Why Great Leadership Starts With Open Hearted Conversations
In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Edward Sullivan. Edward has been coaching and advising start-up founders, Fortune 10 executives, and heads of state for over 15 years. His clients include executives from Google, Salesforce, Slack, and dozens of other fast-growth companies. He holds an MBA from Wharton and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School. Edward is CEO & President of the renowned executive coaching consultancy, Velocity. He also has a new book launching on June 21, 2022, called — Leading With Heart: 5 Conversations That Unlock Creativity, Purpose, and Results.
Right now, workplaces are struggling to build high-morale and connected cultures. How do you retain and inspire your team? By leading with heart and sparking authentic conversation.
After thousands of hours of interviews and coaching sessions with leaders of many of the world’s most prominent firms, authors John Baird and Edward Sullivan found that top leaders don’t adhere to simple formulas and performance hacks. Instead, they discovered that these leaders help people unlock their creativity, purpose, and results by having conversations that make them feel productive, safe, and appreciated. In this episode, I talk with Edward Sullivan about why great leadership starts with open-hearted conversation.
Questions I ask Edward Sullivan:
- [1:33] What’s the opposite of leading with heart?
- [1:53] Is leading with ego how a lot of people have been taught or led?
- [2:40] What does it take for someone to say that they are a leader?
- [3:58] You did some pretty exhaustive research to come to the conclusions you did in your new book — could you explain your research process?
- [5:24] Would you say that the great resignation is a bit of an indictment on leadership?
- [7:23] It’s challenging to be a leader until you clean up your own house, and I think that starts with self-awareness — do you agree with that and if so, how do you balance that?
- [9:14] What are the five questions that you talk about in the book?
- [10:31] How do you start creating a culture of this openness if it has existed before?
- [11:51] Is there an approach that works better in the workplace when it comes to the setting in which you talk about these questions?
- [13:13] How do we actually help people understand what their needs are and what their fears are?
- [14:20] How could you bring this work in earlier into an organization for say a new hire?
- [16:03] This work is more than the five conversations, it’s daily consistent work — could you talk a little bit about the tools you give folks inside of their organization to use to help with this?
- [17:57] What’s the balance of being able to use the framework and use it appropriately?
- [20:29] Can you repair trust?
- [21:19] Where can people find out more about your work?
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John Jantsch (00:49): Hello, and welcome to another episode of the duct tape marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Edward Sullivan. He's been coaching in advising startup founders, fortune 10 executives and heads of state for over 15 years. His clients include executives from Google, Salesforce, slack, and dozens of other fast growth companies. He holds an MBA from Wharton and an M PA from the Harvard Kennedy school. He's a CEO and president of the renowned executive coaching consultancy velocity. And he's also the co-author of a book. We're gonna talk about today leading with heart five conversations that unlock creativity, purpose, and results. So Edward, welcome to the show.
Edward Sullivan (01:31): Thanks so much great to be here.
John Jantsch (01:33): So let's start with leading with heart as opposed to leading with what's the opposite.
Edward Sullivan (01:41): Well, leading with heart is when you're being open and curious, and I guess it's leading with fear leading with ego is how a lot of people go about it, unfortunately.
John Jantsch (01:50): Yeah. And in your research, of course, I'm, I'm guessing that unfortunately that's how a lot of people were taught or that's how a lot of people have been led. Isn't it?
Edward Sullivan (01:57): Well, you know, I think a lot of people when they don't know better, yeah. They go back to maybe what they saw when they were coming up. And I think a lot of leaders today came up in the eighties and nineties and a lot of high pressure environments. And they were led by people who led by fear, who led with ego and they've learned to do the same. So our research indicated that the leaders who actually get the best results out of their employees lead with heart. And we explored that in the book,
John Jantsch (02:28): You know, a lot of entrepreneurs maybe didn't go through any kind of formal leadership program or were mentored or
Edward Sullivan (02:45): You're right. A lot of our, our clients come to us because they're really good developers. They're good engineers, right? They're good product designers. And they built something. People liked it. And now suddenly they have to build a company around it and they never took that class at school. You know, the how to lead people class. And the first in instinct is to try to control everything. Yeah. When you're the founder, this is your baby. You know, you wanna control everything from the font to the color, to the, how people talk about it, to potential customers. And we've learned that people need a little bit more freedom than that. They need to feel some, some sense of owner. Should they need to be able to show up as themselves at work. And it's really incumbent upon leaders of these firms to give people that freedom and give people that support. So they do feel themselves.
