Am I A Therapist Now?




In this episode of Quick Clarity, Angie and Jeff discuss a new role CEOs are feeling increasing pressure to fill and leaving them asking…

“Do I have to be a therapist for my employees?”

“How do I motivate my team after experiencing a layoff?”

Jeff tackles these questions by sharing his reflections as a CEO, hiring manager, coach, and founder. Angie outlines what questions to reflect on when looking to action and solve the systems creating these issues.

For those who prefer to read, a full transcript of this episode is available after the Quick Links below.

Quick Links

Am I A Therapist Now?”

The short answer? Of course not! However, a few things come to mind when we examine this question.

[2:45] – Generally, we don’t love generational analysis; however, a pattern seems to emerge here with older leaders we work with. Often when we delve deeper into the question, “Do I have to be a therapist for my employees” we find it is rooted in the past idea of work, the fear of being unable to meet the changing needs of the business world, and the confusion of how to solve the issues employees are raising. In the past, work was entirely used for economic security, often at the expense of autonomy, dreams, and potential. This created a system of suppression, which served as a form of submission to the whims of the current leadership. This is not a model employees want to continue operating under. 

[10:13] – When we hear people come to us with these questions, we refuse to believe that the entire employee base has suddenly become a group of weak creatures. We talk with so many leaders, and some are well-equipped for the current needs of modern businesses. Often inside the confusion these problems create emerges a BSL narrative of either attempting to blame yourself or others. We ask, is this a personal problem for you or a problem with a fundamental reality of human beings? This reality is not only actionable, but that understanding it becomes a massive advantage. Don’t get mad, don’t get even, get ahead.  When your employees and team members come to you with their issues, they give you the most sacred thing imaginable—their trust. Trust is foundational to a successful modern business. People will follow their emotions no matter how hard we try or how many specialized systems we create. When someone provides you with the opportunity to build that trust, you have to be open to it and communicative, or you risk not only forgoing a chance at meaningful growth but causing damage to the organization itself. Unfortunately, you do not determine when or how this will happen, let alone if it will happen. The actual choice you are faced with when trying to avoid these scenarios is either 

  1. Hiring exclusively sociopaths, which limits your talent pool dramatically and makes the world a worse place.
  2. Hiring people and then ignoring the opportunity to build trust with them inevitably hindering your growth or even the ability of your company to function, possibly catastrophically.

[20:07] – We have a lot of empathy for leadership struggling with the added load of these expectations. We are not claiming that it is not difficult, and we are not expecting these changes to happen overnight. However, we are asking you to accept the reality of the situation you have placed yourself in.

[22:33]How do we investigate and solve the issues being brought to me?

  1. Acknowledge. When people come to you with these issues, they need to feel acknowledged at that moment. You need to uphold that basic communication strategy and make them feel heard. If you can’t do that, you have to communicate your current ability and make time for them in the future.
  2. Always seek to understand before you are understood. Take the time to do it right, don’t rush to problem-solve. Listen to them, let them express their issues, and acknowledge them. (for more methods on how to do this well, Jeff suggests checking out Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  3. Be a guide. Often you are not the right person to solve this issue. Guide them to the person who can help! It does not make you insufficient as a leader if you cannot help them. Accept your inability to do so and delegate the case to those who can. 

[30:05] – How do I motivate my team after experiencing a layoff/RIF (Reduction In Force)?

People often ask how I get my team back to work after experiencing a traumatic event. To be clear, the failure of leadership had to happen before the RIF for that to happen, so if you were incompetent as a leader before the RIF, what makes you competent afterward? The reality of being a leader is that you will make mistakes. If you are not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. However, when you make mistakes, they affect the people around you. Simple mistakes for you can become profound mistakes for others. When you make a mistake, people don’t want to think you won’t make them; they want to know you will learn from them and not make the same mistake again. Unfortunately, we often see large-scale issues and RIFs being treated by leaders as something that happened to them. Frankly, who would trust a leader who treats people’s livelihoods that way? It didn’t happen to you; you didn’t do your job well. You have to take personal responsibility for the mistakes, and you have to be able to share your learnings to make a brighter future. Simply saying “I’m sorry” is cheap; you must learn from your mistakes and give people hope for a future with the company. Narcissism is the easiest way to blow up your trust with people, and that trust is fundamental!!!

