Blog Thought Leadership

Why Every [Excellent] Leader Is a Behavioral Scientist

Often, leaders come to us looking for the answer in their continual quest to improve inclusion and diversity. Yet, my experience in the inclusion and diversity space has taught me that, more often than not, the secret to being a truly great leader is in asking the right questions, and worrying less about having the right answers. Tapping into the power of asking the right questions is game changing.

But how do we find the right questions? The first step is to adopt the mindset of a behavioral and social scientist, focused on both individual human behaviors and the social contexts surrounding them.

With this mindset in hand, we become data gatherers and experimenters. We commit to continually analyzing the data and tweaking our experiments so we can learn, both from our own trials and the best research being done today. We take measurable actions based on informed insights so we don’t unconsciously step into the vast array of biases that can range from racial to anchoring or confirmation biases, any of which can lead to a bad decision.

Here are three questions to consider when thinking about your own inclusion and diversity programs:

1) It’s what you do with the science that matters

The term “psychological safety” became big after Google did their own study on why some teams were higher performing than others (no surprise: it had nothing to do with where the employees went to college). Harvard’s Dr. Amy Edmondson pioneered this research in 1999, but the way Google applied and replicated the science moved the needle on team performance across the company. Seek out the studies and resources others have done and created, and take from them what is applicable to your team. Or just try a twist on   the science that  seems intriguing and important for your team. Start small, so the worst case scenario is that it if doesn’t work, it is an opportunity to grow, and you try something else.

How are you applying the science in practical ways that improve team performance?

2) Know what you don’t know

We’ve all seen teams who—despite good intentions—are simply guessing as to where to spend their time and budget. What are realistic inclusion and diversity goals for your team? What is a stretch goal, and how much work does that require to deliver? By gathering local and national labor market data, creating a clear timeline, and using a framework of evidence-based strategies, you can create diversity representation goals that are both achievable and grounded. To succeed, we have to start with clear data, and then build targeted interventions to have the highest impact.

Do you have the data you need to create achievable goals?

3) Co-create and dump assumptions

The addition of a new perspective to a team’s already diverse backgrounds and life experiences will enhance the empathy and creative output of the project, not to mention save time. If you have all the same players on yet another project, we humbly suggest including a fresh viewpoint. As one fancy-brand client of ours bluntly put it: “It’s not that we think your consultants are all smarter [than our employees], but by being outsiders you all question things we have grown accustomed to.”

How are you using new viewpoints to accelerate ideas and actions?

When we ask questions like a behavioral scientist, we can improve team performance by creating and meeting achievable goals. This is key, because when it comes to complex problems we don’t arrive at the perfect solution, rather we are always experimenting with better ways of working, one good question at a time.

Blog Thought Leadership

Making Parental Leave Work

Babies = Improved Teamwork (Wait, What?)

Bad news headlines get clicks. I get it. Well thank you for being a rebel, as this is a true story of a woman whose team was thrilled when she got pregnant…because she had an awesome plan.

Alex was the VP of Marketing expecting her second child in the midst of the busy season at her retail technology company. She wanted four solid months of baby-bonding time with no conference calls, no emails — and no guilt.

So how did she meet her hopes as a parent AND keep her team from feeling left with an “empty seat”? Instead of feeling it was a mini crisis, she saw her leave as an opportunity for developing her team. Here was her easy two-step plan:

1) First, to fill part of her role, Alex tapped Brian, her trusted high performer, who was hoping for both more access to the executive team and a step up in responsibility.

2) Alex asked my team to find an interim Marketing Director/VP who could take on Brian’s “old” job, and a few key areas of Alex’s job where Brian would need more support while ramping up.

Results? Crushed it! With just a small amount of planning, the team hit their business metrics and, when Alex came back from leave, she said the team was performing “better than ever” and she felt grounded in her solid time off with her baby. The win/win/win is totally possible, as:

  • The team hit their key goals;
  • Brian got executive exposure and challenging work, while feeling supported in the stretch role;
  • Alex felt terrific about her company’s support of her during this life changing time;
  • and Alex returned to lead a team that wanted to follow her leadership — at work and at home!

