Heather Haas

A digital leader must be a better leader

28 Jun 2020   |   Leadership

Heather Haas

A digital leader must be a better leader

28 Jun 2020   |   Leadership

Heather Haas takes leadership very seriously. Her company, Advisa, trains leaders at the highest level and her clients rave about their work.

But the transition to become a great digital leader is one that needs reframed.

Being a digital leader means being a better leader

Heather says, “What makes a good leader effective hasn’t changed. Working digitally raises the bar for all the essential leadership skills.”

Great digital leaders have to communicate better. And more clearly. And more frequently.

They must display empathy through our voice and text. They must be even more intentional when giving feedback.

Leaders also have to increase their own proficiency at their core work.

Leading a team in the digital age

Heather says that leaders must clarify their priorities. Sift through everything and focus on what is important right now. Both for the business, and for the individual contributor.

There are a lot of safety concerns, both physical and emotional, and it’s the leader’s job to be the first line of defense for these.

Daily calls must go beyond, “How are you doing?” We need to understand what team members are dealing with, what they are worried about, and how we can be more empathetic.

Heather said, “People won’t remember the Zoom meetups, but they are going to remember a leader who took the time to sit and listen to someone’s fears and provide reassurance.”


The importance of trust and clarity

Trust has always been fundamental to a great leader. Heather breaks down trust in three ways:

  • Competence trust
  • Character trust
  • Communication trust

Each of these takes a different challenge.

Heather also thinks that clarity is highly underrated in building a leader. Clarity moves barriers and allows us to move forward with confidence. The leader’s role is to bring that clarity.

We assume that our employees can connect the dots. We often rely on informal clarifying after the meeting. What about the post meeting clarifications?

Clarity is not just manager to employee. Managers can’t think of everything. Everyone needs to ask questions and gain more clarity.

Clarity doesn’t come at the same time to everyone. Some people need more time to soak information and process it, while others might get it immediately.


When do we finally teach leadership skills?

Heather and I had a conversation about when people need these skills and if we are waiting too late to teach them to people. She said that most people have to learn them right now because of business challenges, but we need to start even in schools educating people about how to lead others and yourself emotionally.


Today we are talking with Heather Haas. She’s the president at ADVISA. We’re talking about creating healthy workspaces. Hi, Heather. How are you?


I’m doing great. Thank you.



It’s really a pleasure to have you on. I want you to tell us a little bit about your history with ADVISA and what you do as a company.


Thanks for having me, Neil. I’m in the president role at ADVISA and we are in the business of building better leaders. So we do leadership development programming. We provide talent optimization software, as well as strategic people consulting and executive coaching. I’ve been with the company since 2004, and it’s really meaningful work that we get to do.



You’ve been with them in several different roles and really moved up through the organization. Correct?


Yeah, I started out in training and recruitment, individual contributor role, and then moved along and was able to create some different programs and services within the organization, and then work with a lot of our clients across all industries. Over time, the owner and founder, Bob Wilson, approached me about a transition plan. And that happened in 2011, 2012.



You’ve seen a lot of changes during that time. We’re still talking about 9 or 10 years you’ve been in this role. We’re talking here in 2020. So we’ve all undergone a big shift towards more digital workplaces. How has your business changed in the way you interact with clients?


It’s changed dramatically. Most of our work pre-COVID was in person training and facilitation. With everything that’s changed, we’ve migrated really everything virtually. Not only are we interacting with our clients in a new way and trying to deliver value in a new way, we’re also figuring out how to stay engaged and connected as a team virtually, which is going well, but it’s certainly a huge shift.



And it’s not even in the material you’re giving to people. I want to get into a little bit of not just how you’re delivering that material, but has the actual content changed. When you look at leadership, when you look at how to lead in the midst of a digital workplace, do you feel like there’s been a bit of a shift in how we do that?


It’s interesting. I think what makes a good leader effective hasn’t changed. You have to care about people and create a vision and help people see their part in that vision. You have to give feedback and communicate and coach and develop. All of those things are the same. I think what’s changed is when we’re disconnected physically, and we’re trying to engage people virtually, it just amplifies, it raises the bar for all of those skills. We have to communicate even better and more frequently and more clearly. We have to display empathy, through our voice and through the content of our words because our non verbals aren’t able to carry part of the message of how much we care. When we give feedback, we have to be even more focused and intentional about what we’re sharing. So, I think a lot of it is the same. It’s just really raised the bar for how highly skilled managers really have to be at doing it.



