The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 108

Sanyin Siang

The Launch Book

In a world of change, how do we launch new ideas, careers, and projects? Sanyin Siang, Executive Director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke University, wrote The Launch Book to answer that question. Discover the Five Elements of a Successful Launch, why you should make fun a deliverable, and how to turn “I don’t know” into your strength.


Book: The Launch Book
Bio: Sanyin Siang is on a mission to discover and enable greatness in others. Whether it in her work as a CEO coach, as an educator, startup advisor, author, she teaches individuals and organizations find the champions within themselves and then gives them the tools to keep on winning. Sanyin co-founded and leads Duke University’s Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at its Fuqua School of Business. She is also an Advisor for GV (Google Ventures), a Faculty with Storylab at Duke, and a Sr. Advisor with Dan Ariely’s behavioral economics center. Her ideas on leading change, bridging across divides, network leadership, power of stories, and team-building has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, Huffington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

With us today is Sanyin Siang. She co-founded and leads the Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She’s a coach and an advisor to CEOs and she wrote this awesome little book, it’s called, The Launch Book: Motivational Stories to Launch Your Idea, Business or Next Career. If you’re watching the video I’m holding it up there so that you can see it.

She actually did a great campaign around this book with people reading the book and sending her a photograph of them holding the book or reading the book, so maybe at the end of this she’ll tell you how to do that if you’re interested and you buy the book, which I highly suggest you do.

Sanyin is quickly becoming a friend of mine and I’m very excited to have her on the podcast. Sanyin, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Sanyin: Thank you so much Peter, I’m honored and excited to be here. This is going to be fun. I have to say, speaking of launches, so this is my first time doing a video podcast and you’re launching me into this. I’m so glad to have you as a member of my launch tribe, I’m putting a lot of trust in you, Peter.

Peter: That’s great. Well, you look great, if you guys are watching the video you can see the beautiful drawings from Sanyin’s children in the background, it’s all very, very much a part of the way you are and the way you wrote this book, which is very much yourself, right? And that’s great, that’s exactly how it should be.

So, on that note, share a little bit about yourself. Why did you write this book? Why is it important to you? Where did it come from?

Sanyin: So, several reasons why I wrote the book. One is, whether I’m speaking with students, or I’m speaking with CEO’s, I’m finding a common theme in the type of questions and challenges that they’re facing. And that is, in a world of change, how do I move forward, how do I launch? Because when we launch, it’s a move away from the status quo, right?

I wrote the book to address that question and when I look at whether a student’s dealing with launching into a career in investment banking, or a CEO who’s launching a major transformational initiative in their company, there’s folks out there that talk about the tactics. I want to step back and look at the mindset. So one, I wrote the books for readers, and then two, I wrote the book really for me, Peter.

I’ve written a lot of articles, I’ve not written a book and I thought, gosh, a book is just a collection of articles, this is going to be so easy when I start it. The moment I committed to writing the book, it was terrifying and I realized that the irony of writing The Launch Book is, I became the reader. I was experiencing everything I was writing about and so, I wrote the book for me, for the next time when I have to launch something and I have to be braver, I’m going to refer back to this book and draw on the framework. Then I wrote the book as a love song to all the people who gave me advice to make me braver along the way.

Peter: I love it. We talked about this a little bit before our conversation, which is that I also write books that I need to read. I don’t write a book about managing time and managing focus because I’m such an amazing expert at … I struggle with it, so I learn about it, and I study it, and I research and then I write a book about it.

We were talking about the need for both of us to write a book on parenting. It’s actually a really useful tool to delve in and write research, and tell stories and explore areas that we’re struggling with. You wrote this book in three months, right?

Sanyin: Well, okay there’s two answers to that question, how long did it take me to write the book. One answer is six weeks.

Peter: Six weeks. Less than three months.

Sanyin: And that’s because, not because I’m a good writer, it’s because I’m a procrastinator, and then I work really well under pressure, and I had a commitment to my editor and so, clenched out in six weeks. The other answer is ten years, because all the stories that are in the book, stories from Frances Hesselbein to our friend, Marshall Goldsmith, to Katie Teller, or Elle Coleman, this is very personal to me, because this is their advice shared with me over the last ten years.

As I said, this book is a love song to all those people whom I love and admire, and we’re friends. So I’m amplifying their messages. Why should I be so selfish as to keep that to myself?

Peter: You talk about five elements of a launch. To be you, build your tribe, imagine, next play and generosity. Can you in a sentence or two for each one, just describe big picture, then we can go into more depth, but big picture, what are each of these five things?

Sanyin: Sure. So, being you is … You know, so many times when we launch, we have to launch in alignment with who we are, our values, our beliefs, our purpose in life. Actually, you may not know what that is when you start, but you can discover it as part of your launch journey.

