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Bob Gower is an authority on agile development, lean theory, and responsive organizational design. He’s the author of Agile Business: A Leader’s Guide to Harnessing Complexity, and has assisted leaders at numerous companies — including GE, Ford, Chanel, and Spotify — in creating more effective organizations. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management, is a Certified Positive Psychology Practitioner, and speaks and publishes regularly on what it takes to build great organizations.
In this episode, you’ll discover:
- The “sex cult” period of Bob’s life and what he learned from that experience (1:54)
- The connection between organizational agility and employee well being (8:15)
- Leadership patterns that Bob has had to unlearn (12:43)
- The importance of cognitive diversity within teams (16:04)
- An example of agile leadership from Bob’s organization (23:30)
- Techniques to help monitor for inclusion in meetings (25:39)
- The “mental gymnastics” that diverse team members often need to go through within organizations (35:18)
- Leadership traits that have been traditionally valued within organizations and why they are problematic (40:00)
- A study about male chimpanzees and the lessons for middle management (41:53)
- An online tool that Bob uses when he is initially evaluating organizations (45:41)
- An important leadership trait that has been traditionally undervalued within organizations (49:17)
- The connection between vulnerability and legacy for leaders (53:35)
Psst, did you know? You can click, select and share any of the text in this post on Twitter, Facebook, or via email.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for joining me on The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown.
My guest today is Bob Gower. Bob is an authority on Agile Development, Lean Theory, and responsive organizational design. He’s the author of Agile Business: A Leader’s Guide to Harnessing Complexity, and has assisted leaders at numerous companies including GE, Ford, Chanel, and Spotify in creating more effective organizations. He holds an MBA in sustainable management, is a certified Positive Psychology practitioner, and speaks and publishes regularly on what it takes to build great organizations.
Bob, welcome to The Will to Change.
BOB GOWER: I am so happy to be here, thanks for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: You are a man of many, many stories, and probably some of the most bizarre I’ve heard. Remembering that the title of this podcast is True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion, one of my favorite applications of that, which is that everyone has a diversity story, even “appearing-straight” white men.
Tell us about a particular time in your life when you were part of a certain community that is actually hugely unusual — and probably surprising to a lot of our listenership — and what it taught you. I’ll just say that and let you take it from there.
BOB GOWER: Sure. I think you’re describing what I refer to as the “sex cult period” of my life. And that’s a somewhat inflammatory, headline-grabbing title, and it’s also somewhat accurate. It was an intentional community, but also clearly can be described as a cultic organization based on the folks out there that classify such things.
And its focus was on sexuality. It was run by a woman, and our focus was on female sexuality. It was an organization that was built on the shoulders of an older organization both in terms of its business, and let’s call it community organizing or induction playbook, and also in terms of some of the technology or the stuff that it taught.
I guess it’s been about ten years ago now. I was going through a divorce, and I went to a workshop on relationships. The entrée into it was simply me being in a place where I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I was struggling, I guess, around this idea of relationship. It was not my first divorce.
I saw an ad for an organization that said, “Hey, we will teach you how to have better relationships, how to relate better to women.” And I thought, “Wow, that sounds amazing.”
And I went to a workshop, and I guess really, when I look back on it, I was very consciously inducted into a culture. So maybe we can take some of the inflammatory language out of it. On the one hand it was very beneficial to me, on the other hand it was very destructive for me. And on the one hand it was a unique organization, and on the other hand, this kind of stuff happens everywhere in all different kinds of organizations. So I prefer to talk about it from a more concrete place rather than an inflammatory place. I’m not here to “out” the organization and destroy them, I’m here to help people understand organizations, our relationship to them, and how they can defend themselves better.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love the way you describe it. When you say “sex cult,” it’s funny how we go immediately to the sordid side of that word. And yet, I would imagine it taught you a lot about your masculinity.
You’re one of the men in my life with whom I can have very honest discussions about men, masculinity, and gender norms. I always learn so much from you because you challenge me, and I know you’ve challenged yourself. I want to ask: What did you learn about your own masculinity coming out of that experience that you’ve taken forward that has been life changing?
BOB GOWER: Wow, what an excellent question. What I learned about my masculinity? Well I think the first thing, like I said, I’ve been married more than one time. Currently, as you know, I’m very happily married. You know my wife Alex.
I had been married unhappily, and I think in this cult — let’s just continue to call it “the cult.” Why not? It’s fun. In the cult, it was kind of a group marriage in a sense. Very much in the sense that we all lived together, there was some shared sexuality, and certainly a lot of codependence that you find in a lot of relationships. Being in the cult gave me the opportunity to play out all of my negative patterns to the Nth degree because it was all at once, everything, all the time.
And I think coming out of it, what I realized, and it was a very, very painful set of realizations, but I think the real thing was around how I had spent most of my life trying to please women. You know, just saying, “What do you want? What do you want? What do you want?” What they really wanted from me was what everybody wants: We want respect, we want honesty, we want people to really listen to us and care about us. I don’t think that matters whether you’re male or female.
