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Connectedness and Openness: A Company’s Most Powerful Tools - Nadine Hack - CEO, Speaker, Connector, Author, Strategist

23 Jan 2023

The people behind the voices:

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer

Nadine Hack

CEO, Speaker, Connector, Author, Strategist

The Employee Experience Podcast Season 2 Ep. 5

Connectedness and Openness: A Company’s Most Powerful Tools

This week’s guest on The Employee Experience Podcast is Nadine Hack, CEO at beCause Global Consulting.

Nadine Hack strongly believes in the power of connection and community at work. But to truly achieve these, open communication needs to be non-negotiable. 

And while the pandemic has perhaps made it harder to have meaningful interactions with our colleagues, the challenge has actually been around much longer than that.

“Often, online interactions are one-directional broadcasts versus genuine interactions,” Nadine tells Gillian in the latest episode of The Employee Experience Podcast. “But people have always longed to feel listened to and validated, and businesses are increasingly coming to understand the benefits of relational activities.” 

And yet, it’s still easy for people in leadership roles to forget, Nadine shares; “A big pitfall is underestimating how much energy must be expended for individuals and teams to buy into organizational change initiatives.

“Senior executives often believe that when they share their call to action, it will magically cascade down through all the levels. In fact, we must repeatedly convey our messages and simultaneously seek feedback to them. 

“Even the most brilliant strategic plan will only work when those who must execute it feel they own it. A sense of agency is a powerful motivator.” 

So, how must leaders change? “It’s vital to become self-aware, look inside, own up to whatever it is that obstructs us,” Nadine says. “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.”

Listen back now to learn more about why workplace connectedness, leadership self-awareness, and moving away from hierarchical management models will be key to organizational success.

About The Employee Experience Podcast

The Employee Experience Podcast, hosted by Gillian French, is the podcast series for leaders pursuing innovative ideas to engage and connect with their employees. Listen to trailblazers across internal comms, employee engagement, and HR share the best ways to connect with employees, build healthy cultures, and deliver an employee experience where everyone can reach their potential.

Guests so far on Season 2 of The Employee Experience Podcast include:

  • Jane Datta, Chief Human Capital Officer at NASA, on employee experience, connection & leadership
  • Debra Corey, Chief ‘Pay it Forward’ Officer at DebCo HR, ‘Recognition is more important than ever for our wellbeing’
  • Hollie Delaney, (Former) Zappos CPO, on why empowered employees are engaged employees
  • Peter Cheese, CEO at CIPD, on what employees want: the changing expectations of leaders
Full Transcript

Gillian French (00:02):
Hi. I’m Gillian French from Workvivo. You’re very welcome to the Employee Experience Podcast. We speak to leaders and HR professionals on how to best connect with employees, build healthy cultures, and deliver an employee experience where everyone can reach their full potential.

This week on the Employee Experience Podcast, I speak with Nadine Hack. Nadine is the CEO of beCause Global Consulting whose mission is creating connectedness. beCause Global helps individuals and organizations connect to their core purpose. Nadine is also a senior board advisor at Global Citizens Circle. She was the first female executive-in-residence in IMD Business School and she writes articles for Forbes, Financial Times, and New York Times, to name but a few. She has been described as a master bridge builder who was worked with Nelson Mandela and other leaders from all sectors around the world.

Hi, Nadine. It’s absolutely wonderful to have you on the show today. I’ve been dying to talk to you for so long, specifically on connection and community and burnout, because I know you’re an expert in these areas. So thanks a million for taking the time to talk to us today.

Nadine Hack (01:20):
My pleasure.

Gillian French (01:21):
One of the areas is around connectedness, and you were quoted as saying, “It’s the secret sauce. You have the secret sauce to creating connectedness.” How do you create it, particularly the way work is set up now in this remote and hybrid way. How do leaders go about creating connections in the workplace?

