As you get to know Jennifer, you will see first-hand, an important leadership trait that many leaders are afraid to exhibit; and that is transparency and vulnerability. These traits come through in our episode together and are a testament to what tales of transformation are really about.
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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Leadership Humility: Jennifer McClure’s Tale Of Transformation
In this episode, we have Jennifer McClure. She is CEO of Unbridled Talent LLC & DisruptHR LLC and host of the weekly show Impact Makers with Jennifer McClure. This episode is important to me because as you get to know Jennifer, you will see firsthand an important leadership trait that many leaders are afraid to exhibit. That is transparency, vulnerability, and humility.
These traits come through in our episode together and are a testament to what tales of transformation are about. Jennifer has shared her insights with thousands of leaders at conferences and corporate events around the world. She is a high-performance coach who works with leaders to leverage your influence, increase their impact and accelerate results.
I’m doing great, Kevin. Thanks for having me on the show so we can have a conversation.
I’m so excited to speak with you. Before we get into toxic leadership and talk more about impact, tell our readers a little more about yourself. Share your story, share your impact and what you’ve been working on lately.
I started many moons ago when human resources was called personnel. For those that are in my age bracket, they’re like, “Yeah.” For everybody else, they’re like, “What?” I was in college and I only had summer jobs. I had not worked a lot. I’d worked in a grocery store and was hired by the store manager. I’d worked in a bank where my mother was a teller and she got me a summer job doing filing. I don’t know why I chose personnel other than what I say now. I’d never met a personnel person. When my college advisor said, “It’s time for you to pick a major. What are you going to be when you grow up?” I said, “A personnel manager.”
There wasn’t even a degree in that at my university at that time. There was one class in Industrial Relations and that was it. I’m sure some divine intervention somewhere along the way, but my thought process, I tell people I was a Millennial before Millennials were a thing or before they were cool because I wanted to run the world right away. I want to graduate and be right at the top. I’m like, “They’re probably not going to hire me as CEO with my cashier experience and filing. How can I enter into the organization in a place where I can have the most influence and impact?”
I thought the people in human resources, we’ll call it that for those still confused by personnel, while they may have a small team or maybe even a department of one, they have responsibility for all the employees. If you’re in a 20-person organization, a 2,000-person organization, or 20,000 organization, in my mind, HR was the place where you had the opportunity to interact with all those people and had some level of responsibility for all those folks. Here I am many decades later, I think that was brilliant decision-making because I believed it.
There are certainly lots of places where you can have impact in an organization or as a leader. Usually, that’s through people. Again, what better place to have an impact in the organization than to have some level of responsibility or accountability to all the employees or a large chunk of employees. Also, it’s a great place if you do HR right to develop people, whether they are coming for you for advice on how to work with their leader or what they need to do in their careers. I think it was a great choice and I’m glad I made it.
I spent twenty years in the corporate world doing HR leadership and executive roles there. I enjoyed it. The last company that I worked for was a global organization that was a turnaround situation when I joined. I did not know what I was signing up for. It was rewarding, but it was hard. Our goal was to build the value of the company back up and to have things running the right way so that we could sell it to the right buyers, which, again, is not a question that I ask in the interview process. I learned after I joined them, I’m like, “We’re selling the company?” They’re like, “Yes, we are.”
If you feel like it’s time to take the leap, do it. Learn and grow.
I was like, “That’s typically not a good thing.” They’re like, “It’s great. That’s why we’re here.” I was like, “I failed to ask that question,” which I’m glad I didn’t because I would have probably walked away from an opportunity that allowed me to use everything that I had learned up to that point to turn something around completely from worst to best. As often happens in those situations, after we did sell the company, and I stayed too long. I will fully admit that. I tried to leave when we first sold the company. I was convinced to stay. I should have said no, but somebody said we value. I’m like, “Okay. You like me. I’ll stay.”
About a year later, they’re like, “We don’t like you anymore.” I’m like, “I hate you, too.” I came out of that situation with a lot of bruises and scars, again, many self-inflicted, and I just was tired. I was like, “I don’t want to go back into corporate HR, not now, maybe ever.” I explored the opportunity to start my own business. I hired a coach. Thankfully, I talked to a lot of smart people who 100% said, “Please don’t start your own business. You are not ready.”
I was like, “Don’t you just hang the little shingle on the door and people call?” They’re like, “You don’t even know what you sell, you’ve never done any business development and you’re a massive introvert. You say you never get out of the office.” I’m like, “All those things are true. You’re saying I won’t be a success.” They’re like, “No.” It’s such good advice because I literally would have failed like so many people do. I was good at my job, so why don’t I let other people pay me to do that with no understanding that it’s a completely different skillset?