What I found was that when I came out of that organization, I had spent so much of my life focused on women and making myself attractive to women, that I hadn’t really figured out who I was, what I wanted to contribute to the world, or what I was really up to in life. I had somehow been so wrapped up in relationships that I really hadn’t pushed myself to answer those questions in a real way.
What I found was that as I began to find answers to those questions, I became much more attractive naturally, as long as I was respectful, kind, asked real questions, and was honestly interested in people. Then people would say, “What do you do?” or “What are you up to in life?” And I would have a real answer that was something I was passionate about, something I was excited about, and something I was increasingly skilled at. Not only was I more attractive, but I was also attractive to the right people, let’s say. I began to attract the kinds of women into my life — my wife– who, herself, was up to really cool stuff, was a really great person, was really kind, and really interesting. What I learned is that it’s not all that complicated in some ways.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s interesting because I see echoes of your experience in your work. It’s not an accident that you focus on organizational agility. It’s actually this beautiful tie-in of work in organizations as a means of self-actualization, which is something you talk about a lot. I think there’s a lot of skepticism about whether work can be all those things to people. And maybe there are echoes of that sense of the positive parts of community that you experienced.
BOB GOWER: Yes, I think so. It’s funny sometimes how simple it all can appear to me. Yes, people hire me and the teams that I work with because they have organizations that are broken or troubled in some way — it’s attrition, they’re losing people. Sometimes there’s a diversity element, but we certainly don’t sell specifically on that. We care about it a lot, but it’s not something we consider ourselves experts in. Often, it’s speed or agility, which is a strategic position. They say, “We’re unable to respond to the market, we’re structurally impaired. Things are moving too slow inside the organization.” So people ask us for that kind of thing.
The means to get there in today’s market. 100-150 years ago, when we were in an extractive industrial economy, you didn’t really need to care about the people who worked for you all that much, and sometimes it was even a liability. Right? People like Rockefeller and others built vast fortunes based on extracting value from human resources, extracting value from ecological resources.
Today, fortunately, we need more people because we’re solving complex problems most of the time. If we’re talking about speed, we’re talking about the ability to solve a problem, and usually the ability to collaborate with a variety of mindsets and a variety of skill sets in order to solve those problems.
If I’m going to help make an organization speedy from a structural and leadership mindset standpoint, I have to also make the organization really care about the people that are working there, care about their wellbeing. This is why you see the programs in Silicon Valley where people get free lunch, free gym, and free dry cleaning at the office. But I think it goes one layer deeper where you really have to — from the leadership mindset and structural standpoints — set up the team, set up the organization so people can really show up, and be full, whole people.
That, then, begins to set you up for these other conversations around self-actualization and all of these things. I like to describe it as, “Creating places where people can come and do the best work of their lives.”
Aside from all of that, just like inside of our relationships, whether or not we’re doing well in our organizations, whether or not they’re painful or happy, they are still opportunities to self-actualize. Sometimes the more painful, the more opportunity there is for self-actualization — another learning opportunity.
JENNIFER BROWN: “Challenges and opportunities,” as we refer to it in the human resources world. We have those organizational structures that aren’t ready for the future, that aren’t agile, that aren’t self-aware, that might have been built for speed, but not necessarily for seeing the whole person.
You and I know that, historically, those organizational structures have been built and honed by men. I live that reality every day trying to help companies look at themselves and honestly think about what they would need to do to change, to get diversity not just of identity, but background, diversity of thought, and bring all that difference to the table so that we can have that rich, creative abrasion that we really need in order to achieve what you’re talking about.
As a man who’s looked a lot at his own patterns and norms as a man, and thought about leadership as it’s been traditionally defined, what do you bump up against when you come into these systems with a lot of homogeneity staring back at you? In the meantime, you know that they must change, it’s a “change or die” scenario.
BOB GOWER: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: What are the reasons for resistance? I’m particularly curious to hear a man like you weighing in on male leaders, perhaps. What is the change that’s right in front of all of us? What is their reaction to it, and how you get them over the hump of that?
BOB GOWER: Yeah, how we get them over the hump is just pushing day by day. I don’t know that I do it particularly well sometimes. As you know as a consultant, your work sometimes feels like — what’s that line from the movie Shakespeare in Love with Geoffrey Rush? He says, “The theatre is always like impending disaster, but it always works out.” I don’t know, it’s a miracle, right? In this kind of consulting, I always feel like I’m on the edge. And sometimes if I’m not on the edge of getting fired, I almost feel like I’m not pushing hard enough.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. That’s actually true. Yes, that’s true.
BOB GOWER: It’s funny, when you were asking, “What impedes you?” I was just going to say “Patriarchy.” It really does. And I think patriarchy in the sense that it’s very much the water that we swim in, not in the sense of trying to call out any specific individual for bad behavior — even though I could, I see it all the time, and probably even see it in myself, right?
