Sue Elliott is CEO and Founder at Easier Way, Inc. Through her work with leaders, writing and media appearances, Sue has empowered and uplifted millions of people. She has been immersed in the personal-transformation field for 25-plus years, and for more than a decade, she has been offering a unique blend of transformational coaching, conscious-business mentoring and energy healing. Sue is currently co-founding a very different kind of college—focused on life skills, self-awareness and collaboration—to help people thrive in a future filled with rapid change.
John Ryskowski is Chief of Organizational Transformation at Easier Way, Inc. As a change catalyst, John has 30 years of experience helping organizations get un-stuck from their current state, facilitating transformation in measurable, meaningful ways. John is a Certified Scrum Master, a CMMI High Maturity Lead Appraiser for services and development, and a Problem Solving Leadership graduate.
I sought out Sue Elliott and John Ryskowski for this interview because I know and have worked with both of them. Sue has a rare gift for spotting people’s dysfunctional patterns and dissolving them quickly and easily, and she’s an exceptional listener. John has a gift for connecting with people—and for discovering what’s really going on within organizations. Together, they bring a fascinating blend of personal and organizational transformation expertise to the conversation.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Sue Elliott: This is a question that’s near and dear to my heart, because the vast majority of workplaces suck the life out of people. We don’t always think of it this way, but organizations are actually entities.Organizations have their own collective consciousness, which is created, in part, by the business’s culture and core values.
And unfortunately, most workplaces today are incredibly draining: People drag themselves home at the end of the day, exhausted and often demoralized.
I believe now is the time to raise the consciousness of organizations so that they uplift and energize people. Then people will want to get out of bed and go to work in the morning. They’ll be able to contribute more. And instead of being completely depleted and drained at the end of the day, they’ll be excited about the contribution they made, and they’ll go home and have energy to interact with their families and friends.
This kind of organizational transformation is, to a great degree, a process of personal transformation. In other words, it’s about how we’re showing up at work. And it definitely starts at the top: Is the CEO somebody who is closed off and unavailable, or somebody who’s open and receptive?
When something goes wrong, do we approach it with an attitude of interrogation, as in: We must get to the bottom of this!Or are we coming at it with curiosity, asking, What’s really happening here? I wonder what caused that…When I say it like that, it’s pretty easy to feel which approach is going to get people to open up and share what’s going on, and which approach is going to trigger people into being defensive and protective and closed off, right?
It’s going to take some work to transform organizations—and the leaders, teams and individuals within those organizations—but it’s completely do-able. And it’s worth doing.A big part of the process is creating a space where it’s safe for people to be authentic, and where people become aware of and actually use what I call their “superpowers.”
I believe we each have certain gifts, skills, talents and abilities that are innate. Using them feels as natural as breathing to us, so we may not even recognize that we’re doing anything special. In fact, we probably think everybody can do these things. But when we’re using our superpowers (we might call it being “in the zone” or “in a flow state”), that’s when magic happens.
Can you imagine an organization where all the people are using their superpowers? We’d be able to get so much more work done—better—by the same exact people!
To create this kind of workplace, people need to feel safe. They need to feel that it’s OK to be authentic. And they need to be in the right seat on the bus, so they can actually use their superpowers every day.
John Ryskowski: I believe it’s really important to “give people the time of day.” We recognized this a long time ago with the Hawthorne effect. During this study, they did all these experiments to try and figure out what made people more productive. They gave workers more lighting, and production went up. They played music, and production went up. They put workers in a special room, and production went up. And after many gyrations, they discovered that the only reason production went up was because the workers were being treated like they were special. Management was giving them the time of day.
This doesn’t have to be elaborate. Here’s an example from when I was doing CMMI (Capability Maturity Model Integration) appraisals: I was leading a team of 13 people. We had a lot of work to do in a very short period of time, and it was intense. I had one person on the team; we’ll call her J. And midway into the work, we had another person come onto the team; we’ll call her H. And suddenly, there was this territorial tension in the room. And I thought, in today’s world, how on Earth am I going to handle this one?
