Michael Henderson – Black Belt Under The Mircroscope


I’d like to introduce our black belt under the microscope this morning Michael Henderson. Michael is a corporate anthropologist who runs cultures at work - you can check him out at www.culturesatwork.com. He is also part of the leadership council of Thought Leaders - one of our tribal elders and a real guardian of the spirit of our tribe. 

I see Michael as a person of deep integrity, innate wisdom, true generosity who has packaged all of that up beautifully to achieve commercial success. It’s a pleasure and an honour to be talking with you Michael - good morning.

Good morning

Thanks Peter thanks for very much.

So firstly, what is a corporate anthropologist?

It’s a bit of a...almost sounds like a contradiction in terms doesn’t it?

I guess the first work corporate is as we all know the business world, a big business.

The anthropology bit is the study of humans – particularly the study of humans in commune and company or in really simplistic terms it is the study of human culture and tribes. So what I have done really is taken my knowledge and experience around anthropology and cultures and applying them in the business world. So I look at organisations not so much as a commercial enterprise but as a tribe with rituals, power, belief systems, values and influence over others and just those insights to help organisations understand the cultures they have created for themselves. Beautiful, so you were an anthropologist before a corporate anthropologist?

Yeah. So originally I was trained in social anthropology and I studied cultures and tribes predominately Africa and South America and had a number of years in the field doing that. But really I just started to think that organisations in fact are the new tribes in our societies. There is no old tribes that are sort of old and traditional cultures that are emerging obviously and that most of us spending more time in our company culture than we are say an Australian culture, our religious cultures or even our family cultures. So it struck me that there was an opportunity to share some of the perspectives, knowledge and insights from anthropology into the workplaces to help create cultures worth belonging to at work. Beautiful, so when you were starting, how did you get to white belt in that so where did you first $10,000 a month come from?

Very much from consulting to start with, which falls almost under the mentoring channel in thought leadership. So really just advising organisations that they have things like low engagement staff, engagement that they wanted to work on and needed a bit of advice or they may have done an engagement survey and got the results back and found that they weren’t doing that well and so I had just sent out some newsletters to some of the clients that I have been working with just sort of saying ‘look if you ever need sort of 90 minutes consultation on tips and advice around how to enhance your workplace culture, to give me a call it’s only an X number of dollars’ so I think I was charging at that stage about $1,500 for the 90 minutes and it didn’t take long to get to 8 to 10 of those a month.

Nice starting point, how long ago was this?

This was about 5 years ago.

And what were the main challenges between white belt and black belt?

I think the big one Peter is....there’s two things that happen I think with the thought leader process. One is you have great hope. So you look at the opportunity, you look at some of the thought leaders that have gone before us and see what they are doing and it’s very inspiring and it creates a great sense of a compelling future on what is possible. So that is really good as it draws you on, it creates a compelling future for you so you have got that dynamic at work.

And the second one is I guess at the same time you have got great doubt. So there is these two dynamics playing out a great hope and opportunity and potentially great doubt to e.g. will people get what I’m sharing and could something like corporate anthropology which is such a new concept of businesses are they going to get a hedge round it, are they going to embrace it, is the timing right. That sort of stuff.

So I think especially during the early years the process of managing that dynamic was the key to kicking on and actually get going.

And what did you do to manage that? To manage your house?

Good question, actually it’s going to sound ridiculous to actually stop believing in myself. And what I mean by that is you can have positive and negative beliefs, none of which are necessarily true. So instead of listening to either my positive beliefs ‘yes I believe it’s possible’ negative beliefs going ‘oh gosh is the business world going to really get what I’m on about’ I just dropped all of that and got...and that’s what I love about their decision at white belt is the focus. I just decided to get on and do it and ignore my own beliefs both positive and negative. Which literally meant I’d be sitting in a taxi going off to a client meeting and you know maybe have the belief that you know ‘maybe these guys are going to be too harsh on this concept’ and I would just totally ignore it. Likewise I’d be heading to a meeting feeling extremely confident that I was going to blow them away and I would ignore that belief as well and just actually try and live in the reality of the conversation rather than my perception of what, could and might happen.

