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What Do You Want with Carla Fowler

George Grombacher February 23, 2023

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What Do You Want with Carla Fowler

LifeBlood: We talked about how to answer the question, “What do you want,” why it’s important to consistently revisit it, how to engage in brutal focus and the value of doing so, and the right questions to ask, with Carla Fowler, MD, PhD, Founder and Managing Director of Thaxa executive coaching.  

Listen to learn a process for getting clear on the answer to this important question!

You can learn more about Carla at and LinkedIn.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher

Carla Fowler

Carla Fowler

Episode Transcript

Well, hello, this is George G. And the time is right welcome today’s guest starring a powerful Karla Fowler. Carla, are you ready to do this? Absolutely. All right, let’s go. Carla is an MD. She’s a PhD, she is the founder and Managing Director of faksa. They’re a boutique executive coaching firm, that leverages the best ideas from performance science to help leaders around the globe. Carla, tell us a bit about your personal lives more about your work and why you do what you do. Awesome. Well, I’ll tell you from someone who went from getting an MD and a PhD to heading into building an executive coaching practice, there is a long tail to that. But what I would say the thing to know about me is just that, I think from a very young age, if you asked me, What do you want to be when you grew up? I would have been like, well, I don’t know. But I want to be good at things.

Carla Fowler 0:54
And I think very early, I was like, Oh, if you’re good at hard thing, like things that are difficult, you know, you have an advantage, it makes you unique. You know, when we think about work, often work provides three really important things provides resources. And I was very aware, like, Okay, you need a job where you grew up.

But it also provides kind of a sense of status or your place in community. If you have a more unique position, obviously, sometimes that can feel better. And then I think the third thing was just that, it’s should be interesting, like, we’re going to spend so much of our life working, that it’s part of the stimulation or the engagement that we have with the world. And so, interestingly, when I look back, and I’m like, Okay, I was like, I was a kid, you know, I should be good at things. And if they’re, if it’s something challenging, that would probably set you up well, and that kind of started just a string of

pursuing things that had challenges associated with it. Were competitive, or just were difficult in the nature of them, and trying to figure out, how do I excel at that? How do I do that, and watching other people as well. But definitely using myself as a guinea pig. I think there’s a family joke that was like, Carla basically says, Oh, is that like the most challenging thing? Great, make it a double.

george grombacher 2:24
I’ll take two of those.

Unknown Speaker 2:25
I’ll take two. Exactly. So that’s it. That’s just a little bit about myself. And ultimately, I pursued science and, and kind of medicine in particular, because I was socially oriented, good at math and science, I loved problem solving. So it was a very nice bet, of where I might find something interesting and engaging. But I was always living this multi channel life. So like I wrote crew while I was in college, and while I was doing my PhD, I won a world championship and a couple national championships as an ultimate frisbee player. So it was constantly like, I didn’t want just sort of one thing that I was working on. And part of that was I think, I was really interested in performance. And wanted multiple arenas to test things to try things. So more or less, I got to my surgical residency. And that was the first time where it was really demanded that I focus on one thing and one thing only. And that was the moment when I said, Ah, I now understand that what I love most is performance. I love thinking about it, I love helping other people do it. And I need to build something where that can be my focus. And so that was really the the advent of the work that I do. And that was 10 years ago. And really what I did was say, All right, I think executive coaching is is the industry, it’s the forum or the platform, for being able to say we have all this science that helps inform not just the stuff I’ve been doing, but stuff that people are doing now that I haven’t been involved in, you know, I’m not in that industry. But there’s such good ideas and science to inform how to help people do their best work. And wouldn’t it be great if that was really a piece of of coaching in that industry?

george grombacher 4:24
I love it. So what is what is performance science?

