The Art of Caring Leadership with Heather Younger

Heather R. Younger is an experienced keynote speaker, two-time author, and the CEO and Founder of Employee Fanatix, a leading employee engagement, leadership development, and DEI consulting firm, where she is on a mission to help leaders understand the power they possess to ensure people feel valued at work.

Known as The Employee Whisperer™, Heather harnesses humor, warmth, and an instant relatability to engage and uplift audiences and inspire them into action.

Inside This Episode

  • Turning Adversity Into Opportunity
  • What It Takes to be an Employee Whisperer™
  • Why Real Change Takes Commitment and Consistency
  • The Secret to Develop Undivided Attention
  • The Difference Between Empathy and Compassion
  • How to Know if You Are Truly a Caring Leader
  • The Numbers Behind Becoming People-First
  • Leading With Feelings
  • The Main Ingredient to Helping People Find Their Voice
  • Developing Trust In a Group Setting





Tedx Talk


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John Ryan
You're listening to key conversations for leaders. This is episode number 47. Welcome everybody. In today's episode, we'll be talking about the art of caring leadership with Heather younger, we'll be discussing how to know if you're truly a caring leader, the numbers behind becoming people first, and the main ingredient to helping people find their voice and much, much more.

John Ryan 0:24
Leadership is about vision. It's about creating a vision and sharing that vision with others in a way that inspires them to walk with you towards its fulfillment. Along the way, leaders encourage, motivate, guide and even challenge people to bring their best each and every day. And it's all done through conversations. That's what this show is about better conversations for better leaders.

John Ryan 0:46
Hey, everybody, and welcome to key conversations. For leaders. I'm your host, John Ryan. And today we have a very special guest, Heather Younger, Heather's an experienced keynote speaker, two time author and the CEO and founder of employee fanatics, a leading employee engagement, leadership development, and DEI consulting firm, where she is on a mission to help leaders understand the power they possess, to ensure people feel valued at work. And she is known as the employee whisperer(TM), Heather harnesses humor, warmth and instant relatability to engage and uplift audiences and inspire them into action. Heather, thank you so much for being here on the show.

Heather Younger 1:22
Thank you. Thank you so much.

John Ryan 1:24
You know, I wanted to ask, you know, in your TEDx talk, and also on your website, you mentioned your childhood, and how it inspired you and really prepared you for the career that you have now and working with leaders. Can you talk a little bit about that journey for you?

Heather Younger 1:38
Yes. Interestingly enough, I, I, when I, when I did the TED Talk To begin with, I didn't actually even put in this one story that I included in the beginning of my new book, and it's related to it onto mine. So I come from an interracial interfaith background, and mom is white and Jewish, my dad is black and Christian. And basically, I was an outcast. In my own family, I was the black sheep of the family. And no one really, I never was really invited to large family gatherings or anything like that. And I just felt kind of this not good enough sense in myself. But there was just one aunt, who was amazing. And she, we moved away from Ohio, when I was nine, me and my family. And she sent would send me every year, a big box of gifts, eight presents to open up each day of Hanukkah. And she would do that as a way to kind of make me feel included. And like I did belong to the family.

Heather Younger 2:25
And it just gave me that sense of what caring leadership should really look like. So that was kind of I didn't really think about it literally until recently. But that in the end, that was the thing that set me on this journey of always wanting other people to feel like they can collect, they were included, like the voice mattered, like they were valued, and like they belonged. And so that's kind of where you know, where I got turned mad. And then there was a there was another impetus that happened some years ago, I was working in an organization where there was a merger of companies and in the culture was going downhill pretty quickly. And I went to the head of HR and said, Listen, we have got to do something about our lack of trust, there's a lack of engagement. And it's because I was feeling it. I was feeling the brunt myself, I was feeling really dragged down by it. And so I went to her and she was and she said, You know, I think I think you're right, we should really, you should do something about that. And I was like, I was leading customer experience at the time, I was not leading HR. And but I was kind of the cultural ambassador trying to lift people all the time. And you know, around men recognize people.

