Epicured Food Delivery: Gourmet Food Solutions With A Healthy Twist with Richard Bennett

      Epicured Food Delivery: Gourmet Food Solutions With A Healthy Twist with Richard Bennett

      TTP 23 | Epicured Food Delivery

      Richard Bennett the co-founder and CEO of Epicured, a gourmet kitchen and food delivery service designed to make healthy eating simple and joyful. Epicured is the first 100% low FODMAP and gluten-free food company offering healthy, unique, and digestion-friendly menus.

      Listen to the podcast here:

      Epicured and How Healthy Eating Hits The Home Delivery Market

      My guest is Richard Bennett. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Epicured. Epicured is a gourmet kitchen and food delivery service designed to make healthy eating simple and joyful. They are the first 100% low FODMAP and gluten-free food company offering healthy, unique and digestion‑friendly menus. Richard, welcome to the program.

      Karen, thanks for having me. It’s great to be with you.

      It’s my pleasure. It’s great to be with you. You are the Co-Founder of Epicured. Why don’t you start by telling people exactly what that is?

      Epicured is a healthcare company that designs gourmet food solutions for people with chronic disease. It was why we founded the company. What has also happened is the food is so darn good that we have about 50% of our client base that doesn’t “need to eat the food,” but loves the fact that we’re clean, healthy, portion-controlled, and precooked. Everything comes fresh, not frozen, to your door, cooked by Michelin-starred chefs that we have in our kitchen and recruited from around the city to develop tasty meals for you to reheat at home or at the office.

      You’re New York-based, correct?

      I call it commuter New York for now. Our kitchen is on Long Island. Our headquarters are in Manhattan. We deliver to Long Island, the five boroughs, Westchester up into Fairfield County, Connecticut, and seven counties in Northern Jersey. Hopefully by the summertime, we’ll be going up and down the eastern seaboard, probably between Boston and Baltimore.

      Is it breakfast, lunch, and dinner? What is the offering?

      We’ve got a great expanded menu. We start with a lunch and dinner, a mix of soups and salads and bowls and entrees. We’ve since expanded to breakfast and beverages including our smoothie line. We’re going to launch our own cold brew in a couple of months. We have snacks and sides, including energy bites, trail mix granola, and a variety of other things. We’re about to launch a dessert line in a month or so as well.

      I’m curious because we live in New York, you live in New York, and you can get anything delivered any time. You can go on Seamless and get any food you want. I’m curious as to how Epicured is different from something like Seamless where you can get any food delivered that you want, and is there a market? Where did you find a market for something like this, given that we live in an area where food delivery is commonplace?

      First of all, I totally get what you mean that you can get anything you want, but in a lot of ways you can’t, so all of our food first off is non-GMO, hormone, preservative, and antibiotic-free. That’s pretty hard to find via Seamless. We’re organic where we think it matters. We’re not 100% organic, but we moderate the price point that way, so we take a lot of care in our supply chain and sourcing good clean ingredients. Second, and mostly why we founded the company was that everything we do aligns with clinical research about how to mitigate the symptoms of certain diseases. Where we started was with digestive disorders, specifically IBS, Crohn’s, colitis, celiac disease, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which needs to be gluten-free, which everyone knows about. Then there’s this other diet which only folks who tend to be afflicted with these conditions have heard about, which is called low FODMAP. Our entire menu is 100% gluten-free and 100% low FODMAP and 100% delicious and clean. We’re the only folks in the country, in fact in the world, that design and bring to life fully cooked, prepared low-FODMAP meals.

      That makes sense to me because getting the combination of all of those would be a little harder to do on Seamless or any place else. How did you get the idea and the inspiration for the company? Are you in any of those categories? Did you need to eat like that?

      I personally do not, and 25% of the US population is afflicted by one of those disorders. It certainly affects friends and family members of mine and my Co-Founder, Renee Cherkezian, is a nurse by background prior to creating Epicured with me. She and I used to work in healthcare in North Shore-LIJ and created their health and wellness arm. We know the power of food and the role it plays in people’s health outcomes, which is health industry jargon, but basically meaning the role food plays in determining how well you live. We’ve seen a lot of what I consider to be “fake healthy solutions” and nothing that truly went as deep and as rigorous to we’ve attempted to do at Epicured to align with science and clinicians and to align with great cooking methods and tastes. We always say that Epicured sits at the intersection of the clinical and culinary worlds and we try to bring the best of both to create great-tasting and delicious experiences at home or at the office with you and your colleagues or your family and that also can mitigate or solve a health problem, whether that’s something that you have or something that you’re trying to avoid.

      How did you get into this? Had you done other health companies before? What was your path as an entrepreneur to getting to co-founding Epicured?

      I’ve had great mentors all my life and a lot of mentors have led me into the healthcare space. I love healthcare because I always call it a Gordian knot of an industry. It pulls on economics and morals and science and research and it’s an unbelievably complex industry. I got to work at North Shore-LIJ for about seven or eight years. One of the roles I enjoyed the most was that I created what we called at the time Enterprise Division, which has since evolved into their venture arm. Where we were most successful back in 2006 time period was creating health and wellness businesses where we could engage our community in trying to have a healthier lifestyle. It was the first time large healthcare companies tried to engage in behavior change and to say, “We don’t want to see you when you’re sick. We want to take care of you all along the way and try to coach and help and support you have a healthy life.”

      What did that mean for us from a business perspective? We started up a gym network. We started up a pharmacy chain to promote the pharmacist’s role in consultation and make sure your meds were taken the right way. We started up a digital signage network that focused on patient education. We were one of the leaders in employee wellness before it was such a hot topic where we took care of our own 75,000 employees and all of their family members with a variety of programs. That’s where I started. My biggest failure at that point in time was to bring a consumer‑friendly consumer experience to the hospital lobbies and to meal delivery at the home with what was a clinically evidence-based healthy solution that also tasted great.