[36:00] It’s The New Saying Among Tech CEOs: I Apologize by M. Bobrowsky, Wall Street Journal[40:43] – You have to anchor to the meaning. People show up to work and have creativity, promise, and potential, which is what you’re paying hard capital for. When those people get confused, you must create a system and help them get back on their path. Not only because it makes the shareholders happy but more importantly because that’s when your team goes home from a day of work and feels pride. And that pride ripples throughout their life. So why does the work matter, and how can you help anchor your people to that meaning to get through the toughest times? Vision is universal, but the meaning is individual, and the first point of contact in large corporations is usually the managers. The leader paints a vision, but the purpose comes from the work. Management is responsible for creating an environment of people connecting to their meaning in the work. (check back for more on this, Jeff and Angie will be continuing their conversation on another episode)

Full Transcript


leader, therapist, work, confusion, problems, mistakes, understand, feel, listen, give, hear


Angie D’Sa, Jeff Hunter

Angie D’Sa  00:12

Welcome to Quick Clarity, the podcast where we talk about all things three C. For those of you tuning in for the first time, three C is the Talentism model for understanding why confusion exists, how to turn that confusion into clarity and productivity; and what happens when we ignore confusion and let it harden into certainty. Each week, I talk to the founder of Talentism, Jeff Hunter, about the questions we see our clients dealing with. And his latest thoughts on the state of humans, business, and the world.

Angie D’Sa  00:54

Okay, welcome, folks, to Quick Clarity. Jeff, I have been looking forward to this conversation because it’s a little bit of a new format for us. As you know, we’ve been collecting listener questions, and we had a whole bunch come in. Today, we’re talking about a few different variations on a theme, particularly how CEOs and how leaders on top teams can navigate choppy waters and the emotions that come with them. So the first question that we have, we’ve actually received from a number of our clients, we sometimes prompt them to think about how their role and the demands of their evolving role might be outpacing them and tell us where they feel unprepared or insufficient to the task. One of the answers we’ve been getting quite a lot lately…is, we have CEOs telling us, “My job feels more and more like I need to be a therapist. I wasn’t prepared for it. I don’t like it” or something that sounds like that. So I think oftentimes, when we hear that, it’s because a leader is in the position of navigating and supporting others to deal with their emotions, potentially dealing with interpersonal conflict that gets expressed to them inside conversations. So that’s what we’re hearing. What do you think, Jeff, when you hear that?

Jeff Hunter  02:28

Well, first of all, great to be here, Angie; always love our Monday morning discussions. Yeah, I’ve gotten this question a lot. I’ve gotten this question of  “Do I actually need to be a therapist” and as you said, I feel ill-equipped for that. While I generally don’t appreciate generational analysis, I think, as a human who’s about to turn 58, I’m falling into the trap of, you know, those young kids, those whippersnappers. But there is a there is a pattern when I see these questions asked. Which is the leaders I work with, who are older, the leaders we work with, they’re older, let’s say late 40s, ’50s, etc., really have this expression of confusion about this, where I experienced that a little bit less. As the leaders are younger, I think that’s important because I think a lot of this has to do with the changing expectations of what a leader is, and the changing expectations of what we expect from our work. Here’s the short answer when people say, “Do I have to be a therapist?” My blase answer is no, you don’t. There’s nobody sitting there and forcing you. There is no decree or law that is going to force you to be a quote-unquote therapist to your employees. When we investigate that question and really try to understand what’s underneath it, I think there’s just a lot of confusion and a lot of fear. That’s what I’d like to talk about today. So what’s the confusion? What’s the fear? We’ve talked a lot about this, the pace of change, and in the world of change, we’ve talked about how the worlds of talent and capital and growth have sort of fundamentally shifted on their axis. We’ve also talked about other elements of change in the world. I think this all really adds up to people having a different set of expectations from work. We know very clearly that for a long time, people’s expectation of work was that it was primarily for economic security. You couldn’t eat, you couldn’t have housing, you couldn’t support your family, if you didn’t have a job. So you are willing to give up a lot of autonomy. You’re willing to give up a lot of your personal hopes and dreams in order to have a job. It was a big trade-off, right? You weren’t going to be great as a human being; you weren’t going to be able to achieve your hopes and dreams; you weren’t going to be able to fulfill your potential. But you were willing to make that trade because it gave you money, and it gave you some belief that that money would keep coming on a regular basis. You can see how, in that sort of environment, a person is going to come to work, and they’re going to either repress or deny anything that would be inconsistent with the power dynamic that’s implied in that. In other words, the CEO, the leader, can fire me at a moment’s notice or can demote me, can shun me, can do all sorts of things that really impair my ability to have this economic security. So I’m going to play nice, and by play nice. I keep my head down, keep my nose clean, grind it out, not do anything. I think a lot of people who grew up, especially in my generation, grew up believing that…that’s what work is; it’s not…you’re not there to have fun, and you’re not there to unleash your potential, or discover who you are, or to be creative, or any of these things. You’re there to go and do the work. So you can have economic security. This really frames why leaders are very confused because, in that world, the set of expectations people have of work has changed significantly. There are a couple of things that are accompanying that change; there’s a lot of cultural change, a lot more freedom of expression, acceptance of individuality, expression of self. There’s a lot of, you know, there’s a lot more feeling that there’s more of a social safety net and an economic safety net; there’s a number of things that have gone into this. But people are showing up with very different expectations of work, and because they’re showing up with these different expectations, they are showing up with different expectations of leadership. This is where I find that when we work with people, and they’re asking like, man, “Do I have to be a therapist? Do I have to be my employees, therapists,” what they’re really saying, when you sort of like, get beyond that fearful expression of their confusion is, “Wow, how do I be an effective leader in this new world of work?”

