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This episode features an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Hull, CEO of Leadershift, Inc., and author of the highly acclaimed book, FLEX: The Art and Science of Leadership in A Changing World. Dr. Hull discusses his formative experiences, and the qualities that leaders need to possess in order to be effective when working with diverse teams. He also shares his conviction that anyone can be a leader, and that effective leaders can employ a variety of leadership styles.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Jeff’s diversity story, including being adopted and eventually meeting his birth family (5:00)
- The impact that sharing our stories can have on others (10:00)
- The shift that is happening at work around being more authentic and vulnerable (15:00)
- The importance of cultural humility for leaders (25:00)
- Why anyone can be a leader (30:00)
- Some of the key qualities that leaders need to possess (39:30)
- The type of environment that is needed to develop leaders (42:00)
- The impact of the changing nature of teams (43:00)
- The changing nature of coaching in the workplace and the connection to diversity (46:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Jeff, welcome to the Will to Change.
JEFF HULL: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: I am so excited to have you on. We’ve been friends and co-advocates, I would say, for over a decade in the LGBTQ space, and we were both on an early board for Out and Equal, which I mention occasionally on the Will to Change is an organization that I’m still a part of and have been a part of for, goodness, probably 15 years. Out and Equal focuses on workplace advocacy for LGBTQ+ employees, and also companies’ actions in the marketplace on behalf of the community. It’s an amazing organization, great conference in the fall every year.
But needless to say, Jeff and I have been in those trenches pushing things along, using our voice, and Jeff’s also an executive coach, so he has his own practice and he also works at the Harvard Institute of Coaching.
I think we’ll get into this today, Jeff, but we’ll put this in the parking lot. But the community of executive coaches is a community I find myself thinking a lot about in terms of the importance of their role because they are on the front lines serving leaders, and the importance of their ability to articulate diversity and inclusion, and explain things, define things, convince, cajole, encourage their leaders to take this on, and promote it, and live it. They are very much frontline in the same way that I think of, for example, HR business partners. I know you know that community intimately and you are that community, you’re an executive coach, you serve leaders of all kinds, which we’re going to get into today. And I know that you bring the diversity and inclusion knowledge and guidance in your unique and authentic way to everybody that you interact with.
We’ll get into that later, but first, as you know, because you listen to the Will to Change a lot as you’ve told me, that we start with people’s diversity stories. There is so much that is under the water line for somebody like you, and I have felt really honored to learn more about your story that I didn’t know that makes you the incredibly sensitive and tuned in human that you are.
JEFF HULL: I try to be.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I know. Some days are better than others for all of us, but it does have its roots in your early days of your life, as I’ve come to learn and appreciate. What would you share about your diversity story with our audience?
JEFF HULL: Well, yeah, it’s a really interesting sort of excavation, I think, that we all go through when we step back and ask ourselves, “What is our diversity story?” I know, at least in my case, what my friends, family, colleagues, might think of as my diversity story is often a bit of a surprise when they hear what I actually really consider to be my diversity story. Because, in fact, I’m sure we’ll talk about covering, my core diversity, what I consider to be sort of my core diversity story, like way under, or as you would say, maybe under the waterline, is one that I still don’t share with very many people. It’s actually pretty rare for me to even talk about it publicly, and that’s having been adopted. I was adopted at… it wasn’t even at birth, it was at age two. In fact, I was in a foster home for two years.
I won’t go into the details of why all that happened, but having grown up finding out when I was seven that my adopted family was not my so called “real” family, and that I had a real mother and a so called “real” father out there somewhere was really somewhat traumatizing. I mean, it took me quite a few years to integrate that information. It ultimately, just to sort of put a cap on diversity stories, I think has been more challenging for me to integrate than my LGBTQ status.
No, coming out as a gay man wasn’t easy either and that’s been a long process that we all, those of us in that community, go through. But I just, looking back on the work I’ve done on myself, on the therapy that’s been most helpful, on the challenges that I have felt both emotionally and in the world. I would have to say grappling with searching for my birth family, finding my birth mother, integrating that information with my adopted family, that’s been pretty much my most challenging diversity story.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I love that, thank you so much for sharing that journey-
JEFF HULL: And the good news is it had a positive ending, because I did-
JENNIFER BROWN: It did.
JEFF HULL: Yeah, I found my birth family.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. You did. Yeah. Tell us more about how things stand right now.
JEFF HULL: Well, I met my birth mother and actually introduced her to my adopted mother, which was quite an extraordinary experience. And they’re both perfectly okay with my being in the LGBTQ community-
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, beautiful.
