Interview with Patti Johnson: On Making waves


Vera: Everyone likes to make waves; what’s your definition of making waves and where does it all start?

 Patti: Waves change the natural course of events and have an impact in the world around you – big or small. In fact, some waves begin in very small ripples.


Vera: Making waves obviously involves change, which many people do not like.  How does one initiate change for themselves and ensure it’s the right change?

 Patti: We often want to know every step in the future and have a predictable path. We need THE answer. This desire for certainty can cause us to avoid experimentation and trying a new idea. One way to make change less threatening is to break it down and begin small. Explore and accept that not everything will work perfectly. Once you allow yourself to experiment and try, it can lead you in a new direction, rather than thinking there’s one big decision to be made.


Vera: Talk me through the mindset of a Wave maker and how can one develop such a mindset?

 Patti: I researched dozens of Wave makers, those who started change – both big and small – and found four key characteristics in how they look at the world:

  • Look beyond “me” – they are more interested in “we” than “me”; focused on the greater good, rather than personal gain
  • Adaptable persistence – they persevere, but learn as they go; they are not rigid, but allow their thoughts & plans to evolve as they learn more
  • Voracious learners – they are invigorated by the new and unknown; they rely on curiosity and by listening to others; they are constantly learning
  • Positive collaborators – they rely on others to engage in their mission; they value relationships for realizing goals and learning more


Vera: What are some of the myths and conventional ‘’wisdom’’ about change and making waves that actually are not true or helpful?

Patti: There are many myths, including that perfection is the goal. We grow up wanting the A+, the 100, the perfect paper. Yet, no change will be perfect – there will be problems and bumps because it hasn’t been done in quite that way before. Expect it. There will be resistance. There won’t be a parade for you when you begin a change. It is part of making waves and important to understand that leading change is very different than managing a predictable process.


Vera: You make the point that leaders need more wave makers, but many leaders tend to want to be “ The Wave maker’’ Why will surrounding themselves with wave makers help them and how can they groom them?

Patti: Wave Makers are the ones that bring the new ideas, test your thinking, help you evolve your business or organization. They can be the difference in the growth and survival of your business. All great organizations, such Apple or Google, are chock full of Wave Makers. You groom Wave Makers by listening to them and their ideas, giving them work that requires new thinking and by rewarding innovation and creativity – even if it wasn’t perfect. Fear and careful are anti-Wave Maker, so don’t’ expect new ideas, if anything that isn’t perfect is not acceptable. Also, Wave Makers are built in “white space” assignments where there are no big guidelines, no real precedent and they have a blank piece of paper. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it is necessary.


Vera: Making a difference requires resilience. If someone hit a wall when trying to make their mark and came to you for help, what would you say to them?

 Patti: I’d first say, “Welcome to doing something big and important! Walls are all around in such circumstances. Now to figure out what to do next. It’s essential to put your researcher hat on and set aside all emotions about the setback. Why did it happen? What went well? What and who created the biggest resistance and why? How much of the resistance was in your control or not? A cold, hard objective look at the facts is the key to unlocking what to do next. You can assess if it was timing, budget, a fickle sponsor or that you didn’t have a compelling story for why it mattered. And, if you are too close – get someone else to help make your assessment. Your goal is not to blame circumstances or others but focus on “what can I control or influence?”


Vera: In your experience what is it that makes taking action so hard even when one knows that action would be for one’s own good?

 Patti: We like the familiar, the predictable. In fact, research has shown that our brains are giant prediction machines. We get enormous satisfaction from predicting what will happen next. This desire can work against us in making a change. Again, find the one small thing you can do to start now. Go meet with an expert, go to a conference on your area of interest, get a group together that wants what you want. Find the short-term action right now and get started.


Vera: Generally, excuses are a dime a dozen. How does one get round what may look like legitimate excuses for not following through with their goals/ambitions?

 Patti: We are human beings so we will have setbacks or delays. Change and trying the new adventure will never be at the top of your ‘to do’ list or the urgent matter that needs immediate attention – unless you put it there. Trick your brain into believing that this first step is the most important action on your list. Create an incentive for starting. Measure and report progress. Find someone to help hold you accountable for starting. No one will put it at the top of the list if you don’t.


Vera: What’s the best way to learn from personal experiences and what are the types of experiences that one should look to learn from others to make more positive impact?

 Patti: I think this gets back to adaptive persistence and being a voracious learner. If your goal is to make progress, then you don’t expect perfection. You learn from setbacks and mistakes. You want movement. One of the Wave Makers described this as being an “incrementalist.” Also, stay focused on the impact you want to have – not the approval of others. This emphasis on results and impact can completely change how you view yourself and your role. You become more interested in the outcome, rather than “did they like me?” or “was I good enough?”


Vera: What “Wave’’ have you made that you are most proud of and what did you have to overcome to make it work/lasting?

 Patti: I have had a few, but the one that is at the top of the list is starting my own consulting business ten years ago. I was not born an entrepreneur. In fact, I spent years at Accenture, a huge management-consulting firm. So, starting my own business, without all of the support and safety net, was way off my zone. I had to overcome my desire to always know the answers and be able to plan the year ahead. Being an entrepreneur and business owner is organic and influenced by so many factors. I had to turn loose and focus on what I could control and influence and have confidence that the rest would work. It was a great life lesson for me and one of my best decisions.


Patti’s profile

Patti Johnson is a Career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a people and change consultancy she founded in 2004. Patti is the author of Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life (2014). She and her team advise clients such as PepsiCo, Microsoft, 7-Eleven, Accenture, Frito-Lay and many others on creating positive change in their leaders and organizations. Patti has been a contributor or featured as an expert in media such as, Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, MONEY Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, Fast Company, Entrepreneur and SUCCESS Magazine. She is an Adjunct Instructor on Leading Change for SMU Executive Education and for the Bush Institute Women’s Initiative Fellowship.


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