Has COVID-19 made us kinder? AC mentor Jackie Lauer says yesJackie Gill - August 12, 2020
How are you?
No, really… how are you?
For the first time in over 20 years, Jackie Lauer’s noticing a trend: when we ask this small question, we mean it. “We actually stop. And we breathe. And we listen. And we connect like never before.”
The reason? COVID-19. With employees finding themselves working in essential (but potentially high-risk) services, switching to remote work, being furloughed or even being let go, “We don’t have a choice around having compassion and empathy for each other,” she says. “Everyone felt fear of being ill, fear of uncertainty, fear [for their] finances.”
Lauer speaks from experience on this one. As the Accelerator Centre’s in-house leadership, HR and culture mentor, as an independent coach and as a self-proclaimed “neuroscience geek,” she’s helped founders work out battles over who should be CEO, discover the true values of their company and even adjust to a new work-from-home reality.
And while that pandemic fear is real, she’s happy to report it’s not all bad news. Rather, it’s driving home the lessons she’s been teaching entrepreneurs and leaders for the last two decades. “Everything comes down to human relationships. Everything.”
Humanity first in tough times
Even before COVID-19, leading a team was hard work. No surprises there, really – it’s why Lauer does what she does with the startups at the AC.
“When it comes to people, oftentimes leaders take it for granted that they know how to run a meeting, or they know how to communicate a change. But actually, there’s genuine science and strategy behind those things,” she says.
And simply having past experience working as part of a good team isn’t enough to teach those strategies. “Until you’ve been in a place where you’ve had to scale a consistent culture that you passionately believe in, it’s hard to do.”
Doing that during COVID-19 is harder still, because the importance of culture and human relationships are amplified across every part of the business, she adds – from product roadmap all the way up to who’s running the company.
In the early days of the pandemic, most of her calls were around helping clients figure out how to manage a remote team or manage themselves remotely. But it grew into much bigger questions.
“Until you’ve been in a place where you’ve had to scale a consistent culture that you passionately believe in, it’s hard to do.”
– Jackie Lauer, HR and culture mentor at the Accelerator Centre
Of course, there’s balancing a personal life while your work computer’s in the next room. “Discipline is really important. When you close down at night, close your office door or shut down the desk, so you can’t see it,” she says. “My son laughs at me because my desk gets shut down, and I won’t go near it at all on the weekends.”
Social connection matters too. “Even for those who are introverts, who work from home and like it, we still need structure that forces us to connect with other human beings. I don’t care if it’s for an afternoon trivia session or formal meetings over Zoom. … It shouldn’t just be happenstance. It should be designed.”
Thinking about the way we structure physical space is part of that, she adds, as a good design allows for both productivity and social interaction. But even digital space matters – and sometimes, we just need a break from those virtual calls.
“Looking at all of your micro-expressions on your face and my own, the body is working overtime, overtime, overtime. Friend or foe? Friend or foe? Is she okay? Am I okay? … It’s fucking exhausting,” she says. If you’ve ever felt strangely tired after a video meeting, this is why – and it’s well documented.
“We actually stop. And we breathe. And we listen. And we connect like never before.”
– Jackie Lauer
But COVID-19 is also giving leaders a chance to understand their employees better, Lauer adds. She recalls a leader who told her recently, “I swear to God, I really got to know my people during the time of working remotely.” It’s actually a common response, she says.
It’s also opening up more conversation and empathy for employees who have mental illnesses. “We now have a better understanding of mental health issues because people like me, who’ve never experienced mental health issues, suddenly have an understanding of what that actually means,” she says.
What’s encouraged her most, though? “I’m honestly a bit excited that some companies will probably continue to honour work from home … Their big lesson is, oh, people are still productive.”
From startup to coach to startup coach
When Lauer says she’s excited, she means it. Culture, change management, leadership development, communication – it’s all fascinating, though she didn’t always have a name for it.
