Remember how different we all are. As leaders, we tend to have a strong desire to want to treat people just how we would like to be treated. If we love to be the center of attention, we assume our employees do too! If we love to be treated to a nice dinner to celebrate an accomplishment, then our employees must love that too! It is imperative to resist this temptation and truly get to know your employees as individuals to better understand what is going to engage and motivate them. When instituting vacation or leave policies, allow your employees to customize how they use it. Offer a range of ways to get involved with company initiatives, and social engagements. Don’t just throw a once a year all-out bash and expect everyone to love it as much as you. They won’t. And that’s awesome. Diversity is what allows teams to create awesome work, harness the range of perspectives and personalities on your team by allowing them to plug in the way that feels best to them.
As a part of my series about leaders who integrate mindfulness and spiritual practices into their work culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryann Lofchie. Ryann has built a career and a company around an unwavering belief in human potential. By creating environments where people can do their best work and helping leaders rise to the challenges of leadership, she has guided organizations through cultural transformations and equipped them to navigate an increasingly complex world. In the process, she has built a culture and a team at The Frontier Project that lives and breathes the ideas and practices she espouses to clients. A strong proponent of work/life integration, on a given day Ryann might be leading project kickoffs or group meditations at our studio; collaborating with our facilitators on a curriculum or challenging other businesses to a friendly sustainability competition. She is a passionate advocate for human rights issues, mentors other CEOs, and volunteers in the community — and encourages her employees to do the same via The Frontier Project’s unlimited vacation policy and service days. Ryann studied Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Illinois where she also earned her Master’s Degree in Human Resources. She received her M.B.A. from the University of Richmond. Her career has spanned the corporate world, nonprofits, and startups, giving her a broad perspective and deep insight into the challenges faced by today’s organizations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?
I was the third employee of The Frontier Project and hired to write the first executive leadership development program the fledgling startup ever sold. While working on that project, I gradually took over the operations of the company and eventually pitched the owner a plan to invest. At first he wasn’t interested, but in reality, we needed the cash in order to grow, so he finally came around to the idea. Once the deal was done I took over the running of the business and officially stepped into the CEO role. Over the next 10 years, The Frontier Project evolved constantly– expanding into a portfolio of 5 different businesses, and then consolidating back into one P&L. We spun off part of the company in 2017 which created the opportunity to clarify our vision, intentions, and desired impact, which is now focused exclusively on helping Fortune 500 organizations get the best from their people through strategic culture change and holistic leadership development. It’s been amazing leading the company through it all — growing stronger and wiser at every turn, and I am grateful to have had the chance to lead this amazing team throughout.
What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up? Do you have a funny or touching story about that?
I grew up in a very religiously diverse area outside of Chicago. My parents themselves were two different religions — my mom Lutheran, my dad, Jewish. Watching them navigate this difference and forge a path that worked for them in their relationship taught me at a very early age how to respect and value differences and that nobody has the “right” answer — rather we all need to find the right answers for ourselves. Though I never did end up gravitating toward any kind of formal religion, I learned from my childhood that there are many ways to practice spirituality, which really laid the foundation for my own spiritual development later in life.
How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?
My mindfulness practices have helped me be a much more content person and that has a profound impact on both my business and personal life. I don’t have the same expectation (and therefore disappointment) as I had before I started practicing mindfulness. Navigating the world mindfully has made life much more calm and enjoyable, and allowed me to put the negative things into a better perspective. The reality is, the only thing we can control is our response to the world around us. Not that I don’t spend a lot of time trying to put great things into the world, but I can’t control whether people like them, or think I’m smart or a great business owner. So I’ve become much less attached to those outcomes and find much more joy in the creating, the relating, and the effort rather than the result. Interpersonally, I am more patient, I trust more, I am more honest and more open. I try to see people for who they really are, not just what they project on the outside. I’m much less judgemental. I believe in the best in people and have a desire to bring that out in them.
Mindfulness has also helped me get to know my ego better and resist the temptation to let it influence my decisions. Of course, I’m not perfect at any of these things, but mindfulness has also humbled me, allowed me to see that, like all of us, I’m just a human doing my best — which means I’m going to screw up from time to time, and that’s ok.
Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?
This is kind of a trick question because it depends on how you define success. I think there is a conventional definition of success that involves titles, compensation, material things, power, etc. Based on this definition, I don’t think integrating mindfulness has really changed anything. However, if you define success in an alternative way, mindfulness has absolutely had a positive impact. One of the benefits I have found as a result of my mindfulness practices is that I have gotten really clear about my purpose: to help people tap into their true potential and bring that out into the world. By that definition, I have absolutely become more successful.
What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?
One foundational principle that would help people live a “good life” is to understand that happiness is an inside job. What I mean by that is that the things outside of us that we think are going to make us happy won’t. The promotion, raise, hot spouse, fast car, big house, newest handbag — those things that, once they are obtained or achieved, we just reset our expectations and then want whatever is next. It’s not to say that those things don’t make us happy temporarily, but that happiness doesn’t last. What is lasting is to do the hard work to figure out what our souls need to be happy (as opposed to our egos) and then create a life around those things. For many, many people, this involves some type of service, or a creative outlet, or cause they believe passionately in. It also resets our expectations of life and helps us build a sense of gratitude for what we already have, as opposed to what we don’t. And so we stop trying to fill ourselves up from the outside, and we enter the world from a place of wholeness instead. And that allows for so much good living.
