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This episode features an interview with author, acrobat and entrepreneur Robin Zander as he discusses the importance of bravery and courage and the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on various marginalized communities. Robin discusses what he learned from creating a video where he returned to his middle school and how the painful experiences in his past have made him the leader that he is today. He also reveals the work that he is doing to develop his voice and how taking singing lessons is helping him embrace his fears.—
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
ROBIN ZANDER: Right now I have a lot of projects, a lot of physical, emotional pursuits that have very concrete goals. As an acrobat, I'm pursuing a single arm handstand, a one arm 60 second handstand. And that is the single hardest physical athletic endeavor I have ever attempted. And I'll get it in the next couple of years if I practice every day and I have been.
With voice, it's held pretty loosely. I think the thing that has changed and is continuing to change is falling in love with the sound of my own voice, learning what it means to sound like myself and enjoy that sensation. For me, it's the journey of this thing that has so long been anathema, has so long been scary to become more familiar. That's the gift.
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DOUG FORESTA: The next cohort begins on July 25th. The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advised top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now, onto the episode.
Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. Today's episode features a conversation between Jennifer and Robin Zander. Let me just first say before I go on a little bit about Robin and who he is. Robin actually was one of the first guests on The Will to Change. And if you haven't heard this episode, I encourage you to go back to episode 15, reinventing work, dynamic ways of working, learning, and collaborating for emergent organizations. It aired originally in September of 2017. So a great conversation and a nice companion to this conversation.
Let me say a little bit about Robin. He is an entrepreneur strategist, bestselling author and acrobat, and his background is in everything from management consulting to the circus. He's the founder and CEO of Zander Media, a creative shop that makes irresistible explainer videos. He's also the executive director of Responsive Conference, an annual industry event about the future of work, and the author of the book's Responsive: What It Takes to Create a Thriving Organization and How to Do a handstand, which is a national bestseller in Japan.
In this episode, Robin and Jennifer discuss a wide ranging topics, but Robin talks about a documentary series that he created, including where he goes back to his middle school and revisits some of the painful memories and how that made him into the leader that he is today. Robin also shares details about the work that he's doing on his voice and learning how to, as he says, fall in love with the sound of his own voice and how he's using singing lessons to accomplish that.
Robin and Jennifer also discuss the importance of leaning into fear and facing those things that scare us and the importance of resilience and courage and bravery. So all this and more, and now onto the conversation.
JENNIFER BROWN: Robin, welcome back to The Will to Change.
ROBIN ZANDER: Thank you, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: We were just reminiscing about, you were one of the first voices that I had on The Will to Change back in 2017.
ROBIN ZANDER: Episode 15.
JENNIFER BROWN: Episode 15, and now we're up to 220.
ROBIN ZANDER: Congratulations.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. And to you as well, which we're going to talk about all of your growth and evolution, and it's been amazing to see your transformation. And also I was noticing and watching some of your video footage and the projects that you've been working on. You've really gone deep in the personal disclosure of who you really are, your past, the context, the struggles that you've had that you're still working on, how you work on them. I just appreciate all of that. It's something that I'm often encouraged to kind of take my teacher hat off and my expert hat off and really get very personal.
And I think it's really hard to do that, particularly when you're always in a mode of teaching like I have been for a really long time. But you and I actually have some things, I don't know if it's in common, but some common threads that I think we can explore together as our audience gets to know you five years later, which is like a lifetime, especially these five years.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah, really.
JENNIFER BROWN: Really. Why don't you acquaint our audience with who you are, how we know each other if you'd like, and how we originally met and collaborated maybe.
ROBIN ZANDER: Sure. Yeah. My memory of how we met was an upscale restaurant in Manhattan. I was the first employee for an EdTech company run by a mutual friend, Vivian Ming, who was actually episode number one on The Will to Change Podcast.
JENNIFER BROWN: That's right.
ROBIN ZANDER: I was Vivian's first employee at SoCo, grew SoCo to something like 10 or 15 employees in 18 months, bootstrapped off of the back of her speaking fees and would just kind of follow her around and pick up the sparks that she threw off as she walks through the world. And you had a meeting with her at this restaurant. I was just a tag along man in the room catching sparks. And we kind of caught each other's eye, exchanged a few sentences and I followed up and we've been friends ever since.
But I was really struck by the authenticity, the willingness to say things that, right, and this was whatever, 2014, quite a different world, say things that were not PC, that were your truths, whether they were commonly accepted truths or not, whether they were supposed to be spoken aloud. And yeah, it's been a journey for both of us.
