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Leading with Empathy with Heather McGowan

George Grombacher May 18, 2023

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Leading with Empathy with Heather McGowan

LifeBlood: We talked about leading with empathy, why so many people are burned out and disengaged at work, what orgs and managers can do to change the current trends, and what the future may hold, with Heather McGowan, keynote speaker, author, consultant and future of work expert.    

Listen to learn how to advocate for yourself to maximize your professional satisfaction and enjoyment!

You can learn more about Heather at, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Get your copy of The Empathy Advantage HERE

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Our Guests

George Grombacher

Heather McGowan

Episode Transcript

george grombacher 0:02
Well, this is George G. And the time is right welcome today’s guest strong and powerful Heather McGowan. Heather, are you ready to do this?

Heather McGowan 0:08
Let’s roll George, I’m ready.

george grombacher 0:10
All right, let’s go. Heather is a keynote speaker. She’s numerous time author, a Forbes contributor. She’s an eyeglass addict and a future of work strategist. Heather excited to have you on tell us a little about your personal life’s more about your work and why you do what you do?

Heather McGowan 0:28
Well, if I look back over the course of my life, in brief, nothing ever would make sense. But the one thread line through it is I was always curious why humans behave the way they do.

And so that led me through product design, design, strategy, boutique, investment, banking, academia, and then into the world of keynote, speaking and writing books. And along the way, I worked on the supply and the demand side of talent, essentially, academia and corporate. And I found we were not creating the workforce that we needed, nor we really understanding what we didn’t work. So that led to this big sort of exploration of the future work that started more than 10 years ago.

george grombacher 1:10
So we don’t really understand what the workforce is what we need, and or chicken or the egg, we’re not creating folks that are going to be able to thrive and whatever that’s going to be

Heather McGowan 1:21
both really so we train people for work saying education, like they’re going to do one thing we asked little kids what they’re going to be when they grow up, we ask each other what we do, we ask the university students, if they’re in university, what their major is, we hyper focus on a point space, when things have never been moving more quickly. And in the workforce, we organize work around largely routine and predictable tasks. We pick people to be leaders, managers, or bosses, based upon their desire to be a boss. Their confidence being an unquestioned expert in their propensity to myopically drive productivity with fear, domination, burning people out along the way. And it’s not working, none of that’s working. So what we need is a workforce full of people who are intrinsically motivated, inspired to have a connection to what they do feel some self expression at work, feel some belonging, or it’s not going to happen for everybody. Some people have jobs a job, and that’s fine. But for a lot of people who want to feel meaning in their work, and they don’t want to work for an organization that they feel proud about that feels that it’s making the impact on the world, they want to make, that it’s an expression of their values, they can bring their full authentic self to work. And their boss, manager or leader cares about them in their development, and maximizing human potential by helping them become better versions of themselves. That’s a different profile of a leader. So Chris Shipley, and I wrote a book called The adaptation advantage prior to the pandemic ended up being an accidental guide for the pandemic. And then coming out of the pandemic, we wrote the empathy advantage, leading the empowered workforce, which is getting folks ready for this world where the greatest asset in your organization is unequivocally humans. And helping them become the next best version of themselves is the leaders job. Now, it’s much more about the legacy you leave behind the succession the pipeline than it is necessarily the productivity drive today.

george grombacher 3:21
I love it. And we’ve got our work cut out for us, don’t we?

Heather McGowan 3:25
But it’s all upside, right? We’ve, we’re not maximizing their potential at all. And we can.

george grombacher 3:35
I am of the mind certainly that. Well, why wouldn’t so to your point, some people a job is a job, but there are a lot of folks out there if they. Okay, so how do I go from where I am right now, assuming that I’m not just going through the motions and collecting a paycheck, my ears perk up and say, You know what, I would like to feel like I was doing more purpose driven work for an organization that was meaningful. How do I how do I get closer to that?

Heather McGowan 4:02
First, we really have to put a little harder have a stake in the heart of shareholder of stakeholder cap and shareholder capitalism. We, you know, the Business Roundtable and which is a collection of CEOs of America’s largest companies in 2019 said, it’s not working anymore. We’ve had 50 years of putting investors ahead of communities, people, employees, even customers, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work. We ended up burning people out, we ended up getting lower levels of engagement, higher levels of disengagement. And John Hagel, we’ve researched from the White was we had a lower return on assets. So we’re actually creating real value. So now we have this opportunity to create real value. One of the places I think we need to start is with our leaders. We have picked leaders who are unquestioned experts who can make decisions and certainty. Well, that works fine. When you have certainty. We don’t have certainty anymore. And if you’re in a question expert in making a decision, that certainty your liability is almost everywhere. level in an organization now people have reporting people, leaders have people reporting to them who have skills or knowledge they don’t have. And we haven’t adapted to that reality, that you may be a leader deferring to somebody in your team asking for their input or seeing those four scary words, I do not know, let’s find out. We encourage our people to pretend they know. And I think that one of the reasons Amy Edmondson psychological safety thing took off as much as it did was, it makes people feel safe to say, I don’t know. Because if you don’t know, that’s the first step in learning this first step in finding out. So one of the things we need to do is think differently about that leadership profile. And acknowledging that people who are currently leaders came through a very different system than they’re going to have to lead through. So if you’re a leader today, you likely came through a system where you had a boss who was an unquestioned expert, they might have driven you a little hard with domination or fear might even have been humiliation, you might have sacrificed long hours at the office and weekends. And now you’ve got a workforce that say, I’m not doing that. And I’m not putting up with that. And those are the conditions under which I’m not going to work. And you’re saying Why isn’t anybody want to work, we will do actually want to work. They want to work in an environment where they have agency, and autonomy and trust. Because if you look at what happened during the pandemic, we sent everybody home, hoping we’d have business continuity, and except for the sectors where we really had to close down. We did we trusted our people, and they performed. And now for some reason, we’re not trusting our people and figuring out why that is. I don’t know why that is. We need to continue to trust our people and empower them with agency.

