Today, we talk to Leigh Durst about her new book, Walk, Climb, or Fly. Surviving and thriving in the workplace wilderness. Leigh helps us to discover the three operational styles present in any workplace.
Now, this is different form personality styles, operational styles shape how we view our jobs in ourselves, how we get things done and how we leverage relationships. To do so within the context of work. When operational styles mesh well, relationships thrive and productivity soars.
Here’s Leigh Durst talking to us about Walk, Climb, or Fly.
Leigh Durst: I’ve worked on the leading edge of technology actually for over 20 years, and a large portion of the work that I have done has involved harnessing new technologies to make businesses better.
However, when you put in new tools, it also becomes necessary to chain processes which impact people and not just their skills, but how they do their jobs and sometimes, even their job descriptions and/or the way their teams are structured.
I got into this job because of my love for technology. However, my job was sometimes rocky, and it took me a while to figure out why. When I was really young and motivated to help businesses work more effectively. It was really hard for me to understand why people would ever resist doing things a new way.
It took me years to figure out that one of the biggest challenges of my work and also one of my gifting and purposes in business was that I was a natural change agent.
Being a visionary and a change agent can be really great for transforming business and being a catalyst for new ideas and problem solving and things like that, but the other side of that coin is, in the midst of change, people find themselves facing this level of uncertainty that can make them feel really uncomfortable.
“By nature, my job is to make people feel uncomfortable.”
When people persist in an environment like that, that’s when you really begin to see the very best and the very worst come out in people. Change tends to trigger insecurity, fear, anxiety, worry, stress, defensive posture, and even anger or sometimes passive resistance. Sometimes, the change agent can be a target for some of those feelings.
It’s maybe because I cut my teeth early on in my career in user experience that I have a huge passion for people. Becoming a better manager of people and helping manage people through this change process became kind of a professional mission for me, and an unwitting one because I just wanted to use technology and make business better.
Over the years, to prepare me to manage well, companies that I served in sent me to a lot of training. Management training and conflict resolution training and contract negotiation training—leadership training, communications training…
I think, like many of us, I also went through my slew of psychological profiling and underwent training that profiled and categorized my leadership style and my temperate and my personality styles. While I always found these courses really useful and enlightening on many levels, what I came to understand in people, I was left with this central frustration.
I might have come through this course or a book I read with a greater understanding of myself, but I didn’t always feel readily empowered to understand and plug in to other people better. At a base level, that’s what I really wanted. I wanted to be able to quickly understand what made somebody tick and figure out how to adapt to work best with that person and plug in to them to motivate and inspire and to drive great things and to build great things. I knew that the nature of what I did, it was really easy for me to threaten and overwhelm people, so it was more important to me to make that happen than maybe it would be for other people.
Instead of a professional level coming in like a bull in a china shop, I wanted to establish understanding and lay common ground for collaboration, then bring people on this transformative journey with me. I wanted to work in a more people-centric way, and I felt like a lot of the training that I went to kind of pointed me to naval gazing instead of having me focus on others.
“On a personal level, I struggled with finding the right job fit for myself.”
I think while it didn’t show everybody else, I felt a bit like a corporate misfit.
I often felt kind of misunderstood by management, so my search to better understand and plug in to others didn’t just extend to the clients that I served or the companies that I worked with but also to my management and my peers as well. That really triggered a spree of researching and reading to find a methodology that would help me do just that—quickly assess people, plug in to them well.
At the time, I was shocked to find that there were over 30 different kinds of personality typing methodologies on the market. Various, some of them highly academic, you know, highly scientific, some were less so. Today, I think there are over 40. I took a lot of tests and I read my fair share of books, and I found my acronym and my spirit animal and my color and my word.
I found my strengths and much more, but again, these methodologies in tests levy with that same problem—they told me a lot about me, but they didn’t really make it easy for me to plug in to my peers, direct reports and other people better, and that’s what I really wanted.
Further, a lot of them were just really difficult to remember. I remember reading one book a few years ago that had 45 different personality archetypes in it, and I just remember thinking, “Who could possibly remember all of this?”
The good news is that my job afforded me with this unique opportunity: as a management consultant, I was in different environments every week. I worked across industries from healthcare to finance to medical devices to pharma, to manufacturing, to retail, to consumer package goods as a management consultant.
