Speaker, Strategist, Global Bestselling Author
Michele Wucker is an author, speaker and strategist who makes a global impact with her words.
Her book The Gray Rhino discusses the obvious risks that we ignore—the ones that we could mitigate if we act before they are upon us. Then, we act surprised when they happen.
That book has been a huge seller in China, where the country’s leadership has embraced and internalized the message. There’s no shortage of Gray Rhino risks in the world at large. Time and again, the headlines spark renewed interest in her approach.
In this interview, she shares:
- What it’s been like to write a big idea book that has had a global impact
- How that book has led to the next one she’s working on
- The emotional impact of the animal metaphor
- The challenges of writing a “big idea” book as a woman
To learn more about Michele and her work:
- Read more of Michele’s writing on TheGrayRhino.Com
- Find The Gray Rhino on Amazon or BookShop.Org
- Watch her TED talk: Why we ignore obvious problems
- Read the Transcript
Listen to the Interview
Read the Interview Transcript
Anne: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I feel really lucky actually to get time on your schedule since you’re busy talking to the Economist and The Wall Street Journal and all these sorts of publications right now. This is this is a big moment for your Gray Rhino discussion.
Michele: It is, but of course, I’m always very happy to talk to you. So it’s nice to have a little break from the storm.
What’s a Gray Rhino?
A: For people who aren’t familiar with it, we’ll talk about your book The Gray Rhino. The reason that it’s coming up today is because this pandemic is a wonderful example of a Gray Rhino: a risk that it’s obvious we’ve seen stampeding towards us—or some people have been seeing and shouting about—and yet we’ve done nothing until we’re on the horn of the rhino. The challenge for you has been to step up and say, “This is in fact a Gray Rhino and not, as some would like to say, an unforeseeable, completely out-of-the blue surprise: the Black Swan.”
M: I first came up with the concept in 2012 and then launched it in January 2013 at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The YouTube video’s still up. I developed the concept further into the book that came out in 2016. Unlike the Black Swan, another familiar concept where people just say ‘Oh, that’s a black swan,’ and then move on and hope that people think they’re smart and actually read that book, the Gray Rhino has a framework. There are five stages of the Gray Rhino crisis that help you to understand why you’re not dealing with the obvious and think about the people around you to help you diagnose it, to get to a stage of urgency and action.
It came out in 2016 in the U.S. We had a couple of strokes of bad luck. One is that it was launched on the Upper West Side in New York City: standing room only in the Barnes and Noble. That was great. I had so many media connections that they doubled the print run for advance copies. But I only found out too late to do anything that a fair number of them went out with the pages out of order. So, it was a double whammy of bad luck, because it was the week of the New Year primary in 2016, which was the first time in memory that that primary has ever been relevant. There was no air in the room. All my other friends who had books come out that year also had trouble. We found audiences in particular areas—policy and financial planning—but it didn’t start really getting big until it came out in China the next year, in February of 2017.
A: It is such a global topic and talks to people with concerns about global risks—as well as personal ones. You can read it on every level. You said created this framework in 2013. So how do we get to this point where you, Michele, are writing books that world leaders are reading, or talking risk on a global scale? That’s a pretty big platform to build. How did you get to this place now? I know that this is not your first book. But this is the one that’s built your platform as it is today.
On building a global platform
M: I’m very lucky that I’ve got a fantastic global network. I made my first trip abroad when I was 16. I spent the summer in Europe: a month in Germany and then a month in Belgium with relatives. The last summer of college I spent in the Dominican Republic. I wasn’t supposed to go to Haiti under the terms of my grant, because they just had a coup, but I did. They won’t catch me now.
I went back the next year and spent a year in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. I traveled all around Latin America in my work as a financial journalist. I’ve worked in Europe, particularly around immigration, and been invited to a lot of conferences there. I went to Asia for the first time in 2009, first to Japan, and then to China more recently.
