How to Leverage Neuroscience in Leadership

0:00:18.0 S1: Hey everybody, and welcome to Learning From Smart People. I am your host, Rob Oliver, and I appreciate you being here today. Listen, I just have a real quick favor to ask of all of my listeners, and as you listen to this, maybe you’re on Apple Podcast, wherever you are, make sure you hit the subscribe button so that you don’t miss an episode. If you are watching this on YouTube, go ahead and hit the subscribe button there, make sure that you are catching every one of these episodes that comes out because we are definitely learning from smart people, and I will prove that to you today by bringing in another smart person, her name is Jen Thornton. She is from 304 Coaching, she is a speaker and all kinds of… Does amazing things. She’s located in Dallas. And Jen, welcome to the show.

0:01:16.1 S2: Thank you so much for having me and I know we’ll have a great time together.

0:01:19.9 S1: Absolutely, so just… Let’s start this way. Tell me a little bit about your back story, kind of where did you come from it, and how did you get to where you are today?

0:01:30.3 S2: I love sharing my story ’cause it’s not necessarily what people would guess or typical, and I grew up in the retail industry, and from a very young age, I wanted to work at the mall, so that was obviously… We won’t say how old I am, but it’s probably before we were buying all of our stuff off of Amazon… We’ll make that really clear. So dreams come true, I got my first job at the mall and started working in the retail industry very young, but what I didn’t know then that I now know now is I was exposed to becoming a leader at a very, very young age, 19 years old, they handed me keys to the store and said, You get to run a couple of night shifts, and so I not only love the industry, but I loved leading people, and I loved chasing the KPIs and making sure we made payroll and all that stuff, and fast-forward over quite a long period of time, I did a lot of different things in the retail industry, I spent half of my time on the operation side. Then I spent half of my time in HR, both domestically here in the US and all around the world.

0:02:41.0 S2: I had the opportunity to do work assignments in great places like Hong Kong and Mexico in London, and got to do all kinds of wonderful things, and then about… Gosh, it’s been about four and a half years ago. I thought, Okay, I have to eventually do something on my own if I’m gonna do what it has to be now, and so I left my very amazing corporate career for a fantastic organization, fantastic job, and went out on this entrepreneurial journey. One of those things that you just can’t help yourself to do, but you have to do it, and there’s no reason why on paper you should, but that was me. Had to do it, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate. We’ve created an amazing leadership education company, we have an amazing team, amazing clients, and I get to meet great people like you and your listeners, and… So that’s how I got here today.

0:03:37.2 S1: Wonderful, okay. One of the things that we do on the show is whenever anybody speaks in alphabet soup, you mentioned KPI, which I’m assuming is key performance indicators. Is that.

0:03:47.3 S2: Correct? Yes, it is, I love chasing numbers, I love knowing that the work pays off, which is really a different approach I take in leadership development, a lot of people talk about it from a conceptual standpoint, what you could do or should do, we hear it through four… We talk about it from an impact standpoint, so how do we lead to ensure that we’re delivering our business results, and so it’s a much different way to approach leadership and it’s expensive to do leadership training now, it always pays off if it’s done right, but we actually do return on investment or ROI when we work with people, we actually help them create ROIs at the end of that time period.

0:04:32.3 S1: That’s such an interesting concept because so many times in leadership is kind of ethereal, it’s not measurable, especially when it comes to the financial return on that, can you talk to me a little bit about how do you measure the return on investment for leadership?

0:04:52.1 S2: And there’s a lot of different ways you can approach it and depends when we look at it, when we start with our objectives in the beginning, we start to say, Okay, here are measurable and KPIS towards the middle end or whatever time period we set up, but you can look at it from a retention standpoint, so when you have great leadership, people work because they want purpose and growth, and so if your retention starts to decrease, and that is something we can measure, if sick days go down or referrals for employment go up, those are all things we can measure, we can also measure how we’re now making decisions, and so when we coach individual executives after about six months, we talk to them about some of the decisions they’re making now that they might not have been comfortable in making in the past, or have found this new way to view things, and then we’ll talk to them about that decision and what was that financial impact, and then we can start to put a return on investment on the work that that person’s doing.

0:05:53.7 S1: Got it. I wanna go back to your story about your entrepreneurial journey, what were your emotions like when you were considering leaving your regular paycheck, your regular… Your job where you’ve got and you’re saying, Okay, I’m interested in pursuing the entrepreneurial concept. What was the range of emotions that you were feeling at that point?

