Dare To Inspire With Allison Holzer

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How do you help others become better? Do you dare to inspire? We talk about inspiration, mindset and more as Tony Martignetti sits down for a chat with coach, CEO and inspiration strategist Allison Holzer. She shares her first experience with innovation and talks about how it put her on the path to learning to think outside the box when looking for ways to use your gifts. She dispels the myth that you have to choose between your gifts instead of combining them. She talks about the importance and role of emotions in decision-making, explaining why we shouldn’t be afraid of them. We also hear about the importance of feedback and agency. An interview you can draw inspiration and more from.

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Dare To Inspire With Allison Holzer

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Allison Holzer. Allison is the co-CEO and Chief Innovation Officer of InspireCorps, an inspiration strategy firm that partners with organizations to drive business growth and innovation. She's the co-author of Dare to Inspire: Sustain the Fire of Inspiration in Work and Life, a book that redefined inspiration as a critical resource in modern work and organizational culture. She passionately speaks and writes on this topic, grounded in her original thought leadership in executive coaching, emotional intelligence and applied positive psychology.

Allison holds a BA in Psychological Brain Sciences with an emphasis on learning and cognition, from Dartmouth College. She has a dual Master's degree in Education and Fine Art from American University. She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut with her husband, two boys, and a new kitten named Echo. I want to welcome you to show, Allison.

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Thank you, Tony. It's such a pleasure to be here with you.

Anytime we can talk about inspiration, I am thrilled. This is what connected us in the first place and what inspired me to grab your book and read it many years ago.

It's definitely my passion topic as well.

I want to give you a little sense of what we talk about on the show here. How we roll is we want to give you a place to share, what brought you to this point where you're doing such amazing work in the world? Usually, that's told through what we call flashpoints, these points in your story that had ignited your gifts to the world. What I've found is that there is usually more than one flashpoint in your story. I want to give you the space to feel free to share what you're called to share. Along that way, we'll just pause and see what shows up, see what themes and things that are coming to mind.

We can know all we know and still not take action in the world. You have to have the emotion behind it.

Flashpoints, when you said that, the first thing that came to mind and maybe I'm a little biased in this because when we did interviews for our book on inspiration, we asked people about one of their earliest memories of being inspired. I loved hearing people talk about back in childhood, some of the things that inspired them and moved them. When you said, “Flashpoint,” the first thing that came to mind was the bit earlier on for me.

It was when I was around 8 or 9. I don't recall how I initially came up with this idea but I started carving soap in the shape of horse heads because we lived in Kentucky, which is where I grew up. I rode horses as a kid. I loved them. I started carving soap and it was maybe slightly dangerous. I was using an X-Acto knife at that age. I don't know why my parents trusted me with that but they did. What was interesting to me is that it evolved into more. I could have just been carving the soap, sharing it, show and tell, but instead, it turned into this business.

I started carving soap going door to door and selling them to people before the Kentucky Derby, which is the annual horserace in Kentucky. I then started getting more creative like there's white soap, but people have different colors in their bathrooms. Maybe I can dye them in different colors. I can put them in these that are custom made. I needed to have a business card, which I also have the business card that I made when I was a kid. I got all into this thing and I started selling soaps.

Before I knew it, this department store that was local at the time somehow caught wind of this and approached me. They asked about carrying these soaps in their store and I thought, “This is interesting but I might have to drop out of elementary school to start carving soaps full-time.” Needless to say, I ended up moving on from the soap carving business but it was quite an experience. It's not easy to walk up to a door when you're 8 or 9 and ask somebody to buy something. It's not easy to come up with a business idea and take it to fruition, and keep those creative ideas coming. It was a great learning experience for me.

It's like the entrepreneur in you and the artist. Both edges of that, getting out there and taking risks at a very young age. I love the fact that you started it with this story because I do believe that there are so many clues about who we end up being at the very beginning of who we are as a child because we're unfettered. We're free to be whatever we want to be at that point.

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It’s also what moves us at that age, what we tend to be drawn by what we're most interested in, curiosity and all of that. There was something about doing something original, something that didn't exist at the time, being bold and how I was trying to bring that out into the world. Those were the things that were moving to me at the time.

Now I'm intrigued by what happens next. There is an element of how would you move on from this because you could have had a very successful soap carving business in that.

