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Episode #177
Liane Davey

Benefit From Conflict And Build Effective Teams

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Do you want to know how to build effective teams and benefit from conflict? Liane Davey, known as the “Teamwork Doctor,” has worked with 26 Fortune Global 500 companies. She joins Michael Zipursky to share how you can be a valuable asset to your team. Don’t be afraid to tell your clients or colleagues what they don’t want to hear, especially when you know they’re doing it wrong, so you can help them make it work! But that’s only half of it! The other half? Be fun to work with! Care for the people around you and listen to them. Don’t miss this episode to learn more from Liane!

I’m here with Liane Davey. Liane, welcome. 

Thanks. I’m so glad to be here, Michael.

You are known as the Teamwork Doctor. You work with clients like Amazon, Walmart, Google, KPMG, Sony, a whole bunch more that people likely know. You’re a keynote speaker and a New York Times bestselling author. You speak about leadership teamwork and resolving conflicts. You’re also a regular contributor to HBR, other media outlets like CNN, NPR, Forbes, and a whole bunch of others that seek out your expertise. I notice that you studied psychology at Western University and then got your Master’s and PhD from Waterloo. These are top schools in Canada for anyone going, “What are those schools?” To start off, tell us how much of what you learned during that time when you were studying psychology, organizational, institutional, so forth, do you feel it prepare you for entering the world as a consultant where you are now, and then we’ll fill in some gaps? 

CSP 177 | Building Effective Teams


My doctoral program at Waterloo was phenomenal in a few ways and did leave me feeling very prepared. Certainly, Waterloo has a large and prestigious psychology department. All of the understanding the theories of human behavior and behavior at work was all there. Even just to get my Master’s, there were fourteen courses you had to take just to get a Master’s. That was excellent. It was amazing. We then had to do Waterloo. For those who don’t know Waterloo, it is one of the world leaders in co-op education. Even getting your Master’s degree, we were required to do a co-op term. I had work experience and I had a consulting contract as my work experience, so that was great.

The thing I’m most grateful for many years later is when I decided that I was interested in innovation and how team dynamics affect innovation, Waterloo is the place where I could say that I had one PhD advisor in Psychology and one in Engineering. How cool is that? I wanted to study how team and human dynamics affect innovation. We had an Institute for Innovation Research at Waterloo. That was another great learning to say, “If there’s something you want, even if you can’t color within the lines, it’s not a standard psychology program, go make it happen for yourself. Learn and get access to the people you need.” Waterloo was a place where it was like, “Sure, we’ve never had somebody have an advisor in psychology and one in engineering, but it sounds good to us.” I came out feeling well-prepared and less so from the specific courses. If I think about all the psychology studies that I thought were truth, many of them have been debunked since. It was those places where there was ambiguity. I was expected to bring order to chaos and build a program for myself. That’s the stuff that prepared me for consulting for sure.

As you transitioned from education into the beginning of your career, you worked at a company called Watson Wyatt as a Senior Consultant for about 6.5 years. Looking back, what were a couple of big lessons that you took from those years there that you’ve now benefited from as you work with clients all around the world? 

I share this advice all the time with people graduating or people in the career hunt. I always say, “Figure out what currency you have and what you want to buy with it.” I was finishing a Doctorate in Psychology and a lot of my doctoral work focused on measurement. My internship was building a measurement system. Some of my research was around building measurement. I was pretty advanced on statistics. I knew at the time coming out in 1998 that employee engagement was all the rage. There were a lot of statistics going on around the employee surveys. I had this currency even as a 26-year-old female. I had something and was seen as more expert in something than the people that they had in the firm. I didn’t want to do stats and employee surveys for very long.

