Wendy Born: “Courage doesn’t always roar”

Trust — as leaders it’s important to ensure we create an environment of trust, so our people feel safe to raise issues, concerns or new ideas without judgement. However, building and maintaining trust online can also be challenging. We now have less visibility of the workloads of team members and how much time people are actually spending […]

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Trust — as leaders it’s important to ensure we create an environment of trust, so our people feel safe to raise issues, concerns or new ideas without judgement. However, building and maintaining trust online can also be challenging. We now have less visibility of the workloads of team members and how much time people are actually spending at their desk. This can build resentment and distrust within the team and people subsequently feel reticent about speaking up or raising issues. I work with a CEO who wants her team to return to the office as soon as possible and is putting pressure on her leadership team to get this done. Her team believe this is because she doesn’t trust them to do their job remotely.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy Born.

Wendy is recognised as an engaging, results oriented leadership specialist who leverages talent and strengths in leaders to create high performance within global organisations. Well known for her common sense approach and clear, articulate communication Wendy firmly believes the success of any business starts with the effectiveness of its Leadership Team to drive engagement, performance and deliver on strategic results.

As a highly experienced and recognized corporate coach, Wendy has over 25 years of experience in business development and management including 15 years in senior leadership positions across Finance, IT, Retail, Financial Services, Communication and Government sectors. She works with executives, senior leaders and leadership teams to enhance their leadership and performance, with a strong commitment to results.

Wendy is certified in Training & Development and has over a decade of experience as a facilitator and speaker earning her a reputation as an engaging, fun and effective professional who delivers results for her clients.

Wendy is a graduate from the Harvard Kennedy School, Executive Education in 21st Century Leadership and is the author of “The Languages of Leadership” and “Raising Leaders”. She holds a Trade Certificate, Diploma of Finance, Bachelor of Business (HRM), Post Graduate Diploma in Operations Management and a Certificate IV in Professional & Personal Coaching and is a member of the International Coaching Federation.

Wendy is accredited to administer Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), DISC, Strengths Profile and Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey (GLWS) which all provide unique insights into individual and team performance. She has a warm and engaging style and quickly builds strong and enduring relationships.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in a small town in North Queensland in Australia and left school at the end of year 10 (end of Junior High School). I struggled with school in particular Maths and seemed to like the more practical subjects like sport, home economics and typing lessons. I guess I had an underappreciation of education and this lasted until I became an adult. When I left school I did a hairdressing apprenticeship and this taught me the ability to build rapport with people quickly. When you have someone sitting in the chair and you are about to cut their hair, you need to build their trust quickly. Throughout my apprenticeship I attended an adult college on a part time basis, and it was here that I leaned that all education was not the same. There was learning to be gained through interesting and practical ways and it was here that I then developed an appreciation for education.

I then left the world of hairdressing and went to work for a large corporate organization in the finance industry and worked my way up the ranks from a customer service officer to a senior leader. It was here that I developed my love of leadership and gained an appreciation for the good, the bad and the ugly sides of leading. I also went on to complete a Diploma in Finance, Degree in Human Resource Management and Post Graduate Diploma in Operations Management while working full time and raising two kids with their father.

After 23 years I left and went out on my own to work with leaders and leadership teams. I studied for my Certificate in Professional & Personal Coaching and went to the Harvard Kennedy School of Executive Education in Boston, to learn about Leadership for the 21st Century. It’s fair to say my love of learning came after leaving school and that learning is different for everyone, you just need to figure out what works best for you.

I have written two books — The Languages of Leadership published in 2018 and Raising Leaders published in June 2020. Raising Leaders looks at the similarities between raising children and leading people, and as our worlds of work and home have been converged recently due to Australia’s Covid-19 restrictions, now more than ever we can leverage these similarities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In March 2004 I was walking back to my office through the middle of the city when I felt a pain in the right side of my head. With every step I took the pain seemed to pound in unison with my steps. I then felt my left leg go weak and I thought I was going to lose my balance. As I lifted my left arm it also felt week and I wondered if I was going to have a stroke, right there in the middle of the street. This concerned me because I had a mountain of work to do and well, I didn’t really have all that much time for a stroke. It seemed to subside a little, so I went back to work and finished my day.

The next day I woke up with a very big headache, so I went off to the doctor who diagnosed a sinus infection and prescribed antibiotics. The headache continued for another two weeks, multiple returns to the doctor before she finally suggested I have a CT Scan to which they determined I had far too much fluid inside my head. A referral to a Brain Surgeon, an MRI and further analysis resulted in a diagnosis of a cyst in the middle of my brain. The doctor said I would need surgery, the next day to remove the cyst.

As I sat on my hospital bed that night, I tried to make sense of it all. Here I was about to have my brain operated on by a man I had known for less than 24 hours. I was terrified, I felt alone, I felt extremely vulnerable.

So when I think about these uncertain times we are currently living in I often think about how we also try to make sense of it all. We are scared because we don’t know what to expect. We can feel alone in isolation and we can feel vulnerable because our health is in the hands of the authorities who we barely know.

