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Poole Podcast Season 2, Episode 5: Leadership in a Post-COVID World

Bradley Kirkman and Donald Thompson discuss the future of work through the lens of emotional intelligence, generational differences in leadership, and diversity in the C-suite. Donald Thompson is an executive coach, CEO of The Diversity Movement, and host of the Donald Thompson Podcast. Bradley L. Kirkman is the General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership in the Poole College of Management at NC State University.

Jenny: Thank you again, both for being here and Brad, I thought what would be really good for us to kind of kick off our conversation today, a lot of the work that you do obviously is with leaders of organizations. And I’d be curious to hear what you have heard and experienced in the last several months about how leaders are coping post-COVID and how they’re moving forward in their organizations.

Bradley: Yeah. that’s a great question, and there’s obviously been a lot of pain points, for leaders in the last couple of years, and when I’m working with them, I always ask them the same question when I’m kind of kicking off a session or a meeting, you know, what’s keeping you and your other leaders up at night.

What are your biggest challenges that you’re facing right now? And there are two that seem to get repeated quite a bit. One is how to figure out how to work, in this new way of the hybrid kind of working, you know, you’ve got, some people are face to face, some are remote, we’re exploring different ideas around hybrid arrangements, which is the most challenging I think a situation right now, we know a lot about working a hundred percent face to face because we’d done it forever. We actually know a lot about working a hundred percent remote cause we’ve had virtual teams for over 25 years. 

What we don’t know is how to structure work in a more hybrid type fashion. So questions would be like, who comes into the office? When do they come in? How do you make decisions about who should be a hundred percent in the office, who should be a hundred percent remote? There are a lot of fairness issues involved in those decisions because a lot of companies are leaving it up to individual managers and leaders to make those decisions.

And they likely use different rules, different policies, and it can leave people kind of feeling kind of treated unfairly. In the end with this hybrid working the decisions really come down to what jobs cannot be done remotely, and which ones can, and there are a lot of issues to consider., and there’s also personal preferences. We’re finding that some people actually work more effectively from home than they do in the office, but others want that office environment. So you need to balance the nature of each person’s job with their own preferences for remote work. And it gets very, very complicated quickly. 

The second major challenge, and everyone’s heard of this, we’re talking about the great resignations. I almost think it should be called the great reshuffling, because even though there are some people resigning and retiring from the workforce altogether, we’ve seen that the vast majority of people are just moving on to different jobs, and something similar happened in the US after 9/11, and also after the great recession. Oh, that one wasn’t necessarily by choice, but these significant, and really from some ways traumatic events kind of stop people in their tracks. And make them really think about what they’re doing with their lives.

I mean, at the end of the day, we spent a lot of our time in our lives working. And so people want to know that what they’re doing is meaningful, that it really has a purpose. And I’ll just cite one study that was conducted actually before the pandemic in 2018, by a company called Better up Consulting.

And that company found that nine out of 10 people would trade money to do more meaningful work. And in fact, that study found that they would be willing to give up about 25% of their entire future lifetime earnings to do something more meaningful. And I would guess that was again, pre pandemic. I would guess that that trend has only increased during the pandemic.

The problem is only about 40% of them said they were currently doing meaningful work. So all of them want it and they would give up more money to do it, but many of them don’t have it. So I think that those two things, the hybrid working arrangements and the great resignation really stick out as two things that are keeping leaders up at night.

Don: That’s right on target with what I’m hearing and in the work that we’re doing, and the leaders that I talked to the thing that I will add in addition to that is that the expectations for leaders to be more empathetic, to be more focused on belonging of their employees, to be more emotive in what they’re doing is certainly the right thing to do.

People are embracing that, but everything that we do or don’t do comes at a cost. And so that means leaders are spending more time on things that they’re not fully equipped, trained for, or experienced in. So anytime you do the first thing, something for the first time, whether it’s run a mile five miles or 10, right.

You’re conditioning for that new thing is not necessarily there, if it’s the first time you’ve run a mile in a while, for the first time you’d run five miles. So now think about our work strength, our work conditioning leaders have not been conditioned to focus on the empathetic side of the employee experience as much.

So there’s a lot of anxiety and stress coupled with, now we’re in this moment where people are hypersensitive and hyper aware of the way conversations should or shouldn’t be had in the workplace. So there’s this entire new dynamic that is now on the leadership plate at a pretty high level, but the associated readiness has not been made available.