JEFF HULL: … and it all kind of worked out. Not to say they’re not complicated people.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, family.
JEFF HULL: I’ll spare you the family systems dynamic, but yeah, I mean, on balance it has been a really amazing and positive journey.
JENNIFER BROWN: I really appreciate you sharing this. You are like the third or fourth person in the last month that has shared their adoption story with me, as something that has been the towering, towering formative aspect of their lives. It’s really… it might feel risky to share these kinds of stories, and we may think that it’s pointless to share them, that’s what I hear, at least, when I coach leaders around their diversity stories and lowering the waterline of the iceberg like we talk about.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: But it’s so humbling when somebody does so, it kind of takes your breath away. You really connect to them. You’re listening very carefully. Your attention goes up, and I think your empathy just is so… is triggered in this very human way. I hope, what I say often, is that the sharing that you are taking the risk to share, shows people that you’re not going to die if you talk about this. The sky isn’t going to fall, and you may create a pathway for someone to see themselves. You may normalize something that is not talked about. You may, and I know that you probably consider this to be true, that as hard as it might have been, and confusing, it also gave you gifts in your life.
I always think of being LGBTQ, for me, as giving me the hugest gifts. Coming out ended up making me resilient, and flexible, and adaptable because I didn’t know what I was walking into half the time. And that emotional intelligence, which I know is a specialty of yours, and the ability to win someone over and gain their trust when you are mindful that something about you could actually break that trust. I mean, that’s quite a skill, very useful.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: But hard won. You could argue, unfortunate that you even have to win it, that you have to think about it that way, that you have to strive 200% because you may be judged, you may be isolated, or rejected. I wonder, what does it feel like to start to talk about this more, Jeff, these days? What is it? Is it, do you think it’s healing something in you? Do you think it’s connecting some dots for you? Do you think it’s going have a more primary role in your future in terms of how you speak about your story?
JEFF HULL: I would say yes, and yes, and yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay.
JEFF HULL: I think that the more that we, I speak for myself but also for folks like you and others that are willing to investigate what is our deepest diversity story? How are those narratives impacting us from our earlier experience in family, in social dynamics that we experience. I think it not only frees us up to just show up authentically, but it also enables and empowers the people around us to both explore how they react to those kinds of stories and how that opens them up, or how that impacts them. Yeah, I think being role models is important. It hasn’t always been easy for me. I mean, it’s taken time to get comfortable. It’s ironic because when I do tell people that I’m adopted, often people will say to me, “That’s no big deal. Oh, why is that a big thing?”
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, wow.
JEFF HULL: Then, because it’s relatively common in our culture, and it’s not as taboo as it used to be. I think sociologically, or whatever, it’s maybe not as big a deal to people as being LGBTQ, but on the other hand, I will often say to people, “Really, you don’t think it’s a big deal? I think waking up when you’re five or six years old and being told that your parents are not the ones that gave birth to you is actually a pretty big deal.” All of a sudden they were like, “Wow, you’re right. That would certainly have an impact to my identity.”
In any case, I think that it’s a journey for us all to discover what our deeper diversity story really is, and how we’re impacted by it. And what we work on in ourselves as role models for folks like you and me, Jenn, that are out trying to empower others and advocate for the people that are not being heard, I think when we share our stories more courageously, that give people permission to share theirs, or even to explore what theirs is.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. No, that’s true, because often they look at me kind of quizzically and say, “What do you mean? I don’t…” a lot of people will say, “I didn’t have much hardship in my life, so I don’t know how to connect to this.” Which is one response I get.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’d have to delve into that a bit more, but often people have kind of erased or downplayed something for so long that they don’t even think about it anymore. They don’t allow themselves to think about it, or they don’t see it as something that… they’re stoic about it. It’s like, “Oh, well that was just the way I grew up.” And it was difficult, and either, “I don’t think about it.” Or, “I’m ashamed about it. I don’t want to bring it up to myself, to others.” It’s interesting to think of these things in a different way as tools from which to teach, and from which to role model, and from which to heal, honestly. Because when I started telling my story about losing my voice, I was really re-traumatized.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: In the early times of telling it, it was I didn’t know if I would get through my TEDx talk where I told it for the first time in front of 1,000 people without crying, because I was worried about the moment. I had never articulated it, and publicly, but I got through it. Then I realized I could get through it. Then I realized over time as I got more comfortable that it could be my tool. It could be something that I could wield for good. That also allowed me to make peace with it in a way I think that I couldn’t have if I never talked about it and processed it.