The first important thing I learned is that you could use your own currency to buy something you wanted. It turns out employee surveys get reported to the executive team, and sometimes even to the board of directors. I was going to be able to buy access. Although I didn’t yet have credibility about what they could do to fix the problems of a survey, I was going to be in those conversations. That was a big learning for me. All through my life now I figure out, what are the currencies I have? It’s hard because we take those things for granted when we have them. They’re just who we are, how we think, or how we’re wired. We can think of them as currencies and then be clear on where those currencies are particularly valuable in what we can get with them. That was a big learning.

The other big learning there from a consulting perspective was Watson Wyatt was a firm that had grown up from actuarial pension and benefits. I was in this weird, strange human capital group talking about organizational effectiveness, and what they would have called touchy-feely stuff. I learned that it’s hard to be the small upstart practice in consulting. It’s hard to be the type of person where it’s a different business model than what the core is. I learned about being an outsider. At the same time, I learned that a small group of us had a vision for what was possible if human capital, human behavior experts came together with benefits experts, actuaries, compensation experts, and what was possible when we got into interdisciplinary work and how we could solve some of the juiciest, hardest, most interesting challenges for clients.

When I left Watson Wyatt, it was to try and do some more of that, like how do I get even more opportunity for that interdisciplinary stuff? I’m not motivated by the siloed deep expertise. My dad used to tell me that, “Getting a PhD was learning more and more about less and less until you learned everything there was to know about nothing.” I already had that bias of not wanting to be so deep that I wanted to have some breadth.

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When you mentioned currency, that’s a powerful concept, framework for people to play with. If you were talking to somebody, what questions would you suggest they ask themselves? What would be the process that you would recommend that somebody should go through to maybe uncover what the potential currency or what the most “profitable” currency could be for them? 

You can start by asking it of yourself and I would do things like looking at, “What are some of the skills I have? What is some of the knowledge I have? What’s my personality?” You can go through a reflection exercise about yourself. Each time you list something, I always say, “What? So what? Now, what?” When you say, “I know how to program in Python,” that’s nice, what’s the so what of that? “So I can do this or so I can help to bridge communication between these people in these people who don’t normally talk to each other well.” Get to the so what, and then get to the now what. Who could I talk to about that? Where could I apply it? What might I need to add to that to make it powerful? You can go through that yourself. My experience in talking to people about this concept is that you won’t get a full answer by doing that. We’re not very good at it. We’re like fish in the water we swim in. We don’t even know it’s there. Once you do that, I would ask the same questions of someone else, “When you think about me, when you think about what I would bring to an organization.”

I was talking to somebody about it and they had had lots of global experience. They took that for granted. I said, “Here’s a company where all that work you did.” This is somebody who worked in a massive technology firm and she was in HR. She had led a project on getting work moved to the best geography to do it in. How do we get more of our engineers in India and how do we understand? She’d done all this global work. It was in HR, but she had this global business expertise that was a real currency. She thought about it as, “I don’t know, it was a project I did.” Give it to somebody else and ask them those questions as well. What do you know about me? What’s the value of that? How could I frame it, and then the now what? What would I have to do to turn that into a currency?

That’s powerful. It reminds me of an exercise that one of our early coaches gave us, which was to email 10 or 15 different people that we had relationships with, and ask them in my case, “What do you know me best for? What do you think I’m best at?” It was interesting to get back those replies from people because then you start looking for the common threads. It’s not just like the one-offs, but what are multiple people saying that is the same, and then, are you leveraging and communicating those? Oftentimes, we don’t. The example you shared is a great one.

Asking them, “Who do you know who values that?” Don’t miss the second half of the question. Where is that a currency? They also are more likely to know places that you know who would value that, and you might never have thought of that, “Really? That would be valuable to them?” Ask the follow-up as well.

That’s a great point. Often, people don’t ask that next question. You get some information and you’re like, “Great.” You think of what but don’t act on it. From a marketing perspective rights, you might do some outreach to get in front of somebody, but if you don’t follow up, you’re missing the majority of the opportunities. That’s a great example there. Let’s fast forward for a moment then. You spend those 6.5 years there. You then spent ten years at a search, recruiting, and leadership company as an executive. Were you at that point already starting to think about going out on your own and starting your own business, or were you heads down deep in the executive world? 

