“It’s not personal, it’s just business.” That has become a mantra for leaders—a call to put shareholders first, managing employees like machines and protecting the organization from its people. Guy Bell, author of Unlearning Leadership, believes that this way of thinking is driving mediocre results.
In order to become a transformative leader, he believes you need to let go of what you know so that you can unleash the power of human potential. For more than 20 years, Guy has been successful in business, despite his unconventional approach. He knew early on in his career that his brand of leadership created momentum by connecting with people to reach their full potential.
In this episode, he draws on his experiences in startups, publicly traded companies and privately-owned companies to give you a new manifesto for business leadership. By the end of this episode, you’ll know what the future holds for more sustainable business and what can happen when we change our initiatives to be human centric and we dismantle the systemic norms and tap into our whole-body wisdom.
Guy Bell: I had started small businesses in my 20s. I really never had an official process of learning by going to school, or whatever people do when they learn how to run a business the “right” way. When I first took a job with someone else to manage another person’s business, I’d already had a very personal experience with what it meant to me.
As I sat down for my first annual review with my boss, who I got along great with, had a great first year, had a really fun run in the business—it was enjoyable.
He essentially gave me the advice of “You need to learn to toughen up, you need to be harder on people, you need to care less”—those kinds of lessons that I learned over and over again in that early stage.
But then again, in the next 30 years, they were beliefs and ideas that were very dehumanizing.
When he was giving me this advice on what I needed to do, I was dumbfounded, I was thinking, “Gosh, how in the world do you come to that conclusion—and why is that what you consider to be wise counsel?”
Like I mentioned, 30 years later, I’m running companies that are publicly traded, privately held, equity backed, and I’m hearing the same kind of crap. You know, everywhere I turn, I’m getting the same limiting school of thought that says, “Hey guys, it’s just business, it’s not personal.”
“I never bought that.”
I actually learned really quickly that I’m not going to be taking—they’re good people by the way—but I’m not going to be taking that school of thought on.
I questioned this intuition I had that said, man, this experience called business is wildly personal. In fact, it’s the only reason we’re in business at all—it’s because of each other.
We’re spreading as much time with these people we call our work partners as we are with our wives and husbands and partners. We spend more time with these people than probably any other human beings on this earth in our time here.
Why not make it really fantastic—the best possible experience, lived experience, human experience that we can?
A New Ambition
Guy Bell: I went against the grain. I’ve spent a career really being involved in the room because of that. My wakeup call was that first review where I saw it differently, and then I kept getting the same wakeup call over and over again. It only got me more convinced that my view and my approach worked.
I hadn’t really ever desired running a company or being a CEO of a business. In that lack of bold ambition and trying to move up the ladder, I did very well. I wasn’t focused on me, you know? Who cares about your ego and making sure you create the right impression? I couldn’t give a shit.
I really cared about people—about getting people to their full potential, about performance, about humanizing what we’re doing, about connecting to the meaning in what we’re doing. And if we don’t have one, we’ve got to figure it. If you don’t have this enduring sense, on an individual by individual level, of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, you’re never going to get to peak performance.
“You’re never going to maximize the human condition, which in turn, maximizes performance itself.”
I spent a lifetime training around companies as I learned to talk about what my calling card was. I learned to do a 15 second elevator speech around “I’m a turnaround guy.”
I began to learn my story, and as I learned it say why I turn things around, what I see as the difference in what I do as a turnaround guy. I really started learning that I don’t match almost anyone else’s perspective of what you should know about a system process organization structure around turning something around.
I saw the process of systems organization structure super easy to fix. What’s really difficult is understanding the human condition. What’s really difficult is really reaching in and finding a way to connect people authentically to their fully realized performance themselves, while I’m working on myself in this relationship. It works. In that moment, I kind of thought, “Okay, this is really good.”
I was very comfortable with how I was going to need to accept that I’m different, and not negotiate it but also not go beat other people up because they’re aggressive, they’re egocentric, they’re fear driven.
