Naji Gehchan: Hello, leaders of the world. Welcome to spread love in organizations, the podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love.

Naji Gehchan: I am Naji, your host for this episode, joined today by Minette Norman. Minette brings decades of leadership experience in the software industry to her consulting business focused on developing transformational leaders who create inclusive working environments with a foundation of psychological safety. Minette has extensive experience leading globally distributed teams and believes that when groups leverage diversity in all its forms, breakthroughs happen. Her most recent position before starting her own consultancy was as Vice President of Engineering Practice at Autodesk, where she transformed how Autodesk developed software. Responsible for influencing more than 3,500 engineers around the globe, she focused on state-of-the-art engineering practices while nurturing a collaborative and inclusive culture. Minette is a keynote speaker on topics of inclusive leadership, psychological safety in the workplace, and embracing empathy. Named in 2017 as one of the “Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business” by the San Francisco Business Times and as “Business Role Model of the Year” in the 2018 Women in IT/Silicon Valley Awards, Minette is a recognized leader with a unique perspective. Minette has co-authored a book about psychological safety for leaders, The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully by Being More Human, which will be published in February 2023. Her second book, The Boldly Inclusive Leader, will be published in August 2023.

Minette – great to have you with me today!

Minette Norman: Thanks for having me, Naji. It’s really nice to be here.

Naji Gehchan: Can you share with us first your personal story from drama and French, uh, at school to leading tech and software companies, and now being focused on transformational leadership? What’s in between the lines of this inspiring journey?

Minette Norman: Inspiring an improbable journey, I would say from drama French.

You’re right. You know, I got out of university with this double major in drama in French and wanted to be a professional actor, but realized what a hard life that is and I hated rejection and auditions and so I really fell back on my second major French and I got a job in my mid twenties. At the French trade, or?

Yeah, the French Trade Commission in New York City. And it was at a time when they were transitioning from. IBM electric typewriter on every desk, two PCs. And so suddenly I had this PC on my desk and I discovered I was quite good at understanding the technology and also helping others learn it. And that’s what actually led me into my 30 years in Silicon Valley.

I, I moved. Back to California where I had grown up and I got my first job in tech at Adobe in 1989 when they were developing Photoshop 1.0. And my first assignment was to write the Photoshop 1.0 tutorial. And that was the start of this, this 30 year career. And I loved it and I loved. The technology, but I really liked working with people.

Like even when I was trying to figure out the complexity of some software that I needed to describe, my favorite things were just sitting down with the engineers and picking their brains and trying to understand how can I take this really complicated technology and make it digestible and simple? So I did that for about 10 years as a writer, and then at one point my manager at a different company said, you know, I need you to manage the team of writers cuz I have too many direct reports.

So that was when I went from being an individual contributor to a manager. and I didn’t plan for that. I didn’t aspire to management or leadership. I kind of went in a little bit kicking and screaming that I didn’t think I wanted to do that. But you know, that connection that I loved to have with people was actually what I learned was the most important thing in being a manager.

In being a leader is that I really loved managing people. Cuz it’s all about human connection and it’s all about getting to know people who. Different talents and different backgrounds and different skills. So I, I ended up embracing management and leadership and I just progressed through very, you know, probably, I’m trying to think.

I probably had six to eight different jobs within the same company, starting as that first. First level manager of technical writers. Then I moved into a totally different area. I managed localization, which is getting all of the products translated and localized for international markets. And then finally, my last job, which you actually described was that I ended up as the VP of engineering practice.

And I kind of briefly just tell how that happened, which is that I had been leading a big team within a company and I had really done a big transformation. And then suddenly my boss, who was the VP of engineering said he was leaving the role. and I thought, huh, well that would be interesting. And I raised my hand and I said, you know, I would love to apply for this role, even if I’m not the most obvious person to lead engineering.

And the the senior vice president who was hiring for the role said, you know, I know your reputation. I know you’re good at what you do, but you know you’re not an engineer. , and you’re a woman and it’s such a boys club, so you’re gonna have to break into the boys club. And he gave me a 90 day trial for that role.

