Workplace Culture with Undercover Employee and Leadership Expert, Nora Burns
What would you learn about workplace culture and leadership if you stepped out of the executive suite and out to the front lines and mopped the floors, stocked the shelves, or made the deliveries? Nora Burns, a leading expert in leadership and workplace culture, did just that. As a fortune 200 executive, Nora Burns witnessed the phenomenon of disconnection between the boardroom and the break room and its cost to organizations. She became obsessed with trying to understand that disconnect and how to bridge the gap between titled leaders and informal leaders while remaining in touch with all levels of the organization. And the year she invested in analyzing leaders and working as the undercover employee for big brands, Nora uncovered some truly remarkable stories. More importantly, she discovered the four attributes that create a stronger connection and a more effective workplace culture. Now, more than ever, understanding and prioritizing these elements is critical to organizational success. She takes her coffee black, so with us on the podcast today is keynoter retreat facilitator and consultant, Nora Burns.
Jenn DeWall: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for tuning into this week’s episode of The Leadership Habit. It’s Jenn DeWall, and today on the show, I have leadership development and workplace culture expert Nora Burns. Nora, thank you so much for joining us on the show today.
Nora Burns: Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
Jenn DeWall: Nora, for those that may not be familiar with you and who you are and what you do, just give us a little bit of a rundown about who you are.
What is an Undercover Employee?
Nora Burns: Well, as you shared in the intro, I have this background in human resources and organizational development working for large and small organizations. And probably the most unique qualifier to me is the fact that I am an undercover candidate and employee, the undercover candidate, and the undercover employee because I did a whole lot of independent research into this when I saw those disconnects between different layers of the organization.
Jenn DeWall: So, what does that mean to be an undercover employee?
Nora Burns: To be an undercover employee- I worked on the front lines of five different Fortune 500 organizations, where they did not know that I’m an expert in leadership and workplace culture. But instead, they saw me as the cashier or the customer service rep, the warehouse staffer, delivery driver. Right. So as far as they were concerned, I was every other person on their payroll. But what I was doing was studying how that leadership interaction was taking place and what was happening with the workplace culture from the front line instead of from the executive suite. Right. I’ve been looking at that for the last dozen-plus years.
Jenn DeWall: Yeah. Right. I think there’s a lot of stuff that gets missed as it trickles down from that C-suite board room to when it gets to the front line. And that’s, I’m sure what they see is when maybe the strategies tend to unravel because they don’t necessarily know whether the front line employees have the same access to information or even the same commitment to that strategy or also understanding why they are trying to do what they have to do to support that strategy.
Nora Burns: Yeah. The “why” is huge. The “why” is huge and how things get translated in essentially a huge game of telephone that we’re playing from the boardroom to the break room.
Jenn DeWall: Oh my gosh. You know, that’s just what I’ve, I would love to talk to you. I feel like hours on end about your undercover research, but prior to this, we were talking a little bit about, you know, just how things have changed. I know that me in leadership development, you in leadership development, we’ve obviously seen a big change as a result of Kobe and you had mentioned before we went live, we were just talking about how employee needs have changed. Share with our listeners kind of what’s different about leading today and how maybe our needs are a little bit different or our employee needs are different for organizations.
What Employees Need Now
Nora Burns: Yeah, it, the employees have changed dramatically in the last month to two months, three months, depending upon where in the world you are and where you were when COVID really took over your space. Right? But we essentially taken employees back to the very baseline understanding of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Right now, we’re talking about baseline safety and security issues. It is no longer you know, the Foosball table in the break room, the fact that we’ve got happy hour every Friday, you know, kind of a thing. It’s how do you take it back to making sure that people have core safety, security, and an understanding that of where their company is going and what their role is in it. And in order for people to be really productive in their jobs right now, which is a tough ask, quite frankly, they need to make sure that those other things are taken care of, right? Like this is, this is always true, but it’s, but it’s accentuated right now. Is my mortgage getting paid? Is my rent getting paid? Do I have a safe methodology by which to take care of myself, my family, my community?
Jenn DeWall: Yes, and there are things that, you know, I like to say that up until today we could kind of skirt around not addressing emotions in the workplace, but I feel like everything that we see as a result of COVID is naturally lends itself to emotions and that we as leaders really need to step into that space of maybe discomfort and talk about emotions, address the safety of your team, address. You know how they feel about their role in the organization. I mean, if you’re a leader, I can guarantee that if you’re in an industry that might be impacted negatively right now, that you might have someone on your team that is very afraid of losing their job and that fear is going to trickle into how they actually show up for the job.
Nora Burns: Oh, without question. There has never been, I think, addressing the fact that people show up as their whole selves with all of their emotions is important in any situation, right? Because we need, one of the elements that I talk about in the Echo Effect is, is the humanizing it, right? Like to humanize your workforce. And that means accepting the person in their whole and understanding the emotions. And right now, because of the level of fear and anxiety that’s happening in the unknowns, all of that is elevated. All of that has been taken to just a heightened level. And there’s nothing to hide behind because we now have no choice but to deal with those emotions. And there’s never been a time where emotional intelligence was more important, at least in my lifetime here at work, right? Understanding emotional intelligence, how you show up, what your emotions are, how that’s having a ripple effect on your team.