And anytime you’re doing something that’s highly important, highly emotive, but you don’t feel ready, that is a stress enabler. And so I’m seeing with leaders that they’re not necessarily debating the move of culture having more meaning, the movement of employees having more empowerment, but the lack of readiness to deal in that moment is creating a higher degree of stress and uncertainty among leaders.

Jenny: Thinking about that, how do we prepare leaders for that? I mean, what, this is kind of a throw them in, you know, they drink by the fire hose right, a little bit, but are there things that we could be doing to better prepare our leadership teams for this type of work?

Bradley: It’s, it’s your thing that we’re all kind of going through this together. So oftentimes when a, an employee has a problem or an issue, a leader can be there to help coach and counsel that person through it. But the leader him or herself is not going through the same thing. So they have more emotional energy and they can devote that to that situation.

But in this case, we’re all going through it together at the same time. So you’re dealing with all of your kind of emotional turmoil and stress and sometimes burnout while you’re helping others go through that process. And so we we’ve talked about this notion of emotional intelligence, which is a concept that’s about 40 years old, but we’ve studied it and we researched it.

And it turns out that yeah, people who are more emotionally intelligent, meaning they have, among other things, a lot of empathy, are more effective leaders in their organizations. The good news is some of emotional intelligence you’re born with, its part personality driven, but the large majority of emotional intelligence can be developed and learned over time.

So I think one of the key things we can do is, first of all, you know, assess people on it. And if we find that some folks in our organization are kind of lacking in that skillset, it’s up to us to give them training and develop. To create a higher degree of emotional intelligence, including that empathy that Donald talked about that’s really critical right now for organizations. You can’t lead without empathy at this point. 

Don: Yeah, that’s right. And I, I think, there are simple things leaders can do in this moment, bad habits we can watch out for that can really move the needle positively or negatively. And I’ll give an example and you would think leaders know this but sometimes we don’t right when we’re chasing the number. Hey, listen, the late-night emails, not a cool thing right now. Like there are settings in your software that you can prep an email to be sent during working hours, even as an executive, if you’re working at two o’clock in the morning, but typically as a leader, we think, okay, they won’t read it. Don’t worry about it. I just needed to get it off my mind which is a selfish concept versus selfless. 

But the reality is if we get an email, something as simple as an email, and we look at our phone and we see it and it beeps and it’s from our superior, that creates anxiety, no matter what it’s about. The other thing that we’ve seen that is a simple kind of a thing that leaders can do is instead of leading with directives of what I want, lead with goals that we need to achieve, then ask your team, how do we get there? And then be quiet, and let your team work with you on giving strategies and components of how to get there.

And in that space of silence, you create collaboration without you having to go to leadership, training, executive training, just put the goal out there that you want, which means you’re not lowering the standard, ask how do we get there? Operative word is we, and all of a sudden, you give space for people to work on it together, and then you guide the conversation versus demanding an outcome.

And again, when it’s said out loud to leaders like, oh my God, like I can do that. But we forget some of these things and their impact today, because now as a leader, if we create additional anxiety for an employee, if we have a meeting where people don’t feel involved and included, there’s a higher degree of negative impact than ever before.

And so we have to be, and the we includes me, I have to be even more thoughtful as a leader of how my communication lands ever before, because people are going through a lot, but those are just a couple of things I wanted to add at a pragmatic level right, of what leaders can remember and think about and do.

Jenny: I want to ask you about this question, because you both have really touched on this in your, and your professional careers is the generational differences of leadership. Brad, you, you made a point that said, you know, we’re all going through this. Yes, yes we are, but we’re also all going through it in a very different way, because we have very many different generations in the workforce. How do you lead and communicate those messages when you have these different causes I, I think I, I’m not afraid. I’m a gen X-er right. So Donald, you talked about that late night email, which by the way, great advice, that resonated with me, but I’ll send the email,

Don: You do?

Jenny: But I’ve heard from colleagues that are millennials and gen Z they don’t appreciate that, at all. Right, my boomer college, they probably wouldn’t have cared, no offense to my boomer colleagues, but, but, but there’s a lot of different responses from different generations. How do we manage that? We are in a very different place as a work culture now. 

Don: I’ll start off. So when we think about things like diversity, equity inclusion, we typically think about race and gender and sexual orientation, which are of course are important, but generational relationships, generational perspectives, behaviors, and attitudes are a very significant component of diversity, equity and inclusion.

