The Path Toward Success: Learning From The Collective Moments In Your Journey With Dina Denham Smith

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As life progresses, gradual transformations unfold. These changes are the consequences of all the collective moments experienced along the journey. In this installment, we delve into the fascinating story of Dina Denham Smith, the visionary behind Cognitas, as she recounts her remarkable journey from organizational psychology into the business world. She highlights the difficulties of unlearning certain habits that hindered her path to success. Dina provides a glimpse into her personal life as a mother, describing her decision to leave her job and focus on raising her children, ultimately leading her toward a path of coaching. Additionally, she offers insights into her upcoming book, which is set to be published by Oxford University Press. Don't miss this captivating episode where Tony Martignetti and Dina Denham Smith guide us on the journey to conquer the right challenges in life. 


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The Path Toward Success: Learning From The Collective Moments In Your Journey With Dina Denham Smith

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Dina Denham Smith. Dina is an executive coach to senior leaders at world-leading brands such as Adobe, Netflix, PWC, Dropbox, Stripe, and numerous high-growth companies. The list goes on. A former business executive herself, she's a Founder and CEO of Cognitas. She helps leaders and their teams reach new heights of success.

She is a regular contributor to HBR, Fast Company, and Forbes. She writes about leadership and career success. I follow her articles. They are fantastic. She's also the author of the forthcoming book for Oxford University Press that translates cutting-edge science into practical strategies and tools for managing the uncertainties and increased emotional demands of today’s work world. She's an East Coast transplant who now happily lives in the Bay Area. I am so thrilled and honored to welcome you to The Virtual Campfire, Dina.

Thank you. I am thrilled and honored to be here.

We got the fire started. We are ready to have a great conversation. We are going to sit down and uncover your journey to getting to where you are making such a big impact in the world. You have made a big impact in the world and continue to make an impact, but I want to understand the journey that you took to get there. Are you ready?

I'm ready.

As we do on the show, we uncover people's stories through what's called flashpoints. These are points in your journey that have ignited your gifts into the world. You can share what you are called to share and we will stop along the way and see what themes are showing up and where we want to dig a little deeper. With that, I'm going to turn it over to you and you can start wherever you like.

That is a big invitation.

It sure is, but I know you have some good stories to tell.

I do. I have some I will tell and some I will not. If we think about this idea of flashpoints or almost these inflection points in one's life, probably the first time that I was thinking about what I wanted to be in this world and how I wanted to contribute was at the end of college. I happily tripped through life until that point.

It was senior year. I hadn't visited the career counseling office. I didn't have any plans. I was graduating with a Psych degree, which I loved all of my classes, but then I was like, “Now what?” I went through a pretty intentional process of trying to explore what I want to do next. I had been very focused on neuro-psych, and so I was thinking, “Maybe I want to go to medical school and become a neurologist or a neurosurgeon.”

It was senior year and I did the math on that. I realized that by the time you are out of your residency, you are going to be 36. I thought, “I need to rethink this. I'm going to want more.” I'm going to be further along in more ways by the time I'm 36. I wanted something more dynamic. I went back to the drawing board. I was like, “What can I do with a Psychology degree?” This is literally how I forged my path. I took out a list of, “These are all the things you can do with a Psychology degree.” I started crossing them all out. I was like, “I don't want to be a therapist and I don't want to be a researcher. I don't want to work in community health.”

What was left quite interestingly was Industrial Organizational Psychology. This wasn't completely random because I had an experience earlier that year where I nearly died, which can bring a lot of clarity for people quickly. I wouldn't repeat the experience if I were given the choice, but it did bring me a bunch of gifts and strengths probably earlier than I might have otherwise acquired them. One of those was how we spend our time matters because you have no idea when it's all going to get taken away.

This intersected with work and the fact that we spend so many of our waking hours in these professional pursuits. When I got to the bottom of my list, Industrial Organizational Psychology was left. I thought about this newfound thought around how we spend our time matters. I was like, “This is it.” It was a weird way to get there but these two things came together very fortuitously.

How we spend our time matters.

It set me on this path that I have been on since 1993 in many different chapters, versions, and flavors. It has always come back to this intersection of who we are. What makes us tick? What does success mean? How do we deliver this double bottom line? How do we deliver to our organizations and ourselves at the same time? I believe that they shouldn't be in conflict. We can deliver on both vests when they are not.

This is truly a flashpoint where you have this realization that you are like, “What do I do with this learning?” You come to this realization that even though there are a lot of things that you had to say no to, the thing that you end up with seems to align perfectly with what you wanted to do. The story continues because from there, you stepped in and saw a clear path forward. Before we get much further, I'd have to ask, what were the adults in your life telling you at this point? Were they supportive? Were they like, "You got to figure this out. What were you thinking?" Tell me about the inside story of what's going on.

