Patrick: I feel it’s safe to say that almost every business around the world has focused on their relationship with their employees over the past 18 months. This focus ranges from programs and initiatives to help keep people involved in and supported by the company culture through leaders learning how to better support both their teams and every individual person. I have been following Jennifer McClure for a while. A few months ago, I listened to an episode of her podcast where she was speaking with a guest about the concept of engagement versus connection. I was intrigued.
Jennifer is the CEO of Unbridled Talent and also the chief excitement officer at DisruptHR. Jennifer has 25 plus years of experience as a people practitioner. I asked her to join me to discuss her thoughts on both engagement and connection, how they align, and how they are different. Jennifer, thanks for joining the conversation today.
Jennifer: Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to it.
Patrick: Perfect. Jennifer, let’s start out with a bit of insight for the audience about what inspired you and where your passion came from for founding both Unbridled Talent and DisruptHR.
Jennifer: Sure. Well, I spent almost 20 years, so I guess 18-and-a-half-ish, plus or minus, in corporate human resources as a leader executive in a variety of industries. The last company that I worked for was a turn-around situation where I didn’t realize when I joined– I didn’t ask, [chuckles] I don’t know why you would in an interview, “Are we going to sell the company?” [laughs] Found out shortly after I arrived that our whole goal as the executive team was to turn it around successfully so that it would be attractive for sale to the right buyer. That was quite an experience.
Our goal was to sell the company in five years, and we sold it in two-and-a-half to a Fortune 100 company that still owns it today. It was just a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of hard work, good work, very satisfying work, but nothing was easy. After that, it was just a little bit– Before we were really probably talking about burnout, but whatever it was then, I was just not ready to do that again. Transitioned out of that, did some networking, engaged a coach, ended up going into executive search for a little while. I was like a lot of executives. You come out, and you’re like, “I’ll just start my own business because that’s what one does. I’ll be a consultant.”
Thankfully, a lot of people gave me some really good advice. They’re like, “You’re not ready to do that. Number 1, you don’t know what you really would consult about, [chuckles] or on. You haven’t defined your expertise. You don’t have a marketing plan. You don’t know how to go out and sell yourself. You’ve never done anything like that.” They suggested at least an interim step and an owner of a search firm here in Cincinnati, where I live, was willing to give me a shot. Learned from the best at Centennial Inc in Cincinnati about relationship building versus transactional selling in the search business. Helped a lot of companies connect with leaders in their organizations.
During that time, I had decided to, because I’d gotten some advice from someone about what they had done in their transition experience– He had said when he landed, he was CEO of a company, that he was going to give away 10% of his time to others to help them because so many people had been helpful to him. I took that idea into my executive search business and decided to give away 10% of my time to senior leaders in transition. They could come in, it was basically an ask-me-anything. Let’s practice your interviewing, let’s look at your resume. All the things that executive recruiters typically don’t do with people that they’re not looking to place.
This was 2006 and LinkedIn was relatively new. I had joined and was trying to figure it out. One of the things I would do is show them how to create a profile, how to use LinkedIn. That turned into later when those executives landed or they went back to organizations they were a part of, they would ask me to come in and speak to their group or their company about networking, about LinkedIn, about recruiting, talent interaction, working with HR leaders on how they could use social media to build their brand. I began speaking. After a while, it became enough that I was like, “This is not my day job, but if you’ll pay me, I’ll do it.”
Then after about a year and a half of that, I was like, “I like speaking, teaching, training.” I got a new executive coaching certification during that time as well. In 2010, I started Unbridled Talent probably about a year or year and a half too late because, like a lot of people, I spent a year and a half trying to figure out what to name my business rather than starting the business. Here we are. 2010, February was when I started. Here we are 11 years later. I have one piece of advice for anyone who- well, two -wants to start their own business. Just start.
Call it ABC Corporation if you have to. Don’t call it something like Unbridled Talent because nobody can spell it or say it. I know now why companies call themselves Acme corporations. [laughs] The simpler, the better. [laughs]
Patrick: That is a great story. There’s so much in that because there’s not only inspiration for people in the audience who are considering doing this life change, maybe moving from a people practitioner role to some sort of a consultancy-based role, and this idea of really understanding what you want to do, what your value proposition is to the marketplace. I think that’s very good advice, but also, I love this idea of giving 10% of your time to people just because. Not expecting anything from it, but this idea of paying it forward in a lot of ways.
