Steven Fitzgerald’s purpose isn’t to make a business. It’s to use a business to live his purpose. It’s an atypical mandate for a CEO. But not surprising given that his company, Habanero, “exists to transform people’s experience of work, including that deep, rich feeling we get when we contribute to something meaningful, that’s bigger than ourselves.”

Steven has been a member of a peer group at Giant Leap for 15 years. We talked about most people’s experience of work (it’s not great), why return-to-office is a hotter topic than ever (yes, really), and why a lot of leaders are experiencing an empathy gap. Also how he’s letting go of what people expect a CEO to be, leaning into an unconventional role, and thinking a lot about oak trees.

What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

On what work is like for most people

Most people show up to work on a daily basis to jobs that are not nourishing, aren’t healthy for them, don’t fulfill them, aren’t fun, and don’t contribute to that person leading a great life. But I think work and careers have the opportunity to be fulfilling, wonderful experiences, which in turn, help people have better lives.

On what ‘return to work’ is actually about

To state the obvious, the world of work has changed massively since people were sent to work from home at the outset of the pandemic. And yes, the impact on industries, markets, and even business models has been really dramatic. But I think the more significant change has been at a human level.

The relationship we have with work – the ways it integrates into the rest of our lives, what we want to get out of it, and even the role it plays in how we define ourselves – has shifted.

The sticky problem is that it’s been hard for organizations to adapt to, what is essentially, a workforce with different needs and preferences. And this change has coincided with record-level tight labour markets that have basically shifted the balance of power from employers to employees.

On why the new balance of power in the workplace is hopeful

I see this as a hopeful and positive evolution. People have become more demanding of a connection to a meaningful purpose, and to work with more autonomy and personal control. And I see this as a shift towards people seeing work through the lens of the whole self: “Where I work should contribute to a great life, not just a great work life.”

In the short term, this is challenging for leaders to adapt to. However, if you step back, you can see how much better the world can become when more people have more enriching and fulfilling work lives.

On why we’re still talking about Covid

I can’t believe we’re still talking about hybrid work design four years after the pandemic — but it’s actually a more confusing and contentious issue than it ever has been. At the beginning of Covid, the pendulum was forced to swing in one direction, giving people a lot of autonomy and control over their time. And since then, it’s been swinging back and forth.

And we’re at an interesting moment right now where leaders are showing up saying things like, “Stop being spoiled, privileged brats,” and “Come get your butt back into work.”

On what many leaders are struggling with right now

The hybrid-work conversation has revealed that organizations are really struggling with some very basic ideas. This isn’t about return-to-office, it’s not about where people sit: it’s about treating people like adults, and creating environments where we understand what performance is. It’s about how we’re able to hold people accountable for performance, rather than judging them based on attendance. It’s about allowing individuals to make decisions that enable them to work in their best possible way.

And that’s a big change culturally, from a leadership point of view. It’s hard for a lot of leaders to empathize. It’s hard for some CEOs to really understand what it means to commute in using public transit, or what autonomy means to a person. Their whole basis of moral authority came from working in-person and being authoritative in that way, so it’s a struggle for them to let go of that.

I find a lot of leadership teams are working very hard to bring a few senior leaders along who are holding the whole organization back, and demanding policies that don’t work for the organization, and frankly trying to return the world to the way it was before Covid, which just isn’t going to happen.

On how CEOs can show up differently

It’s not a lack of knowledge or intellectual understanding. It’s a learning journey for CEOs to reorient themselves and develop a new empathy muscle for the people in their organization. None of the leaders that I’ve talked to are purposely trying to be jerks or be inattentive.

On rethinking the CEO role

At Habanero, we’re not a hierarchy: we’re a lattice. Part of what that means is that everyone inside Habanero is building a custom career path, and I’m a prime example of that. So my journey, I feel like it just keeps getting better. I feel like I’m able to do the things I’m meant to do, the things I can be very effective at doing, the things that really bring me fulfillment. As we grow and mature, that just provides more opportunities for me.

I’m surrounded by incredibly capable people, and I’ve got a lot of limitations. So a lot of accountabilities that would be classically assigned to a CEO, well, there are better people in my organization to do that. I can focus on our organization’s culture, and where we’re going. And I can also work with clients, which I love doing.

On the courteous ant and the oak

We have a number of people inside Habanero who’ve gone hard into coaching training. We each have a coach, and part of what I’m working on right now with my coach, Pilar, is developing a metaphor of who I’ve been and who I want to be.

I’ve always been the courteous ant. And if I’m not being successful, my solution is to work harder. And if that’s not working, I’ll work harder. And you know where that goes, right? Terrible modeling.

But there’s a side of me that’s able to slow down, talk less, act slower. And the metaphor for that for me is the oak tree. The oak tree has deep roots, and it’s not going anywhere. It provides nourishment for all manner of flora and fauna. It’s slow-moving, and it has a sort of wisdom and patience.

And I find when I channel that, when I literally visualize that before I go into meetings and discussions, when I’m starting my day out, my day’s different, and those conversations are different, and I show up as more calm and more patient. It makes a difference in how I feel, and the outcomes of the conversations. There’s no right or wrong, but I feel like I’m actually giving more of myself, and am more successful when I can stay in that mode.

Steven Fitzgerald is the founder and president of Habanero Consulting. In their words, “Habanero helps humanize the world of work and improve performance by helping companies create a purpose-led culture, engaging communications, strong communities and personalized customer experiences.” Habanero has been in business for 28 years, has 60 employees, and has offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto. They work with clients like Wilson Sporting Goods, Suncor, VanCity and SRAM. They’ve been on the Great Place to Work list for eleven years, four of those ranked first.

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