Join me as I discuss the role of managers in building a culture of care. This role is very important as we seek to counteract toxicity. Ali brings her insights and practical approach to addressing this question.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
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Building A Culture Of Care With Ali Caravella
This episode is with Ali Caravella. Ali is a dynamic leadership expert consultant with a history of generating organizational results while scaling and caring for employee well-being. Ali showcased firsthand her expertise as we talked about how organizations can create a culture of care while also maintaining business results. We dove into the tensions of what makes this hard and spelling out the importance of why managers matter in that equation.
Welcome to the show. We have Ali Caravella. How are you?
I’m good, Kevin. How are you?
I am doing excellent and excited to talk to you about companies that care and building that organizational culture. Before we get to that, one thing I want to hear about and bring readers up to speed is to learn a little bit more about you. I’d love to hear about you, your story and your ultimate why in the work.
When I think back on my career, I like to break it into two sections. In the first half, I focused on human capital consulting in the management consulting space. In the second half, I followed a bit of a non-traditional path in the HR and people’s space, focusing on tons of different roles, learning and development, OE, transformation then finally, as a global head of HR.
Through the journey, I always ended up having some sort of a side gig. I always had this itch to tap into my entrepreneurial spirit. I get that from my dad. I give him all the credit. Throughout the journey, there was always a piece of that. I knew that I wanted to do that full-time at some point later on in the journey, maybe when my kids are a little bit older but I’m uncertain.
My most recent corporate experience was a great job at a great company working for a great leader. I quickly realized that I was ready to go out on my own. The big catalyst or push for that was all of the disruptions that came with COVID. Given the business I was in at the time, I had to take some pretty unimaginable HR actions that impacted hundreds of people. I think that whole experience of the soul-altering, soul-crushing work just gives me the push to seize the day and align my work with my passion and my core values as a person.
In my journey of leaving Corporate America as a full-time employee, I ended up meeting this wonderful woman, Mary Beth Ferrante, who founded a company called WRK/360. We work together with organizations that are looking to transform their leaders and their culture to make care the center of what they do.
This is about organizations that recognize that caring for their people will make them more engaged, more productive and very directly lead to better business results. We try to focus on a change management approach. Using our strategy backgrounds to ensure that companies are capturing the voice of the employee and turning feedback into action in a way to demonstrate, “We hear you. We’re listening. We care.”
We also love working with people one-on-one. We reserve a small portion of our time to coach one-on-one with people at all different levels so we can insert that care ourselves when there are individuals who may not be able to get that within their specific organization.
Based on what you’ve said, I want to lift something up. It sounds like at the centerpiece of how you all are looking at demonstrating care, listening to the employee voice and centering the employee voice is a big component of that.
I think that especially with what’s gone on in the world, it’s more important now than ever. Interestingly, for one of my side gigs many years ago, I was a health coach. My clients range in age from 10 to 75. I learned from that experience working with people one-on-one that the core thing that my clients had in common was that they had never had someone in their life who listened and cared in a completely non-judgmental way.
Unfortunately, a universal thing that a lot of people can relate to. They may not even realize it until they’ve had it in a meaningful, good way that it’s been lacking in their life before. When leaders, managers, organizations can do that well, it’s noticeable and impactful because so many people haven’t actually had that in their lives.
The thing you describe is literally the opposite of the toxicity that we’re about to jump into. I want to call that out. When you think about toxic leadership behaviors and such, what is your experience in that area? Is it more practitioner, researcher, coaching, a little bit of all three? Tell me your angle into toxic leadership.
I definitely would say it’s a little bit of a buffet of all of those things. I definitely try especially now. I like to think about the opposite. The cultures of care, which is essentially trying to eliminate toxic leadership, among some other things, that being a key piece of it. Within WRK/360, we do have research. We put out white papers.
Our most current white paper that’s about to be released is actually entitled, Managers Matter. It’s all about the critical pieces of essentially ways you can prepare managers in the world nowadays to prepare them for this next phase of work. Acknowledging that a lot of the skills that they need now, a lot of the expectations from employees or the whole environment to be successful, a lot of managers are missing the mark.
We do a lot of on-the-ground research too. We’ve got this cohort of people that we tap into on a quarterly basis from a ton of well-named companies around the world and the country, specifically. We like to always tap in and see how people are feeling. What are the biggest obstacles? If you had a magic wand and you could change three things or improve three things with your manager, your company, culture, your organization, what are those things?
When we’re working with our clients, we can implement what we’re hearing. Two little tidbits or statistics I can share that came up in this most recent research. First, Glint and LinkedIn put out a great research report which was called the 2021 State of the Manager report. It said that 94% of employees said that it’s important for their manager to help team members feel like they belong.
