Welcome to our interview with Sesil Pir. Sesil is a recognized Industrial and Organizational Psychologist and HR Expert with two decades of field experience serving Fortune 100 companies globally. She is currently serving as the founder and consulting lead of SESIL PIR Consulting GmbH, focused on building more effective organizations, leaders, and teams.
Welcome to this forum Sesil, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Sesil Pir: That’s a lot to inquire in one sentence, so I’d like to divide it into pieces. Where every voice matters. I think of that as everyone having a space to “be” as an individual. I associate that with respect and dignity.
Meaning, change and innovation are different things. And I think someone’s thriving is potentially an outcome of many things.
A Thriving Workforce is Productive and Engaged
Let’s look at ‘thriving’. I find two components that make up the language of someone’s thriving. The first component is often associated to vitality. It could be a sense of someone feeling alive, passionate or even excited. It has a lot to do with having someone’s spirits uplifted. The second component relates to learning that comes from having a desire to continuously gain new knowledge and skills. When we think of a thriving workforce, I often think of it as one in which employees are not necessarily just satisfied. They’re productive and engaged in creating a better future for themselves and the overall organization. There’s somehow an intersection that brings in the beauty and makes people thrive.
I’m not so much for change for the sake of change. I believe in a transformative change, which comes with a valid reason for someone to participate in or to lead change. When it comes to driving successful transformative change, there are a number of things to consider including:
- A purpose that people can feel they can associate to
- Leadership role modeling along the way
- A way for employees to express their opinions and be part of the decision-making
- Outcome metrics that people can measure themselves against
People Need Reflective Time to Be in a State of Awe for Innovation to Occur
If we look at innovation, what I find is that innovation is an outcome of a number of factors. The most powerful driver is having someone exercise what we would call wonder. It’s a sense of awe if you will and that requires a lot of presence from people.
In some ways, it’s not surprising that many organizations struggle with the concept of innovation because they’re so busy. They’re busy with many things (and sometimes not related to their vision) and that’s a counterproductive thing for people to go through in the process of creation.
When people are going from one meeting to another or from one task to another with no time for breathers, they aren’t digesting the information. They’re not having enough reflective time to find themselves in that state of awe.
One thing we have to ask ourselves as leaders of 21st century organizations and as organizational specialists: Why is that despite the vast amount of investment that’s been done over the years, organizations continue to struggle with levels of productivity and well-being in the workplace? According to the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), productivity and well-being in the workplace have been trending down tremendously. We continue to invest more capital into our organizations. We’re investing in technology. In some cases, we are growing our organizations by getting in more resources. But why aren’t we getting any more productivity or any more health out of our workforce?
21st Century Organizations are Struggling
It’s a fact that 21st century organizations are struggling for their existence and I genuinely believe it’s not for a lack of a good idea or a product to manufacture. They have many ideas to remain competitive in the market. It’s because they don’t understand how to think of their structure, role, networks, and routines in the context of human evolution. They don’t understand human physiology, psychology and spirituality well enough to be able to provide the environment and experience for them to thrive. That’s where the click is.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Sesil: First, I’ll give you my personal view; then we can have a professional answer around the performance.
As a psychologist and as a human being, I genuinely believe we all want to be seen, heard, and cared for. When you take those factors into the workplace, we also want recognition for our contribution.
For example, if I am in a restaurant with my husband when a service person comes to take our order, I try to look at them in the eye and connect before I respond. I want to recognize they are another living soul. They deserve every bit of respect and care and everything else that I seem to think I deserve for myself. I see us as equals. That’s very hard to do in our modern lives. I’m sure there are cases where I was also looking at my phone when someone came to the table to take our order. I don’t mean to say I’m a perfect human being. That’s not the point. It is a genuine struggle we share in our modern lives. If we commit to remaining mindful and conscious of our interaction with others, I think that’s the inspiration.
At an organizational level, there are several indicators of performance, and I see many struggle in this area. When we go into businesses, it could be a small organization of 100 people or it could be a multinational 400,000 people, we associate performance with productivity. If you look at the dictionary for what performance is, it is something that’s associated to our ability to act on a particular function or task. It’s arguably correlated to productivity. Therefore, we assume if we have the knowledge, skills, and reward mechanisms in place, then we should be able to generate the desired outcomes. Unfortunately, linking productivity that closely to performance is a false association and it falters from a scientific point of view. It undermines the inner and outer support factors required for someone to not only complete a task and potentially over reach it.
