Ep. 228: Nykema Jackson - Leading Through Change: Engagement in the Hybrid Work Era

July 10, 2023 | 23 Minutes

Join us in this episode of Count Me In as we welcome our esteemed guest, Nykema Jackson, Head of Reporting, Policy and Technical Accounting at Airbnb. As we navigate the tides of remote work, hybrid models, and the aftershocks of the 'Great Resignation,' Nykema shares her insights into the art of staff development and leadership in these changing times. Discover how organizations can keep their staff engaged, foster open and trusting relationships, and leverage technology for connectivity and team building. Nykema also delves into the importance of empathy, clear vision, and timely feedback in creating a culture that inspires employees to stay and grow. Tune in to decode the leadership formula for the new world of work.
Connect with Nykema: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nykemajackson/

Full Episode Transcript:
Adam:            Hello and welcome to Count Me In. The podcast that brings you the latest insights and practical advice on leadership, accounting, management, finance, and business. I'm your host Adam Larson, and today we are delighted to have Nykema Jackson with us. With a rich background in consulting and a significant leadership role in corporate America. She's here to share her views on the pressing issue of our time; staff development and leadership in the era of remote and hybrid work models. 
As we explore the new paradigms that have emerged in the wake of the Great Resignation, let's dive into the conversation to learn how we can foster engagement, trust, and growth in these transformative times. Please join me in welcoming Nykema to the show.
[00:00:43]       < Music >
Adam:            So, Nykema, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. We're really excited to have you on, and today we're going to be talking about staff development and leadership. Which is a big topic today because in the last three years we've seen a lot of changes. With the change to working from home. And, then, now, as things have gone back, going back to hybrid. And we've had terms like The Great Resignation and quiet quitting being thrown at everybody. 
And, so, as we're talking about that, can we maybe discuss, from your perspective, how do you see an organization can keep their staff engaged and continue to develop them in the midst of all this?
Nykema:        Sure, and thanks so much for having me. One thing that I've seen in my career, and I've come from a consulting background and, currently, I'm in corporate America working for a company. I've seen that individuals need leadership that knows and is very intimately versed in the mission of the company. That is invested in their employees. And investments from a learning and development perspective, as well as investing in them as a person. 
And, so, COVID has brought around this environment where we've merged lives. We had our work cells before we had our personal cells, and now those things have come together. I find that it's critically important to recognize and acknowledge that in people, and to support them down both avenues. And when someone feels invested in and developed, and they know the mission that they're marching towards. I feel that turnover is less and you can get around the big resignation.
Adam:            So I completely agree. As you continue to engage people, they will stay where they are. But, then, there's also the quiet ones who aren't really as engaged with what's happening. You can develop, and you can pour yourself into the people who are engaged and want to be there. But how do you grab those folks who are not quite there and want to be there?
Nykema:        So one of the things I do, personally, are one-on-one check-ins with my directs, and sometimes I do skip levels. You'd be amazed that for those quieter ones, how much they open up in a one-on-one environment. I think people need to know from leadership, and I feel like sometimes we get lost in our own trajectory and progression. We don't realize that as we rise in the ranks, there is a level of intimidation for people. So you need to make it an open-door policy, and you need to make people feel comfortable to come to you. And one way to do that is to develop relationships. 
But it takes a concerted effort on the leader to make time for that. Because it's not that time is on our side in a lot of situations, and COVID has created an additional barrier around that. Where people can't just pop in your office, they can't just see you in the hallway. They can't just strike up a conversation around the coffee machine. 
They have to be deliberate and intentional on making those relationships and fostering that along the way. And the only way to do that is to schedule the time. So that it can start to become organic. Where they feel more comfortable with their relationship, with leadership, and they'll come to you naturally.
Adam:            Yes, it's almost like you need to create some open-door Zoom call or open-door office hours on Teams, where people can just pop in at any time. Where they're able to do that, and the technology is out there. And how has technology helped you in the midst of the COVID era and able to reach out to people?
Nykema:        So, for me, COVID has opened up a whole universe of additional time, for me, it's saved me a commute. So I've been able to use technology, in a way, to connect with people, and I make it less transactional. So some folks get a little intimidated by being on screen. 
And, so, one thing that I've done is I don't multitask while I'm on calls. I silence my email so that I can really focus on individuals. And with the use of technology, we're able to do teaming events virtually. Sometimes we'll do happy hours, where we'll send a bottle of wine to individuals. I haven't done that on my current team, so don't tell them. 
