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Leading with Heart - Unlocking Creativity, Purpose, and Results, with Edward Sullivan

CEO of Velocity Coaching and author of Leading with Heart, Edward Sullivan joined Jonathan Westover in a recent episode of Human Capital Innovations Podcast to discuss his book about how leaders can encourage employees to push creativity, purpose, and results.


Edward “wrote the book as a way to get this whole idea of balancing the head and the heart; of really helping people build these muscles, these conversational muscles, so that they can have more connected conversations” with coworkers and employees about the expectations of different projects and jobs. "When you can really connect with people, that's when they do the best work of their careers."


Edward further suggests that "... if you want people to do their best work consistently over time, they have to feel really bought into it. They have to be committed and loyal to the cause, to the work that they're doing, to the organization, its customers." Edward and Jonathan discussed how to build these conversations and work-place environments that allow you to reap a myriad of positive results.


Something that is incredibly important to keep in mind is that “... you could have the coolest perks in the world. It's just not going to matter because nobody wants to wake up and go to work every day for a boss that they can't stand working with or with coworkers where there's a toxic competitive environment….”


Edward suggests that being a good leader includes "... creating an environment which people feel like they can push back… Or they can say, I don't know." A common misconception is that "The perfect leader makes everyone else … feel like they need to be perfect too. Right? And then everyone's wasting half their energy pretending to be okay." Edward makes the case that you want your employees to understand that it is okay to not be perfect. Make them feel like they can "... bring the most intractable problems [they] have. Bring them to the executive team, bring them to this office, and [you and your employee can] solve them together."


You can listen to the full episode at innovativehumancapital.com/podcast, or anywhere you listen to your podcasts, just search “HCI Podcast”.


Read the full transcript below:


