Lars Schmidt

Founder, Amplify

1. Do you remember a time when you were happiest as a child? Where were you, who were you with and what were you doing?

I was five and it was summer in Connecticut. It was right before my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and we moved to Florida. My dad was an avid sailor and we had a 43-foot sailboat. We’d load up on provisions and tookake weeklong sailing excursions all around the Long Island Sound and surrounding areas. It was a magical experience for a kid who loved the water.

2. What seemed like an inconsequential decision at the time, but in hindsight turned out to fundamentally reshape your life?

My job running talent & innovation at NPR changed the trajectory of my career – but I almost didn’t take the offer. The commute was brutal, the salary was lower than what I had been making, and the title was two levels below my most recent role (moving from VP to Director).

I was about to decline the offer but my wife convinced me to take a few days to really think about the pros and cons and what I’d gain from the experience. Looking back it was the best career decision I ever made.

3. What habit or behaviour or belief have you recently acquired? Why is it now in your life?

I’m not a morning person. At. All. In January 2019 I had just read David Goggin’s Can’t Hurt Me and his message of self-reliance and motivation resonated with me. So I joined a 6am Crossfit class to get my day started with exercise. I made a commitment and have stuck with it ever since – at least on the weekdays.

Like a lot of people, exercise, diet and weight management has always been a battle for me. My ability to make this change and assert control allowed me to make a fitness plan I’ve (*mostly) been able to maintain.

*Turns out maintaining healthy habits during a global pandemic is a bit trickier.

4. When was the last time you changed your mind about something really important? What was it and what led you to change your view?

I consider myself fairly progressive. I certainly viewed myself as “not racist” up until May of this year. After George Floyd’s murder and the renewed conversation around systemic racism I did a lot of soul searching about my own behavior, habits, and patterns.

To be perfectly honest, I had never heard the term “antiracist” before this summer. I didn’t understand the diametrically opposed states of being were not racist or “not racist”, but racist or antiracist.

I’m learning that being antiracist is a journey that requires constant introspection and action. I’ve spent the last several months reading books, having conversations, researching, and educating myself with the aim of being more proactively and thoughtfully antiracist.

5. What’s one misconception people generally have about you?

Most people who know me well, or casually through work, view me as an upbeat and positive person. That’s true, but few know or understand that my demeanor and the way I carry myself was forged as a coping mechanism to deal with childhood trauma and pain.

When I was five, my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. By the time I was a young teenager the disease had progressed to the point of her being a quadriplegic. My older brother left the house to join the Navy and my father ran a business where he worked six days a week. That meant I spent a lot of time as my mom’s primary caretaker.

She was incredibly brave and never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her. I didn’t want her to see how difficult it was for me to see her in this condition, so I learned to suppress and compartmentalize my feelings of sadness, anger, and pain. It became subconscious; I didn’t even recognize I was doing it. I just disconnected with some of those emotions. She died in 2000 and it took quite a while to reconcile that grief.

In 2010 I lost my father to cancer. In 2015 I lost my only brother, and my last family member, to opioid addiction. The grief and pain of burying your family is indescribable. It’s something I always carry with me.

I started therapy after my brother Kai died. I couldn’t shake the grief. My wife encouraged me to see a therapist. I needed help. Therapy helped me to better understand some of the underlying trauma and grief that shapes who I am.

Everything I’ve been through has led me to become the person that I am today. I wouldn’t wish the pain I carry on anyone, but I’m grateful for how it molded me and shaped my appreciation for life. The optimist that most people see is the person that I am – there’s just more depth to that story.

6. If you wrote a ‘user manual’ for how people should interact with you, what would be the most important point in the manual?

I move from “wouldn’t it be cool to…” to “let’s build this!” in lightning speed. Once I lock onto an idea I’m sprinting to get it out into the world. Because many of my projects follow that trajectory, people who have more of a deliberate and calculated style can get frustrated with me.

7. What is that thing which is OK to ask you about, but which other people are wary to do so?

I’ll give you two things – addiction and grief.