Angie D’Sa  07:48

Can I just pause for a second, Jeff? Yeah, there’s a lens on the situation that I think you just offered that, at least in my ear, was a little subtle, and I like things to be loud and blunt. So can I reflect it back to you and see if I’m understanding, 

Jeff Hunter  08:04

Of course.

Angie D’Sa  08:05

 So when we hear CEOs, and I’m using the term CEOs because I’ve heard a variation on the same come from a number of different leaders that I’ve spoken to, and I know I have other coaches saying the same thing. So I’m sort of short-handing this. When we hear them say, “I feel like I have to be a therapist,” inherent in that, to my ear, often sounds like a judgment of the people who are coming to them with their dissatisfactions, or problems, or negative feelings. I think what I’m hearing you say is that we got to swing the light in the direction of the person who’s speaking and say, Why is that term of disdain? “Ugh, I’m supposed to be, as a CEO; I’m an executive, I’m an operator, not a therapist.” Where is that feeling of disdain coming from? If we sort of dig into that, or double click on that, there may be under there a feeling of fear or worry, that, “Hey, I’m not up to the task of what’s needed from me; because these expectations of what people want from me as a leader are not what I thought I was signing up for, or not what I thought I needed, in fact, or maybe not what I’m good at.” If I’m hearing that, right, I just want to take a moment and acknowledge that, that in that complaint is maybe also some fear…fear of insufficiency or fear I won’t be doing what I really want to and feel like is what I’m great at.

Jeff Hunter  09:35

Yeah, thank you. Thank you, Angie. So just start with me to do anybody who’s listening or reading. So my habit of mind is to look to the person who’s communicating with me, not to judge the people who are outside the room. Second, to think in terms of the system, most systems have a power dynamic to them. What I mean by that is when someone’s coming to me, and I work with a lot of the CEOs, but you’re right, I’ve heard it from CFOs…I’ve heard it from a lot of different people in different positions. Let’s just say anybody who’s a manager, then. First, when they’re talking to me, I will never accept that all the people who report to them have suddenly become weak and frail creatures. I don’t buy that. Again, I talked to a lot of leaders, and some leaders are very well equipped for the current time. So in any moment, when I ask anybody to think of is, are we talking about a ‘you’ problem? Or are we talking like a problem of physics? In other words, like, you have, you are up against something that is intractable and unstoppable, and unsolvable. So we have to address that because it’s just a force of nature or a force majeure or something; it’s just a reality we have to confront. Versus you are confused by a reality that really can be, can not only be managed effectively but could be to your advantage. But you’re not seeing that because you’re in this confusion state. That’s always going to be the first place I go. Of course, that’s where my answer originates from. Thank you for calling that out. Secondly, inside of that confusion is always this BSL narrative. We’ve talked about bad, stupid, lazy narratives, where in that confusion, you’re trying to get back to the stasis in your mind by either blaming yourself or blaming others; that’s the go-to. So it becomes this thing of, if my employees would just, you know, get their shit together, then I wouldn’t have to be a therapist. That’s the outward BSL the inward BSL is my employees really depend on me; by the way, when I say employees, I mean anybody in the workplace, not just full-time employees, but the people that work on my team and work in this organization really depend on me, and I’m not up to it; I’m insufficient. That’s the inward BSL and both of those negative feelings or negative assessments block learning. As I said, I think there’s a real opportunity here for leaders to take what they’re experiencing as lemons and turn it into lemonade. That’s another principle I’m always going to use is I think you and I have talked about this, Angie, don’t get mad, don’t get even, get ahead. 

Jeff Hunter  12:42

So in our three-C model, when you’re getting mad, you’re confused. Mad, there’s a negative emotional reaction to an experience.

