"The World Changers"
"We're trying to figure out how do we get vaccines delivered to places that have no physical addresses."
Torrence Boone and Lars Bastholm lead their teams to unlock the business and societal potential of Google’s capacity for original thinking, and the company's ability to change the world.
I talked to them about their evolutions from Baltimore dancer and Danish film-maker respectively to leaders at one of the world’s most technologically advanced companies, about what they have learned about building teams and about their own experiences of being outsiders.
The ability to celebrate differences and relish the fact that different points of view can create different perspectives and different insights.
Self-awareness. Being conscious of who you are and how you show up in the world. Recognizing that hiring people that look like yourself is probably not a great thing.
"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT
Episode 18: Torrence Boone & Lars Bastholm
Charles: Before we jump into this week’s episodes, a quick housekeeping note. We’ve posted the transcript for every episode of Fearless on the fearlesscreativeleadership.com website, together with a summary of my three takeaways from each conversation. Hope you find them helpful.
If you have questions or feedback or suggestions for guests you’d like to see on the show, you can email me at email@example.com. And if you can take 30 seconds and rate the show on iTunes, it improves our visibility to future guests, which pays you back through the quality of conversations we can offer. It’s what’s known as a win-win. So please takea moment and let us know how we’re doing. Thank you.
Today’s episode is called, “The World Changers”.
Lars Bastholm: "We're trying to figure out how do we get vaccines delivered to places that have no physical addresses. So, it turns out that a large part of world, over 60%, actually have no fixed physical address. In the sense that, if you ask for directions, you'll be told, "Well, you go up the stairs until you see the brown shutters on the house, and you take a left. But if you pass the yellow house where the dog is barking, you've gone too far." That's not exactly helpful in many cases when someone's trying to deliver critical vaccines to, especially sick families and children.”
Charles: Business requires predictability. Creativity requires unpredictability. The tension between those two forces keeps leaders of creative businesses up at night.
There’s a third tension that is part of the everyday challenge of leading a successful business. Who we are and how we show up. As human beings and as leaders. That is a force unto itself, influenced for sure by the day to day realities of running a dynamic business in a fast-changing, unpredictable world, but equally shaped and guided by all those things that we experienced before we got to this point in our journey.
The best companies create room for their people to look at themselves honestly and openly, to recognize who they are today and how they want to show up tomorrow, recognizing that we are all aspiring to be better versions of ourselves. That we are never the finished product.
I was told once by someone I trust that there is research that claims that every human being reaches self actualization before death. For the vast majority of people, I’m told, it happens in that moment before death. For a few, it happens early enough in life that they can use the confidence, clarity and wisdom that comes from self-actualization to relentlessly help others.
Whether the idea of self actualization appeals to you or not, the desire to make a bigger difference is the mark of the most successful leaders. They want to discover what they are capable of. They want to leave a legacy. And the very best ones, want to help the people they influence to live better lives.
Steve Jobs is perhaps, actually let’s take away the perhaps, email me if you think I’m wrong about this, Steve Jobs is the most creative leader of the last fifty years. And perhaps ever. His influence will be felt for decades, and probably centuries. Steve Jobs final words, as reported by his sister were simply this. “Oh wow, oh wow, oh, wow.”
No one alive knows what he saw, or felt or thought in that moment. Eventually, maybe all of us will. I don't know. No one does.The only thing we all know is this. In the end we all wind up dead. How we spend the time between now and then is up to us.
Confronting the status quo, challenging ourselves and helping others seem like three pretty good guideposts to keep us on track along the way.
Torrence Boone and Lars Bastholm work at Google. Their jobs are multi-faceted but fundamentally they share a responsibility for helping others to unlock the business and societal potential of Google’s capacity for original thinking.
Being a leader at Google demands reaching for the stars while figuring out how to pay the bills. It requires you consider the impossible and the commercial in the same breath. It encourages those who want to change the world.
I talked to Torrence and Lars about their evolutions from Baltimore dancer and Danish film-maker respectively, to creative leaders and collaborators at one of the world’s most technologically advanced companies, about what they have learned about building teams and about their own experiences of being outsiders.
Charles: Torrence, Lars, welcome to the show. I was going to say, "Great to have you here." Torrence and I are actually sitting together, in the studio, in New York. And Lars, Lars, I'm not even sure I know where you are. Where are you in the world?
Lars Bastholm: I am at the Google office, in Venice Beach.
Charles: Oh, well, we can imagine that. We can envision that. Well, thank you both for being here, both physically and virtually. I'd like to start with a question that I sometimes start with. At some point, I've realized that people are going to start to game this answer, because they would've listened to some of these podcasts and they will know what's coming. But I'm going to take the risk that you might not know. So, Torrence, let me start with you. What's your first memory of something being creative or creativity?