      There are a lot of unhealthy food solutions that we had in our hospital lobbies and I was tasked to go out and find replacements for that. I came back with some great options that were cool and hip, but none of them aligned with medicine or research. They were marketing healthy or fake healthy, whatever the phrase you want to use. Our medical advisory board rightfully so in a lot of ways said, “If they’re making a health claim that they can’t back up, therefore we don’t want to associate with them.” We basically left even more unhealthy options in the lobby because they weren’t making a health claim.

      When Renee and I got together, we both come from healthcare, hers as a nurse, and me as a healthcare executive and entrepreneur. We said that we need to solve this problem. This was now after the Affordable Care Act had been passed and the timing and the market and consumer desires and awareness were more mature than they were back in 2006. We said, “Let’s bring our passions together, our experiences together to try to influence, in healthcare jargon, population health, meaning, let’s see if we can help the United States eat better food and where necessary, should you have a chronic disease or condition, use food as medicine to mitigate those symptoms and live a better life.”

      Epicure is still a startup?

      Yes, absolutely. Some people call it uberstartup.

      Are you Series A, Series B, Series C? What path in the startup are you right now? How long have you been around what and where are you?

      We closed our seed round and launched the bridge round. We’ll be raising Series A capital later this year or the beginning of next. We’ve been producing food for about eighteen months. We raised our first dollar in February of 2016, so two years ago. The company has only existed on paper and with a bank account for two years producing food for eighteen months. We have great growth metrics, great customer satisfaction, and retention. We’ve more than proved what you called the minimal viable product and are now working with great investors, advisors, and partners to mature Epicured and scale the brand regionally. There’re a bunch of ways we can grow, regionally meaning geographically, we could launch additional therapeutic menus.

      For instance, 25% of our menu is already diabetic-friendly, but we would love to create additional and a full suite of offerings for diabetics. We’re talking with folks around a bariatric menu for people who have that procedure pre and post. We’re very excited to be a part of the healthcare community here in New York. We’re also very excited that Mount Sinai Health System and Mount Sinai Ventures made a large equity investment in Epicured. In doing so, they’re obviously strategic money and working with us on research, on patient education, on outcomes in their GI Department and in their Department of Internal Medicine. We’ve also been working with their Chief Human Resource Officer around employee wellness initiatives on their campuses.

      What do you think is going to be the future of targeted food delivery for those groups?

      At the moment, I always say we’re not a meal delivery company. The reason we’re here is not to deliver food in the traditional take-out way only. That’s the initial channel that we bring our product to our patients and customers, but our food has many conduits to reach that market. We’re talking about going in-house and onsite at Mount Sinai. We’re talking with large corporations in Manhattan and elsewhere about being on site for their employees. You can distribute through other retail partners. We’re in a gym in Soho for instance, Drive 495. Don Saladino is our fitness and wellness expert down there and we sell our food to his clients as a part of their lifestyle campaign to improve and to suit up and live a better life.

      TTP 23 | Epicured Food Delivery

      Epicured Food Delivery: Food is the primary driver other than genetics of a healthy lifestyle.

      We do obviously deliver food and we’ve become very competent in delivering food the “traditional way,” but that is only one piece of the larger Epicured story. The future of food and the role it plays is around consumer awareness. Everyone realizes now that food is the primary driver other than genetics of a healthy lifestyle. I always say that the fitness industry has been 20 or 30 years ahead of the food industry relative to healthcare that everyone wants to work out, everyone is joining gyms and that’s all wonderful. If you talk to Don Saladino, you talk to other trainers and lifestyle coaches, 80% of results in the gym is what you’re putting in your body with food and making thoughtful and good decisions that way. Everyone is beginning to understand that.

      Epicured is trying to lead the movement in transparent and rigorous food decisions where we design the food in our kitchen aligned with dietitians and others, but then that food comes to you and it doesn’t taste like cardboard or it doesn’t feel like a compromise. Our chefs are talented in bringing great flavors and tastes into this food. That’s why we have 50% of our client-base doesn’t “need our product,” but how we execute and prepare the food and how we select our ingredients is a world-class experience. With that combination, you can truly influence health outcomes because using the word compliance, people want to eat your food again because it tastes good and the experience is a positive one. Therefore, you can have continuity and people can eat and make these better decisions day after day as opposed to in a spurt where they feel like they’re in pain mentally because they’re not enjoying what they’re eating and/or they’re ostracized because they can’t have the joy of being together and dining with family and friends.

      One of the things that I’ve heard you talk about is the social aspects of sharing meals with others. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

      I remember I went on a cleanse a long time ago when I was testing things out back in 2006. There were some headaches and things like that from the cleanse and I was trying to drink less caffeine. The biggest pain and the thing that I missed out on the most was that I couldn’t go to lunch or to dinner with my colleagues or family. You were trying to follow such rigorous narrow approach to what you were eating that you lost the fact that food is social and emotional and cultural. If you steal that experience away from humans, it’s a big compromise to make and therefore they’re not going to be able to stick with it or they’re going to have a lot of other mental problems and concerns.

      We hear a lot of stories from our clients that we’ve brought the family back together at the dinner table because if one child or one spouse has celiac disease and has to be gluten-free and everybody else is eating gluten rich food, they’re all dining differently. The experience and the interactions change. We know for millennia that food has been central to civilization and how we interact together, so we try to pay respect to that and make the food a unifying part of your day as opposed to an isolating part of your day.

      You still might have the child who’s got celiac eating one of your meals and the rest of the family might be eating something else, correct?

      It could be their choice, but our food is so good. What we find is that they’re buying food for four then, so everyone is having or chicken tikka masala that is gluten-free and low FODMAP, but no one knows. The other three people at the table in this scenario, it’s so good, our carrot ginger soup and our truffle mac and cheese and our wild caught salmon. That’s why we lead with tastes and when people need to dig in, when you have a condition, they can go check us out and realize that we are the Epicured solution for them. If you don’t taste good, you can’t eat with us and dine with us very long, so we’re very focused on tastes and bringing the family together.

      What are your favorites personally?