John Jantsch (03:37): Yeah. And I tell you just personal experience as a leader, it's exhausting trying to hold onto everything. You're trying to think you have all the answers. Right. And so I, I think it could be very freeing once people go, oh, they actually did it better. Or nobody died here. Right. I mean, so exactly it really. So, so tell me, I mean, leadership books, that's a huge category of books, probably growing every year. You did some pretty exhaustive research to come to the conclusions you came to. You wanna explain that research process a little bit?
Edward Sullivan (04:05): Sure, sure. So my business partner and I are practitioners, we're executive coaches. We run velocity, it's a firm with 25 coaches around the world. We've got hundreds of clients. And over our combined 40 years of, uh, working with top executives, we were kind of performing the research on along the way. Right. We didn't even know it. So our research process was actually going back through our notes, going back through files and saying, what is it that really ties all these great leaders together? What's that common? We're not journalists, we're not researchers by trade. We're more practitioners who backed into doing some research about this. And we found that there are five core conversations that great leaders are having, that enable them to lead with heart that enable them to have these connected conversations. And they're conversations that we're not used to having in the office. Yeah. Right. Because they're about what do we need as people? What do we need to feel creative and resourceful? What fears might be holding us back, right. It's about what are the, uh, desires that we have that really motivate us, but can also derail us if we take them a little bit too far,
John Jantsch (05:10): We also talked about, I was just gonna say, I wanna unpack those each or the five conversations I, I kind of wanted to, I wanted to frame it a little bit though, in, in what's what's very topical right now is, you know, we're calling it all kinds of things, a great resignation and whatnot. I mean, is that a bit of a, is that a bit of a, an indictment
Edward Sullivan (05:36): I mean, that is exactly right. And research has been done recently that showed that we think people are leaving because they want more freedom or they want more money. They want more equity, but 10 times more important is that they're leaving toxic work cultures. Yeah. Right. They feel burned out. They feel unappreciated. They feel unseen. Obviously doing all of our work over zoom. Hasn't helped much in the last couple of years. Right. But there are things that leaders can be doing to create this, these connections with people, even over zoom. And they're simply not doing them. We get on a call and we say, great, what do we have to talk about today? Let's do our work. Okay. Enough. And then we get off the call as quickly as possible. Right? Yeah. We're not creating that connective tissue anymore. And that's what people are missing.
John Jantsch (06:22): Yeah. I, uh, we have a client that, you know, like a lot of people are trying to hire people and, and trying everything, you know, running ads in all the places. And, you know, we just, we actually we're testing ads and they add that. We ran that today for two years now has been by far and away the winner, it just, the, the title just says respect
Edward Sullivan (06:50): I'm gonna write that one down here
John Jantsch (06:52): Do, go for it. So, so you started to unpack the five conversations and you talked about, you used words, like what people need, the fears that are holding them back. We're gonna get to the P word purpose eventually. Yeah. Here's the thing that not enough people say is that I don't think you can do those things as a leader until you clean up your own house. I mean, you get rid of your own fears. You get, you understand your own purpose. Right. And I think a lot of books try to a lot of books, try to say, here's the roadmap, you know, but not enough say, uh, self, it starts with self-awareness. So, you know, how do you balance that, that thought? Or maybe you disagree with it?
Edward Sullivan (07:27): No, don't I, I don't disagree at all. I fatally agree. Yeah. In fact, we, we call the book basically a, a 250 page coaching conversation with one of us, right. With both of us, because really in Le in reading the book, we're asking you these questions, you need to do all the work yourself. Yeah. And be comfortable answering these questions yourself with your employees, to be able to have those conversations. You can't just go into it into a room with someone and say like, what are you afraid of?
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John Jantsch (09:15): So let's, let's just pretend
Edward Sullivan (09:27): Yeah. Yeah. So the five questions that we found in our research and you've, you've outlined them as well are around needs. What do you need to be resourceful and creative? Yeah. Fears, what fears might be holding you back desires. And this is like, what do you really want out of life? And how could those core desires potentially derail you? We also talk a lot about gifts. What are the gifts you have that are unrealized or unexpressed in this current role? And then once we've had those four conversations, we're ready to have the conversation around purpose.
