Risk Forward with CEO and Creative Director Victoria LaBalme
Competition, speed, and change are increasing at unprecedented levels. Driving peak performance is critical, but breakthrough, sustainable results are elusive.
Using the skills she developed through 25 years of professional stage and screen performances, Victoria leverages her background—from Broadway to Hollywood—to share unexpected insights and a unique methodology. She shows her clients how to tap into and apply the hidden genius within their individuals and organizations. From the boardrooms of Fortune 100 companies to teams in businesses around the world, Victoria has delivered stunning results.
In this mesmerizing and practical Keynote Performance, Victoria takes audiences through a profound experience they’ll never forget. Attendees are learning, laughing, fully engaged, and leave feeling not only motivated and recharged but also having internalized proven strategies to harness the innate talents that currently lie dormant inside them.
With gripping stories, comedic moments, and invaluable performing arts principles to skyrocket business performance, Victoria custom-crafts each keynote experience to get people primed, inspired, and prepared to tackle their most pressing challenges.
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Risk Forward with CEO and Creative Director Victoria LaBalme
Pressure Of Time: Life On The Conveyor Belt
Some people in life know exactly what they want to achieve. This keynote performance is for the rest of us. We live in this era as we’ve been talking about of uncertainty, of incredible speed and change. People’s jobs are shifting within a matter of 12, 18 or 24 months. We need agility in our leadership. We need flexibility in the way we think and while there is a great change, there’s also a great opportunity. What I want to share with you are the principles of the arts to navigate that because I think we don’t need goals so much as we need guiding principles. One of the greatest pressures that we face these days, in my opinion, is the pressure of time. In Western society, many of us think of time as linear. We think of time as progressing from the future to the present and into the past, which isn’t the case in every culture. Some culture sees time as circular. In Africa where I lived for a while, time was still. The word for tomorrow and yesterday was the same word in Africa. It was either now or not now. For us in Western society, we tend to think of time almost like this conveyor belt. We imagine it moving along in front of us.
On our conveyor belts, in our days, we all envisioned that they’re imaginary empty boxes and our job is to fill each box with as many activities as we can, getting through the day so that at night, we can lay on our bed and say “This is a good day. Look at all the things I did. I got that done. Here’s the next.” A day for you on your conveyor belt in the marketing world might feel something like this. You’re asleep in your bed. You’re all cozy. The alarm goes off. What do we do? We often grab our phone and look at it from our pillow and you’re squinting into the light. Sometimes you try to turn the brightness down because it hurts your eyes. You get undressed. You get in the shower. You get dressed. You check your messages again. You have breakfast. You’ve got your green juice, your Kombucha and your coffee. You are trying to be healthy.
You send the family off. You drive to work. You get to your desk. You’re checking your email. You’re on the phone and you’re downloading, you’re printing, signing, faxing and FedExing. You’re downloading and uploading, you’re doing Excel spreadsheets. You’re thinking, “I’ve got to go spread some sheets.” You’ve got the products, the policies, the plans, and the pricing. You’re worrying you’ve got a meeting about a meeting these days. We had to do it efficiently. You’re worrying about the AR, the AI, the VR, and all of that. You’re going through your day. You’re eating lunch at your desk to make up for the lost time. You’re back at your desk. You’re on the phone with clients and customers.
You’ve got more things to do. You change your clothes. You go to the gym. You got to the bicycle, treadmill and Pilates. If you’re a guy, you’re trying to get bigger. If you’re a lady, you’re trying to get smaller. You got bicep, triceps, and abs. You take a yoga class to calm down, but while you’re doing a yoga class, you’re checking your emails. You go home, you pick up more groceries and healthy food. You put them away. Three more things are done. You have dinner with the family. You send the family to bed. You change your clothes. You get in bed. You channel surf, then you read your book on spirituality. You check your messages one more time and you go to sleep. That was a good day and that was Sunday.
These days people are so busy that they compete over it. “How you’re doing?” “I’m good. I’m busy.” “I’m busy, too. I haven’t slept all night. In fact, I only slept for three hours.” What you just say, “I haven’t slept since I was six.” What I find is that the language that we use changes our thinking. “I’m busy, I’m crazy. I got to work. I got to work out. I got to work on my relationship. I am always working and busy and it’s crazy.” I always think that when we’re talking about how crazy or busy we are, it’s a sign of vanity. It is like, “I’m busy.” It’s not a sign of vision. It’s a sign of limitation. You’re caught up in your own world. You’re not in a place of leadership. It’s a sign of chaos. You’re exhibiting that your life is chaotic. What we want from a leader is clarity. How do we get that?
How Can I Help?
