Be More Podcast: Vulnerable Leadership with Larissa Conte
Larissa Conte, who founded Wayfinding, a leadership coaching business, discusses the changing role of vulnerability in business.
Larissa Conte, who founded Wayfinding, a leadership coaching business, discusses the changing role of vulnerability in business.
Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Larissa Conte, who founded Wayfinding, a leadership coaching business.
In this episode, we discuss the changing role of vulnerability in business, and Patrick tries out an awareness exercise live on the show. Intriguing? This is not your typical podcast interview, and definitely not one to miss.
“The price of admission, if you will, at each stage is our old self. It’s our smaller skin. Like a snake, we have to shed that skin. We have to let it go. We have to let go of who we thought we were, and step into the not knowing.”
Larissa Conte, Founder of Wayfinding
If you lead people, either within or outside of a business, tune in now, check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.
Patrick: I have been looking forward to this conversation for the past few weeks. Today, I am joined by Larissa Conte and she is the founder of Wayfinding, which is an organization that’s focused on helping leaders cultivate power. Larissa has been a chief culture officer. She has worked with startup companies through Fortune 100 organisations and she has helped hundreds of leaders in their development journey. Larissa, thank you so much for joining us today.
Larissa: Thank you so much for having me, Patrick.
Patrick: Absolutely. There is so much that we can talk about, and we have a limited time, so I think we should jump right in. First off, I just want to say that there’s so much in what you write and what you publish, and your approach that resonates with me as a person and as a human being. I think the area that really resonates with me is this idea of vulnerability and vulnerability in leadership. You’ve created this approach and you have this systemic approach to organizational evolution and leadership evolution. I think it’s probably a good place to start with you telling us a little bit about that approach and how you’ve come up with it.
Larissa: Sure, I’m happy to. My approach is basically wayfinding. Wayfinding is not simply a system that I’ve come up with. It is based in fundamental human wisdom that exists in all of our beings through time. It is our ability to sense into aliveness. The first distinction here is that, when I’m talking about sensing, I’m talking about feeling. What is the wisdom of this instrument that we inhabit called our beings and this form of human intellect, or this form of human intelligence that is not intellect?
In business and in our societies, especially in industrialized settings, we can value the intelligence of our mind over the intelligence of our body and our perception of what’s happening in interactions. Right now, I’m speaking but we also are having a non-verbal conversation going on. The reason I focus so much on developing our sensing skills is because after years of working in leadership settings, being consultants working in the global consultancies, seeing that plan-based approaches to consulting, we’re going to come up with a strategy, we’re going to align your brand, we’re going to develop your employer brand, we’re going to come up with plans for your internal culture, those are all intellectually-based.
Also, as soon as you start implementing a plan, it’s often irrelevant. It’s no longer relevant. How do we have dynamic, real-time sensing to move a being at any scale, an individual, a relationship, an organization, society, and even ecology into greater aliveness? Our sensing is what reveals our stucknesses and our alivenesses. The reason why I care so much about sensing is that I’ve found, in my journey as a leadership coach, a consultant, but also as a human who went on a nine-year journey of healing from a near-fatal accident, that sensing is what moves us into our greater aliveness and our greater expression, whether that’s as an individual, in a relationship, in an organization, in a society, or with our larger living world. We’re receiving all of these signals but sometimes, what can block us pursuing our sensing are beliefs.
Patrick: That’s a really great perspective. I think about it from a leader’s perspective, and I’ve been a leader for many years of my career, and I think that even having this experience as being a people leader or a business leader for many years, I think that could be a challenging thing to connect to and to get to. Then I think about some younger leaders that may even be more challenged with, I guess, visualizing that or actualizing this in a real way for them. How do you help leaders get to this place of understanding sensing and embracing it, and using it in a way that is productive for not only them but I guess for their entire environment and the experience that they’re in?
Larissa: First, I start with doing an assessment of people’s ability to orient, to navigate, and to land, which are the three core wayfinding skills that exist. I have different ways that I quantify those but if we are disoriented, we can’t navigate well. We have to start with orientation. It’s like, if you have a bad onboarding, that impacts the start of a new job. Then I also do an assessment of the power landscape in people’s life, how much power is expressing through their being and their life? With my definition of power being the amount of energy that we’re capable of moving through systems. In that definition, power is neutral. It doesn’t have a positive or negative valence. It is the ends to which we use our power or the banner under which we’re serving.