Jeff Hunter  12:51

Get even is you start to get self-righteous, you start to say, Hey, listen, you know, I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m going to have to actually defeat you. It’s that triggered fight or flight reaction; you’re in fight, and you’re like, literally the problem is upon you. And by the way, I do mean literally, and you end up with this phenomenon, where you either feel upset, or you feel like you have to get even, but the way we want to go for learning, and for our development and for building the organizations of our dreams, is

Jeff Hunter  13:31

 we want to go into clarity, which is to get ahead. We want to take these moments where people are approaching us as leaders with their emotional struggle, their personal problems, their confusion, their trauma, their terror, whatever it is. We want to learn, and we want to evolve; by learning and evolving, that’s how we actually get better. Therefore it can build the company…achieve our goals, achieve our potential build the thing that we care about. In that moment, what we have to do is first recognize when someone’s approaching us with their problems and saying, “Hey, listen, I need your help.” They’re not doing a bad thing. They’re not a bad person. They are a person who has invested in you as a leader with their trust, the most sacred thing they can give to you. The very fundamental element of the organization’s ability to work efficiently. You know, we, we come up with all these process things. And we, we define all these detailed, rigorous processes, and we do our swimlanes on our Gantt charts and all this stuff. But none of that matters if people don’t trust each other. Because ultimately, as you and I have talked about, we’re primates with calculators. We aren’t robots with hearts, and we don’t follow the can’t Gantt chart we follow; we follow our emotions. And so, trust is the thing that enables the organization to operate efficiently and effectively. When someone comes to you and says, “I have a problem that I want your help,”  they are telling you they trust you. And if in that moment where someone comes to you with vulnerability and need and tells you that you just got a signal or a piece of evidence about the most important thing you can have underlying of an effective organization. And in that very moment, you’re like, “Well, damn it, I’m not your therapist,” you have literally just taken an opportunity and turned it into crap…I think people want answers; leaders want the answers; it’s like, no, you don’t have to be their therapist. Well, you don’t have to be their therapist; first of all, you’re not equipped to be their therapist. And I don’t think they’re actually asking you to be their therapist. So no, you don’t have to, but you do have to deal with the fact that something is happening in front of you. That is a reality that you can either be productive with, or you can be damaging with; you can either get ahead, or you can hurt the trust. That’s the choice in front of you, and you don’t get to determine whether you have that opportunity or not. Remember, we’ve talked about this thing where you build the system, and then the system manages you. So if you don’t want anybody to come to you with their struggles, or their trauma, or their questions, or you know, or whatever they’ve got that you are interpreting as they need therapy. Then if you have that you can, you can not hire those people. Or you can hire those people and then send very clear signals you don’t care about them. That all they are is a cog in your machine. You can do that. 

Now, I think when leaders think about that, at one level, they get a sense of relief because it’s so hard to feel confused and so hard to feel insufficient, or angry, or whatever you’re going through. But the reality that you’re confronted with, and this is why it’s important to understand the world of work is change is if you say I’m not going to hire people, only hire sociopaths. Trust me, sociopaths need a different kind of therapy, but they will not be coming to you with their problems unless they think it’s an effective manipulation of you as a leader. You can hire sociopaths, but that’s roughly 8 to 10% of the population. You’ve just excluded 90% of the population from your talent pools, which means sociopaths will get paid a lot more, and the world gets a lot worse. You can make that choice. But the reality is that’s the choice you’re presented with. Not you get to opt out of being helpful to your employees when their expectations of you have changed.

Angie D’Sa  18:22

So the thing that I always like to do as I listened to you talk, Jeff, is [find] what’s the three-step process or the schematic or the template that I should walk away from this with. And so the first thing I’m hearing is recognized when I feel irritated or upset as a leader that somebody is dumping their problems on me in a way that feels sort of maybe immaturely emotional, that that upset is probably coming from my own personal feelings of maybe insufficiency and it’s an opportunity for me to explore and learn about myself. And at the same time, it’s an opportunity to look at a leading indicator, a predictive signal that I’m not going to get the outcomes that I want from my system, my system being composed of the people who are in front of me and offering up these feelings are these problems. And that if I want to be able to get the outcomes, I’m looking for my business goals, that it’s important to understand these early signals so that this is actually an opportunity. Now the next step that I’d love to get your thoughts on is how to productively explore that. Especially if I have, you know, this feeling of “okay, but I’m not here to manage your emotions. I’m not here to make you feel better.” What is a productive way to explore something like that was an employee bringing me, you know, the way that they’re feeling. It might be about a co-worker, it might be about how quickly things are changing. Can you give us some thoughts on that productive exploration and resolution process?