One of the reasons why I am inspired by you, but also by this concept that you are passionate about, and I share this passion, is this idea of how important relationships are in the workplace. Not even just in the workplace, but just in business life, personal life as well. When we think about business, it is not a transactional world when it comes to how you interact with people. I believe that success truly comes from building personalized, individualized relationships. I know we’re going to talk about that a bit today, but I’m glad we started there because I think that is such an important aspect and has become even more important over the past 18 months with the world turning into what it has. Also now, we have this, a bit of a brightness for the future.
Jennifer: The light. The light is coming. [laughs]
Patrick: Exactly. Yes. Things are getting better, things are feeling better. We’ve learned quite a bit in the world of work over the past 18 months about what works, what doesn’t, and how we have to flex a bit more for the future. Let’s talk a bit about engagement versus connection. I use the term versus. I don’t know if I should say versus because it’s not that we’re saying that they have to be polarized. I’m curious to understand your overall perception and ideas around the difference or similarity between engagement and connection. Then we’ll dig a bit deeper into that. Let’s start a little bit about what you see the difference is between the two.
Jennifer: Sure. I think, to use the tired, little phrase, they’re apples and oranges, really. They’re both fruits, [laughs] but they’re very different. I think some people do try to equate the two. Again, they’re both fruits. Engagement to me, and I’ve shared this for years in talks or programs that I have with leaders, both people leaders and other leaders of other areas, to me, engagement, we have long categorized that incorrectly. Not everyone but in general. We’ve equated engagement to employees being happy or sad in the workplace. “Our employees love it here. They’re engaged.”
They can hate it there and be engaged because engagement is really a function of whether or not people feel connected to the vision, mission, whatever your company does, so its purpose in the world. Every company and product has a purpose in the world. Even if you make widgets, how are those widgets changing the world? Are they an integral part of something that is required to change the world? As a leader, my job is to help cascade that vision down throughout the organization and my organization to the individuals on my team so that they can see a path to the work that they do and how it affects that vision, mission, purpose, whatever you want to say about the larger reason for being.
Whether I’m the account’s payable clerk or I’m the CFO of an organization, do I truly feel that the work that I do matters in this organization and to our overall purpose? Can I see how what we do in the world matters? That is a function of whether or not I’m engaged. I can have a bad day, I can be frustrated, but I come back and I keep at it or I push through, or I persevere because I believe the work I do matters. That’s engagement. We could debate that. I’m happy to. [chuckles] To me, connection is a human element. It is, do I feel like you understand me? Do I understand a piece of you? Do we have shared experience or something in common?
It’s much more about, still not even necessarily happy or sad, I can be connected to someone that frustrates me, but it’s we’re in this kind of thing. The engagement is we’re achieving a higher purpose, I have an important role in that. Connection is, I feel like you and I are on the same journey.
Patrick: That is definitely a very clear explanation of the difference between the two. I agree with you on the fact that the term engagement, it’s a big term. Peakon has been in the world of employee engagement since its inception six years ago. We spend a lot of time thinking and looking at engagement and what it means within an organization and how to understand engagement with employees. Thinking a bit about engagement and employee connection, do you feel that one is more important than the other?
Jennifer: Oh, that’s a good way to look at it because I said earlier you can be unhappy and be engaged. I think it certainly helps. It’s hard to support your leadership if you don’t feel like they see you. That’s a component of the work that I do that people recognize. Yes, I’ll say that connection is an important component of engagement because I need you to see me. That’s a function of connection: that you and I recognize each other, that we’re checking in, that we’re communicating, that I feel like you get me.
Patrick: I think that organizations probably struggle a bit with trying to build effective connections with employees in multiple ways because, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I would assume that there’s very different aspects of connection. There’s this person-to-person, peer-to-peer connection. Let’s say I work in a team of 10 people, it’s like, how do I make these connections with my peers, the people that I’m working every day side by side with? We have shared expectations about our work, output, or some sort of a very similar experience at work.
Then we have this connection between a leader and a teammate, or somebody that manages you or you manage, where the dynamic of that relationship can be quite different as far as we need to build connections, but we also have to build some sort of a leadership connection and I have to be able to create some sort of a environment of understanding. My experiences, which may be very different from the person that I’m managing, or my experience versus my leader’s experience is just different because we’re on different paths within an organization.