For me, in Wayfinding, I don’t just focus on cultivating people’s power, I specifically focus on cultivating people’s power that serves the whole because when we look through that frame or come to an experienced leader, an experienced leader, right now, in this context, is faced with so many aspects of responsibility and service. “We need to keep the business going. I want to keep as many people employed as possible. I want to serve our customers,” which is– That’s always what leaders will do. [laughs] Right?
That’s just what leaders do in organizations, but in this moment, we have to look deeper in what’s getting in the way of those things? What’s getting in the way of people’s ability to feel aliveness? The emotional exhaustion of this time of being in the crucibles and wildly changing currents of this moment is exhausting people. I start by helping leaders realize that honoring their own aliveness and putting down these beliefs that really can be part of the standard operating procedure for how you do business to actually say, “What if I follow my aliveness? If I follow my aliveness, oh, I have more capacity, I have more creativity. Taking that time off actually allows me to show up better now. Maybe I can scale that and have that same influence in my team and my organization.” People need to know what works first. [laughs]
Patrick: Yes, absolutely. Is there a connection between a leader feeling that aliveness and embracing that, and embracing vulnerability? How do you see those two? If they do, are they in parallel, do they support each other? Where do you see the strength? I know that we talked about the strength in aliveness, where do you see the strength in vulnerability and how do they correlate or do they correlate?
Larissa: They are intimately related. In order to step into our greater aliveness, we must face fears, we must face our ego, we must face our shadows because you can get the information, “I should have a conversation with my sister in the next 24 hours,” and then your mind can have it programmed, but to be a responsible leader, I need to always be prioritizing my work. I really should focus more on my September to-do list and getting battle planned out because we have all these projects. If we need to keep productivity high, I should really invest in that and only make time for talking to my sister if I can.
There’s a belief under there that aliveness is actually not how we get to creation. It’s a vulnerable act to look at, “Oh, maybe I have to question that belief. Oh, what will other people think of me? Oh, what if I let someone down by doing this?” This is a very micro example. At a time when leaders are faced with layoffs, when they’re faced with massive social movements for justice and how they’re responding, when they’re faced with the psycho-emotional burden that all of their employees are facing, whether they’re parents, they’re financially strapped, they’re overworked, just like the full nine. Vulnerability is a threshold that initiates us in its biggest form.
If we look at some things with a larger volume than calling one’s sister, which is very important but still, even people don’t do those things. If it’s, “I like my role but I actually see a hole in the ecosystem of our company and I want to propose a new role.” Not just a new job, but an entirely new role that would fill a completely missing function that is currently seen as invisible or maybe not valued. Am I worthy of that? Do I deserve that? Will our company invest in that? Could that be seen as a threat?
We start to edge up against these safety and threat pieces that we need to shed as we inhabit our essence more fully. That’s one layer of vulnerability. Then for leaders, there’s the layer of vulnerability and aliveness as stewards of organizational aliveness of the power they have, the organizationally sanctioned power, because all humans have inner power. My work is always supporting everyone’s inner power, but then as leaders to really understand, what are my responsibilities having organizationally sanctioned power? What are the codes, the beliefs about how businesses run, and how businesses succeed that I agree with or that I disagree with? Where do they align with humanity?
That’s a lot of what we’re seeing right now. A lot of these vulnerable acts by business leaders are choosing humanity over profit. That’s an initial answer to that.
Patrick: That perspective is so accurate and even just in my experience with speaking with so many organizations over the past six months. We are all at an organizational level moving into a new future and a new world of work.
Patrick: I ask the people that I work with. I’ll say, “Do you feel that your organization would go back to the way it was in January?” Nobody says that because the world is just not the same place that it was in seven months ago. Your point around leaders having these expectations on them like organizationally sanctioned expectations and power within their companies. Now we’ve added this entirely new layer of complexity with the world of work that we’re in and that we’re moving into.
We have these fragmented workforces. Organizations are changing every month because the world is just changing at such a fast pace. It’s not only providing additional challenges, I think for leaders in particular because leaders have a lot of expectations on them right now in business, but it also is giving us a really interesting opportunity for openness and reframing of who we are as leaders and how we approach leadership. I think the future is going to be around how do we embrace more of that?
People will say the more emotional side or the more personal side of leadership. How do you see the opportunity that is here for us now in the current state as we move into this new world of work? What do you see for leaders and organizations around openness and humanity and focus on that for the future?
Larissa: I have a background as a Rites of Passage guide.
Patrick: Can you tell us more about that? I’m quite curious.