And so I was an acting VP for 90 days, which was really hard, and it’s probably another topic for a different podcast. But at the end of the 90 days, I got that job and I did that for five years. And in that time I realized that our transformation wasn’t about technology. , even though we had things we had to do technically, it was really about human interaction.

It was about collaboration. It was about listening to other people who might have great ideas instead of digging in and saying, I have the best idea, or My team has the best idea. And so I really worked on collaboration and trying to get people to listen to one another and inclusion and having empathy for various perspectives.

And I discovered, uh, the whole. Science of psychological safety and all the research on that and realized how critical that was and how lacking it was. And ultimately after five years in that job, loving it, but also realizing there’s only so much I can do in one company. I left and I started my own thing because I wanna really work with many more organizations to help them lead better, lead more inclusively, and really create an environment where everyone can thrive and do their best work.

Naji Gehchan: Thank you so much mi for sharing your, uh, your story and really those, there’s lot of powerful things you said, so let’s take them, dissect them and, and dig into it. So the first piece is really about this, um, this role you had as a vp, uh, leading this global team of experts, engineers around the globe. So you have diverse people and you said boys club.

So I’m, I’m interested to get your perspective on this too. And really, Delivering this transformation, as you said, through collaboration and inclusion, which is not probably spontaneously what you would think of VP of Engineering. Engineering in a tech company. Right. So I, I’d love to get your story behind this and how did you manage to do it and deliver exceptional results?

Minette Norman: Well, you know, it started with, I kind of got an edict from on high, which was that everyone had to get on a common set of tools. So we were moving from having like 20 different source code repositories to getting all onto GitHub. So that seems like a very technical challenge. How do we get all this code from all these disparate systems into one?

But what I was discovering in the process, cuz I had a great, I hired great people who worked with me and for me and who had very, very technical skills. And what I realized when they were trying to get teams to adopt new technology is that all of the teams were very siloed and they all thought that they had the best solution.

Very smart people, you know, a lot of them had come in through acquisitions and they had just retained their knowledge and cultures from, from the acquired companies. And so what I realized is that, I have people I’m working with who understand all the technical nuance and details. That’s not really where I need to focus.

Where I need to focus is how on earth can we get three more than 3000 engineers in all different countries all over the globe working. Together for com, like actually sharing code instead of rewriting code. How can we do that? And so I started, we put on a big technical summit and I would keynote there every year and I started researching, I mean not doing original research, sorry, reading other people’s research on collaboration and neuroscience, cuz I was really interested in how we work together and how we don’t.

And so I just basically got myself a great education and I started talking about these things. So I would lead meetings. I would give a talk at a conference internally, and instead of talking about how are we gonna get all the code into GitHub, I would talk about how hard it is to collaborate and how we can do better, or how we might have empathy for people that don’t see eye to eye with us.

And that’s how it began. And I will tell you, I felt like I was jumping off this very, very scary cliff the first time I gave one of those talks in front of a room of a thousand engineers. I remember the night before one. Saying to myself, oh my God, you’re gonna get up and talk about empathy to a room full of engineers.

How’s that gonna go? You know, there was a sleepless night, . But what I’ll tell you Naji that surprised me in a really positive way is remembering that we are all human. It doesn’t matter how brilliant or how technical you are, I had people who were some of the most. Technical people in the company come up to me after one of those talks and say, you know, Minette, thank you so much for bringing up these topics that we don’t talk about enough.

We need more of this. And it just reinforced that shared humanity that we too often ignore. And it’s what makes work hard. And it’s ma, it’s what makes people suffer at work because we cut off our humanity and we cut off our emotions, and we think we have to have this f facade of perfection at work and leave all the emotions at the door.

And that’s not how human beings operate.