0:06:19.2 S2: Oh my gosh, what was the range? Just, I couldn’t even describe it, the ranges were everywhere. It was up, it was down, it was at any given moment, a ton of fear, and at that time, I hadn’t done a lot of the studying around the neuroscience of fear, which I’ve done now, and I’m like, Oh, if I only know… And that’s what that was. So I had every emotion I think that I could put a language to, especially that first probably 18 months, that first 18 months was a roller coaster. Every hour you called me, I had a different emotion to associate with it.

0:06:57.4 S1: It’s actually… It’s funny, I was… The roller coaster analogy is exactly what I was thinking, because when you go on a roller coaster, you want your adrenaline to spike you, you wanna have that… Just a little bit of fear and kind of like… And so you have the anticipation and the excitement about it, you have the fear, and it’s kind of all of that stuff wrapped together, and it is very much up and down, so you mentioned the phrase, you said the… Of fear. What is that? And it’s a concept I’m not familiar with. Can you explain it for me?

0:07:38.8 S2: So one of the things I talk to my clients about a lot is fear, because when we go into a situation that is uncomfortable or new, or we have… Our brain loves to predict in the past, we’ve gone into the situation, it didn’t go well, our brain tries to tell us, Well, I won’t go well this time either, but our brain is built to protect us, it’s built to keep us alive. And one of the ways it does that is by keeping you from danger, now, obviously, danger could be falling off of the cliff that would be bad, but danger also can be judgment or failure or ridicule, or looking bad, or any of those things that worry about… Sometimes as leaders, those feelings that we have, it is just the fear kicking in, and as our fear chemicals go up in our brain, the access we have to our prefrontal cortex where the good stuff is emotional control and problem-solving, all the stuff we actually want, it starts to go down. And so when we don’t understand that these feelings are just a chemical reaction, that is all fear is, if we don’t understand it’s just a chemical reaction, then we start to play into it, we start to let it control us, and that fear will make…

0:09:00.5 S2: Our fear of whatever, that fear of failure, it will make it come true because we will be acting out of fear and not acting out of a place of control. Okay.

0:09:09.5 S1: So is it cyclical, like The more you fear something, the more anxious you are about it, and it becomes a spiral… Is that how it works?

0:09:22.1 S2: Yeah, it does, and I call that kind of the fear cycle, and so when something happens and you’re kind of like, Hmm, I don’t know about this, your brain starts to tell you things like, Oh, this is bad, you shouldn’t do it. That could be dangerous, you could be judged, you could fill… Your boss might get mad at you, you may never get a client, your brain starts to tell you all that stuff, and we can either let those raw emotions manage our thoughts and continue on that spiral, or we can say, Hold up, I’m in charge of my thoughts I’m in charge of how I think about this situation. My brain is not… And it’s not… We actually can control how we feel about something, we can decide to feel different about a situation if we want to… Now, it’s easier said than done, and I get that. And it takes practice, but your emotions are really the response to your brain predicting how you feel when those chemicals are released, and so you just have to start to remind yourself that… Yeah, this is nervous, like I got on this podcast today, I don’t know what questions you’re gonna ask me, my brain can’t predict it, because you and I don’t know each other without well, yet, and so I could have come on and worried about what you were gonna ask me or I could have come on like I did and say, This is gonna be a great show.

0:10:48.1 S2: I always say that at the beginning, ’cause it’s gonna be… And I believe that, and because I believe that, then that happens. I said, I get to meet someone new today, I can’t wait to hear what he’s all about. And so I chose what I told myself before I got on instead of saying, oh gosh, I don’t know what he’s gonna do, and I don’t know if I’m gonna be any good and who’s gonna care. You get to pick what you say to yourself, and that’s how you show up based on what you find. Okay.

0:11:16.6 S1: When I think about fear, my mind goes to like Halloween, and on Halloween night it’s dark, and you’re out there and there’s all… People dressed up and there’s a crazy… And for me, you’re out in the dark, you don’t know what’s going on, and then when you hear stuff, a twig snaps or whatever it is, it becomes… You interpret everything through your mindset, if that makes any sense, and now everything that you’re experiencing is yet another cause for fear, which I think feeds into what you were saying, where you’ve gotta be able to tell yourself that, Okay, it’s a chemical reaction. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Does that make… The question makes sense.

