Judy Ryan is an author, columnist, consultant, trainer, coach, keynote presenter, and systems developer and integrator. She is the CEO of LifeWork Systems, a performance management company specializing in culture transformation. Ryan is responsible for creating a fully scalable, distributive, digital platform, and support processes within a culture implementation framework.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in the now infamous Ferguson Missouri. I had what appeared to be an all-American, middle-class family. We were raised Catholic and my parents stayed together. I had no overt abuse of any kind and no traditionally traumatic experiences. However, my parents were extremely right-wing conservatives. They held John Birch Society meetings in our home, supported segregationist Barry Goldwater, were opposed to the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), and as fairly young Catholic children, we were tasked with picketing abortion clinics. Like many families in the 60s, we were told how to think, feel, and act. There was a relentless certainty to it and it was not acceptable to think outside of the parental belief system.
I think this ultimately led to me discovering and participating in the work of Adler’s ‘individual psychology’. In some ways, not having overt abuse helped me see subtle abuse. I learned in my 20s that one condition every person must experience is to feel seen and heard and to have one’s ideas and differences shared and accepted. Without this, I suffered significant anxiety and depression. I came to see that the very fabric of our cultures in most conventional homes, schools, churches, workplaces and more, is basically predicated on a top-down, power-over, power-under dynamic that sets many people up to experience a sense of shame and inferiority.
Adler’s psychology model (the basis for all my work) counters this so that people recognize the need to dismantle damaging norms and replace them with conditions and conversations in which people become confident, resilient and collaborative. Once I was part of promoting this work in many settings, my passion for my work surfaced and my healing began. I have never lost this passion and I am never tired of seeing what an incredibly powerful model it is.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I think it would have been great to have understood (and been raised in a family that understood) the conditions needed to create open-hearted, confident, inductive-reasoning, agile people who are able to take reasonable risks and flex in either leading or following as needed.
I think many people judge themselves harshly when they don’t understand what has caused dysfunction and fear in them. They think it should look like terrible things like living with an alcoholic or being sexually abused, but it need not. They often become self-doubting and self-critical. One of my most popular articles is one called ‘You Make Sense and Deserve Compassion’. I think this popularity reflects that too many people fear they don’t make sense and are just wrong.
So much potential is wasted in individuals and groups and damage done and remains within many individuals and organizations. I think I have had to work hard to heal from not only the initial experiences I (and many others) went through and the impacts of this are long-lasting. From a faulty foundation, many people tolerate and even invite conditions they were raised on in marriages and workplace dynamics. It’s as if people cease to expect a truly healthy dynamic to exist or do not recognize the significance of it when they see such an outcome. They attribute it to other things such as wealth, or looks, etc.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Most people inadvertently base their human systems (how people are taught and also expected to think, feel, speak and act) on 4 widely accepted control models: Autocratic (policing, power-over and threats, subtle or overt), Incentives (dangling carrots), Judgments (praising [“Go out and make me proud”] or criticizing [“I’m disappointed in you.”]) and Pampering/Spoiling (enabling, over-compensating, hovering, exempting).
These are all extrinsic motivation practices and are based on fearful and limiting beliefs about people. They weaken intrinsic or internal motivation and prevent the development of people into self-leadership instead. When behavior is then subpar in reaction, this set of circumstances reinforces the notion that people are limited and more control is needed! Everything (every tool, policy, process, operation) built on top of control models becomes ineffective and even counter-productive and all practices become toxic when built upon these.
That’s why my most challenging job is what Adler called ‘Spitting in Your Soup’. This is a phrase to describe the need to frame things thought to be wholesome and show them as unhealthy, distasteful.
The bad recommendations are when people communicate their lack of awareness or even their endorsement for continuing the status quo (control) and not realizing every societal ill is coming from conditions that activate what Adler calls ‘Inferiority Complex’. That’s why helping leaders learn something they ‘don’t know that they don’t know’ is our greatest challenge. It’s the same stuff my parents ‘didn’t know they didn’t know’ that hurt me so much. Ultimately this is a faulty foundation. This quote sums it up:
“Change blindness in the world of facts and knowledge is a problem. Sometimes we are exposed to new facts and simply filter them out. But more often we have to go out of our way in order to learn something new. Our blindness is not a failure to see the new fact; it’s a failure to see that the facts in our minds have the potential to be out-of-date at all.”
― Samuel Arbesman, Author
The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
As a result of my conditioning, I ended up in a dysfunctional marriage in which I failed to feel healthy belonging and significance. Because I was not super confident or clear in all the impacts my experiences growing up had on me, I suffered pretty severe anxiety and depression, and confusion.
I had been conditioned to choose and stay in bad relationships and often I did not recognize how they lacked support or empowerment I needed. I would say getting divorced (after 20 years) and taking my work (PT up until 1998) to FT put me in the healthiest and most healing of circumstances.
My passion is whenever I’m helping others who may feel they don’t understand their pain (I was not being beaten or living with a drug addict) or recognize the way out and are ready for one. That’s why my mission is ‘To Create a World in Which All People Love Their Lives’ is so crucial to me. To Create a world is to create the conditions and conversations needed for wellbeing and emotional intelligence and compassionate support so that people LOVE their lives and love THEIR lives; something I felt I had to fight for in my own life.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
More and more, it has been my commitment to trust my intuition and live into my temperament and core values. To be my own best friend. I only do things that feel right for me and I avoid doing what others say are helpful activities when I recognize ‘they are not healthy for me’. This can be a challenge because of how I was raised.