My dad was an entrepreneur for many years and by the time I moved to Knightsbridge, he was thinking about it and harassing me about it, “When are you going to go in on your own?” To me, the equation was always, “Am I more valuable to Knightsbridge than they are to me?” My answer to that question for 9.5 years was no. They are just as valuable to me in what I’m learning that I had executive experience opportunities, the caliber of my colleagues was phenomenal. The math for me for a long time worked out well. When I left Watson Wyatt to go to Knightsbridge, I always described it as I needed to be repotted. If my flowers are going to bloom as nicely as possible, I just needed to be repotted. It was because the clients, the accounts, and the challenges we had, I had learned how to succeed at those.

People were already coming to me for answers to how to think about things. I’m like, “I’m 33. I’m way too young to be the one people are coming to. I need to go somewhere where I’m not the smartest person in the room. I need to repot myself.” For a long time, I felt like the pot had a lot of room in a nice fridge. It was great. At a certain point, I was like, “I need some new challenges.” While I had been a leader, that was great. I wanted to be a business owner. When I first left, I thought I wanted to grow a firm. It took me about three months to realize that no, I didn’t. I loved being at Knightsbridge. For most of that time, I was very all-in to building something. I loved the idea of this Canadian firm that was recognized on the Kennedy Information grid. We were punching above our weight in the world. That was super fun. I had a valuable experience at Knightsbridge. I loved it.

You mentioned it was clear for you at that point that you did want to start a business even before you did. Why was that clear? Why not go off and take this ten years of experience as an executive, a VP at Knightsbridge, and go to a bigger company or whatever growth looks like for you that would be meaningful? Why not do that? What was the conversation in your mind that, “I want to start my own business?” 

CSP 177 | Building Effective Teams


I’m not very goal-oriented and I’m not very money-oriented. My boss for many years at Knightsbridge, who’s a dear friend, would every year talk about, “What are your goals? Where do you want to be in five years?” That question always left me cold. It was like, “I don’t know. I want to feel like every day I’m learning new things. I’m stretching. I’m doing something interesting as long as that’s true, I’m good.” I could have gone to another firm. I probably would have meant higher sales targets, more I needed to build, and more I needed to do for other people. If I’m honest about it, we had an annual general meeting at Knightsbridge at one point. I was a shareholder by that point. They announced that they were selling the company. What I looked at was that people who bought in at the beginning, and then didn’t work in the firm, they had lots of money.

They put their money in and went away. They made huge amounts of money off of Knightsbridge. I said, “Off of me.” It was me missing dinners with my kids. It was me working my butt off that got them all that money. At some point I was like, “If I’m going to make somebody rich, I’d rather it was me than some old white guy who is like playing tennis while I’m working.” I got a little disillusioned in the system at some point. I didn’t want to join another consulting firm. I don’t think I ever would have a firm better than Knightsbridge. I loved that firm. There was nothing wrong with it that wouldn’t be more wrong somewhere else. It was just the whole model at some point. I don’t want to work for somebody else anymore and I don’t want to work as hard. Ever since starting 3COze, leaving Knightsbridge, we’ve taken nine weeks of vacation every year. I didn’t want to work as hard.

Thanks for sharing that. That’ll resonate with a lot of people and be helpful as they consider where they are in their life now. You also mentioned that you initially planned when you started your company 3COze or thinking about it that you might build a firm. You’ve dialed that back to where essentially it’s you and your cofounder who is your husband. Why were you so excited about the firm model, and then why did you decide to roll that back into being more focused or smaller scale with you and your husband running the company?