Of course you don’t need my team or any team to help you figure out the interim solution side…it’s a simple exercise of assessing your team strengths, and “designing for the fluid workforce of the future” (an idea I love to share in my talks), because breaking jobs down into projects, and rotating people on those projects is a win/win.

There is always a way to do what matters most to people — once personal and professional priorities are clear. Get creative when it comes to making interim development assignments and providing support during transitions.

What positive stories will you tell, oh, about nine months from now?

Blog Thought Leadership

The Science of Having it ALL

Control. We love it. We need it. And not just the so-called Type A people — we all need it. Especially when there is more to us than just ourselves. As life gets full, with spouses, children, and/or aging relatives who depend on us, feeling in control (or out of control) can shape how we feel about life. While there may be a lot of things outside of our control, work doesn’t have to be one of them.

We all want autonomy

Maybe a better word than “control” is “autonomy” — the ability to have at least some sway over your direction, how you spend your time, or where you spend it. It has to do with self-direction, self-determination, even our intrinsic motivation. It’s about being able to make choices and act on them. It’s the difference between doing something of your own accord, rather than out of micromanagement, fear, business politics, the super fun list goes on.

Whatever you want to call it, an abundance of science clearly shows the positives that come with autonomy — job satisfaction, productivity and engagement, and general happiness. Autonomy is about where we work (from home, office or coffee shops,) when we work (late start for engineers, anyone?), and with whom we work (having a friend at work is like earning $100,000 more each year). Savoring some level of autonomy in your work can be the difference between showing up early because you want to, and showing up late, wishing you just stayed in bed anyway.

We all want to belong

There’s a part of everyone (even the most independent, I-only-work-in-coffee-shops-on-projects-I-choose consultants) who yearn to be part of something greater than ourselves. Call it the team gene, not because it’s actually genetic, but because it sounds lovely and almost rhymes.

Here’s the rub: autonomy isn’t everything. More than the ability to make our own decisions at work, we all want and need to belong. Belonging isn’t just collaboration with others; it’s feeling valued and respected as our authentic selves, while feeling connected to something bigger than ourselves. Research shows that belonging reduces stress and increases work motivation and performance. Kate Earle, Chief Learning Officer at Quiet Revolution, shared with me that “even introverts, who we know crave less stimulating environments and embrace solitude, need meaningful interaction with others to help bring their ideas to life”. At the neural level, scientific belonging expert Lauren Aguilar shares, we are “wired to belong.”

A real story: autonomy and belonging

My need for both autonomy and belonging is what drove me to start Forshay. In my first high-tech job, I worked for a company that sold high-speed DSL to individuals and companies. We’d sell you stuff so you could work from home, but our CEO didn’t want us to work from home. Talk about cognitive dissonance. I had very little autonomy across the board, and for a while, I gulped that down like a horse pill and marched on.

But then, everything changed for me in an instant. My brother was killed in a plane crash. He was only 37. I was 31 and eight months pregnant with my first baby. Suddenly, having some autonomy in my life was no longer a “nice to have” — I needed it like oxygen.

I became a zealot for “rethinking work and life”, and I found out I wasn’t alone. There was, and still is, a huge population of people who feel that they either don’t have the right amount of autonomy (my challenge with traditional corporate America), or the right amount of belonging (those who went freelance, or stepped out of work altogether, but didn’t want to).

Real examples: LinkedIn & Airbnb

The good news is, there are some leaders who are paying attention to the science and embracing their employees’ needs for both autonomy and belonging. Pat Wadors, from LinkedIn, was kind enough to sit with me last year for an interview on my Future of Work research. She shared stories of how LinkedIn is committed to understanding and making room for people to explicitly solve for both needs, and codified her learnings on belonging in this Harvard Business Review article. And for autonomy? She shared how LinkedIn is teaching managers how to inquire with their team members about what kind of autonomy is meaningful to them and fits the needs of the business. For example, a sales team may have significant autonomy of where they work, but the facilities team may want to vary their schedules.

