How Do We Have Civil Conversations in an Uncivil World? | Career Civility’s Jenna Wilson on the Donald Thompson Podcast

Jenna Wilson has experienced the good and bad in corporate culture, and she’s on a mission to improve employee relations, scale culture, and create a lasting impact on organizations through effective communication, with her new company Career Civility.  Jenna and Donald Thompson talk about how that can be done in such a tense time while mostly working from home.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

Donald Thompson: Welcome to the Donald Thompson podcast. My guest today is Jenna Wilson and, Jenna, thank you so much for joining us.

Jenna Wilson: Yeah, I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Donald Thompson: So one of the things we like to do is I actually like our guests to explain a little bit about who they are, give a little bio information, their background, so that it’s in your voice, your perspective as our folks get a chance to get to know you a little bit, and then we’ll dig into some questions, and we’ll have some fun today.

Jenna Wilson: Cool. All right. Well, I appreciate you turning it over to me right at the beginning. I’m actually from Tucson, Arizona, born and raised Tuscon and went to Arizona State University. And then for some reason I wanted to move to the windy city, so I’ve been in Chicago way too long, and I haven’t gotten back to Arizona as much as I’d like, but I also sought out Northwestern here in Chicago.

So, I got my masters of science and communication from Northwestern, and now I work at Glassdoor helping clients on their employer brand and recruitment marketing, and I also own my own communications consulting business as well. So it’s been quite a journey. I always say that I am the perfect mix, if you will. I grew up in a biracial bi-political household. Dad was half black, mom was white. Mom was Republican, dad was Democrat. So we learned not to speak about politics at the dinner table, unless you wanted us spaghetti to be thrown everywhere.

Donald Thompson: That is awesome. What a great way to get the party started, and I think one of the things in our country today is that the blended environment, the blended family kind of that melting pot concept of America is more prevalent than ever.

And one of the things we’ll dig into later is really how that kind of affects your view, the way that you grew up and your environment and different things of that nature. But I think one of the things that is super important as we jump into our conversation, tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial business, right? Tell us a little bit about civil communication and how you got started with that.

Jenna Wilson: Yeah. What the heck is civil communication? I actually start off, every speech with saying, you know, everyone knows communication as a skill of the century, but no one knows what it actually looks like. You know, it’s what employers look for in employees, it’s what, you know, therapists will tell you as the secret sauce to any successful relationship, and yet it has kind of lost its meaning. So I actually started studying civil communication in 2013, 14, and I realized that the workplace is, it’s deficient of this. It really needs a good dose of civil communication, and civil communication, in my own words, is communicating productively. So I have taken more of a passive approach and really just tried to research as much as I could, study as much as I could when it comes to this new discipline, because it is so new. And I, I realized that if I only talked about communication, it was going to be very surface level and go in one ear out the next.

So I spent, you know, from 2014, essentially to 2019, diving into study, case studies, practicing it in my own workplace. And then towards the end of 2019, and then – I officially filed my LLC in March, so in the middle of the pandemic – we, we went full steam ahead with actual consulting on what communication looks like and civil communication in business.

Donald Thompson: So, that is phenomenal. I think one of the things in, in building a company, that you’ve got right is you’ve got to identify where you’re going to be special, right? And you went from a communication function that’s very broad, like you described, and then drilled down into civil communication and then you’ve hit on something that is really a challenge for most companies, right? How do you create a high standard for excellence? Which means you’ve got to coach people. You’ve got to have conversations about things that you want people to improve on, but how do you allow people to be motivated and push through those challenges, right, in a productive way? Give me a couple of examples of where people get it wrong and then how you help them improve.

Jenna Wilson: So that’s something where I do think my expertise comes into play because I don’t think a lot of people in business take the time to pay attention to what’s, what’s not working and why. They realize that they’re not hitting their numbers, they realize that their bottom line, you know, is down year over year, they realized their stakeholders might not be as impressed as they should be, and yet, they don’t really know what to shake up. They’re like, all right, well, we’ll get rid of this resource. We’ll bring in this resource. We’ll invest more here. And if you’re really inside the workplace, you’re able to – or at least I am able to – observe, I think, you know, growing up in that background of listening and not talking politics and really having to observe, I have created this skillset of understanding the underlying issue. So for example, and that’s one of the reasons I still love being, you know, in the corporate world and being full time, is that I have real time examples.

So two years ago, our third quarter, so October to December is our busiest time of year. I’m in sales. So we weren’t doing well. There was a team of six or seven of us, and it was just like, we just weren’t performing. And my manager called a meeting one day and we all sat down and she was like, “What gives?” You know, like last quarter, we were like a well oiled machine.