If you think about that annual general meeting and I think, “I don’t want to make somebody else rich. I want to make myself rich,” I was so in the grind of our growth culture, of our bigger is better culture, more money is better culture. I had always been in that. I was very self-confident. I felt like I could do that as well, anybody could do that. It was just momentum, inertia. I got out 2 or 3 months where at 3:00 I can be like, “I don’t have anything else pressing. I’m going to cook a fancy dinner, or I’m going to go to the gym,” or whatever. I was like, “This is the best-kept secret. There is more to life than this.” It was within 2 or 3 months that I realized that growth is not a panacea. Craig and I were completely aligned about this. It’s interesting. We’re members of an industry association of other firms like ours. Some of the people in these are well-known names that all of your readers would know. I had quiet conversations with them, we joined that organization our first year. I said, “If you were where I am, would you grow? Would you build a firm?” Many of them said, “No, don’t do it.” They said, “I’ve made more revenue every year, but I’ve never made more profit than I made when I was doing it. My lifestyle has suffered.”

It was understanding and getting out of that hamster wheel that so many of us are on. In consulting, you’re constantly on it and just saying, “I want to do phenomenal work. I want to translate that phenomenal work into ideas, books, and articles that change the world. I don’t want to take it all too seriously.” When we started 3COze, our elder daughter was going into high school. We made a call that we wanted those four years we had left with her to be very family-oriented. We said, “We’re going to take the entire month of August and do a sabbatical every year. We’re going to go to a continent a year.” We did five continents over five years. All those things were possible because we got off the growth trajectory. We just said, “A meaningful work, translated into things that will change the world with the space to play, enjoy, and thrive.” That’s been the story for the five-year since.

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Thanks for sharing that. I want to push back a little bit because as our readers are taking this in, some people might be saying, “Tell me more about how did you reach that decision point,” because someone might be in a very similar position where they’re transitioning from corporate into consulting. As you said, you’re working through maybe the early days of your business. They don’t have a ton to do because they don’t have a ton of clients. It’s 3:00 PM, and you could cook a nice fancy meal, which next time please send me the invitation. You could do what a lot of people do which is, “It’s 3:00, what else can I do now? What else do I need to work on to build a business to contact more people like hustling, grinding, and putting in more work?” If you think back to that time, what shifted in your mind coming off of the growth, focus moving forward to, “I’m happy. I’ve gotten what I need to get done today. I don’t need to keep grinding. I don’t need to keep pushing, I’ll get back to it tomorrow?” Was there something that you learned trying to get to the source of where that shift came from? 

Here’s me, I’m giving you all the real goods. I don’t know what people are going to think about me afterward but part of it was, I started putting the checks in the bank. It’s pretty amazing how much you realize when you’ve worked in a consulting firm, I was probably making about $0.20 on the dollar, and all of a sudden you can charge less. I didn’t charge less, but you can charge less, work half as much, and make twice as much. It’s crazy the extent to which consulting firms are huge beasts with massive overhead. That means any given practitioner is probably making a very small percentage of what they’re bringing into the firm if you’re good. It was funny because I had my last day at Knightsbridge on one day. The next day, I was in Silicon Valley, facilitating strategy for Sony PlayStation, the first day.

How did that happen?

A connection.

Was there someone you knew? Take us through the early days of how did you build the business. How do you get your first few clients?

A couple of things. One, that was a person who’d been a client of mine at Knightsbridge. She left the company where she had been a Knightsbridge client and moved to Sony PlayStation, and she phoned. There was no non-solicit involved. This is a relationship business. That particular client who’s also a dear friend now has brought us into four companies. She keeps getting these promotions and these interesting jobs and every time she phones us. That was the first thing. I did have a non-solicit agreement, so I wasn’t allowed to call any clients. The clients in a LinkedIn world and a non-solicit feels so irrelevant. They would call and I would send a message to Knightsbridge and say, “This person has called, are you okay with me?” There was a good chunk that was existing clients. I didn’t want to leave Knightsbridge in the lurch. I loved the company and the people. I said, “If there’s work that you own, that you want me to continue to deliver.” Part of it was that I continued delivering for 6 or 8 months. I did some work to make sure my clients were kept whole, that projects were finished.