Heather Younger 3:20
And so then we I did I kind of corralled a group of people cross functional and within the different companies and we started to do things to break down walls, build trust, doing like scavenger hunts, people can learn more about one another. It was just it was a, it was a place that we really needed to get to, because it was it was tough for a lot of people. Anyway, so we did start to build trust people, people were, you know, not as fearful. But then the merger didn't go so well. They laid off a lot of people, and I was one of them. But I realized right in that moment that someone had to be the voice for the people who were driving the business forward where all the chaos was happening around them. And I chose to be that voice to be that voice back to leaders about what it is they can do to improve the experience of their people. And so that's where I'm at today.

John Ryan 3:58
Love that message. So I think I can see the total connection between your aunt and the identity that it all it takes is really one person to show up in care and how someone feel valued acknowledge and part of that group. And you were obviously that impetus for change. It does there need to be more than one person to make that work? Or can it really just start with one person and have that become an kind of a positive infection of others?

Heather Younger 4:23
I actually agree with the latter, I do think it takes one. So that like only looking for seeking for seeking change, we should look for the change inside of us for sure. And then, of course, if the change is if the if the desire to change is authentic, if it is driven by a passion to help others, so others focused, then you're going to then spread it to other people because they're going to want to have more of that, do more of that and see more of that and be a part of it. So that's just been my mission. It's not like I have some massive following in the world. But you know, I feel like we have a small and mighty group of us in the world who really want to get this work done, who really want to touch the lives of employees to the leaders who actually have the authority over them. And so yeah, that's that's I do agree that the second part is definitely the most important.

John Ryan 5:05
Wonderful. You mentioned, there has to be a desire to change. Have you ever come across leaders, organizations, and maybe undoubtedly, that are resistant to change or straight out do not want to change at all?

Heather Younger 5:19
Well, I mean, I've seen it, where they're kind of half in and half out quite a bit. And what I have to say is that, like the work that we do at employee fanatics, it ends up being not as long term, it's, it's not it's short lived, let's just put it that way. So we may have some, if we're actively engaged with them, we may have the results for some years. But if their heart is not fully in it, if they don't see a gap in what's happening, and they don't have a desire to change it and kind of that drive to move it forward, then it's not going to last long. And so I tried, I really tried to let clients know that this is not a one and done. This is a continuous process of listening and acting and communicating and learning and just kind of just it just goes in a cycle never ends. And so once I let them know that you know, then then then that can see whether they want to engage with that or not. Because some people think it's a one and done no matter what you do on the dei front and engagement front. Oh, we do the survey. We listen once we make two changes, and then they're happy, right? Like, I mean, no, it's not works.

John Ryan 6:19
That's so true. It sounds like some of those things that you have used in terms of you know, calibrating like, Are they ready to make a change? Because that itself is a little bit of adversity, a little bit of challenge to kind of work through. And that's kind of part of your specialty is turning those adversities into opportunity. Do you have any suggestions or keys that you think of when you're approaching an adversity to turn it into something more positive?

Heather Younger 6:42
I mean, I think, as I alluded to in my TED Talk, which obviously, hopefully, I'll reference in the notes, it reframing, it's a big part of it. So we all experience diversity. There's all these challenges around us all the time, we're right in the middle of a pandemic, we're all trying to get past this, right. It's how quickly can we recover? Because that's what really resilience is about, it's about the the ability to recover quickly from adversity or challenges. So it doesn't mean that challenges don't affect any of us. It's just how quickly we get up. So I would say reframing is a part of it. And what reframing really is, is just taking kind of the irrational thoughts that swirl around in our head, about what it is is going to what it is, is happening, what's going to happen, and we're just like, amplify into the future, and we're exploding in real negative way. And instead of replacing that with more positive thoughts, okay, okay, snap out of it. That actually did happen. But these are the other things that happened to, and these are the things that could potentially happen to and so they're more positive. So it's just flipping things on its head, and you're having these super intentional about doing that instead of, you know, we all kind of automatically do it. But it's the intentionality that makes us spring back faster.

John Ryan 7:46
Is that part of the thing that makes you the employee whisperer? And my other question is like, how does one develop that skill set? And what are those skills look like to really have that impact on employees?