But in the past, I've sent bottles of wine, or if there's something that they like around coffee, or something, gourmet, I would send that, and then we would have a virtual outing. And it gives people the flexibility to still be there for their families, and their children, and whatever extracurricular activities that they have. But we can, literally, pick any time of the day to do this now. Versus sequestering it to the end of the day.
Adam:            Yes, our team did a virtual wine and painting. Where they sent the wine and the painting thing, and then the person did it through Zoom and show us. And we'd all sit there painting, and drinking our wine, and it was actually quite fun. More fun than I realized it would be, doing it virtually. I never thought it could be like that.
Nykema:        Absolutely.
Adam:            Do you have any other examples of how you've been able to develop your team, in the midst of the COVID era. Even before the COVID era, where it was difficult for the team members to connect.
Nykema:        So one thing I find with individuals, from a connectivity perspective, is that you have to build trust. And to build trust you have to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable, you got to share. So being authentic at work, a hurdle for some people because they don't want to expose themselves. 
But I've found that I've reached more individuals and created more solid relationships by airing my, I would call it, dirty laundry. Sharing examples of obstacles that I've had and I faced. Things that didn't go well, how I approached that. Sharing my network. 
I think when people see that you're vulnerable and you make mistakes, too, they're more comfortable to come to you about what their career goals are. And once you tap the pulse on where someone wants to go. What they want to do, professionally, and sometimes even personally, and you're able to support them in that vein. Then you're able to crack the code on what do you need to do to support that person with whatever that thing is.
Some people are technically savvy. They may need help with soft skills, they might need help with setting agenda-based meetings. They might need help with public speaking. But you don't know what those insecurities are, or the things that they're wrestling with, without opening up the door of conversation. And a lot of your folks will, sometimes, feel like, "Hey, I got to operate this level because I don't want to expose any of my weaknesses."
So by sharing your weaknesses, it gives them the avenue and the invitation to share those that you could better help them and develop them.
Adam:            Yes, it's almost like you have to get over that hurdle. That social hurdle of, "Well, if I share trust with you, it'll show my weakness, and then somebody will take advantage of me." And it's creating that aura, that safe space, in a sense.
Nykema:        Absolutely. And I find that that's very critical in building relationships so that you can lead a team; inspire, motivate, develop them, to come around what the overall mission would be for that company or that particular function.
Adam:            Definitely. It makes me think of, I remember years ago, reading, so I think it was Stephen M.R. Covey did the speed of trust. And I think his biggest thing was always that trust is always a two-way street. That you can create that atmosphere, but then it has to come back. In order for it to build and grow that relationship, and that's huge in a work environment. That if you're open, then, other people start to feel that safety to be open as well. It's kind of what you were saying?
Nykema:        Absolutely. And one thing I would add on to that, Adam, is also empathy. It's a lost art, I feel, in some spaces. And that when people feel like you really see them for who they are. You can relate to what they're going through. Because there's a lot of personal hurdles that have come out of COVID. People have lost loved ones. 
People have had to balance work and life and the intrusion of that. With taking care of small kids or taking care of the elderly. And I feel like when you can relate and support them in that vein, they're willing to go to the mud for you when they have to. But it's a two-way street, like you mentioned. You're there for them and then they're there for you. So it's a reciprocation of that trust, respect, and support.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, and it builds a better, stronger team because we see each other as humans, and we see each other no longer as boss and employee.
Nykema:        Exactly. And, to me, when I look at the cutting-edge companies or the companies that are leading, it's that leadership that people can follow behind. It's not so much focused just on salary, and the company. It's the leadership and where they're taking that company, and the spirit and the tone at the top that permeates throughout.
Adam:            So when thinking about leadership and its effect on staff development. What are some traits that you've seen have been the most effective, when trying to create this atmosphere that we've been talking about in leaders?
Nykema:        So one is clear vision. You want to follow behind someone that knows where they're going and how they're going to get there. Not that you have to know everything. I think using the talents of your team, and building your team around some of the areas that you may have some developmental points, personally, is important as a leader. 
Delegating and not just delegating the tasks that you don't want to do, but delegating the inspiring tasks. The things that they want to actually get involved in, the things that are going to develop them. Showing that vested interest in individuals, as you're taking them along. And feedback; feedback is so important to people, and not just at the annual or the biannual periods. Where it's structured through talent. 
