September 11, 2019

Leadership–Love It or Leave It: Angie Noel

Today’s episode is with Angie Noel, the author of Leadership: Love it or Leave it. If you want to achieve ultimate career success, you need to become a great leader, right? Wrong.

Angie says that the truth is that leadership is really hard and it’s not for everyone, even though our society glorifies leadership at all costs. This episode will give you permission to define success for yourself. Angie is going to be your guide through the realities of leadership and deciding whether it’s right for you or not.

Angie really knows this stuff. She spent the last twenty years supporting hundreds of leaders as an HR executive. Many of them were struggling with stress, frustration, self-doubt, and burnout. Angie’s also a coach and a speaker. She helps her clients and audiences take control of their leadership journey so that they can achieve both professional success and personal fulfillment. If your company is telling you to climb the ladder, this is the episode for you.

Angie Noel: One day, I called a friend of mine from my car and I told her, “I understand the term, walking off the reservation.” Being from Texas, that’s something you hear about people who lose it, just decide to pack up their stuff, go away, and go in a completely opposite direction that seems irrational to everybody else in their community or in their immediate tribe.

I called her, tears flowing uncontrollably, and told her that I understand how people can do that– can just pack up their car and drive away one day with no destination in mind, but just to get away. This was one of many phone calls that I had with this dear friend in particular. I think it was within probably a few days of that last phone call that I recognized that I had reached a level of absolute, complete burnout.

I was completely disengaged from work. I was doing everything I could to avoid going into work. I would sit in my car in the parking lot and in the parking garage. I would take the long way to work, I started showing up later and later. I used the term suffering, which we don’t like to use at work a lot, but I was, for a lack of a better term, suffering. I could not find my mojo.

I could not find the motivation to show up and do this thing that I had done for so long. I knew then that something was wrong, something was not right. Thank goodness I had a supportive friend who pointed me toward a mirror, more than to anything else, and I started diving deeper and asking, “What’s going on here?”

That was when I realized I was now, what we had categorized in the workplace, disengaged. I was completely disconnected from work. I was starting to pull away from my family. I had a child at the time, so lots of folks liked to tell me that I was just stressed out from parenting, but I knew it wasn’t that. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew that something was wrong, and it was really showing up in every area of my life, including work. I hit an absolute wall and I couldn’t figure out how to get around it at that time.

So, that was not a very happy place to be, but that was really kind of my wakeup call. I was on the phone with her that day and I thought I can’t do it anymore. I do not want to go into this place. I do not want to go to work, I just don’t. That was kind of the wakeup call for me that something wasn’t right.

Is it Burnout?

Charlie Hoehn: My first question is, how do you define burnout?

Angie Noel: I will tell you that the World Health Organization has just come out with a clinical diagnosis and it’s specific to work because burnout itself has become such an issue. The challenge is that when it comes to defining it for ourselves, our society puts such a value on the person that’s extremely busy–the person who has the highest job title, the most responsibilities. So, sometimes I think what I’ve seen over my career is that people can hit that burnout or be in that place of just a complete disconnection or discontentment and not quite be able to pinpoint what it is. I think that’s the challenge that we will have in the workplace because there’s still a bit of a stigma around it.

For me personally and the people that I have had the opportunity to coach or work with over the years, burnout kind of sneaks up on them, because of our societal conditioning says that work is very tied to our identities, and it’s tied to our paychecks, which is tied to our lifestyle. It’s sometimes the last thing that we look to. We assume that “I’m just stressed, I’m just busy.” But the way it happens, I think, is that discontentment that you were referring to.

It really does start as something’s quite not right and then it will graduate to physical symptoms. I personally was experiencing heart palpitations, I had lost a ton of weight, which normally would be a great thing but, in this case, it was an unhealthy amount of weight. I was having heart palpitations–I was not sleeping. I went to the doctor and the doctor said I needed to help my stress, or I needed to relax, but there was no connection to what was actually happening for me.

To this day, I can look back and see it clearly. For me, it was burnout with work and there was significant misalignment for me. I had reached a place that was outwardly wonderful. I had the six-figure paycheck. I had the full team around me, and the office with the window–I was where I was supposed to be.