Ninety-four percent of people felt like this whole concept of belonging, which we hear more and more about, that they believe managers should have a role in making them feel like they belong. It’s worth noting that those that belong or feel like they belong in their organization are more than six times more likely to be engaged. That’s pretty interesting.
There is a gap in terms of what the expectations are of leadership, and what’s actually being delivered.
The other one that’s worth noting is from McKinsey’s latest Women in the Workplace study. It said that 78% of companies were asking their leaders to check in on their direct reports weekly. Only 37% of people report that they’re doing that. You can see that there are massive gaps. The employees need more help. They need more support.
Some are going to be from their manager, organization or mental health professionals. There’s a lot going on for people. What we know for sure is there is a gap in terms of what the expectations are of leadership, both from employees and from the senior leaders of the firm and what’s actually being delivered.
That’s a core area where we’re focused. The other piece that I can mention, just personally, is within my own career. I think I’m one of the lucky ones to say that I never worked directly for a toxic leader. The thing that I certainly experienced dozens of times, probably too many to count, is what I like to call unintentional toxicity. It’s where you’ve got a leader who cares. I think they genuinely care. They have good intentions but they may not have the skills or the know-how to actually do the right things or say the right things. Be there for yourself in a way that makes you feel cared for and supported.
It’s unintentional. When I talk about toxic leadership behavior, I’m talking about toxic leadership behavior. I’m not characterizing people as toxic people because of that point. You just made that we all have the ability to exhibit behaviors that may be toxic to people unintentionally. On the topic of unintentional toxic behaviors, do you have any examples you’d like to share with the audience? I think it’s important for people to get a flavor of what that could look like in real life.
The first one that’s easy that comes to mind, a lot of the work that we do is supporting women and working mothers and parents in the workforce. This is one that I use often. When I returned from maternity leave, after having my first daughter, a leader that I worked with asked me how my vacation was. I don’t know about you if you’re a parent and if you know what it’s like to be on maternity leave.
There are many joys, many hardships and I would not call it a vacation. This, to me, is a perfect example of someone being friendly with good intentions but for a woman coming back from leave and a super emotional time and a very transformational, critical part of their journey and career, in their personal life, words matter.
At that moment, on your first day back, that can leave a scar. I’ve heard similar stories from probably thousands of women. One of the things that we do specifically around that is help train leaders, how to manage and communicate before, during and after an individual goes out on leave. Without going into detail into that, I think that’s just an important example. That’s one word, the vacation word. We do tell leaders don’t ever call it a vacation. That’s like an easy bullet point to teach someone because that may not be well received.
Another example, totally different. One time I had this leader, someone I cared a lot about who I believe cared about me as well. They did not advocate for me for a fair and equitable salary increase to go along with what was the biggest promotion of my entire life. They presented it to me. They celebrated my achievements. They showered me with praise, delivered this promotion and offered a 0% change to my pay. I was truly floored.
There is a complicated organizational and personal backstory to all of that but it’s worth noting that what I did after I respectfully said, “Thank you. I have no further questions,” was I closed the door, cried and made a game plan. I then wrote a business case of why I should be paid equitably for the role that they were giving me and they did.
They changed it and paid me appropriately. It was a big, difficult moment to hear this person shower with praise, celebrate the achievements, deliver this great thing but not provide the fair compensation and reward that goes along with that, which to me is a toxic behavior, not standing up for what was right.
The last one that comes to mind is also pretty different is I’ve worked a lot on change management and helping organizations through transformation. We’ve come up with this little saying that when leaders do not communicate and offer transparency, employees start to feel like there’s this secret PowerPoint. We always talk about the secret PowerPoint that they must have and it has all the information but they’re not willing to share it with us because they don’t trust us. They don’t think that we can have the information.
The truth is there is no secret PowerPoint, typically. Leaders need to have trust and share transparency and establish these types of caring behaviors and caring cultural aspects so people can feel good about the work that they’re doing and the organization they’re a part of. I think that can show up in a lot of different ways. Sometimes super personal, like the first two examples and sometimes more on a broader organizational level.
I appreciate those examples because you’ve illustrated how interpersonally, you might think it’s a caring act or the norms but it sounds like interpersonally sometimes that can break down. Also in processes and in a systemic standpoint of the organization, as we look at like a pay increase or something like that. As people hear that, as organizations hear that, they may be wondering, “How do we create that culture that cares, that we can center these norms and truly live it out both interpersonally and also in our processes?” What would you have to say about that?