John Jantsch (10:00): Yeah. O obviously I shouldn't say obviously in many cases, uh, people have had that relationship. Maybe somebody's been there for a long time. I mean, they just know each other they've unpacked over the years, but a lot of times somebody's just, you know, managing somebody, they do, they get their 30 minutes a week, you know, with them. I mean, how do you really start getting into areas that maybe both parties are uncomfortable with, but probably the, you know, the superior, you know, perhaps seen as the superiors less uncomfortable with, I mean, you know, how do you start? How do you start creating a culture, I guess, of this openness that has maybe if it hasn't existed.
Edward Sullivan (10:37): Yeah. You know, we talk a lot about culture and our work and in the book and it is, it is a great challenge. And it's also an incredible opportunity. Yeah. Um, if you have a culture that's really shut down where people don't share anything about their personal lives coming out suddenly and talking about everything you're fearful of yeah. Will be, will come as a shock, right? Yeah. You need to build up some, some trust there, right? Yeah. You need to approach some of these topics slowly. You need to build an environment of safety where people feel like we're starting to connect to human beings as opposed to colleagues. And that feels pretty cool. Right. And it's that connecting that, learning about each other, where you come from, what have you done, what's going on at home? Do you have siblings, all those basic questions that we kind of take for granted with our friends, we often don't know anything aside from like the names of spouses and maybe the names of children with our, our colleagues. Right? Yeah. We start having those baseline conversations, then we can go, go a few layers deeper. Yeah. We can start getting into what are you really? Maybe what you're fearful of. Right. It builds upon itself. Yeah.
John Jantsch (11:40): Yeah. Trust is what we're talking about. Really trust
Edward Sullivan (11:43): Yeah. I mean, yeah. It all comes down to trust when people say like, what's the two second summary of this book, it's how to build trust in a work environment. Exactly.
John Jantsch (11:51): So, so do you advocate making, you know, like a lot of people will hear this and they'll go, okay. Uh, we got 25 minutes, I'm gonna spend five minutes asking you about yourself and then we're gonna get into it. I mean, is that the approach or do you actually want to have like, let's have a company lunch once a month and we're not gonna talk about work. I mean, which approach is better
Edward Sullivan (12:13): In your, uh, it's actually both, right? Yeah. You need that regular drip of like connecting, uh, just like, Hey, what's been going on. Yeah. And as opposed to just like the cursory what'd you do this weekend, right. We also want people to be giving the giving each other, some praise. Yeah. Like, so we start in our company, we start all of our meetings with shout outs. Mm-hmm
John Jantsch (12:59): How much of the work, like, I, I, I would venture to say that if we filled a room up with 50 people and said, please explain your purpose, you know, about, yeah. Two of them, you know, could come up with anything that they thought really resonated. So how do we actually help people understand what their needs are, what their fears are, because I think that's a lot of the challenges they don't know. We could ask somebody, what, what are your fears? But they don't know.
Edward Sullivan (13:26): They don't know you're right. You know, we try to explore some different themes in the book of needs that we've seen. Our clients have fears. We've seen our clients have to give people a language, but it's really through the conversation that we start exploring. I don't even know what I might be fearful of. Yeah. Right. You know, do I get to say that I'm fearful in this office environment hate to say it, but like men especially are trained to be fearless. They can't show any fear and to work in a, in, in a, in a tough work environment, women then show up and think that they can't show any fear either. And it's this creates this really negative feedback system. So we're trying to break that by saying, it's actually, it's not just okay to have these conversations. It's better if you do right. You actually get better results. If you're able to talk about these things and have that connection,
John Jantsch (14:20): How, how could you bring this work earlier, uh, into somebody? So somebody joins an organization. Could this be part of the hiring process to some degree, or is it just too hard to do that? Because there's no relationship because you know, when you start talking about people's desires and gifts, mm-hmm
Edward Sullivan (14:36):
John Jantsch (14:37): That might actually direct the path
Edward Sullivan (14:47): Yeah. I mean, some environments, some organizations have a culture where as soon as you walk in the door, you feel at ease. Yeah. You feel relaxed. You can tell people genuinely like each other. Yeah. Right. And in those companies, and we, we, we're lucky enough to advise a handful of 'em that are like that you sit down for the interview and you already feel at ease with this person. You already it's like, we, we we've been friends for a long time. Right? Yeah. So the people who are just coming in are almost inculturated into this idea of it's cool to just be yourself. It's cool to show up as you are and bring your gifts to the table, bring your needs and fears to the table and we'll work with that. Right. Cause it's very human to have needs. It's human to have other environments you walk in and it feels cold. It feels like, you know, they're giving you like an intimidation interview. I don't know if you've ever had ever interviewed at McKinsey, like they're famous for the intimidation interview where they try to see how you respond when someone's almost really rude to you in an interview situation because the client might be rude to you someday. Yeah. Yeah. That's fine. And all, but how about have that conversation about, you need to steal up and be ready for people to be an asshole towards you rather than just be that way towards them in the interview.