Of course, I’m an extrovert, so we love to process things out loud, kind of to an annoying degree probably, but that’s how we think through things is talking about and sharing with others. Having them hear us is so healing. It’s sort of what comes back from people. It’s like, “I see you. I see your story. I see how important this was to you because I have this too, or I have something similar.” That part is just incredible, when the community sort of comes out of nowhere and surrounds you. There’s a community for all of us.
JEFF HULL: Yeah. I think one thing you’re making me think about is that it’s more than just permission to share your story. It’s also recognizing the empowerment that comes with your story. The power of your story, and the importance of honoring it. You’re making me think about some of the leaders that I’ve worked with that come from different cultures and they try to be successful in leadership teams or organizational teams that are more western or more American. They will sometimes almost deny their narrative, their identity story, because they want to fit in as sort of an American type leader.
When coming from, let’s say, a Korean culture, or a different Middle Eastern culture, or from India, or someplace like that, I mean, those places have very specific cultural, family, historical narratives and people will cover. They will almost not want to share that as if it’s something that’s preventing them from being successful, so they will put it away, and lock it away. I think the reality is, is when they are empowered to share and own their backgrounds, that’s how we all learn, that’s how we all have a better connection. That’s where we all find more ways to adapt and have empathy for each other.
JENNIFER BROWN: You know, Jeff, I hear a lot from first generation American kids, that their parents coming from elsewhere and assimilating, the message was, “You don’t need to learn the language. You don’t need to learn the cooking.” Then the next generation subsequently is like, “But we want to know our culture. We want to reclaim that.” And it’s that in the workplace, where we are talking more about vulnerability, authenticity, bringing your full self to work, that’s the big refrain-
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: … in a lot of the clients I work with. It’s such a different message than the historical message, which was, “Don’t bring you full self to work. That’s not appropriate. It will trigger stigma, so I need to just deny its existence. I just need to act as if these things aren’t true for me, or going on for me, or under my waterline. And I need to mimic the dominant culture in the workplace.” And god knows, women have done this for a really long time, and still need to do it, feel the need to modify their appearance, or who they’re seen with, or who they hire, or what they show interest in. That’s all the covering aspects that Kenji and Christie write about in Uncovering Talent.
Now we’re talking about this message of, “Bring your full self to work.” And we’re, thankfully, we’re challenging these norms. I’m so glad you and I are part of challenging all that. You’re challenging it. I love your work on the alpha energy. I thought it was really interesting you said you literally have four fathers because of your family configuration.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: You had a lot of… I wouldn’t even say role models, because I don’t want to make positive or negative assumptions, but you certainly had a lot of examples of what authority, when it’s inhabited by a man, looks like. Then sort of translating that probably into what you see now amongst your clients, and the organizations, and the leadership, which is largely more male than female at the top of the house, and how our definition of authority has been kind of masculine normed. And how you are actually proposing with Flex, your new book, a really different way to think about what a leader looks like.
I know that this has the roots in your personal story, and probably feeds your passion for kind of dismantling something that I think has been very binary in the past, very exclusionary for a lot of us who don’t fit a certain mold, and your mission in life is to elevate new kinds of stories, and new kinds of examples of leadership. Tell us about that evolution process, why you’re so passionate about looking at this now. Maybe you can define what do you really think is changing about how we look at leaders and define leadership?
JEFF HULL: Well, it’s a very good question. I think you are prompting me to reflect on how my own personal narrative and history connect to what I’m most passionate about in working with today’s leaders, and what prompted me to write the book. You mentioned that I had multiple fathers, and that’s true, but actually, the most positive, I’ll stick with the positive, because of course, family systems are complex, but the most positive role models for me were actually my female leaders. The mother, both birth mother and adopted mother, were really positive role models, but they were more what I would call beta style leaders, not particularly authoritative, but more empathetic, and collaborative, and socially sensitive. That’s what I grew up with and learned to revere, and hopefully learned to assimilate.
Also, it’s where I got my courage to sort of be myself rather than having to follow that particular autocratic alpha style. I mean, I think it’s considered sort of the traditional norm in our culture, as you said, but these days what I’m noticing, and have been involved with over the last decade or so, is more and more diverse leaders not following that path, but actually honoring their own leadership styles and finding their own voice, and actually incorporating some of their cultural narrative, some of their family history, and to ways of honoring how they want to show up as leaders. That can be for women who are taking on leadership roles more and more often these days, but deciding, either consciously or unconsciously, deciding not to necessarily follow the alpha linage, right? In order to break through the glass ceiling, I remember not too long ago, a woman had to pretty much act like a man, right? Dress like a man, have that sort of charismatic, extroverted, autocratic traits.