It’s the technical work, but To get the opportunity to do the technical work is a whole another thing. Again, smart people asked me to consider working at an organization where I would have to develop those skills and could learn from somebody else before. It is true. There’s always the future. You don’t have to do it now. You start your business when you’re 75 if you want, but get out there and learn that. I convinced them with a recruiting firm here in Cincinnati, Ohio. I talked to the owner of the recruiting firm and he was willing to give me a shot.
He was a wonderful human, somebody that I consider the opposite of toxic leadership. He was willing to and has done that with many other people. If you believe you can do it, he provides space and opportunity to learn and grow there. I went into executive search for a little over three years. I got an Executive Coaching Certification while I was doing that with the grand plan of being able to help companies identify and bring leaders into their organizations and then also develop them.
As the owner of the firm told me, he said, “Feel free to go get your coaching certification. You’re paying for it, but I think you’ll have difficulty doing both.” I was like, “What? Do you challenge my abilities to do both?” He was like, “I’m not challenging your abilities to do both. People will not get it.” Again, great advice. Here I am, I get my certification. I go out and I’m talking to the world. I’m an executive recruiter and an executive coach and they go, “Tell me more about the recruiting.” Their brain has to pick one. I learned, again, another valuable lesson. I can still do coaching. It’s just that the day job was recruiting.
When I started my own business, I had the same problem. In 2010, I’d always wanted to be a speaker. I felt like I had started speaking while at the recruiting firm with their blessing and had built up enough of a brand in that space that I felt it was time to take the leap. I’d learned a lot to start my own business and had the same problem all over again. I’m like, “I want to do speaking. I want to do coaching. I want to do employer training. I want to do recruiting.” Marketing people were like, “Narrow it down.”
Again, I didn’t listen. I think I picked 3 or 4 topic areas to focus on. Here we are several years later. It started in February of 2010. We just celebrated our anniversary but, 2020 didn’t happen. A few years ago, I went all-in on the speaking. I consider myself a professional speaker. I also do coaching. I do take on some coaching clients, just a few every year.
I bailed on consulting after the first few years. I’m like, “I am good at the work. I am not a good consultant.” I’m a problem solver. That’s why I was successful in a turnaround environment. When you hire me as a consultant to work on X and we agreed to X and you tell me that you’ll pay me for X, and then I come into your organization and I see ABCD through X is problems, I’m like, “These are all problems and I can help you with all of them.” They’re like, “Great but we’re not going to pay you.”
I had to learn to moderate myself and be like, “You’re not a good consultant because you want to solve all the people’s problems instead of the one they hired you to solve.” I can do it if in the right environment, but I’m all in on the speaking. I feel like choosing HR decades ago was the right decision to have. The opportunity to have influence and impact. I developed and I learned a lot of skills. I learned a lot of things I did wrong. I think the place where I can impact the most people is to share what I’ve learned. I knew that through speaking and training and sometimes coaching.
One thing I like is I want to lift up. I’m glad your answer wasn’t, “I got in HR because I’m a people person.” I could do away with that answer. I loved your focus on impact and the focus on the people, development and growth. I appreciate being able to know that story. I share with everybody that toxic leadership is something that I don’t talk enough about. That’s exactly why I started this show because I see and hear a lot of it. I’m an executive coach myself and I work with people about it all the time. Talk to me about your experience with toxic leadership, whether that’s through coaching, practitioner or research. Share your angle and your experience with readers.
I think that a lot of the lessons that I teach is probably that I learned through doing at some point. I’ll fully admit that I was probably sick in some places in my career. In the sense, again, it’s the strength overused becomes a weakness. At least that’s what we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better because I was such a doer, executor, and problem solver. It took me three jobs and some coaching to have that introspective. I’m great when there are problems that need to be solved and somebody that’s going to overwork themselves to make it happen and push to take the hill.
That also makes me not so great when it becomes a maintenance situation or when it is something that’s already running well and people aren’t interested in disrupting or there’s no need to disrupt. I’ve learned a lot about things that I’ve done wrong. Sometimes right when I did it. Sometimes years later, when I’m like, “That was not me demonstrating good leadership.” I’ll fess up to learning a lot about toxic leadership through growing and developing myself.
I’ve said for years, I think now that I have my own business and I have the opportunity to be out in the world and see and learn from, again, work with a lot of great leaders and help some not-so-great leaders become better. I would be much better leader. Some of it I’m sure is personal maturity, sometimes professional maturity, some it’s age and wisdom. I don’t know, gray hairs, whatever that might be but just from doing it wrong.
It’s one thing to be able to recognize how other people are doing leadership wrong, but it’s also often much more helpful, especially if you’re working with them in a coaching situation to say, “I see this and I have personal experience with it.” Let me tell you why this is not going to end well for you. How you can fix it or here’s an example of how I fixed it. It may not be how you fix it, but I think that’s helpful for people. I haven’t had that many corporate jobs. Certainly, in those corporate jobs, I’ve had a direct boss being an HR in a sense, you’re reporting to a lot of other leaders in the organization.