Also, while I don’t believe it’s magic when I daily focus on my purpose, core values, and visions, the visions seem to find a way to me. For example, when I raised my 5 kids in the model I now promote, I became an unconventional parent that I loved being and saw wellness in my children’s self-esteem that had been missing in me.
Because I did this model without my neighbors or teachers or friends really understanding it, I often felt alone in it. So, I wrote one of my visions as working within education and families simultaneously. That led to what felt like miracles. To date, we have been awarded (as a for-profit) multi-year, multi-school $300K and $800K projects. These both fell into my lap and had barely any time between asking for the work and being given it. We won an award for innovation in one such school reform project because our model was so unconventional.
We brought together, parents, teachers, school administrators, students, and a team from the neighborhood ALL simultaneously to learn a common set of concepts, language, and tools. It seems that whenever I capture in writing a vision that aligns with my purpose, values, and visions, it is more likely to occur than not. And these seem to keep on giving. We just got a new client that has among its 19 work areas: 2 pre-schools and a K-12 school. Also, at this time, I have been requested to meet for the 3rd time with the Build-A-Bear organization who is considering diversification into new profit centers called Build-a-Healthy-Family and Build-a-Healthy-School. They are positioned globally which fits with a recent vision of ours to ‘Become a $35M Global Company Through Partnerships with Innovative Thought Leaders and Change Agents Worldwide’.
What is your morning routine?
I have always been an early riser (6:00 or 6:30 am) and have pretty high energy. I pray two main prayers: “Please send to me those people who are hungering for my model at this time.” I know this work is not yet for everyone and it’s a challenge to get the concepts out there because people think they’ve heard everything already. And I also pray, “Lord, release me from the need for love, approval, and acceptance from others.” I know that when I’m too attached to the latter, it interferes with my authenticity and makes me transactional.
I live near a big lake and park complex with many trails. During the warmer months, I walk a lot in nature, and in the winter I mall-walk.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I often employ coaches of my own. I think all people need to have support, encouragement and to be aided in self-awareness and social-awareness. I often say to my coach, “How could I not see this?! I teach this stuff!” I also try to refrain from seeking to fix, convert, heal, or change people. I also search out information on innovations and trends.
I also write and speak in public forums. I am a published author and write two columns (over 200 published articles at this time).
Ironically, the model I use for culture is now being described as the most effective within many current trends such as agile, diversity and inclusion, digital transformation, trauma-informed, globalization, gig, and aligns with the Teal organizational model (the newest in culture evolution).
When I learned of Adler’s approach, I said in the mid-80s, “He is way ahead of his time.” What I could see is that to understand people as he does requires we relinquish our existing power structure. Most people don’t want to do this. Last year I read a book about his work (called ‘The Courage to Be Disliked’) and the two Japanese authors said in the forward of the book that Adler was at least 100 years ahead of his time. He would be 30 today if you take his birth year and project it forward 100 years.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
My main strategy is “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no!” I watch to make sure I’m loving my life (per my mission which also applies to me) and I don’t do things that impede my ability to love my life. Sometimes that means I do less work; sometimes more but it comes from inspiration, not “shoulds.”
I believe when we do some version of ‘follow my bliss’ our life is very different than when we think we “have to” do things. My youngest (who lived at home at the time) said to me once, “I wish I had your work ethic.” I said, “You do.” She said, “Where?” I said, “You stay up all night playing video games.” She said, “But that’s just fun!” I replied, “When you do what you love to do, work does not feel like work. The reason I don’t watch the clock and can often work long hours is because the joy of what I do puts me in the zone.” I encourage all my kids to also ‘create the world they can to love their lives’.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
I read a lot of books to support my profession that is on business, sociology, and psychology and I also read a lot of different kinds of books I enjoy personally on a wide range of topics. I could name so many but my top three favorite books that influence my work are:
Of all the great business books I have read, this is one of my top favorites (and, no this book is not about hot-tubbing!) In it, Lencioni describes a value-based approach for doing business in which you immediately jump in with a prospect as if you are already their service provider while being real with them about what you know and don’t know. Using a clever story, Lencioni illustrates how it’s possible to charge premium prices because providing copious value is evident immediately to your clients in the style and volume of service you offer them from the moment you meet them.
This book is one of my favorites on workplace culture. In it, CEO Tony Hsieh outlined many of the practical ways he and his team at Zappos have implemented changes to reflect their mission to “create a wow experience through service.”
This book is very much aligned with our work. It is about how we unconsciously scare one another in ways that cause disconnection and diminish our ability to access our individual and collective wisdom. When we undo this pattern, we have brilliant teams.
These books all focus on creating the conditions and conversations that are required in any organization for people to stop struggling and find healthy belonging and significance in themselves and each other. When this happens, people are much more interested in being highly engaged, emotionally intelligent, innovative, and able to function on agile, cross-functional teams. This is crucial to keep up with today’s trends and conditions related to complexity, speed of change, globalization, diversity and inclusion, and innovative change.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
I love quotes and collect quotes. I put at least one quote on all my published articles (over 200 to date). I pepper them into presentations and online training modules. I would say these are a few of my favorites:
“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” ― Fred Rogers
“The choice between love and fear is made every moment in our hearts and minds. That is where the peace process begins. Without peace within, peace in the world is an empty wish. Like love, peace is extended. It cannot be brought from the world to the heart. It must be brought from each heart to another, and thus to all mankind.” ― Paul Ferrini