Today’s podcast has a topic that I was really looking forward to getting into. Laila Tarraf, Chief People Officer from Allbirds is here to talk about why leading with compassion has never been more important.
This was a really great conversation, especially coming off of a year and a half of the pandemic. This awareness of empathy and compassionate leadership is something that I hope we keep around post-COVID.
Listening time: 26 minutes
“Leadership is an inside-out job. And so if you’re not compassionate with yourself, and you’re not cutting yourself slack, and if your inner critic is on full tilt…”
“Research shows that you do your best work when you are fully engaged and you actually really like it. And that is only going to happen when you feel you can be yourself.”
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Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup and you’re listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast. Today we have Laila on from Allbirds, we’re actually gonna be talking about why leading with compassion has never been more important. And I can’t wait to get into this topic. Because this last year and a half is has dripped of empathy, all the business calls have. I’ve loved it, you know, in a way, because we’ve talked more about our family, we talk more about, you know, what’s going on. And, and I love that. And I want to, I hope that we keep some of that post COVID. That empathy, at least. And so I’m really interested to kind of hear Laila talk about compassion as well. And so without any further ado, Laila, would you do us a favor and introduce both yourself and also introduce Allbirds?
Sure, absolutely. My name is Laila Tarraf. I’m the chief people officer at Allbirds, Allbirds is a lifestyle, sustainable global brand. We started in footwear, and now we’ve expanded into apparel. And our products are made with sustainable materials. And we are a B Corp, which means we’re focused on what we call the triple bottom line, which is people profit and planet.
Oh, yeah, of course. That’s fantastic. How did you get into, how did you get into that? How did you start with Allbirds?
I met one of the co-founders, Joey, probably eight years ago, just you know, through our networks, and immediately liked him. And we just connected, you know, I think that we vibed. And then when Tim and Joey came together to start Allbirds that I did speak with them in 2017. And this was when the company was just getting off the ground. And I had kind of moved on in my career. At that point, I was an advisor within private equity, and I said good luck with that startup of yours. Good luck with that.
Good luck, like little ducklings at the pond, out there swimming.
Two years later. We were back in touch. And they said, Hey, you know, we need some help on the HR side of things? And would you consider coming in and just maybe being an advisor for us? And I think it was on day two or day three? They said, Hey, how about just joining us full time? And so that’s how it happened. And I joined summer of 2019.
Oh, that’s fantastic. Well, a triple bottom line company is, I think, easier for an HR person to understand. Because they emphasize that it’s, it’s an admission, they’ve emphasized people as a part of it. I mean, you know, what, you know, as a capitalist, you can kind of understand that model as well. But it’s I think it’s easier for recruiters and, and HR pros, to just get it. It’s like, okay, you’re going to emphasize people as a part of this. Okay. Yeah. Great. Thank you. Fantastic.
Now, I’ll have budget for the things that we actually need to get done. So that’s good. Tell me a little bit about compassion in a way that we, you know, obviously, you’ve seen a lot of things this year. And it’s probably pushed you into some learning as well, like all of us. But what do you think with this topic? Why do you think leading with compassion is so important?
It’s just so interesting how this year, this term, you know, compassionate leadership, or leading with love, or leading with compassion has really started to to pick up steam. And it makes me pause. I think the better question is, why hasn’t it always been important?
Why did it take a global pandemic?
Right? And I think, I think moments of crisis of extremes is what really shines a bright light on what is needed, right. Yeah. And I think that this last year was that year for us. Hopefully, most of us were caring about our employees and treating each other with mutual respect, and developing personal relationships alongside professional ones that work, but I think you’re right, I think traditionally in business, been very capitalistic, very focus on your drive for results, high performance, and you know, softer skills. And I use air quotes when I say softer skills, because the soft skills are the hard ones to acquire.
I haven’t gotten as much air time. And I think when you hit a global pandemic, and all of a sudden, the very physical and mental health and safety of your employees becomes foundational to the business, then it becomes very, very clear, like, Oh, I need to pay attention to the whole person. It’s funny because this, this idea of bringing your whole self to work, right, we want all of you, I remember, this was maybe 13, 14 years ago, when I was at Pete’s coffee and tea.
We relaunched our values, and we put it under the banner of bringing your whole self to work. And I’ve been thinking lately, that now that we’re working from home, and there just isn’t that big, bright line between your work self and your home self, we really are now bringing our whole self to work, there’s no separation. So I think that’s been the gift of the last year.
It, it has. Its, it was always going to be bonded, we kind of had this false wall up. And that’s okay, there’s this work, and there’s this profession. And then there’s this other person that maybe they don’t see the person that has hobbies and interests, and it does things on the weekends and things like that. And now, you know, it’s okay. I mean, it’s totally, again, one of the, the upsides of, of the pandemic, or remote work, if you will, is that you know, we get to see people’s kids, and cats and dogs and goldfish, and, you know.
