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Q&A with author Michael Fanuele

'I Realized Inspiration Was a Skill That Anyone Could Master'

Michael Fanuele, author of Stop Making Sense: The Art of Inspiring Anybody, keynoted Navigate Forward’s 2019 Author Breakfast. We sat down with him to learn more about his journey from Chief Creative Officer at General Mills to author, speaker, and founder of the consultancy Talk Like Music.

Q: As a brand marketer, you’ve made a career of rethinking how top brands see themselves. What was that experience like at General Mills?
A:  I really resisted joining General Mills. I thought they were a big, evil processed-food empire. But, I was wrong; these were good, smart people and I could learn from them. I was also blown away by Ken Powell’s ambition to become the largest natural and organic food maker in the country. I joined because I believed in that mission and thought I could help.

One of the first things I did is help rewrite their corporate purpose. They had forgotten they were a food company. And so we wrote a very simple purpose, which was that General Mills would serve the world by making food people love. I think it really inspired and motivated the 40,000 people who work there. We changed the way we talked about our brands with the world—we started off conversations about food.

Q: When you left General Mills, you worked with Navigate Forward. How did your engagement with them help you decide your next move?
A:  In my conversations with them, they asked some really profound questions: Do I want my next job to be the job, or is it a job to get another job? Where do I want to be 10, 15, 20 years from now? What do I believe a career is about versus just a job?

These were sort of profound and existential questions that weren’t about burnishing my resume, but really exploring who I am, my values and my family, my relationships and what I want out of the world.

Through the process, I realized I was sitting on an opportunity that was extremely valuable, and that opportunity was time. I had this moment to do something I had wanted to do for years, which is write a book.

Q: What else stands out from that time of transition?
A:  I think at those moments of uncertainty when you leave one job and you’re not sure what’s next, you’ve got a tendency to grab and grasp: I need a job. I need to make money. I’ve got college educations to pay for.

That was all true in my situation, but my conversations with Navigate Forward allowed me to put my anxiety in a longer-term context. They made sure my decisions would serve my greater purpose—not just satisfy my immediate need.

Q: You’ve accomplished a lot in a very short time: You’ve written a book, launched a consulting business, become a popular speaker. What have you learned during this journey?
A:   I learned that I am so lonely! Two years ago, I thought, I want to write and speak and do ridiculously profitable short-term gigs. After two years, I’ve realized that is a lifestyle of misery for me because I crave people and teams and organizations. I joke that I miss celebrating people’s birthday parties in conference rooms! I wish I had meetings with people where we were plotting big futures. And I never expected to feel that way.

So I’m thinking about what my next move is going to be. I’m definitely going to write—but I’m probably going to write something more funky and creative. I also learned I like jobs at places with big ambitions and enough muscle to make a dent in the universe.

Q:  Inspiration is the theme of your book. Why did you choose that topic?

A:  About a dozen years ago, I was forced to go see U2, a band that I hated. I despised Bono. I thought he was a blowhard and loudmouth. But through the course of the concert, I found myself totally transported. I wanted to quit my job. I wanted to move to Africa. I wanted to join Amnesty International. I was swept away, and I thought, how did that happen?

So I got very academically interested in the topic of inspiration, and there had been very little written about it. Scientists had studied persuasion and leadership and management, but inspiration had always been seen as flaky and flighty.

I’ve also been lucky throughout my life to encounter people who totally inspired me. I grew up in an immigrant Italian American working-class family on Long Island, but I had a seventh grade teacher who said “Michael, you’re destined for things your parents weren’t.” I had a high school English teacher who inspired me with the power of words and poetry and literature. I met a friend who introduced me to The Cure and The Smiths, and these artists who were talking to me.

I’ve been really lucky to always be surrounded by people who mainlined spirit into my soul.

Q: What did your corporate and agency roles teach you about inspiration?
A:   Working at an ad agency, most of your time is spent pitching—pitching to win new business, pitching to win new clients, pitching ideas to those clients. I did learn that I had a skill for making people more excited than they had been.

I also realized it was a skill anybody could master, because, at heart, it was just enthusiasm. When you get excited about something, people feel it. Their mirror neurons feel it, and they feel it deep in their bones; it’s biological. To conjure that passion has a transformative effect on the people around you.

Q: You write in the book about music and lyrics—two things that are rarely associated with the workplace. What’s so powerful about them?
A:   I talk about this in the book, that lyrics are inherently playful. They’re different than the way we speak. In that playfulness, they disarm you. They take the “thinky thinky” analytical part of your brain and just let it relax.

One of the examples I use is Arby’s. I wrote the strategy, “We have the meat.” The creative director looked at it and he said, “Well, that is a terrible notion.” He added an S at the end, “We have the meats.”

He took my thought and made it a lyric. He made it playful. He made it odd. He made it unusual. And in doing that, it gets around your prefrontal cortex and connects with you on a deeper, more emotional level.

That’s what’s so great about lyrics and poetry: They play. And when we play, we are vulnerable.

Q: That vulnerability is a foreign concept in most offices. What do you recommend, to encourage a more open and authentic environment?
A:   People really want the invitation to be more emotional. It’s a skill, and it must be practiced. One of the things I recommend to people is every single day, start one sentence with the words “I feel” and fill in the blank: happy, sad, confused, passionate, stoked, nervous—whatever. The more we practice becoming fluent in the language of feelings, the easier it will get.

Q: Which bands or artists really inspire you?
A:   I love a band called They Might Be Giants. They are like alternative nerd-rock dorks, and they are so playful with language. It really speaks to me, that nerdiness, that dorkiness, can have some edge, some rock-and-roll swagger. I love a lot of British alternative stuff from the ‘90s like The Smiths. And these days, Vampire Weekend’s new album is really inspiring me. They’ve got a way of taking NPR-like headlines and making them sound soulful, which is great.

Q: Like you, most of the Navigate Forward community have faced a career transition or crossroads at some point. What advice would you share with them?
A:  One of the skills of inspiration is affection. It’s very difficult to inspire people if you don’t love them, respect them, honor them. That’s doubly true when you’re trying to inspire yourself. You’ve got to identify the “only you awesomeness” contained within your being.

What do you love about yourself? Which is different than What are you good at? What are your skills? As you have that conversation, that inventory, new things pop into your brain that you haven’t considered before. There are subtle shifts that happen when you can identify what it is that you love about yourself.

Find your path. If you’re in transition or planning change in the future, we can help! Contact us to learn more about the highly customized Navigate Forward process. Since 2008, we’ve guided more than 1,200 senior executives to their next destination.

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