For me, it starts with establishing the core values, a commitment to people and consistent communication and reinforcement. From the value standpoint, I’ll start there. Most organizations have a set of values. Especially with what’s happened, to me, it’s critical that every organization takes a look at those values. One, are they living those values? Are those the right values? It’s actually okay if those need to be adapted or refined based on a new framework, a new way of working.
Once you have those values, are you communicating, are you living, managing, breathing those values in all of the ways top-down and bottom-up in an organization to demonstrate care and demonstrate that that’s authentic? To me, a key piece of a caring culture is authenticity. That if you say things like teamwork and transparency and whatever is kind of core to the values of the organization, it’s then your responsibility to reliably and consistently deliver on that.
I would rather an organization basically end up underpromising and over-delivering on the reinforcement and the consistency piece here. If the head of HR, chief people officer, says, “We’re going through a chaotic and unprecedented time. We’re going to check in with you broadly once a month and keep you posted on what’s going on in the organization.” I don’t care what you say in those monthly updates but you better update them every 30 days, no matter what, no exceptions. It’s just about setting expectations and delivering on them.
One of the other things that are important to me in a caring culture is this concept of creating a culture of experimentation. It’s giving leaders and employees the grace to try things out, knowing that things are likely going to have to adapt and evolve over time. A lot of times, with good intentions, you say, “Here’s the way things are going to be. These are the frameworks. These are the policies. These are the benefits.”
We might try that out. We might realize people are struggling or it works for some groups of people but not all. We need to have the flexibility to be able to adapt and evolve and have our people know that that’s actually a good thing and critical to our culture. We can continue to care about them even as their needs, desires and circumstances may change.
A lot of that ends up living with the voice of the employee and essentially creating a care cycle where you’re collecting feedback and insight from the people through focus groups, feedback, interviews. There are surveys. There’s a ton of ways that you can do it. Turning that feedback into action on a regular basis, consistent communication from leadership. There are more pieces to it. It’s following that cycle, committing to some cycles, starting small if you want to start small if that’s overwhelming. Whatever you commit to ensure that you follow through.
Most people in the world have positive intentions and may just need help and guidance of how to get there.
The research even supports a lot of the stuff you’re saying especially around something called value congruence, which essentially just means the values meet the actions. You could have two companies where Company A promises the world. They’re promising like everything. Yet, they don’t keep that promise. Company B may promise way less than that. Let’s say Company B did what they said they were going to do.
You would see more consistent behavior or the effect and trust would be higher in Company B because you gave me what you told me you were going to give me versus under-delivering as you spoke about. I appreciate you saying that because a lot of people try to create policies, practices or initiatives to save face that they can’t sustain.
You could look at that related to like a lot of D&I projects and initiatives. You can look at that related to like, processes and things. CARE, we want to espouse for working mothers and things like that in the workplace. The key is to keep the promises you’re going to make. If you can’t make something, be transparent about it and let us know why. Let people know the why behind it. That shows me you trust me with that information too.
I could not agree more. I think it’s difficult. A lot of this sits in the HR departments and for more traditional longer standing companies, this is a new way of working. I like to take a very empathetic and supportive angle myself for those groups of leaders who are genuinely trying to figure this out. Knowing that they’ve got to essentially reinvent the wheel here in terms of a lot of processes, a lot of the ways they interact with people, interact with the business and things like that.
I think that you’re spot on in terms of that value congruence. I haven’t heard that before and I love it. It’s super important. One of the things that are especially difficult for some of the longer-standing, more traditional folks in HR is that there’s no longer a one size fits all solution. That is super challenging. I was an HR practitioner myself. It’s very difficult to scale a business when you cannot roll out one size fits all solution.
I empathize with the challenge there. The good news is, is there are ways to do that. Why managers are so important, why we’re calling our white paper managers matter because all of the customization and the flexibility has to now live within the managers to use their judgment, influence to basically help people get what they need.
That’s a bigger ask and potentially a new skillset for those managers because when it typically used to happen at the organizational level, one size fits all, we can’t do that anymore. That’s why leadership removing the toxicity, investing in that people management cohort is more important than ever in my perspective.
That’s a great perspective because it’s like how we shouldn’t have been. The one size fit all never worked anyway because someone was always being harmed. Marginalized most definitely. That’s the basic difference between equity and equality. They’re not the same thing. I think that from an HR perspective, I do understand we have the EEOC that literally stands for equal employment. We are equal in our terminology. It’s about the words you say to back to your point there.
Equity allows us to look at different populations. We talk about situational leadership. It allows us to be situational. It allows us to meet people where they need to be met. I love your point about how that can be leveraged and you can scale it with managers. It doesn’t have to all be in the HR department. I never thought about it like that. You just illustrated how managers matter to me just now from an organizational standpoint. Let’s say we’re building that organization that cares. There are behaviors that unintentionally are harmful to folks and evoke toxicity. How can companies identify toxic leadership in these spaces?