And so one of the things, when you put it in that context, now all of a sudden, we have to think from the employee through the work, not from the work needed down to the employee. And that’s a very different mindset because years ago, as, as leader, and these are things I’ve had to learn and now I can teach and share, but I had to learn them, so I have the humility of making these mistakes, is the employee, as long as your paycheck cleared, I’m good. like I paid you this money, do this job, how you feel is something you deal with right after the 45, fifth hour or whatever you work. 

But that leadership responsibility and pendulum has shifted such that my leadership responsibility now is communicating a single message through multiple channels and for multiple listeners. So almost as a leader, you’re a marketer. So you have to think about how this lands with the different groups and you really have to care because it will limit your productivity if you don’t. People don’t just grin and bear it anymore, they bounce like, and, and,

Jenny: Like we’ve never seen before.

Don: Like we’ve never seen before, Gen-Zers are coming in and be like, yeah, here’s my computer. I’m just, I’m just not feeling that this is a good space for me. Like, okay. You know what I mean? Like it’s just, whereas gen Xers and baby boomers were used to grin and bearing it, it’s just work. And so that mindset is different. So then now back to the pragmatic of how does a leader deal with it? We ask. Here’s something that I have learned from Gen-Zers and with some of my kids are in that, in that space. 

If I ask how I should approach you and share and give feedback, they’ll tell me. And they’re usually pretty direct and pretty honest, right? With the way they like to receive information. So not making an assumption is a very important thing for leaders. The second thing is to educate. I had a young person, have a young person, they’re still on our team, and we’re in the zoom arena and they didn’t really like to be on camera for the meetings. And so I said, well, you know, sometimes you might want to turn your camera on so people can, you know, share with you and we can all be together.

I don’t like to be on camera. I said, oh, okay. Thank you. I said, now let’s talk about what the needs are of the role. If you have a completely back-office role, then your personal preference of never being on camera makes perfect sense. Also, based on your comfort level, you being on camera all the time is not a requirement, but because we are in the communication business, in the relationship business, and we can’t, because of the pandemic, be face to face, there is a space where being on camera to create as much connectivity with our colleagues and peers as possible is part of the role. 

So what we need to do is figure out how do we make some balance here where I address, and thoughtful, right of your personal preference, but you, as a young emerging professional understand, we all have to do some things in our job that we don’t like, that we have to flex to, that we have to stretch to.

And once we had that conversation, it didn’t mean they liked everything I shared, but they understood it. And here’s what was cool, and I’ll share this example and then I’ll hush a little bit. The employee said very specifically, one of the reasons I don’t like to be on camera is I have terrible lighting in my apartment.

So it always looks like a horror movie. And that makes me uncomfortable. And I was like, what if the company bought you better lighting? Well, that would be great. I didn’t know that you would do that. So it actually wasn’t anxiety. It actually wasn’t being present. It was the equipment, environment and infrastructure. It was a small, like we were $50 away from a solution. And, and asking, I’ll use one more example, and then I’d rather, I’ll give you the space and I can get too excited about stuff. here’s the thing when we seek here things that are, we perceive as negative, right? We typically just are surface level, but usually underneath something that we don’t agree with someone, there is a reason or a perspective that we do understand.

I was talking with another employee; we’re talking about hybrid and come to work. And when you come to work and not, and one of the companies that I’m on the board, they wanted to have the company come back two days a week. And one of the employees was having a challenge with that, and said, hey, can I speak to DT about this?

And I said, sure, let’s talk about it. Here’s what I found out. The employee had added a new family member. They didn’t have the appropriate childcare and what they really wanted was another month to get those things in place. And they just didn’t know who to, and how to ask for that very reasonable accommodation that I’m going to need another month to just get my things together. And then I can get to that second day, but man, if I could start with one day and then build up to the second day, I’m happy to do it. I’m excited about doing it. I just need a little bit more time and I didn’t know how to communicate that because everybody else was, was kind of all, you know, all in for doing it that way.

And so my, my thing for leaders is find out the depth of the disagreement because usually there’s a pretty simple solve that we can find if we just slow down and really do a little more pulling and pulling, and there’s a lot of easier ways to get to yes. Than just somebody being in disagreement.