george grombacher 6:41
How much does do quarterly reports that publicly traded companies have to make? How much does that play into it?

Heather McGowan 6:51
If there’s economic realities, but the economic realities aren’t if people are disengaged and burnt out, and not showing up for work, because they’re disengaged and burnt out, you’re not going to reach those quarterly reports. So it’s not going to work as comes on the back of humans. And when we make decisions, like layoffs might be inevitable, sometimes, but it’s our first reaction way too often cut 10%, the street will be happy. Well, you cut that 10% of 10% of people’s lives, and then you impact the rest of the organization, you get a 7.7% chance that more people are going to quit because they’re going to quit before they get fired. And then you’ve got the decline in productivity with the rest of the team. Everyone’s disenfranchise. So it’s a huge productivity hit. And I think Jeffrey Pfeiffer’s research really, here’s really interesting from Stanford, who says, a lot of laughs do not achieve even the economic outcomes are intended because you’re laying people off generally with severance packages, these are high paying people. And then when you hire them back, you have to pay them more and in their absence, you got to pay contractors. So what objectively you actually meeting other than to tell the street? You can’t 10%? Are there organizations

george grombacher 7:59
that are for lack of a better term doing it right or trying to?

Heather McGowan 8:04
Yep, and one of the ones I like to point to is, it’s the company that makes a mica haircare products and they also make even New York haircare products. I think the umbrella term for both of them is called heat makes sense. I met the CEO at actually an event in Scottsdale, and then went spoke for the company. He leads with authenticity vulnerability. He’s honest with your people, to the you know, he sometimes he’s either venture backed companies like sometimes I can’t talk about this, but this is what I can talk about. This is what I know. His board was like you got to bring everybody back to the office. And he said why we’re growing 45% A year and it’s working. And so it’s not about where work takes place don’t gets distracted by that it was about he listened to his people, and how they worked best. And they do come together at different periods of time. But he was in they have manufacturing, we have to deal with the fact that people can’t manufacture in their spare bedroom. And you got to figure out fairness, but he is authentic, he is vulnerable. He is real. And he tries to bring out the best in his people to France, to quote Francis Frey. He does his best to improve people in his presence. So it lasts in his absence. I think what we’re looking for, and nobody can do it. None of us can do it.

george grombacher 9:20
Yeah. Well, I certainly agree. And autonomy and agency and trust. Those are things that I think I certainly want and a lot of people that I interact with want and really greatly value. And I know that when I’m most effective, I’m being vulnerable with people and telling people about the mistakes I’ve made and how I don’t have all the answers. And so it does start with the CEO or the leader and they they give everybody else permission to do that.

Heather McGowan 9:51
Right. Right. And one of the things I need to clarify is because I’ve done I’ve done a bunch of podcasts that hit head of the book and people said to me, doesn’t being empathetic mean you have to under Seeing people feel bad for them when they’re in a bad spot, make accommodations for them and expect less. And I suppose yeah, there are certainly moments, somebody’s parent dies, you want to make something or if somebody goes through something horrible, they’re going through cancer. But on a day to day basis, if you’re empathetic with people, that means you understand what motivates them, and you help them become more intrinsically motivated. And they perform at a higher level, not a lower level. But for some reason, empathy, just like a soft skill gets considered to be something that is less competitive when I actually think it can make you much, much more competitive.

george grombacher 10:35
Yeah, yeah. I think that, that people who feel like it’s going to make you anti competitive or less competitive or flat out wrong, I think, you know, really, you talked about how the most valuable of an asset that companies talk about our people are our greatest asset. But do you really believe that, and the reality is that they certainly are. And the more you empower people, the harder they’re going to work and the more effective, they’re probably going to work.