These really smart people from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, wherever—they’re very bright, they contribute at a high level, they’re fun to work with, but there tended to be a bias towards “It’s not personal.”
They dehumanize the experience because that’s what we do in theory and in practice in business today.
Charlie Hoehn: I think all of us feel this hole that’s been left in the, I don’t know, what would you call it? The relics of the industrial revolution?
Guy Bell: Yes, relics of industrial revolution. This Ford-tailored, machine-minded approach where we dehumanize, we depersonalize for efficiency. We gained some in the last hundred years since Ford created the first Model T, but we’ve lost something.
“What we’ve lost is wisdom. What we’ve lost is humanity.”
We don’t have to have a choice between the two, in fact, that is the wise choice is to say, “What have we learned that is beautiful and wonderful around efficiency, around systems thinking?” Without you know, being served by our intellect but using it appropriately. Being served by our growing knowledge of agile workflow and all the crazy, wonderful language that there’s value in it and there’s so much devalued in it.
How do we unlearn the stuff that is really not healthy and take all the good, rich stuff from the industrial revolution—from the tailoristic machine-minded value that was created in that?
Charlie Hoehn: What do we need to unlearn in leadership. Where do we get started?
Guy Bell: At the front of the book, a story that I used to simplify the complex is a story called Four Rules of Flight. It’s weight, lift, thrust, drag. Over the last hundred plus years—and I would say, hundreds of years and maybe even thousands—we’ve over invested in trying to figure out the rules, process, risk management, all these things that we do that add some value.
But to the extent that we spend our time there, we’re actually destructive. We’re designing mediocrity, is what we’re doing.
What I would say is just one part of what a successful business and a successful organization of any type needs is structure, organization, process, systems. Those types of things are good, but only as a part of the story.
I’d say the unlearning is, how do we let go of our fears and our need to control? We know that we don’t control anything that in terms of other people, but we feel this sense of controlling when we’re controlling, right? We’re more controlling in our behaviors.
“How do we break that terrible habit of feeling like we control anything?”
Certainly, look at business process systems, organizations, structure as a tool. How do we move out of that being the rule? Into the wisdom that we have, in this field of potentiality when we use our intellect as a tool, when we wake up to our full potential.
And then stopping for a minute and wondering what this new trend of mindfulness means. It’s ancient obviously. But that quieting of our soul so that we listen and pay attention, that we connect, we create, we are curious. And we ask everyone around us to connect, create and be curious about what we do, how we do it, and the impact we have on each other.
When we do that—when you have 10,000 people in your organization versus 10, creating and connecting and wondering and failing fast together—we accelerate the potential for everybody, including the benefit of the business and our customers.
The unlearning part is to dump this crappy “It’s just business” and start working on “It’s really a transformative experience.”
When we see it as wildly personal and as a way to connect to the full human potential, it begins with me. I have to start and say that I, as a CEO—I, as whatever the role is—can make a difference. I’m going to choose to see everything we do from the lens of human potential, move into what I want to see happen versus from a risk or a fear or the bad actor, whatever we do that keeps us from our full potential because we are fearful.
We let go of that fear in that, we don’t have time to create meaning because, there’s always someone that’s going to do something, steal your stupid and hurt a customer experience and hurt our revenue and put us at risk of a lawsuit.
So we spend so much time circling the wagons that we forget that all of that work is fine as a tactic, as a part of the structure, but by itself is destructive.
A New Model of Leadership
Charlie Hoehn: You’re talking about our potential of what could be if we unlearned this way of thinking and operating that’s—we don’t even see what’s holding us back.
Guy Bell: We’ve lost our view, we’ve lost our understanding of how to even see that, how do we have a looking glass, self-understanding of what we’re doing? And we just don’t. We don’t play in that field.
Charlie Hoehn: Because it’s the only model we’re really aware of.