0:12:12.0 S2: Absolutely, it does. And those fear chemicals or the same on how we knit or… I was watching a TV series last night and there’s some anticipation and some suspense, and I always loved that because I like watching how my body responds and how my body kicks off some chemicals, because my brain can’t predict what’s gonna happen next, so then my brain’s like… Warne morning. We don’t know what’s happening next. Be careful, and that happens in a movie, it might have to on a Halloween night when you hear the twig, and it’s interesting because your brain loves to predict on October 30th when it’s dark and you hear of a wig, you’re like, Oh, that’s weird. We’ll try… It just broke… Well, Halloween night, you hear the same thing, the same experience, but because your brain has all this history around hallowed being spooky, and you know it’s Halloween, it makes you more nervous when that same sound happens then when it had happened on October 30th, just the night before. Which I think is fascinating that our brain has such an incredible memory of experiences and knowledge, and it uses all of that to predict and help you manage what’s going on at the given moment.

0:13:29.5 S1: Okay, I’m gonna make a confession right now that I’ve never… I’ve never told anybody that. But I remember I was in elementary school. Okay. And I grew up, we didn’t have a TV when I was growing up. I read a ton of books in elementary school’s like fourth or fifth grade, and we were watching a suspenseful movie around Halloween. And I became physically uncomfortable and made the excuse that, told the teacher, I didn’t feel well, I needed to go see the nurse because I was just freaked out by the movie. Okay. And I’m thinking, what are the… What are the skills then that you are teaching people to say, Okay, when you get into these circumstances, it can be… It’s more than just psychological, it can actually affect you physically, what are the tools to handle this, more than just kind of buck up and get over it.

0:14:30.0 S2: And the tools are important, and there’s a lot of different ones you can try… You have to find the ones that work for you, some of the ones that I teach that I find help with a lot of clients is the first thing I always teach people say is, what else could be true? So when you go into a situation, you don’t know everything, your brain remembers things through stories, and so your brain will fill in the blanks, but because we’re fear-based animals, it fills in from a fear standpoint, so you may go into a sales pitch and you may only know one person in the room, but you don’t know who the other three are, so your brain may be saying, Oh, these people are gonna be the tough ones… I look them up on LinkedIn, and this is the person who’s in charge. So I bet she’s gonna be really… Like your brain starts telling you that, why always say, Well, what else could be true? What else could be true is that same person in the room is the one who, cannot wait to meet you, cannot wait just help. Hear how you can help solve their problems.

0:15:31.4 S2: What else could be true is there’s extra people coming to this meeting because they’re so excited to hear what you have to say, all of that could also be true, you don’t know… So if you don’t know the truth and you’re gonna make it up, at least make up something that helps you and is awesome, you can be like the best person in your mind if you don’t know the truth. And so that is one of the first things I teach people, is to always say, what else could be true.

0:15:57.3 S1: Okay, you’re helping me tremendously because the question that is in my mind is not what else could be true, it’s What else can go wrong, so changing that inner dialogue from looking for the negative, having that fear base is changing to opening yourself to the possibility that there are positives that are out there and that… It’s not always negative. This is this something that you have kind of… Maybe what… We talked about this already, but when did you develop this concept of dealing with the neuroscience of fear, is it something that you came across through retail… Through self-improvement. How did you come across this?

0:16:51.2 S2: One of the things that I’ve always committed to is that I’m all always in an education program, at least once a year, I take a personal development education program, and several years ago, I was out looking for the one of the year, and I came across Judith lasers work, and she has a program called conversation intelligence, and so I was like, Well, I don’t know much about this, and it talked about the neuroscience of the brain, and I was like, What’s all that? So I took that course, it was a year long, and I mean, I was like, What, if I had only known this stuff before, so I learned so much from her and she really inspired me then to go out and start to learn more. So constantly reading books, and I’m in a completely different neuroscience coaching class right now, but I am… Which is funny, ’cause being back to grade school, in school, I hated science, but I am fascinating as fascinated as an adult to learn about the human brain and how it really does impact our quality of… And when we start to understand it and we don’t not only lead our own life through understanding our mind, but we lead teams that way, then big things start to happen in a good way, and often times when I’m working with an individual, they’re using what they have been told our best practice leadership skills, but they were…

0:18:18.6 S2: A lot of these practices we’ve been taught were created in the 60, 50, 60s, maybe the 70s. Well, the world was a little different back then. And things were just different in how we looked at things different, and we also knew very little, if not anything about the chemicals and how our brain actually functioned what we know about the brain today, which is very little, we’ve only been able to discover about the last 25 years, ’cause you can look at a heart and kind of tinker with it and put it back in, and you can do that with a kidney, you can’t really do that with a brain, it’s really hard, the brain’s kind of gotta stay in its place… Right. And so, yeah, now that we have all this new information, then we start to think about how we use language or how we lead in the workplace, and we take in today’s are today’s world, we take in the knowledge of the brain and then we create leadership best practices, and that’s a whole new way to lead in a whole new way to get business results.