Years ago, I wished I could somehow magically go up to the moon and look at life from the moon. If I could go to the moon and look at life back here on earth. Imagine this in Chicago, we’re on this tiny blue-green globe glowing in the dark night of outer space. We are tiny from the moon. Looking back at your life as a leader here on earth, what matters? I wanted to go to the moon, so I went to the moon. I went to a place that was as close to the moon as I could find, which is Alaska. I signed up for a 75-day expedition, 25-days hiking up on the Tundra, 25-days kayaking through the Prince William Sound, and 25 days upon a glacier on a rope team. That’s 75 days, two showers.
The reason we travel with this rope team on the glacier is that as this glacier moves through the pressure and the changes of speed, these crevasses are formed. These deep cracks, they go straight down steep into the core, but you don’t know where they are because they’re hidden below layers of crusty snow. We travel like little ants on a great white path of sugar. There, my friend Maryanne is 25 feet ahead of me. My friend Jim is 25 feet behind me. We go through our day like this. Coming back from that trip to the planet earth, I had some perspective. A lack of love for the product, sort of personal belongings. I tried to get rid of as much as I had to live a simpler life. I recognized that what matters is not the things, but the people.When you work with a great artist, it's not about the art, it's about everything else they bring. Click To Tweet
I thought, “How can I help and contribute? How do I take what I love and use it for the benefit of others?” What I happen to love is performing arts. I went in deep into the performing arts. This is what the crevasse will look like. I thought, “How do I take all these loves that I have?” I started working in comedy on Good Morning America, Caroline on Broadway, and comedy clubs like that. I worked with the great French mime Marcel Marceau to learn physicality and expressing myself through my body. I went on to do commercials to make a living, but to learn how to communicate in a 32nd spot. How do you tell a story in 30 seconds? This is the late 1990s, since the early 2000s, you can see different products. Ultimately, I ended up on Sex and the City briefly in this character of Denise.
It was funny because I auditioned for a different role. I went in and they said, “Let’s have her audition for Denise. I said, “I know the character of Denise because I’d read the script. The breakdown in the script said the sexy restaurant hostess who’s breasts pour out of her skimpy outfit.” I was like, “That’s not me,” They gave me the role and they boosted me up with what they call chicken cutlets. They made my chest big when I was there on the show. It was the weirdest sequence, but I thought, “I was on my way to fame.” I got picked up by a Hollywood manager who managed Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. I was going.
In the middle of that, in lower Manhattan where I live, I looked out my window one morning and I thought, “Is that smoke coming out? What is that?” I called my friend who lived three floors below me because it was our view, the tower. I said, “What’s going on there?” He said, “I don’t know.” The second tower turns into this ball of flame. We had no idea. We thought they were electrically connected. “Why is that second one exploding?” The plane came from the South that we couldn’t see. We’re going, “What is going on? I don’t understand.” I turned on my television. What’s on my television is exactly what’s out of my bedroom window. I can’t make sense of it. I needed an ID to get into my own apartment because I was close to ground zero. There was a smell of the smoke and burning flesh and burning metal.
My mother who hasn’t been feeling great, two days later at 9:13, 48 hours later is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I have ground zero smoking outside my bedroom window and I am up the island of Manhattan. My mother’s at Memorial Sloan Kettering and she’s diagnosed to die in a few months. Suddenly, being famous did not matter. The question I asked that we all asked that day is how can I help? I went, “I’m here to share my gifts.” It’s not about fame or acting. It’s about how do I take the performing arts and help people. It was at that time that someone came and they said, “Could you come to the Speakers Association and teach speakers how to tell stories, use their body, be more funny and do characters?” I said, “Sure.” This inner current in me was not about the goal of performance. It was about the goal of using the arts, sharing, giving and using that in whatever way it helped. If it was in the corporate market, fine.
My career changed. I started working with companies and teams. Sometimes in small groups leading workshops. Sometimes on big stages working with Starbucks. I’m helping Cliff Burrows, the president expressed his message in working with executives and sales teams around the country, around the world. I’m helping them bring their ideas out. It was interesting when I went to the corporate market. For those of you who know the art market well, all my friends who are in the arts gave me a hard time. They are like, “You’re going for the money. You sold out. You couldn’t hack it as an artist.”
Performing Arts Principle: Risking Forward
I thought it’s about where I’m called, where I can share and what I can do with these gifts. I would get a hard time because I wasn’t married. I was in my 30s and I wasn’t married. I was in my 40s and that freaked people out when you’re not married in your 40s. They were like, “Victoria, what’s going on there? What’s Victoria’s secret? Do you have a fear of commitment?” I always felt bad about myself until I changed my view. Who here is not married and who is getting a hard time from people? Here’s your new line, “I skipped my first divorce.” They would look at me and they go, “I should have done that to save me a lot of money.” The point here is that, even when you’re succeeding, people love to take you down. “You’re going corporate. You’re not married. Something’s wrong in your life.” Welcome to the club. These stages led me to all types of corporations and that has changed the course of my career. This is why I’m here. What I’d like to share with you are these performing arts principles to transform your performance in business and in life.
