Gena is an organizational psychologist, executive coach, speaker, and author. She has advised Fortune 500 corporate leaders for 20+ years how to build organizational cultures that support innovation, inclusion and employee engagement. In this episode she takes a deep dive into effective leadership behaviour, the human experience at work, and how enhancing the employee experience requires understanding at all levels where there could be differences in an organization.
Here’s how the conversation went… This interview has been edited and condensed.
Rhonda Taylor: This is the podcast that addresses the talent experience, and today my guest, I met probably around 2018 when she was an executive coaching leader at IBM. Today, she owns her own company called Feels Human Inc. and she’s writing her book. Dr. Gena Cox, welcome, and please share with the audience the name of your book yet to be published.
Gena Cox: Well Rhonda it is such a pleasure to be here with you today, I knew that our paths would cross again. It was inevitable because we had such a good time back in the day, I think like 2018 and so we had a chance to work together more closely. So I’m really thrilled to be here with you today. Yeah, I’m writing a book for leaders who really want to build inclusive work environments, that are all frustrated that the things that they’ve tried so far haven’t had the intended outcomes. You know, they’re frustrated, and they’re looking for new ideas and my book is intended to help them, to give them new ideas and sort of build their confidence, that they definitely can accomplish this inclusive work culture that they’re driving to. I’ve only got a working title because of course the book is not quite done, but the working title for the book is ‘The Inclusion MBA’, and that’s all I will say.
Rhonda Taylor: Well, we’re looking forward to seeing it out in the marketplace. Gena, you’ve helped many organizations in the past, in building their inclusive culture. And yet you sit you say your work does not focus on diversity. Can you tell us how this comes about?
Gena Cox: Yeah, you know, that’s an interesting thing. So Rhonda, you know, I’m an organizational psychologist. So my training and my experience is really about understanding the human experience in workplaces, and all the dynamics that come to play. For many, many years I have helped leaders to understand culture, to understand employee experience, to understand leader effectiveness, and all of these things as you’re doing that work. There’s always like that sliver of it, that has to do with diversity and inclusion because all I’m interested in is making sure that everybody in our organization has the best experience, and that’s what those things have in common. So today, however, I’ve really decided to focus more than ever on the diversity and inclusion aspects of things in terms of outcomes. Because I know that there I have a very unique training experience and personal experiences that I think when I put them together, kind of helps make things a little bit clearer for people. I don’t think of myself as a diversity and inclusion specialist or trainer, or any of those things, because what I talk about is how we make organizations better for everybody who’s in there. In so doing, I know that anyone who considers themselves to be underrepresented, disadvantaged, subordinated, whatever adjectives you will use will benefit from those adjustments and changes that are made. And then the other thing, of course, is I focus a lot on leaders to really help them be more effective, and then everybody benefits from that as well.
Rhonda Taylor: Right, and you are a true data person.
Gena Cox: I am a data person and I know you’re saying that because, you know, the truth is that when I work with an organization, and even if we’re talking about diversity, and even if for example that is one of the outcome areas that we’re going to focus on, everything always begins with data. Because I don’t come into an organization with any answers for that organization, and yet every organization needs a bespoke custom solution. because I don’t yet know, well what is the unique manifestation of your culture, your leadership behaviours, and your employee experience? How I get that is through data. The data can come from a variety of sources of course. It can come from talking directly to the leadership team, talking to employees, focus groups, employee surveys, organizational network analyses, sort of passive data that’s analyzed using AI technologies. It can come from training systems and talent mobility systems, and compensation systems and a variety of sources. But that data is really what helps me to understand, what’s really going on here? So everything that I do is data-driven. I think of myself as an organizational researcher from an applied perspective, because I have no idea what I’m going to do until I understand what the data tells me is the current state of affairs.
Rhonda Taylor: Right? So when you go into an organization like, like, how do you start with your assessment?
