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John Saunders The Optimizer

When he was working on Wall Street, John Saunders (EMBA’17) discovered so much talent in his peers whose skills, he observed, were under-utilized due to their fear of a changing environment. After writing about his observations in a LinkedIn series, Saunders will publish a book titled “The Optimizer” this December.

Saunders wanted to create a greater awareness and show how innovation, albeit frightening, is necessary.

“I really hope to instill this same sort of passion and excitement that I have for leading change in people who read this book,” said Saunders “I hope readers discover how you can build a team of what I like to call “optimizers” or a “team of optimization” to drive meaningful change within your organization.”

The book can be a tool to engage people around in specific missions and processes. When people are energized by being part of the organization, he said, that’s what will drive change. Rallying around the energy they have around their passions is what fuels ingenuity in a business. 

He shared that he had not intended to write a book, but after sharing his series of posts with Prashant Malaviya, senior associate dean for MBA programs and associate professor of marketing, Malaviya suggested the posts could be something larger. 

Saunders’ engagement at Georgetown extends past the Executive MBA (EMBA) program. He is a member of McDonough’s MBA Alumni Advisory Council (MAAC), he mentors students on Hoya Gateway, and he is a formal EMBA mentor. He attributes this passion for leadership from his time at Georgetown McDonough.

“I will never forget advice I received from Bardia Kamrad, senior associate dean for executive degree programs, who helped me solidify the lessons our professors taught us during this program,” he said. “He asked us to carry the Georgetown values forward by creating opportunities for others, not just yourself.” 

“The Optimizer” highlights these pivotal moments during his time at Georgetown McDonough. Saunders suggests that instead of berating failures, that you celebrate and learn from them. That way innovation keeps surging forward to create new opportunities for others down the line. 

[Podcast Transcript]

Umar Hameed 0:06
Are you ready to become awesomer? Hello everyone, this is Umar Hameed, your host and welcome to the no limit selling Podcast, where industry leaders share their tips, strategies and advice on how to make you better, stronger, faster. Get ready for another episode.

Hello, everyone. Today I have the privilege of having john Saunders. Here he is the optimizer. And john, I need optimizing. Welcome to the program.

John Saunders 0:44
Thanks for having me, Mark. Great to be here.

Umar Hameed 0:46
So you’ve got this book coming out that that was one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you. Because ultimately, at the end of the day, no matter who you are, where you are, we’re always looking for that edge. And how do we optimize ourselves in our organizations? So tell me about the book.

John Saunders 1:01
Sure, first of all, just say that my inspiration for it was thinking back over my almost 25 years working on Wall Street. And I just saw so many people that had this incredible ability, but it was often left hidden for years. And what I found was largely, they were maybe a little bit complacent and oftentimes more afraid to kind of break out of their shell. And I think there’s a variety of reasons why they are afraid, some internal, some externally driven. But what I found is, if you can help unleash that gift and help them think in this optimizer mindset, it can really deliver powerful results for an organization.

Umar Hameed 1:32
Absolutely, you brought up the word fear and fear is the enemy of success. On one hand, I’m gonna ask you a question and answer it as best as you can. sure that what is if we have love on one side, what’s the other side of that coin? What’s the counter emotion? Do you think of love interest in how I feel like I’m at

John Saunders 1:51
the therapists office here? I suppose hate

Umar Hameed 1:56
would think that. And in my worldview, hate is a symptom. And I think what’s on the other side of that is fear. Fear is the counterpart of love. And then we act out in ways from fear of not committing or whatever. And the reason I bring that in is this is that when we go to do things to be salespeople, or leaders, or whatever, what gets in the way is fear as well. And so it’s just kind of interesting that fear is the heart of the human condition that stops us from having those relationships you want with people we care about as well as showing up in this world in a powerful way.

John Saunders 2:27
That’s a really interesting point. I appreciate that. But I also would not limited just to fear, I think there’s a few other major emotional factors that I’ve talked about the book as well.