They’re based around a theme that is to risk forward. When I was working with Marcel Marceau, there was a type of movement he taught us, which was weighted forward onto one foot, so far forward that you are almost off-balance. It was the most exposed you could be as a performer and to your audience. He called it risk. “You must not hate. You must take the audience in the palm of your hand. Feel their heartbeat. You must not try to do on the stage what we do better in film. Victoria Labalme, come to the stage.” He taught us movement, expressiveness, and nobility. When you work with a great artist, it’s not about the art, it’s about everything else they bring. He taught us kindness. He taught us respect. He taught us to stand tall and not to hide. It’s a lesson I brought to many people for their kids, to teach them to stand tall, to own the space, to move with confidence and to risk forward. The thing about risking forward is it’s not about going for your goals and dream big. Those are hard to do. It’s about how do we move forward when we’re almost a little off balance. How do we go with our heart open a little off balance and heading into the unknown?
That’s risking forward. We’ll look at three strategies. The first is to connect to your through-line. The through-line is a theater term coined by the great Russian theater artist, Stanislavski. Stanislavski thought of the through-line as the driving force in a character’s behavior, in a performance like a play, but also in a movie or in Hamilton. What drives a character through their story? I like to think of that for ourselves. If you’re a character in the story of your life, what’s driving you? If someone were to come to you and say, “We’re going to make a film about your life, from your childhood through high school, college into your careers and the different changing jobs you’ve had right up until now and into your dying days, what is driving you?”If you lead from your noble intent, you will inspire your team. Click To Tweet
I often think there two types of through-lines, we all have both operating. One of them is negative through-line. My term, that’s when we’re trying to prove something to our parents. Even some of the top executives I work with are still trying to prove something to their father. We’re trying to show off, be the best, or the number one. Company mission statements reflect the through-line. Some company mission statements are to be the number one, the premier provider but that’s about themselves. The world’s leader, a great through-line is in service of others to help, to serve, to inspire, to embolden, to encourage, to support because then it’s not about us. For yourself, you have a negative through-line. We all do. We have an ego that comes in, “I want to be seen. I want to be known,” When we can shift that through-line outwards in service of others, it’s transformational. To connect to your noble intent, what I call your positive through-line, your noble intent. I have a question for you that will get you there. There’s a whole phenomenon about purpose. What’s your purpose? It’s stressing people out more than it’s helping.
It’s simple. Your noble intent is this. It’s going to be different for each of your answers. I’m going to go to this idea of your inner current and your noble intent and a question mark here to ask you. Close your eyes or look at your lap. Go into your own space. I’m going to ask you a question and you’ll know the answer instantly. It’s going to pop into your head, into your psyche. Trust it. Don’t second guess your first response. If you are on a deserted island and you were dying, you knew this was the end of your life, but there was a young person next to you. It could be your child or someone else’s child. Someone you cared so deeply about and you could only give that person one piece of advice about life and how to live it. What would that one piece of advice be? Whatever came into your heart, into your psyche is exactly right for you and it’s different for everyone. For some of you, it might’ve been being kind. For some of you, it might’ve been following your dreams. For some of you, it might’ve been life is a game, enjoy it or be yourself.
Whatever that is that you believe at the end of life matters. It’s what you believe life is all about. If you could sum it up in a piece of advice, that’s it for you. That’s your noble intent, your positive through-line. Our collective challenge becomes how do we live that on a daily basis? How do we reconnect with what I call the deserted island answer? When you’re on the conveyor belt, when you’re feeling crazy busy, and you’re going through their day and you’re thinking, “I can’t keep up.” You have to say, “What matters from the moon? What would I say to someone if I could give them a piece of advice about life?” That’s what I’m doing here. That’s why I’m on this earth. When you reconnect with that, it’s transformational.
When you lead from that place, as a leader, you go from transactional. Not even to transformational, but to transcend because we are attracted to the leaders who lead from a higher level who remind us of what it’s about. If you lead from your noble intent, you will inspire your team. Even if theirs is different because it’s authentic and true. It makes you come alive. It sets you back to the center. This is very powerful, this whole concept because when we’re thinking about the power of story and I put that question mark right there. Think of that inner current as this electrical light wire that goes to electricity. It’s this inner current like the blood in your veins, the life force through a tree. What lights up that light bulb that tells your story?
There’s a wonderful poet named Dylan Thomas. I grew up with poetry. He said, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” I love that concept. That is yours through-line. That is your noble intent. It’s what lights up your story. Our challenge becomes how do we bring that into our everyday experience? That’s through the power of a verb. If you think about your verb to inspire, to be kind, follow your dreams or live life as a game, whatever that verb is, how do we bring that into our daily storylines? Into our daily scenes? Kathy mentioned about scenes and I feel like our lives are comprised of scenes. When you’re at dinner with your family, it’s a scene. When you’re talking to a customer or a client, it’s a scene. This moment is a scene.