Yeah sounds almost spiritual so to actually be present with the people that you are with rather than your thoughts about what had happened or what was going to happen.

Yeah I guess...it’s interesting you even called it spiritual, I actually called it practical. So I just decided that....here’s the phrase I actually wrote down in my diary ‘I’ve decided I am unbelievable’ so again it catches both sides of the dynamic I was playing with which was ‘I can complete the unbelieve anything I’m believing’ and at the same time you can also take the positive side which is ‘I’m unbelievable’ which means I have got a lot to offer and this is my time.

So I kind of adopted that as a mantra for about the first 12 months just going it doesn’t matter what I believe it’s what the conversation with the client is going to determine whether this thing happens or not. My belief or non belief is actually a redundant.

Yeah I really like that. I’m at the moment about to run my first MDE in a month’s time here in Melbourne...

Fabulous mate...

Thank you and I’m now having conversations with people about a $3,000 workshop when I’ve never sold anything more than $1,000 workshop. And what I have had to do is get all of my conversations out of the way about that.

Exactly right Peter, exactly right.

So that is very much like the stepping stone that I went through from even running workshops now for sales people, telling them basically what they believe in about their product and the pricing is irrelevant, all that counts is what the customer believes.

So just for you and I, selling MDE for $3,000 we think its good value, a rip off, too expensive, not good pricing given there is a global economic recession going. All of that is irrelevant, all that matters is does the client want to do the program and letting them know what the price is and then they decide.

Yeah and it’s been amazing. I have been having some great conversations, nobody has battered an eyelid and I had this really bizarre experience last week where I was talking to somebody at a cafe about their business and about MDE and thought leadership and then we went up and started paying for the coffee and someone came up to me from the next table and said ‘I couldn’t help over hearing your conversation and that sounded really interesting, here’s my card can we talk too?


Yeah both conviction and getting myself away, getting my doubt..

I couldn’t agree with you more, I can totally relate to that so I think the conviction thing has emerged like I have totally got it now so things are just rocking and have been for a while now but the conviction thing I believe is just ignoring your own belief system and just telling the truth.

So the truth is the MDE program runs in a particular format – covers these topics and costs this much. So what I believe about it becomes irrelevant. So it’s kind of liberating as well because it takes any sort of need to push it, sell it and promote it in any particular manner you can just present it and let the other individual decide whether it’s the right time and the right price for them.

So one of the great things about that I think Peter is that for all of us thought leaders, it gets rid of any core reluctance.

Yes which is a critical...so people start moving up the belts and you know starting to go from $10,000 a month to $15,000 to $10,000 a week etc. You have got to be comfortable putting forward a lot of propositions to a lot of different people.

Exactly right. And I love and really embrace Matt’s recommended approach which is have 150 coffees with 150 people and just share with them what you are doing, what MDE has to offer and know how people are using it and what it costs. Whether they do it or not is not our concern, our job is to get out there and let as many people know that it’s suitable and possible, what this is all about so they have got the opportunity to say yes or no themselves.

So the risk of sounding overly simplistic and I think that it was Leonardo Divinci who said ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’. So the risk of being really simplistic, that’s it just get out there and have the 150 conversations with no hidden agendas, no intent, no drive just have the conversation and explain what it’s all about and let the other end of the jewels do what they want and you right most people don’t bat an eyelid at the price.

Yeah and some say yes and some say no and some say later...

Exactly right. So all that matters and I heard once that Coca Cola do this, I heard that coca cola’s unspoken mission is to have every single person on the planet know whether they like the Coca Cola product or not. Which of course means to get to that stage they must have tasted it in the first place.

Yeah and I reckon they‘d be pretty close to that.

Yeah and there’s still people that would prefer you know Pepsi or Schweppes but at least they are getting out there and giving everybody the opportunity to taste Coca Cola to know whether they want to drink it more or not. I think that is the role of mentors with thought leaders just get out there and let people know about it and it’s up to them to decide whether they want to drink further or not.