This tension existed for me earlier on in my career, in my twenties especially, between art, creativity and psychology education people because they're both these passions of mine and they draw me in. At the time when I was younger, I used to think about this in very concrete ways. If you're creative and interested in art, you must be an artist or an art teacher. If you're interested in psychology and education, you must be a teacher or a psychologist.

You can't be all of those things at one time so you have to pick something. I was very much in that mindset and it was hard for me because my heart is with people and with bringing value to the world through people, but I have this creative side that exists. I was limiting myself to the creative side in terms of it needs to be art, whereas art was not where my heart was. That was another flashpoint for me as well. When I was in graduate school, I pursued within that box of teaching art because maybe that will combine these two interests of mine.

I wasn't feeling right for me. There was something that was off and I struggled a lot with it. A friend of mine had recommended that I go attend this session that had to do with coaching. I didn't know what that was. I'd never heard of it before. I thought it sounded weird but I like this person. I trusted them so I said, “I'll go check that out.” When I went to the session and I ended up doing several of them to then eventually become certified, it definitely was a flashpoint moment for me because it was all about creativity as it applies to people.

It was about thinking more openly and creatively about yourself and then asking other people to do the same when you're coaching them, and having them think in new, different, broader ways. It activated inspiration for me. I felt so inspired at that moment for the first time in terms of how I might be able to give my gifts to the world. I still didn't know what it was going to look like and what does this mean in terms of a career at that time, this was in my early twenties, but it didn't matter as much anymore.

I didn't need to have the answer. I just knew that doing that kind of work combined my creativity, passion for people and made a positive impact on others. To me, it was just, “I need to be doing this in the world and I'll figure out the details of how to do that along the way,” which is what my career has been since then.

There's something about the way you're describing this. I'm seeing these clues show up and it's this fire that's igniting. I love it because you're coming alive as you talk about it and I feel myself feeling, “I'm lit up by that.” There are a few words that came to mind as you started to tell your story and it's about convergence.

Converging the ideas of bringing art into the world and bringing people together. All these things that you have interests in and bringing them all together, there's no reason why it can't coexist. People talk about “Yes, and” in improv. This is what they say. It’s like, “Why not? Why can't I combine this thought of I love the arts and people? Why can't I do that and have a business that allows me to bring all these things together?”

I love the “Yes, and.” I would also offer that it makes the business and the work stronger. When we're out in the world, when we work with clients and we do what we do, one of the things that make us unique is how we do bring the humanities and the arts. We work with leaders on leadership development. We're working with executives but we will bring in poetry, music and all kinds of ways to activate human emotion.

Creativity happens in many different forms. It can be creative thinking. It can be creative ways to get people thinking about new ideas. 

We know that is a way to inspire people, to think bigger, to have new possibilities, to want to take action in new ways. You can't underscore the importance of that. It's critical because we can know all we know and still not take action in the world. You have to have the emotion behind it. Much of what we do is activating that. The arts is a critical way to do it and it doesn't always have to look like traditional art. It can be creativity and creative thinking. It can be creative ways to get people thinking about new ideas. Creativity happens in so many different forms.

There's an element of it speaking to the soul and not just seeking to the mind. That's what makes it so powerful. I could talk about this all day but I want to get back into the story. Here you are in this moment of understanding, “I want to do some more of this coaching. This is something that is unlocking something in me,” but what happens next?

It was exciting because once I found this love and passion, being the kind of nerd that I am, I wanted to understand the why behind the magic. I knew that coaching was powerful because I experienced it and I saw that in others, but I wanted to know why? What contributes to that? I started on this journey. I was very much self-driven. I wasn't doing this in a course or anything. I went on this journey to start to research and understand what contributes to this coaching process. Why does it work?

I immersed myself pretty early on in the field of applied positive psychology, which now you can get a Master's degree in that. I don't have one but I got involved with an organization that taught online courses and I helped them create an online positive psychology certificate course. I knew from my educational background that the best way to learn something is to teach it so here I am teaching positive psychology, flash forward several years and I feel pretty grounded in the research behind why coaching works.

I was doing coaching along the way, then it was a nice experience that unfolded for me when we moved to New Haven. I had this great opportunity to work with this group. They now are called the . At that time, they were called the Health Emotion and Behavior Laboratory at Yale. They were looking for someone like me. They were looking for someone who had an educational background and also knew how to coach. I came in and I also had a psychology background and undergrad so it worked well. What I didn't have expertise in at the time was emotional intelligence. They said, “Don't worry, we can train you up on that part.”