Heather Younger 7:58
The employee whisper it part is really about having a desire to seek to understand people at a very deep level, having a for me, it's a gift to empathize with people in real ways where I can step outside of my own shoes, and really step into theirs and feel their pain. And then having this desire also kind of kind of paired with that, to express express things with compassion. So basically, the idea of empathy and compassion is that empathy is sensing the other but other people's feelings and just understanding what that is. and compassion is actually taking action to alleviate someone's pain. So you sense the person's pain. And then you could just sense it and stay right there are you could sense it and decided to do something about it. And so with the work that I do is sensing it very deeply, and then going to the leaders who can do something about it and communicating it to them in a real effective way that helps them know what to do to move forward and improve the experience for their people. That makes sense.

John Ryan 8:54
It sure does. It sure does. So that sounds like there's an empathetic stepping into their shoes perspective. But there's also not just an understanding, but you got to take action, because otherwise you're not being proactive. And that brings that in into the fold as well. I imagine that's part of some things you share in your newest book, which is the art of caring leadership. Can you tell us a little Oh, she's got a right there and kind

Heather Younger 9:14
of got kind of in love with the cover. Like I didn't actually choose the cover like everybody on LinkedIn and Facebook and wherever they chose the cover. But I love this cover it the artistic feel of it. And so basically, I do talk about empathy and compassion in there and lots of other things. The idea is we all think that we care. We just we all think we care. We all think that we express care, but we don't we, we may think we care, we may occasionally show care. But do we consistently Express care to our people, and kind of more on a daily basis on a consistent basis. And so what I attempt to do and I think I do very well with the voices of like 80 other leaders who I interviewed on my podcast leadership with heart is giving it framework so I was able to boil up about nine key behaviors of what we can do when we have to To show true expression of care, so not just this nebulous thing of care, but the expression of consistent care. So that's what I've done in there. And it gives, it's like a blueprint for leaders to say, listen, these great stories, you know, data insights, basically, with the foundation of my listening to, you know, reading personally almost 30,000, employee engagement survey comments and DDI survey comments sitting in on hundreds of employee focus groups. So it has an employee whisper background, in addition to all the leaders who really express it in more consistent ways they can show us how to do it.

John Ryan 10:31
Fantastic. Have you? I guess I imagined that a lot of people in companies right now think it should all be about logic. And the art of caring leadership is no, this is heart centered. And you got to people first, does leading with your heart, like how does that impact human organization like? What's the mechanism that allows it to really shift culture the way it probably

Heather Younger 10:51
does? And it's interesting. So I for for people who asked that exact question, I included multiple case studies in the book as well from some of the leaders that I interviewed that really talked about, for example, with Gary Ridge, Wd 40. Company, he talks about how the market cap ease of its publicly traded company and how he went from like, I don't even let's say 200 million to like 2.2 billion, it was some crazy shift or like a 10 year period. And it was only a matter of him as a CEO shifting the strategy and his focus. And his focus really did become more people first. And so he calls his people, his tribe, and he is the CEO that will go down in the morning. And when they walk in the door, he's welcome them. And again, this is a public traded company, a very large company, global company. And he takes the time to do those kinds of things. And I think of Ron alpha staffer, who is the CEO of service Express. And he talks about the same thing where I think they were maybe at, I'm not going to get this number, right, but let's just think of it from a ratio perspective, he was somewhere like 100 employees and like 30 million or something. And again, what happened with him is he realized that he kept sitting down with people.

Heather Younger 11:52
And he was talking about processes and projects and revenues, he kept just talking about those types of things. And when you realize that he kind of smacked himself in the face and said, I we're not getting anywhere with my way of leading. And when I decided to change the way I lean in the way that that says, before I go there, and we put the person who's sitting in front of me, let's meet, let me let me meet them where they're at, let's see where they're at. and really start to let the people be more empowered to drive the business forward. And they went from like, let's say it's 20 30 million to like 130 million, and that kind of a shorter period of time to where it's like 510 years. So it's a nice, huge amount of growth, look at that year over year. And those are a couple examples of that. And I put multiple others in the book, but it The proof is in the pudding, I mean, so. So I say yes, it is a good thing to do. And yes, it is the right thing to do. And to make employees feel good about the work that they're doing. And the feelings that they leave with is the thing that drives business results. It is the how they feel about you how they feel about the mission in the organization that decide that makes it decides whether they actually press the snooze button in the morning, like 25 times, or whether they jumped the heck out of bed, ready to get to work for you.