Bradley: Yeah, I think in terms of hearing you speak about that, you’re not only talking about the importance of being an empathetic leader, but the examples you gave are you walking the talk of being an empathetic leader and having those conversations and listening, and getting to the kind of the root of the matter, not being accusatory or not telling what you got to do this, you have to do that. It’s more like you’re just sitting, having a conversation and then you kind of arrive at, oh, this actually is pretty simple. We can, we can work on this. And the person’s oftentimes surprised that you, that you guys got there. So I think That’s phenomenal. 

I also think, you know, Jenny, you mentioned generational differences with Gen Z coming into the workforce in large numbers, they’ve been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and remote work because a lot of them are kind of, you know, in university or finishing university or in onboarding into companies now for the, you know, the last couple of years and a lot of them had been totally remote.

And so we worry sometimes about, well, how do they get, you know, so exposed to the company culture and the way we do things, if they’re not physically present. So it’s taken a lot more work, I think on leader’s part to kind of make sure that these folks that have been hired in the last couple of years really feel a part of what’s going on and really get a sense of what’s,

what is this company about? If you can’t walk around and see it. Cause a lot of culture is, you know, you go into a company, you kind of feel it. You kind of sense it. It’s not written down anywhere. There’s not a book called here’s our culture. You get it through osmosis. And so now you’re not there, the chance of you getting that as a lot less.

So you have to work a lot harder to make sure they know what the culture is, and the last thing I’ll say, which you also brought up, Don was the notion of, you know, this camera on, which can be tricky. We know there is something called zoom fatigue and some colleagues of mine at University of Arizona, kind of looked at this and did a series of studies that looked at companies that really pushed this camera on policy. And it turns out that the more they had cameras on, people felt more emotional and mental fatigue, and as a result of that fatigue, they participated less in the meetings and they were less engaged in that. And the effects were worse for women and newcomers. 

So they reported even higher levels of fatigue and stress with camera on policies. For women, the explanation was that there’s more pressure on women. It’s called a grooming gap, to look a certain way, to present a certain image, to appear a certain way, and so there’s more pressure when the camera on policy is there. For newcomers, which we’re talking about kind of Gen Z people just coming into the company, they’re new, they don’t have any status, they don’t have reputation.

They don’t have the existing relationships that others that have been in the company for a longer amount of time I’ve had. So for them, they felt more pressure when camera was on to make sure they give the right impression and the right image. So the notion there is that as Don was saying yeah, certain meetings for certain purposes should be cameras. That’s a fact, it, you know, more complex discussions, two-way dialogue, camera on is going to help because you get the nonverbal, you get the, the, the, the facial expressions and all those things. 

Well, for some meetings, which are maybe perhaps more, one way information dissemination camera’s off should be fine. That should help lower the overall level of, of this notion of being on camera a lot, because it is, it is fatiguing and people don’t like it to some extent.

Jenny: I want to pivot for a second. Let’s talk a little bit about, Brad, you touched on it briefly, but company culture. So on top of a pandemic, you know, we’ve shifted as a country, a lot. We’ve had some very heightened race conversations in the last couple of years. And there’s this concentrated effort for organizations if they have not already to really think about embedding DEI in their conversation in their cultures, which to me should just be a given. But for, for a lot of companies, it wasn’t part of their dialogue. It wasn’t part of their value sets. It wasn’t part of their conversation.

What are the two of you hearing about how that shift is impacting organizations and to your point of the conversation we’ve had already is how do you start that conversation when you’re in this hybrid type of world, so you bring across the message that this is important to our culture, how do we do that?

Don: Yeah, I think, and I’ll be quick with this comment. Like you have to define what DEI means for your organization. Right, because anytime you’re using kind of the macro term, it doesn’t necessarily completely align with what you’re trying to do as a, as a business, number one. And the definition also helps eliminate, what DEI is not.

So I’ll give a very specific example, right? DEI is not social justice. Social justice can be a catalyst for things you want to do for your employees. But diversity, equity, inclusion is about building a workplace, right, where everyone can thrive. It’s about building a more productive and competitive environment in your culture to where people feel the ability to perform at their highest level.

And if they have challenges, they know how to deal with those challenges and bring them forward. It’s a business tool. It’s an instrument in the construct. And so that means when people bring a negative narrative to a function, it’s typically because they’re trying to make it about culture wars or woke culture or social justice type items or Black lives matter, whatever it is that you’re for or against, but diversity equity inclusion is about building a better workplace.

