Jacob Green, author of See Change Clearly, endured a crazy incident that led to a serious brain injury, which was followed by three years of rehabilitation. Everything he learned from that about leadership and life, he shares in his book.
Jacob focuses on rising to new leadership positions and how to essentially come from behind when the down sides or pitfalls of leadership are at your throat. It’s all about handling fresh changes as you adjust smoothly to your new identity as a person in charge.
Jacob Green: When I went off to college, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I was going to create world peace and study diplomacy and study international relations and bring people together and save the world and so the best place that I could think of to go for that was the University of California Berkley or “Berzerkley” as it was referred to and so I headed off to college and everything was defined and the road was all laid out for me. In the second semester, my freshman year, I had a part-time job working in downtown Berkley as a Berkley guide and my responsibility was to help people get from point A to point B.
On one Friday evening, it was raining, and so when it rained, we tend to get out of the rain and we went to the subway station. I was heading down the escalators into the subway station, and the first indication that I had that this was not going to be a normal night was a woman was screaming, running up the down escalator right at the down escalator right at me.
I kept going down the down escalator because I wanted to see what was going on down in the subway. As I came off of the escalator, at the bottom of the escalator, about 25 feet in front of me, I could see that a subject had broken into the glass ticket booth where the agent sells tickets and he was attacking them and demanding money and breaking all their computer equipment. This little glass ticket booth had papers flying all over the place and the two women inside were screaming, and they were both up against the wall.
I could see that one of the subway agents had a red phone in her hand, so I figured she was probably calling the police department. I thought, not the most well thought out plan but I thought if I could just distract the assailant a bit from them, she could finish her call, the police could come take care of business, and I could go along my way.
I yelled at the guy to get out of the booth to calm down and get out of the booth and he listened but he got out of the booth, jumped over a little pony wall and charged at me, pulled out something from behind his back and started striking me in the side of the head.
I remember about four or five blows, and then my entire world went completely black.
That’s the moment at which everything for me changed overnight and set a very different course for the rest of my personal and professional career. It ultimately led me to drop out of school and enter a full time rehabilitation for almost three years. That served as the learning around for so many lessons that I’ve been able to incorporate into my own life, and now, hopefully in the lives of others.
Rae Williams: Wow, your entire life just absolutely changed in a matter of minutes on what seemed to be a regular day.
Jacob Green: Before the injury, I was an okay academic student. I was really engaged in different community activities and extracurricular activities. I was okay. I could hold my own academically up at Berkley, and you know.
There was this really clear path set out for me as to where I would go and get my bachelor’s and my master’s and go work for the state department. Then overnight, with the significant injuries that were sustained that was no longer feasible and before too long, I had to drop out of college and enter a full time rehabilitation five days a week. Occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, neuropsychology, all kinds of doctors and procedures.
The whole rehabilitation gamut. I spent almost three full time years being a patient and learning how to do things all over again.
Lessons Learned and Applied
Rae Williams: What would you say is the first lesson that you learned coming out of this?
Jacob Green: The book is all about taking those lessons learned from rehabilitation and applying them for the work place. Probably the first lesson that I learned is about gaps and weaknesses. In rehabilitation, you spend a tremendous amount of time trying to figure out what’s left.
What kind of cognitive skills and abilities are remaining?
What can you tap in to, what are your strengths? Because those things that you leaned on and depended on before may no longer be what you can use to move forward in the future. You get really in touch with your challenge areas, really in touch with your weaknesses, really in touch with the gaps, the things that may be holding you back.
That’s universal, but the problem is, we all run from that. We don’t like to spend the time, it’s not fun and exciting in the workplace to spend a lot of time reflecting on what your gaps might be and what the gaps in your team might be and what your own leadership gaps might be.
I think the first lesson is this process of really looking at and evaluating what are the gaps in the work place in my team, in my business that are holding me back from growth and development and really defining what those are and then moving on to step two, which is developing the compensatory technique to try to compensate for whatever gap that is that you’re experiencing.
Rae Williams: In terms of leaders, trying to identify those gaps and figure out where they’re going next with their team, what are some of the things that you recommend there?
Jacob Green: The process of reflecting on your own gaps and your own challenges and your own weaknesses. First of all, you need as a leader and as someone that’s overseeing teams or developing your own business, you need to make sure you’re spending time invested in this process.
It’s really taking a step back, evaluating with your team, going through a series of assessments, we talk about an assessment tool called the AEM-Cube.
The AEM-Cube is basically an assessment tool. There’s lots of assessment tools out there but we find that the AEM-Cube is one of the best to allow leaders to look at their own organizations and teams and figuring out where the gaps are and how they can bring different kinds of people together to fill those gaps and the AEM-Cube was developed and validated late 1990s, early 2000s.