I didn’t know much about addiction before losing my brother. I’ve learned a lot since, and one of the biggest issues is the stigma around it that prevents addicts from getting the help they need – and puts a heavy burden on their loved ones, who feel helpless. I want to use Kai’s death as a platform to change perceptions and bring more awareness, empathy, and understanding towards addiction.

Grief is another topic I’m willing to explore candidly. Obviously, it’s a topic I have a lot of firsthand experience with. I know the pain that grief causes, and the emotions and feelings that come with it. I make it a point to reach out to friends who’ve lost loved ones. Not to offer any magical words that will take away their pain – those don’t exist – but just to lend support and love as I know what they’re going through.

8. On what topic would you never make a joke? Why?

Racism. It’s not funny.

9. What’s the last image on your camera roll? Care to explain?

It’s actually not a photo but a screenshot of an image of Kamala Harris and Ruby Bridges. I’m writing this the Monday after our election. There’s a deep sense of relief in the outcome, but also a recognition of our first Black VP, our first South Asian VP, and first female VP. I’ve seen hundreds of photos, memes, etc. over the past week – but the profoundness of this image really resonated with me.

The United States has a lot of work ahead of it. We’re as divided as ever, and no single election can erase that reality. My hope is that we begin to heal with those who seek healing, while confronting the honest reality that not everyone do

10. What is your most prized possession? What’s the story behind it?

I have three tattoos that represent my family. A nautical compass on my left arm that’s a tribute to my father. A chevron on my right forearm with three marks to represent the family members I’ve lost – my mom, dad, and brother. A rising sun tattoo on my upper right arm that represents a new chapter in my life with my own family.

11. Aside from family & friends, if you could invite any 3 people - living or dead - to your final dinner party before the end of the world, who would they be and why?

These questions usually orient towards celebrity or historical figures. By those standards I’d pick Barack Obama, Anthony Bourdain, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I know this question excludes friends and family, but if I’m being real – it would be my mom, dad, and brother.

12. If you were to survive the zombie apocalypse, what role would you play in the new society that would follow?

I would nominate myself for the Chief Community Officer. I think it’s an essential leadership role in a zombie apocalypse, and one I hope I’m qualified for.

13. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?

Build a good name.

14. What's a skill that isn’t on your resume, but your former bosses would recognize as one of the reasons you are successful?

Resilience. I’ve had to overcome a lot in my life. I’m always going to find a way to overcome barriers and adversity.

15. What’s the one bad quality you wouldn’t mind in a colleague? Why?

Impatience, because I share that trait.

16. What hiring heuristic do you generally go with?

Hiring manager satisfaction. (Corporate) Recruiting is a service. I’d rather my hiring managers be happy with the level of service they’re getting than almost any other metric.

Related, time-to-hire is a bullshit metric.

17. Name one person from your professional life who has had an extraordinary impact on your career. What did they do and what did you learn from that person?

Beverly Carmichael. She was Ticketmaster’s CHRO when I was running recruiting there, which meant she was my boss. I learned so much from her. She shaped my views on what progressive HR could be. She believed in me even when I had self-doubt. I wouldn’t be where I am without her. She remains a mentor and great friend.

18. What common wisdom in our industry needs to be debunked?

Success is zero-sum. We fall into bullshit traps like “war for talent” which lead us to believe others must fail for us to succeed. Whether in practice, like recruiting, or in our heads, like “thought leadership” or “50 Top X” listicles. It’s a manufactured competition.

Give it away like Anthony Kiedis. Don’t hoard your practices, tools, and knowledge for your own betterment. Share, support, give it away. That’s what moves our field forward. We can all win.

19. What’s the one question that we should’ve asked you, but wasn’t on this list?

What’s your biggest professional regret, and why?

20. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 Questions With … ?

Matt Charney. He’s one of the best writers in the business – and probably one of the least understood people.

Thank you to Lars Schmidt or taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune. Lars hotly anticipated new book – Redefining HR – is available for pre-order. Get your copy here

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