You know, it wasn’t a new team. We had worked together for a couple months at that point, and yet everyone was performing sub-par, so I was sitting in that meeting and I do get a little bit timid at times because they haven’t consulted me, you know, hired me to diagnose the problem. So I kind of timidly raise my hand and I’m like, “OK,” sitting there I’m like, “What is everyone’s definition of a team?”

You know, especially in a sales world, is it that we are all striving towards one goal or is it that we all have individual goals and we’re working together to help each other hit those goals? And it was like 50, 50 split. And my manager was like, “Whoa, like I thought we were all in this hitting one goal together.”

And she’s like, “So I’m going to have to sit with this for a minute.” And she pulled me aside like, the next day, and she was like, “I probably wouldn’t have called everybody out like that at the beginning, you know?” ‘Cause it definitely was, you know, pitting people against each other, what they believed.

But she was like, “But that also uncovered something that I had no idea that was a problem.”

Donald Thompson: Yeah. That’s, that’s phenomenal. Let me ask a different question about you specifically. It’s a great example. Right? What gave you the courage, confidence, commitment. Right. You mentioned timid, but the way you handled it wasn’t timid, right?

Like you put it out there. Right? So when you think of civil communication, where does candor and where does courage come into that civil communication?

Jenna Wilson: Great question. So I think I would think of it in two different ways. So for myself, it’s confidence in my ability to employ civil communication in these tough situations.

For others, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Kim Scott and her book “Radical Candor,” but she talks about being able to challenge directly if you care personally. So you have to have a good mix of caring personally while challenging directly, and because I had worked with the team that far, I already knew we were good.

You know, there was no animosity in the team. We had already established that care personally, so I was able to challenge directly and I was able to do it, you know, articulately or civilly, however you will, by my civil communication,

Donald Thompson: When you think about, and that’s a great way to describe it, right? Caring personally, everybody doesn’t do that at work, right? Some people are kind of phoning it in the job, right? How do you balance a full-time commitment and then building, right, kind of your future business, if you will. Right? How do you, how do you balance that to where everybody gets what they need?

That’s a, a great challenge because a lot of people have dreams and aspirations and having a side hustle, if you will, or a new business you’re starting at night or on the weekends is a great way to dip your toe in entrepreneurship while you’re kind of, figuring out your go to market in different things, but how do you do so without cheating your dream or cheating what the employer is paying you?

Jenna Wilson: It’s definitely a delicate dance, I will say that. I’m also fortunate to work in an organization that is very accepting and encouraging. So, I’ve worked in toxic environments, which gave me a lot of content as to what civil communication is not, but I’m also very fortunate to be at an organization where you bring your whole self to work. So one of, one of my pillars is, and where I think the workplace needs to improve is that, a lot of organizations don’t encourage that, and they force you to check your personality or to check your identity at the door. Like when you clock in, you put on their hat and you take off yours, and I really do think that the successful organizations, they hire leadership, and they train leadership, and they encourage leadership and people managers to help individuals grow because they know that that’ll benefit their business at the end of the day. So, I’m able to be very open, like my manager subscribes to my newsletter.

He’s very open to, “Hey, what, what are your take, what’s your take on this? Because you have civil communication in your mind,” and for that, it makes me want to work harder for him because he accepts it and he encourages it. So when I’m, you know, eight to five, I’m working and when I’m 5 p.m. and beyond, and then before 8:00 AM, I’m working on my own.

Donald Thompson: That’s awesome. And I think it’s, you know, one of the things that we all have stereotypes and biases and different things like that. And when you are working with people that are gen Z and millennial and different things, there’s this construct of the older crowd, right?

The millennials don’t want to work hard. They just want to kind of have experiences and to travel the world and different things. What I’ve learned as I’ve matured and eliminated that bias, is it’s not really a work ethic thing, it is a commitment thing to something with a worthy cause, versus just working and working hard because that’s what you signed up to do at a company.

And so, a lot of times, we see maybe some of that lack of engagement has very little to do with the bias around generation or age, but it has a lot to do with the engagement, right? In terms of what one is doing. And so, when you think about one of the things, and I’m going to give an example, that takes away engagement, or that spirit of belonging is it’s diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

It is some of the D&I related tasks that don’t allow people to have that full belonging that you mentioned earlier. What are some of the things in your work experience where you’ve seen diversity and inclusion done well, or you’ve seen areas where there’s kind of a gap there that we need to look at?

Jenna Wilson: Oh man.

So these are the tough conversations that you have to have, right? So, I think looking back on experiences is difficult for me because I always take everything with a grain of salt. And I think we’ve been programmed for that. You know, this is how we have to fit into the workplace. This is what professionalism looks like.