Larissa: Oh, yes. As a Rites of Passage guide, I started out doing wilderness Rites of Passage, so the concept being in cultures. I live in the United States in a culture that has lost culturally facilitated experiences of initiation for people over their life cycle. How do we recreate and heal our culture? As human beings, there’s this incredible aspect of the design of human beings that we thrive by continually having opportunities to grow into our greater self. We love it. In order to do that, the price of admission, if you will, at each stage is our old self, it’s our smaller skin. Like a snake, we have to shed that skin. We have to let it go.
We have to let go of who we thought we were and step into not knowing. Rites of Passage are often evoked by turbulent times because the outer challenges, the outer tensions amplify what is not working. If we have this sensing of like, “Oh, I shouldn’t spend so much time at my computer every day. I really need a break from being on Zoom because it’s just been a lot.” That was a small signal for people a couple of months ago, and right now it’s a very loud signal. Some people are either going to change their behavior and have a midday break or some people are going to just keep going. A system will accumulate pressure until it breaks or until the pressure is alleviated.
When we look at our global context through that frame, and all of the cacophonous awareness of what’s not working. It can be plaguing, it can be seen as horrible, it can certainly induce a lot of grief that is worthy of being felt and necessary of being felt and it also reveals, well, I’m a powerful creative being so I have the ability to make change. When the stakes are so high as they are in this moment, as they have never been in anyone’s lifetime who’s alive, it comes along with greater courage and deeper questioning.
The vulnerability conversation that has existed prior to 2020, was a lot about like, “Oh, how do I share my emotions?” Or, “How do I admit mistakes?” Or, “How do I show more of myself?” Now, the vulnerability conversation has been amped up even more and it’s like, “What if we rethink the way we do business? What are the assumptions we have about how we conduct business, about how we treat each other in the process of doing that, about our rhythms and how we work, about our expectations, about our metrics of success, about our necessary operating costs, about our impacts to all people connected to the functioning of our business and to all living beings?” Then the tension, that cooker, the crucible tends to stoke courage.
Right now, oftentimes, things that could have been considered wild in the past are now necessary because otherwise, we’ve realized our teams will break, our businesses will break, our societies may break. An aspect also, of the Rite of Passage that comes up to just link back to the vulnerability, is it necessitates us stepping into the gaping mystery, which is terrifying. That is terrifying for human beings. It’s easier to be like, “Okay, I’m going to go back to my checklist.” I’m like, “What are we doing next week?” Instead, let go of a lot and look at a bigger picture and say, “What are the deeper root assumptions that we need to question and see how they play out if we experiment in a different way?”
What if people aren’t just given permission to take a day off or a couple of days off? What if we ask people, how much time would they need off right now to come back to over 80% aliveness or over 90% aliveness? That’s where our creativity really flows. What if we actually gave that to them? How would we do that? What would that look like? In startup world, it’s like we’re here to grind and we’re sprinting and we’re getting it done. That was happening before this all happened and then it’s just continued to happen and that can’t go on forever.
We start to see the limitations of the operating beliefs and we have the opportunity to open up to what could be a new way of operating. When we look at the opportunity of this moment, the Rite of Passage for work, we can’t look at it without recognizing injustice in our societies, without looking at the degradation of our environment and the acceleration of climate change. As leaders, we also have this moment to own our identities, the identities that we inhabit, these socially constructed identities and how they intersect with our organizational power, and the very brave necessary stands we can take right now to change how we work as an organization, how we make space for every person, how we stand for true representation, how we dismantle systems of oppression, not just in our supply chain or in our packaging or greenwashing ourselves, but who are we being every day with each other, and what are we willing to stand for. That is an enormous aspect of vulnerability and courage being called forth in this moment by leadership.
Patrick: I think that will be very inspiring for many organizations because as this navigation of this new world of work and looking at how we approach every aspect of how we do what we do is something that’s just very, very relevant, and it’s hard. I think as you said there’s this pressure and it is hard for companies right now. It is hard to think about what does 18 months look like from now when in the past six months we’ve been looking at what does next week look like. There’s this need for personal and interpersonal connection between people at organizations now that I think has never been there, for my 20-year professional career, has never been more needed or more relevant than it is today.
The amount of people leaders in organizations that are new and that have had a lot of comfort in being a business leader, but have maybe been challenged a bit with being an effective people leader and now have that expectation being tripled, quadrupled because they have employee well-being on their expectations and they have individual relationships with members of their team that are now remote and they haven’t seen them in five months and maybe aren’t going to see them for the next year, in reality in some places. How do I build that distance relationship and how do I keep a team together?
