Episode 177

Published on:

29th Feb 2024

Leading with Vulnerability: Creating an Environment of Authenticity and Openness


In this episode of the HR Impact show, Dr. Jim delves into the dynamic world of leadership, talent strategies, and organizational culture with guest Dr. Robert DeFinis. With an underlying theme of flexibility and emancipation from rigid corporate frameworks, the conversation hinges on the imperative need for leaders to cultivate high-performance teams through autonomy, professional development, and actionable culture strategies that surpass mere HR domain.

Dr. DeFinis talks about his journey from law enforcement to higher education, underscoring the versatility that has shaped his leadership techniques. The exchange broadens to dissect the persistent myths in leadership and HR, especially the misconception that the Human Resources department is the sole custodian of organizational culture. Moving forward, Dr. DeFinis articulates his Gen X-influenced leadership philosophy, emphasizing hiring competent people, supporting them efficiently, and then stepping back to let them thrive autonomously.

Key Takeaways:

  • True organizational culture transcends the HR department's boundaries and is the collective responsibility of every individual within the enterprise.
  • Leadership evolution is non-negotiable; what worked in past decades may now be counterproductive, especially the command-and-control model.
  • Hiring the right talent, providing thorough support and training, and subsequently giving them space to perform is a foundational trifecta for a successful leadership approach.
  • Continued success in leadership roles necessitates self-reflection and a willingness to adapt one's leadership style to the changing workforce dynamics.
  • The best-performing teams are facilitated by leaders who trust but verify, rather than micro-managing through a 'helicopter leadership' approach.


0:03:39 Dr. Jim asks about the key things that have positioned Robert for success in his current role.

0:05:54 Robert shares his proudest achievement in his current role - watching his team members grow and succeed.

0:09:30 Robert expresses his wish for the myth that HR is solely responsible for company culture to go away.

0:12:00 Robert reflects on his experience in law enforcement and the lack of space for understanding and dialogue in decision-making.

0:15:09 The risks of relying on positional authority as a leadership style and the importance of being open to different perspectives.

0:18:39 The foundational elements of creating an environment that encourages openness, vulnerability, and authenticity.

0:22:22 Robert shares his leadership philosophy of hiring good people, supporting and training them, and getting out of their way.

0:26:16 Leaders should avoid excessive meetings and being overly present in their employees' work.

0:28:37 Culture is owned by every person in the organization, not just HR. Leaders need to take responsibility for creating a positive culture.

Connect with Dr. Jim: linkedin.com/in/drjimk

Connect with CT: linkedin.com/in/cheetung

Connect with Robert DeFinis: linkedin.com/in/robertdefinis

Music Credit: winning elevation - Hot_Dope

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Dr. Jim: Thanks for joining us today on the HR Impact Show. This is your friendly neighborhood talent strategy nerd, Dr. Jim. The future of leadership isn't one that relies on followers mindlessly doing what they're told.

In fact, employees that mindlessly do what they're told isn't going to lead to a high performance organization finding flexibility in an increasingly rigid corporate environment is going to be what leads to better talent outcomes and better organizational performance.

That's what the author of leading like a Gen X or Robert de Finis has to say, and that's Dr. Robert de Finis, Dr. D, if you're, if you're on a tight basis there. So what's Robert's story? Let's talk about it a little bit. He has worked with children, athletes, coaches, teams, leaders, and organizations for over 20 years while consistently leveraging optimal performance strategies into success stories.

cognition from organizations [:

He has a varied background, which has informed his leadership and talent development strategy, . Robert, welcome to the show.

Dr. Robert DeFinis: Thanks for having me excited to be here.

Dr. Jim: Your perspective is pretty unique that you bring to the show, especially the intersection between your law enforcement experience and now your leadership experience in higher ed.

What I'd like you to do is get the audience up to speed on some of the things that. I left out of your bio that you feel is going to be important for them to connect with you about that's going to inform this conversation.