If you want to exceed here, this, this is what you have to do. And I actually don’t think it’s until you’re removed from that environment or until you have tough conversations with other people, even when you’re in that environment. So an example that I think of is a role where women were required to wear heels.

You are required to wear makeup. I remember one day I walked into the office and I had a ponytail in my hair and my manager pulled me aside and legitimately pulled the ponytail out of my hair and said “That doesn’t look professional. It looks like you’re about to go play an intramural softball game.”

Yeah, I was really offended by that ’cause I’m like, “Well, what does that have to do with my professional, my, you know, my work ethic or what I’m bringing to the table? I’m on the phone with people all day, you know, like they can’t see what I look like.” And then I’ve also, you know, fitting the mold you having to fit into that professional mold is definitely something that I’ve experienced, but I’ve also – example where I’m at today.

You know, I’m also in a workplace where they have employee resource groups and ERGs. And I remember my second week on the job, they had a lunch and learn with the pride resource group, and they were openly talking about their coming out stories and how you should ask pronouns, and they – it was basically just a panelist of people and it was a safe space.

You know, there was psychological safety there. There was supportive audience. There was a great moderator, and I was looking around being like, “Is this like, appropriate? Is this allowed?” But again, you don’t, you don’t know what you don’t know until you’re exposed to those type of conversations.

Donald Thompson: Oh, that’s powerful.

That’s, that’s interesting. I want to – so this pull of the ponytail, how did – certainly, in the moment, awkward, inappropriate, all those words come together. How did that change your feel of the organization longterm? How long did that – ’cause sometimes you can have a moment in a company or with an individual, and you just chalk it up and move on.

Is that one of those cases or did it change your view of the organization as a whole, right, as you went through the process career-wise?

Jenna Wilson: I think in the moment I was so eager to fit in. I wanted to fit in. I think, personally, I’ve always had an issue with identity. You know, it’s either you’re Republican or Democrat, you are black or you are white and I’m coming from a mix of both.

So I’ve always had a hard time understanding where my identity lies. And when, you know, when you’re in the corporate world, it’s really easy to tie your identity to that organization. So in the moment it, I was like, “OK, this is what you have to do. Like, this is what the organization wants.” And then I, you know, I remember when I started dating my fiance, I was telling stories and I mentioned that one. He was like, “What?” And it, it really wasn’t until that moment when I was like, “Oh,” and then I talked about it to a friend and she’s like, “What?” And that’s when I started to change. So it wasn’t in that moment, but it was afterwards when I started hearing other perspectives outside the organization.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s powerful. I think that, you know, the point that you’re making is that we all kind of are looking at, how do we assimilate?

Jenna Wilson: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: And we’re all struggling with that balance between, you know, what the group expects and what our personal priorities and values and liberties should be in a work environment.

And I think it’s certainly broadening. I think that companies are realizing now that creating that safe space, whether it’s the conversation, the ERGs you’re talking about now, or the experiences before that people can bring their whole self to work. And it’s getting better, but we have a lot of work to do, right?

And go from there. So when we talk about civil communication in your consulting practice, how does somebody engage with you?

What does that engagement look like and how do they know they’re getting their money’s worth in terms of how do they see and sustain results?

Jenna Wilson: Great question. So I engage with clients in three different ways. Number one is speaking opportunities, you know, going back to you don’t know what you don’t know.

So I, you know, am here to help bring awareness to what civil communication is and why it can be effective. So speaking engagements is number one. Number two is workshops and training. You know, adult education is something that. Typical workplaces and enablement I think lack and could have a refresh, if you will.

So I develop trainings specifically for organizations. I work best when they are personalized, but I also do have, you know, out of the box workshops and trainings as well that we can explore. And then the third one is direct consulting where, “Hey, we have a problem. We don’t know what it is. It could be communication. Can you come in to our work? You know, we want to engage with you on a statement of work. Can you come into our workplace and help us?” And then most likely that also involves a workshop in the end, to train the trainer. So that way I don’t have to come in all the time. I want to make sure that I’m leaving them with those tools to be able to deploy them down the line.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s powerful. One of the things, when we look at The Diversity Movement, an organization that I founded, and we’re trying to look at D&I, not differently, but with more power tools. Right? So for example, we’re doing consultation, we’re doing webinars, we’re doing training, but we also have mobile applications that reward people for D&I related behaviors.

We have e-learning components that allow people the psychological safety to really take a step back and learn some things on their own. We have films that are specifically targeted to D&I stories so that people can watch those in an entertaining way, and then they can report back the feedback. And so we’re basically building a technology platform to deliver these kinds of services.

When I think about civil communication and how that kind of layers in, what are some of the hot button items that if you are going to spend 20, 30 minutes, that you’d give a pint, right? What are some of the, really the tips and tricks to think about that quickly, right, and then get them on the right track?