Build your tribe. You may launch as a solo, in solo, but no real successful launch in a solo endeavor. We have to launch with a tribe, with others, and who are those other people around us. We can dive into that radar imagining the possible. Let’s not be limited by what we see now. When we look at careers, the jobs that our kids will be in when they graduate don’t even exist yet, that’s how fast the world is changing. So, how do we be what we can’t see, right?

Next play is about perspective, because it’s understanding, it’s reframing failure, it’s reframing success. There’s a story with Jeff Weiner the CEO of LinkedIn, I can share about that around this next play perspective, and this idea of generosity. I believe we are fortunate to be surrounded by generous people and I looked at Marshall Goldsmith and the pay it forward initiative. I mean, talk about generosity, right? Generosity, we shouldn’t wait until we’re successful to be generous. We should be generous every step of the way and generosity actually links back to perspective. So, that’s just a quick encapsulation of what those little elements are.

Peter: I love it. Now, you said a little earlier in the call that there’s a lot of stuff that’s been written about the tactics of a launch and you really wanted to focus on mindset. Each of these five, I could see where they’re mindsets, but they also seem like they’re tactics.

There are things to do in aligning yourself, and your passion and your purpose with your launch, or building your tribe. There’s ways of building your tribe so that you’re not doing it alone. So, it seems like you’re thinking both about the mindset of each of these things, you have to think about yourself, you have to think about your connections with others, you have to imagine. But, there’s also very specific tactical approaches to doing each of these five things. Am I thinking about this correctly?

Sanyin: Yes, but you have to start with being, not doing. You have to be. So, what is that being? You have to think about the being, for example, launch tribe, not as a, “I’m going to do this alone, aren’t I great.” But having that element of vulnerability and saying, you know what, it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to let others invest in your success and then let’s go out and have the tactics to actualize that.

Peter: Let’s do a little bit of a deep dive into that question, because vulnerability feels really critical. I could see how listeners might argue that it’s antithetical to the need to use your will and push through a hard launch to make something work. You’re working 20 hour days, you’ve got to be resilient and the risk of vulnerability is potentially the risk of giving in. I’m curious about how you would answer that.

Sanyin: Okay. So, the chapter right before vulnerability, be vulnerable, is actually called be brave. So, the two go hand in hand, right? This idea of resilience, of just courage to push forward, that’s critical. I also want to talk about something that’s not often talked about, which is vulnerability, which is this notion sometimes we’re afraid of failure.

I’m afraid of failing in every single one of my launches. I’m praying. This is my first video podcast, I’m terrified-

Peter: You’re doing great. Just saying.

Sanyin: I won’t let you down.

Peter: You’re doing great.

Sanyin: So, example, just me voicing that out loud, it makes us human, it enables us to connect and to be more authentic. This idea of vulnerability is also about not having to know the answers. Okay, so let’s connect it to something that we often talk about, mentorship. One of the things people think about is, first thing, go find a mentor. Go find someone who’s done what you’re trying to do and ask them for advice.

But what I find is, and this is a mistake I made early on in my career, when I reach out to a mentor, I just wanted to show them the good stuff, like, here’s all the wins. Then being on the reverse side of that, now mentoring, and when I have mentees and students not being vulnerable but just wanting to highlight all their wins because they’re trying to impress like I was trying to impress, I stop and think, we’re not really able to build much of a relationship here because I don’t know how I can invest and how I can best help you. I can cheer you on but I can’t best help you.

And so, I wanted to with vulnerability, was take away the notion of having to have all the answers, and that when you demonstrate you don’t know the answers. That’s when you can leapfrog to arriving at the answers a lot faster.

Peter: So, you have a great story about Frances Hesselbein, who we both know, and finding out from her customers what they really needed, that I think is a really good illustration of this vulnerability piece. Can you share that story?

Sanyin: Sure. Frances, for the listeners who don’t know Frances, is one of the foremost leaders of our time. She was the former OC of the girl scouts and then became the CEO of the Peter Drucker Foundation, institute. Peter Drucker named her perhaps the most natural he has ever encountered. So, in New York City there was this program called Principal For A Day where preliminary leaders are principal for a day at a school of their choosing.

Of course, everybody wants that rock star school and to be principal for a day there, and Frances does something different. She says, “What’s your worst school?” And they said, really? Do you really want that school? She was like, “Yes, what’s your worst school?” And they gave her this one school in The Bronx where there was zero graduation rate, ever. And she went and she, instead of … The tendency is to say, “Hey, I’m a leadership expert, I know what I’m doing, here’s what you need to do.”

The first thing that Frances did was she asked questions. She pulled the students together and she asked them, “What do you need?” Just a simple question, what do you need. They said, “Mrs. Hesselbein, it would be great if we had some books for our library.” So she made a few calls and when Frances asks, it’s impossible to say no to her. So, she got them a library and they said, “Would it be possible to have textbooks?” Because they didn’t have textbooks. So she made a call to the mayor’s office and the students got textbooks.