Torrence Boone: My first memory was when I was in second grade. My 2nd grade teacher, Phyllis Banks, I still remember her name, I loved her, she had us do hook rugs. I don't know if you know what those are? I remember-
Charles: Yeah. I made a hook rug-
Torrence Boone: You made a hook rug?
Charles: ... when I was a child. I did.
Torrence Boone: The image that I think is, I don't know, sort of stamped in my brain, was the picture that she drew of a bumblebee. My first hook rug was this bumblebee, and it was ... She drew all of the figures herself, so she was quite talented. Yeah, I can remember, that was my first sense of craft and product and process. Yeah, it was fantastic. I grew up in inner city, Baltimore, so we didn't have a lot of art supplies, and we didn't have structured creative things. So, it was her own ingenuity to expose the students to that.
Charles: So, how did your creativity get fed, coming from that environment and that background?
Torrence Boone: Well, you know, creativity is such a complicated thing. I mean, I think I'm one of these creatively minded people. I think I was born with a drive to create and be around creative things. I was naturally precocious as a kid, and I think there was just always this sense of experimentation. The other thing I used to do was come up with my own little science projects, which when you're five or six or seven, is its own creative process.
I can remember mixing potions in the sink when I was a kid. To me, that was creative and experimental. I played instruments, and ultimately, when I went to high school, I ended up starting dance. I danced professionally just for a couple of years, after I graduated from college. So, from Mrs. Banks, in 2nd grade, to performing, creativity has always been a part of the picture.
Charles: And your parents were supportive of this?
Torrence Boone: Yes. Well, my mother was. My parents were divorced when I was quite young. But, yeah, she was incredible in that way. She did what she could to make sure that I was fed and supported.
Charles: The classic example where we can add up, I saw that you went to college at Stanford and that you studied, I think, economics, is that right?
Torrence Boone: Yes.
Charles: And then you went to work for Bain for a while?
Torrence Boone: I did.
Charles: How did that choice of education or of senior advanced level academia, and then first foray into the business world, how did that come about based on your background?
Torrence Boone: Yeah, well, the difficulty with being a professional dancer is that it's very hard to make a living. I think reality set in quite quickly and I started to think about what I envisioned my life being. When I was a professional dancer, it was fulfilling in a lot of ways. But I came to the limits of my passion, and one of my dance instructors in college said to me, "You know, dance is reserved for those people who can do nothing else." I think she was just trying to communicate how important it is to just be so passionate about the art form that you'd be willing to starve.
I just came to terms with the fact that I didn't have quite that level of passion. I also had really eclectic interests, and I think part of being in college is exploring and being exposed to different people and different opportunities. And so, I was fortunate enough to be able to make that kind of transition. But for me, a place like Bane was still exploratory at that point in my life, figuring out where in the business world there might be some opportunities.
Charles: Did you happen to see, as a complete aside, did you happen to see Savion Glover in Cannes at the ... he spoke with and danced for Susan Cradle, in her session on the main stage. And it was to your point about dancers living completely and utterly viscerally through their craft. It was an extraordinary expression, amazing performance.
Torrence Boone: Yeah, unfortunately, I couldn't make that session. But I've seen Savion Glover many times in concert. In fact, I used to be on the Board of The Joyce Theater, here in New York, and we presented him a number of times. Yeah, he's extraordinary.
Charles: Extraordinary, isn't he?
Torrence Boone: Yeah.
Charles: So, Lars, same question to you, what's your first memory of creativity?
Lars Bastholm: Well, first, it is funny, Torrence, that you mention potions, because just my four year old is obsessed with potion-making at the moment. And just this morning, I got a brief to pick up some unicorn hair at the office. So, I've been scouring around for something that could be a stand-in for unicorn hair that I can bring home after work.
I think my first exposure to creative thinking or just acting creatively, if you will, was probably when we moved to Germany, when I was about five. I was in Denmark from zero to five, and then as a five year old, my stepdad got a job in Germany. So, we moved close to Stuttgart, in southern Germany, and I started kindergarten there. Obviously, I didn't speak a word of German, but was put into kindergarten pretty much the second we arrived. So, you know, my stepdad could to go work, and my mom could set up the house, et cetera.
When you walk into an environment where you really don't understand a word of what anyone's saying, you tend to just interpret whatever's going on. So, you make your own brief based on what you think is going on, which led to some interesting and fun things where it wasn't quite what I was being asked to do. But usually, as a kid, you quickly pick it up. I think not understanding fully what's going on is actually very spurring for creative things.