Outwardly, it looked wonderful, but inwardly, I was really suffering and struggling. I’ve seen that with my clients over the years, or with people who would even come to my office as an HR director. That was often the chapel, so to speak, where people would come in and share some of their issues and their concerns. So, when you ask me what’s my definition or how I define burnout, I think it shows up differently for everyone. I think that is important for people to know as well, because while the World Health Organization has done a great job of really bringing this to the forefront, one of the reasons I wrote the book is that I want to open the dialog–I want to have the conversation and say that this can show up in many different ways. Organizationally, we like to call it disengagement.

Every company wants more engagement and we forget sometimes that the disengagement is not just an issue for the bottom line, it’s not just a productivity issue or a profit issue. There’s a suffering person, there’s a human being that is experiencing that disengagement. We know it exists and we call it different things. We’re able to define it clearly, especially by companies that have a solution. They’ll tell you that disengaged people are destructive, they’re trying to bring down your engaged people, they’re just completely destructive to the organization.

We forget, there’s a human being in there. I don’t think I fully appreciated it until it happened to me. So, when you ask me the definition, I would love to tell you, it is this and this or A, B and C, but I do believe it shows up differently for every person, but it could be that discontentment, that disconnection.

Living for the Weekend

Charlie Hoehn: Can you break that down a little bit? I want listeners to really be able to identify, “Okay, is this me, could this be me, and what are the stakes?”

Angie Noel: I’m going to tell you, if any listener right now is asking themselves that question, the answer is, “Yes, it could be burnout, it could be you.” I think that feeling, even that questioning, that knowing that something is just not quite right–it could be anything in your life. You know how stress is, it’s the way of the world and the way of life right now.

In the workplace especially, I’ve seen it show up in kind of a disinterest, almost like symptoms of depression, where someone just doesn’t find themselves as passionate or caring, or there’s that struggle in the morning of, five days a week, it’s, “Oh my gosh, I have to go to work today.” It’s just trying to get through to Saturday, to get through to 5:00 on Friday. I think we have such societal standards around work and we almost think it’s funny that we are living for the weekend.

I think when you start to experience true disengagement and real burnout, you will be asking that question, “Is this me or could that be what I’m going through?” Because there’s such a dissatisfied feeling and uneasiness, almost a feeling of loss. I can tell you from personal experience, I felt really lost, because my identity had been so tied to my work and I was a little bit confused, honestly.

I just didn’t know what it was, but there was that feeling of disconnection from the work. I would sit in meetings and hear Charlie Brown talking when I used to engage and want to talk, I would just hear wa, wa, wa all around me. I wasn’t there anymore. I was showing up, but I wasn’t there. Exhaustion, that’s another symptom, we do work hard and there’s a lot of expectation from us in the workplace.

There’s that exhausted feeling, that just trying to get through the day to get home. Then all the physical symptoms that we’ve shared. I’ve seen people resort to alcoholism, drinking, food. For me, it was not eating. It sounds like for you it might have been not eating, but there are those signs and symptoms that creep up and we can’t figure out where to pin the cause.

I think those are signs. Those can be signs of other things–I can’t pin everything on work. Recognizing where you are and how you feel and what’s not normal for you, that’s the important piece of the conversation. It is figuring out your norm and how things feel a little off for you.

Connect the Dots

Charlie Hoehn: What was your aha moment, when did you start to see the light and work your way out of this?

Angie Noel: The day that it occurred to me that I had become one of the people that had come into my office all these years, and sat in a chair in my office, and talked about how completely exasperated, and stressed out, and tired they were. I would like to tell you it was an epiphany, but it took me three years to get to that moment where I had the realization that this is what it feels like to be disengaged.

I was able to make the connection that this is what’s happened to me. I am now one of those folks. I dove into the research. I had been in human resources for twenty years, as I mentioned. I had been involved in engagement studies and we did all the exercises and all the things together to get people engaged, but we never talked about the disengaged people. They were always numbers that we needed to either convert to engage, or we needed to get them out of the organization.

I started looking into it and the more I researched, the more I found around leadership in particular because that’s my lane and that was what I was interested in. I started to discover that the people who have the most impact on your work experience in general–the leaders–were suffering from this engagement as much as the folks that were dealing with it at a staff level.

