Once in a while you connect with someone who’s effortless to talk with and fills the conversation with warmth and humility. That’s what it’s like to chat with Shelley Underwood. Owner of her own HR consulting business, and in-house counsel to others, Shelley believes that each of us can (and should) impact others in meaningful and positive ways at work and beyond.
In this episode of People at Work, Shelley and I unwrap what this looks like in practice. This article captures three key themes coming out of this fantastic conversation—but you won’t want to miss hearing Shelley bring them to life.
Listen to the episode
“When we go to work every day we can actually impact someone not just for the eight to five that they're with us but in every area of their life. We can impact them for good.”
HR Consultant, Competency Based Consulting
Shelley’s a powerful force for good, for people and workplaces everywhere. She’s driven by a whole person focus. This means giving all you can to each person and taking the time to listen, learn, and engage at every opportunity: who are they, what do they like, what’s going on in their life? Sharing stories from her early career at Apple, Shelley knows firsthand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a “whole person” management style.
She absorbed these experiences and others to formulate strong opinions about what workplaces should be like, and how people should be treated and nurtured at work. When you give people the attention they need (not what you think they need), you earn their trust and commitment. And more importantly, your ability to impact them for good is that much greater. So is the impact on you as a leader, your team, and the organization as a whole.
“When you invest in a person holistically, you find out what makes them tick, what their passions are, what their desires are, and you find a way to support them in that. In return they come to work driven and devoted to you and your business.”
A whole person focus begins with empathy. As Brene Brown clearly explains, empathy is feeling with somebody, trying to put their emotions on, and simply being present with them—it’s not about making them feel better or understood, or solving their problem. When you adopt this as your default behavior, you remove arrogance, assumptions, and misunderstandings.
But empathy isn’t something we do very well. As leaders, it’s a critical life skill that needs to be understood and practiced, every day. Shelley talks extensively about the importance of empathy for day to day interactions with employees and customers. She acknowledges that empathy demands courage and vulnerability, but also requires us to assume positive intent in the words and actions of others. Shelley’s call to action is loud and clear: if you can choose to be something, why not choose to be kind? That’s what sits at the core of empathy (and the whole person focus).
“If we don't have leaders who are empathetic themselves, how can you expect those that work under us to be empathetic or to be kind or generous?”
Alongside her passion for embracing people and practicing empathy wholeheartedly, Shelley has an interesting approach to happiness. In her formula, happiness is the outcome of deliberate actions to achieve success. Instead of chasing short-term peaks of happiness, Shelley argues that a more sustained, consistent approach to achieving goals and solving hard problems, creates the conditions for long-term success. With this comes contentment, satisfaction, and ultimately, deep-seated happiness.
In the workplace, this is achieved by matching people and roles through the best skills for the job. This means that managers must be aware of what skills are required to succeed at a specific task or project, and then be aware of which people have those skills. According to Shelley, one way to tackle this is to have a clear understanding of what it takes to get the job done and to then create job descriptions that set candidates up for success before hiring even begins. For existing employees, looking at skill gaps or opportunities and then committing to training or task/team mobility, can move closer towards success as the end goal instead of fleeting happiness.
“When we feel happy, that's a wonderful thing. But there's something better. You can have this deep sense of contentment, joyfulness, and peacefulness in your life on a very consistent level that’s not circumstantial.”
The crux of Shelley’s outlook is that people are more important than your to-do list. Few people complain about having too much time, and it’s easy to get buried in the tasks at hand. But as a leader or manager, your first priority is to ensure that your people are aligned (with their own tasks and skills, and with others on your team), that they’re seen and heard, and that you approach them with utmost kindness. We all possess what it takes to achieve this—but it takes inspiring thinkers like Shelley to help us understand how.
About Shelley Underwood
Shelley works with small businesses and startups innovating in the areas of hiring, retention, engagement, and organizational structuring. She loves living in Georgia where her favorite times are spent with her boys and running by the beautiful Savannah River.