Being fair is not being the same, it’s about setting the context for individuals and teams to have the conversation, and providing ongoing support to make choices that are win/win.

Another leader paving the way for humans to be their awesome, full human selves is Andrea Robb at Airbnb. As a company, belonging is central to Airbnb’s brand, both externally and internally — it’s a community of travelers seeking authentic local experiences and accommodations and a community of employees who mirror that company mission. Andrea started her role at Airbnb as a part-time independent consultant solving on her need for autonomy and quickly learned that Airbnb’s culture allowed her to have both autonomy and belonging. For autonomy, Airbnb encouraged her to manage her time around where and when she would do her best work, while explicitly creating belonging by “hosting me end-to-end as a person who they wanted to feel welcomed. They did not start with: Let me tell you about Airbnb and all that you need to know to be successful here. It was more about — who are you and what do you know that we don’t?” Andrea’s experience of belonging started with being seen and respected, and then connecting her work to the larger purpose of Airbnb.

To be sure, many more companies and leaders out there are paying attention. And our work is never done — there is always room for positive evolution. As Brene Brown said, “we are wired for struggle” and the key is choosing leaders who understand this and are creating space to solve it.

Having it all is the Future of Work, and leaders who solve on this faster than others will be the leaders never lacking in followers.

What do you need more of?

Need more autonomy? More belonging? Take a look at your own work, and consider which elements of work autonomy/belonging are most important to you. From there, negotiate on the mutual win. A lot of times, managers will see that the net positives for you are also benefits for them. For example, spending less time commuting, and more time with work colleagues who bring out your best work, can improve your performance — making both you and your executives more fulfilled.

But the first step is to ask. I triple-dog dare you (does that help?).

The daring of Brene Brown + badass negotiations strategy from Maggie Neale = one powerful combination.

Go make it real.

Blog Thought Leadership

When Your Family Life (Completely, Absolutely, Utterly) Changes Your Work Direction.

(Excerpt from a live interview, captured in this podcast, and edited for print.) 

When we drive cars we think we’re in control. We don’t take stock of our lives, our impact, and what we want to say to our families if we’re about to die. But when we’re in an airplane, and there’s a little turbulence, we all have this flash of…does my life matter, who do I want to say goodbye to, who should I call? 

Maybe the good part about flying is that sense of self-awareness, but how do we maintain that awareness and keep asking ourselves the important questions without the fear? What if we had quarterly or even annual off-sites with ourselves around what matters most — am I on track? What do I want to say to my loved ones? Maybe that would help us say it now and not wait. Maybe we take that anxiety that we feel when there is turbulence on a plane and, without the fear, act on it when we’re not on a plane. So maybe that’s the lesson…Take action. Tell your loved ones. And make sure you’re living the life that you want to live right now. 

The phone call that changed everything for me, was about to come. 

When I first got pregnant it was super exciting. I assumed I would work up until I went into labor, have a short maternity leave, and go back to work. Like most first-time parents, probably, I had no idea what to really expect. I thought that even though I was working really long hours that Silicon Valley demanded, if I could just have a little flexibility, I could manage being a new working mom. 

I was working for a telecommunications company which sold voice-over IP and DSL. So it’s all about flexible work. But we had cycled through a couple CEOs and the current CEO didn’t believe in telecommuting even though we were selling telecommuting. 

We were living in San Francisco and I was commuting down to the South Bay. I had come in with an agreement when I took the job that I would work from home Fridays as even without kids it was easily three hours on the road each day. But one Friday when the CEO was walking around, he said you know what, the parking lot is too empty. Everyone needs to come in from now on. And I thought wow this is really not going to work. (That was the first shoe to drop.) 