I think no matter how vigilant we are, we are who we are. I was born in a white, middle-class family in the suburbs of Philadelphia and raised to be a business person essentially, right? My dad was very kind, I was raised in a very kind and loving household, but at the same time, I am who I am. I’ve had to unlearn, I’ve had to unwind my own patterns over the years when it comes to leadership.
I remember the first time I was invited to a conversation with HR, being a very new manager, and being told that I couldn’t say certain things to employees. I won’t go into the sordid details of all of that right now, but I was joking about being fired. Joking about, “Oh, you’re so fired,” when they would give bad work and that kind of thing. Really having to learn there’s a power differential here and I have to respect it. Frankly, I see a lot of male leaders, but I’ve worked in fashion, I’ve worked in some organizations that are predominantly female, and I think what’s interesting is some of the same patterns persist no matter the gender of the person. Again, it’s the water that we all swim in.
If you’re in business, you’re in a system that has been defined by generations of men — much like politics. But I think, specifically what I see, what we are always trying to work with, is most organizations are based on hierarchy and fear for the most part. It may be a really kind company, and a really kind boss, but underneath it all there is, “If you don’t do what I say, you’re going to be fired or I can coerce you into doing what I tell you to do.”
There’s a benefit and a challenge there. I’d actually love to hear your thoughts on this because, on the one hand, we need diversity, we need variance of thought. What’s the term you used? Creative abrasion? We talk about actually a former colleague of mine coined the term “generative difference.” This idea that we want difference in our teams, but in order to perform, we need to be synchronized, we need to be aligned in our action. As mundane as it is, if I’m working on one thing and you’re working on the other, if we don’t agree about the outcome that we’re working towards, then we’re not going to get there. The traditional way of generating that alignment is through coercion, fear, and hierarchical power. What we want to generate is more networked collaboration, let’s say.
There always seems to be a give and take because if we get too diverse and too much variance, then we’re not aligned, and we’re not getting anywhere. But if we have too little, then we’re all doing the same stuff, right? I really would love to hear your thoughts on this because like there are different kinds of diversity, right? You can have four Stanford MBAs — two women, two men, different racial backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, different upbringings — but at the end of the day, they’re all four Stanford MBAs, which means they look at the world in substantially the same way.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I think that is such the challenge of cognitive diversity. When we talk about how millennials define diversity, which is making corporate America’s head hurt, they place their identity diversity secondary to cognitive diversity or diversity of thought.
It’s interesting to see how the prioritization or the ranking of those things changes over time as they move up the ranks in increasingly homogenous organizations. But that being said, it’s a challenging concept if you set organizations up traditionally by identity characteristics both observable and not.
The diversity of thought piece is really interesting. How do we square that with the fact that there aren’t enough women, aren’t enough people of color, and aren’t enough people with diverse identities populating our organizations? And now we add this layer on top with diversity of thought, where you can have tremendous diversity of identity in a room, but everyone has the same background, the same socioeconomic story. There’s a “sameness” that leads to blind spots that can be equally harmful.
It’s this never-ending litany. It reminds me of Facebook having 60 descriptors for gender. How do we even talk about it when we can’t even nail it down anymore? We have a generation coming in who is “multi-everything.” I get asked a lot of questions about whether labels are meaningless now because there are so many. And we have a generation that doesn’t want any labels anymore, by the way. I actually love the opportunity that this presents to get out of that binary we’ve always thought about diversity: “Are you black? Are you white? Are you gay? Are you straight?” That has never been accurate, but we reduced ourselves to those things so that organizational architects could identify us. So it’s really interesting to think about this new era of how people define themselves, what they want to show to others, and what they want to bring into the workplace.
How do we monitor teams for inclusion of all of these different aspects, both visible and invisible, and get them to synchronize? I’d love your answer to that, and then let me add another question: Is the manager responsible for getting that diversity together and then leading for inclusion? There needed to be somebody in an authority role who was monitoring, watching out for the group process, making sure all voices were heard, and that people were engaged in their own comfortable style — all of that.
But you work in a lot of leaderless teams. I know that you’re fascinated by that. I’m so curious. Does everyone, then, take responsibility for inclusion? How do we teach that?
BOB GOWER: Yeah, it’s such a challenging question. There are so many things I’m struck with by your question.
One refinement: I don’t necessarily work with “leaderless” teams. I still think leadership is a thing, I think it’s something that’s more broadly needed now, rather than more specifically. And some people don’t necessarily want to lead, they don’t want to be responsible for inspiring or nurturing. They’re a database engineer, and they want to be a database engineer. They want to do the database work.
You mentioned millennials, but I think partially because of millennials, but partially just because it’s a good idea, we see a greater emphasis on purpose or meaning. I can mean purpose in a very lofty sense. We’ve done some work with Charity: Water and various nonprofit groups that have really great missions that are very inspiring.
