Innovation Junkies Podcast

Nora Herting, Bringing Strategy to Life with Physical Images

In this episode, the Jeffs talk with Nora Herting, the founding CEO of Image Think and world leader in visual leadership expertise. Listen as they dig into can’t-miss topics for innovation, including: how the Image Think method helps companies and team members think visually, how simplifying ideas makes them more accessible, and approaching problems visually versus auditorily.

Jeff Standridge: This is Jeff Standridge and this is the Innovation Junkies Podcast. If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategy and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Over the next half hour, we’re going to be sharing specific strategies, tactics and tips that you can use to grow your business no matter the size, no matter the industry and no matter the geography. Weekly, we’ll bring in a top mover and shaker, someone who’s done something unbelievable with his or her business and we’ll dig deep. We’ll uncover specific strategies, tactics, and tools that they’ve used to help you achieve your business goals. Welcome to the Innovation Junkies Podcast.

Hey guys, if you’re looking to put your business on the fast track to achieving sustained strategic growth, this episode is sponsored by the team at Innovation Junkie. To learn more about our growth DX, go to innovationjunkie.com\growthdx. Now let’s get on with the show.

Jeff Standridge: Hey guys, Jeff Standridge here and welcome to the Innovation Junkies Podcast. How are you doing?

Jeff Amerine: Hey, Jeff Amerine as well. I can’t believe we’re on for another great episode. It’s going to be fantastic today.

Jeff Standridge: How are you today?

Jeff Amerine: I’m doing really well.

Jeff Standridge: Staying cool.

Jeff Amerine: It’s a sunny day outside, It’s going to be about 147° what else could you want?

Jeff Standridge: I cooked my eggs on the sidewalk this morning.

Jeff Amerine: Exactly.

Jeff Standridge: Man, it’s crazy.

Jeff Amerine: But today we’re fortunate to have a really fantastic guest on, you want me to tell you a little bit about her?

Jeff Standridge: Let’s hear about her.

Jeff Amerine: Okay. So today we’ve got Nora Herting on. She is the founding CEO at Image Think. She’s recognized as the world’s number one leader in visual leadership expertise. She’s also exhibited internationally as an artist, she’s worked with some of the world’s biggest brands like IBM, Google, NASA Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Toyota. And she’s been on a whole variety of different network and cable TV shows as a recognized expert in visual leadership. We’re just so lucky to have Nora Herting with us today.

Jeff Standridge: Hi Nora.

Nora Herting: Hi, good morning.

Jeff Standridge: Great to have you with us today.

Nora Herting: Yeah. Great to be here.

Jeff Amerine: We’re going to get started with something completely unrelated to innovation, strategy or leadership, but it’s crucially important to the success of the rest of the podcast. And that is what was your first car that you ever owned?

Nora Herting: Oh, you’re really making me go to a dark place there because it was a Honda Accord, I think it was 1993, which was not a new car at all. I was in college, I think they really saw me coming. I went and bought the car from a used car lot by myself. And later in the day, I drove up to take my dad and my sister for a ride and the clutch completely fell out of the car. The AC worked when I test drove it, never worked again. The radio never worked again. And I think in the time I had it, it was parked on the street and got hit randomly, at least a couple of times with the driver driving off. So was happy to get rid of that car, but I think I sold it, it wasn’t even moving out of my driveway. I think I got rid of it for $500. So what about you?

Jeff Amerine: Jeff you go, I’ve got a good one, but I’m sure you got one too that’s better.

Jeff Standridge: Well, when I was 13, I wanted to buy a motorcycle because in the State of Arkansas at 14, you could get a motorcycle license for a certain size of motor, as long as it wasn’t over a certain size. And my dad said, “Jeff, don’t do that, I know a car you can buy for…” I’d saved up about $700 from mowing grass and doing other kinds of odd jobs. And so I bought a 1950 model Ford car and then spent the next three years, restoring it with my dad before I turned 16. And so that was my first automobile, followed very closely by a 1969 Ford pickup. Because in Arkansas, if you got to have a pickup, when you first start driving, you got to have a pickup. And so I had 50 model Ford, 69 Ford car and pick up, both.