I've looked to you as I've built Zander Media in a lot of ways where I'm so comfortable these days being the front man, being somebody who shares my personal story, but also with certain domains there are certain things that I don't want to talk about things that infringe on the privacy of my family, for example. And I see you lending that balance as well. Your organization is named after you, but it has grown to be so much more than just who Jennifer Brown herself is.I think that's a really interesting path to walk.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it is. It's a threading of the needle every day and you just mentioned family and you're right. As we delve into the personal, inevitably it leads to those relationships and what was hard about them and also what was wonderful about them. And yeah, I go into that a little bit in the docu-series that we just released, Robin, which you know about, and we did it in four parts.
But the first part is about my personal journey, my young years and who I was as a youngster as far as I can recall it. I find it hard to really accurately obviously, like who can really see back to that kid, see how she felt, see what she wanted. I had very strong parents that had a lot of strong ideas about what I was going to be, and that has actually equipped me, however I feel about it, it has equipped me to endure a really tough schedule, like have a lot of stamina, a lot of high bar for myself and my performance and also bravery and courage that comes from being shoved out on the stage constantly.
And you're shaking your head because for those of who are just listening on audio, Robin and I share a performance background, albeit in different respects, but yeah, that resilience that comes from that stagecraft and also the liberation of what the stage really represents for you and me and I would love to talk about that a little bit too.
But okay, so pause. Then Robin produces something called The Responsive Conference and Responsive was this neat group of people that were from different domains, like leadership development and agile and tech and IT, and a little DEI, but not a lot because back then, it wasn't as much of a priority, although you always programmed it in, which I appreciated and I was usually a part of on the stage. But it was really this confluence of talking about the future of work before the pandemic. We were having these conversations a long time ago relatively and sort of re dreaming what was broken about this system and how do we get here and why hasn't it changed and been updated.
I remember Aaron Dignan, one of my clearest memories, he put the org chart up in front of the group and he asked us all, it was a huge, as you can imagine, a pyramid with lots of little boxes. He said, "What year is this from?" And we said, "Oh, maybe 1980," whatever. He's like "1920."
ROBIN ZANDER: I remember. Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: And we are still in this structure. So many light bulbs went off that connected so many dots for me of how dissatisfied I had been, both as an employee and then at learning about and studying the future of work and what it could be and all the things that needed to change, it just really gave me a home for that conversation. I was very grateful to you for that. And I just want to touch base quickly on what's happening with the responsive community, what's being worked on, talked about, is there anything coming out that we can watch to keep track of that dialogue?
ROBIN ZANDER: Totally. Yeah. So yes, yes, and yes. The organization is still alive and well. It's responsive.org if people want to investigate. And the core premise of Responsive as a manifesto, which was written by six people, you mentioned Aaron Dignan, founder of The Ready and author of Brave New Work, which is a great read about the future of work written pre-pandemic, is that the rate of change is speeding up. The rate of change is accelerating. And that as a core premise for a movement about how we work in the 21st century and beyond really resonated with me.
And so I decided to with no conference experience, had never really been to a business conference, not to mention run one, a self-taught circus performer that I'm going to go put on a conference and figure it out as we went because I wanted to learn. We obviously paused the conference in 2020. We'll bring it back in 2023. September 202, we'll have another in person gathering of several hundred of sort of the world's best and most thoughtful. For me, it's a space, it's a physical space for transformation to take place for the individuals. We just happen to use the context of work as the excuse as the modality to help people become more of who they want to be in work.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that.
ROBIN ZANDER: But in the meantime, I founded a video production and media agencies, Zander Media, which is my day job, my current gig as I joke in late 2018. And the Zander Media, along with the team behind Responsive Conference, produced a documentary series. Our first episode for the documentary series on parenthood at work, which was a thematic piece in our 2019 conference, which pandemic just accelerated all of the trends that were already happening. One of those was, what does it mean to be a caregiver? What does it mean to be somebody who is a working professional/person who is looking after whether that's parents or children or otherwise. And so that documentary episode is going to be releasing free on YouTube on August 1st, 2022.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh. Good timing. We'll share that in the show notes, but I can't wait to see that. And you talk about ahead of time, again, there's been many communities that have been, I think questioning a lot of things for a long time and it took a pandemic, as we say somewhat facetiously, but it really did. It took everything that happened in 2020 to really jar people awake and realize that the systems we've built do not sustain us, all of us. They don't know how to. And we've been with our head in the sands continuing to replicate the brokenness of the past and inflict that on humans that deserve better.
