New Podcast: Taking a Neuroscience-Based Approach to People Strategy

Christine Comaford, CEO and Neuroscience-Based Leadership & Culture Coach at SmartTribes Institute, joined me on the podcast this week. In the episode, Christine talked about how she uses the latest neuroscience research to improve the people side of the business, including: hiring right, and boosting employee engagement, employee performance, creativity, innovation, collaboration and more.

Christine was named one of the Top 50 Human Behavior Experts to Follow in 2017 and one of the Global Employee Engagement Influencers in 2017. She has also built and sold five of her own businesses with an average 700% return on investment and served as a board director or in-the-trenches advisor to 36 startups and invested in more than 200 startups (including Google).
Christine is the author of three best-selling books: Power Your Tribe: Create Resilient Teams in Turbulent Times, SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, and Rules for Renegades.

Connect with Christine on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

Connect with SmartTribes Institute on LinkedIn. If you’re interested in partnering with SmartTribes Institute to improve your people strategy, visit

Here’s a link to a sample impact description similar to what what discussed on the show.



















































































Speaker 1: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast with Adam Robinson. He’s talking to today’s industry leaders and entrepreneurs about the people side of their business.

Adam Robinson: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name’s Adam Robinson, and for the next 25 minutes, I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring. Today on the show, Christine Comaford is the CEO and neuroscience-based leadership and culture coach at SmartTribes Institute located in San Francisco, founded in 2010. The business is focused on helping organizations navigate the complexities of leadership, development, and team building.

Adam Robinson: Christine has a pretty amazing resume. She was named one of the top 50 human behavior experts to follow in 2017 and one of the global employee engagement influencers of 2017. She has built and sold five of her own businesses, so she’s one of us, with an average of 700% ROI on invested capital, pretty impressive. She has served as a board director or in-the-trenches advisor to 36 startups and invested in more than 200, including Google, which I heard probably worked out pretty well for her, and is the author of three best-selling business books, including Power Your Tribe, Smart Tribes, and Rules for Renegades. So much to talk about today. Christine, welcome to the program.

Christine C: Thank you, Adam. It’s awesome to be here.

Adam Robinson: We are going to focus on the people side of business today, but before we dive in, give us 30 seconds on SmartTribes Institute and what you’re up to.

Christine C: Yes, okay. We take the latest neuroscience research. We map it down to super practical tools, which you guys, we’re going to talk about them today. You’re going to learn a handful today. Those super practical tools tap into the optimal parts of the brain to boost employee engagement, employee performance, creativity, innovation, collaboration, et cetera. We work primarily in the areas of leadership, culture, and these tools work great in sales and marketing. We work with companies of all sizes, but our sweet spot seems to be around 100-ish employees and sometimes less, so kind of startups all the way to Fortune 10, but kind of in that middle area where we’re really emerging growth companies and we’re zooming through revenue inflection points.

Adam Robinson: Absolutely. If folks want to learn more, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Christine C: Yes. If they go to, work with STI, as in SmartTribes Institute, then you can sign up for our digest. It’ll take just a sec, and then you’ll be getting more and more cool, powerful tools every couple weeks.

Adam Robinson: All right. We’ll make sure we put that URL in the show notes. Let’s jump in and talk about the people side of what you do. You’ve built a number of successful businesses, and it sounds like you’ve taken that experience and translated that into SmartTribes. Talk about the common threads in the businesses you started and what inspired you to take this and help others do better for themselves.

Christine C: Yes. Well, I figured out a little while ago that employee engagement actually has a recipe. Employee engagement requires one hormone and two neurotransmitters. It requires oxytocin, the experience of bonding, feeling connected. It requires the two neurotransmitters of serotonin, feel good, and dopamine, reward-oriented behaviors, anticipation of reward. What we found was that, since there’s actually a recipe, what if we use that recipe, that physiological cocktail if you will, and we actually design cultures with that in mind?

Christine C: The first thing that we discovered and that I found, the hard way so I’m glad you guys know this now, is that safety, belonging, and mattering must be present in a culture for people to perform at their peak. If people feel safe, certainty, freedom from fear, I’ve got your back, you’ve got my back, belonging, we’re all in this together, we all have equal value, we’re all contributing and making a difference, mattering, my unique gifts, I’m not a cog in a wheel, my unique gifts are seen, are appreciated, are acknowledged here, then that’s the very basic foundation for great performance in a culture.