Nora Burns: All of it really needs to be addressed because even if they’re not worried about having a paycheck, right? Because there are some industries that are going to flourish in the midst of this. If it’s not even worrying about having a paycheck, it’s, it’s the idea that they might transmit this to their family if they’re an essential worker and they have to be out of the house and out on the job. But also what’s happening with the other members of their family and elderly parents or grandparents or nieces and nephews and other people around that they don’t have firsthand contact with.
Jenn DeWall: It’s a really, really difficult time. And it’s a, you know, it’s a new time. It’s a new experience. You had touched on it. We haven’t seen it before in our lifetimes. How quickly the state of work changed. But you talk about the “Echo Effect,” which is essential– I love it because it’s a way for us as leaders of things that we could be doing today to position us to be ready for what tomorrow brings. Tell us a little bit about what your concept of the echo effect is.
Developing Workplace Culture – How Will You Show Up Today?
Nora Burns: Well, I have long said that there’s always this echo that happens with every touchpoint that a leader has with members of their team and that every team member has with other members of the team, right? It impacts for a longer time than what we realize every single touchpoint that we have. And again, right now, it’s, it’s even more true. So in developing your workplace culture, in looking at what you’re going to stand for as an organization, mission, vision, values, not only what’s up on that break room wall, because quite frankly, it doesn’t matter what you wrote up on the break room wall, what matters is how you show up in a day to day experience. And I think before, pre-pandemic organizations were able to hide a little bit of that, of the truth of who they really were as organizations.
Nora Burns: And they, they might hide behind what that mission, vision, values are. And right now, there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s all kind of stripped bare and, and you’re showing up. Your workplace culture is kind of out on display because of how you’re talking to your employees every day and that that has a ripple effect. It has what I call an echo effect in that it continues to go on and live on is your employment brand, both with your current employees as well as potential future employees. And that is, that encompasses the experience that your employees have from the time they’re candidates until the time they’re hired, and then they leave. It encompasses the level of communication that you have with them in terms of, especially right now, right in times of chaos and change, we need to communicate even more, but how much we’re communicating effectively with our employees.
Nora Burns: And it’s the level of humanizing. One of the biggest issues that I saw as the undercover employee was the really the lack of humanization of team members across the organization. There was a lot of just insignificance kind of feelings on the front lines. And then the O in our echo acronym is to “own it.” And this is really critical right now. Because what I mean by that is the number of times I heard from front line managers, supervisors, directors, right? Like general managers locally- things like, Oh, well, you know, that’s, that’s the policy. That’s what headquarters said. That’s what, that’s from home-office. Like this, I’m washing my hands. It’s not a great metaphor right now. I’m washing my hands of it, right? Like everybody’s washing their hands of it, but they’re taking no ownership of why we’re doing things or, or digging in and being that bumper to go up and get more information if it’s necessary, they’re just kind of saying, Oh, that’s just how it is, and that’s not going to help to grow and engage your frontline workforce.
Nora Burns: So, so the echo is both understanding that there is this echo effect, right? Like the things we do are heard not only today but tomorrow, the next day and the next day. And now I’d actually argue that the things that we’re doing with our teams right now, the decisions we’re making, the behaviors that are taking place in our organizations will have an impact on our organizational reputation. Not only for days, weeks, and years but truly for decades. Like this will have a legacy, be it a good one or a bad one. But it’ll echo through many, many years to come how employees are being treated right now with regard to each of those elements.
What is the ECHO Effect? Experience. Communication. Humanize. Own It.
Jenn DeWall: I love the description. I especially love the emphasis on ownership because I think that’s a really easy thing to get lost, especially with the quick transition from face to face to a virtual setting where we’ve maybe had to adjust some of our policies, which if people aren’t taking ownership, it’s a lot more difficult to maintain business as normal. But you talk about ECHO- and it’s an acronym, right?
Nora Burns: It is an acronym, and it is a reality. So, the acronym is Experience. Communication. Humanize. And Own it. And those are really four key elements to developing effective workplace culture and to managing your way through any kind of tumultuous time like we’re in right now. And it is very much reality in terms of the fact that people share their experiences with family, with friends, with the community now we share them on Glassdoor and on you know, out on people actually share on Yelp, their employee experiences, which sometimes get edited off of there, but also out on Indeed and other boards that have opportunities for voice to say, Hey, what was it like to really work there? And now that echo has gone beyond that, communication has gone beyond those levels, and now it’s going into the news, right?
Nora Burns: Both good and bad. Like the exciting stuff. The exciting stuff is the fact that the really positive echos are the CEOs, the executive teams that have put their own finances aside for the benefit of the frontline worker and for their organization. So we’ve heard about several CEOs who have said, I’m going to not take a salary or bonus at all during 2020. Or who’ve said, I’m only going to take $20,000 or $30,000, and the rest of what was going to be my salary and bonus gets donated back to the organization to make sure we’ve got masks and gloves and enough pay to pay extra overtime for those who are really having to work a lot of hours right now. And they are taking care of the frontline at their own expense. What an awesome echo, because five, ten years from now, people are still going to say, remember when. Remember when they actually waived their own finances so that we could make it through that.