And it's heartbreaking that it took what it took and people who listen to Will to Change know I often think about and quote that the millions of women, for example, that were lost from the workforce in 2020, 2021 setting us back generations from a representation standpoint. And I actually don't know with the current sort of war for talent, I don't know how those numbers have changed, but I do remember realizing that means the system had not been redesigned to optimize for all of us and all of who we are. And the more current statistics around Black and brown talent saying, "Hey, I don't want to return to an office where I found it to be a toxic environment and I couldn't thrive." And so, we really need to take the right lessons from what we've been through and not let the status quo return. But really challenge ourselves to say, "Okay. Now is the time. We have the opportunity to really fix it, to redraw this, to bring different voices to the table, to design it with those voices included and advising." Because it's overdue and we can't afford another... more pain in the workplace. It's already excruciating enough. And I know senior leaders, we talk about this a lot, Robin, on the podcast, but the pressure that leaders are under to really change quickly and at a pace that is uncomfortable for all of us. We are all learning a new language.
We are all having to show up and almost break our own rules of our own leadership in terms of what we've learned, what we've been told, what's been accepted, what's been encouraged, what's been normalized. It's challenging for all of us, but it's especially challenging, I think for certain generations and certain identities that haven't had to grapple with a lot of this before from a lived experience perspective or a generational perspective. And so it's just a really interesting time.
And so I think your voice is the time for you and for all of your story, which I want you to go into is so much now. When I think of you learning your diversity story, learning all the layers that make who you are is I think part of the joy of this work of discovery, what's beyond what I can perceive is incredible. And I carry it with me and I carry your story with me too. And I learned even more about you from your video series. So let's rewind to our young selves and tell... you made a video of returning to your middle school that I think a lot of people probably found excruciating to watch, but also-
ROBIN ZANDER: ... Oh yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Cathartic.
ROBIN ZANDER: It sent shivers down my spine. Yeah. 100%.
JENNIFER BROWN: How did that get made? And tell us how it felt, what you learned, reflections?
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah. So that was just over a year ago. In August 2020, I moved back closer to my hometown. Early in pandemic, I was doing things like bringing my parents groceries, wanted to move in with my then partner. And so we moved to a house nearby to my folks and also nearby to my high school and middle school, maybe 20 minutes, 30 minutes away. And I don't remember what it was in, I think it was February 2021, that inspired me to go back to my middle school. But something about maybe a session in therapy or something that I... starting at the start of January 2021, I was writing every day. And I've always had a pretty robust writing practice, whether that's writing books, like my book, Responsive, or just for myself, for the process of introspection. And I think now that I... I haven't thought of this in a year, but it was from journaling.
There was a like, "Oh, yeah. Who was I in fifth, sixth, seventh grade?" And from there, where was I geographically? And it just clicked, "Oh my gosh, that's 20 minutes from here. That's so nearby." And it's interesting. You talk about having an unclear memory or a little, not sure who you were at such a young age. I don't remember exactly who I was at 22. I remember exactly what it feels like to be in from third grade to seventh grade, I know exactly who I was year-to-year, because those were such... emotions create memories. Emotions create habits, as my teacher and mentor BJ Fogg says. And they also create memories, right? Whether those are accurate or not, and we can... right? Memory is fallible, of course. But from third grade until the end of middle school, I was depressed, beat up a lot.
I was the sensitive kid in a hick town. And it was, I'm now that the world has opened back up again and, or started to, and people are putting on conferences again, I'm speaking on stage. And one of the stages that I'm enjoying most is in front of young kids, because I remember so vividly what it meant to be a very sensitive boy when it was not encouraged in the, what? Early mid '90s, to be sensitive, to be delicate. And where sensitivity is actually a strength. Now, we say things like, "Oh, yeah, empathy, of course that's important in the workplace." But even at 21, I remember somebody asked me what are my hard skills versus my soft skills?
And I said, "I don't understand. What are hard skills versus soft skills?" She said, "Oh, you know, hard skills are like Photoshop or being able to code in Java. And soft skills are things like being nice to people or having empathy, being able to connect." And I said, at 21, right, fresh into the workplace, at least as a young professional, I said, "I don't have any hard skills. All of my skills are soft skills." And that was kind of poo-pooed. But now I hold that as like, oh no, my EQ is through the roof. I can get by in Canva, maybe Final Cut Pro. But the things that made middle school hard are the things that make me a great leader today.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think a lot of LGBTQ people would agree with being an outsider, being bullied, taunted, tortured, not ever knowing if you were going to make it through, which I know you shared you... it sounds like you really, really struggled every day. And you said, I think you cried every day. So the gift of having to prevail over something like that and get through it and somehow keep the faith alive that you are more than, that you are beautiful in your own right, and that there's a place for you is so important. I love that you're enjoying speaking to young people right now, and they need to hear you and see you because we have to give all of the permission we possibly can for them to be everything that they are.