Christine C: Now, growth creates change, right? Change creates stress. What are the tools that we need to use to help people come together when they’ve kind of come apart a little bit, to be aligned when they have different directions that they want to go, and to actually say, “Thank god it’s Monday,” even when things are crazy uncertain? That’s what we do. I’ll just follow your lead and keep throwing out tools, or start throwing out tools, as soon as you’re ready.

Adam Robinson: Let’s wind back the clock a bit and talk about you starting business number one. What did you know about this team building stuff?

Christine C: I didn’t.

Adam Robinson: How did you figure out that there was more to it than what you were doing? Take us through this process of experiencing doing it wrong and then understanding where the genesis of these ideas came from.

Christine C: Good, yes, okay. My first business, I was 19. It was a bank for high net worth individuals. It was sold to Union Bank. In the beginning though, I was 19, and I partnered with all these folks in their 40s. They were like, “Oh, you could be the receptionist.” I’m like, “Uh, that’s not going to work. From the amount of stock I have and such, I want to have more responsibility.” What I learned early on, through stepping on people’s feet, through bulldozing instead of relationship building, was, whoa, you know what? If you’re driven, if you’re intense, if you want to get results, you actually can’t just plow people down. It’s going to work a lot better if you learn influence techniques.

Christine C: That’s one of the key things that we teach, how to enroll and engage people, how to give people the experience of same as. I gave them different as, and that didn’t work well. I learned pretty early on, you know what, connecting with people requires some really basic things. Since we’re animals beneath it all, and there’s only a 4% difference in our DNA versus monkeys, primates, what do monkeys do? Well, they keep watching their leader and trying to match their emotional state to their leader’s. I learned pretty early on, whoa, if I’m going to lead people, I better keep my act together, because if I’m upset, then everyone’s going to be scared and think that the sky’s falling. There goes productivity down the drain.

Christine C: I made that mistake by not managing my emotional state. I made another mistake of not building relationships. Then a third one, and Bill Gates busted me for this, he sat me down when I was 27 years old and he said, “Look, you need to understand something. Your brain moves really fast. It moves faster than you can speak, and you keep leaving people in the dust. That’s not working. You need to slow down, and you can’t go from A to L. You have to go from A to B to C to D, and keep checking to make sure people are with you.” I could tell you, Adam, to this day, I struggle with that a little bit. I get feedback still on that one, so making sure that people are with you, and I see so many visionary leaders miss on this one.

Christine C: We had a client recently who they … He had this great vision for a product, and so he basically said to the team, “Here’s a cool product that we’re going to do. Let’s do it.” They threw it out there in the marketplace, and it crashed and burned. Nobody wanted it, Adam. It was a train wreck. Now all the engineers are bummed out. Everybody’s depressed. Everybody’s pointing fingers, and the blame fest starts. The CEO made a couple of mistakes, right? He didn’t test it with the customers first. He didn’t enroll and engage his team. He just said, “Thou shalt.” He didn’t listen to any of the feedback that they were trying to give him, because he was very strong-willed. I said, “Look, we’ve got to get everybody aligned.” He used one of our tools. He used it really successfully, and it’s called the Outcome Frame.

Christine C: He sat everybody down, and he said, “Okay, you guys, what would we like here?” Because everybody was looking at the problem, and we had to get them looking at the solution or the potential outcome. What would we like? Well, we want the product to be successful. We want this. We want that. Okay, great. We know what we would like. What will having that do for us? Well, when the product’s successful, we’re going to feel positive. We’re going to feel empowered. We’re going to feel like we’re making a difference. We’re going to make money on it, et cetera. What would you like? What will having that do for you, the benefits you’re going to get? Third, how will we know when we have it? Okay, well, we’ll be successful when we have X dollars in revenue with Y percent of profit, when we have three case studies. We got all the criteria of how will we know when we’ve actually achieved that outcome.

Christine C: Then, when, where, with whom do we like it? Well, we really want to have it within six months, because some of this criteria’s going to take a little while, with these particular customers or prospects in this particular way. Then my favorite question, what of value might we risk or lose? What side effects may occur in getting this outcome? Shoot. Well, we’re going to have to go back to everybody and fall on our sword. We’re going to have to make a bunch of refunds, or at least see if we can beg forgiveness to turn this around.