Naji Gehchan: I so relate to what you’re saying. This is why I was, I was smiling all the time. It’s, you know, I, I had the same feeling, uh, saying that I wanna spread love in the organization, , and with all that comes with love. And, and you had it with empathy, I think. And the interesting piece is, every time I’m discussing with leaders, thinkers, um, like, like yourself, there is always.

Fear practically of talking about this to people and then suddenly the surprise of actually maybe people didn’t know about or it’s great that leaders are talking about it, but yet like we, every time our. A little bit afraid or anxious about bringing those topics to organizations and to people. So thank you so much for sharing this.

Uh, and you touched also on psychological safety as it’s a key component of your leadership and how, how you’ve done it. Um, you even have a playbook, uh, about psychological safety and how we should do it. So can you tell us a little bit more on how we can apply it in our organizations as leaders, and what are your key learnings of actually being a practitioner and doing it?

Minette Norman: Yeah. And you know, it’s, it’s so foundational and, and there’s tons of research out there that shows that organizations that have a high level of psychological safety have better performance and higher innovation and higher employee retention and engagement. And so, you know, honestly I was doing it by trial and error when I was leading teams is like, how can we try to get people comfortable speaking up?

And I’ll tell you what informed. My interest in it was actually being in meetings where I did not feel comfortable speaking up. And that was, I would say unfortunately that was more the norm than the exception. You know, I would be in these leadership meetings and there would be sort of the dominant two or three people that would speak up all the time.

And that’s like, that’s just common group dynamics. And then there would be the others that are just holding back. And I was often one of those others who felt like, Ooh, I have to weigh every word carefully, and especially, you know, Being a woman in tech, you’re definitely in the minority. I was often the only woman in the room, and I felt this burden of, if I say something, it better be the most well thought out, most intelligent thing, and not like just an idea off the top of my head or just, you know, something that’s a half formed thought.

but then I realized like when you think back to the best teams you’ve ever been a part of, and I had remembered being in a team early in my career actually, um, where, you know, we never knew the word psychological safety, but we had this group of people, there were probably eight to 10 of us, and we collaborated in a way that was like every single person fully participated.

every single person’s voice was heard equally. No one dominated. We had fun. We put out a great release and we respected everyone’s point of view. And I’m like, this is possible. I know this is possible. How did we do it? And so I, I worked on, you know, I certainly read Amy Edmondson’s work. I read the big Google study project, Aristotle.

I read everything I could find on it, and then I just started practicing. And by the time. It came to writing this book. I met this, I met this woman in Germany, in in a virtual class, Caroline Hek. And we both were realizing that there is lots of research about psychological safety and so many people buy into the idea that it’s important, but there’s little practical information on how to implement it.

And she reached out to me with a crazy idea saying, why don’t we try to write something? And that was the origin of the Psychological Safety Playbook, which just came out a little over two weeks ago. . But you know, I’ll give you an example of something in there that’s just very tangible that you can do, and especially for leaders.

I tried this when I was leading teams. It’s like people looked up to you. You have this sort of, you know, hierarchical power, whether you want it or not, or whether you believe in it or not, but you do. And people are watching your behavior. And if you say like you’re putting forth the strategy for the quarter, people are not gonna question you on it.

Generally. They might do it behind your back. But, so I wanted feedback and I would say, What am I missing? What have I not thought of? And that’s like one of the first things in our book is that powerful question of what am I missing? Because what you’re signaling, especially if you’re in a leadership position of any kind, is that you are not perfect.

You are not omniscient. You can’t possibly know everything, and you’re welcoming other perspectives. And you know, I know your podcast is particularly geared at the medical community. This is super, super important in a medical setting. And in fact, Amy Edmondson’s original research, you probably know, took place in the medical field and she found.

For example, if people are willing to challenge a doctor, someone who’s not a doctor, challenge a doctor, like, I think you made a mistake in dispensing this medication that can save someone’s life. But if that, for example, if it’s a nurse who doesn’t feel comfortable, challenging and saying, I think you might have made a mistake.