So that's beautiful work. So that was difficult. And you also shared, you have another video on your voice. And as a singer myself, and you and I are both performers, I hadn't thought about the voice in the way that you described your journey with your voice. And so how did that show up when you were younger? And then you're doing something now that's really, I think, a creative way of healing and empowerment around voice too. So I wanted you to have a chance to describe that.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah. Starting in, I think it was October 2021. I started training voice. And it's so funny because I started training cello a few years ago with no experience in the strings, right? Like, I'm now practicing guitar. I taught myself gymnastics and went on to be a circus performer, self-taught. I trained things I don't know how to do, but it had never occurred to me to train voice. And yet, so much of those memories from third to eighth grade are... I matured late. I started kissing people in college. And I have a very specific memory in fifth grade, we all had these young, I think, second grade mentees. And for whatever reason there was... it was supposed to be gender aligned. But my mentee was a little girl and we walked by the hallway in my old school in Gravenstein and she pointed to one of her classmates and was like, "Is that a girl?"
And my whole class of whatever, fifth graders, just burst out laughing. Now, I can laugh at that. That feels like gender is a fluid concept. We should talk about my gender identity, because that's a more recent development that I haven't actually shared with you. But in those days being laughed at and being ostracized, I had slightly longer hair. I had a high voice. I was late to mature. And I didn't know what masculine meant. I didn't know what it meant to be a sensitive man. And those... clearly you don't fit the specific category. And we don't know, and I don't know, and there's no one to talk to about these things. Was at the time devastating.
And it was so interesting, some of the video that we got of me going to my middle school is recognizing I've carried some of that baggage with me for 20 years. And then seeing that the basketball hoop, which I remember the basketball court so vividly, like came up to my chin, right? Like the hoop is right here. It's so small and it's such a long time ago. And until I had gone back to my middle school, I hadn't really let go of some of those demons and some of those shadows of being ostracized by this peer group that I had grown up with.
JENNIFER BROWN: Did you feel something resolved in you after you visited and made the film? Were you able to kind of put it in its proper place and maybe even, I don't even know. Like, how did you take that with you? What shifted in you after you did it?
ROBIN ZANDER: It's a great question. And it's an ongoing process. There's always more to look at from childhood and from relationships with parents. I am going to an annual family camping trip with my parents and my sister and her sons in about a week. And my mom and I are going to spend three hours driving up to the mountains together, just the two of us. And I'm so grateful for that time. And the questions I want to ask her and the conversations I want to have, because there's a closeness that as I mature and as she gets older, I get to relate to her differently. And I get to ask questions about why did you make those choices when I was growing up? But yes, to answer your question, going back to my middle school with Angela, our head of video at Xandr Media, and filming me there. Just going back there and seeing it and seeing a little cortisol rise because, oh yeah, that's the bathroom. And I think this is in the video, we can link to it.
That I would walk into and there'd be a bunch of guys smoking pot in fifth grade. And like the room, you open the door and the room like pot smoke comes out. I don't know what pot is in fifth grade, but I know it's not safe and I really need to go in and pee. And it's so dangerous. And there's no one to talk to. And I can't go home and talk about it for various reasons. It's certainly not acceptable for a student to go talk to a teacher, because then you're a tattle-tale and there's consequences to that. Very real physical consequences.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
ROBIN ZANDER: And then I walked into that bathroom and I was like, "Oh, this is so small. This is so simple. I don't need to carry this anymore." And I get shivers down my spine as I share that story because it's real. It will always be a part of me, but it's not a part of me that I need to carry or do carry around anymore as baggage. It's actually a source of strength. I think of the quote from Paul Farmer, a famous physician who did a lot of incredible work in Haiti. "There are mountains beyond mountains." It's a Haitian quote. And this idea that there's always more struggle. There's always more mountains to climb. And I'm a mountain climber. I love climbing physical mountains and also the resilience necessary to climb emotional mountains. But having gone through those experiences as a kid, I would not change for anything because they gave me the strength to learn to do what I do today.
JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. And in working on your voice, I wonder what has been healed in that? And maybe do you think of it in terms of a goal you have for your voice work or are you just letting it unfold?
ROBIN ZANDER: Right now, I'm letting it unfold. When my coach, Andrea, first said... we do a once or twice a week Zoom session. She said, "Okay. Now, let's sing." During our very first Zoom call. I was terrified. This was a 35-year-old man, and I just remembered being petrified. And then we started to do scales and I was like, "Oh, okay. That's okay. I'm not trying to sing in front of thousands of people right now." I would like to, I expect at some point I will get on stage at a conference that I'm speaking on and I'll sing a song. And I'll use that as an example to talk about fear and learning, which are really the driving forces in my life, as you know. Right now I have a lot of projects, a lot of physical and physical-emotional pursuits that have very concrete goals.
