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Transformative Education and Leadership Development | Eric McNulty

Transformative Education and Leadership Development | Eric McNulty | 558

Cultivating Curiosity and Innovation

A conversation with Eric McNulty on how his career as a lifelong learner has equipped him to help develop leaders who won’t buckle under stress.

Join us in this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership as we sit down with Eric McNulty, an esteemed educator renowned for crafting and delivering transformative educational experiences at prestigious institutions like Harvard and MIT. With a background in communications, Eric’s journey from the business to the creative side, and later to the agency side, defies convention, ultimately leading him to a pivotal role as Creative Director at Harvard Business Publishing, and then on to a role as Associate Director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In this episode, we discover Eric’s insights on thought leadership, gained through his immersive experiences in marketing and global conference management. We uncover how his interactions with top executives and thinkers ignited his passion for leadership development, paving the way for his current focus on fostering purpose-driven leaders.

Explore the genesis of Eric’s thought leadership journey and his strategies for effectively disseminating ideas into the universe. Learn the art of asking probing questions, cultivating curiosity, and nurturing cross-domain knowledge to unlock innovative solutions and spark meaningful conversations.

Further, Eric offers insightful advice for those just embarking on their career journey, emphasizing the importance of curiosity, adaptability, and lifelong learning in navigating the rapidly evolving landscape of leadership and professional development.

Tune in to uncover Eric McNulty’s unique approach to thought leadership and his mission to empower individuals to create positive change in their organizations and beyond.

Three Key Takeaways:

  • Cultivating Curiosity and Cross-Domain Knowledge: Eric McNulty emphasizes the importance of curiosity and cross-domain knowledge in thought leadership. By exploring diverse perspectives and asking insightful questions, individuals can uncover innovative solutions and foster meaningful conversations.
  • Leadership Development and Lifelong Learning: Eric underscores the significance of leadership development and lifelong learning in today’s rapidly evolving world. He encourages individuals to continuously seek satisfaction and joy in their work while adapting to new challenges and acquiring new skills.
  • Effective Response over Reaction: Eric discusses the importance of distinguishing between reaction and response in leadership. By learning to calibrate pace, accurately assess situations, and forecast outcomes, individuals can avoid knee-jerk reactions and achieve more positive results in challenging situations.

If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.



Peter Winick And welcome, welcome, welcome. This is Peter Winick. I’m the founder and CEO at Thought Leadership Leverage. And you’re joining us on the podcast, which is leveraging thought leadership. Today, my guest is Eric McNulty. And I just want to break down his bio because I like the way you chuck it out. There’s an educator component where he designs and delivers innovative, transformational educational experience to develop purpose driven leaders at places you may have heard of, like Harvard and MIT, he’s a speaker and workshop leader. He’s an author of several books and has authored, or byline more than 200 articles in publications like Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Strategy in Business. He’s an advisor. And then last but not least, he was voted best dressed in sixth grade, which is what we’re going to spend most of our time. Exactly. And I can tell you, and I know this is audio, I can tell you that looking at him, you can see that he didn’t peak yet. So, he’s still in that vein. So yeah. So how do lots of different things here. So, you check off almost every box of the things that are of interest to me in terms of the work that I do in terms of author, speaker, advisor, academic, etc. Obviously, this was a deliberate plan that you had at 18, right? How this all unfolded?

Eric McNulty Absolutely, Peter, and thank you so much for having me. I’m glad to be with you today. Yeah. When I have to explain my career to students, I put a Candyland board up on the wall and say, you know, you’re going to go to different places and do different things. And absolutely none of this was planned when I started out, but it’s been a really interesting journey along the way.

Peter Winick Yeah. So I find that’s fairly common of an answer. Well, other than the academic part, you don’t wake up one day and say, I think I’ll be an academic, right? That takes some deliberate planning, but sort of maybe tell us where some of the journey was starting to go and then where some of the pivots were along the way.

Eric McNulty Sure. So I started out my career in communications. I was in actually in the fashion and retail business in New York. I was working in public relations and advertising, spent some time in the, working for a magazine. And, that was going along and that was great. And through that way, I actually pivoted from being on the business side to the creative side and from the client side to the agency side, which are two moves that nobody makes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I went from being Roger Sterling to, Don Draper, without so much fun along the way. But I was always a word guy.

