Edward Beltran is an advocate for being uncomfortable.
As a young man, discomfort was something that was first thrust upon him — as he experienced the gentrification of his San Jose, Calif., neighborhood — and, eventually, something that he sought out, when he left the comfort of California to study accounting and computer information systems at Arizona State University. “I felt like I just needed to expand my experiences outside of California,” says Beltran. “It was an exhilarating experience, just meeting a lot of people from outside of California.”
Realizing that public accounting was not for him, Beltran once again found comfort in the unknown when he dove head first into the startup scene. But he didn’t stop there.
“I got recruited into a startup, which was in the ambulatory surgery center space, and I found it so much fun and so exhilarating being on this ride, if you will, of growth,” he says. “That’s when I realized how much I didn’t know in life or in business, and that drove me to get my MBA.”
As a Consortium fellow in the class of 2007, Beltran attended the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, where he experienced a similarly thrilling atmosphere. “When I went to Michigan, it was a whirlwind. There was so much going on — it was so fast. I felt like it was an open area for exploration,” he says. “I actually felt behind at times, but the support of The Consortium, the support of the students who I met in the program was phenomenal.”
With his MBA in hand, in 2017, Beltran joined as CFO with Fierce, Inc. — which is based on Susan Scott’s bestselling book — and is now leading the company as its CEO. At Fierce, Beltran has the opportunity to infuse startup culture and innovation into the 20-year-old business while also making a difference for companies. There, he is helping organizations, from Fortune 100s to emerging startups, become more comfortable with being uncomfortable by having open, honest and difficult conversations.
Beltran recently shared his journey to Fierce and how, through uncomfortable conversations, they are improving how people communicate and, ultimately, transforming workplace culture.
What attracted you to Fierce?
I started seeing bad leadership, and that’s what brought me to Fierce. … I read Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations, and it asked the question, “What conversation have you missed to get you to this point?” I was currently in a company where leadership was disastrous. It was a toxic environment. That situation, along with reading Scott’s book and looking at Fierce, really realigned my passions around startups’ [ability to] scale but also make an impact. As soon as I saw that, I was like, “This is it. This is how you focus on leadership, this is how you help people learn — provide the tools that people need in their day-to-day.”
Can you explain what Fierce does?
Our mission is “to better the world, one conversation at a time.” We are a leadership and development company that teaches conversation techniques such as feedback, when to confront, delegation, how to learn, effective team meetings and so on, with impacts that help drive a positive organizational culture and interactions in your day to day. It really comes down to, “How do you take that abstract theory and bring it into application? How do you make it easier to connect the dots for folks [to have applications in the real world]?”
What challenges do most companies, as well as associates, face in having courageous or “fierce” conversations, and how do those affect the broader company and its culture?
Think about this: In your day-to-day life, you have millions of interactions, be it virtual or in-person. Out of those interactions, it’s natural to have confusion, additional questions, feelings of being offended. These are just natural human interactions. It happens in organizations to the Nth degree because of how many people there are and how interactions are happening.
If people aren’t engaging in these scenarios, it can lead to toxicity and turnover. For example, let’s pretend, in passing, you mentioned something around bad performance, and I’m like, “I don’t know what that means. Does it mean I’m in trouble, I’m not doing a good job?” I have a couple of options. One is I can walk away confused and upset, harbor feelings that turn into anxiety and worry, or I can engage and say, “OK, let’s talk about this. What did you mean by this?” You [may say], “Oh, this is what I meant. Actually, it was positive.” We clear it up. We enrich our relationship. My stress level goes down, and I’m able to focus on my job and drive the results I need for the organization. That is one example.
What we have found with the companies that we have worked with that successfully implement this [approach] is that is exactly what happens when people are having conversations that are necessary in the workplace. People aren’t walking away from it; they are asking questions. They are using it as an opportunity to learn and enrich the relationship and drive toward collaboration and innovation. Without these connections, we found that both of those are lacking and are impacting people and organizational performance.
How do you actually work with companies? What does that look like?
Our traditional approach is either instructor-led or virtual instructor-led [workshops]. We have one of our facilitators instructing the materials, then we have practice, and then we have sustainability tools. So when you leave these trainings, we have apps, for example, that provide all of the information at your fingertips — AI to help you determine the situation you are in, what conversation you need to have, and provide you with the right resources to do so.