I would say later, it turned out I'm not always very good at getting a brief, or at least, not reinterpreting that brief so it makes more sense to me. One of the fun things that happened to me during my teen years, was I got kicked out of the Boy Scouts, for reinterpreting the briefs a little bit too much. So, whenever we show up for meetings, they would say, "Today we're going to be doing this." They've outlined to you exactly how they wanted it done. And if I know exactly how I'm going to get from A to C, I'm bored before I even begin. So, I usually just invent a different way of doing it, and get some people onboard with that program instead. Apparently, the Scout leaders didn't particularly like that too much, so they ended up asking me not to show up again. I do have that as ... I carry that as a badge of distinction, actually, having gotten kicked out of the Boy Scouts.
Charles: You studied film, if I'm right, at university?
Lars Bastholm: I did, yes. Yes, I did.
Charles: And what drew you to that?
Lars Bastholm: I was basically raised by a TV and loved watching TV from a very early age. I loved storytelling in all its forms, and I thought film was the ultimate combination of a good story and a visual expression of such. So, that was just drawn to just studying films and I really wanted to get into film back then. I just realized, after I finished from school, I didn't feel like I had the life experience to really tell great stories, yet.
Because I'd been in academia, basically since starting school at five and graduating with an MA in Film, at 25. I was like, "I haven't really lived yet. So, what stories do I have to tell?" I may come around to it again, who knows? But then this advertising thing happened, which turned out to be a fun combination of film and other types of craft that gelled together.
Charles: I think, for the audience, for the benefit of the audience, it would be great if you would each take just a few moments and just explain the role that each of you play at Google, and then how those roles intersect. Torrence, do you want to start?
Torrence Boone: Sure. I lead our global agency and brand services team. In essence, what that means is that we work with agencies and brand advertisers to help them unlock the full possibilities of our products and platforms. And that comes in a number of different forms, a lot of it is advertising. So, the advertising that you see on YouTube, as an example, or search campaigns that agencies are driving for brand advertisers.
But increasingly, currently, we are much more focused on technology and infrastructure and data. So, our relationships with the agency-holding companies is extended beyond their role as intermediaries between, say media owners and brands, to being principal buyers of our technology and our platforms. Because their businesses are undergoing a significant amount of change, and they're investing in technology to future-proof those businesses.
Charles: Lars, talk about your role, which I know has had a couple of different stories into Google.
Lars Bastholm: Yes. I started at Google about two and a half years ago, running the global zoo team, which is basically Google's creative think tank for brands and agencies. So, that's more driven by advertising possibilities. About a year ago, I started a new team that is currently called Pegasus. Which is essentially a business innovation team where we try and crack really difficult problems for Google's biggest clients. Which also probably happens to be more or less, Fortune 500 list of companies from around the world. So, we work with them on real core issues that they're trying to change, which can potentially be changed through smart application of technology.
Charles: And are these problems that they are coming to you with or problems that you are identifying on their behalf, or a combination?
Lars Bastholm: It's a little bit of both. I mean, sometimes we'll sit down with them and talk to them about what we do and give them a couple of examples of projects that we have worked on, or are working on. And that will help unlock some thoughts in their heads about what it is. What we try and tell them very much upfront is that we're not looking for marketing problems, we're not trying to solve your advertising or marketing problems. What we're really trying to do is help you innovate around your business, and how your business is expressed.
Charles: So, how often or how do you guys engage with each other?
Torrence Boone: I have two hats, in the sense that a large part of my job is commercially related and large-scale deals that, strategic partnerships that we have in place with the holding companies. And then the other hat is this global brand services team, which Pegasus is a part of. So, I would love to spend more time with Lars, we don't get to spend as much time as I'd like. Typically, our point of connection is when there are big brand opportunities that expose themselves. As a senior leadership team, we come together to figure out, how do we allocate these very scarce and valuable resources to the areas that offer the biggest upsides.
So, Lars and I spend time interrogating those opportunities. Then we also come together, or I tend to come in at the end. Because I add no value otherwise when these guys have done brilliant things and we are exposing the clients to this thinking and this innovation. And so, I get to be on the sidelines and see the applause.
Charles: And what are the kinds of problems that you're encountering typically? Are there themes that you are seeing these days that brands are struggling with more often than not?
Lars Bastholm: I mean, I think we're tackling some of the really big problems for brands these days. I mean, we're working with a company just trying to figure out, how do we increase recycling in the Third World through smart application of technologies? Is there something we can do from a technology perspective that we can help change mindsets and behaviors around stuff that we all know is a problem, and is a bigger problem in other parts of the world than ours? Although, it's actually not a small problem in the US either. So, we're trying to solve for things that could then potentially have a trickle-down effect and help fix the problem in other parts of the world as well.