Yeah and just to translate to listeners people reading this interview that the steps to go before that is firstly to determine who your target market is so where these 150 people are and the narrower the better with that. Secondly, work out what your message is, so how does what you know solve their problems and make their life better and then get out and have those 150 conversations about that.

Absolutely right.

What was your biggest mistake on your white belt or black belt journey?

I think the big one was the dynamic as said before about not reconciling about the great hope and the great doubt at the same time. I wish I had eaten some of my own dog food earlier so in other words the suggestion there so in other words the suggestion that I guess given the advice that I have just shared now I wish I had actually embraced that straight away myself anyway.

Are there any other big lessons that you have learnt along the way?

Yeah, I think being a thought leader had this bit of a paradox, the name itself suggests that your living edge in your thinking. Therefore I think you can very easily fall into the trap that anything you think must be or relevance and of importance and therefore even a stupid thought potentially takes on more power than it really should do in your own thinking.

A disempowering thought automatically has more power because I’m a thought leader therefore it must be a powerful thought so even if it’s a negative thought that it potentially becomes one I pay more attention to than I should. So hence why I adopted that mantra I am unbelievable, I can unbelieve anything I believe in a moment’s notice and just get on with actually just being active.

Yeah and I think that helps also to keep us humble and stops us from our own press so to speak.

Yeah absolutely I just think it keeps the conversation clean – that’s what Shar and I refer to as they are just clean conversations. We are not trying to convince anyone of anything and at about the same time I’m not holding back so I have literally just come from one of those coffee meetings prior to this phone call and I wasn’t afraid of letting the individual know because I had the conversation with them about thought leadership and the first word of every sentence they had in response was ‘oh yes but’ and so the guy in the conversation goes ‘so do you reckon I should do thought leadership?’ and I said ‘well not if every sentence starts with the word but, no because that’s not leadership’ it’s thought redundancy. Your making everything we are talking about here redundant because your whole mind set is but, but, but so your just putting up the challenges.

So I said ‘by all means let’s meet for more coffee, by all means come to my next introduction evening and the moment that you feel that you resolved ‘but’ as being your status quo then we are probably good to go ahead.’

Yeah I think that is another very attractive quality in the sales process is somebody who is not desperate for every sale and if you want to be sold that they are up to your program rather than the other way around... Yeah, totally - Yeah that’s a good point Peter.

It also means you know I love it when Matt and the introductory slide on MDE said this is not a remedial course and I just love that approach is saying look we are going to be working hard, we are going to be working fast and we are going to be working deep therefore you need to be on the program committed to get the most out of it because I haven’t got time to stop and help you over each and every little speed bump you have.

Like I have got an MDE starting tomorrow and the people on it are...all of them are just fired up to give it everything that they have got and so even if I had just one person in the room that was going ‘oh yeah but’ every 20 minutes it’s just not going to serve the whole group or me well or themselves so I just sort of said you know maybe go away have a think about that and come back a bit later.

And that’s for everybody listening. The earlier you can get that lesson the better that it is up to you to choose your clients more than the other way around and in a way it’s easier to say ‘well Michael’s a black belt he can do that now’ but if you can do that at white belt you are a much more attractive expert or consultant or coach or mentor than somebody who comes across as desperate to get every client.

Yeah I totally agree with that Peter and when you said ‘what’s the biggest mistake that you have made’ I think that was it. Just embracing that I don’t need everybody and that the right people are going to serve the program themselves and other participants on the program far better than just getting anybody in.

What advice would you give somebody starting out on the white belt to black belt journey?

I think do the work. I feel like it’s very easy to do the conversation and thought leadership rather than do the work rather than do the work and thought leadership. And what I mean by that is just some stunning philosophy, there’s some stunning curriculum in the programs like MDE so it’s very easy to almost just play with them in your mind rather than actually applying them in your work and that’s why I love the activities because once you have decided your on, roll up your sleeves and just get stuck in.