Peter Winick And less and less martinis involved. Yeah.

Eric McNulty If you were Marty, I couldn’t drink as much at work. But a lot of fun. But that sort of odd mix of skills many years along the way turned me into a bit of a placeholder candidate to be creative director at a place called Harvard Business Publishing, which publishes HBR and HBR press. And, I was a placeholder. I was going in thinking I wasn’t going to like it. I wasn’t sure they were going to like me. But the search person said, can you go fill in for me and let’s, you know, do me a favor. So you always do a favor for the search person. And I went in and turned out that I actually liked them. They liked me. And I jumped in and did it. And, you know, always believing that you’re going to market something, you have to understand it. That was my real introduction to what we now call thought leadership. So I’m reading Michael Porter, I’m reading Clay Christiansen, I’m reading Roosevelt Moss Kanter, to understand this world and to be able to communicate and hopefully sell some books and magazines and such, and did that for about three years and then had the opportunity to get pivot again to help them start and run a global conference business, because in my earlier years, I had done a bunch of event production and, stepped yeah, that’s when I really got to actually work with these people and not just read the books, but actually it was to me, it was the next eight years were like getting paid to go to the best business school on the planet, because I was working with top executives as well as the top thinkers from around the world. And that’s when I really got interested in the ideas and particularly about leadership, which is where my focus is now, but just really was fascinating and getting to explore it.

Peter Winick Stay there for a minute because there’s a difference. And I’ve had similar experiences in my career of reading someone’s book and falling in love with the work and the ideas and all that sort of stuff. Big difference. Then number two, seeing them live, talk about it, and then number three, having an opportunity to sort of hang out with them a bit and have a conversation with them and really see what they’re about, you know, so I, I’m in the nerd fan club. Too many opportunities to do that. But it’s really cool to watch how they, you know, someone that you think might be more extroverted, might be more introverted or, you know, they, you know, they can get up and talk to a thousand people, but, you know, to go to the cocktail party and try to be chatty, they won’t do it, some of it right, and others, it’s just the brilliance that comes from them. Based on a question that someone tossed out that was, you know, kind of a softball or whatever.

Eric McNulty Yeah, that’s where I again, the, the people I found that I gravitated toward the most were actually they weren’t just experts, but they were they were curious experts. And so they were happy to take you into some of how they were thinking. They actually liked having the conversation. Or what you were thinking, or some of the people that we all, if we’re in a group engaging into, they weren’t just there sort of spouting off their latest canned speech, but they actually were engaging in dialog. And here’s where I begin to think of true thought leadership is the ideas that improve practice. And so you can’t just do it in theory. You’ve got to get out in the real world. And you can’t just collect anecdotes because you’ve got to put something more solid around it in terms of a framework or something that just translates.

Peter Winick That’s not easy. No it’s not. It’s I think from my experience, I’d love to get your take on this. You have sort of three places where this comes from, right? So there’s the academics where they validated something to the 73rd decimal point and perfect in, in the laboratory, if you will. Then there’s the it’s called the business folks, farmers union leaders that are practitioners of something. Right. And maybe they’ve codified their methodology, their models, their frameworks, but they know something works because they just turned around a $30 billion company based on these ideas. And then you have the consultants that are kind of somewhere in the middle that they draw from academics, they draw from real life experience, etc.. And oftentimes those three folks, I won’t say they don’t get along, but they come from, you know, sort of the blind man and the elephant.

Eric McNulty Right?

Peter Winick In so many different places that the power of thought leadership to me is not just the theoretical in the abstract. I think academic struggle with this the most. How do you make it relevant? What do I do with this? How do I go back to work on Monday? If I saw you on a Friday and say, oh, these are the things that we’re going to play with and experiment with.

Eric McNulty No, absolutely. And that’s why I loved, my time doing the conference work, because, we actually had very, very few keynotes and put people on the panels and or discussions in terms of discussion format, where you could push it that where you might have a couple of academics and a couple of practitioners stage. You throw an ID and watch them go at it. And again, some of those thought leaders were good at it and enjoyed that. Some really hated it because they just wanted to come tell you about their idea. But to me, the real value for the ultimate practitioners we’re going to have to use this work was hearing that back and forth.