Well, all I did was meet with each of them for about 20 minutes in a side room, and I just thanked them. I recognized each of their unique situations. For instance, with one of them, I said, “I know you’re dealing with some health issues that are not small, and I’m happy that you can still be a part of this, and I think I speak for everyone else, too.”
And that tension in the room? It went away! I didn’t need some brilliant strategy. I didn’t have to say some magical things. I just gave each of them the time of day. I gave them some special moments. We bonded a little more, and that was it.It’s so powerful when we give people the time of day, and it’s so rare that it happens!
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Sue: One powerful way is to listen. When we allow somebody to talk about something that matters to them, we’re getting their full attention, which can lead directly to getting their best performance. So as a leader, it’s important to go in, ask a powerful, open-ended question, and then listen.
Bill: How do you define listening? How do you really listen?
Sue: That’s a great question. People are starting to use the phrase deep listening. I like active listening. I believe that active listening requires us to be fully present. We have to let go of preconceived notions of how things should be, and we have to stop thinking about what we want to say next, or what we want the other person to understand.
We have to get out of our heads and, instead, fully focus on what the other person is saying. And not just the words coming out of their mouth: Does their body language go with what they’re saying? Are they getting more tense? Are they getting more relaxed? What’s happening in the energy of that person, and how can we understand it better?
Asking very simple questions can help, like: I just noticed a shift in you. What happened there? Or: This is really interesting, and I don’t know as much about it as I would like. Tell me more.Simply be present and show interest.
When it comes right down to it, nobody can know every single thing going on in a business. So, as a leader, pretty much everybody in the company is going to have some information that would be really valuable for you to know. It pays to spend a little time connecting with people, asking a question or two, and getting people to open up.
This not only helps get people’s best performance, but also better understand what’s best for the business as a whole.
John: To get people’s full attention and best performance, you have to recognize their dilemmas and somehow be able to show that you are concerned and taking action. You can invest literally 90 seconds in a meeting, and you can shift the perspective and kind of light up or ignite people.
But just remember: After that, they’ll be watching, so the follow-up needs to happen, and it needs to be righteous and it needs to be heartfelt. If you don’t follow up, you’re just “full of it.” You don’t get many tries, right? So you’ve got to take advantage of each one. Even if it doesn’t work, people will forgive you for that, but you’ve got to at least give it a shot.
Leaders that are good at this spend a lot of time not doing things: They spend a lot of time not reacting or not overreacting. They’re very careful about where they inject themselves, and how. And when you see somebody very carefully doing it, it’s like artwork. It’s quite beautiful to see.
Bill: What do people really lack and long for at work?
Sue: People long to feel seen, heard and appreciated. We’ve touched on helping people feel seen and heard, so let’s talk about appreciation. Your people are giving you their eight hours or 10 hours or however long it may be every day, and they want to feel like somebody notices and cares: not just that there’s a butt on the seat, but that it’s my butt!
They also want to feel connection. They want to feel camaraderie.Studies have shown that the number one key indicator of happiness in life is having a friend at work.
That’s so simple. But it takes a certain kind of workplace for that to even be possible, right?
Also, people want to feel like they’re contributing to something greater. We may show up and do our one little piece of the puzzle every day, but we want to know how it connects to the bigger picture.
There was a study of college students making calls to raise money for scholarships. If the students just did the fundraising calls with minimal training or support, most of them had minimal success. But if the students read a letter from one of the scholarship recipients and then made the calls, their performance went up dramatically. And if one of those students on scholarship came in and spent just five minutes with the fundraisers, talking about how the scholarship made a difference in their life, then the fundraisers’ performance went off the charts! They could see the effects of what they were doing, and it was meaningful.
In other words, connecting what people are doing with something meaningful doesn’t take a lot of time. It doesn’t take a lot of energy. Yet there’s a huge payoff: People are way more willing to do the work, and they’re going to do that work at a much higher level.
John: I agree. I believe what people lack and long for at work is a purpose … and a vision. Being a leader and having a vision and mission that you actually believe in—that you stand behind, that you really mean—is a very big deal. It’s imperative.