China was a complete surprise. Either my publisher forgot to tell me that they’d licensed it in China or the email went astray. There were bidding wars before the book was even done in Korea and Japan and there was a Hungarian edition also licensed before it was finished. I was waiting to get my edits back from my editor. When I got the Taiwan news that there was a bidding war, my editor said, “Wow, this is a phenomenal amount for Taiwan.” I emailed him back and I said if anyone asked me when I knew that this was going to be big, this was it.
I’ve got friends in all these places. We’ve got great technologies now that make it much easier to keep up with them than it used to be. So, I knew that there was a Taiwan edition.
Early in 2017, the publisher emailed me and said, “Your Chinese publisher has a question. You talked about your sister; they need to know if it was your big sister or little sister because they are different words in Chinese.” I assumed it was for Taiwan. Then a couple weeks later, they emailed and said, “Can you send us a video? Your publisher has 80 bookstores in airports in China and they have video monitors and want to broadcast a video.” So I thought, “Okay, this is this is not Taiwan.” The Taiwan edition is traditional characters and the mainland edition uses simplified characters. It took a while to get the video together, because they wanted a certain format and I needed to get an extra camera for it.
I emailed the publisher a couple weeks later and said, “I want make sure that you’ve got the video.” The editor emails back with, “Yes, we got the video, and you’ll be happy to know that your books already in its third printing—thirty thousand copies.”
I wrote her back, “Is that 30,000, with four zeros?” I take absolutely no credit for that. My publisher in China has done a fantastic job of getting the word out.
Having a global impact with a book
M: Later that summer it was discussed at a high level behind closed doors at a national financial planning meeting in China and an editorial came out of the front page of People’s Daily saying: Watch out not just for black swans (highly improbable risks), but also very obvious Gray Rhinos. They listed several financial risks: the overheated real estate market and shadow banking and things like that. And the riskiest stocks fell by 5 percent, in a single day.
Then there was a bunch of media in the U.S. about it. The book has kept making news since then. I have a spreadsheet I use to keep track. This year it’s had about 200 mentions in more than 40 countries.
A: Wow, that’s terrific. Well, you’ve got an evergreen subject. So, although your timing wasn’t fortuitous for a big U.S. launch, there is no end date to the concept of dealing with this kind of risk. This is something we’re going to have with us all the time.
M: It’s true. There’s a publication in London that came out with a story earlier this year, even before the pandemic was in full swing. They called it a metaphor for our times, which was very appropriate. It came out on the cover of New Model Advisor. another publication in the UK that talks about ESG: environmental, social, and governance elements of investing. Every once in a while, there’s a news burst and I make sure that I’m available to do interviews and respond to requests. But this year has been a whole other level.
I got a call early in March from a reporter at Axios, who had seen the TED talk I did last year. At last count, it’s about 2.3 million views since it went up about a year ago. She said she had just loved this Gray Rhino concept and finally had a chance to write about it. So, she did a piece on climate change and the pandemic being Gray Rhinos. Then Fast Company picked it up: this pandemic is not a black swan, it’s a Gray Rhino. It just kept building. Then the next week I did an OpEd in the Washington Post, which was the quoted in The Wall Street Journal, and then I was on an Economist podcast. I’ve been doing interviews of all kinds.
I’ve been doing a lot for audiences on corporate governance, risk management, and ESG. I’m very happy to talk with audiences who can apply my work in their daily business. It’s very important to me that it’s not just a book that sits and gathers dust on the shelf, but is something that people can use.
It’s very important to me that it’s not just a book that sits and gathers dust on the shelf, but is something that people can use.
The platform around the book
A: You’ve created the framework, you’ve written the book. But now the platform is much bigger. You’ve got this TED Talk with 2.3 million views. You’re finding different ways to reach people: you’re working through journalists, you’re doing videos, you’re focusing on specific industries. You’re doing all the things to take it to the next level and expand its reach. Are you consulting? This platform has a life of its own.