Jeff Amerine: And you had lawn chairs for the back of it. For the [crosstalk 00:04:29].

Jeff Standridge: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. You put two lawn chairs behind the cab. Yeah, absolutely.

Nora Herting: I need to hang out with your dad. I mean, that sounds like an awesome experience.

Jeff Standridge: It was a great experience. We did everything on that car, except the upholstery. We did all the body work, all the painting, we just taught ourselves, put another transmission in it. I can’t even work on automobiles today, they’re too advanced for me so, but that was it.

Jeff Amerine: I have lots of doom and gloom car stories that were first or near first. I grew up actually driving a Toyota pickup truck, not a standard transmission. I took my driving lesson in a teal green, 1978 Buick LeSabre that had teal green interior. Apparently that was a thing in the late 1970s. But the first car I ever owned was a blue Toyota pickup truck. And it was washed away in a flood in Wyoming, interestingly enough, after I’d had it for over about two years, but that was it. I was a pickup driving man in those days.

Jeff Standridge: There you go. Well, Nora-

Nora Herting: I got my license in a 1978 Ford LTD, which was so big for me. I was about 90 pounds, but the interior was like a red velvet kind of [crosstalk 00:05:54].

Jeff Standridge: Oh, I love that. Yeah.

Jeff Amerine: The 70s, I mean, I don’t know. I think a lot of the 70s design work was LSD induced because there were colors that should never have gone together in vehicles. But anyway.

Nora Herting: Watch out because I’m predicting that the 70s is going to be coming back Jeff. It’s going to be coming back.

Jeff Standridge: Great. I’ve got a pair of bell bottoms I’m just dying to get back into.

Nora Herting: I’m wearing them right now, just can’t tell.

Jeff Standridge: Well, Nora, let’s talk about you. We’ve talked about cars, let’s talk about you. Tell us about yourself and maybe a little bit about your journey and how you came to be where you are today, the number one visual leadership expert.

Nora Herting: Yeah. Okay, great. Well, apparently my favorite toy when I was nine months old was a paper and a pen. I wasn’t a stenographer, but I just, I drew a lot. So it was something that I came to really naturally. I had intended to become an academic, I had got a degree, two degrees in fine art actually. And I think that largely, that was because in school I was first-generation to college and there wasn’t a lot of practical career options for people studying art. So the tenure professorship, the health insurance, all of that I think seemed like the way to go. And it’s not easy to get a position, but I did pretty early out of school. And then after about four or five months, I had this terrible, I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience where the thing you’ve been working for you get it and then you’re like, why was I trying to do this?

Nora Herting: And I had this moment where I thought, okay, this goal I had for the last eight plus years is really just a failure of imagination on my part, about what else I can do with my skillset. And so I left that, it was a private college and I was getting ready to move to New York, no job, no plan. And before I left, I went home to see my mother. We went out to dinner at this diner and while we’re eating, she says, “Nora so when you get to New York, you’re going to get a job at an art firm.” And I was like, “An art firm mom?” She’s like, “Yeah an art firm.” Yes. See, and you guys, I can hear you guys laughing, that was me. I said, “Well, mom, tell me about this art firm.” She says, “Well, there’s all of these artists and they work for a company and they go to an office and they make art for other companies.” And she pauses because she sees my face. She’s like, “Nora like a law firm, but for artists, an art firm.”

Nora Herting: And at this point she’s so sincere about it that it’s no longer funny to me because I have to break the news to her that there is no art firm waiting to hire me with my master’s degree. And so she gets real quiet. She’s like, “It doesn’t exist?” I said, no. This look of terror comes across her face and she says, “Well, then Nora, what are you going to do?” And I felt awful because I was their first kid, I have two degrees that they didn’t have. And I think she was terrified that I was going to stave to death. And I can’t say that I wasn’t a little concerned when I moved to New York. So I’d love to sit there and say, okay, well at that diner guys, I conceived Image Think in my mind. And then I just went out and made it happen. But that’s not really the case.