. I went to higher education [:

I would say my career tracking and my success tracking has been, probably not the ordinary, but what is ordinary today? To be honest with you, I think a lot of people do transition at different stages of their career. And that's what mine has always been with a focus on, getting these leadership experiences along the way that have really crafted. What I believe to be a really good leadership portfolio That doesn't come without, bumps and bruises along the way and i've had my trials and tribulations like anybody else But most of my background really, centers on just people whether they were little people k 12 space or middle schoolers or In higher education adult learners.

I've always really enjoyed The people aspect of any position that I've ever been in. Other than that, professionally I've also had stops along the way in nonprofit leadership, which is a, a totally different beast than the corporate side. I've enjoyed that. I've served on several different boards.

focuses have been education, [:

Dr. Jim: When I think about your career trajectory, there's a couple of things that I'd like to dig into. And one in particular is that you're currently a campus president for Arizona College of Nursing. And when you look at where you are now and compare it to the early stages of your career, where you were in law enforcement, and then you, Went into primary education, not for profits, and now higher education.

And I might have the sequence a little off. What were the key things that you picked up along the way that's actually positioned you well for succeeding in the campus presidency role?

Dr. Robert DeFinis: Each stop, to be honest with you, showed me something a little bit different. I think it's important not to be in one sector. I know when, after I finished my doctorate degree, I told my dissertation chair, I said, what I want to do is actually some consulting work. And she looked at me, she says, don't do consulting.

, but I only have one or two [:

What does it look like in small business? It varies along the way. And I think one thing I've been very conscious is how do I gain all of these different levels of experience so I can take it along with me in this journey in my career journey. And I think Landing here as a campus president, being responsible for academics and operations and fiscal responsibility.

ld that anybody can do it. I [:

Dr. Jim: There's an interesting aspect of what you just described where your dissertation chair urged you not to broaden out your set of experiences. And I, for what it's worth, I think you took the right path. Because the risk is that if you're too insular within a niche or two or within an industry or two, you can be prone to groupthink that exists within that industry.

And by broadening out your set of experiences beyond what it was at the time, I think that from a leadership perspective keeps you protected. Falling into the trap of group things. When we look at your background and you've, you're approaching almost two years, you're just about a year, seven, eight months in your current role.

What's been the achievement that you're most proud of in your current role?

o find the right people. Put [:

It's almost like a parent to some degree. We're bringing them into the world, and we're nurturing them, and they're growing, and then they go out on their own, and They explore the world and you get that happens a lot in the work environment, and I think that would be probably my most rewarding experience is to watch my people grow into the exceptional professionals they are, and if they're in leadership roles, watching them develop their leadership voice,

Dr. Jim: It's interesting that you mentioned, the aspect of finding the right people, watching them grow. You've done a fair amount of hiring throughout your career and development throughout your career. What are some of the things that stand out that position leaders to be better at hiring, better at development?

Dr. Robert DeFinis: [:

But we also got to be fair to them and provide them all the tools and the resources .

Dr. Jim: There's an aspect of what you just described where your position is, Hey, we should be doing a 90 day eval. We should create the space for the candidate to do a 90 day eval. I would take it one step further and say that you need to be embedding that feedback and listening and action culture throughout your entire employee life cycle.

So from pre hire to retire, you should be looking at what are the areas of the process in the employee life cycle that we can measure. That's including your TA process, that's including your onboarding process. And the reality of it is that from a data perspective, the data shows that the stronger your onboarding process, the better your retention outcomes are going to be.

day bi directional eval. I [:

And I'm sure you've come across a lot of this stuff throughout your time. But when you think about all the leadership and HR myths that exist out there, what's the one that you wish would just go away?

mprove and create a culture. [:

How are they regulating it? I think i'd like to see that go.

Dr. Jim: I really like the fact that you cited that specific example because it's when you look at reasons why teams or organizations fail and especially when you look at it through the lens of employee turnover, two out of the five biggest reasons that an employee is going to leave an organization has to do with their direct manager.

with leaders of the business [:

So the whole idea that culture is an HR responsibility, I bristle at too, because you're shirking one of the key responsibilities that you have as a leader or manager. By outsourcing that to a different business unit, that's your responsibility because who's gonna suffer when people leave your team?