Yeah, I think this is true. We see this pattern in a lot of what we talk about with the digital workplace. Once you shift there, all of your practices have to be better. You have to get better at communicating, you have to get better at leading, you have to get better about measuring productivity in your culture, you have to put in more effort in those things. So it’s consistent with all these things we’re seeing. Let’s talk to somebody who’s in a leadership position who’s struggling right now because all the things they used to do, the tactics and strategies to build this connection with people and lead well, they can’t do or it’s just not working as well. So what are you seeing? How are you advising some of your clients and even just in your own practice? What are some of these best practices you’re seeing emerge?


I think the first piece of advice we’ve been giving a lot of our leaders is to really take this time to think and clarify what are the priorities right now. I’ve been writing and talking a lot about that. But it really is critical. There’s so much information, good information and bad information, out there right now that’s creating a lot of noise for people. So I think one of the most important roles that leaders can play is to sift through all of this stuff and really help people focus on what is important for us right now. And then really repeat that refrain in clear terms, what’s important for the business, and then to be able to dial that in for an individual contributor, so that they can clearly see what am I supposed to do every day alone in my basement? And how do I know that I’m working on the right things in the right way? So it’s the leader’s role to provide that crystal clarity and then reinforce all of the evidence that they’re seeing of people doing the things that are in fact aligned with the direction of the business.



Can you give an example? You said that you see a lot of good and bad material out there. What is something you feel is a little bit toxic or is just not the right time to focus on right now?


Part of what I was referring to is that the general information about what we’re supposed to be doing with COVID and getting back to work and what’s safe and what’s not, that information has been unreliable, it’s shifted, it keeps shifting and changing. I think that general health landscape of information has created a lot of anxiety for people. Then of course, we’re working within that broader uncertain context, in terms of maybe some of the things that I’ve seen float by that are leadership or management related, there’s a lot going around about staying connected and having fun and jumping on Zoom, all of that is really important. But it’s not enough if people are still connecting as a team on Zoom but everyone is still fearful about whether or not they’re going to continue to have a job, and uncertain about what the priorities of the organization and their team are, then all of the virtual cocktail hours and connecting on Zoom doesn’t really solve the root issue, which is this, people need reassurance that their company is doing the right things to stay in business, and that their role and their work is meaningful in pursuit of those ends. And that’s the base level of allaying people’s fears. We can’t promise things that we don’t know. But we can tell the truth about the things we’re uncertain of and about the things we’re trying to ensure that everybody is safe and their jobs are protected.



Let’s come back to the topic of this episode, which is creating a healthy digital workplace. When you think about the health of an organization, what are the main things that come to your mind?


First and foremost, I think on all of our minds is physical health. So all of the social distancing and cleanliness protocols and new meeting etiquette and personal protective equipment back in the workplace. All of that is priority one. I mean, if employees don’t feel physically safe returning to work, then the rest of it doesn’t matter. After physical safety, I think we really need to focus on emotional health and safety. And that’s really a function of are we connecting at a bit of a deeper level? It’s ironic or counterintuitive that we actually need to go deeper now that we’re further apart, but I think we do. We need to get beyond the surface check in. Hey, man, how are things? Fine, good, good. You keeping up? Yeah. And we need to go a layer deeper and we need to say how are you feeling about all this? How has it been being cooped up with your family? Tell me what you’re afraid of. Tell me what you’re hopeful of. So those kinds of deeper conversations I think are what help employees feel cared about. And it creates space for managers to display some empathy, for managers to really listen to what is on the hearts and minds of their employees. And that’s what people are going to remember coming out of this. They’re not going to remember the Zoom meetups. What they’re going to remember is a leader who took the time to connect personally and provide reassurance.