Nora Herting: I forgot about that conversation for years and years and one day I walked into the Image Think offices in Brooklyn, I looked around and saw all of my employees, most of which have an art degree working on visualizing strategies, brainstorming sessions, et cetera for our clients. And I thought, oh my God, I guess here’s the art firm. But that was not a direct line from that diner to the reality.

Jeff Standridge: Well, let’s talk about Image Think what do you guys do today? And you’d talk about the Image Think method, help our listeners understand a little more about the company.

Nora Herting: Yeah. So what Image Think does is we really use the power of visuals and visual thinking, but for leadership, so I call it visual leadership, to help companies move from the first phase of maybe brainstorming a project or thinking big all the way to strategy and planning. So they can execute that using visuals as a way to help bring people along, to help give clarity to conversations, to help messaging for leaders about directions that their company is headed and cut through a lot of complex strategy and problems. So we do that with a variety of visual tools. Sometimes that looks like our people in the room or these days virtually, listening and synthesizing all the conversations into words or pictures. So the group can literally see and get on the same page and leave with a vision of where they’re going.

Jeff Standridge: So help us operationalize that. Jeff and I spend a lot of time doing strategic growth planning for organizations that are in the, call it $50 to $500 million range. Talk us through how Image Think would work with a process like that.

Nora Herting: Sure. So a recent project and most of our, we have a lot of tech and healthcare clients, but this client is actually global, a nonprofit for women’s health that I’m thinking about we’ve helped recently. They have a new president, their last strategic planning session was five years before, apparently it didn’t go smoothly. The new president wanted to have a bigger vision, bigger mission, widen it. She had to get the board onboard and the rest of the organization. So we designed a session where, first they looked at the mission, we helped them think through that visually, what does that look like? What does the future look like? Where are we going? And then once they all aligned on that, we started talking about where are we now and how do we work backwards to get there, which is probably, a technique that you all do as well, but we’re visually charting that as it happens.

Nora Herting: So at the end of the two day session, one of the most powerful documents they had was a literal visual roadmap, reflecting their new mission, the new future, how it’s going to benefit all the constituents that they have and the strategic path forward by different work streams. So the president can now go and socialize this to the board, to donors, et cetera, to not just tell them, but show them this is where we are now, this is where we want the future to be and here is our strategic map to get there.

Jeff Amerine: Hey folks, we’ll be right back with the episode. But first we want to tell you about a limited opportunity to take advantage of our growth DX. For a limited time, we’re offering a free strategy call to see whether our unique diagnostic tool is right for you. Go to innovationjunkie.com\growthdx to learn more. I’m just going to ask you a follow up question on some of the use of visuals is, I mean, what’s the research behind cognitive learning through visualization versus words versus auditory. Is there some kind of really basis in the research that says this is going to stick more or be more compelling? Talk about that a little bit.

Nora Herting: Yeah. That’s a great question. So my sister is a neuroscientist, she’s got a lab at the University of Southern California. So she keeps me really honest about how you can extrapolate on some of the statistics, but there has been a statistic that’s floated around there for a long time, about 80% of people being visual learners. Where that comes from I can’t quite say, but what I can say from a neuroscience perspective is this idea of being right brain left brain. Where if you’re, right-handed like me, you’re sad because apparently you’re just not as creative as older people who use their left hand, that’s not really true. And when you’re using visuals, you’re actually using multiple parts of the brain, from the basis occipital lobe, where you process the visual through the centers where you identify as language, you categorize it all the way to the prefrontal cortex, which we know is the sense of higher thinking, it’s what separates us from apes and all that good stuff.