It's the rest of your team. And eventually if it happens enough, it's going to be you because you're gonna be out of a job. I opened the show by mentioning that the future of leadership isn't one that relies On people just blindly doing what they're told in fact if you're looking at building a high performance organization, you need to do a lot of different things and Probably get out of that Positional authority mindset.

to building high performance [:

Dr. Robert DeFinis: What I learned in my career was I started out in law enforcement and Law enforcement is paramilitary It's a command and control structure, very authoritative. You have to follow command and you can't really deviate. And in the military, it makes sense, . We can't have 5, 000 people making decisions on their own.

We have to have that structure. And in law enforcement, to a certain degree, I understood it. What I didn't understand and what didn't work for me was there was no really, there was like almost zero space for Understanding why decisions were made and then maybe dialoguing a little bit post decision because I did see and there were times where decisions were made, they were made in that structure of it's my way or the highway and then they turned out to be the wrong decision.

ke a decision that wasn't in [:

There is no, there's no wiggle room. This is what I said. I'm the boss. I've even heard that terminology even more recently, and it's very outdated. It's not to say we can't have leadership make the ultimate decision. That's what a leader does. At the end of the day, they will have to make a decision. In the best interest of themselves in the best interest of the corporation, their people, but you have to give a little bit of space. And that's what I would suggest the space for different ways to lead people and allow people to [00:14:00] have input and at least allow them to collaborate in an environment that is welcoming to their ideas. I think that's what a lot of the different generations are looking for, specifically when we look at Generation X, Millennial, and Z. All three of them are currently in the work environment. Millennials and Zs, this is how they have been taught in primary and secondary education. This is how they're being reared is that there is some space for dialogue.

There's some space for them to contribute to the problem and more importantly, to the solution. So that's where I see things right now.

tyle or how you show up as a [:

Dr. Robert DeFinis: you got me thinking a lot about scenarios and situations that I've been in where as a leader myself, I always say I don't have the best ideas. I don't have all of the ideas, and I am completely blown away when I do intentionally create the space for people to collaborate, contribute, provide solutions.

own way. And I see a lot of [:

Dr. Jim: It's interesting that you mentioned that, the leaders that rely on positional authority, the my way or highway types are the ones that typically burn out or at least wash out of the leadership ranks the quickest.

So looking at the other side of the coin, why is it important to lead with vulnerability when it comes to creating an environment that is development focused? And I want to tie it in with a little bit of context here. You mentioned earlier on in the conversation that one of the things that you really enjoy is One, taking a chance on bringing somebody into the team and then watching them flourish and grow.

, leading with authenticity, [:

Dr. Robert DeFinis: We have to be adaptive. We have to meet our people actually where they're at. I think the, one would probably argue the easiest way to get things done are to tell people what to do. A plus B is C, right? If you, it's not that it might be the right way. But if you're talking about the easiest and the way to get it, the quickest way to get it to finish or end, it might not be the product that you want, is to just tell someone what to do. But that's, again, we're not meeting the employee and the generational groups where they actually are and where they can make the biggest contributions and impacts. To the organization. So that just creates more change that we have with be self reflectors and practitioners on how we're actually going about it. So it's I wouldn't say intentionality and a conscious effort. You're at your spot on when you say you know how we were led. We definitely in our, probably in your early career, my early career, [00:18:00] we saw that was the standard bearer of leadership. And I think we had to, and this is another plug for Gen Xers, is we had to say, you know what, this is not how we operate.

We don't operate with inside the company walls this way. And externally in our personal lives, this is not our philosophy. And we had to take a stance and we had to say, you know what, we're going to do things just a little bit differently. And if it's vulnerability and openness. And creating space and dialogue and adopting a little bit of collaboration so people can contribute. I think we, I think that's the way we needed to go. So it was evolutionary that we were going to land at this space to begin with. And I'm glad to see that we've made some of those changes.