Jeff Hunter  20:07

Sure. The first thing is, I don’t think people are…Listen, I’m a CEO. People come to me with their challenges and struggles all the time. So I have a lot of empathy for leaders who feel caught in this… There was a moment this morning; Monday morning always way seems especially fraught. And there was a moment this morning where somebody came to me, and they really needed help on something. I was just fried already does not bode well for my week, by the way. I was fried already. And man trying to tap into what I’m about to say to answer your question. That was really hard. But you know what, that’s what I asked for. In other words, I understand that the reality of the system I built is I want to honor the trust people are investing in me by bringing me these challenges. At the same time, I understand human beings and what human beings are like, and I don’t want to create a dependency. Because a lot of times, what you see in organizations, is the leader or manager isn’t helping the person come to a good answer themselves. They’re giving them the answer, and they’re micromanaging them. That can feel really good in the moment. Really good. I mean, listen, we’ve all been in this place where things just seem to be falling apart. We go to somebody who we perceive as power and authority and agency to like to solve our problem, and they take it off your shoulders and take it on to them. Man, doesn’t that feel great? There’s a problem with that, however. When that happens, that means I’m not developing the capability to solve that problem myself. I’m not developing the sufficiency to be able to grow and learn; I’m being robbed of that opportunity. By robbed, I mean that the manager, rather than going through the steps I’m about to talk about, just takes it off my plate or is dismissive or whatever. I have deep compassion for this. I know how difficult it is. But let’s go through it. So this is very basic one-on-one stuff. This is why I say it’s so important for leaders to have a clarity coach by their side or somebody they trust because you’re going to need to be able to talk about this and talk about the specifics, not just the feelings, but the specific instances. So you can work through it in that detail at that level. 

Jeff Hunter  23:00

The first thing when someone comes to you is they need to feel acknowledged in that moment. Again, you don’t have to acknowledge them; you’ll just pay a price for not doing it. And being upset because you have to pay a price is petty. So just to be clear, you asked to be a leader, I asked to be a leader, I volunteered, and I worked hard to get into this position. Then being upset because people are treating me like a leader. Whenever I catch myself in that self-pity, and I do sometimes, I reflect upon “Wow, that’s, that’s really not the person I want to be,” the person I want to be is I want to be the person who in that moment is their very best. Then being my very best, we all have our good days and our bad days. But in my good days, I have the patience and care to actually listen to what the person is saying. Acknowledge what they’re saying. Basic communication strategy, right? If you feel like you don’t have time to listen to them, then at least give them the time to tell them when you will have time. So if someone all of a sudden, you know, jumps into your office or jumps on your a text or whatever, and says, “I have got this thing that’s going on, I really need help,” And let’s say you’re going through something profound at that same time. You don’t have to be a super person and figure out how to put your stuff aside so you can be there for them. You probably won’t be effective in that moment. You definitely are not going to be fully attentive in that moment. What you want to do is say, “Hey, listen, can I get back to you later today? Can we talk tonight” Whatever it is, “I care about this; I want to be good for it. I want to be present for it. I’m just not going to be able to be that right now.” I believe that human beings can respect that level of communication. They can respect that you’re putting yourself in the picture and saying here’s what I would need to actually be good in this moment. so that’s step one. 

Jeff Hunter  25:04

Step two, when you’re having the conversation, you have to actually be listening. This is such, such simple advice, and it’s so hard. So what you’re going to want to do because you’re really in the midst of just tons and tons of stuff, you got too many things on your to-do list, the morning is blown up, what you’re going to want to do is get to solve as fast as possible, that’s what you’re going to want to do. But when people are bringing you their problems, often they don’t want a solve. So there’s an old aphorism, and a lot of relationships when one partner brings the other partner, you know, their trouble. And the second partner immediately jumps in to solve, when really the problem here is to be heard and acknowledged. And so I say this, don’t jump into a solution until you have an understanding. There was a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey; it was great. I think it was back in the 80s, maybe early 90s. One of the Seven Principles was “seek to understand before you understood;” this is an age-old wisdom of ask questions to figure out what’s really happening before you start jumping into solutions. 

Jeff Hunter  26:23

Number three is, guide the person to the best person who can help don’t become the victim and the martyr to the situation. What I mean by that is so many leaders in that moment, when they’re hearing the person come to him and say, Hey, man, I’ve got this problem, I’ve got this personal issue, whatever it is, whatever you’re interpreting as, quote, unquote, meet you needing you to be a therapist. There, they jump into solve, or even if they don’t jump into solve and they listen patiently, they think it’s their issue to solve it; they think it’s theirs. Like it’s being handed to them. But the point at that moment is to get the person to help, the best help that can be provided, not your help. This is where if you have an excellent HR department…if this person has a coach if you have a support network, if you have mentors, whatever it is, make sure that this person is guided to go get the best help they can get, not your help. It doesn’t make you insufficient as a leader; if you’re not the best person to help, it makes you very, very sufficient. This takes the pressure off of you to be everything to everybody. It also makes sure that the person is getting attention, as opposed to putting everybody’s problems on your shoulder, and then by definition, eventually, you just can’t help anybody else.