Nora Herting: So if you want to approach a problem differently and you want to try to neurologically engage as much of your brain matter as possible, there’s an argument that doing it visually, in addition to just auditorially, you’re actually using more parts of your brain. And the most of our brain is actually attributed to processing images because of that, because it’s actually multiple regions that are happening. What’s fascinating is they did a study with folks where they put them in an MRI and they didn’t actually draw, they just asked them to think about drawing or think about an image as it were being drawn. And they had the same neurological activity as someone who was actually making the drawing. So I think that that’s part of the benefit for folks in a room with us, even if they’re not the ones making the visual, they’re watching it, they’re thinking that way. And neurologically that’s mirror neurons, they’re having the same experience in the same benefit.

Jeff Standridge: Tell us a little bit about your sales process when you’re selling to a CEO of an organization who’s probably relatively experienced in a very traditional, strategic planning, three ring binders, lots of paper, goes and sits on a shelf for 11 months until they pull it out and say, let’s see how we did. How do you sell your services to a CEO or to a leader who’s traditionally focused on those approaches?

Nora Herting: Yeah. That’s a great question. I mean, I think that the leaders that we work with are listening to this podcast, they’re Innovation Junkies, they’re people who are constantly looking for ways to approach leadership or innovation differently than it’s been done before. They are looking to have a different experience for the executives or the people who are going to be in the session, thinking and planning with them. And they typically are from industries where innovation and collaboration are critical. If you think about technology or healthcare, it’s all about your IP, maybe it’s the power of your AI or algorithm if you’re Google, if you’re Pfizer, it’s your molecule. So we find that leaders in those spaces with that mindset are really open and interested in taking this approach.

Nora Herting: And we started in 2009 and I can tell you that there’s been a long tail effect. So at the beginning it was more innovative companies in that space and as time has gone on, it’s great because now we work with some industries. Like I was just talking about nonprofit sector that isn’t necessarily follow maybe some of those characteristics, but I think there’s a sea change and this is something that people are more interested in and see the power of.

Jeff Standridge: How did you find yourself founding a firm? I mean, taking an art degree or a couple of art degrees, being an artist and saying, this is how I’m going to make money from my art, and this is how I’m going to create a company around my art. I know you talk about the story with your mother, but how did Image Think come to be and what vision did you have that created that?

Nora Herting: Yeah, well, I don’t know how you all feel. I think that sometimes there’s a real mythos around founders and whatnot that it’s the whole idea is board hole in your mind. And maybe for some people that’s the case, but for me, one of our values at Image Think is looking while leaping, which goes back to taking risk and seeing the potential in something. And then having to go for it, but in a way that you first look around and see what’s available, make sure that you’re going to land on the other side and not fall down the canyon. So I happened to fall in with a group at Cognizant or excuse me, at Cap Gemini, that had been owned by Ernst & Young. And in 2006, they didn’t use the words design thinking, but they basically had these licensed, this methodology that was like design thinking. And had built, physically these collaboration spaces in different places, all over the world that were full of whiteboards and movable furniture or games and toys.

Nora Herting: And I worked with a network of people where we would basically say to the big clients they brought through, British Petroleum or the US Army or people who were working on maybe five years strategic initiatives, a lot of IT transformation that we could get 90 days out of work from them in three days. So I learned, I really cut my teeth there. I learned the graphic recording, which is the name of the craft, like the live visual synthesis. And then in 2009, when the world in New York turned upside down a bit, went out on my own and by luck was given NASA as a client from someone else. So that was one of our first engagements. And then it just went from there.

Jeff Amerine: Let me follow up on that a little bit. And it really gets to the team and how you’ve crafted the team and put together. So I gather, you have a highly creative staff, many of them have an art background and whatnot. You go to a client like NASA, where you’ve got engineers, scientists, and people that may be wired completely different than folks with an art background. How does that work and strategy process? That kind of alignment between people that can tend to be point A to point B thinkers versus those people that may look at the world a little differently? Talk about your process a little bit.