What is the verb in your scene when you’re a leader? It’s always changing in support of your larger through-line. If I go up with my team and I’m there to train them, that’s not the best verb. We often say we want to train the team. It puts them in a line. I got to train them like we’re in the military. I think it’s about developing your team. Sometimes when I’m working with the sales guys, I hear them say, “We’re going to kill competition. We’re going to carpet bomb them.” I go, “That’s an interesting verb. Kill the competition?” I had a senior executive at a health company up in Canada and he said to me, “Victoria, I want to use the word grow. Is that cheesy?” I said, “No, I think it’s beautiful.” He said, “I want to grow my team.” I said, “I think that’s a beautiful way to lead.” He got a standing ovation.
For those of you who present, when I work with executives and teams, I always tell them, “Everyone’s worried about confidence. It’s not about confidence. It’s about connection.” When your through-line is pointed outwards in the service of the other people, then it doesn’t matter. If you’re ever nervous on camera or in front of a board room or in a meeting, it’s because you’re thinking about yourself. “Do I look pretty? Do I look fat? Do I remember the lines? Am I going to say the wrong thing? Am I going to embarrass myself?” Forget all that. You’re there to share. You’re there to help. You’re there to serve and all of a sudden, it’s not about you. If my heel goes through the floor, fine. It’s not about perfection. It’s about being here and connecting. My through-line is to help you express your hidden genius in whatever way that is. We’re thinking about the power of the verb. It comes up in many situations. It’s like a hostess who wants to show off as her through-line. I’m going to show off. It’s the perfect makeup, the perfect hair, and the perfect table. You go to those dinner parties. Those are not fun.
You’re like, “It’s nice.” You go to the party with the hostesses through-line is to welcome everyone. It doesn’t matter if she’s got mustard on her dress, she’s chopping carrots and the plates are chipped, “Come on in and grab a plate.” Those are fun parties. When you’re leading, as you bring your team together, what’s your through-line? To train? To empower? To inspire? To enroll? To update? No, not really. Choose verbs that will inspire you and inspire them. It shows up even in the smallest of moments. As actors, we think of the whole theater plea. We think of acts. We think of scenes. In every scene, there are moments or beats. An opening moment in a scene for you in the corporate world would be something like this.Great products and services stop time. It takes people off the conveyor belt. Click To Tweet
This is a client of mine at Microsoft. He got on stage. His opening beat is to welcome the room with 17,000 people in our arena event. In the rehearsals, he would come out and he’d go, “Welcome everyone. Are you guys all good? It is great to have you here.” I said, “Wait a second. What’s the through-line in that moment? What’s the verb to welcome? Is this welcome? Welcome, everyone. It’s great to have you here.” By changing the verb, his behavior changed. “Welcome.” That’s his through-line to receive, to welcome. It’s like receptionists. Most receptionists are not receiving. That’s their verb to receive. They’re supposed to say, “Welcome.” What is the line for most receptionists? “Hold on a minute. Yes. Who are you here to see?” Is that an opening line? People who pick up the phone at your job, what is their role? What is their verb?
We’re always thinking in that way because your intention will affect your behavior. On that note, I have a fun little game for you to practice being an actor since we’re talking about theater. What you’re going to do is turn to the people next to you or in front behind you. Find a partner or a group of three. Say, “We’ll pair up into groups.” Here’s what you’re going to do. One of you is A, and one of you is B. The person who is A is the person who when you hold up your thumb has more bend in their thumb. Who is A? Hold up your thumb. Who’s got the bendier thumb? All my bendy thumb As. Hold up your thumb. Did anyone get a super bendy thumb? It’s a sign of creativity.
I heard it’s a sign of creativity. When I see someone with a bendy thumb, I go, “Wow.” All my bendy thumb A’s, you’re going to go first. You’re going to be an actor with your script line. The script line is this, “Are you going to be the one?” You’re Robert De Niro. Your verb is to threaten. You’re going to say the line to your partner as if you’re threatening them with that. Say it in however you want, but you’re going to threaten them. Let’s switch sides. Straighter thumb B, you’re going to go. If you’re in a group of three, the person who’s got the least bendy thumb, you’re going to observe what happens here. B to A, you’re going to say the same line, except this time your verb is to encourage like “Are you going to be the one that goes for the gold medal? Are you’re going to be the one that wins the award?”
