As part of my True Strength project, I’m featuring interviews that dig deep into how people succeed and I was delighted to interview Dawn Smedley of O.C. Tanner alongside her manager Ian Feaver. The interview has lots of insights into how we succeed, about strengths, weaknesses, mindset, resilience, and how to help people be their best. To listen to the interview, simply click ‘play’ on the audio player above or you can read the transcript below.
Dawn’s top 5 StrengthsFinder talent themes:
1 – Empathy: People who are especially talented in the Empathy theme can sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others’ lives or others’ situations.
2 – Developer: People who are especially talented in the Developer theme recognize and cultivate the potential in others. They spot the signs of each small improvement and derive satisfaction from these improvements.
3 – Strategic: People who are especially talented in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.
4 – Input: People who are especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more.
5 – Connectedness: People who are especially talented in the Connectedness theme have faith in the links between all things. They believe there are few coincidences and that almost every event has a reason.
… and Dawn’s bottom 3 (out of the full 34):
32 – Discipline: People who are especially talented in the Discipline theme enjoy routine and structure. Their world is best described by the order they create.
33 – Competition: People who are especially talented in the Competition theme measure their progress against the performance of others. They strive to win first place and revel in contests.
34 – Consistency: People who are especially talented in the Consistency theme are keenly aware of the need to treat people the same. They try to treat everyone in the world with consistency by setting up clear rules and adhering to them.
Ian: Hi Dawn it’s great to be with you today. Rather than me say your job title, will you say what your job title is?
Dawn: I will and it is the longest job title in the world – I’m an Appreciatologist.
Ian: Right, you’ve got to explain to us, what does that mean? What does an Appreciatologist do?
Dawn: Well it fundamentally means that I know and believe that appreciation can make a difference to everybody but most importantly, I go out and speak to organisations and try and encourage them to build a culture of appreciation through creating moments of recognition.
Ian: Fantastic. So what does that mean you do and how do you go about doing that on a daily and weekly basis?
Dawn: It’s about building relationships more than anything. It’s about raising awareness of appreciation and the difference it can make by sharing stories of successes organisation have had and actually when appreciation underpins your business strategy, it actually leads to business results, financial outcomes that you can go to your Board and say, “you know what, we can actually prove this out, it has made a difference”. And it’s not just about the business results, you can actually make people at the front end feel more valued and put a smile on their face and make them feel part of something bigger than themselves.
Ian: So let’s start by talking about you as I believe that True Strength comes from knowing who you are and it comes from knowing both your strengths and your weaknesses so will you tell us a little bit about what you’re good at and what you’re bad at and what you struggle with?
Dawn: Well, as this is about strengths, we’ll start with the strengths bit. I think true strength is an interesting thing to me as it takes you a while to know what your true strength is and it tends to come from an event or a situation that you’ve been in that makes you really question who you are, what you stand for and what you’re willing to compromise on in your life and that pivotal moment happened for me in my previous job where the culture that I worked in didn’t fit with my value set at all and it made me really question who I was, what I wanted to do, what my core motivations were and at that point I had to draw on my true strength to be brave enough to step away from something that had been normal for a long time. And I think in doing that, it brought to life that what I’m really good at is building relationships, being passionate and enthusiastic about something that I believe in and appreciation and recognition soon came to the forefront as one of those things. And my journey with that was around working for an organisation where I could be myself. I was having huge conflicts where I was because I wasn’t able to be myself. It was causing me stress, it was causing me health issues actually, I hurt my back, just one thing after another really. And it was only through meditation and seeing a poster that – well I was going to a pilates class actually that wasn’t on, so a meditation class adopted me and it was called “Meditation and the art of positive thinking” and from that it just made me realise that there was another way that I could live my life and it was really important for me to find something that I believed in and that’s what I did.
Ian: So can I ask about that? So you knew that what you doing before wasn’t quite right, wasn’t enough, how did you know that OC Tanner and this was right?