Right now I’m also working with a chain of restaurants, and I’ve worked with some locomotive engineers and lawyers. It’s not necessarily they have missions that are particularly inspiring to me from a nonprofit, “make the world a better place” standpoint, but at the same time what I’m trying to do is make sure that everybody in the organization is more connected to the mission as it exists. They know who the customer is.
So I may be a database engineer, but I know why I’m generating this database, why it’s important, why it’s valuable to the customer, what features the customer may be looking for. I have some sense of empathy and attunement. And maybe that’s really what we’re talking about is increased empathy and rather than running our organizations on fear, running them more on human-to-human connection.
That might be internal. Again, I advocate for creating very small teams so people know each other. In a matrix organization, these large, old matrix organizations that I’m mostly starting with often, the fungible unit of value of human resource value delivery is a single individual, a single resource. And you’re very, very specifically labeled, right? You are a legal resource if you’re a lawyer. You’re a database engineering resource or something like that.
And so one thing we start to do immediately is we separate role from soul. So you might need many roles to run an organization, and a single individual could fulfill many roles. I work a lot in technology, so it could be as simple as a QA engineer and a developer actually being the same person, they just play, “Right now I’m going to do the QA work, and then now I’m going to do the development work.” It could be as simple as that.
In an organization it could be when we have a meeting, we need someone to hold us to an agenda, to lead the meeting, to facilitate the meeting. We need someone to hold us to an agenda, make sure we reach the outcomes we’re trying to reach, make sure everybody gets equal air time. I think that is a real diversity issue — making sure people get to speak.
And what we find is if that’s the hierarchical leader in the organization, then we run into trouble, but if it’s just somebody who raises their hand and says, “Oh, I’ll do today, I’ll lead today’s meeting,” then we get to much, much better outcomes.
JENNIFER BROWN: It all came to the leader on paper. Talk about agile, you’re also really flexing. Every day you may be wearing a different hat, and the ability to step in and do that I think is creating a stronger pipeline of employees and people, but it would also really allow people to discover maybe new areas of competency of passion.
BOB GOWER: Yes. The team I work in, I’m part of a company called The Ready, and we’re all org designers. We just hired somebody recently, she’s wonderful. I didn’t make the decision, I don’t know who did, I’m out of the office a lot these days. But she’s now facilitating every single meeting we’re in. The newest person on the team is facilitating every single meeting.
Now we have very strict formats, we run meetings in very specific ways. We also make decisions in very specific ways to be very inclusive. I think these kinds of almost programmatic protocols are incredibly valuable and incredibly powerful because what we need to do, going back to your diversity question, we need to short circuit our habits.
I worked with a team a couple years ago that I said, “Hey, there aren’t any women here.” And the response I got was, “Well, women just don’t like this kind of work.” And I said, “No, I don’t think that’s it. I really don’t. I think that we are just hiring from our network.” It was about a 60-person company that had grown pretty organically, so we were just hiring from our network. We know a certain kind of person, and that’s the kind of person that we’re offering work to.
Furthermore, if we do happen to interview somebody who is not like that, there are two things that happen: One, let’s say we do interview a woman. She comes in, she doesn’t see anybody who looks like her here, so she’s going to feel out of place and, perhaps, uncomfortable. Two, we have no really deliberate process when it comes to what we’re interviewing for. We just ask people, “What did you think of so-and-so?” And they said, “Well, I don’t know that she’d fit in around here or he’d fit in around here or they’d fit in around here.” We can take the gender out of it.
But then we’re most likely being run by our unconscious programming, which makes your work and this work so challenging. So what we need is programmatic policy and processes that allow us to short circuit that.
Just in meetings, it can be as simple as working it around where we go around the room and say, “Do you have any clarifying questions? Do you have any clarifying questions? Do you have any clarifying questions about the proposal? Do you have an objection to the proposal? How about you? How about you?” So you call on people very specifically.
Myself, I identify as mostly an introvert. I can be very quiet in new groups of people, so I really identify with someone who has a hard time speaking up sometimes. But then you just get more air time. I think these kinds of things are the healing patterns, but they’re very slow acting, let’s say. It’s not like you’re going to come in and sweep through and change things all at once.
JENNIFER BROWN: Bob, what I would actually add to what you just said — and those were some great tactical examples of what you can do to monitor for inclusion — you described going around asking, “Do you have anything to add? Do you have anything to add?”
I think people who are underrepresented, and potentially people who are introverted, might just give you a one-word answer to that. “No, I’m fine. I don’t have anything to add.” I think we’ve got to ask open-ended questions and say, “What is one thing you might ask about it? What is one thing you’re wondering?” I would not let people off the hook. I think that shows it’s not just a check-in, it’s actually real inquiry.
Also, what we’ve learned about introverts, I might add, is where and how you ask people for their input really matters as well. Some of us are uncomfortable offering our opinion quickly, on the spot, in a group. So how do we follow up with certain people with different communication styles to really include them in a substantive way? I think meeting behavior alone is such an interesting and important part of inclusion, like you correctly identified. I just wanted to add some color to that.