I think you might have missed something. Then, you know, a patient’s life could be at risk there. And that’s what she found in her research. So this is so critical that no matter how elevated your position, that you realize you can’t see everything. You can’t know everything, and you need to deliberately invite other people to call you out on that.

And you have to be open when they do challenge you to not getting defensive and saying, Thank you. I really hadn’t thought of that. And oh gosh, I really might have missed something here. And being open to those perspectives. So that’s one of the 25 tips that we have have in our book as a practical thing you can put into, into practice immediately.

Naji Gehchan: This is, this is great. And, uh, yeah, I had, I had the opportunity to interview actually on the podcast, Amy Edmondson, where, where she shared about her research. Um, and definitely in the healthcare system we see it, we see it everywhere, right? So I think you’re bringing great pieces on, speaking up on being vulnerable also as a leader and humble enough to say, Yeah, sometimes, I don’t know, sometimes I make mistakes.

Sometimes I want, like, I want the feedback, I want it back to me. Uh, so it’s really, uh, tho those are really great practical tips. You’re, um, you’re sharing with us, uh, you know, another piece on psychological safety, I, I never shared, uh, I’d love your reaction to this. Um, I, I was in a team where some people actually, you know, when you get into a managerial position, Again, like people would expect to know, uh, and because of a lack of psychological safety environment, people might keep on doing things, not knowing what are they doing, but just because they are afraid to say, I don’t know, because the expectation of the organization, they managers, they should know.

So this is for me how I started to be even more and more interested in psychological safety. But when I discovered at some point that part of my managers. Really never took a certain training on a specific capability, but actually they were afraid of saying that they never did it because everyone expected them to know.

Also, I think like there’s a lot of things around psychological safety that are super powerful and can be actually risky, as you said, in, in, in medicine where you might end up taking the wrong decisions for the patients you’re serving. If, if we talk about the challenges you faced as you were doing this as a practitioner, and I’m sure it’s in the 25 tips and advices you’re bringing, but what is the biggest challenge you faced as you were building this culture?

As you were building this, um, those really fundamentals pieces of leadership that you believe in, in your organizations with your managers too, who also manage people, uh, and how did you manage this, and how did you get around of those pieces? .

Minette Norman: You know, I think that the, the hardest piece was overcoming people’s resistance and defensiveness when we’re trying to drive change, when we’re trying to get them to work together.

Because there’s, I mean, I think there’s this fear. I, I do think a lot of resistance is fear-based, that if I work. with someone else and their idea actually comes out as the winning idea or you know, we adopt their technology or their methodology, then I will be diminished somehow and my skills will not be seen as, you know, top-notch skills because someone else’s solution one out.

So I think there’s a lot of ego involved in it, and I definitely saw that and, you know, people butting heads and not listening to each other. Just digging in and like, I’m only gonna advocate for my perspective. I’m not actually gonna listen to understand. Your perspective, and that’s why, you know, we have a whole chapter in our playbook on listening, because what I found is people were preparing how they were gonna respond and defend their position rather than truly listening to another person’s.

Idea or another person’s solution. And so that was why I focused so much on collaboration and all the skills around collaboration cuz I found that people would dig in and I think it’s based in fear and it’s based in ego. And even my own staff members, like I had sort of a disparate group of, of disciplines that reported to me and it wasn’t obvious how they could all work together.

So I was saying like if we’re trying to drive the company to work together, then we eight people need to work really closely together. But there was a little bit of like, that’s not my area. This is my expertise and I don’t wanna cross over. So I think it’s just this, you know, It comes back to biology and our brains in some ways, in that we feel defensive.

We go, we feel like if someone’s on our turf, if someone’s attacking our idea, we go into that fight, flight, freeze mode. That’s our amygdala taking over. Right? I think it comes into play. all the time in the workplace because we are feeling attacked in some way. And so what I had to learn, and I had to learn this myself, naji, I was actually one of those people that would, you know, snap at people if they attacked me or if they said, you know, that’s a bad idea.