What was neat about that is emotional intelligence also supports a lot of grounding of why coaching works because of our emotions and how you move people's emotions. It's a big part of what we do in coaching. It was a great experience. I worked with them. I helped them create an emotional intelligence coaching program that was the first of its kind. I was with them for many years until I realized that I wanted to step out on my own, not just be coaching around emotional intelligence but something that was even more personal to me. That's when we came together with my two co-CEOs and co-founders to start InspireCorps back in 2013.

I'd love to hear the trials and tribulations of that. I want to start by saying there's some element of the freedom that comes with saying, "I want to create something of my own." Even though you're doing something that is gratifying in its own right, there's that moment of release that allows you to say, “I'm going to do something on my own but I also don't know how to do my own company or create my own thing.” How was that moment when you finally made the decision? What did it feel emotionally?

Not everybody starts a business with multiple partners. I think part of what gave me the confidence was our relationship, how much we care about each other, how much we care about the work and bringing it into the world. There was something grounding in that. It still exists now more than ever before in terms of our relationship and connection so I love that. It was terrifying to step out on my own in that way and break away from something that currently existed in doing something different.

In some ways, I think back on the soap carving. I want to create something different. I want to create something that doesn't exist and have my fingerprint on it. I believe in and loved the work that they're doing, and I still very much support the work that they're doing at the Yale EI Center I talk about it all the time. It's important work to be doing in the world but there is a moment of, how do I make my mark? What do I need to say? What's my voice? It's not just my voice. It’s my voice and my two co-CEOs’ because we came together in a collective voice.

The collective voice is stronger than my voice on its own but it does feel authentic. It's me and I love that. It's worth every bit of risk, moment of fear, moment of doubt, imposter syndrome, and all of those emotions that come along for the ride. It's having the inspiration around the idea and having my voice be stronger than that is what really matters.

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I've had a few people on the show who have been part of the co-founding partnership, what have you. It's amazing how people realize when you find the right partners, it can unlock so much. This myth of like, “I have to go it alone,” even if you do decide to start something on your own, there's always the invisible partners who are there riding alongside you.

They support you if you allow them to bring you up to support you along that journey. When you have good co-founders and people who allow you to challenge yourself and to get out of your box, it's powerful. When you have three people, that makes it even more interesting. I have to say, I've interviewed two people at the same time who are co-founders but three is interesting.

It has worked for us. We each bring different backgrounds, passions and strengths to the table. We make decisions about our business collectively, but then we have certain parts of the business that we take the lead on. It's worked. It allowed us to run a business while also being able to have the balance that we need with families and outside commitments. We came together in 2012 and started talking about the business and it's been a while.

We've had babies along the way. We've had health issues with family members. Some of us have to step out for a couple of months for different issues. We are able to step up and have each other's backs. In a traditional one person at the top scenario, it's way harder to do that. In some ways, we often talk about this. It is unusual and it's highly effective for us right now so I appreciate it.

There's something about it that is maybe a book in its own right. It’s how to make a three-person company work. It’s wild so good for you. Tell me about the buildup. That's a long time to be in business right now, 2012, 2013. What would the early days be like? Besides being in a partnership that's fantastic, tell me about how did you get started? Did you have some peaks and valleys along the way that were like, “I'm not sure if we’re going to make it for the long term?”

It's been a wild ride, especially in more recent months. Who knew all this would be happening? When first we came together, what brought us together was this common interest and passion we all shared around how people have their best days at work more often. We spend so much time at work and not in our lifetimes. We came from really different backgrounds and industries. I liked the aspect that we have different lenses on things.

The singular point that we care about is people and their experience in the workplace, and how to help them have better and inspired performance in work so they feel great about what they do. We came together around that idea, but we didn't come together to say, “We're going to start this business. We got our business plan. We're going to go for some funding and here's what we're going to do.”

We came together around creativity, the output, and the impact that we wanted to have. We spent the first year before we officially incorporated doing a lot of brainstorming, piloting, getting feedback, trying different things. It was fun. We were exploring and experimenting. When we decided, “Let's do this thing,” it's not like the experimenting stopped. We still experiment but it became more of, “What's our business model and how are we going to bring this into the world?” We've evolved a lot over the years. We've tried a lot of different things. We have an advisory board. We've also participated in groups that are business advisory groups.