And that definition is very, very important to the beginning of any cultural improvement. So that it is aligned with the business function. The second thing that I think is super important is that the leadership behaviors need to align with the leadership rhetoric

Jenny: Yeah.

Don: And that’s before anything else. That’s before you come to The Diversity Movement and you’re looking at DEI, you come to executive coaching and training, NC State, and all of these different things, right?

It’s really important that what the leaders are amplifying verbally is backed up in their budget consideration, and backed up in their behavior consideration. And those to me are the two really jumping off points and I’ll let Bradley, I’ll let you weigh in that are really, really important to any direction we want to go with, enhancing our culture.

Bradley: I couldn’t agree more with that. I think, and I’ve made this mistake myself, you know, cause we, there is pushback against DEI efforts, we see it, it’s out there. And so one of the ways I always thought, well, we can overcome that is to make the business case for diversity. We can cite plenty of studies that show that when organizations are more diverse and they promote and value diversity, they oftentimes have higher performance and they’re more innovative.

That’s what the data would show, even some of that research was done here in Poole College, by Richard Warren and Roger Mayer. And I studied teams for a living. So I could tell you the same thing happens in teams. The more diverse the teams are, the more people you bring people together who think differently from one another, the more likely they’ll be able to produce innovative, creative outcomes. So if you get pushed back on DEI, you can say, well, it’s good for the bottom line. So case closed, we’re all interested in improving profitability. So let’s go. 

But unfortunately, some more recent research has found a, a flaw with making the business case for diversity. So one study in 2019., show that when women and members of the LGBTQ community were exposed to an organization’s business case for diversity, they actually had a lower desire to join that organization and those who were already in the organization actually had lower job performance when they were exposed to those messages. And the reason is that this sort of business case language that we’ve been using, we’ve been using it for probably 10, 15 years. It has a way of making people feel othered and also devalued, because it’s almost like saying, you know, we’re only promoting diversity here to make money, rather than doing it because it’s the right thing to do.

And so it can actually end up having the reverse effect than you think it would, that it makes, people that are in the minority feel more devalued, and not appreciated. Another problem we see, when companies create these roles like Chief Diversity Officer or Directors of Inclusion and Diversity, it could create an unintended effect, which is when people see that, others in the company might become disengaged from diversity efforts because they think, oh, well, we’ve got that covered with that person or that department. So I don’t have to really pull my weight when it comes to promoting and valuing diversity. 

So two things that look good on paper, promoting the business case and creating these roles for people to promote diversity, might have these unintended consequences. So I think Don is absolutely correct, and it kind of aligns with what one of my colleagues, Sarah Kaplan, she’s at University of Toronto, Rotman school of Management. She calls you need to take principled action. So when Don said, you know, you speak all this stuff, you say all this stuff. And yet when I look and see what you’re actually doing, it doesn’t align. I think that’s what you mean by principled action.

You can talk it, but you also need to actually take some action. A couple of examples, a Salesforce company, Salesforce spent millions of dollars analyzing their wages, broken down by different demographic categories and they found discrepancies, and they took action to close the pay gap for those discrepancies.

Microsoft several years ago, got rid of its stack ranking approach, the forced ranking system, where your managers are forced to put people in different, performance rating categories, because they found out that that creates bias against women and other minority. So concrete action, rather than leading with the business case, I think it’s the right way for us to get into this conversation and for leaders to promote diversity efforts and grow those conversations we were talking about. 

Don: One point I’ll restate that, that Bradley you’re alluding to is we may have a certain goal on growing culture, but the message of why has to be tailored to the individual.

So the pro, the challenge, like, and I’m not challenging the data, the C-suite needs, the metric-based information of why they should move, because they’re not dealing from a motive. They want to get to president’s club, make their number, their valuation goes up, their stock portfolio goes up. That’s how they’re wired.

And the people joining the organization understand the organization is a for-profit or has non-profit goals, but they want inclusion and belonging and they want to feel part of the cause. So their causation is different. And what we typically do is we get on a drum beat or mantra, and we don’t think about communication internally to our team like marketers do externally, which is a similar message that’s tailored to a specific audience. 

That’s how marketers think, and so we have to do that with our internal communication, or we’re always going to move forward with one group and lose another for the very things, Bradley, that you described. So I, I very much appreciate the data behind what you’re sharing. And then for me, in terms of practically how I execute it, and I just have to remember that messages have to be tailored. 

