University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 94: Liz Wiseman Discusses Her Book, “The Multiplier Effect”, the Diminishing Leader, and Contributorship

October 21, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

Share this via:

Liz Wiseman is the CEO of The Wiseman Group, a researcher, and an executive advisor who teaches leadership to other executives around the world. She is the author of New York Times bestseller Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, and Wall Street Journal bestseller Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. Wiseman has helped companies like Apple, AT&T, Disney, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Salesforce, Tesla, and Twitter grow in their leadership skills.

Purchase Liz Wiseman's book.

Episode Transcript


00:04 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today.

00:25 Matt Waller: With me today, Liz Wiseman, who's a New York Times bestselling author and executive advisor, and I learned about her because I was just looking at books I wanted to read, and I read the summary of a book, and it's called, The Multiplier Effect, and I thought, "I like this." And I read it and I loved it, so I asked Liz to talk to me about it. Liz started her career with Oracle. She eventually worked her way up to Vice President, and she was there for 16 years, and now, she is the CEO of the Wiseman Group, and she's been doing that for almost 11 years. So Liz, thank you so much for taking some time to visit with me about this, I appreciate it.

01:12 Liz Wiseman: Oh, I'm excited for our conversation, and I'm just delighted that you found the book and that it was helpful.

01:19 Matt Waller: It really is. I was thinking about it more from leaders that I've worked under in my career, and I personally have experienced this where I feel like some of the leaders I've been around have made me smarter, got the best out of me, and others, I don't do so well around. And so I actually have been... I didn't know it was called a multiplier, but I've been trying to do that, and again, I think that's why this really struck a cord with me. Would you mind, first, just explaining what a multiplier is and what a diminisher is, and then I wanna talk to you a little bit about the research that you did.

02:03 Liz Wiseman: Well, maybe I'll start with the diminisher. Most people, all had an experience with a diminishing leader. So a diminisher is a leader that other people hold back around or aren't at their best around, and they're often really, really smart, capable people, but sometimes they're so focused on their own ideas, their own know-how, their intelligence that they don't see and use the full intelligence of people around them. They tend to tell people what to do, they tend to make the decisions, they tend to micromanage, and they get a fraction of people's capability. And what I found in the research is that these diminishing leaders get less than half, on average, of people's available intelligence, and by that I mean, their insight, their know-how, their business acumen, their technical skills.

02:58 Liz Wiseman: And I noticed plenty of these kinds of leaders early in my career, they were smart, but no one around them got to be all the way smart, and it was almost like they used their intelligence as a weapon, but then I noticed a very different kind of leader who was also really smart and really capable themselves, but they use their intelligence in a way that invited, if not demanded other people be at their best, these are leaders who make you think, who make you want to step up and take responsibility and take ownership. And when these leaders walked in a room, people don't just kind of avert their eyes and shut up and hold back, play it safe, don't say this, don't say that. These are people that you think won't be around, that you can debate with. These are people who you can be honest with, these are people who you want to do your very best work for. So they're essentially, they're leaders who use their intelligence in a way that amplifies the intelligence of people around them.

04:11 Matt Waller: And one thing that's really interesting about that, too is in your book, you talk about people who are linear or additive, and they're thinking about resources versus those that are multiplicative in the sense that you could say, "Look, if we wanna get 10% growth, we're gonna need a commensurate growth and headcount," but another approach is to try to yield more capability from the people that are working in your organization by taking on the characteristics of a multiplier. Would you mind speaking to that a little bit?

04:50 Liz Wiseman: Well, just as I was hearing you frame that idea, it made me think of what's it like to work for a growing company? The company's doing well, they're growing, they're hiring a bunch of people, but they're under-utilizing the talent that's already there. It's funny, I studied leadership, and I study in particular, type of leader that gets 100% of people's available intelligence and capability, but it's funny, maybe the thing I've really learned about leadership has really nothing to do with leadership, it's more about contributorship, and this crosses cultures and continents. People come to work every day, desperately wanting to give all of their capability. They want to be smart and take the lead on things and sign up and contribute, and actually, people wanna be held accountable. When we take a job, we don't think about, "What's a job that I can skate through and do as little as possible?" That's a learned behavior. And when most of us are planning our careers and thinking about what kind of work do I wanna do, what contribution do I wanna make, we wanna contribute and share.