      I mentioned the chicken tikka masala first for a reason. That’s definitely one of my favorites. We launched this pulled barbecue chicken with southern dirty rice that is awesome. It’s got a little bit of heat to it and I like heat. Our turkey meatballs that were launched are to die for and that pomodoro sauce that Chef Renee and Chef Chris created is mind-blowing. Those are some. Our energy bites that we’re launching are incredible. We’re happy with the product and we’re having a lot of fun innovating and bringing what we call pan global cuisines. We do everything from chicken teriyaki to chicken tikka masala to a lemon rosemary chicken, and we have great soups and salads. We’re having a lot of fun. We’re proud of the product, the customer response and loyalty thus far have exceeded my expectations and we’re having a good old time.

      Your partner in this is Renee Cherkezian. She’s a registered nurse. How did you two find each other and how did you get together and who brought up the idea first of doing the company?

      Renee definitely brought the idea first and it was Renee who named the company. I love the name, Epicured. That was her brainchild. Renee and I met back when we were freshmen at Georgetown University. I’ve known Renee for multiple decades and never did we think that we would work together. She was a nurse and she made the bold move of leaving Columbia Presbyterian and moving to France to learn how to cook and to become a chef. She came back. When she came back to New York, she went back to nursing in the day and leave it to Renee, at night, she went intern in David Burke’s Kitchen. She basically didn’t sleep for a couple of years. She was doing a lot of good work with friends and people in her network who were suffering from cancer or other health challenges and she would feed them. She knew my background when she came back from France. She and my wife and I had dinner, and she was telling us about her dreams and our experiences. Because I had done all this work at North Shore-LIJ around healthy eating, we got to talking and one thing led to another and we now are business partners and we brought Epicured to life into what it is today.

      You’re not new to new adventures in healthcare. You co-founded the health system’s first incubator, correct?

      We did. Charles Trunz, who’s a long-time mentor of mine, was a Co-Chief Operating Officer at North Shore-LIJ. He recruited me and he and I founded a company called North Shore Health Enterprises, which then spun off another company called Vivo Health, which, since we’ve left, has evolved into Northwell Ventures because the health system changed their name. Now, Northwell Ventures invests in startup companies similar to Mount Sinai Ventures, which has chosen to make a sizable investment in Epicured.

      I have a good experience in healthcare. I worked in supply chain management and revenue cycle management, and physician practice acquisition. I got to be a hospital administrator. I got to be hanging out in operating rooms and looking at how things flowed and patient experiences all before I started North Shore Health Enterprises. It’s been a wild ride. I’ve had a lot of great vantage points within healthcare to know the industry. I’m excited to be able to create a healthcare company that’s also a consumer company in which we use food as medicine, so I’m having a good time.

      What do you think is going to be challenging as we move forward? As with all these things, it’s a great idea and then the competitor start happening. We live in a world, especially in this part of the world in New York, on the East Coast, where things like this pop up all the time and you get lots of competition. What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge that Epicured particularly faces as it grows as a company?

      There are always the typical challenges with scale around quality and culture to which I’m ultrasensitive. We have some tricks up our sleeve that we won’t talk about. We’re prepared for those things and we continue to recruit first class talent. What is Epicured other than its people? We try to find the best and breed in their given technical needs and where we can deploy their talents, but mostly other than their technical contributions, their character, their ethics, or way of doing business brings a wide network of similar minded people with passion who know how to execute things in a first class way. That’s what we come in everyday and we stay focused on our client and our product and we try to be transparent. Let’s say we’re not hoping for the best, but that’s our approach to it. It’s pretty simple and fundamental.

      What’s your goal for the company? Would you like to be US-wide?

      Yes, we certainly have national aspirations and the way in which we achieve that is still very much up for grabs. There are many ways to get that done. We’re getting a four to seven typed-out emails to the company every day for people who are outside of our current delivery range asking us to ship to them. There’s clearly a need in the marketplace, and one that is so large. Whether there’s someone else who comes into the market, God bless, I believe in competition, but we’re happy to go out there and take care of the patients who are under our care and to continue to build solutions for them and to offer our product and service at the right time, in the right way, to as many people as we can.

      How many employees do you have? How many meals are you delivering? How many people are you feeding in your area?

      We’re very happy with the growth. We’re delivering thousands of meals a week at the moment and we have about twenty people on staff, the largest number of which is in our kitchen and factory on Long Island. Then we have a small team of folks who bring this to life and we have a lot of great advisors and investors and third-party partners, from designers to our website technicians and technologists and coders, to our clinical representatives who go out and build relationships for us. We’re very blessed, so the twenty people are “on payroll,” but the Epicured community is well over a hundred.

      You’re delivering several thousand meals a week or to several thousand people?

      Meals a week, so we’re still quite small from one metric, but what we care about is that the people who are with us stay with us for a very long time.

      There’re three things I like to ask people and I ask it of every guest regardless if they’re a professor at a business school or if they’re an entrepreneur such as yourself or if they’re a singer, it doesn’t matter. One of it is something I talk about, which is the joy of missing out. We have a big fear of missing out going on in the culture and I always tell people there’s the joy of missing out, so what is it that you should be missing out on? What do you think people have a fear of missing out on in regards to their food and their eating and their health that in your opinion, they shouldn’t? In other words, what should we be having a joy of missing out in regards to the larger nutrition conversation?

      Everyone likes things that you need to compromise on taste and variety to achieve certain lifestyle or health goals. We are trying to prove every day that you don’t need to miss out on that to have a joyful eating experience and that’s central to what Epicured is and to what we try to achieve every day. You have a lot of folks who always think that starting up a business and “working for yourself” is a very glamorous thing to do and I feel very blessed to be able to do it and to have had experiences that have enabled me to do it, but it is certainly not something that is easy and people should always question whether they want to do it very carefully and talk to other entrepreneurs. Certainly, when you raise capital and you have patients and you have employees, you aren’t “working for yourself.” You’re working for your clients, you’re working for your employees, and for your investors. There’s a new pressure and dynamic in your life when you make that choice and make that commitment that doesn’t exist in other work setting. When people always have a fear of missing out that they want to do their own thing, I always encourage them to reflect on that as well.

