money to travel. I made that really clear with the owner, and I made that really clear with my co-employees. I was there to earn a certain amount of money in order to travel for three months.
I remember the first time I shared that with these two co-employees, they were awed that I would daydream about traveling on what was then probably $1,000 or less. Right? Enough for a plane ticket and rice and beans for a month. They said, “We would love to travel ourselves, but we’re stuck doing this job until we earn thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars.” These were teenage girls.
I just remember their feeling of being stuck at work, of doing work that they did not love and not really having the ability or the capacity to visualize something different for themselves.
JENNIFER BROWN: What a tragedy.
ROBIN ZANDER: I think we all know people who are doing work that they don’t enjoy or that doesn’t fuel them or is merely a paycheck that allows them to pay rent as the primary purpose.
There’s a lot to my own advantages. I was exposed to a lot of travel. My family traveled on holiday. Instead of celebrating Christmas, we went abroad every other year throughout my childhood, which was such an amazing opportunity and privilege that I now really appreciate.
I believed that I could travel cheaply when I was 15. I have a belief that work doesn’t have to be drudgery. When I see people who really don’t love the work that they do, my default is not to say, “Okay, grit your teeth and bear it.” My default is, “Great, what can we do to find a new opportunity for you that really fuels your excitement and the things you want to be doing and contributing in the world?”
JENNIFER BROWN: And there are so many who are not doing their best work, or perhaps their work is not aligned to their purpose, which is a continuing theme on The Will to Change, and a theme for me, too. I was absolutely in those kinds of jobs wondering, “How did I get here? How is it possible that I have spent two years in a beige cube farm?”
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally. What’s the least-fulfilling job you’ve ever had, Jen?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. (Laughter.) Wow. I hated office jobs. I’d say anything that was customer facing was always so much more fun for me because I’m a huge extrovert and I loved the challenge. I loved every day and every hour of every day to be different. I’m an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs, for any of you who know your type. Robin, do you know what your Myers-Briggs type is?
ROBIN ZANDER: I don’t. I’ve been told a couple of times, but it doesn’t stick and I’ve never taken the test.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a lot of letters. It’s a great test. I am addicted to creativity, uniqueness, variety, and getting charge and energy from people. It’s funny because now I get to live a life as an author and a speaker where I’m probably the closest to the sweet spot that I’ve ever been professionally.
ROBIN ZANDER: Nice.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And I think about how many years — and sometimes a whole lifetime — many people spend never being able to say that, never being able to say, “I went after my passion, and I tried to align how I make my living with who I am and what I love, not just what I can tolerate, but really what I love.” Your conferences are creating the space to explore that.
By the way, I think much of what’s broken about work doesn’t allow us to have that exploration, certainly not with employers who are very regimented, it’s business as usual. The bigger they get, the more inflexible they become to an individual’s hopes, dreams, purpose, and all of that. It’s almost like the organization has no way to create space for that. That’s the missing link.
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally.
JENNIFER BROWN: I don’t think everyone’s cut out to be an entrepreneur. Many of us are destined to have an employer of some kind, but within that, the freedom to really self-express. That’s where the work has to happen.
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally. Yes. Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: Let me describe the unconference experience that we had in Brooklyn. One of the tools that you showed me is to literally allow an audience to shape a curriculum or an agenda for a conference.
Correct me if I’m wrong, Robin, but I remember we were all given Post-it notes in the morning, and we all wrote down concepts or ideas that we were passionate about exploring, things that we were curious about, things that we want to crowdsource with these wonderful people gathered around the future of work.
We would tell the group what they were, and one by one we would put them up on this huge wall. We each had five notes. One by one, everyone would take their Post-its up and put them around the topic that it was related to. Clusters started to form. We ended up having ten different clusters with all these rich questions. How do I bring my full self to work? How do I manage people differently? How do I delegate? I want to explore motivation or compensation — all these facets that impacted us.
Then we went through and voted on things. For each group, a facilitator materialized and said, “I’ll be happy to be the point person for this discussion.” We assigned rooms in the facility, and we all found our way to that discussion.
The day flowed from there, but I’ve never seen something designed like that in real time by the participants. It really captured my imagination because it felt so relevant, so real, worth our time, and such a great way to organically allow people to gather around things which attract their energy. I just loved it.
Can you talk a little bit about what we mean when we say unconference? I know it’s not always possible to be that organic.
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally.