Nora Herting: Yeah. I mean, that’s a great question. And we do work with a lot of folks like that. And I think that there’s a lot of appreciation in a way, I mean, the particular session with NASA was internal, NASA doesn’t necessarily have customers, if you think about it, I guess it’s the American people. But for other clients that have a lot of engineering background, a lot of technical thinkers, a lot of times they’re being asked as leaders to articulate the value of the product that they have or the power of it to potential clients. And everyone’s like this, I mean, we were like this too, I’m sure in our own fields, they get really in the weeds around the how and the what, and they’re not necessarily able to ladder it up and talk about the why.

Nora Herting: And so that is a real, in those environments, a real skill that we bring because we’re simplifying their ideas in a way that makes it more accessible to other people. Where they can step back and see the bigger picture that they need to tell, to connect with other people. In the NASA session, though, Jeff, it reminds me, one guy did come up to me, he was like, “I’ve been watching you for two days. And I’m so fascinated, but I have a suggestion for you. What you need to do is you need to be ambidextrous so that you’re writing with your right hand and your left hand at the same time. So you can be twice as effective.” And he was so convinced that this was the way to go, that I actually felt compelled to try it, which was, a brilliant, maybe a more brilliant person than me could do that.

Nora Herting: I have met a few people who can basically write with both hands at the same time, but for me it was an utter disaster. I’m not just drawing, I’m listening to what’s being said, I’m synthesizing it for the big ideas, really the visual part is the least complex of the process. But clearly this guy was a NASA engineer and a brilliant man and was seating and studying this and figured out a way to [crosstalk 00:24:48]. What’s that?

Jeff Amerine: Yeah, it was the time [inaudible 00:24:53] probably had Frederick Taylor’s book right next to his computer. And he was like, okay, she can increase productivity by using both hands.

Jeff Standridge: I had a college professor, organic chemistry professor, who could almost do that. He could write with his right hand on the chalk board at the time, I’m dating myself, could write while he’s erasing behind it with his left hand. And so you had to take notes-

Nora Herting: I think I can pull that off.

Jeff Standridge:
It’s like the [crosstalk 00:25:18] I can’t do it.

Nora Herting: That’s a great example, though, you were asking about what are the power of visuals? The fact that you even remember that, I mean, I don’t. I’m sure you just graduated college, like what, in last six or seven years maybe, but that sticks out in your mind still. I was talking to someone else who said that they had a high school teacher that would draw all these diagrams and they remembered the content from those lessons even now. And I think that’s an example of the visuals being able to really help people resonate. But yeah, it’s a great question about the engineers. It’s a different way of approaching, but really we’re helping them translate some of that complexity in a way that makes it accessible to all the other people that they need to communicate with or work with, whether it’s internally or outside the organization.

Jeff Standridge: What have you heard? You talked about your process with the women’s health, nonprofit. I want you to think about a couple of your best clients, your prototypical best clients. What do they say about you and your organization following that you’re really proud of?

Nora Herting: Yeah, well actually, someone just shared one with me yesterday and this is someone at Salesforce, which is a Dewar collect for us, but we’ve been supporting a lot of in the last year and a half. And they’ve been great, was the person said, “This was amazing, is so powerful. I’m going to hang it up. I’m going to print it up and hang it up and look at it every day because it gives me something, it reminds me why I get up in the morning.” Because it was a synthesis, the work that his team was doing. So I was like, wow, that’s, what more can you say about that? Or we did a session with some leaders at J and J at Jackson who said, “Why are we doing any of these other strategic planning with all these PowerPoints? We could just get rid of a 30 page PowerPoint because we have one visual of our strategy it’s so much more effective and resonates.” So that’s some of the feedback that we get, but I love that it gives me a variety of why I get up in the morning.

Jeff Standridge: That is great. Well, we probably have some listeners who are potential clients of yours. Tell us what a typical engagement looks like with an organization, say in the multimillion dollar range in terms of the size of a client.

Nora Herting: The size of a client, not the size of our [crosstalk 00:28:02].

Jeff Standridge: Yeah.