Even though on the organization chart, you may not be, but you have to understand how to build influence in order to get what you want from people who don’t report to you but feel like you serve them. In a sense, you are a support department. How can you get what you need to get done? Some of those people are people of good character and good leaders and they’re much easier to figure out. Some of them are somewhat bad actors that you have to figure out how to get what you want to be done for the organization with them. In many cases, address their bad behaviors.
I have a question about yourself and how you’ve been introspective throughout your career about where you had a negative impact, maybe in the past, or what have you. I know plenty of people. They have years of experience in the workplace and sure. They might be a few more gray hairs, but they’re still the toxic ones. Why were you susceptible to that introspective work? What do you do differently?
Partially because It’s painful to do it wrong, it can be personally painful because you make mistakes and there are consequences for mistakes. It can be personally, professionally painful because that may impact your career. I’ve told people there is no shame in my game now to say I was fired from my last corporate job and for a good reason.
You can only clean up your side of the street. You’re the only person who can deal with you.
I should have been fired before I was fired. It’s a funny story. I think sometimes God plays tricks on us like, “You need to learn a lesson and you’re going to laugh about this later.” I mentioned the company that I worked for last was sold and we turned it around. We’ve done great work. We worked hard. The goal was to sell the company, so we achieved the goal.
We rang the bell. We did better. We sold it. It was planned to sell in five years. We sold it in two and a half to the right company. The right company came in and started making the right company decisions. Now we’re a part of a much larger organization. However, again, they convinced me to stay. They said they needed me.
My boss told me he needed me to stay and help through the transition. Right away, a lot of the things that we had worked hard to change to implement, new health care plans, new policies and procedures manual, new performance review system that I had put in place with a lot of blood, sweat and tears over two and a half years.
The new company came in and started saying, “That’s great, but you’re going to use ours now. Your healthcare plans are no longer. We’re going to be on our healthcare plan. It’s going to cost your employees more. Now you got to go out there and tell them that.” After I just spent two and a half years selling them on taking them from no cost to what we had them pay. Right away, the situation changed where it wasn’t the best situation for my skillset. As I said, I should have left when I volunteered to resign. I was convinced to stay. I shouldn’t have because it wasn’t the best for the organization or for my team.
I spent time being probably the worst employee I could be, and I knew it. That’s the thing. I think a lot about toxic leaders, they know, but I either wasn’t willing to change or it wasn’t convenient. All I can tell you is I was comfortable. I was comfortable with the title, the role. The job was easy. The team was great that I had with me. Over that time, I’d walk down, my office was at the end of the hall and I had to walk past three directors’ offices and a couple of assistants. I’d come in and everybody’s head down and look forward.
Don’t look her in the eye because you never know what mood she’s going to be in because I was constantly angry and frustrated and all the things that I’d spent for almost twenty years. If you were a leader and you came in my office, either you were behaving like that and I knew it or you came to talk to me about it, I’d be like, “Wake up. This is ineffective. This is not the right way to do it. Your people don’t like you. Everyone is afraid of you. No one wants to work with you. Why are you behaving this way?” I knew that about myself, but I wasn’t changing. One day, my CEO, who was so frustrated with me, rightfully so.
He’s in his office at another building. I’m in this building and it’s a Friday afternoon. I knew I was not behaving the way I should. He called me and let me know that he’d made a decision to do something that I felt was using an outside recruiter to help us bring it in an executive role. I was personally offended by that because it was certainly a role that I could have recruited for.
It would have saved us money. I was so angry at him and I was like, “You just need to fire me. You’re not using me.” He was like, “Jennifer, don’t force my hand.” I was like, “Fire me.” Again, it was late Friday afternoon. He was a friend. We had been peers before and he’d become the CEO of the new organization. I left there that Friday afternoon. You didn’t think this toxic leadership that I was going to be, you’re interviewing a toxic leader, did you?
I’m driving home from work that Friday. I’m so frustrated and angry. It was like a lightning bolt came in the car and hit me. It was like, “What are you doing? You are everything that you would never have accepted in another leader. You need to own that. You chose to stay in this role. By choosing to stay in that role, you choose to support all the policies and procedures. Number one, you know you’re right for the business.”
I knew it was right to switch healthcare plans and all that other stuff but I didn’t like it. “You are making your boss’ job miserable when you chose to work for him. You’re not helping him. You’re hurting him. You’re hurting his agenda, leadership, your team, and your people.” This was the October timeframe. Of course, you’re already starting to plan for the next year. That Friday afternoon, I got home and I had a real talk to Jesus with myself.
