For the past 30 years, Kristin (Ihle) Molinaroli has focused on accelerating human performance – both personally and professionally. Personally, she was a seven-time All-American collegiate athlete who was sponsored by Nike in her post collegiate running career. She was on 7 different USA teams, including 2 World Championship Teams. She was a 2-time USA Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field – qualified for the 5k and 10K in 1996, Atlanta and again in 2000, Sacramento, CA. She consistently was in the Top 10 USA Ranking for track & field, cross country, and road racing (3k, 4k, 8k, 10k, 15k).
Professionally, she earned her Ph.D. in Multicultural Psychology with a minor in Statistics and began consulting in sports psychology with NCAA teams and individual athletes. She has a strong research and appreciation for empirical research that has applied implications. She managed the office of research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for the entire School of Education. It is during those nearly 5 years where she honed her quantitative design and analyses skills. During her one year of clinical residency at Notre Dame she further developed her specialty in personal excellence within a team context, much of it through her consultative efforts with the Athletics Department, as well as the Law School and other academic units. Prior to joining Avant, she was the Associate Director for Graduate Career Services at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.
As president of Avant, Dr. (Ihle) Molinaroli is dedicated to talent, team and organizational performance for Fortune 500 companies and startups. The firm’s core practice focuses on coaching leaders and teams toward performance excellence, assessing goodness of fit for new hires, and enabling acquisition integration.
Dr. Molinaroli established Avant’s Research and Development division to create technology-enabled products. She understands how technology, systematically applied, can transform the traditional, one-on-one model from a time and budget-intensive format to one that is agile, accessible and scalable to companies of all sizes and talent at all levels. With that in mind, Avant launched its first two technology products – DEAL and LUMEN in 2017. Her patent pending app, LUMEN, is a talent development app that enables employee development, growth, retention and engagement through real-time feedback. Developing Employees as Leaders (DEAL) is a competency-based assessment that helps front-line to middle management guide employee career and development plans. Both DEAL and LUMEN are built to accelerate the learning cycle for employees.
She has international experience through her athletic, academic and consulting endeavors. She leverages her personal experiences and accomplishments as a world-class performer in her consulting work with individuals and organizations.
Where did the idea for LUMEN come from?
The genesis of our patent pending technology, LUMEN, occurred after a conversation with a distinguished professor at a local university. It reflects the intersection of sports performance, talent management challenges, and technology.
The Context. In 2015, I was on a call with Dr. Nadya Fouad to close out loose ends on a book chapter. Dr. Fouad is a distinguished professor at a Tier 1 research university in Counseling Psychology. We have over a 20-year relationship. While on a call I noticed her voice sounded different – when I asked her, she said “Oh, I am getting in my 10,000 steps while working in the kitchen.” Here was a professor who deeply understands human behavior and motivation, and values personal fitness – and yet technology of some sort was shaping her behavior on a goal she already knew was good for her. This was mind blowing for me. It wasn’t like she woke up one day and suddenly realized “Oh, I need 10,000 steps daily.” This was over 8 years ago so I do not know what technology was guiding her. A technology to nudge healthy habits and it was working. This was about encouraging good habits and making change stick. It struck me there had to be an application for technology in my professional world – human performance, change and continuous improvement.
A convergence of my experiences coupled with this conversation with Dr. Fouad led to the genesis of our patent pending technology, LUMEN – a talent development app that enhances employee development and engagement, accelerates learning, and retention by providing real-time feedback.
Here are the factors that converged to generate LUMEN
Factor 1: Sports Performance
In my personal experience as a professional athlete, I was inundated with feedback and data. As I helped NCAA teams and individual athletes in the realm of sports psychology we had access to all sorts of data – practice “film,” game film, in game play modification, on the field by teammates, coaching staff, and even fans. Real-time feedback and analysis of one’s opponent has enabled learning and performances. By the time a student-athlete is called into the coach’s office, he/she already knows what direction the conversation is headed due to the feedback rich environment.
Factor 2: Talent Management Today
It was easy to explore the constraints of a consulting service firm as well as those facing today’s corporations. There are a number of givens in the corporate world. The value of employees and benefits of feedback for growth and learning are “givens,” yet most organizations have 1 X year reviews. With 80% of corporate leaders seeing talent development as a key issue (Deloitte), it is ironic that much of the learning model and methods have remained unchanged for decades. Well-intended professional development (e.g., seminars) does not provide sustained learning outcomes. For example, after an employee takes a class, she/he often returns to work with the materials and learnings getting filed away. Most CHRO’s indicate their leaders are not developing fast enough.
Why can’t we have a feedback rich environment like what occurs in the sports world? Because no such paradigm – with supporting technology – exists. Often companies turn to seminars that might be offered online, or coaching.
