My guest today is Donna Lichaw. After a long career that included documentary film-making and tech, Donna discovered her calling: helping people hone the stories they tell about themselves. Now she coaches designers, technologists, entrepreneurs, and leaders who want to make a difference. In this episode we talk about how she helps her clients visualize their stories.Listen to the full conversation
Jorge: Donna, welcome to the show.
Donna: Thank you, Jorge. It’s great to be here.
Jorge: Well, tell us about yourself.
Donna: I am a leadership coach. I’ve been working in tech for 20 years now. Actually, I’ve been saying 20 years for a while since the mid-90s, which is kind of crazy, and I’ve spent years on the design and product side of things and have moved over to the people development side of things over the last couple of years.
Jorge: What led you to make that change?
Donna: Well, I was working the last card handful of years as a consultant, and what I had developed over time was a way… Actually, I have a film background. And so, I’ve always thought about things as stories. And what I realized over time helping companies develop products and services was that the products that we were building the most successful ones had a compelling story at their foundation and they were a story that was really about the customer and how the customer was going to be a hero while using any given product or service. And so what I started doing with the teams that I was leading was actually teaching them how to think and work like filmmakers so that they could deliberately architect that story, so that we could build more compelling products and also measure success and have different markers. It was a very scientific endeavor, the way that I approached it. And so, I was doing that over years and over time was working with bigger and bigger companies and more and more people in leadership positions where they would have me come to their company and teach their team how to think and work like storytellers. And what I would find over time as I was working with people is that once I’d be onsite with a team, I’d realize that they didn’t — and I hate to say this — they didn’t really care about their products as much as you would expect. What people really cared about was themselves; they cared about being more effective at work, making an impact, getting people to listen to them, getting promoted, getting that project approved, getting people to love the results, and all these other things that we deal with on a daily basis at work. And more and more I would get people pulling me aside and workshops and on projects and they would literally say things like, you know, yeah the story of our customer that’s great. But like, what’s my story? And how am I going to be awesome? Because I can’t even get my engineer to take me seriously. Or morale is low in my team, how do I get people to you know get more excited? And so essentially over time, what I started doing was working more and more directly with people to help them find their own stories and help them develop themselves as effective leaders at work. It turns out I love doing it so much that now for the last couple years that’s all I’ve been doing, is just leadership coaching and no more. I love telling people, “I won’t help you develop your products, but I will help you develop yourselves.” And it’s been really fun.
Jorge: That sounds really interesting, this idea that somehow rediscovering — or discovering for the first time — their story could make people more effective. When you’re talking about story, are you talking about individual story or their story as a team?
Donna: So when I talk about story it could be stories on any different level. So one way story might present itself at work is saying something like, “people don’t listen to me.” It’s like, okay, you know the question I would ask you is like, is that true? What data do you have that tells me that really people don’t listen to you? And what other stories might be true or can you make true? And so it could be, “oh, people don’t listen to me while,” and you go out and you find out, “no, I don’t share my successes as much at work. So it’s not that people aren’t listening to me. It’s just that I haven’t been presenting myself in a certain way.” And so we can then re-architect the story of your work life in whatever way shape or form you want so that you can go start doing the things that you want to do and start really architecting and authoring your own endings, if that makes sense. So it could be stories that hold you back or stories that move you forward. And so they play out like that. And it also works on the team level. I hear all the time from people, “oh, no one takes our team seriously.” Well, that’s a story. And so my question is, what else could that story be? And how could we go make that new story happen?
Jorge: I don’t know too much about storytelling in the film medium and I’m curious. I’ll tell you what my understanding is of how it works… First of all, it’s a linear medium, right? You are telling the story one step at a time. And usually there’s some kind of structure, usually this three-act structure, right? Where there’s context- setting and introduction to characters, that sort of thing. These characters are then somehow thrust into a conundrum and then there is the development of that and eventually resolution. Is that is that what you mean b y storytelling like a filmmaker?
Donna: Yeah, that’s the gist of it. And throw in some conflict along the way and tension and that’s the makings of a really good story. It’s fairly simple in the end.