Unknown Speaker 4:28
So I think of it as like the body of ideas that inform, you know, how do you do sort of your best work when things are challenging when it’s uncertain? And maybe when there’s a competitive dynamic involved? What really are the ideas and principles that have something to do with that, that could give you an advantage? And it really runs a whole spectrum of really like tactical small things that are maybe specific to a particular industry or situation All the way I would say up to really kind of the meta, the meta ideas. And a great way to break it down is to say, well, there’s a bunch of ideas about strategy. And you can think about strategy, as you know, what are you going to do? What is the small number of things you’re probably going to do, compared to all the things that you could do, but that you’re going to deprioritize? And it’s sort of knowing what are the right things to do? I think there’s execution a lot around that. That’s sort of where the productivity movement lives, which is very obsessed with sort of time management and some of those things. But how do you do things in an effective, efficient way? And then I think that third piece is really about mindset, or the psychology of it all. So, you know, how do you keep yourself getting out into the arena? How do you keep yourself going? How do you feel a sense of momentum or confidence? And maybe more importantly, how do you help a team, maybe it was working with you feel a sense of confidence or momentum? And so that’s how I really break it down. And then it’s helpful, because I think there’s a ton of ideas. And so one of the things about performance, is we actually have to even approach that science itself and say, okay, yeah, lots of great ideas. I will do a small fraction of them in my lifetime. You know, what’s really most important there? What, what are the meta ideas that can help anybody? So that’s how I think about it, George,

george grombacher 6:36
nice. I appreciate that. You’ve got to, you’ve got an awesome story. And I know, we could have several different podcasts about Ultimate Frisbee, MD, PhD, and and all of these things, as you’re going through medical school and PhD program. And you’re you’re you’re you’re focused and interested in these things. And I’m sure excelling wildly. But are you worried? This isn’t the right thing? And what are people going to think about me? And am I just going to be bouncing around from thing to thing for the rest of my life?

Unknown Speaker 7:18
That’s such a great question. And I in some ways, it’s good that I was not like I didn’t I didn’t have that thought in the middle. I definitely had that thought, when it was brutally clear to me that surgery was going to take all but probably eight hours of the 24 hours I had and in that last eight hours, I had to sleep. See my partner? And maybe there was some time to like exercise, maybe. But all of its cutting into sleep. I mean, I sleep eight hours a night now. So you can imagine what it means when your work takes at least 16. And but I think that the truth was one thing that could be said is I’m not sure I had a realistic sense of like what the job ultimately would be. But I wasn’t worried about it. And I think part of that was related very much to a sense of this, this belief that if you can build a set of capabilities or skills, that those will be useful somehow that I was learning things well beyond just the content of like, what drug to prescribe at this moment? Or how to do this procedure. There was a lot I was learning about, oh, how do you manage time when you have no time? Or how do you think about, for example, like how to think about an uncertain problem. Like all all of my PhD in some ways, was learning how to think I mean, it was in cancer immunotherapy was sort of what it was about. But I think the main thing was, how do you think about a problem where it’s not well defined, your whole job is to figure out what you don’t know. And when you think about these, these skills, they really translate into a lot of other areas. So when we think about entrepreneurs, for example, I mean, their whole job is to say, I’m trying to create something that does not currently exist, and find a way for it to have an advantage or succeed over other offerings or other competitors in the market. And there’s not a playbook for that. In fact, it’s sort of anti to the playbook because you want that unique advantage. And so I think part of it was I knew there was value in what was happening. And ultimately, I think the thing that really helped me towards the end was I was constantly asking myself the question, based on what you know, now, what do you want? And this question, I believe, is actually really fundamental to one of the first when I think about principles of performance that really help anyone. It falls in the category of strategy. We talked about the three big buckets. So and the principle that I talk about is brutal focus. And brutal focus is this idea of explicitly knowing what you want. And then also asking yourself the question, what is really the driver towards that? Not all the things I could do should do that might be great that other people are doing towards this, but like, what actually drives that result? Can I understand that? Or even if I can’t fully understand it, I don’t have clarity at the first in first, like, can I learn and get better clarity about what really drives towards that result that I want? And I think in my story, I was asking myself along the way, what do you want, and the data was getting back along the way was, well, I’m managing a full time sports life and a full time work life. While I was in school, I was in training, and I was getting paid. for it. It was a funded program. And so I had a job. I was like, getting the things that I wanted. And I knew I was building credentials, that would make me highly employable. And it was interesting, it was challenging, it was interesting. And then you reach that point later. And this happens to all of us. So this isn’t just about my story. But this is about, we all come upon these moments in life when something that was working for us, or delivering what we wanted, potentially like is no longer delivering what we wanted. And so, you know, when I was working 16 hours a day, without the ability to manage my time as flexibly, it was abundantly clear to me that suddenly this was not what I wanted. And so I think this is an important question to keep asking ourselves not because on any given day, we can come to some perfect answer. But because it’s really important to note, when that answer changes, or when our environment has changed, such that our ability to get those results is no longer is no longer working. And so that’s kind of what I was thinking, and also how it relates back to performance.

george grombacher 12:24
Fascinating, I love everything about that brutal focus. Do you think that most people know what they want?