It started twenty-five years ago, when she was the director for North American recruitment, sales and training for a startup called the Information Technology Institute. “We grew that thing from one office in Ottawa and Halifax, and within five years we were opening $2 million facilities every three to six months across Canada and into the United States,” she says. “When we did it well, we grew fast, well and healthy. And when we didn’t, it was painful and costly.”
At first, it was more the latter than the former. Like many of the startups she helps today as an AC mentor, she and her company were figuring things out for the first time. They poured their energy into developing good products and making sales. Their business grew.
“I’m like, holy crap, there are different cultures even in English speaking countries. So how do you scale a company quickly when they’re competing with each other within their own region? And also, how do you communicate company values across a company so big across different regions?”
“When we did it well, we grew fast, well and healthy. And when we didn’t, it was painful and costly.”
– Jackie Lauer
It was a few years later when she first discovered coaching while working with Nortel. An employee recommended a coaching program she had recently attended in Toronto. Lauer was intrigued, so she picked up a book by one of the speakers.
Switch flipped. “I didn’t really know what coaching was. I started reading about it and went, holy shit, I love this stuff!” she says. “It captured for me what I believed good leaders were.”
She devoured every resource and pursued every certification she could on change management methodologies and culture, even diving into the neuroscience behind it, even training under mentors like Judith Glaser, a renowned researcher in human behavior and pioneer in conversational intelligence. From the amygdala hijack that sends us into fight-flight-freeze-or-appease mode to watching MRIs light up as people connect with each other, to understanding why oxytocin makes us feel happy while cortisol makes us feel stressed, “I’ve just never stopped.”
The best version of you
The concepts of coaching and neuroscience helped Lauer build her own business in 2000 as a leadership consultant and coach. And 10 years later, when her marriage ended, it helped her start fresh in her life as a single parent with a four-year-old son.
“I thought, well, shit. I either go get a quote-unquote real job or I need to run my business quite differently. And so I decided, I love running my business, so I’m going to rebuild in Kitchener-Waterloo,” she says.
What started as an invitation to 10 locals for a series she put together called Breakfast Bites with Jackie Lauer: How Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast – “I said, I’m going to feed you, and I’m going to give you some free advice on culture, and I’m hoping you think I’m worthy of referrals so I can grow my business here” – quickly turned into a gig as a mentor with the Accelerator Centre.
“How do you have your full voice and not be an asshole? How do you stop and say no and not be a jerk?”
– Jackie Lauer
“One of those people at that event was an Accelerator Center member and the next thing I know, they were like, ‘you know, our HR mentor just resigned.’ And I’m like, ‘Alright, let’s talk.’ So here I am.”
Since joining, she’s helped startups with everything from mediating disputes and building trust to figuring out what their business’ mission, vision and values are. “What often happens in the early days is founders get misaligned with each other. They don’t have the same vision of what they want, or they don’t have the same idea of their values,” she says.
And the response she gets encourages her to keep going. Or, as her mentees would say, “Forcing us to talk to each other has forced us to learn to be more respectful and communicate better with each other.”
“Coaching is not really a job. I think it’s a skill that we all require. I think it’s a way of conversing that most humans should learn.”
– Jackie Lauer
But it’s not so much about forcing those conversations as it is about building trust so those sometimes-tough conversations (eventually) happen naturally, she says. “That’s the lesson I want people to learn. How do you have your full voice and not be an asshole? How do you stop and say no and not be a jerk? How do you get feedback without hurting?”
That’s why coaching and culture are as fundamental to business as product and sales, she says. “One of the things I fundamentally believe is that coaching is not really a job. I think it’s a skill that we all require. I think it’s a way of conversing that most humans should learn.”
And her role in that? “My job is to help you be your best version of yourself.” So when Lauer asks you how you’re doing, she really wants to know.
Want to work with business leaders like Jackie Lauer? Grow your startup by applying to the Accelerator Centre today!