Jorge: So given that, I would imagine that filmmakers work very carefully to set things up in such a way that you can create for example, the maximum tension or clarify the conflict so that you can then have the resolution of that at the end. Given that a career is something that is evolving, emergent, you’re going to be intervening, I would imagine, to help these folks do something different about how they’re working. You don’t have the same kind of linear control that you would have as a filmmaker, would you?
Donna: Right, you don’t have control and that’s part of the fun of it. Because what happens — and there’s actually been a lot of work done on this by psychologists and neuroscientists — and so what happens in life is that our brains are trying to comprehend all day, every day and trying to make sense of what we’re experiencing. And so let’s say you’re walking down the street. That journey walking down the street is made up of moments in time. But all those moments are fleeting, and if your brain had to just make sense of all of the moments in time that you experience and all of the data that you take in your brain would go crazy. And so what scientists have found is that your brain uses story and story structure to make sense of real-time experiences so that you understand what’s happening, what has happened in the past, and what might happen in the future. So essentially your brain is a storytelling organ. And in the same way that we tell stories to other people or we might write a story and turn it into a film or a book, your brain is constantly telling yourself stories. It’s actually the primary way that you have to make sense of the world. And if you couldn’t do it, it would be debilitating. You just wouldn’t be able to function as a human. And so that ability to turn anything into a story is so strong that you’re bringing it into every aspect of your life and it then attaches itself to certain things like your desire to survive and stay safe and not get out of your comfort zone, or it attaches yourself to wanting to always explain other things. Like there’s someone at work that drives you crazy. Well, you’ve got stories that you’re creating about that person, but they may or may not be true. Now, when you figure out your own stories and use them to move forward, what I found is that — and this is where it gets squishy and it’s hard to… I can’t believe I’m going to say this out loud, but… It becomes an energy thing, which is when you know your own story and when you own your own story, and it’s one that fills your heart with joy and energy and it’s one that you feel confident in and it’s one that fuels you and moves you forward, people see that in you, and you’re more likely to make the impact that you want to make. I’ll use myself as an example if it helps. I know for a while when I was first starting out in coaching, for a while I thought, “man, do I have to play the the corporate game? Because all of the coaches I know do a lot of corporate work and you know, they come in through HR and this and that. And just like a lot of stuff that isn’t me at all.” And I tried playing that game and it didn’t fill me with joy — didn’t excite me –but also it didn’t it didn’t feel right and so conversations with HR people and Learning and Development just weren’t working the way I wanted them to anyway. And when I finally came to terms with what I love doing, which is working with individual clients — I love when people contact me and say, “Hey, I need help. Come, can I work with you?” Work might pay or not — I don’t care who pays — but it changed the conversation. Suddenly, I was apparently acting acting differently with people. I was presenting myself differently when I was giving talks or you know online or hanging out with friends or hanging out with colleagues or even my clients. And you know, that’s when people started recognizing me not as some Fancy Pants corporate coach that wears like suits and pearls and fancy shoes, but as someone who’s got tattoos and wears jeans and hoodies and is going to help them be awesome at work. S o if it makes sense at all, I had to know my own story before I could successfully build the business in the way that I wanted to do. And it’s the same thing for my clients. They’re all trying to pave paths at work and do it in a way that’s authentic to them. And once they figure out what that is and that’s their story, they’re able to make ripples and headway and get things done, and it feels good, and people notice it. And they’re able to run experiments and measure results as well. So a lot of this — that’s a whole other thread, but this is data driven and it’s something that you can constantly measure and make sure you’re on the right track with.
Jorge: The way I’m understanding this is that the story that you’re helping your clients craft is the story that they’re telling themselves about what’s going on in the world. Is that right?
Donna: It’s the story that they’re telling themselves about what’s going on in the world and how… What’s going on in the world and their role in making that reality what it is so that they can figure out how to change it.
Jorge: I am curious how people who need your help know to find you. You said that most folks contact you. How do they know that they have a story problem?