“Mrs. Hesselbein, would it be possible to have mentors?” And she called a few of her corporate friends and they invested in mentoring students from the school. At the end of that one year, the school that had never graduated, zero graduation rate, they graduated 15. One of those 15 went on to the US Air Force Academy. That’s the power of asking questions, listening, which is actually a demonstration of vulnerability. You think about when you’re vulnerable, that’s when you’re powerful too.

Peter: I love the story and I think it’s interesting related to vulnerability because it feels like it could be a little scary for some people to co-create with customers, which is what the story’s describing, because you want customers to have confidence in you and feel like you know what you’re doing.

So, it connects with this issue of vulnerability because you want to connect with customers in a way where you really are in a space of, I don’t know, right? I’m really in a space of curiosity and learning and I don’t know. At the same time, you want to do it in a way that reinforces your customers confidence in you, especially when you’re launching something, and you might be new to it and you might not have any experience in it, or deep experience in it. Or, at least maybe you have experience in it, but not a track record because it’s a launch.

So, how do you balance the sense of curiosity and living in the space of, I don’t know, while still communicating competence and confidence?

Sanyin: It doesn’t stop at, I don’t know. If you just end at I don’t know, then yeah, there’s not much to go on. But you say, “I don’t know. But let’s figure it out together. Here’s what I bring to the table, but this is what I think your expertise is, and this is what I need you to … I would love to know about X, Y or Z, and let’s figure it out together.”

Even when writing the book I was freaking out as the deadline was ticking away and I didn’t have anything. I just pulled several of my students together and I asked them, what, in today’s age when there’s so many demands on your time, what would make you want to pick up this book? And I thought they would say research, and their answer astounded me. They said stories. Really, stories? They were like, yeah, stories is what will make me want to pick up this book.

I was like, thank goodness, I have stories, I know stories. That’s an example of this idea of you do bring something to the table, that’s why the be you, know who you are, part of the fundamental is knowing what you do bring to the table, it’s just applied into different context, but in that new context, you can’t do it alone, you have to engage others.

By the way, when you say, “Let’s do it together.” Suddenly there’s shared ownership. In our coaching work, because Peter I know you are a rock star coach as well, you don’t ever go to someone and say, “Hey, do this.” It’s, “Let’s figure it out together.” Right?

Peter: Absolutely. The curiosity piece is critical and the living in I don’t know is critical. I sort of joke because I gave a Ted Talk on this idea of I don’t know, and as a joke I sort of like to say I’m the world’s expert in not knowing. I know more about I don’t know than anybody.

Sanyin: And that in itself is an expertise, how do you leverage I don’t know into power.

Peter: I love these questions you use in the launch process. You have a series of questions. The why question, the what do you think question, the what if question, the well framed question. Can you again, like you did at the start, just a sentence or two on each of them to help people understand how they might be able to leverage these questions in their launch?

Sanyin: So, I’m a big fan of being a question in search of answers, which is why we’re going to be great friends, Peter, because you’re the expert in I don’t know and I’m the expert on saying, “I have a question, I don’t have the answer.”

Peter: It’s great.

Sanyin: Flip sides of the same coin. I think even in leadership, because this launch book really is a leadership book in many regards, it’s … and I think we learn so much more from questions. I mean, even the questions you’re asking is worth more … As an interviewer, gosh that’s revealing so much about your expertise because of how you’re framing them and how you’re asking them. So, the what if question is really about imagining the possible. We don’t know, but what if? What if our …

The why question is really unearthing the purpose behind something. A lot of times we would just, say someone says, I want to create the next … what is it nowadays? I was to create the Airbnb of such, or the Uber of such. That’s great, let’s figure out why. Then from the why you can figure out what’s the origin from the story that reveals who they are and enables the customer and perspective customers, the people that are investing in that person’s success, to really buy into their destiny story.

So, the why, the what if, the how question, that’s really around tactics. These questions take on different forms, it’s not necessarily as categorized as what we started off with.

Peter: This goes back to what you started our conversation with around mindset, which is it’s not just about checking off a to do list of checklist items to make sure you’re doing the 35 things you need to do in order to launch. It’s about grounding yourself more deeply in who am I, why am I doing this, what am I trying to create in the world, because you have to keep coming back to that.

When we talk about those times when you need the resilience, when you have to do those 20 hour days, when you’re fighting through the challenges, the natural challenges that come whenever you’re launching something new. That becomes a well to draw from that nourishes you and allows you to move forward.

Sanyin: And not only that, you mentioned there’s the 35,000 checklist to every launch, and yes, if you pass it down there’s 10,000, 1,000, 10,000 checklist. By focusing on the anchors of the why and the purpose, what’s the outcome, what’s the objective, you can actually find integrators among those checklists, right?