I think we have to trust that the medical experts will get us through this, and that together we can support each other through isolation, and out the other side.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was hairdressing, I recall I had a customer who wanted a specific style of haircut that was in at the time. The “Mullet” is a style that is short at the front, top and sides, and longer at the back. As I started cutting his hair I realized I had cut the top far too short and tried to cover it up, poorly! The customer returned a little while later and asked for their money back and it was then I learned two valuable lessons. Always get clear with your customer about what they want and their expectations, so you know what you need to meet. Secondly never, ever try to cover up your mistakes. They stand out and are always discovered so own up, cop it on the chin and learn from it.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

I often see employees frustrated by the lack of empowerment from their leaders. Leaders become control freaks where they need to know exactly what their people are doing and all of the associated details. There is also the perception that the leader has all the answers. This puts employees under stress and at the risk of burnout.

When we truly empower our people, they feel more involved, they have more ownership and are more accountable. But empowering people requires leaders letting go of the outcome or solution, enabling the employee to arrive at their own conclusion. When you step back and let your people step up into their roles and actively contribute, you are sending the message that you don’t have all the answers and that’s okay. I always say that 5 + 5 = 10 but so does 6 + 4 and 7 + 3. It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you do. Empowering people is 50 per cent employee’s ownership and 50 per cent leader’s letting go. It’s uncomfortable and will make the leader feel vulnerable, but its worth it for everyone.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

For approximately fifteen years I worked for a large organisation that had a strong outsourcing strategy requiring the leadership of remote teams offshore. The teams we led were made up of finance professionals responsible for the processing of our standard operating procedures within the accounting function.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

We are now running organisations from our lounge rooms and while we have typically worked hard to keep the worlds of family and work separate, the two have been thrust together almost unceremoniously. We are working on marketing plans while helping children with schoolwork, running meetings while supervising art classes, and at times wondering if we can possibly put our teenagers on a performance improvement plan!

Running virtual teams adds a layer of complexity to an already difficult job. Here are my top 5 challenges:

Connection — As humans we are designed to connect, it’s in our DNA. When we eyeball others, smile at them, laugh with them, it makes us feel good. So, when we work remotely we have less personal interactions with our colleagues and employees. I was told about a university lecturer who had a student come up to him in the hallway and greet him like an old friend. The lecturer walked away thinking he had no idea at all who the person was. Turns out it was a student in one of his online classes who never turned his camera on during class.

Trust — as leaders it’s important to ensure we create an environment of trust, so our people feel safe to raise issues, concerns or new ideas without judgement. However, building and maintaining trust online can also be challenging. We now have less visibility of the workloads of team members and how much time people are actually spending at their desk. This can build resentment and distrust within the team and people subsequently feel reticent about speaking up or raising issues. I work with a CEO who wants her team to return to the office as soon as possible and is putting pressure on her leadership team to get this done. Her team believe this is because she doesn’t trust them to do their job remotely.

Health — maintaining our health is important at the best of times, critical during times like these. While physical health is more obvious to others, our mental health can go unnoticed and we can suffer considerably from feelings of anxiety, fear and isolation. A colleague of mine commented to me how she realized the value of going into the office and interacting with people since she has been working from home. She lives alone and can often go for days without seeing anyone face to face.

Language — as leaders we are always on show and our people observe our words, actions and behaviours constantly. In the office we can show our people the right way to speak, act and behave and to walk our talk. When we are remotely located our actions are reduced to a visual head and shoulders on a screen, and for a limited amount of time. Add to this the increase to written communication e.g. emails where we lose tone and body language, we can run the risk of our communication being interpreted incorrectly. An example of walking your talk is Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer who was photographed visiting her holiday home for the weekend. After she admitted that it was the second time she had done so during the lockdown period she was stood down from attending press briefings.

Focus — its hard enough when you’re in the office to keep everyone focused on the right thing, let alone when you’re all dispersed. Distractions from work are plenty and it’s easy to do a load of washing, clean the dishes or go for a walk when we should be working. When I know I need to sit and write an article or a chapter of my next book, I always have the cleanest house and am up to date with the latest series on Netflix — anything to avoid the hard work!

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

Connection — Connection can be done remotely, it just needs a little more organisation than when we are all in the office together. Scheduling time in our diary to call, Zoom or message others to check in is something we can all build into our day. I am part of a networking group and since we started meeting remotely, we have been more connected than we were when we met on a face to face basis. Also don’t let remoteness of your team deter your social gatherings. Having a virtual Friday afternoon drink with your team is a great way to connect.

Trust — The best way to build trust is to get to know each other, both personally and professionally. Finding things in common with each other helps with trust because when our brains see things in common they tell us this person is just like me so I can trust them. Also being vulnerable with each other builds trust and we can do this by sharing our stories. Stories like when we did something difficult or made a mistake at work and what we learned from it, or perhaps a funny story about something that happened at the start of our career. Sharing stories also shows others that we are similar and experience similar things, again increasing trust.