Donna: That’s a great question. So I would say most of my clients don’t know that they have a story problem and they come to me more for leadership stuff. So it’s you know, “I want to make more of an impact at work.” Typically they’ve been at their job for let’s say three to twelve months and they’re kind of new and they were brought in as experts do all this stuff and they’re just hitting all these walls and they’re just like, “I want help. But I don’t just want any help. I want someone who I feel like I could hang out with and who I would like to spend time with and who gets the world that I’m coming from.” And so usually they come to me through referrals; a friend or a former client or someone who knows my work more broadly. It’s rarely a story problem people come to me with. But sometimes people come to me where they know that there’s a story aspect. Probably about twenty percent of my clients come to me before they’re about to take a new job. And so they’re you know, they’re already doing the job thing. They’ve been looking they have a couple of opportunities and what they want to make sure is that their story is spot-on so that the right employer hires them, but also so that they’re going to the right employer where they can make the most impact and do the things that they want to do. And so for them they realize there is sometimes a storytelling aspect of like, “all right, I’m sitting in interviews and I’m talking all the time and I want to make sure that I’m saying the right things.” So we’ll work on that a little bit and then once they get that job — because they’re doing all the job stuff themselves — but once they start, then I work with them, too. Be a better leader and make sure they hit the ground running. You know a couple times people come to me for marketing help and I just say that I can’t help him because I honestly am not a marketing person and I don’t do that.
Jorge: It’s not a marketing challenge per se, but in a way it is a positioning challenge, this idea of trying to identify where your affinities lie. Where you can be authentic and who you can align with requires bouncing off other people. I’m going to speak for myself: it’s not something that I’m good at doing myself, for example. I can have all sorts of notions about what it is that I do in the world, but when it comes to describing that to other folks, it helps to have someone to work it out with.
Donna: Yes, and I think it’s a marketing thing in the very classical sense. So in the the Peter Drucker business school classical sense of marketing as in the work that we’ve done or that I was doing over the years which is user experience work, where it’s marketing in the sense that you’re finding your market fit in in the world and your place in the world and where you can be most effective and make the biggest impact. And so yeah, it doesn’t end up being as much of a sales thing. It’s more just like this is who I am. This is why I’m awesome. And this is how I can make the biggest impact at work and then they just start doing it and it works.
Jorge: Sounds to me like it’s about alignment and finding affinities somehow.
Donna: Yeah, it’s all about alignment. I’ve had clients were they realized, “Hmm. Actually, I’m not in the right division of my company and I think I’d be a better fit here or if I asked for this or if I slightly tweaked my job description or job duties.” And so that’s where yes, alignment. You can architect your story in that sense by starting to go to your manager and ask for things or going to your team and asking for things and then you’re actually writing your story. But it’s also an alignment thing of just making sure you’re at the right place at the right time. And if not, then you go create your new future wherever else that needs to be.
Jorge: To bring it back to this notion of information and the role it plays in all of this. There’s several things that you’ve said that I want to dig into. One is you mentioned that there is data that allows you to keep track of whether these things are working or not. Would you elaborate on that?
Donna: Yes. So what I practice is, I think the fancy term for it is evidence-based coaching. Although I think all coaching is evidence-based. What I do is, anything that you think is true, I show you how it’s just a story and invite you to get data. So using the example of the client who realized that she was being very quiet in meetings and people wanted her to speak up more. I’ll step back a little bit in terms of data gathering. The first version she said, ” I’m not participating enough in meetings.” The question I would ask there is like, “what data do you have that says that that’s the case?” And once we were able to collect enough data and re-architect that story that’s when we found a new piece of data, which was her saying, “oh, I’m afraid of making my team feel stupid.” Once we had that we had a clearer picture based on more data of what story was. And so when she came up with a new version of what the story could be which is, “oh well, I could still run the meeting, I can still speak a lot. I can be really damn smart and maybe I can still run effective meetings by inviting my team to participate and making them feel heard.” That was a hypothesis. It sounded great. But she had to go test it to find out if it was true, because otherwise we wouldn’t know if it was true. It’s honestly a design project. It’s an architecture project. So what she did was what we would do if we were building a prototype for a digital product or an app or website and she went out and she ran the smallest, fastest test that she could to test out her new hypothesis. And she did that and got data immediately which is, “oh, yeah, that worked really well.” Sometimes my clients run and experiments and they come back and they say,” wow, that was a disaster. Here’s what I learned.” And then we reconfigure accordingly. The idea is that anything that you think or want to do in life, it’s a hypothesis until you test it and until you get data to know that you’re on the right track.
