When you experience something that elicits an emotional response at work, you respond according to the extent of the emotional burdens you carry.
Our burdens come from our past traumas combined with the real-time heart-wrenching news–on repeat–we are moving through right now in our country.
And our places of work can also be ground zero for some really painful experiences or where we relive difficult life experiences.
When we can connect the impact of our traumatic and difficult life experiences to how we lead, that builds the foundation for a trauma-informed culture.
It also moves us out of an individualistic lens to a collective approach to healing and change.
And when we can name the traumatic experiences that happen in our places of work without retribution and move to accountability and repair, this also builds a trauma informed culture that moves us beyond pathologizing pain and struggle to normalizing. Even healing it.
When the whole community is moving forward together guided by principles that foster safe and brave spaces, this is where we can cultivate change individually and systemically.
My guest today has an approach to leading that supports workplaces to be thriving businesses that build the kinds of communities that heal and push back on the power over approaches so many of us were raised in and trained in.
Pamela Slim is an award-winner author, speaker and business coach who works with small business owners ready to scale their businesses and IP. She is the author of Escape from Cubicle Nation, Body of Work, and The Widest Net. Pam and her husband Darryl co-founded the K’é Main Street Learning Lab in Mesa, Arizona, where they host scores of diverse community leaders and regular small business programming.
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Pamela Slim: There’s also been a way for a long period of time in which people have been looking out for each other, in which people have been sharing resources, have not only been looking at their own wellbeing, but that of others within their family and within their community, and you don't have to forgo having a healthy business and making money when you are looking to do more partnerships. When you begin to really activate more of this ecosystem model, you have more flow, more clients, more opportunities. It really does open up many more possibilities for you to be connecting with people and creating business opportunity.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: When you experience something that elicits an emotional response, you respond according to the extent of the emotional burdens you carry, and our burdens come from our past traumas, real-time difficulties and challenges, along with the heart-wrenching news on repeat we’re moving through right now in our country. When this happens, our default is often to figure out what’s wrong and exile our pain through fixing or masking and doing all of that quickly, but this approach to feeling activated only leads to stuffing and shame which, in turn, makes us just feel worse. In these moments, we need to move from asking ourselves and others, “What’s wrong,” and shifting to asking ourselves and others, “How can I help? What do you need right now?”
I find this approach especially important in our places of work, and our places of work, shoot, they can be ground zero for some really painful experiences or where we relive difficult life experiences. When we can connect the impact of our traumatic and difficult life experiences to how we lead, that builds the foundation for a trauma-informed culture, and it also moves us out of an individualistic lens and to a collective approach to healing and change. When we can name the traumatic experiences that happen in our places of work or in our story without retribution, and move to accountability, repair, grief, and comfort, this also builds a trauma-informed culture that moves us beyond pathologizing pain and struggle, to normalizing it, shoot, even healing it.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with leaders whose burdens have inspired their life's work. Our goal is to learn how they’ve addressed these burdens, how they rise from them and become better and more impactful leaders to themselves and others.
Now, over the years, I’ve received a lot of pushback when I brought up the word trauma in relation to workspaces. The intensity of this particular feedback may have changed a little over the recent year or two, but there’s still a lot of resistance to this word especially in traditional workspaces.
A few years ago, I was having lunch with a group of leaders from various business settings (healthcare, consulting, tech). We were all sharing what we were working on, and when I shared I was excited about bringing trauma-informed approaches to leadership and business spaces, their collective eyes grew wide and the conversations screeched to a halt. After an awkward pause, on of my colleagues looked up at me and said, “Rebecca, you can't use the word trauma at work,” and then the others at the lunch table quickly agreed and went on to share other words I should use instead like good words, right - compassion, courage, empathy, and so on.
When they took a break, I asked my colleague who balked at the word trauma why that word caused such a reaction in him. He took a deep breath, and then while shaking his head just stated, “Because it’s too much to bring that topic to work.”
I asked him to explain what he meant by too much because my sense of too much is clearly a little warped after 20 years of doing trauma work as a psychotherapist, right? He went on to explain that he didn't feel like he could deal with everyone’s problems and that naming trauma felt like an invitation for everyone to just dump their personal stuff which he said was simply not something he was equipped to handle.
