Episode 252 – Leadership and love with Yetunde Hofmann

“Organizations, not government… hold the key to change in the world, and therefore when we write, we’ve got to write with the business, the organizational leader in mind.”

Yetunde HofmannWe talk a lot about engagement, empathy, psychological safety in the workplace. But what we’re really talking about, claims Yetunde Hofmann, is love.

Love is a difficult word to use in the context of business. It makes us uncomfortable. But if leaders embrace it as a ‘core capability’, it has the power to transform our relationships within, between and beyond our organizations.

As well as this profound stuff, we talk about the mechanics of interviewing and the power of leading with questions rather than statements. A powerful, affirming and thoughtful conversation.


Yetunde’s site: https://www.yetundehofmann.com/

SOLARIS site: https://www.robkerr.co.uk/

Yetunde on Twitter: https://twitter.com/YetundeH

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Yetunde Hofmann, who is a board level executive leadership coach and mentor, and a global change, inclusion and diversity expert. She is a former global HR director of FTSE 25 companies and now a portfolio non-executive director. She’s the author of Beyond Engagement: The value of love-based leadership in organizations. She’s also a visiting fellow at Henley Business School, a non-executive director at the CIPD and founder of SOLARIS, a pioneering new leadership development program for black women. And welcome to the show Yetunde. It’s so good to have you here.

Yetunde Hofmann: Thank you so much, Alison. I’m delighted to be here

Alison Jones: There is so much in that biography. I want to sort of jump in and start asking… the thing that really stood out to me, certainly looking at the book as well, was the courage of using that word, the L word, you know, in the context of business leadership. So, so let’s explore that. How, how are you defining it? Why does it matter? And also what’s been the reaction?

Yetunde Hofmann: Thank you so much, Alison. I mean, definitely when, when the L-word is broached, it’s like, Oh, dear. What is she on about? But the way that I define love is the unconditional acceptance of all of who I am, warts and all.

My imperfections, my strengths, and then a complete unconditional acceptance of who I am without judgment, without condition. And it’s also an unconditional acceptance of all of who another person is, warts and all, seeing them for who they are, their strengths, their weaknesses, that unconditional acceptance of them as human.

And when I bring that into the workplace, then what this means is that whether you’re my colleague, my boss, my direct report, it means that you are a human being. You are not your behavior. I’m not going to assume that what you do is who you are. You’re going to be more than a label. You’re more than a label, you’re more than a number, you’re more than a means to an end.

In fact, for leaders out there it means that people who work for you – and I mean organizational leaders by the way, because we all are leaders – it means that people who work for you are not a means to your end, it means that my colleagues in the workplace and both me and them, all of us we’ve got potential. It means that you matter. Love is an action, not a feeling and the feeling, though feeling may propel the action further, but it is not a feeling it’s much more than that.

And so love can be problematic.  Because it’s used so many different ways, it can be seen as problematic in the workplace because of all the different kinds of associations and not all pleasant, but that’s not a reason to not pursue it . Because the benefit of examining love in the workplace is it’s really worth the effort. It really, really is.

And the reason why it’s so important, Alison, is that love is the biggest need of a human being, because it’s about acceptance. We want to belong. It really is the biggest need. It’s the biggest gift, it’s the biggest contribution that one human being can make to another, that one leader can make to another leader. And I just want to make a quick digression here because I believe we all are leaders. The shame of organizations is that we’ve allowed the organizational structure to get in the way of how we perceive and we experience each other. But when we take that structure away, you can see the human being much more. So love is that, it is the biggest need, and it’s the biggest gift.

And nothing has worked to date Alison, and why do I say that? My background is in the corporate world. You know, businesses across the world over have introduced engagement surveys, equality and diversity initiatives, management and talent development programs, wellbeing initiatives: more and more is being thrown in at us at the employee.