Unknown Speaker 2:35
Well, tell us about

John Saunders 2:36
those, what are the other ones, you’re up to list them a lot fear, loss, uncertainty, and a really powerful one that I would argue for Nate Brown has made the most famous and change. And if I could just share my thoughts on that for a minute. One of the things I found in my research and just experience over the years was there’s two elements of shame. And shame is a very powerful force that will keep people will stop, they will not do something because they’re afraid of feeling ashamed. You tried something, you took a risk, it didn’t work. Now you have to go to your boss, your spouse, your partner, what have you, and tell them you failed and people feel ashamed. That’s one that’s internally driven. There’s a second one that hasn’t gotten a lot of press in my view, and that is external. And when you have to lead a big change initiative, and I saw this in my own life, where you’re trying to drive change, and the messaging on the has to be critical is critically important. You can’t come in and say, Hey, more, everything you need to do in the last 10 years has been a mistake. Right? And that happens. That’s how people frame change sometimes, as opposed to, hey, there’s extra forces change your industry, and we need to head to work, we’ve done great things for 10 years, 20 years, whatever. But there’s these external forces taking place that we need to address. And therefore we need to evolve. I mean, think about the messages.

Umar Hameed 3:49
So I’m gonna push back on the shame thing, because what you said, I think is absolutely true. That shame can be so debilitating that it stops us dead in our tracks. So there is another gentleman out there, his name is Don Jamaica, and he’s written a bunch of books, one of them’s called the code of the executive. And he found a manual, a training manual for the samurai. Interesting, because you know, you join the samurai, and you do all the training and you look cool in your ponytail, and you got the big sword. And then everything is like amazing until you go into battle. Because when everything is just training, you can be pretty brave. But when you go into battle, this other Samurai there, and a lot of people newbies will run away from the fights and what they use is shame as a motivator to bolster courage that it would be so shameful to run away in battle. And they use shame as a way to empower people to be more courageous, which is kind of it just depends. That’s leadership, right? Like, how do you use the emotional landscape to create the change that you want? Can any thoughts on that?

John Saunders 4:47
Yeah, I mean, so I think the samurai story is probably hundreds of years old, right? Well, yeah, ancient. So I think maybe there’s a more modern way to get through that. I I would agree. I I’m a big believer, you know, I ran a sales team for many years that, you know, posting the numbers, the scoreboard, if you will, is sort of one way, I guess, to bring about change to not so so some people,

Umar Hameed 5:09
when they’re at the bottom of the board, they get crushed, and other people like, dammit, I’m number three, I need to be number one. And that shame gives them the power to move forward. So absolutely, because ultimately, the end of the day when you go to business school, they teach you all about these are the processes, these are the strategies and that human element is what your books about is not really taught or taught well at all. And you’ve been speaking to a lot of people leaders out there in the space. And Philip Holt was one of the people that you spoke to. So tell us about Philip, his company and his story. Sure.

John Saunders 5:43
Philip was a guy that earlier started out working as in a kitchen, that was one of his first jobs, he had a big passion for food and learned very early on that sooner or later, something is going to go wrong. And if you’re is this, the restaurant you have to work in was a owner operator, so that you know the guy cooking in the kitchen own the place. And he taught him very early on that something’s gonna go wrong, right, you’re gonna run out of this, your grill down or whatever. And you’ve got to be able to adjust on the fly. So he taught very early, because he learned very early on this whole idea, you know, if the heats too big in the kitchen to get out if you will, and he braced it, and he figured out ways to adapt on the fly. And then he took that knowledge and applied it to a corporate life. He were, he went on to work at EA Sports for a number of years, and then landed a job actually just recently is running a big game studio at Microsoft.

Umar Hameed 6:33
So did he tell you about one of his failures like this was going wrong. And this is what I learned in this I transformed it.

John Saunders 6:39
Yeah, he, he’s in the midst of between EA and Microsoft, he worked, he actually started the company and raised $9 million to start a company, a game company and data analytics company. And a big lesson he learned through that was when you’re starting a company and building a business, you have to have focus. And what he attempted to do early on was run really two companies, a data analytics company, and a game company. And one of the investors he tried to get money from that didn’t that he didn’t get money for said you get to pick one or the other. And he said, You know, I’m right, I’ve got this, you know, and sooner or later, he had to shut down one of those businesses and eventually got, they didn’t quite get it, where it needed to be. And they had to shut it down. But I think the big lesson he took away from that was knowing that sometimes you do have to pit it. And it’s just not always a perfect path forward.

