How to Be a More Effective Leader With Organizational Psychologist Gena Cox, PhD

How to Be a More Effective Leader with Gena Cox, PhD

On this week’s episode of The Leadership Habit Podcast, Gena Cox and I sat down to talk about how to be a more effective leader. And hey, here’s one tip that you can hear right from Gena— stop using 2019 behavior to address 2022 stakeholder expectations. But before we dive into the show, let me tell you a little bit more about Gena.

Gena Cox, PhD is a corporate advisor and executive coach known as a straight shooter who also brings warmth and generosity of spirit to her partnerships, she guides CEOs, leaders and boards as they respond to evolving stakeholder expectations and transformation driven by societal change and organic and M&A growth. Her differentiator is the nuanced insights and recommendations that she brings from a lifetime of continuous multidisciplinary learning, enabling her to offer clients unique and valuable insights. And I hope you enjoy our conversation as we talk about what leaders need to do to be affected today in 2022.

Full Transcript Below: 

Jenn DeWall:  Hi everyone! Welcome. Welcome. I’m so excited, Gena, to have you on the show. We are talking about how to develop more effective leaders. Gosh, in a time where I feel like people are losing leaders and maybe a big part of that is because they’re not developing them. I don’t know what your take on it is, maybe we can start out, but I want to get you a little bit more familiar or our audience more familiar with you. But Gena, let’s talk about your life story. What brought you here? I know that you’re a speaker, you’re an author, and you’re committed to and passionate about helping leaders just be their best selves. But what was your journey like? What brought you here today?

Meet Author, Corporate Advisor, and Executive Coach, Gena Cox, PhD

Gena Cox:  Yeah. Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s really a pleasure to be here. I always hope that I can suck some of your energy into my body and be as energetic as you are, Jenn. So it’s a pleasure to be here. Well, you know, I like to say leadership is really all I know. I’m an organizational psychologist and the aspect of organizational psychology and industrial psychology that has always fascinated me is not just about human behavior in the workplace, but about the factors that influence that.

And because I know from research, but also from personal experience and from consulting so many leaders over the years, the truth is that it is that relationship with your immediate leader that makes the biggest difference, right? 70% of the variants or you know, you could say that a majority of the experience that an employee has in the workplace is directly attributed to their experience with their immediate leader.

So knowing that just fascinates me. And so I’m very interested in doing everything that I can to first of all help leaders understand that obligation and also help organizations figure out how they can help leaders be the most effective. But how do I get here is the question you asked. Yeah. Well, when I was a teenager, for whatever reason, my father sent me this psychology book. It was like a developmental psychology book.

I remember the book. It had a hard cover and I, and it was yellow. I don’t know why I remember, but it resonated with me. And I fell in love with this idea of psychology. But I didn’t know anything about organizational or industrial psychology then. But somewhere along the line, when I was an undergrad studying psychology, I met a woman from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. And this is when I discovered that one can sort of study behavior in a very measured oriented way and truly discern, you know, nuances and differences.

So I became fascinated with understanding leadership behavior. Ever since then, I eventually went on and did a PhD. So between then and now though, Jenn, I will tell you that everything that I really understand about leadership has come from just sort of watching the things that humans do as they interact with one another in the workplace. Which is why I am really convinced that you don’t have to have an MBA. You definitely don’t have to have a PhD in leadership. But if you are a leader, this is what I tell leaders to remember, imagine that you have a dartboard in the middle of your forehead because you are really the designated hitter for your team.

I don’t care if it’s a team of two or a team of 5,000, if someone says you’re the manager, those people are now looking at you in the middle of your forehead because you are the person that they perceive will determine whether they have a good experience or not at work. So if you remember the dark board in the middle of your forehead, it reminds you then, if they’re watching you, then what are you doing? What is it that they’re seeing? It reminds you that you have a lot of power, control and influence, and that you need to be thinking about making sure that whatever you’re putting out is actually something that you know, is positive and strengthening of that relationship.

How has the Workplace Evolved in the Last Few Decades?

Jenn DeWall:  Yes. I mean, okay, you’ve obviously done a ton of research on this. I’m curious from the research that you’ve done just from your education, what are some of the biggest things that you’ve noticed that changed the way that leadership is approached from the industrial revolution to even just thinking about how organizations have evolved from your research. What is the biggest change that you’ve noticed over time? I guess over the last 10, 20 years, the kind of stuff that we learned about is now not necessarily what’s going to work today. Do you have any aha moments from that perspective?