I started to connect the dots for myself and went even one step farther–in society, we are taught, at least in this country, that to be successful, to be happy, leadership is the way. There is a story in the book about my daughter getting a leadership award in kindergarten. I was so excited, I remember when I got the email that she was getting this award, and I started a dialog with the teacher, asking, “This is amazing, what are the things that she’s doing to demonstrate leadership?”

The teacher tells me that she’s very compliant, she’s following the rules, and I panicked for a minute because as a mom I’m thinking that is not leadership–at least by my definition.

The universe is wonderful about putting all of these things in your space when you’re trying to connect dots. If you’re looking for answers, if you’re looking for information, I think it comes toward you. I had a series of events that started to happen as I was researching, and looking into information, and piecing it all together–that leaders themselves are suffering and experience a high rate of disengagement and burnout.

Look at the societal value that we place on leadership in general, starting at kindergarten, all the way through college admissions. The word leadership is just so over-used in our culture, but especially in our workplaces. I started connecting the dots where we were encouraging people to move into positions that were maybe not even right for them.

Really at that point, even being in human resources where we deal a lot with careers and career development and leadership development, I don’t think I had ever stopped at any point between college and my burnout to decide for myself what I wanted my life to look like, and then how work served that purpose.

So, we climb, climb, climb and get to this place. It just occurred to me, this really is a function, this is a responsibility, a role or career, however you want to label it. You have to love it if you’re going to do it. That’s where the title Love It or Leave It came from because it’s very impactful. It’s not impactful just for other people, it’s impactful for you and your wellbeing.

Make the decision that you want to be in this role, that you want this level of responsibility, and getting really grounded in why you want it. It’s so important. Decide for yourself that this is something you want–because you are conditioned. In my case, with my daughter, you’re told leadership is valuable, and we start awarding it at six years of age.

I started to think about all these leaders who would come to my office that were so stressed out and burned out. The people I’d coached over the years, they will fight for a position that is literally and physically killing them with stress, with anxiety, all of the symptoms that we’ve talked about–disconnection from family, friends, isolation.

They will fight tooth and nail to keep those positions, to keep that title. Sometimes, we will talk through that and there’s really no understanding of why. Why am I doing this to myself? It’s what you’re supposed to do. So that is how I started with the book and the book idea, that we need to have a more open conversation.

You get to choose your path. We live in a day and time in this country where we have the opportunity to select for ourselves.

What is Leadership?

Charlie Hoehn: I want to reiterate something you said that is so important. We think we’re defining our success, and very often, we’re just blindly following other people’s templates with no real connection to your heart, and how you actually feel. Human beings are generally terrible at deciding what will make them happy. We’re told that this is how to be a superhero in society without even really understanding what that would mean to us.

Angie Noel: I spend a lot of time in the book talking about this, that we can’t define leadership. Everybody has their own definition of it. It starts in kindergarten, such as for my daughter with compliance, and then when you get into high school, and it is being the head of the football team. It is being the head of the cheerleading squad, leading the Spanish club, or the debate team. It is about taking on more responsibility. Then you get into college and everybody has a different idea of leadership.

The reason I really homed in on leadership is because leaders are so impactful. There is not a study you’ll look at that says leadership doesn’t matter to employee productivity, or success, or connection.

We are doing a few things here. We are telling people leadership is extremely important. It is highly valued. It is the path to success. We can’t tell you exactly what it is, but we are going to try to teach everybody the same way. Leadership development is a whole other chapter because I think we fail human beings in that regard. We think we can’t define it necessarily, but we have cookie-cutter leadership training, which is amazing to me. And we are simultaneously telling people from very early on that leadership is the goal.

Leadership is not something to just mindlessly be aspired to. Unfortunately, a lot of organizational structures are set up so that to earn more money, you have to go up the ladder, and it is generally accepted that that’s the way it is. But on the other side of the coin, are engagement and disengagement and those things that are associated with human beings doing well at work, which is what organizations need.

We need people to be connected to their work, we need them to care about what they do, and how they do it because every metric you can imagine improves when people do. But we are pushing people onto this path. We are not able to define it clearly for them, and we are giving them a ton of responsibility because that role is so impactful. It really matters that you decide for yourself that leadership will serve you in some way so that you can then go on to serve others, because, at the end of the day, that is what leadership is about.

It is about being able to influence others toward a common goal, whatever that may be and wherever you may be serving in that capacity.