Gena Cox: So again, it really kind of depends on trying to figure out what is the issue here. You know, often I’m brought into organizations by executives who are thinking; if they’re thinking about diversity and inclusion, if that’s the thing that they’re focused on, they’re saying, you know, we feel that there are some things that we need to do differently and they tend to be very broad, we’re not quite sure what we need to do. So as I said before, regardless of whether I’m starting the conversation in the C-suite, or starting a conversation with the Chief Diversity Officer, or starting a conversation with the Chief Human Resources officer. Wherever I start, what I really want to try to get at first is, what are the things that you think you’re trying to accomplish? What is going on here that has even caused you to reach out to me? What is it that you’re trying to solve for? That gives me a starting point. Once I have a starting point, then I’m quickly able to kind of get a sense as to whether, to get a quick hypothesis. Are we talking culture here? Are we talking leadership behaviour here? Are we talking to employee experience here? Are we talking compensation? mobility? I mean, there’s so many different potential avenues that one might explore. But, for sure the very first thing that I’m doing is what I call that assessment. So as I said, I mentioned before all the various places where I could get data, but I’m also talking to humans to get some data because I tell you one thing for sure. You know, Rhonda you remember when all everybody ever wanted was quantitative data, and quantitative data is very, very helpful, and very important. So a lot of you know, that’s the system’s kind of data. But I also do always want to talk to humans, because I want to qualitative experiences as well, because that’s where you kind of really try to see where the gaps are, where the rubs are, one of the things that differentiate, one employee’s experience from another group from another level from another, and so on. So all of that, then I want to analyze those data, regardless of whether they’re quantitative or qualitative, and try to narrow down my focus as to what’s going on here. In so doing, that’s when I start to then generate some hypotheses, to summarise what the issues are, sort of the buckets of the issues, and then start to sort of propose, what could be potential solutions for each of these buckets that I identify. Often that involves a conversation with an executive team, where you’re basically saying, I don’t have an answer yet. What I have is, here’s what I found and based on what I found, I believe that there’s an opportunity that has to do something with you know, mobility. Where, for example, you know, you’ve got a great talent pool, but for whatever reason, people aren’t finding their way through the various veins of the organization to get to roles where they can put their skills experiences to best use and therefore they’re not getting those promotions and special projects. And you know, that would be an example. Sometimes we are talking about compensation, sometimes we are talking about leader behaviour. All of these things work together, and it’s very hard for me to separate them out until I figure out what’s going on, and then I start talking about potential solutions.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah, and, you know, you brought up something in regards to, you know, quantitative data. But in today’s world, and we’re seeing it more, is that the organization wants to understand the human factor, and that’s, that’s not an easy statistic to come by. How do you find that for an organization?
Gena Cox: Well, you know, there, there are a variety of ways to do that. So like I said, you know, whatever systems and tools and technologies an organization has that in any way touch the human, there probably are data available to provide that quantitative view. If anything, what I find is that organizations under-utilize that data because they don’t recognize that the data and the interactions with the technology probably have some clues about what the opportunity is, so there’s that. Then on the more sort of qualitative side of things. Yeah, I mean, organizations, I would say that the thing that I have noticed throughout my entire career, but it’s really obvious today when we’re talking about issues how to do with inclusion is that often, especially at the top of the organization, leaders have blinders on they have a blind spot, they’re not aware of the day to day experiences of the employees in their organizations. It’s not because they’re bad leaders or bad executives, or anything like that. It’s that traditionally the way things have been set up is, organizations focus on operational metrics that have more to do with sales and revenue and customer experience. And by the way, if I ever hear another person use the expression soft skills, I just want to grab him by the neck and shake him. The soft skills, which is the human experience is given short short thrift in graduate schools, and executive education programs and development in general. And yet, it is in my day-to-day experience in my team, with my colleagues, with my supervisor, with my manager. If I just got to talk to that team, I could, with quite a high degree of accuracy, figure out what it is in that group, what is the experience in that group, and what the culture of the organization is. So we’ve always got to have that and managers and leaders should, should have that because, you know, they get that with their day-to-day contacts and communications with the people that lead.
Rhonda Taylor: Right. So you said, first you go in and you speak with the manager, or with the organization. And then with the organization, you’ve got the understanding of their needs, and then you go back, you step down, and you work at the leadership level? And, you know, how is it that you’re able to help the leaders identify the capabilities of their employees?
Gena Cox: So with regard to leaders, if I were a betting woman, like, if I were in Vegas, I would say, Show me, your leaders, and I’ll show you your your problems, and I’ll show you your solutions, the data is really clear that 70% of the variance and the experience of employees, is dependent upon manager behaviour. Another way of putting that is I have a good day, if I have a good manager; and I have a bad day, if I have a bad manager. That’s just a fact. So absent any other kind of information, that’s always going to be a good place, but usually those previous steps that I mentioned will reveal that. Because you do need data, you need evidence. So let’s just say then that we’ve gone through that process, typically then we are going to be thinking about leaders. And the thing is that, you know, there is such a thing as effective leadership behaviour versus ineffective leadership behaviour. And I spend quite a bit of time letting senior leaders understand that you can’t build an effective or healthy organizational culture if you don’t set expectations for the managers, for anybody who has a responsibility for leading a team, I don’t care how small it is. If you don’t set expectations for what you expect their behaviour to be, how they will be when they deal with their team, you’re going to have challenges. So often what I’m trying to do is identify and define what those expectations should be, and then those expectations can then get parsed out into, you know, training and coaching other ways that you bring those expected behaviours to life and sort of create the experience for all employees, because managers can make a difference. I think I missed part of your question. What did I miss in that question Rhonda?
