Vision for what’s possible: One of the things modern leaders know and believe is that diverse workforces are more effective, so many corporations have long-term goals for inclusion. My co-author/husband Jason works at a company that set ambitious inclusion goals to be met by the year 2030. Jason really believed in the value of a diverse and equitable workforce and had been challenged to scale his team substantially. So, he and his colleagues deliberately invested in making a recruiting and hiring process that drives diversity to produce the kind of team they wanted. By doing so, Jason’s team met the ambitious 2030 goals in less than a year, fully eight years before the company deadline.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Janice Fraser.

Janice Fraser built a storied career in Silicon Valley as a startup founder, product manager, and confidante for entrepreneurs and enterprise executives alike. From creating the second-ever personal interface to the web in the early days of Netscape to leading the world’s first user experience firm, Janice has often found herself “sitting at the bleeding edge and making it boring” by figuring out how to make the latest evolutions repeatable, useful, and commonplace. Janice currently supports “VLOs” (very large organizations), including P&G, in becoming more innovative and agile. She also guides several venture-funded startup companies, federal government entities, and non-profit organizations, helping them do more with less, make bold moves and achieve extraordinary results.

She sits on the board of the Ohio University Entrepreneur Center and served on The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine workshop committee focused on the innovation ecosystem for NASA. Over the years, Janice has been a guest lecturer at Harvard Business School, Berkeley HAAS School of Business, Kellogg School of Management, and Stanford, among others.

Drawing on her almost three decades of coaching hundreds of leaders and teams to achieve success, Janice is a sought-after speaker offering audiences around the world the opportunity to learn from her experiences and sharpen their leadership skills, build stronger teams, make meaningful progress quickly, and drive business transformation. Her exuberant big-stage keynotes and practical, empathetic brown-bag talks have become cult favorites.

She is the coauthor of Farther, Faster, and Far Less Drama: How to Reduce Stress and Make Extraordinary Progress Wherever You Lead (April 2023), which outlines a groundbreaking framework for modern leadership that empowers greater alignment and quicker decision-making.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

I’m so glad you asked. This month I’m releasing my first book along with my husband Jason Fraser, Farther, Faster, and Far Less Drama: How To Reduce Stress and Make Extraordinary Progress Wherever You Lead. It’s a leadership book “for the rest of us” — the leaders we need right now and the ones who are making the most impact right now, not the alpha individualists who “know” the answers. We call those “Capital-L Leaders.” Our new book is about the alternatives we’ve seen that enable absolutely anyone to lead with compassion and humility to make big progress on important ideas.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

There are so many — I’m constantly watching and learning. One of the more influential leaders I have followed is the CEO of a company I hired, then consulted with, and then worked for. The leader is Rob Mee, and the company was Pivotal Labs. It was radically different from any software tech firm I had seen in all my years in Silicon Valley. Rob screened prospective employees first for their empathy in a process called the “RPI” or “Rob’s Pairing Interview”. Even as the company grew to thousands of people, there were only a dozen people trained and trusted to run the RPI for any prospective employee. That laid the foundation for a culture of trust and respect among the workers, which translated very directly into uncanny speed and productivity in their software development projects. The values of the company were likewise mind-blowing: Do the right thing, do what works, and be kind. It was a very special place to be a customer or an employee, and it changed everything I thought about how leadership worked.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

Again, so many to choose from! I’ve always had a lot of courage to go into uncomfortable places. And I love that about myself. If you need to have courage, that means you’re overcoming fear. But the flip side of courage is confidence. And, where courage is exhausting, confidence is easy. So my biggest regret — and my biggest mistake — is that I spent decades doubting my own security and judgment. On the outside, I looked strong, but in truth, I was driving through all sorts of internal fear, with white knuckles on the steering wheel. What I’ve discovered is that all leaders, even the great ones, are just people. We’re allowed to be wrong sometimes and make mistakes, and we can recover from that financially, professionally, and personally. That is the core of confidence, and I wish I’d had a lot more of that throughout my career. My biggest mistake was doubting that I would be able to recover from my mistakes. This created a lot of needless tension and suffering. [facepalm emoji]

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

A leader is someone who facilitates progress toward an important outcome. To do that, we need to create a context in which our people can be as successful as possible. That means framing the work to be done in a way that’s clear and accurate. It also means asking great questions, fostering psychological safety, and setting ambitious and meaningful goals. And perhaps most important, I believe a great leader needs to foster a cadence of continuous improvement — in how we work as well as in what we do.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

Yes! I so value this question! I’ve stopped having meetings. No meetings. Also, no agendas. Meetings are an incredible waste of time because they largely consist of talking about work, rather than accomplishing work. Instead, I have “working sessions,” “decision sessions,” “retrospectives,” or “prioritization sessions.” This is far more than a change in language. It’s a complete change in the expectations people have when we get together. When we spend time together, we will move from point A to point B. So let’s make that point B something worth our collective time. Instead of an agenda, I write down, “Here is point A….and here is point B…and here are the things we will DO together to get from A to B in this next hour.”

