Aug. 26, 2021

Cracking the Leadership Code: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders with Alain Hunkins | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

Cracking the Leadership Code: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders with Alain Hunkins | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Alain Hunkins, keynote speaker, facilitator, coach, and author of the best-selling book Cracking the Leadership Code: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders. Alain Hunkins shared principles and practices of effective leadership and the power of connection, communication, and collaboration.

Some highlights:

-Alain Hunkins on the value of connection to leadership 

-The power of empathy in leading people

-The value of actively soliciting feedback 

-How to lead better with a facilitative mindset

-Alain Hunkins on why leaders tend to get stuck in a command and control mindset

-Alain Hunkins on how listening contributes to effective communication

-Alain Hunkins on improving team performance 

Also mentioned in this episode:

-Steve Jobs, Co-founder, former Chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc.

-Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors

-Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

-Brene Brown, professor, and author

Book Recommendations:

Cracking the Leadership Code by Alain Hunkins

The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg

Connect with Alain Hunkins:

Alain Hunkins Official Website

Alain Hunkins on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Alain Hunkins. Alain is a sought after keynote speaker, facilitator and coach. With decades of experience all across the globe, working with some of the top fortune 100 companies. He has authored more than 400 articles for Fast company, Forbes, Business Insider, CEO Refresher, Association for Talent Development and the American Management Association. And he has written a best-selling book, which I absolutely love. And we spend most of our time talking about Cracking the Leadership Code: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders. 

Most especially, as I've gotten to know Alain more over the past few months and past year, he is a great guy. He is one of those people whose leadership insights match his own actions and behaviors. That is just as important as anything else. So I really enjoyed this conversation and I'm sure you will too, and gain a lot of insights on how you can become more effective leaders yourselves. 

Now, I also really enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. There's a microphone icon on partnering You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast. That way you'll ensure that you will be first to be notified of new releases. And finally, those of you that enjoy it on apple, when you get a chance to leave a rating and review. That will help more people find a podcast and benefit from insights shared by magnificent thought leaders, such as Alain Hunkins. 

Now here's my conversation with Alain. 

Alain Hunkins, my friend. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you on with me.

Alain Hunkins: 

Mahan, I'm more thrilled than you are. So I think we're gonna have a thrilled competition. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

It is, we are. I love your book, Cracking the Leadership Code, and can't wait to talk about it.  Now, Alain, the first question I ask all of my guests is about their upbringing and how their upbringing impacted who they became. Because I truly believe our upbringing does impact us. You have a magnificent story and you have a great understanding as a leader of your upbringing and how it impacted who you have become. So I would love to hear some of that and share that with our audience too.

Alain Hunkins: 

Absolutely. My pleasure Mahan.  

Yeah, I am a huge believer that we are the product of the stories that we tell. And the stories that we first tell are the ones that come from our families of origin. For better or worse. We all have our origin stories, just like superheroes. We have our origin stories.

Looking back at the time, of course, my origin story, I didn't think was particularly unique because it's my life. It's normal. That's what it is. And it wasn't until later as an adult, I started looking back and going this was a pretty unique, slightly different upbringing. 

So I was raised in New York city, in Flushing Queens. Not particularly unique. Raised by a single mom, not unique. And my grandmother, again, none of these things are unique. Where it gets unique is that my mother and my grandmother are both Holocaust survivors. So they're both Jews. As well as the rest of the family. Jews from Poland who had immigrated to Belgium. So my mother's born in Brussels Belgium in 1935 before the Nazis invaded and began the war.  

And so, come when the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940. End of 41, beginning of 42. My mother was actually separated from her mother, put through an organization called the Belgian underground resistance and was moved, was literally ferried from safe house to safe house. And people are obviously familiar with the story, the diary of Anne Frank in hiding. She spent time for three years in hiding and the amazing stories she's told me. Again, this is a seven year old girl doing this from the time she's seven until the end of the war until she's 10. She's had her hair dyed blonde and given a false name. And she goes to a convent and she says she's the best Catholic ever, because she didn't want to be discovered. It's unbelievable. 

And miraculously, my grandmother who managed to evade capture was actually captured and brought to a concentration camp that was the holding camp called Mylene, where they were taking troop trains. From there, were leaving right from Mylene to Auschwitz  to the crematorium, to the ovens. The amazing thing was the last train to Auschwitz left Mylene 10 days before my grandmother got there. And she was liberated from that camp. So my mother and my grandmother were reunited. It turns out my grandfather was killed. Most of the rest of the family was killed. So that's all preface.

Then they immigrate. One first, my mother, and then she gets pregnant with my brother and meets my dad. And then I'm born. My dad splits so I'm raised by a single mom. And my grandmother whose worldview has been shaped by massive trauma. So I literally was told things growing up, don't ever tell people anything more than they ask. Because their levels of trust were so low and they were literally still living in this paradigm of people are hunting you and you have to survive.