Gena Cox:  Well, I have a lot of opinions. Are you surprised to hear that? I’ll tell you first <laugh>. The first is that the one thing that we learn when we study psychology or organizational psychology is that it’s not that long ago. As you point out, it’s only since the industrial revolution that humans have got together in groups to produce something. So the notion of the workplace and us in teams and groups, it doesn’t appear to be that much of a natural fit for us humans. We were a whole lot better when we were, you know, in an agrarian environment. And we had a little bit more freedom and independence to control our plot of land and do whatever we did independently. It’s not easy for us humans to do things together in groups in an organized way, which is what organizational life is about. Your question, however, though, is about what has changed over the years.

And here’s the sad state of affairs that I will communicate most of what people are learning, at least based on the way they behave after they graduate. Most of what people are learning in MBA programs is exactly the same thing they were learning a hundred years ago, apparently, which is that you have to control the means of production. And one means of production is humans. Therefore, you know, you tell people what to do, you tell them when they can work, you tell them where they can work, and you tell them how they will work and you’ll be successful, you’ll get the outcomes. Frankly, that is a model. I think that model has been sustained for way too long. The only thing that I have seen change happened just two years ago, and that was a pandemic came along and some of the same people that I personally knew and had worked with who said things like, I love it when I see cars in the parking lot at seven o’clock.

Creating a Human-Centered Workplace

Gena Cox:  It means that my employees are really busy and getting a lot done. When the employees were actually saying, The only reason I’m here at seven o’clock in the evening is that I feel if I don’t come at seven o’clock, I don’t stay. You know, I’m somebody else is gonna get the promotion or the opportunity. So I’m gonna work hard, but really I need to go home and take care of my kids and all that. So it was only a couple of years ago that leaders began to notice, Oh my gosh, we’ve got to do some things differently. So I remember writing an article at the beginning of, of 2021 actually talking about the importance of putting the human at the center of any leader’s ideas about what makes him or her effective and what makes his or her organization productive. That was not a novel idea.

I wasn’t the first person who ever said that, not even then, but what I, why I said it, why I put a stake in the ground was that it was only during the pandemic that I began to see a larger number of executive leaders in particular say, Oh, we need to be concerned about things like burnout, mental health, how people are taking care of their children, how they feel as humans as they’re trying to get the work done. So, unfortunately not a lot of change in the way that leaders have been trained, but I’m starting to see a change in leader behavior moving forward. But having said that, this is still idea where there’s a lot of resistance because as you know, there’s this whole big conversation that is still taking place about should we force people to go back to the office who don’t wanna go back to the office.

Yeah. Whenever I hear a leader talk about this issue in that fashion with that framing, my all of the, you know, bells, all the red lights are going off in my head because the minute frame it that way lets me know you don’t really understand what’s going on here. I don’t care if you call it the great resignation, I don’t care what you call it. The reality is that employees are, have realized that, you know what, there are alternative ways of thinking about how I can get the work done and still have a happy life, still be available for my children, still take care of my physical and mental health. I shouldn’t have to compromise all of that just to get a paycheck. So that is a change. And you notice I say that employees are driving that change. If you, you know, there’s that traditional pyramid where the folks at the top are the ones calling the shots. There’s a bit of an employee revolution that’s taking place right now.

The Employee Revolution, Quiet Quitting and the Great Resignation

Jenn DeWall:  I mean, I feel like I love the employee revolution. It might be just the reason that I got into personal development. That feeling of like, you know, when I left feeling so just, Oh, you need to do this, or you need to work these extreme hours, you need to try to fit in. Make sure that you don’t, you know, I’ve said this in the podcast, they know it, like just getting feedback about trying to be conforming and groupthink, it makes you feel, Oh my gosh, who am I? And then you still have to try to get in the office at 7:00 AM and leave at 7:00 PM, so then you know that they think that you’re actually working hard. Even though they looked at your numbers, they would see that you’re working hard because there are definitely ways that you are tracking all of that.

But I’m so happy that the employee revolution is finally happening. And it’s interesting because you can still, even some topics that we might talk about here, you can hear some of the resistance from different employers that are like, Well, I don’t want you to to tell them about, you know, this, or to get them thinking about driving their career because then they’re going to leave. And no, like, you can’t control people anymore in that way or think that you’re going to get those results. But I still think that is, I don’t know, that’s what I see is still that resistance of like, they should still be happy that they have a job. They should just fall in line. Like, and that’s really just a way that is not going to be effective today if you want to actually keep people. Okay. Let’s, we’re diving into like, sorry, I know that I took us on a tangent.

I just love your research and your background because I feel like you have so many rich insights that I know you’ll weave into this, but we’re talking about how to develop more effective leaders. And so, let’s talk about what leadership effectiveness even is. Like what do you think are the key obstacles today? I know that the employee revolution is there, but let’s maybe drill into it. What are the key obstacles that you think leaders actually need to be aware of to be effective in creating a culture that people actually want to work in?