To prepare for my maternity leave, I was working twice as hard, doubling up on the work so I wouldn’t be leaving people in a lurch. My sister called and said, “Hey, it is mom’s 60th birthday and since that is kind of a golden-ish birthday, let’s all surprise her and fly in.” My brother was a pilot in Toledo, Ohio, so he could easily fly in. But for me, I was pregnant, and working so hard. I had all these goals that I had to get done before I had the baby. I wanted to celebrate, but I didn’t know how I was going to make it work. Then I thought about my brother and all he had been through during his life, and I decided that if he could make it work, then so could I. 

You see, we grew up in a beautiful small town in Minnesota. My brother Will was born first – definitely the golden child. My sister was born four years later and she has middle child syndrome — and she will even possibly admit that to you — and I’m the baby. 

When my brother went off to college, he came back during a break and was very sick. I think I was 12 or 13 at the time. We first thought it was the flu but I actually have this vivid memory of him lying on the couch and being so sick that he was spitting into a cup. I remember being mad at him–like, stop it, that’s so gross (appropriate for a 12 year, I think?). 

But he wasn’t getting better, so my mom took him for tests. Then they called her on the phone. The doctor told my mom over the phone that he had Leukemia. Who calls you on the phone and tells you your son has a disease that 90 percent of people die from (back then)? At least that’s what my 12-year old brain remembers. 

The memories I have of him in the hospital centered on him being in this contraption called a Laminar Airflow Room. It’s basically a bubble and you had to put your arm through a plastic wall to hold his hand. You couldn’t touch him because they were taking his white blood count down to nothing and then hoping that it would build back up without cancer. 

I also remember there was a picture of a fancy car on the wall. My dad had this idea that since life was short — we were going to buy an inspirational car. So, he did it. He drove the car to the hospital parking lot and my brother looked out the window and would imagine himself driving that car someday. My dad was definitely into positive psychology, although I’m not sure that was very popular back then (midwestern culture was decidedly practical, in my experience). 

My brother said he always believed he would make it, even though it wasn’t rational. If you looked at the data he should have been very pessimistic. These were early days for Leukemia treatments (bone marrow transplants were still experimental). I think he was the only person who we saw walk out of his ward in the hospital. They would not call his cancer as “cured”, ever. They would only call it cancer-free. And so doctors would talk about how many years in remission. So we hit one year remission, two years in remission. And when we hit five years in remission we had a party. The thing that came out of this all was a very tight sense of family. 

So as we graduated from Leukemia into my sister and me going to college and getting married, I would say we knew that life was not a guarantee. My brother, after his Leukemia, he wanted to live life large ’cause he knew he was very lucky. So he became a skydiver and a base jumper. He wasn’t courting death — he always did it safely. But he knew that life could be short. 

[Archival tape of Will in Norway] 

My name is Will Forshay, we’ve come halfway around the world to Lysebotn, Norway. Today is base jumping day. We’re gonna jump 2,800 feet at 120 MPH straight down towards the beautiful water. I can’t wait! 

My brother knew that he had to marry the thing that he loved most with his day job. He took his love of flying that he had from when he was a kid and basically said I’m going to become a pilot. He wasn’t just going to have fun on the weekends. He was a pilot for a company that no one had ever heard of–essentially like FedEx (but for machinery parts) — flying all over the country. 

So with this tight sense of family, I made it to Minnesota for my mom’s 60th birthday. I think it was my fifth month of pregnancy, but actually I don’t really remember. The beauty of pregnancy brain. Leaving my mom’s party was fun because I knew I’d see everyone again soon when I had the baby. 

I was about eight months pregnant when the call came. I was excited about the baby. I was positive. And I had gone home from work mid-day. I remember as I was driving home my husband called me–which he never does mid-day. He said casually, “What are you doing?” I was a little confused and just said, “I’m going to go home to take a nap.” He said, “Oh, okay great.” And, I thought, that’s it? He’s said, “Yeah, I think I might come home early.” He never comes home early. I should have known. 

I go home and I take my nap. And then he comes and wakes me up from the nap and I can see that something’s wrong. And he says, “You need to call your dad.” And I could barely ask, “Who died?” 