The new thing I learned today, because part as a learning mindset I’m developing a mind course based on The Launch Book, and I’m meeting with the designer this morning and he said, “Backwards design.” Like, what’s backwards design? And he said, “Well, you start with the outcome of what you want the learners to know.” And rather than saying, “This is what I know and let’s piece it together.” Let’s start from what-

Peter: How we want them walking away and then back into it.

Sanyin: Exactly. It goes back to our conversation on books, why do we write books? It’s for us, we’re the reader. What do we need to know, and then work backwards. If that’s going to help us, it’s going to help the reader too.

Peter: Right. You say you have a chapter or a heading, make fun deliverable. I loved that. Can you talk a minute about that?

Sanyin: Yes, okay. Sometimes I think we take ourselves, it’s perspective too, I think we can take ourselves too seriously, but to be able to find the fun factor in this. I mean, I’m having so much fun on your podcast Peter and frankly, it’s holding my fear at bay. It’s energizing, fun is energizing, and when you laugh, when you laugh with your team, it actually enables you to form a deeper human connection. That human connection is, I think at the end of the day, is the foundation to be able to scale and make things come alive, achieve what we want to achieve a lot faster, and when you think about it, if all else fails, at least we had fun. You can check that box off, that’s a huge one.

Peter: It’s great and it’s actually very much the flavor of how you’ve written this book, which is very human, it’s very human. It just goes back to the 35,000 point checklist. There’s a million things that you can actually do, but who you are and how you show up feels like a very, very important piece of it, maybe the most important piece. It’s the platform that you stand on in order to move forward, or the springboard or whatever metaphor you want. But, it feels really, really critical and the having fun piece is really an element of the being human piece.

Sanyin: It tickles the curiosity. What if we do this? That ‘what if this’ could be absolutely outrageous, but let’s try it and see what happens.

Peter: It feels like it was much easier when we were in college to have that kind of an imagination and, hey let’s try this, and hey let’s try that and then as the stakes get higher and you have responsibilities, and families, then it feels like it becomes a little harder to be playful and all the more important to be playful. To sort of tap back into that imagination.

It’s where pulling all of these pieces together, the questions that you ask, allowing questions to be open questions, the what if and the why, then really understanding who you are and building your tribe, connecting with people you like and being imaginative. All of these things are things I almost think we were better at, at 20, than we are at 50 and we have to relearn them.

Sanyin: Or, we’re better at when we’re age seven. I mean, back in the start-

Peter: Or seven, yeah I agree with you. Or age five, I agree with you 100%.

Sanyin: My daughter, she has an idea, my oldest is eight and she loves drawing, and she has an idea and she just goes and does it. And I’m like, how, okay … at some point you have to put energy into this, you come up with the idea, you put energy into it, but you’re not afraid of failing, you’re just curious about how the idea will play out.

We self edit so much because we’re afraid of, I don’t know, what are we afraid of? We’re afraid of judgment, or we’re afraid it might not be nearly what we imagined it to be.

Peter: Right. What I would say, and this is, you know, my next book that’s coming out in the middle of next year on emotional courage, is what we’re afraid of is feeling.

Sanyin: What a great … emotional courage?

Peter: Yeah.

Sanyin: Okay, that-

Peter: And we’re afraid of feeling, like there’s some feeling we’re afraid of. We’re not afraid of actually failing, we’re afraid of the feeling that would come if we failed. So, we’re afraid of feeling things and the big challenge is to be willing to feel stuff, and if you’re willing to feel stuff …

When you’re seven, I don’t think you’re necessarily feeling what we feel at 50, at failure. I think they’re not feeling that so it’s easier to do that at seven than it is at 50, but the question is, can you maintain that seven year old curiosity and wonder and live with whatever feelings might be uncomfortable for you in the context of trying new things and imagining, et cetera.

Sanyin: Yes. Okay, so on emotional courage, I would go even a step further to say it’s not only being able trying to feel, or being comfortable with feeling, it’s imperative to feel. So, something I learned from Coach K on leadership and how Coach K coaches, is he said, “It’s not enough for your people to know it, they have to feel it.” He Disneyfies things. He brings in music and videos, you feel like you’re in the middle of a Disney movie because you feel everything he’s saying. We have to think about feeling.

Peter: Her book is The Launch Book, right here, this is what it looks like if you’re watching on video. Motivational Stories to Launch Your Idea, Business or Next Career. Sanyin Siang, thank you so much for being with us on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Sanyin: Peter, thank you so much for having me and I can’t wait for your next book. That’s a book I want to read, emotional courage.

Peter: Awesome, thank you. Also, you did great. If this was your first video podcast, you did great.

Sanyin: Well, I have a good member on the launch tribe.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process.
For more information about that, or to access all of my article, videos and podcasts, visit Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode and thank you for listening.