Prepare to be inspired by the remarkable journey of Todd Cherches, a visionary leader who wears many hats! He is the CEO and cofounder of BigBlueGumball, a New York City-based management consulting firm specialising in leadership development and executive coaching. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
Todd is not your ordinary leader; he’s a member of the prestigious “MG 100 Coaches” by Marshall Goldsmith, a three-time award-winning adjunct professor of leadership at NYU, a lecturer on leadership at Columbia University, a TEDx speaker, and the author of the groundbreaking book, VisuaLeadership: Leveraging the Power of Visual Thinking in Leadership and in Life (Post Hill Press/Simon Schuster, 2020).
Todd’s pioneering work in the realm of “Visual Leadership” and “Visual Coaching” has earned him global recognition. In fact, he was one of the eight global finalists for the 2021 Thinkers50 “Distinguished Achievement Award” in Leadership. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, he’s consistently ranked as a Top 50 global thought leader and influencer by both Thinkers360 and the PowerList200.
In this exclusive interview, we find out more about Todd’s extraordinary career, his groundbreaking concepts in VisuaLeadership and the transformative power of his insights. Todd also reveals his personal passions outside of work. Ready? Let’s dive in…
You’re known for your expertise in ‘VisuaLeadership®.’ Could you provide a brief overview of this concept and how it can transform leadership practices in today’s world…
In brief, “visual leadership” – or what I have branded and trademarked as “VisuaLeadership®” – is the creative application of visual thinking and visual communication methodologies to the practice of management and leadership.
I tend to break it down into the following Four Ways to Think and Communicate More Visually: visual imagery and drawing; mental models and frameworks; metaphors and analogies; and storytelling and humour.
And each of these techniques is even more effective and powerful when used in combination. Why visuals? Because, as humans, we are wired to think visually; so, when we leverage this approach, it helps us to think and communicate more effectively so that others will be better able to “see” what we’re saying.
Without getting too deeply into all the brain science behind it, on a simply practical level, the use of visual imagery and/or visual language helps to enhance “Attention, Comprehension, and Retention” by getting people to focus, to understand, and to remember.
Let’s talk about VisuaLeadership: Leveraging the Power of Visual Thinking in Leadership and in Life. What inspired you to write it, and what are the key takeaways you hope readers gain from it?
As a highly visual person, I always found that using visually-oriented techniques helped me to understand, learn, and remember things more effectively than words or numbers alone. This included picturing abstract concepts in my “mind’s eye,” sketching out ideas, drawing diagrams, mind-mapping, creating mental models and frameworks, colour-coding, and translating intangible ideas into metaphors, analogies, and stories so as to wrap my head around them.
The term “mind’s eye” by the way, was coined by Shakespeare in Hamlet, when the title character did not know if the ghost of his father was an actual apparition… or a figment of his imagination!
So, as a poet and master storyteller, Shakespeare was most definitely one of the great visual thinkers, visual communicators, and visual leaders of all-time. And, as a former English Literature major who worked in Hollywood developing tv shows early in my career, my background in the arts and humanities – including my study of Shakespeare – has had a tremendous impact on my work. So, in terms of what inspired me to write my book, it was my desire to teach others how they, too, can leverage the power of visual thinking in their work.
Your company, BigBlueGumball, focuses on management and leadership consulting, training, and executive coaching. Can you share an example of a client’s transformation that you found particularly inspiring?
Wow! That’s a tough question, as there are so many examples to choose from over the past 20 years! But the first one that came to mind is one I wrote about in chapter 4 of my book, VisuaLeadership, entitled, “How My 30-Second Napkin Sketch Solved a Client’s Multimillion-Dollar Problem.”
One of my executive coaching clients, a VP of sales for a global pharma company, was frustrated by the underperformance of two of his senior-level European sales reps.
Without getting into all the details, the bottom line was that each rep was not meeting expectations, and it was costing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in lost revenue.
Based on my client’s explanation of the problem, a potential solution occurred to me that seemed so simple and obvious that I felt stupid even suggesting it. But I went ahead anyway: Picking up pen and paper, I sketched out a rough diagram of the country and said, “What if instead of dividing the geographic territories into East and West (visually putting an ”X” through those two areas), you change it to North and South (which I circled, at the top and bottom of the map)… and you reassign the reps to these two redistricted regions.” After a brief pause, he exclaimed, “OMG – that’s it! That would solve the problem!”
The overarching issue was that my client was too close to the situation – and his brain so clouded by all the details and personalities involved – that it took an outsider with an unbiased, 30,000-foot view who was able to “see things though a new lens” – as well as skilled enough to “paint a picture” of what was possible. This story is a powerful real-life illustration of a picture being worth a thousand words… as well as millions of dollars!