JENNIFER BROWN: You also have the big conference that’s a lot more programmed, the actual Responsive Conference in September.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Talk a little bit about that format.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yes. Like you, I don’t think it’s fair to say I grew up on the stage, but it feels like that. Throughout my very late teens, starting at 19, all the way until quite recently, I performed as everything from a ballet dancer to a professional acrobat. I spun fire at weddings.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.
ROBIN ZANDER: I juggled. I was a performer, and remain a self-taught performer in a variety of physical disciplines. The physicality of that and the physical practice and what happens when a group of people is observing or participating in a physical performance has shaped a lot of how I think about curation and curriculum design.
I’ve not been to TED, and TED does an amazing job of keynote after keynote after keynote speaker. They have the selection of the best in the world, and they find the best in the world.
There is so much about the typical system of absorbing information: to sit and passively listen to speaker after speaker. I have a four-year-old nephew who is just going into kindergarten. He’s coming into an education system that is the same. The teacher is in front of the room, students sit in seats passively absorbing information. Right? That’s how education has traditionally been done.
For me, as someone who values physicality, performance, and audience engagement, there’s a huge variety of ways to deliver value and engage with the audience and use the audience to create a more meaningful experience.
JENNIFER BROWN: Agreed. And we really must do that. That old model is dying.
ROBIN ZANDER: Right. It’s such an open area for play and experimentation. If you add a little bit of physicality, a little bit of movement into an audience environment that is otherwise “sit and absorb,” it’s amazing the impact that can take place.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I left that part out. We actually did a physical exercise before the Post-it exercise. We paired up, moved our bodies, and reflected each other. We were given certain instructions and moved with each other, literally.
ROBIN ZANDER: A mirroring exercise, mirroring your partner.
JENNIFER BROWN: Mirroring exercise. Yes. It was great. It connected all of us in this energetic way and laid the groundwork for great sharing.
ROBIN ZANDER: Right. The idea for an unconference came from a dear friend of mine, and one of the co-founders of the responsive org movement, Steve Hopkins. We sat down in August of 2015, daydreaming of ways to explore the ideas of the future of work in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Steve said, “Let’s throw an unconference.” Naively, I said, “Great. What’s an unconference?” Very similar to what you just did, he described an environment in which the audience that shows up on the day determines the curriculum that is going to be explored by those same people. There’s no opening keynote, no person responsible for choosing the speakers, facilitators, or workshops. The audience there are the ones who determine what they’re going to explore.
I’ve run probably 40 or 50 events over the last two years. I find that it actually takes a lot of organizing, planning, and careful consideration to create those loosely held containers.
The workshop that we put on in Brooklyn went really well because I did a ton of pre-planning.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s good. What example would you give? What is the most critical thing when you’re trying to build that loose container? What might surprise us as a consideration which took a lot of attention?
ROBIN ZANDER: The simplest ones are date and location. That unconference was donation based. I think there was a suggested $35 donation, but it was free to attend and no one was turned away.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
ROBIN ZANDER: We capped attendance at 150 people, and ended up having 150 people there. For a free event, that’s unheard of. There is always attrition.
Our first event in San Francisco a couple months before, February of 2016, was 175 people. We were flooded with requests to attend.
The physical space I think is important. Having an environment. It depends, do you want 150 people to come together in one big room or do you want a ton of breakout rooms? Or both? At the Brooklyn event, we had the privilege of both. August, an organizational design consultancy, hosted us in their co-working environment on a Saturday. We had one big space where everyone could gather, and five to eight breakout rooms where groups of 15 to 25 people could gather in smaller groups.
Anytime I’m running an event, the two considerations I think of first are: When is it happening and where is it happening?
Recently, I ran a five-day leadership retreat in Puerto Rico. That’s a very different experience than a 150-person free event on a Saturday in Brooklyn. The “where” is also the physical space. The first annual Responsive was held at a children’s science museum in the Berkeley Hills in California. The Lawrence Hall of Science, as you remember, is a playful, giant museum. It’s a children’s museum with live exhibits that our attendees could play with between curated sessions. That really shapes the experience. Contrast that with the meeting rooms of a Las Vegas hotel.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. That’s for sure.
ROBIN ZANDER: Right? You’ve been in both of those types of environments. Lots of conventions and places that you speak are hosted in hotel convention centers. They’re easily configurable. They have all of the amenities, but they’re less creative. They’re not unique in the way that it’s important for the events that I produce and direct — specifically of value for the people who are there.