I was like, “You are everything you would never want to see in anybody else. If you’re going to choose to stay, you need to choose to be the leader you can be. You need to support your boss, lead your team, and understand how to get on board with things, even the things you don’t like.” Monday morning, new and improved Jennifer is back. The one that was good at getting us to where we were. She’s going to be even better. I’m going to come in on Monday. I’m going to tell my team. I’m going to walk down the hall to make them look me in the eye.
I’m going to be happy. I’m going to tell them they have nothing to fear from me. I went by all those directors’ offices and I said, “Tuesday morning, 10:00 AM in my office. We’re going to plan for 2016. HR is back. I am back and I’m excited. I want to hear your input on how we can regain what I’ve lost for us over this last nine months or whatever it was.” They were so excited. They were like, “Is it real? Is she telling the truth? Who gave her some happy drugs?” “I don’t know, but I like it.” Here they are Tuesday morning, they all come to my office. It’s 10:00 AM. I’m sitting behind my desk.
They’re at the table in front of my office, waiting for me to come around and they are so excited. They’re literally like, “This is what we remember. We know that we can do more.” I start to get up. My phone rang and I looked down, and it’s my CEO. His name is on the screen. I’m like, “I have to take this call.” He says, “Could you come to my office?” I knew because we’d been through it. It’s a turnaround and transition time. There were a lot of people on a list getting ready to be shuttered out the door because of their own toxic behaviors or because they weren’t the right fit for the new role or whatever.
Whatever it was, come to my office, it meant that somebody on that list, we were ready to act on it. I immediately said, “This is probably going to be 10 to 15 minutes. I got to go up to his office. You guys talk amongst yourselves and I’ll be back.” I go up to his office. I turn the corner into the office. His executive assistant was not at her desk, which in 100 years of executive assistants never happened. She was also a friend of mine. As soon as I saw her desk was empty, I knew whose turn it was.
I walked into his office and he’s there. The original person who’d hired me was also there. I sat down and he said, “I didn’t want to do this, but you left me no choice. I’m going to have to let you go.” Of course, my pride was wounded, but at the same time, I think that’s when to answer your question. I’d made that decision Friday evening. I knew there was no sitting there and arguing for my job. There was no telling him he was wrong. He was past. He should have made that decision before that day. It was funny then, even though I wasn’t laughing.
We talk out some of the details and he’s like, “Jennifer, I trust you. You can stay for two weeks. Your termination date is X. You can work out two weeks. You can go home today or whatever you want.” I was like, “I need to go home today. I’ll work in the evenings and help get things set up.” I go back down again. I walk into my office, here’s my team, they’re bubbly, excited, and have been talking amongst themselves. I walk in and I’m like, “You guys are going to have to have this meeting without me.”
Of course, I cried on the way home. I got home and I felt like someone was forcing a choice on me that I should have made myself. I was grateful to him for not letting me continue. Now, we could all argue, could I have had a coach? Could I have been a better leader? I don’t know. Probably not. I think it had to happen. To wrap that piece up, I left the company as good at terms as I could. I finished out. I’d go in at night to get my files together and turn them over to people. He trusted me to do that. I go out and I hired this coach.
I’m thinking I’m going to start my own business and I’m out networking with people. Everywhere I go, people are saying, “You used to work at this company and you worked with this guy.” I’m like, “Yeah.” They’re like, “Do you know him?” I’m like, “He was my boss.” It was all people bringing him up to me and I was like, “I love him. He’s great.” Finally, one day I’m like, “I’m out there telling people I love this guy that just fired me. They probably are going to turn around and calling him. I don’t know what he will say about me.”
When you’re not helping your boss achieve organizational goals, you’re hurting his leadership and your team too.
I picked up the phone one day. It was probably a couple of months after I’d left the company. He took my call and I was like, “I want you to know, I have no hard feelings. You did the right thing. You should have done that. I have grown from this. I will be a better leader because of this. I want you to know you’re free to feel however you want about me. I deserve it, whatever it is but I feel like I needed to tell you that I’m grateful.” You could probably have heard the relief through the phone. He was like, “I am so happy to hear you say that. I felt bad about what happened.”
Long story short, I went into executive recruiting. He hired me as an executive recruiter. When I started my own business, he hired me to be an interim executive in a new company that he went to. I worked with him for almost another year. Both of my businesses, he was my largest client after I got fired from the company. That would not have happened, number one, if I had not recognized where I went wrong and owned that and also had the guts to call him up and thank him for doing that. For people who read this blog about toxic leadership, maybe they’re thinking, “It’s typical for us to think about somebody else.”
It’s not me but I hope that gives people hope that people can change. Some of it is a personality disorder and other things maybe it’s not so much about leadership or negative behavior. For people that aren’t involved in something that needs therapy, etc., even then, therapy is a good thing. I believe people can change. I’ve shared this with other leaders that I’ve worked with and even family members.