Umar Hameed 7:26
Sonali pivot, but it’s so hard to focus, because it’s easy for me to tell you, hey, john, you need to focus. But when you’ve got like your baby, and you can help like small companies and annuity funds, and this is like, No, no, they all need me. And I can be and I need to do this. And we talk ourselves into that stuff that would never let a friend do that. But somehow we delude ourselves that we’re so awesome. We can do it.

John Saunders 7:50
You know, the worst lies, we tell him or other ones we tell ourselves, aren’t

Unknown Speaker 7:55
they? Absolutely.

Umar Hameed 7:57
So going back to the early part of the story, one of the things that really turns me on is when you have someone who’s a chemist, and they know you know, when you have a catalyst, you do this, and this happens, then they go into leadership. And they take a concept from chemistry, and they bring it into another discipline. And it just shines and brings a new thought process or insights into the new profession and what you described about him being in the kitchen and being prepared for any disaster and bringing that mindset and that confidence to his leadership role is how we move industries forward. Right.

John Saunders 8:30
having that ability to adapt. I mean, right, I think it was Darwin That said, it’s not the strongest who survived, but the ones that are most flexible. Yeah, we can adapt. And that is a great example of that.

Umar Hameed 8:39
For Julian. So you had also spoken to the folks at Motley Fool’s. So tell us about how did you get connected? And what was that interview like?

John Saunders 8:49
Sure, uh, one of my mentees actually was pursuing a career at that firm. He met the founder, one of the co founders through that process. And I met him through that he had the, the co founder come in and do a presentation to, to our business school program that he’s in, and I’m a mentor for. So I met the gentleman through that, of course, it was on zoom, because of the world we live in today. But I reached, I reached out to him afterwards and said, Boy, I knew a little bit about the Motley Fool story, but after hearing it through that, I thought, Man, this, this is a perfect fit for the story. And it was

Umar Hameed 9:21
the story.

John Saunders 9:22
You can sort of they started back in the 90s. It’s just kind of this you know, there’s a better way to invest in stocks. Wall Street is this big machine these big gulyas and they just thought and there’s got to be a way better way to get this done. That’s more fun. It’s not so suit and tie in this kind of thing. So you think about the name in and of itself, right? The Motley Fool. What does the Motley Fool famous for right? They went they were the ones that’s sort of dressed goofy entertained, everybody but more importantly, stroke, spoke shows to power spoke the truth to the king, right and power and so these guys very much. Both the co founders are English majors and love Shakespeare. That’s basically how they came to the name. They want to be that speaker of truth to Wall Street, the Goliath of Wall Street. And boy, have they done it. And they’ve evolved over Gosh, 20. Since 9394, they launched, they started out on an AOL chat room, believe it or not. I mean, who does anybody even know those already? Remember,

Umar Hameed 10:18
the lesson that they shared with you like this was our lesson that we learned. What was that lesson?

John Saunders 10:22
Yeah, what they figured out was one, you’ve got to make work fun and engaging. People don’t want to people spend most of their lives at work, why do they want to show and be told what to do and not have a little bit of fun. And what they landed on after a number of years was an extraordinary mission that drives what they do every single day. And it’s so simple and so prophetic. We want to make the world richer, smarter, happier. You think about that? They don’t, they didn’t say rich, smart and happy, right? Which are happier, smarter. And so there’s no end to it. And so what it does for their people is it helps them live in this constant state of innovation or optimization, as I like to call it in that if you’re ever thinking about trying this or doing that, or taking on a new challenge, you know, is it going to fulfill our simple mission? And it makes decision making very simple for people. But it also gets them to constantly thinking, How do I do this? How do I help the world become richer, smarter, happier,

Umar Hameed 11:17
brilliant, as you were interviewing these folks for your book? A lot of times by interviewing other people, we discover things about ourselves on this writing a book and some of those conversations, what did you discover about yourself?