One Simple Tip for Being a More Effective Leader: Check In With Your Team

Gena Cox:  Yeah. So if, if the question is about barriers, I think leaders have to understand that effective leadership is not just task performance. It’s not just getting whatever the job done, the job done. That’s not leadership. So effective leadership, I think of it as more like a pizza pie or a pie chart, you know, where there’s some proportion that has to do with the task performance because obviously we have to get the job done, but then there’s another wedge there that has to do with the human experience. So, so first of all, my definition of effective leadership always looks like that pie chart. And let’s just say it’s those two elements. Although there could be more, you know, slices to the pie. It has to at least be 50/50. It can’t, or it definitely can’t be 75% focusing on the task, 25% focusing on the employees and really not putting that employee experience, giving it the sort of power or influence it deserves.

Or there’s that. So you might have to sort of reframe your thinking to the, to the reality that you can’t be an effective leader if you aren’t thinking about both of those things simultaneously. The other barrier is that, as Jenn has alluded to the workforce, it’s changing. The workforce is not just changing in terms of we have a pandemic, we have the opportunity to work in different environments and we wanna keep that. I think the workforce is changing in terms of its expectations of what an effective leader is. And so what leaders have got to be aware of is they’ve got to be closer and more in touch with those at their lead.

Managers That Check In Are Perceived as More Effective

Gena Cox:  There was a piece of research that came up from work human last year in which they made it very clear that when employees were asked to identify what distinguish between the managers that they had as they were in the work from home or remote environment for the first time or working in a hybrid environment, how did they differentiate those leaders that they perceive to be effective versus those who are less so effective, and what made them more engaged. And it was a simple thing.

It was that the managers that checked in with them more often were the ones they gave all the points to. Even a manager who checks in and doesn’t give me everything I want is still gonna get way more points than a manager who does not check in. So one behavior, one simple tip that I have for managers, which is, again, nothing new but maybe not as emphasized as it should be, is that you’ve got to put more emphasis on connecting and having relationships with those that you lead. It is important to know if Gena is a parent who has a child who has some health issues and how that relates to how Gena shows up and what she might need from you as a manager. That’s an example of something managers have to really put in the forefront. I would say another thing that managers have to really think about is that because of all of the risks that are in the macro environment, you know, climate change calls for, you know, social justice concerns, there’s this sense of unease in the overall environment in which employees live and therefore in which they work.

Building Relationships with Your Team

Gena Cox:  And so I’m not suggesting that managers have to be involved directly in that conversation, but what I think managers have to recognize is that a lot of employees are living lives in which they’re feeling a high level of stress and then that is translating into the experiences that they have at work and who do they talk to if they feel like they can’t bring up ever these concerns or if they feel like, you know, if they ask for some support to help them get through these difficult times that it shows some sign of weakness or something, then that’s not gonna work anymore. So everything that I’ve said, Jenn, is very much related to what I said earlier, which is that I think managers have to be more attuned to the unique, call it customization if you would, the unique needs of the people that they lead.

Jenn DeWall: How do you, you think they can facilitate it? Because I, and this is going a little off script, but I noticed that a lot of organizations are maybe addressing this change to hybrid or, you know, knowing that we need to have conversations or support mental health or, and they’re creating maybe like mental health days, but I still feel like they might be missing the mark because I- and this is my opinion– like, are we really educating leaders on how to actually have those conversations?

Because I still think there’s that like, I don’t know, I’m not sure should I even be asking you this? Or how the heck do I do it? Yeah. And I’m curious what you’re noticing about like where we we are organizations might be able to make a little bit more of an improvement and being effective at addressing those challenges, whether it’s hybrid mental health, D E I B or diversity equity inclusion, belonging. Like what could we be doing to like actually help those things land in a way? Cause I think that there’s, here’s all the programs, but yet there’s still leaders that are like, I have no idea how I’m supposed to actually address this.

Gena Cox:  Yeah. So I, so first of all, nothing wrong with mental health days. I think they’re fantastic. But like you’re suggesting, I totally agree with you that mental health days and implicit bias training, for example, belong in the same bucket. It doesn’t harm anything, but it isn’t going to get you to any solutions just magically. And there are many other things that fall into that same bucket. Here’s the thing, I even when I talk about issues that we might call diversity, equity, and belonging, or when I talk about mental health or whatever, I think of all of these things under a single umbrella and that is the umbrella of effective leadership. So I don’t believe that these things really belong in separate little buckets. That one has to then require that managers have to master the content in each of these buckets and they’ll behave differently in order to be successful.