I was so mad at my husband that I had to wait every second to know who it was. And I was just going through the list of who it could be in my head… 

So I called my dad and he tells me that Will was killed in a plane crash. I said, “Are you sure? I mean, are you really sure?” And he softly said, “Yes.” 

I flew to the crash site in Toledo, Ohio. It had been icy and snowy. When we toured the crash, I remember one of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) officers saying that we probably didn’t want to go any further because apparently we might still see some things that would upset us. It was this weird feeling of — you get to see more than I get to see? It’s my loved one. 

Rationally, you know they’re trying to protect you — they’ve done this before. You’ve never done this before. You’re just kind of walking through a haze. There was a lot of scrutiny and a lot of officials (this was shortly after 9/11), and yet personally we were suffering, trying to figure out how to grapple with our new reality. The de-icers apparently hadn’t been turned on and that was the reason for the crash. It took us two years to learn that from the NTSB when they did their investigation. 

At the time, I really didn’t feel a lot. I actually felt numb. I remember feeling more worried about my mom. I suffered for her and my dad because burying a child is not the way it’s supposed to be. When we were at his apartment cleaning out his things, I remember my mom crying and I remember my mom talking about my pregnancy. At some point she said, “I know you love your work and I don’t want you to stop working. I just want you to reconsider how you work because you’re about to have your first son and I just lost my first son.” I remember walking away from that weekend thinking that everything has changed. All my assumptions went out the door and I knew I had to redesign my life. 

Once I had Alex, I dove into new motherhood–and then I slowly started processing the grief. It was an overwhelming time. Sometimes I would put it on a shelf, and then other times, I would just fall apart. When Will first died, I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear my pain so I really did keep it to myself. I had this preconceived notion of what’s socially acceptable to talk about as a new parent — and then only a few people got to hear my whole my big mess. 

When I went back to work after maternity leave, I was looking for answers. How am I going to be a dedicated worker and be a parent in a way that I would have no regrets? I couldn’t find a path at that company so I started to talk to other moms. It was wonderful to have other new moms who were asking the same questions. We wanted to use our experience and our ideas and put them into play, but we wanted to do it in a way that allowed us to also feel connected to our kids. It was actually on my second maternity leave that I came up with the idea that I’m going to start my own company. It took some time for me to get past the grief and get into action mode. 

My background was essentially in Human Resources. I was always focused on the intersection of how do people behave and then how does that fit within a company’s structure for making money. I saw a breakdown where women were not staying in the workforce at a high seniority level. These were women who had advanced degrees and amazing work experience–choosing not to work because they didn’t see a path forward, where they could do the work they loved and be the parent they wanted to be. It seemed like it was an absolutely fixable problem. I thought, “I want to solve for this.” 

First, I tried to understand more about work. When I dug into the data, I started to see that my questions and my concerns were in the bell-curve of science. A lot of people were asking these questions and there were not a lot of solutions. We all are on the same page of wanting to do great work. But how we do it is the problem. 

My first business was about experienced professionals who wanted to do flexible, project-based work. We had some early adopters, progressive companies that got the mission right away. They said, “We want top talent and we’re open to having that look different.” It could be project-based work. It could be part-time work. Today, I’m the founder and CEO of Forshay, a talent recruiting and consulting firm, and I started something called WorkLab, which is a design thinking accelerator about how we make work better using small design experiments. With a focus on how to structure work so that everyone thrives, we also provide diversity and inclusion consulting. I’m also on the advisory board of Stanford Clayman which is the gender research arm of Stanford. 

When I built my first company, I thought this was a “working mom” problem. But when I heard from everyone out there, it was baby boomers, millennials, triathletes and people who are taking care of aging parents. This isn’t a working mom issue — this is a human-centered issue. 

When I started to do research, I was trying to solve the question for myself as well as for others–which is, there’s a lot of destabilizing things that we can’t control. There’s only so many things we can control and way more that we can’t. So what can we control–and how do we stay focused on that? 