Dawn: A lot of discovery. The recruitment process at OC Tanner is quite long and lengthy anyway and I think more than anywhere else that I’ve worked, cultural fit is very important. We are a unique environment, you know, working for an American company where appreciation is so deeply embedded in everything we do, you have to have that as part of who you are. You have to fundamentally embrace that. When you walk into an OC Tanner office, you will get hugged! It’s a very positive, happy environment but it’s not for everyone. The interview process was brilliant because I had an informal chat with my boss Ian to start with but then the second stage was to meet the team and it was about meeting the team in an informal environment so I could see if I could fit with them and they could see if I fit with them too. I wasn’t actually 100% convinced after the first interview but after the second interview, I thought, oh actually. An then the third interview, I went to one of the OC Tanner events and I saw clients talking about the difference appreciation had made and that was powerful in itself, but more than that the trainers that we have at OC Tanner, it’s not like a normal recognition company where this is the technology, this is how to use the system, its more about shifting to a different place and changing behaviour. So whilst I was listening to the training, I wasn’t thinking “Oh, this is what they do”, I was thinking God I need to do that in my life. It was moving me to a different place and that’s what we do with the kind of people we train as well, you kind of make that emotional connection to the appreciation and the difference it’s going to make. And then the final interview was with the VP, like someone high up in Canada, and that was it really. And by that time I was in hook line and sinker and didn’t want to be anywhere else and luckily I got the job. But I think it was very much about me interviewing them as well as them interviewing me. I needed it to be right, I needed them to recruit me for who I was because there was no way I was going to go into another job where 6 months down the line it was going to be in question. So there was a degree of trust as there always is. You know you make that unwritten contract with an organisation when you join, but before I started there was a compliments card in the post that had cost nothing, but the whole team had signed it with a welcome message and the Company sent my children Easter eggs before I’d even joined so at the point where my husband said “you were meant to work here, this company is so right for you”, it all started to blend in. And a pivotal moment was when I went out to Salt Lake City and Obert Tanner, who is the founder of the company, has an absolute love of fountains and water features and I remember vividly when I was at University, thinking “one day, I’m going to work for a company with a fountain and a waterfall in the lobby and I walked into our Head Office in Salt Lake City and it was there! They all thought I was mad as I got so excited, I was like YAY! But there is something about this for me being the place that I was meant to be. It’s like the world aligned for it to happen at the right time in my life, for the right reasons, and we talked about it in the car, even where the office is versus where I live, it just all came together in this beautiful moment. And it’s not perfect, nowhere is, but the positives far outweigh the negatives and it’s somewhere where I plan to be for a long time.
Ian: So that’s really interesting as I think the real you has just shined through in the answer that you’ve given. You’ve taken Strengthsfinder – you’ve done the full 34 one that ranks all your innermost talents. Looking at your top 5 strengths, we look at Empathy, Developer, Strategic, Input, Connectedness. Which ones there describe you most?
Dawn: Connectedness. That just lends itself to the story that I’ve just told in that I do believe things happen for a reason and I believe we are in this world to make a positive difference and when we do then great things happen. So I think that my philosophy in life is that giving, in the hope that at some point good things will happen to me and my family around me and I can absolutely and 100% say that in every relationship I go into with a positive intent and an intent to make a difference and that’s the mantra that goes around in my head all the time and that’s slightly different to people who also might be doing a similar type of role. The other is Empathy – my head is permanently spinning with how other people are feeling – the impact that I have on other people or just understanding where people are coming at life from and situations from and doing my very best to make people feel comfortable and happy and in a place where I can help.
Ian: So, a lot of strengths can be double-sided so how does that Empathy, how does that help you and how does it hinder you?
Dawn: It helps me to be able to read situations quite well and it helps me to be able to see when people aren’t feeling comfortable and then be able to do something about it, even if I’m on the phone, it is something that is inbuilt within me. Where that hinders is that I over-analyse conversations sometimes to the point where I talk myself out of something or read something into things where I’ve got it a bit wrong. So it’s a great thing to have but it also means that you take it all in and so I think I would struggle to work in say a hospital, because I’d take it all home with me. And I do that here – I care too much, sometimes, about how everyone gets on and all those kind of things I can’t control, so I have to do a lot of work in my head to literally stop myself going too far down the line and realise what I can and cannot control in my life.
Ian: And given that our strengths are our strengths and we really don’t want to train that out of you or suppress it, how do you do that? How do you have that empathy and care but at the same time not let it hold you back?