This is what I want you to notice. All I gave you was a shift in verb from threaten to encourage and everything changed. Your behavior, your body language, your tone of voice and your gestures. Some of you were squinching your face or pointing down. I’ve seen groups where someone stands up, “Are you going to be the one?” Encouraging you all, some of you got lowered, you’re smiling with wide eyes just by a change of verb. When you go into your meetings, when you pick up the phone, when you meet with a customer or clients, think what is your verb? That will change so much. When you’re leading, it’s a great way to lead because sometimes we lead by giving someone all the behavior like, “Do this. Don’t do that. Do that.” Instead of saying, “Here’s the verb, we’re here to greet people. How can we make them feel welcome?” “I have ideas.” People start to contribute ideas. The power of a verb is not to be underestimated. When we’re thinking about the power of story. It’s how great directors direct. They give you the verb. That’s how actors work. “I’m here to threaten. I’m here to encourage. I’m here to flirt. I’m here to seduce.” Mariah Reynold’s, “I’m here to defend myself, whatever the role.”
I’ll share with you a brief story about my experience within a 32nd story, which is the commercial world. When I was doing commercials, which I did many of and many more auditions that I never got. In the commercial world, for every 40 auditions, you get one if you’re good. It’s like a roulette wheel. I got called back and I got in for Denny’s foodservice audition. This was back in the ‘90s. I was excited because I got the callback, which was from 100 down to 30. There I was for the audition and there were six guys in the room, “Victoria, let’s give it a run-through. It’s going to be cheerful. It’s Denny’s spotlight breakfast roll camera. Here we go.” I’m like, “Do you think we’re out of our minds to sell Denny’s grand slam breakfast for a $1.99? We’re five times crazier with five new breakfasts for even less, so many breakfasts, so little time.” They’re like, “That’s good. We want a little more serious. If you could maybe make it cheerful but stern.” I’m like, “I’m sorry, you want it cheerful, but stern?” They’re like, “Yes, give that a go. Roll camera.”
I repeat the line and they said, “That’s okay, but not so good. John here reminded me. We’re going to have a special effect. Five arms are going to appear behind your head. Each holding a platter of breakfast food. It’s like the Hindu goddess Shiva. I’ll show us with your eyeballs that you see these plates. Give it a go and keep the cheerful stern and roll camera. Here we go.” I’m like, “Do you think we’re out of our minds to sell Denny’s grand slam breakfast for just a $1.99? We are five times crazier with five new breakfasts for even less, so many breakfasts, so little time.”
They’re like, “That’s good. We want to lighten it up. We like the stern, but if you could maybe sprinkle a giggling. That’s it wherever it feels right. As a woman, if you could add a little bit of your, you know, that’d be great.” I’m like, “You want cheerful and stern looking at the platters and giggling. You got it.” I couldn’t do that. It was my first call back. I had to behave.
It was a mess. I did not get the job. I thought I was a bad actor, but then I realized he was not a good director because as I went on in my career, I worked with amazing people. He hasn’t given me a verb. If he had simply said, “Your verb, your intention is to charm the viewer.” Which is all they wanted in the commercial. Everything would’ve come together. All five of those elements would have come right through. You want me to charm the viewer, that I can do. “Do you think we’re out of ours to sell Denny’s grand slam breakfast for just a $1.99? We are five times crazier with five new breakfasts for even less, so many breakfasts, so little time.” Think about your verb with your kid, with your colleague, with your customer, with your client. It makes a difference. I want to move on to the second strategy of stopping time. I know that sounds strange, but in our crazy busy world on the conveyor belt, how can we stop time for the people we serve?The more we express who we really are, the brighter your light will be. Click To Tweet
I think great products and services stop time. They take people off the conveyor belt. Bob Dylan said, “The purpose of art is to stop time.” I think there’s truth to that. Art stops time. How do we turn your business into an art in every exchange, in the email, in that communication, in the way we express ourselves? There are lots of strategies. I’m going to share one that’s specific to what you do as leaders. That has to do with what an editor at Penguin Random House said to me, “Defy the category, but remain within it.” I love that phrase. How do you defy the category, but remained within it? You can’t be so extreme that people go, “That’s weird.” I’d like to share with you some strategies to take your through-line, which I think of this white light that goes through a prism. If you think about this prism, what makes it so extraordinary is as the white light, which I think of as your noble intent, your through-line goes through, it refracts, it bends and then all these colors come out the other side, which are already in clear light.
Your White Light
White light is a combination of colors. This is important for us in the leadership world is as you take off parts of who you are to fit into a mold or what you think a leader should be, you dim your light as you start removing colors, “Executives aren’t weird on stage. I got to stand like this.” “I ride a Harley at home. I can’t talk about that.” The more we express who we are and there’s no better time to do that than in this era of transparency, authenticity, acceptance, inclusivity, and divergence. The more you can do that, the brighter your light will be because it’s the combination of colors when properly focused that creates bright light. Bringing your whole self into your leadership is what’s going to make the difference. I’ll give you a few examples. One of my clients was the CMO at Riverbed and Polycom, Kate Hutchison. She happens to be a biker chick. She’s got a lot of leather. She was hiding that. She always dressed and very corporate attire. She had to do a message to her sales team and I said, “Let’s bring your biker chick into these messages.”