And so there's a lot of research that's gone into intergenerational trauma. So somehow a lot of that trauma, that stuff that really wasn't mine. I'm a kid born in 1968 in New York. I took on a lot of this legacy burden. And I think a part of my interest in leadership and people and psychology and human behavior really stems from the idea that leaders set the tone for the culture they create. And what I knew instantly, the culture in my family apartment of origin was so gloomy compared to going to school. 

I loved school. It was easy, It was light. It was fun. I was a great student. My teachers was like lighten because they had this joy. Going to my friend's houses. So different. Going to my dad's on the weekend. And so I think part of it was this cognitive dissonance. I was trying to reconcile the difference between these things and it has to do with the leaders. And on top of that, my grandmother, who was one of five children, one of her sisters also survived, who ended up living down the block. Her sister Masha, was this joyous spirit.

And I thought, well, you had relatively similar experiences. Why is it one of you has, now we would call it PTSD depressive. The other one is joyous and vibrant. So I guess that's what set me on the journey to try to figure out how we as leaders make a difference. And obviously the research is born out in my work with people, is that, I came to this with the supposition, the hypothesis that leaders made a difference. But what I found, and I am absolutely certain about is not so much that leaders make a difference. It's that leaders are the difference that they make in other people's lives.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

What a wonderful story, Alain. And you had an incredible journey of your own. I imagine, to understand the impact of this experience on you and also to see what teaching lessons you can take out of it to put good out into the world. 

So in your own journey of discovery, how were you able to capture the positive in Alain and the positive from that experience to be able to put those leadership thoughts and positive back out into the world?

Alain Hunkins: 

Oh, that's such a good question.  Frankly, Mahan, what got me to where I am now was a lot of healing of my own personal work. Now, whether that was with a therapist, I happened to find a men's group that was super helpful, and I continue to be involved with 25 years later.

So for me, I guess I hit my early twenties coming out of that. Coming out of school, really going, wait, I'm an adult, man, how come? I don't feel like it. Something's missing. It was then I felt like I've got to figure something out. And whereas a lot of my colleagues, my classmates from college were on the fast track career path achievement, that wasn't where I was at.

And I had this burning need to do some of this inner work to uncover and heal some of this. And the irony of course, is I get involved in these organizations, in these groups and I'm doing this work. And most people that traditionally do that work, it's in midlife crisis. It's people in their forties, late thirties, early forties, people who have gone on as careers. And then I'm like, wait, I've climbed the ladder of success and I made it and I'm not any happier.

And so the benefit in all this is I got on this journey of personal development very early on. And I'm a huge believer that all leadership development starts with personal development because the first person we all have to lead is ourselves.

Emotional intelligence, the baseline competency is self-awareness. So for me, I'd love to say the journey was peaches and rainbows and ice cream.  But in fact it was a lot of hard work and there were some tears definitely shed along the way, learning how to reframe my identity. And what I found though, was, I got so intoxicated by this work of self-discovery and then helping other people. I realized there was no drug that could be as good as this. So that's what really got me into wanting to learn. Continuously learn about this field. Continuously be apprenticing and mentored by other great people. 

I always tell people like, "Look, if you did what I did for 25 years, You'd be good at this too." So it is really that practice of how do you become first, more self-aware and then understand how to then explain that to others and show them the way.  I think the way you show it the most is through your own example. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Alain, what you did in understanding yourself is absolutely critical for all leaders to do. One of the challenges I see is that leaders, especially as they move up in organizations, they end up having bigger and bigger blind spots. And if anything, less and less of a self understanding. So when you guide leaders, when you work with leaders, how do you get them to reduce those blind spots?

Because you also say even part of your maturity as a leader is knowing the impact you have on others. A lot of leaders don't understand that. So how do you guide more experienced, more successful leaders you were in your twenties to go through that journey of self discovery and understand their impact on others, which is critical for the kind of leadership that you talk about.

Alain Hunkins: 

It is absolutely critical.  The book is called Cracking the Leadership Code. The subtitle is Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders. So the secrets are the three principles that I didn't just sit down and write on a cocktail napkin one day. They came out of 20 years of working with thousands and thousands of groups all around the world.

And the three overarching meta skill themes are connection, communication and collaboration. Now I share all that as a preface to answer your question, which is how do I work with leaders around this. While we talk about the fact that it doesn't matter what industry you're in. You can be in the pharmaceuticals or high tech or software. You're in the people business. We work with people and all work gets done via people. 

So the heart of leadership is at its core leadership is a relationship between two human beings. And all the research that supports this says that the key for people to be able to perform at their best, they have to feel connected with. And the basis of connection is empathy, which is quite simple.

In theory, it's showing people, you understand them and that you care how they feel. Now, everyone listening to this hears that, and they're like, "Get it. Got it. Good. I do that." And you do that in certain places in your life. You do that with your loved ones, with your little babies, your family, your close friends. However, put people into the business context. And suddenly when we have deadlines and we have clients and what comes up. And we have also hierarchy and power and fear and ego gets into play. We start to develop this power empathy gap. Not to mention the impatience gap, I've got stuff to get done. Because let's face it, showing people that you understand them and care how they feel isn't some item you can just check off your to-do list. 