Rhonda Taylor: Well, I kind of added the other question, you know. How do you help leaders understand the capabilities of their employees?
Gena Cox: Yes, so when we’re talking about this assumption then, that you know leaders are always in the equation. And the other thing that I have observed is that when people get hired into an organization the point at which they’re brought in, there’s a lot of scrutiny about, do you have the skills? Do you have the abilities? Can you do the job? It’s almost as if then once you’re in, it’s like a free for all, because managers kind of lose sight of the capabilities that you came in with, because first of all, I doubt you’re using all your capabilities in any one job. So they kind of lose sight of that, they no longer can see that, and then for all the other opportunities that become available in the organization, it’s sort of like just a random movement of balls in the air or something like that. I guess what I’m really trying to say is that we have to help leaders to understand employees’ capabilities, knowledge and skills, abilities, and other characteristics; and we have to understand the employees’ preferences, desires, hopes, dreams, and aspirations. And then we kind of have to bring those together. That’s quite a big responsibility, and as I said before, we know leaders and managers, they’ve got a million things on their plate. So it’s not as if I expect every manager is going to be walking around going, “Oh that’s a Gena, Gena has these strengths, these knowledges, these skills, these abilities; oh we got this job over here.” It doesn’t work that way, because humans can only process so much, and it’s really easy for, you know, managers and leaders to kind of tap the people in their immediate inner circle because they know them best. They know their capabilities and they come first to mind as their identifying talent. We’ve got to help them provide tools so that any manager can understand, what does Gena want? What is Gena good at? What does Gena feel she needs to develop? And what are the opportunities? So that we can kind of connect Gena to the opportunities, not only the ones that the organization needs fulfilled, but opportunities that will then cause Gena to sort of feel like “I’m doing a job that is satisfying all of my innermost desires, as well as my, you know, longer-term career aspirations,” and then she shows up with a smile on her face, and always does the, you know, the best job. It’s complicated, we’ve got to help leaders do that.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah and you know, what’s even adding fuel to the fire in helping leaders right now, is that the technology companies are growing at such an incredible speed. That you’re looking at direct reports of leaders, being maybe 25-26 years old. In the past, our management’s always been, you know, the graying generation. So there was that maturity that they brought to their position. But now, our leaders, especially in the technology space, they’re just a whole different type of individual, and is that adding new challenges for you?
Gena Cox: Well, it isn’t adding new challenges for me, but it is a challenge for organizations to really stop and think about the fact that anybody can be an effective manager or leader. The primary criteria for being an effective manager or leader is not age. In other words, you don’t automatically get better as you get older. The primary criterion for being an effective manager or leader, is caring enough about the human experience that you put that at the center of what you do, and you never forget that you’re managing not just tasks, but you’re managing tasks and people and you keep it together. So I see some really young, if we are going by age, people who are very effective; and I’ve seen many who were older, who we’re not. So what I say about this is it’s not so much that it’s an age issue, it is an issue of expectation. What I see with tech, is that there is that opportunity to make sure that you don’t overemphasize innovation, and getting iterations, and making things better constantly, which is great. Essentially in your efforts to do that, you don’t want to forget to always make sure that the people who lead teams are also equipped to deal with the human needs of those people who are doing those innovations.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah, yeah. Oh, and you’re absolutely right. Some of the youngest leaders are, some of the youngest individuals, are the best leaders.
Gena Cox: Can be yeah.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah, you know, we we touched on this a little bit, but I’m going to revisit it. In the past, the best assignments or the gigs, as we call them, were assigned by leaders just with the tap on the shoulder, you know, indirectly stating that this is yours and run with it. Whether it’s a project or an assignment and can you elaborate how this is problematic to an organization?
Gena Cox: Yeah, I mean it’s always problematic, and regardless of who are the members of your team are. Whenever a leader only taps a person on the shoulder within his or her inner circle, there is always a negative reaction. Now the manager might not know that there’s always a negative reaction, because what employees do, is when they see something, see a manager do something that they don’t approve of, or that they don’t think is fair, they talk amongst themselves and with those who are like minded, but they may never say that to the manager. So the manager and continues their naive action, and just repeats it and makes it worst. But beyond that, in other words, that is true, I don’t care who was in the team, that’s always true. But then we’re talking about it within the context of opportunity, access, inclusion, and all of that, it adds an element of that. Because that means that likely the manager is only tapping the same people over and over and over again, people that they know, people who are closer to them, and other people never get that opportunity. The people who are least likely to be closer in that inner circle, are then the ones that consistently do not get included. If they don’t consistently get included, they don’t consistently get any exposure, development, access to the next opportunity and that becomes a vicious cycle. It plays out over and over and over. Eventually what people do is say “Oh, okay, I can see now I see a pattern here, there’s no room, I’m never going to get an opportunity,” and then they start thinking about, well where else can I go to take my talents? Again, this is true for all employees, I don’t care what they look like. But if we’re talking about it in the context of inclusion, specifically, diversity and inclusion, it requires that organizations be purposeful, provide mechanisms, so that when I have the opportunity, first of all, you would require of me as a manager, that I make it transparent to everybody who could possibly do this, don’t assume that only Gena can do it. Make it transparent, provide a mechanism so all of the other potential applicants or whatever can see it, give them all a chance to be considered for this opportunity and to get feedback, even if they don’t get it. Just make the market of talent more visible and make it clear that, you know, almost anybody can have access to this opportunity. It’s not just for a few chosen ones.
