TTLS S1 5 | Startup Culture


Haley Grayless, founder and CEO of Vaxa Collective, talks about her experiences of being a coach and consultant and central around toxic leadership as it relates to millennials and startup culture. Throughout her career, she encountered great leaders who can be a model to everyone’s leadership philosophy or leaders that are the exact opposite of how you want to be. Her experience in toxic leadership made her decide to start her own business and get a master’s in organizational development. In this episode, we’ll talk about diversity and inclusion in a workplace and how we are going to make a workplace less toxic, especially for millennials who are admiring to be a leader one day.

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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.

Follow KEVRA: The Culture Company on Linkedin to keep up with your favorite behavioral scientist, Dr. Sansberry. At KEVRA: The Culture Company, we partner to effectively evolve your organizational culture by focusing on competency development, best practices, and leading research to deliver systemic and innovative solutions for company success.

Have a question for Dr. Sansberry? Visit to send your leadership and organizational-related questions.

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Toxic Leadership As It Relates with Millennial and Startup Culture with Haley Grayless

Our guest is Haley Grayless. She’s the CEO and Founder of Växa Collective, where she helps organizations create high-performing teams by improving workplace culture through leadership and talent development. She also hosts a Facebook group where she provides free training and resources called Millennials Advancing Leadership Skills. She leads a group coaching program called Millennial Leadership Lab for leaders who want to grow their skills, navigate tricky team dynamics, and create a healthy culture.

Haley also consults with prospective consulting through a strategic partnership using the tool The Predictive Index. As a proud graduate of the University of Missouri, Haley earned a Bachelor’s degree in Communication with minors in Leadership in Public Service and Religious Studies and earned a Master’s degree with honors in Organizational Development from Avila University. Connect with Haley and her Facebook group, Millennials Advancing Leadership Skills or email her at Haley@Vä

We have Haley Grayless. I’m excited to have you here. How are you?

I’m great. How are you, Kevin?

I’m excellent. I’m super excited to talk to you, especially about your experiences being a coach and consultant. It’s central around Toxic Leadership as it relates to Millennials and startup culture. Before we get to that, I want to give the readers a taste of who you are. How about sharing a bit about your story and what brought you here?

New team members can be somebody how shows leadership skills by being role models and using their power of influence. Click To Tweet

I have always loved people. My friends used to even tease me back in middle school and high school about how much I loved people and wanted others to have fun and be happy. I remember I would bring people who I became friends with at Mizzou back to Springfield, my hometown, on weekends and stuff for the friend’s trip. I remember asking everybody, “Are you in fun gear? Is everybody in fun gear?” They’re like, “What is fun gear?” I’m like, “Are you having fun?” I’ve always cared about people enjoying themselves and not being miserable. If something could be better, let’s make it better.

Throughout my education and then my career, I kept finding myself in certain situations, cultures where I knew that things could be better. I’m a big believer when you see a leader in a position, it’s that saying, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” We have leaders to a higher standard. They don’t have to be perfect. Admitting fallibility and being humble are important as a leader. Part of that is being a caring, humble, and not narcissistic person.

I kept encountering, either great leaders who I wanted to model my own leadership philosophy after or leaders who I was like, “That is the exact opposite of how I’d ever want to be.” Even in the workplace, I would never want to be perceived in the way that I perceive that person now because I dealt with some stressful and toxic cultures in the past. The reason that I even started my business and got a Master’s in Organizational Development was that I was in such a toxic culture.

I’m not saying anybody was evil there. I’m saying they were not using leadership skills. Maybe they had leadership development or management training or at least they were not practicing it. It was something that caused me a ton of anxiety that I had never experienced before. I had friends and family members who had experienced anxiety, depression, and things like that prior to when I experienced it. It was intense. It was such a negative culture. I lost my appetite, which is non-existent for me. I love eating, I’ve never lost my appetite.