And so I think, a lot of leaders will say, "But look how successful I am. So I must be doing something right." And if you have that unconscious attitude and that is your justification, my belief, and I would argue to say that, you may be successful, not because of that trait, but actually in spite of that trait in terms of how much more successful you could be. 

And also let's talk about how we measure success because PNL is one metric of success, but what's the difference you're making in the lives of the people that you lead. Because let's face it, think about the great bosses you've had, the greatest leaders you've ever worked with. They have had a profound influence on you other than we earned 8% more in annual revenue over the last year, not to mention the difference you've had in the lives of clients and customers and vendors and colleagues.

And I think where it really starts is if you have been advanced in your career to this point, it starts like, if you coach people, people have to be coachable. So what I suggest to leaders is are you really open to receiving feedback from those around you? Because if you're not, if you're just playing this game, like you're, oh, I'm supposed to get feedback, but I don't really want to hear it. Or I'll hear it, but I won't do anything with it. We're just wasting our time. Let's not even go there. 

However, if you are really keen and I would say the number one thing you can do to start to close that gap is ask the people around you for feedback. Specifically, what are things that I could be doing better and differently to support you as your leader.

And then the key is to listen to them. And then the key is to pick one thing and start to act on that. Because I forget who said it, but if you do what you did, you're going to get what you got. So if you're serious about change and growth and development, you've got to step outside of your comfort zone.

And if you're not sure where that should be, ask the people around you, they know you better than you know yourself. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Asking them and creating the kind of environment where they feel comfortable enough to give that feedback. And going back to your point, empathy is absolutely critical. 

I was reading a study that almost 80% of leaders feel that they are much better than average in their empathy. So I wouldn't be surprised that majority of us, partly it's an emotional thing. It's not skill related. So we tend to want to think we are good at it, rather than looking for opportunities to improve. 

Alain Hunkins: 

Oh, absolutely. I mean, that's the classic. They call it the illusory superiority bias. It's the reason that 90% of people say they are above average drivers. And I think there's one bias. It's a fallacy that people fall into, which is we judge ourselves by our intentions. Like I'm an empathetic person. Therefore I am. However, we judge other people, not by their intentions but by their actions. Specifically our perceptions of their actions. So as leaders, and you talked about this before, Mahan, we have to close the gap between what we intend and how we're being perceived. How I actually feel doesn't matter. The place that I got this lesson wonderfully and I think many of us get this lesson is when I became a father for the first time. Because it firmly kicked me out of my paradigm of the universe was I was in the center. And that works really well for 36 years until I've got this kid who's crying and maybe hungry or needs a diaper change in the middle of the night. And frankly, that kid does not care how I feel and how I feel in that moment really isn't that important because it is secondary. So as leaders, we have to realize our goal is not to be, look at me, look at what a great leader I am. Our goal is to serve the people that we lead. Because if you step back and just take that extra step, you realize that your success as a leader is a direct result of the success of the people you lead.

Therefore, why wouldn't you set them up to be as successful as possible? And I call this the facilitative mindset. So if you think the word facilitate comes from the Latin facile, which means easy. Our world is hyper complex. It's volatile, it's uncertain, it's complex, it's ambiguous. We don't need leaders to make things more complex. We need leaders who can make things easier. 

And the challenge for so many of us who are in leadership roles is we got here because we were really good doers. We are high performers. And someone said, "Mahan," like you're in sales, "You're a great salesperson. We're going to make you the sales manager." Boom. You're like, "Yes, I'm going to be the sales manager. I'm awesome." 

And of course we know there's a big difference between being a sales manager and being a great salesperson. There's a big gap between being a high performer and facilitating high performance in others. So we have to shift our mindset from being the commander in chief to becoming this facilitator in chief. And again, I think the main skill sets we have to focus on to be a great facilitator in chief are the skill sets of connection, communication, and collaboration. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And then talking about those skill sets. You also mentioned the fact that in many respects, we are stuck in an old paradigm of leaders. Frederick Taylor and everything else that he brought. Why is it that we are still stuck into command and control structure? Which, by the way, in many instances, many of the armed forces, especially, the special forces have moved way beyond that command and control structure.

Alain Hunkins: 

Yeah. So here's the thing about it. Humans really are creatures of habit. I mean, If anyone here listening has ever tried to go on a weight loss program, you realize it's hard to really change your identity around that. And what we tend to do because we are also creatures of least resistance is we basically learn through modeling. So we all learn to be leaders based on the leaders that are around us. And if those leaders were command and control, we got that. 

So my hypothesis and seeing this out in the world is very few of us have had really good role modeling of this new type of facilitative leader. We might understand it in theory. But it's not in our bones, which means that when push comes to shove and when we're under stress, we default to the old patterns. And again, these patterns could be things that we've seen on the job with leaders we've had. It could be patterns that we've seen in our parenting.