Angie D’Sa  28:02

It makes sense, Jeff, and I appreciate you sharing some of the more obvious approaches to being an empathetic interlocutor and just sort of reminding us that in the moments when we feel annoyed, we are unlikely to show up doing the basics well, but the basics can actually unlock a lot. Our intent was to get through a few different listener questions. So unless there’s anything else on this topic you want to share, I’ll probably shift us over to our next one.

Jeff Hunter  28:34

Sounds great.

Angie D’Sa  28:35

Okay, so the next question, I’m pulling it up so I can make sure I get the heart of it right. This has come to us in a few different forms. The gist of it is we have a number of leaders we’re working with right now who, to be responsive to the current market environment, the imperatives they’re experiencing coming from their investors, etc., have started to prioritize profitability and bottom-line overgrowth. Connected to… they’ve had to cut members of their team to perform what’s commonly known as a RIF or Reduction In Force. Following that, so many of them have February’s questions and work through with us how to do that in healthy ways for their organizations. But following a reduction in force or a RIF, many are asking, How do I support my remaining or even surviving? Some of them are saying team members because, you know, undoubtedly, there are feelings of fear or uncertainty that are pervasive. And if I need to keep pushing growth, I can’t have a mentality of fear among my team. So, the question has come to us in many different ways, but really How do I motivate my team after a RIF? How do I restart growth?

Jeff Hunter  30:05

The world of work is increasingly unpredictable and fraught. And whether people are being let go because of a reduction in force, because of a, you know, quote-unquote, global sort of event, or because of an individual performance issue, or because of a company fails, Vice media this morning filed for bankruptcy companies actually fail. What we know is that things are increasingly more uncertain, and therefore, they’re more confusing. So to me, this isn’t a question of “How do I, as a leader, get people to get over a traumatic event?” If that is the approach, and I know some leaders really just want that playbook of like, “Hey, can we just get back to work.” And I understand that, and I understand why they want to do that. Here’s the thing that’s important to understand the way you were working cause the bad problem in the first place. If you say to your employees, “Hey, listen, we just did this thing where we failed to project capital markets collapsing. We failed to protect our market from collapsing. We failed the project. Our customers not liking our products anymore. We failed to project the opportunity in the market;” whatever it is, we failed at some level in forecasting or planning. You say, because of that, we have now done this thing where people you cared about and have a relationship, they’re gone. But now what I really want everyone to do is just sort of get over the trauma, maybe that’s a little T trauma, big T trauma, but the traumatic nature of that experience, the severing of these relationships, the casting out of these people, I want you to get over that and get back to work. We talked earlier about trust. And here’s my question for you as a leader. If you are incompetent before the RIF, why aren’t you going to be incompetent after the RIF? You probably will be. If you’re incompetent, why should people trust you? I think the thing you have to deal with first and foremost is it is inevitable that you, as a leader, are going to make mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough; there’s more potential and more opportunity that you’re not tapping into because you’re playing it too safe. Mistakes are the way we know we’re trying and performing above the area above what we’re currently enabled to do. For a fast-growth company or a company that’s trying to make a difference in the world. To make an impact in some ways. Mistakes is often the currency, and failure and error is often the currency that you need to use in order to achieve that. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough, or your vision is too low, or something else. But when you make mistakes, it affects other people; simple mistakes can become profound mistakes for others. What people want to know is not that you’re going to never make a mistake; they’re going to want to know that that mistake is not going to be persistent. 

Jeff Hunter  33:34

Now, this is what we expect from employees all the time. Again, I’m the CEO; I’ve got a lot of people here at Talentism. I expect that they’ll make mistakes. I expect that when they make mistakes, they’re going to learn from them. That’s why the mistakes are valuable, not because they’re an end in and of themselves, but because they fuel improvement. But I should be held to the same exact standard. I should be held to the standard of if a mistake was made, then what did I learn from it? Why is this unlikely to happen again? And what I see a lot of leaders doing is treating RIFs and large-scale events like this as it happened to them. And frankly, I don’t know why anybody would trust a leader who treats things that way, who treats people’s livelihoods that way. It didn’t happen to you. You just didn’t do your job well. Again, it’s going to be hard to do your job well because for a period of time, if you were in a venture-backed fast-growth company, everybody in the family dog was lining up to give you a term sheet at these outrageously inflated valuations. If you didn’t take that money, then you were seen as not really worthy of future rounds of financing, then you take the money, and you’re encouraged by your board to spend it so you can get to the next round, you’re gonna make a lot of mistakes in that environment. That environment is not those circumstances; that system is really designed to encourage you to make lots and lots of mistakes. that, frankly, are going to affect a lot of other people, but not the venture capitalist and not you. You, in that moment where the mistake finally gets made, and people are impacted by that, you have to take personal responsibility for it. In that personal responsibility, you have to own it. Then you have to say what you’ve learned. And you got to say what’s gonna be different next time. So that’s table stakes on this whole conversation. The second thing is, once you’ve cleared those table stakes, what can people take away from the meaning of the work that is remaining? So these people have survivorship?