It humanizes everybody, doesn’t it, it just sort of answer. And I and I get this too, I think, you know, when you start in your career, you, you have a persona, you have a facade, this is my work self, and how I carry myself at work. And I think what’s so lovely now, for people who are entering the working world today, versus like back in the 80s, and 90s, is that you are allowed to show more of who you really are, depending on the company in the industry, of course.
But all the research, research shows that you do your best work, when you are fully engaged, and you actually really like it. And that is only going to happen. When you feel you can be yourself. If you’re only if you’re compartmentalizing and only showing a little bit of yourself or acting in a certain way that you think is acceptable, you’re not gonna have access to all the amazing qualities you have inside of you, because you are sort of cutting that off.
And so that’s the business case for bringing your whole self to work and for caring for the entire individual. I think I think the challenge is how do you get that balance? Right? Yeah. Right, and not go too far, one way or the other. And, and I use this analogy all the time, at Allbirds, which I’m always drawing these two circles, these two intersecting circles. And on one side, it’s you know, focus on the business and driving results in high performance. And on the other side, it’s creating the conditions for people to do their best work, and really nurturing a culture of connection and belonging. And you want to do both, right.
And sometimes those two things might seem like they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum, or they might be going in different directions. But actually think they’re two circles. And then there’s an overlap in the middle like a Venn diagram. And I think the art and the science is in how you stay and you traverse and you tack back and forth in that overlap. And sometimes you’re going to be like, No, you know, what, we need to double down, we need to make our numbers this month, and everyone’s in it. Right?
And other times, it’s going to be the hold on a minute. Yeah, we’re figuring out how to get back into work after being at home. And let’s be a little gentler, with, with what we’re doing, and it’s it and that is the art and the science of it. Right. There’s no playbook for this stuff.
No, no, I think I think the whole self. I think what’s terrified some leaders about that is the unknown. It’s, it’s okay, so, you know, like, take something like depression, or mental health in general. And it’s like, well, your whole self. Okay, so let’s deal with that. You know, there are days that are better than others and days that I could just fight through it, and then there are days that I can’t, and I think the leaders historically have looked at it like that is, yeah, I don’t want to. I want to I want to be in the dark on that. Whatever personal things you’re going through there.
That’s fantastic. Not my problem, not my problem. WPMP. I’d be UPYP for you. And I think that those days are over of, okay, you can’t run from it, take, we are all made up of all of these things, and some are going to be fun and, and some of them are not gonna be fun. And that whole self is I think, historically, why people have ever buffed it is just, they’re terrified. And I think the pandemic has helped us a little bit in that we were just all forced, you know, March 30, everybody’s going solo, everybody’s going remote period, figure it out. And, and then you know that all the trauma that they came with, you know, layoffs and everything else like that. I think people kind of have relaxed now they’re a little bit more able to like, Okay, well, you know, let’s talk a little bit about mental health, you know?
Oh, absolutely. I think it’s a much, much more open time. Now the anxiety is actually on coming back to the office.
Well, now, that’s interesting, because, and you live in a part of the world where an hour commute is normal. Like that, like in DC, New York, LA, even Dallas and Chicago kind of face some of that Atlanta, faces some of that, and now you’ve got workers that are there to look at the word commute, and they’re gonna go, mmm, yeah, I’m not gonna do that. So that that’s gonna be a shift for us to figure out on an ongoing basis.
But let me give you give me get you back to compassion for a second because I want to give the audience a couple of examples of some of the things that you’ve seen or done, as it relates to compassion. So that, you know, again, some of this is people have to see it, they have to feel it, they have to understand it, and then they can emulate it afterwards, but is as a leader, sometimes you got to go first, and, and show people acts of acts of compassion. So what, what have you seen, and what have you done is relates is just some really cool examples of compassion. And we won’t name names.
I like I like how you say that, because um, your ability to empathize and to sit with someone else, when they’re having a crummy day, is partially based on your ability to do it with yourself? Yeah. Right. And so I would say that leadership is an inside-out job. And so if you’re not compassionate with yourself, and you’re not cutting yourself slack, and if your inner critic is on full tilt, tilt, like Laila, why did you do that? That’s how I’m going to talk to you. Yeah, right. One of my huge learnings over the last 12 years, is how do I practice self-kindness and self-love. So that can emanate to the people that I work around.
And I think, when we first went into lockdown, we immediately started doing weekly, all-hands meetings, because we wanted to provide a touchpoint, a connection to the company, obviously, now all of a sudden, everybody’s in their homes. Now, it seems perfectly natural, but back then it was like, Oh, my gosh, we’re gonna lose this connection. And some of it was information, but a lot of it was just staying in touch. And we opened up a q&a board, give us your questions. And there was a lot where there were a lot of questions we couldn’t answer. And it almost didn’t matter, it was really just much more important to make the space for us to come together every week, and to have that certainty because there was so much else that was uncertain.