Jenn DeWall: That’s how much they care.
Nora Burns: And that’s where I want to work. And you think about it now, that’s going to be how people talked about the Google pods, right? So all the stuff that came out when Google made a Google, the Google complex Googleplex, that’s what its called, where there’s like sleeping pods, and there’s you know, the free vending machines. And remember when those things were the first kind of coming out, and people were talking about them and like, wow, what a crazy thing and how awesome. And the people will be like. I want to work there. Right? Because how cool is that that they have all of this stuff? And I think right now what we’re finding is the organizations that will be that, in another five and ten years. When people say the CEOs, who rolled up their sleeves, the CEOs who donated their own pay back, the executive teams who made sure that our community was taken care of, that not only I was taken care of as an employee, but my spouse, my family, they’re taking care of transportation. They’re taking care of making sure we’re safe, right? With gloves and masks and all of those types of things. Those are the organizations that people are going to be talking about for years to come in a positive way. The same way we’ve been talking about the exciting changes that Google brought into workplace culture for the last ten years.
Jenn DeWall: I love how that connects with what you were saying earlier that right now, workplace needs are changing. So what was appealing once about Google, which sleeping pods, free vending machines, is not necessarily the thing at the forefront to employees today? That they actually want to be at a place that is concerned about whether or not they will be safe or healthy or can eat. Or that they have a human leader that connects with them and cares about that. You know, there’s a value shift in terms of our employees and what they’re really wanting.
Nora Burns: And they are, and I am confident in Google’s making that change. They’re not a client of mine, they’ve never been a client of mine. And I also think highly enough of them as an organization that would be super surprised if they’re not leading that in a lot of ways in their own organization. But the idea right now of a sleeping pod that somebody else has slept in is actually a little horrifying, right? Like it’s kinda like watching television of any kind. Now you’ve got, I watch it and what’s interesting to me is I’ve never watched a lot of television, and I’m watching even less right now when you would think I would have more time. But part of it is when I do watch anything- a commercial or a show- anything and people are touching and doing it, and you’re like, NOOO, right? Like, because our frame of reference from society has changed.
Nora Burns: So some of those things like, you know that had been offered are probably not as appealing and really needing to transition and say, okay, now some of the important things are there’s a huge of course hygiene and how do we make sure that everything is clean and everything is safe? And what were we sharing before that doesn’t make sense to share now? Right? We’ve had lots of shared workstations, and for a lot of organizations who had a big boom in growth, that was a very popular thing to do where you had shared workstations, and at least for the next several months, that’s really unappealing. Unless we’ve got really strong protocols in terms of how we make that transition from one employee to the other. But the safety and security elements are going to be huge.
What Employee Experience Says About Workplace Culture
Jenn DeWall: Yeah. Absolutely. Basic human needs. Going with how you started it. So the echo effect that he for the experience. So is “experience” about what we have in terms of the operational experience, whether we have our resources to do our job, or is it kind of like the experience of knowing that we’re supported by someone? What does that mean?
Nora Burns: I take experience down to the very specific employee element. What has my experience been with the organization, with the brand? And are we making sure that individual employees have that positive experience? And I think for right now there’s going to be a lot of focus on that, safety and security. So I think of it is a re-imagining, which I spend so much of my time re-imagining kind of that candidate experience, the hiring process experience, and then the onboarding experience. Right? So right now, there are some organizations that are really flourishing, and they are growing, and they’re adding staff. Well, how do you do that differently in a COVID-19 world, right? What resources are we providing for our candidates in terms of doing video interviews and are we training our hiring teams on how you interview via video because it is different, it’s a different experience, and we’ve learned all of these things.
Nora Burns: A lot of people have learned these things like body language signals and signs that are going to be different on video. Because one of the things, a lot of people don’t know if they’re interviewing on video, for example, to look at the camera and not to look at the screen, because if I’m looking at the screen some of those hiring managers are going to read that as I’m looking shifty because I’m actually often looking down, I’m looking off to the side cause I’m looking at their faces. Which has nothing to do with if I’m looking shifty, or telling the truth or not telling the truth or all that kind of a thing. It’s a technology issue. Right? So, so anyhow, so back to the original question, which is what is that employee’s experience with their hiring process? When they first came on board, were people expecting to see them where they, you know, were they treated with, I respect all the way from the beginning. But now we transition them to a COVID-19 world. So it’s not only are you getting back to people and are you responding to resumes and to calls about from candidates and those types of things, but it’s, are you making sure that they are safe through that process? Are you addressing their safety and security? And are you ready to answer their questions about how your organization is dealing with COVID-19 to make sure that they’re coming in with a positive story about your organization looking out for them?