I also worked from the mailroom to the boardroom serving these massive companies, nonprofits, government agencies, and more.
Because I worked this way, I got to see a lot of different environmental cultures and to work with them and to create change. What was really interesting is that while these organizations were always really remarkably different, I had always been amazed at this remarkable parallels that I had noted in how people got things done. That for me became a point of study.
Over the years, a theory began to form, which I now call operational styles theory, which really forms the core content for Walk, Climb or Fly: Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace Wilderness.
Developing Operational Styles Theory
Rae Williams: Were you also observing just other things in society and other people that you worked with that also contributed to your knowledge that you share in the book?
Leigh Durst: I’ll say this, I didn’t write the book in the course of discovery, I wrote the book after 15 years, so it’s really predicated on over 20 years of experience in the workplace and listening to people. I developed this methodology for myself because I found myself at a certain point in my life, like very ill and not able to recover, and I was overworking myself to the point of burnout. I needed to make some serious changes.
In addition to having challenges with work, I also found myself in a place where I really needed to make some changes, and I needed to understand how to work better. How to find a better way to work.
When I discovered operational styles theory, it really changed everything. It was so easy. It was funny because I did it for myself. I didn’t do it to write a book, I didn’t do it you know, for any other reason than I just wanted to be better at my job.
I started meeting people that were like me that were feeling challenged in the workplace that were having in a personal conflicts with others, that were wanting to be a better manger, that wanted to understand how to get a better job fit.
I began to, even almost hesitantly, share with them what I had discovered. It became such a draw for people that I ended up having to put it all down in PowerPoint charts and things like that. I would hand those off and they would say, “Do you have any more? Can you speak on this? Can you help our team?”
It just kind of grew.
When I started sharing this stuff, I half expected people to kind of politely roll their eyes and dismiss me. I was really delighted to find how the operational styles theory really resonated with people.
The book has a four-part four step process really for course correction, for career course correction. But the core part of the book is really operational styles theory. In short, it is a very simple new lens for understanding people in your workplace. It asserts that there are three operational styles that are found in any productive environment: they are walkers, climbers and flyers.
An operational style is not like a personality type that looks at your whole personality and how you view the world around you.
“An operational style is focused on the lens of work.”
It addresses how you view your job and profession, how you view yourself at work, how you like to get things done, how you leverage relationships to do so, and it also addresses the activities and tasks that are likely to be the most motivating and most energizing for you. These styles are pretty easy to recognize once you get the hang of it, and understanding styles can give you these unique super power sand the ability to quickly understand other people and plug in to them better.
Operational styles are rank-and-file agnostic. You can find walkers in any area of an organization and climbers and flyers the same. Although the book does highlight some areas where certain styles tend to gravitate, let me tell you about what the three styles are because I think that will paint a little extra context.
Leigh Durst: Walkers are the reason things run. Walkers typically view their job as a component of a larger existence. They typically perform a very critical function in the workplace with a focused set of skills and expertise that requires certain depth of training, expertise, sometimes even certification.
Walkers gravitate to organizations with key operational functions. You can find them anywhere, but you might find them in marketing, human resources, accounting, anywhere they can create order, establish process, policy, tools and create a smooth-running operation.
“Typically, they know their territory and the lay of the land like nobody else.”
They also tend to stay with organizations for a longer period of time. They are also the people who are kind of the go to person for information. Sometimes, it’s where the bodies are buried, right? They have the strong historical knowledge of the organization usually and they always manage a very neatly stacked apple cart of tasks, the complexity of which can be underestimated by other people.
A lot of their jobs have to do with different interdepartmental dependencies and things like that. They like predictability and routine, but it’s not because they’re obsessive about that but because they like to establish predictability so that their job can be manageable. Out of all of the three styles, they are probably the most likely to have work-life balance, although for all of us these days, that remains a challenge.
Leigh Durst: Climbers are the keeper of the agenda. They tend to view their job as a stepping stone to something better. Like their real-world counterparts, climbers tend to see everything as a point of leverage. They’re constantly looking to gain that preverbal handhold and foothold that will help them advance to the summit, and the summit for them could be something different for every person and advancement to summit is really the goal.