Rhonda Taylor: And it can also cause morale problems, right?
Gena Cox: Well as I said, you know, if you watch this pattern play out over time, most people will not stand for that forever. You know, they’ll stand for it maybe until, you know, maybe they’ll say, you know, I’ll put in a year as it looks good on my resume or whatever they say. They’ll stand for it for a certain amount of time. But most people, you know, if you look at engagement data, what people often call out, the dimension that gets cited very often as a contributing factor, a driver of engagement, you see that there’s a lot that goes on in growth and development and that growth of development dimension. What it has to do, and also not only, so things that go into the growth and development dimension have to do with, you know, am I aware of opportunities? Am I getting the training I need to do my job? Am I getting the training I need to do to be promoted and to have other opportunities? Is my manager coaching me? All of those kinds of things. So what happens is, over time, those scores tend to go down. People say no, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not. Scores tend to be lower, morale is lower, engagement is lower. And we also see significant differences by race and ethnicity on growth and development, and other drivers of engagement. In other words, I guess a sharp way of putting this is one way that you can enhance the overall experience of all employees, including those who might be from disadvantaged groups or underrepresented groups, is to have a robust way of moving talent around your organization, an effective talent mobility process.
Rhonda Taylor: And you know lastly, I just want to I want to cover this is, what are the steps that an organization can take to improve their employee experience?
Gena Cox: Hmm. Well, I mean, there isn’t any one particular list of things that every organization must do. But because I have said before, there’s a lot that has to do with understanding the experience in the first place. You’ve got to understand it, and not assume that other only, if you’re only getting your information from other executives let’s say, you’re likely not getting the whole story. So understanding employee experience requires understanding at all levels where there could be differences, in all job roles where there could be differences, in geographies where there could be differences, in racial-ethnic groups. If that’s important, meaning, you know, all this is, you know, we have to think about this on a global perspective. So it’s not just the United States perspective. So you need to understand the dimensions of difference that matter in your organization, and really study those very carefully, in order to really know what employee experience is like. If you look at data at an aggregate level, it might not look very variable, but if you break it down into these components is when you start to realize, well wait a minute, the folks in sales they have these special concerns and issues, I’ve never known that. The folks over here in software development they have these, so you know, it’s again, it’s data, it’s analyzing, it’s knowing the dimensions of difference and focusing on those dimensions of difference. Oh, well, ultimately, we want to bring it out as much as possible to common outcomes that everybody can, you know, can benefit from. But then the manager, the leader is always key to driving employee experience. So you’ve got to make sure that managers have the tools that they need in order to you know, as I said before, to make fair and consistent choices for career mobility and that sort of thing. And make sure that you set expectations about what you want the employee experience to be.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah it’s, the organization needs to be strategic right down to its leaders. You know, we could talk about this all day. And we never even got to really expand upon the internal talent mobility active, that’s really actually, really busy right now. But before we have to say goodbye, we believe that everyone should enjoy their career journey, you are obviously good at what you do, you enjoy it? How do you stay true to your A-game?
Gena Cox: I feel like, I’m really lucky in that I do have the opportunity today to be able to do things about which I’m passionate, and that I know I’m good at and then you know, sort of just benefit from knowing that whatever I’m doing is in service of that. And that’s, I think, what most employees would want, obviously, not every employee can have that every time every day, whatever. But I think that’s like the North Star of employee experience, matching my passion and my preferences to the opportunities. It’s a give and take, I know I’m never gonna get 100%. And you know, you might not get 100% of everything you want, and that talent. But somewhere along the line, you put the two things together, you get what you need you get the job done. I get to be, you know, satisfied and happy as I’m doing it and feel like I’m making a difference. So, you know, it’s as simple as that. It’s not easy, though. That’s the thing. I know that it’s not easy. I’ve been a leader myself with teams and I’ve been on the other side where I was wishing that you know, the organization would provide greater support for my career ambitions. So I know that this is not easy, but I do know that it’s doable if you have the right mindset and tools.
Rhonda Taylor: Dr. Gena Cox, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. To you, the audience. Thank you for joining this episode. Bye now.