JENNIFER BROWN: I hear you on that. The energy of space is incredible, how it flows and the mix of large format, intimate format, casual spaces for conversation on couches. It’s interesting to watch how that unleashes a level of creativity — or not, to your point about the Vegas Convention Center, which I was just in last week. Yes, it’s true that the space and format really matter, and need to dovetail with your outcomes.
ROBIN ZANDER: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Your lack of attrition is such a testament to the relevance of this conversation right now and how everyone’s looking for a different answer.
We all know that things are broken, out of date, and not satisfying. The fix is so much more elusive. Back to 2015–16 and the first conference you ran, can you acquaint folks with the first or leading voices in the responsive conversation? I’ve had a couple on my podcast — Bob Gower, Adam Pisoni, Aaron Dignan.
I also wanted to ask you about the lengths to which you’ve gone to ensure a diversity of voices. I want to commend you for that because my Twitter feed is alive with all of the complaints about “manels,” as we call them, all-male panels, right?
ROBIN ZANDER: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: It can even be on the topic of diversity and it never crossed anyone’s mind.
ROBIN ZANDER: Let’s have six straight, white men sitting in Seattle talking about how tech in the Bay Area has a diversity problem.
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. There are a lot of men that I respect a lot who were maybe the original conveners for this, but who are those folks? I think that’s important.
ROBIN ZANDER: There were six cofounders, co-signatories, of Responsive Org. Responsive Org was conceived by — and you’ve named two — Aaron Dignan, who is the CEO and founder of The Ready; Adam Pisoni, who cofounded Yammer and is now building Abl Schools; Adam’s chief of staff at Yammer, Steve Hopkins, who’s now at Culture Amp; Mike Arauz, who is the cofounder of the org design agency I mentioned, August. The only woman of these six is a phenom. If you can get her on your podcast, I highly recommend it. Alexis Gonzales-Black helped roll out Holacracy at Zappos and is now in org design at IDEO.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
ROBIN ZANDER: I believe it came from Adam Pisoni while at Yammer. He realized that he was no longer just building software, but a company that his employees were working within, and that the shape of the company was really dictating the quality and shape of the product that Yammer was delivering to their clients.
There’s Conway’s Law, which dictates that the specific organization shape of the company building a piece of software will determine the shape of the software itself. It has all sorts of interesting ramifications, but if you have four different squads of people building a product, your product is going to have four different components. It’s that straightforward.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.
ROBIN ZANDER: It’s pretty wild.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
ROBIN ZANDER: Adam reached out in the world in general and found a company that no longer exists, Undercurrent, of which Aaron Dignan was then CEO and Mike Arauz was a principal.
Adam said, “Okay, there’s this problem, we don’t really have words for it. How do we describe it?” The one person I forgot to mention is Matthew Partovi, who does organizational design in London.
This group of six people sat down and put down words, essentially. That became the Responsive Org Manifesto, which is accessible online just as something to read — www.responsive.org and that links to all of the relevant components and people.
Undercurrent and Adam at Yammer, as it was selling to Microsoft, had a lot of reach. It immediately gained traction and for a lot of people, it put words to these challenges that folks were being presented with.
The thing that has always stood out to me about the Responsive Org Manifesto is it’s not prescriptive. It’s not saying, “Here is the solution: Everyone should be in a less hierarchical organization, everyone should work remotely, technology is going to save the world.”
Instead, it outlines tensions. It says, “There exists this tension between hierarchy and networked organizing, and every organization, every person has to find the balance that is the right fit for them at this time.”
Another tension is the one between privacy and security. It’s not that everyone should share their salaries online, like the company Buffer does. There’s a cause for privacy as well, but that is a tension that self-aware, future-facing organizations need to consider.
Purpose versus profit is an important one. More and more, I think all of us know employees are not just willing to work for a paycheck. They have to have a reason why they’re working. Just like for me at that chocolatier in high school, my purpose for working was to earn enough money to go travel. It’s not good or bad, that’s what I wanted then.
I just had a call with the founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org, which is a charitable organization that crowdsources funding for schools all over the country. Charles Best is the CEO, and in 2013 Oprah listed DonorsChoose.org as her favorite thing of the year.
DonorsChoose.org is done really well and is relatively well known, but as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, they’re clear on their purpose. They have that benefit. They’re asking, “How do we help other people find benefit by donating to schools?” For the employees who work at DonorsChoose, they’re clear on why they’re there, but why should other organizations participate in this? How does DonorsChoose provide other organizations’ employees purpose as well?