And it can be hard to do. You have your staff, you have your direct reports, you have hundreds, maybe thousands of people. Especially with a public company: You have all these people below you, and then up above, you’ve got shareholders and you have a board. With all that, it’s really hard to be transparent and speak from the heart about why your company exists, what you want to achieve in the next few years and feel good about it, feel right about it and feel in tune with it. That is hard to do. But it can be done.
I was just a speaker at the IEEE Aerospace conference in Big Sky, Montana, and I ended up being the MC for our track. This is actually a very interesting conference. It’s “real aerospace,” meaning the people there are at the top of the game, in the top 5% of the world of getting things into space, managing space, orbital stuff. People from MIT, CalTech, JPL…
In probably half of the talks I went to, I heard SpaceX mentioned, and every one of the speakers said things like: SpaceX told us what they were delivering was going to be within THIS window of performance, and they delivered within an even smaller window. Everything SpaceX told them that the ship was going to do, or the rocket was going to do, it did flawlessly. Amazing stuff.
How do they do it? Well, I talk to a lot of the young people who work at SpaceX, and they like working there. Yes, they’re there all the time. They don’t have much of a life if they work at SpaceX. But they don’t care. They love it. Why? Because they know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Their leader basically tells Wall Street to go screw itself. He’s on a mission. They know it, and they’re behind him on it. His vision is clear.
Another example: About three months ago, I was in China working with a group that manufactures, installs and manages sensors that monitor 13 types of pollution throughout the entire country. At the end of my interviews with all these people, I asked: If you could change one thing, what would it be? And many of the young people that work there said, “We want to end pollution in China and the world.” They know the impact China’s pollution is having on the world, and they believe what they’re doing is helping to change that. That’s a vision that’s coming from the top. It’s clear to them why they’re doing this. Their leaders are highly qualified technical people with PhDs. They’re making their money, but that’s not what’s important to them. It’s purpose that’s important. And that resonates all the way through to everybody that works there. It really gives you goosebumps.So what’s important is having the vision—and the courage and ability to articulate it. Then people will come with you on that journey because they’re passionate about it, too.
Bill: What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Sue: What don’t we know? Obviously, front-line employees know more about what’s going on in the day-to-day aspects of a business than anybody else. At every level, there’s a certain amount of information that gets lost as it moves up. So what don’t we know?is a great place to start.
Other great questions are:
How can we help you accomplish your work and your purpose? Do you have the people and the tools you need to accomplish what we’re asking of you?
Are we doing things—or asking you to do things—that don’t match up with our mission, our purpose and our core values? Where are we out of alignment?What unintended consequences are possible from what we’re doing?
How many times do change initiatives fail because the front-line people know: If I do this, THAT is going to happen, so there’s no way on Earth I’m going to do this! Often, our people know what the unintended consequences are going to be. So how about if we ask them that question way before we’ve rolled out the initiative and printed all the collateral materials?
John: The most important questions (using words that are appropriate for the culture) are: What’s your greatest pain point? What is your greatest roadblock to feeling efficient and flowing forward? What is the thing that bothers you the most?
Going after those pain points once again, you could ask: What isn’t working? Or say: If you had superpowers, what’s the one thing you would change?
You can say it many, many different ways. But I think getting to that greatest pain point somehow would be the most important thing.
Leaders are desperate to hear honest answers from their folks, which are hard to get because people probably are not going to tell you the honest answer. You’re the Big Cheese, and that’s a big deal to people. A client I worked with had a VP of Quality, and whenever he walked into a room, the room would change. People would behave differently.
So that’s kind of hard to deal with, especially for those leaders who are receptive and who are interested in what people have to say. But there are mechanisms that you can use to hear the voice of the people.
One of those tools is appraisals, where someone from the outside comes in to ask lots of questions. I’ve been doing appraisals for many years, and a long time ago, I worked with some really cool people in Arizona. They were way ahead of their time. They were a healthy organization, and they were transparent. One of their sayings was, “All data is good data. Some data requires extra work,” meaning: Let the truth be known.
In this case, I was doing CMMI appraisals, and when I was presenting my findings, the managers, who were in the front row watching, were bored. Why? Because they already knew what I was going to tell them. They knew what was going on, and they knew they were a high-functioning organization.