And I'll just share a story that brought this to life for me. So my son Alex is turning 17 next week. My daughter Miranda just turned 14. So this happened about 11 years ago. They're six and three years old. And the two of them, they get on great. So they're in the living room and they are goofing off and being really silly and getting very loud. I have a confession here, Mahan. I was in the kitchen at the time and I got a bit triggered. For whatever reason, I was trying to get something else done. And I got triggered. And I walk into the living room and literally these are the words that come out of my mouth. I come in there, I say, "Would you stop behaving like children?" 

I'm telling you this for two reasons. Number one, it's a stupid thing to say to a couple of kids. They are children, they are six and three, but the real reason I'm telling you this is because as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I was in complete shock. Because literally, not just the words, but the tone of voice, "Would you stop behaving like children?" It was the exact same phrase my mother used to use with my brother and I went, "Oh my gosh, I become my mother." 

So without even realizing I had internalized all these messages. And so when we are particularly stressed and depleted and under pressure, it's so easy for us as leaders to default to just do it, your motivation is your paycheck, just go. Like that old command and control. 

Now command and control worked to a point. It worked on the assembly line when people were doing repetitive manual labor, where there was not a lot of thinking involved. Henry Ford said it famously, why is it every time I want a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached. But this is not the world that we live in. In our digital economy, we need people to think all the time and creatively problem-solve what they're doing. We've gotta be able to start to shift the paradigm that that old command and control just isn't working anymore for a whole host of reasons.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And I think that's why your book is so important, Alain, because the stories that you tell also help people visualize the kind of leadership they need to aspire to. I do think some of the stories that we tell about some of the brilliant entrepreneurs that have succeeded and made billions of dollars ended up focusing on specific characteristics of those entrepreneurs that can't necessarily be duplicated and are not good leadership practices. The people quote this is how Steve Jobs treated people around him, or this is how Elon Musk does it. Part of what we need to understand is that maybe they did or didn't, but we can't all get away leading as Steve Jobs did, or Elon Musk does.

Alain Hunkins: 

Oh, absolutely. And let's face it. If you scroll through social media, there'll be an Elon Musk or Steve Jobs story, like eight of them a day. And let's also get clear. There's the story. There's the myth of the story. And that frankly, us reading it, it makes for good clickbait because Apple is one of the most valuable companies on the planet, Elon Musk.

So we love to celebrate success, but we really don't know the details. So in some ways it doesn't help the average person, like what am I supposed to do? Cause I hear people, "Well, look, if Steve Jobs can do it this way, why can't I do it this way?" Have you worked with Steve Jobs? You go and work with Steve Jobs, call him back from the grave, resurrect him, work with him for a while, and then let's have this conversation but otherwise it's theoretical. 

Whereas what I love are, getting the specific examples of things that work. I'll take an example of such of Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. 2014, he comes in, he's the third CEO of Microsoft. So Bill Gates founded the company. They do super well. Then comes in Steve Bomber. He's there for nine years, the stock price actually drops 11%, but the market value drops. It really goes flat because they're stuck in this in-between place. So they bring in Nadella who's a Microsoft insider and he realized it's about the culture. We have a culture. He said everyone had to be the smartest person in the room, super competitive, a lot of alpha dogs. Everyone's smart, and everyone had to prove how smart they were. He said, "I had to change this. Take a room of know-it-alls and turn them into a group of learn it all."

And so he brought in a copy of Marshall Rosenberg's nonviolent communication to the first executive team meeting. Everyone's like, "Bomber didn't bring books. Bomber, didn't read books." And he has instituted this culture of coach-like behaviors at Microsoft that has taken fire.

And you look at the businesses that they are in now versus where they were seven years ago. And their market cap at the time was somewhere in the $250 billion range. They've already crossed over $2 trillion. But what's really cool. If you listen to interviews with Nadella he models the sense of humility, any kind of generosity of spirit and curiosity, which is at the heart of connection. Connection is about being that, what can I learn from this conversation? And I think he models that facilitative mindset. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You're absolutely right, Alain. And I love Nadella's leadership and story. And part of it is it doesn't make for as good of a clickbait as some of the other stories do. But the leaders that succeed are more like him than those clickbaits stories. The other thing that Nadella does well, and I know in connection you go into it also is being a truly empathic and vulnerable leader. He shows vulnerability as you do through the storytelling that you do so effectively. So how can leaders balance being more vulnerable in leading their teams and connecting more effectively with their teams?

Alain Hunkins: 

Yeah, it's a great question. And I think, especially for those leaders that are not used to vulnerability, it's scary. It's like, "Ah, what am I going to do? I'm going to be seen as weak," because you're still probably operating from the paradigm. The mindset of weak equals bad. Weak means I will be taken advantage of. Cause the whole old definition of vulnerability was someone is going to use that and hurt me because I'm vulnerable to attack. What if your paradigm isn't about attack, but shift the paradigm and realize actually when we're vulnerable, people will be attracted to us because they feel connected.

You know, I was just listening to Brene Brown on a podcast with Tim Ferriss. Most people probably know who Brene Brown, she's very popularized this idea of vulnerability. And Tim Ferriss was saying how he was mentioning that he was having Brene Brown on his podcast to a few of his female friends and colleagues, and all of them had this gobsmacked fangirl reaction of, "Oh, She's right."He asked Brene. He said, "Why do you think so many people have that reaction?" And Brene first said, "I don't think I know." But where they ended up getting to was it's because in her work of sharing, her brilliant work around vulnerability and authenticity and daring and courage, she models the struggle. She is perfectly imperfect. She does not try to be, "I've got this all figured out." 