I’m like, “I think the first step, though is you have to own your piece of their responsibility. If you’re in denial that your leadership is harmful or ineffective, you’re not willing when people tell you that to explore how that could be instead, you want to be critical of them or the feedback, tell them where they’re wrong or point out examples where that’s not the case. It’s going to prevent you from being exponentially better.”
Thank you for sharing that story. To be honest, it sounded like a sitcom.
It’s like most stories in life when you can look back and make the worst things that ever happened to you and you don’t want to find it, but it’s hilarious that I drove away that Friday evening going, “You need to turn this around. I’m turning it around.” This was in 2015, days before everybody had a cell phone. I probably would have gone in with my cell phone with the camera on. I could have seen their faces. They were so happy because they knew the old Jennifer and they didn’t know what had happened to her or where she went. The glimmer of hope that she might be back.
That’s instantly reassuring for them. I want to lift up two things I heard that’s necessary here. One thing you noted was your amount of introspection. It’s something I talk about all the time. It’s an analogy. You can only clean up your side of the street, meaning you’re the only person who can deal with you. I appreciated hearing your ride home because that honed in on your power as a reformed toxic leader to talk to yourself.
I’m going to add that to my LinkedIn profile headline, reformed toxic leader.
The second one thing I want to lift up is I appreciate hearing the amount of trust that your boss had in you, even though you exhibited some of those toxic behaviors for those nine months. You show with such dignity and grace and he honored you as a person.
I think that’s important to point out. That’s a good point that I’ve never thought about. That was a part of the culture that together had established. When both of us came there, we were coming into a completely toxic environment. The organization was about to go bankrupt. It was being run into the ground by some leaders who’d been there 25 years too long. It had been heavily unionized. At one point, there were six unions in the organization then it had been “non-union” for sixteen years, but it was still very much managed just in us with that environment.
Part of why I was hired was I came from a Japanese environment where it was about teams and working together. That was my role and this turnaround was to help build this culture of trust, respect, mutual goals and achieving a shared vision. One of the first things that when I came in, it was the culture that when you fired someone and they did a lot of it in a very, again, toxic environment. You took the employee relations manager in there, you gave him a one-sentence, “You’re fired.” You wouldn’t let them go back to their desk and clean up their desk.
They brought the security guard in to escort people out and do the perp or through the office. Right away, I was like, “We’re not doing that.” Even for people who are the worst performers, we’re going to give them dignity. You use that word. We’re going to go with them. I would always say with people that you knew would probably be maybe likely an issue. You’d say, “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to leave this room. I want you to go back to your desk. Get what you need. Stay as long as you like. Clean out what you need and then walk out. We’ll take care of the rest. Don’t make this a mistake for you and for me.”
A hundred percent of the people handled it professionally. Even I had people who would call me up, similar to myself, who deserve to be terminated. Either shortly after that or sometimes months later would call me up and say, “I’ve changed. I didn’t feel it at the time, but because you treated me with dignity and respect in the process, it allowed me to look at my own behaviors instead of blaming you.”
Maybe I benefited from part of that culture that we together had helped to establish of trusting people to do the right thing, even when maybe they don’t deserve it. For the 1 and 50 times, that goes bad and it will. You’ll deal with that then you get the security guard up there, and then you escort them out the building. For the 49 people that you gave at least a shred of dignity on their way out the door, two of those people will call you and thank you and that makes it all worth it.
That’s important. One of my working philosophies, especially as I think about HR and organizational culture, is that your culture and climate are not what’s on the law per se. That’s what you wrote down. What I look at of culture and climate change is how you treat me when times are good and when times are bad. If we memorize all the values and stuff, and those values only show up when we’re profitable or when times are good but then when things go down the hole, to me, you need to have that consistency. Your store was demonstrative of that notion of having that consistency across tasks. We need to treat you with the same way with this respect with dignity. I appreciate it hearing that.
I think that’s a good point for people reading that offering trust, as I said, even sometimes when it’s not. it would’ve changed the course of my life, potentially, if I had been treated harshly in that process. I need to go back and think about that. If somebody had been confrontational and it had been embarrassing, that would have changed my life. Thanks, boss. You know who you are.
One thing I’m thinking about as a follow-up is, let’s say, someone else is in your shoes and they’re the toxic leader. They have behaviors that may not be positive because nobody is going to say, “I’m toxic. I’m narcissistic.”
Sometimes the most narcissistic will say, “I’m narcissistic. You need to get on with it and deal with it.” That’s the worst leader that tells you how bad they are.
I will say, “That’s a different part of the bell curve.” Let’s say I’m a leader and I’m like, “Maybe it is me. Maybe I am in the way or I need to do some difference or some change.” What can I do to ensure that I’m having the most positive impact on my organization or on my people? Walk me through some of those ideas you got there.