Now, I think about this conversation and this feedback a lot, and since this conversation which happened about a year before we entered a global pandemic where the losses have been immense and continue to be immense, personally and collectively, we’ve all lived them together on top of the reckoning with racial justice, financial stress, democracy teetering on the brink of falling and more losses that just, sadly, have continued. It’s just important to state that trauma is real, and one of the core tenants of healing trauma is community. Lately, community has been, well, tricky, right, and complicated and also a place where we’re working through so much we’re experiencing right now.
Now, I believe if companies and organizations care about retention, culture, and bottom line (and I know they do), it’s imperative to bring in a systemic and ecosystem approach versus a top-down, hierarchical and individualistic approach to leading. A lot is asked of a leader, but when the whole community is moving forward together guided by principles that foster both safe and brave spaces, shoot, call me idealistic, but this is where we can cultivate change, individually and systemically.
Now, I want to talk about SAMHSA’s concept of trauma-informed approaches. This is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and they state, “A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed, one, realizes the wide-spread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; two, recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, in customers, in family, in staff, in community that are all involved with the system; three, responds with fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, practices; four, seeks to actively resist retraumatization,” which, to me, is one of the most important ones. So the deep connection between community and healing runs deep.
Okay, I know, I know, many in the business and leadership space do not like to talk about healing. They like to talk about optimizing, right, and agency and taking action. [Laughs] They say it crosses a barrier that many are not comfortable with like my colleague shared with me earlier, but I think this mindset leads to the pressure to bifurcate who we truly are by separating the parts of us who work and the parts of us who hold our story. This bifurcation causes us to shut down and exile parts of ourselves in ways that diminish community because without trust and transparency, we end up in a performative space. I think superficial spaces only further harm.
Now, I’m not saying work needs to be therapy, but I offer our workspaces can be therapeutic for individuals and the collective. The communities we lead can be spaces that support the individual’s history and the collective experience. To build a space that holds these values and allows for these kinds of ecosystem shifts, it requires a lot of support, period. There’s no way around it if you want your places of work to be vessels for healing, and my guest today has an approach to leading that supports workplaces to be thriving businesses that build the kinds of communities that both heal and push back on the power of our approaches so many of us were raised in and trained in.
Pamela Slim is an award-winning author, speaker, business coach who works with small business owners ready to scale their businesses and IP. She is the author of Escape From Cubicle Nation, Body of Work, and The Widest Net. Pam and her husband, Darryl, co-founded a Main Street Learning Lab in Mesa, Arizona where they host scores of diversity community leaders and regular small business programming. Now, listen for the questions that shifted for Pam when she moved from thinking individually to organizationally, and pay attention to her thoughts on the role of a leader and the approach they need to take with those they lead, and notice when Pam talks about the power we can have when we really trust individuals that they know what is best for them and their work. Now, please welcome Pam Slim to The Unburdened Leader podcast. Pam, welcome!
Pamela Slim: Thanks for having me!
Rebecca Ching: I have been looking forward to this conversation for a long time. I’ve been following your work for a long time, and, like many, I’ve been impacted by you. So it’s a little surreal actually getting to meet you. You know I’ve read your books and seen videos with you, and so, I’m really excited to have this conversion and learn from you in real time today.
I’d like to start by talking about how so many people are feeling weighed down by work right now, and well over a decade, you felt the same. Different circumstances going on in our world, but you left your corporate job to start your own business, and I’d love for you to share what burdens weighed you down, at the time, that made it clear that you needed to leave your corporate job.
Pamela Slim: For sure. Believe it or not, it was 26 years ago so it’s been a long time for me.
Rebecca Ching: Wow.
Pamela Slim: When I’d left my last real job (as I call it) at Barclays Global Investors which is now BlackRock, and, for me, it was a couple of things. I had just turned 30, and I had been working really hard. I actually loved my job. I had a great, great team, an amazing manager, an amazing VP, and I was in the learning and development arena, and we had just an amazing team. At the same time, I had also been the volunteer executive director for a Capoeira group. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art, and so, pretty much, by day, I would wear my pearls and nylons and go downtown San Francisco, and then in the evenings and the weekends do many, many, many classes, outreach, we built a youth program. So I was just going probably 80 to 100 hours a week all during my 20s.