And so I think we could all take a page out of Brene Brown's book, figuratively or metaphorically, or literally. And vulnerability isn't about you suddenly revealing your deepest, darkest secret. It's more about letting people see the imperfection of your process. Creativity and innovation is messy, but oftentimes we don't see that. All we see is, it's Apple, here's the iPhone. Like we don't see all the messiness and the shattered glass that didn't work.

But when you're a leader with real people and you're leading them in a process, show them some of the mess. Like, "This is hard. I'm not sure. What do you think?" And starting to share some of the imperfection that is just a natural byproduct of what we're doing every day. It's okay to say, I don't know. It's okay to say, what do you think? It's okay to say, I need some help on this. It's okay to say this may not work. 

And for a lot of leaders who were like, grew up with this idea of the old model was, it was the heroic. It was the leader as the solo hero. And I always say, take off your superhero cape. You don't need to be a superhero. So being a real person is going to be way more attractive in the way Brene Brown is. 

So if you start to reveal more of these parts of yourself, people will start to lean into that and to connect with you. And then you've really got allies. And then you can really start to collaborate. Because the fact is whatever you end up producing if you have a great team of high levels of trust, no one's going to care exactly who did what, when we all share in the credit. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Absolutely. And in order to do that, you also go into the importance of communication. And with respect to communication, spent focus and time on listening with purpose. Now, why is listening so hard for us? Most, especially as leaders.

Alain Hunkins: 

There's a big difference between listening and listening with purpose. The real goal of listening and communication is not communication. And the goal of listening is not listening. The goal of listening is to gain understanding. And I define understanding as that we see reality the same way. And  we can never see reality the exact same way, because I'm not you and you're not me, but we want to get as close to that ideal as possible.

Why that is so hard is for three major reasons. Number one is I'm not in your brain. And so there's this, how do we align the difference between what you say, what you mean and what I hear? And if I assume that what you say is what you mean or that what I hear is what you say, this is where we get the classic misunderstandings in misunderstandings. So one piece is that. 

Another thing that gets really in the way of listening so well is we need to be present. And most people have a foot, either way in the future or a foot way in the past. We have our agendas. We have somewhere to go. We've got things to do. We've got people to see, places to go. Even now we can't even leave our houses in the pandemic so being present to what is happening right here right now with you. So how can I be present and hear what's going on? 

And then the other piece within that, what makes that listening so hard to being present is you're coming at this communication with a whole canvas, a context that you have painted this framework that you've created this picture of. And I don't have any of that necessarily. 

So in the process, we have to be willing to say "Wait, I hear that, but can you help me understand? What do you mean by this? What do you mean by that?" And so we have to be willing to lower our status. Let go of this idea of being that know it all because so many of us are so tied into our professional persona of I'm a smart, professional. I earned 6, 7, 8 figures, And so that ego status gets to our heads. And like, if I ask a question, I'm going to look stupid. 

How many of us have been in meetings, someone asks the question and you think to yourself, I am so glad they asked that question because I had the same exact question. We have to make it safe for all of us, both as leaders and those around us to be able to speak up. That having a question is not a referendum on your intelligence quotient. It is a referendum on, in this moment, this doesn't make sense. And I needed to make sense because if I don't have shared understanding with you, I'm not going to make the best decisions possible. And what we know is that if you want great results, you need to create great choices. And you only get great choices if you've got really good information. And you only get really good information from shared understanding, otherwise you're going to make some bad decisions. 

Or as many of us have experienced, we don't ask the questions, the meeting ends, and then we have the meetings after the meeting. What do we think? What did we just decide in there? What do you say about it? We have that, and there's eight sidebar conversations going in eight different directions, and we wonder why we have a less than ideally performing team. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And part of what you go into Alain is cultivate curiosity. If we have that genuine curiosity and ask questions to truly try to understand it helps both with that connection and the communication. So it is one of those things that in certain respects has become harder in a virtual world for many people, but it wasn't that easy before either where people were sitting and many of the managers looking at a screen, whether they're at a desktop or their phone, looking at a screen and trying to pay attention to someone else. So it is absolutely important to be curious and ask those questions. So as you were working with leaders and guiding them and coaching them on how to isolate, listen effectively in order to be able to communicate effectively, what are some tips or ideas, things you tell them they should do to become better at this process?

Alain Hunkins: 

Great. I love this. We're going to get nitty-gritty practical. So a couple of things, if we separate it into two different categories, if you think about one of the challenges is of listening with purpose and cultivating curiosity. And we said already, we want to be present. So what are the things that are going to keep us from being present? We've got distractions. So we've got external distractions and we've got internal distractions. 