But towards the end, I shared the answers to some questions those managers weren’t expecting. One was: If you had superpowers and could change anything—but you could only change onething—what would it be?
As soon as I got to the charts with the answers to that question, the leaders in the audience sat up in their chairs and read every single word. That is what they cared about: the pain points of the people. What needs to be worked on? What needs to be changed?
They also were interested in the second “surprise” question, which was: If everything were to change, what’s the one thing you would keep? That reveals what their people value most, so they were interested in that, too.
That’s what the leaders in a really high-functioning organization cared about, and they learned from it. Things actually changed as a result of the answers to those questions.
Bill: What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Sue: Why are we doing what we’re doing? What are we aiming to accomplish, big picture? And what are we aiming to accomplish with these specific tasks and initiatives?
As an employee, when I have clarity around how what I’m doing fits into the big picture, that helps me make all kinds of day-to-day decisions that affect quality, productivity and so much more. For example, maybe I can do a project in several different ways. When I know what we’re intending to accomplish, then I can do the project in the best way to move us closer to that goal.
Understanding how what I’m doing fits into the big picture also helps me determine what matters and what doesn’t. Each of us, during the course of our day-to-day work, is going to come upon some information that “doesn’t fit.” It could be an exception to the rule. Or it could be a behavior that we didn’t expect to have happen as a result of what we’re doing.
Whatever it is, if we know the big picture, then we know if this is an important data point or an unimportant data point. We know if it’s something that we need to share with others right away because it’s an urgent potential problem, or if it’s insignificant and we can just keep going about what we’re doing.
Those pieces of information can be incredibly valuable. They can make the difference between success or failure of whatever initiative or program we’re working on. But if we don’t know how what we’re doing fits into the big picture, then how can we know what to share and what not to share? How can we know when to do more investigation into something, or when further work in that direction would be a total waste of our time and company resources?
John: I would follow up on that with Why do we exist? Why are we all here?
If you as a leader cannot answer that clearly—if you don’t have a clear mission and vision statement that’s real, that you firmly believe in—then that’s where you’ve got to start. That’s going to be at the base of everything that people are troubled by.
When people have the long-term vision in mind, it makes what’s going on in front of them at the moment less concerning. If you don’thave that big picture in mind, then all you have is what’s in front of you: like my cube-mate talks too loudly or farts all day. Unfortunately, this becomes your life at work. Instead of Yeah, I can put up with that because what I’m doing is part of the mission of the company and I believe in it.
I’ve worked with an organization that has what they call Must-Win Battles. Any employee in that whole place can tell you what the Must-Win Battles are this year, and they can tell you how those Must-Win Battles are tied to what each of them is expected to do. They all know. Even HR is in on this: People’s raises and bonuses are tied to it. And these Must-Win Battles are quite achievable. They’re realistic and reasonable. It’s really something to see it work. It’s cool to see people who are tied to the vision.
Bill: What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Sue: Am I showing up as my best and highest self?If not, then there are lots of great follow-up questions, like: What’s stopping me, and how can I change or release that? What’s triggering me in this moment? And also: What would make my heart sing?
I have a background in Conscious Capitalism; I was on the executive team for the Orange County chapter for several years. And so another one of the most important questions we can ask comes from what Conscious Capitalism calls the Stakeholder Orientation: Is this decision a Win for all of our stakeholders, which includes our employees, our customers, our suppliers, our vendors, our shareholders, our community and the planet as a whole? If not, how can we tweak or adjust this decision to make it a Win for everyone? What else is possible?
John: Another one of the most important questions to ask ourselves is: What do I need to clear out of the way to be effective?
If you’re a psychologist, what is your goal? Your goal is to be able to respond to your client who’s sitting there, talking to you, in a rational and non-emotional way—instead of bringing your own baggage into your reaction to what the client is saying.
It’s the same in business.You need to try to identify what your baggage is so that you can be present in the moment without dragging your own stuff in.
That’s hard to do. It can be painful, but it’s necessary in order to be fully present and have clarity when you’re dealing with people at work or anywhere else. You’re more effective if you don’t have your own baggage.
Bill: There’s a headline on your website home page that accompanies an image with six white doors and one red door, and it says, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every decision was this easy?” Why the focus on decisions, and how do you make decisions easier?