Mistakes help you learn how you could become a better leader for your people.
First, you have to make it safe for people to give you helpful feedback. Sometimes hurtful feedback. Usually, if let’s say there’s 50% that recognize they’re a toxic leader and they know there’s something that needs to change or there’s the 50% that they’re not paying attention and they think they’re great. In both of those cases, there has been a lack of safety for the people around them to share what’s going wrong or what is not working. Maybe in some cases, they’ve tried and they’ve been shot down, or maybe in some cases, they’ve never tried just because they don’t feel safe.
If you are the toxic leader, and either that’s been identified for you or you’re starting to see it reveal itself to you, I think you have to immediately look around and say, “Is it safe for people to give me feedback?” If it’s not, there’s going to have to be some work done to make people feel safe because you can’t just bring people in your office and say, “Tell me what I could do better or what I do wrong.” They’re afraid. If they’re your people, you control their jobs. They’re not going to be like, “Since you asked, you are terrible at this, this and that.” They have to feel safe to be able to share with you, and that’s going to take work.
It’s going to take humility on your part to sit down with them and say, “I realize I’m doing some things wrong. Let me give you some examples.” As a speaker, I’ll give you an example. I have filler words just like everybody else says. Most people think about ums and uhs or whatever. All of us, if you pay attention to yourself when you’re talking on a stage or even in something like this, you know there are phrases that you repeat over and over again out loud that annoy you and you know they annoy everybody else. The big one for me for other people is right.
When people say something and they go like, “Right?” I’m like, “Stop it.” You’re telling me you don’t have confidence in your own idea because you need my constant validation. I won’t say to you what I know to be my filler words because then I know it’ll be top of mind for you and you’ll hear it every time. Maybe I’m not humble. If you were my coach, I would say to a coach. That’s the approach you have to take. I think you have to start if you haven’t created that safety for people, which if you’re a toxic leader, it’s more than likely you haven’t. You have to go out.
Maybe you meet with your people and say, “I’ve realized that I could be a better leader to you. I apologize for any harm that I have caused you. I realized you may not feel safe yet with telling me how I can be better, but I want you to know I need your help. I’m going to show you how I can receive that. It will be helpful for both of us.” Here’s where the honesty and the humility. “I’m going to tell you a couple of things already that I know I need to work on. I know I’ve got to work on listing more. I can’t be looking at my phone during the meetings.”
Knowing that as soon as you say that everybody is going to be paying attention to you and your little phone now. That humility, then both of you follow through with it or even if you fail at that, you recognize it and you tell people, “I failed today. I want you to feel free. Next time I pick up my phone in the meeting, call me out on it. I did it today. Nobody said anything, but then I recognize it.” You start to help them see where they can make maybe some little baby steps into helping you to be a better leader.
Certainly, that’s the people around you. You can do that with maybe some wisdom with your boss because that person controls your jobs. It happens all the time. I have to remind what’s coaching and clients and friends, family, whatever. They’re like, “I talk with my boss about this. He brought it up to me and my performance review.” I’m like, “Your boss is not your friend.” No matter how much you like them, they’re not your counselor. They’re not your friend because they’re human. If you go into them and you say, “I have difficulty talking with people. Professionally, I say things I wish I hadn’t said.”
You do this therapy session with your boss. The next time you do it, they’re going to be like, “That’s terrible. That’s even worse than I thought it was.” On your performance is going to be, “She can’t talk to anybody.” Your boss is never the person to have that upwards discussion. You can do it with your team with wisdom, humility and vulnerability. With your boss, your job is to take feedback from them to ask for feedback, “I did a presentation to the board today. How did that go?” They’re going to go, “It was fine.” “What are 2 or 3 things I could do better?” You seek negative feedback.
There are your people. There is your boss and your peers similar to your boss. You want to maybe seek positive feedback or critical thought through feedback. Maybe you need to hire your coach. If it’s an option in your organization, that person that you can be vulnerable and who can call you out because you’ve given them permission to do so and that’s what you’re paying them to do. With your people, there’s probably going to be a time you have to demonstrate to them that you’re going to have to change their feelings of safety with you.
With your boss, you got to learn how to ask for constructive feedback or your peers. With your coach, it’s right away. “Here’s what happened in the meeting yesterday. How do you think that went?” Your coach should be able to say, “Let’s talk about that. What was the result?” A good coach won’t go, “That was terrible. Never do that again.” A good coach is going to help you to see not only what went wrong but how you could do better.