Often, that is an overwhelming place to start for a lot of companies, which is why I think they don’t dig into it. From my perspective, it’s tapping into the voice of the employee. That can mean so many different things. You want top-down and bottoms-up feedback and insights from employees on an ongoing basis depending on the bandwidth of your team and the size of your organization.
Some organizations do that on an ongoing basis, some month monthly, some quarterly, some once a year. It can mean different things. Back to the earlier point, it’s what you can commit to. You’re capturing the voice of the employee and then how can you ensure that you’re reliably consistently delivering on whatever cadence that you basically committed to.
Interestingly, Josh Bersin, he’s got the Josh Bersin Academy. He has a new course for companies that maybe they have the bandwidth but they don’t have someone on their team who’s done this type of work before. There’s a program that specifically talks about why the voice of the employee is the single most important topic in business right now.
It goes through these different steps of how to actually make employee listening part of your cultural values. Open up channels for feedback, specifically connect the feedback to action, which is a critical piece that many companies often miss out on. There is more to it than that. I like seeing that, bringing this to light because without 360 feedback, surveys, asking for genuine, vulnerable, authentic feedback, you can’t identify it.
You need to have some assessment. The great news is that there are so many fantastic HR tech companies, many of which we partner with on a regular basis, who have such fantastic and innovative tools to make this easier than it’s ever been. Scalable and affordable and all of that. It’s just making the commitment to listen and then figuring out what the right tool, what the right cadence and all of that is for your respective organization.
I’m glad you brought that up because one thing I want to piggyback on is don’t allow your tools to be your magic solution because the tools are used to scale. What still matters is how we use the tools. What you don’t want is we have a scalable solution that we use the tools but then we redact everything everybody says because we’re afraid of what they said. We don’t share transparently after we get our data. We’re afraid of the data.
My take on it is as we identify that toxic leadership and we adopt these tools to gather employee voice. I love that you brought that up because I totally agree. How can we be upfront about, do we really want the data? Are we prepared for it? Why do we want it? The answers to these questions are things you need to share with people top-down, bottom-up. You need to have these conversations very transparently.
I think a lot of leaders get in their own way of transformation due to some kind of fear like, “If we have cultural issues, that means I’m a bad leader.” When in reality, it could be the context. It could be the economy. It could be COVID. It could be a lot of things that are causing stress to your employees. The worst thing we can do is try to get self-protective bubbles and try to mask the data or something like that.
As we’re asking senior leadership around the world to be more caring and more empathetic and more supportive, I think it’s also our job as much as we can to do that to the senior leaders and help guide them along the way. There are always going to be some people with poor intentions but I like to think that most people in the world have positive intentions. They may need help and guidance on how to get there.
What we’re talking about is a long overdue but massive transformation. Transformation doesn’t happen overnight and isn’t easy. I had written this white paperback in August 2020 after doing a research survey on COVID’s impact on women in the workplace. One of the takeaways I had from it was to define and declare. What I meant by that was it goes back to what those values are. Establish your values. Certain companies and industries that will go unnamed have a reputation for not caring about this kind of stuff.
For every toxic leader that’s out there, there are a dozen younger or more junior people that are the next generation of leaders.
What I would say is that’s okay for them. They should be honest. They should be transparent. It’s not going to be a company I want to work at or work for or work with. That’s my choice. What I would prefer to see are authenticity and transparency so people can choose to opt-in or opt-out. Over time, I think we’re seeing the employee behavior caring so much more about this, by their decisions of where they work, who they work for and all of those things that will also help drive the systemic change that needs to happen.
Transparency and let people opt-out. Where do you think organizations can start? Where do we go next? Once we’ve identified the toxic leadership behaviors, once we want to jump into that culture of care, what do we start with all of this?
I’m very tactical in nature and practical. What I always like to do is identify three quick wins. There are always three quick wins that you can find. What I like to do is essentially pair the three quick wins with a communication strategy. The advice is to communicate and communicate some more. When I was going through my change management training, I will never forget the key takeaways I got from this was let’s say you’re rolling out some incredible new initiative that’s going to hugely benefit people.
You will only get at best 50% out of the value of that benefit, policy or whatever it is by just giving people the thing. You get the other 50% of the value by communicating about that thing before, during and after because it’s almost like letting people know the good thing is coming. You are reminding them it’s here. You are reinforcing down the line. “You got this great thing. Let’s see how it’s been impacting us in a positive way.” If you don’t have that communication strategy, you’re getting a 50% at best, which is an F.