So the external distractions are, for example, multitasking. If I'm trying to listen to you, but I'm checking my screens, my emails at the same time. So whatever you can do to get rid of stuff. So for example, my home office where we're recording this right now is on the second floor, is that my extra bedroom of my house. My phone's never come upstairs. My wife bothers me about this. Sometimes she's like, "I can never get ahold of you if I need you", because frankly, I don't want to know. And I never had my ringer on because I want to choose it at my time. So whatever you can do to eliminate all those external distractions, so you can be completely focused on the person that you're listening to. If you can't hear them, ask them to speak up. Again, if you have a bad audio quality of a call or whatever it is, "I'm sorry, can we call back?" Cause otherwise you've all been there trying to sprain and it's all that extra effort and we're just trying to make it through. So that's the first thing, is get rid of those external distractions.

Then as we get focused in terms of internal distractions, as you're getting ready and getting present. I'd invite everyone to think as you're coming to a meeting going, what is my intention? Can you set an intention? Is my intention here to seek understanding from the other person and make sure that we walk away with common understanding?

It's amazing how does setting that intention suddenly listening goes from being this passive back on my heels, just like I'm just sitting here getting information versus on my toes dynamic, “Hey, help me understand this.” And a part of this also means we may need to start to raise the bar on mediocre meetings.

We come in and I'm like, it's our Tuesday staff meeting. And we haven't talked about an agenda and we have bad meeting hygiene and we come in and we start this talking about that versus why are we here? What's the point of this meeting? Because if you have an hour, you'll take an hour. So being really clear and setting an intention around that. 

Another really useful tool, I call it asking for a receipt. So often, you know, we talk about a bunch of stuff in whatever meeting it could be, one-on-one team meeting And then time has done like, Great, thanks for the work today versus ending five or 10 minutes earlier and doing a recap, a very explicit recap. So just to make sure we're all on the same page, can we go around the meeting, the virtual meeting room and just, can everyone share your understanding of what we've just discussed and what you are doing as an action step walking the way. 

I do this when I'm coaching clients one-on-one because I want to make sure that what they hear and what they mean is what I'm saying or vice versa. There's a really great analogy, I write about this in the book. There's a really good story that brings this to life. This idea of asking for a receipt.

So you may remember this, Mahan, but back in the 1980s, it's when they started putting drive-throughs into all the fast food restaurants. And for the first couple of years, this whole drive-through process was a complete nightmare. It was really common. You drive up to the Intercom and order your food. You'd come to the window to pick up your food and the orders would be filled with mistakes. And like consistently, every couple of orders had mistakes and this went on for a couple of years. And all of a sudden the drive-through mistake rates started to plummet. I'd be thinking well, what did they do differently? What was the new technology? It was super simple. Let's say you went up to the Intercom and you said, "I'd like to order two cheeseburgers, two fries and two Coca-Colas," because it's a fast food place. What the employees started doing was repeating your order back before they make the food. "Okay, just to check. Two cheeseburgers, two fries, two Coca-Colas. Is that right?” “Yes." So they ask for the receipt of understanding. 

And so  now they do it with visuals and digitals displays to make sure that what you say and what you mean is what we hear before we take the next action. So I like to joke about this with clients. Taco Bell uses this technology for a 99 cent flip and taco. Don't you think your business is worth the same level of clarity? 

So, anyway, asking for a receipt is a really simple tool that any of us can use to start to make sure we're creating that level of clarity.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Alain, I love that example. And I know even in the military, again, they use it and they teach it at West Point. But my question for you is how would leaders do that? Or how would they encourage that kind of exchange in their work environment? So it doesn't come across as being condescending. 

And that in many instances, we don't want to say. "Okay, Alain, what did I tell you?" So it's as if we're treating a child to repeat back to us what they understood. So the leaders you work with and the organizations that implement this effectively, how do they do it? So it's seen as a value add rather than another check box that they put a check mark in before they move on.

Alain Hunkins: 

Exactly. So one of my mantras and my must-coach, I say this at least two times a week to people because I use it all the time and it has to do with communication. One of the things that great leaders do is they make their implicit assumptions explicit. So instead of just going and launching into execution mode of we're going to start doing this, ask for receipt thing, and people are going to go wait a minute, It's like, "All right team. So I've been doing some things. And what I realized is I think if we had a shared commitment to understanding and making sure that we're walking out of here crystal clear, even though it's going to take a little more time, it's going to serve us better in the long run.”

In some ways we're going to slow down a little bit so we can speed up later. So at the end of the meetings, and notice how I'm going to say this. In a minute, I'll come back to why I say it this way. And so as we finish our meetings, I'm going to go around and say, just so I'm clear on what we're all doing, can everyone please just repeat back to me what the action that you understand that you are taking, moving out of here. 

So what I just did by the way, just so I'm clear is as the leader I'm lowering my status, and this is a hard thing, especially us, D type egocentric. It's for them, but say it's for you too. It's for both of us and it is true. It is for you. But by doing that, you're inviting them in. It's again, it's showing some vulnerability by saying, I want to make sure that I'm clear as opposed to going, "Oh, what are you an idiot?" That's not really good feedback.