I remember being at my favorite restaurant for my birthday with my dad and ate two bites of Indian food, and then I couldn’t eat it anymore. I probably ate 200 calories a day for 6 or 7 months because I was miserable. My hair was falling out. My sleep pattern was terrible. I couldn’t stay asleep or fall asleep most nights. I thought, “This is ridiculous. We don’t have to be miserable.” I’m sick of people saying, “It’s called work for a reason.” When you ask certain leaders, “What do you do to show appreciation and give rewards or whatever to your employees to show them how much you appreciate them and want to inspire and motivate them?”

A lot of times, I hear leaders, CEOs of companies say things like, “We give them a paycheck.” It makes them sick. It’s like, “You haven’t enslaved them. That’s great. That’s pretty much the bare minimum. You’re paying them. There’s a lot more you can do and it doesn’t have to be monetary rewards.” I decided, “There’s got to be a better way to do this. I’ll take it into my own hands.”

TTLS S1 5 | Startup Culture

Startup Culture: Employees have a higher satisfaction rate if their boss has done their job before and has a good understanding of what the whole company does, not just their lane.


I talked with somebody who I heard at some lunch and learn event and asked her, “How did you get the credentials to be able to teach this stuff?” She was amazing and was like, “I got a Master’s in Organizational Development.” Here I am, a few years later, she convinced me to do it. I then started a business. I decided, “I will do this. I have to take action. I’m not going to complain about it for decades.” Here I am and I’m trying to change the world and be courageous by doing it.

I appreciate hearing all of that. One of the things that I wanted to lift up that you brought up is it seems like a lot of leaders normalized transactional behaviors as leadership. They may assume they’re leaders because people are getting paid or wherever but it’s all transactional. It’s nothing about the people they lead. It’s about them in a way.

You also shared a great example of how toxicity spreads. You had an issue outside of work as it relates to what happens at work. What are some things that you hear? Now that you started your business, do you hear similarities in other people related to that toxicity spreading into other ways of life and things like that?

Absolutely. I do a lot of speaking engagements. I have a Facebook group and it’s called Millennials Advancing Leadership Skills. I have a few 100 Millennials in there and people of other generations. The generation doesn’t matter. It’s a marketing niche. There are tons of people in there. By me sharing my story, it’s one of those things where whenever you’re a survivor of trauma or something, people are like, “You, too? It happened to me.”

People started telling me, “Your story resonated with me. I’m experiencing that now. Our CEO, my boss, is terrible. They’re narcissistic. They don’t care. They’re assuming the worst about me all the time. They go and talk to my boss, and then I get this conversation with my boss that’s all hearsay. They weren’t there.” It’s all these misunderstandings and hierarchy.

I’m an informal person where I feel like everybody at every level should be able to have a relationship. I know there are giant companies. Even CEOs of giant companies should be humble enough to get to know the frontline workers, the entry-level new people maybe who started from college or whatever. You don’t have to be separate. The more that you’re engaging with people at all levels of your company, regardless of even what level of leader you are, it’s important to know the whole business.

Sometimes, the more you learn about something, the more your brain gets opened up to it. Click To Tweet

Studies show that employees have a much higher rate of satisfaction and employment in their workplace if their boss has done their job before and has a good perception and understanding of what the whole company does and not just their lane. It’s knowing clearly what their people are focusing on, who are their direct reports but also, what are other departments doing?

Many times within companies, regardless of size, there are certain departments sometimes that butt heads. A lot of times, it’s sales and marketing or fundraising and marketing. I hear this all the time. These are things that I hear and it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s what I tell people, there’s always hope and there’s always redemption. That’s where I come in. That’s where I try to help these companies or at least leaders who are working with me on those tasks.

A lot of people don’t realize in these workspaces, whether if they’re new coming in or have been in it for a while, this whole power distance thing is something we constructed. People get these titles and there’s something about a title like, “Why can’t you say good morning? We would walk in and be upset, and not say good morning.” Your emotions get to take the wheel. Why is that?

