Dr. Lisette Nieves on Helping People Get Out of Their Own Way

Dr. Lisette Nieves is an experienced social entrepreneur, a leader in the world of education and a clinical professor at NYU, where she teaches education leadership and policy. In this podcast, we explore:

  • Why it’s important to help people mourn the past.
  • How learning is inherently emotional.
  • What we reap from slowing down.
  • Three questions that help boost self-awareness.


Companies and people mentioned in the podcast:

Full Transcript

Michael: I’m Michael Bungay Stanier. You’re listening to The Coaching Habit Podcast and look, some people may know that I, in my dark, distant past was a Rhodes Scholar. One of the things that I am sometimes asked is like, so is there this secret network of Rhode Scholars where, you know in the corridors we pal, get together, do a special handshake, and make a sign, and we know each other. And of course the answer to that is absolutely there’s that group, but I am not actually part of it. They meet somewhere else. I’m not invited, but in my life are some wonderful people who I met as fellow Rhode Scholars when I was at Oxford. I’m speaking to one of them today, Dr. Lisette Nieves. Now Lisette is an experienced social entrepreneur, a public sect leader particularly in the world of education. She’s actually, these days, a full professor at NYU where she teaches education leadership and policy. But she also works with her husband Greg, who I also know from Oxford, in an organization called Lingo Ventures. Which is about supporting entrepreneurs in and around this world of innovation and leadership in education.

I’m super excited to be speaking with Lisette. Lisette, welcome.

Lisette Nieves: Hi. Thank you. It’s a pleasure being here.

Michael: It’s lovely to be talking to you. You know, we were just chatting before we hit the record button about, I think, might have been two or three years ago since I last saw you when we come and hang out in Brooklyn. So, it’s nice to, you know this podcast. Just a great excuse for me to go out and connect with people who I love and admire. You being one of those people.

Lisette Nieves: Well we did our secret handshake over Thai food. That’s what I…

Michael: That’s exactly right. So, I’ve given people a sense of where you’ve come from, but I’m curious to know these days. At Box of Crayons, one of the things we talk about is doing more great work. Work that has more impact, work that has more meaning. So what does great work look like for you these days? Where’s your focus?

Lisette Nieves: It’s a great question. When I think about great work, I think about how to maximize impact and the way to do that, or what are the kind of diverse platforms out there where I can be part of helping to translate experiences, bring interesting leaders to the forefront. Help entrepreneurs be more successful, particularly at the beginning stages. So much of the great work that you do is about, obviously coaching.

Michael: Yeah.

Lisette Nieves: I always think of coaching as getting people out of their own way, in some ways.

Michael: Exactly, yeah.

Lisette Nieves: And so, I feel like, I look at whatever opportunity I do next that allows it to be great work is that it’s a platform that lets me bring all of me. Alright, so NYU lets me bring all of me to the table. So that’s exciting

Michael: When you think of all of you, what makes up all of Lisette Nieves? And how do you think of the multi-faceted woman that you are?

Lisette Nieves: I think about it in a couple ways. One is Lisette as the kind of creative builder. I like bringing in new programs, new ideas. I am the person who wants to design my own course. If you give me a traditional course, I want to turn it upside down. That’s what I enjoy. So, status quo is not necessarily an exciting place for me.

Michael: I hear you. I’m totally with you on that.

Lisette Nieves: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And that’s why I get inspired by your work, because it’s kind of like this accidental, kind of creative in some ways too. What I love is I just embrace that term now as part of it because I also love places where you can be… the other part me is being really strategic and so, we’re going to be the audiences or groups that I feel I want to have a connection with. And so for me, I love being around learners. I love being around people that are interested in learning or I like the challenge to inspire learners and inspire change.

Then the last piece about me is also being, you know, a very unapologetic Latina is an important part of who I am. And so, a place that accepts all those could be a good…

Michael: It’s a nice place to hang out.

Lisette Nieves: Exactly!

Michael: One of the quotes that I love, cause it speaks to the randomness of our lives is when inspiration is when your past certainly makes sense. My hypothesis is that we’ve had these moments where it, kind of crossroad moments, where you’re like “this was happening and I went this way instead of that way and it kind of made all the difference.” So, as you look back in your past, were there one or two kind of crossroad moments that helped you get this sense of who you are and what your great work is?

Lisette Nieves: Yeah, you know, I think about. So it’s interesting. When I was thinking of this question, I actually went back to when I was 8 years old. Which sounds too early to have a crossroads, but I actually think that it is a powerful crossroads. That’s when my parents were very actively, might have even been closer to 9 or 10, actively engaged in organizing a rent strike. And I think about that because every day coming home, I really got to see my parents take on what was not a good landlord situation and work with other residents to really change the situation. They ultimately won, but it told me a lot about political action. It told me that you have to be steadfast. It told me that when you want to make change, it’s very threatening to people, and you have to have strong resolve. I always remember seeing my parents do that. They were, I cannot tell you how many times they were told, “You should stop this.” They were offered money to stop it. I mean, you name it, and they did it. I just, so when I think about that, it always made me think so much about what is my role in action. And also being realistic that when you take a stand, don’t assume that it’s going to be this comfortable position; you’re putting yourself out there. That was a key moment of when you say what’s a change? My high school years and college years were all about that and so, that’s one.