Dr. Jim: We could have a whole nother conversation about how we ignored Gen Xers were just basically feral throughout most of our life and just had to figure stuff out. But that's a different conversation. I think one of the things that I'm curious about, and especially since this is related to the book that you wrote, if.

leader is looking to be more [:

Dr. Robert DeFinis: I think it starts with a little bit of disruption. I'm a big believer in disruption. You gotta shake it up a little bit. You can't. Adopt the philosophy. We've always done it this way. So I think stepping out of your comfort zone and figuring out how you can change things up. I know I've had to do that many times, even if even in the process of adopting my own leadership philosophies along the way, I've changed. I didn't stay stagnant. My first leadership role was 15 plus years ago. I'm not that leader, I've had to adopt. I had to change. I had to recognize. So I think disruption, the openness to change. I mentioned this earlier. And this is something with as an educator, we constantly are advocating becoming a self reflector. We promote this a lot from an educational [00:20:00] standpoint. Evaluating constantly what we're doing in the classroom. So I've adopted that. I take time out of my schedule just to reflect on the semester. What did we get right? What did we agree upon? What? How are we going to change it?

What are the tools and resources required to change it? And I think taking it, looking at that lens of it and putting it into a leadership framework, we should constantly be doing that. What styles have I used? What is required with the people that are in front of me, the new people that are coming on board, the people that I've had, here for a period of time, do I need to make these adjustments?

Are they practical? What will what does change management entail with this? Because, people are just humans are just reluctant to change to begin with. So there's, I think, a lot to that. That's a load of question. I think that could be a whole lot. Podcast in itself is just drilling down on all of those elements, but I think if you're true to yourself and you're an authentic leader, you're constantly evaluating how you're tackling leadership to begin with.

Dr. Jim: There's a lot [:

As a status report or a project check in all of those questions that you asked from the self reflection side. Of the equation can be modified slightly and applied to what a real one on one looks like, because those are the things that you need to be talking about during your one on one times to really connect with the people that report into you and create that communication culture.

your team dynamics and team [:

The thing that I'm missing right now is how do you get started? There are going to be listeners that are hearing this. And want to build this type of culture. It's the whole eating an elephant thing. How do you actually get started with this?

Dr. Robert DeFinis: I'm often asked, about my leadership philosophy and my style. We always get that as leaders, right? What's your style? And it's a it's definitely involved. I was very, I was a participative leader, collaborative leader, team based leader, loved all of those approaches. And then not too long ago, and this was the genesis of my research in the book was someone asked me that question and I just blurred it out.

ut so much time, energy, and [:

Gen Xers simplify things. They don't complicate things. They don't believe in. Taking a process and putting extra steps in just to, create bureaucracy, inertia and all of these things. What they believe is that we can simplify this process and we can get people [00:24:00] moving and marshalling people in the right direction. So I know that it sounds like that can't just be it. We know it's not just it. We know that. Finding good talent, hiring good talent takes a lot of energy work and resources. We know that bringing them on and onboarding them does that, but I think the actual biggest challenge isn't step one and step two, it's step three. Leaders, managers, and even organizational structure getting in the way of the people doing the job. That is primary a lot. Whenever I get feedback from specifically mid managers, is why do we have these processes and why do we have all of these things that prevent me? And they'll use that word, prevent me from doing the job. And obviously, this is just, that's a blanket statement and it's not an absolute. It doesn't apply everywhere. But it does allow a leader to reflect and to say, am I in the way of progress? And I think that's an important consideration.

Dr. Jim: That's a really solid framework.

en somebody is listening to, [:

How am I supposed to keep people accountable or hold people accountable if I'm not monitoring things? How would you respond to that?

Dr. Robert DeFinis: Get out of the way is an totally removing yourself from the picture. A philosophy that I really, I think is very important, and it comes from the military, is trust, but verify. Trust, but verify. So we're not saying you are absent, you're an absentee, or a laissez faire leader, you're just gonna be not in the picture.