The simulations help people put themselves in an environment where they can practice and increase their confidence — like how to confront a boss or how to provide negative feedback to an employee. What we’ve also done for populations that can’t be taken offline, such as retail employees or nurses, is we’ve created these immersive environments to get them to the punchline faster. What organizations love about that is, like in the case of nurses and [managing] COVID, they didn’t have to be taken offline. It was incredibly important for them to be able to have the tools to provide feedback or to confront doctors, with everything that was going on, and it allowed us to quickly deploy the solutions to them through their mobile device or through their computer via scenarios that were 15 minutes or less.
With all the challenges we’ve faced as a society over the last couple of years around the pandemic, racial and social issues, political divisions, remote work and workplace culture, how has what you do at Fierce changed? How have you had to evolve to address these challenges?
Prior to the pandemic, one of the pieces that I identified as the CFO upon my transition to CEO was really listening to what our clients were looking for. There are three pillars we pivoted our company on that actually fit in well with the needs of the pandemic. The first one is scale. Many organizations [aren’t aware of how to scale or how to reach more people in their organization.]
The second one is application. I’m pretty passionate about this area, which, instead of scary frameworks, is focused on how we get closer to what people are going to be dealing with in their day to day — like microaggressions, like being able to speak to political divisiveness and so on.
The last one is sustainability. Organizations can invest a lot of money in these trainings, but they’re doing them to [spark] a behavioral shift, to move their culture toward [one focused on] collaboration and inclusivity. However, the real world doesn’t work [like that], where you go through one or two days of training and you are completely changed. So, we really invested in digital infrastructures to facilitate a learner journey versus a one- or two-day training.
You mentioned that your trainings have applications in the diversity, equity and inclusion space. Can you explain?
We took the stance that we, as a company, don’t have to be experts on everything. With diversity, equity and inclusion, there are so many passionate people out there who love to do this work. They’re passionate about it, and they are professionals in that space. So, we have partnered with them.
For example, Dr. Yasmin Davids runs a leadership institute for women of color out of the University of Southern California. In partnering with her, I asked her a simple question: “What is one of the challenges your students face in their day-to-day interactions?” She said, “When they display the same mannerisms as their male counterparts, they’re typically labeled as bossy or angry, or any number of negative connotations.” She said she has addressed that using a technique which she calls “being graciously assertive.” So, what we did was create a number of simulations for them to practice so that when they go back to work, they’re not only skilled in theory about how to do this, but also in practice. So when one of their male employees is pushing back on them because of a negative review, they know how to address it.
In the microaggression space, we’ve partnered with a gentleman named Kaplan Mobray who is phenomenal. Some of the work we’ve done is specifically focused on racial microaggressions, but we also touch upon disabilities. One of the microaggressions that I absolutely love because it causes a lot of controversy is someone calling a reference for a Black employee, and the referrer says to the person asking for the reference, “Oh, I would recommend so-and-so; they’re very articulate.” This microaggression is actually very common, and not a lot of people realize that. So again, in these interactions, somebody can respond angrily, or they can walk away and say, “Wow, that person is racist.” That then creates a toxic environment.
What we’re trying to teach through the simulations is how to engage to make [moments like this] an opportunity for learning. In this case, explaining why referring to a Black employee as articulate is considered offensive (assuming good intent, would you refer to a white employee as articulate?). On top of that, being able to explain that this is a common thread you hear, so that, even though the person may not have intended to be offensive, it is an opportunity for learning. So we’ve created two directions in the scenarios to create empathy on both sides.
What advice do you have for both individual employees and companies when it comes to having these conversations in the workplace?
I think it is important to realize that our workforce demographics are changing and that people want environments that are more inclusive and open to conversation.
So, I’m 44; I came up in a different time, if you will, and I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from senior managers or leaders things such as, “Don’t let them see you sweat,” or “This is just how things are.” What we’re finding — and what many people are finding with new generations coming in — is that’s not good enough. We want to empower people to be able to have conversations, not monologues.
For example, feedback isn’t a monologue. It’s not a one-directional thing. It’s not saying, “You did this.” It is saying, “I’ve noticed these things. Let’s talk about this,” — and giving you the opportunity to respond, to say, “Oh, I didn’t know that. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.” Or, “OK, that’s great advice. Thank you.” It is a conversation. What we found through our research is that it is way more impactful than just [focusing on] theory and it being one-directional.
Where the rubber meets the road is in these day-in and day-out interactions, giving people the tools to be able to interact with one another, to clear up confusion, to add to clarity, to be more efficient. That’s what we teach. We’re not competing with other organizational initiatives. At the core of it, we’re actually enabling them.