John Ryan 12:56
So I'm ready to get going. I love it. Both of those examples seem to speak to the idea that you mentioned, which is undivided attention, that focusing on the person in front of you can it seems like in the social media world, and all the distractions that we have that that's a skill that we are really lacking. How do you how do you develop that discipline principle to stay totally focus on the person in front of you.

Heather Younger 13:22
And, you know, foundationally, for me, I think if we go back to my story of how I didn't feel for the majority of my life, I mean, really up even into my 30s didn't feel really cared for not necessarily from like my mom and my dad, but I'm just thinking about like the extended family, which really is you think about that's where a lot of your values are, are created as a kind of this extended family feels that extended family complete reject me. And so I had this, this, and I could have reacted with equal rejection, I could have reacted with kind of equal non acceptance, right, all of those things. But I decided that I wanted to make people feel the opposite of what I felt like. And so because of that, for me, it's it's a it's a leading value, I am driven, to be able to be present and to listen to people and to feel for them and to let them know that they're not alone. So that's the way it is. I think, if we want I do teach emotional intelligence, I do train I'm certified in this and I do train on empathy and things to try to help people who aren't naturally inclined that way.

Heather Younger 14:19
Or let's say if it wasn't natural, it wasn't one that was like nurtured, you know, there's like nature versus nurture, and all of those, right. And so for me, it kind of ended up in nature, it was like a survival of the fittest mechanism for me to be able to do that. So I would say for any people, anybody who doesn't see themselves as someone who's naturally empathetic, and then of course, compassionate. You want to just really practice being fully present, you know, getting kind of clearing away everything that's there, and just kind of relaxing yourself and cleaning out your mind and really focusing on the person in front of me as the bullseye and it's hard to do that. It's like no phone, close the door like nothing else there. And just ask open ended questions, you know, lean in and ask open ended questions. Because what I've Mind is that stories help build empathy and others. And so if we listen to people's stories, we all of a sudden see their view. And then we're like, oh, shoot, I did not like see that I did not know that. And then now I can feel them a little bit more, and I can sense where they're coming from. And that's when you have the power as a leader, Holy smokes in its positive power. It's not the negative authority wielding kind of thing I'm talking about, I'm saying, Wow, the level of influence you get to, when you are able to sense the feelings of another person and where they want to get to in their life and how you can help them get there. It's powerful.

John Ryan 15:34
I love it's going back to empathy in the beginning with the intention and being aware. It's not just the nurturing environment, it's actually decision that you might make on side that in something you had to do that in response to your environment. It seems like when you're evaluating or listening to stories, and you're paying attention, you're being fully present, that that's going to naturally improve the relationship and create trust. Does that also kind of fight against the tendency to micromanage from a management leadership perspective?

Heather Younger 16:01
Yeah, yeah, you bring up a really good point there. So the micromanagement absolutely is an issue of a lack of trust. There's a lack of trust, and there's a lack of insecurity. So there's thinking about micromanagement. There's, there's all this baggage that comes with us as humans, I just start displayed mine right here, right, some of mine at least. And we all have that baggage. So oftentimes, the micromanagers, they don't have a sense of control, and maybe they never did, maybe there was some stuff in their background that made them never feel in control. So they always had to be the one to control things. So there's a lot of complexities in the micromanager, actually, but that trust component is a big one, I think it is kind of the lack of trust is the foundation of that person who's a micromanager. And so, you know, how do you how do you grow and trust?

