Being open and honest about our emotions is becoming increasingly important in the workplace to boost happiness and productivity. Gallup’s recent State of Global Emotions Report gives leaders insights into how people around the world feel and behave to help make better economic decisions--after all, 70 per cent of human behaviour is based on emotions, while only 30 per cent is rational.
Australian businesswoman Kylie-Wright Ford, who has worked with startups and corporations, says the line between personal and professional has gone away. We recently sat down, upon the launch of her new book, The Leadership Mind Switch, to discuss the role of emotions in leadership today, how the the loss of her sister has helped her relate to her team, and her advice for CEOs who are afraid to show their emotions:
YouInc: You mentioned that when you moved from Australia to the Southern U.S. you had to learn to be a more playful leader.
Kylie Wright-Ford: I used to work in the finance industry. We had formal attire. We had a formal way of being. With that I became a reserved personality, who had a formal way of speaking; I never spoke of my children or personal life in the workplace; in that era I felt that I couldn’t admit that I had children.
When I moved into my recent role, my team taught me how to be more playful; they taught me that their level of respect didn’t go down no matter how vulnerable I made myself. In fact, the respect only went up because I became more relatable.
I was more playful in my dress. I started wearing converse to work. I wore jeans and dressed more like my team. I shared my days with people, whether I had a rough morning with the kids or an extremely busy evening of networking. My team was more personally accountable to me because they saw me with more heart than in the past. I always had a high bar for myself and them in terms of professional commitment and output. But I changed the way I approached the workplace. I was more likely to have fun when we had done great things.
YI: How did you keep encouraging yourself to reveal your personal side?
KWF: I started with a domain that wouldn’t reveal too much of myself, but showed me as a more playful leader. I expanded from there to bring my full self to work.
People would say, “Tell me about you.” I would say, “Well, I’m a farmer when I’m not at work.” My team members were so surprised because they had this image in their mind of the uber professional; this New York or London person, and I was living in the Southern U.S. So, instead of leading a conversation with family, which is more obvious, I led with my interests outside of work. Instead of introducing myself as, “Hi, I’m Kylie. I’m Chief Operating Officer, and I have these areas of control,” I’d say, “Hey, I’m Kylie. I’m part of the leadership team. I’ve got a background in so and so. On the side I have a farm an hour outside of town, and I’ve got cute pigs and goats.” It would always break the ice with people because they saw me as more human.
YI: What role do emotions play in leadership today?
KWF: Leaders who are emotionally stable and positive will be more successful in the future. There’s little tolerance now for the leader who gives directives and sits back and barks at people to do the next thing. People want to see that a leader is authentic and real.
The line between personal and professional has gone away, so as that happens the aloof and remote leader has become less appealing. I call it the work life blender. It’s like making a smoothie with work and life tossed in.
YI: You lost your sister in your teens. What have you learned from your loss that you apply as a leader now?
KWF: My emotional intelligence is better. When you experience a devastating loss your range of emotions seems to widen. You really deeply understand other people’s range of emotions.
I’m fearless as a result, because there’s nothing else that I’m scared of in my life after the loss of her. So, my fearlessness translates into this energy that other people feel, and it makes me a leader that people feel confident around. Now, they don’t know where it comes from. If there’s politics going on or a situation that people find uncomfortable, I put it into a box of “this is all surmountable and professional.”
There’s this sense that everything is out there to be had and life can disappear in a moment. Why tolerate mediocre or too slow, if you’re someone who likes fast, and you don’t sweat the small things? So, I'm able to stay positive and put things in context in ways I wouldn’t have been able.
Other people have things going in their lives, and I’m not afraid to speak about it. If I’m in a 1-1 setting and someone tells me something that’s going on that’s affecting their performance, whether that be a divorce, a sick child, or an ailing senior, I know the moment when I can say, “I understand. I’ve had my own tragedies. I lost my sister in a formative part of my life.” They’ll immediately be like, “Oh, I had no idea.” People then share why they feel they’re not showing up to work as they wish they could. The conversation starts personal, and then evolves into how they can make sure their professional life is something that’s stable and positive.
YI: How do you constantly challenge your own thinking about what makes a good leader?
KWF: As leaders we need to rejuvenate. Something that is unusual about me is that I’m on my third sabbatical from highly stressful leadership positions. The first sabbatical I went to Oxford to do an MBA with a small child and my husband. In the second year I worked with a startup, and during the third year I wrote a book to share my journey.
When we work for a company for a period of time we become institutionalized. We can’t bring our best and innovative thinking if we’re doing the same things over and over again and with the same people. If you’re staying with your company then seek out networks that are organized to stretch your thinking. Read widely. Seek out corners of information that are not related to your industry or company, but that might spark an idea that can make you better in your industry or company.
I ask for regular feedback in a way that forces people to be honest with me. For example, I ask for one specific thing that I could have done better in a certain instance. People are more comfortable giving a critique of a specific instance than they are about your overall role. So I’m constantly surprised at what people see that I could have done better.
YI: What’s your best advice for a CEO who’s afraid to be vulnerable?
KWF: Weigh up what you have to gain and what you have to lose, and then make the decision. People are afraid of their very honed reputation being changed in a negative way. They should stop minimizing risk and start taking opportunity, and think about what they can gain for their reputation to be enhanced in a positive way.
Start small. Keith Ferrazzi, who wrote the book Never Eat Alone, is the master of getting people to be more honest with their peers and colleagues. He recommends a personal and professional check-in. If you’re leading a team, and you have five or six people around the room, you can ask, “Is there anyone around the room that can't contribute to this meeting because there’s something going on in their life that they need to attend to?” Leaders don’t want these things to get in the way of performance, so it allows people to have a moment to say, “you know what my kid is really sick, and I’m waiting for a call from the doctor.” The message a leader gives is, “I understand there’s stuff going on. I need you here right now, but if there’s something you want to share, then we’ll be supportive of it.” Then they get on with the meeting.
Get to know your teams. Ask people to share a positive thing that’s going on at work and something that's equally positive in their personal lives. When someone goes on vacation, ask them to send a selfie. It’s more playful and shows that they’re human. If they’re reluctant to do so, you can jokingly say, I’ll send you one from the beach myself. You let people know they work hard and that you work hard, but that you can connect as humans as well.