Smart Tribes: Shifting Executive Behavior to Create More Positive Outcomes

Comaford, Christine sized

This week on Leadership Development News our guest is Christine Comaford. Christine has a new book that we are going to be digging deep into, “Smart Tribes.”

Bill Gates has called Christine, “super-high bandwidth.” Bill Clinton has thanked her for “fostering American entrepreneurship.” For over 30 years New York Times best-selling author and leadership and culture coach, Christine Comaford, has been helping leaders navigate growth and change. Christine is sought after for providing proven strategies to shift executive behavior to create more positive outcomes, enroll and align teams in times of change, massively increase sales, product offerings and company’s values.

Her coaching, consulting and strategies have created hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue and value for her clients. The potent neuroscience techniques she teaches are easy to learn and immediately applicable to help leaders see into their blind spots, expand their vision and more effectively influence outcomes.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: As many of you may know, she has a book out called “Smart Tribes,” and she is a New York Times best-selling author of “Rules for Renegades.” Of course, Relly and I love anybody who is a renegade. The two of us could easily join that club.

As an entrepreneur, Christine has built and sold five of her own businesses with an average of 700% return on investment. She served as a board director, in the trenches advisor, and as a venture capitalist for Angel Investor to 36 start-ups including Google. She has invested in over 200 start-ups herself. One of the things that I think is really exciting about Christine’s work is obviously she has consulted to the White House, both to Clinton and to Bush, and 700 of the Fortune 1000 and over 300 small businesses. She has helped over 50 of her clients to exit their businesses for up to $420 M and Christine has repeatedly identified and championed key trends and technologies years before market acceptance.

She is a leading edge provider of consulting. A lot of that is due in part to her work as a software engineer in the early days of Microsoft, Apple and Adobe. Christine is a leadership columnist for, she has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, all my favorites, and of course Fox Business Network, PBS, and Cnet. Stanford Graduate School of Business has done two case studies on her work. I think that you are all going to enjoy getting to know Christine today. We are going to focus on her new best-selling book, “Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together.”

Christine Comaford: Thank you so much Cathy. Thank you Relly. It’s awesome to be here.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Christine’s website is You can get more information and also join to get free webinars and resources.

Christine, we always start off by asking folks the question, who have been some of the most influential people in your career?

Christine Comaford: Well, when I think of it I’ll mention a couple of names and then I’ll talk about a couple of people that no one has heard of. Bill Gates was hugely influential since I was one of the early female programmers at Microsoft. I learned a lot about tenacity from Bill Gates. Jerry Jampolsky who is the author of “Teach Only Love,” “Love is Letting Go of Fear,” and just a really brilliant man. The Dalia Lama who had me scrub toilets for 24 hours to learn about clearing my ego. Then just a lot of really amazing and remarkable people; just regular people doing inspiring, courageous things.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That’s outstanding. As I think about you scrubbing toilets, I’m thinking that is a very good way to learn to be egoless. I don’t think there is anything better than doing that, or as I have heard in the military, they give somebody a toothbrush and tell them to clean the bathroom floor.

Christine Comaford: It was a lot of scrubbing.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: It makes you humble, and as Relly will probably tell you, over the years we all learn what we are capable of through our own humility and I think until we recognize what humility is it’s hard for us to really hear others or to learn from others. That’s an amazing story there; I just can’t get that visual out of my head.

Tell us about “Smart Tribes,” and how it came about, Christine; what was the motivation here?

Christine Comaford: We have been helping leaders get good old regular people to do extraordinary things for 30 years. A couple of years ago our client sat me down, several of our clients, and said you’ve got to capture all these cool neuroscience based techniques that you teach us because if you ever, god-forbid, got hit by a bus, these things would be gone.

After writing my first book which we were very fortunate in that it became a New York Times best-seller, and then “Smart Tribes” became a New York Times best-seller. Now we are working on our third book. Here’s the reason that we had to write “Smart Tribes.” We go into these organizations, amazing people, they really care, but we see so much fight, flight, freeze. We see so much fear. We see unclear communication, constantly changing directives, either the company needs to do a radical turn-around or the company is growing so fast that everybody is pretty panicky and freaked out, or the company is stuck.

We’ve really figured out very clearly, the revenue inflection points where a company must do certain things to navigate to and through that revenue inflection point and if they don’t do that they will either spiral or they will start to slide back. It was time for us to package this all up so that people we’ll never be able to work with, because we can only work with so many, would be able to benefit from our discoveries and techniques.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Part of the techniques that I see in the book are called accelerators. These are tools that you have as sweet spots, and obviously many of them are brain based, how many exactly are there in the book?