Christine C: We’re going to have to come together more powerfully as a team. The CEO’s going to have to listen when people from his team are trying to give him feedback. We’re going to have to loop in the customer service people that were never consulted in the beginning. We’re going to have to loop in the marketing people who also were ignored in the beginning. Once we got all this together, we had this rich, cohesive, aligned, engaged, enrolled team. Fast-forward four months, not six, and they nailed it.

Adam Robinson: You said something early in our conversation about different as versus same as. Tell me about those two concepts.

Christine C: Good, good, thank you, okay. Think back to the cave person days. The cave people were out there, hunting and gathering, et cetera. When they met another person, the first thing we were trying to gauge was, are they the same as us, meaning not a threat, friend, or are they different than us, foe, potential foe? We had to figure this out pretty quickly. Since we haven’t had an upgrade in our prefrontal cortex, which is decision-making and problem solving, for 50,000 years, a lot of us still do that. The vast majority are always scanning friend or foe, friend or foe, safe or not, dead or not. That’s what the reptilian brain does. It’s very important for us to understand how to give somebody the experience of same as them. You can look different, have a different gender, none of that matters. What matters is the emotional experience they get from you.

Christine C: First we notice, is the person asking me through their behavior for safety, belonging, or mattering? The easiest way is, if they’re stressed out, are they talking about … Are they spreading fear, gossip, rumors? Are they talking about all the risks? Okay, they’re asking for safety. Are they isolating, withholding information, cutting off communication, forming silos? They’re not having an experience of belonging. You may need to bring them back into the tribe. Are they condescending, making people feel small, talking about how they do everything around here? They’re obviously wanting an experience of mattering and not getting it. First we look for, what emotional experience do they want? Because nobody buys products or services. They buy an emotional experience. Leaders are selling an emotional experience, like accountability. We’re selling all the time as leaders accountability, initiative, collaboration, et cetera. What emotional experience do they want?

Christine C: Then how can we actually show up for them so their creature neurology looks at us and gets visual, auditory, kinesthetic cues that we’re the same as them? This is where mirroring comes in, body, posture, gesture mirroring. They lean forward. We pause, breathe. Then we can lean forward. They talk quickly. We talk quickly. We keyword backtrack. If they keep saying, “We’ve really got to make a difference,” we say, “You know, to make a difference,” so we actually start becoming more of them, so we can soothe their nervous system and we can connect. That’s same as. Different as is when you don’t do that stuff.

Adam Robinson: Interesting, and the default switch for humans is set as what?

Christine C: This is hard. The default switch for humans is, if you just look at neurolinguistics, there are more words around fear in our vocabulary than there are around safety. Our creature neurology, our reptilian and mammalian brain, are constantly … They’re stimulus response machines coded for safety. Since we are getting tons of stimulus, we’re seeing things, hearing things, smelling things, tasting things, feeling things, we’re bombarded with sensory information constantly. I would say our default is to respond to our, excuse me, to react to our environment before we respond from choice.

Adam Robinson: I see. Translate these tools and others you would mention to our listeners that make up what you would define as quality leadership or the, quote-unquote, right way to do this is how?

Christine C: Good, good, thank you, okay. For starters, figure out what somebody is asking for. If you just pay attention to how they speak, you’ll understand if they want safety, belonging, or mattering. If they’re in what we call critter state, in a stressful state, it’ll be very easy, and just give them that experience. If they want safety, “Hey, would it be helpful if we sat down, and we looked at the plans, and we formed a plan and a backup plan? I’ve got your back here. I’m here with you.” If they want belonging, “I’m so psyched that you’re on the team. I love working with you. Who else can we bring on to the team? How can we collaborate and create something awesome together?” If they want mattering, “I really see you as a thought leader, as a visionary. Could I run a couple ideas by you? I really see that you’re making a difference here.”

Christine C: First, what emotional experience do they want? Second, as a leader, our job is to give people the tools to have their own insights and aspiration. That’s why the Outcome Frame, the questions I gave you guys before, what would you like, what will having that do for you, how will you know when you have it, when, where, with whom would you like it, what of value might you risk or lose, and then of course, what are your next steps, that helps people have their own insights. Yeah, we’re cold and hungry now, but we’re headed to The Ritz-Carlton with 24/7 room service. As leaders, how are we helping people have their own insights? Because a lot of us as leaders, we advocate. We tell people what to do instead of ask them, “Well, what would you recommend? What could go right? What could go wrong?” We don’t light up their prefrontal cortex. To get more from your people, you’ve got to ask them questions. Inquiry is really important.

