Allowing Yourself To Be Vulnerable With Rob Salafia


We have all been used to doing things our way, but we must learn how to adapt to certain changes. During the pandemic, we were being sequestered in our homes for months. Join Tony Martignetti and Rob Salafia as they describe how you have to be vulnerable to truly express yourself and work on your shortcomings. He discusses what our learned gifts are and what leaders should do to become better with relationships. Rob Salafia is the CEO of Protagonist Consulting Group, an organization that aims to help leaders unlock their true potential, boost performance, and achieve their business goals. He has over 20 years of experience as a top leadership development executive. In this episode, he shares his journey, the transitions he dealt with and how the book, Clear Leadership influenced his current mindset.


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Allowing Yourself To Be Vulnerable With Rob Salafia

It is my pleasure to introduce you to my guest, Rob Salafia. He is the Founder of Protagonist Consulting Group. He is a Master Executive Coach at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He's the author of Leading from Your Best Self. I have attended Rob's two-day workshop and it is amazing. It's about leading with your best self and having the presence to bring yourself into the room and so much more. Rob, I want to welcome you to the show.

Tony, thank you very much for the invitation. It's a pleasure to be here and to engage with you in a conversation. It has been a while since we have had a chance to reconnect.

I'm thrilled to catch up and also know all the stories that you will be able to share. There are so many things that we want to be able to scratch the surface on what Rob has done in his very eclectic past.

I call it my non-linear career in life.

What we do in the show is we cover what's called flashpoints, the points in people's stories that have revealed their gifts to the world. We are going to allow you to start wherever you want to start and share what you are called to share. Along the way, we will stop and look at the themes and things that are arising and we will go from there. I'm going to give you the floor and let you think about where do you want to start next.

Let's make this a conversation as well. I'm going to start at the beginning of 2020. I have been running my own company, Protagonist Consulting Group for years. I have been waiting for that hockey stick that lifts up. January was tremendous. February was good but there were signs that something was brewing. Halfway through March, I delivered my last in-person session, then all of a sudden, as we all know, we all end up being sequestered in our own homes for many months. I was worried about my programming because I work with a presence. My background is in theater and performing arts. I take those skills that I learned as a theater performer and actor. I bring those skills to business leaders and this is done in person. In late March at MIT, where I am an Executive Coach and I also deliver a number of these large group learning sessions around executive presence and storytelling, everyone is off-campus. They were all attending class now from home.

“Can you convert your program to virtual?” I have learned never to say, "I can't do that." I said, "Sure." Three days later I came up with 3 two-hour modules. We delivered those in April very successfully, and then I started to have conversations with my other clients about the success of those virtual programs, worried that I was going to see cancellations across the board. I didn't see those cancellations. We converted those programs over to virtual and they have been very well received to my own astonishment because I had been thinking along the lines that I can't teach these programs in this format. It's not going to work. I need to be there in person with people.

Our learned gifts are disruptions in our life that we've learned to overcome.

That's changed and for a lot of people in the industry, they are seeing that the same thing has changed. A lot can be done virtually. Some things cannot. It's obvious but it's this ability to pivot and have a sense of positivity and experiment mindset. “Let's try it anyway, why not?” One of my clients that I work with is in a global retailer and IT group. They had been trying to get leaders across the organization to use Microsoft Teams as a communication vehicle. Everyone was being very resistant. They are saying, "We have to get on the plane, go to Asia to see our clients and do this." It took two years and they couldn't create adoption. Overnight due to the pandemic, it's like immediate adoption. How do we do that again and why does it take us that long to make that switch and say, "No. We can't do that." Sometimes our hand is forced and then it's to pivot or die. Those that have an indomitable spirit will inevitably survive.

Two words come to mind when about this situation and one of them falls squarely on who you are as a person. One of them is that you need a catalyst to make people act. All that inertia that people had like they are sitting around and saying, "We can't do it," and then you have one new thing that gets thrown into the mix. All of a sudden, things happen, which is a powerful part of what you described in that story of how one thing from the outside world can quickly disrupt all that inertia. One thing about this whole thing that I wanted to apply to who you are as a person and it comes from your past is this adaptability, the ability to say, "This is how it was but now, this is how it could be," and never accepting the way things are and saying, "We can shift and make changes."