Welcome to the Human Capital innovations Podcast. Thank you. So happy to be here. It is a pleasure to be with you today. You're joining us from New York. I'm south of Salt Lake City in Utah. And today we're going to be talking about your new book, leading With Heart five Conversations That Unlock Creativity, Purpose and Results. All of those, yes. For those watching the video, you can see Edward holding up his book. Fantastic book. Great topic. I love the title and the subtitle. There's so much there for us to unpack and talk about together today. Before we get started, I just wanted to share a brief bio with everybody. Edward Sullivan is the CEO of Velocity Coaching, an Angel Investor, and the author of the Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Leading with Heart. Velocity Coaching brings top tier executive coaching to entrepreneurs and innovators. Their goal is to build lasting companies that impact the world in positive ways. I love that. And is there anything else you'd like to share with me or my audience by writing your background or personal context before we dive on in? You know, just that I really love my work. It kind of found me. I like working with other coaches who were drafted into coaching. I was running a strategy consulting business in Salt Lake. Not in Salt Lake. In Silicon Valley. In the late 2000s, early two thousand and ten s, and some of my business school classmates asked me to coach them. And that's how this whole journey began. And now John and I run this firm. We've got 30 coaches. We work with over 100 great companies ranging from ten person startups to companies like Apple and Geico. And I just feel really blessed with the journey. Yeah, that's fantastic. And coaching really is a wonderful field. Executive coaching, organizational mentoring, and coaching as people are trying to navigate their careers and find fulfillment and meaning and purpose, trying to lean into their own potential and develop themselves. I think all of that is just super important. And as a coach myself, it's something I derive a lot of meaning from. So, again, a wonderful background. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today. Now let's dive on into this book. I always like to ask authors, why this book? Why now? There's lots of books out there. You have a long story career. You've done lots of really great things. So why did you pick this moment in time to write this book and spread your message out there? Yeah, it was about three years ago. John and I were chatting about our work and we really had a sense that we were doing things just a little bit differently, maybe differently than other firms. And we were getting feedback from our clients and then so many referrals from our clients. We were forced to kind of grow the firm, recruit more coaches. But we realized we didn't want to get too big. We wanted to kind of cap the growth of the company at a certain level so that it still felt manageable. But there were more and more people who still wanted the message. They still wanted to work with us. So really we wrote the book as a way to get this whole idea of balancing the head in the heart of really helping people build these muscles, these conversational muscles, so that they can have more connected conversations in the boardroom, more connected conversations in the executive team, as opposed to staying very tactical and very strategic. We think that great leaders are able to do both, and it's a message that has resonated and it's a message we really enjoy sharing with our readers and with our clients. Yeah, I completely agree. I think great leaders are able to do both. They need to be able to tell the story. They need to connect to emotion, they need to connect to people's passions, but they also have to have the data, they have to have the evidence, they have to support what they're saying so we can't just spin a tail. You have to have some evidence to support it. But you're absolutely right. If we can do both, I think that's the rare leader, that's the rare executive tap into both and then really that's where the influence comes from. That's where you then are able to share your vision and not just have the vision, but be able to really draw people with you and move in a direction collectively. Absolutely. It's the kind of thing that generates that engenders commitment and followership. Right. When you can really connect with people that's when they do the best work of their careers, as opposed to when they feel like they're just driven and they just have to deliver and they're not feeling emotionally supported or connected. They're not going to do the best work of their careers, and it's going to lead to a lot of turnover. Like you were saying, it does really bring it leads to greater levels of commitment. I think lots of leaders use more of a carrot stick approach that is great for compliance, that's great for shortterm bursts of energy and drive, but it's not really sustainable in the long run. If you want people to do their best work consistently over time, they have to feel really bought into it. They have to be committed and loyal to the cause, to the work that they're doing, to the organization, its customers. And that doesn't come through. Really. What I see is kind of the lazier approaches to leadership. If you're doing more topdown authoritarian style of leadership, again, shortterm carrot and stick, you can get some results, but are you going to be able to get really great sustainable results over time where people are doing their best work? And collectively it's not just individuals doing awesome work, but collectively as teams and as an organization we're just really pushing the bar higher and accomplishing really great things. And in my research it's very clear when we foster that level of commitment, we go far beyond compliance based performance. When we're driven by commitment and we're passionate and we find meaning and purpose in the work that we do, we just do better work, we produce better stuff, we put more energy into it, we're more committed, we're more engaged and we're going to have better innovations and creativity and bring more value to the market. And that's what every organization wants. And I think most leaders recognize that. I think most leaders understand that if they're just pulling the manipulative levers that there's only so much that can get done. That's what tends to continually happen in most organizations and in most teams. And so part of it is like how do we get from kind of a conceptual understanding, a theoretical recognition that yes, that approach is probably not as helpful. We need to move into this more purpose driven, commitment based approach. But how do we get there? How do we get from the understanding to the practical application? Especially if we've lived our whole careers seeing leaders do it a different way and now we're trying to shift our mental model and we're trying to shift gears with ourselves else. I think the good news is that the shift is already underway. John you know, I think we're seeing employees are demanding more what I call emotional incentives as opposed to simply financial incentives. We do. I give a lot of talks around the country now related to the book and I always ask the audience at the beginning, you know, what do you love about your job? When