Jenn DeWall: Yeah, and you already have to be prepared to answer some questions that you maybe wouldn’t feel that you had to answer outside of COVID, such as even like the state of the business. Are we going to make it? Will I have a job? That’s something that I think many organizations, especially private organizations, wouldn’t necessarily feel as inclined to share, but right now it actually becomes a tool that you can use to help soften or alleviate some of that anxiety, which is naturally going to occur as a result of COVID. So let’s talk about the C -Oh, wait, were you going to add something? I want to hear,
Nora Burns: Yeah, I can go down the path of any one of these elements for an extended period of time. As I pull forward, you know, experiences as that undercover employee. And I think of kind of where we are, what our current state is in terms of safety and security and a lot of organizations. And, and quite frankly, it’s, it’s a little scary to me. So I’m really excited and hopeful that organizations are going to step up to this because I’m flashing right now in my brain to, to things like cutting my hand while I was working and a little, a little cut, but looking for a bandaid and nobody knew where the first aid kit was. And then when we got the first aid kit, everything in the first aid kit was expired. And not by like a little, but by like four years.
Nora Burns: And I’m thinking that’s, that’s a pretty baseline OSHA-audit checkoff, right? Let’s make sure we’ve got a first aid kit that takes care of things. And so we are, we are asking organizations to go from, I didn’t have a first aid kit available that had all of the like up to date basic needs to, we have to protect them from a, from a pandemic virus, right? So that’s a big gap, and I’m excited. I’m excited that the kinds of people who listen to your podcast, right, the kinds of people who are continuous learners, and leadership are exact, who is going to step up to that challenge and say, okay, wait, what are we doing? If I shift perspective- and that’s my biggest ask of anybody- is can you shift perspective and pretend for just a little bit that you are working on the frontlines of your business, that you are working at the customer-facing point and, and, and really immerse yourself in that experience and that idea and do that thought experiment and say, what would I want? What would I need? What would I want to make sure was available? And I’m excited that the people who are listening to this are the people who are willing to do that thought experiment. That makes sense to me.
Jenn DeWall: Yeah. A shift in perspective. This is just such a great time to be able to think that there is a different way that we can do things, and maybe it’s by force, or maybe now you can look at it as an opportunity. You can start a new chapter in multiple facets of your organization. Now I want to continue to go through the echo effect. So we talked about the experience. So the experience that that employees have in your organization, that right now as a result of COVID, we really need to be sensitive and aware of that experience. What does the C in ECHO stand for?
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
Nora Burns: The C is for Communication, which should be like a huge capital C of course –
Jenn DeWall: Communicate, communicate, communicate!!!
Nora Burns: And when in doubt, communicate again. This is, this is shockingly a gap that I recognize as the undercover employee. And it’s interesting because again, having been an executive, having put together the communication plans for a variety of different things, both good news, and bad news, you know, everything from hiring to being bought out by a bigger company, to layoffs, to product development, right? Having been part of communication strategies for a lot of those, I had a very specific look at what corporate communication looked like. And then I’m on the front lines, and it didn’t translate, it didn’t come through it. It missed a chain of command.
Nora Burns: It missed somewhere along the line to the point that here was one organization that I was working at- and it’s worth noting, I never ever disclose the names of the organizations where I worked-so it’s not about blame and shame. It is about what we can collectively learn from the trends that were present across all five organizations. And so I don’t ever disclose the organizations or, or say anything that would give them away. Right. So it’d be easy enough for any organization to look in their payroll records and see if my name’s there to know if I was there that they find it out. We don’t need to, and we don’t need to share that. But I was working at one organization, and I had been off work for just two days, ironically, to go deliver the opening keynote at a medical conference, which is a slight shift from working my cashier job. So then I got off, and I’d done my normal job. So I’d gone and done this opening keynote at a, at a conference down in New Orleans.
Nora Burns: And I came back, and something was just off. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I’m like, something has changed. Like just like this disturbance in the force type feeling but not knowing what it was and nobody was saying anything in particular. There wasn’t something obvious. And I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was, and I thought, Hmm, something’s off. And I actually thought it might have to do with the fact that I had done this big shift from, you know, being the keynote speaker, which is one very specific role to being back as a cashier wearing my polyester uniform. And so I kind of thought it might have to do with that. I thought, Oh, I’m going to think about that and what, what’s going on with me on that. And then, as I was leaving work that day, I looked off to the right-hand side in the entrance to the store. And I noticed that the General Manager’s photo was no longer behind the plexiglass where it said welcome to our store, our General Manager is- the photo wasn’t there. And I was like, huh. And I turned back kind of go back to the security guard where I showed them my bag to make sure I wasn’t stealing anything from the store. I said, Hey, how come you know, so and so’s the photo isn’t up there? And He said he had quit and walked off the job two days ago.