Heather, I got a question for you just to look into the future. Typically, when we think about a manager or a leader, the first thing we think about is they’re responsible for an organization. They’re responsible for a product. They’re responsible for some project that’s going on. So there’s like this project management role that’s there. But then now we’re saying you also have to care for your people. You also have to understand that, and that, like you said, especially in digital environment, it takes a lot deeper understanding of humanity, it takes a lot deeper understanding of being able to get underneath those surface level questions that are there. When you look into the future, do you feel like both these roles will continue to exist in the same person? Or do you feel like organizations may make a jump to have like, mentors or coaches or people that are specifically looking after the emotional and mental health of some folks, and then you have other people who are more just strictly focusing on projects and processes that are there?


It’s an interesting question. As I look into the future, I think future leaders are going to need to possess both the technical functional competence at a high level, the IQ, if you will, to be effective in a leadership role, and the connective or emotional competence. I think it’s going to take both. I tell people all the time, you can’t outsource source caring, you can’t outsource communication. That medium, that connection between someone’s direct supervisor is arguably one of the most important variables in employee engagement and retention. That relationship between an individual and their direct supervisor is really critical. So in my crystal ball, what I see is more and more organizations starting to recognize this and starting to realize that if we don’t create an opportunity for our highly intelligent, technically skilled, individual contributors, and those already in leadership, if we don’t give them an opportunity to grow that other muscle, that caring emotional, that connective muscle, it’s going to be more difficult to build trust in a virtual work environment. Trust is multifaceted. If I’m going to trust someone, my leader, I need to have competence trust that I believe she knows her stuff. She’s skilled, she has it. I also have to have character trust. I believe she’s a good person. She tells the truth, she has my back. And then I also have to have what’s called communication trust. That is when she talks to me, I know that she’s telling me what’s truly on her mind. I know that she’s speaking with good purpose, that even if she has to give me corrective or hard feedback, it’s for my best interest. So, though that kind of trust doesn’t happen just because you’re a really highly skilled engineer. That level of trust is only built through between people acting as human beings and having those real conversations.



So this makes me wonder several questions about learning these skills because we’re typically not taught this kind of stuff in education, in a university setting or in a primary school or secondary school. So I’m going to talk about three things like, where are they going to learn these things? Is it going to be in the future, agencies like yours are going to continue to come alongside at a later stage to try to retrofit these skills back into things that are going to be there? When are they going to learn these things? Is this going to be something that, hey, just if you’re going to enter the workforce, you need to learn this, or once you get promoted to a certain level now we’ll start teaching you these things? So those are like two big questions I have about these topics.


You’re right, first of all, that most people do not enter the workforce well equipped with emotional intelligence skills or even relational, social relational skills. I can tell you, though, it is starting to come along. I have kids in elementary school, middle school, and high school now, and in the elementary school curriculums, they are starting to teach a version of emotional intelligence that the teachers are going through professional development to help kids who are frustrated name their feeling. And not just punish them for acting out but take a moment and say, “You look really upset. How are you feeling? Tell me more about that.” And so that validating and acknowledging children’s feelings is really where this all starts. Because if as a kid, your parents and your teachers taught you it was okay to feel angry or it was okay to feel afraid or whatever it is. And then they modeled how to name those feelings, express them constructively, learn from what that information is telling you and then move on. That’s the seat. But for those of us who maybe didn’t get that education, I do think some business schools are starting to move because there’s just a ton of research out there. That’s what’s pushing it. I mean, the research shows in many cases, emotional intelligence is a larger determinant of success and even earning power than IQ. But also, the School of Life teaches us. We work with a lot of really seasoned experienced managers, who by the time they meet us, they’re coming to us saying, I have to get better at this, because I’ve suffered the consequences of losing key employees, or not being able to innovate and drive change because I can’t inspire commitment and I can’t get people on board. So sometimes the very real business challenges that leaders face create that learning opportunity and people will come to firms like ADVISA or other institutions that can help them learn and then practice how to engage and communicate differently.



I agree. I really appreciate and love what you’re doing. But I wish that it wouldn’t have to happen so late in the game for so many people, when they’re in their 30s, 40s, 50s even to really figure out these skills. It’d be better if we can build them in sooner.


You’re right.



Last question is just about we’re talking about building a healthy digital workplace. What’s the role of clarity when it comes to building that health? You talked a little bit about communication skills needing to be there, but what’s your take on that?