I don’t think that’s necessarily the case anymore. I think it’s important that folks like us, in our books, and in our teaching, in our coaching, that we give… we support leaders that are more, what I call the beta style, we support them in honoring that as a strength, in bringing their… as getting back to the core of this conversation, bringing their core self to their leadership role, to their work, because that ultimately creates a couple of key results that I think are crucial to the success of today’s organizations.
Number one, creating a sense of safety that empowers the voices of everyone. You just, in today’s competitive world, we can’t afford to have people hiding out and not feeling like they can speak up. We’re not getting all their talent if that’s the case. That’s number one, creating safety by role modeling variety, and my role modeling vulnerability, and empathy, and collaboration, which sets up a different tone, a different environment for people to participate.
Then number two, creativity, right? In order to have innovation, everybody always talks about this need for creativity and new ideas, but you can’t do that if only one or two people on the team are actually speaking up. Or if they way to speak up has a very limited, rigid structure, or guideline. There has to be fluidity, and flexibility, and opening for people to share in ways that are recognizing difference, that are honoring that maybe they have their most creative moments when they’re quiet, and when they’re alone. Then they bring those back to the team. But to have a leader that has that sensitivity to recognize that he or she wants to get the best out of everyone, that’s my passion, is to create that kind of leadership environment.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so beautiful, and that’s all in your book, Flex. You say we’re in the age of the post heroic leader, and I loved that. I loved that the qualities that might have been lauded in the past, like charisma, which I think is very subjective, of course, and it’s defined by those in power… I think of it as executive presence, right? That’s sort of been used in good ways and bad ways in terms of evaluating somebody’s fitness to be a leader, right?
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: But you just used a beautiful example of introverts, for example, having a different way of processing things, makes them no less of a leader. We’re moving to this beta leader age. No surprise there’s a link to also the age of the female leader, but I would say it’s not just woman leaders, it’s the balancing of the hyper-masculinity that has been expected of men, too, and has been harmful to the diversity of men. You know, you as a gay man, we as people in the LGBTQ community, we stand within groups, and we also stand apart from them. For you, I’m sure your ability to toggle between those gender norms and think about gender behaviors and expectations. It’s one of those things that I think the LGBTQ community, we live that every day. We’re either challenging people’s gender norms in terms of how we express ourselves or who we love, or we’re aligning with them, but we’re constantly dealing with it. That’s the truth.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think we teach in our own living our lives authentically, and showing up as ourselves, and our ability to be flexible, we’re actually role modeling a more balanced world where we can have this beautiful balance of masculine and feminine, and yin and yang that kind of live in a single person. It doesn’t need to be either by women sort of emulating hyper-masculinity, and nor does it need to be men embodying the hyper-masculinity, because that’s harmful for them, too. I’m sure you probably have a lot of coaching conversations about that getting in the way.
JEFF HULL: Yeah, which is one of the reasons why in my book I don’t denigrate the alpha leadership style. I recognize the value when you need to make a quick decision, or when you have an urgent situation, you want an alpha. You want someone who’s strong, and directive, and decisive. Having charisma is great, it’s actually a wonderful trait, but it’s just one of the categories of success factors.
The theme in my book is to expand. If you are more naturally alpha, to recognize the value of being quieter, being collaborative, being curious, being empathetic, stepping back, being a servant leader. Those are all the kinds of things that will get the best out of your introverts, and out of your quieter people. To recognize that that’s only one way to operate, and likewise, if you’re more of a beta style, if you tend to sort of hang back and be more of a consensus driven person, then recognize the value of that, and honor it, and feel empowered to speak it, and own it, and live it.
I would add to your talk about the gender issues, in terms of a level of sensitivity that you’re pointing to that you and I might have based on our own history, I also would add to that the importance of cultural humility. That’s really so needed in our leadership and organizational landscape today. That we are in situations now where so many of our organizational teams have people from multiple countries, right? From Asian countries, Middle Eastern countries, European countries, African countries, South American countries, and all of these countries have their different backgrounds, and cultures, and stories.
I think it’s really important that leaders recognize the value of integrating the best of all of these different cultures. I consider that to be a challenge for all of us to have more, what I call, cultural humility. To just be curious, to not just expect that someone from India, or someone from Brazil, or someone from Korea is going to just automatically be American style, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JEFF HULL: It’s, like you said, I think because of our personal history we have a greater barometer, a greater sensitivity to those issues, but I think we want to raise the volume for everyone to be more sensitized, because this multicultural world that we live in, and also the smaller interconnected networked, sort of 24 hour time zone world that we live in, means that we have an opportunity to get the best from all of these cultures, and to empower the voices from all of these different cultures. We really need to have that become more publicly shared wherever possible, because of course, it’s sort of counter to what’s going on in the political sphere.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, and I do want to talk about the… we are in a world, an environment, of a lot of alpha energy, perhaps we could say anger, over directiveness, authoritativeness. We’ve gotten caught up in the noise of this, as you said, in our prep call, I was thinking a lot about. The antidote to the sucking up of the air of that style is to elevate different stories, to be a part of sharing your story, taking up more space in the world when you’re not really seen in that world.