And maybe it’s something to read or maybe it’s a couple of tips.

Jenna Wilson: And I love the aspect of the stories, because I think that is a pivotal part of what’s missing in a lot of trainings. You know, if you’re hearing tips and tricks, it doesn’t really resonate with you unless you hear it from someone else’s perspective and something that they’ve gone through.

So that’s one thing, and actually, I would say my content right now is focused on civil listening. You know, we went from the, you know, the Black Lives Matter movement to being an ally, and now I want to bring back in listening. Like, what does it mean to actually listen? So if we’re to look at civil communication and think of tips and tricks, there’s a textbook from my mentor, who was my thesis director in undergrad, called “Hot Topics, Cool Heads.”

And it’s a playbook on Amazon that you can buy where it really just talks about how you can have a civil dialogue. It was intended for families to actually have in the living room, and it has expanded into community dialogues, if you will, in Southern Arizona, in Phoenix. So yeah, that’s something again, you know, when I talk about the workshops and trainings, civil dialogue is something that I help facilitate as well, but that’s a great textbook to read.

And then I typically, we’ll start by saying acknowledge the humanity of the other person you’re in conversation with. I think it’s really, really easy when you’re in the workplace to be like,”You have zero credentials, you know, I’m superior.” Even in your community, like, “I’m right, you’re wrong. You believe X, Y, and Z, and I believe this.” And if you’re able to stay, take a step back and think, “OK. They are a daughter of someone. They’re a son of someone. They wake up in the morning to the same alarm that I do,” you know, whatever it may be acknowledging their humanity, you’re able to approach them in a more civil way and that’ll open the dialogue.

Donald Thompson: That’s really good. I really love to read. Personally, I’m a competitive learner and so “Hot Topics, Cool Heads,” is really, really important. And then really recognizing the humanity of the other person. I think, you know, it’s difficult sometimes when we’re all used to trying to position our own idea, to take a step back and really, be that civil listener as you described.

And I think that the more you care, the more you’re going to be able to do that, right? And I think that is super, super important. When we look at some of the transitional shifts in work, right, there’s two major things are happening. A lot of them, but two major ones. One of them is we’re all having to get comfortable with this work at home environment, right? And so one of the questions that I’ll give you, give you a minute, I’m going to give you a two part is the work at home paradigm, and how do you now transition the civil listening to all these digital tools and different things like that. And then the second thing is the generational differences, right?

Where we’re merging now, gen Z is about to approach the workplace. We’ve got the millennials, got baby boomers, gen X and all these different kind of a, the fabric – we’re weaving a fabric, really, of these multi-generations. And so give me some thoughts on number one, this remote work paradigm, and how do we have that civil listening?

And then talk a little bit about the generational component.

Jenna Wilson: Absolutely. So I would really encourage you to check out my newsletter today. It actually goes out every Friday. It’s very short. That’s my goal. I don’t want to send out long newsletters. I just want to send out, you know, two or three things you can take away from it.

I actually featured Kyle Alexander’s blog, from The Diversity Movement, because I thought it was a great way to help people start listening. When it comes to remote work and civil listening, lean towards your Zoom. People can tell when you are just hanging backwards or when your eyes are down or when you’re – they can see your eyes going across the screen.

When you’re typing something or reading an email, it doesn’t have to be brain science. You know, it literally is just fully engaging. Like sit up straight, have a little bit of a lean the same way you would, as they teach you in an interview, you know, your body language can still tell a story, even when there’s a computer screen in between you two. So that’s a really easy step. Number two is, I think you almost have to be a little bit more explicit with your working hours. You know, and I think that definitely leans a little bit more into the communication side, but if you’re receiving that, whether it’s a notification on Slack notification on Zoom or an email out of office response, you have to receive that very well and understand, you know, people don’t work all around the clock anymore.

I used to be someone who I check my email all day, every day. But now, because work and life are blending together, I do have to set more strict parameters with myself.

Donald Thompson: Those are very good tips. And one of the things I’d like for you to do and take this moment is how do people get in touch with you? How can they sign up to your newsletter so they can read your blog, right? So I want to give you some space to share that information really quickly.

Jenna Wilson: Great. Thank you for that. So, Instagram @careercivility is definitely the easiest way, I include the link in bio. I’m not great with social, but I can do that. And then even just emailing me, jenna@careercivility.com, I’m very receptive ’cause I am a one woman show, so I can add you to the newsletter. I’ll make it really easy for you. But of course you can always go to my website, careercivility.com.

Donald Thompson: That is fantastic because one of the things that we’re trying to do with The Diversity Movement is we want to build a platform of partners that have very specific niche areas that they can go deep in.