I think clarity is one of the most underrated ideas around and here’s why. When we have clarity about what we’re supposed to be doing and why and by when and how well, it increases our motivation. Clarity alone removes barriers and helps us move forward with confidence. It’s very hard to reach clarity in the workplace in a vacuum because our work, what we’re doing, is so interconnected, it affects other people’s work, and it’s part of a larger whole. That’s why the leader, the manager’s role in really crystallizing these are the priorities. These are why these are the priorities and here’s how it impacts you. And here’s how I can help you. And here’s what you bring. That level of communicating is really transformational in terms of people feeling engaged and confident to get after it. A lot of times, we assume. We put out some broad communication, and then we just assume that our employees can connect the dots. When we’re in a physical office, we usually cobble it together because we can have the meetings after the meeting. We all go to lunch and we can pop into someone, hey, did he say this? Is that what you think? That kind of informal clarifying that happens after the meeting isn’t as easy to do in a virtual work environment. So that’s why I think where managers can just assume that they’re going to have to clarify, reclarify, and then even check in one-on-one with people to say, hey, tell me what you took from that meeting? Is there anything still not clear for you that I could go over again? And then the last point on clarity that I think is really important is that it’s not just manager to employee. It’s very important for any leader in addressing the whole team during this time to say, clarity is king. The clearer we all are about what we’re doing and why, the more effective we’re going to be. But here’s the thing, guys, we can’t think of everything to tell you. We’re going to forget. So the onus is on you as an individual employee to ask questions. You’re invited. Every question is so important. And it’s your responsibility to never log off of a Zoom meeting or end a call with anyone if you still have lingering doubts, fears or questions, you have to ask them. And if you’re pushing us by asking clarifying questions, and we’re trying our best to over communicate, that’s when we will continue that level of productivity that we enjoyed before the virtual environment.



Awesome points, Heather. I love what you’re talking about here. It’s really good. I think it’s especially important to note that some people take longer to process things. And so you’re having a live Zoom meeting, you say we’re doing something new, this is what’s happening. But somebody may be thinking about it and not have a chance right there in the moment to say something, which is why to your point, you say you need to follow up with people, you need to go back to them, or provide an opportunity, some kind of forum or some kind of asynchronous setup where people can go and post questions afterwards, even a day or two days or a week later when they say, actually, I was thinking about this and I didn’t get this question answered.


It’s a real best practice. The pre and the post bookends to the live communication are really critical.



Yeah. And to your point, again, we got to get better at communication. These are just good things to do. And if you’re in a digital world, you have to be much better at it than you were in the physical world, because you don’t have those side conversations you can just have in the digital world.


Yeah. And I think one last thing related to that improving communication virtually, there are tons of great tools out there for really measuring and understanding how people behave, how people are motivated. We use the Predictive Index is the talent optimization platform that we use, but I highly encourage any organization that doesn’t have that individual data about how different people communicate and process information. If you didn’t have it before, get it now, because it will really help you tailor your approach and be mindful of things like, wow, half my team needs a lot of soak time, they’re probably going to be really quiet on this Zoom meeting and their ideas aren’t going to percolate until the next day. I have other team members that process things verbally. And I’ve got to really manage their participation. I mean, that just takes your ability to facilitate a meeting to a whole different level when you’re informed by those kinds of insights.



I’m always amazed now thinking of people who are really hitting it out of the park, as a digital leader, have to be so skilled in so many different areas and have this kind of knowledge and have the exposure to many different ideas. So this is fantastic. Heather, thanks so much for being on the show. Where can people go to learn more about you and your work?


Thank you for having me, Neil. You can visit us at www.advisausa.com. We live there online and our whole team, anyone on our team would love to continue the conversation with your listeners.



I’m energized by this. I think we’ve all looked at a really deep look at what it means to have a healthy digital workplace and I really appreciate your thoughts and insights.


Thank you.


Heather has extensive experience consulting, speaking, and training on the topics of leadership development, sales improvement, talent management, strategic planning, and executive coaching. Heather’s clients include organizations of all types, from Fortune 500 companies to family-owned businesses. She is a trusted adviser in helping each of them make the most of their greatest competitive advantage – their people. Heather attended Indiana University, where she completed her undergraduate and master’s work. Before joining ADVISA, Heather held leadership roles in the education and nonprofit sectors. Heather is married and has three children.

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