Yeah that’s one of the things that I love about the thought leaders organisation is the combination of the thinking and the commercialisation and it had that integrity of the people who are successful are still thinking. They haven’t done their thinking 5 years ago and are now working out how to keep plotting that. For me there is an integrity to that.

Absolutely. Yeah I am the same I’m in awe of Matt Church who is possibly the most prolific thinker within the whole community ongoing and yet he has been the one doing it for the longest. So I just constantly look at him and go well there’s the template and that’s what it takes.

I guess the other advice that I would give as well is my brother is an Olympic athlete and he has a wonderful phrase which is ‘dreams don’t come true, you do’ so you can sit there and dream about being a million dollar expert or writing a book, delivering key notes or running/facilitating mentoring sessions but dreams aren’t going to do it you have actually got to become real and true to yourself that you actually are committed therefore you actually will be doing this work.

Yeah I like that too, it’s not some manifestation trick where you can envisage it and in a year’s time it’s going to suddenly come magically from the universe , it actually does take...to get which slow process that takes rolling up your sleeves and doing the thinking and doing the work.

What difference has getting to black belt made to your life?

I think it has given me greater flexibility – obviously financially so even I can pick and choose which work I want to do, I have the luxury of choosing which client’s I want to be associated with and which ones not. Bizarrely it’s given me far more time to think and evolve my own thinking.

My expectation was once you to black belt was that you’re run off your feet and of course that’s not the case because the layers that you work through to get to black belt are preparing you and equipping you and evolving you so when you get to black belt your actually far better able to leverage time, money, relationships the whole thing. That’s definitely one element.

I think the second element Peter that’s happened as a result to getting to black belt is I have gotten over myself. So instead of it being about me on the drive to get there, I genuinely talked about doing this for years but just talking about it and doing those two different things, I genuinely reflect more on my customers behalf now. So I spend a lot of my time thinking about my customers and their situations on their behalf. Not getting paid for it just going ‘ok so that meeting we had yesterday with that client, how can I best resolve that, who can I refer in there out of the thought community that could address that better than I could’. So I’m just really enjoying the opportunity to think more authentically and generously on behalf of my own clients.

Yeah I really get that and I look forward to that too because I’m right now green belt moving into blue belt which I hope is the busiest time, this is when it’s the most activity and I’m running round like the blue ass fly at the moment, I have worked harder than I have ever worked...

It’s such an rewarding phase to go through isn’t it?

Absolutely, wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Yeah I think in many respects when I reflect back on that transition from green tree to blue, it was possibly the most fulfilling stage of the whole thing in terms of....almost work ethics. Like with doing the hard yards it was paying off in every possible respect so firstly I found that really rewarding phase to go through.

Yeah I am as well. I want to go back a little bit to where we were talking about sales and as I said I see you as someone with integrity and generosity and a lot of people see that almost as mutually exclusive from commercial success that they hold love and money as separate, that you can have one or the other but not both and yet you seem to combine it beautifully. How do you do that?

I think somewhere along the line Western Society has got a core belief that good work and worthwhile work and money don’t go hand in hand. Even say charitable work shouldn’t be earning a profit that should be in service and you know I don’t actually buy into that belief.

I think that good work and financial reward not only can be a very happy marriage but possibly a marriage made in heaven. I get the opportunity at black belt to do more, I believe to do more effective work for my customers as a result of having the dollars available to market myself more effectively, to position myself more effectively and even spend more and invest more into my delivery process and programs and enhance the tools and offerings on delivering and mentoring and training sessions that before quite frankly I just could not afford to do, I just didn’t have the dollars to invest in it.

So I think just getting over the belief that good work and good income are polar opposites doesn’t serve us well as thought leaders. So I just collapse those polarities and just said look I am completely committed to being the best person that I can be and the roles that I serve in my life both as a father and a parent a thought leader and a anthropologist and that earning good money is a result in doing those enables me to be a good father, good parent, good anthropologist and a good thought leader at the same time.

Beautifully put. Anybody out there who had that belief that good work and good income are polar opposites, I think it would be a good time to adopt Michael’s initial mantra and say that you’re unbelievable and throw that belief out with any others.

