December 30

Episode 16: Become a Better Leader by Connecting With Employees with Shona Elliott


Are you a leader who feels unmotivated? Have you lost your passion when it comes to your business? If so, then this edition of the Get Unstuck and On Target show was made for you.

In this episode, Mike O’Neill interviews Shona Elliott to discover how connecting with your employees and walking in their shoes makes you a better leader. Shona has 15+ years of experience as a senior leader in healthcare, IT, supply chain, and ISO quality systems certifications in both Canada and the United States.

Listen to this episode now to get Shona’s expert advice.

In This Episode, You’ll Learn…

  • The basics of strategic planning for businesses and why it’s so important
  • How connecting with your employees makes you a better leader
  • How to determine what you should be focusing on so you can reset your priorities 
  • How a multipurpose strategy helps you build your culture and increase engagement
  • The value of senior leadership walking in the shoes of their employees by periodically doing the jobs they do
  • How walking in the shoes of your employees can renew your sense of purpose and help you find your why


  • “As leaders, we’re really busy. We have lots of priorities, budgets, board reports, KPIs to hit, and we sometimes get lost in terms of what’s really important.” – Shona Elliot
  • “Through my own kind of ups and downs in leadership, I really began to understand that the more I connected with employees, understood their experience, engaged them in decision-making prior to decisions being made, the more likely our organizational strategy was to work.” – Shona Elliot
  • “I think as leaders, including myself in my career, that I say I’m too busy to spend time with employees. I’m too busy to connect with them. I’m too busy to engage them in the decision-making in advance, and that’s all kind of a myth.” – Shona Elliot
  • “As leaders, in my experience, we sit in board rooms and meeting rooms all day and we hear the same stories, just spun a little bit differently, and we never really fact check it with what’s really going on in our organization.” – Shona Elliot
  • “The more I was able to engage in the organization and really see what employees were doing, experiencing their challenges, that really created a shift in what I was prioritizing as a senior leader.” – Shona Elliot
  • “The typical 3-5-year plan, in my view and the people I’m working with, it’s just not a feasible planning process. There’s nothing wrong with having overarching visions, but you want to design your plan for the next year too, but the landscape is changing hourly almost these days.” – Shona Elliot
  • “We can’t really focus on 3-5 years when we really don’t know what tomorrow brings.” – Shona Elliot
  • “I think you can really cover a multitude of different goals and objectives through a single planning process.” – Shona Elliot
  • “I really believe in the value of senior leaders walking in the shoes of employees.” – Shona Elliot
  • “When I was feeling stuck like that, at some point I would realize that I hadn’t walked in the shoes of my employees in a long time. And so I would schedule the shift and every single time I did that, I walked away with a renewed sense of purpose.” – Shona Elliot

Links & Resources Mentioned…

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Read The Transcript

Mike O'Neill:  

Hello and welcome back to the Get Unstuck & On Target Show. I'm Mike O'Neill with Bench Builders, and I get this opportunity to speak with thought leaders to uncover tips, to help you break down the barriers that are keeping you or your business stuck. Joining me today from Edmond, Oklahoma is Shona Elliott.

Her firm, Shona Elliott Leadership Services, helps organizations that are emerging from crisis achieve cultural renewal with a people centered focus. Welcome Shona.

Shona Elliott: Hi, Mike, thanks so much for having me.

Mike O'Neill: I am very much looking forward to our conversation. We've already had a number of this rich conversations before I hit the record button, but let me tell our listeners a little bit more about you.

She is a senior leader turned author and you can't help, but conclude she does walk the talk. She's held senior leadership positions in healthcare and for-profit organizations both in the United States and in Canada and as CEO, she led her organization to become a top 100 employer. So it's good to have you here with us Shona.

I'm just looking forward to just jumping right in. Does that work for you?

Shona Elliott: Yeah, that sounds great. Thanks.

Mike O'Neill: I have already told her this, but let me describe, let me read the title of her book. Create Value as a Senior Leader, Effective Strategies to Retain Employees, Increase Engagement, and Achieve your Organizational Goals.