Also, for those of us who might aspire to be considered allies for any community, fill in the blank with many that don’t have as much of a voice as they deserve, to elevate those voices and bring those with us. If we can get in the room, I’m going to be in that room along with a lot of other… I’m going to bring an army with me, and I’m going to make sure that that army is seen, and heard, and understood, and I’m going to use my voice to do that, which is really the definition of allyship. I know it expanded your mind, and your heart, to work with some trans leaders at HRC for a program, and also some leaders with disability through the Chicago ADA.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: You said you had some, standing up in front of those rooms day after day, you had a lot of “ah-ha” moments, and you probably took a quantum leap in terms of your… you already believed, of course I was even talking about that, leaders are in unlikely or unsung places, and we need to change that. But didn’t facilitating, or being in these rooms and hearing, and seeing, these leaders and what they do with their diversity story every single day, it transformed you as well and it sort of gave you a lot more fodder, I’m sure, and lit your fire.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: But tell us about what that process was like for you to work with those leaders in those rooms, not being from those communities directly.
JEFF HULL: Well, it was incredibly inspiring. In fact, perhaps propelling me to want to write this book even more. I didn’t specifically focus just on those particular profiles in the book, but it really reinforced my desire to write a book about leaders and how to empower leaders, how to coach, and develop, and elevate leadership from a whole range of perspectives, from a whole variety of backgrounds, which is why if people read my book they’re going to find people from lots of different countries, they’re going to find women, they’re going to find people from the LGBT community, they’re going to find that I worked with, and have coached and developed, leaders from a whole range of backgrounds and that it’s really became incredibly important to me to raise the volume on that. That that’s what happening out in the real world, that people from a whole range of backgrounds are stepping up and leading.
I think to your question, it connects to my fundamental philosophy ever since I became a human resource director, then a psychologist, then a coach is a belief that anyone can be a leader. That leadership is something that is inborn in all of us, actually. It’s like when you get out of bed in the morning, you’re leading your day. Leadership is not an exclusive of competence of a small percentage of the population, it’s actually inherent in every human being from the day they are born. I know that sort of rationally, and we’ve talked a little bit about my personal background and maybe reinforced it from a sort of knowledge/intellectual standpoint. But I think when I was in the room with trans people, and people with so called “disabilities” stepping into leadership roles, and sharing their leadership stories, I was just bowled over emotionally. It just hit me viscerally, like, “Wow, that anyone really can lead.”
Just to give you a quick vignette, I mean, I worked with a trans leader who was running his own business, a group of hairstyling salons, I think he was very successful. He had six or seven different salons, and he had quite a few employees, maybe even 100 employees. During the time of starting the business, growing the business, and hiring people, and training people, right in the middle of that, over a period of three years, he went from being a woman to being a man. He brought along his employees with him through the journey. He shared it with his family, he shared it with his staff, and I mean, talk about empowering, and courageous, and just incredibly inspiring story. I mean, he ultimately has pictures on the wall of his hair salons of him as a woman running the hair salon, and then three years later as a man running the hair salon. He’s written a book about it and-
JENNIFER BROWN: Incredible.
JEFF HULL: Yeah. Not just a trans person, but a trans leader, and owning his story.
JENNIFER BROWN: What’s the name of the book? I have to ask. Do you remember? Or his name? We’ll put it in the show notes if you don’t.
JEFF HULL: Yes, I’m going to have to quickly look it up, because it’s not coming directly to me.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that’s okay. Yeah.
JEFF HULL: But I’ll find it for you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.
JEFF HULL: But it’s stories like that that are, you know, it’s one thing to intellectually know that anyone can be a leader, it’s another to really experience that level of empowerment from-
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I love your stories of being in the room, and stumbling, and saying the wrong things. We talk a lot about that in my new book, the stumbles, the need to apologize, the need to go through some difficult conversations and be called on the carpet, and adjusting your language, I mean, I’m sure that’s part of how you grew so extremely during that time.