You're going to lead, and you're gonna lead from the front, but what you're not going to do is you're going to constantly be In your people's office, pulling them out of assignments, constantly barraging them with meetings, being a meeting driven organization where they can't get the work done.

of this, being a helicopter [:

Demonstrate. Why we hired you in the first place. And that's all I'm saying.

Dr. Jim: So I have a couple of different phrases that I use for what you described. So I think on the first bit Yeah, you mentioned meetings, which are a point of frustration for a lot of people out there. And there's plenty of people that I've talked to who have mentioned that I have so many meetings in a day.

I don't know what I'm going to get work done. So the question that leaders need to be asking is, could this meeting have been an email and you referenced helicopter leader. I call it seagull leadership. You fly in crap all over the place and fly out after you made a big mess. So don't do either one of those.

touch with you and move this [:

Dr. Robert DeFinis: Obviously all my socials I'm on Twitter at at the fitness and then also on LinkedIn under Robert to finish. And then my website, probably the easiest way to get ahold of me is a dr. definance. com and there's a contact form there. We can have a chat. Definitely open to conversations. I love just always talking.

I could feel like I could be on here forever because these are important topics. These are things that are really important to, to our industry and our trade as leaders. So I'm always open just to even just having conversation and dialogue. So feel free to reach out.

Dr. Jim: I appreciate you hanging out with us and and sharing your insights. When I think about this conversation and look at the things that stood out for me, I think one of the things that you mentioned early on is really critical for us to emphasize. And that's the idea or the myth that culture is owned by HR.

e. Evaluate how they behave. [:

And if you're a leader that outsources your culture responsibilities to hr, you're probably dealing with some massive turnover as a result of you not taking responsibility and ownership for the culture, the other aspect that stands out to me about this conversation is that if you're a leader and you're looking at these things from a binary lens, I can't have an accountability culture if I'm not monitoring every, I can't have a Participatory leadership culture because that's going to take accountability out of my hands.

handles productive conflict. [:

So Robert, really great conversation. Appreciate you hanging out with us. I learned a ton from it. For those of you who are listening to this episode Let us know what you thought of the conversation and tune in next time where we'll have another great leader joining us to share with us the game changing insights that help them build a high performing team,

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About the Podcast

The HR Impact Show
Empowering Busy HR Teams to Create Engaged, Elite Workforces
If you're part of a busy HR team, doing more with less is the mandate you've been operating under for years. What was already a difficult task has become even more challenging with remote and hybrid teams, economic uncertainty, drastic swings in the employee landscape, and the pervasive mindset that HR isn't your friend.

How do you make a meaningful impact in the face of all of these headwinds?

How can you overcome the day to day challenges you and your team faces and get on the path to building an elite organization?

This podcast is designed for busy HR leaders and professionals who are supporting small to mid-sized organizations. We know doing more with less is your reality.

We want to help by bringing you bite sized, actionable steps to help you empower your managers, engage your employees, and build elite organizations. Each week we will share our best frameworks as well as periodic interviews with some of the best HR practitioners in North America.

If you're ready to shift from HR survival mode to HR thrive mode then hit follow and take a listen.

About your hosts

CheeTung Leong

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I'm committed to helping people live their best lives through work.

I'm one of the co-founders of EngageRocket, an HRTech SaaS startup and we are focused on helping organizations build empowered managers, engaged employees, and elite teams.

I'm a big nerd when it comes to economics and psychology and regularly use data and tech to help folks live their best lives.

I've been recognized by Prestige Magazine as one of the top 40 under 40 business leaders and have been featured in Forbes, Bloomberg, Business Insider, and Tech in Asia.

Jim Kanichirayil

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Your friendly neighborhood talent strategy nerd is the producer and co-host for The HR Impact Show. He's spent his career in sales and has been typically in startup b2b HRTech and TA-Tech organizations.

He's built high-performance sales teams throughout his career and is passionate about all things employee life cycle and especially employee retention and turnover.