Climbers are very goal- and objective-driven as a result, and they typically have exceptional prioritization skills and excel in the ability to try to make things more simple.
They naturally speak the language of executive management with fluency, and very often, these folks are identified young and are often selected to fast track to management. Climbers also tend to operate from a dual agenda. On one side of their agenda is the corporate objectives that they need to support in order to grow, advance and excel, and on the other side of it would be their personal objectives for growth, advancement, expansion of their network, expansion of power, influence, authority, and things like that.
This makes the climber very ambitious and driven and highly focused. They tend to be conservative communicators who pay attention to external appearance and usually have a measured demeanor, but they can also be incredibly charming and are often very excellent managers and people motivators. They also really excel at deal-making, sales, partnerships, and helping an organization hit established milestones.
While the walkers are the reason things run, the climbers are focusing that energy and driving to milestones.
Leigh Durst: Then you have the flyers. Flyers are the future builders. While the other styles and people with other styles can have a purposeful approach to work, flyers really tend to uniquely view their job as critically tied to their mission and their purpose and calling in life.
Flyers are these natural builders who help establish the future vision that drives the evolution of an organization and they typically have very broad skills across functional areas. While you’ll see a walker with a very narrow focused area of expertise and very deep skills, you’ll see flyers with much more broad and selectively deep skills and talents and abilities. They’re very curious and knowledge hungry and they often are teaching themselves stuff constantly.
They are also really energized by ideation and brainstorming and have this unique ability to get up at the 30,000 foot view and see the interconnection between things and zoom down into executional detail in a way that can really stir things up. They’re natural change agents, and that with that visionary capability can make them both threatening and overwhelming, but at the same time, really challenging in a positive way.
The results can be really inspiring and move an organization to move body in the future. They tend to form really strong bonds with people who are not threatened by them and who like that kind of building exercise. They can often be misunderstood by managers and leadership.
Those are the three styles: the walker, the climber and the flyer.
In the book, we have self-assessments for each one. You can calculate your score for each one and see which one’s higher and that’s most likely to be your dominant style.
Pros and Pitfalls
Rae Williams: Do you go into detail on what we can do to enhance our productivity and just our you know, work environment, depending on which one we are?
Leigh Durst: Yeah, it’s really about relationship. Yes, you again – you take the self-assessment, it’s like a checklist, I made it really simple. Each style is denoted by a certain number of traits and there’s a similar number between all three styles. These traits can be divided into pros and what I call pitfalls.
Pros are the natural inherent strengths that accompany a style and pitfalls are the potential areas that become problematic when they’re combined with certain kind of situational and emotional triggers. It’s the proverbial other side of the coin. I’ve listed out the pros and pitfalls for each operational style and you go through and you check it off, you count your positives and that’s your clustered score and then you can compare those scores.
You can also look at your negatives and the negatives and the pro column are pretty good indicator on whether or not that style is yours, but I think it’s important to say this: you know, self-quizzes and self-tests, you know, we’re all addicted to them these days. I don’t think I can go by a week on Facebook without seeing what Downton Abbey character are you and what Breaking Bad character are you. They’re great and they’re fun and they’re entertaining, but they can be a little over simplified.
It’s super important, when I have people do these self-assessments, I tell them, “This is most likely to let you know what style you most likely align to.”
But you really need to read the chapter material to round that out, because human beings are complicated, right? The goal here is not to pigeonhole anybody on every single pro and pitfall. It’s to look for patterns, because these operational styles are really like patterns.
If you have an A line dress, you can have sleeves and you can have a collar and you can have a different hemline and make it look like a totally different dress—but it’s still an A line dress. The goal here is to train people to identify the patterns that may indicate somebody is a walker, a climber, a flyer, and then to arm them with tips on how to change the way they work with people.
I’ll give an example of that. I’m a flyer and I’m a change agent and I tend to be very overwhelming to certain people. I’m energized by brainstorming and I cross boundaries. That is really positive for driving organizational change and coming up with a vision that is not silo driven, that is really broad across an organization.
I need to understand how to tuck my wings and land when I’m working with a climber. Climbers don’t want to zoom around at 30,000 feet doing aerial maneuvers. They want focused, bulleted, prioritized communication that actually addresses their agenda.