My parents were both teachers. There was always a strong value around education in my family. I love them both to death but they didn't provide all that much guidance or channeling for me. They were like, “As long as you get great grades and find yourself a scholarship, do what you want.” They supported me, but there wasn't a lot about kids these days and the amount of counseling and advice they received. It cuts both ways. I didn't receive that and I still figured it out and it all worked out. Maybe it would have worked out differently. I'm not sure, but I wasn't getting a lot of input. In a way, it is great. It's like, “This was me. This is what I wanted. I wasn't living out somebody's ideas for me.”

It's almost like you had that time during college years of like, “I'm following what interests me and what was calling me. I will see what happens and I will figure it out.” No one else was giving you this push. You often hear Asian parents say, “You can be a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. Choose one.” Instead, here you had the freedom to choose, but with freedom comes a lot of responsibility to figure out what you do with that freedom. That led you down this path to continue to see what would show up.

VCP 219 | Path Toward Success

At least for, me when I think about my career and next steps, the word that comes to mind for me isn't responsibility necessarily, but opportunity. I love not feeling hemmed into one version of myself or my career. That's true for everybody. Some people know exactly what they want to do and who they want to be, and that works well for them. There are many other people who look at that small percentage of the population and feel like, “I should know what I want to do. What's my calling?” I think about it as a platter of tapas. Isn't it more fun to taste? There are so many possibilities. That's how it felt to me leaving college. I was like, “I will go try this out.” That's still how I feel about what remains of my career. It’s like, “Who knows?” and I love that.

I love this attitude you have because it's something that we need to embrace and a lot of people need to embrace. Sometimes it's challenging, because if you are wired for that, fantastic. Some people are not wired for that. There are those who feel, "This is not responsible of me to be able to embrace that mentality." They need to maybe challenge that belief. Play around and see what shows up. See what speaks to you. Before we go down any more rabbit holes, which I tend to do, I want to get back into your story and find out what happens next. Did you decide to go into this path of Industrial Organizational Psychology? Tell me what happened next. Was there something that happened along the journey that had you challenged or some potential struggles along the way?

I entered a PhD program for Industrial Organizational Psychology and loved it. I had a great experience. Right around the beginning or midway through my second year, I got to my decisions but I realized I didn’t want to do this and I don't want to do that. What's left? I was like, “I don't want to be a professor.” I didn't come into this to be a professor or a researcher. I want to do applied work. I want to be out there in the business world.

As much as I loved my program and respected the professors who were mentoring me so immensely, I decided to leave at the end of my second year. I'd finished my Master's thesis. I had my Master's and went to an MBA program because this was back in the '90s. Not to date myself too terribly. A lot of the things that we take for granted now within organizations around the development of people, the thought is that people like your most amazing resource as opposed to a cog in your machine. That wasn't the case.

I realized that for me to promote and do this work in bigger ways, I need to be able to convince the CFO. I need to be able to make the hard sell with numbers for the “soft stuff.” I was like, “Here I go.” I went off and I got my MBA, and then it's been there that I'm still combining these two things. I'm happy with the way that ultimately worked out.

Like a typical MBA, there are few common passes. I became a management consultant. I had an incredible experience doing management consulting with PWC for a couple of years. I love drinking out of a fire hose. I love working with new people. I love dipping into different organizational cultures. What everybody thinks is normal is just the water they happen to be swimming in.

Having new projects and new challenges, it was there I realized I need to be learning. That is a core value of mine and something I need broadly in my life. I had a great couple of years. I ultimately got hired away by a client. I was hired into a leadership position I had no business being in. While I was with PWC, I ran big projects. I would have a team of 30 to 40 people, but we would come together for six months to do our thing, and then we would be off to the next adventure.

I was hired into a role. I had an organization that was responsible for 80% of the revenue of this relatively well-established but still scaling startup of 80 people. I was so in over my head. I could have used an executive coach. I was thrown into the fire and I felt my way through it. I still probably feel for those direct reports of mine. I learned a ton. I'm now in this chapter of executive coaching and I think back to that time and how that was so valuable too to live what my clients live.

I want to pause for a moment here because there's something about what you shared. I'm reflecting on this idea of fast learning is amazing. When you go through a lot of management consulting, it’s great because you are learning a lot in a very quick amount of time. Sometimes you have to slow down and say, "How do I unlearn some of the things that maybe were not the healthy things that should stick with me? As I progress, those things are not going to be great for a long-term role or a role where I have to manage people for the long term where I'm going to see them not just for six months, but I'm going to see them for the next 3 to 4 years or more.” There's a bit of challenging those beliefs that you started to instill in a prior life.