Then there’s this larger third level of connection, which is, at an organizational level, how do senior leadership, or executive leadership, or anything make these meaningful connections where there’s maybe quite a bit of distance between an employee and, let’s say, the executive suite at an organization, or I work for a really large company that has offices around the world and I work with somebody in five or three time zones away, five countries away, and I have to make those connections? Do you see organizations struggling with doing this and figuring out how to?
Then, B, where have you seen some successes in this area? Let’s start with the first is, do you see organizations struggling? What are some of the common struggle points here with a focus on developing connection?
Jennifer: Sure. Of course, they’re struggling [chuckles] because we’re dealing with people and people are complicated and ever-changing. As you mentioned, I think there’s different levels of connections. There’s the connection to the organization that is a function of engagement. Again, that connection that we created in March, April of 2020 of leadership being visible, communicating, talking about where we’re headed, painting a picture of the hill that we’re all going to take. That connection is how, I think, you create that. It’s around communication. It’s around core values. It’s around purpose, meaning, again, and getting people to both see that, connect with it, feel it.
As a leader who may be many levels removed, it’s how you live out those things. When you make a decision, do people go, “Yes, that matches our values.” I think early on and I don’t remember the details of it so much now, but I believe it was Airbnb that really did a good job of sharing how they were approaching the pandemic. They rescinded a bunch of offers to people that they had or new hires coming into the organization, but yet they gave them like two years of pay or something. The CEO wrote a letter and explained it to the whole world, “We’re laying off some employees, but here’s what we’re doing.”
They really tied everything back to how we’re handling this to our values and the purpose, again, of keeping the company alive. I think that created a connection both for the people who were still in the organization as well those who maybe were unable to come in or they had their offer delayed, et cetera. Then there’s that second level that you mentioned, that leader’s connection to their team even if they may have a large distributed team or I guess, in many cases, almost everyone was distributed over the last few years. How do I do that? Again, I think it’s about living out those values. It’s about check-ins. It’s about doing things to see people, even if it’s a group Q&A.
It’s doing something to make sure that people see you, they know that you’re actively invested in them and that you’re working on their behalf to both meet the goals of the company, but also to do the right thing by them. Then there’s that third level, that individual leader to individual employee. Even in large team scenarios, again, as much as possible, I think you have to find ways to understand what is the particular challenge that you’re dealing with. You have children and a spouse who are also trying to go to school then work in the background while you’re required to do customer meetings from your kitchen table. How can I support you in that?
It’s that, I do need, again, back to see you as a person and connect with you, even if I use targets in some ways to do that. Again, if I have 300 people around the world, I have people that work for me who are assessing those things, but I have to have people see that I’m doing that on their behalf, that I am really doing everything I can to make you be successful.
Patrick: We talk about this relationship focus and there’s going to be a fairly significant shift in the world of work, I think, in the next couple of years where I think people will either change roles. We talk about this war for talent, that topic or that terminology has been around for quite some time.
Jennifer: Yes, good job, McKinsey, for creating it. [chuckles]
Patrick: I know. It’s about [crosstalk]–
Jennifer: 20-something years ago.
Patrick: That’s true. It’s such a core part of how we talk about this idea, but it’s a good representation of a very dynamic workforce and world of work. The past year and a half has, I think, made some organizations feel that, “Well, I’m super-stable,” from a people perspective. People really want to keep their jobs right now and people are feeling very fortunate that they have jobs. I do think that was very much an element of life last year. However, I think that is changing and I think that there is a lot of momentum that is trying to happen in the world of work where people will start looking at different roles and there’s going to be a lot of need around individual growth and personal growth.
I think that will be realized in different ways. Organizations will do a lot of work on individual growth and development, tracks and plans for people within their businesses, but I do think that there will be a significant element of people moving around into different opportunities, different jobs, identifying what they really want and then going after that. How would you suggest for the audience to start thinking about the importance of building relationships that are going to impact them in the long run? Not so much just a connection or relationship that they have immediately at their work environment or maybe with their peers, but how to start thinking about building relationships that are going to really be meaningful 20 years from now?