Jenny: Yeah. And it’s not just a check the box type of activity, right.

Don: That’s right.

Jenny: That’s what’s scary is knowing that there’s some organizations that go, we need to do this without the why.

I want to, I like to pivot a lot if you can’t, if you haven’t figured that out, I do that really well. We, our college and we do educate the future business leaders of tomorrow. So I like to say, I have my marketer hat on. You both are in different kind of pools of, of, of leadership and training, but we have students. 

One, what can we be doing as a college or universities in general, to prepare our future leaders? And what do you feel that are some of the key skills that you’re hearing from organizations and hiring individuals now? What are some of those things that maybe can be taught, can’t be taught that students need to walk away, not only with the degree, but more from knowledge? Outside of the tactical of their, their discipline.

Bradley: I have four. One, first one is pretty straightforward. I mean, you’ve got to be proficient using these digital tools and technology. That is the way of the future and the way it is now and the way of the future. It doesn’t matter what job you’re in.

And it’s not just familiarity or with those tools, it’s also learning new systems and being able to configure and kind of customize the tools that you use to work in specific ways. So I think one digital technology too, and here in Poole college, we’re fortunate to have a great program in this, and this is a buzzword too, but you’re going to have to be comfortable with analytics and data., and I think it’s not just analyzing data that we teach here in Poole. It’s actually the ability to ask the right questions that can be addressed using data analytics. So data science, yes, that’s important, but more so data analytics, leadership I think is even more important.

So that’s two, three of course, near and dear to my heart. As a management professor, you’re going to need business and management skills that’s that never goes out of style. Everybody’s got to be able to lead in some capacity or another, and just about every job. And of course today, that ability to lead remotely and hybrid workforces will be key going forward.

As we’ve learned in the pandemic, it’s not natural for a lot of people to lead that way. It’s just not, we’re, we’re trained to lead. Face-to-face we’re trying to do the things we’re comfortable with. This has been a very uncomfortable shift for a lot of leaders and we need to get people to be more comfortable with this new way of working. Some will be face-to-face, but some will be remote. 

And lastly, not an area I spend a lot of time in, but design thinking is an important part of a lot of what we do in just about every realm. I think design thinking originally came from product design, how to improve product designs. A company called IDEO is kind of credited with this notion of design thinking. This would have you go through a series, the steps when you’re designing a product like empathizing with the client, defining the need, ideating, prototyping, and so on, but it’s really moved beyond product design to kind of affect everything we do. 

In fact, we have a course here in Poole college called Designing Your Life, taught by Lee Shamblin, our director of leadership, where she takes design thinking principles and talks about how to design your life. So I think those design and creative skills will be paramount. So to me, for the next five to 10 years out, I think those four would be absolutely key. 

Don: One thing that I would say across disciplines is we all have to know and understand how to sell our ideas to different stakeholder. I think that, and especially what I’m seeing in, in gen Z in particular is there is a bias towards the value of their ideas just because they have them. There’s this bias that, because I think this way, right you ought to get me, and if you don’t, therefore you’re wrong. 

And that’s fine, as I counsel and talk to young folks in their career, except for the fact that you’re not in the decision-making role right now. So independent of how you feel, you have to message the way you feel, what you think, the way you think something should be done, to the person that gets to decide until you’re the decider.

And I think that in the reciprocal, those of us in different generations or different roles in the organization have to understand that we can’t just mandate change, we have to sell our ideas upward, downward in the silo, that no one does something with their full self and emotive impact, just because they’re told to do it anymore.

And that’s something that we all have to understand and learn, but as we’re coming out of business school, or if we’re coming out of a university, we have to understand that, yes, our voice matters, but our voice doesn’t carry the decision just because we’ve said it emphatically, you have to learn how to communicate, why someone should move in your direction. 

The second thing that I would say in terms of, as a university of what you can do is expose your students to industry leaders, not just to give the seminar, but that the students can spend a little time with them. And so one of the things that was really cool and, and, the MBA teams had me do a talk, on leadership in the next economy, and then after that talk a few weeks later, we did a Q and A with about 12 students that had more questions, and we were able to spend even more time just getting to know each other and digging into some of the questions that they had. 