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
ROBIN ZANDER: Purpose can be this very mixed thing. I run a small cafe in the Mission in San Francisco. It’s a for-profit company, and we have to be profitable — at least profitable enough to pay my employees their hourly wages.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hello?
ROBIN ZANDER: There’s a purpose that’s important, there’s a profit, and that tension is one that I think every organization struggles with and has to consider.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. To talk about the diversity and inclusion conversation, particularly younger generations of employees want to speak about their purpose, work closer to their purpose, and also for the organization to have a purpose in the world that goes beyond the shareholder metrics of profit.
ROBIN ZANDER: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: A lot of companies make the mistake of leading with that goal, which appeals to some in terms of shareholders, but absolutely has the opposite effect on employees, who really want to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and valued.
That comes up so much, particularly considering political and social happenings outside of the four walls of the company, many of which have been disturbing in the past year or two — from the Pulse nightclub shooting to police brutality and conversations about violence and resistance. And, yet, to walk into your place of work and feel that you can’t bring in any of the emotions you may be feeling, and that it’s this silence the reigns. That’s one of the biggest missed opportunities for companies. They can use these opportunities to talk about what’s going on in the world and the relevance to our ability to thrive as a business, not just for shareholders, but for each of you. Why do you belong here? Why does what you do matter?
We’re not good at that. Unfortunately, company management is afraid to even have the conversation about a lot of this. It’s their lawyers and risk tolerance, which is not high with these large, publicly traded, compliance-driven organizations. But that’s precisely what employees are craving, not just to get that paycheck, but to discover meaning through their work.
ROBIN ZANDER: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Companies which are not focused on this are going to continue to have severe retention issues, and they already do. I look at gender numbers and numbers for people of color all day long. It doesn’t tell a pretty picture of the state of the workplace and the kinds of leaders who are making it to positions of power and influence. There’s a whole aspect we’re missing around valuing diversity and “walking the talk” when it comes to that.
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally.
JENNIFER BROWN: Anyway, I’m very concerned about the viability of the company as it stands right now in an ongoing way. Correct me if I’m wrong, was it Aaron who shows the org chart and asks the audience, “What year do you think this org chart is from?” (Laughter.)
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah. It’s great. Aaron will be opening day one of the second annual Responsive Conference. Historically, he shows a slide of a giant organization’s org chart and has the audience guess, “What year was this created?”
It’s great. He gets answers from 2001 to 1775. And it’s really true. The way that organizations are traditionally structured has not changed very much in the last several hundred years.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
ROBIN ZANDER: Or even longer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Not good.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: The flip side is Holacracy, which you mentioned earlier. I don’t think a lot of people know what Zappos has undertaken, but it’s interesting. It’s the complete repudiation of roles, structures, responsibility, and is self-organized in the extreme. If anyone’s curious about the Zappos experiment with Holacracy, and I encourage you to read up on what Tony Hsieh is working on. I always see him and his team in the back row at your conferences, Robin. I always wonder, “Who are the pioneers that are really taking this?” You mentioned Buffer, who is literally open about all of its management practices and compensation and all of it. There are some really radical experiments going on out there.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Are they working?
ROBIN ZANDER: Right. That’s a great question. I think about Tony, the CEO of Zappos, and Joel Gascoigne, the CEO of Buffer, but particularly Tony in rolling out Holacracy. Maybe we should define Holacracy as system of non-hierarchical organization. Tony has rolled out Holacracy at Zappos, and that’s the largest implementation of Holacracy to date, I believe. He’s taken a lot of heat because it doesn’t always work and there is no perfect one-size-fits-all solution. And what works at Buffer doesn’t necessarily work at a different tech company located somewhere else. Just because Holacracy has both struggled and succeeded at Zappos doesn’t mean that it is either a good or a bad system. Everyone wants a silver bullet, and there isn’t one.
Coming back to these tensions, it’s a matter of balancing them at a specific time for a specific organization. Adam Pisoni talks eloquently about building a diverse founding team as an important principle for him at Abl Schools.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that story. I tell it all the time.
