I've had the honor of knowing Eric Boles for over twenty years and never leave a conversation with him without new insights about myself and ways to improve my own performance.
Eric's journey from an unemployed former NFL player to a highly sought after executive coach, trainer, keynote speaker and founder of The Game Changers is one of hard work, opportunity and a clear vision of what he wanted his life to be.
In this week's interview, he expresses the importance of knowing who you are as a leader and making sure you carve out space to envision the future while creating a culture people can grow in. Enjoy!
How and when did we first meet?
I think it was 2001 or 2002. You were at Starbucks then and I began my work with Starbucks in 1999. We were babies and we haven't changed a bit.
Let’s start with your backstory. You were an NFL player and are now a corporate trainer, leadership coach and keynote speaker. How and why did you make that transition?
When I got cut from the NFL (basically fired), I was struggling and trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I already graduated from college with a marketing degree and was trying to find a job but at night I was cleaning up office buildings to make some money and I had an experience that was really tough. I was cleaning out this one particular office and this was guy sitting in his chair. He slid back with headphones on and just pointed beneath the desk for me to clean it out. Afterward, I was walking down the hallway thinking, “Eight months ago, he would ask for an autograph and now I'm cleaning his office. How did I fall so quickly or fall down so far?” It was a pivotal moment for me.
I ended up working with the United Way on fundraising and went to one of the companies that was raising money and got to listen to a keynote. The guy on stage was speaking about high performers versus low performers and he made one comment that forever stuck with me: high performers focus on what they want to have happen and dwell on past wins and low performers focus on what they don't want to have happen and dwell on past losses.
It was the first aha moment I had where somebody broke down confidence for me. Clearly, I had a knowledge base, but my attitude, my confidence and my belief system did not match my physical capabilities or my skill set. As soon as he finished speaking, I ran up to and said “I want to do what you do.” It wasn't about keynoting or training it was that I wanted to be on the side of giving to people. From that moment, I came home and told my wife, I found what I'm going to do. That's it.
So once you figured out what you wanted to do, how did you get started?
I spent two and a half years visiting every office, speaking with whomever would listen to me. I had zero instructional design experience and zero plan but sometimes ignorance is truly bliss. In time I learned that what I loved about football was the dynamics of how players worked together and so that was kind of the beginning of me discovering what I really loved. What really set it over the top was when I got into the business environment because the basics translate. The business and financial terms by industry might vary, but I'm still talking football and teamwork, I'm just using business terms to describe it.
In your time as a leadership coach, you've worked with some top executives at some big companies. Please tell me they're human, just like the rest of us! What are some common coaching topics that come up? How do you help them?
I'm glad what you just asked that question. Yes, they are they are human, just like the rest of us. Unfortunately, the freedom to have vulnerable, authentic conversations, at times is missing. Therefore, when they can have a coach or an executive where they can feel safe as well, it's critical. When we talk about topics, yes, of course we talk about the direction of the organization and where they want to go. But we probably spend far more time talking about working from the inside out.
What does that look like?
It starts with gaining clarity. What their fears are, because how they function individually has such an influence and how they see the world and that has such an impact on how they see problems. For example, for a leader who wants to have control over everything, times like this are very difficult because there's so much uncertainty and they like to function by certainty and now they're having to rely on other people so that's a real challenge.
When working with individual leaders, we line up to what is it that they want to accomplish organizationally. We bring that up first, but there’s an understanding that growth personally is going to have more impact on the organization than us just focusing on the organization.
There are three questions to help them envision their future:
What is their goal and vision for the organization? What excites them at twelve months from now?
Where do they want to be personally in terms of their own growth twelve months from now? It would a be a horrible thing for them to accomplish a goal organizationally but have not made progress individually or personally.
What is a relational goal they want to achieve twelve months from now?
This becomes the painting of the future and incorporates several different things. For many of these leaders it’s growth spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically,
How does one find the time to tackle this? Leaders have so many priorities on their plate, especially now with the constantly changing dynamic of living and working in a pandemic.
They need to maximize being present and take full advantage of a 15-minute period where they’re coming up with fresh thinking. I ask them to challenge themselves on how many of their thoughts are new thoughts or are they just recycling the same ones.
It’s really about ensuring that their organization is in a better place than it would have been without their involvement and maintaining a more long-term perspective. And that means what's going on right now cannot be the only thing that they have on their mind
How can leaders create a culture that reduces fear of trying new things?
If there's a problem right now you’re not happy about, don't allow what just happened to be so big that you go all in on the problem without keeping perspective. Questions to ask yourself: Is this the kind of thinking we like but bad execution? Is this the kind of innovation I want in my organization? Don't create an environment that has them coming out of this fearing to take a chance again or fearing your reaction. If folks on the team are making a competency mistake, be careful how to react to that but don't minimize the seriousness. But if it's a character mistake, you might want to be a little more aggressive because that's more of a values issue and you don't want to compromise that.
As a leader is working to get clarity on their purpose and the goal seems fuzzy, what questions can unearth further insight?
I always ask what causes them to jump for joy? What excites them? Also, what breaks their heart when they see it? What are some things that take a hold of them and they can’t let go? I always ask leaders how they got to where they are now. By telling me their stories, it helps highlight those significant moments and what they were most proud of.
Do you think leaders haven’t reflected or unpacked their own leadership stories because they don't know how or because there hasn't been a forum?
Sometimes people don't really have a clear understanding of how they got promoted in the first place. Sometimes the perception is they got there because of all the things they’ve done. A lot of leaders worry about bragging but when they do share their story fully, people will know just how challenging that was and there's a vulnerability to it. Also realizing that it isn’t about them gives a sense of freedom. What leaders have experienced gives hope to people but, if they become so concerned about themselves, they’ll get an incomplete story. And many times, your incomplete story doesn't include emotions and things that move people - it was just information, but nobody really walked away with anything that can create transformation.
Any closing thoughts?
I want to share one thing my mentor Bob Moawad said to me because it never leaves me. He would say over and over again. He would say "Eric, you have to get better at finding opportunity in difficulty versus difficulty in opportunity." So important in times like we are living in today.
So much wisdom and great content to process. Thanks Eric! Time for your rapid fire round!
So what book is on your nightstand right now? The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis.
The funniest thing that has happened to you on stage during a keynote: I had thrown my back out and I swung my arms up at an inopportune time and they stayed stuck in that position. But I got the whole crowd to laugh about it with me.
What's one word you would use to describe yourself? Passionate.
What's one word others would use to describe you: Influential.
One goal for 2020: Be closer with my wife.
One sport you play right now: Golf