Nancy Dahl became a sought-after mentor as she rose through the business ranks and into executive leadership positions. Over time, she came to see how a lack of self-awareness blocked many people from personal and professional success. Dahl spent more than two decades at Lifetouch, where she served as president and chief operating officer of two divisions until she left in 2015. She now is president and chief operating officer at the prepared-meal company Tastefully Simple. In her new book, “Grounded: Leading Your Life with Intention,” Dahl aims to show readers how to engage in a lifelong path of personal discovery, no matter their job titles or personal and professional ambitions.
Q: This book grew out of a blog you had been writing for many years. When did you realize you wanted to turn those thoughts into a book?
A: It was the continual conversations with others who said, ‘You need to write this down so others can read it.’ I was a reluctant author. I frankly didn’t think the world needed another book on leadership. For me, leadership is about impact and influence. I finally came to terms with the fact that I have something to say. It’s not new to the world, but it’s an approach that can help people get to know themselves for life. We spend 24/7 with ourselves, and we’re the hardest person to get to know. Our feedback mechanism is biased, we don’t get a clean view of what’s happening. You have to be thoughtful, consistent and disciplined about self-discovery.
Q: Who is the book written for?
A: My beta readers were ages 28 to 64, male and female. I wanted to see whether there was more interest in one age group vs. another or one gender or one ethnicity or another. And there wasn’t. They all took something from the book they could apply to their stage in life — whether it was going into retirement, starting a new career or balancing demands of work and family in midcareer. You don’t have to be a business person to get something out of this book. You have to be focused on doing your best work every day, realizing your job is never done and that work is up to you to do. It’s more of an attitude-bound book. The book is about asking questions and fueling our curiosity, which the world we live in would love to kill. It’s about learning to advocate for what you need to be your best at every stage of life.
Q: Did you have to learn the hard way to lead your life with intention?
A: This notion of being intentional came out of my small-town upbringing. There were 42 people in my graduating class, 800 people in my town. You were labeled based on your last name, what church you went to, and whether you lived on a farm or in town. I learned very early that I had to be caretaker of my brand and make sure it was my own — not a label because of your parents or grandparents. Then I went to college; there were five of us named Nancy Johnson, my maiden name. All of a sudden, I went from being prominent and people knowing who I was to being anonymous. We all shared a post office box. The only way I got the right mail is if people put my middle initial — that was my point of difference. I learned you need to be the steward of your life. That it’s up to you about how you get known, how you build your reputation.
Q: What did you see in the workplace that led you to want to help others improve their life skills?
A: The biggest frustration as a leader and mentor was to meet super bright people who have an interesting perspective on the world, but they aren’t getting traction. Their style is so bad that others manage to that style and never get to know their wisdom. Usually, they haven’t done the work to know who they are and they don’t know how to leverage their gifts. We are very complicated. We don’t know ourselves well and we don’t come with an operating manual. You have try stuff on to learn about it, enhance it and then move forward. People often don’t take time to reflect and learn. This is a huge missed opportunity to accelerate your learning.
Q: You said people don’t like to do work of being self-aware. How does your book guide people through that process?
A: One of most valuable things a leader can do is be a steward of human capital, which is 70 percent of expenses in most businesses but it’s the biggest wasteland. Leaders don’t lead well in large part because they haven’t done work on themselves. If you haven’t done the work yourself, you certainly can’t lead others. Leadership is about influence — which means it’s about other people, not about you. Oftentimes, people say: I got the chair, I got the office, I got the title, so now I get to be the boss. And then they don’t work well. The book tells a story about how to get to know yourself and does it in bite-sized pieces so you can feel its impact on the way you think very quickly. As leaders we need to create environments that encourage learning, ignite curiosity and engagement of our teams. The illiterate of the future will not be those that can’t read or write, but those who aren’t dedicated to personal learning. Curiosity is the key.