John Saunders 11:31
I really like that question. Thank you for asking it. You know, when I went into starting this book, I actually started out with a messager on innovation. And discovery for me was, I haven’t really been innovating my whole life and career I’ve been optimizing. And so but I didn’t, I never recognized that until I started to talk to all these folks and realize that that was really the word I’ve been centering my life’s work around. That was a big discovery. For me, it sounds simple, but it completely changed the direction of the book, in many ways.

Umar Hameed 12:00
Brilliant. So as you look out into the world, what’s one of the techniques you could share with the listeners to entice them to get your book to optimize their lives that they could use right now? Sure,

John Saunders 12:12
the biggest element of the whole book is really the principles that make the optimizer mindset, it’s being vulnerable. It’s being a problem solver. It’s being customer centric. And it’s having an extraordinary, excellent focus on excellence. And after talking to all these folks and my work over the 25 years or so, those are really the key elements I found. And so as a leader, one, you need to try to find people with those skills and seek them out in the interview process. And as a contributor, you need to try to think about and develop these skills to really, I believe, have this mindset and unleash your gifts or unleash your true potential to the organization and drive results.

Umar Hameed 12:54
So tell me about word vulnerable that you used in our lexicon in business, we give it like we talk about it, but nobody ever practices it because it’s seen as weakness. So tell me about one of the people you interviewed or in your life where you will vulnerable ended up saving the day.

John Saunders 13:11
I’ll tell you, as a CIO, I was a salesperson for many years for for this for my return on Wall Street, and then I was a leader for many years. So I’ll never forget this. I’m sitting in the sales meeting, I’ve been in the sales fields, field sales guy for six or seven years had a great one, but I kind of plateaued, flattened out and we’re sitting at the award ceremony the end of the year. And I remember sitting there anxiously and thinking, Oh, man, is it me this year, and they announced the person’s name. And it wasn’t me. And it hit me right then and there anymore. I wasn’t even in the running. And up until that very moment, I was deluding myself that I was, I remember just this, I can actually feel the chills again, right back coming back to me telling this story. Again, this was 10 years ago, I was so mad that I got might let myself do that and get so complacent. And so the guy that won the big award for the company that year that one guy gets the biggest award the company gave and I went right to him afterwards. And I said, Did you do something differently this year to help kind of change the complexion of your business? And he said, Yes, I went to my best relationships, and ask them for feedback on how I operate and how I can improve how I operate. And I thought, holy cow, who does that? Yeah. I said, please send me your survey that you created. I tweaked it marginally. And I set off on the same mission. And I’ll tell you what, you want an amazing start, stop, continue exercise, go out and survey your best relationships on what it’s like to work with you. Oh, I did. I literally got a survey within a week went out and sort of executing the survey within days. And in fact, the next year, I won the same award he did. It was an unbelievable turnaround.

Umar Hameed 14:41
That is brilliant. Thank you for sharing that because at the end of the day, we are so scared to ask that question. Because what if they say we don’t like this and the only person that we’re scared of is how we’re gonna feel because if they’re feeling it, they’re already feeling it anyway. And a lot of times we get trained that you know, don’t weakness. I was doing a training and there was a couple that were in the training that were just not getting the results. So my area of expertise is how do you change mindset? And then we’re working on a problem. They just weren’t getting the results. And it’s like, Are you sure? Like what’s going on? Oh, we didn’t want to actually tell people our real issues. So we just made up an issue. So we wouldn’t look so weak, because we need we have this demeanor we need to put on for people. And it’s like, Okay, that makes sense. I never want to go through life where I’m like, pretending to be someone I’m not. Do I still do it once in a while? Absolutely. I catch myself. By the way, that’s why God invented spouses to keep you in line and tell you the truth.

John Saunders 15:37
Right? I mean, sorry, go ahead.

Umar Hameed 15:41
No, yeah, you’re about to say something.