I had to learn to actually calm my brain. And, you know, take that pause. If someone says, you know, Manette, that’s a, that idea’s never gonna work. Pause, take a breath. And then instead of, Defending or attacking back, just going. Okay. Can you explain to me why? I really wanna understand, you know, and that was a, that is something I’ve had to practice and I’ve had to try to get my staff members to practice.

Um, we, you know, one of the most useful things we ever did as a staff was we, we had someone in our organization who was an improvisation actor, and we did improv training. And it was that idea that let’s not shoot down one of, you know, one another’s ideas. In improv, you have to go Yes. And, and just continue the improv.

And so we put that into practice in our staff meetings. And it was, it was a funny thing, like we did this improv day. It was really fun. And then after that we followed up in our staff meetings. When we got back into those bad patterns of shooting down each other’s ideas or getting defensive, we would just use the phrase yes and, and it would remind.

To keep our minds open and to keep our hearts open. And so, you know, it’s a, it’s honestly an ongoing practice, but I think it’s, it’s super valuable.

Naji Gehchan: I love it. It was one of my best courses, improv leadership and, you know, taking the offer and building on it. So I, I have a follow up question on this cuz we talked about ego, about your idea being taken and obviously as you said, it’s something human, right?

Like it’s ingrained in us and sometimes you can get defensive, but I wanna touch on incentives also and as leaders, how you can build those system because somehow the incentive you bring. . If you’re gonna recognize at the end of the day the idea that won, probably you’re unconsciously creating this. Like you wanna have an idea that wins for you to be recognized.

So how did you think about all this? Like how, how did you incentivize people who idea didn’t won or. Do you even talk about ideas winning or, you know, or more like a we team winning, I’m, I’m intrigued about also the incentives team

Minette Norman: around those pieces. Yeah, we, I actually had to focus, this is such an important question, Naji, because I had to focus on that.

It’s like, what do we reward? How do we reward the behavior that we want to see? And it’s not an individual idea. It’s not an individual. So we actually started to put into place incentives for collaboration. So, and it was, it’s hard to measure this, but we started, so one of the things we would do, like, for example, for our annual summit, we rewarded teams that presented a paper together, you know, where a team from one group would present with a team.

From another on a shared solution. Everyone wins. Everyone is rewarded. You know, I would get up and, and you know, publicize these kinds of wins across collaboration. We started to do something a little geeky, but it was actually quite interesting is that we started to get metrics on. Who was, who was actually using code from another team in GitHub.

So we were measuring poll requests and like, oh, are they coming from other organizations? And then let’s, let’s elevate that and, and celebrate that. So we were finding all sorts of creative ways to recognize and reward. Collaboration and cross pollination of ideas rather than, you know, the brilliant genius who came up with something alone.

And that was not what we wanted. We wanted really, and so that was, we had a different reward center and, and certainly really elevating collaboration and, you know, cross pollination and not celebrating individuals as much.

Naji Gehchan: So what, what would you say for people who think if you don’t have enough competition, In between teams, you’re gonna lose on innovation.

So was collaboration bringing more innovation than putting people and making sure that egos fight and one wins, in other words?

Minette Norman: Oh, that’s so, that’s such an interesting one and I’m probably don’t even have a great, a great answer to that, but you know, I think, I mean, competition is also can be really healthy, right?

We all, I mean, I don. I’m competitive. I, I love games and I love to win games and like, I think that can be fueling good energy, not bad energy, but I think it can’t be based on like one winner and everyone else is a loser. It has to be that our overall goal is really to make this organization successful, make our customers successful, and that it has to be based in.

Bigger aspiration, you know, that we are, we’re changing the world. You know, whether, you know, your, your group’s in through medicine, but ours were through software that was really having very, very positive impacts on the world, and it has to have a greater meaning. So yes, we can compete to come up with the best solution.

It’s not. Because we’re gonna get a big bonus ourselves. It’s because the world is gonna be better. Our customer’s gonna have a new solution that I think can be healthy competition, but it’s not like the zero sum gain of everyone is, you know, someone’s gonna lose here. It’s that we are all working together towards a common goal and a common purpose.