You’re a member of Marshall Goldsmith’s MG 100 Coaches. What does this mean to you?Also, how has it influenced your approach to coaching and leadership? Finally, what have been some of the most valuable lessons or insights you’ve gained from collaborating with other top coaches and thought leaders?
Marshall Goldsmith, the world’s #1 executive coach and the author of the bestselling classic, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, launched his 100 Coaches program a few years ago to personally mentor the next generation of top executive coaches and leaders in the world. Internally, the group’s purpose is to connect to each other, learn from each other, and amplify the work of one another.
Externally, the mission is to follow Marshall’s lead to help others achieve positive, lasting change in their work and in their lives.
So, I am incredibly honoured to have been nominated and selected to become a member of this amazing global community of coaches, authors, and thought leaders.
One of the things I’ve found most incredible is how extremely kind, generous, and supportive the members of this group are. When I first joined and saw the roster of world-renowned speakers, bestselling authors, etc. – I immediately experienced an extreme case of imposter syndrome.
However, once I discovered what a caring and collaborative community this was, I soon became much more comfortable. And one of the main things I learned – a realisation I found to be extremely freeing and comforting – was that no one in the group (including Marshall) felt or acted as if they had all the answers.
No matter how brilliant, rich, or famous, we are all just trying to figure it out. And through our mission and practice of connection and learning, we are all working on figuring it out together – knowing that the reality is we will never get there.
So, it is the journey, and not the destination, that matters.
As an author and coach, you’ve likely encountered various leadership styles. What’s one leadership style or approach that you find particularly interesting or effective?
Many people associate leadership with character traits like power, poise, confidence, and charisma. These stereotypical associations are common because they tend to be the most visible. But I’ve learned over the years that there is a quieter and gentler style of leadership that is also very effective – and, in many cases, even more effective. This is the concept of what is often referred to as “servant leadership” or what Jim Collins in Good to Great identified as “Level 5 Leadership.” In this type of leadership, it is not about the leader, but about those being led. It is about seeing your role and responsibility not as the star, but about creating the next generation of stars. It is not about making all the big decisions, but about creating a culture and climate of ownership, empowerment, and accountability.
It is not about having all the answers, but about asking the right questions – and then listening for the best answers. One of my favourite quotes, by the Confucian philosopher Lao Tzu is, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, the people will say, ‘We did it all by ourselves’.”
Could you share one or two powerful visual metaphors from your book that can help leaders better understand and navigate complex challenges?
In a “nutshell,” while a lot of people associate the use of metaphors, analogies, idioms, etc., primarily with poets and songwriters, incorporating these figures of speech into one’s messaging can dramatically enhance a leader’s ability to think more creatively and communicate more effectively.
In chapter 29 of my book, I discuss how a lot of business professionals use the words management and leadership interchangeably. So, to clarify the important distinction, I might say that, “Managers look through a microscope, while leaders look through a telescope.” Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. When we are managing, we must look down and deep into the details… as if through a microscope; and when we are leading, our focus should be on the big picture and long-term vision… as if searching far and wide through a telescope.
Similarly, I might say that “Managers are playing checkers, while leaders are playing chess.” How? It’s the same board and a similar game… but, like chess, leadership has a higher level of complexity, is more strategic, and – unlike checkers, in which the pieces are interchangeable – those on a chess board each have their own distinct abilities and strengths. Understanding this distinction will help people to think about whether they are solving a management-related or a leadership-related problem (or some combination thereof).
So, if a leader were to express to his or her team that he or she is looking for them to get to the root of a problem, plant the seed for new ideas, branch out in new directions, take some risks by going out on a limb, and figure out which ideas will bear the most fruit, it is obvious that the use of metaphors – in this case, a nature or tree analogy – is a normal part of our everyday language. It’s just a matter of being more aware of them, and then becoming more creative and strategic in using them.
As an adjunct professor at NYU and Columbia University where you teach graduate courses in leadership, you have the opportunity to influence future leaders. What do you hope students take away from your teachings on VisuaLeadership?
The way I incorporate visual thinking and visual communication techniques into my teaching helps my students to better “see” what I’m saying and understand the material, while, at the same time, allowing them to experience this methodology and approach firsthand.
So, in terms of “Attention, Comprehension, and Retention,” my visual teaching techniques help my students to focus, to understand, and to remember – while enhancing their ability to apply, out in the world, what they’ve learned in the class.