Wow. Does that not say it all in one sentence,

Shona Elliott: It's a little wordy, but hopefully it's pretty clear in terms of the intention of the book.

Mike O'Neill: Well, if the intention is to cover the basis, what did you want to do in writing this book? What were you hoping to be? What the reader gets out of reading your book?

Shona Elliott: Yeah. In my career, I really understood the value of employee engagement, employee connection as a key lever to drive organizational strategy. And, you know, you don't kind of really understand that until you're in the thick of it and as leaders and senior leaders, we're really busy. We have lots of priorities, budgets, board reports, KPIs to hit, and we sometimes get lost in terms of what's really important.

And through my own kind of ups and downs in leadership, I really began to understand. The more I connected with employees, understood their experience, engage them in decision-making. Prior to decisions being made, our organizational strategy was more likely to be delivered than not. So I really wanted to convey that message because I think as leaders, including myself in my career, I go, I'm too busy to spend time with employees.

I'm too busy to connect with them. I'm too busy to engage them in decision-making in advance. And that's all kind of a myth. And the other thing I uncovered in my career was what I used to call our so-called dispelling with the mythology of management or management mythology, and as leaders in my experience, we sit in board rooms, meeting rooms.

 All day and we hear the same stories, just spun a little bit differently, and we never really fact check it with what is really going on in our organization. So we make decisions based off of the stories we tell each other, and those may be rooted in reality, and often they are not. So as leaders and that's one of the key messages in my book is that we really need to fact check what's really going on in the organization by being in the organization ourselves.

And part of that mythology, we tell ourselves if we're too, we're too busy to do that, I've got all this stuff to do. And the purpose of the book is to really say that is your work to do. And to have that penny drop for leaders. And that it had for me many times is that that is my work. And the more I was able to engage in the organization and really see what employees were doing, experiencing their challenges, that really created a shift in what I was prioritizing as a senior leader.

And that helped me achieve my organizational goals. So a lot of times, you know, leaders say, okay, these are our priorities. Here's what we're, you know, our strategy is going to be, and they kind of do it in isolation and then they try to bring the whole organization to achieve those goals. And yet those goals weren't created based off of the experience, live by customers by the employees.

So it's a real disconnected plan or strategy, and the more you can connect with employees and your customers and any of the stakeholders that you interface with. And engage them in your planning process along the way you are, one shifting culture as you do it, increasing employee engagement, because you're actually engaging employees along the way.

And then you're building a much more effective strategy as you move forward. And that's much more likely to be achieved than one that's just done from a boardroom disconnected from anyone involved. So that's kind of the essence of my book and the reason I wrote it. It was one for a process for myself to be able to kind of digest my own experience.

I had a few years off from senior leadership. I had a daughter when I was a CEO and made a decision when she turned one to stuck down to spend a few years on home. When she started preschool last year, the opportunity to write a book presented itself. And it was really a great experience for me. To really synthesize, reflect and look at the literature, look at the research as to what best practices are.

And surprising to me was that a lot of what I was doing kind of intuitively over the years, trial by error is really kind of backed up by the research that's out there. So I'm thinking, wow. If I had read something so simple, like my book. Many years ago that may have helped kinda fast track. Some of the things I needed to learn over the years and kind of move that into a period of a few months in terms of the course of reading the books.

So that was kind of the purpose of it as well. And it helps give me a platform to help message my kinda experience based on research now in a cleaner way than it would be through any other vehicles. So the book served that purpose too.

Mike O'Neill: Well, I'm glad it served that purpose for you. I suspect it would serve a similar purpose for those who actually read it.

So for those who are listening in, we will include links and the show notes to the book for those who want to pursue it you've described. How you in a leadership role learn a lot of valuable lessons and you had this opportunity to kind of put those thoughts together, combined with research to write this book.

I know the book is already available in a Kindle version. You shared with me that in the coming months, when this particular show airs, it's going to probably be around the first of 2021. I believe that you're moving the direction for a print version. Did I hear that correct?