ROBIN ZANDER: He also acknowledges the privilege. He had sufficient investor funding and the trust of his investors that they weren’t going to kick him off as CEO because he took some extra time to find developers who didn’t look like him. That is a privileged position to be able to say, “This is what I’m going to do, and you’re going to work with me to make this happen because this is really important. Here are my reasons why, this is the world we want to live in, so we’re going to do it this way.” Right? Not everyone has the privilege to do that, perhaps.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I agree. He couldn’t have done that at Yammer. I often hear the pushback, “Well, we’re growing so fast. We don’t have time to take a risk on a particular hire.” That’s one of my most hated things to hear because it’s not risky, we just perceive a risk in terms of reaching outside of our networks and outside of those who look like us or share our identity.
I agree that Adam is a known quantity, he’s somebody who’s built successful companies. He sold Yammer to Microsoft for $1 billion. But at least he’s doing it, and at least he’s jumping in. He literally said, “I do not feel comfortable and will not interview people who look like me because the way that we set our beginning compass as a team matters, not just so that we ensure we resonate with the whole community that cares about education, schools, and kids, but to attract diverse talent going forward.”
Diverse talent shows up when they see an institution that’s committed to them and has put that into action. There’s a level of trust that’s built when somebody’s uncompromising about that. It inspired me that a white, straight, cis guy was doing that, and it’s still so rare.
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally.
JENNIFER BROWN: I would like to see those with that level of privilege doing that because it’s so much easier for others to follow and take their cue from him. Everybody looks up to him and what he’s built in the past. I’m hoping that more people chose to use the flexibility that they’re given by their investors to be more uncompromising. It will make such a huge difference, not just in who you hire, but your ability to resonate with your marketplace and your constituents, however you define that.
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally.
JENNIFER BROWN: I loved that podcast.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yes. The other question you asked was why my personal focus on diversity and inclusion?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
ROBIN ZANDER: Focus on equity within the events that I organize.
JENNIFER BROWN: Do tell.
ROBIN ZANDER: I’ve thought a lot, and maybe I don’t have one clear answer to that question, but a couple of anecdotes come to mind.
We’ve all had experiences as outsider. I even remember when I first moved to San Francisco, I was working as a busser at a fine-dining restaurant. I was surrounded by all of these people in 2007–2008 going through the financial crisis. I was watching from the outside because I was washing dishes and they were getting drunk and bemoaning the loss of their millions as their stocks dried up and their tech companies went under.
JENNIFER BROWN: Crocodile tears.
ROBIN ZANDER: Even much earlier than that, I grew up as the sensitive kid in a very rural middle school in a very rural town. I was pretty routinely bullied and beaten up for having slightly longer hair. This was before my generation started to look to Prince or David Bowie as these presenting genderqueer identities and celebrities.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank goodness for them. Thank goodness for the ’80s. They’re one good thing about the ’80s.
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally. Yes. I was born in ’86, and my peers up until late high school didn’t look to those icons. It was very much rusty Ford pickup trucks and country music. I learned to play basketball via the “here, catch the ball” method — as I turned around and caught the ball with my face.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, Robin.
ROBIN ZANDER: I am a straight, white man living in California. I have all the privilege in the world, and at the same time I will never forget those experiences.
I studied ballet starting at 19. I was the only guy training classical ballet among 30 or 40 women. Which meant that I got a lot of special teacher attention, but I also never lost track and never stopped feeling like the outsider. I was not a woman in the room.
That’s not exclusive. I’ve also done Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, where the gender ratios are reversed. I’m one of the 40 guys, there’s one woman in the room and she’s getting all the attention.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
ROBIN ZANDER: Aubrey Blanche, the head of D&I at Atlassian talks really eloquently about everyone having an exclusion story. We’ve all been not on the inside, we’ve all been not the popular kid. As soon as I think about it from that perspective, it evaporates the “us versus them.”
The theme that I’ve been focusing on curating for the second annual Responsive Conference is the idea of psychological safety. If we can create an environment that is psychologically safe for the people that we want within the organization and for the customers that we want to serve, then we’ve won. Congratulations, you’ve created an inclusive culture.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It is that simple, but the way there is hard to figure out.
ROBIN ZANDER: Right. Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re right, at the end of the day, it is that simple.
ROBIN ZANDER: For me, across all of those experiences, and many more, there has been this thread, “How do I use people coming together in a physical environment?” Whether that’s for a leadership retreat or even one on one in the coaching I do, but especially at these larger 150- to 500-person events. My goal is to create an example of that inclusive, psychologically safe community that people can take back with them to take steps towards fostering in their own organizations.