BOB GOWER: Yes. I totally agree. It’s like an old facilitator trick. When I’m speaking or facilitating, if I ask, “Does anybody have any questions?” it’s signaling, essentially, that I’m done. But if I ask, “What questions do you have?” and then I’m pausing, it opens things up, especially sticking with the awkward silence after.
I think your point is really well taken about opening up and being inclusive. I think really what we’re talking about is just placing attention on these things, and then creating some organizational habits, some organizational structures. I’ve talked about structure several times or I’ve used the word. And what I mean is that most organizations are structured in a hierarchy. If I look at the org chart of any organization, it doesn’t really tell me how the work gets done, who works with whom, or what the organization is doing. As a matter of fact, it really just tells me what the power structure is, who’s trying to please whom, and some sense of pay grade or where you are in the strata. I care about that stuff. I think that stuff drives an interesting set of behaviors. You need it in order to establish pay grade.
There’s a line from Stanley McChrystal, who wrote a book called Team of Teams. He was the general who ran the theater in Afghanistan for many years. He talks about this move. His world is talking about how did we create an army that was able to respond to the disconnected network that is the terrorist cell? But we had this hierarchical army that was moving too slow because orders were too slow to flow down, and information was too slow to flow up, which is exactly what most organizations find themselves in today.
Anyway, his line is: “The kinds of leaders we need are leaders who move from chess master, which is the leader who knows all the moves, is able to think three moves ahead and then tell the pawn what to do, to someone who’s more of a gardener, someone who is more responsible for nurturing. Let’s call it the rules of the system or the overarching algorithms that a system runs on.”
So when we think about it, we think that what we want to do is create teams. We say, “A team is this, this is what defines a team in this organization.” Usually, we like people to be pretty much 100-percent dedicated to the team they’re on, a small group of people, and most of their work to flow through. So we flow work through teams, rather than moving individuals on to different jobs. So we don’t move the individuals around, we move the work around into these small, high-functioning teams.
The leader’s job in that world becomes much more to nurture. How trusting are people of each other? Trust is something I talk about a lot, something I care about a lot because if I trust somebody, I can get so much more work done in so much less time than if I’m constantly trying to check myself and jockey for position or something like that.
So we want to run organizations based on trust. The leader’s job becomes to really keep an eye on that. And then in the sense that we need everybody to be leading, we need everybody to show up as also keeping an eye on that.
I mentioned the woman who’s facilitating all of our meetings these days. After we had a meeting the other day, she mentioned, “Oh, yeah, there were some people that didn’t talk during that meeting. Would they like to say anything now?” It really created this opportunity for people to be more participatory. And it came from, perhaps, the youngest and most junior person inside the organization. I think that is a real testament to the founder of the organization and the community that he’s created. He plays by the rules, he nurtures the organization, and we’re a small team. He was gone for a week, and we barely missed him last week because he’s created an organization that runs itself.
JENNIFER BROWN: There you go. Well, that’s the mark of a successful leader. Sadly, it’s not the kind of leader we’re promoting in most organizations, as you and I know, so we have our work cut out for us.
You and I talk a lot about gender. And in a “VUCA” world — volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous — you mention women are driven by different things, and are actually stylistically better leaders or more effective leaders in a VUCA world. That woman’s instinct in the story that you were just sharing about checking in and really waiting to hear, and wanting to hear the answer to the question. Is that something you see women employing a lot more stylistically? How do we make room for more voices like that to enter the C-suite so that we can change the energy of organizations more towards what you’re talking about?
BOB GOWER: There are really a couple different questions in there, too. On the one hand, broadly speaking, obviously, we all exhibit different traits. But, broadly speaking, men are trained and maybe even we’re genetically predispositioned to be very literal, very direct, and face a problem head on.
I think about it sometimes, and this is just my own conjecture, but if men feel in danger, then we’re going to try to take on the problem physically, head on, and directly. Whereas women — and this is just my abstract theory — tend to be smaller and tend to use more subtle forms of control inside of organizations.
I’ve asked this, and maybe you can share your experience. I walk into a room, and it’s taken me years to train myself to notice the mood and the feeling of the room. Really, I can sense it, but it’s not necessarily naturally where I go. But most women I speak to will say, “Oh, yeah, that’s just the world that I live in. I walk in, I know that person’s angry at that person. That person is upset. That person is happy.” They’re tracking the emotional quality in the room. Would that track with your experience of the world?
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s funny you say. When I teach diverse leaders, and by diverse I mean in the corporate setting, that’s women, female leaders, LGBT leaders, LGBT people at one of the big banks we work with. And we talk a lot about that the vigilance that we’ve needed as one of “the only” in any given situation as we move up the levels in organizations, it teaches you this level of emotional intelligence. It’s interesting, though, not because you decided you wanted it, but because you needed it for safety.