Rebecca Ching: Wow.
Pamela Slim: It was exhilarating until it wasn’t, and I got pneumonia, and I think my body was just like that’s a little bit too much even when you're young, and so, at the same time, we went through a merger and both my amazing director and VP left to go other places, and that’s where I really noticed it was time for me to make a change. I had no intention, when I left, to be working for myself. I thought I was just gonna quit and go look for another job, so it was a real surprise to me when I ended up working for myself.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, it’s interesting too. About seven years ago this time, I got pneumonia myself, and that was the beginning of a major shift in my life too. It’s amazing how our bodies let us know when we’re not listening, [Laughs] for sure.
Pamela Slim: They really do, yes, and a lot of those like pneumonia or sometimes people have Graves’ disease, a lot of the autoimmune are definitely signals of things that can be triggers, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely, and you ended up writing a book about your experience of leaving your job to ending up working for yourself called Escape From Cubicle Nation. It really, you know, put you on the map in a lot of entrepreneur and leadership spaces. It became a giant permission slip and a bit of map for people to leave the work they felt like was a prison and to create thriving opportunities outside of what we used to think of as the traditional ways to work, and I’m wondering as you look back on this time 26 years ago, what would you say today to your former bosses and even say to your younger self?
Pamela Slim: As I said, a lot of the inspiration that I had for Escape From Cubicle Nation came from -- I was in ten years of management consulting. So I started a management consulting practice and did that for ten years before I started the Escape From Cubicle Nation blog, and so, earlier on, I was so lucky because I had amazing managers and I had the experience of really being in an environment where it was amazing. I, earlier in my career, had certainly been interesting, weird places. I actually worked for a commune in San Francisco, so, like, half the employees were communes in this very weird polyamorous whole situation. It was just kind of fascinating and very San Francisco.
Rebecca Ching: Very.
Pamela Slim: [Laughs] So I’ve been in many different situations where I’ve seen leadership but definitely in spending ten years inside hundreds of different organizations, there’s a lot of patterns that I saw and, frankly, continue to see today. I’ve just been on the road for the last month, and so, I’ve been talking a lot to folks about it. Folks that work for larger companies, on one hand, I look at the individual path and then also for the organizational leadership path.
The individual path, I know for me early on, when I really shifted my thinking to I’m looking for all of my meaning and validation to come from one specific organization, it was really shifting to say how do I really know myself?
What are the best environments for me? What do I want to build and create in order to be excited about what I’m doing? Also, recognizing that I wouldn't necessarily be doing the same thing for the rest of my life. It was looking as if no matter what work mode that you have, you're always self-employed which I really believe that. Like, nothing can guarantee that you could have stable and predictable employment. [Laughs] If you work for yourself, you know you are working everyday to make sure that happens. If you work for somebody else, you can show up one day and your job is no longer there. So there’s that certain attitude, I think, that’s really helpful from the individual perspective to be really clear as to how you're showing up to the work and continually bringing value.
On the organization side, I kind of fondly called it mafia culture with an escape from cubicle nation where there has, historically, been organizations that put a focus of using terms like, “We’re a family,” “We’re all really connected,” “We put huge investment for folks when they're there,” and then if somebody chooses to leave, or even in the case where they're laid off, all of a sudden they become untouchable, out of the family. If people leave by choice, they can feel betrayed, and so, people who are remaining at the organization can’t really talk to that person anymore or if somebody’s laid off, I have seen, up close and personal in my years as a consultant, the pain and the anguish of deep relationships that people have at work all of a sudden fragmenting.
One of the stories I tell in Escape was my dad worked just a block away or so in San Francisco at a big public utility, and he had worked there for many years. There was somebody in his department that had been there for 20 years. Her father had worked for the company. Her grandfather had worked for the company.