Shona Elliott: Yeah. So Morgan James is my publisher and we'll have printed copies available, I think later this year, if not early January and it is scheduled to be in bookstores in April, 2021.

And audio should be, I think, released in January.

Mike O'Neill: Well, that is exciting. And you've mentioned that you had this background that you've been able to kind of synthesize your learnings combined with research to write the book, but you also have a successful consulting practice. And I'd like to spend a few minutes to understand a little bit better when you begin working with a client, what is the most ideal way in which you begin that relationship with that client?

Shona Elliott: Huh, that's the ideal pieces. Interesting. Cause a lot of times clients don't really know what they need help with. So, you know, I guess ideally you can come in at the strategic planning process and a lot of times that's where I get asked for a proposal for, so they'll say, Hey, you know, I think we need some support for strategic planning for the next year.

And then as I start to learn a little bit more about the organization it usually shifts pretty quickly to address some of the hotspots that seem to be emerging and so through that relationship building, usually the scope begins to shift and we will get to strategic planning. And at the same time we'll address some of the other hot spots that pop up.

So that's one Avenue. And then a lot of times there's just organizations who are coming from crisis or in crisis. You know, obviously this year has been a challenge to say the least it continues to be. And early in the summer, I was getting a lot of calls for Hey support as COVID hit either organizations weren't prepared or were really struggling in terms of building the communication infrastructures and building trust if they didn't have it or maintaining trust, As they navigated through the pandemic and that looks different depending on the industry.

So I get a lot of calls from organizations that are thick in it in terms of a crisis or emerging from whether that's the pandemic or it could be a significant event that has eroded trust in organizations or the culture is just at a point where turnover is so high. Good people are leaving the organization and senior leaders are understanding the significant impact that that has on their business and their strategies.

So I get calls through those avenues as well. So although it might be ideal to bring me in at strategic planning, or, Hey, we need some like management leadership coaching. Usually when you start to unpack it, there's many other areas that might need addressing either along the way or first. 

Mike O'Neill: You know, in my intro of you, I made reference that you have developed a bit of a track record.

That means that you work with organizations that are either in crisis or emerging from crisis. One could say that everybody in this calendar year 2020 has been in some form of crisis. If you were to kind of characterize the value of just taking a timeout and assess when you use the word strategic planning.

If most people hear that word, they think, Oh, we're trying to put together a plan that was sufficed for next three to five years. And it sounds like we're trying to predict a future. We came and predict what's going to happen next quarter. How do you help kind of clarify your approach to working with a client and what they would benefit from if y'all are working together on a strategic plan?

Shona Elliott: Yeah, I think, you know, obviously she should have planning is really different this year and the typical three to five year plan you know, in my view and people I'm working with it, it's just not a feasible planning process. There's nothing wrong with having kind of that. Overarching vision, but you want to design your plan for the next year too, but the landscape is changing hourly almost these days.

So we can't really focus in on three to five years when we really don't know what tomorrow brings in saying that that doesn't mean you just kind of put strategic planning by the wayside. Incredible value to take that pause, to do some data collection along the way or analysis of the data that you already have to kind of see what this year has brought in terms of your metrics, in terms of kind of where your strengths are, where those weaknesses are, where the opportunities.

Are amiss kind of the pandemic and any other issues you're facing and what the threats are to your organization. I think now more than ever as we go into next year, taking that time to really reflect on the uniqueness of this year and really see what you need to be focusing on and setting as your priorities along the way.

I think it is critical and it's hard right now for senior leaders because they are and have been dealing with the ever-changing landscape that this year has brought. And so they are busier than ever. The resilience is down. It's been eight months of just kinda the brow beating that the pandemic continues to deliver.

And depending on what state you're in today, like it's going back into some complete lockdowns that no one had ever anticipated. So it has just kind of continued on. And so they aren't able to kind of see without some support that this is really needed, and this is a step and a plan that they need to build the time in to dedicate their energy to, and that it can serve them depending on the process they take to really engage employees and leaders and stakeholders along the way and help kind of build some resilience as they do that.