It comes out of a non-linear career. I have been through many transitions in my life. Some I initiated myself and some I backed into because I was less than decisive in my decision-making. We all have our challenges in our life. I have struggled with adult ADHD my whole life and have not even realized it. A very positive, fairly smart guy, blessed in that perspective but I would jump around from thing to thing. Thus, the non-linear nature of my career. I remember being in college. I went to Clark University. I was a Psychology Major, to begin with. I looked around and didn't want to experiment on rats. That was Behavioral Psychology where I was at the time. I immediately and quickly shifted over to the Geography department, which was a renowned Geography department.


You would think it would be a big shift but it wasn't. There was a gregarious nature to Geography. As a political geographer, I ended up in Katmandu, Nepal for a semester of school at twenty years old. As cathartic as an experience this was, it was like going back 2,000 years. Seriously, we did some great trekking. I lived with the Nepalese family, taught English in a village school, was connected with Tibetan Buddhist monks.

I took a meditation course in Northern India when I was twenty years old. I have been doing mindfulness meditation since then. It's very popular now but it has been 40 years in the making to add a lot of value and to see that to have value in the work world. I remember when I came home, that was the culture shock and there was a conflict of values that I had. My first real big transition in my life was not going forward into a PhD program but taking a left-hand turn. It was a values-based decision. The person that ran the program was a former CIA headhunter back then in the mid-70s. It was very much anti-that so I had a conflict of values. I didn't know what I was going to do. I’ve got introduced to theater and street performing. Within three months, I had a street act and I ended up spending the rest of the next fifteen years in theater. That was a stumbling point.

I decided to shift, and then I stumbled into a Theater and Performing Arts. It was a way for me to manage my energy and my focus or lack thereof and then I acquired some skills. I became an accomplished tap dancer. I studied with the late Gregory Hines. I had a residency with one of his mentors, Honi Coles. I was an accomplished rope, wire walker and storyteller. I learned storytelling. I went to the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling in Jonesborough, Tennessee back in 1979. It was great. For fifteen years, I performed in city festivals and cultural festivals all over North America and Canada. I have been to every major city in Canada performing. As a performer, I went to Japan. That was a cultural shock of shifting.

I told that story to someone elsewhere, “As a street performer in the US and Europe, you work with energy and you can get an audience very excited about what you are doing.” When I went to Japan, I did my performance and there was nothing. There was no audience reaction at all. It was like doing these Zoom calls. If you are doing a presentation on a Zoom call now, there's no feedback at all from your audience. It's difficult to deal with unless you know how to deal with it.

There were twenty other performers there that were struggling on how to deal with it because they didn't want to shift the way they worked. I realized that as a performer, it's not about me and what I wanted to present. It was about my audience and the experience I wanted to create for them. What I learned through talking with some people was that there are two different ways a Japanese audience likes. You either go silent, mysterious, and esoteric or slapstick. You need a couple of people to go real slapstick and so I went mysterious and silent.

All of a sudden, my performance is well-accepted. I was the person that had to adapt. I couldn't get frustrated and say that, “Why didn't they like my work?” I couldn't expect them to change for me. I was in their world. I needed to change to adapt to them. There are certain principles that I have learned in the theater that now I apply when I work with business leaders and that's one of them. It's not what you have to present that matters. It's what's important to your audience. Where are they now? Meet them where they are and take them to where they didn't even know they wanted to go. That's creating momentum.

There's something about it that's powerful. It's not the message. It's the delivery. The delivery is important and knowing that you could have a bad message to put out there, something that's maybe downsizing the company but if you deliver it in a way that shows your heart, you care and you are coming from a place of not just a deadpan like losing your job, and then move on but you are coming from a place of real heart. That's the difference.

It is what makes a difference. I'm coaching the president of a local bank here in Boston monthly. I had initially helped him with his presentation to 500 credit risk officers and it was very successful. He invited me to work with his leadership team at an offsite. In the middle of it, he said, "I have to go to the North Shore. We acquired a new bank and I have to have a conversation with everyone who has been working there but not everyone is going to be able to stay with us." I said, "What's your message?" He told me, "I'm going to get right down to it." I looked at him and said, "Tell me. Have you ever experienced this yourself?" He looked at me and went, "I should tell a story." I said, "I'm not going to tell you what to do but we know what works." He goes, "I’ve got it."

He went up and later came back. I said, "How did it go?" He goes, "It couldn't have gone any better." I said, "Did you tell a story?" He said, "Yes, I did. Years ago, I was in a small bank and we were about to acquire another small bank. Everybody is very excited. Days later, we’ve got a notification from our CEO that we had been acquired by Citizens Bank and we had a meeting. We all came together and that message was cold and dark. There was no personalization at all. I’ve got up and I said, ‘I know what's it's like to sit in your seat,’ and I told that story. ‘Here at our bank, we have heart. If you would like to come and work for us, come and talk to us. We will make sure that we find a place for you. If not, we will help you get to where you are going.’ A fellow came up to me afterward and said, ‘That's the first time. I didn't think bankers were humans. Thank you for personalizing that and making that a human moment.’” It's important.

