Welcome to our interview with Susan Taylor. As co-founder and CEO of Generon International, LLC, Susan collaborates with individuals, teams and organizations to create more effective, advanced, conscious contributions to business and society. Devoting most of her life to exploring the deeper dimensions of what it means to be human; Susan is passionate to help people unleash their full potential.
Welcome Susan, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of the Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0 conversation.
How can we create workplaces where more voices matter, people thrive and find meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Susan Taylor: I think it’s a beautiful question. It is a fundamental human need to be acknowledged—to be valued. We therefore need to create workplaces where people matter as much as profit. Let’s face it; without people, organizations would not exist. Yet most companies seem to have things backwards—especially in today’s VUCA environment where things are much more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous than even five years ago.
And here’s the thing… because the world now moves at a speed and intensity unlike any other time in history, we seem to be re-wiring ourselves to be more automated; when we should be re-training ourselves to BE more human. But you asked HOW can we create workplaces where everyone thrives and flourishes?
So I think to answer that question the first step involves making a commitment to use daily work activities as vehicles for change—as platforms for growth. Most of us spend more than 50% of our total waking hours at work or thinking about work. That’s a lot of time. If companies could devote themselves to becoming Learning Organizations—organizations that commit to facilitate employee learning and continuous transformation, filling the deeper purpose of their organizations; building coherence; creating value for all stakeholders; and fostering business environments that support people to grow and thrive—all while delivering extraordinary financial performance—as opposed to ONLY being profit-making machines, I think that would be a good first step.
Yet at the same time, commitment itself is not enough. Once you make that commitment; you have to act on it and create a culture that supports it. And this, I think, is where the rubber meets the road and why most companies do not invest in human development. It’s because this is the place where courage and commitment meet; and most companies don’t have the courage to create the kind of environment you speak of in your question.
However, the companies that do—the companies who are truly committed to change; are driven by personal development and have the courage to challenge the status quo—those are the companies that will outlast the ones that don’t. But only if their employees demand the same of themselves; because I think it’s a 2-way street.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Susan: This is an interesting question because following the first question, it implies that getting an employee’s full attention and best performance is only the responsibility of the organization.
When I think about this question, what comes up for me is accountability. So I’d say accountability and here’s why…
Learning is innate within us. That’s the good news. If you could make organizations accountable for providing transformative learning through daily work activities, and make employees accountable to participate and get results, that would be really great because in my opinion high performance is not an option. And this is where I think both organizations and employees go wrong. People are settling for mediocrity, expecting the other to fulfill their happiness jar.
Accountability has some pretty negative connotations attached to it. But only if you look at it from a place of blame and complain. From my perspective, accountability is an attitude that empowers. To build a culture of accountability requires a mindset where results are owned by everyone and controlled by no one—where everyone owns the consequences of their choices in delivering the agreed to results and helping other people do the same.
We’ve all seen or heard from the famous Gallup Polls that 70% of employees are not engaged at work. I think there’s an automatic expectation that comes with that—that the solution lies solely with organizations. Leaders have blindly bought into this idea that employee engagement and happiness come from what happens inside the office. When in fact—engagement and happiness come from what happens inside the employee.
I think the big thing that leaders miss is that you cannot have empowerment without accountability. The level of personal accountability that people exhibit in their own lives is the level they will exhibit at work. Instead of spending precious resources discovering how to change the circumstances in your organization to meet the happiness needs of your employees, spend time, money and energy teaching your employees how to succeed in spite of those circumstances.
It’s the old adage about giving a man fish vs teaching him to fish. Make the commitment to develop people to be resilient, agile and personally accountable. This not only gives them skills they can use in all areas of their lives, but it builds confidence. And once people gain confidence, I think you’ll find that engagement increases.
My vote would be to focus on accountability first; engagement will follow and in that you’re going to be able to gain an employee’s attention and best performance.
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What do people really lack and long for at work?
Susan: I think it’s what we all long for – to be loved – to be seen. As I mentioned earlier in the first question, I believe the most fundamental human need is acknowledgement. Whether it’s a pat on the back from your boss; a hug from your child; or a kiss from your spouse, all those things help us to feel recognized—to feel as if we are part of the tribe.
When I read this question, I was reminded of an interview with Brene Brown several years ago. I wrote this down because I wanted to share it as part of my answer.
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We are numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
For me, I think Brown’s quote says it all. We are profoundly social creatures, gregarious by nature. At the core of our existence, the one thing that truly matters is to belong; to be loved; and to connect with others—so much so that when that need is not met, we become dysfunctional.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Susan: How can I help you to unleash your full potential?
But more important than the question is the place from where it comes. I think management must be so committed to providing an environment where human beings thrive that they see it as their duty to develop people—even when it means that some of those developed people will leave the firm, perhaps taking jobs with a top competitor.
The idea here is that you grow people not simply to retain top talent, but rather to contribute towards enhancing their lives – to see them – to teach them — to love them – to help them be the best they can be in LIFE (only part of which involves working at your firm).
So I love the question, for me it really has an underpinning around what I would call human development, and again — I think what’s more important is the place from where that question is coming.
What’s the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Susan: What counts that we are not counting?
I think a lot of organizations are a bit fixated on things like data, numbers, things you can see, things that are tangible. This question would be important for an employee to be asking a senior leader or manager because the answer the manager gives is going to tell you where he sits with regard to his intention around how people are involved and the importance of those people. How he values employees. For me, “what counts that we are not counting” is really a question around what’s missing. I think it’s also a way to bridge a gap and understand where you stand as a human being in that company based on how your manager answers because it will help you to discern whether the intangible things are just as important as the numbers and the data.
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Susan: Well, I have three responses to this question! (laughter) My immediate answer to this question is, “How will I apply myself to the very limits of my ability?”
And then two sub-questions that come after that are number one, “What prevents me from making the changes I know will make me more effective?” And then number two, “Is there any reason to believe the opposite of my current belief?”
I really loved this question because it really gets to what I think is the heart of the matter and that is really about how we release limitations and surrender to certain things as a way to live our lives for ourself as opposed to living somebody else’s life. This question really puts the onus on me as an individual. I can’t point a finger external of myself. That’s why my question in answer to your question is about looking inside and making sure that as often as possible I am applying myself to the very limits of my ability and continuing to try to stretch and learn and to grow. And all of that is up to me. It’s great to work in an organization that would commit to being a learning organization, but it’s a two-way street. It cannot work without both involved, the organization and me. At the end of the day, I’m the one who looks in the mirror; I’m the one who says I did good, bad or indifferent and then move onto the next day.
I think this is where we miss a lot of this “stuff” around transformation and development and creating organizations where you can thrive, flourish and be engaged. We’re missing a big piece. It’s not about putting the onus onto the leaders who run these organizations — but also onto ourselves. We need to make a commitment to change ourselves and should be held accountable for that.