Nadine Hack (01:42):
So whether we’re more or less connected in our workplaces and in society in general, especially as we’ve been in remote environments for well over two years, the answer is both/and. Of course, COVID has severely limited out in-person contact. Google Meet, FaceTime, Skype, and other online technologies are great, but nothing beats a tête-à-tête with a coworker or our business teams. Nothing’s more enriching than full body hugs and belly laughter with those we love. Also, online interactions often are one directional broadcasts versus genuine interactions. Regardless of how much valuable content webinars or corporate updates may have, when people sit passively listening, they don’t gain as much as they would if they were actively involved in the discussion. And, in fact, this was true long before the pandemic forced us into isolation. People have always longed to feel listened to and validated. And businesses are increasingly coming to understand the value of team building, consensus building, and other relational activities.

But still, in our leadership roles, we can forget that. For example, a bit pitfall is and always has been underestimating how much energy must be expended for individuals in teams to buy into organizational change initiatives, and we’re certainly at a time of tumultuous change. Senior executives often believe that after they share their call to action, they will just simply cascade down through all the levels in a much shorter time period than it will take, because it’s always iterative. In fact, we must repeatedly convey our messages and simultaneously seek feedback to them, whether it’s colleagues in the same enterprise working with others, just cubicles away, which is now happening again more, as hybrid work is beginning. Whether it’s across business lines, which can be different floors in a building or in different geographic regions or far more complex accords with multiple stakeholders.

Even the most brilliant strategic plan will only work when those who must execute it feel they own it. A sense of agency is a powerful motivator. We do have myriad ways now to connect via social media and other internet-based platforms that allow us to stay in touch with family and friends and colleagues with whom we might’ve lost contact, like you and I have done over the years. It’s wonderful. We’re alerted to birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions so we can reach out, congratulate, celebrate. But these very same platforms can numb us to the humanity of others. When was the last time most people picked up the phone and called someone or shared a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a leisurely stroll with a loved one or a colleague? And everybody’s experiencing Zoom fatigue.

Gillian French (05:07):
And what I take from that conversation there is that you’re saying that the top-down sort of cast from heaven type of communication to employees is no longer going to cut it, that there needs to be collaboration, there needs to be cooperation, and it needs to be an engaging relationship with an employee seeking feedback and where they feel heard. And I totally agree, and I think we’ve talked before about the fact that there’s so many articles written nowadays about how leadership should be more inclusive, more cooperative, and it’s not this one leader with this power base, but yet we still seem to be slow to move. Why would that be? Why are we not making the change?

Nadine Hack (05:52):
This ridiculous old pattern, the father of modern management theory, Peter Drucker has a saying that I love which is, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture is deeply ingrained. Sadly, the culture that has been ingrained for quite some time, for millennia actually, is a very hierarchical, patriarchal… the leader is the one with the wisdom and he tells everybody else what to do. And some people kind of cling to that as their source of power. They believe that if they hold their knowledge and their context close to their vest and don’t let other people know what they know, as much as they know, that keeps them elevated. And, in fact, it diminishes them, because if I hand you this pen through the screen, it’s a finite object. You have the pen, I no longer have it. But if I share with you ideas, if I share with you context, now I have them, you have them, we’re both enriched, the people I connect you to are now connected to be and to you, and the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.

It’s learning how to really believe that what the literature has said for quite some time now, that flatter organizations, more egalitarian, more inclusive organizations that engage their stakeholders far outperform those that don’t. And it may take a generational change for this to happen. It may take younger people who have been engaging since they were tiny. I remember watching my granddaughter when she was in a highchair playing a game on the computer screen and there was a bird cage and a fish bowl and there were birds and fish all over the screen and the game was put the birds in the birdcage, put the fish in the fishbowl, and I watched in awe and I said, “Skylar’s not going to have any conscious memory of when she learned drag and drop.” Her interface with the computer screen is like me, I don’t have a conscious memory of when I learned to crawl.

Younger people demand engagement, they do not like to be spoken to, taught in this kind of aggressive one-directional. They really feel and they’ve experienced because of their engagement online for their entire lives, that relationships should be reciprocal, not transactional.

Gillian French (08:50):
Yeah. And I think that’s really interesting, because I listened to your TEDx and I thought it was very good. You talked about relationships, but you talked about also your relationship with yourself. And I think that’s interesting because, generally, I don’t hear that quite often, but we do have to do work on ourselves and we do have to question ourselves, as well, if things aren’t working out for us. And sometimes I’ve been on both sides, because I’ve been CPO and I’ve seen organizations that maybe don’t look after people or their well-being. But then, I’ve seen other leaders genuinely trying to help people and trying to do the right thing, and it’s just not working because that person is going to encounter that every organization they go to, because they need to do work on themselves.

Nadine Hack (09:36):
Exactly. So there are, of course, many external reasons why it’s difficult to connect, an intransigent boss or coworker, an obstinate relative, a siloed culture and other obstacles. But often, as you say, it’s within ourselves that blocks our ability to connect to others. It can be fear, pride, inflexibility, stubbornness. It’s vital to become self-aware, look inside, own up to whatever obstructs us each from having healthy, strong relationships.

I find that 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 the more authentic and transparent we are, openly acknowledging our shortcomings, the more others can trust us. When I say, as I often do, I don’t know the answer to that, then people are going to trust me when I do know the answer to something. And openness, which is often feared as a sign of weakness in that old mechanism of hierarchical I need to know everything, I need to be in control of everything.

Nadine Hack (10:55):
Openness is actually a great strength. There’s a reason why Brene Brown’s TEDx on the power of vulnerability has had 57 million views. And my little TEDx Adversaries and Allies with 15,000 plus views, I talk about bringing together logging companies to work with environmentalists and government, all bitter enemies at the time, and it was finding the humanity in the other that was at its essence, enabling us to go beyond dehumanizing territorial positions. Employee engagement is not a tick the box in a survey thing, you truly have to care about what others feel. The South African philosophy Ubuntu, I am because you are, speaks to our inextricable interconnectedness and embracing it enhances our sense of compassion for others and for ourselves. And as people feel heard and valued during a consultative process, they’re more likely to go along with the final decision, even if it’s not what they personally desired.

And conversely, if they haven’t had a chance to share their input, even if they agree with the outcome, if they weren’t consulted, they’re less likely to execute against it. And there’s a lot of research on this and most folks probably know if from experience. Yet, it’s hard to achieve, even for me. I once worked in an organization where I was in a constant power battle with a member of the senior management team and he and I just kept rehashing our position over and over, only to be met by each other’s complete bullheadedness. I was as guilty as he was. And then, someone else in the organization said to me, “You know, Nadine, while I find you to be extremely self-aware, somehow when you deal with him, you devolve down to the emotional intelligence of a 12-year-old. I hope you don’t mind me telling you this.” And I took his hands and I said, “Not only don’t I mind, but I’m so grateful for this light bulb moment you gave me. I now recognize that this guy pulls on a childhood trigger about authority and it brings out the worst in me.”

And that insight freed me from my part in the entangled dance I was having with him. I stopped trying to change his mind. One day, extending my arm for a handshake I said, “Truce,” and he rather disingenuous replied, “Oh, I didn’t know we were fighting.”

Gillian French (13:36):
Oh, god.

Nadine Hack (13:36):
And while he didn’t admit his part, I released my feelings of anger and rejection. It was my changed behavior was its own reward, because I stopped feeling diminished by him. We can’t control anyone else, but we can control how we react to them.

Gillian French (13:57):
Yeah, I’ve had literally the exact same story, and for ages I was saying, “No, why should I change? Or why should I…” and really letting the person get in on me and they were really triggering me and because of that, then, I wasn’t being myself, I had a mask up with the rest of the team, as well, so I wasn’t doing myself any favors whatsoever. And like you, I do lots of reading, I do coaching. I do a lot of work on myself and things, but still I just couldn’t and it was down to my ego. It was my ego and it’s something that you have to keep in check. And, eventually, yes, I recognized that the only person I was hurting was myself and this other person wasn’t even paying any attention.

Nadine Hack (14:43):
The thing about anger is that it only hurts us. The other person is not suffering. Believe me, they’re not, particularly if they’re a rigid person, they’re oblivious to your experience. So releasing your own anger and this is different than forgiveness, because forgiveness I kind of see that as a karmic like they made their record and they’ll be held accountable to their record whether you believe in God or some universal force or however you see it, but it’s more about liberating yourself, as you say, not living in a constrained façade of a person which is such an exhausting way to live.

Gillian French (16:03):
But I do, from this conversation, and in general, I feel it’s so complex. We’re reading at the moment, everybody knows that it’s emotional connection that employees want. This is not something that you can just tick the box, as you said, on employee engagement. It really isn’t. This is something much more complicated. It has to be more authentic. It requires a totally different skillset to what we’ve been seeing in organizations, which is transactional, results-oriented. This is complex. I’m, even myself, trying to think what can organizations do to assist themselves. One of the things I thought of was an in-house organizational psychologist to help with teams, to help with individuals. Do you have any other insights that you’d like to share or anything else that you think organizations or we should be doing as a wider society even?

Nadine Hack (17:00):
Yeah. Well, in my Forbes article about burnout, which you referred to, I wrote about how to stay connected to a world that’s calling for engagement in response to a slew of natural and manmade catastrophes, while maintaining equilibrium, by sometimes releasing, stepping back, even from the normal demands of personal and professional obligations to replenish. And despite knowing the importance of renewing and refreshing, our brains can often work overtime on worries, bills to be paid, KPIs to be achieved, tasks to be completed, piles to be sorted, piles to be organized. But there’s a reason why on airlines were told to put on own oxygen mask first before we try to help others. You have to be breathing to offer assistance.

So we’ve got to take deep breaths despite news headlines constantly reminding us that we live in a world of violent conflicts, environmental degradation happening at a dizzying pace, a global pandemic, whose long-term effects we still don’t fully understand and growing social inequities that will make the future even more uncertain with battles over natural resources and access to basic necessities. I believe that if each of us amplifies beneficial activities, positive, in our workplace, in our communities, and you can take it to whatever level, our nations, our world, it’s certainly better than falling into a rabbit hole of despair. And the only way to do that is to consciously engage and then let go in regular cycles that nourish us and those with whom we interact.

And I try to do my best to address these concerns, I reply to requests for support, I mobilize others to become involved, and yet I know that no one can maintain a constant state of being on alert. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies recently released guidelines for well-being focused on reducing stress, recharging, and building inner resilience, as their workers deal with horrific conditions and need tactics to avoid burnout. And I believe, in today’s hyper-paced context wherever we work, we must step back, take a higher perch, remove ourselves from the weeds of the daily grind. It’s a challenge, but it’s one that I encourage [inaudible 00:19:56] to explore.

Gillian French (19:58):
Yeah. I recently started to meditate. I had been talking about it for a long time, and I struggled with it initially and said, “All right, I’ll take a break from it,” but I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it now, but it definitely has enhanced my way of being now. I started to do 15 minutes on a regular basis-

Nadine Hack (20:19):
That’s wonderful.

Gillian French (20:20):
… and if possible, even do a half an hour a day, but I find it so, so good and I’m really, really delighted that I stuck with it, because I can really see the benefits.

Nadine Hack (20:31):
As we say here in Switzerland. My hats off to you, because that’s exactly what we each need to do. Carl Jung wrote about the generative aspects of the fertile void. Void is nothingness, but fertile void is what happens in winter when it appears that nothing is alive on the frozen, dead-seeming earth. Yet, underneath that, seeds are germinating and they are going to blossom and spring up in the springtime, sprout out.

And we can trust in quietness as a healthy way to envision a better future, despite tremendous uncertainty about it and the quiet mind offers many gifts. Easier said than done, but well worth the effort of unearthing inner guidance, inner calm. And you said 15 minutes a day, 30 minutes a day, that’s wonderful, but honestly, even just when you’re feeling stressed, sitting at your desk and taking three deep breaths, I mean, just stopping whatever it is that’s causing you inner turmoil and taking three deep breaths is a wonderful way to get grounded and no one can say they don’t have the time to take three deep breaths.

Gillian French (21:52):
I think, though, there’s so much information out there now, there’s so many… people read through things and they’re like, “Okay. Yes, I’ll meditate. I can do that. Breathe. Yeah.” And it’s only till you actually, consciously, and we talked about consciousness, consciously take that, whereas I think people are taking in so many levels of advice that they’re just letting it go over their head and they’re not actively engaging in that. But I’ve seen the benefits of breathing. I’ve definitely seen the benefits of meditation. But I’ve known about it for a very long time, and just not engaged with it because of a busy lifestyle or just not taking the time to do it. And then, once you do it you’re like, “Why have I not been doing this for so long?”

Nadine Hack (22:39):
I often hear things like, “I’m too busy doing my work to take the time to think about the long-term or to take the time to relax,” and I respond with a parable. There’s a fisherman throwing a large net into the sea and a young girl is watching and she sees that because there’s a huge hole at the bottom of the net, each time he pulls it up, brimming with fish, they all fall out. And she says, “Sir, why don’t you fix your net?” To which he replies, “I can’t. I’m too busy fishing.” Sound familiar?

Gillian French (23:15):
Yeah. That’s really good.

Nadine Hack (23:16):
It seems like strategic planning or creative daydreaming is difficult in such a [inaudible 00:23:25], volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world. But it’s actually needed even more during chaotic times of duress than ordinarily. So I hope everyone takes the time needed to both look at themself and find ways. For different people, it’s different things. For someone like yourself it’s meditation, for someone else it’s running, for someone else it’s just collapsing on the couch in pajamas to binge out on a Netflix series. It really doesn’t matter, but you need to find the thing that helps you relax yourself. And then, simultaneously, we need to be looking at the deeper systemic issues our organization needs to address and pull ourselves out of the quagmire of minutiae tasks. This doesn’t mean that we stop paying attention to the important milestones and the obstacles to them, but being in the captain’s nest, above the fray, allows us to see them more freely and to navigate toward our vision and our goals. It’s so important.

Gillian French (24:37):
And also, you write a lot about community and you’re an expert on community and one of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that probably our community has been diminished a little bit and I know you’ve lived in many countries, but here in Ireland, obviously, religion, a lot of people have moved away, and that would’ve been big on their community, a lot of people didn’t work and the neighborhood would’ve been community, now whereas everyone’s at work all day. People don’t really have that anymore, so work, I felt, had moved up and people really saw work as their community.

And now, we’re moving to remote and hybrid, where again, community is being a little bit diminished. And it’s so important for our well-being, it’s so important for connecting, and it’s very important for, I think, organizations, because, again, not that I dislike the term work is your family, I prefer it’s your community, because I think it really is, and your family is your family. What are your views on how things are going to play our now, the importance of community, and how organizations can foster that sense of community for people, for their overall well-being?

Nadine Hack (25:52):
You’re absolutely right that human beings are social creatures. That’s just a fact, a biological fact. And we need connections to others, even the most seemingly impervious senior leader who’s super directive and not that interested in engaging, they actually suffer from that. And so, I’d say, to create community, whatever the context, it requires learning how to listen, listen deeply, listening to yourself, as we’ve talked about, listening to your coworkers, whether they’re your supervisors, your peers, or your subordinates. Our world tends to value action, but undervalue reflection.

Gillian French (26:56):
Oh, true.

Nadine Hack (26:56):
And in teaching or planning, I try to tease out the golden nuggets of truth people already know, consciously or unconsciously, and teach them to do the same with their colleagues, because when our colleagues, regardless of their rank or responsibility, feel that their opinions matter, and they experience that, we recognize their value. Our companies will benefit from their individual and collective engagement. Being successful at business has always hinged on mutuality since our ancestors started to exchange and barter good and services for things of reciprocal value. So what must a leader do to create these positive exchanges? Increasingly it demands effectively engaging stakeholders by creating and managing a large group of relationships. Flourishing businesses have definitely evolved from transactional to relational. Recognizing that an interdependence among a very broad spectrum of participants is essential for sustainable progress, profitability, sustainability, and satisfaction.

And diversity, in every sense, nationality, expertise, age, gender, race, et cetera, makes an organization much stronger. So they need to seek out diversity in hiring practices and reward it in management practices. Empathy doesn’t mean I feel just like you do, it means I think I can understand how you feel. It means stretching yourself to respect and validate what other people have to contribute, even if it might be quite different from what you can. You’re not a great leader because you tell people what to do, you are one if you listen to and learn from those who work with you. The entry-level employee or even the intern can have the most brilliant ideas, if you’re open to it. And when everyone at every level knows that you’ve taken into account their perspectives, they’ll trust your decision even if it differs from what they might’ve chosen.

Gillian French (29:18):
Yeah. I’ve seen that in practice. I can’t believe our time is nearly up, Nadine. It’s been an amazing conversation. I have sort of three questions that I ask all my guests. They’re very, very quick, so it’s kind of like a one-line answer. I’d love to know what your favorite book is.

Nadine Hack (29:35):
Oh, that’s easy. It’s Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And I always thought that was because it’s the most beautiful love story I’ve ever read. But in the context of our conversation, I realize that it’s also about how the protagonist maintains his connection to his unrequited love until it’s finally returned.

Gillian French (30:00):
Very interesting. I’ll have to look that up. And then, do you have a leader that you feel is a really good role model, that you think really embodied the qualities of a good leader?

Nadine Hack (30:13):
Yeah. Well-

Gillian French (30:14):
Dead or alive.

Nadine Hack (30:15):
We need engagement leaders, those who build bridges. Nelson Mandela is the archetypal engagement leader. He emerged from 27 brutal years of imprisonment calling for partnership with the very people who’d been his oppressors. We can learn much from him and it would be defeatist to think that we have to be extraordinary like him in order to be a successful engagement leader.

Gillian French (30:43):
Brilliant. Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. And then, what’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever gotten?

Nadine Hack (30:49):
Oh my goodness. Be yourself, don’t let anyone else define you. Know who you are and own all of it.

Gillian French (30:59):
I love that one. There’s another one, be yourself, because everyone else is taken. That’s one of my favorites, too. Yeah. That’s great. You’ve been an amazing guest. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today. It’s been an absolute pleasure and thank you.

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of the Employee Experience Podcast. Subscribe to the show wherever you get you podcasts and check out to find out more.

The people behind the voices

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer

Employee Experience Officer

Gillian French is a veteran people leader and organizational behaviorist with over 10 years of experience as Chief People Strategist.

She is passionate about coaching, strategy, building resilient and sustainable organisational culture, and improving global employee experience. She has also contributed to Forbes and is a regular panelist on the future of work.

Gillian is also the founder and CEO of SISU consulting, a business that specializes in organisation development and design.

Nadine Hack

CEO, Speaker, Connector, Author, Strategist

Named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders on Trustworthy Business Behavior globally often enough to earn a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust, Nadine Hack advises business and non-profit executives, heads of state, and other organizations internationally. 

She was the first woman to be Executive-in-Residence at IMD Business School where she maintains an affiliation. Ethical Corporation shortlisted her Responsible CEO of Year; Global CEO named her a Top 100 Corporate Social Responsibility Leader. SustMeme consistently ranks her 50 of world’s Top 500 Influencers on Sustainable Green Ethical Business, Socially Responsible Investment and Governance. 

She was Board Chair of Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation and has served as a non-executive director on other for- and not-for-profit boards. 

Nadine has been a speaker at meetings, graduations and conferences globally, including TEDx. She’s received numerous awards including International Outstanding Achievement, Mentor of the Year, and Inspiration Award for lifetime achievement presented at Säid Business School Oxford University. 

She’s a Fellow at New Westminster College and Salzburg Global Seminar. She has Master’s degrees from Harvard and The New School, created and taught graduate courses at NYU and SNHU, and has guest lectured at many universities.