JENNIFER BROWN: Have you been challenged with finding a pipeline of speakers and presenters that is diverse enough for what you want to create? What have you learned about curating conferences around that whole debate? “I can’t find a woman of color or a Q person.” That whole rubric that we hear over and over again. How have you gone about it?
In my opinion, you’ve succeeded. Hats off to you that I have met some incredible female futurists in your community who I find inspirational. There’s such a commitment there. I would expect nothing less from you and from the community because we’re talking about the future of work, and inclusion needs to be baked into that. I do know, though, that it’s still a male-dominated world.
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally. Yes. I haven’t actually run the numbers, but on our applicants, I think we got probably 80–85 percent applicants for presenting at the second annual Responsive Conference.
It was really fun when I released our gender equality numbers from attendance and speakers for 2016. I think you texted me and said, “Oh, my God, that’s so incredible!” I think we had 48 percent female speakers, and I believe very close to the same 48 or 49 percent female attendees.
I asked a couple of advisors early on, “Should I make a firm commitment to a 50/50 gender split of presenters for the first annual Responsive Conference?” Everyone counseled me, “No, don’t do that.” A bunch of women, a couple of queer friends. Just a bunch of folks said, “No, don’t attempt that.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Stay away from quotas. Don’t publicize it.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yes. Don’t give it a quota, just make that a goal of yours, but don’t be hard and fast about it. It’s always something that I keep in mind. I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer than this. So much of the curation that I do is instinctive. It’s a felt sense. I’m constantly thinking, “What is the attendee experience I want on the day of?” Whether that’s for an unconference that is an agenda brought by the people who show up, or when I’m designing a curriculum for two days with keynotes. I’ll have you on stage, Pamela Slim is closing day two, and Aaron Dignan is opening day one for the second annual Responsive Conference. Pamela Slim wrote Escape from Cubicle Nation and Body of Work, and Aaron Dignan we’ve already discussed.
I’m looking at fine-tuning the experience of my attendees. I don’t want my attendees to sit through keynote after keynote, even if they’re all incredible, because I’m not trying to re-create TED. I don’t want them to see people who look like the same person over and over again on stage or hear the same story of, “I tried to build a tech company and I failed, so I went and built something else, and I succeeded.” I want to do different things.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank goodness. I’m so relieved for that and grateful for that. It’s true, the TED format is too much. Unless the curator is really mindful of the things that we’re talking about right now, it has a danger of slipping into that homogeneity.
When I gave my TED in 2010 at TEDx Presidio, I was one of few women in the lineup. I remember asking the curator, “So, how did you look at gender and diversity on the stage.” I was curious. They said literally, “The women that we approached didn’t get back to us, and the men got back to us immediately.”
ROBIN ZANDER: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: I was struck by that because, ironically, I had hesitated to get back to them because I was intimidated. And the math we go through in our heads around, “I’m not ready and I don’t know what I’m going to say.” This is what a lot of us go through who haven’t had our voice heard. It’s that level of self-doubt around our story and the validity of what we’re here to teach.
I’ve evolved so far, obviously, from that. I remember very distinctly thinking to myself, “I almost wasn’t on this stage.” There’s space that curators hold and a commitment that they need to show. If it means following up and chasing people and saying, “You are welcome here, you’re needed and wanted on this stage.” You’ve got to know that many people will suffer from perfectionism before they will say, “Yes, I’m ready to tell my story or give my big keynote.”
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s something that holds particularly diverse people back.
ROBIN ZANDER: Do you remember the turning point with your TED Talk when you decided to follow up and found yourself on that stage?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, there is the performer in me, Robin. You’ll appreciate this. We push ourselves out onto the stage even when we don’t have all the answers and even when it’s half baked. Think about auditioning.
ROBIN ZANDER: Terrifying.
JENNIFER BROWN: Terrifying. Terrifying. But we have it beat out of us. You can’t say no. You have to show up and you’ve got to work with what you get.
For me as a Broadway performer, I had eight bars basically. I got to walk into the room and sing eight bars, which for those of you who aren’t musicians, that’s about 15 or 20 seconds of music.
ROBIN ZANDER: Not very much.
JENNIFER BROWN: And then they say, “Thank you very much.” And that’s it. That’s it. That’s what you waited in line for hours for. There’s muscle around all of that. It enables the audience awareness and sensitivity that you were describing earlier, the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and design from that place.