Angie D’Sa  35:55

Can I pause you before you go to the second piece of this first section?

Jeff Hunter  35:59

Of course.

Angie D’Sa  36:01

you know, it’s a while back, you’re quoted in a journal article, a Wall Street Journal article.  I can’t recall the exact headline, but it was something like I’m sorry, is the new tech CEO line. Because you have so many of these large tech company CEOs coming out and saying, “I’m sorry, for my, you know, misestimation, during a period of high growth.” Now we have to call now we have to be smaller. Now we have to be nimbler. Well, I think what I’m hearing you say is, I’m sorry, is cheap. What you can offer people who you’re asking to follow you, despite your mistakes is what you’ve learned. As evidence that as a leader, it’s not as though you’re going to be, you know, you’re going to have a failure rate of zero. But that when you do have expensive failures that affect their lives, you’re going to learn something from it, you’re going to be better, and you’re going to make your organization stronger because of it. Give them a reason to keep following you, not just because you’re saying sorry. Give them a reason to follow you because you’re demonstrating evidence of learning, which is what they need in a leader.

Jeff Hunter  37:14

Yes, yeah, exactly. So, think of it this way. To me, here’s what good learning looks like. Because I agree, “sorry” is cheap. In the thing, in that period of time, what was happening is not only were leaders saying sorry, but they were making it about them, they’re like, “Oh, this is so hard.” Listen, if you want to blow up trust with a group of people, just be a narcissist, it’s like, and that is a narcissistic response to their pain isn’t like, really, you don’t know how hard this has been for me. Nobody gives a shit how hard it’s been for you. Well, you didn’t lose your job. They lost their jobs. People care about that. To me, this is what good learning looks like. “I am the CEO, and founder, whatever your role is, I was responsible for setting the direction of this company, I was responsible and going forming capital relationships fuel that company, I got to fuel this company, I got lost in the middle of it. Here’s specifically how I got lost, I got on the treadmill of just raising tons and tons of cash, not really paying attention to the business, not really seeing how we couldn’t grow our way out of scale problems when there are fundamentally operational and Product Market Fit problems. I got lost in the middle of that, and then the end result of that is we no longer can operate that way. Because the music stopped and somebody pulled my chair. I own that completely. What I’ve learned as a result of that is it’s not just about profitability; we have to go address core problems in this business. We haven’t been paying enough attention to the customer; we haven’t been paying enough attention to operational excellence. That’s my fault because I set the tone from the top, and the tone I set wasn’t that. But now I have clarity on that. Here’s what you should expect as a result. Our customers are going to be more important to us, and here’s how we’re going to prioritize that. We’re going to be taking a look at how we can be operationally excellent. Here’s what’s going to be a result of that. Here is my hypothesis as a leader. If we do this, we will be able to extend our run rate our runway until such time that we become investable as an excellent company, not as a lottery bet on the future.” That is a deeply meaningful thing to engage in because, as an excellent company, we have the resilience. We have the antifragility; we have the stability to be able to continue to make a difference in our customers’ lives. In the way we’ve always aspired to, but which I lost sight of.” That, to me, is not an act of contrition that then you turn into, like how difficult your life is. That is a well-reasoned argument about what happened, the mistake you made, what you’re going to do about it, and why the work ahead may makes a difference.

Angie D’Sa  40:29

I appreciate that. I think you sort of segwayed into the next point you’re about to make, which is anchor to the meaning in the work ahead. For those who remain. Is there anything else on that topic? It’s worth saying?

Jeff Hunter  40:45

Yeah, productivity is a big issue. Everything we’re talking about here today is ultimately, at some level, about productivity. People show up; they show up to work; they have creativity, they have promise, they have potential; those aren’t fufu terms, by the way; that is literally what you’re paying hard capital for. Then people get confused. In the moment of getting confused, they lose access to those tools into those talents. Then you have to help them; you have to create a system and support them to get back on that path. So that they can be their best. Not only their best, because that’s the way the shareholders went and all that stuff. But to me, more importantly, be their best because that’s when they go home from a day of work, and they’re proud. They say, “I did something today that I didn’t know I was capable of, and I really feel good about that.” That ripple effect goes through their entire life. To turn this confusion into productivity, you have to work through meaning. Why does this matter? Why should I be going through this? Again, in the old days, it was like, Who gives a damn why you think you should be going through this? You need a job.  If I fire you, you’ll be out of a job. And then you’ll be in really big problems. But you don’t have that lever anymore, thank goodness. And so you have the opportunity as a leader to actually help them understand, “Hey, listen, here’s why the work ahead is meaningful; here’s what you can contribute to it. Here’s the impact it’s going to have on other people’s lives; here’s the problems we’re solving that is important to a lot of people,” those kinds of things become the fuel that keeps people going in the midst of a confusing event like Reduction In Force (RIF), mass layoffs, whatever it is.