Peter Winick Yeah, yeah.

Eric McNulty I remember one panel I forgot who exactly was on it, but it was three male academics and it was two academics, one consultant and then one female CEO. And the three guys are going back and forth jibber jabbering. And finally she just she stopped everyone and said, pardon me, boys. That’s a really interesting conversation. And now I just run a company. But let me tell you how it is. And then of course, the audience laughed. And then she had the room and it was. It’s great. This debate of ideas is great around the fireplace, but let’s talk about what you’re actually going to do with it when you put it into a company.

Peter Winick Well, you also mentioned, and I think it’s interesting, the thought leader that can only do sort of the canned thing and there’s plenty. Right. So that they write, they go out there, they do the speech. But if you’ve seen the speech three times, you know at minute 22.07 they tell a joke about this or…

Eric McNulty Yes.

Peter Winick …cases and there’s a market for that. But the ones and I think you call them, you know, curious experts really want to be challenged and really want to be engaged and really want to have their thinking stretched and pushed and such.

Eric McNulty Absolutely. And again and then the sort of speaking market pushes you to be the person who goes out and gives the same performance every single time. I just said, there’s a place for that. But yeah, the people I found really most interesting, they had fun with the ideas and the thinking, and they knew that they had to. They had to bring something back in if they were going to continue to put something out. I, you know, in my own work, I’ve got something written down in the front of my journal that says quality output requires 3 to 5 x quality input.

Peter Winick So if you’re not getting the garbage out right.

Eric McNulty Away, you got to bring quality ideas in. And having those conversations and meeting people, yeah, you can go ahead and give the same talk over and over again, but it’s just it’s going to get stale for you and stale for them. And it really what’s the point when you’re showing up to give to put on a show, but you’re not actually moving the ideas and the practice forward? Yeah.

Peter Winick If you’re enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about our podcast, please leave a five-star review at and share it with your friends. We’re available on Apple Podcast and on all major listening apps as well as at thought leadership

Peter Winick So I want to move from sort of your background, which is really, really unique, sort of. And what we’ve talked about before is more of the behind the scenes. Right. And now, you know, sort of back of the house to front of the house. Now you do all that stuff, right? You write books. Well, you’ve written many, many, many articles, but books speak. Tell me about your. Thought leadership. What was the genesis of it and then how you get it out in the universe today?

Eric McNulty So a couple of things. One, is it, again, starting with that conference business where I one of the sort of initially producing behind the scenes, the one that beings have more in front of the audience and, and roaming the audience. And I somehow picked up a talent for being the person who could ask the question. I could feel it was hanging in the room, but people were afraid to ask. Yeah, and trying to get people to actually have honest conversations about the real issues, right through my career of work in some great places and some pretty crappy places. So part of my drive, nobody’s listening.

Peter Winick You want to tell us which are which not?

Eric McNulty Yeah, yeah, I’ll write them down later. But I want as many people as possible to work in really great places. So to the extent that I can help people be better leaders, better managers, understand culture and how to create the conditions in which that wonderful magic can emerge. That’s what I want to do. And so I have found that, you know, within the teaching, you’re with people for a period of time. You really can have influence out speaking. You make the you can make some impact, but it is obviously a shorter time, but you can begin to provoke their thinking. And then the books give the books and the articles give more detail. And I have a bit of, you know, in all that other stuff, I did a little bit of journalism background, so I do some reporting work where I will go out and I’ll have an ideologue work and find people and connect the dots. And other times it’ll be, you know, wholly original. And also I want to develop an idea or I put something out there and say, hey, I see a problem or I see an opportunity. Here’s what I’m thinking about it, and throw it out there and see if I get feedback from people saying, yeah, that was useful or no. Have you thought about this or thought about that?

Peter Winick So I love all the different roles and domains that you’ve been a part of. And, you know, I’ve had folks that I’ve worked with that will describe what they do is, oh, when I was a reporter at or a researcher at. And then other folks describe, well, I used to be a consultant at BCG, McKinsey or whatever, and they’re actually kind of similar. Right. Yeah. Might and they might not have thought of it that way because I think a lot of times if you’re in one field, one discipline, whatever, you know what you know and you know how to best practices and what you do. If you’re a reporter, you probably don’t think about, well, how does a, you know, junior level consultant at McKinsey do the analysis or something? And there are a lot of parallels. And I find there’s magic when you cross-pollinate that discipline, you know, if you’ve got the curiosity of a reporter and the analytical skills of a consultant, like, wow, that’s pretty cool.

