Michele Wucker is a consultant, speaker, strategist, and bestselling author. She is the Founder and CEO of Rhino & Company, a management consulting company that helps decision makers to develop strategies that create new opportunities from clear but under-addressed risks and challenges. Wucker is the author of four books, including YOU ARE WHAT YOU RISK: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World Pegasus Books, which will be available in April 2021. Her third book was the international bestseller, THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore, which China’s leadership has used to frame and communicate its crackdown on financial risk. photo credit: Hal Shipman
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I was born in Kansas City and grew up in the Midwest and Texas. While my family didn’t move as often as, say, a military family, the experience of adapting to new places and cultures and finding new friends definitely shaped me. The United States may be a single country, but the cultural differences among the states can be huge.
Moving from Wisconsin to Texas right before the eighth grade was my first big experience with culture shock. My family made the 20-hour drive with my brother and two sisters and our cat. We slept on fold-out cots the night before school started because our furniture had not arrived yet. Our rabbits arrived by airplane later that week. I came back from my first day of school in tears because I could not understand my teachers with their Texas accents. Of course, by the time I ended up in college four years later I ended up with a twang of my own that made my suitemates laugh.
My high school was very small, with only a dozen or so students in my graduating class. Most students had known each other for many years and many were even related. Being a “Yankee” trying to fit in was not easy, especially since my dad was the school headmaster which made for a whole other reason for kids to tease me. And most kids’ parents could afford the expensive tuition when I had a full scholarship that came with my dad’s job. We couldn’t afford the designer clothes and fancy cars that so many of the other students had.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I’d realized earlier on the power of setting your own expectations. Kids who are good students and high achievers tend to get nudged in certain directions: putting good test scores ahead of having a full, balanced life; going to the “right” schools; pursuing the careers other people think you should, like being a doctor or lawyer. Most young people don’t learn soon enough the power of considering what your purpose is on this earth beyond simply getting other people’s approval. I was probably well into my thirties before I was aware of the importance (or even existence) of mentoring.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
The biggest problem in the risk field is not so many recommendations that are bad per se, but rather are incomplete. Especially since the 2007-09 Great Financial Crisis, companies and boards spend a lot more time making lists of risks and reviewing them. That is an important first step, but too often it’s just a box-checking exercise. And it’s only part of good risk management, which should include reviewing your own reactions and your ability to make smart decisions and act on them. Companies are starting to pay more attention to the way they approach and respond to risk, which is a good thing. Companies and leaders are defined, perhaps more than anything else, by the risk decisions they make and why.
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?
In the 1990s, I was working a full-time job writing about emerging markets debt, commuting from Harlem to Jersey City, trying to manage the end of a relationship, and working on my first book. I didn’t leave room to take care of myself or have fun. It took getting very sick to change my habits. In 1995, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and had to take a six-week medical leave from work. I now know that at least some of the symptoms were from celiac disease that was not diagnosed until 2010.
I had to start to pay attention to not over-tiring myself, to focusing on what was most important to me and to stop reaching for the things that made me feel safe because they were what I was “supposed” to do. When I came back from medical leave, I quit my finance job to work full time on finishing my book. I understood that I could check all of the boxes of what was expected of me, but if I did not have my health I would lose it all. And I understood that my health depended on me using my talents and experiences to the fullest.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I have learned to think bigger and longer-term and to distinguish tasks from goals. When I focus on the big picture, it keeps me from getting distracted by what the late Stephen Covey calls “urgent but unimportant” tasks. When I think of a major goal, I ask what tasks will get me there, who can help me to reach it, and how well I am doing in my progress toward that goal. I also keep a running list of big goals and daily, weekly, and monthly tasks –as both “to-do” and “done” lists.
What is your morning routine?
It depends on the time of year. My dog, Billie, usually wakes me up a bit before I am ready and lets me how excited she is that it is one of her two favorite times of day: MEALTIME! I stumble into the kitchen, fill up the food toy I use to keep her from eating too fast, then go back to bed and slowly wake up the rest of the way until she is done with breakfast. In summer, when it gets light super early, we go out for a walk along Lake Michigan as soon as I am fully awake. In winter, when it doesn’t get light until after 7 am, I have my coffee and breakfast first and wait for the sun to come up before we take our walk. The fresh air, exercise, and view of the lake, and sound of the waves are exactly the right way to get the day going. When the weather is good we take a full hour.
I try to do writing, thinking, and other creative work in the morning, when I am most focused. That means I shoot for calls and meetings in the afternoons, though time differences with Europe and Asia sometimes make that hard. So even if I cannot keep every morning free, I limit the number of days I have calls.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I’ve adopted my own advice about identifying the big obvious problems in my life and prioritizing them. In other words, I ask myself: What’s your gray rhino? What are you doing about it? Is it working? If not, what do you need to do differently? I remind myself how easy it is to push chronic, obvious challenges out of my mind because I am a human being –and that there is no shame in that vulnerability but rather power in recognizing it and counteracting it.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I make sure to get enough sleep and take breaks during the day. Billie earns her kibble by letting me know if I have been sitting in front of the computer for too long! And she’s usually right that it’s time to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. I also set aside big chunks of time for intense brain work, like book or article writing, leaving whole days when I do not take calls or have meetings. For me, the hardest part of writing and creative work is getting “in the zone.” Once I’m there, I’m very productive so have learned to be very protective of the space I need. My friends deserve an award for being so understanding when I go underwater for long stretches of time.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Aimé Césaire’s play La tragédie du roi Christophe, was the beginning of my fascination with Haiti, which firmly set the direction of my life and of my work as a writer. Césaire opened that book with a scene in which two roosters in a cockfight were named for the leaders of the Haitian revolution. The cockfight metaphor became central to my first book, Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola. As I was writing about the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the 1990s, the leaders of both countries both used the rooster as their political symbols. I also drew on the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s argument in his famous essay, “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight,” which described the blood sport as a shadow play in which the gamecocks were stand-ins for human conflict. I use it to describe nationalism and immigrant scapegoating.
I ended up living in the Dominican Republic in the late 1980s and early 1990s so that I could go to Haiti while I was learning Spanish. Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch) was one of the books I read in translation that made me want to learn Spanish well enough to read it in the original. The Argentinian author’s non-linear approach to the plot –we’re meant to be able to read the book in different orders— was formative in the way it pushed me to think in systems and view problems from different angles.
Finally, Charles Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics, and Crashes influenced my thinking when I was a financial journalist writing about emerging markets debt, and again and again later on as I thought and wrote about debt dynamics and financial crises in the United States and Europe.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“Let be be the finale of seem” is a line from a Wallace Stevens poem that is a good reminder of how far short of reality appearances may fall. It’s about authenticity, seeing things as they really are, and not being seduced by illusions. The line also ties into something a friend told me many years ago, trying to get me to slow down: “More being, less doing.” That’s not an easy one for me. No matter how much I think I have internalized the message, I still have to keep reminding myself to slow down.