What Does Effective Leadership Look Like?

Gena Cox:  I think a better framing for all of this, and, and actually the framing that would benefit employees more is for organizations to think about what does effective leadership look like and within the overall umbrella of effective leadership, if I tell you that you have to study some marketing, you have to study some sales, you have to study some, I also just want you to be also, I wanna train you. Obviously, somebody has to guide you so you don’t just, you know, get it magically. But what is it that you have to train me about? It isn’t about, oh, you know, these people over here who have mental illnesses, this is how they are, or these people over here who might look different. It’s more about, again, the fundamental idea that if you’re managing a group of people, you need to manage for the 100, you need to be the designated hitter for every person on that team.

Gena Cox:  If you’re gonna be the designated hitter, if that’s gonna be your model, the only thing it really requires of you is to top is to get to really understand these individuals. So here’s what I would say is my script for that because I don’t agree that you have to over-index on any of these content areas. As a manager, I believe that you need to be able to notice what is happening with employees, and then you need to do some simple things. Here’s a simple example, Gena. You’re noticing something going on with Gena. Either there’s something in her production data that she’s telling you there might be an issue. Or she’s showing up with, you know, some emotionality in her expression or she’s not showing up. However you need to figure out that something is going on, the only way to figure it out is to be attuned to Gena and all her colleagues.

To Be a More Effective Leader, Ask How You Can be Helpful

Gena Cox:  Okay, so now you’ve got the trigger. Now what do you do? You have to take some action. Never mind legal risks and concerns about confidentiality and all of that. I’m not, we’re not dealing with that. What you need to really focus on is how do I talk to Gena. So Gena, I just wanted to check in with, you know, I’m not sure if you realize this, but I noticed that, I noticed this, I noticed, you know, your numbers were off. I noticed you weren’t here, you weren’t able to come to work on Monday. I noticed that you left work early on Wednesday. I noticed that I’m not hearing from you on our regular check-ins. There’s always behavior that’s giving you the clue. So you say to Gena, Gena, I, I noticed these things and I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I just wanted to check in with you and find out, you know, what can I do to be helpful or is, you know, if, is there something that I need to do to be helpful and you sort of leave the ball with Gena and give her the opportunity to respond.

Gena Cox:  Gena is going to respond and notice there’s nothing I said in that introduction in those few words that are threatening to Gena. It’s just a conversation. So no, Gena says whatever Gena says, Gena might say I don’t have any problem. She could say that. Or Gena might say, I’m really glad that you asked me this because… Because you have to make it safe for Gena to know she can let you know when there’s a problem. So Gena might say, Yeah, my daughter is, this is happening on my mother or whatever Gena says, or Gena might say, you know, I think I’m gonna quit tomorrow. But you have to take your cue from what Gena says. So if Gena says I’ve got these issues, then automatically, you know that she needs some support. You don’t have to try, I think to try to, you don’t have to diagnose anything or over-interpret this, but you need to ask a simple question.

Build Relationships to Be a More Effective Leader

Gena Cox:  I think the question Gena wants you to ask is, “what can I do to be helpful?” It’s, you know, what can I do to be helpful? What do you want me to do? That would be helpful. It’s an even better question. Gena will tell you, or she’ll give you some other piece of behavioral evidence of what would make sense. And then you go from there. Now you can go talk to HR. You can do whatever you need to do on an administrative basis. But what you’ve now done is make it clear to Gena, you are her designated, you’re here for her, you’re hearing her, you’re gonna find ways to support her. It’s a process. And if you’re not doing it today, you don’t flick a switch. You learn to develop this kind of relationship over time.

Jenn DeWall:  Yes. I love that. Boiling it down to like this simplicity, get back to like that human piece of, you know, the challenges of today. Yes, our hybrid, our mental health, our understanding the diversity in our workplace and how we can make sure people feel heard, but at the end of the day just comes down to being a day human asking how can I support you? Or noticing, as you said, like really paying attention to that. It’s, and the programs. And I want all those programs by the way, like when I said that, like I want all the mental health programs, but I also want people to feel like, okay, seeing human and being human. That’s right.

You Don’t Have to Be a Psychologist to Be a More Effective Leader

Gena Cox:  Here’s the thing, I don’t think there’s ever any person who has a mental health challenge who is thinking, I wish my manager was more informed about schizophrenia or men or, or anxiety and depression, or they’re not, I don’t think that’s what an employee’s thinking, but no thinking is that I know I, I have an issue. I know I need support. I want my manager to be able to provide support if I re if I obviously need it or if I request it. So don’t worry too much about what you don’t know. Worry more about listening to and, and sort of interpreting what an employee’s saying. And sometimes they’ll be explicit, sometimes they won’t.