Nora Herting: Yeah. I’d love that too. Yeah. You mentioned Image Think method earlier. And so it depends. We have created after a decade of working, we do about 300 sessions a year, so it’s thousands of projects, a system. If you think about it, it’s like the life cycle of an idea or initiative. And so clients come to us at different points of that cycle. Whether it’s the beginning at the innovation stage where they know they need a bigger idea, they’ve been tasked with coming up with goals or solving a big problem and we’ll work with them there to help, make it brainstorm productive capture it, makes sure that it’s really fully holistic conversation and thinking. And then there’s a movement around that from there. The next one would be engagement. We just talked about the engineers, so any leader, and I’m sure that you work with your strategic planning is, once you have the idea, you have to get other people on board to carry it forth. And sometimes this gets skipped, but this is really important.

Nora Herting: So this is where the leadership can present their idea. They can get people aligned to see where they fit in together. And that might look like a mission, purpose kind of conversation, it might look like, okay, how do we all work together to execute this kind of project? And then the next stage is that actual strategic planning. So our clients come to us at any stage and we first want to understand the objectives, I always ask them and my folks ask them, what are the three words you want people describing at the end of the session. And what will be different in your organization if it goes well? And then we work backwards from there to figure out how we best support it. And then we’re in the session, whether that’s a virtual session these days or in-person, and we keep up.

Nora Herting: So at the end of the session, all the visuals are completed when people finish talking. And then that becomes a tool depending on where they are, that kind of Image Think method that gets socialized and used as an artifact and as a driver of the work, when that workshop or that session is done.

Jeff Standridge:
Very good. We’re talking with Nora Herting, the world’s number one visual leadership expert and the CEO of Image Think. Nora it’s been great having you with us today, you’ve really stimulated my brain to think differently about some of the work that we do in the area of strategy and strategy development.

Nora Herting: Great. Yeah. Thank you.

Jeff Standridge: Jeff, any follow on questions?

Jeff Amerine: Yeah, I did have one and I think it’s crucially important. So you’ve got great clients, you’ve built this fantastic company, but globally, we’re in this war for great talent. How do you attract and retain really great talent that allows you to do the things you do with the clients that you have?

Nora Herting: That’s a great question. And that’s always with a service-based business. And I’m curious how you all have approached this too. Is it your people, it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to scale. So we really had to move ourselves into thinking about ourselves as a learning organization. When we hired our first visual strategist, there were very few people who even knew that this was a job or had any qualification previously. So we were pretty unique process for hiring for folks in this role. And then we’ve developed a training program actually, the leader of my team is working on updating it right now, it’s pretty robust. So it’s usually two or three months of apprentice style training, shadowing, and drills and whatnot to develop them before they’re in a position to go out and support any type of client.

Nora Herting: So talent and skill is definitely very important to us. The way we’ve approached it right now is just to put the resources and as the organization level, hire really carefully. Because the big investment for us to get someone to a level that they need to to do the work for our marquee clients.

Jeff Standridge: Well, Nora, tell our listeners where they can find you and connect with you and your company.

Nora Herting: Yeah. So I think I’m still the world only Nora Herting. If there’s another one out there, you guys email me and let me know. So you can find me on LinkedIn, Image Think is Image Think I-M-A-G-E T-H-I-N-K.net or .com. You can find to see the place. And we have a free PDF download of my book, Draw Your Big Idea on our website. So if your listeners want to check that out, it’s basically 108 visual exercises that we do with some of our clients, but for individuals. So it’s a good place to start if you want to test this out for yourself and see how it might work for you and your team.

Jeff Standridge: Fantastic. That’s Nora Herting at imagethink.net. Nora, thank you for joining us today. It’s been great talking with you and I can’t wait to check out your book. This has been another episode of the Innovation Junkies Podcast. Thank you for joining.

Jeff Amerine: Hey folks. This is Jeff Amerine, we want to thank you for tuning in. We sincerely appreciate your time. If you’re enjoying the Innovation Junkies Podcast, please do us a huge favor. Click the subscribe button right now and please leave us a review. It would mean the world to both of us, and don’t forget to share us on social media.

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