It’s been published in the Harvard Business Review, and it’s a great tool to allow me as a leader or any of our readers to be able to assess where those gaps actually are. It’s a pretty amazing process and assessment. Again, there’s lots of great tools out there, lots of great assessments but you got to invest in figuring out where those gaps are.
Rae Williams: What happens when people don’t invest this time?
Jacob Green: What the research has found is teams that don’t spend time assessing that gap and building the right kinds of teams cannot appropriately face change and challenge in the workplace. Teams that are what’s called cognitively diverse. Teams that bringing a lot of different perspectives, different knowledge and different expertise to the table.
Teams that think differently are actually those teams that can face the down turns of the larger market, face any kind of industry regulation change, face downsizing, face all kinds of new budget cuts, whatever change or challenge you’re facing, you have to have a team that’s built that can successfully maneuver and leverage whatever kind of adversary is coming their way.
Teams that don’t go through this process of figuring out what their gaps are and building the compensatory techniques and putting their right kinds of teams together ultimately don’t succeed.
Those are the companies that crumble, they fail or alternatively, they create a really inauthentic environment, which doesn’t allow a person’s best self to come to the table.
Let me tell you a little bit specifically what I mean, which is one of the deficits that I had in brain injury, one of this injuries that I had was a visual impairment. Immediately following my injury in that freshman year when I interrupted that robbery, I all of a sudden could not be exposed to fluorescent lighting conditions.
So any time I would be in a room with fluorescent lights, be it a grocery store or a hospital, a doctor’s office, a government building, anything like that it would trigger severe migraines and vomiting and trips to the emergency room and all kinds of things.
That was a gap, that was a weakness, that was a deficit that I needed to compensate for. Thankfully, there was an incredible team at Western University School of Health Sciences and a great optometry chain that came together, led by Dr. Valerie Quan and they developed these state of the art sunglasses for me.
Really specialized sunglasses, my compensatory technique, the sunglasses that could be developed and these sunglasses, once I wore these sunglasses, they would eliminate 98 to 99% of the migraines and impairments that I experienced as a result of exposure to fluorescent light.
There was a problem. The problem was, I didn’t want to wear my sunglasses because none of us want to stick out, none of us want to feel different, none of us want to feel like we’re back in sixth grade at the lunch table eating by ourselves and being different.
“I would actually hide my sunglasses in my bag.”
I would not wear my sunglasses and it would create a really inauthentic environment and I would have to take all that energy that I could have been investing in my job and my team and my people and my colleagues. I had to invest that energy in dealing with the pain and the difficulty and the vomiting and all the things that came from exposure to fluorescent light. Once I put those sunglasses on, I decided to be who I was and be authentic and wear my sunglasses, embrace my compensatory technique, I could invest now all that energy on my mission and my work and my job and what then led to multiple promotions over a series of time.
I started as an entry level analyst, worked my way all the way up to the number two position, helping oversee 1,200 people and half a billion dollar budget and that was all because I went through this process that I actually had been through before in the brain injury. I went through this process of actually wearing my sunglasses and incorporating my compensatory technique.
When we don’t go through this process, we develop inauthentic work environments where people can’t bring their full authentic self to the table.
You won’t be able to achieve the level of results and the research shows, like the research in Harvard Business Review in that article from human insights and the AEM-Cube, the research shows that these teams that don’t go through this process and don’t allow people to bring their best self to the table can’t face change and challenge compared to those that do.
Showing Up Authentically
Rae Williams: How can we best empower people to be their authentic selves and bring that to work?
Jacob Green: You’ve identified, Ray, exactly the most difficult part of the process. We can do the evaluation process, check that box, we can actually find the compensatory techniques, bring in the right people, find our sunglasses.
Step three of modeling and wearing our sunglasses, that’s the most difficult part.
You’ve asked a really great question, and Scribe really is the model of this. Scribe I think really understands that when you allow people to breathe their best self, when you allow people to be authentic, that’s when the best work gets done.
That’s when the magic happens, that’s when there’s synergy on the team, that’s when you really get results.
“How do you do that? It’s modeling.”
It starts at the top from the CEO, like JT, all the way down. Everybody at every level has to embrace people, and allowing every person to bring who they are to the workplace and really leveraging whatever diversity, whatever different type of background and paradigm the individual might have—really trying to exploit that and leverage it and bring into the table.
For me, it was all about working for people who understood that hey, it was okay that I wore sunglasses, we can talk about this, we can give permission to others to wear their sunglasses as well because we all have sunglasses, we all have things that we’re a bit insecure about.
I mean, after every speech, I hear so many stories about people with dyslexia and people with trauma in their background and abuse in their childhood and all kinds of different things.
I’m not saying that we have to show up in the workplace and yell at the top of our lungs, “This is my deficit, this is my challenge.”