And to be as open and honest, as we could about what we knew, but also what we didn’t know, which is a little bit harder, right? It’s much easier to say, here’s the plan. And here we go. And when you don’t know, I think it feels like Oh, I should know, I’m the leader. And so we all got I think very good. I myself, you know, just being vulnerable and saying I I looked at some old notes that I wrote last last March, April, and I said something like when we come back into the office in June, I thought oh my gosh.
Hey, I mean you were close, June, just a year after that. Good. No worries.
And I so I think, I hope that our employees saw that and, and the anxiety that came with the not knowing was counterbalanced with the assurance and the comfort that you know what we’re giving you the info that we have when we have it. I just wrote an email this morning that we’re sending out about coming back to work and people want to know Are you going to, you know, are we going to wear masks in the office? Are we going to require vaccines? Are we going to you know, all? How are we going to ensure that people will be safe? And they’re all great questions, and we answered the ones that we could. And we said, we’ll have to let you know on these other things, we’re still finding. We’re still waiting to see what happens. When things went up and what other and it made us all really, really good at getting comfortable with not knowing.
Yeah, say ambiguity, leadership, is the consumption of ambiguity. And this is this has really put us to the test. Because not do we not not know, we don’t even know when we’re going to know. Like, sometimes it’s like, okay, there’ll be a firm decision in December. We don’t even really know when this is going to be and I think getting employees comfortable with ambiguity is kind of an art as well, is just like, Okay, listen, when I say we don’t know, I’m not putting you off. That’s not a put-off. I’m not actually passing the buck. It’s actually, I don’t know, and I’m okay with not knowing.
And that’s okay.
And that’s okay. For the audience, something I’ve learned this year, in reviewing my notes, which I’m glad you brought that up. Because I’ve done that recently, as well, is asking questions of employees, when I have those one-on-ones with folks, you know, and I can be vulnerable with them, and they can be vulnerable with me, which I love the tie in of compassion and vulnerability. One question of that I’ve grown accustomed to asking people just periodically is: What am I doing that makes your job harder? Like, is there something that I’m doing, am I inundating Slack? Am I sending you too many emails? Is there anything and it doesn’t matter how tactical or, or large just, is there anything? It’s okay, like. Like, it’s just us, no one’s recording the call. Just tell me so that I stop doing it. Because I can’t stop it if I don’t know that I’m not doing it.
Another thing is, is if you want to ask again, this is dealing with vulnerability, is asking people what you can do to make their life better. So this transcends out of just work, work. Talk to Lauren, to the work personal talk, when you have that discussion with people, it’s just like, Okay, is there anything I can do? I know a ton of people, you know, I mean, is there anything that I could do for your, for your wife or for your partner for your kids? Is there anything I could do to make your life better? I think as a leader, the more you ask those types of provocative questions, the more you might find some connections there that just you never would have explored. If you didn’t ask the question.
Well, that’s right there, right. When you drop your facade or your persona, I’ve never had it that someone didn’t say to me, oh, yeah, I, I relate with what you’re saying, or Me too, or he just drops that you just dropped to a deeper, more intimate level of conversation. And that’s where the trust is built. Right?
I do another podcast with, actually, practitioners like yourself, where we talk about their careers. And it’s a really, it’s a video podcast. So it’s a little bit different. But I would one of the questions we, we always ask is, you know, how’d you get there? Advice you’d give your younger self, etc. My partner in that he always has this bit about. And it’s a quote from a book, and I can’t remember the book, but it’s that vulnerability is the first thing we ask of others and it’s the last thing that we give to others.
And I just think it’s a good. I mean, again, I have to think of the author, but I think it’s a genius quote, and it’s true. The last thing I had on my notes was transcending over into the personal again, getting comfortable, as a leader talking with employees, and we work with about their personal lives. And one of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve started to talk to people more about their hobbies, like what they’re into, which is usually because it’s, I use a common language. So I usually kind of talk to people like them, like what do you into these days?
Why do you listen to like, what do you enjoy? You went to what are you doing? What are you doing? What are you into? And what, what I love about that is people open up like, really into drone racing now. Like, you know, just, me and my son are doing this bit, blah, blah, blah. And it’s like you get to learn about them in a much more meaningful way than just the deadlines and the things and the to-do’s and the emails and whatever. Like that stuff’s important. I’m not I want to, I don’t want to ever say that that stuff’s not important. It is. It’s how work gets done. But if we’re bringing compassion in, and we’re going to lead with it, we’ve actually got to know we’ve Got to get to know people on a deeper way in a deeper way.