Heather McGowan 11:02
Absolutely. And this is something that’s included in our book, The empty advantages. There’s a recalculation of the s&p 500, based upon the enterprise value, so the total value of the companies and the source of that value. So in 1975, something like 83% of the value came from tangible stuff, property plant equipment, and the rest of it was intangible, which is people ideas. Fast forward to 2020 90% of the value is intangible assets, human activity. So while we treat humans as a cost to contain, they are the assets that are creating the most value in your organization. But we haven’t caught we haven’t caught up in terms of how to treat humans as the most important asset and organization. And from an accounting standpoint, humans are still a cost on the balance sheet, we need to fix them.

george grombacher 11:51
So hopefully, hopefully, companies catch up to this. It happens quickly. If I am an individual contributor within our organization, not in leadership, but I’m interested in how do I advocate for myself.

Heather McGowan 12:07
There’s an expression, people don’t leave jobs, they have bosses. And since jobs are going to change so much, and they should change because you know, technology is coming in and consuming things the business model is going to change, we have to assume that a job isn’t fixed, it’s always moving needs to be moving with it. If that’s the reality, and I believe it is, you need to pick a leader who’s going to be your advocate who’s going to help you grow. So instead of saying I’m joining this company for this job, it’s like and I don’t know who my boss is, we’re not really like that woman or man or whomever, you got to pick the person who becomes your mentor, and your coach, who helps you become that next best version of yourself, regardless of where the company is, because the rest of that stuff will work it out if you have a great relationship with your management manager, leader or boss.

george grombacher 12:53
So doing my best to select or find somebody within my organization, or my industry, perhaps both.

Heather McGowan 13:02
Yeah, I mean, if you’re in a current organization, and you like the organization, seek out somebody who could be your mentor asked to be on their team. If you have a boss that you hate, and you hate your company, then you cannot going to change the entire company from the position of being an individual contributor, just not. So find the right environment for you, you’re a flower, find the right environment for you to grow with the heat and the light, everything you need to thrive. And that’s what we need to think about as we have to think about ourselves as individual, like almost organizations and what are the conditions that will help me thrive? I know I thrive in an environment where people are formal cordial, you know, familiar, flexible, strict. I like deadlines. I don’t like deadlines. You know what I care about mission driven things in the environment. I care about children impacting the community? What are the things you care about? What are the environments you’d like to work in with the relationships you’d like to have? It is the human connections that keep people in organizations MIT study found the number one reason people leave is toxic work cultures, where toxic culture of work cultures come from workaholics. And there’s nothing wrong with hustle culture, especially in a startup, you’re doing something that’s never been done before, or phases in work where there are times we all have to hustle. But we can’t have an always hustle culture. It just burns people out.

george grombacher 14:24
That’s a That’s a fact. Right there. This this infinity war and assumption that we can just continually get 5% growth or whatever your number is, is an absolute recipe for burnout. I’m sure that we’ve all experienced that at one point. And I love that knowing myself enough to understand what the conditions are, that are going to help me to thrive. So that’s incumbent on me to be able to do some self exploration and sort of dig in. Yeah, like for

Heather McGowan 14:55
example, I love high degrees of ambiguity. I love very chaotic environments. I like to go In one, there’s a lot of possibilities. And I have the freedom to explore and help people set the path. Other people, that would be an absolute shutdown. They like to say, I know what I’d like to know what I’m doing every day. I like to know that these processes that I’ve been trained on, I like to rely on my expertise. I like to have no expertise and grow new capabilities every day through ambiguity, but that’s me. And you might be different. You got to figure out what your jam is.

george grombacher 15:28
Yeah, the more honest we can be probably the better. I think that that’s great. How many pairs of glasses do you have? Heather?

Heather McGowan 15:37
My wife says ad and I say every time you say that, I buy another parents. That number, but I think it’s last count. I think it was 2929. Okay. All right. Behind me, those are display cases of dances and I change them for each outfit.

george grombacher 15:51
I think it’s awesome. How long has that been going on?

Heather McGowan 15:55
For six years? Okay. Very cool. Fortunately, my prescription does not change that much.

george grombacher 16:01
That that’s that’s not that’s a whole nother set of problems right there. Either. Thank you so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you? How can they engage with you for speaking for consulting and tell us more about the book.

Heather McGowan 16:15
So you can find the most information about me at Heather It’s MC Gao w n, that has all the information on speaking speaking topics, how to get in touch with me. I get my learning a lot of my learning from LinkedIn. So find me on LinkedIn, I’m wearing some pair of glasses. I can’t remember what I’m wearing on there right now. But you connect with me they’re tagged me in an article tell me you agree with me. Tell me you disagree with me. I learn more when you disagree with me. That’s where my learning comes from. When I’m wrong, I learned more so tell me I’m wrong. And give me another perspective to consider. The book is called the empathy advantage leading the empowered workforce by Wiley. It’s on Amazon, but nothing wrong with the Amazon. Hit your local bookstore if you can. I love a good indie bookstore. And there’s information about that on Heather as well as LinkedIn. Excellent.

george grombacher 17:09
If you enjoyed as much as I did, show Heather, your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas go to Heather Pick up your copy of the empathy advantage, your favorite local bookstore or of course, where everybody else buys books, and then find Heather on LinkedIn as well and connect in question and have a conversation. Thanks gonna Heather. Thanks a lot. And until next time, remember, do your part by doing your best

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