Christine Comaford: There are well over 30 tools in the book Cathy, and we’ll be going over some of them today. These are tangible, pragmatic, easy to learn and easy to apply tools that bring positive, profound change pretty quickly.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Christine you mentioned these inflection points. Before we get into some of the tools, could you just highlight some? I’m just thinking from our listeners standpoint they’ll be going whoa, am I at an inflection point? Is my company at an inflection point? What are some of those?

Christine Comaford: Good point Relly. So here’s what we see the standard inflection points, where frankly at each one you have a whole new company. $10 M, $25 M, this is gross revenue, $50 M, $100 M, $250 M, $500 M, $1 B, and it goes on up. At each of these you want to do three different types of things. You have to do some people stuff, some money stuff, and some model stuff. Not everybody can do all three so we always say do the people things first; do the cultural assessment when you are heading towards $25 M. Make sure that you have your 360’s in place, make sure that you have your leadership development programs in place, make sure that you are guiding people through individual development plans.

People will see in the first chapter of “Smart Tribes” how we explain that you get a different business at each inflection point and you must prepare in advance so that you navigate to and through that revenue inflection point.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That is a really great point, Christine. One of the things that Relly and I use in our work are ROI, ROP, and we now use ROL from Fearless Leaders. We really strongly believe that the ROI, the natural “Return On Investment” which are the financial inflection points that you are describing will come as a result of ROP, “Return On People.” That’s a military model that we have used for over a decade that helps people understand. When you are in the military you get rewarded for reinforcing bringing back whole, healthy people. Not just stores of ammunition or other things used in a time of war. I think one of the exciting parts about your work is that you are telling everybody, if I heard you correctly, focus on the ROP—Return On People—and get that really organized before you focus on something else.

Christine Comaford: Yes, and let me say one quick thing. The vast majority of companies that we initially approach haven’t really figured out a learning and development program. Harvard did a study a while ago and they found that people who had been leading others for ten years on average, only then, after 10 years of leadership did they start to get some leadership development work and support from the organization.

Our most successful clients have 24 hours of learning for everybody in the organization, annually and two weeks of learning, training, for all the leaders annually.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So that’s amazing. I love what you are saying, especially these inflection points Christine, I’m thinking as you are growing the company—and I like to think these kind of visual terms—the food and the nutrients as if you were growing an individual, is the leadership development. So as the child grows to an adolescent, the bigger numbers in revenue, is the leadership development that is the fuel that I see you folks do first.

Christine Comaford: Absolutely, good point.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Christine, in your book you write a lot about how we get stuck in our “critter state” at work. What is a “critter state” and what happens to us when we are in our critter state?

Christine Comaford: We call it “critter state” because you are like a little animal and you are running safety programs—safe or not, safe or not, dead or not—you’re running very basic reptilian and mammalian programs. Let me describe there are three areas of the brain or the three brains that we all have and where we get in trouble.

The reptilian brain is the brain stem, the most primal part of us. It governs temperature regulation, breathing, balance; the reptilian brain, if it could speak, would say, “dead or not.” It’s a stimulus response machine coded only for safety and doesn’t understand quality of life.

The mammalian brain; our emotional center. Also a stimulus response machine, also coded for safety or survival but more on the emotional level. This is where we have the limbic system: fight, flight or freeze. So emotions and memory are here in the mammalian brain. If the mammalian brain could speak it would say, “friend or foe.” A little more evolved than “dead or not,” but still running safety programs.

Layered on top, neocortex. This is where we have tool making, language skills, planning, vision, innovation, creativity. If the neocortex could speak it would say, “what can I create?”

Now, when we are in a stressful environment, constantly changing directives, rapid growth, turnaround, unclear communications, we slide into the reptilian/mammalian combo that we call “critter state.” This is where we are just keeping our heads down doing basic work just trying to not be dead, if you will; primal survival here. This is where we have silos, self-sabotage, unclear communication, withholding information, fear, gossip, rumors, overwhelm, etc. When we are there people are performing at a fraction of what they are capable of.

As leaders it is our job to get them into what we call the “smart state” where all three parts of the brain are working together. So if a bus zooms by your reptilian brain will make your body jump out of the way to keep you “not dead,” but if you get a mean email you won’t freak out. You’ll just say, wow, poor George is having a bad day. You’ll be able to innovate, elaborate, etc.

If you’d like to know more, you can listen  to the complete recording above, without commercials.


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