He called me one day, and he said, “Can you come over?” I went over, and they had laid off every single person in the department except for him. He was like peering around his cubicle, ironically, and nobody else was there, and this one fellow employee was given 15 minutes to pack all of her belongings in a box and to walk out, and I think about what that must have felt like for her to have this identity that went back 2 generations in terms of people working within the company, and so, there’s a really weird, very devastating, emotionally devastating experience when we look at more through the organizational culture and the employer/employee relationships through this mafia culture lens.
These days, I think we need to look at leaders as partners. People can go somewhere by force or by choice. Who knows if they may bring in your next customer. They might refer somebody else to work in the organization.
Rebecca Ching: Mm. I have the phrase “you're dead to me,” like, if you're not in my little bubble --
Pamela Slim: Yes!
Rebecca Ching: -- you are dead to me, and anyone who -- and they need to be dead to you is kind of the message, and so, this awkward, weird -- it is a mafia kind of vibe when you do leave this bubble, and I think that’s probably why a lot of people stay in work that isn’t working for them because they sense that. As you know, this desire for belonging is so primal to us, and so, this is interesting, though, 'cause as we’re in what’s kind of being dubbed as “The Great Resignation,” we’re still figuring out what that is. I heard you in a recent interview on this note, and kind of building what you just talked about (the individual needs), but you said, “Not understanding the individual needs of employees, and not creating more of this collaborative, community-based approach and being very top-down is a part of what I think is driving The Great Resignation.”
And so, just thinking about from what you’ve seen with people who have left, you know, even at the risk of losing an identity, a culture, a community they’ve known, why do you think so much work today is unsatisfying?
Pamela Slim: There are a number of things. I don't think we can ignore just the recent pandemic and all the mental health challenges that everybody has had just getting through that, figuring out how to navigate when companies are under such tremendous stress, often as they're just trying to stay alive and reinvent and do those things and just the personal and professional toll. We’re in this really extraordinary place. When I was speaking last week to a number of technology partners at a conference, I summed it up saying, socially, we’re a wreck. Every single dimension of the way in which we are connected with each other politically, socially, environmentally. We’ve experienced terrible things in terms of violence, gun violence. There are so many different ways in which our social construct and contracts are broken that can’t not have an impact on people’s everyday life. I think that’s gonna show up in personal lives and also in work lives. So that, I think, is part of the context.
Another one, though, is where we just haven't really shifted fully into the mindset that where you look, especially with the new generations that are coming up, there are some folks -- it’s always problematic if you just put an entire generation in a set of affective or behavioral characteristics ‘cause I don't know, I’m 55. I’m not sure how old you are. I look at people who were born in 1966, the year I was born, I’m sure we are totally across the board in terms of what our behaviors are, right? Some people are super proactive, creative. It doesn't really make sense just to have a generational thing, even though, of course our generations are impacted by different historical things.
We’re parented a little bit different based on how we grew up, but I know for a lot of folks who might be hiring those that are from younger generations, there is a different expectation right away that folks aren’t gonna stay in one place forever, that there is more of a connection that they’re looking for with purpose and meaning, that having work-life balance, having flexibility, often, they may work really, really hard, but not necessarily in a nine-to-five kind of construct or some of the expectations, and I think if we look at the health of how good partnerships are constructed, the way that we would look at partnerships with our clients and customers, really having a built-in respect for who they are and what’s important to them, why would that be different in the way that we’re looking at these other adults who we’re choosing to work with who have needs and feelings and aspirations? There’s a whole number of things that have to happen in order to create that kind of environment. Sometimes there needs to be more transparency about business results. People have to be brave to actually address the elephant in the room. I realize that not all of you may work here forever. Some of you may have ideas where you want to go out on your own. For managers in leadership to be able to entertain those conversations and to address issues as adults is a bit of a shift. I don't mean to simplify it saying that leadership has not had components of adulting, but you and I, before we started recording, talked about how we both have teenagers. I actually see it sometimes the same way that parents will talk to teenagers. They're really going through a new stage where they really do have a lot of insight and self-awareness and it just doesn't work to be really -- like, having a relationship where you’re just continuing (hopefully you were never totally dominant), but where you're not respecting that this individual might have a really good understanding of who they are and what they need.