M: When the when the book came out, I set up a website: The GrayRhino.Com. It was painful switching my business email correspondence there because there are people who’d been emailing me on my personal address for years.
I have been doing keynotes and workshops—which of course have moved online these days. The workshops are a hybrid of training and consulting where I take on an issue that’s important to the group. I’ve done workshops on re-skilling, on workforce changes, on new financial technologies.
There’s been a lot of demand for career and personal leadership skills. I’ve been surprised by that, since I wrote the book as a policy and finance and business strategy person. I’ve been blown away by the number of people who want more on how to apply it to their personal lives and their personal challenges. Of course, business leadership straddles the two. I’ve been doing workshops for trade groups and individual companies. Those people usually buy copies of the book and they’ll email me about how they’ve applied the concept in their in their careers, in their companies. And I absolutely love that.
When I go to China, I tend to talk more on a macro level. The last talk I did in China was almost a year ago in Hangzhou, which is just to the south of Shanghai. They wanted to go into more depth on the list I do every year of the Top Global Gray Rhinos, which is a meta list. I look at all the top risks and outlooks and predictions and forecasts. It’s kind of apples and oranges and pears and kiwis, because they all come from a slightly different angle. So the last five years I’ve done the meta list so we know what’s on people’s minds. It’s partly so that when a Big Thing happens and people say, “Oh, it’s a Black Swan—nobody saw it coming!” I can come back and say, “Here are all the really smart people who said it was coming. What do you have to say now?” I’m not an I-told-you-so kind of person, but this cop-out use of the Black Swan drives me bonkers.
In Asia I get asked to talk about future of work, technology, uncertainty, and how to deal with a changing world. I’ve been doing a lot on climate change. Europe has been more on climate change and financial stability—applying it [the Gray Rhino concept] in real life.
Then, other people apply it. I’ve discovered all these blogs with strangers applying it. I’ve actually built relationships with those people and run those as guest posts on my blog.
A: That’s when you know that your idea has taken hold: when other people are taking it, using it, and applying it.
We’re told so often to find a niche. Your topic is anything but niche. You thought you knew what industries and topics you were talking about: policies and finance, but it’s everything. However, it’s a very specific lens. Your expertise is your lens, your framework, that that applies to your way of looking at risk. It’s truly a big idea book. It’s a big idea that we can take and run with, which is a generous gift.
But it sounds like It takes a lot of nurturing and support. I mean, it’s taken on a life of its own. You are constantly working to build those relationships, to nurture those ideas, to share and amplify.
The next book: Risk gets personal
M: Right now I’m finishing up a new book that’s a sequel that arose from the conversations I’ve been having.
One of the questions was: Why did this become so big, so fast in Asia and take a longer time to catch on in the U.S? There are interesting cultural and policy and sociological questions. So I’ve been delving through lots of research. So many pages to get one sentence! (I’ve got a little bit of help with that.) That’s a question I’ve gotten: Why do different countries and regions look at risk differently. It’s become so important as you’ve seen the responses to the Coronavirus.
Another thing that came up speaks to what I mentioned about people wanting to apply it to their personal lives. I was in Shanghai in the summer of 2017. There were these huge thunderstorms and it took three times as long as usual for people to get to where I was speaking. One guy comes up to me—a super hip 20 something in a black T shirt—and holds up my book and asks for an autograph. He says, “You helped me so much with my personal life.” I was moved. It was amazing.
So I came back to the States with that in the back of my mind, and following up also on the question I would always get in talks: “How do I apply this to my personal life?”
I called a very dear friend of mine, who unfortunately is no longer with us—one of the smartest, most generous, kindest, most supportive friends I’ve ever had. He’s like that to everyone he meets. He was a pioneer in private equity investing, ESG investing. I told him about this.
I said, “I don’t know how to reconcile this. I don’t do self-help books. That’s not really my thing. I want to respond to this, but I want to do it in a way that fits with my expertise and my brand and what people are looking to me for.”