Christine C: Then I would say next, we really have to look at performance and motivation. Everybody calls it performance management, which I think is wrong. We don’t need to manage people. We need to create intrinsic motivation. The three best ways we’ve found to create intrinsic motivation is first to use an impact description when you’re advertising for that role instead of a job description. Job descriptions are kind of boring and stupid. Take that job description. Add just a few extra fields to it, and it becomes an impact description which-

Adam Robinson: Give us an example.

Christine C: Yeah, good, okay. You know what? I’m going to send you a copy as well of an impact description example to put on your site, because I really want people to use this.

Adam Robinson: Okay, great.

Christine C: Yeah, you’ll recruit so much faster using these. It’s, “Here’s who you are. You’re a motivated, self-driven, blah blah blah person. You want to make a difference. You want to make a dent in the universe. You want to provide amazing customer service, whatever.” Okay, so that’s how it starts out, aspirational. “Here’s who we are. We are a company that’s making a difference, that believes in these values, that only wants to work with the brightest, et cetera, people on the planet. Here are the values that our company holds dear. Here’s this role, and here’s how this role makes a difference on the planet. This role’s customers are X, Y, and Z, internal customers, and external customers. This role matters deeply because it delivers such-and-such value.” We’re trying to create curiosity, urgency, relevance, value, and emotion. Remember back to serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. This stuff is full of them.

Christine C: Great. Now we go into kind of the boring details of the job description, but in the very beginning, since we’re saying, “Here’s who you are. Here’s who we are. Here’s how this role makes an impact on the planet,” if people don’t get past that, they’re not your people anyway. You’ll save a lot of time using impact descriptions. You just post them up on LinkedIn, and people respond or they don’t. Then when they respond, so they respond to whatever, such-and-such email address,

Christine C: Then you have an autoresponder. You say, “Hey, thanks so much for your interest in our such-and-such role. We do our first level of interviewing digitally. Please answer these three questions, and send the answer to email address number two.” The questions are, which of our values do you most powerfully connect with? Please tell me examples in your career where you’ve modeled these particular values. Then also, what are five adjectives that you would describe yourself as and that your past peers and boss would describe you as? Then from there, all we check in recruiting is email address number two, because if people don’t want to answer those questions, they’re not going to work at the company anyway.

Christine C: Then from there, we’ve got our impact description. Great. Then what we want to do is we want to make sure once they’re on board that we create an individual development plan, which is an aspirational plan for them to grow. Maybe they want to grow in accountability, or one day they want to be the VP of engineering. Figure out the timeline. We find that if you have an IDP that’s for a year out, that works best. If it’s like, “I want to be the CEO,” too far away. Okay, I want to be the … Right now, I’m the senior director of engineering. I’d like to be a VP somewhere in the engineering area. To do that, I know I’ve got to become more accountable, more collaborative, and take more initiative. For starters, I’m going to work on those three qualities.

Christine C: Once we have the impact description, that kind of loops people in and also tells them what the agreement is. At the end of the impact description, sorry I left this out, we say, “This is a leadership level such-and-such role.” For example, Adam, level one is wait to be told. Level two is ask what to do. Level three is recommend, then act. Level four is act and report routinely. Level five is act and report immediately. Level six is enroll and engage others, lead the company, lead the business, et cetera. It goes up to nine. People walk in saying, “I’m going to show up at this level, because that’s what this role requires.” Then whenever you have a slide, and you need to create some performance motivation, you can sit down with that person, dust off the impact description, and say, “You know what, I really … My experience is that you’re showing up at a different level of leadership than you signed up for. Where do you think you’re showing up?”

Christine C: I noticed this myself recently, Adam. I was showing up at six, and I’d like to show up at eight. One of my team members sat down with me and said, “How do you think you’re doing on your leadership level?” I said, “You know what, I think I’ve been slacking. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I wasn’t really paying attention till you mentioned this. I’m going to up my game.” It gives us a contract, if you will, a behavioral contract, which the vast majority of companies totally miss. So, a couple of thoughts there.