So part of the art of developing a good climber-flyer relationship is for the flyer to understand the agenda of the climber and how to adjust the style and to tame the energy so to speak in order to get their desired result and the task for the climber is not to cut the wings of the flyer, but to demonstrate more patience and understanding that they are watchers on the wall for the climber. They can see things the climber can’t see. So being sensitive to that gift from that flyer is super important for the climber to recognize.
Leading with Operational Styles
Rae Williams: How do leaders in organization help their team to basically identify what they are and then create this synergy that’s been needed?
Leigh Durst: Everybody needs to be working from the same playbook. It doesn’t have to be mine, right? This is one lens of looking at the workplace. The nice thing about the lens that I offer is that it’s a really simple one. It’s the iPhone, right? So, it is easy to point and shoot. It’s easy to look and take a slice, and there’s no harm that can come from that whatsoever.
If you are wrong, you just adapt as you learn more about a person.
And the nice thing about what I offer is that it really takes the emphasis off the self and it puts the emphasis on the ecosystem within what you serve and the people that you serve with. The most important thing for a manager or a leader looking to mobilize a team to understand about this is if we don’t build understanding between each other, we can’t build common ground for collaboration.
Without collaboration that drives mutual wins, which means that everybody involved in the equation walks away feeling good about their contribution, we can’t drive truly great transformative collaborations.
We have to find ways to get our teams to drop the finger pointing, to drop the judgments and understand how different people are wired in order to get them to build that mutual understanding. We often find out we have more in common than we think, right? But sometimes when other people’s behavior offends us, we want to form judgments about that, when really, it can just be a reflection of themselves and how they’re wired to function.
The nice thing about operational styles is that it is a super simple way for people to quickly understand other people, to understand how to tailor their interactions with them, to drive a better result. And then also to help them to depersonalize behavior that they might find otherwise offensive or something that maybe just rubs them the wrong way and get passed that and say, “I can move past that and I can work with this person, because that’s just how they’re wired to function.”
So OST offers that page that you can get it everybody on if you wanted everybody in the same page. I think it is a great way to start looking at things in a more simple way. And then the book is also really combined with this four-part process for career course correction, because in writing this book, I was telling my husband, “I almost feel like I have two books in one here.” I could not address the fact that we had this epidemic in society today of people that are really frustrated and really unhappy in the workplace.
Gallup produced a poll in 2018 that said that we have 84% disengagement in the global workforce, and that number was originally 67 for the US. It has gone down quite a few points since then. I think it’s 57% now.
So, over the last year or two, it’s gone down almost 10 points. But if you think about the fact that roughly 60% of the people in your workforce are disengaged in their job, which means they’re showing up to collect the paycheck. That’s kind of a travesty right?
“We were meant for more.”
We were meant to work in ways that are different.
I could not address the people that are dealing with boredom and feeling bereft of purpose. By the way, I call these the big B’s. You can be bored, bullied, buried, bothered, looking for bread and benefits. You can be dealing with burnout. There are all of these things people in the workplace are dealing with, and knowing operational styles is really, really important and instrumental in helping you get to more thriving place.
But you also need to address where you personally are in your workplace and develop a plan to course correct. You are not on autopilot at the whim and the flow and the drive of the corporations that your work for, but you are actually purposefully taking the helm of your career and you’re driving it in a direction that is aligned with your design and aligned with task and energized and motivate you and also aligned with a better definition of success.
I think that is one of the other things—leadership can benefit from teams that operate this week. We spend years preparing to have a career. We go to school, if we are lucky enough, we go to college or university, trade school.
We get higher education degrees, and we enter the workforce dropped in 2017-Jumanji-style, boom, into this foreign land and we have to figure out the rules of the game. Many of us get so busy, we go on this form of career autopilot, and we’ve never taken the time to really say, “What is meaningful success for me?”
And if we did that, things might be radically different.
If you think about your definition of success, it is really a thing that forms over time, and it is pounded into shape by your parents, authority figures, educators, your peers, popular culture and media has a huge influence on how we perceive successfulness.
It’s also pounded into shape by the socioeconomic background we grow up in and whether or not we grow up in an environment of possibility and opportunity or one of slavery and abuse.
