Episode 2: Ravi Rao, Author of Emotional Business

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April 24, 2017

Known for his wit, wisdom, and formerly purple hair, McKinsey alum,  author and independent management consultant Ravi Rao reveals how we can improve the performance of individuals within the corporate culture through emotional intelligence.

As a young man, Ravi wanted to be an actor but ended up in neuroscience. With a keen interest in the function and development of the brain, he obtained a PhD in neuroscience, became a resident physician in neurosurgery at Harvard, where he studied the emotional behavior of babies.

After he made a career switch to management consulting to join McKinsey & Co., he used his training in how the brain works to bring new insights to corporate culture transformation.

In our discussion, Ravi explains why the basic element of trust is behind all progressive and profitable businesses. From being open to ideas and receptive to growth,  to mitigating the loss of high-performers and enabling staff to proactively anticipate and solve problems.

Ravi talks about his process as an author for his book, Emotional Business: Inspiring Human Connectedness To Grow Earnings And The Economy: how he wrote it, published it, and how it has helped lead to further conversations.

Ravi’s got a unique morning routine that is inspired by his own neuroscience training, and he shares how he starts his day.

Ravi is on Twitter @emobizguy.

Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the first global community of top-tier independent management consultants.


Will Bachman: Tell me about your purple hair. 

Ravi Rao: When I was 15 I told my teachers and my parents, “I am going to be an actor. I am going to be a playwright. I’m going to do something deeply creative.” That was my natural personality. But being a brown-skinned teenaged kid in the mid-1980s, people sort of looked at that with a bit of skepticism. The next thing I know it’s 30 years later. I’ve gone to college and graduate school and went to McKinsey Consulting, but that creative bent was always there. Suddenly I’m 48 and I was going to reboot my life, and I say, “I want to be an actor.” People kept saying to me, “Well, you don’t look very creative,” and I said, “Well, what does somebody creative look like?” I walked into a salon and said, “I want to look totally different,” and this very vibrant hair stylist said, “Let’s go turquoise or purple,” and I said, “Let’s go purple.”  

You led a session on how to shake hands that has stuck with me. Why did you choose handshaking as an entree into the world of emotions and business? 

 While doing management consulting work, I was always curious about an issue that was neither technical nor structural: it was that people didn’t trust each other. People wouldn’t interact in a way that they could make decisions using the basic premise that they’re in it together.  

 I started to try to figure out what creates trust and realized that it comes down to very basic human behaviors that are wired into the brain: things like the way we use touch or slow down our speech when speaking to someone for the first time. Like how we make eye contact. I came upon this set of behaviors, so now as a very basic element of how to improve trust in order to create innovation, it starts with some of these basic building blocks.  

What are the pointers that you give about shaking hands the first time you meet a person? 

There are five basic things you can do that will create physiological effects in the other person’s brain to allow them to trust you. Those five things are eye contact, smiling, slowing down when you speak, using intonational musicality, and touch. These techniques create that extra amount of focus, intensity and contact that together create this impact.  

 People say, “Where did you get this list? Did you scour academic journals?’ I’ll be very honest. The neatest way to know what’s happening in a human brain is to watch brand-new brains that aren’t a year old yet — in other words, watch babies. Babies respond to the same five things. There’s something fundamental about these five behaviors in the human brain that allows us to trust someone. 

 Your knowledge of children’s brains is a good pivot to talking about your career. Can you give us an overview of your journey? 

My path was atypical in the ’90s. After finishing college, I went through four years of medical school. I then did research in brain injury in children and earned a PhD from Johns Hopkins, then began the process of becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon. After a couple years of residency at Harvard, at the Children’s Hospital of Boston, I realized clinical work wasn’t the right path for me. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I happened to meet someone from McKinsey and the next thing I knew, I spent five years at McKinsey. 

As much as I valued and cherished all the learnings about economics and finance and business operations, I found such value in just understanding humans and the way we construct these paradigms. I realized I wanted to integrate management consulting with what I knew about the emotional nature of the brain.  

I left McKinsey in 2005 and created an independent practice where if you have a strategy question, I connect you with the people I think you should call, but after you’ve gone through structure and process and other efforts to improve the performance of your organization, if things still just aren’t clicking, the question I ask is, “Is it fundamentally an emotions and trust challenge?” When I’m brought in, my first topics are fundamental behaviors. That approach and then actually correcting behavior as a means of creating value in an organization is sort of my niche area, and I’ve been very happily doing it now for about a decade. 

 How do you start on Day One, Week One? Are you observing meetings? Interviewing people? Conducting surveys?  

