Good leadership is dealing with the elephant in the room, special guest Jodi Hulme
Jodi Hume has made a name for herself facilitating complex leadership conversations with for hundreds of growing entrepreneurs and companies throughout the US Europe and Australia working with countless organizations including Exelon, John Hopkins, and Teach for America. Judy works one-to-one with a small number of clients and is always looking for ways to make better leaders and become more involved.
Jodi also looks for ways to make more space for leadership conversations in the community. Towards that, she facilitates round table conversations for entrepreneurs and each week co-hosts a podcast called ‘Here’s My Story’—a podcast that showcases real business stories. You can also find her at the mic as lead singer of a band ‘The Waffles’.
You talked about being honest and in your podcast, you talk about stories that honestly bring out leadership and the elephant in the room.
Could you expand on that?
Honesty's a funny word. Sometimes people just assume you mean honesty as opposed to dishonest. Like lying. The tagline of our show is ‘real honest business’ and it really pairs with the real and it is a fine line between the two because you can't just blast into a room and say all the things without any amount of consideration or diplomacy or tact.
But I think the other end of that spectrum also gets shaved off far too much where there are all these weird sort of leadership platitudes that have developed over the years that are not only problematic, but I think they're damaging to the person and the organization. Like where leaders feel like they have to know everything, or they have to have all the answers first.
I've had clients say, oh, I don't like asking for help, and I always have to stifle a giggle.
My view is that leadership is literally an act of coordinating help. That's what leaders do. Leaders are not top-notch individual contributors. Of course, that's often how they get there.
What is weird is this, ‘I should figure it all out and then let my people know’ perception. It’s not only stressful, but it also diminishes the development of those people who aren't getting the opportunity to think through things plus it's harder to keep them engaged. There's just a long list of things where I think leaders struggle to know: how much to share; how much to call out the elephant in the room, and how to do it in a way that doesn't cause more problems than good.
I acknowledge that it's tricky. But too often the answer becomes – ‘Well, I'm just not going to have that conversation’. It’s either all or nothing. It’s either a tell all or a do-nothing, say nothing situation. This occurs because people say well, I don't like conflict. By not having this first initial conversation you are actually laying the groundwork for greater conflict in the future when it again arises because it has not been addressed.
To me it's like saying well, I don't like getting cavities filled. So, I'm not going to floss my teeth. Well, I think it's exactly the same thing because these initial conversations are akin to flossing your teeth. If you do all the flossing, you don't end up with the cavities. Taking a bit more time to do it properly and then you're solving any potential problems.
I think it's the time people imagine. I found my way to the facilitation part of the work that I do through being in weekly leadership team meetings of an Architecture Firm where I spent 17 years.
It was an interesting place. But in those meetings, I would watch them and observe what they were doing. I remember this one very distinct time whilst facilitating, the two principals of the company thought they had just made a decision. One was talking about a project. The other was talking about one of our employees. They both thought they had just made a decision and had an agreement on an issue. So, they would have both walked away from that conversation thinking that they had agreement. Then when they enacted those things the other one would have been like why did you do that? What did we agree? We talked about it this. No, we didn't! Yes, we did! And so on.
So, when you just check in and take the time to make sure you're on the same page, by bringing a healthy dose of curiosity to the conversations, you can really save a lot of time later.
I have come to learn that asking questions when you think you already know the answer to is an incredibly important part of leadership because of the validation aspect of it. There's also the advantage of comparing the filters with which different people use do deal with the environment around them. People can watch the exact same movie and interpret it very differently. So, being brave enough to ask the questions, that you're afraid are going to make you sound stupid helps you get over that need to look like you already know.
However, be careful of the way you approach this and the words you use. Things like, ‘repeat back to me what you heard’. It feels very like you're in kindergarten! It’s patronizing. On the contrary there is a technique that uses posture to creativity. Kind of like leaned in, eyes a little bit wide and saying ‘oh, how did you see it? What was your interpretation of it?’
This has the right vibe to it. There is a neuroscience behind what happens in the brain when your value feels threatened which is incredibly useful to understand as a leader. For example, something as simple as a supervisor saying, ‘can we talk in the conference room for a minute’? This makes your brain immediately respond with an ‘oh no!’ You never imagine that they want to pull you in on a special project, you always imagine the worse. Our brains go into that fight or flight kind of panic, which means that you literally don't have access to their more nuanced part of your brain. You cannot hear or think in a really nuanced kind of way.
So as the leader, when you talk about addressing the elephant in the room, the way parents have stability if their toddler's throwing a fit, and they don’t throw a fit and kick and scream and match the toddler. Instead you have the awareness that my three-year-old really needs a nap. I'm not going to yell at them about this because they're cranky because they're tired and they need a snack. That’s the kind of awareness to have and realise that this person is a little overwhelmed right now with these hard things I'm trying to share with them. I can’t expect them to handle it beautifully right now. You may need to give them a little bit of space.
I think that's the thing, if you share something with someone and they have an emotional reaction, that doesn't mean you messaged it badly. just hold space in that conversation to say I know this is a lot to take in. I want to give you some time to think about it. Let's reconnect in a couple of days to see how this is going. It’s holding the calm and projecting that.
If you freak out because they freak out, then they're going to freak out more and it just won’t go well. You have to know that there is always a way to have the harder conversations with people.
There's a biology that cannot be skipped. Just being accepting of the fact that some people are going to have that extreme reaction. Recognizing that something is happening helps as you don’t always know what’s happening in someone’s life that day.
It's a skill set that good leaders have, because they're putting more energy in connecting with people. It's more the connection to listen so they can get closer to that person and understand better.
I think people are so afraid of the uncertainty of someone else's emotional messiness in that particular moment, that in order to seal themselves, they go all armoured up, thinking, I'm just going to go in and be tough so they stay tough which is energy sapping. The key is to go in with a flexible mind and try to connect in a way that gets to the problem but in a diplomatic way
I'm sure your listeners are probably interested in being good leaders for the obvious reasons but for the opportunity cost as well. That is, the more a person is managed badly, the less they produce because of the emotional reactions to the bad leader.
These reactions sap the creativity and energy to perform.