Guy Bell: Correct. We refuel it in so many ways because—fill in the blanks. In colleges, we talk about controls and systems and processes ad nauseum, right? It’s fine. There’s aspects of that that are fantastic. But not at the limit of human potential.
Whole-body wisdom is what I use as a term, and as we learn through science, we understand how neuroplasticity works. How the brain is constantly reforming itself and the cells we generate. All the stuff we now know through science, that does is point us to what these meditative states have. People had been practicing this—Buddha and everyone else, Christ and so on.
We all have the same potential, we all have the same four fundamental abilities, which is to be creative, curious, connected.
“We’re all born with that.”
Why do we unlearn that age one, two, three, four, five, six? After the hundredth “You have to know” and the hundredth “You’re not smart” and the hundredth time competing for being smarter in this linear process. All of a sudden, you’re a sick child that has ADHD and we start diagnosing people with stuff that keeps people from their potential.
And all of a sudden, you’re an adult and you’ve lost yourself because of the hundredth “No.”
Belief, Work, and Activation
Charlie Hoehn: Let’s dig in to the three ideas that will change everything, did you already say what those were?
Guy Bell: Monitor what you believe. In other words, I’m a CEO and I’m risking for us. I put a lot of energy into my own process, my own mind, put a lot of energy toward risk management.
If you spend time on that subconsciously or quietly, it will inform everything else to the negative if it is not aligned.
What you believe activates the word that you choose, and if they’re incongruent, then they don’t activate. They screw up the last step, which is the action.
“What we believe and what we say better match what we do.”
If the three are aligned toward potential, toward the human condition, toward a desire for excellence, for nailing the delivery of the product, whatever it is. If it moves into what you want versus back away from the fears that you believe, “Well, if it wasn’t for that bad person or that other group or that department, we could go accomplish that.”
The three words that will change everything, including your personal life and your professional life and the performance of your business are: make damn sure you understand what you believe at a deep level; work on it and move it toward what you want; and use activating words to inspire, connect, engage.
Choose to act on this in alignment with those very important parts of how we come to work in business, and the world changes. Performance changes.
Charlie Hoehn: Yes, absolutely. Beliefs. Monitoring beliefs.
Guy Bell: Know what you believe, spend time, be quiet, listen to your monkey mind. According to some data—and it’s all over the board so god only knows what’s real data and what’s not—but some version of 90% of our thoughts are negative. Some version of 70, 80, 90% of our thoughts are repeated.
How do we work on understanding that? Don’t fight against, it just understand it, begin there.
Then play with the idea that it matters what I invest in, it matters what attention I give these thoughts. Let’s choose individually as leaders, as CEOs, to activate the things that we really truly want to see happen. But it takes some time, right? Takes that internal investigation.
Intentional Change of Focus
Charlie Hoehn: What did that internal investigation look like for you?
Guy Bell: I do it all the time. It’s been a part of my personal journey. I’m learning it every damn day. I activate this as often as I can by staying present. It’s very tough to do, but when I am present, it’s pretty easy to toggle between. While we’re in a meeting and I can sense everyone’s unspoken nature, I’m pulling out things because I’m present. I’m paying attention to every part of their language, right?
As I am doing that, I am more intentional.
I am more present with what I want to see happen. I am willing to be vulnerable and say, “I have no freaking clue.” Because in that state, I don’t have my ego all ramped up and ready to convince everyone I’m right. In that way of being present, I can do it.
The minute I get into, I want to accomplish something, or I want you to think I’m impressive, or whatever I do that is stupid—I still do it. I’m at a board meeting, as an example, and I want to sound good, so I come prepared to speak versus just being present in the data and information and being authentic.
“One is activating and one is trying to convince someone.”
I practice it all the time. I don’t leave a day in business without going through what worked and didn’t work and making sure I come back to things that I felt were off.
It may not have been a big deal, but it was a big deal. As I reviewed the day and the conversations and the sense of each of the events and the decisions if we made any—were they aligned, have we got everyone that needs to be involved, involved—those kinds of things. I don’t let a day pass without doing it.