And in fact, a little hope is emerging because increasingly we hear of a focus on kindness, on empathy, and compassion, and still the problems of mental health are on the rise. We still have challenges with productivity. People don’t feel any more like they belong today than before. There is no breakthrough. And the only way we going to have a tangible breakthrough, where we’re going to achieve the commercial results that we need, we’re going to achieve the production levels that we want, that we’re going to ensure that the work environment can be the best ever experience for all of us, is when we look at the execution and the implementation of love as a core capability in culture, in organizations.

Alison Jones: Phwoar, I mean the hairs on the back of my neck go up, it’s just such a brilliant phrase, love as a core capability. That’s awesome. And when you, when you speak about it like that, it makes me wonder if words like empathy and engagement and psychological safety and all the ways we’ve danced around this over the last few years, they’re all synonyms.  That’s really what they’re really talking about, isn’t it?

Yetunde Hofmann: Absolutely. Alison you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s like a around the circle. You know, people are dancing around the edges rather than jumping in and say, let’s go for it. When we go on holidays, like when you dip your toe in the swimming pool rather than go in and go for a proper swim and embrace all the benefits of enjoying the swim rather than paddling.

That’s what, that’s the difference between empathy, kindness, compassion, happiness… Let’s just go straight to what it means to have love in organizations.

Alison Jones: And that question you’ve put to a lot of people; one of the things that really moved me, actually, about the book was reading so many people’s definitions in their own words of what love in an organization meant to them.

And I was just really interested that you took that approach. Just tell me what, what was behind that, what, you know, what it was like for you, how people responded to that invitation?

Yetunde Hofmann: Oh, do you know, Alison, the whole process for me was I think probably in my life to date one of the most rewarding, most personally rewarding. And I couldn’t capture the essence of it in the book as much as I would like to, because… if it was a series of verbal interviews like you’re doing now, maybe that would have been even more powerful because it was so enjoyable and so rewarding, interviewing all of these leaders. I mean, not all of them are quoted in the book, but everyone without exception was so enjoyable and they exceeded my expectations more than anything because I had a view, and I have a view, of what love should be in an organization. And that comes from my years of experience as a leader myself, as a senior business leader, as a black woman, and all that I have seen across the world.

But that’s one thing: when I want to influence and have a perspective to be shared, I’ve got to start from how THEY see it. So without saying, this is my own definition. I wanted to get their understanding, which was rich and diverse. Some of them were similar, some of them were different, but every single definition that each of my interviewers gave an insight into their own personal experiences not only at work, but also at home, which helps us understand that actually we are more than just our jobs. We are whole people.

Alison Jones: And I think that speaks to the vulnerability of this as well. And why so many people, I think, feel discomfort: because this is a domestic word and it’s a complicated, it’s also to be fair it’s a really overused and overloaded word, isn’t it? We need more words. I mean, the Greeks had about what, 15 words for love, and we’ve got one.

Yetunde Hofmann: Oh, exactly, exactly. And it’s fact if we were to lean on the Greek perspective, I’m leaning more towards the agape because, and of course, when you feel passionate, when you’re excited about something you’re doing it, can, it makes it more enjoyable and why not?

But in the context of work, when we’re making decisions that impact people’s livelihoods, that impacts consumer choices, that impacts the supply chain, that impacts people that we cannot see, villages, communities, that could impact the climate – then you’ve got to make a decision for the good of the people for the organization, and that’s love.

It’s definitely, it can be tough. So of course, the feeling that you want to all feel good, but if we’re led only by how we feel, sometimes we can make decisions wrongly and the experience of 2020 of course has accelerated a willingness amongst organizational leaders to examine love in the right context of work.

The experience of George Floyd, I mean, how can it be that a human being would be murdered just for this, for the sake of the colour of his skin, the Black Lives Matter movement, all the good and bad that came with that. COVID and the lockdown, even as we’re speaking now, of freedom being curtailed, the brevity of life and how short that can be, helps us understand that work has got to be put in the context.

And so all of that as well, led to be exposure of inequality that exists and that’s exacerbated by race.

Alison Jones: Yes. I hadn’t thought about how that all plays into breaking apart, everything. Or, you know, the whole white privilege thing has suddenly… people are facing it in a way they never have, and the blurring between domestic and work has changed.