you've done your best work of your career, what did you love about your job? And people invariably say, I worked with great people. I agreed with the purpose. It was on mission. I was really challenged, I was learning something. Guess what? Nobody raises their hand and says, edward, I really love the money, right? I really love the snacks in the kitchen. They don't talk about all of the perks, quote unquote, that leaders and HR teams spend so much time crafting comp packages and thinking about, look, everybody wants to get paid, everybody wants a good health benefits package, right? Those are important things. But that's table stakes. That's the baseline. It's all of the emotional perks. It's how do I feel working here? That's what makes people stay. That's what makes them do their best work. And it's pretty unquantifiable. And it's one of the reasons why it's easy for leaders to fall back on the financial perks, to fall back on the, you know, maybe we need another ping pong table in here. That's what's going to get people motivated. Like, no, they want to feel seen. They want to feel heard. They want to feel valued as human beings. Right? So we talk a lot in the book about understanding people's needs, not just their financial needs, their emotional needs, understanding their environmental needs, who are the kind of people they are inspired by, what are the kind of conditions that they need to work in to do their best work. As a leader, you really need to be creating an environment, thinking about creating almost like this beautiful aquarium where all of your employees can do their best work inside that. That's your job is to create a container where everyone does their best work, as opposed to be really, really good about setting goals and accountability and standards and then incentivizing based on incentive structures and comp programs and bonus programs. Goals are important. Accountability is important. Again, that's the baseline. Everything else is the emotional context in which we which people work, right? Yeah, absolutely. And like you said, don't get me wrong, I want to make a good wage. I want to earn money. I want good benefits. I like playing ping pongs. I like eating snacks. So, like, it's great to have those things, but those things in and of themselves don't mean much of anything. If you have a toxic work environment, you can have all the ping pong tables, you can have all the free snacks, you can have perks up the wazoo and big long list of all the extra things, right? And it ultimately doesn't matter if you have toxic relationships in your team, if you don't feel seen, valued, hurt, if you don't have an opportunity to do meaningful work, et cetera, et cetera. And that's where I think people run into trouble because they'll look at the Googles of the world and they'll say, look at these cool things that they're doing. And then rather than taking the time to really think about their organization, their team, what makes sense for the salient motivators of their people, they just start to play copycat and they start to bring in little perks that may or may not actually be all that meaningful or motivating to anybody. And again, if the relationships aren't there, it almost doesn't matter. Like, you could have the coolest perks in the world. It's just not going to matter because nobody wants to wake up and go to work every day for a boss that they can't stand working with or with coworkers where there's a toxic competitive environment or whatever the case may be. So if we're trying to really get to the point where we are unlocking creativity, as your subtitle proposes, in Innovation, where we connect to purpose that will drive greater levels of results, how do we do that? What can we start doing right now? If I'm a leader listening to this episode and I'm thinking, okay, this sounds great in theory, in practice, I still got tight deadlines, I still got to get stuff done, I got to be on people's backs, I got to drive them to get finished, blah, blah, blah. How do you start to interrupt that? Yeah, I think the first thing you do is you create psychological safety. And what psychological safety means is for your readers, your listeners who aren't familiar, it is creating an environment which people feel like they can push back, right? Or they can say, I don't know. So many leaders today say, don't bring me problems, only bring me solutions. And we write in the book, if your people are afraid to tell you that they smell smoke, you will always be putting out fires. The best leaders say, Bring me problems. Bring the most intractable problems you have. Bring them to the executive team, bring them to this office, and we'll solve them together. Right? What happens is a lot of people don't bring problems that they don't have a simple solution to, and then the next thing you know, it's a whole shit storm. Excuse my language in your podcast, but it just turns into a disaster. That's how a lot of big problems started, as small problems that we could have dealt with if they had been shared. So we talk a lot about in the book and in our coaching about creating psychological safety, making people feel like they can roll up their sleeves, admit with that they don't have the answer, and get collaborative and get creative. Another thing is people need to feel like they can talk about their fears. They need to talk about, like, what's hard. They need to talk about what makes them feel unsafe. Right? If we have to tamp down our fears, those fears are going to come out in toxic behavior. So any time you work in an office environment where people are undermining each other, they're getting political, they're stealing credit, all that stuff is unprocessed fear that is coming out in really bad behavior. So it's like, you know, can you create an environment as a leader that makes people feel safe? Admitting when they don't know, admitting when they feel fear and asking for help, that starts creating this container where people do feel like they can do their best work? Yeah, I like that container idea. Let's start to think in terms of culture, and that's derived from the broader environment. And if we can recognize those mechanisms in place that are undermining maybe our best intentions and our aspirations towards positive company culture, and we can start to systematically create the type of environment that we want that will both reward good behaviors while discouraging negative behaviors and ultimately, first and foremost, make sure that we're providing that psychological safety. Like you said. Go ahead. When you do provide that psychological safety and you make people feel like they can admit when they're wrong or they can admit when they don't know, then you actually have the ability to hold them accountable. Right? Like, think of, like, the toughest NCAA coaches out there, you know, like the Bobby Knights and all these folks who really drive their teams. They get to drive their teams hard because all those kids know this person has my back. Right? This person has invested in me emotionally, makes me feel safe. So then you get to drive them hard, right, because we have this agreement, right? There's an understanding that there's a foundation of caring there. There's a foundation of caring. Exactly. Right. I give you permission to hold me accountable because I know you