And so, we don’t want to be the kind of organization that tries to be one size fits all. We’re going to have some things that we’re very, very good at, but we’re also going to have a portfolio of partners that can be very strong on race, or very strong on civil communication or organizational change, right, so that we can always provide the best outcome for our clients because the work is too important, right? By the time somebody realizes and is committed enough to ask for help, one of the worst things is for them to get the wrong help, right? They need to be paired with somebody that can really dig into their situation and provide them not a magic pill or button, but points of progress pretty quickly, so they get the momentum that asking for help and bringing somebody in is the right thing to do, and the good thing to do. So I appreciate you sharing that information so that our audience and teams can, can listen to that. You mentioned coming from a biracial family and kind of the challenge growing up of where do you fit in, right? Give me a little bit more perspective on how you’ve worked through that, right? Like how you’ve pushed through that. And, and some of the things you may have thought and grown through and worked through over time coming from a biracial background.

Jenna Wilson: I definitely think it’s still a work in progress, and I think it goes back to your point of it’s not a one size fits all. And I also think it ties into how do you incorporate different generations in the workplace, too? One of the things that I talk about is, you know, what worked for you and what was successful for you to get you where you are today, might not be successful for someone else.

And that is a lesson that, I think, individuals learn over time, especially now, you know, in the civil rights movement where people are looking around and they’re saying “Well it works for them, but they don’t look like me. So how is it going to work for me?” And that’s really, really important. And that’s something I have to remind myself every day because I was, you know, a go getter from the start, you know, I was taught, you know, from my dad, like, this is our, he always says like, “This is our burden to wear or our cross to wear, our burdens to wear our cross to wear?”

So we’re just, we’re going to move forward, you know, focus on what you can control your work ethic is something you can control. So I always thought, you know, if I can put my head down and do the work, I will be able to get to where that person is. And yet I look around, I’m like, “Well, it’s not a one size fits all. I don’t look like them, and I don’t have the experience that they do and I have different experience. So how can I take that and run with it, and how can I better the workplace for that?” And I – that’s where I see change in the workplace, because I don’t think we’re there yet with the generational acceptance because you look at the older generations and it’s, “Well, I – this is how I was successful.” And we’re not quite there yet with seeing other realms of being successful. You know what I mean? Like gen X-ers are the first ones to introduce a work-life balance because women were getting into the workforce and then the men had to pick up the slack to pick the kids up from soccer, and it wasn’t until, you know, the boomers saw those gen Xers being like, “Oh, they can do it. I guess it works. You know, we’re still getting the work done.” Then gen Xers looked at millennials, well, “They want to work from home and how could they ever be successful?” And then a global pandemic goes up and it’s, “Oh, maybe we can be as productive when we’re working from home.”

So it just takes that, I keep using the word reflection, but until we get out of a situation, it really takes that –

Donald Thompson: One of the points you made earlier is when you’re outside of a situation, right? You can look more smartly into what happened, right, when you’re living in that moment, right, there’s a natural resistance to that change.

And so totally get where you’re coming from, and I think the other thing was changed sometimes it’s forced upon you. And, you know, one of the transformational events that you mentioned, right, we’ll just use work from home, right? We have no choice. So that means we had to find, adapt, use and perfect the tools that were available, right?

To be as productive as we could be at home. And if you think about that work component, pretty well, worked pretty well, but the childcare component for people and couples with kids, not so much, right? Because I’ve had, I’ve got a lot of employees and friends and different things that have young families, and so while the work component in a silo was manageable, knowledge workers, the childcare component of it was a huge unknown, right? And so we’re dealing with as a country, right? How do we manage all these different things that are thrown at us? And now you’ve got a global pandemic, you’ve got a presidential election coming, you’ve got race issues that are hitting our world, and our country is really trying to figure out what excellence looks like and, you know, we’re struggling with that a little bit, as, as we move forward. So it’s a, it’s an interesting thing. Anything you’d like to add before we switch gears on your company, your thought process towards civil communication.

I think it’s a great niche. As we talked offline, I was really excited to introduce you to our audience and partner with you at TDM, because I think two things, I think we need more bright, talented, smart people that want to dig into the D&I space and have their niche because the generational thing is something you can’t learn.

It’s something you’re experiencing, right? Think about how odd it would be for me to go talk to a group of gen Z-ers and say, “Look, this is what gen Z-ers think, right?” It would, it would just be weird, right? It doesn’t matter how much research I’ve done or whatever, right? So sometimes you can learn a thing and sometimes you have to learn a thing and be experiencing something so that you can give that value to others.

But anyway, let me give you some space for some closing comments, kind of on civil communication.

