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‘There’s Always Time for Small Moments of True Connection’—Susan Cain and Doug Conant on Life and Leadership

Last month, at ConantLeadership’s third bi-annual BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit—a free meeting of the top leadership minds in the U.S.—ConantLeadership Founder & CEO Doug Conant, was joined in conversation by celebrated CEO of Quiet Revolution, and bestselling author, Susan Cain.

I was delighted to moderate the conversation and found the following key takeaways from their exchange particularly insightful.  Enjoy these tips on how to foster deeper connections in today’s workplace. You can also watch the full discussion between Cain and Conant here (fast forward to 00:08:08 to skip housekeeping and intros).

You’re Never Too Busy to Build True Connections

Doug Conant, a leadership veteran with over 45 years of experience in the C-suite and beyond, was able to turn around Campbell Soup Company as CEO by widening his lens beyond shareholder value and focusing on people. He knew that financial success was contingent upon building an organization that embraced a ‘both/and,’ rather than an ‘either/or’ approach to employee engagement.

Conant shares his operating philosophy that you must be “both tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people.”

He explains: “I grew up in this culture where you were expected to be tough, but I intuitively knew that people needed care and attention too. It wasn’t one or the other, it was both.” He credits Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, for giving him language for his long-held belief: “You’ve got to embrace the ‘genius of the AND,’ and ‘reject the tyranny of the OR.’”

While many leaders find toughness on standards to be self-explanatory, some struggle with the “tender-hearted” side of leadership, a competency that Conant believes is more essential than ever before as a beleaguered workforce wrestles with a world transformed by COVID-19.

Conant says that an essential part of being “tender” is learning to “make it personal” with your colleagues so that work relationships don’t feel strictly transactional. People might not be comfortable opening up so, as the leader, it’s up to you to “lead from in front,” to be vulnerable, and “share your concerns first,” to set the tone. And he emphasizes that there is no “quick fix,” for building trust and rapport. It’s a process that “takes time,” but is worth the effort.

Susan Cain, a world-renowned researcher, bestselling author, and advocate for introverts, who has worked with countless leaders as CEO of her company, Quiet Revolution, has also observed that it is up to leaders to model the behaviors necessary to transform workplace culture.

And, while both panelists acknowledge employees and managers alike are swamped with duties and to-dos, Cain says time constraints are not an excuse for neglecting the tender-hearted territory. She says,  “Even when a situation is time-pressured and intense, there are moments available for genuine connection.”

Cain reassures leaders that this doesn’t have to be a lofty undertaking; you can build deeper engagement incrementally, in small moments: “As a leader, you can be thinking about how to form connections with each person one at a time, just taking the extra moment to share something true and personal about you, and opening that space up for the other person. One by one, those interactions have a way of mounting and shifting a culture.”

Conant adds that over time, the relationships built on pursuing connections result in a more fulfilling and effective work environment—but you must “make it personal first,” before you can reap the rewards of heightened performance and productivity. He says that it doesn’t have to be stressful: All you have to do to get started is to “take it one level deeper,” which is enough to “feel dramatic to most teams because they’re not used to it,”  and they’re “dying” to have more genuine conversations.

Both experts urge an incremental path forward. If you’re trying to transform your entire leadership profile overnight, that won’t feel doable. But if you simply focus on bringing a little more intention to your next interaction, it becomes approachable and not too time-consuming. Cain sums it up neatly: “No matter how busy we are, there’s always time for small moments of true connection.”

Genuine Connection Requires Acknowledging the Good and the Bad

Both panelists agree there’s an urgent need to develop deeper personal connections with constituents. What does that look like in today’s workplace?

In Susan Cain’s new book, Bittersweet, she celebrates the full spectrum of emotions and highlights how love, loss, and longing are just as essential to the human condition as more upbeat feelings like happiness or exhilaration. She explains: “The reality of being human, whether we like it or not, is that joy and sorrow are forever paired. And that time is passing. There’s a kind of impermanence to everything we do.” When you tap into these difficult truths, it may be sad, but there is also “a curiously piercing sense of joy at the beauty of the world,” or what Cain calls, “bittersweetness.”

The fleeting nature of existence that Cain describes has come into sharp relief during the pandemic as millions perished worldwide and millions more left or changed jobs in pursuit of deeper fulfillment. If leaders hope to connect with employees, they need to acknowledge life’s harsher realities, and create space for people to fully express themselves—the good, the bad, and everything in between.

Cain explains: “If we’re talking about building true workplace cultures where everybody is really showing up as themselves . . . how the heck do you do that if you’re also creating a culture where everybody only feels empowered to express the joy side of that equation, and they can’t tell you the truth about what they actually feel, or what it’s like to be alive? How could you possibly truly bond in that kind of setting?”

Conant agrees and says that to create psychological safety—a concept coined by Amy Edmondson which refers to, “a shared belief held by members of a team that they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”—the safety must extend to difficult emotions too. He says that developing a culture “where people can feel free to express themselves,” is not merely “nice-to-have,” but is “imperative.”