We’re able to talk about things in a way that we never have before.

Yetunde Hofmann: Exactly. So on one hand, of course, we’ve experienced a lot of pain. And it’s exposed the nasty side of who we are, of the human race and of who we can be. At the same time, to your point, Alison, it’s also opened the door for us to talk about topics that actually can have us be vulnerable.

And at the heart of that is talking about love. And so the leaders that I interviewed, even though I interviewed them before 2020, and leading into 2020, they were open, they were reflective. They allowed me to experience their discomfort and, you know, leadership is relational. So every time in talking about this in the way that related to their people, to stakeholders internally and externally, they began to really appreciate that leadership is all about who you are and who you are being. It was an awesome experience Alison, a really awesome experience.

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. And it really comes through in the book. Tell me a little bit about what it was like to orchestrate that material. So you’ve got your own obviously passionate understanding of what love means in an organization and what your message is. You’re bringing in so many different perspectives, which gives it a richness of course, but it gives… it makes it a much more complicated job for you.

So how did you balance bringing in those perspectives, letting them inform your own thinking, but also kind of holding the whole thing and being in control of its direction.

Yetunde Hofmann: Do you know what? I was like a child in a sweet shop. I wanted to put everything in and I talked to so many people. It was just amazing, but you’re right. You know, it’s also me being clear on what this is all about, and remembering that these are gatekeepers in organizations. These are people that hold the key, rightly or wrongly, to people’s careers, their livelihoods, some key decisions, and the organizational structure that sits at the top of their organizations. And so it was an honour and a real insight to, to interview them. But it’s one thing to glean all these perspectives, it’s another thing to say now, what’s the, what’s the answer to the ‘so what’? How can it be practical? What difference would it make? How would you measure the success? How would you break down the barriers? And it was wonderful to hear from them. What they would do differently, how they would bring love into their organizations, what advice they would give to other leaders.

And so for some it was like a personal unfolding, for some it was a personal reflection and self-assessment for some of them, it was about, okay, how can we make this really tangible because it can be seen as a soft skill, but actually it isn’t. And so it was really about how I could create a debate, Alison, and to start a movement about, about what I really believe wholeheartedly would make a difference in organization and community.

They have the answers and it was just about bringing it out from them.

Alison Jones: Well, exactly. And that’s what really strikes me is that when, when somebody says, you know, I want to start a movement, quite often what they do is stand up and preach, you know? Listen people. And what you did was you went out and asked a question and you got them to do that.

That seems to me very, very smart.

Yetunde Hofmann: Absolutely. And Alison, the book has got tools. It’s got practical ways in which this can be applied. The crunch line is this: Are we really ready to do something about it? Because it’s not rocket science, but are we ready?

Alison Jones: Yes. And nobody’s going to act on somebody else’s say so, are they? You know, the people that you asked that question of who then came back, did their reflections, did their own ‘so what’s, the chances of them actually taking action are a million times higher than if you’d just told them what to do.

Yetunde Hofmann: Absolutely. In fact, one of the CEOs, Andrew Needham, he’s the chief executive of HeadBox, changed the organizational behaviours, and one of them, right in the middle, says ‘Show love’. So these leaders are bringing change in their organizations. They’re of course they’re looking at where they’re starting, but they’re moving forward. And I thought, well, to be honest, Alison, if it takes one. If one person, if one organization starts it, then the butterfly effect begins.

Alison Jones: It’s a goose bumps kind of podcast this, people. I hope you’re picking this up. Yetunde, tell me a little bit as well, because the book is obviously part of something so much bigger in what you’re doing in the world. Tell me a bit about SOLARIS and how that fits with this movement that you’re creating?

Yetunde Hofmann: Thank you. Well, SOLARIS is targeted at the leadership and executive development of the black woman professional and executive in organizations.

And the reason why it came about is I’m a senior business leader myself, but my route to getting here was not the easiest and therefore… if there’s anything that last year exposed, it was the fact that that is a huge gap of some fantastic talent for black women in key decision-making positions, in organizations.