And then it is also really shaped by how we view ourselves: am I am overcomer or a victor? Can I do anything I put my mind to, or am I a victim? Am I somebody who maybe doesn’t feel they have much to offer?
All of these things shape the way we define success, and if you ask any person that you met today, how do you define success? You might be hard pressed to get an answer with any substance, and that’s really too bad because it’s a pretty important thing.
“It forms the compass and the direction for your life.”
You know you’re tackling two things. You are tackling this idea that people get narcissistic and self-focused and they want to blame everybody else for what is going on in the workplace and they don’t understand each other, and there’s interpersonal conflict galore. So, we have to address that, and we can address that with operational styles.
It’s super helpful, but we can also address the plight of the individual by helping people align themselves energetically to their operational style and helping them plot a course for the future direction that is meaningful, and then the net outcome of that is work becomes a much better place.
Your career becomes a much better thing, right? Because it drives more satisfaction, gratification, and a true sense of success.
Success with OST
Rae Williams: Okay, so as we talk about success, what are some of your favorite success stories of people who have implemented some of your concepts and transformed their workplace?
Leigh Durst: Yeah, there’s a lot of stories in the book, and some of them are too long for me to tell you. There’s a really great story about Amanda who went through a radical transformation, but I think I’ll start with this simple one that a lot of readers might be able to identify with.
So, a woman named Danielle in her late 40s came to me at a point where she was just really done with work. She had been a technical writer for about 12 to 15 years, something like that.
And that job wasn’t terribly demanding or stimulating for her, but it had really fit the bill because it gave her the flexibility she needed when she was raising two kids. The stability of a paycheck that enabled her to float their family financially while her husband stood up a small business.
And at this point in her life, her children had left the nest, and her husband’s business had become more stable, although it was a seasonal business and Danielle really struggled with boredom and isolation at work.
So, she was looking for more challenge and she went to her boss and she said, “Hey, I’d like to move to marketing. I don’t want to be so isolated anymore,” and unfortunately, her boss responded. It seemed positive at first. He gave her a big fat raise and told her it was going to make things better, then he worked behind the scenes to actually block her transition to marketing, and she quit.
So, she found herself after decades, lost in the middle of this career wilderness work, just not really knowing where to go.
And about a year before she had started this hobby just to get out her angst and frustration refinishing furniture. So, she was taking these really cool mid-century and 1970s pieces of furniture, working with her hands, and she ended up having like a true Martha Stewart like gift was converting these things into these swanky beautiful pieces of furniture that looked like they belonged in uptown hotels.
And she wasn’t really able to really parlay that into a legitimate profitable business, and they needed income and when she came to me as she was facing this grim reality that she had to go back to work and her problem was not that she didn’t know what she was good at. This woman knew herself, and she was a phenomenal writer, and that wasn’t the problem. I think in probing with her, why she was so stuck, it just became apparent that her definition of success wasn’t grounded in anything at all that energized her, right?
I think a lot of us maybe feel that way. I think that is why she reached out to me.
So, Danielle’s definition of success was a throwback to the area where her family was young and they were in debt and they were deep in survival mode, and she was fixated on having a job that paid a certain amount of money and gave her family benefits, right? And I think a lot of people are looking for that these days. When I asked if that gave her energy, she said, “Energy no, peace of mind, yes.”
When I asked what she really longed for, though, that is when the passion just really poured out of her. She confessed that she had been dying on the vine for years. She felt she had more to offer. She wanted to be with people, and she really was a people person. She wanted to do new things and feel like her work mattered, yet her definition of success contained no criteria that emphasize those things.
“Diane was a walker, and we talked about the way that she was designed to function.”
Walkers need a clear territory to manage, and they tend to have compartments. So work is one of their compartments, and then they have family life.
They might have volunteering or coaching and all of these hobbies, things like that. So they need balance in order to keep all of those different activities active and afloat and healthy. We also talked about what kind of tasks that she wanted, but then we really started retracing.
She had this real strong emphasis on money. You know, “I got to make a certain amount,” and we realized that a lot of her definition of success was rooted in her upbringing. So when we retraced her journey, it really came to light that her deeply engrained emphasis on pay over passion was rooted in an impoverished upbringing and a fear of not having enough, which she had carried into her own adult life. I drew her attention to this fact that she was in a totally new season and I complimented her on this sacrificially awesome job she had done to provide for her family all those years.