Always. That unlearning is the bigger challenge for me and most people versus learning. It's very easy to acquire new knowledge and skills, but unlearning the habits where it is now cellularly held is a whole different ball of wax.

It's easy to acquire new knowledge for new skills, but unlearning the habits is challenging.

It becomes so natural or the muscle gets built and you say, “This is how I lead, delegate, and do that.” You then realize, “Why am I not being effective?” I need to think differently about the way I approach those things. I love these insights. Tell me what else happened along this way. Was there anything else or another big flashpoint that's coming along the way that you want to share?

The other big flashpoint is possibly for me as I have two kids. They are now 18 and 14. Unlike many people, there were some challenges during the early years. My first son was born early. Life for me as I had known it came to a grinding halt because he needed to be in the NICU for 4 months, and then he was like the boy in the bubble for the first 9 months after he came home.

I left my job and stayed home. That became my new mission. It was to keep this little being alive. You just do whatever you need to do. I'm not going to go into all the details, but I stayed home for a period of time in order to have our two kids and it was great. I would never change that decision. It was necessary.

Over time, once I knew that my son was okay and we had our daughter, I became increasingly like, “This is not me staying home full-time.” I live in a place that is predominantly full-time moms as opposed to working moms. It's the ZIP code if you will. I was like, “This isn't me.” I had a couple of attempts to get my foot back into the professional game. I was trying to not have it all. I hate that expression, but I was trying to still be very present and there, and then be in a role that was clock in and clock out-ish.

It didn't take me very long to realize that this was the worst use of my time. I now feel as if I am not the best and present mom. I'm not even enjoying my work. That was an interesting experience for me. It's what led me to ultimately rock the boat and be like, “This can't stay. It's not emotionally healthy.” That's when I went back to the drawing board and started thinking, “What is it that you want? What are your gifts? Where do you want to contribute?”

It brought me back to the beginning again. I focused on that intersection of human performance, success, fulfillment, and business outcomes, but I knew I wanted to do it in a slightly different way. That's how I ultimately landed on coaching, this chapter now. I entered a couple of different executive coaching programs and trained in this brand-new skillset that I could layer onto the knowledge and experience that already existed. Bringing together my passions, skills, and strengths in a new way. I opened my business in 2017, and so far I have not looked back.

I want to slow down because there's more that I want to dig into. I love what you shared for a multitude of reasons. I know that it's not easy to share what you shared. The most challenging times of our lives have us asking the hardest questions. When I wrote my first book, Climbing The Right Mountain, there was a sense of, “Am I on the right mountain?” We have to ask that question from time to time. We should all say at some point, “I'm on this path, but is this the right path for me at this point?”

Sometimes you have to look back and do an inventory. Look back and say, “What have I accumulated up to this point?” Maybe think about what I want to use going forward and then begin again from there. Ascend from wherever you are, but don't necessarily always be thinking, “Because I'm on this trajectory that I have committed, I have got to figure out a way to make it work.”

That's a challenging thing to do after you have invested years into a path. I agree. We should all take inventory.

I was thinking about the pandemic for a moment here. I know it's all been overdone. The pandemic is much like birthing a child or having those moments when big things happen in our lives, and we start to reprioritize. You can't go back to life the way it was. It immediately has this moment of like, “Priorities have changed. I have got to think about how I want my life to look now because it won't look the same as it did before.” I hate to say that the pandemic is anything like having a child.

It was a very big collective moment. We are still grappling with the after-effects. I feel like I see it in my clients. I see it out on the roads. It was a trauma.

It shapes us every day. In some ways, it's good. In some ways, it was not an easy thing for us to overcome. It's very traumatic.

Trauma shapes us every day. In some ways, it's good, but some days, it's not easy for us to overcome.

Your point though is well taken, which is let's harvest the good.

Much like you have been good at. You have been good at this, being able to see these moments of like, “What now?” You take that what now and say, “It's not about what now, it's about what's next.” If that resonates with you, let me know but it looks like that to me.

I always find the future exciting.

Speaking of the future, here you are coaching and then you create this company, which is cool. Tell me what is on the horizon. You have got a book coming out. Do you want to share a little bit about that?

I would love to. That's going to be my third baby. This is my first book. I have written a lot of articles over time, but this is an entirely different beast as you well know, but I'm enjoying the process. One of the highlights for me is that I have a co-author. My co-author happens to be somebody who was my best friend when I was in my PhD program for Industrial Organizational Psychology.