06:04 Liz Wiseman: And so what happens in these growing companies is that now, you're building a culture of disenfranchisement and disengagement and resentment. I was up in San Francisco at this rapidly growing software company and we were talking about this gap, and I asked, "What's built inside this gap?" Between what people wanna give and what their leaders are actually receiving and able to get. And somebody just yelled from the back of the room, he said, "Yeah, crappy products get built." And so that comes from this addition model of growth, which is to grow, we need to add resources. Now think about that versus an organization that is growing by deeply utilizing the resources that exist, that the people who work there are seen as smart and capable, they're growing along with the company. Of course, to grow a company, you have to add resources over time, but if you first look inside the organization and deeply utilize talent, give people challenges, stretch assignments, ask people hard questions, give them a chance to take ownership of things, that's an easy company to recruit into.

07:35 Matt Waller: Well, I know that you've done consulting for really impressive companies like Apple, Disney, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Tesla, Twitter and others, but within a company, you can find a wide variety of these kinds of people. I was thinking when I was reading through this, one leader that I'm really familiar with, of course, is Sam Walton. I've studied him and I think he was one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time for a number of reasons, but one of his top 10 rules for building a business is to swim upstream, kind of going against the norms, and he did that in so many ways. And so there are stories about, early on, some of his executives felt like, "As we're growing, we really need to get information from all the stores every day." And so they spent a huge amount of money more than any retailer ever contemplated, putting in a system that required satellites and dishes to be able to communicate every day, and he really didn't wanna do it, but he had had been a multiplier and so people in his organization felt free to challenge him and they were very confident. And he eventually said, "Okay, we'll try it." And they did, and it truly set them apart.

09:04 Matt Waller: But it has such a profound impact on the company from a strategic competitive perspective, because not only do you wind up getting more effective leaders that can come up with creative ideas, but you don't have to spend as much money on resources to get there. Now, I wanted to talk just briefly about your research, if I remember correctly, you asked people in these organizations, tell me of a leader who has these characteristics, and you were describing the multiplier, you didn't tell them that, and then you did the same thing with the diminisher. And then you went and talked to those leaders who were diminishers and multipliers and that's how you collected your data to come out with your research. Would you mind talking about that a little bit?

09:51 Liz Wiseman: So successful professionals was my criteria. So I was looking for people who had had successful, solid careers, good thinkers, people with good integrity, so I'm ruling out people who have an ax to grind like, "I hate every boss I've ever had." So I'm out talking to successful professionals and I ask them to identify two different kinds of leaders, and I would describe someone that I later came to call a diminisher, someone who... Problems aren't getting solved and you're not making progress, you feel like you're stalling out. And then I would describe a very different scenario like, okay, think of a scenario where hard problems are getting solved, like you're finding success, you're being challenged, and they identified two different leaders, and then I build a profile for each one of them, and it's a set of questions and a survey that allows me to compare the mindsets for those two different leaders, the behavior, and then what they got from people and so I would ask them, what percentage of your intelligence, and I had that all defined and I did that across, came close to about 100 different people.

11:03 Liz Wiseman: So I'm not the one defining who's a diminisher and a multiplier, like leadership is very much in the eyes of the beholder. Who was a leader who engendered this kind of contribution from you? So I built a profile for each sort of a behavioral profile. For a lot of those multipliers, anyone that I wanted to write about in the book, I then went and interviewed those leaders. I often would go and interview a dozen people who had worked for them, tell me about, like in this case, I basically, like, "Tell me about what it was like working for Sam Walton. What did he do under this situation, what did he do under that?" And so I did this on a rich investigation around these multiple leaders. The part I didn't do is I didn't do that around the diminishers because that's an awkward conversation.


11:48 Liz Wiseman: Okay, "Hey, you know, can I talk to you about all the people who see you as a diminisher?" So I didn't do that. I kind of worked with those leaders as other people saw them, but I have enough experience working very closely with diminishing leaders and it was not too hard to get the essence of what they were doing as a leader.

12:12 Matt Waller: Now, would you mind telling me a book you really like, a business book that you have really enjoyed.

12:20 Liz Wiseman: Well, probably the book that has influenced me the most is Good to Great, and it's not only the content of what are the characteristics of these great companies, it's Jim's books, and Jim Collins, for those who aren't familiar with him, they give you such a window inside the mind of a great researcher. And Jim is very much a hero to me. I knew him a little bit when he was out at Stanford and I was at Oracle, he did a little bit of work for us. It was fun, I got to do like a teaching tour with Jim in Australia, and one of the things I got to say is like, "Jim, you inspired me because you made your research process so clear that I felt I could do it." He really inspired me and taught me through his work how to do a comparison study, how to look at A and B, and compare them and see like how do you normalize as many of the conditions as possible so that you can actually find the differentiators, and that book has probably inspired me more than any other book. And I've read it several times.

13:27 Matt Waller: That is a great book. I noticed though, Stephen Covey wrote the forward to your book, which was quite a coup to be able to get him to do that.