I like how you lifted up that it’s not the large companies. It happens in small companies, too. That brings me to one of my wonderings. When we think about toxic leadership, I’m curious about what can people do? As we think about Millennials, what can they do to change the workplace as they gain leadership positions or as they start companies? Talking about that startup space, what can be done?

I am maybe the world’s biggest fan of psychological safety. One of Brené Brown’s book lit up for me. It’s like, “This is what the workplace is missing.” I then dug into more of Dr. Amy Edmondson, who coined the phrase. What she found through her studies, how she unpacked it, that’s what I encourage. The baseline of everything I teach is you have to have this level of psychological safety on a team.

If the readers are not familiar, it’s defined as when a team can take risks and appear vulnerable, ask questions, they’re not afraid of their opportunities being withheld, people making fun of them, stealing ideas or getting revenge on somebody. They’re not in a place where they can’t be themselves and be innovative.

TTLS S1 5 | Startup Culture

Startup Culture: You have to take risks and say the unpopular opinion. Sometimes, you have to go against the group or challenge your boss. You have to be willing to be challenged.


That is the main thing that I’m telling Millennials. The Millennial leaders I work within my group coaching program, I always say, “What I am hoping and trying to get you to care about, and then be able to disseminate into the world is that you don’t have to be the leaders of the past.” I’m not saying they were evil, bad or anything like that. You’re right, it was this hierarchical thing that we created in this business world, the workplace or America maybe. They don’t have to be like that.

It’s the Gandhi quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s the most cliché quote. What that means is you have to do the hard thing. You have to take risks. You have to say the unpopular opinion sometimes. You have to go against the groupthink in a meeting. You have to challenge your boss. You have to be willing to be challenged. That’s part of psychological safety, modeling it for people who report to you. That’s a leadership skill at every single level in an organization.

A new employee right out of college or brand new even if they don’t go to college can be somebody who shows leadership skills by role modeling those things and using their power of influence. Influence isn’t a bad thing. Influence is where you’re leveraging what you know about somebody to inspire them based on what their needs are. I talk a lot about those things too, understanding yourself, understanding others, using that influence, and creating psychological safety within the organization.

It’s powerful with something you said. From a team standpoint is even though the power structures and the hierarchy are there, we all know it was created. What that means is we can also create something new. I love the way you talked about don’t wait until you get in a leadership position formally to evoke change. In my opinion, if you got there using the old way of thinking, you’re probably going to continue to do the old way of thinking because you already reinforced it. Where did your passion come from as it relates to toxic leadership?

Sometimes the more you learn about something, the more your brain gets opened up to it. I always had that initial care for people. That sparked it. I used to live in New Delhi, India. I worked with shelter homes for kids who had been living on the street. What I ended up doing was not just working with those kids with education, hygiene, self-respect and puberty.

I also worked with the staff there. They’re great people but a lot of times those shelter homes, they can’t afford to pay the most educated people with tons of experience and training to work in the shelter homes. They’re paying lower wages. Those people didn’t have as much education around it. What I found was there’s a disconnect here.

Never assume anything about anyone unless you have the whole picture. Click To Tweet

The director and some of the higher-level staff needed to have a better connection with their employees and the teams. It’s because all of this is going to end up helping those children who are growing up under their care, maybe not being yelled at or publicly humiliated would be a good thing. I helped by teaching different discipline models and other training with the teams and it went well. It was one of those things where it’s like a dopamine hit. The dopamine you get when you’ve completed a task well or when you get a push notification on your phone, that’s why it’s addictive. I was like, “This is rewarding.”

I love changing lives and making a difference. It goes along with my two main values in life. Brené talks about in Dare to Lead how we should focus on two main values that overall focuses on every decision we make. I decided that the two that I’m going to focus on as my key guiding values in life are changing the world/making a difference and being courageous. I’m leaning into those things. That’s where my passion comes from.