I think that it’s really important for the emerging leaders to recognize that the future leaders want them to succeed in a major way that we’re for them, right, that we’re encouraged by their ideation, that we want them to lead the organizations into a different and better place. And then those of us in that may have a little more gray hair, we have some good ideas too, and that sometimes it’s that third rail of innovation that we find together, not who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s what’s that, that new thing that we can come up to. 

And then the final thing that I would say is that I’m looking for people that are competitive learners. The world of business is moving so quickly. Societal changes are moving so quickly that we need people that really can adjust and respond and deploy new ways of thinking, not just technology, but new ways of thinking very, very quickly. And so the slower one is to accept and assimilate and learn, the less value driver you will be in the future and that’s unfortunate, but it’s just true.

Bradley: Don, I think you did that talk with the MBAs over lunch? It was a lunch talk. 

Don: Yes, it was.

Bradley: The reason I remember is because I, I was on after you for four hours. So my lesson is never followed Donald Thompson, in it, you make sure you go first, because he’s incredible, incredible speaker, so I’m not sure. I think I was a bit of a letdown, but I did my best. 

Don: You did fine. 

Jenny: I appreciate it.

I want to wrap this conversation with a more personal question to the both of you. So I asked this with, this is our second season of the podcast., and I’m always fascinated to hear the answer to this question. We’ve had all a variety of guests, right. Our key demographic, obviously our college students.

I want you both to go back probably wasn’t that long ago, but go back to being 21 and 22, okay, and knowing what you know now, what would you tell your 21, 22-year-old self? What piece of advice would you give to yourself?

Bradley: What came the top of my head was, you know, as I entered my career and started contributing, you know, to organizations, I think I would tell myself, to not be afraid to make mistakes and go a little easier on yourself when you made those mistakes. Because when you’re, you know, coming out, you’re trying to be perfect.

You’re trying to impress, you’re trying to, you know, set the tone and do everything the right way. Just knowing that, you know, you’re not going to do everything the right way and you’re going to make mistakes and the ability to have a sense of humor about it and laugh at yourself and give yourself a little, you know, we call it these days, self-compassion, give yourself a little room for failure because otherwise you’re not going to learn anything.

And so in the moment I didn’t, I couldn’t grasp that. I just beat myself up for making mistakes, not doing the right thing here, letting someone down there, and what I really wish I had known as, hey, this is all part of it. This is all part of the learning journey. You’re going to get so much more out of screwing things up than you are out of doing everything perfectly because you’re not going to learn in that sense. So that’s what I would tell myself.

Don: that’s a good one. For me, it’s that phrase, your network is your net worth. And I would have invested at an earlier age in cultivating growing and adding value to my network, because you know, we all know the phrases. It’s not what you know. it’s who you know, but you kind of say that in, in like a negative state, right?

Like it’s not what I know because I’m smart. It’s who, you know, that’s why someone else got ahead. You kind of say it is, it almost feels like an excuse, if you will. I would flip that, and I would spend more intentional time cultivating relationships. Well in advance of meaning I’ve found as an older, a more seasoned professional, most leaders will take a cup of coffee with people that are hungry to learn. 

They’ll do a 20-minute zoom session with people that are eager to understand their industry, that there are tons of people that want to give to others, in information and contacts and network. I didn’t really understand that my first 10, 15 years, I thought everything was competition, right? Like I, and that’s fine, but it, if I really understood that the cooperation amongst the truly successful is really, really strong, I would have tried to get in that stream a lot faster and earlier in my career.

Jenny: Those are great responses. Thank you both for being here today. I think you’ve given us some good things to think about. Our leaders definitely have some big challenges ahead., but I think, I think this is some good stuff that they can take away. So thank you both for making the time to join us.

Bradley: Sure I want to thank Don as well, not just for doing this podcast, but he’s such a great asset for NC State. And he’s so plugged in to a lot of things that we’re doing. Like we’ve already mentioned working with the MBAs and coming into exec ed and doing these talks. And so people like me really appreciate you, Don being able to have that connection that we have with you at NC state.

You’re, you’re just invaluable. Really appreciate it. 

Don: Thank you so much for saying that. And thank you so much for having me. This has been really great.

About the Poole Podcast

The Poole Podcast is a think and do conversation about the relationship between academics and industry. Each episode will share research and ideas from inside the classroom from our incredible NC State faculty and explore how it’s being translated into practice. Released every two weeks on Monday.