She and I go back to ’94 or ‘96, something like that. She has become a full-tenured professor. She went the path, but we still both care about the same things. It's such a wonderful collaboration. What we are doing is marrying the science with the practical, because she's been very much focused on the science. I have been more focused on being that bridge but indexing more on the practical.

The book is about the fact that work has fundamentally changed. There have been a lot of forces, but when I think about the pandemic, it accelerated the future. Hybrid and remote work were coming. The pandemic just hit the fast-forward button on that. Likewise, some other forces have created a shift in what it's like to work and lead today.

The net of it is that some of the skills that can contribute to both performance and well-being are ones that we are all well served to bone up on. They are not taught in MBA programs. They are not taught primarily in leadership development programs. This book is about scientifically proven ways to emotionally upscale so that you can sustain not your performance or your health as you try to create an impact in the world with your role so you can do both. That's the book.

I can't wait. I will be looking for my advanced copy in the mail. I'm looking forward to it. It sounds like it's going to be the book we all need. I'm looking forward to seeing that out on the bookshelves everywhere.

Thank you. Me too. It's a lengthy process. I suspect it will not be on shelves until around this time in 2024.

It's okay. It happens.

The manuscript is due February 1st, 2023 and then we will see how much red pen they break out.

It is interesting. I have talked to quite a few people who have been on the co-author journey. It can be challenging but it's also very rewarding because you get to bounce off ideas. You have someone to be able to call you out on things that don't quite sound right, and it becomes a better book in the grand scheme of things.

We were very careful in the beginning to do what we should all do with the people that we work with, which is like, “Let's set this partnership up for success.” Set some norms and what are your expectations and my expectations, and just clarify like, “How can we best work together?”

We have a question about books, but before we do, I have one question that I want to ask you that has more to do with the journey that you have been on. What is a lesson you have learned about yourself that you'd like to share with the audience that you haven't already shared? Something you have learned about yourself.

One of the overriding lessons for me from my life is there is learning and there are gifts in everything. You might need to look harder for the ones that are there in the hard and challenging times. The strength that you gain when you take a difficult situation and use it to deepen who you are or how you are with other people or serve, it's so profound. We have all faced difficult things. If you have the good fortune to make it to the age of 30, 40, 50, or 67, whatever it may be, you are going to have to hit some big bumps in the road. Statistically speaking, it's quite likely. When you overcome that and you grow from it, it's the best.

It's beautiful the way you captured that. People often say that adversity is your best teacher and it is. It's all about taking the lessons and internalizing and saying, “I see what that taught me and I didn't run from it. I let it move forward from there and internalize that.”

You realize, “I am strong and resilient. I can get through hard stuff.” It's a great sense to have.

Shifting gears to our last question, what are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why?

The first book that came to mind for me, I read it in high school. If somebody on your show has not mentioned this one before, I would be blown away but it's Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. This idea is that we can choose our attitude regardless of the circumstances. It's been such a powerful idea that I have come back to time and time again.

VCP 219 | Path Toward Success

That for me was probably the first book I read. It hit me and it stuck with me for decades. The second book I read was probably ten years ago. It's a book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, a doctor. It is stories of people who have suffered massive brain injuries and had various faculties removed temporarily and their return from that. It's about the incredibly neuroplastic nature of our brains.

Why this book stood out to me so much was this idea that there's always a chance. Our bodies are miraculous. When you get that terrible diagnosis or you are told you can't, don't believe it. There is a possibility. It's not to say that believing will change the course of everybody's life. This book is worth a read if you are looking for hope. I loved it.

It sounds fascinating. I will be putting that on my list. I'm a self-proclaimed possibilitarian which is a word I made up. I believe in possibilities. Anywhere I can see them, I will make them happen.

I do too. This book will speak to you.

This was the best. It’s a great conversation. I loved your insights and the warmth of what you brought to the table here. I appreciate that.

Thank you so much. I enjoyed our conversation too and thank you for the opportunity.

You are not getting off that easy. Before I let you go, I want to make sure that the audience has a chance to know where they can find you, where can they read some of your great articles and when the book comes out, they will have a place to go find that when it does come out.

Thank you. The easiest place is my website. It's I'm on LinkedIn, and those are probably the two best places to find me.

I appreciate it. Thank you again for all that you do and continue to see all the successes that you are going to have as you move your business forward and your book. I'm looking forward to that.

Thank you so much.

Thanks to our audience for coming on the journey. I know you are leaving so inspired and you are taking away some great lessons. That's a wrap.

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