I think another big moment, for me thinking about that, was a moment I decided that I was going to be this kind of builder or creative person across different sectors. And so, that’s when I went into government for the first time. Both of my government experiences were with entrepreneurs who would have known not your typical experiences. And it made me see government in a very different way. Made me feel extremely expired about what does it mean to be responsible for the public wealth, alright. I think that is something that I always go back to, especially cos right now the United States, we’re in a very, we’ll just say interesting time, around what does that mean.

I think those were two key points that, I don’t know, just imprinted me.

Michael: I hear you. How does, I love that word you used about steadfastness, about when describing the parents and their commitment around “we draw the line and we hold the line.” And so how does, what does steadfast mean to you now? And how does that kind of show up in the work that you’re doing?

Lisette Nieves: Well, so right now, I am leading the design of a new doctorate in education. It will both be on-line as well as being in person. So a hybrid, but it’s where in a Research One Institution is not…

Michael: I don’t know what that means. What does Research One…?

Lisette Nieves: A Research One Institution is a highly competitive research institution so it really values researching there. Which means, kind of like a flagship, right? It’s one of the tops, right? The challenge is that, you know, thinking about other ways of learning and broader audiences for work that could be done at NYU. It’s not necessarily not what folks have been thinking about here, right? So, I’m really, you know, I’m like shepherding change as a new person here. And so, I have to kind of really remind myself this is about the long term. Short setbacks, don’t let them bring you back too far.

Michael: I like that.

Lisette Nieves: Yeah, it is one where I also say to the thing that imprinted me about being in so many of these change projects in general, every role I’ve taken on is that, I get people have to mourn the past. They have to mourn that. Like I respect that. I don’t think it’s tripe, I don’t think it’s trivial. And so, it’s constantly balancing this respect for what you believe that’s existing or serving a population while trying to inspire them to say, “this can do even better.” So it’s that balance.

Michael: What have you learned about helping mourn? I think it’s such a powerful insider on how to make change happen, which is, you know, it enables people to move on when you provide the space and ritual to kind of say in like a formal farewell to something. I mean, we can’t all go out and burn our Viking ship on a huge pile of wood because you know. Just environmental laws makes that tricky these days.So, how do you find space for people to mourn what might be past, to allow the future to emerge?

Lisette Nieves: Well, one is, I know that you focus so much on thinking about the couching habit, about learning how people learn, right? Like that aiding in their discovery of that. So, I feel a lot of my work is also about acknowledging and being transparent that learning it, is emotional. It is emotional.

Michael: I love that

Lisette Nieves: And we don’t treat it as that, right. Think about what’s happening with our synapses at the time. Think about, you know, there’s so many things happening that learning does have an emotional piece to it. Obviously, when we see when you’re really excited about something, learning something new, hearing tragic news, right? Learning is inherently emotional. When I understand deeply and personally, I try to think about the other person, and say “Okay, this might be the time to punctuate a team feeling better, showing that what they’ve worked at in the past, that they can see remnants of it in this future plan.”

Right? So that they can stay hopeful.

Michael: Right.

Lisette Nieves: The other part is that sometimes you have to do some celebration. It varies, right. Sometimes there are people who don’t want to transverse that experience. And it’s time for them to move on. It’s not always a happy moment. But, I think when you recognize, I guess the last piece when you say “how do you help them?” I guess the last thing I would say, “When people are giving you feedback in change, during a change situation, it’s really about the change situation not something else, right? Like, I joke about it, right? You know. My own husband, if I argue with him over some socks on the floor…

Michael: It’s never about the socks.

Lisette Nieves: It’s never about the socks. So, why do we think it’s about the socks, when we’re talking about change right? It’s like I’m packing that and not taking it personally.

Michael: Really, that insight is such a powerful one. It reminds me of the Marshall Rosenberg idea around the difference between wants and needs. Now, I know Marshall Rosenberg mostly from his idea around non-violent communication. But, in that work, I think in the context of that work he says, “Look once the superficial things that people point to, like for instance the socks on the floor, but behind the want is always the need. The needs are things like affection, or understanding, or protection, or freedom, or you know, there’s like eight or nine or ten fundamental human needs…

Lisette Nieves: Oh absolutely.

Michael: …that drives us. And part of what you’re pointing to, I think, is to allow change to happen you need to see beyond the ones to understand the deeper needs that need to be unearthed as part of the process.

Lisette Nieves: Absolutely, and in this case, thinking particularly in an academic context, I think of myself as a rogue academic. I don’t think of myself as a traditional academic. Because I’m so involved in different things, but it is about relevance. Right? The need is for relevance, right? The need for someone closer to retirement is legacy, right? And this is a big change so I think about those things.

Michael: And that said, Greg if you’re listening to this podcast, you should pick up the socks off the floor. I mean, just deal with the socks, okay?

Lisette Nieves: You know what, I’m hoping he listens to you.