It Takes Two
Charlie Hoehn: It Takes Two, you have in your book. What do you mean by It Takes Two?
Guy Bell: Everyone counts. You know, it’s so easy when you have hundreds of thousands of employees or you have an old-school thought that says, “Well, you’re not my direct employee, I’m not going to give you the time of day.” It is so easy to choose that, because in our minds it is simpler. It’s less cluttered. I don’t have to worry about that.
Wrong. You need to wake up and engage with every single person, and in that engagement, it doesn’t mean you have to go build a long-term relationship for a deep understanding of every single person—but if you don’t see everyone as worthy, as important, you’re in trouble.
And everyone who you invest in that is not other—meaning someone that currently perhaps you don’t communicate with will see that you ignore some employees because they’re too low in the organization or you don’t think they have anything to add or contribute.
“Make sure everyone counts and they know they count.”
So even if it is just a “hi” in the morning “how’s it going?” Ask them something about their night or their day. I randomly do that. I am not doing it as a tactic necessarily, but it is a practice.
So making sure that you hold yourself accountable for giving a shit. It matters. If you don’t, do some personal work. Because it does matter. Some of the best ideas come from really simple transactional, “Hey how did your day go?” and “Tell me about it, what happened?” or “Hey I’ve got a thought. I wanted to see your take on this.”
I have asked the most random people really complex questions, and once in a while they will give you a feedback. And you’re going, “Holy crap, that was really good!”
So you really—when you practice that, you’re going to start to figure out that you have a lot more talent around you than you realize.
The Future of Business
Charlie Hoehn: Absolutely, so let us talk about the future state of business. Where is the ball heading?
Guy Bell: What I think is happening and what I believe to be true in this future state is, I mean we’re late. We have dehumanized business for so long and we’ve lost so much opportunity to change the world, and we have also created so much opportunity.
So I am wildly impressed with Tesla, wildly impressed with some fantastic businesses that are very conscientious about changing the world.
It’s impressive, and I am also very conscious of the fact that we are so far off base in terms of impacting the whole world around this idea of what business can do if we as leaders can wake up.
I’ve been around bright leaders, I’ve been around a really fantastic, intellectually minded, trusting in this system but having some sense of leveraging the human potential—but I’ve never really had the benefit of working with people that have all that great knowledge and intellect and also have an equal balance of mindfulness consciousness, of a deep soul, a deep abiding curiosity around the human potential.
I have found that excellence in business, fantastic results in operations come when people go that extra mile on the human condition and connect at the deepest possible level around what performance means for that individual.
Charlie Hoehn: What leaders out there do you see who seem to embody this? I mean is it people like Oprah, Richard Branson, or are they not even close.
Guy Bell: Yeah, Branson is one of them. You know, I think Branson from my limited knowledge is probably one of the better. Ricardo Semler is the best, but I don’t have a personal lived experience with them.
Actually, when this book comes out, my goal is to send them the book and ask them if there’s ways we can partner up and I can help him and he can help hopefully me to kind of connect and expand what he is doing. He’s amazing.
Charlie Hoehn: And you know who else? It’s the founder of Patagonia, his name is escaping me but he’s definitely one as well.
Guy Bell: And the founder of LinkedIn who is a notorious asshole. But I have watched him speak and he’s awesome. He just turned into this really wonderful human being and he married a, I think it was a massage or yoga instructor, something like that who softened his soul. He really trusted his mind and his ego and his intellect over spirit and over the human condition, and it seems like he is working hard to evolve into this new type of leader.
So yeah, I mean to the extent I know him. I don’t know him personally but he’s one of those guys that I love that he can say, “I was this kind of person before and now I am really working on being more conscientious.” He’s doing the work, you know?
“And it is not fast or slow—it’s just work.”