      You bring up another point I’d like to ask you about. You’ve done several startups, you’ve lived the life of an entrepreneur, you’ve been doing that for a while. What do you find challenging in this company, in Epicured, that’s different than perhaps other startups you’ve done?

      What I love about the challenge of Epicured and why I wanted to take this on with Renee was it was a physical product. There’s so much talk these days about technology and speculation and whether you need another texting app or something else for Millennials to use. I looked at that, we’ve done that, I worked at a tech company earlier on, and I love that stuff, but for me, what I wanted at this point in my life was to build a physical product. For me, that was food. We cook food and it is a fresh product with a shelf life and we have a kitchen and a factory and an assembly line and we’re bringing the vision to life physically. I always love the physicality of what we’re doing, but clearly that presents challenges. With my board and with our investors, there are a lot easier ways to make money than what we’re doing at Epicured, but to me this is a meaningful way to spend our time and our capital. We will certainly drive returns for our folks involved, but to do purpose-driven work, and I call it mission and margin work, so things where there’s a mission that can drive a margin is a very fulfilling way to go about it.

      TTP 23 | Epicured Food Delivery

      Epicured Food Delivery: Things where there’s a mission that can drive a margin is a very fulfilling way to go about it.

      Is there anybody in your life, past or current, who has had these kinds of issues with food and you’ve seen them personally struggle with trying to find things to eat? I’ve had that experience. I’ve had several friends who are gluten-free or were gluten-intolerant or had a certain medical condition. It’s better now than it’s ever been, but it has been at times challenging for them to find good food that they like to eat.

      It’s a burden on their life. With 25% of the population somehow afflicted with a digestive condition that triggers mental problems, social problems, physical pain, and a lot of other problems downstream, everyone knows somebody who is challenged with this. There are people literally in my family, there are people in my work family, several folks in my life has celiac, have colitis, and one of my investors got diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity and he has struggled with his diet. These are all things that we see day in and day out and that we’re pleased to get up in the morning and try to deliver a first class product that can do so much for so many.

      I’m curious if you’ve found that you’re getting any inquiries from people who have more serious diseases, cancer, heart disease, etc. Not the diabetes isn’t a serious disease, it’s an extremely serious disease, but more advanced diseases such as cancer, heart disease, where you’re finding that you’re having an audience who’s interested in the food from those worlds.

      All across the board, everything you mentioned, there are opportunities for us to support those patients and the folks who are in need, whether they’re going through chemotherapy or whether they are diabetic and struggling to eat or they have hypertension. There’s a variety of ways we can do that and we hope to do that and we will earn our way into doing that by focusing on what we do and taking care of the patients we have well, and we’ll find the right time to expand and to expand in the right way therapeutically to support that and those communities.

      The other question I always like to ask people on this is something that I call living beyond the script. What do you think is the prevailing script as it relates to healthy eating these days? How should we go be going beyond it?

      Everybody needs to find things that they enjoy every day and things that they look forward to everyday. If you’re not looking forward to what you’re eating, that is something people should solve and you shouldn’t be disappointed with. That’s where Epicured can solve that problem. Even when we talked with Don Saladino, who’s a world class trainer, takes care of everybody around the world, and he’s changed my life as well, for him, you have to have the right level of indulgences. It’s not about abstaining; it’s not about going so extreme that you compromise your mental or social health to maintain or get to one singular goal. You need to be well rounded. You need to find a balanced approach and we know that sounds almost like generic advice, but mindfulness, balance, and satisfaction is key to daily living. All of that is found in the details and in the little things and the little decisions you get to do, whether that’s who you smile at in the morning or the cup of coffee that you like from the corner store or whether that’s our turkey chili at lunch or whether that’s some indulgence at a fancy restaurant or a dessert at night. Who knows, but I encourage everybody to find that balance.

      The last thing is I always talk about is what I call the everyday artist. There’s always a part of everything that we do that’s art versus science. In what way do you consider yourself an artist in the work that you do?

      I love bringing the brand to life. We’ve got great designers and great creative officers who have worked with us. The idea of how to communicate and how to build a brand is something I know enough to be dangerous about, but I love sitting in those meetings talking about user experience and bringing the narrative and the look and feel of Epicured to life and to keep evolving that, so that people understand us more readily and that we can communicate with the community in a more effective way because our food is beautiful. We got great artists on staff. I’m a photographer personally as a hobby, and so I love working. Ben Fink is our food photographer and he’s a fantastic artist, as is Lori Powell, who’s our food stylist. Some of my favorite days at Epicured are with Ben and Lori out on set where we’re beginning to photograph some of Chef Renee and Chef Chris’s new creations. You can see those photos on Epicured.com, and at our Instagram handle @GetEpicured. That’s some of the fun stuff that I like to be a part of as the producer.

      Richard, thanks so much for joining me. Where can people find out more about Epicured?

      Epicured.com is where you can find us 24/7. You can also follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Karen, I always enjoy talking to you and thanks so much for the opportunity.

      Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

      My guest has been Richard Bennett. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Epicured. Epicured brings the culinary world together with the clinical world. Epicured is a gourmet kitchen and food delivery service designed to make healthy eating simple and joyful.

      Important links

      About Richard Bennett

      TTP 23 | Epicured Food DeliveryRichard Bennett is the co-founder and CEO of Epicured – the first 100% low FODMAP and gluten-free food company offering healthy, unique, and digestion-friendly menus.

      How To Grow Your Business’ Bottom Line With This Straightforward Task

      How To Grow Your Business’ Bottom Line With This Straightforward Task

      2017 was jam packed with a variety of new methods, theories and tools for spreading the word about a business. With the plethora of social sites, new apps and expert suggestions, I had my hands full. Especially since I make it a policy to never recommend anything to my clients I have not tried out myself. But there was one experiment I tried this year that produced better results than any social media campaign or speech I gave. It’s not a new theory, hot app or magical software. Rather, it’s a good old-fashioned core principle of business development that I have taught my clients for years. Click here to read it: This article originally appeared on Inc.com. 