care about me. But a lot of people, they get it backwards, try to start with driving, and that never builds the relationship and leads to a toxic culture. Yeah, and I've seen it so many times. I mean, honestly, it's what I see almost all the time, because as you were describing, where a boss will say, don't bring me problems, bring me solutions, right? Like you said, as soon as you say that, it's well meaning. And I get that you want to be people, to be proactive. You want people to own the problems. You don't want people to have to come to you for every solution, et cetera, because that can be toxic in and of itself. But if you create this environment where people think they have to know the answer to everything before they ever come to you, then why are you even there? And the most perplexing problems require the greatest thinking of everyone around the room. Like, you need collaboration to be able to I mean, if it was an easy problem, then it would be solved. Like, you would figure it out and you'd move on. But that's not how most of the challenges facing organizations are. They're a challenge for a reason. They're really hard. They're messy, they're complex, and there's not an easy solution. And therefore, you have to be able to get input from other people. And if you're hiding that, you might be able to COVID it up for a while, but you're just then creating a house of cards on top of a Sandy foundation, and inevitably, eventually, it'll all come tumbling down. Yeah. If you are actually an innovative company, you're trying to create first of their kind, zero to one solutions, these are going to be hard problems. If there were easy problems, somebody else would have solved them already. There'd be no space for innovation. But if you're really trying to do something new, it's a blank canvas. No one has any idea, let's get together and let's solve these problems together. Rather than make people feel like they need to stay off on their own, this is what drives teams apart, is they start to feel isolated, sitting with their own problems. They don't have permission to admit, I don't know what to do here. I feel incompetent. One of my early teachers talked a lot about conspicuous incompetence. Right. When a leader can get up there, can very conspicuously say, I have no idea what to do. Everyone else in the team, they relax because they're like, okay, now I can admit I don't know what to do either. And in our incompetence together, we then figure out how to get competent. Right. We solve the problems together. But it starts with admitting you don't know what to do. Yeah. So there needs to be an appropriate level of vulnerability as we connect leadership with the heart. That requires vulnerability. That requires demonstrating authentic, caring for your people. All these things we've been talking about, you start to layer these things together and then you get to a place where it's not going to be perfect. People are still human. People are still going to bug each other and upset each other. And despite your best efforts, there's still going to be personal stuff and ego and those sorts of things sometimes get in the way, miscommunications, et cetera. But when you're making a good faith effort and you show that you care and you're depositing in the emotional bank and people recognize that you do genuinely care about them and you're being appropriately vulnerable, you're giving them permission to do the same. When you do that consistently over time, nobody expects perfection. They recognize that you're going to sometimes have bad days, that sometimes you're going to completely get it wrong. At some point, you're going to probably misjudge them or have a faulty assumption. Everyone has it. Everyone knows that, and nobody expects differently. What bothers people and what undermines trust in leaders is when you pretend like you got it all figured out and everyone knows you don't have it all figured out. Right. And then you start to get punitive on people who may not have it all figured out themselves, pretending again like, you have it all figured out, and that becomes toxic. That just does not allow for people to do the best work. And at that point, people just start to kind of play it safe. They just kind of do the bare minimum to get by. And that's not going to drive creativity and innovation in your industry and your sector. Right. And it's just going to produce all sorts of problems moving forward. Yeah. I'm glad you brought that topic up of perfectionism in leaders. There's been a lot of focus for years on this whole idea of executive presence. Executive presence is like you need to have polish and lower your voice and have a firm handshake. One thing I really appreciate about Silicon Valley and tech in general is it's, like, the leader who almost looks the grungiest, is often like, the one who's held up the most, like, the most authentic. But when we think about it, why are today's workers holding people with executive presence in contempt and really awarding or supporting, like, the hoodie wearing CEO? And it's because the perfect leader makes everyone else, as you said, feel like they need to be perfect too. Right? And then everyone's wasting half their energy pretending to be okay. All that energy that could be going into innovation, all that energy that could be going into creativity, they're wasting it keeping up appearances. So the leader really sets the standard by saying, I'm imperfect. My hair is maybe unkempt. Today. I'm wearing the same sweatshirt for the third day in a row because I'm putting all of my energy into supporting this team, into innovating on our product, into driving results, as opposed to putting up this charade. Edward, this has just been a really fun conversation. I know we really scratch the surface. We could go way deeper, but that's what your book is for. So as we wrap things up today, I just wanted to give you a chance to share with the audience how they can connect with you, find out more about your work, your coaching, your speaking, where they can find your book, and then give us a final word on the topic for today. Yeah, absolutely. Well, people are welcome to reach out through our website, Velocity coaching.com. I'm also a speaker through the Washington Speakers bureau. You can find me there. And our book is called Leading With Heart. It's on Amazon, it's on Goodreads, and everywhere books are sold. And I would say my challenge for everyone listening is what can you do to start with hard right? As opposed to starting your meetings with, this is our agenda, this is the to do and our tasks and everything I want to hold people accountable for. How can you start with Heart? We start all of our meetings with five minutes of gratitude. Who in the room do you want to give a shout out to? Who do you want to thank? Who do you want to connect with? And then everyone is so much more present. I'm going to challenge everyone to do that. I love it. I love it. Edward, thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure. I encourage my audience to reach out and connect, to find out more about what Edward can do for you. And as always, I hope everyone can stay healthy and safe, that you find meaning and purpose at work each and every day. And I hope you all have a great week.


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