Nora Burns: So my boss quit while I was out for two days and nobody said anything. Nobody made sure that the people who were not present that day, at that time, when that happened, were aware of it. And I was like, Oh well, that explains why there was this weird air in the room the whole time. Right. So I mean like that’s a pretty significant element to not communicate to your team. And if we’re missing big things like that, then we’re missing lots and lots of little things. And I watched it happen where if you weren’t present at that one meeting where that information was shared, there was no way for you to have that information. Because things were shared once and when things are going smoothly, when things are going well, you need to communicate information that’s important to the organization and to all of the team more than once.
Nora Burns: Now, in the middle of this, the pace of change in terms of how our communities are dealing with this in terms of how our families are dealing with us, our companies are dealing with us. It needs to be on a regular basis. You really need it and not, and it needs to be effective. It can’t be another email that goes out to everybody that says, here’s the update and the status of our COVID-19. Oh my gosh, I have now, I have all but put a filter on those. I’m so close to just putting a filter that if the subject line says COVID-19, it just goes into spam because that’s not the communication that people need. They need to know-
Jenn DeWall: Well, people have already evolved to understanding like- I think there’s something to be said about understanding your audience. What they’re going through and what’s important to them. I think, you know, I’m sorry to kind of jump in, I think that’s where we’re seeing some challenges in terms of the world of influencing and celebrity and how, you know, there have been some that have really been criticized for their lack of considering their audience. Maybe feeling a little bit tone-deaf or out of touch. And your organizational emails can also create that same effect where you can feel tone-deaf. If your employees are really concerned about where and what their job is going to look like and you’re trying to get them to celebrate, you know, 100 years at the company, even though that’s a great thing, that’s not going to mean that much to them right now.
Nora Burns: Yeah. That has to get reframed. That has to get reframed, and it does come back to both tone-deaf, as well as the emotional element. Right. Is it something that I want to open? I want to read. I want to look at it. If there’s important information in there, it has to be sent in a way that I want. I want to open it and have the subject line be COVID- 19 updates aren’t going to do that. Not for your employees internally and not for your customers externally. There are sensitivity and this awareness of what’s happening now. Here’s, okay, here’s one element of that, right? We talked a little bit about safety and security, and I think about this idea is Colorado looks towards the future and reopening restaurants, bars, that kind of thing. And we don’t have a date as we’re recording this.
Nora Burns: We don’t have it the date for when that might happen. But one of the things that was shocking to me on the front lines that I had been tone-deaf about that I had not considered. I have the luxury of being a person who has a safe home, right? That I have enough space for myself. I don’t have to shove six people into a two-bedroom apartment. Right? And that is, that is an absolute luxury. And the part of that that I hadn’t fully appreciated was the fact that I have a washer and dryer in my home. Where when I come home at the end of the day, and I smell like whatever food that restaurant happened to be making, where I was serving, I could take all of that off and put it straight into the washer and not give it another thought.
And realizing that I was the only one at that particular location for whom that was true. Everyone else either had an apartment building where they had to go and pay $2, $3, $4 to wash their uniform. Or they had to go to a laundromat, and that escalates that. So I think about an easy, easy baseline thing is maybe before we gave everybody two uniforms and now we’re going to give them five so that they can get through a whole week. Because I don’t want anybody in the age of COVID-19 re-wearing any clothes? Right? I don’t want you to re-wearing your uniform top from today to tomorrow. And I know and appreciate that you don’t have the methodology to wash that in your own house. And I don’t want to make you pay almost an hour’s wage in order to wash it. I don’t want people trying to wash them out in their sinks. Right. So an easy, easy way to enhance that and to say we really do care about you, is you have a uniform for every day of the week, whatever that uniform is. If it’s an apron, if it’s a vest, if it’s a tee-shirt and polyester pants, whatever that is, there’s a minimum of five that’s dispersed to everyone sends the message, we care. And it says that you’re not tone deaf about the situation that most of them are living in.
Jenn DeWall: Oh my gosh, I love that idea. I never even thought about that. Like another way that you could just consider or just, you know, kind of anticipate, or step in their shoes and think about how you could make it easier, especially right now when those, you know, the essential workers, the front line employees are likely experiencing more stress than they’ve ever had on the job before. And so the little things that they can do, my gosh, I think that’s such a great consideration. Let’s go on to the H. So the echo effect. So E is the experience. C is communication. To communicate, communicate, communicate. Especially right now. What is H?
Humanizing Workplace Culture
Nora Burns: The H is Humanize. One of my greatest shocks as the undercover employee was the fact that when I go into the break room and talk with my friends, fellow workers, and they saw me as a peer- because again, they don’t know that I’m an expert in Leadership and Workplace Culture. They’re saying as peers, the cashier, the housekeeper, etc. And I’d sit in the break room and say, sell, what do you do here? Like, I’m new, what’s your job? And what the answer was- consistent, so consistent- because the answer was I’m” just a” and then whatever their job title was, right? I’m just a cashier. I’m just a warehouse employee. I’m just a Department manager. I heard it all the way up to General Manager, which is a little shocking, but I’m just a, and it didn’t matter who I was asking in which organization I asked.