What do we know about coaching? Coaching is not scalable, it is costly and often is an exclusive service. The coach relies on coachee (person receiving coaching) for “game film” and an assessment of progress. How do you know if you are really making the gains you hope to make? Where do you get feedback? A 360 survey can be helpful, but it is generally insufficient – takes too much time, information is dated by the time the results are in, and it is static (one cannot ask questions of the data). More critically, a 360 cannot be repeated every 2-3 months to track positive momentum and gather corrective re-instruction.
Generally, the appetite for feedback and development was there but the methods to do it easily were not. If we understood constraints facing service firms and organizations, what could we do about them? How could we solve or mitigate some of the constraints?
Factor 3: Technology as Enabler
What if a technology could speed up the learning cycle? What if it could provide scale and increase access to development? What if a technology empowered people to be their own detective on their learning journey? What if real time feedback could be visually displayed to quickly convey meaning? What if feedback was timely, specific and actionable? Enter LUMEN.
LUMEN provides scale, increases access, and places data in the hands of learners in ways that traditional coaching models and HR systems are unable to do. A good percentage of employees know what they need to “keep doing” and “do differently” to be more effective today and/or develop for the future. What many really need is game film to help them assess their progress and what adjustments need to be made. Given the pace of organizations, we know that most people do not have time to sit down and have such discussions. LUMEN is a technology bridge to enable development, feedback, and internal coaching relationships.
Simply stated, we built a technology (LUMEN) to accelerate employee performance on goals they already know are beneficial for them. They receive real-time feedback. This makes forward momentum more readily recognizable; course corrections happen quicker; and there are fewer surprises. Furthermore, the talent management function can deliver data, drive succession planning, make performance reviews easier on managers, and enhance a true coaching culture.
LUMEN was informed by sports performance, today’s talent management constraints, and technology – all triggered by a simple conversation
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Typically, my morning starts with a workout to get my mind and body ready. Then I move through a day that has two key planks – external and internal. The external plank is intended to examine factors influencing our customers thus allowing us to innovate and deliver services based upon an “outside-in” view rather than an insular one (inside-out view). External factors include topics such as geo-politics, market economy, disruptive technology, etc. Our internal focal areas include but are not limited to service delivery, back-office operations, ideating with and supporting our consultants. The common bond between the external and internal is the customer. We rotate specific activities within each plank throughout the week. Below is a sampling of those activities:
External View Categories
- In the News – world news / market economy, news on existing customers we serve and their competitors, etc.
- Customer Engagement – service delivery, client relationship management, networking, and client acquisition. Usually our ideas about future possibilities, products and service offerings come from the intersection of Customer Engagement and In the News.
- Marketing / Branding – this includes conventions, sponsorships, speaking engagements, and blogs. We seek to share our knowledge and build our brand.
Internal View Categories
- Raving Customers – internal view on account management, strategic partnerships, customer feedback, etc.
- Product Development – update on continuous improvement of existing products, consideration of future products, etc.
- Pipeline Review – backlog review and work in progress for our product and service lines
- Consultant Meetings – consultants discuss business operations, customer needs, strategic projects, career development, etc.
- Professional Development – all consultants participate in ongoing learning and education to inform their professional / technical expertise, as well as career and leadership development
- Troubleshooting – internal / external surprises that always emerge
Being productive occurs by setting a plan and adjusting as needed. There is a dynamic tension between planning the work – working the plan and flexing based on what makes sense. We enjoy having a rhythm and routine that we can follow – it provides grounding and brings focus to the team.
How do you bring ideas to life?
To be honest, our most clever work often comes through a unique customer need. One that is so compelling, they roll up their sleeves with us to collaborate and co-create. This often results in a new service or process offering.
Perhaps the most radical idea brought to life was a technology (LUMEN) intended to make the flywheel go faster for our customers – meaning help them accelerate the development of their employees and therefore, positively influence their talent pipeline and succession. At the time of developing our app, we knew (and hoped) it would eliminate part of our service portfolio. We felt that a portion of our service portfolio was low value and if we provided a technology to help companies do it for themselves it would not only be a great service to them, but it would also allow our consultants to engage in higher value work. The idea came about through happenstance, a conversation, a moment seemingly unrelated to our business. It was a lightbulb moment for me. At the end of the day, our talent development app and nearly all new offerings stem from the following question, “If there was a technology to help our customers enable their objectives, what would that be?” The question appears cliché. However, to truly answer it, one must deeply understand the client and other factors such as market dynamics, the capacity of the client, and how far we can or ethically should push the limits of our firm.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Re-imagining and democratizing access to talent development through technology. The technology has been there, but COVID likely propelled it to the forefront. Being able to take a service like coaching and make it more scalable, cost-effective, and efficient than it ever was in the old paradigm is exceptional. Technology such as Bravely or BetterUp exemplify ease of access in coaching services. Performance management technologies examples include LUMEN, Reflectiv, and BetterWorks; with LUMEN providing the additional benefit of real-time feedback to speed up the learning “flywheel” which makes for smarter succession planning.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Investing in my fitness and physical well-being as they are tied to my mental acuity.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I have a long-standing debate with several colleagues regarding a phenomenon, serendipity. I believe it is as it sounds – a moment that occurs incidentally and leads to a positive outcome or even innovation. However, my colleagues believe that you must be ready for serendipity to occur. I think the “readiness” for serendipity sounds like planning a random moment. Fine and Deegan (1996) define it as, “Insight coupled with chance.” I think the chance aspect often sneaks past folks or doesn’t get enough credit. My colleague believes the “readiness” to act upon that chance is most essential. We are not scholars in this line of research but we sure like to spar on the topic.