But feedback on a timely basis on what they're doing well, and constructive feedback. And I find that a lot of leaders do shy away from constructive feedback because it is uncomfortable. But I do realize in all my roles, currently, and my prior roles, that I've won the most trust in people when I've given them the constructive feedback. In a way that they can digest it, of course, but something that they can hold on to to increase their capabilities or to develop further for that next step.
Adam:            I feel like that constructive feedback is almost like the lost art of empathy, that you mentioned earlier. Where having that it's like that coaching. Where you're coaching people to become better versions of themselves. And have you been able to find ways to do that constructive feedback or even coach people, in order to help improve them?
Nykema:        Absolutely. So, typically, what I do, if I'm starting in a new organization or I have someone that's new coming into my team. I like to lay the groundwork, up front. So I usually have a one-on-one discussion with them about my leadership style, what motivates me. Then I'll ask them what motivates them. How would they like to receive feedback?
What's the best form?
How frequently would they like to receive that feedback? 
And then I tell them, when we talk about the avenues of constructive feedback, that feedback is a gift. And because it's so hard for people to do it, whether it's a function of time constraints or just their comfort level. That when you have someone that does that, to me, it's a quality that shows that they're really invested in you. 
And, so, when you have someone that does that, they're truly supporting your progression and not just saying, "Hey, good job." And you're able to work on the things that are not mentioned to you. And, then, sometimes, people wonder why they're stagnant and why they're not moving to the next level. Because they haven't gotten that behind-the-scenes feedback, that's discussed in a lot of review committees. 
So when they can see that feedback as something that's beneficial and something that is important to building, to your point, that lost part of empathy and trust. Then they get on the bandwagon with it, and they're okay with receiving it because they know it's coming from a good place.
Adam:            Yes, that's a really good point. And as you were talking it made me think of as leaders, sometimes, we get so lost in the weeds of the day-to-day work. That we forget to see the bigger picture of how we can help improve our employees. And what would you say to somebody who is like, "I never remember to give feedback, until it's time for reviews? How do I remember to do that more often?"
Nykema:        That's a good question. I'm trying to think of what I, personally, do. I think it has to be just part of your way of working. And from an objective perspective, I think that if folks don't feel like they have enough time to do it, then, they're probably not delegating enough. 
There should be a good portion of your day or your week, where you're really just thinking about "How well is the week going?" Sometimes that's based on the tactical objectives. But, sometimes, that's based on how they were executed. And your biggest, most important resource, at any company, whether you're in consulting or at a corporation are your people. 
Your people drive your business. Your people interface with your customers. Your people grow your bottom line. So without investing in them, you're remiss to not give them the feedback. So that they can better themselves and feel more tied to that mission and their own personal development.
Because I always say, and I know you've heard this from other people, people don't leave companies they leave bosses. So if you're not taking that time to invest in them, why would they stick around? Why would they support you when you need their level of flexibility? When you need them to go and work extra hours, or push through on a very important deadline, or a deliverable. If you're not even taking that little bit of time to invest in them and show them that you care.
Adam:            Yes, and as a leader, if you feel like you don't have that time, you have to reevaluate how are you spending your time. And, then, like you said, are you delegating enough? 
And, then, if you aren't able to delegate enough, then it's more of an organizational, like, "Hey, everybody's kind of overworked, how can we reorganize things to help things?" 
Because a lot of organizations are feeling the pressure of, "Hey, we're back to work. We need to be back to pre-COVID levels of sales, and yada, yada, yada." And I don't know that people are adjusting as well.
Nykema:        I totally agree and I've seen it in my career. In that when an organization is overworked and you're stretching your people, your turnover rate is extremely high. There's definitely a correlation between the two. So you have to make time and mental space to do it because feedback also is a delicate delivery. It's not something you could do off the cuff. You really got to think about how you want to deliver that message, and what's your ultimate objective in giving that feedback. Do you want to harm confidence?
Do you want to build confidence? 
Do you want to motivate? 
Do you want to inspire? So it's not just a matter of delivering the actual facts of what happened. It's how you deliver it that will allow that person to receive it and do something good with it.
Adam:            I agree. And I just keep thinking back to when you said the lost art of empathy, it just really set something off of me. And I really connect with that as somebody who has come to realize, as I've reflected on myself, that I'm a very empathetic person. Where I can look at somebody else's situation and connect with that because of just my life situations that I've had. And thinking about that, I think that's why we've seen a rise, within corporations. 