The various methods I use include highly visual and well-designed slides, props, demonstrations, drawing exercises, gamification, puzzles, brainteasers, metaphors and analogies, mental models and frameworks, visual storytelling, humour, and more. As many of my students are international students where English is not their first language, these visual and experiential techniques cut across language and cultural barriers to create understanding, as well as allowing all students to “see” the world through a new lens… and “envision” themselves as leaders of the future.
In a world where text-based communication often dominates, how can leaders effectively incorporate visual communication into their leadership style to enhance understanding and engagement?
As previously mentioned, when you use visual imagery and/or visual language, it helps to increase “Attention, Comprehension, and Retention” by getting people to focus, understand, and remember. That’s just the way our brains are wired. Two of the scientific principles at play here are the Picture Superiority Effect (PSE) and Dual-Coding Theory.
The PSE says that when text and images battle it out, the pictures win. That’s why, as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words!
Dual-Coding Theory says that when you use BOTH text AND imagery in combination, it is more effective than either one or the other on their own.
For example, my research shows that:
- People are more likely to read a blog post that contains an image than one that doesn’t
- People are more likely to be engaged by a book that contains images than one that is all text
- People are more likely to be drawn to colour images than black-and-white images.
- People are more likely to buy a product from an ad, or on Amazon or eBay, or order a food item from a menu, if it includes a picture
- People are more likely to accept a LinkedIn invitation from someone if their profile includes a headshot than one that doesn’t
- People are more likely to read a social media comment if it also includes an emoji than if it is text only
- People are more likely to pay attention to a PowerPoint presentation when it contains images than if it just contains bullet points or text
- People are more likely to be engaged, impacted, and influenced by a presentation that contains metaphors and stories than one that is just filled with facts and figures
And the list goes on and on. I think you can “see” what I’m saying. So, my main message for leaders is “Don’t just tell us… show us.” You need to be able to paint a picture of a better future and create a mental movie in the minds of others if you aspire to engage people in your ideas and get them inspired to help turn your visions into realities.
How do you believe technology, such as infographics, data visualization, and multimedia presentations, is changing the landscape of leadership and communication?
Visual communication dates back over 40,000 years to the primitive drawings on cave walls. And modern alphabets evolved in Egypt and China from hieroglyphics and pictographs approximately 4,000-5000 BC. So, recent visual innovations – yes, including emojis and infographics – are simply the latest technological advances available to help us make the invisible visible. And now, we have A.I., which is going to take everything to a whole new level.
When it comes to infographics and data visualisation, for example, a big part of business presentations is delivering numbers: Quarterly earnings, sales trends, employee engagement scores, customer satisfaction metrics, etc. But the problem is that so many leaders bore people to death with statistics that their messaging gets lost in the clutter. So, one of the things I say to leaders is that your numbers are meaningless… outside of their context, and the story you are trying to tell.
For leaders, data visualisations and infographics – charts, diagrams, progress bars, etc. – when accompanied by the use of metaphors, analogies, and stories, can help you to focus on trends and patterns, and insights and actions, rather than presenting a mind-numbing recitation of meaningless digits. Peter Drucker famously said that “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” And, to that I would add that you need to turn those measurements into messages, and communicate them in such a way as to support your mission, vision, and strategy.
Remember that people are not motivated and inspired by facts and figures; they are motivated by feelings… and an inspirational leadership vision that instills in them a sense of passion and purpose.
What’s one surprising or unconventional way that art or visual media has influenced your thinking and approach to leadership and communication?
As I speak about in the opening lines of my TEDx talk, when I was a little kid I was obsessed with television (and then, later on, movies). After that, in high school and university, the focus of my studies was English literature and poetry. So, what is the connection here? All of these various mediums have to do with some combination of visual imagery, creative language, character development, plot, and storytelling!
Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are villains, victims, and heroes. There is a goal or a quest. And obstacles, barriers, or challenges that stand in the way and need to be overcome. And, at some point, there is a resolution, a transformation, and lessons learned.
So, whether the medium is tv, film, music, novels, poems, business, or life, we can leverage many of the same basic techniques to lead people on a journey, and transport them from where they are to a new world of possibility.
How do you balance the use of visuals with the need for clarity and precision in conveying leadership messages and strategies?
There’s a brain science principle known as “Dual-coding Theory” that says (*please note that I’m over-simplifying an extremely complex concept here) that when you combine both visual AND verbal information together (i.e., visual imagery accompanied by words and/or numbers), it is more effective than either on their own.
In other words, a visual image (e.g., a picture, or an emoji), by itself, may not be self-explanatory. And a verbal message (whether spoken or written) may or may not be clearly understood. However, when you combine visuals, images AND verbal messages together, you dramatically enhance the probability that your message will be both understood and remembered. That’s why the expression, “Show and Tell” is universal.