BOB GOWER: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: And to hold on by your fingernails to the seat at the table that you had somehow finally achieved. So that vigilance around, “I don’t want to be rejected by this group that now I am in the midst of, this is where I want to be.” But you have to be exquisitely careful, and you need to be exquisitely aware.
As an LGBT person, of course, the awareness is all about, “Do they know about me? Do they know who I am?” We go through these mental gymnastics. I always describe it as having these parallel conversations in our head. Not only do we need to be contributing to the meeting, showing our expertise, and taking control, but we also need to be going through the math of saying, “If this happens, then what do I say? If somebody refers to this, how do I answer a question I don’t want to answer? How do I distance myself from that? I just heard a joke that makes me uncomfortable, am I going to say something about it?”
That sensitivity is born out of a need of survival for so many people. This is true for people of color, too. Ask anyone who’s in largely white and male ranks in financial services. It is crazy. And, yet, it develops this competency that I think you and I are talking about that’s actually the exact competency that we’re saying leaders really need to exhibit more of.
So that’s why it’s the silver lining to what has fundamentally been a really challenging journey for so many. And, yet, when I work with gay leaders, it’s so empowering to consider that what we have worked so hard to achieve for survival reasons is actually something that is not only going to be valued, but necessary for our organizations, and actually be a beacon for others.
So it’s actually this really cool flip on something that a lot of us have looked at as a really hard story, and yet, it’s as if, “Wait a second, there was a reason that I went through all this. And it’s not only to be a different kind of leader, but to teach a new generation of leaders in a different way.” That’s very, very empowering for people to look at it that way.
BOB GOWER: Yes. You talked about like this fear of exposure, this fear of being placed outside the group. After my experience in the cult organization, I thought, “Well how did I fall for this? How did I end up in a cult and giving up my self?” And part of it is that cults, and I think even most organizations, will use the threat of expulsion as a means to keep people in the organization. Right? We’re very, very, very programmed on a deep evolutionary biological level. Being rejected by the group is what is traditionally threatening to our survival. Quite frankly, being rejected by your employer can be rather threatening to your lifestyle these days, and to your survival in extreme cases.
So we use this fear of exposure, and this is where it acts as a very, very subtle thing. Then the other question you asked, which I think is really fascinating, is: How do we, then, get more people like this that we need? I completely agree with you. We need people who are nurturing, people who are paying attention to the emotional landscape in an organization.
I dealt with an organization recently where there was very, very, very high emotional cost to speaking up, to making change, this idea of psychological safety that they’ve been talking about. Amy Edmonson’s work out of Google has been so influential on my work. There’s this intense lack of psychological safety in this organization, but from a real-world standpoint, there were no business consequences, right? People were just afraid to look dumb. They were afraid to make the wrong decision, they were afraid to make the boss angry. The boss was male, he showed up very much as a dad, and people didn’t want to disappoint him. It became really challenging because on one hand he’s a brilliant guy who has deep insight, but on the other hand his reflexive communication style, and perhaps the hiring patters inside the organization as well, have created an organization where people are really, really afraid to do anything. It’s very hard to get them to talk about, “Well, what’s this really going to do to our bottom line? What’s this really going to do to the business?”
And so people are frozen into an activity almost, and that freezes the rest of the organization, and then there is a real cost. There’s more of a cost to not doing things these days, than even doing something which is maybe slightly wrong if we’re working quickly in iterative batches, and hopefully, we’re improving over time.
I don’t know how we hire more people. I feel safe getting somewhat political with you, what I feel like we saw in the last election was a culture, a system, and our whole political system was set up to value certain traits, and to undervalue other traits. And the traits that it values, the traits that promotion inside of a corporation values, just like the traits that an election cycle values, are not the traits that actually help you do the job well, right?
You have to be a self-promoter, you have to be a good orator, people like it when you’re commanding inside of a room — at least the people who are in charge of hiring you. We like confidence. As humans, maybe, we even respond to confidence.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Amy Cuddy’s work on trust, but there’s this idea that trust has two components. One component is: “Are you strong? Can you deliver? Do you have the skills, do you have the competence to deliver on the thing that you say you’re going to do?” And then the other is care: “Do I care about the people?”
And what we find is that care is somewhat easy to feign, it’s easy to fake, even though it’s incredibly important. In the big abstract sense, if I’m being hired by somebody, if I’m being promoted by somebody, those aren’t the people that I have to work with, those aren’t the people who are going to report to me, those are the people that I report to. And so I can say, “Oh yeah, I care about people. Sure, I’m a nice guy.” But the way I show up with the people below me is terrible.
Do we have time? Can I quickly tell you about an interesting study that I heard about recently?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Please.
BOB GOWER: I think it mirrors this exactly, and I think the solution is hidden in it.
So the study was you take five male chimpanzees and you put them in a room together. And because they’re chimpanzees and this is the way they operate, they form a hierarchy. That’s just what they do. There’s one, there’s two, there’s three, there’s four, there’s five. It’s a stack-ranked, force-ranked hierarchy, and it’s very clear who’s who based on their interactions with each other, and the scientists who are watching this can identify that.