And then competition can be healthy if it’s, you know, I think there has to be an element of fun in competition as opposed to cutthroat. I win, you lose, you know, type of, I

Naji Gehchan: love it. What’s your number one advice today for the leaders and transformational leaders? You are. You are helping out with your new

Minette Norman: organization.

I think the number one thing I would say is that you have to start with your own behavior. Your own self-awareness of how you interact with others before you can drive any kind of a transformation. So start with how are you listening? How are you reacting when people challenge you? How are you inviting, dissent?

And you can do this through little, little changes in in your next one-on-one meeting. In your next meeting, listen differently. Invite the quiet person to speak and. Take that pause if you’re gonna have a defensive reaction and don’t, don’t respond defensively. Just ask a curious question. And I think that if you start every day with this intention of I am gonna have better interactions at work and I am going to invite everyone to fully participate, you can make a huge difference.

And I think it’s a daily practice, honestly.

Naji Gehchan: So Vinetta, I’m gonna give you a word now. and I want to get your reaction to it. What comes first to mind? Oh boy.

Minette Norman: Okay,

Naji Gehchan: so the first one is leadership challenging. The second one is inclusive culture

Minette Norman: required. . Can you say more about it? Yes. Well, inclusive culture, if you, if you want to really benefit from every single individual in your organization, then you need to create a culture in which everyone can fully participate in which all of their ideas can come forth and which.

Each one of them can share their wild ideas and their brilliant ideas and their half baked ideas, and they will not be embarrassed or excluded. So the inclusive culture is what go, is going to create your breakthrough ideas. If everyone can fully be heard and seen and respected, but if people come to work feeling like, sorry, this is, we wouldn’t be well beyond one word , but if people come to work feeling like, I don’t dare speak up.

I’m gonna mask who I really am. You’re not gonna benefit from all the, the magic they have inside themselves.

Naji Gehchan: What about transformational leadership?

Minette Norman: This is still a one word answer.

Naji Gehchan: You can do more . Okay? It’s a two word. So you can do more

Minette Norman: Transformational leadership, I think. coming back to, it starts with you.

It starts with you. You have to be the leader that people want to work with, and you cannot drive transformation without everybody else around you. It’s not a one person job, so you have to be inviting, maybe I would say, you know, inviting is a really important word. You have to invite all the ideas and get everyone marching in the same direction, moving in the same direct.

Naji Gehchan: And the last one is spread love in organizations.

Minette Norman: Yeah. You know, it’s so funny when you, when I saw the name of this podcast, so you have that reaction. One has the reaction of love in organizations, and I would say to me, that’s about care. It’s about caring about every human being as a fellow human being.

So it’s caring. That’s love.

Naji Gehchan: any final word of wisdom? Milad Four leaders around the world.

Minette Norman: I would say that you have so much more power to change the workplace than you know, even if you’re not in the C-suite, if you’re a first line manager or any level of leadership, people are looking at you. They’re watching your behavior. They’re watching what you reward. They’re watching. What you ignore, and they’re watching what you punish.

And so you are in the spotlight whether you like it or not. And so pay attention and become, we say become bravely self-aware of your own behavior and how you’re showing up and show up in the way that is going to be inspiring to others because that’s, that’s what you have. You have that platform. Use it for.

Naji Gehchan: Thank you so much. That’s powerful words and a charge for us as leaders, uh, as we go forward leading our organizations and improving and changing the word. Thank you so much, Minette, for being with me today and this incredible chat.

Minette Norman: Thank you for inviting me, Naji. It’s been a pleasure.

Naji Gehchan: Thank you all for listening to spread love and organization’s podcast. Drop us a review on your preferred podcast platform

Follow us on LinkedIn and connect with us on spreadloveio.com. We’re eager to hear your thoughts and feedback. Most importantly, spread love in your organizations and spread the word around you to inspire others and amplify this movement, our world so desperately needs.