Not only because of the social structures of what's been happening in the U.S. and around the world, but a rise in people's recognizing the true importance of Diversity, Equity, and I'll add Accessibility and Inclusion, I feel like we miss the A, sometimes, in that terminology, within organizations, on how you're developing your team. 
How you're connecting with your team. And I feel like COVID helped us see that where we were invited into people's homes as we had meetings, and we're having meetings, and suddenly a kid runs in, or a dog runs in, or they have those issues. But we're suddenly seeing the importance of connecting with people and empathizing with their moments. And how diverse we all are within our thought processes, within our life experiences, and how important that is when you're leading your team.
Nykema:        Absolutely. DEI is one of my passions, no matter where I go or what organization I'm a part of. And I find that companies, across the board, they do a good job, some of them do a great job with diversity. So making sure we have people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, cultures, way of working, and all that good stuff. Where I find companies struggle sometimes is the inclusion and the equity piece. 
And, so, you get all these diverse people together. It's almost like you have a dinner party and you invite everyone there, but you don't prepare a meal for everyone. So everyone doesn't get to eat. And I feel like that is something that companies are still trying to strife for, and I know there's lots of training on it. There's lots of self-development on it. 
But I really find that the companies that get it right, it's just a part of the overall fabric of the company. And it's not something that you're, necessarily, just teaching. It's coming from the tone at the top, and it's being those allies in those situations because you're bringing all these people from different background, different companies. They don't, necessarily, have a focus on inclusivity. 
And, so, I've seen it work really well, in my current employer, in that there's a focus on being an ally. So if you see something, you say something. And you mentioned earlier about the quieter ones. So they have protocols for people that maybe don't want to have direct conversations in situations where they feel like something's going awry. They say, "Hey, why don't you pull that person to the side and ask how they felt about that interaction, or that situation?"
So it's taking it a step further, beyond just being a diverse company, but creating a mechanism and developing a culture that's focused on now that we have everybody at the dinner table, let's just make sure everybody's eating.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, yes, to use the dinner table analogy, you can have everybody at the dinner table. But if all you're serving is steak, the vegans, the vegetarians, the pescatarians won't really feel like they can be included in the meal. They can maybe just pick up the salad and that's about it, but they don't really feel like they're a part of the team.
Nykema:        Absolutely, and it makes me think back to what you said earlier around traits of a leader. One thing I want to call out is flexibility. So flexing your style. So to your example around the vegans around the table or maybe the pescatarians. 
You may have to flex your style once you understand what motivates that person. And it doesn't mean that you're not being true to yourself, it just means you're being a servant leader. And you're figuring out, "How do I adapt, as an executive or in a leadership role, to make sure that I'm reaching everyone on my team." Everyone is talented, everyone has the right skill sets. But it's a matter of how do I motivate them, individually, because we all have different personality types.
Adam:            We do.
Nykema:        So, sometimes, it even goes beyond just skin color, or race, or nationality. It's my personal style may be a driver; someone's personal style may be an amiable. I have to figure out what motivates that person, to be able to reach them. To have that empathy, to connect with them, and to develop them.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, and that's the biggest part of DE&I is going beyond just one element of it and seeing the whole picture, and that's how we become better at the inclusivity part of it.
Nykema:        Absolutely. And it reminds me of, you've probably seen this, that visual aid that you see in a lot of DEI trainings of that iceberg.
Adam:            Yes.
Nykema:        The stuff that's above the water. The things that are below the water; the only way you get to those is by developing relationships. So it goes back to our earlier conversation around how does a leader develop people that are on the quieter side or the people that they want to have a level of influence over? 
Well, you can't get to below the iceberg unless you're having those one on ones, and really trying to understand, and asking the questions, and empathizing with who they are. What their goals are personally and professionally. That's the only way you could be fully inclusive beyond just what you see visually.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, and by being able to do that is by being open yourself, by building that trust, and also by being empathetic to their situation and how they can communicate. Because not everybody communicates the same way. And if you don't communicate, if you're not able to adapt and be flexible to communicate in a way that makes them comfortable, then, you'll never get to know them.
Nykema:        Absolutely.
Adam:            Well, Nykema, I feel like this has been such a wonderful conversation. I feel like we can keep going. But I just want to thank you so much for coming on the podcast, today. This has been wonderful and I really hope our audience enjoys it.
Nykema:        Thanks so much for having me. I enjoyed, equally, as much, engaging in this discussion with you.
[00:21:56] < Outro >
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