      Are You being Harassed Personally or Professionally? 6 Ways To Make It Stop

      Are You being Harassed Personally or Professionally? 6 Ways To Make It Stop

      I came home recently from seeing a play to a slew of texts from friends commenting on the viral “me too” campaign that took over Facebook. Since I hadn’t seen it yet, I went on my feed and began to scroll only to find friends I had known for years posting two simple words: “me too.” That is when it hit me. After more than 25 years in the workforce, of course I have encountered inappropriate sexual advances at work. Along with most of the women I know, and more than a few of the men as well. Basically, “me too.” Not all harrasment is sexual. Harvey Weinstein, for example, was known for using abusive language and having screaming tirades. I also thought about how, even with all my training, I am sometimes at a loss for what to say when I feel impinged upon. I decided to ask some experts to give their best  phrases to halt harassment in its tracks. Click the below link to read what they had to say.

      This article originally appeared on Inc.com. 

      Want to Rock Your Career? A New Book Suggests Avoiding All Work & No Play

      I recently attended yet another in a long series of professional time management & productivity workshops I have been to over the course of my career. And while each has its own spin, they all promote some version of the same holy grail of an efficient work life: be focused, be persistent–and above all, be on time.

      So it was with pleasant surprise that I read Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman’s new book A Mind at Play (Simon & Schuster). The book chronicles the story of Dr. Claude Shannon, a modest, quirky mathematician and engineer who was one of the founders of the information revolution, and arguably one of the lesser-known geniuses of the 20th century.

      While you might not know Shannon’s name–you have benefited from his work. That’s because Dr. Shannon developed the idea of the “bit,” and it’s these millions of bits traveling through space that make this blog post possible.

      Shannon wasn’t just a brilliant math mind, he was also a unicyclist, an inventor, a juggler, a stock picker, a gambler, a chess player, a pilot, and the co-creator of the world’s first wearable device. He was someone who passionately followed his interests, wherever they led him, and he built a life out of doing what he loved. It’s a life that has a lot to teach us about the prevailing wisdom of productivity, and why we just may have it all wrong.

      Here are a few of the unconventional (and even counterintuitive) lessons from this 20th century genius:

      Embrace distraction.

      In his graduate school days, Shannon would find himself in the middle of working on some thorny math problem, and rather than double down and focus even harder, he would step away–and play the clarinet. Later in his life, Shannon would come into his office and spend the morning engrossed in long games of chess or juggling.

      He’s not the only one who used the distraction strategy. Albert Einstein would famously play the violin as a way of working through some challenging physics problems, and Darwin took long walks.

      These breaks, as it turns out, are part of brilliance. Top-level minds treat their mental capacity the way a sprinter treats his muscles: with brief bursts of activity, followed by periods of rest. Today’s science confirms our instinct to pause after intense work. But geniuses like Shannon, Darwin, and Einstein knew it well before the experts proved it.

      The right distraction (often considered a dirty word in the world of work) might just provide the important break you need, before your next eureka moment.

      Be an amateur.

      Dr. Claude Shannon had a PhD from MIT, worked at the hypercompetitive Bell Laboratories, and ended his career with a dual appointment in MIT’s world-renowned math and engineering departments. He won nearly every major prize in his field and was given the National Medal of Science by President Lyndon Johnson.

      And yet, for all his professional accolades, Shannon was comfortable being something that we too often take for granted: an amateur.Shannon was “an amateur unicyclist” and “an amateur juggler,” and could often be found tinkering away at his home, building things from scratch such as a robotic mouse that could navigate a maze.

      Successful entrepreneurs, experts, and businesspeople often feel the pressure to be successful in all parts of their lives. But one lesson from Shannon’s genius is his willingness to not be a genius–his willingness to try and test and play.

      Walk away from your successes.

      Shannon experienced a brief flash of fame after the publication of his seminal work on information theory in 1948. Life Magazine wanted him. He was put on national television. He even got a spread in Vogue magazine. If he wanted to, Shannon could have ridden the wave of his popularity for a long time.

      But instead, he wrote a 350-word piece letting his colleagues know that things had gotten out of hand. A document–that flies totally in the face of Shannon’s self-interest. Shannon took it even one step further: He walked away from the field of information theory almost entirely and pursued other lines of research and inquiry. That decision led to some of the most imaginative, out-of-the-box work he ever produced.

      How often do we feel the pressure to repeat ourselves, doing the same thing, the same way, for years, just because we are good (or great) at it? Shannon’s brilliance shows us that we shouldn’t be afraid to walk away. Our best work might just be right around the corner.

      A Mind at Play show us that you don’t need to be a genius to learn from a genius. Claude Shannon’s inventive, vibrant life demonstrates how vital the act of play can be to making the most of work.

      This article originally appeared on Inc.com.

      Is Your Executive Presence Taking Away From the Talent of Those Around You?

      According to a recent Gallup World Poll, a lot of people around the globe hate their job–and specifically their boss. In fact, the survey found that only 15 percent of the one billion full-time employees worldwide are engaged. In the U.S., roughly 30 percent are engaged, but that still leaves 70 percent of Americans unhappy campers when Monday morning rolls around.

      As a management and marketing consultant, I always find myself asking why when I read those kinds of startling stats. I’ve found one clear explanation–and some ideas about what to do about it–in Liz Wiseman’s newly updated and revised book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.

      “The most intelligent leaders, really smart, capable people, don’t always engender intelligence in those around them,” says Wiseman.

      One of the contributing factors to this is that executive presence is often defined as having a big energy. Think of the iconic image of the strong CEO giving a speech while waving his or her arms around and pacing the stage like a panther to command respect and attention.

      Wiseman, who has spent more than a decade studying effective leadership, calls these executive scene-stealers “diminishers” and points out that when they walk into a room, it often goes quiet. Why? Because their employees know that the leader has to be the smartest person in the room.

