Today’s forward-thinking leaders know that the future of work is human. It’s about catalyzing people in pursuit of a meaningful mission. By leading organizations with soul, purpose and love, Heather Hanson Wickman, PhD, author of Evolved Executive, believes that conscious leaders can heal the crisis of suffering that’s present in so many organizations and revitalize the workforce through innovative practices and deep self-awareness.
Heather is a former healthcare executive, and in this episode she offers insights, practical advice and invaluable strategies that allow leaders to reenergize your organization’s purpose, enhance employee engagement and experience, develop a purpose-centered strategy in culture and lead from love instead of fear.
By the end of this episode, you’ll know how to shatter the taboo of bringing love into business and liberate the soul of your organization.
Heather Hanson: Love it or not, I’m kind of that classic type A person, that achiever, that analytic individual. I’m the person that loves a plan and a to-do list and checks it off, and I do it really well.
So I proceeded to my undergrad, went straight onto my master’s degree, took a couple of years off, did my Ph.D. program all pretty rapidly. I was on this path and this plan and I wanted to climb the corporate ladder in the way that I thought success looked like.
So by the time I was 32, I had gotten through that phase of my life. School was done. I had a great job in a highly reputable healthcare organization and working with the senior executive team on the things that I loved, so leadership and culture initiatives.
From the outside looking in, this was fantastic. And there was this kind of sagging, sinking, feeling that was growing inside of me.
For quite a few years, I just kind of, in typical Heather fashion, put my head down. I was like, “I got this. I can do this.” A part of every job has that component that you just don’t like. So I just figured this is how it is.
The Moment She Cracked
Heather Hanson Wickman: So, like I said, I continued on and continued to proceed in my career taking on a couple of new roles, and by this time, my soul was actually kind of aching. I felt this disconnect between what I thought was this perfect path that I had created for myself and what my heart and soul seemed to be telling me—that I was not doing what I should be doing.
Over the course of that year, things started to fall apart.
My marriage fell apart. I continued to get burnt out at work. Kind of depressed and just withdrawn.
In this last ditch effort, a colleague, a dear colleague of mine offered me a position, same organization but in a different city. It was like right on—this is the role that will help me get out of this funk. It’s exactly what I needed. It was kind of a higher level as well. So I’m like, “Okay. My career path is back on track.”
“As you might expect, I lasted about a year and a half before I utterly cracked.”
Like all out cracked, which is probably the best way to put it. I remember we were moving out to California and I was laying in a hotel room in the bed and I’m like, “Oh my God! There’s just got to be a better way of work.”
I’m witnessing intense suffering not only in myself, but in my colleagues and in my bosses, in my teammates. There was really no exception. Folks who were at the very front line of the organization to the very highest level, I saw this workplace kind of suck the soul and suck the energy out of all of us.
I picked up the phone and called my husband Colby, who was kind of on his way, because we were moving out to California.
I’m like, “Babe, I’m going to resign today.”
And there was just a dead silence on the other end of the phone for what felt like – I don’t know, 5 minutes—probably 20 seconds—and he’s like, “Are you sure, babe?” I’m like, “Yeah. So I’m going to quit today.”
So that’s what I did. I resigned that day. I worked for another month at the organization as I kind of tied everything up and set kind of a cascade effect for him as well. He resigned out of his corporate gig. We literally sold everything that we owned, our home in Denver, both of our pets passed away the previous year.
“So we were kind of this untethered thing.”
We left the country for two months and really set out to find ourselves again and create a new path.
What I realized in that time away—which really took months of kind of healing to figure out what it is I’m supposed to be doing—is that however sad or disappointed or frustrated I was with work, everyone was doing the best they can with what we have.
The way that we work is so ingrained in us based on just decades and decades of, I would say, outdated management philosophy. What I know today is that organizations of the future are going to be built on a different paradigm.
That is really what spurred not only my work and my purpose, but this book as well.