John Saunders 15:42
I was gonna say. So to your point about this truth, this moment of truth. It is, there were some painful moments in these interviews I conducted. But the key is framing these interviews, and you sit down with the top client and say paid, in this case, the real store when I did Mike, I said, Mike, I really, I’ve been so impressed with how you your business partners operate, run your business over the years, I want to get better at what I do, and how I can engage with you and help you grow your business. I’d love to get your feedback on how I operate, so I can improve. And that framing completely changes the complexion of the conversation, because instead of just asking them this sort of awkward questions about yourself, now they know you’re complimenting them, you’re deepening the relationship. And I would argue changing the complexion of it forever. And in fact, it did. And I’ll never forget that very individual asking him, Mike. And I remember, I got I can remember this so vividly. Mike, what’s the best thing about working with my company? And I remember thinking myself, this is where he tells me how amazing I am. Can I tell you something, and he did not mention my name once in the next two or three sentences that came about, and I was blown away, blown away. And when I remember driving home, driving out of his office that afternoon, and realizing, holy cow, this is what your brand is, right? Your brand is what people say about you. And you’re not around to quote Jeff Bezos. And that moment, Brandon became very clear to me, and that I needed to manage it better with him and all the things I’d done with him and his team over the years, and make you more aware of it. Because it was always my head. I knew I did it. But it clearly wasn’t that evident to him. It was a great brand awareness moment for me.

Umar Hameed 17:21
So john, when you’re writing this book, somewhere in the process of writing this book, or thinking about it, it’s like, I want to write a book that when someone reads it, they do X, like, what is the end result you’re looking for, for? Let’s say, 20% of the people that read it, if they got this, I know I did something amazing. What do you want them to get? What do you want them to do?

John Saunders 17:43
Thank you, I really appreciate that. It’s this book ultimately, is for both leaders and contributors. But I would argue for contributors that eventually want to become leaders, because it’s helping you build that mindset. What I hope people can do from getting this book is first build trust, that’s a huge part of the story from from making this all happen. I don’t think any of my book happens without building trust, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to that. But to then going out and building this process system to unleash all of these gifts that your team members have, and make them feel safe to execute on them and and leverage them. Because if you don’t create that trust in that safety, it’s very difficult for people to break out of their their box, your top performers are already in that mindset. But they’re not the usual folks, it’s the other end of the you know, the middle and end of the bell curve, that I think need more help. And as a leader, I believe with a few of these stages, steps and processes I’ve put out, you can help make that happen.

Umar Hameed 18:37
Brilliant, because I think at the end of the day, that is what we all want. And a lot of people that work for corporations that might actually enjoy going into work, do not feel safe. And but what I mean by feeling safe is if they think something is going wrong, they don’t feel comfortable saying hey, I think we’re going in the wrong direction, because they don’t want to be seen as the bad person or be attacked or whatever. And if you can create an organization where people feel safe saying, Hey, I think we’re going the wrong direction. Then you and I can have a conversation. I realized, Oh, no, we’re not everything is okay. And it’s settled right there. And then or you realize John’s doing something wrong, you go away. No idea. Let’s fix that. And what I’m describing there seems like common sense. But in most corporations, that simply does not happen. What happens is I go to my friends in the company and say, Can you believe what John’s doing? They go, I can’t believe he’s doing that. And it creates these silos and poor communications and makes us lower than we are. So hats off to you for releasing this book. JOHN is going to be available everywhere.

John Saunders 19:37
Yep, it’s going to be online and December 7, the week of December 2,

Umar Hameed 19:42
just around the corner and go out there, get this book and drop john a line. Let them know how this book helped you build a stronger organization. JOHN, thanks so much for being on the show. If you enjoyed this episode, please go to to iTunes and leave a five star rating. And if you’re looking for more tools, go to my website at no limit selling calm. I’ve got a free mind training course there that’s going to teach you some insights from the world of neuro linguistic programming. And that is the fastest way to get better results.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

About the Author Umar Hameed

I am a performance coach who uses Applied Neuroscience to help individuals and teams break through their barriers so they become awesomer! Take a look at my Motivational Speaker Kit

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