I’m not saying that, but what I am saying is that we shouldn’t be afraid to be who we are and we as leaders need to make sure that we’re allowing people to be their best and authentic selves in the workplace. It is not forcing everybody to think in one particular way but rather embracing lots of different perspectives and lots of different types of expertise and lots of different backgrounds as a way to enrich our own work culture and ensure that we can face whatever problem or challenge we have in the workplace effectively by tapping into that expertise and background, and then the cognitive diversity of the people that we work with.
Connecting with Coworkers
Rae Williams: Tell me one of your favorite success stories of just these principles being applied.
Jacob Green: I’ll give you just two really quick ones. For years, I didn’t talk about the robbery. I didn’t talk about rehabilitation, and I hid in my sunglasses in my bag. I was really embarrassed and really humiliated, and the research shows we all act this way.
We all want to be part of the group, we all want to fit in. So I wasn’t doing anything different but at some point, I was just leading two separate lives.
I would leave the sunglasses in the bag, and then I would go home and I’d throw up. I’d go to the ER, I’d have migraines, it had a really negative impact on my family and on my work product. So I decided to put a little training course.
Thankfully, the organization was offering a platform for this and so for the first time, I shared the story of the brain injury and the shared the reasons why I had these sunglasses and why I’d be wearing these sunglasses and what these sunglasses allowed me to do.
Which is just focus on my work and focus on my daily mission and it was just such a huge weight off my shoulders and the very first time I told the story in a little training class, one of the people in one of my divisions she came up to me afterwards and her eyes were all welled up and I could tell she was just about to cry.
She came up and I said, “What do you think of the training?” and she said, “It was really powerful. I really appreciate it. You know, there was something that I hadn’t told anybody here, which is just before you all hired me, I had a stroke. So that is why the right side of my body doesn’t function exactly the same as my left side and I have a little bit of a limp.”
I said, “Oh wow, sorry you went through that, and I am glad this story resonated with you. How are you feeling now?” and she said, “You know what? I feel amazing. You know why?”
She said, “Because you’re my boss’s boss and you’re messed up and I’m a little messed up and we’re going to be messed up together. It’s okay and it’s all right and I am going to be able to be myself and I am going to ask for a little bit of help. There are a few things that I might need in my office for ergonomics and it is not going to be that big a deal and it’s not going to overwhelm me and it is not going to hold me back. I am just going to talk to my boss and ask a few of those things, and I would be able to move forward.”
“This is an employee that has been promoted twice since.”
She’s now a high level manager, and I don’t know if it was because she was able to invest all of that energy in her job. I don’t know if there is a direct correlation, but I do know that it gave her permission by someone in the organization in a leadership role telling her that it was okay that we all have our issues and challenges. We need to go ahead and embrace them and implement them and use them in order to be our best self. It gave her that permission.
The second one is a call that I just got off this morning from an audience member that contacted me and she said the day after the keynote, she woke up. She wasn’t feeling very good. She went in front of the mirror, she didn’t like what she saw and she took a photograph and she posted that photograph on social media.
For the world to see what she’d look like without makeup and without her hair done, and she posted, “This is how I wake up. This is how I am starting my day. It’s not going to be like this the whole day, but this is how it is right now.”
She got all this overwhelming support all over social media from people who wished they had that courage to embrace that level of authenticity and to put that out there it is contagious.
That type of authenticity is contagious and it spreads.
And it ends up creating a culture in a workplace environment where we can be our best self and bring our best self to the table, so I am really energized by all those stories that I regularly hear about people who are no longer going to hide that which held them back.
It is not about making it the biggest deal in the office but it is just about wearing your sunglasses and being able to focus your energy and your effort on that which gives you fulfillment and that which makes an impact.
A Challenge for Listeners
Rae Williams: If you had to issue a challenge to your readers and our listeners, something that they can take action on this week, what would that be?
Jacob Green: What is holding you back? What is preventing you from being your best self in the workplace? What is preventing you from contributing and offering up everything that you have, all of the experiences and all the lessons that you have learned, what is holding you back? Is it shame? Is it embarrassment? Is it a desire to fit in?
I would challenge you just for one day to try to figure out what that is. Wear your sunglasses.
Because what you will see is you will not only help yourself but you will start to help others really be their best selves as well. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be that scary. I wear my sunglasses everyday all day in all my meetings and in all my workplace encounters. It really hasn’t been that terrible. It is a great way to break the ice.
“I learn a lot about people in interview settings when I am hiring people.”
Because when they come on in, they tend to make a comment or two and I can find out and learn a lot about them. It usually leads to people sharing some of their biggest insecurities and some of the things that they’ve been through in life because that will lead to the story of my sunglasses comes back to the robbery.
