Learn Out Loud: An Interview with Nancy Dahl

I remember the day I met Nancy Dahl. It was 1999 and I was in a small fishbowl conference room at Lifetouch where she was at the time Senior VP of Sales and Marketing. It was a small group, discussing the implications of the internet (then a still relatively new phenomenon!) on the company strategies.  Nancy walked in the room, changed the conversation, and in that instant I knew I had found a kindred spirit—someone willing to ask the hard questions, listen to diverse opinions, and make and take responsibility for tough decisions. Today Nancy is the President and COO of Tastefully Simple. I’m happy to say in the years between then and today, we’ve become friends and true supporters of one another.  Nancy has a lot of people like me in her life precisely because she is a bold leader. People want to be involved and making things happen when Nancy is in the lead.Bio image Nancy Dahl 1

As Nancy and I started our bold leader conversation, she said, “School teaches us there is an answer for everything and we get grades for the right answer.” Life functions differently. Nancy points out that rarely is there only one right answer. Often there is not even a clear answer. “I see leaders freeze all the time because they don’t have the answer,” she said. “We have to teach people to ‘learn out loud.’”

Nancy added, “It is great that you know something, but it is in practice that you achieve mastery.” And that, as Nancy explains, is in learning to try things on, sometimes unlearning before you can relearn, and being okay to be uncomfortable as you figure things out. And along the way, inviting in diverse perspectives to broaden the possibilities and get to better outcomes.

“When you only have some information, you need to size up the risk and make a call,” Nancy said. “If we’re wrong, nobody dies—we gather information and we move forward. You have to be confident in your ability to figure it out and nimble enough to make adjustments. You cannot wait until you have the right answer.”

When I asked Nancy how she enrolls and teaches others to “learn out loud,” she described a formula: “Create a process that reinforces the importance of learning and practice. Do something. Stop. Debrief. Then celebrate your progress and move again.” Repeat the process regularly. The celebration and debrief are not casual. They are quite structured and in sequence built around 4 questions Nancy says she uses routinely to unlock learning and advance teams into the next move:

  1. What are you most proud of? Individually and as a team?
  2. What did you learn? This is important because it makes it clear you are focused on the learning. Everyone can gain new insight. It brings the diverse perspectives together so collectively you can go forward. And it defers judgment, which allows people to contribute their insights.
  3. Knowing what you know now, what needs to be optimized the next time around? We too often focus on what we got wrong. Whether the person and team got it right or wrong is far less important than “How do we apply what we learned to optimize the results?” It is a forward looking question that prepares your team to do it better next time. Looking only at what went wrong is a backward looking question that doesn’t build confidence in hitting the same situation again. That applies whether it’s a next step, a next phase, or a redesign.
  4. What do you need to take along for the next leg? I particularly LOVE this question. As Nancy says, too often people don’t ask this. The reality is that you NEED to dump some stuff out of your bag to make room for new stuff. If you don’t do that, you keep dragging around all of this old, out of date, and likely useless or at least not helpful stuff in your bags!

Nancy was clear that the order of the questions matter, so I asked why and how she learned this.

“I was in a really difficult turnaround,” she answered. “Emotions were really raw and the culture was politically charged. You had to get people to a place where they could learn and build new muscle. It needed to happen out loud to change the culture. We were fighting the guardians of no progress.” (I love that phrase!)

We’ve all met these folks. They are the ones in organizations who stop most things because they are rewarded, formally or informally, for identifying risks and are heavily focused on the answer, not on movement. “We needed to break the focus on just the answer,” she explained. “Pull people out of their holes [perspectives]… force a discussion on progress. The order of the questions matters in the way you teach people to explore and build their learning muscles. We also needed to bring the eternal—sky is always blue—optimists into reality so they, too, could see that we can learn and do things better in the next round of work.”

This is a tall challenge for all leaders, but as Nancy explained, you need divergent points of view to get to better outcomes. People with opposing perspectives do not always—very often don’t—get along. That is where truly bold leadership comes in to play. As the leader, if you want progress, you’ve got to find ways to invite a variety of perspectives into the conversation and make it okay to disagree on the way to better answers.

I asked Nancy what she does when she hits a wall or finds herself in a place unclear about how to proceed. She does three things:

  • Return to the fundamentals: “Remind myself what is the thing I’m trying to do and why is that important.”
  • Challenge myself: “Am I really stuck? I’ll write down what I’m thinking, feeling, what people are talking about. I start sorting to bring clarity and priorities to the questions we need to solve.”
  • Build the context for others: “Sometimes people don’t think you understand their point. Sometimes priorities are out of order. This is why it’s so important to debrief often so folks feel progress and have a context for what comes next.”

When I asked about bold leaders she admires, Nancy answered, “Well, they are not what the media portrays. They are very grounded and curious at the same time. They know who they are, understand their own biases, understand the value of diversity, are interested in the question, calm—urgent but not in a hurry—always bring clarity to me and the group. And they are okay with being different.”

I really appreciate Nancy’s description of these different bold leaders. Know anyone like that in your life? We’d love to meet them.

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.