Unknown Speaker 12:32
I think it’s a question we don’t spend or give ourselves a lot of time to ask and think deeply about. And I think there’s a lot of things that get in the way. And some of these may feel familiar. One of the things that happens a lot is we have the feeling of wanting something. But we that doesn’t mean that we have defined explicitly like what it is. So we have the feeling of like, well, what do you want? Not this not what’s happening right now. Or, or we have the feeling we have the wanting of I want to feeling? I want to feel more confident my job, right? I want to feel more successful at the thing I’m doing. That’s a common pattern that we think we’re thinking about it. But we’re thinking about something that’s kind of ephemeral, and much more difficult to chase, then like, well, if I can look at that feeling, and just examine it a little more deeply, like, what is it about my job or my business that doesn’t feel successful? Like what do I think successful would look like? What kinds of things do I imagine might make me feel differently? Who could I talk to or ask about, you know, their path, or what made them feel like that? So I think chasing a feeling is something it can be kind of a red herring, it can be helpful, if we take that time to examine it. Another thing that can get in the way is the like, I mean, this is being on internet on the internet or on TV, like social media, just the I want whatever I’m presented with, from advertising from marketing, because they were built to make us want it. I mean, that’s successful advertising right there. But it changes a lot. And it’s just very, it’s very noisy. So sometimes what we want can be noisy and constantly changing. Because of those influences. I think there’s a final force that can get in the way which is we are meant to be, like socially inclined to want to mimic to want to fit in and belong within our social tribes. And so often what the people we are closest to want, or going after can overly influence what we think for ourselves, and I find that the best solution to this is to to craft some time for ourselves where we let ourselves think about the question, and this is different than daydreaming, although daydreaming can give a spark, like, Wouldn’t it be great if, you know, you could take that spark? But then you follow up with some questions to say, Okay, if I take that out of the fantasy of the future, that has no constraints, because in the future, we have more than 24 hours a day, we are never forced to fit everything together. You know, like, whether it’s our families and our jobs and all the things with that other dream we have. And but if I were to say like, in reality, what might that actually look like? So take it out of kind of daydreaming, and then to train, put some specifics to it, and you can downsize it, you can upgrade it, I think that’s helpful, too. And the key thing is, don’t think about how, at the start, think about, think about the one and start there. And I think doing that over time, even if it’s just you give your like yourself five minutes with your morning coffee, if no one’s up, you don’t have to talk to anyone, you’re like, I take five minutes. And I think about this for myself, can write it down or not, I find writing it down is helpful, because you can look at what you wrote yesterday or last week. And sometimes you’re like, oh, that’s what I wrote. Ah, no, I have clarity. Now. I think that’s not right. But that was last week. So anyway, so I think that’s a great way to start just getting some more clarity. I think it’s not that we don’t know, but there’s a lot of things that get in the way, including spending time on it.

george grombacher 16:46
Yeah, I just couldn’t agree more. If we’re not, if we’re not spending time thinking about this stuff, the stuff that are weapons of mass destruction, our telephone service will have an influence over us, there’s no two ways about that the people that were around are going to have some kind of an influence over us. And the change in an environment, I mean, with technology that’s going to all the different changes is going to have an impact on your livelihood, and the work that you’re doing in some form or fashion. And so for not paying attention to that, then our lives will probably be be be different. So the more we can be checking in and doing that brutal focus and asking ourselves stepping out of that the fantasy future was the term that you used.

Unknown Speaker 17:38
Yeah, like, I mean, kind of the Daydream lands. Yeah, the fantasy future. And, and again, fantasy exists for a reason. It is part of our creative intellect. And it is a sign it does point us in a direction of what we might want. But it is not an effective tool to help us get what we want, where we have to, like do it in reality, and deal with the constraints of 24 hours a day, or, you know, other things that we also want, and deciding how those things will play together.

george grombacher 18:13
When when when you’re coaching your clients, talks about just spending a couple of minutes when you have a coffee before anybody else is up or you have a little bit of free time. I think that that’s really important. And it’s not something that I’ve probably done for maybe the last five years is be more intentional and do a lot more writing and journaling and just paying attention to what it is that I’m thinking. Do you ask your clients to Let’s carve out time to actually do this kind of exercise. So it’s not just passing.