I agree. And the last thing I would say on, I 100% agree with everything you’re saying, I think what’s also important to highlight here is leading with compassion doesn’t mean not having the hard conversation, it doesn’t mean not giving feedback that you know, when something didn’t go well, that you don’t sit down and have the conversation. Fortunately, I think, you know, if it used to be that we’re just focused on business, and we don’t talk about the personal stuff, and we don’t show a lot of humanity.
And when that goes to an extreme that can be, you know, sort of sharp-elbowed and kind of ouchie. Now, you know, the same thing on the other side, if we are, if we over-index into, I want to be a friend, and we’re going to talk about all personal stuff, you have to also make sure that you balance out like, there still needs to be some sort of, you know, work that needs to be done and the ability to have a conversation around what’s working, what isn’t, with respect to whatever your deliverable, whatever your projects are.
What I think is interesting is that most new managers, most new leaders think, oh, if I’m going to be if I’m going to develop a personal relationship with you, and we’re going to have this nice way, and how we get on, then I can’t be quote, mean, as feedback, but the reality is, you actually have more ability to do that because you’ve developed a relationship. So if you and I are working on a project, and you and I really know each other and find ways I can say, hey, William, that wasn’t what I was expecting on that, can we talk about that a little bit, it’s just the way into the conversation is easier. And if you feel comfortable if I approach you vulnerably you approach me vulnerably not the other way around, where you’re like, yeah, you know what? I didn’t like that either. Well, let’s talk about it.
It’s funny, someone had a quote about this, how do you have difficult discussions with people that you have this relationship with, and I wrote it down actually Instagrammed it because I thought it was so great. It says I have too much respect for you not to tell you this.
Which I just love the way that that’s packaged, right, like, Hey, listen, we have a relationship. And but at the same time, I’m always gonna be frank with you, I’m always gonna shoot straight with you. When something’s when we get sideways on the project. Let’s say, I’m gonna, we’re gonna talk about, we’ll figure it out.
I don’t have to be mean, I think that’s an old command and control construct. That’s exactly right. It’s an old paradigm that’s command to control. I don’t have to be me. That’s a choice. That’s right. No, I’ll, I’ll say it. I’ll slam my gender for this. But I think it was mostly a male choice.
I was gonna say that I didn’t want to say,
No, no, no. You got to own it. You got to own it. I think it’s mostly
It’s not just men who do it. Right. It’s it is sort of the more masculine way of handling things. And yes, we all of us have masculine-feminine side, I could definitely be masculine. Let’s go.
it goes both ways. Yeah,
It does. It does. I’ve just seen the, I’ve seen the abuse more from men that I have from, from women, unfortunately. So so one of the things that before we end, you know, because it’s just been a great topic. And it’s gonna be a topic that hopefully we get more into as, as we get past the pandemic. Advice that you give this we’ll go out with this advice that you give people, managers that are reluctant. And again, we won’t put age or gender, you know, that stuff on it, but just people that are reluctant to be not compassionate, but just to lead with compassion. What do you how do you edge? How do you bring them over to your side of seeing things? And you know who I’m talking about.
Yeah, I think I do. I do. That I used to have, I’ve worked for seven years in private equity, which is very, very male dominant and very left-brain sort of data. I used to have this, this little card above my desk that said, they don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. And.
Thank you. I think what I lean into, I lean into the head argument, which is if you want to achieve your goal and you want to win and you want to cross things off your list and all these things you’re motivated by that are more sort of task-oriented and deliverable oriented versus person human-oriented. Then how do you think you’re going to accomplish that? How are you going to do it? You’re doing it through your team, your people. And all the data shows that people do better work, more efficient, more effectively, the happier they are. And what makes them happy, is having real connection. I just sort of connect the dots, right?
If your relationship with them is stronger, you have more trust, you have a better way of speaking with each other, you’re more aligned, you’re going to have the opportunity to achieve your goals and your results. a much greater probability of achieving those goals. So if I’m talking to somebody who I know really doesn’t care that much about people and doesn’t want to put their heart out there. Then I anchor in what I know they do care about, which is the work and the deliverable and the result. And the achievement. And then how do you think that gets done? Their people.
That’s right. And them caring, caring enough to then do those things at the highest possible level. And money. Oh, no, this is the this is what we learned about the pandemic. And, and then caring isn’t just about money. Like you can’t the carrot isn’t enough anymore. So
Oh, no, no, that’s just, that’s the last thing you go to. It might motivate someone in the beginning. But that’s, that’s not the thing that keeps them. For the long run.
Nope. This has been wonderful. Thank you so much. I know you’re busy. I appreciate you carving out. I appreciate you carving out time for us. And again, thanks to Laila and thanks for everyone that listens to the RecruitingDaily podcast. Until next time.
William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.