So this idea of to create a different place of work, to create different organizations, we need to start by creating a different way of leading, and that way of leading is pulling away from the fear-based belief that we have ingrained in us and feeling that void with love-based practices.
So the beliefs that foster love, the practices that embody love and the words that really share love. I think this is really the magic that resides in building organizations of the future. So that’s kind of my beautiful, broken story and it was so painful in the process, but kind of sitting on the other side, it makes perfect sense as to what happened.
How Did We Get Here?
Charlie Hoehn: Thank you for sharing. Man! I personally relate to that. I’m sure many people listening to this have gone through a similar experience of – would you call it burnout? How do you refer to it?
Heather Hanson Wickman: I think there’s an epidemic of burnout going out.
Brene Brown, who is one of my favorite author, speaks to it as like her breakdown. She says her therapist refers to it as a spiritual awakening.
In some ways it feels like that for me. It was just like this massive crack. I didn’t see it coming. It was not anything I could’ve ever predicted, and it was something I could barely handle because it was so outside of my achiever type A plan that I was just like, “Okay. I have to let go of complete control here because obviously life is doing something that I cannot control.”
It feels a little bit more than burnout. It felt like just this – like a crack. Like something in me literally cracked.
Charlie Hoehn: How did we, as a corporate society, get here?
Heather Hanson Wickman: Yeah. It makes perfect sense when you go back into history and look kind of at the stages that we’ve gone through as organizations. So the Industrial Revolution was based on this idea of kind of we have widgets and we’ve cogs in the wheel and we’re going to work towards efficiencies.
So everything in the workplace as it relates to processes, practices as well as management was oriented in that way. So how can we get this individual to crank out as many widgets as possible in as short amount of times possible?
“There really wasn’t a conversation about humanness at work.”
It was, you are a doer, and those and management were the thinkers, and there was really no blending between those.
I think today we sit at a point in time where there’s just massive sweeping changes across business and in its entirety in the U.S., and we haven’t kept up.
So if you look at org charts in the early 1900s and org charts that we have today, they basically look the same, which if you look at anything else in our life, nothing really looks the same as it did back in the 1920s.
So my theory or hypothesis is that we just haven’t kept up with the changes, and so we’re still stuck in a lot of those belief systems and practices that were built for a different way of working.
Charlie Hoehn: So you have in your book these stories of suffering, of talking about secrecy, toxic competition, just fire em’, golden handcuffs, fake feedback. Which of those stories is the one that you think most people can relate to?
Heather Hanson Wickman: I will pick one, and I think that as folks read this they’re going to be like, “On my God! That happens every day at my work.” So I don’t think these stories are all that hidden.
The one that really gets me, and I think that we see really pervasive in organizations is this idea of fake feedback. So we see a lot of articles even in popular Harvard, or MIT, or whatever it might be around how do you create feedback rich cultures?
A lot of organizations that I work with really like to paint this picture that, “We’re so feedback rich. We really encourage employees not only provide feedback up, but also provide feedback down and across.”
“When you get into that organization, you realize that that’s fantastic marketing, but it’s just complete BS. “
So when you begin to provide even light feedback back up the chain, you were responded to with humiliation—oftentimes, public humiliation in front of your colleagues. People yelling at you or what I think is also this idea of like you’re in the in-crowd or you’re not in the in-crowd. So you get removed from that kind of inclusive club that you thought you were a part of because you began to kind of go against the cultural norms.
So it’s kind of this painful process of, yeah, you say one thing, but what happens day-to-day is so perpendicular to what you believe it just creates massive amounts of distrust, lack of credibility, and just this kind of toxicity that we see pervasive.
Ready to Evolve
Charlie Hoehn: What are some things that you’re seeing now that shows that the world might be ready for this change?
Heather Hanson Wickman: I am with you. I think the world is ready, and I think it’s some of those fringy leaders who have taken a step out and have already decided to do things differently and are seeing pretty amazing results not only in business outcomes, but also just in terms of the health and well-being and engagement within the teams.
“What I am seeing is people choosing to focus more on purpose.”