But I also pointed out that while she still needed a paycheck to support the family, she didn’t really have to sacrifice all of her heart’s desires in the name of a high salary anymore. That her husband’s business has provided a more steady income and she wasn’t raising kids that were in startup mode with that family business. She was truly in this season with more freedom and greater latitude and it was time to find what success looks like in that season.
So, we worked on that together. We balanced pay and benefits with the need to have creative challenging work that wasn’t isolating in a work or a work culture that was a lot more fun and rewarding and with freedom to do new kinds of things and to learn and to challenge yourself and paying attention to her walker design, we also prioritized a shorter commute that would allow her to pursue this furniture hobby as well as the other things that she loved; travel, concerts and things like that. And her kids.
Then we targeted the kind of job and the work environment that she needed to have to feel good about work, and a few months later, she started a new job as a senior writer in the marketing department for a major company whose name you’d recognize. The writing work was more creative, she had more latitude to work on a variety of projects. The culture was terrific.
It was really innovative, fun, reward driven and team oriented, and then she had this reduced commute that gave her back an hour every day, which was wonderful. Ironically, she didn’t really didn’t have to compromise the salary. She had a competitive salary and a great benefits package, with these amazing travel perks and she’s enjoyed this flex time and work at home time too. So, this increased flexibility has given her more time to do other energizing things and she was instantly out of the slog.
And she is today in an entirely new place in her career, and her countenance is different. I mean you could see it on her face. Instead of feeling stuck and bitter, she has this lightness and ease about her. I think she has really found some joy. She is embracing this new normal and can attest that taking the time to prioritize and reset that career compass helped her aligned her work to her design, and started bringing back more energy in her life.
Rae Williams: I think a lot of people are in that stuck place as you mentioned earlier that could definitely use a revamp, so that’s powerful.
Leigh Durst: When I was at my peak of burnout, I actually got sick I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, and I found this really great doctor. I had decided at a certain point to just take a leave of absence just to regroup and to rest and see if I could get well, and at the end of my leave of absence, which was blissful by the way—I spent three months connecting with friends, connecting with family, sleeping, wearing my pajamas. I also started writing then, and it was a great experience for me.
But as that leave of absence started to wind down and I started considering going back to a very challenging job, I found myself with this incredible anxiety. I had the doctor’s appointment the day before I was supposed to go back to this job, and I burst into tears in her office and said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” I said, “I don’t want to go back, but you know, I have to work.”
And she just looked at me and she smiled and she said, “Leigh, my job is to study the effects of stress on the human body and disease.” And she said, “Over the 25 years I’ve been in practice I have learned one thing and that is this: When you are fulfilling your purpose in your life, you spend your energy and it boomerangs back at you and it regenerates you in body mind and spirit, even if it is exhausting stuff.”
“She said, ‘It regenerates and rejuvenates the mind, body, and spirit.'”
She said, “When you are abusing your purpose in life, you expand your energy and it does not return to you and it always results in dis-ease, which is why we call it disease of the body, of the mind and of the spirit.” And she said, “Now I am not going to tell you what your purpose is. I am going to tell you your purpose is not this job.”
And I quit my job the next day.
I put in my notice the next day. It was a transforming moment for me. It was a pivotal moment for me, and I will never forget what she told me. It is something that I also put in the book because I think that it is a powerful visual for how we’re supposed to function in life and in work.
A Challenge from Leigh Durst
Rae Williams: What is one thing readers from the book that they can do to change their life?
Leigh Durst: I would challenge my readers to get off career autopilot first of all. I think that is a mode we all get on, and then take a more purposeful designed, aligned and proactive approach to work. That involves really challenging everything—from the way that you define the word success to the way that you view yourself and others in the workplace.
I believe that the outcome can be truly transformative, and my hope is that my book can really help and can learn more about it at walkclimborfly.com.
Rae Williams: How can people get in touch with you to learn more about this?
Leigh Durst: Oh, they can visit the website at www.walkclimborfly.com. They can also reach out to me on Twitter @livepath, and I am also on LinkedIn at Leigh Durst if anybody wants to reach out to me.