For many people thinking about 20 years in the future, it’s very far. I remember 20 years ago when I started my career, I didn’t think about relationships how they were going to be in 20 years, but I’m still very close to very influential relationships that made a very big difference in my career 20 years ago. We have a very broad audience. We have some that are very young in their careers and then we have many CEOs and executives that are listening too. For the ones that are younger in their career, do you have any advice or suggestions around thinking about how they should think about relationships from a long-term perspective?
Jennifer: Sure. I’m going to quote the great Zig Ziglar. If you’re brand new in your career, you need to google him and look him up. [laughs] One of my favorite quotes from him that I do share in some of my programs is around, “You can have anything in life that you want if you help enough people get what they want.” When I think about relationships, not that I’ve always applied that, I didn’t remember Zig’s quote way back then necessarily, but the relationships that I’ve developed that have been most helpful to me throughout my career, particularly the last 10, 12 years, are the ones that I went into without expecting anything in return. As you pointed out earlier.
When I am focused on helping you get what you want, reality is that that often comes back to me later. Later, could be later in the conversation, it could be next week, it could be years. For example, when I was giving away 10% of my time to those senior leaders who were sitting in my office sometimes because it was a safe place, sometimes they’re in tears, sometimes they’re sharing their deepest, darkest secrets, they’re coming in, they’ve got their suit on, their game face on and I’m like, “Tell me about why you’re in transition,” and they paint this ridiculous story of, “Oh, I’m looking for new challenges.”
I’m like, “Wait, you got fired in your last job. [laughs] I can see it all over your face. Let’s figure out how we can get that look off your face and talk about that experience anyway.” They were grateful, whether it was a positive conversation or a more challenging conversation. Those people, they became my clients. When I was in executive search, they would hire me to help them find leaders in their organizations. Again, they brought me in to speak. One of them was my very first client when I started my own business. When you start your own business and you’re working from home, it’s an odd thing.
You’re like, “Today, Unbridled Talent, LLC is live.” What does that even mean? I had a board meeting, and he was on the board with me, and he was like, “Hey, what’s up?” I’m like, “I’m starting my own company today.” He’s like, “Come see me.” That Ziglar quote comes to life, helping other people get what they want if you want to get what you want. I just pictured it. I think about relationships when they’re approached, and I said that to a person in transition or somebody constantly reaching out on LinkedIn, “I’m in transition, can you help me get a job?”
I’m like, “Here’s my advice, go out and start talking to people, the “networking,” but don’t be looking for a job while you’re doing it. Go out to learn about others. Ask them questions about how they got into their role, their industry, their company, share a little bit about what you’re looking for, and ask them what recommendations they would have for you, what conferences do you need to attend? Who should you be following? What books should you read? Build a relationship.” Then that person will leave that interaction and they’ll have a positive experience with you.
Then when they hear two months from now about a role that might be a good fit for you, they’ll connect you with that. I saw that. When I left, again, the company I worked for was sold, I left the corporate world engaged coach, I spent three months out there networking full-time. I’m very introverted, so I’m not a pick up the phone and call people and ask for 20 minutes of their time or a cup of coffee, but I learned how to do it because I was able to make it a game of connection. It wasn’t about getting a job. I never talked to anybody about getting a job during that time.
I was like, “I’m considering starting my own business. You started your own business 10 years ago, how did that go? What did you do? What would you recommend I do?” It was that kind of conversation where it was a safe conversation for them. They didn’t have to feel bad that they didn’t have a job in their back pocket for me, they felt like they helped me, that created a connection. Back to what we were talking about. When I’m asking you about you, tell me about your life, tell me about how you got to where you are a successful person, you’re going to like me more because everybody’s favorite topic is you.
I spent three months full-time out there having great conversations with people, decided to take the role as an executive search consultant about three months into my networking, and it was odd. I took the position again, it was a 100% commission executive search role, so I wasn’t, again, getting paid for anything. Within that first month of working as an executive search consultant, I probably got four or five people who reached out to me that said, “I recommended you for this VP of HR role.” It took three months, I had somebody call and offer me a job that had met me during that time.