JEFF HULL: Oh, incredible humbling, working, for example, with leaders with disabilities. My co facilitator, Leslie, and I would design a program that we customized from some of the other trainings we’ve done with leaders. We were putting together the PowerPoint presentation, and we had 20 folks, some of whom were blind, some of whom had hearing issues, some of whom were paraplegic, some of whom had birth defects. A whole range of different challenges that they had either worked through or were grappling with in their lives, but they had all stepped up to wanting to be leaders, to having roles in the community as leaders, to having jobs where they were operating as leaders.
JEFF HULL: Here we were going through our PowerPoints and recognizing, “Oh my god, look at that. It says, ‘Do you see XYZ?'” I’m like, “Leslie, we can’t put that on the PowerPoint, because there’s people in the room who can’t see.” And she was like, “Oh, you’re right. I never even thought about that.” And we would be standing in front of the room and we would say, “So did everyone hear me clearly?” Then all of a sudden you realize that there’s someone in the room who’s reading because they are deaf, and so of course they can’t hear you clearly. It was very humbling to realize that our language is so biased, our lack of awareness, sometimes, and sensitivity, and yet… you know, it was humbling for me and it was incredibly learning, educational. I consider myself, as I said to you earlier when we were talking, I call myself an ally in training because I’m just… in those rooms it was like having training wheels.
JENNIFER BROWN: For sure.
JEFF HULL: But at the same time, all of those incredible people, all of those leaders, had a sense of humor, they would laugh with us at our fumbles-
JENNIFER BROWN: So gracious. Patient.
JEFF HULL: Yeah, it was just incredibly accepting of the fact. They were like, “Oh, yeah. Well, you know, we’re used to you guys not knowing what was really going on. It’s fine.”
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s really a two way street.
JEFF HULL: I remember I walked up to one leader who was paraplegic in a wheelchair, and he’s incredible passionate, and brilliant, and he leads a group of software programmers, but he works from a wheelchair. I walked up behind him during a lunch program and I said, “Can I help you push the wheelchair up to the table so you can have your lunch?” He looked at me and he goes, “Sure, but my wheelchair has got a better motor on it than you.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, so good.
JEFF HULL: I said, “Oh my god, you’re so right.”
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so-
JEFF HULL: He goes, “Yeah, I can get this thing going 10 miles an hour, I bet you couldn’t push me that fast if you tried.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, that’s why I think there is so much talk about the words relating to diversability, so one of my clients calls it diversabilities, versus disabilities. Then we have other groups who call it abilities, because it’s a spectrum. There is also super abilities that are going to be unleashed by this kind of technology, right? For all of us, interestingly. That wheelchair is faster than a human, so you know-
JEFF HULL: Yes, in fact, I can give you one other quick vignette, I had a… we had a dinner during a leadership for folks with disabilities, we had a dinner and we had a blind speaker. He came and stood in front of us, and basically said very clearly, “I can see things that none of you will ever see.” And he just let that land. All of us were sitting there going, “Oh my god, that is so true.”
JENNIFER BROWN: That is so true.
JEFF HULL: Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: I know.
JEFF HULL: I mean, because his level of sensitivity with his other multiple senses was so heightened, and he joked afterwards, he said that very calmly and strongly, again, another beta, powerful presence. Then right afterwards he said, “Don’t worry, I’m not using my sixth sense to look under your skirt.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh.
JEFF HULL: I mean, he made a joke about the fact that he has these multiple sensory abilities-
JENNIFER BROWN: X-ray vision. Oh, yeah.
JEFF HULL: But that we shouldn’t all be too worried about it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my goodness.
JEFF HULL: But it was very powerful to realize, yeah, there were just so many different ways to see, and be seen, and to connect, to be connected. People that bring that kind of diversity story, it just wakens us all up to how we’ve put ourselves in boxes.
JENNIFER BROWN: It does.
JEFF HULL: Really powerful and humbling-
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, that’s so good. It kind of reminds me of my trans friends who have transitioned, or even gender non-binary folks, experience gender from two sides, and all the behaviors, and the norms, and the bias.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Or lack thereof. My trans man friends walk through the world with male privilege now.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: With my most enlightened friends, we talk about this very openly, and they say, “I walk down the street and I realized I was walking very close to a woman, a cis-woman, or apparently a cis-woman, and she was getting a little bit alarmed because she felt she had a male presence near her.” Right? Because, of course, instinctively we don’t walk down the street the same way, women and men, you know?
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Women are having 100 thoughts, and men are having one thought about our safety. To be a trans man and say, “Whoa, I am no threat to you, and yet, I’m being perceived as a threat.” Or to be listened to in a meeting, or to have more eye contact in a meeting now that your appearance is as a man, and getting that attention, and getting that assumed, or unearned authority. Similarly, for trans women, talking about the downgrading and status that they experienced after they transitioned. Having this life in both worlds, or not simultaneously, but then noticing the difference in terms of how you’re perceived in the world, I think equips, that community in particular, to talk about gender dynamics with a tremendous amount of credibility.