Unknown Speaker 18:48
You know, your your point is often hard to figure out when to do that, or develop the practice. And also, sometimes we get this idea about this whole practice we have to have, which would take an hour a day in and of itself. And let’s be honest, like most most people, that’s a hard hour to find. And so what I do in my coaching practice is this is one of the first questions we ask because I think what we’re coaching towards how we support someone depends a lot on like, well, what are the results you want to achieve? So the way I handle this is I actually start every coaching, engagement with a five hour, you can call it a strategy session. But the goal of that session is to give us uninterrupted time to ask the question, what do you want? And I asked it in a lot of different ways. There’s just different ways to get it that both what what’s the feeling you want? Or what might that look like? Or what would someone in your position want or there’s a lot of different ways to get at it. But that’s the first question. First question of brutal focus. Second question is, given that what is most important To get you there, what are the the fundamental drivers? Not the Bose the whistles? You know all the extra? And not the not the Vantage, the vanity metrics and the this and the that like literally, what gets you to it? And, again, there’s a lot of different ways to look at that question it could be, what are the biggest opportunities in front of you? It could be what are the resources you have? What are you straight? What are your strengths? It also can be like, what are the biggest risks you need to mitigate? Or where do you need to grow? What are the biggest areas of uncertainty, but there’s just, you can generate sort of a big brain dump, to start to look at what might be important. And for people who are trying to do this at home, I often recommend like, give yourself some time. I again, I like to make it really approachable. You don’t need a fancy journal, you could literally have some post its and but just start brain dumping everything that might be important for that thing. And if you find that there’s a lot of gaps in your knowledge, that’s a wonderful time to write down things like Who do I know who’s really good at that? Or like, has that area of their life or business like, you know, locked down? Who want to ask, is there a book on this? Like, could I read a book on this? Even better? Is there a YouTube video on this, or podcast, something I could listen to on my commute, but where I could get a better sense of what might be most important for this. But the way I handle in coaching is we carve out a big chunk of time. And I find it’s often easier to do with a thought partner who’s not who is supportive and invested in you, but doesn’t have basically, I’ll just say your hangups. So one question if you’re alone, you can ask yourself is, What would someone who had my goals but didn’t have whatever my hang ups or my constraints? What would they do immediately? They were in my position, what would they do? And so that’s the way you can ask it when you don’t have conversational flow. But we do this. And I’ll tell you, when I tell people, we’re going to spend five hours together, they are like their eyes, which is I can see like, yes, exactly. But everyone is like a time flies by. And at the end of it, we come out of the weeds to create a couple clear priorities. We break them down a little bit to have an understanding of the nuance, but essentially like three critical drivers, and we have a sense of like, what is their goal. And you know, at home, I find it’s helpful, you can revisit what you’ve written and try and get it more specific over time. That’s one way to do this. But that’s how we really get it brutal focus to start and help people get a lot more clarity about what they wanted.

george grombacher 23:01
I love it. There’s so much power in a good question. And you’ve given us a lot of really, really great questions, and I love it. It’s a wonderful exercise. Carla, thank thank you so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you? And how can they engage with you.

Unknown Speaker 23:18
So a great place to just if you want to hear more about performance science, we talked a little bit about it today. But there’s other great principles. When I’m on podcasts as a guest. Every conversation is a little different. And those are all on LinkedIn. I’m at Carla dash Fowler. And then if you’re interested in learning more about coaching, or if you’re interested in having conversation about whether coaching with me would be a good fit for you on my websites the best place to do that. So that that’s T H A XA. And there’s a great FAQ section there as well as a way to message me through the same.

george grombacher 23:59
Excellent. Well, if you enjoyed as much as I did, she’ll curl your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas. Find Carla and her past LinkedIn or past podcast episodes and lots of other stuff on link dance. Carla, what’s the middle initial? Just dash and Karla dash Fowler fo W L er and then go to Thaks It’s T EK THAXHTHAX Check out the FAQs and you can get in contact with Carla directly through the website as well. Thanks. Good. Carla.

Unknown Speaker 24:34
Thank you so much, George. And until

george grombacher 24:36
next time, remember, do your part by doing your best

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