The same goes for another project we're working on at the moment, where we're trying to figure out how do we get vaccines delivered to places that have no physical addresses. So, it turns out that a large part of world, over 60%, actually have no fixed physical address. In the sense that, if you ask for directions, you'll be told, "Well, you go up the stairs until you see the brown shutters on the house, and you take a left. But if you pass the yellow house where the dog is barking, you've gone too far." That's not exactly helpful in many cases when someone's trying to deliver critical vaccines to, especially sick families and children. So, we're trying to figure out how to do that in some of those areas of the world.
Again, if we can crack that for a vaccine delivery in Somalia, which is the case we're working on right now, then again, there'll be a trickle-down effect, we'd help solve it in various other places as well. So, we try to think very much like a Google overall, as a Ten-X, we're trying to solve really difficult things with brands. And then benefit from the result of cracking the difficult things.
Charles: Torrence, do you see brands more openly interested in attacking really big macro-levels of societal level problems or ... I mean, obviously, they still have to worry about their business and their bottom line. But have you found the level of engagement and curiosity around, this is a really big issue we want to get into? Have you seen that increase recently, over the last couple of years?
Torrence Boone: Absolutely. I think all brands are recognizing that a powerful currency is the currency of purpose. And their ability to communicate, especially to millennials and Gen Z, a forward-looking view that puts good deeds, that puts the betterment of society at the core. Obviously, yes, they have to make money and they have to execute effectively. But I think from a branding and messaging perspective, there is a lot more openness and passion around how they can carve out specific areas of ownership around those types of issues.
That isn't the only thing that we do though. I mean, we work with them on a lot of core marketing issues, product launches. There are thematically a number of challenges that brands and their agencies have around just marketing efficiency, and taking the dollars that they have and having those dollars work harder. There are a number of challenges around insight. As the population and communication channels have atomized, really understanding critical insights that allow brands to connect to people in the right context and to connect with them on emotional, rational terms that really move the needle. This is, it's always been a marketing challenge, but today, just given the complexity of the world that we live in, we spend a lot of time working with them on those issues, as part of the brand services work.
As an example, we have a capability that we call human truths and trend spotting, where we're literally taking next-generation ethnographic qualitative research and marrying that with quantitative Google research. Where we're literally looking at search trends and we're looking at behavioral patterns across our platforms. We're using that to uncover really interesting insights, specifically for brands as they come to market with new products, et cetera.
Charles: Google is a company that's clearly changed the world. I mean, literally changed the world. To do that, you obviously have to be open to seeing possibilities that nobody else has seen, and looking at the world in completely different ways. I'm curious, from both of you, Lars and Torrence, I'm going to start with you. As you walk in and deal with a client, how hard are you having to work to help them look at the world expansively? I mean, when they're talking to Google, do they walk in with a, "Anything is possible," kind of mindset, to begin with? Or are they looking at, "We've got a real fundamental bottom line issue, we want you to solve that for us first"?
Torrence Boone: It's both. It's both, and that's why it's an amazing place to work. Because there are brass tacks things that we're working with brands and their agencies on a daily basis. But when they show up at Mountain View, or when they show up here in New York, there is the expectation that they're going to experience magic. That they're going to be challenged, that we're going to expose them to insights, to perspectives, to opportunities that they didn't have when they stepped in the door. They're also looking for us to help them build the processes and get insights around culture that allow them to do the same.
So, they want to take some of the secret sauce back to their own organizations. Because everyone recognizes that if you don't have that culture of innovation, you will be quickly dis-intermediated, disrupted. They're looking for advice and practical things that they can do to, again, future-proof their businesses.
Charles: Lars, from the other side of the equation, as the brief comes in, are you finding that clients are open to the possibilities, the full range of possibilities these days? Or how much selling do you have to do of, "But it could be even better. It could be this."?
Lars Bastholm: It's actually been probably the nicest change for being in the world of advertising and agencies, to join in Google. Is the fact that, I mean, I think broadly speaking, the relationship between agencies and clients have deteriorated over the last 20 years, where a lot of time it's a vendor-relationship versus a partnership relationship. In a partnership relationship, you can do so much more than you can if you're just perceived as a vendor.
So, oftentimes, when I was still in the advertising world, I would come into a client, and you could tell that they knew we were there to sell them something. It was just like, "Either we're going to love it or we're not going to love it. Let's hope we're going to love it. There'll be a nice conversation. If we don't love it, then it's going to be awkward, and it's probably going to be more expensive than what you pay, to begin with." So, there's always vaguely adversarial relationship happening, rather than a partnership relationship. Which when I think back to when I started in advertising, in the mid '90s, was very different. Back then, I think agencies were considered more partners than vendors back then.