Heather Younger 16:43
Well, I think you've kind of put your finger on it quickly here. And that was this idea of self awareness, of being aware of how you feel your skin. So when you're at the point where you know that there's like a project and you need to this person's skill set really aligns best with this project, and you're going to hand it over. How do you feel right now moment, I would say journal, like scan yourself, and then the journal, what it is you're feeling in those moments, especially if you know, you're the person who tends to micromanage. And we know what we are, we are most of us know what we are, it comes up in our performance review as it comes up in our marriages, right. So when you know you're that person, you have to take the time to fully evaluate how you're feeling when you're doing this thing that stretches you. And I would say, to really be aware is to do that to body to scan yourself, how's your eyes, your heart racing, I mean, are you is their anxiety raising up in you what's happening in you, and journal that because when you when you know what your triggers are, then you can kind of back yourself up and try to manage the emotions then going forward, it's like that rewind, we allow them to fast forward, right, you can analyze yourself going backwards and then move forward in a better way.

John Ryan 17:49
Self Awareness really does. It's where it all begins. Right. And it helps you to create that own connection congruency within and develop your own power. What advice do you have for leaders out there to help others to find their own voice and to help amplify their voices and help them find their own power?

Heather Younger 18:06
I think, you know, a big one is that I think trust is it. So you can't you can't create a kind of a safe space for people to feel comfortable speaking up. And unless they trust you. And so who you know, when you when you create it, so if it's you, if you and the person, just one on one, you know, what are the things are you doing to build trust, and that's like keeping your word, you know, doing what you say you're going to do, being there on their side, when things get tough. If they make a mistake, you don't come down on them hard you sit with them and figure out what it is they did wrong, what they could do better next time you really meet them where they're at and with heart. And then I would say secondarily, if you're trying to open up a space where people are speaking of, let's say, in groups, you have to ask yourself who's around the table? Do they trust those people at the table? Or is there an identity kind of a common identity amongst the people at the table? Is it very inclusive?

Heather Younger 18:54
There's lots of things that you have to ask yourself if you're trying to expand now this level of of opening up and trustworthiness when it's when it's speaking at a group because that's like a fearful thing. If you think about most people are more afraid of like public speaking which means speaking in a group doesn't need to be like standing up in front of people then they are even dying in most cases it's really pretty bad. So when you know that that is in fact true what do you do then it's a leader to create just that sense of of safety and calm and not going to route you know psychological safety not going to ridicule you or ridicule you not gonna you know laugh at you everybody can just say you know, speak the truth that I talked about this idea of maybe like making it fun where you around the table where you can, you know, have fun squishy doll and you throw it around when you throw it out the person gets to like say their say their sight and everybody it ends up being more like a game that people are speaking out speaking their truth.

Heather Younger 19:43
Those are there that's one way to do it. You can also have for those who just don't, they are just oh my gosh, they'll get in hives if they have to talk and then there are a lot of people like that they will get hives. And so if you want to you can even have it where they're like writing down their thoughts and then giving it into like a stack of things and then you can read through the thoughts without actually I did applying it to the person. That obviously isn't necessarily a sense of safety. But in the end, if you're trying to really get to the point where you're open people up, then that would be one way to do that as well. So there's a lot of ways to do it. But you have to really care first queue just have to cover you got to do all the things that are important, so that people at least trust you before you can expect them to speak up, you know, openly in any other form.

John Ryan 20:20
I think you just had a really well, you have to care first, like none of that's going to happen, unless you actually care, which, which seems to me like that would create a ton of employee loyalty. And in how do you see that like, does that increase? Like, like, I want to be part like you said, No more hit the snooze button, I want to get out of bed I want to go to work. It does employ your loyalty exist, or does it increase when this happens? Like, what is your experience with that?