For example, a leader delivering a presentation can visually show a PowerPoint slide containing a chart, graph, process map, diagram or other data visualisation or infographic… and expect the audience to interpret and understand the intended message on their own. Or… the presenter can verbally deliver a message – without the use of any visuals – and the audience may or may not hear or understand the explanation.
However, if the presenter wants the audience to “see what they’re saying” more clearly, a verbal explanation combined with a memorable image will dramatically enhance the audience’s “Attention (focus), Comprehension (understanding), and Retention (recall).”
If you could recommend one visual exercise or practice for leaders to incorporate into their daily routine to enhance their VisuaLeadership skills, what would it be?
Wow! That’s a challenge to limit it to just one! But if I had to, I would start with “the art of noticing” (which happens to be the title of a wonderful book on the subject by Rob Walker). Start to be more aware of the use of visual imagery and visual language all around you. Keep your eyes – and your ears – open for the use of visual images and objects, models and frameworks, metaphors and analogies, and storytelling in everyday life – both at work and in life.
As Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” So, this is about developing the daily practice of seeing the world through a fresh new lens.
Metaphorically, for example, I often talk about the difference between looking through a microscope and looking through a telescope. As a manager/leader, sometimes you need to metaphorically look through a “microscope” – delving down and deep into the details. And, other times, you need to metaphorically look through a “telescope” – peering far and wide to formulate and then to communicate your vision of the future. And still other times, you may want to gaze through a metaphorical “kaleidoscope,” in the spirit of exploration and discovery, where the rainbow colours of the prism may serve as a catalyst to inspire your next innovation.
Once you are more aware and more skilled in the art of noticing, the next step would be to be more intentional and more strategic in terms of how you apply visual thinking and visual communication tools, tips, and techniques in your own work and life.
As a leadership coach, you guide individuals in their personal and professional growth. What’s one piece of advice you often find yourself giving to aspiring leaders?
The rainbow-coloured eye on the cover of my book, VisuaLeadership, symbolises the fact that just as no one in the world has an eye of that colour, no one in the world sees the world through the same exact lens as you do.
So, what you need to do is “flip the eye” on yourself to look inwardly, and question everything you know and everything you believe.
Realise and admit that the lens through which you see the world – what you see… as well as what you miss – is a distorted one. It is a reflection of your unique background, education, culture, life experiences, biases, and assumptions. So, it is only when we seek to see the world through a fresh, new lens that we open up our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to a whole new world of possibilities.
Secondly, and of equal importance, we should not only “flip the eye” on ourselves, but we should seek to see the world through the lens of others – in the spirit of diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging. We need to remember that our job as leaders is not just to turn our visions into realities, but to help develop the next generation of leaders, and help them to turn their visions into realities as well.
How do you balance the need for individualised coaching with the broader principles of leadership and executive development when working with a diverse range of clients?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for anything or anyone. And it’s rarely an “either/or” option; it’s usually an “and.” So, when working with a diverse range of clients, I’ve found it best to incorporate a variety of learning modalities that may include coaching, training, assessments, reading books, reading articles and blog posts, watching videos, listening to podcasts, etc.
There’s a saying in our field that “Managers are trained; leaders are developed.” This is why we distinguish between “management training” and “leadership development.” And I am also reminded of the phrase, “Manage the process; lead the people.”
For example, I can “train” someone in an 8-step delegation process, or teach them how to use my “Passion/Skill Matrix®” or “PowerDial® model to solve a problem. Those are process-based frameworks by which to better understand a concept, assess a situation, or discover a solution. However, if someone wants to become a better leader, that does not happen overnight… but over time.
The word “development” in “leadership development” implies an incremental, evolutionary process of growth and transformation that can only take place over an extended period of time. So, diverse clients, in diverse situations, require diverse short-term and long-term options and solutions.
Beyond your professional roles, what’s a personal passion or interest that brings you joy and inspiration, and how does it influence your work as a coach and author?
There’s that saying, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Well, that’s not exactly true, as I love what I do AND I work pretty hard at it. But as I do love what I do, and as I have an insatiable passion for reading, thinking, and learning – and as (unfortunately) my brain seems to have no “off switch” – my personal passions and interests and my work are very much intertwined.
So, learning and teaching bring me joy and inspiration, and I am always very aware that lessons in visual leadership are always hiding in plain sight, waiting to be discovered. That is just the lens through which I see the world… whether I am at work or at play, and I try to instil this appreciation in others.
What’s one travel destination on your bucket list that’s not typically found in travel guides, and what intrigues you about it?
