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From NASA to Chick-fil-A: Key Lessons for Every Leader

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer

24 May 2023

The second season of our Employee Experience Podcast was full of crucial leadership lessons. Read a recap here!

One of the best things about my job is that I get tons of opportunities to learn from those around me. The Employee Experience Podcast is an excellent channel for that, and season two was no different. 

My fantastic guests – from NASA’s Chief Human Capital Officer to the VP of High Performance Leadership at Chick-fil-A – shared invaluable lessons that I’m confident will benefit leaders in every industry. 

I’ve recapped some of my favorite learnings in this blog, but I absolutely recommend listening to the individual episodes too. Your employees will thank you! 

Lesson 1: Leaders shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers

The working world is in a state of flux, and there’s perhaps nobody that knows that more than people leaders. But what many might not know is that just because you’re responsible for informing teams of what’s coming next, that doesn’t mean they expect you to be all-knowing. 

In fact, the opposite is true. Today’s employees want honesty and authenticity. They want to be kept in the loop, even if that means telling them that you don’t know the answers to some of their questions.

Back at the start of the season, NASA’s Jane Datta spoke to me about the need for leaders to “re-examine what flexibility looks like” as an example.

She said, “Have we got it all figured out? No. But I think the intent is there and I think employees feel that intent, and that’s the more important part. Did we get it exactly right? No. Do they know what we intend and that we are trying? That’s what matters.”

If you don’t have everything worked out yet, make sure to tell your teams that instead of feeding them half-truths or vague explanations.

Lesson 2: Leaders should be more human

Being honest about what you know and what you don’t as a leader makes you more human and more vulnerable, and while those may have been labeled as weaknesses in the past, employees are valuing leaders who demonstrate these qualities more and more. 

This was the topic of many of my conversations in season two of the Employee Experience Podcast. Chief ‘Pay it Forward’ Office Debra Corey, for example, explained that numbers aren’t the be-all and end-all in business. She said, “Forget about the numbers and just look at us as human beings. Of course we want to be valued and be seen at work. Fundamentally it’s important.” 

And CIPD CEO Peter Cheese shared the changing expectations people have of their leaders, saying, “Leaders are going to need to deal with uncertainty, but they’ve also got to be able to listen and learn from others.

“There are also much greater expectations of leaders in terms of their visibility and their behaviors.” Employees want to see their leaders’ humanity, Peter explained, such as through different channels of communication. Practicing empathy, understanding, and integrity are key.

We can’t ignore the role COVID has played in accelerating some of these workplace changes – and Lloyds Banking Group’s Hamira Riaz agrees. She said, “In my view, the pandemic has struck the death knell for the hero leader; the one who’s invulnerable, the one who always knows what to do no matter what. 

“We don’t live in a world where a hero can solve all the problems anymore. We live in a world of polarity, contradiction, and paradox – it’s a careful balancing act. 

“So for me, the post-pandemic world requires a different set of skills: dealing effectively with paradox, not relying so much on consistency of approach so that you can keep all your options on the table until you figure out what’s going on next, sounding strong by using ‘both, and’ communication and not ‘either, or’ binary choices. Those are just a few of the skills that I think future leaders are going to need.”

Lesson 3: Leaders should be themselves and encourage others to follow suit

A huge part of being human is being yourself. To create psychologically safe work environments – ones where employees feel they can bring their whole selves to their job – leaders should steer their teams by example.

If you’re not being your authentic self at work, chances are the people you lead won’t want to be either. 

Power Home Remodeling’s Hollie Delaney said, “Helping employees find out what their purpose is and what they’re passionate about, and how they can turn that into something that the business needs, that’s the perfect recipe. 

“I think that can be done in so many different ways – just giving them the space to be themselves, to bring their whole selves to work and use those little things that make them special in their everyday job.” 

Lesson 4: Leaders should prioritize building resilience and investing in wellness

Another thing leaders need to do if they want their teams to follow? Develop their resilience and prioritize their wellbeing. When I had podcaster and author Pat Divilly on as a guest, we spoke about some of the themes in his bestselling book ‘Fit Mind’. 

In it, he describes the “overwhelming feeling of disconnection” that exists for employees today. The first step toward bridging the gap? Looking within.

He said, “We’re always plugged in and that has a big effect on how we feel physically and emotionally. So, we need to be proactive in our approach rather than hoping to be resilient. 

“Resilience is a practice of falling out of feeling safe and comfortable, and then bringing yourself back. And that’s a case of having different tools. 

“If people know why they need to do something they’ll find their own way of doing it. We need to learn how to create safety within our own bodies.”

Lesson 5: Leaders should understand the criticality of company culture

Another bestselling author who was on the Employee Experience Podcast, Mark Miller, shared his insights too. Mark is the Vice President of High Performance Leadership at Chick-fil-A, and his latest book is called ‘Culture Rules’. 

One of the things I love about this book is that it delves into research Mark and his team undertook around perceptions of culture. 

They found some shocking results: many of the business leaders who took part said they believe culture is their number-one most powerful tool, for example, but rank it as low as twelfth place on their list of priorities.

We simply can’t ignore evidence like this if we want to become better leaders and shape a better employee experience for every person on the planet. 

Something Nadine Hack from beCause Global Consulting said during our conversation this season summarizes it perfectly for me. If leaders are to change their ways, Nadine said, then “it’s vital to become self-aware, look inside, and own up to whatever it is that obstructs us”.

“The difference between highly competent executives and great leaders is their level of self-awareness and ability to own all facets – the good, the bad, and the ugly – of their being. 

“And openness, which is often feared as a sign of weakness in that old mechanism of hierarchy, is actually a great strength.”