Jenna Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. And I, the one thing I would say is that it’s new. It can be uncomfortable to navigate this space and that’s where, as a communications consultant, I like to talk.

And so if you’re wondering, you know, what is this? Is this applicable? You know, will it help? What will be the ROI? Let’s just have a conversation. You know, every single movement starts with having a conversation. People didn’t know what social media marketing was back in the day, or what public relations was back in the day, and yet it’s a huge discipline that people are investing in and they’re seeing the return on that. So, even just having that conversation or having the courage to reach out and admit that maybe your workplace can use some improvement is a great start and I’m here to help.

Donald Thompson: Oh, that’s awesome and a great way to segue. And so one of the things that we’re trying out with our podcast, and it’s a great way to give value to some of the guests that we have, is I’m going to turn the tables a little bit and I’m going to give you the hosting microphone, so to speak, and give you the opportunity to use this time to ask any questions you might have about entrepreneurship, business anywhere you think I might be able to be helpful to you, and hopefully they’ll help our audience as well.

Jenna Wilson: Awesome. I’m excited for this part, mainly because I like facilitating and mediating. But I actually, this is a very broad question, but what would like, the perfect workplace look like in your world? If you had to design a perfect workplace, what would that look like?

Donald Thompson: Oh my gosh. If I had to design the perfect workplace, well, I’ve worked with a lot of different, several different companies. I’ve led a couple of different companies and exited them, and I’m still trying to figure that out, and that’s what keeps me motivated.

And so let me tell you what I’m trying to do.

OK.

Number one, it’s an environment where the best idea wins, right? So one of the things, when you talk about creativity and diversity of thought, and those different things, you have to have a place to where the strength of the idea wins the day, not who generated the idea.

And so I think the best idea winning is a very, very important fundamental construct because then it gives people the chance to win the argument, win the idea, have their idea promoted, and that’s how you get more creativity.

Jenna Wilson: OK.

Donald Thompson: The second thing is, I want to figure out and continue to grow a family friendly environment.

Jenna Wilson: Yep.

Donald Thompson: But a high performing family.

Jenna Wilson: Hmm, OK.

Donald Thompson: Right? And so, if you think about what that means, a high performing family has love, comradery and fun, but there’s a standard of excellence to tie. And a lot of time, people kind of attach a family fun environment at work to something that doesn’t have high standards and targets.

I want to figure out how to blend those two things. The third thing that I think is important, is to where people that work within that company have the ability to speak up when they’re uncomfortable, uncertain or unsure.

Jenna Wilson: Yep.

Donald Thompson: Because you cannot deal with what’s hidden. And so a perfect company environment to me is not that it’s perfect all the time, but that people know how to fix things when they’re not, right? People understand and have the safety, right, to share things that don’t feel right, that don’t make them feel productive. I’ll tell you at four o’clock today, I was having a conversation – it doesn’t matter who with, it’d be kind of HR confidential – but with an employee that just wasn’t feeling amazing at what we’re doing.

And so myself and their manager and HR are going to get together and we’re going to talk about it. We’re going to try to figure out ways that we can fix it. We’re going to try to figure out ways that things went wrong. As a leader, I don’t have all the answers or quite frankly, any of them, but I do want to be very, very open, very, very engaged where challenges exist, and then work with people that want to work with me to fix them. And that to me, is a perfect environment. And then the final thing in a perfect environment is that you’re successful enough that you can make decisions for the longterm, which are successful enough that you don’t have to make every decision about your company, about your people, about what clients you accept, based on meeting tomorrow’s revenue number because you’ve built enough strength where you can think longterm. And so, those are four or five kind of characteristics, but I think need to be built in to kind of that perfect culture.

Jenna Wilson: And that last one there reminds me of, you know, your sales process. Like you, you can’t be scrappy, you gotta be strategic, so that way you know where your next lead is coming from, you know when you’re going to close it, like – ’cause if you’re only focusing on the one in front of you, you’re always going to be scrambling. OK. So as someone who’s in the early stages of entrepreneurship, and who would hopefully have a team one day, you know, and engage with, people who know more than I do, hopefully, you know, how do you foster that sense of safety and how do you foster that sense of family?

Because coming from the corporate world, it’s “Let’s do happy hours, all this team building.” So how do you go deeper than that? Because families are more than just happy hours and free lunches.

Donald Thompson: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think one of the ways that I’ve seen in building commitment and loyalty with team members is, when you as a manager, leader, owner, CEO, are helping people build their career goals. I may not get a lot of hard marks from having the most gentile approach to communication, but I’m honest, I’m candid, and I have a track record of people being better at their job, making more money, more successful who’ve worked with me because I spend the time to help people identify and address career deficiencies that don’t align with what they want out of their career and goals. And when you really dig in and somebody’s got a two year plan, they’ve got an income goal. They want to start their business some day, and you spend a little slice each week on helping them with assignments that lead to what the company needs and what they need personally, I think you can create a strong sense of loyalty and commitment because that person knows that you care about their today and their tomorrow.