Jorge: Do you have ways of keeping track of these things? L et’s say that I’m your client. Are you somehow keeping track of my hypotheses, my small tests; how they turned out?
Donna: Yes. So that’s when this turns into a big information project as well. And so what I do is with some clients — not all — if at the beginning of our engagement, if story feels like it’s a big part of what’s holding you back or big part of your questions, then what we do is… I’m a visual person and a visual note taker. And so I sketch on my iPad and that way I can keep things digital and automatically send them to Evernote, and then have files on my clients. So it’s sort of a file for each client where I have their whole history and that’s how I keep track of stuff. So it’s sort of a digital version of what therapists do with their little notebook after a meeting, that kind of a thing. In a first session, for example, if I feel like your story map is also a value to you, I’ll send you a copy so that you have it and that way you can look it over. So literally I’m mapping out everyone’s story while we’re working together, which is what I did for digital products as well with teams. And so yeah might send it to you and say, “is this what you told me? Is there anything you want to change, anything you want to update?” And sometimes those stories might look like a cliffhanger. So one client, for example, when we first started working together his big question was, “am I a leader or am I a craftsperson?” And he wasn’t sure. He was at a crossroads. He was a design director and he wasn’t sure if he should really step up and be more of a leader or if he should just become an expert in some design thing and just say, “screw leadership!” Because he felt like he was he was being a little bit scattered and split too thin. And so his initial story map looked like a cliffhanger with questions and paths and I thought it was really valuable to send to him early on so he could visually see this is where he’s at, and that we were going to spend the next few months figuring out his next steps. And that was really helpful because every couple months we would use that map to check in and say, “how are you doing? And where are you at now?” In his case he realized he was a leader. He didn’t want to be like a 3D expert or whatever he could go learn or go back to school. He wanted to be a leader and that’s what he’s pursuing right now. So in his case the visual artifact was really helpful. Sometimes when I map stories with a client and it’s something that I think is helpful for them to see in the moment. My clients are all over… Europe… I guess not technically Europe anymore… So the UK. Whatever that is now. UK and East Coast in the U.S., West Coast typically, a little Canada. And so they’re all over the place, and if I could whiteboard I would but I can’t really do that effectively. So sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll hook up my iPad and I’ll plug it into my computer and broadcast it using Zoom. So that’s what I use for all my calls. And so my clients will see a screen share of me live sketching their story. And like the client I mentioned earlier, the one who felt like she was not speaking up in meetings enough, that we live sketched that story. So she visually saw what the problem was, and once she visually saw the problem and the data she needed to collect, then she knew what her plan was. It depends on the client, it depends on the circumstance, and it depends on if the clients is visual person or not. Sometimes they’re not it doesn’t really help them. So sometimes I just keep notes for myself to keep myself in order and sometimes I share them with clients. One thing I would add to that is whether I share things digitally with them or not, one thing I do to keep us all on track as I constantly every couple months invite my clients to check in and reflect on how they’re doing and how far they’ve come. And so when I do that, it’s just a simple email that I send them with three questions, like what did you want to accomplish? What have you accomplished? And how are you going to celebrate? And that’s it. And it’s very old school. Just email, that’s it.
Jorge: I love the idea of live-sketching the map. Are you using any particular apps? It sounds like you’re connecting the iPad to the Mac to do that. You’re broadcasting from the Mac, is that right?