So as an acrobat, I'm pursuing a single arm handstand, a one arm, 60 second handstand. And that is the single hardest physical, like athletic endeavor I have ever attempted. And I'll get it in the next couple of years if I practice every day. And I have been. With voice, it's held pretty loosely. I think the thing that has changed and is continuing to change is falling in love with the sound of my own voice. Learning what it means to sound like myself and enjoy that sensation. And that's plenty. Then that I get to sing and explore it and maybe eventually share it with other people on video or on stage. That's all bonus. But for me, it's the journey of this thing that has so long been anathema. Has so long been scary to become more familiar. That's the gift.
JENNIFER BROWN: It makes me emotional, because as people probably know, I had vocal surgery in the midst of trying to make a career as a singer and pushing the voice too. Opera singing is not artificial, but it's a trick to project that and to create that big sound. And it's stressful unless you do it perfectly right.
ROBIN ZANDER: It's an athletic endeavor.
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly.
ROBIN ZANDER: Just like playing in the NFL.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
ROBIN ZANDER: It is a level of technical and athletic refinement that comes with very concrete consequences if it has done anything but perfectly. And sometimes those are outside of your control.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Sadly. At least at the time, I was devastated about that it wouldn't cooperate. But like you, it's sort of reminding me of how I was trying to force it into a certain guise. And now, it never fails me because I'm using it in such a relaxed way.
ROBIN ZANDER: Nice.
JENNIFER BROWN: And then to sing again is really, I have some healing to do around. I sort of walked away. I really just banished it. It was, "I'm not going to sing again." And one year it turned into five, turned into 10, turned into 20. And so reestablishing your relationship with a part of you, with a part of you in its most natural form, in its most unadulterated form. I hear you because even though our stories are somewhat different, I have yet to kind of sing in my own voice and not have any expectations about that and just have it be pure joy.
So it's something that's ahead. And I don't know what form it will take, but it's tough being that perfectionist and that striver about everything. I know you know. It's so hard to even take that off and say it is what it is, just let it breathe. Give yourself a chance to just let something go where it wants and needs to go and be guided by that, as opposed to handling it and creating it.
And so, anyway, it's such an interesting metaphor that occurs to me that, it is at this age and the older you get, it is about a bit of the dismantling and the re-looking.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: And the celebration of just what is. And I love you in this bathroom, remembering it as a place of terror, and now realizing it's just a room.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah. It can be a thing that I carry as an ankle weight with me for decades, or it can be an experience that I'm grateful for and uses a source of strength for the rest of my life. Right? And that's a choice that comes from the self-inquiry of looking at those shadows.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally. Looking at the shadows.
ROBIN ZANDER: So excited for you. It's the first time I've heard you speak about coming back to singing.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Yeah. Me too. I'll keep you posted.
ROBIN ZANDER: I would love to be there for the first time you sing in front of a room of people.
JENNIFER BROWN: After decades. Right?
ROBIN ZANDER: In your true voice. Right? Not in the operatic style that it's supposed to be.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
ROBIN ZANDER: Right? But for you to come full circle. I'm so excited for you, Jen.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. Thanks, Robin. Thank you. And I didn't want to lose a little teeny thing you mentioned, I'm not going to let it go, relationship to gender identity, understanding of gender identity. I know there's a journey there. I could have guessed. We're all on a journey of gender identity.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right? I think of me realizing when I came out, when I was in my twenties, I remember going to all the clubs and trying to find the gay community, and everyone thinking I was the straight friend, not getting any attention at all, and wanting that so much. And yet, and then I tried on the uniform, right? I thought, well, maybe I need to dress a certain way to be recognized. And it didn't fit me, literally and figuratively, because somehow my expression, which has remained pretty consistent, is most comfortable in a feminine expression. And I certainly feel very much cisgender, which means, as everybody knows on the world to change, which I say all the time, my sense of my gender matches the gender of the body I was born in. So there's an alignment there that is very comfortable, that it means less or no effort.
Now, does my gender expression trigger certain things in the world? Yes. Perhaps privileges, perhaps a lack of safety, so we can go into that too, but it's just been so amazing. Part of the gift, gift, gift of being in the LGBTQ community and amongst allies is this is something that we all talk about, and that I've known trans people and gender non-binary folks and every sort of version of gender identity and expression and celebrated it all, and enjoyed so much bringing that awareness to audiences that have no clue what this is.
And so it's just the highlight of my work these days, to be able to clue people in, destigmatize to be extremely informed, but also to say my allyship partially comes from this place of comfort and safety in my gender identity. And that is a privilege in terms of just a lack of needing to navigate a disconnect or navigate something that you want to adjust, but you're terrified to, or navigating conversations about what pronoun you really want to be used for you, names you want to be called. The list goes on and on.