I mean, a lot of us are imagining what it’s like on the other side, and that’s all we can do. We can read about it, we can study about it, we can reflect it, but to live it, to live how society treats you based on your perceived gender on both sides is just incredible. There are so many… there is just so many teachers amongst us, and it’s such a-
JEFF HULL: Which is why I think that the issue of humility and curiosity is at the core of what we all need to develop as leaders in today’s world. And getting back to my work as an executive coach. I mean, I think that is something that is at the very core of all the work we do, it’s the reason I wanted you to come in and bring coaches up to speed on these issues, is because we need to support our executive clients, and being willing to be a little more humble, be willing to be a little more vulnerable, be a little bit more of a student of the world, learn about the gender dynamics that are unknown to you, or that are confusing, are that are a little bit scary sometimes. Learn, be a student of multi-cultures and all the different stories that people offer, because that’s how we embrace the full humanity that’s all around us that we need in today’s world.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yep, you’re right. We need it for business, and we need it as humans, too.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
JEFF HULL: We can’t afford to block off anyone anymore.
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, that’s right. That’s right.
JEFF HULL: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s at your doorstep. I often say to leaders, “If this hasn’t impacted you directly, and you think that you can keep it at arm’s length, you’re wrong. Just wait until your kid comes out to you, for example, which is happening more and more. Not just coming out as gay, or queer, but also non-binary or even trans.” Parents are coming up to me after my key notes and sharing their story with me, and they’re terrified, they’re excited, they don’t know what to do. But often, they are ready to step up and doing something, they aspire to be that ally, and they are thrust into ally-ship. In one moment they are thrust into this world, right? And sort of have a do-or-die moment around, “Am I going to understand this?”
You have no choice when you’re protecting your kid in the world. I use that as kind of a call out to leaders in general to say, “This is at your doorstep. It may come to you directly on a personal level with loved ones, but don’t wait for that big… that tough conversation with your kid. Your entire workforce is experiencing this, either directly or indirectly, in their families.” In order to bring our full selves to work and do our best work, we need environments where this is not stuff that’s stuffed underneath and is that we’re taking great pains to avoid, or not talk about, or deny.
JEFF HULL: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: That is read as the opposite of inclusion, and will be read as the opposite of leadership, particularly amongst younger generations who are very accustomed to authentic leadership in all the ways that we’ve been talking about. I hope that balance between alpha and beta that you specialize in, Jeff. I think that the generational might… is going to help shift this, and you and I have been working in the mines on this, brick by brick, but we’ve got this tsunami that’s behind us, which is the changing demographics of the workforce, and the changing demographics of the world, marketplace, customers, clients, all of that is undeniable in terms of the buying power, and who has it, and who’s spending, and what do… do values matter in terms of our consumer decisions? All of that is changing.
JEFF HULL: And also the teams, the makeup of the teams.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
JEFF HULL: People get promoted into a team leader job, and all of a sudden wake up and realize-
JENNIFER BROWN: Oops.
JEFF HULL: … that they have someone that’s transgender in Ireland, and then they have someone in Sri Lanka on their team, and they have someone in Korea on their team, and they’re like, “Oh my god, I don’t know anything about all these different countries, and genders, and stories. How do I incorporate that?” It’s like, “Well, the starting point is humility, and vulnerability, and curiosity, and having it be incredibly exciting to bring them all together on video or in person, and share their stories, and get to know each other.”
All of a sudden, the leaders that I coach that find themselves in those situations are like, “Oh, wow. Yeah. That’s kind of cool that I could actually figure out a way to learn about all of these different countries, and backgrounds, and different people’s family systems.” See it as a positive thing, as opposed to something that’s daunting or to be avoided as a leader. Because like you said, it’s happening. The dam is breaking.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it is.
JEFF HULL: Every day I get called in to some company, like a big, huge pharmaceutical company in Pennsylvania called me in to coach the vice president of research, who is a woman. And in our first session she said to me, “You know, Jeff, it’s really interesting because none of my team are in the U.S.” I said, “Oh, wow. Where are they?” And she named off all these other countries. She said, “Yeah, and the woman that’s in Amsterdam has a partner, and they just adopted a child from Venezuela.” I’m like, “Wow.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.