Nora Burns: This happened across the board in all five organizations where people would say, I’m just a -. It’s just so fascinating to me and incredibly sad. Because we are, in fact, a capitalistic society. We do not pay for any job that does not need doing, right? Every single job within our organizations has significance. And we’re going to have some work to do on that when we get back into everybody being back at work because this whole who is essential needs to be not misunderstood as who’s important. Right. And because it’s, it’s different from what’s essential to keep a society working on a day to day basis to in the larger scheme of life. Right? It’s, it’s all of those jobs are, all of those folks are really important. But yeah, but getting past the justice and realizing there are no”just a” jobs and what are we doing on both big kind of strategic ways, but also in day to day contacts with our candidates and with our employees to send the message that they are highly valued and important to us as the organization to our customers overall. So really needing to get the human back into the whole concept.
Jenn DeWall: And I think there’s like, the one important thing that I would note is don’t confuse being human with thinking that you can try and show them that you’re human. And what I mean by that is I think sometimes people misuse the word authentic because they, you know, want to try and seem like they might be more human or more approachable, but people can kind of tell that they’re not necessarily truthful in that. So be honest, be transparent. Especially right now, if you are a business leader, I would be surprised to hear that you’re not stressed, that you’re not too considering and questioning what will the future look like for our organization. It is okay to talk about the fact that you might share some of those same fears, some of those same like cautious questions, you know, don’t pretend that everything is amazing when it’s not for the sake of trying to be relatable and try to be a cheerleader because people will be able to see right through it.
Nora Burns: Oh, I totally agree. I totally agree. And the humanize element totally is on both sides of that relationship. Right. And I think it’s, it’s to, to recognize the fact that we are as leaders we have our own humanness. And to recognize that all of the people that work with and for us and, and within the organization have their own level of humanity and where they are at any given moment might be different. Right? Cause we are in the middle of a really big grieving process. And just like any grieving process, people are at different points at different times, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve like the loss of a loved one, the loss of an opportunity, or in this case, it’s the loss of what was normal. Right? And so we’re at those different points. But to be able to, to honor that I think right now part of that big “humanize” element, is the fact that we can’t expect people to be able to turn off their emotions about all of this when they log in at the beginning of the day or when they, the people that are showing up physically at work, when they cross that threshold, that doesn’t take away the reality of everything that’s happening in their reality as a human being right now.
Nora Burns: So while we want to help people get focused at work, and one of the best ways we can do that, of course, is to what we’ve talked about, make sure they do feel safe and secure, and they know that we’re being taken care of them. I think to assume that as soon as they log in, they switch from life to work in this scenario. In this day and age, it just isn’t the reality.
Jenn DeWall: No, it is funny that people kind of I think to operate under the notion that humans are able to compartmentalize. Our brains are extremely sophisticated, but that should exactly show you that they are going to work in a career or work, career, personal life are all going to be tied together. We can’t just look at one in a vacuum. You get both of them. And that’s not necessarily an employee bringing their personal problems to work. We just have a, and we have a global pandemic. Right?. Now, this is something, and it’s actually if we’re thinking about humanizing things, COVID gives you the opportunity to speak from a shared experience beyond even just your organization. So if you are someone that struggles with personally connecting, this might be one of your ways to finally start to show them that you are human because we are all going through this. No matter where you are in the world, you are impacted by this. No matter what your economic class is, you are impacted by this in some way. And so if you’re looking for those points of commonality to relate with people to be more influential, the time is now.
Nora Burns: Yeah, yeah, totally is. And it’s getting it, I had this conversation in the day with one of my coaching clients, and they shared something along this lines of like, I kind of feel like I always have to be the strong one and I always have to be whatever. And I said, now do you think the same is true when you’re talking to me as your coach? Right. As the Executive Coach, do you think that I have to be always in the yes, optimistic, positive? And he sat and sat with that for a second and went like, no, I would be really worried if you didn’t express any concern about this because I would be worried that that level of compartmentalization. Because it actually shows a very different issue. A psychological issue. And I said no, as you go through this, there are going to be easier days, and they’re going to be harder days.
Nora Burns: And on any given moment, and actually quite frankly, like with grieving, there can be an easier hour and a harder hour. I said, and you need to develop the methodology and the means to make emotionally sound and emotionally intelligent decisions so that you’re expressing all of those emotions appropriately and to the right person at the right time and all of that. But to completely say that they don’t exist? You will disconnect from the people around you to act like nothing has changed right now.
Jenn DeWall: Business as usual.
Nora Burns: That would be really super scary and would not feed your workplace culture well, not at all.
Jenn DeWall: Let’s go into the fourth. So let’s talk about the fourth piece. The final piece, the O in ECHO, which I think if I’m remembering, is ownership? Is that right?
Owning It – Take Responsibility for Your Workplace Culture
Nora Burns: It’s own it! It’s “own it. Just go out there and own it. And this comes out of the fact that lots of times as that undercover employee, I experienced managers, leaders saying, Oh, well, that’s what the home office says. That’s what corporate says. That’s what the policy is. Without really digging in and explaining or providing some “why” or really owning it themselves as part of that family and getting some of those whys to be able to, to share with people on the front lines. And so there was always this, Oh, actually one to the extent that they said, well if you guys don’t start doing this, the corporate’s going to take away this other benefit over here, this completely unrelated benefit. I was like, and there’s no way that’s going to happen. There’s no way if we don’t start hanging up our uniforms here that they’re going to take away personal time.