Health — Leading by example is best here. Sharing how you are feeling with your team is a good way to help others to open up and share. You can then offer additional support through your Employee Assistance Program or other psychological support system your organisation has in place. Also checking in when you have one on one meetings with your people will help you determine what level of support each employee needs. Also remaining consistent in your weekly routine helps. During times of uncertainty our brains look for consistency and certainty as it helps us to deal with and manage change. When we keep things as routine as possible it can help to put the changes into perspective.

Language — Always think about how your message is going to be received. Ask yourself “who is going to read this message?” “How would I feel if I was reading this message?” and “would I want this on the front page of the newspaper?”. When we consider the responses of those hearing or reading our messages, we are able to show empathy, consideration and care. Also reflection on our words, actions and behaviour is a great way to consider how they may impact on others. Daily reflection is a great way to build self-awareness and research shows people who reflect regularly increase their performance by up to 35%.

Focus — Taking the time to set clear expectations, deadlines and consequences will help people to stay focused on the task at hand. Also using systems and apps such as Slack or helps the team to maintain focus on the work that needs to get done. Ensuring that you set deadlines and hold people accountable if these aren’t met also helps to maintain deliverables and productivity.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

Here are my suggestions for giving constructive criticism or feedback:

  • Use a video tool such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, instead of the phone. At least with a videoconferencing channel the employee can see the whites of your eyes and your facial expressions. Making eye contact helps to show empathy and understanding rather than relying on your voice alone.
  • Always use clear examples and stick to the facts. Using clear examples helps the employee to make sense of what you are saying rather than trying to interpret anything. When we try to interpret someone else’s meaning we use our own values and belief systems to do so. These are all different in each of us, so interpretation is never the same.
  • Ask open questions — when we ask open questions such as “how do you think this went?” or “what do you think you could have done differently?” it helps the employee to consider more than they would if they are being told what to do. When our people are involved in problem solving for solutions, or coming up with their own answers, they are more likely to do what they say they will.
  • Use your own experiences — sharing your own experiences of how you have dealt with similar circumstances helps to show the employee that you too make mistakes and that learning from our mistakes is a great way to develop and grow. Through sharing these experiences you are also being a bit vulnerable, which can increase trust. A good outcome for a difficult conversation.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Similar to verbal constructive feedback I recommend always using specific examples to ensure the recipient understands the “why”. If you can, outline a similar experience you have had before and how you reflected on it and what you learned from it. Again ask open questions in your email to elicit a response that requires the employee to actually reflect and think about the situation, what their role in the situation was, and how they might learn from the experience for next time.

Also use terms such as “I understand…” and “I can see how…” as this shows an understanding and empathy for the employee’s situation.

Through the use of open questions, particularly on what can be done next time, the employee is involved in coming up with their own solutions and will be more likely to adopt those actions in the future.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

Try to keep consistency in your weekly routine for meetings and get togethers. These are times of significant change and disruption, so keeping some level of routine will help with certainty in everyone’s lives. When we have some level of certainty it helps us to manage the changes going on around us.

Also talk often, every couple of days if needed to check in on your people. Even a 10 minute chat to check in on how they are doing is enough to say that you care about them.

Stay social as well. Having an afternoon virtual coffee of drink is a great way to stay connected and get to know your people on a more personal level. When we know some of the personal lives of our employees we are able to connect more and build trust.

Be careful to be considerate of what else is going on in the lives of your people. For example, their kids may be sitting beside them while they are on a Zoom call with you, so being conscious of what they may be hearing is important. Also be conscious of what’s going on in your own Zoom room. For example, I’ve seen people’s washing hanging up in the background. While I love my people I don’t really need to see their underwear hanging on the clothes airer while I’m talking to them — its distracting!

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

I always say to my clients that empowering people is 50% them owning something, and 50% you letting go of the outcome or solution. The latter is usually the hardest part. When we let go of having to control the outcome we feel vulnerable and it makes us uncomfortable, but it’s worth the discomfort as it makes our people feel engaged, trusted and empowered.

Another idea is to have a team lunch together virtually once per week. Ask everyone to make a healthy lunch and be prepared to talk about what they are having. You can also have a diversity appreciation lens to your lunch by asking people to make something healthy and be prepared to talk about the cultural background to their lunch.

Encourage your people to talk about their views and opinions openly and honestly, without judgement. When our people feel they can talk openly without fear we create psychologically safe environments which leads to increases of engagement, productivity and innovation.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would create the “It’s bigger than you” movement because one of the biggest lessons I have learned is that leadership is bigger than you. When we start to put the team or organisation ahead of our own interests, and we operate in a caring, considerate and supportive organisation, we want to do more than just our job. We want to create more than what is needed and we want to be more than we thought we could be, because we can see the future, feel the future and be part of the future, together.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying “I will try again tomorrow”. Mary Anne Radmacher author of Courage doesn’t always roar.

As I watched both of my parents endure and succumb to cancer, I saw their simple acts of courage facing into each day with dignity and faith. This quote epitomizes their courage and says to me that I don’t need to be standing on the highest mountain or in front of a thousand people, to be courageous. Courage is sometimes in the simplest of daily activities.

Thank you for these great insights!

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