Sue: Let me start with why: Everything is changing fast. Industries are being disrupted. And they’re going to continue to be disrupted. We know artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to make robots more effective in a lot of different places. We know entire categories of jobs are going to go away. FedEx is working on robots to deliver goods for the last mile. Robotic doctors are already better at diagnosing many things than human doctors. Robots can cook food and harvest food. We know things are changing fast in every area of work.
As business leaders, we’re going to have to make a lot of big decisions about where our organizations are heading, about the purpose of our organizations, and about whether that purpose or direction needs to change.
So, as a leader, how do we make these big decisions?
It’s true that we’re generating massive amounts of data now, from user information and social media—and that’s going to increase even more as the Internet of Things comes online. We’re learning how to implement machine learning to process all of that data. So it’s no surprise that many decisions are becoming more and more data-driven.
But here’s the thing: Data only shows us what has happened in the past. Data can’t reveal the future. Yes, it can show patterns. But we’re looking at a world filled with disruptive, quantum-leap-style change. So, how do we make big decisions in a way that sustains our businesses and benefits all of our stakeholders?
I believe we have to tune in to a broader awareness. You can call it the collective consciousness, or the universe, or the Divine. We call it inspiration.We all have access to a greater awareness that can enable us to navigate change of this magnitude with grace.
That’s why we’re sharing what we call the Easier Way Formula™ with leaders. Actually, this is how I’ve been navigating life for many years, and I’m pretty sure it’s how you navigate your life too, Bill. It’s a four-step process:
Step 1 is: Show up—fully open and present—in every moment. Most of us need to clear out a lot of baggage to be able to do that. We also need to become active listeners.
Step 2 is: Ask powerful questions. We need to ask open-ended questions—not leading the witness, but actually extracting new information. If you can’t figure out what to ask, you can use general questions like: How does it get even better than this? What else is possible? These are the two classic questions from Access Consciousness that are powerful for unlocking greater possibilities and potential.
Step 3 is: Tune in to inspiration. Each of us can only see a piece of the puzzle. We can’t see the whole picture. So we need to access broader perspective, and we call this tuning in to inspiration. For some people, this could mean taking a walk in nature, or meditating, painting, dancing—whatever works for you.
And then Step 4 is: Take inspired action. Inspired action is different from motivated action. Motivated action is the way we usually do business. We make a goal. Then we chunk it down into smaller and smaller steps. Then we take those steps toward our goal.
However, the world is changing way too fast to keep doing things that way (if it ever worked in the first place, but that’s another conversation!).
Inspired action is different: It literally follows inspiration. So first, we tune in to broader awareness, then we follow that inspiration/guidance. Motivated action often feels like one long To Do List filled with “shoulds.” Inspired action feels completely different. When we feel inspired, we are eager to take the action. We can hardly wait. And that action pays off in surprising and delightful ways. We show up in the right place at the right time to connect with the right people.
It’s magical. And it’s a powerful way to navigate a future filled with uncertainty.
And this isn’t just for leaders. At Easier Way, our tagline is: Access the genius within your organization. That’s because we know that genius resides at every level of every business. We just have to open up the lines of communication. We need to access that genius through authentic and open communication, and by tuning in to inspiration individually and as a group. Then something really wonderful happens: Our people share ownership of the vision, and we commit to moving forward together.
Bill: Sue, I was reminded of one of the most remarkable things that stands out for me from when I’ve talked or worked with you from this statement on your website, “Sue effortlessly spots patterns, blind spots and other ‘hidden’ limitations.” Can you share the story of how you came to do this and what you see happen to people when you do this?
Sue: This is one of my superpowers. It’s as natural as breathing for me, so it took me a while to recognize that not everybody on the planet can do this…
I believe that we go on a journey through life, and the journey may not look very linear at the time. But when we look back on it, we can see: Oh, I did THAT so I could pick up this skill. I did THAT so I could hone these talents. So, all those years I spent being a magazine editor and an author helped me really tune in to words. I also studied poetry in college, and so I’m very much aware of rhythm and pacing.