He said, “There’s a bigger connection between personal issues and the big things that you talk about than you realize. Our investment committee met last week about the investments that, to put it politely, didn’t meet our expectations.” He said that in every single case, the warning signs were there in the due diligence that they did, but it wasn’t the product. It wasn’t a business model. It wasn’t the macroeconomic environment. It wasn’t any of the things you usually look at. He said it was the drunk driving. It was the domestic violence. It was the personal decisions that explained the bad risks that these CEOs had taken.
The headlines have born that out over the last couple of years, with the #MeToo scandals. We saw the head of OverStock.com having to step down because he’d been bragging about his affair with the Russian spy involved with the NRA and Trump scandals. The insurance company went to the board and said, “We can’t insure you if this guy is in charge.” You see the Uber problems, the WeWork problems. All of those have to do with personal risks among CEOs, bad risk decisions.
I did a piece last fall for Strategy in Business, where I write regularly, about just this question. It was very interesting. There were a number of boards that were increasingly looking at bad personal risk decisions that CEOs were taking and beginning to act in a way that they really haven’t in the past. Some of those were #MeToo decisions. Other were simply bad risk decision-making. There’s academic research showing correlations between the way CEOs manage finance and their personal risk decisions. That was part of this big question. Gray Rhino really is a risk management concept as well. When you see a risk what, do you do about it? Do you deal with it or not?
So the new book is a deep dive into these cultural, organizational, personal, and experience influences. There are interesting questions about demographics: how who you are—your age, your gender, anything—affects the decisions you make and why. Knock on wood, I will be finishing the … I call it the fugly draft within a couple of weeks. If everything goes to plan, it will come out early next year in the US and it will come out in China this fall.
A: Ah, they get there faster.
M: We found a Chinese publisher first because my publisher was like, “When’s your next book? When’s your next book?” It sold hundreds of thousands of copies there. They were just really excited.
They reached out a couple months ago and said, “Can you make sure there’s Coronavirus stuff in the book?” At the time, things were very controversial in China This was early in the year when people were still upset about the cover-ups at the early stage in Wuhan, which the government quickly disowned and moved forward from. So I was nervous, feeling a sense of responsibility about that. I wasn’t sure if they were going to postpone it or not because it’s going to be quite a while before I can travel to China to promote it in person again. But just heard from them last week that they want it out this fall, as we had originally been speaking of. I love the idea of it coming out in China first.
A: Yes, because they were so quick to embrace your message.
Understanding the impact of the book
A: I love that that the market and the conversations and the people have brought this next book topic to you. You’re writing it because of what people are coming approaching you with and the questions that you’re having. And the process of writing it has been conversations, and research. It has been looking at different things through the same lens essentially. I think that when you get enough momentum with the Big Idea book, it’s going to generate its own ongoing ideas and filters and books.
M: I hope you like it. It’s such a great lens. I’m the kind of person who gets bored easily. (You might have figured.) I wanted something that I could focus on that encompassed the diversity of my interests and also the way I look at things using complex systems thinking, which is much more widespread in Asia than in the West. I think that’s another part of why it caught on so quickly in China.
I think the other thing was that the 2015-2016 market shock was much fresher in their minds in China. They also have a technocratic culture and had been thinking about debt management.
When I was asking people in China, “Why has this caught on so much?” They said, “You found a way to talk about the things that we were already worrying about.” Unfortunately, it took a pandemic for it to start to catch on as much in the West.
It’s a great lens for everything. The part I love the most is that it’s not a book that sits on your shelf or anyone’s shelf. It’s something that comes alive. People will come to me now and ask, “What are the biggest Gray Rhinos? Is this a Gray Rhino? Is that a Gray Rhino?” I’ve started to become hesitant about answering that question because it only works if people own it for themselves. I urge them to say, what’s my Gray Rhino? What’s the big scary thing with a horn pointed at me coming my way with the name of the problem tattooed on his forehead?