Anyway, when I joined Google, I realized when we came out to clients, they would be like, "Oh, it's the guys from Google, sure. They're sure to have something interesting to tell us. We're really excited that you're here. Let's sit down and here, oh, I'll tell you about my problems. And maybe we could figure out a way of solving them together." So, an openness, and as Torrence was saying, a real passion for trying to tap into what is perceived as the Google magic. And that's what we try to provide. We try to provide that access to the thinking that's happening here when we sit down with our partners.
Charles: And did you have to rewrite the way that you approach these conversations, based on the perspective and the experience that you would had working, in some cases, more traditional agencies? I know you worked a lot of digital companies as well. But did you find that you had to change your own perception and expectations about how you needed to show up?
Lars Bastholm: I actually think that I had grown almost a shield of defensiveness going in, because it was always feeling adversarial. I think I show up now with a lot more optimism and a lot more humor and a lot more just, "This is so awesome and I'm so psyched about all these many possibilities that we represent, and the things that we can do together." I think that's contagious. I think actually, people perceive it as ... I think I'm probably perceived as being a nicer conversational partner now than I was in my advertising days.
Charles: You both have teams working for you. How big is the team that works for you, Torrence?
Torrence Boone: Well, we have several hundred people around the world working on the agency business. My direct team, it's a couple of hundred people.
Charles: How do you go about creating an environment in which they can be as innovative, as original, as creative as possible?
Torrence Boone: Well, a lot of it is just reinforcing the cultural values that we have as a company, overall. So, this notion of, first of all, tackling really big problems. So, you have to have that sprinkled in. Yes, there are a lot of day to day tactical things that need to be addressed, but this notion of thinking about transformation, industry transformation, big complicated problems. When you hire smart, talented people, they want to work on that, and they're inspired by that. And so, reinforcing that, yes, we are a commercial organization, we are part of the commercialization engine for this amazing company. At the same time, we're driving transformation across the entire agency ecosystem, and all of the adjunct implications of that. So, I think starting with that more expansive vision and that notion of a big complicated problem is important.
We at Google, also, we really live this notion of failing fast and not having any culture of fear around failure. Because you don't achieve those breakthroughs and those insights if you aren't stubbing your toe or making mistakes along the way. So, this notion of a test and learn and an iterative culture that rewards out-of-the-box thinking, and where people don't feel like there are down sides to having really out their ideas, and expressing that. I would say those are the critical elements.
Charles: Lars, from your perspective, as you have built this team from scratch, right? In your case, Pegasus was essentially a startup inside Google. How have you gone about creating an environment that unlocks the creativity of, obviously, very talented innovative people?
Lars Bastholm: I think the key there is, it has to be people who want to take a step into the completely unknown. Because there's no right answer to most of the briefs that we get. There's no particular finish line in some points, where some of it can end up becoming a process that goes on for a while, and actually fundamentally changes things for a company. So, you have to be comfortable with change. And you have to be very comfortable with the fact that it's a diffused target at times.
But then I think it's really about allowing people to play to their strengths. So, my team is incredibly diverse in terms of what people are passionate about. Everybody wants to change the world for the better, that's the common denominator that's there. Everybody is very into the idea of technology being an enabler to do things differently and better. So, we try to celebrate people's differences and really ensure that there's room for all kinds of different modes of thinking.
I also think an overlooked part of this is, whenever I hear people in our world complain about things like, "Wow, do you realize how lucky you are that you get to do this for a living? And how much fun you have, compared to so many other people out there who are just trying to make a living?" So, I really try to make sure that people celebrate the fact that we're having fun, we're doing something that's really interesting and, ultimately, we could have a massive impact if we could do things right.
Charles: I think that's a very interesting point, actually, that resonates with me. This notion that if you build a really thoughtful empathetic environment that is designed to help people unlock their own creativity, you can, after a while, suffer from exactly what you just described, Lars. Which is people becoming either complacent to or just not understanding what it's like in other places. When we built a film editing company, which dates us, 20 plus years ago, one of them, we worked very hard to create an environment, was exactly that.
After a while, people started to get, "Hey, you know what ..." And there were times where I was actually openly encouraging to, "Go work somewhere else, and let us know how it compares. Because I think you'll find this is pretty great." I do think that sometimes when you're building a great environment, it is actually helpful to have people experience what it's like somewhere else. Because you can't lose sight of that. That is a leader being unafraid of letting people go and do that, I think is an important characteristic.
I'm interested in talking about, Lars, to the point you made, having people of different kinds of backgrounds and different perspectives. Obviously, diversity is a topic of the moment at Google. This is not a new show and I don't want to get into the debate around that. Torrence, you are a Black man, you and I have talked about this in the past. The environment, just in general, of walking to any company and being different, talk to us a little bit about what your experience was like. That I think I asked a question when we first met, like, "Are you conscious today, given all that you have achieved and who you are?" Are you still conscious when you walk in the room, of being a Black man?