They did this thing called a rocking campaign where they gave an award to the person who made the most sales. They got to go to a rock concert of their choice, fully paid by the company, flight, hotel with her spouse and that was the award and the sales team went nuts. To promote this campaign, she got on camera in her biker chick outfit and did a video message to her sales team. They loved it. They said it was the best thing they’d ever gotten from her. It is not because of the tickets, but because of her. What are you hiding to be corporate? What part of you are you not showing? Another example, Bob Muglia, another client, he used to run the server and tools division at Microsoft. He had a message to his team at Microsoft with 8,000 people. We were working on his presentation. He’d come back from Machu Picchu and he’s like, “My daughter, she’s sixteen. She was complaining about not having cell service in Machu Picchu. Kids these days. Sorry Victoria, to distract you. Let’s get back to working on my keynote.” I said, “That could be the opening of your keynote.”
The world of technology, Machu Picchu. It changed his whole opening. He became human. He’s talking about his daughter, his trip, and everyone on his team saw him differently. What’s the story you’re not sharing? One more example, Cassie Pike, another woman who I work with who is the Head of Mental Health at Columbia University. She had to open for 1,000 mental health professionals. She was not going to open. I was not going to let her open with the typical agenda or PowerPoint of bullets. I said, “What’s an outside passion you have that’s unusual.” She happens to love Japanese flower arranging Ikebana. I said, “How do we bring that into your keynote?” She’s like, “There’s no connection that Ikebana to mental health. This is serious Victoria. These are doctors. These are clinicians. I’m going to get laughed off the stage. If I start talking about flowers.” I said, “No, let’s look for the connection.”
We brainstormed. Here’s what we came up with. What makes Ikebana so beautiful are not the flowers and the branches, but the negative space between the sculpture. It’s the negative space that makes it so beautiful. It is with mental health, it’s invisible. Without it, our society will not hold. Not only did she talk about the metaphor, I said, “Bring it on stage as a prop.” She opened her keynote to the Global Mental Health Summit with a table, a prop. She made this arrangement and people were going, “What’s going on?” She put the whole thing together and then standing ovation written up in journals. It’s that risking forward to go into the unknown to express who you are, full spectrum. It’s going to shine your light and change this world. It’s not going to happen by hiding and dimming parts of who you are. We want all of you to get that trombone out of the closet. That part of you that you kept hidden and left behind in your teens and your twenties that is dying to come back. For those of you who have kids, they want to see that part of you too. The part that lights you up, that inner current, that noble intent that makes you come alive like the light bulb of the story that we tell.
I used to hide who I was. I went to Smith Barney very early in my career. I didn’t know anything about finance, but someone had gotten me in for a meeting. I was starting to do corporate work. I’m in this meeting with Smith Barney. They’re talking about the P&L. I was like, “Is it penal? I have no idea what they’re talking about.” I was like, “I think the penal is important.” I go home. I was like, “What is the penal? These people are talking about penal.” They said, “It’s the P&L.” It wasn’t until a little bit later, I started working with one of my first big clients, Bosley, the hair transplant company. I did 21 events for Bosley because they saw that I was an artist. I stopped hiding who I was. I said, “I don’t know about strategic planning. I don’t know about charts. I don’t get all that, but I do know about the arts.” They said, “That’s what we want.” They asked if I would do their leadership retreat. I said, “A leadership retreat? I know nothing about it. Are you kidding me? I can’t put together your plan, your goals. That’s not me.” I said, “If you want me to do it, it’s going to be different.” He said, “Do whatever you want.” I brought them into a theater. I did my one-woman show. I hiked them into the desert.
We made beautiful art maps of their business, in their lives, and it changed the culture. Not because I’m so great, but because I honored what I have and you need to as well. We have to bring in who we are. That part of you that you’re keeping hidden has so much value. It’s that unique spin on leadership that’s going to make people go, “Wow.” You can say, “Here’s what leadership’s like. I happen to love stamp collecting. Here’s something about stamps that also applies to what we’re doing in our business.” They’re like, “How cool.” Take your passion, fuse it with your profession, and light up the world. Raymond Loewy is a great industrial designer. He is the father of modern industrial design. He took products and made them beautiful. That concept didn’t exist in the early 1900s. It was the industrial age, but he came up with this idea of products and making them beautiful. We take it for granted. He designed the logo for Shell, the Greyhound logo and the Coke bottle. Not the first one, but he took that wider shape and made it thinner.