      Wiseman jokes that anyone who has ever worked for even a week knows the type. But it’s not funny when you consider that Wiseman’s research shows that under diminishers, people work at 50 percent of their capability.

      “Staff want to play it safe,” says Wiseman, “so they hold back and say, ‘You know what? He’s got it all figured out. Let’s let him do his thing.’ They end up becoming more spectators rather than true followers.”

      Be a multiplier, not a diminisher.

      Wiseman, who was fascinated by this dynamic, wanted to know why it was that such a super-smart person was not able to end up building an equally smart team. At the same time, she identified a different group of smart leaders that she calls “multipliers.” These executives were equally as intelligent as their suppressive counterparts, but they used their smarts in a very different way.

      Wiseman likens the smarts style of these leaders to being a floor for sharp thinking, rather than a ceiling.

      Learn to spot raging versus accidental diminishers.

      There are leaders who have such a strong brand that they end up consuming all the oxygen in the room and suffocating other people with their bigness–and apparently they like it that way. Wiseman calls these folks “raging diminishers,” and their hidden (or not so hidden) feeling is “I don’t really want you to think. I’ll do the thinking for us.”

      “What I find much more interesting is not the raging diminisher,” says Wiseman, “but the accidental diminisher. This is the executive who genuinely wants other people to be big and to do their best thinking and work.”

      The path to the accidental diminisher is often more subtle. It begins when the leader becomes the go-to person everyone relies on for answers. Eventually, the people around the leader get weaker.

      “I had this one boss who was brilliant at talking with customers,” says Wiseman. “We would get in a room together with a customer, and–even though I’m not shy–I deferred to him. I felt like he could always do just a little bit better of a job than I could, and I was pleased to let him do that.”

      If you follow this train of logic, it’s not a surprise that pretty soon Wiseman’s boss was doing all the hard work, while she got to the point where she didn’t even really offer input. The problem was not that Wiseman’s boss was saying, “No, Liz; I will handle this.” Instead, he became an accidental diminisher. “I just became lazy because he was so good,” says Wiseman.

      Evaluate your actions.

      So what’s a well-intended leader to do? Wiseman says it’s mostly a function of awareness and learning to use your strengths judiciously. It comes down to asking yourself:

      • Does my behavior create a platform for other people to go big?
      • Is this the moment for me to be big?
      • Am I overplaying my strengths?

      Is the effort to become aware of, and let go of, the reins worth it? Wiseman’s research showed that when executives switch from diminishing to multiplying mode, they get a twofold increase in staff effectiveness and productivity.

      So take a page from the best leaders’ playbook: Go forth and shut up. Sometimes, it’s the smartest thing to do.

      This article was originally published on Inc.com.

      Training, Executive Coaching & Leadership Development: Is It Worth It?

      Even in small and medium size businesses executive development is all the rage these days. Case in point: According to the 2016 ICF Global Coaching Study, total annual revenue from executive coaching in North America was up 35.2 percent from 2011 to 2015.

      Likewise, the 2015 Training Magazine Industry Report showed that for three years running, 29 percent of organizations surveyed said management/supervisory training will receive more funding than the year before.

      That same training industry report highlighted that the highest priorities were increasing the effectiveness of training programs followed by reducing costs, improving efficiency, and measuring the impact of these training programs.

      To keep your executive development program on track, keep the following four things in mind:

      1. Don’t mistake a survey for a strategy.

      Too many businesses conduct 360 interviews on their executives and call it a day. While a survey about leadership strengths (and areas for improvement) is a good starting point, it’s not the road map needed for an executive development program. A holistic program includes:

      • An assessment.
      • A 6-12 month plan for improvement with specific goals and defined projects.
      • Measurable outcomes, both subjective and objective.
      • A coach, mentor or other individual who can help guide the process.

      2. Do define development.

      Too often companies put executives through an executive development program aimed at creating a hodgepodge of positive virtues, such as being a good listener, empowering others, and being a fair and concerned mentor and coach. While these may form the foundation of executive development, the devil is in the details.

      Specifically defining the attitudes, capabilities, and skills you are looking for from your leaders helps ensure success for both the individual and your company. For example, instead of improving listening skills, make the goal an increased ability to effectively lead a brainstorming session where there are vast differences of opinion present in the group.

      3. Don’t force people to participate.

      In an ideal world, every manager in your business would be knocking down your door begging for personal development. While this does occasionally happen, it’s not the norm.

      However, given the opportunity, many managers will find the idea of an executive development program exciting. For those who don’t, forcing them to participate will likely backfire and create even more resistance.

      The best path is to show how the prospective program could personally benefit the individual; explain why you are offering it and what’s involved. Then let them choose to participate or not — with no negative consequence if they decide to decline.

      Even for the holdouts, seeing their peers pass them by in terms of growth and development often serves as a powerful motivator to eventually change their minds and jump in.

      4. Consider calling in outside experts.

      While you, or your HR staff, may have the capability to create and deliver an executive development program, there is a case to be made for bringing in some help from the outside.

      The opportunity for objective feedback, a safe place to share feelings, and an unbiased perspective can greatly enhance the benefit individuals receive from an executive development program. In addition to bringing in an executive coach or trainer who specializes in this, there are a whole slew of off-site personal growth and mastery programs available.

      I’ve personally participated in several of these in my career, and I’ve been so impressed that I’ve served as a consultant or board member for a few more. There are a wide range of programs out there, and which one you choose depends greatly on time, cost, location, and desired outcomes. If you’re looking for a place to dramatically improve your or your staff’s leadership skills, as a starting point, consider The Hoffman ProcessLearning as Leadership, and The Strozzi Institute.

      Executive coach, company mentor, off-site program, or in-house training — regardless of the path, the key to a productive executive development program is a genuine commitment.

      Executive development taken on to make a check in the box of good leadership behavior wastes your money and your managers’ time. But when embraced as a true path to company excellence and personal development, the benefits reaped by both the individual and the business usually go well beyond the price paid.

      This article originally appeared on Inc.com.