So I just am very, these days, feel very called to show up within my community, in allyship. And this is a nuance that was never even really a part of the conversation for many, many years. But lately, and you must be thrilled about this, that we are having this conversation. Brought about by young people. Thank you very much.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Grateful for that too. But anyway, tell us more about your understanding of that and your own evolution.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah, it's so funny, and this is not something I have shared publicly before, but last year I came out as queer and bisexual. And it was towards the end of a very significant relationship with my ex Rose, who would not mind me mentioning their name, who is trans non-binary. And what was so interesting throughout the... I actually was blessed with a really incredible, loving relationship throughout pandemic, right? Throughout 2020, I was falling in love.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wonderful.
ROBIN ZANDER: And supported in this incredible relationship. And it was as that relationship was ending in 2021 that I, sort of using in some way the stimulus of having dated for two years somebody who is non-binary, kind of looked at myself from my history. Right? I mentioned my first kiss in college. What I had never really looked at is my second kiss was with a man. Right? When I look at, in my very rural town growing up, my very rural high school, all of my friends, maybe the five or six people I spent the most time with my latter years of high school, were queer or came out as or gay later on in life. And so it was this interesting moment kind of reflecting back.
And yet another example, the person that I stayed with when I first moved to San Francisco in 2007 called me a lesbro.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh.
ROBIN ZANDER: I didn't even know what that meant.
JENNIFER BROWN: Love that word.
ROBIN ZANDER: Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: You are. You are. You're in the dictionary after that word, I think.
ROBIN ZANDER: And I'd always identified, even on our first podcast, I said, "Straight white man in 2017," but going through this breakup, I kind of reevaluated and realized, "Oh yeah. While these are identities that I hold loosely, I am actually bisexual in that I am attracted to same and different. I am actually queer." And that's what this earring, which I got in 2021, has come to represent for me, is... It's hard to say, right? There are not very many identities that I hold very tightly. Right? Maybe one of them is as an athlete. Certainly as a son and as somebody who was a part of my family. But queer and bisexual are also part of me, and that's something that I just came to realize recently. One further anecdote. Then when I went and shared this with friends and family, literally everyone in my life was like, "Yeah."
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. "And?"
ROBIN ZANDER: "Is this new? Yeah. I guess you're late to the party, but we knew this already." So that was very sweet.
JENNIFER BROWN: Aw.
ROBIN ZANDER: And my father on my, I think it was 25th birthday, gave me a card and in it, he said, "That's okay. You've always been a little bit slow." No, actually, it was shortly after I opened the cafe because I opened the cafe on three weeks notice in 2017. And so this joke in my family is I was a late bloomer, and yet I move so quickly. Right? I do these things so fast and changed so quickly. And yet, in some other domains that maybe other people move quickly, like late to mature, my voice changed late. I started dating late or I came out as queer and bisexual later than 10 years after most of my peers did.
It's been really fun to just be like, "Oh yeah, that's not deeply significant." I am also cisgendered. Right? I am also simultaneously so comfortable in a testosterone-powered body. I am in the best shape of my life today. I love eating red meat and lifting heavy. I have discovered a deep and abiding love, Jennifer, of lifting, like Olympic lifting in the gym.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. I wish I shared that.
ROBIN ZANDER: There's this fun dichotomy.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that.
ROBIN ZANDER: That I have been fully expressing these last few years.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love the holding lightly idea. That's beautiful. I think we could all stand to hold ourselves more lightly. You and I originally hopped on this thinking that I really wanted to talk to you about this concept of fear, because I think of you as fearless, and you've given me some additional fodder for that. But I know that maybe your technique of managing fear is what's so perhaps unique about you.
But fear, when it comes to the topic of diversity and inclusion, right? The fear, I write about it a lot, of not holding things lightly, of saying the wrong thing, of offending of appearing not to know of... There's just so much angst we have around our own performance. And I don't mean performance that it's not real. I mean that sometimes we-
We just have to show up. And look, me as a performer, you step out on stage. You don't know how it's going to go, And sometimes you're improvising. And I think with Dee and I, it's very similar to that and it's sort of this leap and the net will appear to use acrobatic image. But when we leap, you talk about holding something loosely, like if you fall, and if we have to apologize, if our ego gets bruised. If we maybe hurt someone else unintentionally. Maybe our impact doesn't match our intent.
It doesn't feel loosely held in terms of how I might define it, which is the resilience and the agility to bounce, like the weeble wobble, right? You get knocked down and you pop back up. And you are a practicer, right? You talk about your one arm handstand and that is fall, get back up, fall, back up, whatever.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Loosely holding our own development of competency in something, and just watching our progress, not judging it, loving ourselves through the evolution. And I so wish the learners that I work with could look at this journey in that way, and yet we're so hypercritical of ourselves. We're very hypercritical, by the way, of each other. We don't hold somebody else's change very lightly either. The whole conversation these days is about, "Well, you did this and you didn't say that and you didn't get this right and how could you?"