I also happen to be particularly fond of Raymond Loewy because he was my great uncle. When Kathy asked me to come, I was like, “Raymond Loewy, my family is involved with Coke. I love this.” What I love about Raymond Loewy is he had this principle called MAYA. It stands for this, the Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. How can we move design and products and interaction to be so advanced but still acceptable, not freak people out? When we were talking about being creepy. We can’t be too creepy. We can’t be too weird on stage. All of these elements that my executive clients had done was within the acceptable. They defined the category of the remained within it, but they did something different. That’s how we stopped time. When you start the meeting talking about Machu Picchu or in your rocker outfit, people go, “They’re not thinking about their phone.” They’re going, “What is happening?” We hold their attention, which is the biggest commodity, time and attention. We have to stop time to do that. We have to change the game. We have to do something that’s advanced but still acceptable. Defy the category reign within it.Take your passion, fuse it with your profession, and light up the world. Click To Tweet
Rollo May, one of the great thinkers said, “The opposite of courage is not cowardice. The opposite of courage is conformity.” When we are not feeling courageous, we conform. We do what everyone else would do. We print business cards will look like everyone else. We do what everyone else happens to do. Instead of saying, “I want to do it my way that works with the through-line.” Marcel Marceau did the same thing. When I studied mime, people made so many jokes to me. “Does he talk when he teaches? Does he do the wall, the rope,” but that was not Marceau. He took this art form that was kitschy, which was in SeaWorld and on the street. He turned it into something noble, into art like this.
Change The Game Of What Is Expected
When he was a bird, it was this, how can you stop time? You have to hold people’s attention and change the game of what’s expected that’s inside of you already. The last strategy to do that is to set up the circumstances for success. What do I mean by that? We talked a lot about innovation and change. Even when Jeff was talking about how he had ideas and then the company wouldn’t accept them. We need to set up a circumstance where people can’t innovate, where they do feel free and psychologically safe to risk forward, to put out an idea, even if it’s a little bit wobbly. That is everything is a leader.
Years ago, I was working with a group. We were at a big conference table. This was a team of twenty people from different companies. We were all working towards one pitch. It was for the JCDecaux advertising pitch for the Houston International Airport. It was CNN, and different app developers, and different companies. We’d all come together. I was helping them with their pitch. The guy who was happening to lead that meeting, great guy, but not a great facilitator. He said, “Let’s come up with a team name. There are twenty people. These are all top people around the table. He goes, “Anyone have a name for the whole team?” No one wants to risk forward as Ron said, “They don’t want to embarrass themselves.” I’m looking around, it’s not my job to take over. I’m thinking, “I can see how to fix this.” I waited and I went, “I have a suggestion, what if we divided into small groups of four or five?”
We brainstormed. As teams, we came up with a team name, he said, “That’s great.” We grouped into four or five. The energy erupted. Everyone’s trading ideas because it’s safe. You’re only going to look like an idiot in front of four people or three people. When you volunteer your team name, it’s not your idea, it’s the team’s name. You don’t have an egg on your face. It’s a simple adjustment. Whenever you’re asking for engagement and people are not giving it, it’s because they don’t understand or they’re too scared. How do you create that psychologically safe environment so people can contribute so when they share an idea, they’re not embarrassed?
Decisiveness Is Overrated
I have this phrase to trust, the idea that can lead to the idea and it’s a great phrase. You can say, “I don’t know if this is a good idea, but it could be the idea that leads to the idea.” That phrase has saved so many different environments. When you’re not feeling sure, you just say, “Here’s an idea, not that it’s great, but it could be the idea that leads to the idea.” Someone goes, “I can’t do that.” What it makes me think of and all of a sudden the brainstorming occurs. That is a great way through. I’m going to say these two things, which I know go against the culture. In fact, I asked Kathy’s permission to say some of this. It’s what I believe. I think decisiveness is overrated. I think goal-setting leads us astray. Let me tell you what I mean. There’s great wisdom in indecision, not forever, but when you are indecisive or you’re feeling a little bit of uncertainty, it is your hidden genius speaking to you. Leadership is considered something that you need to be clear about. “Leaders are clear. Leaders make decisive choices. Leaders make decisions quickly and change their minds never.” Is that leadership?
I think leadership is being aware and absorbing, being agile and listening. Do we need listening in our society for inclusivity and acceptance to be aware and then make the choice? If you’re clear right away, great, but if you’re not and you’re indecisive, that is worth paying attention to. You say to yourself, “Why am I indecisive? What is bothering me about this? What are we not looking at? What is my intuition telling me?” You take a little moment because when you don’t and you make a fast decision to look clear, it’s expensive. You make a fast hire, the wrong hire. Energy, time and money. You make a big campaign decision. Let’s go for it. That one, let’s go for a green light, millions of dollars. I have seen this with television commercials. I have seen these marketing campaigns.