You want to step back and you can share with them the process. I want us to be a better high performing team. One of the things that great leaders do as well as we can hang out in paradox to say that we're improving doesn't mean that we're broken, It doesn't mean like this is broken. I need to fix it. It's, you know what? We're really good. And we want to get even better. 

You talk to gold medal Olympians, and they know that what they did to get the gold medal in this Olympic might not even put them on the medal stand in the next one. So they have coaches, they're continuously improving.

Part of this idea, and this goes back to what we talked about with Satya Nadella and being curious, and that growth mindset is. As a leader, have you embraced this idea of continuous and never-ending improvement? Because the journey of leaders never ends. 

One of my good colleagues early in my career, her father, had started off as a salesperson for a global food franchise. So he was a salesperson and he worked his way all the way up. He became the CEO of one of their countries. And he was operating, this was a multi-billion dollar budget in just the country in north America. And I remember meeting him and I said to him, "So when was the moment that you felt like you got to stop proving yourself?"

He looked at me and he laughed. He said, "Stop proving myself. Oh, I'm waiting for that day. I know when it's going to come, it's going to be the day that I retire." So the fact is we can't just coast. Now, I'm not saying you need to drive yourself. You need to renew and recover for all that well being. So build that in. And we want to continuously grow and develop because that's how we, and those around us are going to get better.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That is a great way for the leader to be the example that they want their team to follow. Leadership is example, as you have said repeatedly. The third C is collaboration. And you talk about the human needs of safety, energy, purpose, and ownership, playing a role in the kind of collaboration that we can get.

Can you talk a little bit about that and how, when we meet those needs, then we are more likely to have a thriving culture in our organizations.

Alain Hunkins: 

Sure. Yeah. So what I found and this, again, came out of working with thousands of groups over years and years is what I saw with these common overarching themes. That for people to be able to perform at their best, they need to have certain basic human needs satisfied. And you name them safety, energy, ownership and purpose. So I'll just unpack each one briefly. 

So when we think about safety, there's a couple of different dimensions to safety. Clearly there's physical safety, which is why most of the world is working from home during a pandemic because it's not safe to be out. So there's making sure those physical needs are met on top of physical safety.

Of course, there's psychological safety. And if we think about what this is at its core, when people feel psychologically safe what that leads them into is a feeling of belonging. And if we think about diversity and equity and equality and inclusion, I was working with a DNI expert recently who did a masterclass with me, and she was saying that at its core, the goal of inclusion isn't inclusion, the goal of inclusion is belonging. The sense of community of being able to be fully who you are, and then, we can be working at our best. 

So for me, if I think about, as a leader, what can I do to make things more psychologically safe? And this takes some work, especially if you come from a background where you just have never questioned the power or the privilege that you've had. And I've been through numerous introductions to multicultural training and diversity workshops, and I carry a very interesting thing. 

So for those that aren't seeing us on the video right now, I'm a white male, so in North American culture, that's the status, that's the alpha, that's the power of the old guard. So in some ways I have never had to deal with any of the, what we'll call target, non-target, systematic, and long-term oppression of other groups that just because of your gender, the color of your skin, your orientation have to deal with. That being said, being the child of Holocaust survivors, I am infinitely sensitive to all these nuances, which I think makes me a bit of an outlier. And also the fact that I can say I'm a white guy and I get this because we tend to take it personally. So I bring all this up because in the conversation for all of us as leaders, what can we do to make other people around us psychologically safe?

First of all, you're not them. And you don't know what their experience of life of being included or excluded has been. So it's important to actively, and I would say over actively continue to invite people in. One of the biggest things that we found around psychological safety and this comes from work that they did at Google. They did a whole survey on a study with thousands of groups of what made for the best teams. And what they found was that each member of the team felt like they got about equal amounts of air time that there wasn't one or two people dominating the conversation. And the leader very consciously made sure that those quiet people were included in, spoke up in the conversations and the more they did that, it became a snowball effect where people started being more vulnerable and trusting each other more. 

And so we've got psychological and physical safety. Then around energy, the fact is energy creates energy and we've all been through those horribly boring meetings. Or an example I often give is, it's the three hour conference call where there's been no breaks scheduled and we're just going in and at a certain point, you're just like, "I can't listen anymore. I need a bio break." So as leaders, we have to realize we're dealing with people. So we need to plan for breaks and figure out when people come back, how do we create some variety to what we're doing so they can stay engaged.

 Again, I'm an adult educator. We know that people's attention spans are pretty short, so we can't just drone on and on which a lot of us do. And it'd be like, "Any questions?" Which of course the answer is no, because I don't wanna look stupid. So we have to look for ways to create energy and variety. There's a lot of different ways you can use humor. There's variety, there's putting breaks. And in the book, I think I've got 19 different examples of ways to create energy. 

Then we get into the need for purpose. The fact is all of us do better when we feel like what we do matters. That what we're doing is contributing to something greater than ourselves. And the fact is everything has a purpose. If we can get meta enough to understand what it is. 

So right now, for example, you and I are talking through microphones with pop filters on them for this podcast. There's a whole team of people who are creating pop filters. Like the team that's building, designing, marketing, selling them, and hopefully they're going, "Wow. We are creating better audio quality. So better conversations can be happening."  