That state differs from one person to another. Being busy doesn’t equate to effectiveness in the workplace. If you take it to the broader scheme, profits don’t equate to social impact either. There is another issue there that we need to tackle.
It invites in a challenge for leaders, too. They want a pill. They want a formula. Take this pill and suddenly we all become more productive. I wish it was that easy. What I can say is that there’s both an individual and an organization at play in achieving desired performance.
Individually, a mindset shift may help. First, to understand we are human. Second, to understand we are enough. And third, to feel at the core we are worth it. If you are in a mindset where you recognize your humanity, you know you’re enough. You feel you can belong and that you’re worthy. You feel recognition and appreciation for the value you bring. Then you can already put yourself in a thrive state where you can reach productivity.
Organizationally, there are several things we can do, including having a clear purpose for why someone has to do something. Giving people autonomy is also important – providing the space to do it and then coaching them to mastery. If they have to learn something new or different, or if they’ve done something well, to note that they have done so, so they can repeat it. In summary, having that purpose, autonomy and mastery focus really helps. That’s my take on performance.
I also think we should remember that performance management from an organization perspective is not to eliminate error or people. But rather the idea is to understand the situations in which we thrive individually and collectively. How and then if there’s an unseen that has occurred, learn and grow from it from that point forward.
Bill: What are people really lacking and longing for at work?
Sesil: A lot of us are struggling to find meaning in our lives. Our lives are so different from what they used to be. I grew up in a house (we were lacking a lot of means so that may not translate for everyone) where we had no TV or telephone. Our toilets were outside of the house. So as children, we had to invent ways to keep ourselves entertained. Now I look at how my cousins or my friends’ children and how they are spending their time. They too are very busy.
If I default the signs, what makes up meaning for individuals in the workplace, it’s a sense of belonging and it’s a sense of leveraging your skills, combined. There are two things at play there: “ Who am I?” and “ What am I doing?” or “What am I contributing?” So the way I like to think of when I think of meaning or when I talk to leaders, I ask them to think of it in a way of giving to employees an experience that honors who they are and whether that experience can enhance their form of identity.
It’s a beautiful question to ask: How can you design workplaces and work experiences that will provide meaning for people?
In our work, we try to bring in four things: inspiration, meaning, safety, and joy for the workplaces.
Bill: What’s the most important question leaders should be asking employees?
Sesil: I think it’s important for any leader to ask their employees what drives you most? What are you here for? That motivation is going to be different for everyone and actually that motivation will change for the person over a course of their career too. It’s important to understand what drives them most at that very particular point in their life.
Then I’d ask, what do you need to be successful?
Thirdly, how can I best support you? That last question I’m super passionate about. I don’t hear enough people leaders ask it or, what can I do to unblock certain things for you?
Those are the three questions I think are the most important.
Bill: What is the most important question employees should be asking leaders?
Sesil: I would start by asking, what am I looking to achieve? I am contextual and need to connect to purpose. Because of that, I tend to assume people want that, too.
Then, what are the values I need to honor along the way? I see a lot of organizations sort of trip because they either have a misunderstanding of the values that they have agreed to play by or a misalignment on the values itself.
The last question is, how can I best contribute? When someone is brought to a job or a particular task or project, there’s usually a good reason or why. So, what are the strengths they’re looking for me to play with? I would like to understand that and then build on that.
Bill: What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves?
Sesil: There’s one question that I keep asking myself. I tend to ask, what am I over or under looking? You could take it both ways. What am I overlooking? What am I overvaluing? What am I over using? You could say undervaluing or under using too, but I somehow use that question to keep myself in check.
When I don’t, it’s because I’m too busy to have that reflective state of mind. Then I definitely get myself into trouble, so I learned to make time for it and hold others accountable to hold me accountable.
Bill: Who’s had the biggest influence on who you are and the work that you’re doing today?
Sesil: This is such an important question for me because there have been several people who have not only been supportive but super inspirational for me. I will start by saying that my grandmother has been an immense role model for me. She lost her mother and father early in life and married at 14. She bore children at 15. She had no opportunity to go to school and self-educated herself to read and write. She’s different, not comfortable going to restaurants and being with people who she considers fancy, for example. She’s your typical village woman, yet, there’s just so much resilience and strength in that character. I have looked up to her all my life.