Adam Robinson: Yeah, I mean, so much there to dig into. If you were to give our listeners a single most important first thing to get right as it pertains to their own leadership, from your experience, if I’m sitting here evaluating myself going, “You know what, let me just do a quick check of the one thing I better be doing,” I know this is a tough question with as much broad work as you do and as much information as you have, but what would you say is … What’s the most important, lowest common denominator of leadership that if not present, most of the rest of it’s pretty tough?

Christine C: Yes, okay. May I have two, please?

Adam Robinson: Of course.

Christine C: Okay. The first has got to be purpose, like seriously, why are we here? If you don’t get up in the morning and say, “I am fricking proud to be at this company, because we are making a difference, because on my death bed, whenever that is, I will look back and say, ‘I touched the world that way. I did something bigger than just be little me,'” so purpose is huge. It doesn’t have to be … Yeah, you can be massive and transformative and organize the world’s information, and that’s the purpose of Google, but you’ve got to have something. For us, it’s create a million smart tribes. Well, that’s our vision. Our vision is to create a million smart tribes by 2020, and we’re at about 700,000 now, so we’re doing okay.

Christine C: Then our purpose, our mission, is we believe, think Martin Luther King, or we exist. We believe that every culture can be rich in safety, belonging, mattering. Every team can be profoundly engaged, enrolled, and aligned in the work that they do, because it matters. We get the mission, vision right. Then the third thing, the values, that’s our code of conduct. That’s our code of conduct. If you don’t have values that you actually live, breathe, walk, talk, you need to look in the mirror. I realized just recently that I’d been working way too hard, because I wasn’t modeling our values as powerfully as I want to, you know?

Adam Robinson: Yeah, and I noticed you put those values front and center on your own website. How do you leverage those to attract the right kind of customer and to build your own team internally?

Christine C: Yes, okay. Those values have questions attached to them, which are in the recruiting process to make sure we’re value-aligned. Then we talk about the values with our clients. First we ask them what their values are, and Adam, I cannot tell you how often people, CEOs, don’t know what their company’s values are. I’m like, “Whoa.”

Adam Robinson: I believe it. I believe it. I know.

Christine C: But that’s our code of conduct, right? Those are our behavioral norms. If we don’t have an agreement on how we’re going to actually behave and show up and be with each other, whoo, we’re hosed.

Adam Robinson: Undoubtedly. Undoubtedly. For your own businesses, what over the arc of that experience was the one thing you think you could have done differently that would have made a positive difference? It sounds like you’re doing a lot of things the right way. What’s one thing you look back and go, “You know what, that’s something I learned now with hindsight that I could have done to improve things”?

Christine C: Totally. Number one thing, focus on relationships. I seriously didn’t get that, Adam. I really thought, “I can just do this by the sheer force of my will.” There’s very little that any of us can do alone, so focusing on relationships is huge. Valuing people, spending the time to make sure they understand, helping them feel powerful, helping them have insights, investing in people even when you don’t have time, asking how their weekend was, seeing them as human beings, letting them be, accepting and embracing their humanity, because we have it too.

Adam Robinson: With the final moments we have here, if you were to come back on this show a year from now and talk to us about whether or not you successfully tackled the single biggest people-related opportunity that you have in front of you in your business today, what would you be telling us happened?

Christine C: Okay, because I’m really looking at the relationship stuff right now as well. It would be that I have found that investing in spending more time with my people actually saves me hours and hours and hours more than I ever imagined.

Adam Robinson: Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the final word. You’ve been learning from Christine Comaford, CEO and neuroscience-based leadership and culture coach at SmartTribe Institute. Christine, thank you so much for joining us on the program today.

Christine C: Thank you, Adam.

Adam Robinson: So much to dig into. Check the show notes for information on SmartTribes Institute and some of the content that Christine’s offered. Pretty cool. Thank you so much. That is a wrap, folks, for today’s episode of The Best Team Wins Podcast, where we’re featuring entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, author of the book, The Best Team Wins, which you can find online at Thanks for tuning in, and we will see you here next week.

Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to The Best Team Wins Podcast with Adam Robinson. You can find out more information about Adam and his book, The Best Team Wins: Building Your Business Through Predictive Hiring, at Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next week.