Our peaks and valleys oftentimes are we hear these great ideas from smart people and we say, “Maybe we should try that. Maybe we should do this.” Sometimes we have to temper that excitement and enthusiasm to say, "Let's look at our business priorities and strategies. What makes the most sense or what experiment do we want to run this year and why?” We’re trying to limit the experiments we run so that we're also clear on how we're moving forward with our business. That's been a way that we've evolved a lot over the years. It's that maturity.

We tend to be drawn by what we're most interested in and curiosity and all of that.

That's great advice for people especially when you have great visionary people who have this excitement around what's possible. It brings us back to something I say to a lot of people, “Expand your vision and narrow your focus.” You can grab onto so many great things in the world, but you have to figure out, what is the one thing that we want to experiment on and see what happens? You can't do them all.

We've grown over the years. We have our headquarter team. We have about ten of us and we're proudly nationally certified women-owned which is important to us. We have an extended team that we pull into different projects for different things. We've grown but one of our company values is to grow with intention. We're not looking for VC funding and trying to explode. We're looking to grow in a way that's thoughtful and also mindful of how it affects everyone on the team, the kind of culture we want to build, and who we want on the team.

I always come back to that thought of small is beautiful. There's an element of when you overstretch your boundaries, then you start to see rips at the seams. It's not that you can't have an impact. Your impact can be massive. By staying small, you're able to have a feeling of intimacy, to be able to feel and touch the things that are happening around you. I love that. It's powerful how that comes together.

As you look around and you say, “We've come to this place where I'm making such an impact in the world, around the people that we're touching, the companies we are working with, and the company we've built.” What are the big lessons you've taken from your journey that you want to share with people?

One lesson that I have anchored in on throughout my life and have embraced more is to give yourself that freedom to explore, experiment and listening to your emotions around that. Often, we want to try something new and we put a lot of pressure around that. If you feel a sense of, “I want to try something but I'm not sure how it's going to turn out and that makes me nervous,” give yourself a month to try it on.

You can say, “I'm going to mentally pretend like I've committed to this and see how that feels for the next two months.” Just do it and say, “I'm going to do this for a month and then check back in and see how it feels. If I decide it's not right, I'm going to not do it.” I love when people free up for themselves and I felt this freedom, but I've also seen it in many of the clients we work with. They free themselves up a bit to try something on that's new and different. Sometimes it’s a whole new business idea or they have something big.

Sometimes it's trying on a new leadership skill or approach that they've not tried before. That can be equally daunting for people like, “I've always been this way and I don't know if I try this other approach if it's going to work. Should I do that? What will people think,” and all this stuff. It can be a powerful way to shift the mindset that frees people up to grow a little and fail a little. If it doesn't work, it's fine.

We've been coming to this language around experiments. It makes me think about it like our lives are like research laboratories. We should continue to see it as, “I'm doing research right now to find out what’s the next thing that I'm going to discover about my life.” That can then be the new thing that is going to come out of it.” I love that thought about an experiment. It doesn't have to be something that's going to be not reversible.

You can take away some of the expectations of what it might be. I was thinking about when I was in school around art and we had art critics. For me, being a sensitive person, they were pretty rough and brutal, to be honest. I'm not going to lie. I left a few of those crying. Here's the thing for me. This idea of getting that tough criticism and feedback paralyzed me from having the freedom to create in ways. I was always worried about what are people gonna say about it as I was working.

It gets in the way. You cannot be creative and be trying something new if you're in the moment worried about what people are going to think, ultimately. It doesn't lend itself to better results. Evaluate after you create. Evaluate in smaller increments or give yourself safe places or safe people that help you evaluate something before you go public with it. There are a lot of ways around it, but that was another key learning for me too and I still do that now. I try to get feedback a lot from folks when I do talks, presentations, workshops or different things or coaching. We get a lot of feedback. I try to get feedback along the way in smaller increments. It's valuable.

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It's so beautiful to hear that because it is something that people are scared of like getting feedback. It is the only way to truly grow, to get that feedback from people, and to be able to not just get it but to receive it.

You got to be ready for it and part of that is who's delivering it, also separating the feedback process from the creation process. Give yourself a chance to create without having to worry about what people are going to say. That's important too.

What else comes to mind? Is there any other thoughts or impact?