Financial security is not the same as job security but we often conflate them. We think if we have a job then we are financially stable. Reality is there’s still a lot outside of our control with the right job. A lot of big companies have surprisingly gone away in an instant. Job security is somewhat of a myth — it never really existed even though we kind of think it did. Financial security could be–how do we solve problems in an economically rational way with multiple streams of revenue? For example, I might freelance for one company and I might have a part-time job with another company doing something different. How do I think about my income in a diverse way, similar to the way I think about my savings? We wouldn’t put all of our money in one stock, right? We should all have diverse portfolios. If we actually think about it in that way–it’s hopefully less scary. We also have to move our thinking from fear and scarcity to abundance and where our creative processing is. Let’s solve problems. Let’s ask questions and stay intentional. What do I need to do right now that ties to what I will need to do in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years. If we go up a level–it’s the service, it’s the impact. Those are, maybe, the words to use to replace the word “job”. That, I think, will keep us nimble for the future of work and whatever it holds. 

When I get on a plane, I do think about my brother. When I see the pilot, I see the life I wish he still had. We’re all going to lose someone, and probably most of us already have. I know my story is unusual because people don’t normally lose their loved ones in a plane crash. But at the same time, everyone’s going to go through this. I think about this for my kids. I don’t wish them any of these hard experiences that shaped me, but I know they will come on their own because that is life. I wish for people that life (and death) happen in a more linear way–the way expectations are. But the reality is– that’s often not going to happen. When we think of life like it “should” be, I think that’s the big miss. 

We should design for messy, and tell ourselves it’s going to be chaos. We should ask ourselves — what am I going to put into the world? How am I going to be intentional? How do I stay fluid and responsive and open? I think the only thing that “should be” is love and taking care of others–everything else is a little bit of a wild ride. 

Briana Breen’s voice: Will Forshay set a goal when he was 10 years old to earn his official BASE jump number. To get a BASE number, a person completes jumps from four categories of fixed objects: building, antenna, span, and Earth . . .The last two jumps on Will’s quest were captured by a documentary crew filming a reality show called, “DreamChasers.” For Will’s “Earth” jump, he and the crew traveled to Norway–where BASE jumping is legal. 

On the day of the jump, they hike 2.5 hours uphill to the top of Kjerag mountain. Kjerag is a mecca for BASE jumpers because it has a cliff with a 3000 foot drop straight into the fjord below. When Will and the team reach the jump spot, the wind is too high. And so they wait. As the sun begins to set, they get the go-ahead. Dressed in a white jumpsuit, a camera strapped to his helmet, and a single parachute in his backpack, Will walks to the edge of the cliff. Below him is a deep inlet of water from the North Sea. His landing target is a small peninsula jutting from the mountain’s base into the fjord. 

Will has traveled across the globe for what will be about 20 seconds of freefall at 120 MPH. If everything goes to plan, he’ll deploy his parachute around 1000 feet and sail gently to the ground . . .Will turns to a camera to offer final words. 

[Archival tape of Will in Norway] 

Will Forshay: Mom and Dad, Sisters, all the Baldwin friends, Centennial friends, Moundsview friends, jump friends . .4, 3, 2, 1, see ya! (music, sound of wind, sound of parachute opening) Woo hoo! Alright! Seems like about perfect. 3, 2, 1 (sound of him landing on ground and running to slow down). 

Woman’s voice: That was beautiful! 

Will Forshay: Thank you! It was beautiful. Just beautiful. There’s really very little way to explain. 

Stepping off at 3000 feet over, looking across, down at the Fjord. I’ve waited over 20 years to do that big cliff and today was the day. What a good day! What a good day! 

Briana Breen: Will did end up getting his BASE number. In 2001, he jumped from a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles (legally–with permits) and was officially awarded BASE number 702–as the 702nd person in the world recorded to have completed the jumps required. 

This excerpt is from a podcast done by Briana Breen which you can listen to in full here: