Creating a Workplace for Humane Leadership With Niamh Gunn – CEO of the Dialogue Code

21 Feb 2022

The people behind the voices:

Niamh Gunn

CEO and founder of the Dialogue Code

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer

The Employee Experience Podcast Ep. 5

This week’s guest on The Employee Experience Podcast is Niamh Gunn.

Niamh Gunn is the CEO and founder of The Dialogue Code. A social entrepreneur and business thought leader with over 25+ years of experience, Niamh has led global initiatives in the US, Asia, and Europe. 

Niamh was one of the founders and MD of global multi-million business, Tax back Group. She is also active in human rights, working with the Innocence Project in NY with the famous lawyer, Barry Scheck. Niamh’s work contributed to the exoneration of an innocent man that had spent 26 years in prison.

In 2013, Niamh spearheaded a national conversation around how we can improve and support life at work, home, and in leadership which attracted hundreds of top leaders, organizations, and influencers.

About The Employee Experience Podcast

The Employee Experience Podcast, hosted by Gillian French, is a podcast series for leaders pursuing innovative ideas to engage and connect with their employees. We’ll speak to leaders about how to best connect with employees, build healthy cultures and deliver an employee experience where everyone can reach their potential.

Other guests on Season 1 of The Employee Experience Podcast include:

  • Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at Vayner Media, on building the best human empire
  • Leslie Caputo, People Scientist at Humu, on empowering people to improve themselves
  • Gary Keegan, CEO at Uppercut, on the secret to elevating performance (Part One)
  • Gary Keegan, CEO at Uppercut, on the secret to elevating performance (Part Two)
  • Scott McInnes, Founder of Inspiring Change, on engaging people to build a great culture
  • Dave Ulrich, the father of Modern HR on shaping how people and organizations deliver value
  • Stan Slap, Author and CEO on the secrets to building a world-class company culture
  • Ryan Jenkins, bestselling Author on how to decrease loneliness at work
  • Margaret Heffernan, bestselling Author and CEO on how to improve the Global Employee Experience
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 about how to best connect with employees, build healthy cultures, and deliver an employee experience where everyone can reach their potential. Niamh Gunn is CEO and founder of the Dialogue Code, a social entrepreneur and business thought leader with over 25 years of experience. Niamh is a human rights activist who worked with the Innocent Project in New York. Her work contributed to the exoneration of an innocent man that had spent 26 years in prison. Hi Niamh, how are you? Great to see you. Thanks for coming in today.

Niamh Gunn (01:07):
Oh, thanks Gillian, it’s lovely to be here. Thanks for the invite.

Gillian French (01:10):
Great. So Niamh, you are CEO and founder of Dialogue Code, and you recently conducted a lot of research regarding what isn’t working in the workplace. And particularly some of that research was around women and women in the workplace. I’d love to hear if you could share with us what some of that research surfaced regarding women in the workplace.

Niamh Gunn (01:31):
Okay, so how we carry out our research is through dialogues and we try and get really meaningful data and kind of get under the what often we don’t say, and what isn’t spoken about. The sense over the last eight years is this recurring theme about the workplace, the current workplace model isn’t working for humans for the human being, and women really struggle when they through transitions in life. And those moments and those tension points are probably some of the drivers that are forcing women to leave, but also causing a real conflict and a tension point for them due to a compromise that there is a sense that you have to choose between home life or work life. And that struggle and tension, because the way we’ve been working, the demands of work, and I suppose that the sense is that the workplace has developed over the years, that it seems to celebrate those that are like machines. It’s that sense that it’s lost touch with what we actually need as human beings.

Gillian French (02:50):
And what do we really need as human beings? What have you come to the conclusion, what do we need?

Niamh Gunn (02:58):
I’m going to maybe share a story about myself. I was an executive, I’m a mom of four children, and I’ve gone through, I suppose, different roles. I see myself as a social experiment. So I naively thought that there was no issue in the workplace, especially for women when I was pre-children. I had this arrogance and naivety of, “What’s the problem? What’s the big deal?” And that tension point really became a reality for me after I had had my first child. And what’s stark about what a human being needs or what we need, I think there’s this story or this image that I have of myself in my, own pregnancy of my first child. So in my own pregnancy, how it was caught up in working at a pace that was this constant rat race and adrenaline pace, and I had been doing it for years. I didn’t know how to stop. And there was no stop button.

Niamh Gunn (04:10):
And I suppose the truth is I was completely disconnected. As what? As a human being. Successful, I had a team around me supporting me at home and with life, like house and those jobs, but not actually in touch with myself. And in my first pregnancy, my body started giving up, so I started getting… I was really sick, I wasn’t stopping, I wasn’t appreciating what going on. And I ended up getting very sick. I couldn’t walk. I was on crutches. I couldn’t type. I couldn’t use my wrists. And my body was completely breaking down. And even though this was happening for me and I was weeks off delivering Sophie, I still refused, I still had an inability to stop. And I ended up actually organizing a work meeting who everyone traveled to Cork because I couldn’t travel, but I still had this resistance to stop and give myself permission to actually go to bed.

Niamh Gunn (05:20):
And I got a call from the midwife to say, “You’re with a crisis, your baby’s at risk, you’re at risk,” with the condition I had and I needed to come to the hospital immediately. And of course there was no baby bag prepared. My first child and yet my baby bag wasn’t prepared. And I remember on the way to the hospital, this interesting dialogue in my head was a about, “Oh my goodness, I have… Oh, this is so embarrassing. They’ve all come down from Dublin and here I am on my way to the hospital.” So no appreciation of the personal crisis I was in and the reality of my situation. And what was more tragic was that when I got to the hospital and they were doing tests and running tests on me, I asked my husband to bring in my laptop because I was going to be in a room on my own, waiting, and that seemed like a complete waste of time.

Niamh Gunn (06:22):
So a waste of time to sit and rest is what you go to hospital about, but I actually continued… I worked on a document all night. And it was the handover document, and I convinced myself and justified that this would be a good thing to get the work done so when the baby comes out, I won’t need to do any work. But the truth was, and there’s another piece to this which is really tragic, at six o’clock in the morning when the midwife came in to say the levels of toxins in my bloodstream were gone to an all time high, they were taking the baby immediately. And my husband wasn’t even going to be there. While I was putting on the tights for surgery, I sent the document to my leadership team and my management team.

Niamh Gunn (07:11):
And I’ve since had three other children, I’ve completely shifted my life and changed my life. But there’s so much in that. And when I think about that story of where I was, at that stage in my life, I had so disconnected, I was so disembodied, I had no ability to pause. I had a fear of stopping and rather than saying and taking responsibility that possibly I had caused this situation for both my baby and myself, it was easier and more comfortable, rather than sit with that discomfort, to actually throw myself into work. The other piece that was really sad about it was that I had actually fear of being found out. There was this fear of, “Oh my goodness, I need to have it all perfect for the handover.” And a lack of trust, a lack of safety, maybe with my leadership team at the time.

Niamh Gunn (08:14):
And that’s a kind of a story of our times that our workplaces have… To bring it back to the question that what do we need? We need the workplace to be fit for human purposes. And it needs to accommodate our human needs as human beings. And in life, we’ll go through different rites of passages, different transitions, and we need to give both men and women and employees the space to actually take what they need in those times and not have a feeling of guilt or not good enough or all the things that come with when you touch up.

Gillian French (09:01):
Do you think, Niamh, is that people who are arriving up the workplace with, say, past traumas and not feeling good enough and therefore they’re giving it all, and then the environment is facilitating that, or do you think that it’s just the way organizations have been structured with this competitive environment and therefore these type of behaviors flourish within them? What are you hearing is underneath all this?

Niamh Gunn (09:27):
What I’m hearing is the traditional work structure isn’t working and it hasn’t been working for a long time.

Gillian French (09:34):
So it’s not to do with our current situation. You believe that it was pre this. I know you did your research actually in 2013 or 2014, so you were kind of ahead of the times.

Niamh Gunn (09:43):
Yeah. I mean, we started the work in this space back in 2013, and it was me with a number of other influential leaders and organizations that we’re seeing the trend post the recession of increase in stress, increase in burnout, and exit from the workplace. And at the time it had been about 25% of women were leaving the workplace, and there was a concern on the trend, and it was, at the time in Ireland, it was a response to the recession. You may recall that we locked down, we worked really hard. It was this sense of the survival of the fittest. So that makes sense. When you go through something, we’ve had this cultural myth that you work hard to get yourself out of it. And we forget, though, that’s grand if you’re a machine, but we forget we’re human beings, and we have to work in a way that’s consciously balanced. And when we go out of balance, it doesn’t work. Our bodies don’t work.

Niamh Gunn (10:50):
And I think what has happened in the last 18 months, that the crisis has, I think, shone a light on the real issues that were going on prior. And on the 20th of February, 2020, with a number of organizations, we were actually doing talent scarcity dialogues, because we wanted to find out from the women that were not going back to the workplace, why were the reasons and also why they were leaving. Because I gave up completely work at one stage, and what I was observing in the playgrounds was these… I was meeting these incredible women with incredible experience, but they didn’t return to work because their expectations on their husbands, that they were working really long hours, and it just didn’t make sense for the two of them to do it. And if they were financially comfortable or able, they weren’t doing it. But a lot of the women did have a desire or an appetite to contribute in some way and did feel like there was no choice.

Gillian French (12:02):
And is that because at a sea level the commitment is so high, you’re part of a team that you feel you’re not contributing if you have to go and collect the children or you’ve got other commitments? Or is it just the case that you can’t, you have to make a choice, and that you make that choice and that’s it, you can’t have it all, you can’t have the high power career plus dedicated time to raising a family as well. And be true to yourself too, have time for yourself as well.

Niamh Gunn (12:31):
Yeah, and actually, I think this is the next piece where we’re going, the new frontier. I think we’re going to start seeing shared leadership and part-time leadership.

Gillian French (12:43):
And how would that work, just on a so… Sort of I do two days, you do three days or something like that, is it, and we’re in the same role at a C level or on an executive level, or is there…

Niamh Gunn (12:56):
I think it’s very unique. We’ve seen this model work already in schools. It works. I know when I left my executive position, if I had a magic wand to have created what I really needed, I needed a I second me. If I had a second, me and we both did 35 hours, it would’ve been great, and it would’ve been fantastic if there was a great backup and someone that I knew could pick up the pieces. And we’ve seen that model work. We see it in rugby. In rugby there’s two at the top that are supporting each other and they have each other’s back, because you can’t… And actually one of my mentors, who passed away, but I think was one of the greatest businessmen of our times, Dr. Lawrence Crowley, he’d often talked about the relationship of the chairman and the CEO and that there was this backup of support and trust and the loyal friend.

Niamh Gunn (14:00):
And I think that the chairman would be the loyal friend of the CEO. And I think we do it in our marriages. You have a partner and if it’s working well, you’re dancing and you’re weaving, and there are some of the dialogues we’ve been having, we’ve been seeing leadership teams that are testing these models of shared leadership. But either way, it makes sense. It makes sense. There’s nothing that to not make it work, but it needs a foundation of trust and awareness, and obviously a very good relationship if you’re going to work that closely with somebody.

Gillian French (14:44):
And it’s not really either a female leadership issue either. I mean, I’ve listened on your site and the Dialogue Code and this, lots of male leaders and people in the workplace that are experiencing this as well. And some not in leadership roles. It’s this always on culture, this demand, very fast paced, just being on and ready for work at all times. And I think it’s not just for women. I think the men absolutely experience it as well. Has this been your…

Niamh Gunn (15:14):
Absolutely. And some of the main leaders around me actually were men who. Cormick Gillan, the global vice president of PepsiCo Environmental Health Safety, with Touro Leary, were some of the two leaders that actually pioneered shared leadership, a collective decision making process, which was all about listening to the people, listening to the field, and working then with the top leadership, executive leadership team to bring change that matters. So it was very much shaped by the people and then a leadership team that had very clear clarity on what were the top priorities and simplifying and distilling the priorities. I think one of the reasons what I’ve observed, and some of the work that we’ve been really, really focused on is what are the drivers of the overwhelm? And certainly I saw my own career, which I should say, I was part of building a global multinational and I ended up crashing.

Niamh Gunn (16:32):
And when I looked back, it was a lack of distilling the priorities, trying to do everything. And that’s a real challenge for organizations at the moment. Everyone has got different ideas, things aren’t joined up, there’s a lack of cohesion. And some of the work we’ve done has been around in a meaningful way, distilling what are the top priorities? And the only way you can actually identify what are the priorities is actually uncovering the issues, or what I like to call are the elephants that are not spoken about, but we know are there that hold us back.

Gillian French (17:13):
And what kind of elephants have you heard, and what are the things that people don’t speak about, or… Because we’ve all been on the leadership days where you have the team building and there’s what’s working, what’s not working. What is the unspoken… And I know you do it in a very, very careful way, but what are the elephants that you’re hearing?

Niamh Gunn (17:34):
So there is this universal, consistent theme that I have seen over hundreds and hundreds of participants attending the dialogues, is that there is this lack of trust. There’s a lack of safety and there’s a lack of trust. And this has come from the traditional model of work. So we created a model where we celebrated competition. It was all about work hard, play hard, climb to the top. So we created that model and we created a hierarchy with a top down. So we created, and hence we have the behaviors that go against trust or create a lack of trust. Mostly in the work that I’ve done with supporting leaders and teams and organizations has been around uncovering why there is a lack of trust, where has the breakdown happened? And normally what I would say is it takes two to tango, and everyone’s playing their part. When I look back on my own leadership, I think, and I’ve seen this over the dialogue over the last number of years as well, when I fail to step in and lead, that’s when the chaos happens. And I think what’s also happened is there’s been this-

Gillian French (19:12):
So why would you fail to step in? Is it because you don’t agree with something and you’re not voicing it and therefore you just stay on the… Or like-

Niamh Gunn (19:21):
It’s kind of gone out of balance. So it’s one extreme of a command control, and the other is this kind of coaching style and you’re wanting to include all voices, or listen to all perspectives and that you’re not really saying… I think there’s a piece where you listen and you listen to all perspectives, you listen to the voices, but at the end of the day, you’re the leader or there’s a leadership team that actually have to make some very clear decisions and map out, “Thank you, and this is the way forward.” What I’ve seen has been a massive challenge with the global multinationals is that teams, the leadership team are aren’t really accountable to each other, but yet they’re a leadership group. And I suffered this hugely in some organizations that I would’ve been involved in, that the dynamics is that one leadership group is playing off each other through targets or results, and it actually causes behavior of competition and not supporting each other and looking at an individual agenda, rather what’s in a bigger agenda, the collective agenda of what actually success looks like.

Gillian French (20:46):
And that would be a big shift, if you were to say driving that competitive behavior within an organization probably isn’t driving the right behaviors, and is resulting in people not feeling as a team we’re connected to each other and then ultimately being disengaged themselves. So how do we move forward? What does the shared leadership… But what else can we do to build these organizations that people can thrive in? What needs to be present to help people thrive?

Niamh Gunn (21:16):
So this is the work we’ve been doing because the work we’ve been doing is around how can we create a workplace fit for humans and humane leadership? So it starts actually with the leaders, and in order… There’s this traditional method of leadership was go to work, you have a persona, you have a mask on, you perform. And the great performers tend to go to the top. Now we’re seeing this shift, which was happening before the crisis, but also is very relevant in any research papers and anything coming out that we know now that there’s a real demand for empathy and compassion and understanding. And if we actually… Authentic, so this lovely word that we’re all talking about, authentic. So what is that practical day to day? And really what I think it’s saying is we want you to be real and we want you to be human.

Niamh Gunn (22:17):
But then it’s like when we practically bring that down on how we deliver that within our organization and our teams, how are we accommodating and supporting the team and the structure if someone has a personal challenge? And as part of the research that I’ve done, the stories we gather of when people needed support in work and when they felt left down by their organizations, are those moments in life when there was a challenge, there was a personal challenge. Traditionally work was a place where you went to work, you put on a mask, you did a performance, you had your work life and you had a personal life. And now that has changed both physically, but also I think it has changed in different ways, in that now work is now at home. So in designing what the future work life will look like, we need to really involve and include our employees.

Gillian French (23:18):
As in their home perspective, their personal, their whole self.

Niamh Gunn (23:21):
And I think we were using this terminology about whole self.

Gillian French (23:26):
Do you not agree with that.

Niamh Gunn (23:30):
I do think it is about the whole self, but I think it’s become this little buzzword that it had… Actually, how many people do you know that will actually… When you’re in a meeting and say, “So how are you doing today,” and you’re actually going to say the truth of how you’re really doing or what’s really happening. And the dialogues that I’ve had the last 12 months have been the most harrowing. The sense of struggle that people are going through. And really the sense of the word that I would have for the leadership. The word is despair. Because the leadership has dramatically changed overnight. And I have huge compassion because I was in that space myself at one stage, when you’re not sure of your role. You know there’s something wrong, you’ve got a huge sense of uncertainty, and all your fears and your imposters come up.

Niamh Gunn (24:33):
And when you’re in that space, it’s very hard to lead. And previously leadership is all about being seen and standing up, and now you’re not seen. It’s a flat, level playing field. You don’t have the office. So that has brought up a tremendous amount. And I have huge compassion for that. And also the level of constant uncertainty. So you’re dealing in that pace. And one of the reasons I set up the work I’m doing now, and this collaborative leadership and shared leadership and shared decision making, was because that’s a tough place for the leader. For leaders that are expected to have all the answers, that’s an old way of doing business. It needs to be shared. And I think we’re at this amazing threshold where we can actually get to redesign work the way we really want it. And let’s design it of what you really want, and for each of us to go, “Okay, if we had a blank canvas and I’d a magic wand, and I could create what I really want, what would my dream job look like?” And let’s map and design that.

Gillian French (25:57):
And do you think that’s like to go and say that to, say, board members or shareholders and organizations, we’re going to really focus on the employee’s whole self, we’re going to let them look at what works for them and include them. You will have people that are skeptics and they’ll say that’s… Basically we need to run a business here and we have to serve our customers and we have to make profits, and the whole purpose of a business is to make profits. What would you say?

Niamh Gunn (26:25):
Well, this was one of the major pieces of what that I wanted to do because I’m a trained lawyer and I’m also… I was a managing director and commercial, I was sales. So I wanted to see was there value, was there value in really allowing people to be, I suppose, empowered to make decisions for themselves, to be able to be real, and would empathy and compassion work in a leadership style. So having a real safe, trusted space for employees and leaders, and that there would be a container of compassion and understanding, could that make a difference? And some of the work we pioneered and tested with this was with Katrina Hallahan, the MD of Microsoft, and Katrina wanted to develop her leadership team at the time, because she was really interested in… At the time Microsoft was going through the growth mindset, but how could we create more aware, conscious leaders that were in touch with themselves so that they would be able to support their teams and their employees and then support the customer?

Niamh Gunn (27:54):
The findings we found was that the leaders that really engaged and stepped in were at their peak for the 24 months post the program at all levels, both personally and in life, but also their sales and their new business went up by 30%. The other business that we piloted was with PepsiCo. So we wanted to pilot and test collaborative leadership, and we had an organization who were going through a massive challenge. It was costing them billions. It was the environmental health safety group, and it was a global leadership team. And there was a disconnect, as we would have in most multinationals, where each region is doing its own thing. There was not a cohesion. There was mandates coming out and the mandates weren’t working and no one was listening, and the typical challenge that you have in organizations that are global and large.

Niamh Gunn (29:00):
And with the work we did, where did a dialogue with a hundred of employees and leaders that were in their function from all over the world came together. We did a three day summit using our processes and our program. And then we worked with the top executive team in Texas. The results were that they reduced the risks and the issues by 95% in 24 months, and they went from no investment in AI and road safety to investing three quarters of a billion over the next couple years. And they’ve become a pioneer in road safety. And the results that they did in AI and road safety, they shared with the wider population, and now the UN have onboarded those ideas and PepsiCo is a key partner in their rollout to reduce road death.

Gillian French (30:06):
So you’re showing that basically it does work, as in it’s not just a kind of nice to have and a nice way to do business. It actually makes business sense as well.

Niamh Gunn (30:15):
Yeah, and that was the part that was really, I suppose, irking me, that was seeing that it was a tick boxing exercise. We did research in Lussard in 2013 and hundreds of organizations, about a thousand people engaged in the research. And what I was observing was there was a lot of organizations looking at wellbeing as a kind of a nice to have, we better be seen to do this. And that’s not the answer.

Gillian French (30:44):
So it’s not authentic. As in, you’re talking about authenticity, people can obviously read that, if it’s a tick box. You’ve yoga booked in for me, but I’m back to back from 7:00 till 9:00 tonight with meetings. I’m never going to be able to do these things.

Niamh Gunn (30:59):
That’s it. And that was the piece that was really annoying me, was that this is a waste of time. So I wanted to see how could we weave a more integrated wellbeing, compassionate kind way of being? That behavior, how can we model that behavior? On a daily basis that’s not something we just put on for our wellbeing workshop, but how can that become our philosophy in everything we do? And that’s not something you just pick out of a book and that’s where everyone is. This is not something-

Gillian French (31:39):
That’s why you have to start with the leadership team as well, so that it cascades down.

Niamh Gunn (31:43):
And the word is about awareness. So it’s awareness of your own needs, awareness of your own behaviors, what are your drivers? And any leader that hasn’t that self-awareness, really, I don’t think, will survive the future of work.

Gillian French (32:04):
That’s kind of your definition of conscious leadership, because we’re hearing that term a lot now, conscious leadership. So that’s how you would articulate.

Niamh Gunn (32:13):
Yeah, and I think conscious is to become conscious of the unconscious. And what we do is we go down in under… If there’s the iceberg we go down in under-

Gillian French (32:26):
I’ve been there to view that. It’s quite something.

Niamh Gunn (32:30):
Yeah. And actually what’s fascinating is we don’t know what we don’t know. That story I gave you about me in the maternity ward, I had no idea that I was acting and being like that, because there was no time to pause and reflect. No one had talked to me that was an important thing to do. And fast forward two years later and I had a massive burnout and a crash. And thankfully I ended up on a meditation cushion and not in a hospital ward, although it was fairly close to the hospital ward in looking back now, but thankfully I escaped it. And that was where I would say there was hardcore inquiry, where I had to really take ownership and responsibility for my life and what did I want for my life? And it was a breakdown, but I would now see it as a… It was a powerful breakthrough.

Gillian French (33:45):
Now you’re seeing that a lot through the dialogue that people don’t actually know what they want? Obviously you had that breakthrough and you realized and had some awakenings. Do you think that a lot of the time we’re going through life, we don’t actually… We call them the busy traps, so we don’t actually know what we want?

Niamh Gunn (34:02):
We don’t. And if you haven’t, I think the challenges in life are the great moments where you can actually… They stop you sometimes, but they’re great opportunities for you to reframe, think, evaluate what do I want? And I think certainly those rites of passage in life that we’re not giving space to honor. I finally got what motherhood was about on my fourth child, on my fourth child, and I’m obviously a really slow learner. But on my fourth, there was no project. There was nothing, because I couldn’t do anything. I had to fully stop. And it was a completely different experience. And through that, I think I mothered myself. Not only did I really mother Alice. My whole space at home became a very different space. And I think that space has allowed me… Has really enhanced the work I’m doing. And I think we need to do that, and I’m so glad, I’m so blessed that I broke down because the truth was the pace I was going when Sophie was two years of age, I never got to see Sophie. I remember I had a [inaudible 00:35:31].

Gillian French (35:31):
Child minders.

Niamh Gunn (35:32):
My child minders, and [inaudible 00:35:34] finished at 7:00. And I never saw either [inaudible 00:35:38] and coming back, doing back to back business trips on the road in executive lounges, and I had this incredible fear of missing out, which is the big, big piece that I’m seeing in the leadership dialogues. You must be seen on every Zoom, because if I’m not on, what are they going to think? And I need to have that voice. So that’s a very immature way. And it’s not sustainable. And when I talk about conscious leadership, it’s about, I suppose, being wiser and more mature. And I do believe our organizations have been working from quite an immature space in that it’s all been about extraction. It’s about the deals, the winning results, rather than how are we influencing society? What’s the impact on our communities? What’s the impact on our environments? And that was the real impact of the work we did with the PepsiCo was that the shift was that they had a leader that was put on the executive leadership table and then any business decisions had to be checked in against this health KPI.

Gillian French (37:10):
So Niamh one of the things, when I was on the Dialogue Code site, there was some senior representative from mental health, and he defined wellbeing, as in human wellbeing, being your relationship with nature and your access to nature, and obviously the quality of your relationships as well, your connections, human connections, which I thought was lovely, because sometimes… And I’ve been there in a CPO and you’re trying to put in wellbeing initiatives, but you don’t think about nature. Maybe talk to me about nature and how that’s featured for you and for the leadership development.

Niamh Gunn (37:46):
Yes, so I think it’s a really important insight. And I think possibly that’s where we’ve gone wrong, both in our organizations and as an individual perspective, that we’re gone so out of balance. And if we look at nature and nature is balance. We see there’s cycles to the seasons, there’s different stages, there’s harvesting, there’s resting, there’s planting seeds. And I think if we were to… When we’re building out our deliverables and our KPIs and our strategic objectives, that maybe putting them up against… Factoring in time of space and pausing would be really valuable.

Gillian French (38:39):
And I really think as well, the fact that some of the work you do, you take people down… I know you’re originally from Cork, but you get out with nature during your retreats with leadership teams, you try to introduce elements of nature in the work that you do. Because again, people’s guards are down, they’re walking and they get time for reflections, they’re with nature, which I think is lovely.

Niamh Gunn (39:00):
Yeah, absolutely. And actually as part of the research… Nature’s been a fundamental piece that we we weave into all our work. And as we saw when we hit the crisis, it was images of nature we connect to. And I think that’s because as human beings, when we come back to our human being needs, we know that’s when we feel well and we feel at ease. So the reason we incorporate nature in is that you literally can shift someone’s state of being by giving them space to go out into nature. And we have seen by walking in nature, taking that time to breathe and pause, that when they have done that, there has been a shift in the conversation.

Niamh Gunn (39:48):
So what happens is instead of having a machine sitting on the table, we now have a connected heart open and touch a human being. And it’s really important for those conversations when we need to explore what’s going wrong, or we’re looking at creative solutions. We want the best version of a human being at the table. And that is when someone’s head, their gut, and their heart is open, because when you activate all parts of a human they’re extremely effective, and we see that from our top performers in the world when they talk about being in the flow. They have activated all parts of themselves.

Gillian French (40:37):
I love when you were saying as well, when you do the two or the three day retreats, you can always see the people that just rush down on the day of it, and it takes them a good few hours and they need to go out for a walk and count, and then they eventually open up, which I think is really, really interesting.

Niamh Gunn (40:52):
Yeah. And actually what I observe is depending on the level of stress within the organization, you can really… So the first day when people arrive, often, there’s so much resistance, there’s agitation. It’s like I can’t even sit at the chair. There’s all this frustration that comes out. And then it’s normally the morning, the morning of the second day, there’s a softness. But we’ve developed practices over the years to bring people into that space. But also what’s been wonderful and what was a real challenge is doing the work we do now virtually. And I had huge resistance that, “How am I going to do this,” because I needed all the elements of sound and creative practices that we would incorporate into the dialogues.

Niamh Gunn (41:39):
But we were able to do that actually because people were at home and our dialogues were smaller and shorter spread out, and people’s behaviors started to change within the time where they were incorporating nature into their daily practice, and what’s wonderful now, is we’re not all in these cities, in these concrete jungles, we’re at home and we have access to nature.And that being woven into the day will make a huge difference. And throughout the day, multiple times will increase productivity.

Gillian French (42:15):
Brilliant. So Niamh, I’m going to go on to the questions, my quick fire around. What is your favorite book and why?

Niamh Gunn (42:25):
So I’m going to say two, because they’re both parts of me. Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. I read that book when I crashed, when I was going through a crisis, and it changed my life because it was about compassion for yourself. And I had never, ever had that idea presented to me. And I think the world needs compassion for themselves at the moment. So I’d highly recommend that book. The second is Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations, and this is this incredible pioneer who’s been doing this work for the last 10 years, and it’s all about this collaborative shared leadership and examples of organizations and leaders that have lived these principles, that are a different set of principles and values and are hugely successful. And that’s exciting.

Gillian French (43:24):
Brilliant. And who is your leadership role model, dead or alive?

Niamh Gunn (43:30):
There’s two of them, again. I’m going to take a woman and a man who were actually very good friends, Lawrence Crowley, Dr. Lawrence Crowley, I referenced earlier was one of my mentors, my dear mentors that just died. And he was responsible for transforming education and a leader in business. But fundamentally the man represented lived integrity and courage and listening to the people. And in all of his mentorship of the work he did, I see has influenced the work that I’ve been doing. And one of the great teachings he gave to me was about slowing down. As before I would make any decision on anything, a campaign or a project, we would have multiple conversations, he would give space and time, he would make me rewrite things and come back. And there was such a quality to that because what I found is over the three weeks, in him slowing me down, there would be such a difference from where I started, but also a distilled clarity, which was much more effective.

Niamh Gunn (44:48):
The other person is Mary McAleese. She was a role model as a child because I knew… I suppose you can sense that someone is operating from a different space, and I think it’s that she’s a very aware in touch human. I think she embodies leadership as a human being. And also I had the privilege in my executive days where I went on a lot of trade missions. She was the only other woman in the room. And I observed how she just brought the room with her with no script, literally listening to whatever audience was there and really deeply listening and collecting those stories as we would go on the trade mission. And we’ve seen her over the years of bringing change and not afraid to speak up. She speaks up on really topical pieces, so she’s one that shines for me.

Gillian French (45:54):
And then what would be your biggest prediction for the future of work?

Niamh Gunn (45:59):
I think that work, as we know, it is gone. The traditional model is gone, thank God. I’ve been talking about redefining work, what success looks like for the last eight years. And I think the next number of years are going to be that we redefine what work is and that’s a good thing, and we will have… I suppose I think we’re going to see a lot of the work I’ve been doing, which is around leadership that there’s permission to be real as shared leadership where the employees are shaping the design of work and productivity going forward. Because I suppose we’ve had a collective breakdown, and I suppose you can’t go back to normal. Once you’ve gone through that, you are in touch with a desire for a different… There’s a different meaning. And I think we will be designing a very different workplace. And technology allows us to do that.

Gillian French (47:07):
Another speaker when was at the Dialogue Code said that we are only connecting with our head, the kind of logic, and the we’ve lost connection with our heart. Do you think it is possible to connect with the heart in the workplace context and what have your findings been around that?

Niamh Gunn (47:23):
Well, the connecting to the heart is a fundamental piece of our work, and I suppose if the focus is around developing empathy and compassion, how you do that is through the heart. So not accessing the heart or working from the heart space and just working from the head, then you’re working as a machine. And I love this image of the word corporation. Where does corporation come from? And it’s corpus, meaning body. And if you think of us that we’re like the human body in an organization. So you’ve got the different organs, the different functions. So you’ve got the head, the analytics, the thinking, and then you’ve got the heart, the feeling. And as we know in the body, we can’t have one without the other. They all work together and they must be in balance.

Niamh Gunn (48:22):
And what I have seen with bringing people into the heart… So a lot of the work that we do is really bring people down into the body and get them out of their heads, because you’re only using a part of your potential when you’re up in your head. So we very much try, and I suppose, activate the whole human potential. And there’s so much intel in our intuition, in our gut, and also opening the heart. And it’s through the heart that we really connect, and that’s where relationships come from and how we relate to each other and ourselves. So the heart is a core piece of building effectiveness, actually.