An important lesson that I've learned, and this came forward a lot in my work with the Yale EI Center, when I first learned about the importance of emotions, how emotions are receptacles of information for us, that when we feel things, it's telling us something. Instead of seeing emotions as these frightening things that sometimes you can't control, it's what are they telling me and why? If I'm angry about something, that means that some boundaries or some value that's important to me have been crossed.

What does that mean? What's the value that's been crossed and why? If I'm scared or anxious about something, that means it's probably important to me. What's the most important to me about it? It’s looking at emotions as guides, and related to that is inspiration, which can be both a mindset and emotion. Paying attention to what inspires you, what brings those forward, that energy and inspiration, and let that be a guide.

There are points in my career earlier on where I was paying more attention to advice from others or what I thought, maybe expectations I should be doing, and not paying enough attention to my emotions as data. When I started paying more attention to what inspired me truly in my heart, things worked out a lot better for me. That was the lesson I wished I had learned earlier but I'm so glad that I know it now. I like to share it as much as possible so others can learn from that as well.

I'm glad you shared that because that is exactly what we need to hear. We need to hear that message right now and it's so powerful. I can talk about this all day but I want to ask a question that is completely unrelated to what we've been talking about so far. In some ways, it is related because it speaks to who you are and how you think. What is a book that has been important to you that you've read that had an impact on how you think and why?

I won't say our own book, although I have to say, writing a book was a whole thing on its own that was transformational. Putting my heart and soul and ideas out into the world was both terrifying and gratifying. A book that had a huge influence on me very early on was a book that I was introduced to in college at Dartmouth called . It's a book by William Glasser. It's pretty probably outdated at this point but at the time that I read it, I was in one of my psychology classes.

The main premise behind the book is it's around where you have agency of choice and where you don't, and how to create more choice. For me up until that point, I didn't think about things quite like that. I felt like, “I need to do this or I'm going to do this because,” and not, “I'm going to do this because I'm choosing,” or “I'm going to think this way because I'm choosing.” It empowered me to take ownership of not just my actions but of my thoughts and feelings to ask myself the question, “If I'm choosing this mindset about something, is it a choice that I want to make? Is it a choice that I feel proud of? Is it who I want to be?”

I found that that fame came forward a lot when I discovered coaching, which didn't happen until a few years later. That's one of the reasons why coaching as a process was inspiring to me. It is kept forward as a thread because we often say, “A leader's first job is to inspire yourself.” That leadership and inspiration are both a choice. It comes forward in the work that we do now and it's one of the core competencies that we grow now in leaders. It is this idea that we call agency rather than choice, but it's essentially having a choice. It was a great book that transformed my thinking.

I love that you brought this book into the room because first of all, I'd never heard of it. I am going to go check it out. It's ironic because I happened to be reading a book or listening to a book on my phone called Power of Agency by Paul Napper. It's in the same vein as thinking about the importance of the fact that you have a choice. I love this area of thought has been around right now and it's been in my mind, around having the freedom to choose. You have freedom of choice but you sometimes don't give yourself that freedom.

If you're worried about what people are going to think, ultimately it just doesn't lend itself to better results.

You can disempower it yourself and it's hard to see that happening in others. It's hard to feel like that's happening to yourself. It's a not-fun place to be. Having that choice is a way forward.

Allison, this has been such an inspiring time to spend with you. I feel like I found a kindred soul in you.

Thank you, Tony.

I can't thank you enough for coming on and sharing your stories and your insights. I want to let people know where they can find out more information about you.

You can find me on all the social media channels. The way that you find me personally is. If you're going to Twitter or if you're going to , you can find me through that. I also recommend for people to check out my company website and our social media channels, which are . We post a lot on inspiration leadership, effective teaming. We do that a lot on , also on and Instagram. I hope you'll find us. We also have on our actual website, which is . We have a little survey quiz you can take that will help you assess your inspiration levels. When you take it, you can go in and it'll give you some different free resources and tools that you might enjoy as well. Come check that out.

People should go check out the book. I want to take the opportunity to thank you again. I'm so glad that we've had the chance to connect and get to know each other through this.

Thank you. I haven't had a chance to talk about these topics in this way and I enjoyed this conversation.

I also want to thank the readers for coming on the journey with us. I hope you're leaving inspired and ready to go on and take on the big challenges that are in your way right now. That's a wrap. We'll see you soon.

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