Michael: Okay, so and this is kind of building nicely on what we’ve been talking about. One of the questions I love to ask is, one of the things I know from the people I look to and admire is that they’re people who are doing their own work. You know, it’s not just teaching others, or leading others and being successful. They tend to have to sharpen their own saw, reflect on who they are, work through their own patterns. So one of the questions I love to ask as part of this podcast is: “What’s the hard lesson you’ve had to learn along the way? Or maybe you have to keep learning?”

For me, there’s a few lessons that keep showing up in different ways. I’m like “oh, that lesson again! I still haven’t gotten the hang of it.” So I’m curious for you, what’s the hard lesson for you, you keep learning?

Lisette Nieves: You know that “context matters” and so for me, constantly, you know. Sometimes it’s reminding yourself to slow down and to understand what are the different types of alliances that are there. What are the incentives that in the environment? They change in so many, in each environment they’re different. I have to, sometimes I’m like “Why did that happen?” I was like “Ahhh, I didn’t slow down.” And that’s the number one thing that I know is necessary to be effective. Sometimes you just gotta slow down.

Michael: Yeah, I love that. I, you know, an insight somebody told me years ago, which I too struggle to remember, but that whole piece around visiting visible landscape around power influence. That, if you don’t slow down and seek to see it, you miss it and then you stumble into a chasm or a cliff wall, or whatever it might be.

Lisette Nieves: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think the other one, too, is that you know there are others that can help you navigate environments. You don’t have to do it alone. That’s the beautiful part, but sometimes we forget that too.

Michael: The podcast is The Coaching Habit and the guests that I have on, brilliant expert, proficient in their own way, but they’ve all got a degree of showing up as a coach or more coach-like in the work that they do. What I know is that people who play these coaching, leading, mentoring roles often have one or two cores that they use and they love. They’re kind of like, “this is one of my go-to things.”

I’m wondering for you, when you’re in that process of coaching, and guiding, and supporting others, is there a tool, or a process, or a model that you tend to… that you use? Something that people listening in can go, “oh I could add that to my own toolkit”?

Lisette Nieves: Absolutely. One of the questions that I love is it’s a reflection of how complicated and how hierarchical environments are quite often for the people that I’m coaching. Most of them are large company or large complex bureaucratic organizations. And so, I always ask “How would A) Your supervisor describe you? How would your peers describe you? And how would people who might be subordinate in the hierarchy describe you?

Michael: Nice.

Lisette Nieves: And, I ask those three questions because self-awareness is key.

Michael: Yeah.

Lisette Nieves: And if folks are not able to distinguish between those three, they’re just not seeing all the multiple levels that are happening. Or, more importantly, they’re not even realizing the power and role that influence has in moving something, right? So, sometimes when I meet with younger folks I might me be coaching: a default much like your question is “What’s the problem?” Or “what’s the real problem?”

Michael: Yeah.

Lisette Nieves: It usually comes down to a personal relationship issue. It’s really interesting, right? Like in a work environment. It’s also within this very strict hierarchical way of thinking of it. My supervisor, my boss, you know, that kind of thing. And yet, my thing is, sometimes it’s about saying “what haven’t I done to build out my influence skills on a peer level?” Which I, a lot of people don’t often try to think about it that way. It’s not that I’m giving anything super insightful. I think my job is to, really just inspire folks to just add something else to think about that can spark something. And that usually, that question for some reason, seems to get folks to really stop in their tracks. Slow down and start thinking about relationships in a much more complicated way, and interesting way.

Michael: Yeah, I love that. I love both, ’cause it has a kind of double play to it. Just like you’re saying, first of all asking that question helps people see themselves kind of more objectively and maybe see things that they might be overlooking or downplay, or diminishing in terms of who they are and the impact they have in the world. But it also allows them to think about what does this mean in terms of how I influence those around me because, I don’t know about you, Lisette, but the older I get the more I realize that I have no control over anything. All I have is influence, so you need to understand how to best to show up and influence.

Lisette Nieves: Oh, I’m totally with you. I mean, look with this project that I’m working it is about influence, right. It is about, as you know, appearance out there, only using your inside voice. There is no kind of power and authority in that sense. And actually, I think it also reminds folks how collaborative we have to be.

Michael: Right.

Lisette Nieves: Which I think, is we’re social beings, and yet we’re not encouraged to look at collaboration in a way strategically, or provided skills to help people collaborate.

Michael: I love that. It comes back to an earlier point you made which is, if you’re doing it by yourself you’re kind of missing the trick here. Collaboration is necessary and will amplify the work that you’re doing.

Lisette Nieves: Yes, absolutely.

Michael: Lisette, it is such a pleasure to talk to you. If people want to find out more about you and the work that you do, is there somewhere on the web that you can point them to?

Lisette Nieves: Sure, they can go to the website, which is called, lingoventures.us or they can go to NYU faculty profile at New York University and look me up. And it’s Lisette Nieves either way.

Michael: Lisette, thank you so much for being on the podcast with us today.

Lisette Nieves: Thank you so much. Pleasure talking to you.

Box of Crayons helps organizations transform from advice-driven to curiosity-led.