Nora Burns: Right? Like, but it was, they were so used to using headquarters as the stick that they didn’t have anything else in their toolbox in terms of getting us to do what they wanted us to do and explaining the why of why we need the apply they needed. Those uniforms hung up right there and how that helped to feed the process kind of a thing. So to really own it, to, to have some managerial courage. And like right now, I mean like to have people, the managers, leaders, directors, whatever your particular title happens to be within that or if you’re a non-titled leader within your organization, the fact that you’re willing to, to ask the questions, to push and give suggestion and say, could we possibly do this other thing? And to take some individual ownership and not just say, Oh, I’m going to wait for somebody else to make that decision.
I’m not going to give any of my own ideas. I’m not going to suggest anything. Because what it does is if you’re saying as a leader, as a manager, as a director, that you’re not going to share any ideas. You’re not going to bring anything up to try to solve and be innovative during this time. You’re actually sending the message to the people on the front line that they don’t need to bother coming up with innovative solutions. You’ve got so many great innovative solutions on your front lines. People who can solve so many of the challenges within your organization. If somebody will just ask and then listen.
Jenn DeWall: Yeah, ask, and listen. And I think the other piece that leaders forget if we want people to own it, we’ve got to designate that certain level of authority or autonomy to own it, which means if you don’t give someone any discretion, to make a decision. Like to go above headquarters. You know, I think, but in customer service, if you don’t give people the flexibility to try and serve the customer. Or say that they have to just follow the policy, well then they aren’t going to think about what they could do to preserve and make that a great customer experience. And said in another way, if we don’t give people the authority to make decisions, how would they be innovative for us? Because they feel like they don’t have the power to make an impact. So if you want people to own it, you’ve got to make sure to give them some power. So that might require you as a leader right now to just release a little bit of the reins of the control, especially because you may not know what’s going on because this is new for all of us. And open up the possibility for other people to step up and be greater leaders than what you could have ever imagined.
Nora Burns: Oh, this is a huge opportunity to see where you’ve got some incredible leadership, top talent through your organization. And I’m not saying like give up all control, all power, everything’s, you know, like you don’t, you’re not accountable to anything then if we’ve been managing from this place of, I liken it to like a highway or road, right. If we’ve been managing from, you have to keep it between the yellow lines, right? Where you have to keep it between the white lines or you, have to keep it right. Like is there a way that we could get closer to the gravel? Can we get closer to the ditches? To say, just keep it. These are the barriers. Like, keep it between the ditches, like you have some free reign to do these things. This is the budget that you have to do these things.
Trust Your Front Line Team to Innovate New Solutions
Nora Burns: People will come up with some incredibly useful and innovative solutions both for their clients as well as for their teams. And can you absolutely hit the nail on the head, John, in this concept of, you know, if you say you want them to, to have like that entrepreneurial spirit, you want them to have that ownership, then you need to be willing to demonstrate the fact that that’s a high value that, that has significance and they will be rewarded and not punished for having practiced it? And I think on with one of the organizations that I worked at they had as many organizations do, had a price matching policy in play and at that time. Except the cashier wasn’t trusted to do it. So if you, as a customer, came up and you were buying something from me, and you showed me, like, here it is on your phone, and this is the beautiful thing about technology right here.
Nora Burns: Here it is on your phone that XYZ company is selling this exact same product for, you know, X numbers of dollars. I, as a cashier, had to verify it, but then I had to call a manager and wait for them to come and override it. I did not, and even though I was following the policy, I didn’t have that authority to say yes, they had to look at the screen themselves. They didn’t trust me as a cashier to look at the screen. And the messaging that that sends in terms of how important I am and if I’m trusted and all of that. But it’s definitely telling me not to be innovative. Because it is locked down. You’re to be robotic in the, in the methodology. So I think that’s what that brought to mind when you said that. Like you have to give the bandwidth for that to happen, for ownership to happen across the organization.
Jenn DeWall: Yes, I love that. I think if you put it in the example of parenting like you can’t do everything for your children. Otherwise, they won’t understand how to think for themselves. I think when we look at it through parenting, people very much understand that. But when we apply it to work, it’s like we forget it. Like you can’t force-feed your employees because you want them to know how to problem-solve. You want them to be critical thinkers. And so we do have to allow them to practice exercising that. We can’t just say, well, this is exactly what we want to do. Of course, there are some things that have to be done that way, but if you want to have a more competent workforce, we have to start giving and empowering people the opportunity to maybe even amaze themselves, but solve problems, make decisions. You’re a grown adult, we trust you.