It seems like one of the biggest barriers of a leader recognizing to do then be humble is some people feel like, “If I admit that it’s me, I’m a horrible person.” Their esteem is in the way. They have self-esteem problem. They want to appear perfect and appear like they know all the answers and all that stuff. What would you say to leaders like that? There’s a lot of those. I will tell you I’m a reformed perfectionist. I didn’t put that on my LinkedIn.
That’s where you channel your inner Dr. Phil, you go, “How’s that working for you?” Especially if you’ve been hired as a coach. I like to work with people in a coaching engagement who want to get better. It’s not the people who are like, “I’m going to get fired if I don’t fix this.” There will always be things that we uncover. You’re like, “How’d that work for you when you did that?” They come in and they tell you, “I tried to sell this new thing, this proposal. I tried to get my boss to approve it. I didn’t get the approval. I don’t know why.” Let’s talk through that.
It’s with a leader like that. Some of it you have to probe. What are the results that you’re getting? For leaders beyond just the measurable, the dollars, and the percentages. Are your people responding when you give them assignments? Are your people growing? Do you feel like your people work well as a team and with you? Are they the right people? There’s a lot of ways that leaders have to measure their effectiveness beyond P&L. When someone comes to you and says, “I don’t feel like I’m a toxic leader, but I’m being told that I could help in that.” You’re like, “Let’s start exploring those things.” “What are the P&L type results you know?”
You go, “We’re profitable. We’ve hit all our targets.” “What’s the turnover like on your team?” “Nobody ever can seem to do the job right. HR is not helping me.” “Let’s dig into that a little deeper. Your turnover rate on your team, what’s that like versus the turnover rate for the organization?” There are ways to start. As a coach, you don’t want to try to back people into a corner that you think they need to get into. That’s not good. As a coach, that’s a real skill to not be like, “I see the problem. I’m going to get them to admit it.” You have to follow the questions. How is that working for you? It’s a good question.
If they go, “It’s great.” “What does great look like? If you’re hitting on all cylinders, is there a reason why you came to talk to me today about this? Is it because something maybe wasn’t so great? What was that?” Questions are your friend and to help other people, whether you’re officially a coach, used a peer mentor, coach or a friend in the organization, even someone who’s been invited to give feedback. I think that’s an important piece for the person giving feedback. Just ask questions. Most people, except for the pathologically or clinically, need to be helped by real true professionals, will get there if you allow them the space to talk it out.
If they are honest and if they are willing to be vulnerable, they will be going to get there. You know that from your own experience in coaching, that is going to be much more impactful for them making change if they came to that realization through exploring their own actions versus you going, “I’ve seen you in action. Here are the three things you need to work on.” Their brains are filled with, “That’s a problem? I didn’t know it was a problem. I think I’m good at that.” Instead of being like, “I talked this through and I see where I went wrong there. I see how I could have done that better. Now that you mentioned that when I did that, Kevin wasn’t responding and he’s always so attended.”
If you can give them that space and they will walk into that space, a lot of people, who want to get better, and that’s critical. Do people want to get better? Even the best leaders will be like, “How can I explore this so I can get better?” The worst leaders will be like, “I hope they want to get better. If not, then they can go find their bliss elsewhere.” Some organizations’ toxic leaders do well at least for a period of time.
We talked about turnaround organizations. In particular, narcissistic leaders is where I did my studies in. I looked at in turnaround organizations, similar to the one you described earlier. We need to sell. There was a prerogative and there was a clear goal and clear North Star. Some of those behaviors of, “Get it done, this were beneficial.” I need to terminate a lot of people. You needed some of those decisions to be made. You need emotional intelligence in every situation, to be honest. After you turn around, you need to ramp up more personable skills.
A more harsh leader sometimes maybe they’re a hired gun that goes in and fix things. Everybody hates them. What was Jack Welch? Nobody liked him or his approach, but he turned around a lot of organizations and made him successful. I’m not advocating for that. I’m just saying there’s always an opportunity to say, “You’re not a fit here. It’s never going to work here and the culture that we have. Maybe there is an organization out there for you.” I encourage you to go find it because you don’t seem to be willing to change.
Establish trust within your people, and that would make your business much more successful.
You said something earlier that I want to point out, a lot of these toxic behaviors that we’re referring to are typically strengths that are in overdrive. I don’t believe in a dichotomy of like, “It’s toxic.” It’s not. These are very impactful necessities of the workplace or whatever it is, but they’re in overdrive and they may perpetuate harm. I want that to be clear.
You will need people that can make decisions very quickly sometimes. Sometimes they go in overdrive and you’re making decisions when we don’t need or may. One thing I’m excited about is getting to know about your story. I’m inspired to know the amount of introspection. I didn’t even expect that you’d be like, “I was a toxic leader.” I had no idea.
Am I the first guest on the show to go, “Pick me. I’m toxic?”