Torrence Boone: Yes. I don't think that's ever going to go away. I think that what is different or what has changed is the level of comfort or the tools and the strategies that you have with negotiating those situations when you are on the margins. So, given my experiences over the life and the fact that for the vast majority of my life I've been in that situation, I have become very facile and creative. And have tapped into a number of different resources, internal and external, that allow me to navigate that space comfortably.
Yes, I mean, it's part of the experience of being an ethnic minority. Until you have that experience yourself, it's very difficult, I think, to be empathetic. One of the ways to tap into that empathy is to just think about being in a foreign country or just being in a place where there are people who are not like you or don't have the same background and context.
Charles: I'm curious, because I'm a White male and appreciate increasingly, I think as I get older, the privilege that represents, in terms of never feeling uncomfortable when walking into a situation. So, is your focus on making yourself feel comfortable, or is your focus on making other people around you feel comfortable?
Torrence Boone: Well, I think that there's no monolithic answer to that. I think that it's so situational. Over the years, I think that dynamic in a lot of ways becomes less conscious. So, I'm sure there are all sorts of neurological things happening in the background, that don't necessarily expose themselves consciously. I personally feel like it's important to be who you are and to show up authentically, and we talk about that, and really emphasize, and I think we have the actions that back it up, at Google, around the importance of everyone feeling safe and feeling like you can show up and and have the sense that you can be your authentic self. I think part of the challenge of the most recent event is the fact that it has called into question that very core value of our company. That's why we take it very seriously. And so-
Charles: I think it's always important, the reference point is, people are drawn to the reference point of, look at the behavior, that must be endemic of a situation. In different situations, there are varying degrees of fairness about that analysis. But what I think is always a proof point, always, is how does the company respond in that moment to that situation, whatever it is.
Torrence Boone: Right.
Charles: Knowing that you can never please everybody, you're never going to get 100% of people to say, "Oh, wow, that's amazing, the way they respond."
Torrence Boone: Right.
Charles: I think even this week, we've seen evidence of a very strong, from my perspective, positive response.
Torrence Boone: Right.
Charles: Not being met with universal acclaim for whatever the agendas that people have. But I do think the response itself is a powerful part of leadership and essential.
Torrence Boone: Yeah, exactly. I think when you're building a culture, and this conversation is about how you unlock the full possibilities of the people who you bring together to tackle really big questions and problems. The way that you get at the most expansive and interesting ideas is by having a diversity of thought and points of view. And also having the sense of security that you can, again, show up and be that full authentic self. For that, we have a code of conduct, as an example, that protects that sense of, again, being who you are and not feeling threatened by immutable characteristics that others might judge you by. That's critical to ensuring that we continue to do the amazing things that we do around the world.
Charles: Lars, you obviously bring an outsider's point of view, to a certain extent. Through the virtue of the fact that you are European, operating in an American environment. You have a different background and upbringing than most people that are around you. How has that either helped or, to whatever extent, gotten in the way for you?
Lars Bastholm: Well, it's been interesting in some contexts. I mean, when I first moved to New York, to open up AKQA, back in 2004, I was very much applying my Scandinavian management style to building, basically, the office in New York. Which means that it was very inclusive, it was very open. It was very much, "Let's reach a consensus on how we're going to do this," and then everybody goes off and does what they've been hired to do. It turns out that works really well with some nationalities and not so well with others. At that point in time, we had about 14 different nationalities in the office, out of about 35, 40 people.
Some people, as I found out, really do want to be told what to do, "This is what I want you to do. This is how I want you to do it. And this is the result that I expect you to present back to me." You could just see the sense of relief on their faces when they got briefed in that way, and they walk off and do a great job doing just that. Whereas, others really operate much better by saying, "Listen, I think this is the area we're trying to get to. I'm not going to tell you anything about how you need to get there or what I would have done myself, because I want you to apply your thinking to it." Then they would walk away being very happy about that.
I think that goes for basically managing creative people, overall. Finding out how people function best and what makes them tick and what makes them deliver their best work, is key to managing creative. I don't think you can manage creative with broad strokes and say everybody needs to be managed like that. You do need to get to know people to a certain extent and manage them to draw out the best of their abilities, based on that. That was definitely one way that it was different. And then I-
Charles: How do you go about doing that? How do you go about getting to know people well enough that you can understand whether they need an arm around their shoulder or a kick somewhere else?
Lars Bastholm: I spent time with them. I think the time you invest in the people you work with is the best invested time that you could possibly have. I do think very strongly that just trying to manage from above, handing down, "This is what I want from you," without understanding what it means to the person you're talking to, is nonsensical. I've always hated being managed that way.
Charles: So, just literally getting to know somebody on a personal basis is critical, from your perspective?