So people share all kinds of things and it creates really strong bonds and connections between me and others that never would have existed before without the sunglasses.
I would challenge all of your listeners to try to take a moment, take a breather and figure out is there anything holding you back from being your best authentic self in the workplace.
Writing See Change Clearly
Rae Williams: What was the writing process like for you?
Jacob Green: Well Scribe is an amazing organization company as you know, and it was a very scary process for me because I have a lot of deficits as a result of the brain injury. Reading is a bit tricky for me and I am not a natural writer before the brain injury let alone after the brain injury.
But again, what I learned in the brain injury process of rehabilitation is you need to fill those gaps. You need to seek out those individuals and people who have the expertise that you don’t have.
Because we’re all not good at everything, so it was amazing when I got connected with Scribe and here I got introduced to a group of people who were experts at helping others bring forward their story and organize their experience and try to create that the maximum impact for the reader. So it was really energizing for me. I don’t think I ever missed an appointment.
It was really energizing for me to work through all these stories and work with a team that inspired me and believed in the message and the experience. I had to relieve a lot of difficult and uncomfortable moments and I wanted to make sure those were put in the book because I wanted to make sure the reader understood that it is all not unicorns and rainbows that there was a lot of failures, a lot of challenges in my path.
Those were all captured as part of the book writing process as well.
“It has been an incredible dream come true.”
During the rehabilitation process, I had to move. I did a six month full-time rehabilitation and two years of full-time rehabilitation and the two-year program required me to move to Southern California, and I had this little 800 square foot studio apartment. It had a full down Murphy bed, a grey inflatable couch that I got at a garage sale, and a little desk that I put in there and every single night I would sit on the edge of that Murphy bed with one driving thought.
And that was, “Please someday let there be some way that these lessons and these experiences can be used to make some sort of positive impact for somebody. Let this not all go to waste,” and so this book is the fulfillment of that long awaited dream and I take it even to the next level, the second part of my dream was to be able to make an impact on other brain injury patients that are going through the experience.
On page two or so of the book, it talks about how a portion of the proceeds of the sale of the book will go directly to Coastline Acquired Brain Injury, which is the facility that I went through for the scholarships and programs for other students to be able to attend.
So this book is not only the dream of writing a book and getting some of these stories out there and trying to make an impact, but also, I am really excited that this book will have a positive impact and allow other patients to receive the kind of care and support and rehabilitation that I received.
Find a Buddy
Rae Williams: Is there anything else that you think that you need readers to know?
Jacob Green: I think in process of understanding our challenges and our gaps in the workplace, it also requires us to find what I call in the book our thunder buddy—find somebody in our environment that is willing to give us really direct, really honest advice about our performance and how we are doing, what our own blind spots are. I learned this in rehabilitation. You spend a tremendous amount of time in rehabilitation, especially for patients who have frontal lobe brain injury challenges.
Where these self-awareness indicators might be impaired, you spend a lot of time in rehabilitation taking in feedback that might be uncomfortable, but it is critically important to understanding where your blind spots might be and what might be holding you back in life.
I would just encourage all of your readers because I have really benefited from so many people that I have been able to work with. One in particular that I talk about in the book is my thunder buddy.
My buddy Darrell Polk is that person who is willing to say, “Hey, you know what Jacob? That was a terrible idea. What you just implemented is having a really negative impact on staff. You need to really address this right away or you’re becoming very disconnected or you are working in the Ivory tower.” It is somebody who you have a mutual respect for that can really provide you some guidance, and it comes from a place of love and support but is willing to tell you how it is in the workplace.
I would encourage all of your listeners to not only ask themselves where are their own gaps and what’s holding their own teams and organization back from reaching the next level and breaking boundaries. Also, have I invested in a relationship with someone in the workplace who is willing to really tell me the things that are difficult for me to hear and make sure they help me understand where I need to invest my energy and where I might be missing the mark.
So we all need to find our thunder buddy, and I am just really grateful and very humble that I’ve had people like Darrell and a few others who have helped through that for me in the workplace.
Connect with Jacob Green
Rae Williams: How can people contact you?
Jacob Green: Probably the best place to get in touch and I love getting feedback and questions and hearing stories and love people calling and asking questions about certain challenges and issues they are having in the workplace and how we can pivot and navigate around them and build their own compensatory techniques and deal with their challenges.
The best way to get a hold of me is through my website. Very easy, it’s just jacobgreen.com.
My email address is [email protected]. So that is the quickest and easiest way to get right to me, and I love engaging in conversations. I’ve had the very good fortune to work with all kinds of companies throughout the country. Fortune 500 and Fortune 50 companies and all kinds of different individuals and teams and groups, and I love to hear about what the challenges are out there. See if some of these lessons from rehabilitation can help your listeners grow and develop in their own endeavors and their own businesses and their own professional development.