So you can use it as a multipurpose strategy to continue to build your culture, to continue to increase engagement, but really reflect on where you've been this past year to set the course for tomorrow. So I think you can really cover off a multitude of different goals and objectives through a single planning process.

So that's kind of in the area I've been focusing in on with leaders and leaders are after they kind of realized the value. Really do carve that time out and are seeing really good value for taking those steps in engaging folks along the way to help design the future.

Mike O'Neill: Shona thus far, we've been talking about how you've led organizations, how you've helped leaders of organizations.

And I like to kind of, if you don't mind move a little bit to more about Shona and your own personal experience professionally speaking, and that is would you be willing to share with our listeners an example, whereas you concluded, gosh, I'm stuck. And if that is the case, what was that circumstance?

And then my followup obviously is going to be as what did you do to get unstuck?

Shona Elliott: Yeah, that's a great question. And it kind of aligns with what I covered off in, in my book. I really believe in the value of senior leaders walking in the shoes of employees. And so what that means to me is where I can I work alongside an employee.

So in my career, I've clean toilets. I've delivered food trays. I've prepared food trays. I've answered call tickets at the IT service desks. I do whatever I can to help walk in their shoes to experience what they're experiencing. And I've seen really great value in doing that in my career. I've learned so much.

And even though I knew the value of doing that, And I was committed to doing that on a, you know, let's say a monthly or quarterly basis. There was times where I didn't stick to my intention. And so I would be working in the throws of what I'm working in, dealing with whatever crisis I'm dealing with and working, you know, good 60, 70 hours a week.

And I would find myself really kind of, I dunno, like discouraged or disengaged dispirited, and I would, you know, kind of struggle show up, do my best. But like not feeling kind of the joy of what I sign up to be a senior leader for. And always when I was feeling stuck like that, at some point I would realize I hadn't walked in the shoes of my employees in a long time.

And so I would schedule that shift and every single time I did that. I walked away with a renewed sense of purpose. I felt inspired to be in service to those employees. And I found my why again. So I went into senior leadership or leadership because I wanted to be in service and to make the conditions for employees as best as I could so that they could do their best work.

And how I felt. Reconnected to my, why is by being alongside of them. And so every time I did that, I would feel better. I feel purpose, joy inspired. And I became unstuck as a result of that. And I found my why again. And so I would say in my book and to myself, gosh, I'm here again. This is maybe my second or third time around.

Right. It becomes. Feeling a little joyless in my role, realizing I hadn't scheduled that shift to walk in the shoes of my employees. And I'm like, well, gosh, like why, how did I get here again?  And so I, you know, I tried to build it in more routinely and as senior leaders, you know, the other priorities come up.

So I really did try to make it. You know, effort to preserve that time and, you know, kind of continue to build in what was really meaningful to me. And that kept me inspired and kept me moving forward. So that was my way to get unstuck. And at times I still became stuck and would have to remind myself as to the value of doing that.

Mike O'Neill: You know as I'm listening to you, describe your self-awareness that you're why was service. And when you found yourself not in connection with. Your employees you were not enjoying yourself to that extent and until you literally carved out the time to spend, as you said to literally go spin a shift with those employees that, that reconnecting.

Re-energized your sense of why and joy for why you were called into a leadership role. That was so beautifully said, Shona.

Shona Elliott: Oh, thank you. It's what I know to be true. And there's such amazing power by doing that. And the least senior leaders I work with I've larger organizations. Struggle with the mindset.

Understandably, A, to dedicate the time to do that because of like, I, I'm so busy and I'm good. I'm like, I get it. I've been you. And I've been busy too. And, and yet when I did that, things became a little bit. More effortless for me because I understood in a deeper way, what I should be paying attention to.

And the example I've shared my book is there was a organization I was working with and as VP of operations, HR, and culture. They had been really toxic and we had made really great progress in two years. And so I'm at board meetings talking about, you know, how we've really turned the curve with respect to employee engagement and culture.

And certainly our employee engagement scores have definitely improved. And we were seeing all the metrics moving in the right direction. And one morning I did my walking in the employee shoes shift. It was on a medicine unit. I was cleaning a nurses station along with one of my environmental services workers.

