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  • Writer's pictureClive Vanderwagen

Harnessing Humanity for Success: The Unconventional Business Revolution

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

There were 58 leaders in front of me.

All with folded arms.

I had my PowerPoint presentation fired up behind me, ready to go. Clicker in hand. (Recently purchased and a game changer. Why hadn’t I bought one sooner?) I was standing in the front of the auditorium wondering if there was any interest in me being there.

The HR director had brought me in to speak to the leadership team. From Exco to Manco to Steerco, all the Co’s were in the room. I could feel it – none of them wanted to be there. I was just an hour on their agenda for the day.

“Bringing Humanity Back into Business” was the title on the slide behind me. In bold, using the Montserrat font, because I like fonts, okay.

There was no interest in my pretty font.

They sat there with a glazed look in their eyes, waiting for another HR-type person to start rambling on about KPAs, crucial conversations, and performance plans, while they had far more pressing issues to attend to – like growing the business.

The HR director gave a lovely intro, telling everyone how clever and experienced I was and that I have a TED talk and a Master's degree. You know, my LinkedIn profile in summary.

As she spoke, a few people made eye contact with me, giving me the side eye.

This guy? Huh.

I thanked the HR director for the intro and wondered how the hell I was going to win them over. I have good content. But were they willing to hear it?

I decided to go off-script…

“What will be useful for you to talk about today?”

They looked at me like I was mad.

Maybe I was.

“I’m serious,” I said, clutching my clicker a little bit too tightly.

“Because I don’t want this to be another talk you have to sit and listen to before you head back to your spreadsheets and emails. What is interesting for you, based on the topic behind me.”

They stared wide-eyed. A welcome relief from the glazed side-eye. Some even put their phones down.

Eventually, someone plucked up the courage to say “Diversity”.

“Great,” I said. A perfect topic for a white man to talk about.

They laughed. Nervously.

There were no more responses, but I had their attention.

“You can’t speak about diversity without speaking about safety,” I said. “So shall we start there?”

The lady who offered the topic nodded.

I started my talk, and the hour flew by as we spoke about bringing humanity back into business.

Yes, we spoke.

It wasn’t just a talk, it was a conversation.

I had started off by doing something that shocked them. I acknowledged their humanity first.

I asked them what they needed.

Even though they never offered a mass of responses, there was a shift. They saw that I was there for them. I wasn’t there to give a talk. To talk at them. I was there to offer some suggestions on how they could co-create the business as a bunch of leaders.

We spoke about the three basic needs to build a great culture – psychological safety, vulnerability and connection.

When those three words appeared on the screen (in Montserrat), I could feel them begin to settle in and relax.

Psychological safety. Jargon we’ve all heard before. Yes, yes. People must feel free to give ideas and be able to fail. One person suggested psychological safety was job security. I offered that it wasn’t that. Psychological safety is a feeling of okayness. An inherent belief that our worth as humans will never be compromised by those we work with, but that our behaviour could have consequences. That consequence could be a dismissal.

We spoke about vulnerability. How sometimes not sharing something with the team could be vulnerable. It’s not about being an open book, especially if non-disclosure protects the team and their productivity.

Vulnerability is being comfortable in not knowing. Leaders don’t need to know it all. Neither do their team members. It also means getting someone in your team to eventually be better than you. To fly, while you continue. Vulnerability is allowing someone’s greatness not to be a threat to your potential sense of lacking.

And then, connection…

I suggested that as leaders they learn to greet people in the corridors. To create a sense of community. Not a family. Ew. Don’t call your team family. You’re a group of people who are working on building better relationships to move the business forward. Connection needs to be defined in that context.

I won’t go into the whole talk. We spoke about thriving after that. I offered three ways to thrive in an organisation.

They took notes.

They asked for the PowerPoint slides to be shared (in Montserrat).

They stayed behind to ask questions.

They started speaking a different language.

They started speaking about the heart of their business – their people.

Bringing humanity back into business is a strategic decision that ultimately improves the bottom line. It’s proven. Being intentional about culture and the stories we share in the corridors about each other ultimately defines how functional a company is.

I think I won them over because I started by seeing them. I learnt from that. I would have just been another talk.

Awareness and the potential for change were ignited because people were invited in.

As leaders, we constantly need to be inviting people in rather than merely telling them what to do.

Being human means needing to be seen.

Being seen changes how you show up and work.

And that’s the most we can ask from our people – to show up and work.

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