Three months of the relationship-building started to pay off in job offers that I wasn’t even looking for, or potential referrals that I had not asked for because I had helped those people. That’s a long answer to your question, but relationships are key. I think if you’re viewing relationships as, again, a transaction, “Oh hey, you person with the title in the organization that I want to work for. I want to build a “relationship” with you.” That’s often the, I’m doing this to get something, is transparent in a lot of ways, or it’s just not fruitful.
If I can do something to help you in your role, connect you with someone that would be beneficial to you and your career, send you information that you could use to make your company or your career better, then sure, you’re going to think about me for opportunities later down the line.
Patrick: That’s good advice. You made me think about something else. I’ve been exploring this conversation track around mentors and how important mentors have been in career development for people. I think everybody should have a mentor in their life. Personally, I think that I have had a couple of mentors throughout my career who are still my mentors. They have certain qualities that have really stood out to me as valuable, as impactful, influential in decision-making in the path that I’ve chosen. I’m curious to ask this of you, have you had mentors in your career, even thinking back to when you were in the corporate world?
Jennifer: I think mentors, for me, and again, how I talk to people about mentors, I have never been someone that I ask to be a mentor. Mentors were present throughout my career and are still present today, but they’re either people who, again, maybe I had connected with or given to in some way, or in many cases, I worked for them, but they invested in me. I like to talk about mentorship in the same way I talk about relationship building. Relationship building is not the give-to-get mentality, it’s the give, give, give, and then you will get it when the time is right and the people that you’ve given to have an opportunity to do so.
To me, mentorship is the same way. It’s not so much about, “I need to go out and identify a mentor and invite them to coffee, and let’s meet once a month at Starbucks.” No, it’s really about being someone that people want to invest in. The mentors that I had that were personal relationships were people who wanted to invest in me because of either what I’d done for them, or they saw me as someone who was worth investing in. I’ve also had and have mentors who I’ve never met. I think we have to broaden our idea of mentorship too. Who am I working with that I’m helping who sees this as a reciprocal relationship they want to invest in me?
That person could be a peer or a colleague, someone beneath me on the org chart or above me, but I also can learn from people online. The beauty of social media is that I can follow, let’s just say Adam Grant, a bestselling author, who has a podcast, who speaks at conferences and events, who shares his knowledge and wisdom every day. I can learn from him and that can be a mentorship. Then I can engage with him online to the point where maybe sometimes he’ll, and he has reached out to me personally and given me advice on something.
That was because I’m 1 of the 2,000 people commenting [chuckles] enough, or I buy his books, or I share his podcasts that I listened to and say, “This is a great listen, why don’t–” and recommend it. He sees that, it’s in some ways being visible. You can catch the attention of maybe people who are traditionally out of reach.
Patrick: I think that’s a good suggestion as far as, especially young in career, this idea of, there’s so much more about building your presence, building your future, and how much we individually own that process, and how it’s not somebody else’s responsibility to build relationships, it’s ours, it’s your own, and to embrace and to cultivate that because we all know relationships, especially in the work environment, they just don’t happen. You really do need to invest time and effort and focus on them. I just love this, what you’re coming back to, throughout this conversation around give, give, give.
You just made a comment around when you give, it’s without the specific intention of getting back or receiving. If you’re just giving for the intention of giving, the output or outcome of that is realized so much more in ways that are unexpected. I have experienced that throughout my career. I think that is a very good suggestion point for people to really think about how I can give because, ultimately, that is I think the starting point for cultivating any relationship or connection.
Jennifer: Well, that’s somewhat of a soapbox for me. [chuckles]
Patrick: That’s okay.
Jennifer: Anyone who has a presence online today because the online world does make it easier to reach out and touch people that maybe you never would have in the past. For years, whether it’s LinkedIn, or my personal inbox, or Twitter DMs, or whatever it might be, you get those messages from people you’ve never met. You have no indication of who they are and let’s just say, it’s a LinkedIn message and they send a message and say, “Hey Jennifer, I am in the job search. Do you have any recommendations for me? Do you have any referrals to me? Do you know anybody in your network looking?”
You’re like, “I know nothing about you. I can’t even begin to be effective in helping you.” That’s what I say in my head, then I try to provide, here’s some resources, here’s a blog post that I wrote, here’s a podcast. I try to provide resources because I do want to be helpful. There’s no way I can effectively help that person. There’s also the message from, again, somebody you don’t know, you’ve never met, who sends you a message and says, “Hey Jennifer, I’m looking for a mentor. You work in the people space, can you mentor me?” You’re like, “That’s called coaching.”
