Richard Kasperowski is an author, teacher, speaker, and coach focused on team building and high-performance teams. He leads clients in building great teams that get great results using the Core Protocols, Agile, and Open Space Technology. Kasperowski is the author of two books, High-Performance Teams: The Foundations and The Core Protocols: A Guide to Greatness, as well as the forthcoming book High-Performance Teams: Core Protocols for Psychological Safety and Emotional Intelligence.
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 a small town just outside Springfield, Massachusetts. My next-door neighbor, Emil Masi, was a math and computer teacher in the Springfield high schools. He had a bunch of gear in his basement: terminals, computers, modems, a printer. Emil kind of added me on as his sixth (!) child, giving me free access to the basement and all the gear. He took me to the programming class he taught at the local community college. I was a 14-year-old kid taking a college-level intro to programming course—it was awesome! I spent hours every day in Emil’s basement coding and playing with the computers. I even had superpower privileges on the city’s VAX—he gave me an admin account to make sure nothing held me back! Emil was an important mentor and a positive influence on me.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Well, I was introverted and shy as a kid (and I guess I still am as an adult, despite all the public speaking I do). I was great at quiet solo activities: reading, coding, playing the piano. I enjoyed that self-time, and I still enjoy that kind of self-time.
I wish that I understood more about interpersonal relationships when I was younger. I wish I had had some training or mentoring in how to relate well with others. It took me until much later in my life, like when I was 40 years old before I had what I’d call adequate skill in connecting with people and having great relationships.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I’m not sure about bad recommendations, but there is a bad practice that really stands out to me: individual objectives, individuals performance reviews, and individual incentives at work.
Remember that idea that team equals product? To be able to build an awesome product, you need an awesome team. But when you give people individual goals and incentives, they learn to succeed by competing against each other. They are incentivized to be individuals, not teammates.
On the other hand, if you want a great team—people connecting with their full creativity, their full hearts and minds—then reward them for being a great team. I model this in my course on Agile software development at Harvard by rewarding team behavior: in the team project, there is a team grade—not an individual grade. We amplify the creative ability of the teams in the course by rewarding each team as a unit. Everybody on the team gets the same grade for the work that they do on the team project. A side effect of this is that when there are team dynamics problems, they learn to solve those problems quickly. They end up with great teams that deliver great products.
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?
Probably the darkest time for me was the break-up of my first marriage. The thing that led to it was that I had changed as a person. When we met, I was an immature 19-year old. The foundation of our relationship was my immaturity. Through the work I was doing—through the passions, I was pursuing—I learned so much about growth mindset, emotional skill, and self-awareness. I grew more and more open to new ideas, new ways of thinking. My growth and maturity ironically led to us splitting up—I was indeed a different person.
I spent six months to a year contemplating what I wanted to do that next. It led to a pivot in my life, a pivot in my career. All that growth mindset, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence stuff—my new passions—it turns out that they were my calling. Following that passion, my current work is all about sharing these passions with others. I love helping people grow and build their self-awareness, teaching them how to share how they’re feeling with each other and how to understand what’s most important to them—what their passion is. So they can follow that passion, both individually and with others, so we can all be our most amazing creative selves.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I think the most important thing in the modest success I’ve had is following my passion: knowing what’s important to me, aligning things in my life with what’s important to me, and doing those things. I don’t do something because I think it will make money; I do the things I love to do, and sometimes, as a nice side effect, people pay me money for it. I guess I’m pretty fortunate.
For example, I had a passion for playing with computers when I was a kid, and that became the first part of my work life: writing code, developing apps, having fun working with computers. Today, I write and publish a blog for fun, just to share ideas with people, and it turns out that people like it. My podcast began as a fun way to share the recording of a talk I did—a friend requested the recording. It turned into a 50+ episode series of interviews with interesting people.
And these days, the passions I’m following—the things I’m doing for fun—include all the teaching, consulting, and speaking work that I do, helping people be their best selves, and working on the best teams of their lives. More fun in my life (more passion) includes practicing Spanish so I can connect with more people. And playing music and singing: a day without making music is like a day without breathing!
Just follow your passion. Everything else will come together and work itself out.
What is your morning routine?
I typically wake up around 7:00 these days. The first thing I do after getting out of bed is to make a cup of mint tea. (Yep, mint tea, not black tea or coffee. I try to optimize my caffeine consumption—7:00 is way too early for the first caffeine of the day.) My next step is to practice yoga: if I don’t do it right away, I probably won’t do it at all.
After yoga, I make a rough plan for the day on my kanban board, and I start the Pomodoro timer. The first Pomodoro involves connecting with people through email, Slack, Facebook, Instagram, etc. The second Pomodoro is aimed at something on the day’s plan: maybe some writing, preparing for a class or practicing Spanish. In between Pomodoros, I’ll play a song on guitar or make a cup of tea or coffee. After the third Pomodoro, I take the morning’s first long break, which is usually a walk through the neighborhood with my wife. As we walk, we share plans, ideas, and whims with each other. We go outside, enjoy the fresh air and the change of view. We use our bodies and connect with each other while we walk. Every walk together is an important part of the day.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I’d have to say it’s my yoga practice. I owe my yoga practice to my wife. When we first met, she took me on a Saturday morning yoga date. It was so hard! I didn’t know there was a thing called “child’s pose” and that it was OK to take a break anytime you want. I thought I had to be macho and do all the poses to impress her. I was exhausted, and my body was sore for days! But I kept doing it—we continue practicing yoga together, five days a week. I’ve learned fundamental skills from yoga, like how to breathe and how to stand correctly. And the strength and flexibility I’ve gained—my body just feels good; nothing is tight or cranky. It’s a moving meditation, clearing the clutter from my body and mind. Having cleared that clutter, I’m ready to be creative and follow my passion for all the other things I love to do.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Every Monday morning, I set a few goals big goals for the week. I put them in the “big goals for the week” column on my kanban board. And then every morning, I make a plan for the day, chipping away at a couple of those big goals. I put that daily plan in the “to do” column on the kanban board, and I focus on those goals throughout the rest of the day. I work in standard Pomodoro rhythm: three 30-minute focus cycles followed by a long break. During the short breaks, I stand up, walk around, and do something: make tea, play a song on guitar, whatever. During the long breaks, I might take a walk with my wife, dance, or perform a short concert for myself on piano and voice. ☺
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
This is such a hard question to answer. I just looked through the list of all the books I’ve read in the last 15 or 20 years (thank you, Amazon!). There are so many books that have influenced me.
There is one book that stands out the most: Software for Your Head by Jim McCarthy and Michele McCarthy. It’s kind of like an instruction manual for how to have a great team. It turns out that to have a great team, you have to be a great self. So as a side effect, it’s a how-to guide for how to be an amazing individual.
Sharing this book’s ideas with people—how to cultivate the best in yourself and everyone you care about the most—has become my life work.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“Team == product”
That’s a quote from the McCarthys. The idea is that when you look at any artifact, the quality of the artifact exactly expresses the quality of the team that created it. The team’s connectedness, creativity, and genius—all of these are realized in the connectedness, creativity, and genius of their product. If you want to have an awesome product—or an awesome creation of any kind—you need to have a great team-building it.