JEFF HULL: She said, “Well, how am I… Then there’s someone from France, and there’s someone in India. How am I going to incorporate all this?” I said, “Well, the first thing you need to do is see it as a really exciting, amazingly fun thing to take on. Like how cool is it that you get to learn, and get the best of the talent from all of those amazing people all over the world?” She was like, “Oh, yeah. You’re right. This should be fun.”
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s not the diversity police.
JEFF HULL: Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s what we’ve got to… we’ve got to do a better job of messaging, in terms of how we’re going after this historically in organizations. I think the message, intended or not, that people have received about his whole topic is one of compliance, and making you eat your spinach, and making hiring decisions that you are being forced to make, that you don’t want to make because you believe in a meritocracy. I know the narrative, literally I hear it every single day.
JEFF HULL: Yeah, but that’s-
JENNIFER BROWN: People don’t like change, I get it.
JEFF HULL: But that’s parallel. You know what I like to say about that, Jenn? Is that it’s parallel to when I first started coaching. Coaching back in the early 2000s and 1990s was a remedial thing. You brought in a coach to sort of work with… to work with a leader who had issues, who they were getting ready to fire, and see if you could fix them.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right, I remember those days.
JEFF HULL: And here we are… yeah. Here we are 20 years later and we don’t focus on that, we focus on coaching as elevating, and developing, and motivating, and empowering the next generation of the best leaders. It’s viewed as a positive thing and I want that same arc to take place in the narrative around diversity. Diversity is not something that you want to learn about so that you can comply with the law, or so that you cannot get in trouble with your affirmative action goals. It’s way at the other end of the spectrum.
Diversity and inclusion is something that you should be totally excited about because it’s actually learning, and growing, and exploring, and developing the best talent that you can possibly get your hands on as a leader. That talent comes in all different colors, and stripes, and backgrounds, and genders. So you should be excited to be engaged in all of that variety, that’s what I want people to see, is that diversity is exciting, joyful, fun. It brings out the most positive human side of us.
JENNIFER BROWN: That is a gorgeous note to end on, beautifully said. I hope folks are writing that down and taking that to the next executive meeting that you have, because yeah, making that case-
JEFF HULL: Yes, diversity is joy.
JENNIFER BROWN: It is. I know that you and I wouldn’t be making so much time for it professionally if it didn’t really heal something in ourselves, because we’re literally enabling ourselves and others to be seen. I cannot imagine why that would ever be something that feels like drudgery, or to me, it’s… well clearly, it sort of fuels us, and gets us through the harder times, which is the doubt, the denial, the arguments, the cynicism, which is inevitable, at least in my role. I don’t know about you.
JEFF HULL: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: But there’s so many more good examples of empowerment, and excitement, and the shifting in the world, and I welcome it all. I think it’s such a great time to be alive.
JEFF HULL: I totally agree. I think it’s just a matter of shifting your perspective. It’s like you just made me think when I go into the butterfly section of the botanical garden, or the zoo, and we’re all just fascinated by the thousands of different kinds of butterflies, and the colors, and the variety. We consider that sort of a joyful experience to just see them, and be around them. Why don’t we do that with our fellow humans? Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: So true. Yeah. I don’t know. That’s a really good point.
JEFF HULL: Anyway.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I mean, we’re flawed, that’s for sure.
JEFF HULL: I think we’re going to get there.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’re going to get there.
JEFF HULL: We’re on the track.
JENNIFER BROWN: We are going to get there, Jeff.
JEFF HULL: If we save the planet, we’ll get there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, there’s that. But this has been so great, Jeff, thank you for joining us. I want folks to be able to read all of your work. You write in periodicals, Harvard Business Review, you have books, obviously Flex, another one, an older book for you that’s being reissued and updated, so people actually have two ways to spend time with you book-wise. Tell us a bit about where folks can find your work.
JEFF HULL: Flex: the Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World, which just came out, is available pretty much everywhere. All the different book outlets, book stores, and Amazon, so called. Then I am reissuing, in the next few weeks, my first book which was called Shift: Let Go of Fear and Get Your Life In Gear. The new version is going to be called, Life Shifting: Let Go of Fear and Get Your Life In Gear, and will be available, probably within the next month or so. On all of the same outlets. Then to learn more about my work, and where I’m speaking, and where if you want to get involved with coaching, or any leadership development work, look me up on jeffreyhull.com.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful, thank you for being so prolific, because you have a lot of good stuff to say, very important stuff to say, and thank you, Jeff, for your voice in the world.
JEFF HULL: My pleasure. It’s been exciting to be with you. I’m always honored to do anything with you in the world, because you’re doing the same-
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.
JEFF HULL: … changing the world one heart at a time.
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