      How To Turn Your Business From a Noun to a Verb

      Years ago I went to visit some friends who lived in South Lake Tahoe. As I came over the crest of the hill, the panoramic view opened up before me. White snowy mountains, a deep blue lake, and crisp green pine trees–I was hooked.

      So hooked in fact that I decided to buy a cute cabin in a quiet neighborhood a few short blocks from the lake. As part of my ownership obligation, I was advised by my local realtorto make my new home as “cabiny” as possible. The reasoning behind this was that renters apparently expect a Tahoe cabin to look, well–like a Tahoe cabin.

      When I inquired as to what exactly comprised this mountain-esqe decor, I was shown images of log furniture, pinecone ornamentation, and anything with a moose on it–moose placemats, moose lampshades, moose pencil cup holders, and yes, even a moose toilet paper holder.

      Despite the fact that no actual moose have been seen in South Lake Tahoe for decades, the moose theme is so synonymous with cabin life that my friend Lynette and I coined the term “moosey” as a kind of shorthand to represent all things South Lake Tahoe–decoration-wise, that is.

      Essentially we had transformed the word “moose” from a noun to a verb. For example, my cabin did not need an interior design update. Rather, it was in need of a moose-i-fication makeover and some moose-ing up.

      The slang name for this process is “verbing.” The official term, according to etymologists, is “anthimeria,” meaning a functional shift in the use of a word.

      Successful brands do this all the time. Google has now become so associated with the activity of searching the web that regardless of the search engine you may be using (Yahoo!, Bing, YouTube, etc.) the common expression is “I’m going to Google that.”

      Hoping to turn a noun into a verb in your business? Bear in mind that this requires a fair amount of fate–one communications professor, Scott R. Hamula of Ithaca College, says it’s “more aspirational than achievable and involves a lot of serendipity.”

      Regardless, here are three steps you can follow to help lady luck moosify (so to speak) your brand:

      1. Replace a sentence for the action with a single word.

      Brands that become verbalized replace sentences that represent actions with single words. For example, people don’t say, “I will Gmail that” because a word for that–“email”–already existed. They do however say, “I’ll Uber,” because prior only a sentence such as “I’m going to call a car service to get home from the party,” could convey the idea.

      Ask yourself:

      • What actions do people take when they use your service or product?
      • Is there a current word that exists for that? If not, is there a single word you can extract to represent the action?
      • Are you the first to bring this to market? If not, is there an aspect of what you are doing that is first?
      • Is there a way we can make our brand an “ing” so that it is a thing?

      2. Keep it to two or three syllables.

      A Skype call, Google search, Photoshop image, or FedEx package. All of these have one thing in common: They’re simple to say and contain very few syllables. In general the shorter and sweeter you can keep the term, the greater the chance you have that it will catch on.

      3. Socialize it.

      The more you can use your noun as a verb in your marketing collateral and conversation with your customer base, the stronger the possibility that it will become verbalized. For example, Twitter created and promoted the idea of “tweeting”–and now even presidents do it.

      One word of warning.

      Turning your company brand into a verb can potentially endanger the trademark, if it becomes the generic term for the product or service; i.e., Xerox (for copies) and Kleenex (for tissues). Barbara Findlay Schenck, coauthor of Branding for Dummies, points out that Rollerblade inline skates spends heavily to educate consumers that rollerblading isn’t a sport; it’s a specific brand.

      Consider the trademark case where Windsurfer applied for a wind-propelled, surfboard-like apparatus patented in 1968. The term was presented as a verb (windsurfing) to describe the sport of sailboarding, and the courts found the mark to be generic and no longer protectable.

      If all this has your head spinning and you feel like you might need some time to step back and think about how to verbalize your brand, I’ve got a nice cabin in the woods that’s all moosed up and ready to go.

      This article originally appeared on Inc.com.

      Small Businesses Beware: Bad Boss Behavior Doesn’t Just Happen in Big Companies

      Sexual harassment, temper tantrums, a ruthlessly aggressive corporate culture and disgruntled drivers. These are just a few of the plethora of problems facing Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. So much so that after a heated exchange with an Uber driver that went viral in May of this year, Kalanick publicly declared, “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help, and I intend to get it.”

      But executive intervention may not have come hard or fast enough for the CEO, who as of this week is on track for a leave of absence. The bigger story here, however, (beyond the Uber debacle itself) is the underlying issue of toxic bosses — a problem not limited to large companies but equally rampant in many small businesses and start-ups, as well.

      In one study from the University of Manchester’s Business School, researcher Abigail Phillips found that leaders who show narcissistic tendencies and have a strong desire for power are often lacking in empathy, a toxic combination which can result in those individuals:

      • Taking credit for the work of others
      • Being overly critical
      • Behaving aggressively

      “In short,” says Phillips, “bad bosses have unhappy and dissatisfied employees who seek to ‘get their own back’ on the company.” Specifically, the research showed that working for a toxic boss can result in:

      • Lower job satisfaction
      • High levels of clinical depression
      • Counterproductive workplace behavior
      • Increased workplace bullying

      And the impact of toxic bosses is not just limited to the internal workings of the organization but can have dramatic consequences for a corporation’s reputation as well.

      Toxic bosses are bad for business.

      One study, reported on in the Harvard Business Review by Stanford Professors David Larcker and Brian Tayan, found that the impact of bad boss behavior on company standing was dramatic. In the reported incidents that Larcker and Tayan studied, the specific story of bad behavior was cited in more than 250 news stories each, on average. In addition, the CEOs’ behaviors were still being referenced online up to an average of almost 5 years after the initial incident occurred.

      A flood of frustration.

      OK, so I think we can all agree at this point — toxic bosses, bad. But how do you make sure the strain and stress of the job isn’t overcoming your naturally jovial nature and turning you into a tyrant? Anna Maravelas, author of How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress, says the place to start is by identifying when you are experiencing the neurobiological state of flooding.