Heather Younger 20:48
Employer loyalty? But me I think, I think in the end, it let's be most organizations are driven by bottom line. So what is what does this mean from revenue perspective? What does this mean from growth? What does it mean from customer satisfaction, like all of those things, is what they're looking for. So understanding that, that is the main focus for most organizations. And obviously, each individual leader in their shoes might have different motivations. But organizations are existed for profitability, unless they're nonprofits, you know, they're there, they're better they're meant to be. And so, you know, I don't want to minimize the fact that we need to make money that we need to make sure customers are happy. It's just that you can't get any of that unless you're unless your team members are happy for. So I would say like this idea of employer loyalties is really, it. It happens if if at the core of who the top leaders are, that people are first, as I've kind of alluded to, with Gary ridge and Ron alpha staffer, and the different people again, that I've talked about before, if you have those kind of leaders, Daniel McCollum, he makes me think that too, he did another show, the people that I talked to a really realized there's a set strategy change, there's always like a pivot, I don't know, if they all started there, most of them didn't start there, they pivoted there after realizing they weren't going to get, they just weren't going to get the results they wanted. And they knew it was the right thing to do. So when you can combine both the right thing to do and the right thing to do right from from a revenue perspective, then you're in good shape. So that's what I would say is that you'll you one will get loyalty when the other gives loyalty. And you have to be doing it at the same time. It's bi directional.

John Ryan 22:15
I love it. Yeah, totally. It's about conversations with self conversation, other people and investing in the relationship and truly being that caring leader that you're speaking about, you know, obviously here are key conversations within conversations are key to have with yourself and other people. Do you mind sharing what's an important conversation, perhaps that you've had either personally or professionally, that has a big impact on your life?

Heather Younger 22:37
conversations. And it's I think I have a lot of conversations. And I think one of the biggest ones is when I talk to my kids, because I have four children, and they're three of them are teenagers, and one is about to be a tween here. And I remember one day, I went into my son's bed, my oldest son, and he, he always says he gets the least attention. So one day just decided to walk into he was sitting at his chair in his bedroom, and I just decided to like, let go and like lay on his bed and start talking just really informally. Now I was just chatting with them. And then all of a sudden, he gets out of his chair, and he kind of lays down next and we're just like talk and you know, just like later, like talk and and he gives, at the end of our conversation, he just said, Mommy, this is nice having this time with you. And he's like 16, so just give us 15 minutes happen. This is nice having a conversation. So I would say like the the idea of I understood that he needed that time that I was giving him that focus time. And I needed to meet him in this place because he's also more introverted. So it's, it's so it doesn't share much very internal. And so I needed to go to him in the way that spoke his language. And he's very much a connector and has to have that contact and likes hugs and things. And so I said, let's just kind of hang his chair like this just to talk and, and that's what we needed to do. So but I think that would be a pretty pivotal conversation. And I think again, it's a great example of what we would need to do at work to write and obviously not going to lay on a bed with your team member. But you are going to, we're going to come to them in a way that speaks to them. And you can't know that unless you spend time with them. So it's critical to spend time one on one with your people for sure.

John Ryan 24:14
Well, parents are leaders too, and caring, caring leaders for sure. You know, Heather, thank you so much for sharing your insights and all your wisdom and ideas. What's the best way for our listeners and viewers to get in touch with you and stay connected with your stories?

Heather Younger 24:28
Well, I would love obviously for sure for them to go to And check out the book that I have here. I love I just love the cover.

John Ryan 24:37
Beautiful, It's great.

Heather Younger 24:38
I love it for leadership but gets a little bit unique. But if you go there you will see there are some a lot of kind of good freebies that you can download post or some infographics. We have bundle packages for anybody that would love to have it for their team. So I would say that's a big one. And I would say secondarily LinkedIn is probably my biggest presence. And so if you just want to go connect with Heather younger on LinkedIn, I think I might be like when you go put that in there. You'll have Just find me. And that way you can kind of see everything that's going on, I can engage with your content, we can play with games with one another and, and kind of create a relationship from there. So

John Ryan 25:09
I'll put all those links in the show notes as well. Heather, thanks so much for being here. It's been an absolute privilege.

Heather Younger 25:15
Thank you so much. It's been great.

John Ryan 25:17
And thank you for watching and listening until next time, develop yourself, empower others and lead by example. Thanks for listening to key conversations for leaders with your host John Ryan. If you enjoyed the show, please let us know. Give us a rating or write a review. And if you'd like to connect with me and other like minded leaders, I invite you to join our Facebook group called Develop, Empower and Lead where I deliver free live training every week. If you go to It will redirect you right there. Hope to see you there soon.

John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

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