John Jantsch (16:04): So talk a little bit about some of the tools, because obviously you do this work with organizations, you teach people, you give them tools to, to train the, you know, folks inside their organization. So talk a little bit about the work, I guess that is that, you know, that's more than just, you know, five conversations it's daily work.
Edward Sullivan (16:22): Right. Right. I mean, our work is predominantly one on one conversations, like coaching conversations. And then we facilitate a lot of conversations for our clients. So you might, uh, not be surprised that right now with everyone starting to go back to the office and COVID feels like it's mostly over, everybody wants to have a team offsite. So we're just completely booked out through the summer in dozens of team offsite for people who wanna have these conversations. Right. They're they wanna buy the book and have everyone that will have a workshop about the book or they just wanna get together and have a joyful experience of learning about each other. They're they learned half of our employees. No one's even met before. Cause we hired them in the middle of COVID. Yeah. What's your name? You know,
John Jantsch (17:39): I suspect one of the tricks to this work is that, you know, even though you've got a nice tidy framework, you know, people are, people are all different. Sure. Some people respond differently. Some people love to talk about how they feel.
Edward Sullivan (18:07): I mean, the important thing with all of this work is to start where people are, right. We can't have forced vulnerability. Yeah. You know, people need to feel safe. It needs to feel natural. And it should often, it often comes after the leader has created an opening for it. You know, the leader who calls a meeting and says, great, everyone's gonna share their most painful childhood story.
John Jantsch (19:04): So really in a lot of ways, you're, it's not, there's actually a risk in proclaiming. This is how we're gonna do it or mandating, this is what we're gonna do now, as opposed to just doing it.
Edward Sullivan (19:13): Yeah. Sometimes you just do it. Yeah. And you say, there's no obligation to join the conversation. There's no obligation to share something. You don't feel comfortable sharing, but we've learned in this organization, whether it's through the book or through it's following the research that teams and organizations that share what's really going on for them. Yeah. Build trust. And then ultimately have more honest conversations about the work itself. Yeah. Right. It's this virtuous cycle. If you tell me what's really going on for you and I build trust, then when I push back against you on an idea when we're debating, you know, we're really trying to get to the truth of the matter. Or we're trying to get to the best idea. If I can't push back against you, we might ship a flawed product. Right. I mean the, the, the challenger exploded because a scientist wasn't able to say, oh, this O ring might be bad. Right. Things go wrong because people don't feel safe pushing back. And I
John Jantsch (20:09): Think this
Edward Sullivan (20:10): Whole artist is about up in the build that safety.
John Jantsch (20:14): Yeah. I was gonna say, I think you make a really great point. I mean, some of the best organizations are ones where people feel, uh, enough trust that they can argue
Edward Sullivan (20:49): You know, they say trust comes in on two feet and leaves on a horse. Yeah. Right. So it is something that is earned slowly and can easily be destroyed. That said humans are naturally forgiving people. Right. We can always earn trust back. We just have to do the work. Yeah. And we have to be consistent.
John Jantsch (21:11): Yeah. Yeah. Awesome. Lots of work for lots of us to do so, Edward, thanks for, so by the duct tape marketing, uh, podcast, you wanna tell people where they can find out more about your work or anything else you wanna share.
Edward Sullivan (21:22): Absolutely. The book [email protected] and thank you so much for the opportunity.
John Jantsch (21:29): Yeah. Well, again, as, as I said, thanks for stopping by, and hopefully we'll run into you one of these days out there on the road.
Edward Sullivan (21:34): Hope so. Thank you much.
John Jantsch (21:37): Hey, and one final thing before you go, you know how I talk about marketing strategy strategy before tactics? Well, sometimes it can be hard to understand where you stand in that what needs to be done with regard to creating a marketing strategy. So we created a free tool for you. It's called the marketing strategy assessment. You can find it @ marketingassessment.co not dot com, dot co .check out our free marketing assessment and learn where you are with your strategy today. That's just marketingassessment.co I'd love to chat with you about the results that you get.
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