      “Flooding is when our body becomes awash with adrenalin and cortisol,” says Maravelas. “The stress and pressure of the workplace can lead to a flight or fight response in reaction to frustration and make otherwise good people into toxic bosses.” Maravelas says that the walnut-sized amygdala part of the brain lights up during flooding and interferes with analytical thinking, memory and even hearing. The key to halting this tidal wave of hormonally induced bad behavior is to pay attention to the little pause that happens in between the time when something happens and we react.

      3 possible responses

      According to Maravelas, there are three habitual thinking responses:

      1. Blaming the other person or situation. For example, you are waiting in line at the local deli, anxiously looking at your watch, worrying about being on time to your next meeting with a new prospective client. You find yourself thinking, “What is wrong with these morons? Could they move any slower?” This type of response inflames the flooding response and can lead to inappropriate expressions of anger.
      2. Blaming yourself. You are standing in the same line at the local deli worried about being late, but saying to yourself, “I always do this. I am such an idiot. I should have left earlier; now I am going to be late.” This type of response is reactive and focuses the anger inward, and it often leads to depression.
      3. Curiosity and problem solving. There you are in the same line, finding yourself concerned about being on time for your next meeting. What you are saying to yourself is, “I know this clerk is doing the best he can, and they are short staffed. I’m here at peak time. Is it worth it to wait? Should I just leave or text and say I may be late?” This type of response allows for the greatest degree of problem solving and is an antidote to flooding.

      “The first and second responses blame either another person, a [NM2] system or yourself,” says Maravelas. “The third response generates curiosity and humility and looks for data.” All three responses become cognitive habits — unconscious or not — and can be changed with practice and by working backward. “If you are flooded, it’s likely that it’s because of something you are saying to yourself,” says Maravelas. “Go upstream and identify what triggered your sense of anger, hopelessness, etc., and change what you are saying to yourself to be more organized around the third response — curiosity and problem solving,” she says.

      As for Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Maravelas says it’s probably a good idea for him to take a break. This way he can get some distance from the demands of the job and put the brakes on the flooding that’s leading to his bad boss behaviors.

      This article originally appeared on Inc.com.

      Research Shows Why a Sunny Outlook May Not be The Best Way to Lead

      Decades ago, when I was just beginning my journey as a management consultant, I had the good fortune to work with Liz Wiseman, who at the time was the Director of Learning and Development for Oracle. Since then she has gone on to found The Wiseman Group and author several best-selling books including the newly released 2nd edition of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.

      One of the findings of Liz’s years of research is that just because a leader possesses a trait in abundance doesn’t mean that it’s contagious and that others around them pick it up in a positive way.

      Are you the iconic optimistic leader?

      One example Wiseman cites is the iconic optimistic leader. You know them — the positive can-do people who see possibilities and paths forward everywhere. These cheerful C-suite executives recognize the capability in others and themselves at every turn. Even when they take on something hard, they bring a can-do attitude in abundance.

      “It’s like wearing one of those rubber wristbands, only it says, ‘I can do hard things,'” jokes Wiseman. “This observation comes not only from my years of research, but also from looking in the mirror,” says Wiseman.

      A self-described “raging optimist,” Wiseman struggles with her own positivity. “I don’t have a lack of optimism; instead I struggle with too much,” explains Wiseman. She goes on to explain that her personal awareness about this dynamic came to her by surprise and with a sting. Here’s the story she tells…

      “I’m working with a colleague on writing an article on a pretty tough piece of research and analysis for a prestigious academic journal. Towards the end of the project, my colleague pulls me aside and says, ‘Liz, I need you to stop saying that thing you say all the time.’ ‘What thing?’ I ask him. I really did not know what he was talking about.

      “‘You say it all the time,’ he said. ‘It usually goes, “Hey, we can do this. We’ve got this.”‘

      “Recognizing my own optimism, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I do say that all the time.’ ‘That is my way of saying that we’re smart and we can figure this out, that I have this belief in what we can do,’ I explain to him.

      “‘Well, I need you to stop saying it.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘This is good leadership. Optimism, we need that just to survive,’ I say. ‘The reason I need you to stop saying that is because what we are doing is hard; it’s really hard, Liz, and as my manager, I need you to acknowledge it.’

      “In that moment I realized that my can-do, get-it-done personal brand was setting a pace that was making it really hard for other people to keep up with me.

      “I came to the conclusion that sometimes my optimism — which is a gift — can also translate into processing a little too fast for other people. I need to give them time to process at their own speed.”

      Dispense your executive presence in small but intense doses.

      That personal experience, combined with her research and work with leaders, has led Wiseman to the conclusion that the really great leaders know how to dispense their executive presence in small, but intense, doses.

      “When a leader is always on, they become white noise,” says Wiseman. That’s one of the ways executives end up as what Wiseman calls “accidental diminishers.” These are leaders who have an intention for their staff to be empowered but are so whipped up with positive energy all the time, they end up diminishing those around them. “They think their energy is infectious, but not only are they sucking up all the oxygen in the room, they are getting tuned out,” says Wiseman. “People around them are like, ‘You’re killing me with your energy. I’m dying here.'”

      So what’s the enthusiastic and eager executive to do? Wiseman suggests two almost ridiculously easy (but highly effective) ways to rein in your energy, without losing your optimistic edge.

      Practice the five-second rule.

      After you ask a question, wait five seconds to give the person a chance to think. For many leaders, when no one answers immediately, the tendency is to want to answer themselves. Don’t. Some people are fast witted, quick to process and quick to answer, but not everyone. Not all forms of intelligence manifest themselves in speed.

      Avoid rapid response.

      Optimistic leaders are often quick to respond immediately to situations and take action, even if someone else on their team could handle it. Except in a case of immediate required response, try taking a hands-off stance for 24 hours.

      In both these cases, it’s the power of the pause that creates the opportunity. It gives other people, who may not be so quick on the draw, a chance to comfortably formulate opinions and bring their own brand of optimism to the party — even if it’s a few decibels lower than yours.

      To learn more about how you can be a multiplier, check out my podcast with author Liz Wiseman.

      This article originally appeared on Inc.com.