The phone rang and again the business has grown since then, but it didn’t need to grow. I only needed to do about 50% as much work that first year to make more money than I had made before. It was one call and the next, and in a LinkedIn world, people find you. The biggest business development strategy in 3COze is exactly what I was talking about with that one client. It’s that somebody leaves a company, and we keep working with the initial company because you’re doing good work and you’ve earned it, and you add the new company. The number of my clients now, that are things where I could trace a family tree of clients, is almost all of them.

Is there anything that you’ve done over the years to ensure that you’re nurturing the pipeline, the connections, and the relationships that you have to stay on top of that? Is it just pen and paper, or you think of people naturally? Is there any system, tool, or any way that you manage that whole process of the business development side?

Since I’ve decided that we’re going full candor, I’m terrible at nurturing relationships. I’m horrible at it. One of the reasons I’m a good facilitator is because I’m very in the moment. The problem is when I’m not working with a client, I’m not usually thinking about them. I am not what a consulting salesperson would ever tell you to be. In fact, in Knightsbridge, we had an assessment tool and it was a sales assessment tool. I scored one of the worst scores in the entire firm on this sales assessment tool. It was funny because I was like, “It’s not wrong. I don’t do any of these relationship selling things that people talk about.” It’s two things. I deliver insightful work courageously. A lot of my success is speaking truth to power. Once you get a reputation for speaking truth to power and having the hardest conversations, your name gets around.

I want to dig into that a little bit more. When you say truth to power, explain that for everyone reading. 

Doing team effectiveness with an executive team, which is what we spend a lot of our time doing or doing strategy with an executive team, and it’s the CEO that’s the problem like, “You keep saying, you want this from them and then you’re doing this.” That is not going to work. I remember this amazing president. He is such a smart guy. He is such a lovely guy. He’s like, “I want more challenging debate and juicy conversations.” He would go off giving monologues and chastising people in his meetings. I put a Sticky Note right in front of him while he was talking. It said, “Dude, you’re not going to get a juicy conversation while you’re talking.” First of all, he loved that and great leaders love it because it’s been a long time since anyone has told them what they need to hear. In consulting, many consultants try and tell their clients what they want to hear, and then they will never be valuable. When you tell the client what they don’t want to hear, you become very rare, valuable to them, and they will call you every time. They know if they need to hear something uncomfortable, it reduces the risk for them or whatever else makes them better and stronger, then they know they’re going to get it from you.

Speaking truth to power is one-half of the equation. It’s insightful. It’s courageous. The other thing that’s in that for me is I do strategy and team effectiveness, and that’s a very weird combo. When you know somebody’s business from the business strategy angle and the human dynamics angle, that’s the half of the value proposition I bring. The other half is be fun to work with. Care about them, listen, be interested in them, and they’ll call you back. People find me. I get calls from people that worked with me many years ago and they’re like, “Do you remember me?” I’m like, “Of course, I remember you.”

CSP 177 | Building Effective Teams


How much of that and them finding you and calling you do you feel comes from the content you create? You blog fairly regularly, a lot more often than many people do. There’s stuff up there, a lot more than many other people. What I’m wondering is the content that you create, how much do you feel that also supports the growth of your business and inbound inquiries?

I’m going to keep doing it. I’m trying to be as candid with you as I possibly can, because why bother if I’m not completely candid.

You said the word courageous. 

I know everybody tells you, you have to do it. From where I’m at in my business, do I think it makes a difference? Do I get calls because of it? Not that I can point to. First of all, some people journal, I blog. I have an experience with a client. What I often do in the blog is I try and figure out what it was that I understood that they didn’t. What was the epiphany I offered to them? How do I share that epiphany with more people? It feels like serving. If I have this incredibly privileged position, I need to give back. I need to offer that to people who can’t afford my rates. The blog for me feels like a couple of things.