My mother has been another great role model for me. I think as a young person, you often have a difficult time understanding the circumstances and appreciating people for who they are. It comes to you later in age. Until my late twenthies, I was frustrated and questioned why I was born into such a poor family. Why did I grow up in a village and work twice as hard as other people to get to where I am today? I really had my journey. However, with age and maturity you recognize what the role models in your life give you, so my grandmother and my mother are big role models for me.
Then there are several other people who have touched my career. There is Danielle Monaghan, currently an executive at Amazon. She was one of my early managers and had an immense impact on me. The help she gave was really more about who she was than anything else. For example, I was so cautious of hierarchy coming from Turkey, which is very patriarchal and hierarchical. Turkey is a totalitarian country. When you grow up in that state, you are shaped by certain behaviors. Therefore, earlier in my years, even though I was working at multinationals, I would wait until my managers left the office before I would leave the office. I thought it was expected that I would stay as long as they were there. One day she knocked on my door and said, “Do you have a few minutes?” She then went to explain that in the Western World, staying until my managers left was unnecessary. She would literally spend 30 to 45 minutes to educate me about what was required.
Carol Bubar, who is at the moment my company’s COO, was at some point my general manager at Microsoft. I hired her because she has had such an impact on me over the years. She has become more of a friend, someone I look up to personally and professionally very much. She’s a world-recognized strategy execution expert and an amazing human being.
Lisa Brummel, who was a former Chief HR Officer at Microsoft was a great character who impacted my development. John Younger, who has been a mentor for the last three to four years. Sean Kelley, who by a way of feedback supports inspiration and confidence for me.
There are several people I haven’t met that I really love and admire, too. There is Melinda Gates (whom I have met) and inspires me every day. Krista Tippett, who is a journalist that does humanitarian work and has a podcast called On Being. I am pretty religious about listening to her. Then there are several business leaders I look up to. People like Jeff Bezos and others that have amazing minds. I don’t know them personally to speak to their values, but I admire their business intelligence.
Bill: What question is at the heart of Sesil?
Sesil: There are probably three things that I’m really tackling or working with at the moment. The biggest one for me is how do I become a source of light for others? I’m on my way to my calling, I think, so, it is an ongoing question for me.
In my profession, the question I’m tackling is, how can we redesign leadership and people practices? That is what I do day in day out. That’s the question that I’m living with.
Then, there is a deeper question that I think I will come to later in time. I am not there to work with this question yet. The question is, how can we better grow the next generation of HR (a term I am unsatisfied with) professionals? Spiritually and financially, I’m not in a place to be able to think about the next generation or shape things for them. But I think once I’m done with tackling the first and second question, that would be the next question that I would really want to spend quite a bit of time with.
Bill: What can any person at any level in the workplace do or be every day to bring more humanity to the workplace?
Sesil: That’s an interesting question. Let’s start with the term “being”. What can they “be”?
This is not something we reach overnight. It’s not something we reach once it’s done because we are complex and evolving creatures. Consciously and unconsciously, we change by the minute. By every breath we take in, we’re evolving. I will say that’s not a spiritual statement. That’s a physical, scientific statement. That’s a fact we are evolving by the breath that we take – our cells replenish itself. At any moment, carrying an inspiration in our heart to connect to who we are and who we are becoming is a good place to “be”.
In terms of “doing”, I think the little things make the biggest difference. Generosity is a big value for me. Aside from that, I really observe life is generous with people generous with life. We think of generosity as grant-giving like donating money to someone or someplace, but it’s so much more than that. Take smiling. I think smiling is a great act of generosity. When we are walking by someone’s desk to say, “How are you today?” Of course, meaning it, too! Not just for the sake of it.
Compassion is another key value for me. If we see someone in a place of pain or suffering or having a challenge. If we are fortunate enough to recognize the pain, at least asking of, “Is there anything I can do for you?” I think that’s a great act of compassion. If you want to share your knowledge or skill to help others, that’s wonderful too. The point is your “doing” doesn’t have to be so grandiose but hopefully, it can become a vehicle to lift up self and others.
Bill: I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, Sesil. Is there something you’d like to say to close this interview?
Sesil: I liked your questions so much. I’d like to share that when it comes to leadership, it’s important for us to remember that it is a lifelong journey. That’s what I would want to end with. Just like the question you asked of employees, I think a leader can always recollect themselves and reconnect to who they are.
It is a lifelong journey. There are no pills for it and we are not as alone as we think we are. We are in it together. Each one of us as human beings are pseudo artists and makers of our lives. I hope we can enjoy the ride together. That’s certainly what I wish for myself and for those around me.