If Gena doesn’t want to tell you, she might not tell you. But if you can see that there’s something going on, the mere fact that you’ve reached out to Gena now already lets her know, okay, depending on how you handle it, Gena’s gonna leave the conversation. She’s gonna say, Okay, well my boss knows now and I hope that he knows to do something supportive and all she’s gonna do is wait to see what you do next. And in other words, don’t, don’t think of this as like taking a final exam where you have to cram and know something. Think about this as 360 degrees of freedom, but it all rests on what does Gena need.

What do People Get Wrong About Leadership?

Jenn DeWall:  I love that. Well, and I just, I also love what you said, the metaphor before that we opened with, with that you have as a leader– to be effective, have that bulls eye on your head and that you also have to be hitting for everyone. Yeah. Like it’s everyone. And you can’t hit for everyone if you don’t know what the individual needs because there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to it. Which maybe it dives into, and I know we’ve already covered this, but let’s really like get specific about maybe some of the tactics. Like where do you think people are getting leadership wrong today?

Gena Cox:  Well, I told you before that one of the things that is certainly happening is that if you’re relying on all the old ways with the command and control it, it is just not going to work. Is something not going to work? Another thing that I’m seeing that that leader, that managers themselves need to sort of acknowledge, I think we all have to be a little bit more honest with one another because frankly, I’ve been talking a lot about employees, but managers are employees too. And here’s the reality that I know managers are themselves dealing with some of these very same issues of, you know, being overworked, not having, you know, just being, just having a disproportionate amount of, of a burden being placed on them for all the things that they’re being asked to deliver. While you’ve got to make it safe within an organization for managers to be able to talk about that and themselves to find some support because they can’t, nobody can sustain that, that level of expectation if they don’t have the resources that they need to do it.

Changing Ideas About the Purpose of Work

Gena Cox:  Another thing, though, that I think managers ought to really be thinking about is that the work, the idea of what work is, and the purpose of work are also changing. So you probably saw the stories recently about quiet quitting, and by the way, when I saw those headlines, or when I see them, I kind of laugh because there’s nothing new about that whatsoever. Because this behavior is something that we call in psychology sort of withdrawal. And you might think of it as counterproductive work behavior. Meaning when an employee is withdrawing, they might be doing things like doing as little as possible. Sometimes they might not be showing up on schedule or leaving work early, or they might even go so far as to try to damage something that they’re working with or create a disruption in the work environment.

We used to call those, you know, counterproductive work behaviors. We call them counterproductive because we weren’t looking at it from the employee’s perspective. But nowadays, a lot of employees are basically saying that you know what, we think that a job is really a job. The reality of it is that it’s an exchange, right? I do this thing. I get paid for it. Let’s not make it more than that. Let’s not have it take over my whole life. Yeah. So managers have got to reckon with the notion that the definition of what work is and what a job is, is significantly changing, especially for Gen Z. Now, I am not big on the artificial lines that we join the same about generations. Like I really am cautious sometimes about over-emphasis on generations, but they are generational differences that we can see.

Gen Z is Changing the Rules at Work

Gena Cox:  <Affirmative> and there are some that Gen Z very specifically has owned and says, No, we want our lives, too. We, we want to know that if I’m, if you’re managing us, that we believe that you are an honest and trust, honest and trustworthy person, that you have a certain set of values that we can believe in, that you care about the environment, that you care about, you know, social justice and so on. So I think that if managers are not attuned to the reality that the workforce expectations for them have changed, they will continue with whatever behaviors they’ve exhibited traditionally that might even have been successful, but they’re not gonna be able to attract and retain. So this whole great resignation thing is not as mysterious as some people say it is.

Jenn DeWall:  Yeah. I mean, they, all the research was there, right? All the stats and all the numbers said that this was coming all along, and it’s just now this big buzzword, but people have changed. And I love talking about the definition of work, and I feel like I noticed that as a millennial, like earlier on, like, I just not wanting to change, not, and feeling like I don’t want to have to try to fit in. I don’t want to have to feel like I am here at seven with you, even though I finished all my work four hours ago. Just because you need to feel like I’m committed. Like, I think the question that so many of my friends, my peers are asking is, what’s my life worth? Like, I don’t, you know, I don’t care enough, and there are reasons there, and this is where I, I do, I’m with you.