0:19:18.4 S1: Yeah, what we know about the brain is so limited, and yet the more we look at it to more… Here’s what I think about, and that is the first computer that was invented, I took up an entire city block, and the cell phone that you have in your hand is far more powerful than that entire thing ever was and ever hoped to be. Okay, and yet the cell phone that you have in your hand is not nearly as complex as what your brain is, and when you begin to understand the nuances of the brain and the way that it all works, it’s incredible. And so what do you say to people who are like, Okay, Jen, this works for you, but you don’t understand my life and you don’t understand the way that my brain works, this is… It works for you. But it’s probably not going to work for me. What’s your response?

0:20:26.6 S2: My response to this is that everyone does have a unique mind map, so our brain only knows what it’s seen, touched, felt, smell, experienced. That is true, everyone’s mind has a different map, and even if you took two people who had very similar experiences, their mind map is gonna be different on one Tuesday, they were in different places and created something different in their mind map. So I would say that’s true. Everyone’s mind map is different, but how it works from a neurological standpoint that is similar across everyone, now, our sensitivity to chemicals, the way our chemicals respond based on our mind map, again, unique, but everyone has chemicals in their brain, everyone’s brain is working from a space of the left him I spear of the right hemisphere, your prefrontal cortex or primitive brain, everyone has those, and so everyone’s machine is the same, but how you operate that machine is unique, and that’s what we work on, the unique operating system of that brain.

0:21:35.1 S1: Okay, so people that have been listening to the show for a while know that I am the very proud father of triplets, I’ve got a boy and two girls, and I think that this goes to the point that you were just making… They were born at the same time to the same parents raised in the same house, they slept in the same room for the first six years of their life, and their circumstances could not be more similar, and yet they are as different as night. Day and Pine apples, they’re just three unique individuals, and yet when you look at the basics, they’ve each got a right and the left arm, and they’ve got two legs, they’ve got to it, and… So from one perspective, they are entirely unique individuals and they have their own way of thinking, and yet in a similar way, they are very much the same in the way that they are built in compose… What’s your reaction to that analogy?

0:22:41.0 S2: So yeah, they are the same, and they do both have a left and or I… Right. My guess is, and they both have a left and a right armed and they may use the writing utensil with one of those arms, right, but their handwriting is still different because of the person who may have taught them how to hold that in their own personal likes of they like big letters or are they someone who likes the nice type… Block letters. And that’s how our life is. And though all three of them are raised in the same home, if you think about your family traditions, they may all have very similar feelings towards what you do on your holidays, but yet person one of the three may have had a bad day during one of those holidays, and so their view may be different were the other two are like, We love fourth is July with our family, and the other one might be going, I burned my finger on a firework, Fourth of July is no longer my thing. Again, they all had the same experience, but yet it was different.

0:23:48.5 S1: Cool, I wanna go back to something in it, and you had given us one tip as far as changing the question that you ask yourself, Can you give us some other practical tips on how to handle that fear situation?

0:24:07.4 S2: Well, when you were talking, after that first one, it made me think of my second favorite one to teach, and that is what could go right. So oftentimes we do like we have a project, we have something and we go, What could go wrong, and so we then say, What do I have to do to make sure that doesn’t go wrong, but what I like to say is, What could go right? And what’s the best case scenario then the work is the same. You do the same work to figure out how to make it go right, and so when you say What could go wrong, instantly your brain’s like, Oh, we could get her. This could go bad. And so those fear chemicals go up, the access to creativity goes down, you gotta do the work to figure out to make sure it doesn’t go wrong, but you don’t have as much creativity to do that, or you could say, What could go right? Well, what could go right as we’re gonna do this and we’re gonna sell this deal and our business is on be fantastic and that… All this could go, right? Right now we have that chemical of success in our rates, our creativity opens up.

0:25:11.8 S2: What do we have to do to make sure it goes right? The work is exactly the same, but how you access your thoughts around it changes completely by just changing your view from what could go wrong to what could go right, so.

0:25:26.8 S1: It’s as simple as just changing the questions that you’re asking yourself, is that what I’m hearing you say.