Lars Bastholm: Yeah. When I started at the zoo, it was about 150 people in the zoo around the world, I spent half an hour with each of them in the first three months. Just sit down with them and ask them questions, "I'm going to ask you questions for 15 minutes about you. What makes you tick, what you love, what you dislike? And then you can ask me questions for 15 minutes about whatever you want to, so we can get to know each other a little bit." Sure, it's a slightly artificial situation, but it did mean that I knew a little bit about every single person. I could then pick up the next time we met and start building a relationship.
Charles: I'm interested, taking this as a foundation, Torrence, I know that Google has done some work around understanding what makes team dynamics work really effectively. Can you talk to us about what you have learned as a company and individually, about how you put teams together that are really effective?
Torrence Boone: Yeah, it's been fascinating and we spend a lot of time on this question. Being a very data-driven company, we collect and analyze lots of data. The biggest insight on team dynamics is the importance of psychological safety. Which gets back to what we were talking about before, which is this notion that you can show up authentically and you can express views that help push the conversation forward and that you will not be penalized for. Even if it is an orthogonal or a really out there kind of idea. Now, again, given our current context, we need to make sure that those expressive views are not in any way threatening the sense of psychological safety for others on that team. That is a very important thing that we have to balance.
But this notion of investing in people, having a sense of what their values are, making them feel like you are invested in them and their development, and airing a lot of difficult team dynamics that might be at play, et cetera. All of those things start to build this foundation of psychological safety. So, that was the big insight. That if you don't have that layer, then your team will never achieve the kind of highly functioning output that teams that have that sense of psychological safety have. It's borne out by, we did exhaustive studies, we looked across all sorts of teams. Sales teams, engineering teams, and that was the consistent insight.
Charles: What's the biggest thing that gets in the way from creating effective teams? Is there a practice or an expectation or a habit that companies tend to show up with or that you found within Google, that absolutely will make certain that this team will never work well?
Torrence Boone: Well, I think it's fear. I really do. I mean, if you think about psychological safety, it's a sense of fear and anxiety that if you communicate something or in a certain way, that there will be negative repercussions. Again, I think it's important that this be contextualized in the sense that, that doesn't mean that unproductive or hateful or stereotyping or harmful commentary is tolerated. So, there has to be a standard in terms of how people come together such that they feel like they can be openly expressive. But I would say fear is the one thing that really gets in the way.
Charles: So, identifying fear and providing psychological safety are clearly easier, physically, in smaller groups of people. Lars, I'm curious because your career has covered huge organizations, mid-size, large, small. I mean, the really real diverse array of different kinds of size organizations. What have you discovered, from a leadership perspective, about creating this kind of environment in different sizes of organizations?
Lars Bastholm: Oh, you're absolutely right, it's much easier to do in smaller organizations. But I think that's a matter of having the right leadership in place at various levels from Creative Director, upwards, if we're talking about a creative organization. And having your initiation team understand what's important to you, as a Senior Manager in the office. I mean, there are times when you find out that a team is truly dysfunctional. Because sometimes a couple of people just do not work well together, and then that can rock the boat. I think your job then is to just spot that before it has harmful impact on the larger team. And make sure that you figure out what is that makes them both tick, and make sure that you apply them in a fashion where you get the best out of both of them.
Which then is probably not working together, if they don't like each other. I mean, humans will either like or dislike each other. There are times when that's just the case. I think if you just spotted and separate them early enough, then that can be avoided. I think the really interesting and really challenging thing, in this context, is actually trying to hire and manage people who think completely differently from yourself. I think that's the hardest part for, especially, a creative leader to actually learn. I realized at a ... I was made a career director pretty early on. I was only 27, when, for some reason that remains unclear, they asked me to manage the creative team.
After a couple of years, I realized, "God, I'm actually hiring a lot of people who are so much like myself. They have the same cultural references, they have, and to a large part, the same background. And what I'm getting out is, a lot of ideas I have, for one reason, I don't really like. Because I could come up with those ideas myself, probably. Because we're also alike." So, I started looking for people who are unlike myself. And trying to figure out what is good if it's not in the context that you're immediately comfortable with, and hiring people that you have little to no cultural references in common with, it's extraordinarily difficult, at least in the beginning.
Then you get more used to it, and then you start building up some tools that make you recognize what good is, outside of your own cultural comfort zone. But, man, the first couple of years trying to do that was difficult. I ended up hiring some people who didn't work out, because I thought that they were just so different. Which turns that they were so different that they were not good. Yeah, that's just the risk that you have to run in order to try and force yourself out of your comfort zone.