That story right there is what makes this come alive. The story within the story is the beauty of this. Did you ever think that you would be doing theater or any of the things that you have been doing when you were a child? What was the dream when you were a child?

I didn't have a dream. It was more trying to get a voice. I grew up in an Italian American family with two older brothers and I was the youngest one. That was the afterthought so my head is always trying to lift up and get into the pictures, getting my voice heard and I didn't find my voice until much later in my life. I'm glad that I did. Even as a performer and this is in the introduction of my book, Leading from Your Best Self at McGraw-Hill. I had leverage and talked a lot about my work as a performing artist and as a street performer in particular and the insights that I learned along the way.

I remember that for years for some reason I was getting up in front of audiences and it was not easy. As a street performer at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, I would go down there and this is in the early '80s. It was just beginning. I remember watching these performers with 300 people around them and they were masterful at being able to hold the attention of an audience. I tried it and got out there with fifteen people. I would get them to stop. They would look at me for a couple of minutes, and then like the wind they would be gone. “How do you do this? How do you hold their attention?”

Find something for yourself and experiment with many different things to expand your knowledge and build opportunities.

The first thing that I learned was I had to make myself interesting. I had to come up with something interesting so I experiment. I would look at them. I had to find something for myself. I experimented with a lot of different things. I tried funny things, some goofy stuff and subtle, authentic things. All of a sudden, I started to find my own style but there was something still getting in the way. It was like I was cajoling the audience to like me. That is never comfortable for an audience. It's more important that you learn how to project a sense of confidence. I remember this one performance and I had about 300 people around me. My little station right in the middle of the circle. I was bending down to get a top hat and when I stood up it was like something dropped away. It was this need to be liked and, "Look at me."

All of a sudden, I did nothing. This is one of the exercises that I work with people. It's the art of doing nothing. You stand in front of an audience or a group and do nothing. You take a breath in and breathe it out, you do nothing. In other words, you become comfortable with having other people's eyes on you. When you realize that they are not on you, there's an energy between you that is more important. All of a sudden, this little two-year-old girl walks out into the circle. She had this beautiful little blue princess dress on and she had this balloon tied to her wrist that went up in the air. It was a red balloon. It was the cutest thing in the world but she was walking right into the circle totally oblivious.

I looked around at the audience and realized they weren't looking at me anymore. It wasn't about me. It was what was interesting and it was her. If I was green, I might have grabbed the attention back. I have seen people do that and it doesn't work. I put my attention on her like everybody else. I looked and saw her parents and her parents gasped. My job was to return her to her parents but also give her her moment. I walked up to her very slowly and looked around at the audience. I put one finger on each of her arms and lifted her arms up so that they were up in the air and then I went, "Ta-dah."

Everybody applauded. In that applause, I was able to turn her and gently guide her back to her parents and then turned to face the audience. There was total acceptance because I went with the flow of what was going on. That was another principle that we learned on the street is it's not about perfect because it will never be perfect. It's about mistakes that you make. I wouldn't call it a mistake but it's something unknown and new that comes in. You learn how to accept it and do something with it as opposed to saying, "That's not according to my plan." You push it out and then get back to, which doesn't work as well.

Hearing the story, listening to all the parallels to life and how we act in the world is amazing. When you started talking about being open to what shows up and not making it about you and as soon as you do let go of yourself, it's become so much more powerful. There are many great things about how we show up in the world and not being attached to the outcomes of what we are doing and instead just letting go because if you are not having fun, not in that space of being there and being you, then you can create an experience that it's going to be powerful for the people around you.

That's what it means to be present and have a presence, understanding that there's an energy that you are creating between you and someone else or the audience. That's the presence and you are the person that's holding that energy with full intention. It's very powerful. I moved years later, looked around and said, "I didn't have a girlfriend and any savings. I didn't want to be 50 years old and still be doing the same thing." Something had to change.


A couple of experiments didn't quite work. I ended up hiring a career consulting company and it's one of these local places. Most people that do something like this don't do anything with it. I'm not that way. I grabbed onto this and made it work for me. I asked myself questions that I had never asked myself before like, "What's important to me? What do I want to do? How do I want to make a difference? What were some of those times in my life where I felt the best where things worked?" This is the foundation of self-work as well.

