This Only Happens Once

By Kim Tidwell and Jen Spencer, The Creative Executive

The Creative Executive helps growing/in-transition companies, passionate about their work and impact, navigate changes and opportunities in leadership and culture.


Working immersively with organizations and teams, we hear a lot of different things from a lot of different people. One of the consistent themes from our most recent conversations with clients is how best to reintegrate our teams and workspaces.

There are plenty of discussions to be had about what to do and the logistics of it all. But the more important sub-text of the reintegration discourse is this: How do we best provide supportive leadership to high-performing people who’ve experienced real trauma and upheaval over the last year and a half?

We recently hosted a webinar on this topic anchored by James Ochoa, an author and an executive counselor and coach for executives and CEOs with ADHD.

The conversation was moderated by Creative Executive coach and lead trainer Lauren Russo. Creative Executive coaches, Jordan Mercedes, an expert on heart-centered leadership and ethics, and Victoria Wilson, an organizational culture expert rounded out the panel. Below are some of the groups’ best insights from the session.

There’s no avoiding the trauma, so lean in

Whether we want to deal with the trauma and disruption of the past year, Jordan said, it’s going to deal with us. There’s no avoiding it.

James said that one of the aftereffects of trauma is that it causes everyone to struggle with attention problems, whether you have an official diagnosis of ADHD or not. It’s not a question of if people are overwhelmed; the question is how much. It’s up to leaders to let their people know that being overwhelmed is perfectly normal and okay and to model compassion as a response.

Our executive brains tend to over-intellectualize things. James said that “if you approach any situation as an observer and lead with curiosity, this will let your overstimulated frontal lobe take a breath.”

When dealing with overwhelm in a meeting or conversation, ask open-ended questions to relax your brain and give it a vacation from the analytical space. Our people are looking to us as leaders for cues — we need to connect the humanity of what’s happened and bring it back to work.

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, and your people is the permission to come back different, Jordan concluded. “We can’t unsee what we’ve seen this year.” A transformational leader acknowledges it.

A leadership mindset for right now

Jordan also recommended observing how your people interact with information.

Processing styles can tell us a lot about what our people need (and how). Fast processors are often vocal and at the center of the conversation. Deep processors take in information silently. It might seem as if the deep processors have checked out, but often they are simply wrestling with the information internally before you’ll hear from them.

Learner-processors might masquerade as disruptions because they ask many questions, but they simply need more information. “Understanding how your people process information gives you much-needed context when you ask them for feedback,” said Jordan. “There is always a layer of meaning behind the feedback, and it’s up to you as a leader to try to uncover that meaning.”

Victoria spoke on how leaders can harness the disruption of the last fourteen months to think about how they can co-create the future with their people.

She recommended first taking a step back and mapping your ecosystem. What worked last year that you might want to make permanent? What didn’t work? Often, in uncertainty, we race headlong back to our deeply rooted habits, but those won’t always be the best way forward.

Next, Victoria said, you’ll want to define what is critical versus non-critical when it comes to your organization’s new operating “normal.”

Returning to the physical workspace, for example, comes with unavoidable logistics and safety concerns. However, there are also opportunities for companies to rewrite their cultures in real-time. “Your organization is a complex adaptive organism,” she said. “As a leader, you don’t have to have all the answers. Admitting this to your people and inviting them to help design solutions can be very powerful. Your people want most of all to be really heard.”

A real opportunity

A through-line of our discussion was that our lives and our workplaces are forever changed, and how that presents us all with a real, perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Going back to business-as-usual is an impossibility. “But organizations can create a new, exciting space for their people,” James said, “one that prioritizes humans over transactions, and values purpose over sheer action and reactivity.”

The key question to keep asking ourselves internally is: as leaders, what about this current moment is unique? “The Great Restart” is only going to happen once. We cannot afford to simply treat it as a logistical problem, or a risk.

How can we truly embrace this moment as an opportunity to create a more sustainable, human, and more (yes!) profitable organization? We submit that if anything, right now is the best time to advance the cultures we’ve really wanted all along.




Culture powers performance

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Culturati Team

Culturati Team

Culturati is a community of CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors and other c-suite leaders who practice & study culture building and share our play books.

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