What’s your next challenge Michael?

Exploring how to invest more effectively. Just talking with some of the people within the thought leader community about once you got to black belt what are they key things to focus on there because as you’re aware there is a number of people in the community that have got there and been there much longer than I have. So both Shar and I have just literally you know just picking people’s brains via some suggestions and I guess just becoming a little bit more commercially savvy with more discretional dollars available working out what is the best thing to do with that so just within the community getting some very, very good advice and suggestions on that. Some of which we thought of and been aware of and other ideas were ones that I would have never considered so I see that is the value of being part of this community is having those sort of gone before you, a bit like elders in the tribe – they are just so generous you just offer to buy them a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and they are giving you extremely powerful and insightful and timely advice.

You’re talking about investment in your financial assets or investments back into your practise?

More now into the growth of financial returns so yes, now we have got sort of a great range of discretional spend available where an opportunity to invest outside of even your own practise And at the same time still investing back into the practise as well so exploring where new technology or new resources can enable us to get our services out to more people more effectively to add more value.

I think that is a really important take away for anybody running a practise is that the practise isn’t going to have a value at the end of the day that you can sell so it’s critical that as your going along you are taking money out and investing it wisely into other appreciating assets that are going to be able to support you once you exit your practise.

Yeah, and I guess for someone like yourself Peter that this is your area of expertise and people like Matt etc there is other people in the

community that just really have got their head round that sort of stuff. Shar my wife and business partner is the same. She has got a pretty good understanding, where as this is all new terrain and new learning for me so as part of the beauty of the thought leader process. I love it each time you go up a level from the white belt to black belt, there’s a whole new curriculum, whole new universe, whole new opportunity to learn and stretch myself again so that has been a real driving force for me going through the whole thing as the opportunity to advance and get deeper and wide scope learning.

Beautiful, is there anything else you would like to share before we wrap up this morning?

Yeah, I guess just to anybody who is into thought leadership is one of the key quotes that kind of keeps popping the back into my head every time is ‘the going got tough’. There was a mantra a Canadian personal development guru floating around in the 80’s called John Kehoe and he had a key note in a book called ‘Mind Power’ and one of the quotes in that book was that ‘your success will help many, many people, your failure is likely to help no one including yourself’ and I have just drawn on that quote regularly when I found the going was getting tough or when things weren’t going as quickly or as easily as I would have hoped...climbing the ladders. I kept coming back to that quote going again it’s not about how I am feeling or what I am experiencing it’s about if I am successful, the chance to be helpful and supportive to many other people both family, the thought leader community and within my client base. So I found that very helpful because it enabled me again to ignore how I was feeling in the particular moment and put my attention back on – people that matter to me more in my life than even I do as a motivating force behind the whole drive to progress with this.

Yeah that really transcends that great hope great doubt dichotomy doesn’t it

Exactly right. I was talking with Matt about this, we were talking about the first one what I call a ‘attention in’ so all my attention is in on me and my dichotomy and my belief system and you can just dig yourself into a deep hole with that stuff and the second one when you start to think about those people around you that you care deeply for and want to be of service to I call that ‘attention out’ and I have just found I can take myself a lot more lightly and even the work I do a lot more lightly when my attention is out on others not brought up on me.

Yeah, and going to take that quote away, I know for myself sort of paradoxically when my attention is out it’s not on me and my wants and my needs and everything is going onto me when it’s out in the world my life goes much better.

Yeah it’s amazing isn’t it?

Yeah it’s a beautiful little paradox. Thank you so much for your time this morning Michael, it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk with you.

Your welcome Peter and Shar and I just love what you are doing. I love the bravery and the disclosure your doing with the white belt to black belt blog. I think it’s a wonderful, courageous thing that you are offering back to the community that again your success is going to help many people as you do this because it will pathway and address issues that people following in your footsteps will I’m sure just find what you’re doing here so helpful and potentially even fast track them so more power to you as we say in New Zealand ‘Kia Kaha’ so be forever strong in this.

Thank you very much!