Eric McNulty Know. Absolutely. And I always said that, you know, if I have a superpower, it’s the ability to ask questions. I don’t want to show up with all the answers. And again, it just I love to learn. So I love to like go to a big conf or big convention or conference of an industry I’m not that familiar with, and go wander around and see how they do all the stuff they do. I find that like the seventh circle of hell, but I actually enjoy it because I learn a lot. And I get, I think, I think the best thought leadership. It makes you smarter about the questions, right? It doesn’t really give you all the answers, but it makes you smarter about the questions you’re asking, the questions you’re wrestling with. So you find new ways to stimulate your own thinking. Because just plugging in, playing anybody’s ten list of the things you want to do about X usually doesn’t work. But if I can make it maybe like get smarter about the questions, we all are better off in the end.

Peter Winick Well, I think the reality some of the most of what I would say the best thought leadership out there is industry agnostic or function agnostic, right? Most not all. So that, you know, sometimes the downside is the sort of the curse of expertise is, you know, everything there is to know about this tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny little piece of the universe and what got you there, right? Like being the best in class meant that by default, you that’s where you spent your time. But it also could be a hindrance, right? If that’s you know a lot about this one thing, but nothing about, you know, it seems like now everybody’s popping into AI, which is sort of our next, I think, AI. And if you, you know, you put that at the end of your company evaluation goes Ted X there are a lot of people in a lot of different disciplines that haven’t had to deal with that, that are going, well, how is this going to affect me? Or how do I start to integrate this into my practice as someone that is, an x ray tech or something like that?

Eric McNulty No, absolutely. I think that, you know, the crossing domain or thinking of things as domain agnostic art is really essential. And my last few years have been in this notion, this role of crisis leadership in my teaching at Harvard has brought me into contact with a lot of people in the public sector, whereas most of my contacts were on the business side. And what’s been really interesting and eye opening as I’ve gone to appreciate, you know, I’m bringing some ideas to them and they are helping me understand their world and bringing ideas to me. For all the years I spent with wrestling, with talking to executives and others who are wrestling with, how do I make this big decision? Go sit with someone who had to make a decision where a life was actually on the line. You know? You could call somebody a life that that’s a whole different realm and it’s underappreciated.

Peter Winick It’s amazing that you say that because when you. Yeah, some thought leaders that I’ve spoken to have been there, you know, whether they come from the military or whatever. And I think that all of us in business, we stress out over what we stress out, you know, that serving a client in the PowerPoint or the budget or the this or the that. And then you talk to someone that literally whether it’s a medical doctor or someone in the military space or a, you know, a Sully, the pilot or something like, wow, if they did something differently, people would have died. And you’re like, holy, like get over your like, like this, the end of the day. You know, at your funeral, nobody’s going to remember that deck, that you put the coal in it, right? Eric was right. Put up that deck in 97. Remember that? Probably not. Right? Right. Feel as if it is. And then you talk about people that have, do and continue to make life and death decisions. I like that parallel because it’s humbling. Right. Like.

Eric McNulty Absolutely. Absolutely. And it does. Again, if you can help make them a little bit smarter than that, actually help save lives. But then when you when you can translate how they process that, that how they go through that thinking process in making that decision, you can then bring it back across to people who are not making life and death decisions, but say like, here’s how you get clarity in this ambiguity, or here’s when you’ve got the land of no good choices. Here’s how you get to the least bad one, or the closest you can get the best. And how do you how do you think this through? And I think it’s really illuminating. And it opens everyone’s thinking.

Peter Winick Well, I would also imagine that in your space in the crisis space speed is really, really important. And I think there are a lot of folks that the default way to do things is, oh, let’s form a committee and let’s go study this couple of minds and let’s get a diverse group of various world class thinkers and done it. But when you get a phone call from a client in crisis management, you might have to literally respond in minutes, maybe hours, certainly a day like, you know, so you have to draw on the expertise and the instinct to know, yeah, I don’t have the time to go research the heck out of this, and I might screw it up, or it might be less than optimal or whatever.