The advice is high level. Identify those quick wins and come up with a communication strategy. For one company we worked with in Q4 of 2020, we built out an eight-part communication series. The chief people officer was able to say to this gigantic global corporation, “You are going to hear from us every three weeks. There will be eight emails in this communication series. We’re going to be talking about all these different types of things. Within the topics were obviously the quick wins and the things that were kind of going on and going to help them.” Towards the end of the email series, it was talking more about that medium long-term plan.
All of those emails, that communication strategy, were built in advance with supporting resources and all of this stuff. Their one job was to send exactly 21 days apart and make sure they delivered. People got to see the quick wins and then eight times in a row, at the 21-day mark when they were expecting to hear from senior leadership, they did.
By the eighth time, they got more positive feedback than ever before about transparency of communication. It set them up for success, even though what they were actually sharing was super impactful but fairly basic. It set the scene for this experimentation mindset and the cultural values and all of these different things so that they have the grace going forward to keep talking. They didn’t commit to sending these notes every three weeks for eternity. They did it in a finite way where they knew they could deliver. I would say start there. You can’t lose and it’s finite. I think that’s manageable for organizations.
One thing you noticed, even if that news was less than favorable or neutral at best, the fact that they delivered on what they said they were going to do actually increases the chances of a pure initiative to be successful. You captured that other 50%. What words of wisdom would you leave our audience with based on what we talked about?
A few pieces of advice may be, knowing that to our previous point, the toxic leadership, the cultures of care, this is an ongoing development. I think we’re all transforming together personally, professionally, organizationally. Amidst that, there are going to be moments where people are still going to come in contact with difficult leaders in difficult situations organizationally.
I think the first thing is to manage up, to have that confidence, to respectfully manage up for what you need. If you need more resources, information to do your job well, flexibility, whatever that might mean, if your manager doesn’t hand that to you on a silver platter, manage up and do that. That ties into the second piece, which is to advocate for yourself.
With advocacy, it often comes at a time where emotions are running high. The goal here is it can be emotional inside but you need to lead with the business case. This is business first. If there’s something that your manager isn’t doing consistently or isn’t doing well, you advocate for yourself but you lead with the business impact.
It probably will benefit you personally as well. Remember that a culture of care is the right thing to do but you’re still working for a for-profit business, most people. Leading the business first and advocating for yourself is a place to start if you don’t have a manager or a leader who innately does that for you. I think the other thing is to the earlier point, if you have the luxury or privilege of choice, guide your career decisions towards companies and managers who do care.
The managers who have the highest retention, the companies with the best retention and highest engagement will be rewarded. They will continue to grow. The business results will follow. If and when you have the choice, use it because it’s almost like you’re giving a vote. You’re standing up for the right types of behaviors so that gets positive reinforcement.
Lastly, I like to just think of the positive side of this, that for every toxic leader that’s out there, there are a dozen younger or more junior people that are the next generation of leaders. Take those negative experiences to essentially shape what you wouldn’t do. You become a leader down the line and take that as inspiration.
This doesn’t happen overnight. Let that naturally evolve by all of you, the ones that aren’t leaders yet, taking these things to heart. Figure out practical solutions and getting the development and upskilling that’s good for you and then utilizing that as leaders, once you get into that type of position a couple of years down the line.
I appreciate your words of wisdom. How can our audience reach you and give you a moment to share any initiatives you’re working on?
The best is probably connecting with me on LinkedIn. My name is Ali Caravella and my company with Mary Beth Ferrante is WRK/360. Feel free to check us out on LinkedIn. You can also sign up for our newsletter. We typically send something around once a month, which has all of our research and the latest trends that we’re seeing all around cultures of care. The newest thing will be this white paper entitled Managers Matter, which will be coming out. Feel free to connect with me. Sign up for the newsletter if you’d like a copy of that. I would be happy to share or connect with anyone else that is passionate about this type of topic.
Thank you, Ali. I appreciated having you here and the insights you had related to building that culture of care and instilling in us that managers do matter.
Thank you. Great to be here with you.
Thank you for reading.
- Ali Caravella
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About Ali Caravella
Ali Caravella is a culture consultant, executive coach, and mom of 2 dedicated to helping organizations support, engage and retain women and caregivers in the workforce. As a former Head of HR and management consultant, Ali is keenly aware of the power of successful people strategies as well as the immense deficits organizations face without them. She is a certified change management professional and helps organizations and individuals adapt, transform, and thrive during today’s unprecedented times. Ali received her degree in Mathematics from Vanderbilt University and uses an analytical and fact-based approach to solve business and people challenges.