So instead of being kind of that MBA type that says, “All organizations exist to maximize profit.” They’re saying, “Well, actually that’s probably not true. We can be much more than just profit maximizing entities. We’re going to focus on a shared mission that makes us all feel bigger than ourselves.”
And organizations that are doing that and practicing that day-in and day-out and orienting their organization and their leadership around purpose versus only profit are seeing pretty massive results.
I do have a quote here in my book I am just pulling up. It’s from Firms of Endearment, which is a book that everyone should check out if they’re interested in this. So it is Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit From Passion and Purpose, and they’re showing that purpose-driven organizations significantly outperform profit only focused organizations.
The statistics here that I find is just kind of mind-blowing, but also makes intuitive perfect sense is, “Purpose-driven public firms returned 1,026% for investors over 10 years ending on June 30th of 2006 compared to 122% for the S&P 500.
So if you do the math, that’s an 8 to 1 ratio. So that’s pretty huge in terms of some indicators of, “All right. Shifting the way that we work really does make business sense.”
Picturing an Evolved Executive
Charlie Hoehn: We know there are companies that are doing these things focused on purpose that they are making strides to eliminate some of these toxic elements of fear-based workplaces. But what does an evolved executive really look like?
Heather Hanson Wickman: It’s a great question, and a question that I’m sure is going to morph over time. I will share with you kind of what I see today, and the biggest attribute or characteristic I would say is self-awareness.
A great author, Tasha Eurich, who wrote a book called the Insight here recently said it’s basically the biggest skill for leaders in the 21st century.
So there’s a couple of nuances that I would say. As one rises to the ranks of an organization, the less feedback they get, and that’s just due to a lot of the fear-based elements that we just talked about. So as you rise, you have less access to getting real-time feedback in terms of how you’re showing up, how you’re performing, and so that part of self-awareness is lacking.
Then, also, you have less time to really focus on yourself, which I think is possibly a limiting belief or an excuse.
Self-awareness and what I would say is deep self-awareness. So not only really diving deeply into how others perceive you in the workplace, but also how you show up—so the you that you now know.
“Are you really clear about what your purpose is and the values that you hold dear and how you want to show up? “
Are you sure that as you operate in an organization on a daily basis, you’re making actions to reinforce that versus the opposite, which is what we see more often? So folks describing who they are, but then acting in much different ways.
So I would say this idea of really deep self-awareness and this evolving consciousness, and I know that word in itself can be a little bit of a landmine, but this idea that we need to be able to grow our awareness, grow our consciousness to be able to operate in a new paradigm. In the book, I dive into that much more deeply.
But a few of the other elements that I see for the evolved executive is leading from a place of authenticity, and authenticity is another word that’s a little bit hard to grasp because there’s a lot of different definitions.
I would say it’s the ability to show your true identity and your willingness to accept yourself for exactly who you are. Again, I kind of refer to that as that beautiful brokenness.
I recognize myself and my stories are beautiful because they are broken and because they have some faults and they have some not really beautiful parts. So being able to really grasp and own those parts for ourselves because it is the wholeness of who we are.
One other thing that I would say is humility, and this showed up also in my doctoral research. It’s not surprising, but it’s interesting how strongly it shows up. So it’s being able to have that really honest understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. Being able to talk about it and being okay for others to see it…We see more with those evolved executives than you do with folks who are really struggling.
So, as like a flip side, the lack of humility would be the individuals that really have a hard time talking about their weaknesses and are always going to speak to their strengths. They’re the smartest person in the room kind of a thing.
And instead of asking really good questions to hear other’s perspectives, they’re really going to be talking more or talking first and not really having the appreciation for the collective wisdom in the room.
Break the Cycle
Charlie Hoehn: So as you’re describing this, Heather, I’m thinking there have been so many cycles of toxic, abusive management, that this is not an easy ship to turn around. So how do we start to develop these beliefs and behaviors?