And I think that is really, really important because any kind of high performing team is going to have tough days and great days. You’re going to have both. But in order to push through the tough days, you got to feel like your team really believes in the whole person, which is you. And then the final thing that I would say in working with folks on your team is, the best compliment you can give to your team is high standards.

I think that anytime I’ve performed at my best is for somebody that thought enough of me to give me big jobs, big responsibilities, where I could really do something special. That is really, really important, how you believe in, and on, and with your people, for what they can accomplish. And, and that’s something that I try to do with everybody that I work with.

Jenna Wilson: Awesome. And, that got me thinking, you know – first of all, you should definitely be a professor where I got my master’s program, because they’re, you know, if you can, if you can understand what they value, you will be able to integrate them seamlessly into the workplace because they’ll want to, again, work harder for you because of that.

And I think that, that’s a great, you know, great answer for someone as myself who is trying to build an organization who is also trying to make the workplace better, two fold. So with that, you know, the workplace, isn’t perfect. There’s a lot of room to improve. So with your, you know, diversity and inclusion efforts, we’ve, we’ve made progress as a society, but where do you think we still have more to go, you know, what keeps you up at night where you’re like, “We’re just not hitting that or they’re not getting it.”

Donald Thompson: I think the awareness of the need is high. The ability to sustain diversity and improvement programming is low.

Jenna Wilson: Got it.

Donald Thompson: We’re very good, right now, as a country and companies at the D&I pep rallies, right? You go to the training and education and aw man, it’s amazing, but we’re not as good at tying the diversity and inclusion elements to the bottom line of the business, to the strategy of the business, to the leadership selection of promotion of the business.

And that’s the gap that we’re working to fill right now. So how do we create that blueprint that outlives the general kind of enthusiasm and hype, because it is tightly aligned with business practices, right? It’s tightly aligned with growing an amazing company. One of the CMOs that I talked to recently about diversity and inclusion and what we talked  about is how D&I is an extension of a corporate brand.

Jenna Wilson: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: So now when you start to think about it like that, it’s not necessarily a separate and distinct programm, it becomes a part of the fabric in the DNA, and now all of a sudden you can make progress because you’re thinking about it in the context of every big decision that you made.

Jenna Wilson: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: And that is, that is really, really important.

Then the second thing that I would say, or third thing I would say, is the leadership in organizations, primarily the CEO, but somebody in the C suite has to be a diversity and inclusion champion.

Jenna Wilson: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: Right? Being an ally is phenomenal. We need allies. A champion in my opinion, is different. A champion is going to be on the frontline of the conversation and ensure the other people in leadership are not able to, allow to, or want to forget how diversity and inclusion aligns with the business goals. That champion has to be so good, he or she needs to be so good at their job, that they can take the risks to push this issue because their performance speaks so loudly that they’ll always be heard, right? And those are important characteristics of people that can really move the ball forward because in order to really champion something new and different and tough, you gotta be a rock, not a rock star in terms of like outwardly, you just have to be, if you are a social media manager, you just gotta be in the top two or three percentile social media managers.

If you’re in HR, if you’re in sales, if you’re an accounting, whatever your position is, you just need to be one of the best in that position so that when you speak, the company never wants to be without you. And so therefore if you view it as important, the company is going to take it more seriously because you’re a performer, right?

Jenna Wilson: So, I think that kind of answered my question, ’cause I was thinking, you know, well, do you, if that, if someone in the C suite, primarily the CEO needs to be a champion, do you think that that can be taught or do you think that’s innate?

Donald Thompson: I think most things can be taught, but who’s the teacher? And one of the challenges with diversity and inclusion work is usually the teacher about D&I is within the HR organization that’s never really had a P and L, that’s never sold the product or service, that’s never built the technology, so it’s easy for them to be dismissed. So, you have to find people either inside or outside the organization that have run businesses. One of the reasons that I’m able to be effective with CEOs is not because I’m better than anybody else, but my experiences in terms of having to run internal initiatives while still maintaining an eye on the bottom line, meaning actually having a P and L having to sell a business, having to manage stakeholders and shareholders, so that relate-ability allows us to talk in that language of leadership that is a little bit more difficult when you’ve not done it before or held that position. And so, you’ve got to find somebody that can have a peer level construct, that conversation, with the C suite to kind of get them over the hump as to why it’s important now.