Angie D’Sa  42:43

And Jeff is meaning something always connected to mission,

Jeff Hunter  42:48

Meaning, the way we talk about it, there’s three pillars of leadership vision, meaning, and trust. Vision is universal meaning is individual. So vision is described as something that people want to attach to because they find it compelling. But the meaning they find in the work to get that done, or the meaning they attach to that vision being accomplished, is deeply individual. You can’t tell an individual; you can’t go to a person and say, “Here’s why you need to find this meaningful.” Maybe they’ll find that outcome meaningful because it’ll show their parents that they’re good at their work, maybe it’ll be meaningful because it’ll give them a sense of pride that they’ve never had before, you don’t know. So it’s going to be highly individual to every person; the vision, the thing you’re trying to accomplish in the future, the difference you’re trying to make in the world is the connective tissue to the work. When I do this thing, I actually propel us toward that future. But the feeling you get from doing that work or doing that work well is highly individual.

Angie D’Sa  44:01

And let’s say since meaning is the through line, the way to really anchor a team to the work. So as to aim for productivity despite mistakes that have been made or the confusion that may come after something, like a RIF, and the meaning is highly individual, help us think about how a leader of an organization, which is not small enough to go talk to each person, might understand whether there is a pervasive sense of meaning and connection to the work in an organization and how to ensure that that gets created and that gets nurtured. 

Jeff Hunter  44:45

Because organizations tend to be led by only a few people but managed by many. The point of contact is the manager, not the leader. So the vision is painted by the leader. It’s interpreted through the organization. But the meaning comes from the work. It comes from the responsibilities and the outcomes. Therefore, management is responsible for making sure that employees actually are in rolls, in a culture, getting support in a way that unleashes their potential and makes them great at their work; the signal from management back up to leadership about whether they are communicating effectively so that people actually have that True North and are oriented towards it, that signal is vital. That signal is the data that you’re talking about. That is how the leader knows; there are different ways you can gather that data through different management, machines, surveys, etc. But ultimately, managers are responsible for ensuring that individual meaning is alive and well in the work that individuals are doing.

Angie D’Sa  46:06

Okay, Jeff, I think we should pick up on that particular insight in another conversation. What is the responsibility of leaders, which we tend to think of as sort of the top few most visible members of an executive team in an organization? And what is the responsibility of management? Those two things can actually exist in the same human? But it’s worth describing them differently and understanding each of those domains. Maybe we’ll pick that up in another conversation.

Jeff Hunter  46:40

Yeah, that’d be great. Okay,

Angie D’Sa  46:42

I think we’re at time, is there anything else on either of these topics you wanted to share?

Jeff Hunter  46:48

Well, listen, I know, it’s hard when I use language like incompetent, and I’m sure for some people listening to this, they’re gonna have a pretty big F.U. moment. That’s fine. I understand that. The people who we tend to work really well with are the people who are going to accept that personal responsibility. What we want to do is help you turn that personal responsibility into productive action. A bias towards saying, Okay, “Start With Me,” as we’ve talked about when I’m starting with me, “What am I missing?” I’ve asked to be the leader of this organization, I’ve asked to be manager, I’ve taken the responsibility willingly of my own free will and volition to have a certain level of influence and control over people’s lives, especially their economic lives, their psychological safety, their feeling of value and worth, I asked for that. I expect to be good at it. I aspire to be good at it. I need help to be good at it. Those people tend to work with us really well. Then they understand that I’ll use provocative terms, like you’re being incompetent, because personally, I’d rather be called incompetent than not because that’s the path to learning. So I just wanted to caveat that.

Angie D’Sa  48:09

I appreciate that. All right. If you were listening today, or if you’re reading today, and you felt we were calling you incompetent and you felt angry, then that that’s normal. We’ll highlight this little bit for you. If that really tapped into something for you and felt like, “Oh, okay,” seeing myself in that light, even if that label maybe didn’t feel quite right. Is…maybe opening something up, and we’d love to invite you for a conversation. Okay, thank you, Jeff. 

Jeff Hunter  48:46

Thank you, Angie.

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