Heather Hanson Wickman: Yeah. It’s absolutely true, and I think the really beautiful part of it is our very nature, is more often leaning towards leading from love than it is kind of the abusive, abrasive type of leadership.
When I work with clients, the majority of our work is unlearning. So unlearning the management beliefs and assumptions and practices that have just been kind of socialized and programmed into how we show up that work.
So it’s human connection, for example. We have these crazy beliefs that you don’t get too close to employees. Don’t know your employees, because somewhere down the road you may have to discipline them, or it might become an HR issue, or something along those lines. When at the end of the day, all of us strive for yearn for human connection, meaning in contribution network.
“It’s unlearning this idea that we need to create disconnection from those around us because of some litigation risk.”
Instead saying, “Well, what would happen if you checked in with that person and said, “Hey, how are you doing? What can I help you with? How can I support you? How’s your family?”
Those tiny little experiments actually have huge ripples not only in the leaders that I work with, because they enjoy getting to know people and having that sense of cohesion, but also on the flip side for that employee and that team.
It creates much different levels of connection not only to that leader, but to that organization because they feel cared for and they feel valued. Unfortunately, in most bureaucratic traditional organizations, that’s the thing that is most lacking.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah. How long does that process tend to take with your clients?
Heather Hanson Wickman: It’s a great question. I think there’s a readiness factor.
Some folks it’s like, “Oh my God! This is exactly how I want to lead. I just didn’t have the language or the skill or the practice to figure out how.”
For others, it takes more time to be able to have them do small experiments and say, “Okay. Does this belief that you’re holding around disconnection serve you, and do you want to continue on that path to your leadership career, or do you want to try something different?”
Our own desires are different. Being able to kind of dive a little bit deeper into what it is you want to create and what you want to be a part of takes some individuals a little bit more time.
Resetting Leadership Values
Charlie Hoehn: So what are some of the practices that you encourage leaders to move toward a place of love?
Heather Hanson Wickman: Yeah. Everywhere we start is this idea to begin from within, so all of our practices as I start with any clients are around self-awareness.
Whether it’s simple questions around what it is that gets you excited, or what do you like doing, or more in-depth experiences, like a values audit. So let’s figure out what values are really important for you at work and which ones are not and how does that show up in your current role.
“More often than not, we find that there’s a pretty decent values-conflict that’s going on for folks.”
They’re like, “Okay. I really value –” maybe it’s coaching and developing my team, and the organization that I’m a part of really values command-and-control. So we begin at that place of self-awareness to say, “Okay. What is going on? What is it you want to create and where’s the conflict?”
From there, we tend to dive into purpose activities. So Simon Sinek has done just a fantastic job in this space, and based on his book, Starts From Why, as well as Bill George’s True North book and my own experiences, I walk individuals through a lengthy exercise of trying to figure out what it is your purpose is.
For myself, like I said, when I took those two months off and then the subsequent six months, that’s the place where I was like, “What the heck is my purpose?”
When I was actually able to call it into a very succinct statement, everything began to fall together in terms of my path forward. So my purpose is to awaken the souls of leaders to create soulful organizations. Getting a leader to the place where they can articulate what’s most meaningful for them, they can make much better decisions around how they want to proceed in their career.
Then we do things around kind of a deep-dive into growth edge.
“Where is the one thing that we really need to work on to get you to where you want to be?”
Then I tend to sprinkle in quite a bit of mindfulness just because it’s something that I’ve found really remarkable in my own practice.
So whether it’d be just time and nature to quiet your mind, or meditation, or running, whatever it might be. Just finding some time and spaces for silence, because in that silence you find more of your authenticity.
Getting into the Right Mindset
Charlie Hoehn: I love it, and I love your purpose. How long did it take you to arrive at that?
Heather Hanson Wickman: You probably don’t want to know. So it probably took me three months, and like my caveat there was I was just in this crazy mixed of emotions. I just felt like completely violated myself, because I jumped off of my plan into this really nebulous space of, “What the hell am I trying to create?”