Eric McNulty That’s right. And I think, again, the real genius in that space are the people who know when to go fast and when to slow things down. Right minute is to quickly assess. And so we’re going to do these things right now, this other stuff. Take a breath. We can back off on this a little bit. And yeah, we can take a day to figure out that one. And being able to calibrate that, that pace is one of the things that the, the really effective leaders doing are able to do well.

Peter Winick And I would imagine that how you define crisis is I think oftentimes and again, in business, people respond as if it’s a crisis when it’s not. And you say, wait a minute. If I got an email from a client and they were upset or my number two person is going to leak, whatever, do I have to respond in five minutes? Like, can I wait a day and I wait to, you know, can I have some time to think about it? Because sometimes we do make a mistake of responding too quickly. And because the, the, whether it’s the adrenaline or it fired you up or whatever, and slowing it down when you can is often a good a good wise move.

Eric McNulty Absolutely. And that’s some of the work my colleagues and I have done, is to begin to teach the difference between reaction and response to that time in and then, but also to give a little bit of process of, okay, how do I how do I actually know that I’m doing things at the right pace and perceiving what’s going on, seeing the patterns and accurately and then, you know, be able to forecast what’s coming next. And that’s a that’s a learned skill, which you can do it really quickly when you when you’ve practiced it to know how to do it well.

Peter Winick And I think some of that and this goes back to sort of that curiosity piece like when I read Kahneman’s work, it’s like, oh, like, you know, and then you read about dopamine and then you start to read around. Well, of course, like, you know, we’re wired to go, is that going to kill me or is that, you know, is that a barrier right here, like the fight or flight thing is really, really real. And in reality, most things won’t kill us, right? And most things, you know, are not food, right. So how do you sort of manage your biological issues which have a place. Right. You smell smoke. You what I don’t oh I’ll go check that out on my lunch hour. It’s not that right. Like there’s, there’s a there’s a reason that we’re still here for that. So as we start to wrap Eric, any advice thoughts reflections you would have to someone right now that’s maybe where you were 15, 20 years ago. Wow.

Eric McNulty Well, I guess the first thing I would say is.

Peter Winick I think it just let me just frame it.

Eric McNulty It’s not fashion, but I would say get curious and stay curious because the world seems to be changing faster and faster. And you mentioned AI and that’s coming into every domain. And so that’s going to change a lot of, you know, the hard skills that’s going to come and go and you’re going to you’re going to you have to learn new ones over time. If you can be trying to think what’s coming next in assessing. So first of all, where am I getting satisfaction and joy in the work that I’m doing? You’re in a wiki. Is this is this going to be sustainable or what’s changing about it? And how do I get there? You know, I think over all my, my whole career, the one thing that is the two things that are being consistent are one, I love to learn, which my parents taught me. And I and I also learned to write very early on. So back when I was best dressed in sixth grade, I was, you know, I was starting to be a good writer then. That ability to write has served me in a whole lot of roles. So it’s been a good transferable skill. So I always tell my students, figure out what your transferable skill is, sales. It could be speaking, it could be writing, whatever it is that can get you out of any in any specific industry niche or, you know, in a, you know, in a dead-end job someplace, you are able to adapt over time and evolve as the world around you evolves.

Peter Winick Yeah. And I would agree with the lifelong learning piece and the curiosity piece. I. It’s one trait I see across almost every thought leader I’ve ever met is they’re so curious, right? And they’re such like learners. They’re. Oh, yeah. Ask them what they’re reading, and they can answer that question. Other folks ask what they’re reading, and you get that blank, like, what do you mean? It’s like, you know, the rest of us have ten books on our night table. Right, exactly. This has been great. I appreciate your time. Appreciate the effort. Love the work that you’re doing. And thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Eric McNulty Peter. My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Peter Winick To learn more about Thought Leadership Leverage, please visit our website at to reach me directly. Feel free to email me at Peter at, and please subscribe to Leveraging Thought Leadership on iTunes, or your favorite podcast app to get your weekly episode automatically.


Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

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