Dawn: I don’t always do it very well! Again it’s about having people around you with different strengths. People whose strengths are not as high on the empathy scale will see that things are affecting me and have a word with me. They will say “Look Dawn, do you know what? You are here to do what you do, don’t worry about everything else”. My husband does that to me , Ian does, and my colleagues do too. I think true strength doesn’t come from yourself purely, it comes from the people around you and I think that’s why it’s really important to have people that you trust and know you well enough to see that in you as well.
Ian: I love that and it brings us back to something you said a moment ago about most people doing your job are a bit different to you and there is maybe one weakness that I want to ask about because as we look at your strengths, number 33 out of 34 is Competition. A large element of your role is business development isn’t it, which is …can I use the ‘sales’ word? Often by association, if you are going to work in sales, competition tends to be quite high. How do you reconcile those two – how does that show up for you?
Dawn: Yes that’s been an interesting journey for me. Historically it’s something you can’t get away from. That’s how sales people (to coin a phrase) are basically motivated by being top of a leader board and I am categorically am not. It doesn’t even feature in how I’m motivated. I’m not motivated by money, I’m not motivated by anything material and the worst thing for me would be stood up on a stage so yes, I’m not the typical person to work in business development but the reason why I did it in the first place is because it’s the one place where you can genuinely make a difference. If you’re not at the front end with the ability to speak to people and use the skillsets I have and genuinely genuinely believing in what we do, then if I’m sat in an office somewhere counting the number of moments of recognition that are happening , I’m not there to make a difference, I’m not using my skills and my strengths to the best of my ability. So the reason, my core motivation, is to influence and change people to think about appreciation in a different way. So going back to that competition element, I’ve had to park it and luckily I have a boss who knows that the get the best out of me that’s not the best thing to put in front of me. You know for me, I don’t want to see who I am as based as a number, I want to be judged as a person and the best feedback I could ever get is from a client who says, “You know Dawn, we trust you and you made a difference” and that to me is all I need and if that’s competition, well that’s competition but in a different way but that’s something that I would internalise and that would mean a lot more to me. Ian’s been really good at understanding that and understanding within the team, there will be a conversation spoken about afterwards, it’s the little wins. It’s something that you said to me when you were coaching me “Don’t focus on the big thing at the end, it’s about the little wins along the way” and I think its somewhere that I’ve finally got to but it’s taken me a long while to get there. Do you know what, in my mind, if they took that competition away, that would be brilliant. Haha, but it’s not going to happen so it’s an interesting dynamic!
Ian: Presumably you have colleagues for whom that is a driver?
Dawn: Yes completely, you know a lot of them are sports people, we have a racing driver, an international lacrosse player. They are driven by being the best at what they do, they are so disciplined and they have exactly that same belief in what we do they are just motivated differently in how they get there and I love that about them and that empathy part of me loves it for them when it’s happening but it’s not something I crave for myself if that makes sense?
Ian: It makes absolute sense and nor do you need to as it sounds like you have a culture here and boss that helps you to succeed because of who you are. How have you figured that out?
Dawn: I think, taking it right back to recruitment again, it was a demand for absolute honesty. I was absolutely honest about everything, the good things, the bad things, I laid it out there for them and let them make the decision as to whether I was the right fit and I think in doing that they did the same to me. And as soon as I joined, they welcomed me with open arms and realised that it was a very good fit in the end. But there’s been ups and downs along that way but I think what Ian has given me is freedom and autonomy to do this my way. There’s never been any pressure to follow a path and do things this way because it’s always been done that way. He’s basically said you just do what you need to do. So, I’ve experimented, tried different things. When it’s been successful it’s been encouraged when it’s not they’ve said, great, let’s try something else. It’s never been a situation where they’ve said you can’t do that. There has always been trust and for me, it was something that I didn’t trust if that makes sense. I actually wrote a blog about it. Oh no, it was through the coaching you gave me and I wrote a blog about it called “Unpacking my suitcase” and that was the analogy you game me as it was almost as if I didn’t want to trust the company because they were being just too perfect in a way. But it’s not just Ian, it’s the Board, it’s the people from the very top all the way down. There are words of encouragement coming at you all the time, not false but specific like “Be patient, these things take time”. There isn’t the pressure for it always to be about the numbers and a lot of the stuff that we are exposed to is just around this making a difference piece and I think that’s why we’re different as an organisation as well. If we’re not the right fit for a company then we walk away, and we’re not the right fit for everybody, but we do a lot of discovery to find out if we are, and if we are then we go in there and do everything we can.