It was re-learning for me a bunch of new skills around, “Okay. I’m creating a different life for myself and what is that going to look like?”
It took me a while, and thank goodness I had amazing resources and people around me to help me through that process, but it’s been really transformational for my life.
Charlie Hoehn: What percentage would you say of the people that you’ve worked with are able to take to it quickly?
Heather Hanson Wickman: That’s a great question. For some reason, there is some kind of attraction that folks find me at a time when they feel pretty ready to change.
Whether it’s a random bump into each other at a networking event or a conference, or whether it’s, “Hey, this person gave me your name.”
“The vast majority of people I would say are ready, and the folks that aren’t figure it out pretty quickly.”
“Hey, this isn’t a great, but I may be able to provide you a recommendation for someone who might be able to help you where you’re at.”
Charlie Hoehn: How long do you have to instill these practices? I mean, how do you even rewrite a culture? Are they screwed from that regard?
Heather Hanson Wickman: Yeah. There’s actually a lot of debate in this space, and I now I’ll probably get some interesting emails based on this comment.
But my belief is that when you’re trying to shift an organization, a culture, or its structure, you really need to have your leadership team on board, and primarily your most senior leaders.
So I have a quote in the book that says, “The culture is a window into the executive soul.”
So if you feel honestly like you need to shift the culture, then we’ve got to work with the senior leaders to begin to model and reinforce and express a different way of being.
Healing on an Organizational Level
Charlie Hoehn: How about healing the organization itself? How do you know when it’s starting to heal?
Heather Hanson Wickman: I think organizations are very akin to the human system or the human body. If an organization’s in the process of trauma or has been hurt, it needs to go through a healing process to be able to get to other side or get different results.
So the first step for me is always trying to diagnose.
I think of myself a little bit as a physician for an organization, or an organization’s culture. I go in and try to identify, “Okay. What’s working well? What’s not? Where are signs of health? Where are signs of illness?”
How do we holistically create some interventions to shift those dynamics? So your question is, how do you know when it begins to heal?
I think you see things shift in terms of feedback, which we talked about earlier. It’s a big one that you begin to see differently. So people begin to talk more and talk across silos and talk up into the organization and also talk down into the organization. What I would say is talk kind of 360 across the organization.
“In a fear-based organization, people put their heads down and talk to themselves and their bosses and maybe the direct teammates.”
So that would be one attribute that would say, “Okay. Things are shifting. People feel more open and safe to be able to share their ideas and express ideas, or maybe even say, “Hey, I’ve got a concern with how this is working.”
The other indicator that I would see is transparency, so the opposite side. Secrecy is something that is assigned for me of toxicity and illness within an organization.
Charlie Hoehn: That’s like gossip as well, right?
Heather Hanson Wickman: Absolutely. Gossip is one of the worst elements within organizations in terms of just overall health and well-being. So when organizations begin to heal, the culture treats information and treats those conversations differently. So whether it’s like Book in the Box, they say, one of their core values is speak the truth to the tribe.
So if you’ve got an issue with someone and you decide to triangulate and go around them and talk to someone else about that person.
Their culture has these practices in place that says, “Actually, have you talked to so and so first?”
“So maybe you should talk to that person first before you come behind and talk about that individual.”
Or even secrecy in terms of sharing data about the organization. So simple things about engagement data or client satisfaction data or data across departments, or even organizations are now sharing pay data—what everyone makes across the organization. So those movements and strides for transparency really have huge indicators for bringing health back to an organization.
Rethinking Organizations Completely
Charlie Hoehn: That’s excellent. So, in your book you talk about the insights into organizational structure. What is that about?
Heather Hanson Wickman: If you look at an org structure in the 1920s and one today, they basically look the same, which just boggles my mind. So the org structure obviously needs to change. In many ways, structure creates behaviors within organizations. So if you want to shift behaviors, you need to shift structures.
In the book, I highlight kind of three difference structures that we see prevalent in organizations. One is the traditional hierarchy, where you see typical org charts with the CEO on top and it kind of cascading down from there.