13:35 Liz Wiseman: I know. There's a whole story behind that, but I was so just delighted and honored to have him write the forward for the book.

13:43 Matt Waller: Yeah, he clearly really liked the book as well.

13:47 Liz Wiseman: And 7 Habits is another book that has had a lot of influence on me and a lot of people. And it's funny, I was just... My daughter had asked about it, and she's a senior in college and she's gonna be heading out into the workforce, and she had asked about it, and I'm like, "Oh, I've been waiting," like, "What a great chance because I'm gonna give you this book," that my mother and father-in-law gave me and my husband. That book came out, I think the year I graduated from college, and so it was this graduation gift and it just... Was kind of a way of thinking about the world that I said, "Oh yeah, let me give you the copy of that book that dad's parents gave us." And I couldn't find it. I've loaned it out to someone so someone's got my copy from 1988, I think.

14:35 Matt Waller: So the Walton College has about 6100 undergraduates and about 500 or 600 graduate students, and a lot of students are, of course, going to school in this really unusual time, our students tend to do pretty well in placement because we've got retail and CPG, which is done well, but it's still a challenging situation, and not just in this time, but in general, what kind of advice would you give to students that are graduating either from undergraduate or graduate programs?

15:14 Liz Wiseman: Well, you have just asked a question that has plucked my heart strings and tweaked my mind, because I'm in the middle of writing a book right now that is about, not about the art of great leadership, but it's the art of great contributorship, and particularly I've been looking at why are some people so valuable inside organizations. Everyone brings smarts and capability into a company, but some people play that better than others, and some people find a way to become extremely valuable, and I've noticed this dynamic for a long time. My working theory was it's not a function of intelligence and it's not a function of work ethic, those might be present, but it's about a way of working. And so I've been trying to really understand what are the practices of the most valuable contributors inside organizations, and I'll share a couple. The first is that the most valuable contributors, they don't do their job, they do the job that needs to be done. We think about that concept from a marketing standpoint, what's the job that needs to be done?

16:24 Liz Wiseman: What's the need behind a product or a service, but the most valuable people come in and they say, "Well, this is my job, but that's what's important, and I'm gonna do the job that needs to be done rather than the job I was hired to do." And I remember this actually very early in my career, I came into the workforce and into Oracle, wanting to do something with leadership and management development, and I've been at the company for about a year, there was a big reorganization and so we're all kind of looking for new jobs inside the company 'cause the organization had changed and I'm interviewing for a job, and I answer the Vice President's questions, and then it was kind of an opportunity for me to share, here's what I think I can do for you and for the company and so I tell him that the company is growing very rapidly and that the company has a lot of new people in management who don't have a lot of management skills, and I could build a management training program for the company, and I'm actually really passionate about it, and he listens to me and he's like, "Liz, we're so excited to have you join this group," and it was a new hire training group, he said, "But actually, right now, we have a different problem." He said, "We are hiring several thousand people a year right out of college and our biggest challenge is getting them up to speed on Oracle technology."

17:52 Liz Wiseman: So what he was essentially asking me to do was to teach programming to programmers, 'cause we were hiring all the top technologists out of the top universities in the nation, I had come out of business school, I was one of the business-oriented people and he wanted me to now, sign up for a job teaching programming to a bunch of nerds, and it wasn't something I had skill in, and it wasn't something I was particularly interested in, but it was funny, even back then, at maybe 23 years old, I said, "Oh, what he's telling me is, 'Liz, go make yourself useful.'" Now, he never said I had to. He just gave me this gentle enough coaching to say, "You know what, Liz? Make yourself useful," and it's a strategy that I've really adopted throughout my career, which is, don't be in love with your job, don't be in love with your career, who cares what your major was, who cares what you're hired to do.

18:50 Liz Wiseman: Find out what your boss has to get done and then go make yourself useful. And it's amazing, the impact that you make when you're doing work that's on somebody's agenda, and it's amazing the opportunities that open when you have essentially subordinated your own interest to do what's needed, that suddenly, other people start caring about your interests, like, "Okay, we asked Liz to do that. She did that." Then suddenly, "Liz, what do you wanna do?" Because you built this trust in this track record. Boy, in particularly, as the world right now is turned upside down for almost all of us, it's hard to know, "Do I just keep doing what I've been doing? What's my role like?" It's like, figure out where there's a problem and just go make yourself useful, and it feels pretty good to work in that space as well.

19:50 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC Podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C Podcast. And now, be epic.


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

Ways to Listen

Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Listen on Google Podcasts
Listen on Amazon Music
Listen on iHeart Radio
Listen on Stitcher