You can see everything has a purpose. So what, as a leader, are you doing to invite people to not just know your purpose or your company's purpose, but make sure that they co-create their own purpose as part of this? Because what we know from the research is that commitment to an organization or engagement at work only follows from commitment to one's own personal values. And so the more that we can have people showing up as people, the more they're going to be connected to the sense of purpose. 

And then the last one has to do with ownership. The fact is all of us do better when we have a sense of freedom and autonomy in the work that we do. I have yet to meet anyone who has ever said, I had this amazing leader and what I loved about them the most is the way they used to micromanage me. Said no one ever. 

So yes, you need to have guard rails and ground rules and boundaries and deliverables. And within those frameworks, you need to give people some latitude. You have to give some people some leeway. 

I was just coaching a guy this week who has a small business. And he said, "I know I am a micromanager. My people know it. They put up with me because they liked the work and I treat them well, but it's bothering me." And we got into basically underneath all this, he realized he started the company. He's a founder. He's got a huge investment in his identity as being completely indispensable. That this place can't run without him. And that isn't about the business. That's about his psyche. That's about his self. So we've got more work to do, he just discovered that this week. But I bring all this up because we want to give people ownership because then they can step into doing their best work. 

So just to recap, those four needs. Safety, energy, ownership, and purpose. When we design environments where people can get those needs met, they're going to thrive.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

They are, and there's going to be a lot more collaboration. Again, we touched on the very surface of all the great examples that you have in your book. All the great lessons you have in it. What I encourage everyone to do is to read it. Try to understand it more importantly though, practice it because part of the challenge comes down when people are trying to practice.

Now, before finding out how people can find out more about you and connect more with you, Alain. Are there any other leadership resources or books that you find yourself typically recommending and saying, if you want to become a great leader, read Cracking the Leadership Code and?

Alain Hunkins: 

So yeah, we've cracked leadership code and there's a few books that have really influenced my thinking. So for those that aren't familiar with Jim cruises and Barry Posner's book, The Leadership Challenge. So they are both professors and the book is well-researched. It's now I think, it's seventh or eighth edition. I think they first published it in 1985. It's sold millions and millions of copies. What I love about their work is they took it off of the pedestal and they made it accessible and they get into specific behaviors that any of us can do . In fact I modeled a lot of my stuff on their work and they were both hugely kind and endorsed my book. They read it. It was like a dream come true to have two of my academic heroes share that. So I totally recommend their work. 

Another book that I think most people probably will have heard of, if not read is Dr. Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I just feel like he somehow channeled those principles that just makes sense. I read that 25, 30 years ago when it came out, such a powerful thing. The other thing is it's such a part of our general organizational vocabulary these days, that if you don't read it you'll be in conversations and feel excluded because it's that pervasive in terms of some of these ideas, whether it's put first things first, sharpen the saw, think win-win. There's so many wonderful things.

The other book that I'm a huge fan of, which is much more recent is Tiny Habits. Dr. BJ Fogg. So he is the behavior designer professor at Stanford, There's some other books in the market around habits, but for my money, this is the one that breaks down the science and the practice of what makes behavior change hard and how to go about changing actual behaviors. And it starts by doing some small stuff. So tiny habits, three of my faves. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Great recommendations. And you liked the science and it shows in the very well-researched book. One of the things I liked about the Cracking the Leadership Code is that you'd  also done your research. It wasn't just stories from Alain's experience and it's nice to share personal experiences, but you had truly researched what it takes for leadership to work.

Alain Hunkins: 

30 pages of footnotes. Absolutely.  So this is all evidence-based, research-based stuff.

Mahan Tavakoli:

So Alain, in addition to buying your book, how can the audience find out more about you and connect with you?

Alain Hunkins: 

Great. So if you go to, A L A I N H U N K I N You can learn all about my work. I do work with individuals, teams, and organizations all around helping people become better leaders. And one thing particularly a big champion of these days, you know, you were talking about Mahan about the importance of practicing.

Reading a book on leadership is a little bit like reading a book about golf. You'll get some good ideas, but it's not gonna make you a better golfer until you start applying it. So one of the things I'm doing is I've partnered with technology company and we actually have, and you can see it in my website. It's called the 30 day leadership challenge, where I work with a cohort of aspiring leaders from literally around the world. Our last cohort had 18 countries represented. And what we do together in a community is we practice the skills of being better connectors, better communicators and better collaborators. And people have literally had their lives transformed from this. So I'm just delighted to be offering this out to the world now to help more people. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I have no doubt about that. I wholeheartedly recommend the book Cracking the Leadership Code, your own guidance and coaching and the community that you have established Alain. Because as you said, it takes repeated exposure, understanding, and practice and guidance and coaching for us to improve our own leadership.

So I truly appreciate the insights you've put out into the world and sharing some of those with the Partnering Leadership community. Thank you so much. Alain Hunkins. 

Alain Hunkins: 

Thank you. Mahan, it's been my pleasure.