I realized that I liked creating an environment for people and helping others to grow. I have gone through many transitions so I can help others make those transitions as well. I flipped it right around and had that company hire me. I ended up working for them. I was always connected with a friend of mine at Boston University that ran a program for people with disabilities. I would do shows for him during holiday time. I'm talking with him and telling him about the transition I'm making and come to find out the person that was running the job development component of this program had passed away. He needed someone in a hurry. I looked at him and I realized this is the opportunity. It's sitting right in front of me. He ended up hiring me and we were best friends from college. I was starting over at 40 years old. I said, "I accepted that."

In five years, we laughed every day and stayed very good friends. I put fifteen years of career development together in five years. I went to work and got my Master's in Business in five years at night at Metropolitan College. I went over to the personnel office. The woman there that ran personnel was Hillary. We hit it off. She brought me into the University training group. I started to do corporate training sessions around campus. That's where I’ve got my start in facilitation skills and I was trained as a rehabilitation counselor so I learned clinical and counseling skills. I learned to become a coach. In the end, I put it down on a piece of paper and realized I had a massive skillset. I could be in front of any audience. I learned how to do that. All my performing experience, clinical, counseling and coaching experience, facilitation on the room and I had my Master's Degree. This was rare.

A friend of mine Mark who I worked with came up to me and said, "Rob, I'm learning to become a coach. Let me coach you." I said, "Okay." He goes, "What do you want?" It was the first time I could answer that question. That's what I would put out to people, "What do you want?" I could answer it. I said, "I have this massive skillset. What I want is to be introduced to 2 or 3 consulting companies that could see me for what I have to offer because I'm ready to put this stuff to use." This goes back to a quote that I love. It's from Picasso. He said, "The meaning of life is to discover our gifts and the purpose of life is to give them away or put them to the best and highest use." If there's any description of why I'm here, why we are here, that's it. We discover our gifts and we learn how to give them back to the world. These are our superpower gifts even our learned gifts, that are those challenges or disruptions in our life that we have learned to overcome. We teach from those places. I had a lot of that to offer.

Two weeks later after I stated that, I'm in Harvard Square and I see an old friend of mine, Nat and he has this French woman with him who's the head of HR for Société Générale, the French investment bank. I stopped and said, "What are you doing?" He goes, "I have this cool job working for a company that uses a theater-based methodology to teach leadership development and communication skills." I'm looking at it and going, "What?" I said, "Can we have lunch?" I went at it. They were doing auditions they recall. I remember putting my foot in the door and it never closed. I ended up getting hired. I was their top sales executive for twelve years. I learned more in that job, ran the relationship for American Express, opened and ran the relationship for Harvard Business School. I still know people across campus. We instituted our programming in presence and storytelling across all of the open enrollment, custom programs and MBA. I went to school. I was on a learning curve, and then it got steeper and more enjoyable.

In the fact that at 40 years old to be able to say, "I'm going to start something new," and to fast track your learning in that time. Granted you had learned a lot up to that point but to get an MBA and all that learning done, you had a strong will to go after this. It is a great example for people to think about. It's never too late. If you have a passion and desire to go after something, you can do it.

No experience in your life or my life is wasted. That's a big key because it wasn't like, “I was a performer before and now I have to be something new.” One of the most powerful questions that you can ask yourself and it comes from Deborah Ancona from MIT Leadership Center, "What's the part of yourself you had to leave behind to be the person you are now?" It's a very powerful question to ask because presence is about when we show up and bring all the parts of ourselves to bear at every moment. I bring all those different parts of myself to my work, which makes my work even that much more authentic.

It reminds me of a story. I remember doing a program for Ernst & Young. This was the valuation group and I had 80 consultants in the room. At the beginning of the program off to the side, before the program started, I asked the leaders if there would be somebody that would be willing to stand up and help me with an exercise who would get up on stage and share a situation. It was something that they were working on that they were struggling with that was unresolved and they were unsure about. This one guy raised his hand and said, "I will do it." The exercise came and it was pretty straightforward. He took his coat off, loosened his tie, came up and shared the story. We went on with the exercise and it was very successful.