My girlfriend is a very conscientious physical therapist, and she uses different, more spirit-based, more felt sense-based models to help people heal themselves. I say that as a parallel to realize that we’re all really in the healing process, right?
As we see ourselves as our own healers and then working on this, getting back to our healthy self, our full body, our whole-body awareness—it really is that process.
I am ambitious to learn who the kindred spirits are out there with this book and through speaking and to help the world transform world leaders by showing them the evidence if it works And then pathways that can help them get over the fear of, “Oh my gosh I have been wildly successful with this model, why would I change it to be more human when I know fear really works?”
I can’t really help everyone I’m sure, but that would be the goal is to get to those leaders that are on the fence of saying, “Okay, you know I am curious.”
Science shows that the heart and the stomach actually the synapses happen more quickly than the intellect with the brain. So when you look at what’s informing you anyway, you might as well use it all and understand it and take the time to maximize your full potential. Why wouldn’t you?
Once you understand that, I mean my gosh, it seems really logical and simple but it takes a relearning—an unlearning, frankly.
And then a relearning to let go of our damn ego, which has so much power and control over us because it’s caused all of the success in our minds collectively. I’d say it’s caused a lot of failures that we call success.
It Starts With You
Charlie Hoehn: Talk to me about why the truth starts with you and ourselves and our whole body wisdom. Give me the summary here.
Guy Bell: I was speaking to a group in Chicago a few weeks ago before I took off to a vacation in Europe, which was a blast. This group was filled with—I will leave some of the details out, but with really smart executives.
We got to the end of my 20-minute canned speech, which I change every time and go way off track, but we got to the key points. One of them is this point of “It starts with you.” In the Q&A afterwards, one of the participants said, “My god Guy, I wish I could come up and hug you.”
She said, “Why are so few CEOs and investors not getting this “It starts with you and it matters how you come to business?” And so we had really nice conversations. A good half an hour or 45 minutes of dialogue with this group around, “Well how do you do this?” To some extent, the answer is not satisfying because it is a being more than it is a doing.
So, “Well my boss won’t let me,” or “The CEOs or investors don’t want that to happen” and I’m like, “It’s not negotiable.” How you come to life is your choice.
“It starts with you means you need to choose to wake up.”
You can’t worry about someone else, because you don’t have the power to change anyone other than through the power of your own change. You are what you think and you are what you invest in, so be mindful.
Be conscious of what you’re investing in, and as you come back to work tomorrow, you don’t have to go convince someone that it starts with all of you. You just be the change. You start walking into this wonder state of “Okay so what does it mean to say it starts with me? If I want to have a better human experience in my business, what can I do tomorrow to change it?” And what I’d ask you is, what can you do tomorrow?
Can you walk in and just wonder? Can you stop commenting for when you get typically feedback? Can you stop yourself just for that one meeting? That one day and began to just say, “I’m going to ask a question. I’m just going to listen where I typically weigh in because I am a type A driven person,” whatever their reasons are, right? “I’m the boss. I’m supposed to do this.”
And can you begin to just leave space and start to ask a question versus say something? Can you wonder—meaning just be quiet in your wonder and listen and just probe?
If you want to change your organization to be a more human organization, better performing organization, you’re going to have to slow down and wonder personally “What can I do to cause this?” And then begin.
As people see you change and they say, “What’s going on?” Where you start to see evidence that it’s gaining some traction, because you are getting deeper into the core of what performance means for that individual because now you are paying attention not just giving feedback that you know works.
Now you get that incremental improvement and performance or in relationship because you are paying attention at a deep level.
“You’re wondering out loud more consistently.”
What I know and happens in my lived experience is, now all of a sudden I invite people into saying, “Okay how do you do this?” So I ask the question in the interviews and I ask the question, “Who are you? Why are you here? What are you doing? How can I help you?” And if they tell me all the right things around the job I’ll say, “Great, what do you want to accomplish in your life outside of this job?”