Also, I had a germ of a story that I knew on some level really needed to be told. I think my practicality kicked in. I also love marketing and thinking about personal brand. I knew it was a huge opportunity. I overcame the hesitation because I just knew that it would be important for me.
The funny thing is, all the things that have happened since then are so incredible, but the most valuable part was getting my story distilled into a piece that I could share over and over and over again. It forced the development of that and all of the questioning and formation of, “What am I here on this earth to do?” I call it a “message in a bottle.” If this is your thing that you leave people with, what do you want to leave them with?
You’re certainly leaving a powerful legacy, too. I’m sure that’s how you think about what you’re doing with the conference.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yes. I have different pieces there. My reaction to legacy is, “I’m not done yet.” (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: Wait! True.
ROBIN ZANDER: Actually, in that vein, I’ve taken stories from individuals whom I’ve had the honor of interviewing and sitting down with: You and Adam Pisoni, but also just attendees, recent college grads who are talking about how they want to be a part of this conversation. Maybe they’ve come on a student discount or something like that to one of the events. I’m putting these into a book format and giving that in hand to every attendee of this year’s Responsive Conference.
JENNIFER BROWN: What a great idea.
ROBIN ZANDER: There’s so much heady talk, and it’s actually about the people who show up. It’s about the people doing the work and providing them a sense of community, providing them a context to share that every little step, every little bit of change, every effort in the will to change is meaningful.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. I love it. Can I just break in? You’re making me think. I’m on the advisory board of an organization called Sparks and Honey. Some of you in our audience might have seen my Facebook. I speak there a lot, I go and just learn. They are a bunch of futurists who spot cultural trends.
One of their big trends is the death of the expert and this whole movement towards democratizing work or business models — fill in the blank — products for consumers. It’s the positioning of exactly what you’re talking about. The person who’s doing the work at whatever level regardless of status and flipping the hierarchy around. I love that idea. It means that all of us have something to contribute, and if we wait to contribute, we’re so much the poorer for waiting.
There’s no such thing as a fully baked, perfect idea anyway, especially in this crazy, chaotic VUCA world — volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. You don’t need to wait until something is complete and tie a bow on it before you start to work with others. I just love what you said, that you’re going to actually try to capture the zeitgeist and the goodness and richness in the community that’s coming to say, “Here we are, read about what we are, what we’re achieving, and what we’re creating.” Cataloging that is a great idea. I just love it.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yes, thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Robin, we’re almost out of time, but I hope folks who are listening to this are intrigued. I imagine most people would be, unless you’re not alive. I hope people are intrigued to get involved and be a part of the responsive extended community. Come to the conference in the fall.
How can people engage with all the pieces of this? I wanted to ask if there’s a Slack channel people can get involved in or is that just attached to the conference? Tell us also about social media and the kinds of books, a couple authors we should be reading, or speaker we should be paying attention to as we wade into this community and this conversation.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yes. Absolutely. The best URLs are ResponsiveConference.com, Responsive.org is the founding of the community itself. Responsive.org links to the Slack community. For those who don’t know, Slack is a messaging platform. I think our Slack has 4,000–5,000 people engaged at this point, all over the world, self-selecting into a bunch of different channels, different groups, talking about the various issues that are the most relevant or significant for them.
There’s also facebook.com/responsivecon for more information on the conference, and facebook.com/responsiveorg will get more on the Responsive Org movement.
For me personally, the best place to find me is www.robinpzander.com.
JENNIFER BROWN: Perfect. Thank you, Robin. If folks want to register for the conference, any advice you have for them?
ROBIN ZANDER: Absolutely. We’ll call it “Will to Change.” By the time this episode goes live, there will be a discount code for everyone listening. “Will to Change” will get 15 percent off the ticket price. If you go to ResponsiveConference.com, there’s a “register now” button, or you can go to ResponsiveConference.eventbrite.com and that will take you straight to where you need to go to buy the ticket. Again, use “Will to Change” as the discount for 15 percent off the cost of attendance.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s beautiful and very responsive of you, and generous. Thank you.
Thank you, Robin. Thank you for coming on and sharing a little of your personal story, your diversity story. Thank you for convening our community around this very pressing issue where a lot of us have a channel to put our passion and our commitment to our own truth, and making sure that our work in the world resonates with who we are as people and our greatest gifts. You are doing something incredibly important, and I thank you.
ROBIN ZANDER: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me on.
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