0:25:32.9 S2: It can be, absolutely. And you think about it as a leader, so you have 10 people on your team and you’re walking around going, Oh my gosh, if this goes wrong, we’re all gonna be in trouble… I’m not gonna make payroll. And you’re walking around with all that. Well, guess what, all 10 people in the room are also now walking around with that fear to, Oh, oh, if we don’t get this right, I might not have a job, I’m not gonna be able to feed my family. So they start spiraling into fear, but if you’re like, Guys, we’re gonna land this and here’s how it’s gonna happen, and this is what it’s gonna look like, what do we have to do to make this come true? That everyone else in the team all of a sudden is starting to raise up to that also, and so it is sometimes as simple as changing our language and understanding that that language impacts our emotions, feelings, therefore it impacts our actions.

0:26:22.5 S1: Okay, and maybe this is a super complicated question to ask us the very last thing, but when you’re working on that positive mindset, you’re working to look at what else could be true and how can this go… Right. What do you do then? When it doesn’t necessarily go right. We’ve had the positive talk and we said, This is going to go well and you don’t land the contract. How do you handle that? The fall out from that.

0:26:56.3 S2: I love that you ask that because sometimes it doesn’t go away, you want it… And again, you could take that, an imprint on your brain that you’re now a failure, that you’ll never close a deal again, you can in-print all of that, and your brain will believe what you tell, and if that’s what you tell it, and guess what? That’s gonna be your future. Or you could say, we didn’t get this contract, here’s what we learned, here now we have space to open up for a different client that might be the right client, and I do that all the time. I wish I got every contract I pitched for, I don’t… But when we don’t get a client, we say, What did we learn? How can we be better? And I always say, Well, it opens it up for the best client that comes next, and I truly believe that because that’s what I tell myself over and over again, and then the next client shows up and we land it and I wouldn’t have been able to work with that great client, if that other one hadn’t said no to us, and so you just have to decide how do you want that memory to imprint on your brain because that creates the prediction for the next time.

0:27:58.1 S2: Yeah.

0:28:00.0 S1: I heard someone say recently, just very similar to what you say you… To reframe that experience to say, it’s not, I didn’t get this contract, and that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It means I’m a learner. And how do I learn from what’s going on? Listen, you’ve been phenomenal. You’ve shared a lot of stuff. Given us a lot to think about. If people wanna connect with you, learn more about what you do, how’s the best way to do that?

0:28:25.3 S2: You can find us on our website at, you can connect with me directly on LinkedIn at Jen Thornton ACC, and we can continue the conversation.

0:28:35.7 S1: Absolutely, and I will be delighted to put those links down in the show notes and make sure that people can get connected with you, and it’s phenomenal work that you’re doing. Thank you so much for that. We have come to the time for three questions to establish your humanity. Are you ready for this? My friend.

0:28:55.5 S2: I think so. Let’s do this.

0:28:58.1 S1: What would be the title of your memoir if you were writing your autobiography… What would you call it?

0:29:04.5 S2: She did it her way. I’ve been in trouble a lot in my life for doing it my way, but I don’t care…

0:29:11.6 S1: I just so funny. Listen, Frank Sinatra’s not the only one that has dibs on that, right? Absolutely. Okay, if you’re making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, there’s a number of different parameters that go in here, which goes on first peanut butter or the jelly…

0:29:30.7 S2: Oh, always peanut butter. And extra crunchy.

0:29:33.9 S1: Okay, now, do you put peanut butter on both pieces of bread or… Just on one.

0:29:39.7 S2: Just on one, I wish I could do two, but I always think I should save those calories.

0:29:44.1 S1: Okay, alright, from a practical perspective, I learned that if you put peanut butter on both pieces of bread, that when the top piece of bread doesn’t get soggy from the jelly… That’s a must do. Like when you send peanut butter and jelly in your lunch, having the double peanut butter barrier keeps your bread for… Are you eating it crested on or crust off. Crest on. Okay, and when you’re cutting it, are you cutting it on the diagonal or are you cutting it on the square… On the diagonal. Excellent. Last question for you is, do you trust your own memory now, so do you have any tips on how you help yourself to make sure that you can remember things just because… Your memory may not be perfect all the time.

0:30:41.1 S2: Yeah, oh my gosh, you could do a whole podcast on memory, so memories are created through emotions and how you felt about the situation, not always what actually happened, and so I trust my feelings towards that memory, but I don’t always trust the details, so I think journaling early and often is one of the best ways to create, trust your memory or remind yourself those memories or maybe you’re just stories and not necessarily facts.

0:31:09.7 S1: Fantastic. Jen, thank you so much for being here. Folks, I’d encourage you, go check out her website, connect with her on LinkedIn and see what you can learn. I appreciate all of you for being with us today. You have definitely learned from a smart person, and I will remind you that when you stop learning, you stop living average… Right, day, everybody.

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