We chatted with Nell Derick Debevoise, partner at Purpose Fused and CEO and founder of the non-profit Purposeful Growth about a host of issues. We look at employee experience from a new angle, the value of purpose, making a culture stick, the impact of growth mindsets, and the intrinsic value of emotional intelligence.
Finding purpose and impact
In her work at Purpose Fused, Nell is focused on developing healthy, fair, inspiring work environments by running corporate development programs for leaders. These programs guide leaders to an understanding of purpose as a critical performance driver, and of how this influences the next frontier of employee experience. She also runs programs for teams, to help them get to their me purpose and best performance. Nell’s institute, The Purposeful Growth Institute, is a non-profit to help graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds find ways to use their schooling and work experience for social and environmental impact.
Nell, author, advisor, coach and facilitator works with leaders around 3-dimensional performance: me, we, and world. The me encompasses individual well-being, like physical, mental, emotional health, and spiritual health in the widest possible sense. The we covers teams, organizations and families. Then comes world, or the people and groups beyond that.
By world, we don’t mean every human being on Earth, rather people with whom you interact but might not know by name. These could be neighbors, supermarket employees, or more distant customers. Ideally, if interaction and connection are fostered between all three dimensions as the graphic below shows we have a win-win-win situation going into the future.
“If I don’t have a good breakfast, my meetings are not good. By 11 or 12 o’clock, I’m hangry. I can’t focus well. For my we, that’s a real drag,” Nell says, and if we glance at that graphic, we see very easily that the me affects the we, and the we affects the world. If we look at crises like climate change, or worsening wealth gaps and how that leads to insecurity, crime and instability we can say without a shadow of a doubt that in a world with these issues, we are not well.
Applying the 3D approach to organizations
We asked Nell how the 3D me, we, world approach could impact an organization internally. Given the we dimension covers the company itself, and its teams, much of the focus falls there. The next frontier, however, is about effectively integrating the other two dimensions, me, and world.
Everyone’s unique, and we all have different wants and needs, but Nell’s not saying that the workplace must be our full source of love and appreciation. In some cases, we’re asking for too much from work, but we do need work to recognize the individual. We need to know what people need to support their wellness so they can show up, bring their whole selves to work, be themselves, and fully contribute to the we.
“There is really good research out there that shows people would actually rather get a thank you note from their boss than a free pizza party or a gift card for cash.”
We’ve also got to reach the world level. People aren’t asking their companies to be Greenpeace and fix the Amazon, but they want to be sure there isn’t a values mismatch between the me and the we, because that’s not healthy for the world side of things in the long run. Nell stresses that we must be braver about sharing what we feel and think as leaders, because if we don’t, we’ll lose good people. The real risk here is not forging this new, multi-approach frontier.
Winning the talent wars
While workers were once excited about a pizza party or a new ping pong table, this won’t win today’s talent wars. They now seek greater connection and more meaningful engagement and want their companies to communicate actions on big environmental and social issues. They’re demanding shifts in the agendas of their employers.
Nell says this change in attitudes has likely come about because of the crazy world we live in today. Thanks to social and news media, it’s hard to miss out on all the turmoil, crises and negativity reported 24/7. It’s overwhelming. While pretty much every generation has a significant unprecedented event, like a world depression, a world war or a pandemic like Covid-19, there’s a difference now. While human evolution is powerful and efficient, it’s no match for the exponential growth of technology. We can’t shut it out, or escape. It’s all around us and deeply affects our everyday lives, and work.
“We’re bombarded with negativity and tragedy. It’s pretty nuts for meaning-making creatures like human beings. It’s intense, scary and hard to understand. We can’t just block that off for eight hours at work and do whatever task it is we have to do.”
This leads us to a point, Nell says, where leaders increasingly find themselves in a position where they don’t really want to speak out on a sensitive issue be it political, social or global. On the other hand, remaining silent might alienate. While it’s risky to take the plunge and speak out it’s often more of a risk to do nothing. Something is always better than nothing.
Finding the middle ground as a leader, not taking sides, making decisions to not cause polarization is a fine balance. It’s impossible to take up every cause, so leaders need to weigh up their choices and give a human response. It won’t necessarily fix an issue, but through a process of reflection, where leaders find their true selves, their best contribution can be made from their unique positions.
“If a leader can make a decision grounded in authentic philosophy, people can really respect that and get behind it in a way that won’t alienate people who wanted the opposite response. It’s all about being human and being honest.”
Culture starts with authentic leadership
Nell goes on to say that if you’re building a company culture and want to make it stick, it has to start with the leaders. It’s me, we, world for a reason. Leaders must stay authentically in touch with themselves. Are they breakfast people too or not? And how much exercise do they need? And what do they have natural energy for, and when? What are the triggers that get them frustrated? All this has to be considered on an ongoing, real-time level. It’s not a case of going on a week-long retreat, quickly learning about yourself, writing a purpose statement and then you’re done.
Change starts on an individual basis, at the top. Leaders, leadership teams and eventually all people managers, with the correct support, will have the ability to reach clarity and honesty around what they care about and what they’re good at. This way, the culture sticks. Again, the people at the top really matter. Not because they’re important, but because they’re the tone-setters.
“We’re dynamic creatures, so there must be a willingness, an investment in self-awareness and reflection. If it’s not there, I’m really skeptical about that culture change.”
Taking stock of soft skills
Nell moved on to talk about how soft skills are so important, and why mindset before skillset and toolset is a concept that needs more attention. The human experience is so much a part of work these days, that we need to apply a far more human approach. On Zoom calls, we are basically in each other’s homes.