A personal story about this is, many years ago, when The Frontier Project was a very small, start-up business, I set a goal to grow fast enough to make it onto the Inc 5000 list. This wasn’t just a goal, it felt so important to me that I had visions of retiring once we got there — like I would have achieved everything I ever set out to achieve. And so we worked hard, and then, in 2014, I got the email: we did it! And this made me happy for about 5 minutes until I started setting my sights on doing it again. Not only again, but better next time. We made the last 3 years in a row, which is totally amazing. And also, it was one of the most stressful times in my life. All the things I thought would happen once we made the list — clients streaming through our front door, unlimited profit, lavish vacations, the feeling of complete financial security, and endless happiness — those things were just a dream. The reality was, we worked ourselves to death to meet this goal, and being so focused on this external marker of success meant we sometimes made bad decisions, we got burned out, we stopped enjoying the work, we lost all sense of balance. The hard work of running a business was still, well, hard. It was just hard in different (faster, bigger) ways.
And then a blessing in disguise happened — due to a family tragedy, I was forced to stop and be present, take a step back, and reflect on life. And I realized I had totally gotten my priorities backward. What I longed for was to do work that made a difference, with people I loved, all the while making sure we were all learning and growing in the direction of our strengths. I thought this external marker of success would help me get there, but I was totally wrong, in fact, it took me further away from what I really wanted. Since that moment of insight, I try to navigate every day to ensure my true priorities are at the forefront, and not get swept up in the other stuff. And it’s been such a better life since then.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
This is a difficult question to answer because I truly do believe that everyone that crosses our paths has the potential to be a great teacher, as long as you are interested in what you can learn from them. Therefore, I recognize so many people in my life as playing a role in getting me to where I am today — even if their teaching style caused pain. One person, in particular, has been an amazing support for me in the past several years — my partner, Andrew Town. He sees me for who I am, wants me to grow, but is also my biggest cheerleader, and he always has the wisest advice. One moment that I recall often happened about a year ago. Someone had written something horrible about me online and I was upset about it. I was telling him about it and once I finished sharing he said “you know who you are — and you know this is not a true representation of you so you can give it the power to upset you, or you can choose not to. It’s up to you.”
Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?
1) Encourage honest feedback across the team. Knowing where you stand is one of the most important qualities of health inside an organization. Being on a highly-functioning team means you have a group of people who are going to have your back — who are willing to tell you when you’ve nailed it, and when you’re about to step in it. They are invested in your success and want what’s best for you. Hearing constructive feedback can be difficult, but it’s always better, in my opinion than not being told what you need to do to improve.
2) Allow employees to truly unplug. If you really want to get the best out of your employees, allow them to step away and switch their brains out of work mode. This not only benefits them, but it also benefits the business. It’s during this unplugged state that people dive into what they are passionate about, have the downtime to process information, and spend renewing and relaxing time with family, friends, or in solitude. Those activities give their brains a rest so that when they have to switch them back on again, they are recharged and sharper than they were before. Having space to think and the process is the magic sauce that allows people to connect the dots, see new possibilities, and come up with truly creative ideas.
3) Remember how different we all are. As leaders, we tend to have a strong desire to want to treat people just how we would like to be treated. If we love to be the center of attention, we assume our employees do too! If we love to be treated to a nice dinner to celebrate an accomplishment, then our employees must love that too! It is imperative to resist this temptation and truly get to know your employees as individuals to better understand what is going to engage and motivate them. When instituting vacation or leave policies, allow your employees to customize how they use it. Offer a range of ways to get involved with company initiatives, and social engagements. Don’t just throw a once a year all-out bash and expect everyone to love it as much as you. They won’t. And that’s awesome. Diversity is what allows teams to create awesome work, harness the range of perspectives and personalities on your team by allowing them to plug in the way that feels best to them.
4) Start with trust. People step up in accordance with the amount of belief you have in them. People want to be trusted, they want to do amazing work, and they want to know the people around them truly see them for who they are. And trust allows people to stretch, to take risks and know someone has their backs. It creates psychological safety that is imperative for teams to thrive.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Our city public school systems in the US desperately need the support of their communities. I would want each and every person to research on how their school systems are funded, and advocate to allocate funding to the programs that need it most. We need to advocate for increased compensation for teachers. We need to bring art, music, physical education, meditation, wellness, and holistic health back into schools. We owe it to our children, all our children, to invest whatever it takes to help them have a world-class education. The US is rapidly falling behind, and it’s time to take this issue seriously and restore our public education back to the place of high esteem it once was.
How can people follow you and find out more about you?
Visit The Frontier Project’s website: thefrontierproject.com. We can also be found on all social media. Our Frontier Academy Book Club podcast can be found in iTunes. And I can be found on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/ryannlofchie