The fundamental first thing that I’m doing is establishing the case for change. I’m conducting interviews with stakeholders internally to build some sense of what is disrupting things externally? What is creating havoc internally? I’m looking for operational indicators that trust may be lacking. I will look at examples, such as the percent of decisions that the committee or the leadership team has made that get revised in the next meeting or meeting after. That’s an example of either a lack of ability to state people’s perspectives upfront because of a lack of trust, or a second-guessing because there’s a lack of trust.  

There are other things like, how many or how often are we creating reports in excess of 30 PowerPoint pages that end up not being used or not read? When we start to use these indicators of a lack of consistency, a lack of trust, the lack of being on the same page, we can start to say, “Okay, so we have a minor problem, moderate problem, severe problem.” Another one that is very telling is to pull up every high potential identified person and track how many people leave within the first 12 to 18 months. If you’ve got a trust and culture/emotional capabilities problem, your lower performers will stay and your higher performances will say, “I don’t want this. I don’t need this. I can go somewhere else where I don’t have to deal with all this.” Another example is where issues are not brought up because the organization has a track record of punishing people who bring up potential problems.  

A fundamental problem is not strategy or operational or organizational structure — it’s the basics of human behavior and trust. These are the signs I’m looking for, and if I don’t see any of them, I’m like, “Let me call the traditional consultant.”  

Are there other issues beyond trust that you look for? 

I’m using trust as an umbrella and a proxy for all things that allow humans to collaborate effectively. What I’m really looking for is, is it behavioral? The purpose of my work is to create impact at the individual, personal behavioral level. On small things like how they shake hands and smile and on more profound and robust things such as what behaviors are undermining people around me, and what are the superlative, best-in-class emotional behaviors that allow me to go from just being a manager to being a person who can inspire something truly distinctive? 

What are some things that we can do to help transform those emotions in business? 

The fundamental thing I have observed is a lack of self-awareness. Strangely enough, coming back to your original question about the purple hair, I use a lot of techniques from theater to get people to stop and pause and reflect on why they are behaving the way they are. I will have people take on the exact persona and mannerisms of someone that they know they need to confront. People will tell me after that they feel like crying, because it’s that emotionally intense to actually try to do that, but it’s part of the practice of actually having to break through.  

My value proposition is that behavior will actually change. People will become different people from the combination of neuroscience, McKinsey and theater — it’s an atypical combination which allowed me take some of these atypical approaches to work. I find it very gratifying.  

Another self-awareness exercise is to video record the person. When clients see themselves saying things and they get to observe their shifting eyes, their fidgeting hands, their body posture that looks uncomfortable, they’re suddenly struck by, “Oh my gosh, is that what I’m putting out when I’m speaking?” It’s a very simple self-awareness tool that every consultant could do. If the client gets to watch it for a minute or two it can be very powerful for them. 

I love your book, Emotional Business. Has it led to client projects?  

For me it’s a 200-page brochure. For a traditional strategist, I don’t think you need a book to differentiate yourself. I think people understand what strategy consultants are and I think they understand the basis of functional expertise and the industry expertise. If you’re trying to do something atypical or niche, whether it’s in technology or innovation or emotions or things that people wouldn’t say normally like, “Oh I get that. I really understand that topic,” a book can be helpful. I give out the books to potential clients. If I’m speaking somewhere, I’ll bring 10 books with me and I’ll say the first 10 people to tweet that they heard my talk will get a free book. That invariably leads to further conversations. 

How did you get the writing done? 

I’m enough of a planner to know I didn’t want to write from page one going forward. For me it was much more important to spend a month writing the Roman numeral outline. If I just sat at the computer and started writing sentences I would have a panic attack because I wouldn’t know where it was going. Once that was in place, it was just a matter of filling in sentences to further illustrate the point.  

Do you have a morning routine? 

I do have a morning routine that comes out of neuroscience. I try to activate three of the emotional neurotransmitters in my own brain every morning. First, I intentionally find a task that I can finish within 10 minutes and finish it. It doesn’t matter if it’s personal, administrative, an errand, mailing a letter or paying a bill. That activates my serotonin centers. Second, I try to find one thing that allows me to express gratitude to other people, either on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger or email: I find one person and tell them in one or two sentences why I’m thankful for them. That activates the oxytocin centers in my brain. Third, I figure out something to dream about. Whatever it is, once I start to get excited about what could be, my norepinephrine centers are going. 

By doing those three things — finishing a task, expressing gratitude and getting excited about something in the future — it gets my brain off to a good start, and I’m sort of happy and peppy and bouncy all day.  

How can people get in touch with you?  

I’m happy to answer any questions at any time — even if it’s just as a phone consultation — at no charge. My Twitter handle is from Emotional Business — it’s EmoBizGuy. I’m also on LinkedIn and I’m happy to receive a LinkedIn request. Just let me know that you want to get in touch regarding potential discussion of organizational change.