Think about how Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups came to be – the 1980’s ads, “Hey you put chocolate in my peanut butter” and “Hey you put peanut butter in my chocolate” – it was a chance moment. Without that chance moment parodied in an advertisement, we would not have Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and what a shame that would be!
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Build your routine around your energy. Consider doing the laborious tasks during times when you are high energy. Then during your low energy times engage in tasks/topics you LOVE doing because even at your lowest energy time one can always plug away at our greatest joys and motivators. For me, I do business operations early in the morning (my peak energy) and my strategic thinking, reading about new technology when I have lower energy.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Taking the time to deeply understand our customer’s business and the ecosystem in which it operates. Our firm has built its reputation on our knowledge of the customer’s business and culture. How we do it is by listening and truly being curious, as well as seeking feedback about our impact. The result of this is that our clients often experience us as a strategic partner and an extension of their organization without being clouded by their own internal view. When this occurs, we are all in a position to innovate in a trusting and collaborative manner. Our innovation – technology and process – has led to business growth. We are definitely not a good fit for companies that want a transactional service delivered.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
We made a significant mistake in decorum during a succession planning project with the board and CEO. It was solved by authentic listening, attentiveness, and facing a difficult conversation with the client. It wasn’t a simple apology but a meaningful dialogue and earnest understanding that provided learnings to the firm (and me), as well as strengthened the relationship. The latter was counterintuitive at the time.
I was about 6 months into my tenure at our firm and our team (that I was on) made a significant mis-step with the CEO and the board on a project focused on CEO and C-suite succession planning. During our 1:1 interviews with the board, we made a statement about the current CEO being more mechanical than intuitive about the business. As you can imagine, it was not well received.
When the CEO called the firm, our partner in charge was not in and therefore, the call was sent my way. My approach was to listen and understand the situation as the CEO saw the situation. He felt as though we were avoiding his assertions, as the CEO had sent an email a day prior and received no response.
As I came to understand his view and the implications of our behavior, I was able to acknowledge our error in a manner that felt genuine to the client. He felt heard, not only about the decorum matter but our lack of urgency in getting back to him. It may sound simple but it was rather precarious. I could not throw our firm or MP under the bus, and yet, our client was right in its complaint. I believe what brought it home was not the apology itself but the tenor of our discussion and my articulation of what *I* learned and how it would help me in future practice. To this day, 17 years later, this CEO is one of my keenest supporters.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Taking the concept of “Rent the Runway” and applying it as a non-profit for HS formals.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Basecamp. It is an online collaboration app that allows our internal team and external vendors to work as one team. It streamlines project management and enables communication across multiple stakeholders. We have used this service for roughly 7 years.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Crunch Time by Rick Peterson and Judd Hoekstra. I think everyone wants brief, focused, and tried & true methods to perform under pressure. This book provides exactly that – whether you are a musician, athlete, or corporate athlete. It is informed by performance research that cuts across many disciplines – CEO’s, elite athletes, entertainers.
What is your favorite quote?
It is hard to pick one. I have many and find more thanks to social media – here is one from an unknown author posted by the school one of my son’s attends, “The days are long but the years are short – enjoy every minute”
- Habits & Discipline – I believe there is great value in the discipline to process, rhythm and routine. It helps create focus and energy in difficult times. It is like having a drum beat to help keep your feet moving, even when you are uncertain.
- Customer Focus / Relationship –
- Over the years the importance of strong client relationships, being honest even when it’s difficult to be honest, and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes (customer) has been driven home time and time again. All of my firm’s innovations – technology, process, services – have come through customer intimacy. The development and refinement of LUMEN would not have existed without customer insights.
- Re-Energize – I continue to learn and focus on practices that help me maintain or recapture my energy. This has historically been through competitive athletics as a former US team member in track and cross country. However, more recently I have added meditation via the Calm App. I am a work in progress.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.