Moving Beyond Stereotypes to Understand Employee’s Differences

Jenn DeWall: I’m like not loving generational differences because it creates stereotypes that aren’t helpful. But it is helpful to know that we were raised with like this proof that like, there’s gonna be a, a beautiful pension that’s there for you by this company. No, we actually didn’t see a lot of those things to be true, and our options just increased. We aren’t stuck, or I don’t wanna say stuck, like constrained, maybe a smaller regional area to find employment. We can find that in a variety of ways. We’re more mobile than ever before. And so if that landscape, I think, was different for, you know, baby boomers, they likely would’ve already accelerated some of these changes, but it just wasn’t that way. Where do you think that organizations, or how do you think organizations can address some of these changes? What would be any specific tactics that you think organizations should take?

I mean, even just thinking about what you just said in terms of how people studied leadership effectiveness, really looking at it from the team perspective versus from the individual perspective. That was a great aha for me to even have it said in that way because I think yes, people are constantly like, what do this, to develop the team, but they’re not thinking, You actually need to look at each of these individuals as people and figure out what they need and then apply the like tenants of what it means, what it means to be an effective team. But what do you think organizations or leaders need to do to support like this, this change or this new definition of, of work?

Does Having a Degree Matter Anymore?

Gena Cox:  So there’s certainly everything that you just said is absolutely true that you can have the general case. This is how we have, you know, like things like job descriptions and career letters and mobility patterns that you might have spent a lot of time defining very carefully in a matrix. Things like nine boxes where you say if somebody has this level of performance and this level of service automatically, this happens. All of those kinds of very controlled talent management processes are going out of the window. They have to go out the window by necessity. Here’s an example of one that I see changing, and it’s not a moment too soon. The over-emphasis on having a degree, having a degree from a certain school, and all of that idea magically is evaporating. And the reason it is evaporating is that organizations cannot continue to just say, Well, this is what we want, and you will provide it before I will hire you.

That’s not gonna work anymore. So organizations have to think about all of these changes that I just described earlier in this conversation. They’re huge, they’re big macro social changes, but how they, how they manifest in the workplace is that the generation that is coming into the workforce and would be the future leaders are saying, Look, I can do this job. You can teach me how to do this job and if you don’t do it, I’ll just go somewhere else and build a portfolio career, make more money anyway, and have my freedom. So yes, make sure that the criteria that you’re using for your talent management decisions still apply are relevant. There’s a big move to skills, to selecting people on the basis of skills, not just on the basis of education and credentials. And by skills, of course, I don’t just mean technical skills or tradesman’s trade person skills.

I also mean interpersonal skills, leadership skills, human skills and so on. That’s actually happening, and it’s really, really important. If I think about an organization like IBM, where I spent many, you know, I spent five years of my life and loved that organization. When I entered the organization, I entered it because of everything I had ever accomplished. I was proud to be associated with the organization. I knew what it stood for. I watched in the five years that I was there how they transformed. They were already starting to transform in preparation for this new wave of talent that was coming in. They changed the performance measurement systems to make them more transparent and more focused on what did you accomplish. And not just how long have you been here and whom do you know? I watched how they created a program called PTECH.

Pathways in Technology Early College High School (PTECH)

Gena Cox: PTECH has become a national model where you can. They have partnered with community colleges and high schools. Rather, they’ve partnered with high schools in certain locations across the United States. They’ve given away the IP about how to do this. And they basically say, We can take you while you’re still in high school and prepare you for a technology career by teaching you the stuff. We’re gonna teach it to you while you’re still in high school. So you’ll be a student and an intern, if you would, at IBM, and you’ll learn everything that another technician who has a degree would. You’ll be right next to that person. And when you’re done, we’re gonna hire you and guess what? You’re gonna able to be able to do this very valuable work, get promotions and do all these wonderful things. That’s an example of organizations can’t just think in a rigid way about what they’re looking for and how they would develop what they’re looking for. They’ve got to look for alternative ways. If not, we will have this labor shortage, and it will continue for a longer time.

Jenn DeWall:  Can I ask a clarifying question? Do you feel like, just even what you just said, I grew up my, my dad was in a trade where I grew up in Wisconsin. That was actually just as equally common for someone to go to a, a four year or go to school or go into a trade. But it almost sounds like what IBM is doing is kind of taking the trade and moving it into the technology industry. Am I getting it? Or maybe I’m misunderstanding that because this is just new? I’ve never heard of that program.

Develop More Effective Leaders Through Non-Traditional Training

Gena Cox:  You never heard of PTECH? You need to check it out. Because, like I said, they’ve shared this with the world. It’s not just something that they have done. For IBM, they’ve shaded through the world. It is, in fact, the same idea of saying the notion that you have to have this for your degree. Where did that ever come from? Why was that the criterion? The criterion is, are you capable of learning this stuff and then applying it in a work environment? So they just turned everything on its head and said, We’re not gonna wait for you to do your degree. Because we think if we wait, first of all, we won’t get the talent fast enough.