At the end of the day, he came up to me and said, "Rob, can I talk to you for a moment?" I said, "Sure." This guy is like 6’3-foot with a $2,000 suit, there wasn't a hair out of place, get his hands manicured and everything. He goes, "I want to say thank you." I said, "What for?" He goes, "That was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my career. I have been working for the past years to develop a professional persona, this veneer of invincibility. As a leader, I had to have all the answers that I couldn't be right. I had to be perfect. I'm not perfect. I don't have all the answers. I struggle like everybody else but I couldn't show it. It was always a burden to hold onto the shell. That was the first time I have ever let my guard down. I thought they were going to laugh me out of the room. If we are going to do anything together, especially now, we have to be willing and vulnerable to say, "We don't have all the answers," and draw out the collective intelligence in the room. It's not going to be one through arrogance.

With the sudden change brought by the pandemic, it's important to have a sense of positivity and an experimental mindset.

That's such a great way for us to transition to close out of this because there are so many things that we could go into but time is running tight here and I want to make sure we get into some things that we can lead people with besides all these amazing insights. What are some things that you want to make sure people hear about your journey?

If you think about some of the transitions I mentioned, the first one was a transition around values. Understanding what's important to you and not compromising those values. What are the principles that you stand on as a person and as a leader? Think about it narratively. Ten years ago, what was most important to you? What are your top three values now? What do you anticipate? What do you see as your top three values in 5 or 10 years? That's a great exercise.

The next is to realize that it's never too late to truly go after what it is that you want. Sometimes you have to work hard. It just doesn't happen. It's a combination of envisioning, having a vision for yourself, that's what I learned as a performing artist and having a vision for who and where you are in the process of becoming and seeing that clearly. When I was able to state that, knowing what I wanted, magic happens.

It's not exclusive to anyone. You have to open yourself up to it. If you are interested, get a copy of my book. In the first chapter, I talk about this best self. I give a good example of a woman that was struggling and that we together helped her find her best self-moment and how much she felt most alive, engaged and fulfilled. We found these keys that came out of that moment that she then took into her career, which she was struggling with. When she did, she had a beautiful breakthrough moment. Finding that best self, it's explained clearly in the book but it could be fairly something that you would gain a lot of benefit from.

As you described it, it's all coming back to me. First of all, it's an amazing book and if there's anything I can leave people with, it's to read the book because it's fantastic. That story particularly does stand out in my mind. It's almost like I can see it. I'm so glad you brought that up. On the topic of books, we are going to switch over to something that we always ask people on the show and that is, what's one book that's had an impact on you?

The book that comes to mind is a book by Gervase Bushe called Clear Leadership. It's a very simple model of clarifying what you are observing, thinking, feeling and want. Often, we get muddled in terms of being able to communicate and understand the difference between thinking and feeling. There was one piece in this that he describes. This idea of being able to clearly articulate to yourself what you are seeing. “What am I thinking and feeling?” If you hear somebody say, "I'm feeling like this is the way we should work," but that's not a feeling. That's a judgment. You are feeling excited about the opportunity to work together. This is the way we will be most effective if we work. That clarification is powerful.

Another is when we speak about ourselves, if someone says, "What was it like going through that?" We think by using the word you and we are better but what we are doing is pushing off vulnerability. It's not being boastful if you speak in the eye when you say, "I found myself in a very difficult situation and I had a decision to make. When I made that decision, clearly it had a profound effect on me and everyone around me." All of a sudden, you are speaking from your own experience. Just beginning to notice these things in our own language and in other people's languages and how they speak is a big insight. That's why I would recommend that book. I will put in a plug for my friend, Todd Cherches, who wrote his book called VisuaLeadership and he's a treasure trove of insights.


I'm going to have to get Todd on the show and I already purchased his book so it's on the way. I'm looking forward to that. I can't even stop to thank you enough for being on the show and sharing all of your amazing stories. Rob, you are a pleasure to have on. Thank you so much.

Thanks, Tony. You are doing a great thing with your show and keep it up. I look forward to staying connected with you.

I can't wait to put this out in the world and see all the reactions we get from people because they are going to know so much from this. I want to make sure that people know where to find you. What's the best contact information for you?


If you get a chance to attend one of Rob's workshops, you will not regret it. It is a fantastic experience. I will show up for that. Thank you again and thank you to all the audience who are reading this episode. I know you are leaving with so many great insights. Rob, thank you.

You are welcome, Tony. 

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About Rob Salafia

speakingRob Salafia is the CEO of Protagonist Consulting Group, an organization that aims to help leaders unlock their true potential, boost performance, and achieve their business goals. He has over 20 years of experience as a top leadership development executive. Before he became a professional speaker and executive coach, Rob was a traveling solo performance artist. From theaters and festivals to the streets, he told stories, tap-danced, and did wire walking to engage and delight his audiences.


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