I’ve also been on this personal transformation journey for 25 years, which really tuned me in to the energy of people—including whether what they’re saying is congruent with how they’re acting or feeling.
Those things probably seem unrelated, but they actually converge in a way that makes it possible for me to connect dots and spot patterns that have never been spotted before.
What kinds of patterns? Most of them are related to what I call our “core wounds,” often from childhood, which color the way we experience life. Put together, they act like one big filter—the world we see is completely “colored” by this filter. There are some really common core wounds, like feeling abandoned (perhaps by a parent who left when we were young) or feeling disrespected.
Other dysfunctional patterns that we carry as adults come from “rules” we made for ourselves when we were very young. Perhaps it wasn’t safe to be angry in your family of origin, and if you expressed anger you were punished. Or maybe your dad was so miserable in his job that when he came home and you laughed out loud, your joy was so annoying that he smacked you. As a small child, you made rules for yourself about how it was safe to be in the world based on how you perceived things in your home—and your school and community.
As adults, we still have those rules. They’re subconscious now. And they often feel like a matter of life or death, because when we were 3 years old, it was a matter of life or death. If those “big people” didn’t take good care of us, then we wouldn’t get fed. We wouldn’t have a safe place to sleep or clothes to wear. We really depended on them to get our needs met.
But now, when we notice these rules at age 30 or 40 or 50, it’s pretty easy to say: Oh, I don’t need THAT anymore. I can see how it served me before, but it doesn’t serve me anymore. So I’m willing to let it go. I’m willing to allow myself to feel anger (or sadness or joy). Or:I’m willing to let myself really care about someone, even if they might leave me someday.
Once we see those patterns, then I have this gift for being able to dissolve those patterns effortlessly. It’s a process of clearing out the “gunk,” or baggage, or emotional debris, and it’s quite beautiful. People have so much more energy for life—and so much more joy and creativity—once we do this work.
Often, I work with people who’ve done years of personal-growth work. Then I’ll have a candid conversation with them, and I’ll spot a pattern. I may see five or seven different “little things” that turn out to all be related. Lesley (on our team at Easier Way) says it’s like I take a needle and thread and stitch them all together, then dissolve them.
For example, I was working with one business leader recently who’s the head of a sales team for a luxury brand. His team was the #1 sales team in the world for this brand, but then it would drop down to being #2. Then it would go back up to being #1, then it would drop down to number #2. For years, they had this pattern.
This business leader and I were having lunch one day, and he was telling me how much he loves to root for the underdog. And I blurted out, “That’s the thing!” That was the pattern affecting his business!
It seems so innocuous, right? Lots of people love to root for the underdog. But, in this case, it was such a core value for this leader that it literally caused him and his team to become the underdog. They had to drop out of the #1 position in order to be the underdog. Over and over, they would win, and then they would become the underdog again. Then they would win, and then they would become the underdog again.
Needless to say, as soon as he saw this pattern, he was like, “I’m so done with this underdog thing!” We dissolved the pattern right there on the spot, and his team has been #1 nonstop since then.We all have these kinds of blind spots. And we all have triggers—buttons people can push—that cause us to respond in a big, dramatic way to some minor little thing.
I’m very grateful that I’ve been gifted with the ability to see these blind spots, triggers and dysfunctional patterns, and help people get rid of them permanently. This enables people to be fully present in the moment, and to show up as their best and highest selves.
Bill: What is the #1 take-away you’d like people to get from this interview today?
Sue: For businesses to thrive in a future that’s filled with massive, ongoing change—at an incredibly accelerated rate—we each need to show up as our best and highest selves. We need to let go of our baggage, and show up fully present and open in each moment.
We need to have a clear vision and purpose, and make sure our people—and our actions—are in alignment with that vision and purpose.
We need to open up the channels of communication throughout our organization—and our supply chain, and our key accounts. We need to make sure people feel seen, heard and appreciated, and address their pain points.
And we need to help everyone within our organization—at every level—be fully present, ask powerful questions, tune in to inspiration and take inspired action.
This will enable us to accomplish amazing things, to be more innovative, more creative, more collaborative. And it will enable us to navigate the massive change and disruption on the horizon, so our businesses and our people can thrive.