I know my job as a parent is to lean in and kind of notice it. So those same kinds of dynamics, I think, can happen in a new leadership culture, and I just think that’s the way we’re going. You can’t guarantee anything. People are not going to stick around (as we’ve seen with The Great Resignation) if there are other viable alternatives.
Rebecca Ching: What I’m seeing with The Great Resignation (at least with the folks that I work with) is mid-level and high-level jobs are getting vacated. It’s not just this younger generation.
Pamela Slim: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Folks are done, and so, I want to circle back to what you addressed, too, I mean, we’re at the very beginning stages of sorting through these last two years, and we’re still -- I mean, in my community, COVID is really hitting our community hard right now, and so, it’s not gone, and it’s impacting so much. So with your experience with your consultancy work, walk me through some of the (I want to get specific here) consistent barriers you’ve seen in your work with companies that get in the way of truly understanding the individual needs of their employees.
Pamela Slim: First is not talking about short-, medium-, and long-term goals with employees.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Pamela Slim: So it makes sense when you're in the hiring process that you're talking about hiring a person to do specific tasks within the company. Clearly, that’s why it is that they're mainly getting paid, but, from the beginning, if you could have a deeper understanding and create a culture of safety where somebody can say, even as a brand new employee, “Here are some of the things that I’m thinking. I can see myself getting excited of really growing in a career path,” or, “Eventually I see this as a stepping stone where maybe I would want to open my own part-time consultancy,” or whatever that path is just to normalize the fact that people do have a variety of different aspirations is really important.
The other thing (which we’ve seen so clearly) is just about how much somebody’s personal life (the things that they're dealing with at home) is going to be impacting work, and I feel like that’s one of the positive things that’s come out of a lot of pain and challenge is I just feel like there’s more awareness and openness of the fact that people are emotional beings. They have, you know, challenges. Always, you want to be respectful to have somebody have agency over what they share and don't share for what’s happening in their personal life. I believe that really strongly. You can’t mandate people to be sharing everything that’s happening personally, but you can create an environment where there’s trust enough for people to be able to show up and say, “You know, I’m having a hard time,” or, “I need some time off,” and to not necessarily be questioning it. You know, sometimes there’s so much rigidity around the requirements that it doesn't feel safe or people can feel like they will be penalized if they actually do take care of their mental health or maybe something that’s happening at home, and over time, that’s a huge trend I’ve hard over a couple decades now of people just being tired of having to pretend everything was okay, to have it together, and maybe to be fighting for having some time to be attending to other things.
Then the other thing is just -- probably the last theme for me is what I alluded to earlier of not addressing some of the elephant in the room which is just talking about the entire world of work. What are other opportunities that are happening out there? I wish there was much more dialogue between those folks that were doing start-ups, entrepreneurship, and organizations so that there could be learning from each other like the beautiful, operationalizing of effective work practices that happens in a larger organization could be so helpful for start-ups and some of the leadership wisdom you get from scaling would be so helpful. I’d learn so much, and a lot of the approach to prototyping and being more creative and non-hierarchical could be super helpful from the start-up world.
So that’s the other part is where there’s just really clear walls, and I think that makes people not feel safe to talk about some of their entrepreneurial aspirations.
Rebecca Ching: That’s such a good point. You're right. They really are siloed, as I ‘m sitting here listening to you, and even polarizing against each other instead of just --
Pamela Slim: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: -- we’re all trying. There are a lot more similarities. It’s just different means to the end or different focuses or whatever that may be, but you're right, and I’m seeing there’s this element in the entrepreneurial space, right, that if you go and get a quote, “real job,” you’ve sold out, you've kind of lost, and then I see in the corporate space holding on for dear life to how things were. That hierarchical -- this desire to really -- what I’m hearing from my clients is these old school bosses like, “I don't know that you're working unless I see you,” you know, kind of thing in person.
Pamela Slim: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: How do I trust -- there’s not a lot of trust, and, again, a losing touch with the humans that are working with and for them versus just the bottom line of profit. That's a really, really good point. So I’m wondering how do leaders and business owners take a more active role not only just for them, but for those that are working with and for them to make meaning with the work that they're doing?