I’ve never been a complacent or compliant person. I’m risk-tolerant. Sometimes I don’t even pick up on the rules if they’re not said clearly. I’m not the person in the workplace saying things out of disrespect or being intentionally defiant. I’m just asking a question but I got slapped all the time. I was called rogue as if it was a bad thing. I take that as a compliment. I’m not being bad by doing those things. My intent and even the behavior is to make the workplace or these people’s lives better and that’s where my passion comes from.

I have to get my hands dirty and take action. I’ve never been a person who’s like, “That’s interesting. The landfills are filling up with Styrofoam.” Stop using Styrofoam. It’s all connected. Maybe because that’s one of my top strengths on StrengthsFinder 2, we are all connected. Your behavior affects me even if it’s not direct. It can be a ripple effect. Everything that I do, every product I use is going to affect people in generations down the line. Whatever I can do to make the world a better place, I’m going to do it. My main focus area is organizational development, leadership and culture.

What are some tips that you have that can help somebody build that better culture in their company?

The number one thing I always talk about is not to assume anything about somebody else. It sounds easier said than done. It almost sounds like, “Forget that one. It’s obvious.” “Common sense is not common,” a good friend of mine says. This happened to me all the time in my last workplace. My intent was absolutely the best for the organization, for myself, for the community. I was in a nonprofit. The leaders would assume the worst about me and other people.

TTLS S1 5 | Startup Culture

Startup Culture: If you have committed a mistake, admit fallibility and be humble. Stop blaming others and start owning things yourself.


Somebody would go to HR and tell on you or they would go to your boss, and have them address it with you instead of asking, “Haley, why were you at this Chamber of Commerce event?” “First of all, I’ve been fundraising so I probably should be out in the community and not at my desk. What do you want me to be doing on my desk?” They’re like, “It’s the pandemic. You shouldn’t be around people.”

I always say stop assuming. If you are going to, either tell on somebody and get them in trouble or gossip and you have the time to do those things, instead, you have the time to address it with them directly. Stop assuming. Assume positive intent instead and address things directly with somebody that you’re working with.

Another thing would be to admit fallibility and be humble. Stop blaming others. Start owning things yourself. I’m not saying it’s always your fault and think something bad about yourself. Remember that sometimes it’s something you’ve done. That doesn’t mean you have to hate yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to go publicly humiliate yourself. It means you need to be willing to listen for feedback. Ask questions and use that feedback to leverage to get better at what your skills are and what your leadership is. Create a better culture regardless of the level you are at.

When I’m thinking about, “What can we do to make the culture better? What does a leader, a manager, or a top-level executive need to do?” They need to be willing to be emotionally and physically present. What I mean by that is, a lot of times, executives will say, “I have an open-door policy.” They are not modeling that. They don’t manage by walking around. If they do, a lot of times, what I see is that they talk to the vice presidents and above, the senior vice presidents. They’re not talking to the low-level people.

I know not every executive or leader is an extreme extrovert like myself. You don’t have to be. Introverts can use strategies around whatever their needs are. If they need more one-on-one conversations, then have one-on-one conversations with employees. If you need to have video conferences instead, if you need to do small group lunch and learns with the CEO or with the leader, that’s great.

You don’t have to be in front of people all the time but you have to. That’s part of the job. Part of being an executive or a leader is you have to connect with others with your physical presence or virtual in the pandemic world. Emotionally, you have to be transparent with changes coming up, with what the vision and goals are, what’s going well and what’s not.

Structure out your organization's values according to what they really mean in the context of your team. Click To Tweet

In one organization I work with, I’m a Consultant for Predictive Index through another consulting company. I love that they published a national list of what got them on the best places to work. Every staff meeting, the president will always talk about his night/right agenda item. That is where he talks about, “What is going right. How’s our revenue doing? How are our clients feeling? What’s the feedback we’re getting from clients? What are new things coming up?”