Charles: Yeah, we're laughing because either we've experienced that. Yes, you are really different, that doesn't make you talented. I would be remiss, I think, in this conversation if I didn't ask each of you the connection between creativity and data. Obviously, there's a lot of conversation around that in the industry at the moment. And a lot of it, to your earlier point, a lot of investment in a lot of different ways. How does data inspire, infuse, empower, inform creativity, from each of your perspectives? Torrence, let's start with you.
Torrence Boone: Sure. Well, I've been actually impressed with our creative partners in the agency world. Because I think that they are hungry for the kind of data that allows them to make more interesting and effective and impactful creative decisions. I've experienced a real thirst for data and ... And importantly, there's a difference between data and insight, right? So, sometimes-
Charles: Yeah, well put, right?
Torrence Boone: Yeah.
Charles: That's an important distinction.
Torrence Boone: Yes, sometimes we confuse the two of them. Obviously, data leads to insight. I think that the creative community is open and excited about the range of insights that come from this pool of immense data that we have. I think the challenge is, how do we sift through it? How do we bubble up the things that are truly actionable? I don't think that we've necessarily solved that. So, I think that may be a source of some of the consternation or the pushback or the reservation that might be expressed. Is the sense of swimming in a pool of data and not really understanding how it actually drives the creative product in an effective way.
I think, with things like artificial intelligence machine learning, we are very, very quickly solving the problem of a vast amounts of data we can now much more quickly identify patterns. We can link those patterns to downstream outcomes and then we can coalesce those insights into extendable words of advice, if you will, that we can offer up to our creative teams and our partners. I'm excited about the exponential curve represented by AI machine learning, to help us call those really critical insights that that data is the source of, and then feeding that to our creative partners.
Charles: Lars, what's your perspective on the role of data or the value of data, from a creative standpoint?
Lars Bastholm: My slightly facetious answer is, I saw somebody in Cannes, last year, wearing a T-Shirt that said, "It's not how big your data is, it's how you use it." Which cracked me up at first, and then I start to thinking about it like, "That's actually a really good way of looking at it, from a creative perspective." One of my best creative partners that I ever had, was a woman who was from a planning background. The way she was capable of assimilating data and extrapolating knowledge from the data that she then fed into the creative process, made me respect and admire people who can do that just a lot.
I mean, the amount of data we have access to, the head of strategy on my team is an absolutely amazing woman as well, who can look at problems from a different angle than almost anybody I've ever met. Because she has access to all those different tools that we have, that breaks down how people think around the world, how they interact with things and what they feel at any given moment. I mean, the more you know, I think, the better the solution you can come up with, it's always been my point of view.
Charles: Yeah, I think that's really well put. I like to try and wrap each show with what I describe as the three themes. Normally, three themes that I've picked up, that I think, at least in some part account for why the person I'm talking to has been successfully, so creatively done. Normally, I only have one person to do. So, it's even more challenging when you're dealing with two people. Take a listen to these and tell me whether you think these resonate and whether they are applicable.
One of the things that strikes me with both of you is your adaptability. Torrence, from your background in your educational background into what you're doing now, you've clearly moved through a variety of different focuses and lenses. I think just the way that you show up, suggests to me, anyway, that you're able to adapt. And Lars, clearly, you've moved through a diverse range of companies and kinds of filters and focal points, which also I think suggest to me that you guys are both pretty adaptable. You both seem to celebrate differences in other people and value and almost relish that, not really almost, and relish the fact that different points of view can create different perspectives and different insights.
Then, third, I think is that, you both, at least from my perspective, bring a significant amount of self-awareness. That you're conscious of who you are and how you show up in the world. I think, Lars, your point about recognizing that you were hiring people that look like yourself and that was probably not a great thing suggest to me that you're both self aware. I think that's one of the characteristics of the best leaders that I come across. That they are constantly looking at themselves, not through the lens of, "Oh, I'm not good enough," which, I think, to some extent, most people suffer from that. The imposter syndrome is a real thing. Generally able to say, "Look, this is who I am, this is how I show up. This is what's good about that, but this is also the thing that might get in the way about that, so how do I support that?"
Do those three resonate with you guys?
Torrence Boone: Absolutely, yes.
Lars Bastholm: I'll take it when I look in the mirror tomorrow.
Charles: All right, good. I want to thank you both for being here, both physically, Torrence, and virtually, Lars. I've loved this conversation. I think the company is obviously extraordinary, it has literally changed the world. I'm encouraged to see how you guys take it forward and the things that you do with this. Thank you both.
Torrence Boone: Thanks, Charles.
Lars Bastholm: Thank you, Charles.
Charles: You've been listening to Fearless: The Art of Creative Leadership. If you like what you've heard, please rate us on iTunes. It helps a lot. If you want more information on this episode or any of the others, go to fearlesscreativeleadership.com. Thanks for listening.