I want say it’s awesome that you did that, you live with that, and we got to hear that because as I shared with you before, there are plenty of people who are perpetuating behaviors that they don’t even know are toxic. It takes a certain amount of courage and humility to look in that mirror because some people don’t even have mirrors. They just got glass windows blaming everybody else. It’s like, “Turn around and face the mirror and see where your part is.” I want to thank you for that because that’s inspiring to others. Hopefully, it is.
I look back again on my career. I have a lot of things I can be proud of. There are some of the things that I’m not proud of that the people that worked with me during the times, particularly the time that I described. I’m sure I’ve had other lessons stellar leadership moments. I look back on that and I feel bad that some of the people who left my team or the organization during that time that’s how they would remember me.
If they see me now, “Jennifer has a podcast called Impact Makers. She’s out there talking about leadership and she’s working with executive leaders. I know she isn’t all that,” because their only frame of reference with me was at a time when I was at my worst. While I was able to repair the relationship with my boss, I wasn’t able to repair the relationship with all those people who may have been harmed. If they’re on your show, they’re going to be describing, “There was this woman named Jennifer.”
We’ll connect the dots.
They’ll be like, “I met her.”
She was this Jacqueline Hyde person.
That gives me great sadness when I think about it. To think that somebody might look me up on LinkedIn because I do it. People that I worked with that I know were terrible, I look them up and I’m like, “Somebody said that about them on their references? No way because of my only experience with them.” It’s a good reminder to fix that as quickly as you can because people’s lives are impacted by you as a leader. I think you want to be remembered fondly by those you’ve worked with and for and who’ve worked for you rather than in regrets even if you have done the work and turn something around to know that there are still people who did not benefit during their time with you.
I want to thank you. This has been awesome. I enjoyed learning your perspective and insights. As I said before, it’s a sign of growth. This humbleness. I love it. Any words of wisdom you want to leave our readers with before we wrap up?
If you haven’t taken a moment to recognize how much impact you have on people as a leader. Leadership is not always attached to a title. Just like I said, here I am regretting years later that there are people I harmed or impacted harshly or they don’t remember me fondly. There are also people that still to this day, I get emails or messages from it’s like, “You taught me a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am now without you.” That ability to impact people is within all of us. Sometimes you think you have to have a big title, a big brand, a couple of degrees or some letters behind your name to be a person of impact. It’s not true.
You impact your kids, partners, friends, family, and certainly the people you work with, not just who work for you but the people who work with you and the person you work for. I think it’s a really important responsibility for us to think about. I want my impact to be as positive as much as possible. I’ll have my bad days, I’ll misjudge the situation or handle something wrongly. If I do, I sure hope I go back and apologize.
We’ve all had situations where we have been harmed by people in the way they handled addressing it or once it was brought to their attention made you think more of them. Even in negative situations, you have the opportunity to rescue positive impact. My challenge for people is to own and take responsibility for the impact you have out there in the world and try to make it the best you can.
Before we go, I want to give you the opportunity to share any current initiatives or share how people can reach you.
You can find me AllThingsJenniferMcClure@JenniferMcClure.net. I’m active on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other places probably too, but those probably are the two you can find me the most. I would love it if you check out my show called Impact Makers with Jennifer McClure.
Thank you for the conversation. I got to learn a lot about you and I appreciate being able to share with readers your words of wisdom.
Thank you. I hope from my pain, you can have gain.
There you go. I want to thank you all for reading the blog.
- Unbridled Talent LLC
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- Impact Makers with Jennifer McClure
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About Jennifer McClure
Jennifer McClure – CEO of Unbridled Talent LLC & DisruptHR LLC
Jennifer McClure is an entrepreneur, keynote speaker, and high-performance coach who works with leaders to leverage their influence, increase their impact, and accelerate results.
Frequently recognized as a global influencer and expert on the future of work, strategic leadership and innovative people strategies, Jennifer has decades of in-the-trenches leadership and executive experience working in and with startups, privately held companies, and Fortune 500 organizations in a variety of industries.
As a top-rated keynote speaker, Jennifer has shared her insights with thousands of leaders at conferences and corporate events around the world. Clients include Procter & Gamble, General Electric, IBM, SAP, Bloomberg, Charles Schwab, Stryker, LinkedIn, Notre Dame University, Society for Human Resource Management, Association for Legal Administrators, and Association for Talent Development.
In her informative and entertaining keynote programs and workshops, she shares a blend of research, best practices, case studies and storytelling which leaves audience members inspired and motivated to take action when they return to work.
Jennifer is also the Chief Excitement Officer of DisruptHR, a global community designed to move the collective thinking forward when it comes to talent in the workplace, and she hosts a weekly podcast – Impact Makers with Jennifer McClure – sharing conversations with practitioners, entrepreneurs, authors and speakers who are changing the world while building careers that they love, and lives that matter.
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