If you put Tony Robbins, a pastor, a business professor, and a military general in a blender, the end result would probably be Gary Vaynerchuk. His YouTube videos focus on marketing and entrepreneurship, and are viewed by millions.
Why? Well, despite Gary V’s brash tone, the culture of his company is surprisingly heart-centered.
In fact, one of their key team members is Claude Silver, their “Chief Heart Officer.” Her job is to help Vayner’s young employees have a deeper sense of self, mediate conflict, and provide feedback. In other words, she’s a mix between HR, a therapist, and a life coach.
She is genuinely a beautiful person.
To give you a snapshot of Claude’s passion for her work, check out her job description on LinkedIn:
“I have been given an extraordinary platform to share why kindness, empathy and true heart-leadership is needed in today’s workplaces, and even some tips on how to go about breaking the conventions that were set in the dark ages when notions of inclusivity were never spoken of.
This role is filled with the exquisite dirty work of being human. In my opinion, it’s the best kind of work there is! And I’m so fortunate that for me, it’s my life… it’s not a job.”
I sat down with Claude to learn about the importance of deeply valuing employees, the dangers of a workplace without empathy, and how to help managers lead with compassion for others:
Jillian Richardson: I want to start with a question that I’ve been asking everyone recently: What is something that you’re really excited about right now?
Claude Silver: Oh, definitely my daughter. She’s seven weeks old. I’m learning so much about myself, and also this brand new creature. I have never been around a newborn for this long. I’m watching myself open up. It’s a beautiful place to be in.
Plus, having her is helping me put into perspective what’s important and what’s not. For example, we make up a lot of noise and stories about what’s going on in our heads. But a baby? They’ve got four emotions: hungry, tired, wet, and I don’t feel good. It’s helpful to kind of think about everyone like that. Adults aren’t as complex as we think we are.
JR: On Twitter, you talk a lot about the importance of empathy in the workplace. I’m curious, how does that come into play at Vayner?
CS: My belief is that in order to be empathetic, you have to be able to feel what the other person is going through. You must be able to put your ego in the backseat and realize that the conversation is not about you. And in order to do that, you must have the self-awareness to hold space for this person in a nonjudgmental way and open up your heart. That person is going through something, and they want to share it with you.
We look for those abilities in our hiring process. They should be sharers and want to collaborate. They should be excited to turn others into champions, and ask “How can I help you grow?”
JR: How do you look for empathy when you’re hiring leaders at Vayner?
CS: I’m looking for servant leaders. I ask questions to see if they are someone who leads by inspiration. For example, how do they make a final creative decision? Are they the only person who’s weighing in? If that’s the case, I’m not interested. While that works, I really feel that decisions come from everywhere. Creativity and curiosity are things we want to foster in everyone at our company—not just from the people in an ivory tower.
The other question I ask is, “Paint me a picture of your perfect job.”
First of all, if they describe the exact job that they’re applying for, then they’re lying. But if they give a deeper answer, I’m listening to see where they get their energy from. Do they say that their dream life is sitting in a monastery for five months? That’s totally valid, but then they also aren’t the right fit for an agency where we’re constantly collaborating with other people.
JR: You frequently publish articles about the importance of diversity in the office. How does that value come into play at Vayner?
CS: Well first, there’s the more obvious diversity: race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, all of that. But there’s also diversity of thought and ability. So what we look for is a skill set fit. Of course, I want to hire someone who can do the job because our roles are specialized and specific, and we’re all about speed. After that point, we’re looking for culture adds—AKA different plants and flowers in the garden.
JR: What does a company that does not have empathy look like?
CS: First off, those companies often have a “You’re either on the island or you’re off the island” mentality. There’s favoritism. Their culture is also more likely to have gossip, cynicism, hierarchical bullshit, micromanaging. It’s not going to feel safe.
On the flip side, an empathetic culture is one that is inclusive, and where people feel emotionally and physically safe. Basically, the antithesis of a fear-based organization.
JR: How does being fear-based impact the bottom line of a company?
CS: In organizations like that, people work there for as long as they have to, and then they leave. When you drill through people, there are really low retention rates. But worse, there’s no soul. It’s lonely. And loneliness is a killer. We are wired to connect to one another, and belong to one another.
JR: I wish that I could have conversations like this with executives more often. I feel like they see empathy and emotional intelligence as soft skills—something that’s less valuable.
CS: I’m throwing that term, “soft skills,” out the window. I really want to create a revolution to kill it. It demeans who you and I are. It says that people who focus on emotional intelligence are not strong or worthy. But they’re necessary life skills. When you have dinner with your lover, or your family member, or your child, you should be using those skills. So why chuck them out the window the second you get to work?
JR: You have a lot of difficult conversations with employees. Can you describe a time when you felt like you made a mistake?
CS: Oh, totally. 90 percent of the time, when we let someone go we have a performance review. We give people warning, and let them know why their behavior is bringing their team down. But I have walked into exit meetings where the person was never warned, and the manager has not communicated any feedback. It’s terrible.
That’s why I really stress radical candor feedback. I can’t stress it enough, and I think it’s tough because this company is a really friendly place. But I can’t coddle people. Feedback is an act of caring, and if we’re not giving someone feedback, then their lack of growth is on us. And I’ll admit, not giving feedback is a pothole that we’ve fallen into before.
JR: I know that you offer one-on-one coaching sessions to employees. Can you walk me through what one of those looks like?
CS: Yeah, I offer those to anyone in the company. Although usually the people who come in are in the 23 to 32 set. My goal is to help them find their guiding purpose or principle—not just in work, but in their life.
Sometimes, I start with the question: “Why does your team value you?” Once we have a list of ten or thirteen, I ask what their top five values are.
Then, I’ll ask, “What did you want to be when you were a kid?” I love taking people back to that place of dreaming, and seeing where their inspiration comes from.
After that, I might say, “Who are you? Let’s say that you meet an alien, and you have to explain exactly to them who you are.” I just want to know about them with absolutely no pretense.
My job is to look for patterns in what they’re saying. I’ll see who they are aspirationally, and where they are now. And then we’ll take it from there.
JR: From the beginning to the end of that meeting, what is typically the shift in people?
CS: Oh my God, they just get inspired. They light up. Someone took an hour out of their day, just to think about them and pull out some real stuff! People say that they’ll leave feeling more connected and grounded. I love, love, love that. I get chills.