Ian: I love that. Let’s dig a bit deeper. As a coach I am privileged to constantly be hearing stories about what really goes on for somebody and what their mindset is like and what they think but I know often most people don’t get to hear those stories and I think they can be really inspiring. So what’s it like to be Dawn? What’s it like to be Dawn Smedley – what goes on in your head?
Dawn: Oh too much! I have a crazy head. I have a never ceasing brain that is constantly full of stuff. There are two sides to Dawn if we’re being honest. There is the positive, enthusiastic, inherent Dawn. That is who I am – it’s what comes across. My husband calls it the twinkle in my eye – not in a rude way! But he knows when I’m in a good place as you can just see it and it oozes out of me and I always used to have this phrase about people smiling with their eyes and I think the reason I came up with that was because when I’m being me, I smile with my eyes, so it’s almost if you spot it then you’ve got it kind of thing. So I know genuinely that I’m being myself and true to myself when that’s there and my husband’s the same so he knows. But there’s the over-analytical part of Dawn too who lacks self confidence, who lacks self belief, who is constantly criticising herself underneath (getting a bit emotional now) and that’s been the hardest bit throughout my working career because when you are positive and enthusiastic, people expect you to be like that all the time and when you’re not it really affects them as they go “What’s going on? Why aren’t you like that today?” and I’m like, “I can’t be like that all the time”. But there is that expectation and I have down days as do we all and I have to do a lot of work in my head to manage all that kind of thing out.
Ian: So, if we were to label you, we’d probably describe you as .. human?
Dawn: Exactly! I like that. Or as my youngest daughter, who is 4 would say, Phewman! She can’t quite say human yet.
Ian: There we go, we’ve got a new way of describing people! What do you do then, you say you do some things to manage that. What are those things?
Dawn: I meditate and that really helps to empty my head. When I say my head is always full, it really is and it’s the good stuff most of the time but it can be clouded sometimes and I think meditation has been the one thing that’s enabled me to stop and just clear my head out so I go to a session on a Monday night and it’s really interesting because it’s based on Buddhist mantras and in the middle they have a discussion and I just find it fascinating because a lot of the concepts behind Buddhism like kindness and compassion and all these kinds of things, lend itself to everything we talk about with appreciation and recognition. Now I’m not saying that appreciation recognition is a Buddhist principle in any way shape or form but there’s fundamental basic human values of treating people like you want to be treated, positive karma, being compassionate to others, viewing the world through a kind lens. It can actually shift the world in front of you and I have seen it happen in my own life and when you start focusing on what people are good at and positives then great things happen. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about today. It’s strengths, when we focus on people’s strengths, we use appreciation to actually reinforce those strengths, then it leads to more great work. It helps people to feel valued and that’s when people want to go above and beyond and make a difference.
Ian: So it sounds like things are going really well for you at the moment and that’s very pleasing to hear. For me true strength isn’t just about being able to reach for the stars and make a difference, it needs to be sustainable as well. You’ve talked about meditation and I know that this is one way that people find helps their resilience. What else do you do to sustain yourself and keep going?
Dawn: I think family is just a massive grounding point for me. I’ve got 2 beautiful little girls so when I leave work I have no choice but to shift into Mum – Mummy Dawn – and I love that part of it as well. I love having two little girls actually and trying to bring them up to focus on their strengths at an early age so they don’t potentially have the lack of self confidence that I had for many years. I like the challenge of that, I love the fun element of having children in my life. And my husband is just fabulous and when you talk about true strength then he believes in me a million percent. There is not one part of him that doesn’t believe that I’m not a great Mum. He’s encouraged me to go to work, he’s encouraged me to work full time and he just juggles with me. It’s just a true partnership and when you talk about how do I sustain this, it’s because of him and the environment we’ve created around our lives. And that comes from my Mum & Dad, and his Mum & Dad and our group of friends, but again it’s surrounding yourself with people who see you for who you are, who you can be yourself with. If you’re having a bad day and your house is a mess and they walk in, then that’s ok and I think that is what we should all aim for really and avoiding that conflict that comes from not being yourself that causes stress and everything else really.