Pamela Slim: My last book (the one before The Widest Net), Body of Work, was really addressing specifically this whole idea that the focus of our work is really what we’re creating. I think a lot of people, as Dan Pink so aptly put it in his book Drive, that folks are driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose in work-life. Those, based on the research that he did for his book, were the main drivers that really give people a sense of purpose and meaning, and, to me, it’s always related to what it is that you're creating.
You get people on interesting projects, you focus on interest and mastery of how you can really be doing this work in a better, interesting way. That’s what I adored about the years I spent in Silicon Valley and working inside a lot of really smart organizations. It was just endlessly fascinating to me to see how experts could come together to be working on interesting projects and really focused on the mastery, but we look at the autonomy and the purpose, that’s where you need to be having these conversations and really connecting people to, first of all, yes, you don't need to be hovered over. [Laughs] There needs to be a clear way in which you can demonstrate what you're doing and what you're building without somebody necessarily -- I mean, during COVID, of course, it wasn't possible for people to physically be in the same place which, in some ways, opened some doors, but the purpose part is where there needs to be a clear, deliberate, multi-layered conversation about the nature of the work. There’s, often, the mission statement for a company that’s not always brought into the deeper conversations with, maybe, leaders and their teams like, “Of all the companies that you could work for, why did you choose this particular one?” Sometimes it’s reasonable! It was in a great location, nice people, great pay, lots of good paid time off. I mean, we all understand there are some of those dimensions, but when you're really being deliberate, and when you have a way that you can tell the story about why it is that you feel passionate about working for a company, it really does make a difference, and not in a manufactured way of just trying to roll out the mission statement and just give a concrete example, but really bringing the deep connection, I think, everyday in the way that you work. Like, why should we be doing this work. Why should we be working so hard. That, to me, is where the purpose always shows up.
I know for so many years that I did consulting work, that’s also the place when you're open to those conversations that you may actually follow the path in the work itself, for what you're creating, that is more aligned with a customer journey. When you're saying, like, no, our purpose is to be, let’s say, healthcare company, delivering just much better, more effective healthcare, then you could critically look at maybe some gigantic initiative that’s really complicated and overwhelming and say, “Is this really helping us to be delivering better, more effective healthcare?” Just the quality of the conversation you can have, both from connecting people to the purpose and then making sure that you're delivering on that purpose when you have the conversation, that, to me, is where you get this really beautiful synergy (to use a corporate word), but it really does allow you to do great work, as opposed to just getting stuck in bureaucracy and egos and fiefdoms and all these things that can keep people super frustrated and wanting to leave.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I’m just wondering, in your work, how do you help shake up some of those insular bubbles where there is those fiefdoms and this -- it gets, again, very insular, and it gives us a false sense of safety so that these leaders are feeling good about it, but it seems to create more of a divide even with this kind of level -- ‘cause the bureaucracy, it’s such a pain in the butt, yet -- I mean, I’ve worked in all levels of government. I’ve also worked in big corporations. There’s this weird comfort that I feel like leadership loves. You've got to go through the trap shoots, and you've got to do this. What do you say to leaders that are still clinging onto the bureaucracies and the top-down? What do you say to them that helps them go, “Okay, I could give this a try.” What’s the invitation for them, and what helps them kind of break through some of those fears of leaving these old ways of doing business?
Pamela Slim: They have to come with a concrete reason why the change has to happen first.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Pamela Slim: Over so many years, now, I believe that’s the case. Either if change does not happen, they may not survive based on market forces or there’s something that happens within, hopefully, at least a few of the leadership team who have significant accountability and the ability to influence and actually hold people, you know, accountable for a performance, where they are seeing things about the way that their culture is rolling, where they recognize that if they don't change that they will lose people. I see that a lot around companies that might resist doing equity work. I see that amongst companies that refuse to have any kind of folks that might be questioning what’s happening. Nobody wants to change. It is hard to be breaking out. There is a safety. There can be certain security in having processes, and I’m a huge fan of processes and operations. It’s just a core component of how you need to run a business. You will try to do back flips if you're coming into a company or sometimes if you're just a leader where those that really hold the true power in the organization, decision making, and holding people accountable, if there is no compelling reason for them to change, if there’s not a personal reason to change, it’s very, very hard to make it happen. To me, that’s the essential element. When that is there, when they’ve had some really significant shake-it-up kind of realization, sometimes pressure from the board, sometimes a personal experience, that’s where, then, you can start to lean in and get really creative. You have to be very deliberate about the space that you create to have deep conversations. You need to be able to have clear and direct communication, make it okay to talk about the hard issues, and then begin to work around, usually, a bit of a different way of communicating where you're not afraid of input from people.