The night is what’s keeping him up at night. This doesn’t mean he’s sharing every little detail because there are certain things not everybody needs to know and things that you can’t share yet. He can share as much as possible with those people about, “This is what didn’t go right. Here’s a decision I made that made us falter a little bit.” What is the thing that people are going to see from that? When I see a leader do those things, fallibility, be humble, be transparent, I feel more respect for them.

Something I always tell leaders is, “You may think that this stuff is going to make you look bad or weak, but no. It’s the opposite.” When somebody sees that and when we know that they are willing to admit their faults, I have more respect for them. If you want respect and you want more trust, you have to be transparent and vulnerable. That’s part of it.

You dropped a lot of great gems and a lot of great things for people to learn from as it relates to this concept. Any final words of wisdom before we wrap up?

Culture is something that has to be super intentional. You probably agree. We may have even talked about this before. What I always remind my clients or people who ask for advice is that this is the one time I don’t recommend doing something organic. I’m all about organic food and clean products for makeup and cleansing products. You can’t be organic when it comes to culture. You have to be super intentional instead.

I’m not even saying super structured. I’m an informal person. Giving them a loose structure and opportunities to connect, loose checklists for things that you should do and what your culture looks like. Structure out and communicate the values of your organization, define them, don’t just make it integrity or character. Everybody loves those values but what do they mean in the context of your organization? Make it intentional and structured enough so that people understand the expectations.

TTLS S1 5 | Startup Culture

Startup Culture: Being in front of people all the time is part of leadership. You have to be physically and emotionally transparent with your team according to your visions and goals.


Thank you for all the contributions and insights. Before we depart, can you share some of your initiatives and how people can follow you and reach you?

You can always check out my website. My company is called Vä Växa is Swedish to grow. My dad’s side is Swedish. It’s helping people and companies grow. My Facebook group is, @MillennialsAdvancingLeadershipSkills. I’d love for anybody to join that. We may end up changing the name eventually so that people who aren’t Millennials feel even more welcome to join. I do free training in that group. I have guest speakers and interviews. I recommend that people join. It’s free.

If people are interested, I do have a group coaching program, it’s six months, it’s called Millennial Leadership Lab. We focus on leadership and management skills. We’re doing March Management Madness. I love the diversity of the people in the group. We’re trying to get more men in it. I want people to know I do not just coach and consult with women. All people are great. You can follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and things like that, @VäxaCollective. Feel free to also email, Haley@Vä

Thank you very much. I can’t wait to speak with you again. I enjoyed the conversation and insights. I’m sure my readers did, too. Thank you, Haley.


Thanks for reading The Toxic Leadership show. Until next time.


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About Haley Grayless

Cost goes up for the group coaching program – The Revolutionary Leadership Lab – on 9/3! Learn more and sign up here: to get 6 months of coaching (55 sessions!) for only $1997 or $350/month.

I’m a leadership coach and workplace culture consultant who helps committed, open-minded leaders create stronger cultures through leadership development and employee engagement experiences.

I support organizations that want to be high-performing, innovative, and a great place to work. By implementing a leadership development system and intentionally building a great culture through proven processes, I help these organizations see better business results and higher revenue.

Over the years, I heard stories from people in my network who dealt with leaders who made their lives miserable and organizations that weren’t giving them quality leadership development opportunities. I heard people talk about crying on their way to work, being bullied by coworkers and managers, and dealing with anxiety or depression that halted their normal, happy life. I also experienced a toxic workplace culture myself. I felt anxious because of the culture that the new leadership brought to our team.

I knew there had to be a better way to lead and cultivate a healthy workplace culture. Being action-oriented, I decided to do something about this problem. I decided to get my masters in Organizational Development. I wanted to help people stop hating their jobs and start loving their workplaces. Why should you care?

You get better business results out of happy, engaged employees in a positive workplace culture.
Whether you’re a CEO, department leader, or an entry level employee, we can work together.

From company-wide organizational development consulting to one-on-one leadership coaching I am an experienced and enthusiastic culture consultant.