So we’ve got to do something about it and love-based leadership is all about thinking about tomorrow, today. It’s saying that the issues faced today have been around a long time and how can we address them? So what’s it for the organization. What SOLARIS is trying to do is saying, how can you make the most of all, ALL of your talent, warts and all. Enabling the breakthroughs, challenging the status quo, breaking down infrastructure. Now it’s time to walk the talk. Enough chat. Enough advertisements, enough statements, enough diversity policies, enough inclusion policies. Now put some walk behind the talk. So it’s about unleashing the real power of diversity.

I experience it and I see it. And then on the other hand for the black female, you know, the black woman has the double, the double whammy, the challenges of being a woman and the challenges of being black. So it’s about: how can I enable you, you black women of potential, to unleash it in your organization for your community, for your family, for your business, to move more into key decision-making roles. And Alison, for anybody, regardless of colour, or race, or gender orientation, when you are valued for all of who you are, when you are embraced, when you are accepted, what happens? You thrive, you operate at your very best. You play to your strengths even more. And then you have more joy and joy is infectious and your organization becomes resilient and most successful. And it’s not just you. That’s what the butterfly effect takes on again.

Alison Jones: You’re creating a virtuous circle. It’s beautiful. Tell me about the writing, Yetunde. Because obviously one of the things that we do on this show is we go under the hood and say, you’ve written this brilliant book: how did you do it? What was it like, what did you love? What surprised you, what did you really battle with? So just give us a bit of an insight into how you did it.

Yetunde Hofmann: Do you know what, I, first of all, I thought when I was going to write a book, I thought this is going to be a slog. The first mistake I made was I did, I did the interviews, all of them. And then I started to type them out. I had to send them out to each leader to say, are you happy for me to quote you like this? Because this is what you said.

And I mean, their response was great. So what surprised me, first of all, was, I wasn’t expecting it to be such a slog, and it was, but it’s a real labour of love. But then as I started to write it and take shape, you know, I was surprised by how much I loved it, because I thought I would write one book, that’s it. But now I’m thinking, Oh, what would my next book be about?

I discovered that I actually like writing. I like, I love it. So that’s, I was surprised by how much I was inspired by what I was writing myself.

Alison Jones: Did you have that experience of sort of reading back what you’d written and going, Oh my goodness, who wrote this? This is amazing.

Yetunde Hofmann: Yes, sadly! I was like, Oh wow. And I felt when I then looked back, I felt really quite humbled by the fact that some of these people were willing to give up their time and to even spend much more time with me than I had said at the outset I needed. And that surprised me, how generous people can be as human beings.

Alison Jones: I think there’s something about the book writing process in there as well. I think people, I find this very often with myself, with my authors, that when you invite somebody into a book project, as the author you think it’s an imposition and you worry that they’re, you know, you’re taking too much time and, and they, they will say no.

In reality, what generally happens most of the time is that most people are delighted to, and feel privileged and honoured to be part of something creative in an area that they care about passionately.

Yetunde Hofmann: Absolutely. Absolutely. And because it, the whole process was also a learning. It was great for my personal development.

I learned about discipline in a different way. I learned about the importance of clarifying people’s level of satisfaction and comfort with what they said, because some people got carried away in the moment, perhaps they didn’t want to be to be reported as saying exactly how they said in the moment.

And that was all about respect. And I found that actually the process of writing had to illustrate love in action and acceptance of the fact that not everybody that I interviewed bought my point of view, I had to accept that and work with it and, and embrace it.

Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. I bet you hadn’t seen the means to writing the book as a way of actually understanding the principle in practice.

Yetunde Hofmann: No, it was about creating, planting a seed for something that I fundamentally believe would make a difference in organizations. Having driven so much change in organizations globally and understood both theoretically and in person, why change doesn’t… why change programmes fail, why various policies fail, and knowing that a lot of these individuals I’m interviewing are gatekeepers, they could be pioneers of change in their organizations, if they were to rise to the challenge. So that was what was behind the book. But at the same time you’ve got to role model what you’re talking about. I can’t talk about love being an unconditional acceptance of you and me if I’m saying, well, sorry, I don’t accept you, thank you very much. But of course I can express a point of view.