Just as an abundant mentality is required to be both “tough and tender” in leadership, that same mindset should apply to how you encourage candor—allowing people to bring bitter and sweet topics to the forefront. Conant says that when people feel comfortable enough to share difficulties as well as to celebrate wins, that’s when you know you have created a place “where people feel safe, where they feel connected,” and they feel empowered.

This kind of psychological safety is contingent upon leaders’ commitment to change. Cain reiterates: “It’s really our leaders who can set the tone.” She uses the example of a common practice in virtual meetings where the organizer prompts participants to share where they’re logging in from and how they’re feeling. Generally, the chatbox is inundated with upbeat missives e.g., “I’m writing in from Indiana and I feel great!” Cain explains that “those are wonderful emotions” if they are truly representative of what everyone’s feeling. But, she asks, “what would it mean if a respected leader showed up in the chatbox,” and shared a little more truthfully? How might that create more permission for camaraderie?

Cain clarifies that, “we don’t all have to show up at work and divulge our most private thoughts, but there’s a whole lot of leeway for leaders” to share with greater honesty about what they’re going through. And it’s worth a try—because while there are lots of opportunities for teammates to bond around celebrations and milestones, another one of “the strongest bonding mechanisms we have” is sympathy for each other’s sorrows.

To Deepen Connection, Help Introverts and Extroverts Feel Included

To excel, leaders must train their minds to default to the inclusive concept of ‘both/and,” alluded to throughout Cain and Conant’s conversation. Just as you must learn to uphold high standards and care about people, and you should foster a more expansive group dynamic that is supportive of the entire range of human emotions—it’s also important to help associates with disparate relational and communication styles feel comfortable and appreciated.

In Susan Cain’s first book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, she shifted the way introverts are perceived in the world—re-framing their soft-spoken inclination not as a detriment but as a strength. In the book, she exposes how organizations are often pre-disposed to reward or listen to the loudest people, who tend to be more extroverted, and to overlook the strengths and contributions of the quieter people, who tend to be more introverted. At the heart of her argument is that when people, whatever their temperament, are allowed to be themselves, and their unique gifts are supported, they are more able to thrive.

Conant, a life-long introvert who was deeply impacted by Cain’s book, testifies to the power of becoming more self-possessed: “If you’re stuck as an introvert or as a leader, the way out is to go inside and get comfortable with who you are,” which will enable you to “go outside and be more impactful in the world.”

But leaders can’t stand on the sidelines and hope that their teammates will get comfortable on their own. It’s a manager’s responsibility to help everyone feel included, no matter where they are on their journey of self-acceptance.  Cain cites a troubling statistic from the Kellogg School of Management where, “in a typical large meeting, three people do 70% of the talking.” This means a lot of good ideas from quieter teammates never get heard. And when a minority of people dominate group discussions, it stifles the entire group’s ability to feel connected.

To ensure everyone feels validated, Cain recommends a technique called “Think, Pair, Share.”

The steps are:

  1. Present a problem or issue and ask everyone to sit and think about it by themselves.
  2. Put people in pairs to share their ideas one-one-one so everyone has a chance to articulate their thoughts.
  3. Create a group discussion where each pair shares with the other pairs to foster more participation.

The ‘Think, Pair, Share,” technique is just one way to ensure engagement across the gamut of introversion and extroversion. Leaders should think creatively about how to invite more participation and facilitate mutual understanding, both in their one-on-one conversations with constituents and in larger settings.

Overall, both panelists agree—one of the most powerful leadership skills is the ability to make strides towards deeper connection. Leaders can show the way by making time for small moments of togetherness, modeling vulnerability around tough topics, and helping both extroverts and introverts feel included. Conant has faith the “next generation of leaders” will master the craft of interconnectedness, and is encouraged by the prospect of workplaces alight with “more talk about things that matter.”

Amy FedermanAbout the Author: Amy Federman is ConantLeadership’s Director of Content and Editor in Chief and co-author with Doug Conant of the WSJ bestseller, The Blueprint.

Enjoyed these insights? Watch the full video recording of this summit session here. And enjoy our library of all previous summit sessions here, including conversations with Brené Brown, Indra Nooyi, Hubert Joly, Amy Edmondson, Bill George, and many more.

For more from Susan Cain, read her books Bittersweet and Quiet and learn more on her website.

For more from Doug Conant, engage with ConantLeadership’s suite of written leadership resources here, or start your Blueprint journey—a practical approach for getting more joy and fulfillment out of your work—by getting your signed copy of the book here, or by downloading the first chapter free here.

Ready to step into your full leadership potential?  Apply to our signature leadership development program, The BLUEPRINT Boot Camp by ConantLeadership, a 2-day leadership intensive offering elite level, highly interactive training with Doug Conant and a community of your peers. Learn more about this premium tier of transformational leadership development here or set up a complimentary consultation call here.

(Cover photo by jana bemol on Unsplash)

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

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