And I'm in scrubs and this department didn't report to me. And so they didn't really look at me like I, you know, I would be a VP or anything. They just saw me cleaning the nurses station while I'm like, Hey, good morning, everyone. How are you doing today? And I got ignored. I got iced out and I'm looking at my environmental services worker and she's looking, looking really embarrassed.

And so as we try to clean the unit and the nurses station, like we were like physically like blocked out. So they were having conversations. Their box went to us. They kind of got in our way. And I was like, Holy smokes. This is like, not at all what I thought our culture was. And so we just kinda kept doing our thing.

And at eight o'clock the nursing union leader who happened to work on this unit, showed up for her shift and she's noticed me and she's like, Wow, Shona what are you doing here? You're in, you're in scrubs, you are cleaning what's going on. So I, you know, explained what I was doing and, you know, trying to better understand the conditions our employees are working with, you know, went through that kind of schpiel and at eight o five, eight, 10, the culture changed.

Everyone was like, Oh, well, good morning. How are you doing today? Because the word got out. But I was a VP on the unit doing what I was doing. And that was really sad for me, sad that, although I'm saying one thing, which was. True employee engagement had improved. The reality was at the cultural level that, that hadn't really been totally immersed in the day-to-day interactions, which is what culture is all about, is how we treat each other every single day as we do our work.

And so I apologize for environmental services worker and made some significant shifts as to what else we needed to be doing to continue to improve employee engagement and culture, and really start to move more of the employee voice into our decision making processes. And how did we really assess and measure?

And so we, we made significant shifts. And it certainly drove our culture. Even more to a higher level and our employee engagements scores continue to rise and we hit top 100 employer status, I think a year to two, after that, based on employee voice, not based on a fancy application, not based because I'm saying this is, you know, a top 100 employer place to work, but based on employee voice.

And if I hadn't. Connected with employees through that, walking in your shoes experience? I, would've never known that I would've never known the culture of our employees was what it was. So I say, yeah, that took eight hours out of my day. However, what I focused on based on that experience really drove our strategy in terms of really treating our employees in a different way.

And achieving a top 100 employer status because me included employee voice in a deeper and richer way than we would have if I had not had that experience. So I say, yeah, it's eight hours, but look how much you can learn just by being there. And I don't ever recommend doing kind of the undercover boss approach to that practice.

It just happened to be the case that I wasn't directly known by that unit. That day. And I learned so much as a result of that. And I, I wanted to that's, to me, I don't want employees feeling that they have to show up because I'm there in a different way and treat me different. I want to be treated like everybody else.

And let me feel what that looks like or feel like to employees. So we can then build in strategies to really make a difference in an authentic way.

Mike O'Neill: Shona that's a beautiful illustration as we. Kind of begin wrapping up our time. This is probably an unfair question, but I'm going to ask nonetheless, if you were to step back and reflect on what we've discussed thus far, what might be the takeaways you want to make sure that our listeners have gotten.

Shona Elliott:  The value of taking the time to see for yourself what your employees are experiencing and to listen to them and not judge what they're experiencing. I think that's the single most important takeaway for, for senior leaders build in the time to do that and understand the value to doing that, to help you deliver on the organizational goals that you've set.

Mike O'Neill: Shona I want to thank you for being a guest and sharing your insights with us today. You've did a fantastic job. Thank you.

Shona Elliott: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Mike O'Neill: And also want to thank our listeners for joining us for this episode of Get Unstuck & on Target, we've lined up great thought leaders of like Shona that I'm sure you will enjoy getting to know.

We upload the latest episode every Thursday, and I hope you'll subscribe via Apple or Spotify, whatever your favorite platform might be. But if you've been listening to my discussion with Shona and you're realizing. Hm, perhaps I or my company, we're stuck. Let's talk, visit and schedule call we'll explore.

What's got you or your company stuck and what you can do to overcome it. So I want to thank you for joining us. I hope you've picked up on some tips will help you get unstuck and on target until next time.

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