Open Letter to the Modern Leader


Dear Leader,

Have you seen this?

It’s about the planet of course but it absolutely applies to companies that refuse to transform their mindset and redesign their culture with the genuine happiness of their employees as priority zero that will equally face extinction in the near future.

Every once in a while something reminds me of the extreme time pressure we are under if we want to make a difference in the workplace. I speak and talk about the new world of work every day and somehow I still manage to cognitively dissociate from the indisputable urgency as I am sure you do. I don’t believe you don’t know or worse yet, don’t care. I don’t subscribe to the divisive line of thought that perpetuates the myth of the draconian organisation that is led but uncaring, callous leaders only concerned with their own bonuses. I know for a fact, from meeting many many leaders over the past tens of years and from being one myself that the knowledge of the impending doom lest we change is always there. Ever present, ever heavy but ever hurried deep down so you can function. So you can deal with the urgent list in front of you. So you can deliver on the organisational KPIs the shareholders need to see. And how all those immediate imperatives feel overwhelmingly needed this very second and manage to -temporarily- help you forget this other big to-do: cleaning up the Human Debt and transforming culture so you truly centre it around your people. 

I know you know several functions of the enterprise are broken. Whether it is HR or Ops or even Tech that should have done better on this, you know you haven’t hit the spot where your people are flying high. And you also know, that for them to do so, it will take a lot more than any of the initiatives and projects that are right now on your radar.

To get them to be consistently high performing they’d have to be happy. You know this. They will never be who you hired them to be before they bring their best selves, are at peace and derive satisfaction from the work they do.

So you know, -intellectually and emotionally too- that there is a colossal amount of work to do. And it’s unclear work. It’s all wrapped up in the “fluffy” topics. There are hundreds of consultants and coaches online banging the drum every week about the mental health crisis at work, about the need for empathy, emotional intelligence and so-called soft skills and open dialogue with our employees and you find yourself reading and agreeing with the sentiment and the principle but miffed by the hundreds of proprietary terms and frameworks and frustrated with how it’s mostly empty rhetorics that doesn’t come with any practical suggestions.

What good is it agreeing with the principle that you have to change your organisation’s set point so it revolves around people and results if there seems to be no way ahead once you admit to the futility of yet another ping-pong table fixing your people problem? 

And some of you assuage those hard-to-handle thoughts with mitigations “that may be the case everywhere else but my people are better off, we treat them greatly, the last NPS scores were decent and they don’t even complain” but you know it’s hollow. 

You know that high-performing employees have passion in buckets, they have clarity on purpose and the impact of their work, they are often in the flow, they have joy and they are inspirational and infectiously emotionally invested.

What do your people have? Any of those consistently? No. They have instead, the ability to shut up and get on with it. Are they hiding happiness by being quiet, keeping their heads down and quietly quitting? No. They are hiding discomfort at best, dread most likely and genuine suffering - anxiety, stress, burnout and even depression- at times.

In the rare moments when you turn off your self-defence enough to be 110% honest with yourself, you know the above is true.

The overwhelming majority of your employees are far from happy and you are presiding over an insidiously horrendous status quo. But again, you need the cognitive dissonance that lets you forget this so that you yourself can operate.

Anyone who claims it’s easy for you is deluded. They may not know what pressure your leadership comes with. What it is like to bet under the magnifying glass all the time. To have pressure hit you from all sides. To have to endure being called uncaring when that is not ever the case. To be presumed to have checked out so badly that all you care about is lasting till your retirement. To be maligned and blamed. 

It’s never that you don’t care. It’s that you think there’s little you can do about it all. When and how would you start repairing blame culture, punitive acts, the utter lack of trust -in the organisation and each other-, the broken sense of hierarchy that paralyses and disempowers everyone, and the way people feel undervalued, small, and unseen? 

The pandemic made it all much worse. No, not "worse" because at least it opened the door to this thinking and to having humanity in the workplace. Not worse, but harder. You now have to deal with figuring out remote work, or hopefully, instead, the notion of true flexibility and are forced to look at unsavoury topics such as defining true outcomes and productivity when it is absolutely not the time to even talk about these when your people are burned-out and on their way out the door. You know they are. You are too.  

You aren’t lacking in either the wisdom to see what’s happening or the empathy to want it fixed for everyone and be the true servant leader you know you are at heart, you’re simply lacking the firm idea of how to get it sorted. 

Here’s my plea - do only one thing: allow and empower human work in your organisation. Create a consistent, embedded practice of doing the human work. And no, l won’t leave it there as yet another academic cry to arms that has no practical application, we’ll deconstruct this together and create sprints and tickets and get them into the Done column, we have to. 

But the first step is to acknowledge the need. Shed the belief that fixing your people issues is your burden alone and instead trust your team- your own employees!- to be your partners in this and undertake the work themselves. All they really need is the “organisational permission” aka your true said-so and support. Give them the tools and time to better their team dysfunctions, to learn and practice self-care and communication and true collaboration and then tell them you genuinely need their help because this work can not be done from the top down. 

Once you believe it, truly believe it - that it’s urgent and that it needs to be distributed, then they’ll help! They’ll see you believe it. They’ll trust you and allow themselves to hope they genuinely matter. That alone, the sincerity in seeing cultural issues alone will move the needle! The easiest retention mechanism- caring and enlisting their help with continuous improvement.

It’s never been the right time, -it never is!- but make it the right time. Make next year the time when you allow your own people to become your true partners in changing culture and making them happy. 

What tools can you kit them with? No team should be without a way to increase their Psychological Safety or their engagement and EQ in this day and age. No one should be flying blind with no data on how they’re doing on these all-important emotional aspects that enable them to actually do their job these days when these systems exist. No one should be without some type of guidance be it coaching or mentoring or even counselling. No one should be made to feel they don’t matter enough for time to be ringfenced for their care! Make one of the work days about that only. Or hell, at least make two hours a week that. Set them up for success and then let them do the human work. Have them help define it and then do it as a team and as an individual too then thank them for it. Truly thank them - include the human work be it learning, self-care or teamwork, into their performance reviews and devise meaningful reward mechanisms. Help them help you. Then watch them soar to be the amazing professionals you proudly recruited. 

If anything is to leave the lasting impression you must be longing to leave if anything is to become a true legacy of a leader people will remember fondly for years it will never be getting through this year’s objectives successfully or even achieving a higher share price - it will be this, having been the change-maker who embraced the new paradigm of work and empowered the human work. It will be hard but it will be so very worth it, you know nothing else is genuinely more important, more decent or more sensible business-wise and l know you can do it. 

Yours, hopeful,


Related: The 4 Day-Workweeks and the Mental Health Crisis at Work