Hmmm, that’s an interesting one! I am embarrassed to say that I have not travelled very much, globally, in my life…though I would like to. As an ancient history buff, Greece and Italy sit atop the list of places on my bucket list (even though, yes, they are typically found in popular travel guides).
But the place that I have been to once (way too briefly), that intrigues me the most is Stratford-on-Avon – the birthplace of Shakespeare.
As a former English Literature major who read the complete works of Shakespeare by the age of 18, the Bard, his work, and that time period, are somewhat of an obsession with me, and I would love to be able to go back and immerse myself there for an extended period of time.
Let’s explore your creative side. Do you have any hidden talents or artistic pursuits that you enjoy?
Unfortunately, I must confess that I do not have any traditional creative talents when it comes to art, music, etc.
However, I am extremely creative – relative to my work – in terms of my thinking, my writing, my use of visual imagery, objects, and language, design thinking, and the incorporation of fun, humour, and play into everything I do.
So, in those ways I would say that I am fairly creative and artistic.
What’s a surprising or unusual fact about you that people might not expect, something that doesn’t typically come up in your professional bio or interviews?
With what I do for a living – running my own leadership consulting, training, and executive coaching firm, teaching at two world-class universities, keynote speaking, guesting on over 200 podcast interviews, etc. – most people assume that I am a highly confident and outgoing extrovert. But the surprising truth is the exact opposite: I am, and always have been, an extreme introvert.
I would describe myself as a “3 B’s” guy – a Back-of-the-room, Behind-the-scenes Bookworm, by nature.
So, until around 20 years ago, I never in a million years would have envisioned doing for a living what I do today.
For most of my life, I suffered from extreme social anxiety and a debilitating fear of public speaking – not only on stage, but anytime I had to talk to anyone. So, it is only as a result of years of practice and pushing myself far beyond my comfort zone and into “the zone of the unknown” that I am able to do, and enjoy, what I do today.
What was the best piece of advice you were ever given?
From my father: “Things don’t matter. The only thing that really matters is people.”
We often hear about your professional achievements, but can you share a personal achievement or moment in your life that you’re particularly proud of?
Getting up the courage to ask my beautiful and brilliant (and extremely funny) wife to marry me. That was 17 years ago, and by far the best decision I ever made and the greatest personal achievement of my life.
Your work involves helping leaders reach their full potential. Can you share a defining moment from your own life when you realised your own potential, and how did it shape your path?
I believe that we are all in the process of “becoming.” Striving to be a better version of ourselves. As the saying goes, you need to “measure yourself against your own yardstick” – not compare or measure yourself against others… because you will never, ever “win” that game. There is always going to be someone, somewhere, more successful, richer, stronger, faster, smarter, better looking, more confident, happier, etc.
So, in terms of helping leaders to reach their full potential, this is an important message I always want to convey… otherwise, they will never be content, satisfied, or at peace with who they are. This is not to say that you should settle; far from it. You should acknowledge and congratulate yourself for who and what you have “become” – while continuously working on the new and improved version of You.
As per the title of my favourite leadership book, written by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” – wherever that “there” is for you – unless you are willing to learn and grow.
As for me, I always say that the phrase “career path” is not an accurate metaphor.
My professional journey has been more of a 30-year-long “career roller coaster” – of ups and downs, twists and turns, exhilarating highs, and terrifying plummets. But every inch of that roller coaster ride has led me to who and where I am today.
Nelson Mandela famously said, “I never lose. I either win, or I learn.” So, every setback and every success has been a lesson learned, as well as a step forward on my leadership and learning journey.
Among the most memorable highlights: Overseeing the installation of a theme park project in China. My first VP title (and salary). Designing a Leadership Institute. Starting my own executive coaching firm. Becoming an adjunct professor at NYU (and winning three teaching awards), followed by Columbia University. Delivering a TEDx talk (after five previous rejections of my application). Writing and publishing my book. Having an article published in the New York Times. Each of these accomplishments has been a step forward on my career journey and, after celebrating each success, served as a prompt to ask, “OK… what next?”
Finally, outside of your professional roles, what’s something you’ve always wanted to learn or try but haven’t had the opportunity to explore yet?
I’d like to start using video more. I have no shortage of content, so I’d like to create eLearning courses based on my book, VisuaLeadership. I’d like to have a YouTube channel. I’d like to start putting my stuff out there on TikTok. But I want to do it right – with graphics, visuals, etc. Technology is not an area of expertise for me, and – although it’s not rocket science – it does take some time, attention, and mental energy to figure it all out. This has been on my “Todd-Do List” for ages; I just have not been able to make it a priority.
And non-work-wise? I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano. Maybe someday, after I retire!