I feel for leaders that are going through that and I think we do as companies need to say, how do we focus our future in a human-centric way that is going to work for our unique journey? Do you see that? I guess that’s an interesting perspective that I’d love to hear from you as far as unique and individual journeys. Do you help organizations with understanding how to build their individual journey? Because it’s just so every company and every team and organization is just so different.
Larissa: Yes, that’s right. Every individual human and every individual organization is so different. Simultaneously, there are common principles. They’re governing life design principles that exist. There are ways that humans work that can be applied, and I don’t mean type at computers. There are ways that humans function. [laughs]. One of the main ways that I do this is through an experience called Executive Rites of Passage because the way we currently operate in relationship to people who hold organizational power is with a lot of assumption. We give a lot of our inner power often times as employees to our leaders or our leaders default to taking it for some reason.
We need to recognize that our inner journeys, our personal journeys that have informed our own shadows that we carry, our own ego structure, become institutionalized in organizations we run. What I mean by that is that if someone grew up in a home laden with conflict, if it was very violent or very loud and that individual really didn’t like it and goes into a huge aversion to conflict. If they have structural organizational power, and they haven’t done the inner work, then by default they unconsciously often start to create patterns around them that let them exist in the comfort of not confronting their shadow, which makes a very polite culture, a very conflict diverse culture. Without the surfacing of tensions, organizations can’t grow.
I work with leaders as individuals and teams to look at how am I unconsciously putting things that no longer serve my being onto my team and onto our company? Who do I have to be to one, admit to that, and two, step into learning a new way? It’s a practice. It’s not like, “A workshop, yay, we got it.” [laughs] It is the human journey. In so many ways that’s what I see as necessary for organizations to step into this realm of organizational development represented by Teal organizations.
If we’re talking about wholeness of work, if we’re talking about purposefulness at work, we can’t be whole at work if we’re not talking about the shadows of who we are as people. There’s this developmental threshold that organizations get to experiment going across and looking at how we inhabit power is one of the most confronting things possible because when we have power as humans, our ego wants to keep it. We want to keep it. We want to be right. We want to look good. We want to be the one. What it takes for a leader.
I had a team who I did this training with. The CEO kept relentlessly stepping in and saying, “Okay, here’s how this is showing up for me, here’s how it impacted the partners, here’s how this is cascaded down into the directors. I want to hear what’s going on, I want to know how to step in.” I just kept reflecting back to, “You are one of the most courageous people I have ever met to be in true service to the becoming and the wondering. What is the individual expression of our organization that can be possible when I step out of the way in these particular aspects?”
That is the unique journey and that’s what I really see as the greatest possibility for leadership teams is how are you just sensing stewards listening to what the essence of this organization that keeps evolving, that keeps bubbling up and making itself known and wants to evolve here and wants to move into this and wants to add this way of being as a culture, rather than this concept of leaders being like the channelling visionary of like, “We’re going that way,” which is important at times. There’s a way that only doing that, which is navigating by will. That’s work. That’s where the wayfinding is connected, is how can you be in this dynamic balance of focused receptivity?
Because if you overexert your will, you might be crushing the expression of the essence. If you don’t express it enough, then you’re like the classic hands-off manager where people are like, “Yo, can I get some help here?” What am I supposed to do? What is the timeline? What is the budget? What are the expectations?” It’s finding that middle pass. In many ways, I think this is where business is moving. This is what business is asking of us to be fully human, to be places that we’re all coming alive.
Patrick: Larissa, we could talk for hours. I personally am just incredibly first inspired by your energy, by your perspective, and thank you for sharing your insights. Secondly, I truly feel that what you’re talking about, I should say what you’re feeling and what you’re creating from a feeling perspective for the audience and also for the organizations that you work with is very much the future of how organizations will unfold. I think the great organizations as they move into this next phase are very much going to be focused on, how do we create a better human connection within our organizations?
You’ve given us some very interesting perspectives from not only a senior leadership level but also from how individuals can look at their aliveness and their vulnerability. How can our audience find you?
Larissa: Audience can find me at wayfinding.io
Patrick: I’m taking a lot away from this personally, so I thank you for that. Just thank you for being you and for sharing yourself with the world because I think it’s great.
Larissa: It’s my pleasure and it’s been wonderful having this conversation.
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