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: And woo. It is really intense. So I just don't think that should be part of at this learning that I talk about all the time, but it's not. So I wonder if you'd give us some wisdom from your endeavors. What is it about fear? What's your advice? And how do we hold our own progress and the progress of others loosely in a loving, gracious way? Because nobody learns with a tight fist holding onto them. I don't know if that's conducive to anything. And yet, discipline and practice and encouragement, all of those things I wish that we sort of had much more of.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah, there's so much to unpack. And I'll start by saying, there's plenty of privilege that I have, right? I am a white man in America. Could just stop there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
ROBIN ZANDER: The stakes are really high for all of us, but for some more than others. And so, so many of my metaphors are physical. At 27 and 28, I studied very classical ballet alongside middle schoolers for two years. 40 hours a week, black tights, white shirt. You get kicked out of class if your shirt is not spotless white. You get slapped on the hand with a ruler if you're not doing your plié correctly. But I wanted a classical foundation in ballet because I had never done ballet. And in the world of classical dance, the ratio of men to women, there is a gender binary in ballet.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, there is.
ROBIN ZANDER: It's like one to 20. And so I could be a man coming in and taking ballet alongside kids. It would be much, much harder, it is much, much harder for a woman at the same age to come in and take those classes because they need more men. At the same time, that was the single most emotionally challenging thing that I did in my 20s. That was the same era that I was working for Vivian, performing for the San Francisco Opera as an acrobat, finding my way as a professional. And I carved out 3:00 PM to 9:00 PM every single day, six days a week, to do classical ballet and get yelled out alongside 12 year olds.
The emotional fortitude that I had to come back to the studio every single day with that show-up-edness was terrifying. So it's fun, this phrase, fearless or fearlessness. I've never been fearless. When I think back to that middle school hallway, or those experiences of ballet, or my work as a professional, opening up Robin's Cafe on three weeks' notice, starting Responsive Conference, never having been to a business conference, or today, producing commercials for some of the world's most incredible companies, as a media production video house, I didn't know anything about video.
When we started Zander Media, I didn't know how video production worked. And literally today, as we're recording, my team is on set on an airplane in Los Angeles filming. And I'm here with you because I've figured out, and it's a gradual process, how to build a team that is doing the work so that I can do my work and we can continue to build this incredible company, Zander Media. That comes through the small steps along the way.
I'm barely getting off of one hand and a couple of fingers in my one-arm handstand work these days. And if you just drop me on one arm for 60 seconds, I would literally break my shoulder. I'm not there yet. And you can't do something that we don't know how to do. It has to be these incremental steps.
There's a great book by, I mentioned his name before, BJ Fogg called Tiny Habits. Another by James Clear called Atomic Habits. But this idea of incremental steps along the way towards whatever we're going towards.
And this word, you mentioned, discipline, there's this, I'll call it toxic, very masculine, very aggressive, the Nike slogan, Just Do It, but forcing ourselves to do something that we don't know how to do. If you just set your alarm and get up when your alarm goes off, actually it's more sophisticated than that. It takes a little bit more thought if you don't get up.
And I used to really struggle with getting up with my alarm. Why? Oh, because I'm going to bed too late. Why? Oh, because I'm having caffeine at 3:00 PM. Why? Oh, because I'm an adrenaline junkie. Why? Oh, because I'm...
And continuing down that path, I used to ride my bike in my early 20s down one of the steepest Hills in San Francisco, going 45 miles an hour with traffic, swerving between traffic, it's a miracle that I didn't die, because I had so much angst and so much anger. And that was the best way I knew to get it out. And then later I discovered Brazilian jujitsu, and ballet, and gymnastics, and all these things that have become bedrock in my life. But it's these journeys of self inquiry, and sitting with the discomfort, and asking ourselves these questions of, "Why am I struggling to get out of bed in the morning?" Not, "You should do it, go do it." People call me disciplined. And my experience is actually just in pursuit of joy.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hmm. You just said the, I call it the five whys. That was a great illustration of it. Why do I do that? Why is this happening? I can't imagine angry version of you given the version I see and experiencing today.
ROBIN ZANDER: I love anger. It was most accessible in the era when I was studying Brazilian jujitsu and Thai kickboxing, Muay Thai. It was a little too intense.
JENNIFER BROWN: That'll do it.
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah. This was the first six months of Robin's Cafe and of Responsive Conference. And I was training the martial arts, striking, and kicking, and choking people out many hours a day. And I remember driving to my Muay Thai studio and someone cut me off. And what is that Disney movie with the emotions...
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
ROBIN ZANDER: ... anger. And anger gets really angry. And then fire shoots out of his head. I wanted to kill the person in front of me who just cut me off. And I looked at myself just from a couple of seconds later, I was like, "This is not necessary." So I ended up quitting Muay Thai, specifically, at least for a while.