Ian: So you talked a lot about having that support network of people around you. I’m interested to know the people around you at work so I want you to imagine for a second that you had a new team member coming on board next week and we wanted to give them the user guide to Dawn Smedley and we wanted to tell them how to get the best out of you and also, what to avoid, what get’s the worst out of you. What would you say to them, what would be in that user guide?
Dawn: OK so we know that competition is not a good thing! I think the user guide for getting the best out of Dawn Smedley – I know that I switch on when I see people being themselves as well and I work really hard to make people feel comfortable so they can be. So I think the user guide for them would be to just be themselves and to ask for help. I like to be involved. I am a genuine part of a team when I’m at work and I contribute even if, to boast things, it was interesting when you do see your strengths actually and the Input and Strategic thing and the Connectedness, if you put all those things together it’s how you view the world and I seem to be able to join the dots between things which means that I’ve always got an idea, like “maybe we can do this” or “if we can’t do that then maybe we can workaround and do this”. There is never an endpoint where I say, “no we can’t do that”. Maybe it’s the combination of those strengths that enables you. For me, actually I do need recognition but not up there, but that day to day encouragement of what I’m doing. That, as a user guide, means a lot, as Ian saying to me, “You know what, we had a great meeting yesterday and your contribution was really valued and from that we’re going to do this, this and this”. That to me is like “Yay – that was a good day”. So it’s the encouragement of that day and at OC Tanner if we’re talking to companies we talk about encouraging effort, rewarding results and celebrating careers. People are motivated by different things and they lead to different outcomes but for me the encouraging effort is huge. I’m not bothered about the rewarding results bit. If I’m recognised along the way, then it’s good enough and it’s that simple thank you that makes a massive difference to me. And at home as well, if Paul turns round to me as says thanks for whatever, it’s just the reinforcement bit that probably bridges the gap between the lack of self confidence and feeling as if what I’m doing is valued. Does that make sense?
Ian: Yes, because that makes you show up and be fully you. You know the old saying, the cobbler’s children have no shoes? I want to ask you the cobbler’s children/hypocrite question. Because so many people have blind spots, where we advise other people to do stuff and we don’t apply it ourselves. What do you tell other people to do that you don’t necessarily do yourself?
Dawn: Appreciation which sounds ironic! I don’t appreciate myself enough. I don’t stop and say, you know what Dawn, that was good or what you did today was good. I tend to focus on what I’m not doing, not on what I am doing. So that encouraging effort piece, I’m relying on other people to tell me that what I’m doing is good, whereas I should stop and do that myself. What else do I do? There’s various things. I also want everyone to believe that they can do anything that they want to do. I’ve proved that out in parts of my life but once again, I forget about that and focus on the next thing that I need to do. I don’t look back enough and just celebrate who I am fundamentally and maybe I should stop and do that every now and again. Maybe we all should.
Ian: In a moment we are going to be interviewing your boss. Tell me a little bit about him.
Dawn: Ian’s a character. He’s lots of fun as a boss and there is never a moment where he’s not thinking of something funny to say in his head. So you can be having a very serious conversation and he will pick up on a word and then try and turn it into a funny. He is a man of the world who likes to have fun. He makes such an effort with the team to bring us together. We have birthday parties and it was Paige’s one year anniversary and we make a big deal of celebrating careers. For Paige’s one-year anniversary, we were down in Loughton (our UK head office) and we all dressed up as cheer leaders and did a cheer-leading chant (because Paige is a cheer leader) and we wrote a poem to celebrate her one year and it was a beautiful moment. He makes such an effort to create a culture of appreciation, as you might expect. And it is really important for me to work for a place that practises what it preaches. As a boss, he has given me the freedom and autonomy and he believes in me 1,000,000%. He got frustrated with me for quite a long time, I think, because they could see all this great stuff in me and this potential but I just couldn’t see it myself. I think that was really hard for Ian to manage because there’s only so many times you can say something and it needed a shift in my head for that to happen and it took me a while to get there.
Ian: I think that’s probably our cue to go and get Ian.