What they then do, is they take one of them out. Let’s say we take number three out or we just begin to pump that number three full of testosterone. And they said, “Well, what’s going to happen?” That number three is now like really aggressive, really energetic, and really whatever.
So you would think that they would then challenge number one, right? They would then rise to number one because they’re going to be more aggressive.
But that’s not what happens, apparently. What happens is the hierarchy stays exactly the same, but the chimp who’s number three just brutalizes the ones beneath him, right?
I see this in middle management. I see this played out all the time in middle management, where the boss will think, “He’s a pretty nice guy, he’s a pretty good guy.” He doesn’t see the brutalizing, he doesn’t see the bad behavior that’s happening beneath.
Maybe one very, very simple thing that we could include in organizations is that you have to be hired and approved by the people who are going to report to you, right? So I get to hire my own boss, essentially. At least I get to participate in that conversation.
JENNIFER BROWN: How you treat people you don’t have to be nice to? I’ve always thought when it comes to diversity and inclusion, I’ve wanted it to be bottoms-up in terms of ratings. I would love to see a tool someday that really judges leaders, and maybe publicly, because I think that would lead to some change, however uncomfortable. This is the behavior I see. It’s not just what they say in the company meeting or in the town hall or on the corporate website, it’s how they authentically, or not, personalize the issue of diversity and inclusion. They’ve done the work, and when they speak about it, the real measure “You’re talking about it, what are your actions day to day to support it? Are you showing up? Are you practicing it every day? Do you share your journey?”
There are lots of metrics you can look at, but I would absolutely not ask somebody’s peers, who are usually — as you and I know — men weighing in on how other men are doing. That’s probably not an accurate picture of how they are actually resonating with people across difference. How are they really being heard, and how are they resonating?
If we had a tool that did that, it would be so helpful for me. When you look at how leaders measure their ability on diversity and inclusion, their track record, there’s a study by Chuck Shelton that shows the difference in self-analysis, and analysis by other men of men, and analysis by everything else of those same men. It’s really fascinating because, again, you walk into a room and people assume you’re a white, straight guy. You have privilege, you don’t know anything about any of this that we’re talking about.
And I know that’s not fair with someone like you. So it’s really quite fascinating to think, “How do we find the allies like you in a sea of sameness in many organizations? How do we hear you? How do we know that you’re there?” How do you show yourself as somebody who says, “Hey, I don’t necessarily get all of this stuff, but I’m working really hard to understand it, and how can I be helpful to you?”
BOB GOWER: Yes. I think you’re getting down to relationships. I love the idea of the tool you talked about. I use Glassdoor all the time. Whenever I’m hired by an organization, I begin to look at Glassdoor. It’s the first stop I make to check out an organization, because it does allow for anonymized reviews of that organization, and sometimes leadership shows up as a part of that. I don’t know if you use that or not.
JENNIFER BROWN: I do. I have questions about how they show up for diversity and inclusion. How do the leaders particularly, even name by name? I’m asked all the time, “Which companies do this well?” And I always say, “It is down to the individual in some cases. You can’t really generalize about a company or a culture.”
BOB GOWER: Yes, absolutely. I think this is one of the reasons that in my work I really emphasize building teams based on relationships. One of the interesting things we do often is I’m a big fan of meeting on a cadence. Every Monday, we have this kind of meeting. Every first of the month, we have that kind of meeting, right? So sometimes it’s, “Hey, how are we doing?” You retrospect, you think about how you’re doing. Or you do a quick, lightweight planning of the week to come. “These are my priorities.”
We’re really big fans of transparency because the kinds of behavior we’re talking about thrive in secrecy. So we advocate for tools like Slack, where it’s more open conversation, rather than e-mail, which is a more private, one-on-one conversation. And so what we find, weirdly, is that executive teams often don’t talk to each other very much. They don’t really interact. They don’t really have a community themselves. They don’t really have a team or a sense of, “These are my peers, these are the people that I count on.”
What they have is a sense of being the leader, being the star. So we’re touching on some topics that are really near and dear to me. I get really upset when people that I work with, read about, or even people that I know — because I know a lot of people who lead organizations — don’t really seem to care about the people who work for them. This can show up in terms of the kinds of benefits that are offered inside an organization, or just the attitude.
Unfortunately, it’s genderless, too. I’ve seen women behave very, very badly in this way, and I’ve seen men behave very badly this way. Often, I think we’re dealing with a male-defined structure, but it’s one that almost seems to favor sociopathy and narcissism to a certain degree, right? I can’t remember what the percentages are, but psychopathy or sociopathy shows up at a certain percentage in the general population, but much higher, rather statistically significantly higher — not 50 percent, 4-6 percent or something, but still significant within the range — within like the CEO population.
JENNIFER BROWN: I have to see that study.