But these days, there's so much energy in it. There's so much energy in being angry. If I can funnel it. If I can, first of all, be familiar with it. Not suppressed, anger, not repressed anger, but going and doing pull-ups when I'm angry is like, "Ah, it's so strong."
What I then don't want to do is show up with my employees or with my mother when I'm angry. I want to channel it into something productive. And I can do that because I'm familiar. I know what it feels like, and I know how to use it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Mm. And you also know, going back to your early days, you know that whatever happened, traumas and things can't control you necessarily anymore. That's the beautiful thing about getting older, is you can make these choices, and see it from a distance, and be objective about it a bit, and have compassion for that kid, but understand that the adult now has something really invaluable to pass on. And I'm sure that when you're up on those stages now speaking or virtually to young people, that must be connecting a lot of dots for you, also, and healing you, and just being incredible, right?
ROBIN ZANDER: And adults. We all have a journey.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
ROBIN ZANDER: Whether that's in our workplace, or for our organizations, or within communities that we're a part of creating impact. I don't think I've ever met a person who doesn't want to create impact. And that comes from the self awareness from looking at ourselves and from stepping towards those things we're afraid of.
JENNIFER BROWN: Which you have done in so many ways. And I hope everybody's kind of thinking about, how do these things show up in my life? What am I practicing? What am I stepping into? What am I working on? How am I having grace with myself and with others? And at the same time, moving towards the, I don't want to say better version, I suppose. What's a better word for that, Robin?
ROBIN ZANDER: I like it.
JENNIFER BROWN: You like it?
ROBIN ZANDER: I like better version.
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay.
ROBIN ZANDER: That works. I want a better handstand. Right? We don't have to judge ourselves to get there. I think that's the distinction.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
ROBIN ZANDER: So I want to improve, I think most people want to improve, whether that is themselves, or their family dynamic, or your love relationship, or how much money you make. But I don't have to then say, "I'm bad. And shame on me," in order to get there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Mm, beautiful. I love that.
I have many favorite moments from this conversation, but the holding lightly stays with me about so many things. And finding, seeking joy, because it's always there to be discovered. And we can practice with joy. And when we talk about fear and inclusive leadership, I am so often finding myself in conversations, I think a lot of this pertains to the leap to the constant, "What's my edge?" And you also said, "Can I see it? Can I acknowledge it? Can I..." You said about anger, "I know it. I recognize it."
ROBIN ZANDER: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: And I also know when to feel it, how to feel it, how to wield it for its usefulness, but also where it has its place. And I think as we mature, we'll feel these things. We're going to be triggered. We're going to go back there. But the palette that we have to color with now is so is the best ever in our lives. And to me, it's been really liberating to be able to paint with so many different colors and not feel confined by what's happened to me or my interpretation of it, because our interpretation changes as we gain wisdom, and perspective, and context.
And that's the gift of getting a little bit older, I think, is you make peace with... Yeah. I hope young people understand that's ahead of them. We don't get to talk that much about it. And it feels it's such a focus on young culture and that's so present.
But it feels, this elder energy that some of us move into. And when everything kind of settles down and you can really see the truth, and then you can make choices that aren't being driven by things that are subconscious to us. To me, that feels like, that's where I want to get to.
But Robin, thank you for sharing things that you've probably never even articulated in this way with me today. What a perfect person to give it to. And I want folks to know, they know Zander Media, so everybody check out Robin's work, it's beautiful stuff. And also, your little mini documentaries that I mentioned, that we've been talking about, we'll include those. I think you're RobinZander.com. So do you have everything posted there that you're up to?
ROBIN ZANDER: RobinPZander.com.
JENNIFER BROWN: P. Zander. Robin P. Zander everybody.
ROBIN ZANDER: Not to be confused with the lead singer of Cheap Trick, who I'm still in competition... He just got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my goodness.
ROBIN ZANDER: I want you to want me.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my God.
ROBIN ZANDER: I need you to need me.
Still in the Google rankings, but I've got a little ways to go. But RobinPZander.com, ZanderMedia.com. Those are the two homes and I'm Robin P. Zander across all social platforms.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Well, thanks. Congrats on all your success these days. And may you do your creative work and in some of the biggest brands in the world. And create, I know, not just beautiful video, but meaningful video, which I know they're in good hands with you and your team. But thanks for joining me today, Robin, and I just got to know you so much more deeply, and I really appreciate it,
ROBIN ZANDER: Jennifer, it's such a joy. Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at JenniferBrownSpeaks.com. You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion, and the future of work. And discover how we can all be champions of change, by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
DOUG FORESTA: You've been listening to The Will to Change: Uncovering True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you've enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit JenniferBrownSpeaks.com. Thank you for listening. And we'll be back next time with a new episode.
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