But more importantly, we want more of these young people to have access to this information, to this training so they can grow. So, in fact, yes, the use of the word trades is one that I have mixed feelings about that word at this point in my life. Because what I’ve come to understand is that it was a way of putting people into a box because you would say, these people took an academic trail, and they got a degree, and these people went to a trade school, and they’d learn how to work with their hands.

Gena Cox:  Like, that’s the stereotype, and it’s not inaccurate. It is accurate, but is it really that black and white that cut that? You know, is it really that clear cut and should it be, and in and in making it so clear cut, what are you missing on either side? So yes, IBM is basically saying, well, maybe we’ll blur that line because there can be people over here in this trades box that can do exactly the same thing as the folks over here who got the four-year degree. They might get there sooner, in fact. Why are we not tapping into this talent? Another thing that’s related to this, Jenn, that I have observed for the last 10 years or so is that I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of something called the maker movement, but the maker movement that you can look that up as well.

It’s really just this general idea, and you, you’ve seen it, you see it in your day-to-day life where there’s a greater emphasis on people making things with their hands and using the word artisanal to describe them. Whether they’re making clothing, whether they’re making they’re sculpting something, whether they’re making knives, whether they’re making bread, wine. They’re people who are saying, you know, they’re solo entrepreneurs sometimes, but they’re saying, there’s something I can create with this, with my brain that God gave me with my hands that God gave me. I’m gonna make this thing. I’m gonna put all my loving care into it and make the best cookie. And when I make this best cookie, people in my neighborhood are gonna buy it. And it could be. It could eventually take over and become a national thing. But what they’re putting into that is not, it’s not the same thing as saying I have a job.

What they’re saying is if they’re selling on Etsy, it’s that I can make the best whatever, only I can do it. I’m gonna make it and give it up with love and care to the world. And the world is gonna say, Oh, Gena, she makes the best bread. That whole maker movement is something that I see as sort of infiltrating into this whole idea of corporate talent too. It’s related because you know what? All you wanna find all the things that these people can do and liberate them so they can do it for the big company as well as they can do it for the little, you know, for their own little business.

Leading Inclusion, Drive Change Your Employees Can See and Feel

Jenn DeWall:  My gosh, I love, I love all of the insights, and no, I’ve never heard of that. I mean, heck, I love being even a podcast host just so I can learn from the people that I’m sitting across. Gena, I loved this conversation. Before we end this, I do want to talk a little bit about your book because you obviously are very, very educated in this, very passionate about it. You have so many different insights, but let’s talk a little bit about your new book Leading Inclusion. Tell me a little bit more about the book, who it’s for and what inspired you to write it.

Gena Cox:  Yeah, so I wrote Leading Inclusion for corporate leaders, especially executives and board directors, human resources executives, MBA students, executive MBA students, and even for people who wanna lead American workforces who may now currently be in another country and need to understand an aspect of the American workforce that they might not otherwise. And the core message of my book is so simple. It’s that all these conversations that we have about diversity and inclusion and belonging and equity, and then we, we say it looks like we’re making no progress. Why is that? It’s because we won’t make progress until these efforts are led from the top of organizations. And so I encourage executive leaders not to treat this as something over to the side that they throw over the wall and say, here, the chief diversity officer or somebody over here is gonna handle it, and we don’t have to think about it.

When that happens, you don’t make progress because that person to whom you’ve delegated it and sort of turned away they don’t know if they should go left or right. They’re just sort of guessing their way through. It’s more important to have a strategic approach led from the top. You can still delegate. Obviously, you have to delegate it, but with a vision and a strategy and then things will happen. And why did I write this book? Well, you know, the simple answer is that I felt like I had to write this book, but the more complex answer is that my life changed in the spring of 2020 because there were some things that happened, including, you know, the deaths of three people who I do not know.

But when I saw these things happen on television, you know, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, I realized, you know, we’ve got a huge problem here, and I wanted to be a part of a solution. And so I thought maybe I’m not gonna walk in the streets, maybe, you know, Well, how does Gena do it? Gena writes a book based on her psychology training, her experiences of advising leaders for 20-something years as well as her personal experiences and says, you know, these are the things that I wish I could have said to leaders when I was consulting them, but maybe there wasn’t space at that time, but we’re in another time, and now there’s that opportunity. So that’s why I wrote it.