A: Because you know, at some level, what that is.
The emotional impact of metaphor
M: The emotional connection is so important. If you look at Aesop’s Fables, children’s books and all the animal stories, animals help us to connect with things in ways that we might not if it were a human doing the same behavior.
I come from policy and finance worlds where it’s all about analysis and numbers and spreadsheets and cost benefit analysis—stuff that makes people’s eyes glaze over. That stuff is so important, it’s necessary. But it’s not sufficient. You have to be able to connect to people emotionally. Being able to close your eyes and picture that giant image [a rhino] is a way to connect with the problem emotionally. Even though, in so many cases people know that what they have to do. They laugh and roll their eyes. “You know that that boyfriend that everyone tells you that you need to dump? You know you need to go to the dentist every six months?” They’re like, “Yes, there’s this stuff I know but I can’t get myself to do!”
You can only have that emotional connection if you recognize the Gray Rhino for yourself instead of saying, “My boss said I have to do this.”
A: In this case, that metaphor gives you an emotional connection. You’re going to envision a rhino looking menacingly at you and you will think differently about going to the dentist, or whatever it may be. The metaphor brings that meaning that gives it emotional resonance and hence more strength. It’s wonderful.
Any word of advice for someone who has another big idea that they’re trying to share with the world? Any lessons that you’ve learned other than: Don’t launch in the middle of the New York primary?
M: And that nobody could have seen coming!
Have something that you are comfortable sticking with for quite some time and being your thing. Have it be a lens that can apply to lots of different things. My good friend Katie Orenstein of The OpEd Project talks about her book Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked and how she broadened that from being about the little girl in the red hood to being about fairy tales, to being about myths, to being about empowering women, to being about popular culture.
If you think your topic is narrow, you might be surprised once you sit down and think about how broad it is.
Writing a “big idea” book
Having a big idea book as a woman I found was quite challenging. I’ve even wondered if my author photo not being on the cover in China had anything to do with its success. In Chinese, ta is she and he. It’s the same, so you only get it [gender] through context. I have wondered if that makes a difference. I’ve got other women author friends who’ve written big idea books. One of them went to a publisher who wanted a, travelogue-y thing. A guy. She said, “The guy wanted me to do the girl book.” Then she went to a woman who published this book that ended up doing very, well and had a lot of big ideas.
I get a lot of pushback from some of the Black Swan crowd—the people who did not read that book, but it’s sitting on their shelf. They’re saying, “Oh, that was a black swan,” so people might think actually read the book. Some of those right now are actually coming back and saying, oh, the pandemic is a white swan. No wait, it’s a gray swan. The author talked about both of those very briefly and disparagingly in his book. Since then he has mentioned them a couple times; he didn’t start talking about white swans in terms of the pandemic until he heard people using Gray Rhino. The pandemic is actually more like what he called in his book a gray swan. But apparently, he didn’t want to use gray. You know, a white swan is something that’s not dangerous. Gray swans are not dangerous either. They’re baby swans. They’re neither rare, nor dangerous, unless the mama swan gets mad at you.
Be prepared to get a lot of pushback, to get a lot of know-it-all guys mansplaining things to you. I’ve had people come up to me—on LinkedIn, particularly as my weekly column there has gotten more attention—who say, “You don’t know anything about black swans.” And I say, “The author of The Black Swan also says this is not a black swan.” So, be prepared for a lot of mansplaining and pushback.
You’ve got to have a lot of confidence in yourself to do a big idea book as a woman. But it’s worth doing, because the more of us do it, the more other people will have a path to follow. We’ll have examples and role models. And you’ll see what power you can have.
You’ve got to have a lot of confidence in yourself to do a big idea book as a woman. But it’s worth doing, because the more of us do it, the more other people will have a path to follow.
A: Thank you, Michele. That’s great advice. I hope people will follow it.