And when you get to the core of what people really want in their lives, if they know and if they don’t, they work on it with them. Help them on their journey, because it is their journey and they will invest in you in a whole different way when you do that.
It starts with me. I need to wonder enough to say, “Man you matter, I want to know who you are. I want you to connect to this job of course, but I also want to connect with your deeper purpose.”
And I say that because then they start living into this life where they’re living a full life. We are talking about their dream. I am helping them hold them accountable, develop relationships, whatever I am doing while they’re helping the business do better because of their investment in what we do together. It starts with me, and then it starts with them, and they start to share that same wisdom with their teams.
You don’t do it by a strategy and a poster and a cultural “Here are the five ethical values” and all of that crap.
It’s fine, but it is not going to do anything. It is not activating. It starts with you is activating. It starts with you teaching that person these types of things that I have just shared with you. It’s activating, and they will activate the activation if that makes sense. Because we are all curious, we are all creative, we’re all connected. Period. End of story.
To the extent that we invite people into that, we grow the connection. We grow the potential by just showing up and starting with our version of invigorating that kind of idea.
Connect with Guy Bell
Charlie Hoehn: What do you say to somebody who says, “Guy this all sounds well and good, but I got bills to pay, I’m stressed out. Man I can’t focus on this?”
Guy Bell: Yeah, I know. Definitely, in terms of investors and CEOs and boards and publicly traded companies, it’s extremely difficult to reach into that mindset that has a ton of confidence in the road, “It is not personal” model. It is very difficult.
But for the employee that wants to say or the middle manager that says, “Look I want to do it this other way. I like what you are saying, it feels right to me. But if I talk this way and my CEO or anybody finds out they’re going to call me woo-woo and they’re going to lose their confidence,” and blah-blah-blah.
All that exists. I personally have lived my life in it. For 30 years, it’s existed for me personally. But the difference is, I come in and turn things around, because what I’m teaching people, what I’m teaching the audience today is, it works.
It works tomorrow morning. It works next Tuesday. It works.
And it doesn’t take a lot of time for it to work. The investment in getting quiet has nothing to do with your business. It has to do with you.
I spend half an hour every morning in gratitude and going through different things to set my day up. I do things personally to develop my sense, to develop myself. So all of that work is definitely work, but it can happen in the quiet of a drive to work. It can happen in lots of places to get yourself grounded and ready for presence, ready for making a difference that day.
“When you make the investment, it gives a return right away.”
I’ve been very successful when I’ve done that well. When I don’t rely on my intuition and my knowing that this works, I am less successful. I am not helping the business, I am not helping the individuals and these guys, typically men but women and men, were egoic and don’t want any part of this to the extent that I let that rule my situation, we’re in trouble, meaning don’t sweat it because it literally does – you can get performance out of changing the way you run your business quickly.
It is not a slow process. What is slow is changing the culture—particularly those that have, “It’s not personal, it is just business” model, typically the owners or the executive teams. It is just the nature of the beast. But to the extent that we can get our arms around “Don’t worry about that,” don’t try to convince people that are not ready to hear the message.
You can increase performance, you will increase performance. The goal over time is to influence people when they ask you. The CEO says, as an example, “Yeah you’ve had a lot of success this year. What do you attribute your success to?” Just say, “I am going to tell you something that is going to sound woo-woo but I am going to tell you straight.”
“Give them the truth.”
Don’t say, “God wouldn’t it be nice if you changed the organization to match my belief system, which I believe is way more aligned with human potential?”
You just say, “It works for me. I’d be happy to share it if you want me to.” Let those people that are slow to come to it be slow to come to it. But you are ready. Choose to activate your life, connect deeply for performance, really.
It turns out to be for our best. Every day counts, every person counts, and it works.
Charlie Hoehn: Beautifully said, and there is so much other great content in the book. How can people get in touch with you if they want to reach out?
Guy Bell: My website is guypiercebell.com and it’s obviously has all my contact information. Probably the best way to reach me is through the website, so guypiercebell.com.