Inclusion and Belonging are Vital to Building Trust

Jenn DeWall: I mean, I think it’s powerful that you have written this because it’s a long time coming for this movement that needs to happen. And even last week we, you know, Atco in August, we teach two different topics, but one of the topics was biased, and you had mentioned it earlier on in the podcast, really understanding the environment that people are in today and that the social environment that they’re, you know, experiencing outside of work is walking with them in there.

And I love just even facilitating these conversations because we have to talk about that. And the example, I had a participant that, you know, shared what it was like to be going through those things, who was a person of color and just how it felt at work to feel kind of othered and to feel, And I, of course, don’t have that lived experience being a white woman, but just to hear that and we need to hold space to have those conversations to talk about how that might break down our trust in our leadership team, how that might break down the trust and how we feel within our teams.

I love that you wrote a book that I think is what leaders need to hear on just really thinking about these conversations and not putting them over as this like, oh, that’s just the initiative of the week. Like, no, this is the stuff that we’ve actually been ignoring for a really long time or not allowing to like, see, and that’s what’s still coming into your workplace. I, I’m not even sure, I try so hard to even be sensitive with how I articulate that because I don’t want to in any way, like come off in any way bad because I know that it’s like the sensitivity, but I just love that last week we could even have a conversation around what her lived experience was like going through that and just showing to other leaders in the class, like, this is how I felt.

This is, you know, the withdrawal that you had talked about earlier. We need to start addressing the environments that exist and like how they come up. Did I even make sense? I was trying to like tow the line of like, but I, it was just beautiful because I think it gave like her willingness to be vulnerable and share that gave other leaders insights into like, wow, like I didn’t even realize that someone else might be having that. You know, I don’t know what your take is on that of like how it’s addressing it, but I feel like it’s, we need it.

Effective Leaders Create Connection and Closeness

Gena Cox:  Oh, I absolutely agree because I think the first, the worst thing that a leader could do is create an environment in which these conversations are taboo. And it’s not just race and ethnicity, although, of course, I am very interested in race and ethnicity because of my own personal experiences. But what if you’re LGBTQ plus? What if you have, what if you have a disability? What if you’re an immigrant? Whatever the variations are that I call, you know, there’s, these are normal human variations. These are not unnatural, right? They’re just natural human variations. The issue is that you’ve gotta create connection and closeness, not distance and darkness and separation.

The more you talk about these things, the easier it is to realize, oh, I had no idea. Well, now that I know I can do something! Because the solution that you need is probably not as complex as you think it is. I have never heard a person of color say, hmm, this company needs a bigger and more robust diversity and inclusion program. I’ve never heard that in my entire life. What I’ve heard that person say is I just wanna feel respected in everything that I do and to have access to the same opportunities. That’s very easy to do.

Where to Find More From Gena Cox

Jenn DeWall:  Yeah, I love that. Gena, I really appreciated our conversation today. Where can The Leadership Habit audience get in touch with you?

Gena Cox:  Well, of course, you can always visit my website, and it’s my name, G E N A C O X dot com. And if you want to find me on LinkedIn, you just look for me by name, G E N A C O X, and you’ll probably find more than you want

Jenn DeWall:  Lots. Gena, you just have multiple perspectives, things that I haven’t heard before, and I know that you also then impacted and influenced and inspired our audience. So I hope they find more like just more keep that learning going. Yeah, thank you so much, Gena, for just giving us your time, your expertise, and your passion. It really means a lot. And I know that your message will help like, you know, create that ripple effective change in leadership, which is what we need. So thank you so much for being on the show.

Gena Cox:  It has been a pleasure! And, like I said, I’m energized. Thank you, Jenn!

Want to Learn How to Be a More Effective Leader?

Jenn DeWall:  Thank you so much for listening to the conversation with Gena and me. I loved all the considerations, the insights, and even thinking about how we could, could restructure and see that whole human in terms of getting them ready to enter the workforce, such as the example that she shared about what IBM was doing. If you want to know more about Gena or if you want to get her book leading inclusion, drive change, your employees can see and feel, you can head on over to There you can find additional resources and information about Gena and how she can help you support your leaders.

And, of course, if you want to develop and get your leaders ready for the challenges of the future of work today. Head on over to We offer a one-year program that is developed with the sole purpose of making sure that leaders have the tools and skills that they need today. We would love to have a conversation with you, and heck, we would love to offer you a complimentary skills workshop. So if that’s something that you’re interested in, head on over to And finally, if you enjoy today’s episode, don’t forget to leave us a review on your podcast streaming service. This is the way that it’s telling our podcast analytics that this is worth listening to, and it helps us get the word out on these important conversations that we’re having. So please leave us a review, share it with your friend, and of course, come back next time.