What Do You Want?

Charlie Hoehn: Your book really sounds perfect for somebody who is thinking about transitioning into leadership and having more responsibility. How did you find meaning and purpose and have your heart back into your work? What did that journey look like?

Angie Noel: Well, I did something that I can’t recommend for everybody, but I quit. I completely took a hard-right turn. Once I had that realization, I personally had to stop. I just had to stop and really do some self-reflection. I started to look into resources–I read a lot of books about burnout in general and disengagement. I spent a ton of time reading about disengagement and that’s when my heart really just started to break for other people.

All of these books are about getting employees more engaged and leadership. It is so much about self-sacrifice. It is not about you. It is about everybody else. I personally wasn’t finding the resources that I felt were essential to help people make that decision for themselves. So again, I can’t recommend that for everybody. But I had to take a hard look at myself and start making some decisions for myself.

One of the things that I did when it really comes down to tools or exercises was that I started to write down what I wanted in my life. This is what I tell my coaching clients to do. They always want to jump into leadership tactics and strategies and tools first, and I always have to bring them back to center, to themselves. What do you want your life to look like? I am not talking about your job. I am not talking about your career.

I want you to decide, for yourself, what is important to you and your life. For me, as a single parent at that time, one of my greatest focuses was that I wanted to be available to my child. She was starting school, so I wanted to be able to take her to school and I wanted to be able to pick her up. That automatically impacts the type of work or the positions that I would pursue because now my hours would look a little different. I had to decide that I would be flexible in that.

The exercise itself is deciding what you want your life to look like. Does time have more value than a six-bedroom home at this point in my life? Or the latest model car? Deciding what you want your life to look like first, and then deciding the roles that are in place in helping you have those things or be that person that you visualize for yourself–then you can start to make concessions around those things. For me, it was the hours. Am I willing to work until five? Yes, because if I do that then I have the financial resources to provide for private school, if that is what I want to do.

The real exercise here, the core, is deciding for yourself for just a moment, just pause–we can jump off the ladder for just a second. Actually, you don’t even have to get off the ladder, just stop climbing for five minutes and decide for yourself what you want for your life. Then let’s take a look at where we may have misalignment between what you are currently doing or pursuing and what it is you actually want out of your life, because, in my opinion, that’s where the suffering comes from. I started evaluating what I really wanted. Then figured out how that comes to life through my work.

Charlie Hoehn: It sounds like you are making leaders into conscious leaders who are intentional about everything they do.

For anybody who is considering making this transition, or suffering from burnout, or has already made the transition into leadership and they feel the potential of disengagement, definitely get a copy of Angie’s book, Leadership: Love it or Leave it.

You have done a lot of consulting with leaders and you have been doing it for a long time. I’d love to hear a story about someone that you have worked with using the principles that you layout in the book and the transformation that they went through.

Healing the Disconnect

Angie Noel: That is an easy one. One of my favorite stories, I will call this young lady Stephanie. It is not her name. Her company had called me in to do some coaching with her and they were at a decision-making place with her about whether or not she was actually going to continue employment. That is a terrible time to have to bring in a coach, but looking back, it was probably the perfect time for her.

I will never ever, as long as I live, forget the first meeting with this young lady. There were tears from the moment I sat down, until an hour and a half later. This was supposed to be a thirty to forty-five-minute introduction session to see if we’d be a good fit for each other, and over an hour and a half later, we are wrapping up. She was exactly where we talked about–burnout and what disengagement can look like individually. She was very disconnected from her work.

She had always been professional. She was at a director level with a lot of direct reports and could not put her finger on what was going on for her. Her next level leader, who happened to be the chief operating officer of the organization, could not quite figure out what was happening or why she was so discontented.

We spent a lot of time together talking. As most leadership coaching goes, and I think coaching in general, we try to put everything in the context of work, but it is almost always personal. It is always some misalignment going on within us that we have to reconcile before we can really begin to tackle the tools, and the strategies, and the things that you can do to be the exceptional leader you want to be. That is what it came down to with her.

She had taken on a very big role with a lot of responsibility. Quite honestly for her, there was a massive amount of insecurity that was creeping into everything that she was doing. The real benefit of coaching with Stephanie was helping her to gain that self-awareness–what was going on within her. You mentioned beliefs earlier, and that’s absolutely what we do in a coaching session, we took a look at what beliefs were holding her back.