Ian: If you can hear chuckling in the background, we’ve just been joined by Ian Feaver of O.C. Tanner. Ian, Dawn has a really interesting job title… what’s your job title?
Ian Feaver: I am European Sales & Marketing Director for O.C. Tanner (AKA European Chief Appreciatologist).
Ian: So, we’ve been talking to Dawn about who she is and about her strengths and weaknesses and Dawn said that you and the team are good at getting the best out of her. Given that she’s sat next to you at the moment, how would you describe Dawn?
Ian Feaver: The words I use to describe Dawn: She is everything you could want because she is a disciple of appreciation; she isn’t a sales person or a business development manager, she is truly a disciple of appreciation and all that it brings. We know that appreciation is very powerful for people. It is powerful in the workplace and at home, and Dawn totally believes in that and she communicates that message in the right way.
Ian: So what’s it like to manage Dawn?
Ian Feaver: In terms of her motivation to spread the good word of appreciation, she is self motivating and she has a huge appetite for that. Where we’ve had to help Dawn moving forward is on the commercial side, to be more commercially astute and she now has a great understanding of how appreciation impacts not just on people, but on the business and the business value it brings.
Ian: What else do you do to really get the best out of Dawn?
Ian Feaver: We follow our own principles, appreciation; the right behaviours and the right efforts to appreciate those and provide coaching where coaching is needed. There’s a lot that Dawn does right but Dawn is one of those people who says “OK, I know I’m good at this but how can I do better?” and she has a huge appetite to do better so she’s very easy to coach in that way as she never sees it as a criticism; if there is something that needs to be developed or honed or to help her improve then she’s game for that as she wants to improve all the time.
Ian: How similar are the rest of the team to Dawn?
Ian Feaver: I think the team are all individually different but I guess that Dawn in this role is a bit different. I don’t see Dawn as somebody who is competitive, who wants to beat everybody else and be the best as what she does. Dawn is more wholesome than that; she wants to deliver what we can deliver to the right audience and as far and wide as she can. Dawn looks after the Northern region of the UK and she really has a passion for delivering appreciation and recognition throughout that region. Not to be the best or to make the most money or for any of those personal reasons, but for the holistic reason of the good that it does and I think that is amazing. She’s very different to most people in that way.
Ian: If you could say something to Dawn in her first few days and really have her believe it and get it, what would you say?
Ian Feaver: To be patient. You believe in what we do, you believe that it is the right thing, you’re doing the right things, you’re working hard so just be patient and it will come. It has been difficult, hasn’t it Dawn? You just have to be patient and believe in yourself and believe it will come because we believe in you. So just believe that you’re doing the right things and all the foundation work will pay off and it is now.
Ian: So, Ian, given that you work in appreciation I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you what do you appreciate most about Dawn?
Ian Feaver: Her integrity, her honesty, in terms of who she is and also her passion for what we do and what we deliver and for her enthusiasm for that. But most of all, in terms of skills, her ability to communicate what we do and to really help people make an emotional connection to what we do. It isn’t a thing, it isn’t a feature or a benefit, It is non-tangible and it is emotional but Dawn knows how to help people to really connect to what we’re trying to do and I think that’s her biggest strength.
Ian: And finally, Dawn, what do you appreciate about Ian?
Dawn: His bad jokes! As a boss, what I appreciate most about Ian is just the belief that you’ve always had in me. If I were to look back and start all over again, then I think I think I probably spent my first year questioning that belief just because of things that had happened before. Whereas you’ve never wavered from that, ever, and neither has the business. So, that belief in me and giving me the freedom to just get on and do. That’s what I appreciate the most and the fact that he’s always there, he’s always got our backs and the door is always open.
Ian Feaver: I certainly don’t have the skills that Dawn possesses and many of my team and I’ll always say to her “in a 1:1 situation, I’m not really sure how much I can help you” but I will do everything I can to make sure she has a clear path to be able to do the job to the best of her ability and you’re right, I’ve always believed in her and her ability and I’m really here to support her as she’s out on the coal face delivering all that great work.
Ian: Brilliant! Dawn Smedley, Ian Feaver of O.C. Tanner, just to say thank you so much for spending the time with us today.
Music from ‘Everything’s Fine’ by the fabulous Isaac Indiana