Nora Burns: We have the exact opportunity right now, right? So this is what we need to do. We need to make sure that we can get product to our clients without having human touch. Right? So that’s what we have to do. That’s the project. And then being able to allow the people within that team, they’re going to come up with some ways. Now, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to, you know, like talk about it and what’s the final decision. They’re going to be there. They know what the routine is every single day. So they’re going to be able to come up with a great pattern and a great methodology by which to do that, that we can then have become how we do it across the board. Right? And then that’s how we do it. But it came from the front line, and it didn’t come from somebody sitting where I have sat in an executive row behind the mahogany desk. Right? So it’s just going to have different power and a different authority when it comes, we give them the problem, share the problem with the front lines and then allow them to come up with a solution and then take it on from there and then push that out across the organization.
Jenn DeWall: Alright. I love the whole concept of the ECHO effect. I think to talk about it today. I hope that what our listeners get is that at a point where we may feel like we don’t have a lot of power or control. It sounds like the echo effect is something that we can actually use that’s tangible, that can help us feel back in control. Like these are legitimate things that we can control. We can control the experience. We can control how we communicate. We can control how we show up and humanize things, and we can show up, or we can also control ownership by giving authority. I think that is such- I like that tool. That insight is such a great way to look at it. And I’m just so glad that we were able to share your expertise with our listeners today.
What is Your Leadership Habit for Success?
Jenn DeWall: I have to ask you one final question that we ask everyone that’s on the show. I know it’s the big reveal, the big question, but the question is there are a lot of leaders that are listening to this podcast, and many of us obviously are listening to podcasts because we want to grow, but we also want to learn from each other. So the final question is, what is your leadership habit for success?
Nora Burns: What is my leadership habit for success? I love that question. I also love the fact that there’s not one, right? And so I will pick a because I do think if there’s only one thing you’re doing, it’s probably not enough as a leader. There’s just too much complexity to leadership. So I’m going to say- and I’m going to actually apply it to something that I do all the time that has been really beneficial during this COVID-19 pandemic. And that is that I, in practicing the humanizing, I look for a shift in perspective and try to tell a different story. So for every situation that comes up, I try not to go to whatever my default story is. That is like, Ugh, they’re just trying to make me crazy or the right. Because the default story usually is not a particularly generous story to the other people involved, right?
Nora Burns: So it’s like, I’m stopped at a traffic light and the car in front of me when that light goes green doesn’t change, right? So if you’re at a traffic light, you’re behind one car, and the light changes green, and the car in front of you doesn’t move. Why don’t they move? What’s the story? They’re texting, right? So the story’s often, they’re texting, they’ve got to get off their phone. It’s not a particularly generous story to them. Now it’s possible that they actually just looked off to the right and they actually see that there is a car that’s about to blow the stop sign. And if they go into the intersection, they’re going to get hit. Right? But that’s not usually the first story that we tell because we’re not that generous in our stories. So I do constant editing of my stories and looking for the shift in perspective. Like why would that behavior have just taken place? What is why would a reasonable and rational human being do what just happened? Because I’m going to trust that that person is a reasonable and rational human being. And if they were somebody that I really loved, honored, and adored, why would they have done that behavior? And then, it shifts my ability to hear them and to take that information into my decision-making processes. So I think constantly looking for a shift in perspective and looking for the positivity of why would a reasonable, rational, and good human being have done that and how, and bring up that idea and how can I then use that for my benefit and the benefit of our organization?
Jenn DeWall: Okay. I love that leadership habit. I think that’s so helpful even in managing everything that many of us are exposed to right now, just thinking, you know, what’s that story, and could it be seen differently? And if so, why not apply it that way? That’s such a powerful, the ability to shift, the ability to re-frame. That’s such a powerful takeaway. Nora, thank you so much for just sharing all of your wisdom, sharing your experience with us. For those that want to get in touch with you or find out a little bit more about you, where should I send them? I know I can send them to theleadershipexperts.com, right?
Nora Burns: Yep, Leadership Experts, with an s, dot com. They can find me online there. They can also find me on Twitter and on LinkedIn and on all the things like that. But probably LinkedIn would be the best way to connect. And then I would be thrilled to hear from anybody with their unique questions and glad to get back to them with my perspective from what I’ve been going through and my own research and what I’ve invested in taking a different perspective as the undercover candidate and the undercover employee, so that they can find out about me there, or about having a conversation about doing consulting, about coaching, about any of this. I’m, I’m glad to help your listeners.
Jenn DeWall: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much, Nora. We really appreciate it, and for those of you that missed it, you’ll see the leadership experts.com that link will be in our show notes. Thank you so much for listening, and have a great day.
Thank you so much for listening to today’s episode of the Leadership Habit Podcast. To learn more about Nora and her work, visit her website, www.theleadershipexperts.com. While you’re there, you can pre-order her new book, HR Undercover, or sign up for her virtual programs designed to help organizations develop a powerful workplace culture, or explore having your keynote, your next virtual or in-person conference. You can reach her by email at Nora at theleadershipexperts.com. And if you feel like you want to share the ECHO effect with a friend, what Nora just shared with us today, please be sure to share this podcast, and if you enjoyed it, make sure to like us on your favorite podcast streaming service. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.