Alison Jones: ‘I’m sorry, your definition of that is just wrong. Try again.’

Exactly! ‘Now we have the same definition let’s move on…

Yes, now you agree with me… that’s great. I always ask people for a tip for first-time authors. So if somebody is listening and clearly hasn’t got to the point that you’ve got to – two books – perhaps grappling with ideas at the moment, what would you say to them?

Yetunde Hofmann: You know, one of the books I read quite early on in my career is a book by Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And one of it says, start with the end in mind. That’s one of the habits and it’s something I would… one of the principles. Exactly.

And so I would offer this to anybody starting out. You must have a clarity of purpose. Why, who are you trying… what message are you trying to convey? And who are you writing to? And be ready for the accolades and the criticism, because, you know, I’ve read the reviews on my book.

Thank God most of them are great, but there’s one, you know, some criticisms and you think, ouch – you didn’t quite get me, but you’ve got to be ready for that. It’s all part of the personal development.

Alison Jones: Yes. I’ve heard of authors who get sort of congratulations cards from fellow authors when they get their first negative review because it’s so much part of it.

Yetunde Hofmann: It is. And the importance of course, of keeping the flame alive. You’ve got to believe in what you’re writing, whether it’s fiction or a business book, but I believe anyway, that because organizations not government, I think business and organizations hold the key to change in the world, and therefore I think that I really believe that when we write, we’ve got to write with the business, the organizational leader in mind.

Alison Jones: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s becoming more and more clear. And I think it’s my business books particularly are such an interesting space at the moment, because so much of the thinking that is going to shape the world is going on in this genre.

Yes. For sure.

Speaking of which, I’m also going to ask you for a business book recommendation. Yes, I know so many, so many.

Yetunde Hofmann: I tell you the one I would really recommend is called Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.

Yes. The teal organization.

Yes. And you know why? Because it’s the closest to a love-based culture. And I think that it’s so… again, he’s interviewed various organizational leaders. It’s got some case studies in there and I just, I, I love it. I love it. And every now and again, I get back into it.

Alison Jones: Do you know, it’s one of those books that I felt like I’d read for years because I was so aware of the concepts behind it. And then, I hadn’t actually read it. I read it last year, it was one of my big chewy reads of 2020.

And it is a chewy read, there’s no getting away from it, you know? It’s not a kind of light-hearted page turner, there’s an awful lot going on, but it is such a good book.

Yetunde Hofmann: Yes, it is. It is. And even though it’s a thick book, it’s very easy to read, I find…

Alison Jones: Oh, I found it really chewy.

Yetunde Hofmann: Well I’m going to cheat. If you wanted a book that you can read, and it’s also very practical, and you can read it in the space of just a day, it’s a book by a gentleman called Ralph Lewis is called Inner Leadership. It’s beautiful. And it’s… the reason why I like it as well is it’s full of practical ideas. And for the business coaches out there, the leaders who have teams, it’s got lots of tools that people can use.

And I take from it as well when I want to work with different businesses.

Alison Jones: Brilliant, two for the price of one, thank you, both very different ones. Yes. So Yetunde if people want to find out more about you, more about SOLARIS, more about your businesses, more about your book, where should they go?

Yetunde Hofmann: Oh, thank you. Well, my book can be found on Amazon, Waterstones and all of the leading bookstores, even bookstores like Blackwell’s, so it’s not difficult to find, or they can reach out to me directly. And I can point them in the direction to get the book if people want to find out about it. SOLARIS, they can visit solarisleadership.com and learn more.

And I’m on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @Yetundeh and of course I’m also on LinkedIn and I’d be delighted to engage in further conversation about it.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. I will put all those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com along with the transcript of this interview. So much fun talking to you Yetunde, and so many ideas there, we could have gone off on so many tangents there and spoken all day about really. So much there to think about, but I really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you.

Yetunde Hofmann: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Alison, I’ve enjoyed it too. Really appreciate you making the time for me.

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