BOB GOWER: Yeah. There’s a wonderful book called The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson where he goes into it in great detail, it’s lovely.
JENNIFER BROWN: Love it. Yeah, we value that in our leaders. Back to your point about bluster, control, and “powerful” defined in a certain way. Behavior which gets you the job, but has nothing to do with how you build relationships. It’s crazy.
BOB GOWER: Yes. And vulnerability is undervalued, right? We don’t value people who say, “Well I don’t know the answer to that question.” Even though that’s 99 percent of the time probably the answer, given that we’re trying to do really complex, interesting stuff together.
One of the things that I challenge myself to do, and one of the reasons I talk publicly about having been in a cult as well — by the way I was very, very nervous about coming on and saying I’ve been in a cult. This was the thing when you were talking about the LGBT community and business, I thought, “What do I talk about? What don’t I talk about?” I have this like gap in my resume that’s kind of long, “What did you do then?” “Well, I was in a cult.”
And when I was coming out, I was broke and trying to put my life and my career back together, so I didn’t talk about it at all. I just talked around it. I didn’t outright lie ever, but it was really a challenging time for me. It was one of those things that I would walk around, always afraid that someone was going to find out. And if they found out, what would that mean? And I also carried my own personal shame about it, right?
Then that real fear hooked into this imaginary fear, and it all blew up. I was constantly vigilant about it. And then a few years ago, a friend of mine just said, “Hey, man, this is your story. And it’s a really interesting story. And it’s a story like nobody else in your business really has. Why not come out and talk about it?”
And what I found is a couple things have happened as I’ve come out and talked about it. One is that, yes, I became instantly a much more interesting guest at cocktail parties. When people would say, “So what are you doing?” I could say, “Well I’m writing this piece about this time I spent living inside a cult.” And they’d say, “Really? Tell me more.”
Whereas before I would say, “Well, I help organizations become more efficient.” And people snooze, right? They’ll go to sleep, right? So a difference there. I became a more interesting person on some level because I was telling more, I was being more vulnerable, more authentic, more real, telling more about myself.
Also, I began to attract people to me. We just actually closed a deal with a company, and it was based on a contact that I made at a talk called, Sex Cult to C-Suite, that was the title. And I met this person there, and it’s with a pretty big financial institution that we closed the deal. She came up to me after and said, “Oh my God, what an interesting story.” And because we tend lead with who we are.
And I think maybe this leads me to where I think all of this is going, is that we need to create organizations that invite, reward, and even encourage the whole person to show up. I know if there’s no part of myself that’s trying to hide some shameful thing, I have more cognitive capacity available to solve the problems that I’m trying to solve. But if I’m walking around with this fake face — and this leader whom I was describing before, this very masculine leader who was leading by fear, he probably has one of the more developed fake faces, business faces. I know there’s emotional depth in there, I would bet my life on it, right? I would bet my life that there’s fear, vulnerability, and care. But it’s layered over by “This is who I have to show up as in order to succeed in the world.” And some of us have learned that very well, and so we have to unlearn. We have to create spaces, frankly. We have to create safe spaces, right? We have to create spaces that are safe for individuals to show up, and encourage it, reward it, and celebrate it, right? Celebrate diversity, but it’s very, very risky because all of our habits are built going in opposite directions.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. As we dismantle, hopefully, you’re in my secret dream, the command and control way of looking at organizations, and what strength and power look like. I think that embracing vulnerability and our diversity stories, as I often talk about, those are not things to be hidden because it takes energy from us.
One of our problems is we can’t see ourselves in leadership. We look at that picture and we say, “Well, I don’t see any women, or I don’t see any out, gay executives at this company.” And what we surmise is, “I can’t be that someday.” That is an illogical but logical conclusion that we draw.
In my work with execs I say, “Don’t just do it for yourself, you actually need to do it for your legacy. You are creating an opening by showing vulnerability that will show that leader, that future CEO someday that never thought of themselves as being able to be a CEO, you are all of a sudden making it one step closer for them to achieve that by sharing this. Sometimes I can get people engaged that way, and appeal to their desire to create that legacy behind them.
Bob, we are out of time, but I could talk to you all day about this stuff because there’s so much work to be done.
BOB GOWER: Absolutely, so could I.
JENNIFER BROWN: This has been wonderful. Thank you so much. I want to have our audience be able to find you, read your writing, and continue to absorb the wonderfulness. Where can I point them?
BOB GOWER: Sure. I have a brand new website, it’s called BobGower.com. Very clever. Basically, all of my writing is linked there, my speaking, and my work. If they want to find out more about the team that I work with when it becomes specifically organizational design, it’s TheReady.com.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.
BOB GOWER: So, BobGower.com and TheReady.com. Thanks.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so, so much. Keep up the work that you do investigating your gender, your behaviors, being an ally, being a champion for inclusion. I really appreciate your voice out there, and I look forward to continuing to learn from each other as we travel this path.
BOB GOWER: Likewise. Thanks so much for having me.
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