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

In the book we call it, “Orient Honestly.” We’re taught from early in our business career how to set goals, and there are lots of tools and mnemonics for doing it, like SMART goals or OKRs. But we’re not taught how to notice and define where we are RIGHT NOW, and what makes this moment so complicated. Without an understanding of where we are now, it’s so much harder to bring a group along to that important and well-crafted goal — especially if everyone has a different understanding of that current reality. So, I’ve started using a method developed by Barbara Minto in the early days of McKinsey & Company. Minto says, if you frame the current state as “Situation and Complication,” then it will be easier to ask the important question and develop an effective answer. This SCQA model of analysis is something I practice daily.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

I would tell them: It’s worth the effort. Stick with it. Notice your stuck points, and challenge them. I work in disruptive innovation with some very senior, very successful leaders. These people got where they are by delivering effectively within a relatively stable context. But with the dynamics of today’s world, they need to suddenly become flexible, agile, and innovative — which is sometimes precisely the opposite of their strengths and experience. But I’ve seen leaders relax into the frustration of new experiences, and keep at it, and gain entirely new skills and insights, way beyond their imagination. So, my advice is to be in on the joke. Trying something new stinks. It’s gross to be so bad at something you think is important. That’s ok, and it’s temporary. I’m about 500 hours into my 10,000 to become a master of book marketing, and it’s not something I’m not very good at…yet. So, I laugh about it and keep going. Because it will come with time, and then watch out bestseller list!

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

Be a sponge. Find leaders you admire and ask them to be your mentor, then ask lots of questions and let yourself be vulnerable with them. When I was first named CEO of Adaptive Path 20 years ago, I found three leaders I admired and asked them if they would have breakfast with me once a month for a year. We met away from the office, in person. They would kick my butt, or build me up, and help me understand my way of leading. Reading books and listening to podcasts are also important tools, but for me, having real mentorship was much more important.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.

To be relevant and effective, good leaders must foster in themselves:

  • Confidence in your own judgment: I advise several startup organizations. Several years ago, one of the founders decided to build her software startup without hiring a technical team. She had found a “no-code” platform that could get her started and thought this would get her going faster. We argued a few times about this. I believed it would be faster in the short term, but much slower and far riskier in the medium term. After laying out my arguments, she made her decision, and I respected that. She trusted her judgment, and it has worked out extremely well for her. Fast forward to today, and she has millions in revenue, a solid tech team, and proprietary software that they built themselves. She knew her business best, and ran her company with confidence, well-informed by our debate.
  • Courage to see and deal with unpleasant truths: I work with very senior executives to create disruptive innovation within Fortune 100-sized businesses. Despite their best efforts to innovate, these efforts typically fail, because the economic model for innovation is so different from that to which they are accustomed. One huge company invented a new subscription service that would benefit parents of small children. It was on a trajectory to become a billion-dollar brand in about seven years, but they canceled the project after only three years, because it wasn’t growing fast enough. If the executive team had accepted the cost and timeframe that disruptive innovations require, they could have prepared themselves to be more patient.
  • Empathy and respect for other people in their context: In Farther, Faster, and Far Less Drama, Hannah Jones talks about her time as Chief Sustainability Officer for Nike. If you recall, Nike had some challenges with the labor practices of their suppliers. She says, “It became clear — to me at least — that as long as the team I was responsible for was acting as the police, then change was not going to happen very easily…How could we make this something that the actual factories and supply chains could own and feel pride and accountability around? With that mindset change in ourselves, we went from a place where it was pretty combative between the head of the supply chain and myself to a place of real partnership…We presented Harvard case studies together…I became his thought partner.”
  • Vision for what’s possible: One of the things modern leaders know and believe is that diverse workforces are more effective, so many corporations have long-term goals for inclusion. My co-author/husband Jason works at a company that set ambitious inclusion goals to be met by the year 2030. Jason really believed in the value of a diverse and equitable workforce and had been challenged to scale his team substantially. So, he and his colleagues deliberately invested in making a recruiting and hiring process that drives diversity to produce the kind of team they wanted. By doing so, Jason’s team met the ambitious 2030 goals in less than a year, fully eight years before the company deadline.
  • Curiosity about what others see and know: Alex West Steinman is one of four founders at The Coven, an inclusive women-focused online and in-person community/coworking franchise. She says, “Our investment in empathy and care for each other has made business decisions easier. We have this phrase with each other, ‘Unpopular Opinion!’ which means, ‘I know I’m about to say something y’all aren’t going to like…’ We all have the curiosity, respect, and trust to say, ‘Okay, tell me more about that’.” This interpersonal curiosity is a superpower. Because of it, The Coven is one of the most resilient startups I’ve ever seen, thriving despite multiple challenges that could have shut them down: Covid, the racial reckonings in Minneapolis (where they’re based), and major shifts in the venture funding ecosystem.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

As a person who thrives despite multiple chronic illnesses, I know that some days it’s enough of a masterpiece just to change your clothes and brush your teeth. And other days I’m literally leading a workshop at the White House. The key to finding that masterpiece ideal is radical acceptance — accepting today for what it is, and accepting that we have the power to make today that much more glorious. Sometimes, that means getting a bag of ice to hold against my migraine-riddled forehead and snuggling under the covers with the dog at my feet. Other days, it’s asking bold questions like, “I wonder if we could cut scope and launch that new product next week instead of next month?”

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

I want the people I lead to see how powerful they can be in creating a life and a world that they wish to inhabit. This world needs everyone’s full participation. We’re in a bit of a tight spot right now, and it will take consistent and sustained greatness from every one of us to get out of it. I want to help people find the will and the drive to make their lives, jobs, towns, friends, all of it — just that little bit better. More “just,” with less suffering, and more sustainable.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

They can sign up for my occasional newsletter at Follow me on Instagram @janiceleefraser, or on LinkedIn.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!