We talked about what things she thought about herself or who she was supposed to be, now that she was in this big leadership role. She had expectations for herself and for everybody around her that she couldn’t meet. She couldn’t even tell you where they were coming from, or why that was what she believed leadership should look like. We started to peel back some of those ideas. We were able to help her realign with her true identity, who she is, and what she had hoped to accomplish as a leader and align those with her actions.

Once you take away that misalignment, the whole world changes. You are able to show up more authentically, more genuinely, and much more intentionally in your leadership, which showed up in the way she interacted with her folks, whether it is her next level reports or her senior level.

I won’t ever forget the first meeting with Stephanie, because she is the first person I ever sat with that within five minutes began crying uncontrollably. I think that is a sign when you won’t listen to your own soul, you won’t listen to your own spirit, or the discontentment going on inside, the body will take over. Sometimes it shows up in tears. Stephanie today is extremely successful at what she does, and she still checks in with me occasionally. But sometimes it is just getting that misalignment in order and being able to move on.

Leadership is Not for Everyone

Charlie Hoehn: It’s got to be so rewarding to work with people like Stephanie.

Angie Noel: It is humbling. It is a humbling experience to be part of somebody’s journey like that. I think what the book has allowed me to do for people is to bottle up a little bit of that coaching and to start a dialogue that says, “Hey, this isn’t for everybody.” That’s the first thing we have to say is that this is not for everybody.

Leadership is not for everybody. If it is for you, there are definitely some things that you can do early on. In the book, I address senior leaders or tenured leaders, as well as people thinking about this, but I think it will also serve anybody who is feeling a little disconnected or a little discontent with their leadership or feel like they are struggling in some way. We need to be able to have that conversation and say that it needs to be about you first.

You won’t hear that in any leadership training. You won’t hear that from any business school teacher, but the reality of it is that it has to be about you before it can be about everybody else. That really is what I have hoped to accomplish in the book is just to bottle up a little bit of that advice. To have a one-on-one dialogue with you to say, “You know what? It is not for everybody, and if you decide it is not for you, that is okay. You need to go rock it out in whatever you are really intended to do, whatever you really desire to do.”

However, if you have decided that serving others really serves you, and you are being intentional about this decision, and you accept the responsibility that comes with it, then here are a few tools, a few tricks, a few things that will help you going forward, but I want to be able to confidently say that it starts with you first.

Because once you take on the leadership role, the training, the things that you hear after that ceases to be about you, so it starts with you. It starts with you making the decision for yourself that you say, “I love this. I want to be part of this. I want to influence people in this way.”  Then taking off and being really exceptional in a way that you want to be.

Charlie Hoehn: Angie, if somebody is listening and they want to work with you in a coach-client type of relationship or potentially hire you as a speaker, what is the best way for them to do that?

Angie Noel: The best way to find me is angienoel.com. I am really proud to have the book on the webpage and also contact information, with some of the speaking topics and a little bit more about coaching. I find, especially in the leadership space, there is still a stigma around coaching, and it being used as a disciplinary action.

I try to put a little bit of information out there to help folks see that I think it is a really advanced person, it is the person who has that self-awareness, and wants to really be successful at this that engages in coaching. So, angienoel.com, you can find all of it.

Charlie Hoehn: What is the one thing that our listeners can do today that is related to your book that will have a positive impact on their life?

Angie Noel: Today, sit down with a pen and paper, if you must type it out that’s okay, but I am such a believer in having a pen in your hand and actually writing it out, there is such a connection to the brain there, and write out what you want your life to look like. What do you want for your life and what impact do you hope to have? Somewhere in there, decide what impact you want to have in the workplace, and on the planet, but decide for yourself.

There is science behind that too, to really visualize what you want, but ask yourself the question, “What do I want my life to look like?” That needs to include family time, where you are living, what do you want in your space–the energy, the people? And then take a look at how work–what you’re doing now or what you want to be doing–how that serves you, how that helps you meet those goals or that idea that you have for what you really and truly want in your life. Decide for yourself.

Charlie Hoehn: The book is Leadership: Love it or Leave it. Angie Noel, thank you so much for being on the show.