When you reach out to somebody that you don’t know and you ask for their time, that’s something that you should invest in and pay for. On the other hand, I can think of a personal example. I have a podcast called Impact Makers. When I first launched my podcast, on Twitter, every week when the episodes would come out, I would see a gentleman that I had not met or been connected to. We were, I guess, following each other, but every week he would share a screenshot of his notes app on his phone where he’d taken his top takeaways from the podcast.
He would say, “The podcast episode on Impact Makers with so-and-so this week was great. Here were my top five takeaways.” He was sharing that on Twitter and tagging me. Well, naturally I love that. Thank you, Bruce Waller, for sharing my podcast, but what did I do? I looked up Bruce on LinkedIn. I invited him to connect. I looked up Bruce’s website. Oh, so he’s a VP in a transportation relocation company, but he works with a lot of HR people. I see he speaks at some conferences, well, I’m a speaker. Well, we end up speaking at the same conference, so we get to meet in person and that’s a, “Hey, it’s Jennifer, do you want to get a cup of coffee?”
That’s a yes. I want to get to know you. You’ve invested again in me. I see you as someone worth investing in and then lo and behold a year or two, after that, he sent me an email and said, “Jennifer, I’m starting to speak more, I’ve seen you speak, you do a great job. I would be willing to pay you.” I love that line. “I would be willing to pay you for your time to share with me some advice.” I said, “Bruce, let’s hop on a phone call. I would love to help you. You don’t need to pay me. By the way, let’s just make this a podcast conversation where you ask me what you want to say and I’ll share it.” Again, it’s a long tail.
I’m sure he wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to screenshot my takeaways and share them on Twitter and eventually get her to give me work for free.” [chuckles] I wanted to help him because he had been adding value to me, which facilitated a relationship and a connection. Now he’s got his own podcast, he’s speaking on a lot more stages and I really love to see that growth. Did I have a little piece in that? Maybe, but that’s someone who was worth investing in, who gave without expecting anything in return, got a relationship out of it. I’ve referred him for business opportunities.
My son was relocating with his corporate job and I said, “Call, Bruce Waller.” That created all the things that the people out there desperately trying to build relationships to build their business or who want mentors in order to grow their career. All that came because he gave first.
Patrick: That’s an incredible story. It’s an excellent way to wrap up the conversation because it’s basically everything we’ve been talking about. That it’s the perfect real example of how all of this comes together. Thank you for sharing that with us because I think that is a very tangible way for people to understand the importance of giving and also what the potential outcome can be. The concepts of that story can definitely be replicated because it’s this idea of just giving and not worrying about what’s going to come down the road because people do invest.
Relationship-wise, people invest in, as you said, where they feel that they’ve gotten something or that there is no hidden intention, that there is no expectation behind it. It’s just doing it because of the sake of doing it.
Jennifer: The reality is, I think, to go a layer deeper in Bruce’s story, it wasn’t that he was giving in order to get my attention. He was giving to his network by sharing a valuable resource that he found. The whole goal was about building up others, which ultimately again, build me up and developed that connection relationship. It’s not even that I have to say, “Well, I want to meet this famous person or this person who’s internet famous, so I’m going to share the takeaways from the Peakon podcast to try to get their attention.” No, share the takeaways from this podcast, with your network if you think it will help them, then you’ll get the attention of other people.
Patrick: Jennifer, this has been a great conversation, a lot of really valuable insights. I’ve loved your story and just sharing your story with the audience. Thank you for that. How do our guests find you and find your podcast and your thoughts and all of your content? How can people find you?
Jennifer: Sure. The hub for all things Jennifer McClure is jennifermcclure.net. The podcast is called Impact Makers with Jennifer McClure. We didn’t even talk about DisruptHR, but you can find all things about DisruptHR at disrupthr.co.
Patrick: Maybe we’ll have another conversation about DisruptHR because we could have more conversations. It’d be interesting to connect in the future and see how that next year unfolds and share some more stories around connection and what we’ve experienced over the past year, which will be in the future. Jennifer, very much enjoyed the conversation. Thank you for sharing with us. Cheers to many more meaningful relationships and connections. Thank you.
Jennifer: Thank you.