A growth mindset is one where we believe our abilities, talents and even intelligence can improve, as opposed to a fixed mindset where we believe these things are static. A growth mindset allows for the belief that we, or something, can change. As an example, if we practice active listening, we could develop that like a muscle, and this could help us build empathy.
Nell points out that emotional intelligence, or quotient (EQ) needs to be valued equally or above IQ so a growth mindset can gain purchase. There needs to be a balance between power skills and intelligence in an organization. It’s a big issue, to be nurtured through the entire employee lifestyle.
Knowing what we do about traditional interviews being so dismal at predicting job performance, Nell says, we use a structured process known as Topgrading. This uses specifically detailed interviews to determine patterns of applicant behavior. Through this simple but powerful method, it’s easier to reliably identify indicators of EQ and growth mindset, or not.
It’s essential today to build power skills into your teams. This way, people know how to manage and understand emotions. They’ll communicate better, be able to manage stress and conflict, and overcome challenges in work and life in general. Not working on power skills will give you a very short horizon of success.
Given the cycles of layoffs we’ve seen in the last year, we asked Nell about the responsibilities leaders have when it comes to handling these. Nell agrees these are scary times, so employers must think about their people, the me and the we, because it is all so connected. Referring to the comments above about speaking out on issues beyond the organization, she says it is pretty much the internal version of that.
However, while a leader can’t be expected to take a stance on absolutely every world issue, they can’t not speak up on an internal issue. There will always be slowdowns, layoffs, and difficult times when people have to be let go, but you must speak to it. You have to let people know it’s a difficult time for the business, let them know you’re scared as a leader, and how you feel cutting jobs from people who have served the company for decades. Say how you feel about the risk and damage to them and their families.
Communicating during challenging times and layoffs
“Tell them that these are difficult decisions that had to be made, and that they’ve been done as thoughtfully and humanely as possible. Full transparency isn’t always possible, or even a good idea, but a thoughtful share of part of the story is a must.”
We asked Nell what we’ve learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, and what we should retain and use as we go forward. She reminds us of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and of the reality that first people need to have the basics and be okay. The pandemic was such a 21st-century reminder of how that still matters and it isn’t a given for even those of us who have salaried white-collar jobs. It’s so easy to forget that wasn’t a given for so many people in our close society, even before 2020. The shock realization of mortality, too, was a game-changer as it dawned that formerly simple acts of everyday life could be fatal.
Covid made us stop and think about taking our health for granted. The sick day, for Covid and other illnesses, is to be taken seriously again. We’ve moved forward a bit there, but not nearly enough, and while there is lip service given to physical well-being, the amount of overwork in the USA’s culture is literally sickening.
Anecdotally speaking, mental health seems to be getting attention and investment. Either way, physically or mentally, Covid rid us of the notion that personal life gets left outside the office door. We’re not quite all the way there yet, but that idea has pretty well been extinguished.
There are some things though, born out of Covid that Nell agrees we should leave behind.
“The somberness of Covid was so intense and scary. I think there was this sense of not being able to show up light or happy because of what’s going on.”
This can be put down to a version of survivor’s guilt or similar. That realization that while you aren’t sick, someone else’s household member might be, or might be immunocompromised. This created a problematic fragility, and is likely the root of so much national criticism we see today.
Life is so many things, intense, joyful, miraculous, tragic, violent, and everything in between. Things are going to happen, things will go wrong. People get sick, get divorced, and get laid off. For all these major life events – and the other less important ones like when we hate the marketing color our team has chosen – human beings need to be resilient. And we must be resilient on all levels or we’ll break at the slightest problem.
For leaders who are fragile, or who see others as fragile, how will the courageous decisions be made so we can all thrive? We’re a little mired here, right now, stuck in the status quo, trying to handle the fragility and it’s not good at all.
Leaving fragility behind
“We need to leave behind the fragility and be more robust and courageous in the me dimension of leading, in the we dimension of managing and collaborating, and of stewarding our world in the world dimension.”
Nell outlined some mistakes she sees HR making when it comes to personal development. The biggest fear, she says, is that people move on.
This is crazy because the majority are going to do this and HR will prefer some to go sooner than later. Also, exactly how productive are individuals sitting in a job just because they don’t want to move?
The job market’s not great anymore, so it’s difficult but you need to ask questions and open conversations. The trick is to get people re-excited about staying on in a job, but first HR must let go of the fear of losing people if you give them a chance to develop and grow.
Nell also spoke to us about the advice she’d give a leader looking to implement a growth mindset when he’s leaning more toward a fixed mindset. She cautions against the overuse of vulnerability, because apologies, honesty and the human touch can only do so much. It’s of greater value to model your own mindset as a way of teaching.
Feedback is extremely important, and must be given in a way to encourage and allow for growth. Telling someone they’ve done a great job is all well and good, but that only covers the one job. What about the inspiration to repeat that, to advance?
Challenges future leaders face
Regarding challenges for future leaders, around employee experience and company culture, Nell urges us to be thoughtful, intentional, and purposeful. It takes more energy, but the payback is real in terms of satisfaction, the relationships you build, and the intel you’re able to get. It makes the harder decisions easier to communicate if people trust you and know you’re on board.
It’s important, though, to ensure that the middle tier of management keeps the momentum, and doesn’t let new recruits fall back into old ways. It takes considerable reinforcement and practice.
“The hardest part is convincing people who aren’t in the safety of those powerful decision-making seats at the C-suite. In that middle tier, people have learned to manage and lead in a particular way, and now we’re telling them, no, no, actually you can be human.”
You can also read Nell’s article in Forbes Magazine with more about the 3D employee experience. And watch out for her new newsletter, launching this summer.
And, don’t miss Nell’s new book due to be published in the autumn, called “Going First: Your Invitation to Find the Courage to Lead Purposefully and Inspire Action”.