Usually, in the moment I’ll say something, and then it’s good but it’s not great. On Saturday morning at 6:30, I sit down to figure out how to make it great, how to flush out the idea. It’s a journaling reflection process for me and it’s a service process. I believe profoundly that work needs to make a more meaningful and positive contribution to our lives. If I can do something to help people make teamwork work in some way, then I’m going to do it. In terms of, does it create calls? It probably contributes to my clients thinking I’m valuable. My most important clients are all CEOs, and how often do they read my blog? I’m not thinking it’s all that often. Every once in a while, I have a couple of clients who do, but it’s the right thing to do.

A brief question for you. How have things changed when you look at your business? You share before we start that in 2020, you spent 60 days on the road or 60 airplanes or whatever it was, delivering talks, facilitating and so forth. With the pandemic and COVID-19, that’s been cut down very significantly. What changes have you made in your business and your offerings? I know you had to cut client engagements or calls. What have you done? What shifts have you made and how are you thinking about the future going forward? 

Everything went virtual. What I’m trying to do is mitigate the weaknesses of virtual-based facilitation and capitalize on the strengths. I’m excited about some of the strengths. The biggest strength is because I was on 60 airplanes in 2020, so much of my work is with global executive teams where they’re all distributed. They have to come together physically for a two-day offsite. All the thinking has to be crammed into that two days, and they’re not together again for another quarter. There was a lot of rushed thinking, a lot of, “Get as much into the two days as you can.” From a learning perspective and an insight perspective, that’s sub-optimal. My husband and business partner, Craig, who’s a neuroscientist, would tell me that over and over like, “We’re trying to get too much in here.” I’m saying, “The offsite is the unit of strategy or team effectiveness.” Now we’ve just pulled it apart and we said, “We don’t have to play by those rules anymore. Nobody’s getting on a plane.” What we’ve done in our strategy processes is we’ll have three days in a row, once a month, and we’ll do three half days. There’s more think time, more soak time.

Change the world for the better? Go ahead! But always have the space to play, enjoy, and thrive. Click To Tweet

People don’t have to be out of their business fully with that panic and distraction that comes. We can say, “We’re going to have you for these four hours and we want you to focus. We’ll put the four hours in the middle of the day if you need to deal with stuff before, or you need to deal with stuff after, but when we’re in, we’re all in.” The other thing is in the team effectiveness stuff. Sometimes there’s a little bit more of a confessional feel that I can be more candid when I’m just talking to a computer screen than maybe if we were there physically, so taking advantage of that. I find the power differentials are reduced when we each have the same sized Zoom box and things like that. We’ve been trying to capitalize on the strengths of it, and as much as possible to mitigate some of the downsides of it.

It’s more pre-work, more homework, more reflections in between to keep things top of mind, keep the juices flowing. Also, trying to create some moments of levity and downtime that we do miss in the work. It’s going great. I am not planning to return to 60 flights anytime soon. I think about 50% would be lovely. I miss being with the clients for certain kinds of conversations. I miss the dinners and the time to get to know people as humans, a little bit of that. We get together physically for things that not only don’t benefit from it but sometimes are worse because of it. There’s going to be a focused effort on my part to encourage clients to use virtual more frequently and for the right things in the future. That’s one thing that will be a positive change.

I enjoy the conversation so much more that I’d love to dive into a few, but I want to respect the time that we have here. Where should people go to learn more about you, your work, your most recent book? What’s the best place for them to dive deeper into Liane’s work? 

CSP 177 | Building Effective Teams


The best place is The 3COze is going to be getting an overhaul. It’s a bit needing of one at the moment. In my website is where the blog is. As you said, there are about 500 or 600 articles with free resources and all sorts of good stuff there, a little bit about me. Hopefully, you realize that what you see is what you get. Certainly, @LianeDavey, the message comes right into my email inbox if anybody has any questions or wants more unvarnished truth about my experience of consulting. As you can see, the only way I roll is candor and encourage.

It’s fantastic. Liane, thanks again so much.

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