Donna: Yeah, so I’ve tried it a bunch of different ways. I use Paper, the iPad sketching app, and I love that app. I’ve tried all of the sketching apps, the fancy ones and just, all of them, and I always come back to that one because I find that during meetings, it’s really easy to use and it’s super simple to just switch pens and colors. The other ones are just way more complicated and it was slowing me down during meetings. And so I use the paper app and then I plug using… The way that I found most effective is I’ll plug the laptop into my MacBook Air via USB cable.Now, I don’t know if in the new MacBooks it would be as easy. But then…
Jorge: You mean the iPad, yes?
Donna: Sorry, yeah the iPad with the cable into the MacBook. And then when I go to screen share in Zoom, it recognizes the iPad and it’ll just stream it live. When I haven’t had a cable to plug it in, what I’ve done is I’ve joined a Zoom meeting on my iPad and on my desktop and then the iPad will screen share. So it says if there are three participants in the meeting, but it’s actually me my client and my iPad. And so that’s another way to do that when I don’t have wires. But the Wi-Fi in my office is pretty bad, so I find that that doesn’t work as well. So I just go with wires instead.
Jorge: Well, I want to be super clear on this because this is a problem that I’ve been trying to solve for a long time and it sounds like you’ve cracked it. So you’re plugging the iPad into the MacBook using a USB cable.
Jorge: And then somehow Zoom recognizes the iPad?
Donna: Yeah, you have to go to screen share. So go to Zoom, there’s a screen share button I can never find. But go to share my screen and then when it asks you which screen you want to share it’ll it’ll show you like your browser windows and any apps that are open and then if you look closely you’ll notice, “oh, my iPads there as well!” And so you can just share your iPad and it’ll do it live. There might be a setting that you have to turn on your iPad first to make sure that it’s sharing. And for that I would Google, because I’m pretty sure if I had to do that again, I would not know how to do it, but it may be in this in settings or sharing or something like that.
Jorge: Well, I’ll do the homework and put it in the show notes. This idea of drawing live while sharing is super powerful, right? I mean you get immediate feedback from people.
Donna: It’s huge. This has changed my life because I used to… And this was okay, but I just never kept up with it. But what I used to do — this is something I learned from Dave Gray and Christina Wodtke as well — which is I had an IPEVO camera and that’s a document camera. So I used to have a desk that had a white lacquer table top. And so I would just use it as a whiteboard. And so I would just point the document camera down and whiteboard on my desk while I was in meetings and I would broadcast the camera and people would see that. And that was great, but it was kind of cumbersome and the camera was clunky and I didn’t keep up with it. But what’s so great about having the iPad is just the iPad’s always there. It’s flat. I throw it on my desk and I draw with it. I use an Apple pen. And and then once I’m done, I have a digital record and so it’s saved in the Paper app and it goes — I think it’s saved to the cloud in Paper, although I don’t remember. I think I have a paid account with them. And then I export it immediately to Evernote so I have a copy of it. And so that’s the best part. I don’t need to do much extra work to make it happen. But yeah, it’s changed my life. You know when I was doing my coach training, I remember during a practice session once there was a whiteboard behind me and I got up in the middle of a session and I started whiteboarding something. And my instructor yelled at me. He was like, “We don’t whiteboard! Coaches don’t do that. What are you doing? You’re acting like a consultant!” And when he said that I knew right away like oh, I’m gonna always do this. Yeah. There was something like.. Just something… I hit some kind of button and it made me so happy. And so yeah, I do with all my clients and as long as they’re telling me things and I’m just recording, I love it.
Jorge: That’s great Donna. I’m so excited about this. Thank you for sharing your setup with us. Now. I’m hoping that folks are as excited as I am by everything that you’ve been describing from the way that you work to the purpose that you’re putting these tools to. If they want to follow up with you, where do they find you?
Donna: So the best way to find me is actually two places. One, on my website donnalichaw.com. You can have like a ton of worksheets and downloads, and so a lot of what we talked about today, you could try on your own. And then otherwise, Twitter is a really good place to reach me; sometimes LinkedIn as well.
Jorge: Fantastic Donna, thank you so much for your time.
Donna: Of course Jorge, this is great. Thank you so much.