You got to redirect the team and people don’t want to because they’re embarrassed. Take that extra day or week or hour to say, “Let’s think about this. I’m indecisive, there’s a reason. Let’s brainstorm.” The second piece of that is I do think goal-setting can lead us astray because a goal is a result. It is a green flower at the end of that fuse. When Dylan Thomas said, “The fuse that drives the flower, the flowers is the goal, but this energy is what you’re after.” That noble intent, that electrical current, that river current that goes through, that drives things. That happens from inside. What I think is more valuable for your teams is to think about the verbs and the vision, but not the goal. I said this to Jeff. We were talking. Afterward, he said, “I totally agree with you.”
I gave him a hug. I was so happy. I was like, “That’s so great.” He said, “Sometimes I hear an executive say our goal is a 5% increase in sales.” He goes, “That’s a crappy goal. That’s just a result.” Our goal is to help or to serve. It is the verb. Sometimes we limit ourselves by our goals. Maybe it’s not meant to be 5%, maybe it’s meant to be 15% sales. Sometimes I’ll go to events. I’m about to go on stage and I’ll hear the executive before me say, “I want you to make 100 cold calls.“ I think, ”Is this the goal, 100 cold calls?” People are going to go through the motions. It’s going to be the conveyor belt instead of let’s connect and try to change just a few people’s lives. Maybe you only make three calls, but those are transformational. How you lead, the verbs you give, and the quote goals you set will determine the behavior that people then generate. You can’t drive innovation any more than you can drive love, but you can set the circumstances for it. You can foster it. You can allow it. You can inspire it. You can encourage it and step back and watch it grow.When we are not feeling courageous, we conform. We do what everyone else would do. Click To Tweet
I think you can’t outsource your vision. I work with a lot of leaders who say, “I’m going to have my team do it on the PowerPoint slide. Put my bolts together.” You’re the leader. It’s your vision. You can outsource and get the data, but you’re the visionary. Trust your vision. You cannot outsource it to your team. It’s yours. You’re in this for a reason. Trust those wisps, those ideas that come across your mind that are scary, that is risks forward where you’re like, “Can I say this on stage? Can I say this at the meeting? Can I say this on the phone?” That’s your risk forward. This inner line that drives us, it connects us to people. In Alaska, that interline that drives us, that connect us to people, that lights us up, was no more evident than upon the glacier in Alaska. When we were there, there was just white snow. “Mary Ann, do you want to stop for lunch?” “I’ll tell him.” “Sorry, what?” “Jim, Mary Ann says there is a big crevasse coming up on the right so we’re going go a little left. We’re good.” “Mary Ann.” “Yes.” “I’m ready.”
I was so happy to be alive on that glacier. We went out that night. We looked across the snow through the darkness and our head instructor spoke to us and said, “That was a big day up here. Mary Ann and Vic, good job. It makes you realize what’s important. Who’s on your team? Who’s pulling you up? Who you’re pulling up.” It’s the people. That’s what matters. That is so wild you said that. That’s why I came to Alaska to get perspective and see what mattered. “It’s got to like being on the moon.” That evening we were looking out and all of a sudden through the darkness, these colors, this full prism spectrum of green, pink, purple and yellow, we were all going, “Look at the lights.” Out of the blackness are these brilliant colors. I thought, “There’s so much more to the world than we know.” I think there’s so much more to each of us then we know.
There are times in your life when you’re going to feel crazy busy. You’re going to feel like you’re falling behind and that you can’t keep up. You’re going to think, “I’m screwing up. I can’t do it.” In these times, when you have that fear, I want to encourage you to go back up on the moon. Look back at your life here on earth on this blue-green globe. Remember, the people who are leaning on you. The lives are changing, the gifts that you’re bringing in, that what you do truly matters. In every scene, in every verb, in every moment. The thing that’s important also for all of us to remember is that life is not only short, it’s also unpredictable. We don’t know how much time we have. My encouragement for each of us, myself included, for you, is to connect to our through-lines as often as we can, create experiences that stop time, set the circumstances so that others can always risk forward. Thank you so much.
About Victoria LaBalme
With 20 years in the Performing Arts—from Broadway to comedy clubs, landmark films to high-profile television—Victoria’s customcrafted keynotes awaken innate talents in individuals and teams. Her proprietary systems have been embraced by C-suite executives at Starbucks, Microsoft and PayPal, as well as Hollywood celebrities, bestselling authors, and top teams in over 700 organizations.
With breathtaking stage skills, gripping stories, and comedic highlights, Victoria takes audiences through a profound experience they’ll never forget. Along the way, she shows people how to Risk Forward®—to distinguish their brand, gain competitive advantage, and achieve sustainable growth through a surprising blend of art and business. Her creative projects have been recognized by The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, BBC, and ABC’s Good Morning America.
A graduate of Stanford University, Victoria is also a critically acclaimed film producer, the creator of Rock The Room® training programs, and an inductee into the Speaker Hall of Fame.