Jenna Wilson: Yeah, that’s really interesting because you almost took the responsibility on yourself and on, you know, D&I experts because when I, before that question, or before this conversation, I had assumed that it was on the corporations. Like, yes, they do have responsibility, but at the same time, they don’t know what they don’t know, and if they have an effective teacher, i.e. you know, a D&I professional who understands and can speak that same language, it’s almost – I mean, I go to therapy on a biweekly basis and she always says, you know, “I can tell you these things a million times, but it might ring true when someone else tells it to you.” So I think of that from like a D&I perspective, is that how you’re approaching these D&I efforts then?

Donald Thompson: I think that’s exactly right. I mean, third party credibility is powerful, right? I mean, it’s there, it’s the reason, right? That influencers matter.

Jenna Wilson: Hmm.

Donald Thompson: It’s the reason endorsements matter, right? It’s when somebody, it’s the reason why the referral with a friend is more impactful than somebody getting hired than somebody just submitting a resume.

Jenna Wilson: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: So that third party validation applies to the D&I work, just like it does to everything else, right, in this country it’s that, you know, we’re in this political season, right? So endorsements are going to be a big, right? So and so Senator endorses such and such candidate. So, and so like it, it matters what others think because most people are not truly independent thinkers. Most people are afraid to be wrong. So they’re looking for confirmation from people they trust and that’s just, it is what it is. And so because of that, we need to kind of make sure that we’re aligned with that. The other thing that I would say about leaders in particular, most leaders that I know that are successful read a lot. Most readers that I know that are successful, still read long form content about issues that they’re struggling with, that they’re learning from, that they’re curious, where they see new opportunities. So, I also think it’s very, very important that the content we provide around these new topics is engaging.

Jenna Wilson: Hmm.

Donald Thompson: Interesting, informative, and easily available.

Jenna Wilson: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: Because leaders will learn new things on their own, and they’ll be searching for content so that they can get an external point of view. The challenge of a leader is everybody selling you all the time, always being sold, right? Whether it’s your CFO, whether it’s your manager, whether it’s support, everybody’s selling you. So you have a natural skepticism for information that you receive. And so that’s why the third party validation in the reading in particular is really important is you have to give leaders a way they can do their own homework, right, and form that independent decision of what is good and you lead them to some good content versus trying to tell them, pitch them, sell them, which makes it feel similar to every other meeting that they’ve had.

Jenna Wilson: Yeah. That’s very interesting. Just, you know, I think it ties back to it can be learned, and sometimes they ask, they’ll have to learn it themselves.

Like, yeah. So it’s a combination of a good teacher, third party, and then also “I’m leading the horse to the water, if you will.” OK. I guess last question, because I do always, you know, my tagline is be human, you know, bring your whole, whole self to work. So who are you outside of the D&I world, and what brings you back to center?

Donald Thompson: Yeah, that’s cool. Well, I very much miss my racquetball, I’m a competitive racquetball player. And, it was one of the things to where my racketball crew, they don’t really know me from a work context. So it’s just, you know, a bunch of racquetball players talking smack, trying to compete and having a good time.

And so I miss that, but I enjoy doing that. I really enjoy reading and learning new things, so I’m very interested in, in doing that. And I think that I, some people work to live and in terms of their mindset, I think for me, right, I’m always chasing and, and thriving for the new idea, right, I’m insatiably curious about new things to try to build and how things work.

And so I get a lot of energy for doing things that are new, right. So I get bored easy, but I, but I like doing things that are new. And I think the final thing that I would say about me outside of D&I – at the end of the day, I’m the son of a coach, and I never thought I would be a coach like my dad, but I ended up becoming a coach.

And so I love to teach, grow, mentor people that are chasing big dreams, right? I think people can achieve average results on their own, but I think that if you’re going to do something amazing, transformational, a little help, a little perspective can go a long way. And so I really enjoy doing that.

And that’s independent of what kind of the mission is, right? I have a friend of mine that started, you know, those, Scooters that you can kind of rent for $2 in the city and different things. So in Charlotte, North Carolina, a friend of mine was thinking about starting that kind of business. And so we talked about it for a couple of weeks off and on, he got a little business plan with the investment was, and he’s doing amazing.

Right? And so whether it’s that somebody starting a tech company, somebody starting in consulting, it doesn’t really matter what it is. It just matters that somebody is chasing the dream. And then I’m a big fan and I want to help.

Jenna Wilson: That’s awesome. I mean, it ties everything together, like coachable you’re reading and learning more than new ideas, not getting bored.

That’s awesome. Well, thanks for, thanks for that. I know it’s always intimidating when people, people ever ask the question. They’re like, who am I outside of work? I guess I eat and I like to –

Donald Thompson: Yeah, it is. It is all good. Well, listen, Jen, this was super fun.

Full Episode Transcript

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