I think one of the false assumptions that people make when, maybe, you begin to create more of a participatory, partner-like leadership culture is that it means, okay, if we’re just gonna ask everybody what we should do, then it means we’re gonna 100% lose any sense of decision making or authority, and I don't believe that’s the case. You can have input. You can be transparent about the process. What are you gonna do with the input? How are you making decisions? Then, ultimately, really make decisions based on what you think is the best for the company, and then people will either agree or they won’t agree, but at least it’ll be more transparent and not just an exercise of, ooh, let’s do a little bit of engagement and knowing from the beginning that you're probably not really gonna listen or you only want to hear the good stuff, and that’s the part where people get scared of, like, what if they really tell me what it is that they're thinking, and you just can’t --
Rebecca Ching: There’s no trust built there in any way, individually or in a container.
Pamela Slim: No, no.
Rebecca Ching: I’m just thinking about what you said about this desire to change, saying that there’s a problem to be solved, an awareness of that, to be ready to make that shift, and so often, folks come to that place with really big crises and want a fix now, but every now and then there’s someone who’s just reading the room, looking around them, and going, “Oh, jeez. Okay. This is not who I want to be. This is not who, I think, we want to be.” To me, I find that change happens best when it’s not that huge crisis 'cause it’s more sustaining. Sometimes it’s harder, but I do really appreciate that ‘cause if leadership’s not ready to make the change, then it’s just not gonna stick. It’s Systems Theory 101.
[Inspirational Music Interlude]
Rebecca Ching: Leading is hard, and leading is also, often, controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm. Now, I know you don’t mind making the hard decisions, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action.
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[End Inspirational Music Interlude]
So this takes me to my next question ‘cause you’ve talked about the difference between an empire-building approach and an ecosystem approach to growing community and business in your latest book, The Widest Net.
Can you walk me through the difference between those two? I just want to start there first.
Pamela Slim: I juxtapose this a lot in the entrepreneurial world, but you can see it also in corporate that sometimes just as a metaphor, I think, people like to use empire culture, like, literally saying, “I’m really excited about starting my own business and growing my own empire. I want to crush my competitors. I want to dominate,” and, I mean, I’m a former martial artist for a lot of years, as I said capoeira and then mixed martial arts. I’m as much excited sometimes about getting revved up about competition as somebody else in a specific context that can be -- like in an environment that’s open and fun where people can get excited about doing great work and having that fun challenge, right?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Pamela Slim: It’s very different when you look at, really, operationalizing what I see a lot in my own space. It literally becomes a more empire-like culture where those on the top do extremely well, and those who don't are actually belittled. There’s often not really a concern for the people who work for you. There’s a race to the bottom of the pricing where you're just trying to hire the very cheapest folks and just turn everybody around -- turn over the work really quickly in order to make the maximum amount of profit, and it’s a very transactional kind of an approach to business.
What I see and what I think is really effective, and it’s a clear point of view having just studied it for really the last seven years as I was writing the book, is I think, more realistically, the way that we work, both within our individual markets but then also within larger regions like what we have here in downtown Mesa in Arizona, is it really is this ecosystem of people who are each providing specific services, products, support, education, resources to be helping our clients and customers to reach their goals.
It’s rare that any one company or service provider can solve all of the problems that any company has. And so, when we learn more how to really zero in and be excellent in our area of expertise but look to partners, it’s a great way to have business referrals, it’s a great way to make sure we’re looking at each other and really supporting the growth and development.