The area that’s probably growing the most is this area of networks of teams. So how do you create these pods of teams that are kind of just in time? So, say, we need to work on a new project. This team forms around that project, completes the project, brings in people across the organization—multidisciplinary to work on that project—and then disbands when the work is done. So this kind of really adaptive, nimble structure.
The third would be self-organized, and this is one that feels pretty radical for most, but one that I’m probably the most intrigued by.
“It’s basically no bosses, no hierarchy, no titles, no job descriptions.”
People organize together based on the work and the purpose and create agreements with each other that says, “We’re going to work together over the next six months to get this project done,” and then they disband when that’s done and kind of reinvent themselves in the next space that needs them.
The book will absolutely do that a little bit more justice, but there is an incredible author, Frederic Laloux who wrote a book, Reinventing Organizations, that highlight self-organization really well and organizations that are operating in this way that are getting just stellar results as well.
Evolved Executive Transformations
Charlie Hoehn: Tell me a story of a client you’ve worked with that you’re particularly proud of, a big transformation you saw.
Heather Hanson Wickman: Yeah. This is one of the quick ones, and it was an incredible opportunity to work with this individual, and she experienced really massive strides and massive changes in the course of a short amount of time. She came to me when was ready, which, again, I think that helps.
But this individual was in a really incredible position in an another reputable organization and was also feeling pretty stuck. “This doesn’t feel right.” She was being told things like, “You’re caring too much about your employees,” or “You’re supporting too much,” and these things that just, to me, seem so crazy.
I worked with this individual to really understand, “Okay. What it is that she wants to achieve? What does her leadership look like? What does she want the leadership to look like? How’s the organization supporting or hindering her own authentic leadership for showing up?”
Long story short, over the course of several months, she made the decision to jump out of her own, realizing that the environment that she was in was not supportive of the growth that she wanted to achieve for herself.
She really unraveled some beliefs that she’d been operating with for decades, and those aha’s in those moments.
“So you mean I can lead with love and I can support the people around me?”
I’m like, “Absolutely. Yes.”
She’s independent and she’s got incredible clients that she’s working with, and I think if you talk to her she would say her life is a different story today.
So just being able to not only see those amazing aha’s for people when they realize that, “Oh my God! I can let go of this limiting belief that is really caused conflict in my life and choose a different path.” It’s just really liberating to see.
Connect with Heather Hanson
Charlie Hoehn: How might someone who wants to work with you approach you and get in touch with you? What’s the name of your business?
Heather Hanson Wickman: It’s called Untethered Consulting, and that name is very on purpose. So we got to let go of a lot of our beliefs and assumptions, hence, untethered.
I’m more than happy to have a conversation. If you’re getting anything out of this conversation, you’ve probably realized that human connection is a really big thing for me. So even a brief conversation to hear where you’re at and hear a little bit more about your story, I would feel very honored.
Charlie Hoehn: Could you give our listeners a challenge. What’s something they can do from your book today or this week that will have a positive impact on their life?
Heather Hanson Wickman: Yeah. What I would challenge folks with is if they’re interested in, “Okay. Maybe I do need to lead differently,” or “I want to lead differently,” is try a simple experiment. So if you’re leading the team, ask some of your teammates, “What’s your experience of love at work?”
And if love feels like too provocative of a word, try care or try job, and hear what they have to say.
“Hear the stories that they tell you.”
On the flip side, ask what’s your experience of fear at work? Again, try to unearth what their experiences and what it leads to, and I think what you’re going to find is the stories around love speak not only to higher levels of engagement and commitment and joy at work, but also they’re really proud of the outcome that they’re achieving.
When you hear the stories of fear, pay attention to what you’re finding.
My experience would say you’re going to find withdraw, disconnection and kind of this feeling of that soul-sucking feeling. So that would be my challenge.
Go out and start talking about it. Talk to colleagues. If your team doesn’t feel safe, talk to your family about it.
What does love feel like at work? What does fear feel like? And see for yourself what you find.