Niamh Gunn (49:17):
And John O’Donahue’s words come to mind where he talks about that the heart knows who we are, and it’s wise now and again to tune into our hearts and that the heart holds the secrets of our soul. And that was one of the things that I had disconnected from. I had actually disconnected from my heart. I didn’t actually know what I wanted. And I think so many of us go through life like a hamster on a wheel. We’re caught up in the busyness and we’ve actually disconnected. What does success look like for my life, and what do I really want?

Gillian French (50:00):
That can be very scary.

Niamh Gunn (50:04):
It is. It’s very scary when you realize you’re in something that actually-

Gillian French (50:11):
You don’t want.

Niamh Gunn (50:12):
You don’t want, and you’ve put all your eggs in that basket, and you’ve worked incredibly hard. Actually about six months before I left the executive position I was in, I knew in my heart it wasn’t for me and I needed to leave. And that’s one of the things, actually, we support leaders with, is that you come to the dialogue, you get a bit of a realization you’re facing something that you’ve been avoiding, and then giving them the handrail to find what it is you want. Some of the leaders that have come have realized, “I want to be in the space I’m in, the area of work, but I actually don’t like this piece of work.” One of our leaders loves caring for people and working with disability, but knew in her heart she didn’t want to be in operations.

Niamh Gunn (51:10):
She wanted to be communications and speaking on behalf of them. So it’s identifying what makes you thrive and your sweet spot, and that’s the wonderful thing. And that’s the piece about the shared leadership. When you are doing what you love, you will do it day in, day out, and you will give 150%, and there is no stress. When you’re doing something day in, day out that actually doesn’t give you joy, that’s where the stress comes from.

Gillian French (51:44):
But you’re kind of conforming because you believe that it seems like the recipe to success, everyone else is saying you do this, you work the long hours, you get the car, the house, and that’s what success is. And then when you realize that’s not actually what you want, the difficult part is servicing your truth and verbalizing it. And that’s very difficult. And I’ve obviously been there through the Dialogue Code, but then I think the bit after it becomes a really easy, because you’ve surfaced what your truth is. And then once you know what it is, you can go after it.

Niamh Gunn (52:14):
So we often say from inner truth for clarity. So when you’ve created a safe space container to access the truth, and I suppose what I’m trying to do is that… Let’s connect people with that so that they don’t go off the cliff edge like I did. And actually often it might be that your job is ticking one box, but it’s not everything you dreamed about. And one leader that I’m thinking of, he recognized that he wanted to sing. He always wanted to be a singer and he wanted to be on the stage. And he realized there was a bit of heartbreak in that, and he was caught because he had family commitments, he was in a big job, he’d support his family. And then he realized he could do it. Maybe he could go on the stage. Maybe he could do singing. And he did that, and he transformed overnight. His performance at work went through the roof, his leadership. And really it fundamentally was because he was happy. And another big piece was that he left work early on time-

Gillian French (53:24):
To do this.

Niamh Gunn (53:25):
Yeah. There was boundaries. He was leaving work at 5:00, half five to make rehearsals. And that story embodies the power of the dialogue and the power of when you actually come to what your heart wants. And a lot of the work we would… I would do a lot of work with the students, and I have a real desire to nurture that you stay connected what it is makes you you. Because what I did realize was the higher I climbed the ladder, the further I got away from my heart and the further I put a mask on, the more I climbed the mask went on, and I moved away from who I really was.

Niamh Gunn (54:18):
I’m giddy and this giddiness, this [inaudible 00:54:23] part of me, and I would’ve really been suppressing that as managing director of an organization. And I’m creative, I’m really creative. And now I embrace that creativity. At some of the workshops we make mandalas in sand, and I totally weave in my creativity and my quirkiness, and I’m totally myself and I’ve created what I wanted for myself, but it seems to resonate for others. So I do think we can actually have it all, but it’s about us being honest with ourselves and our heart.

Gillian French (55:02):
That’s amazing, Niamh. Thank you so much. Really enjoyed that talk. Thanks.

Niamh Gunn (55:06):
Thanks, Gillian.

Gillian French (55:11):
Thank you so much for listening to The Employee Experience Podcast. Subscribe on Acast or wherever you get your podcasts and check out workvivo.com to find out more.

The people behind the voices

Niamh Gunn

CEO and founder of the Dialogue Code

Niamh Gunn is a thought leader, serial entrepreneur, lawyer, and mum of 4 children. She is hugely curious about new ways of living, leading, and working. She has a passion to spark projects, conversations, and initiatives with a positive impact on society and workplaces.

Niamh loves to support individuals, leaders, and entrepreneurs who are committed to creating a better world and workplace, in developing conscious ways of working and organizations. To support individuals, unblock their blindspots to reach their and their workplace’s full potential and uncover the heart of what truly matters.

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.