I think a lot of the work we’ve done here, my husband and I have a what’s called Main Street Learning Lab which is a small business learning lab right in the middle of Main Street, and we have so many different partners that we work with down here. During the shutdown we had tremendous cohesion because we all had relationships, and we were able to keep all the brick and mortar relationships open. You think about the ripple effects of what would happen if we had massive kinds of layoffs or shut downs for people in one particular region, it can be something that takes decades to recover from. So I just think it’s more realistic in terms of how we do work, it’s more effective to have more flow, and it’s more fun. I don't like to have to do everything myself. I love having really smart peers and colleagues and people in other businesses that also support the work I’m doing with my clients.
Rebecca Ching: So I’m thinking of a lot of the leaders I work with who are solopreneurs or small business owners, they're over-achievers, they're very talented, they're hardworking, and they want to, with the best of intentions, be everything to everyone, and they come to me, usually, burnt out, overwhelmed, knowing something’s gotta change but their hearts are in the right place in what they do and offer is full of skill and excellence. What do you say to folks who are running lean small businesses or service-based businesses, especially how an ecosystem approach can really help them -- and they're not letting people down. This is my curiosity. You know, 'cause there’s often a sense of if I’m referring out to somebody else, I’m letting them down 'cause I’m not everything to them. What would you say to those leaders that are rumbling with that?
Pamela Slim: I’d say, first, it would be pretty hard in whatever capacity that you might be providing a service to somebody. So if you're a lawyer or you're a consultant or have a marketing agency, it would be hard to, essentially, have a law degree, a finance degree, know every single thing about growing a business. The nature of the intersecting kind of problems and challenges that our clients face when they’re trying to do something. So, for me, my clients are always trying to grow or scale their businesses and to be professional service businesses, right? We probably share some similar kind of client profiles, right? We’re, what I call, peer mentors to each other so we can do similar work, maybe, each with our unique flavor. In order for them to do that, there, by definition, are other service providers that they need to do it effectively. I always recommend everybody read Profit First, that they work with a CPA, that they get a tax attorney. I do a lot of work in certification and licensing programs. They need an intellectual property and trademark attorney. It is essential to them doing the work effectively that there are other service professionals.
In cases like you and I where we might offer similar services for our clients, the more specific and specialized that we get, the more we understand the nuance that we each have in what we bring to helping our clients. It’s a choice, really, of really believing in a strengths-based approach, that even within a specific area of, maybe, business advising around growth, that there are certain things that you're just, by definition, gonna do better than I am.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Pamela Slim: And so, you know, that’s always where we make choices around the design of our services that we figure out the best way to do it. Sometimes it’s developing a deeper team where we can get the kind of more full support, but, for me, I do a lot of day-to-day work of referring my clients to other service professionals and vice versa, and that’s part of what keeps the flow going.
Rebecca Ching: So I want to spend a little more time on this ecosystem approach. I’d love for you to share some really practical steps leaders and business owners can take to move towards an ecosystem approach to leading and running their business.
Pamela Slim: Yeah, so one of the ways to think about it is there’s a model in the book. There are really ten different concrete steps that you take in order to design it, and I think about it a lot like architecting a building or putting plumbing within a new building. It’s actually really important that each of the pieces are fit together in a particular order, but, conceptually, at the heart of the book is this idea of ecosystem where you have your ideal client who’s in the center of an ecosystem, and it is the place where they already are looking for information, resources, support in order to solve the particular problem that you or your company is also helping them to solve. So there are examples of things like other thought leaders that they follow, so maybe experts that write books on topics or do TED Talks, that they’re following for resources or information. There can be associations that they belong to that give them support and information. There are media hubs, particular podcasts they might listen to or blogs. There are products or services they use. Every single one of my clients (myself included) uses a lot of software as a service (SAS products) to run their business. And so, in each of those cases, we’re just beginning to identify who are all these other ecosystem partners that are also committed to the mission of serving our ideal client and solving their problem.
There’s the first part of really doing the analysis of figuring out who are some of these people that if we began to connect, share ideas, resources, and support, could make each one of us better. I call it the accordion principle.
So sometimes you have to go way out, and you look at the totality of the ecosystem, you look at all the different possibilities of folks, and then you zero in and say, “Okay, this is one missing link.” Maybe we’re in an industry that has been around for a long time. I think of something like public utility like I mentioned my dad worked for for a long time. It’s been around a long time. People are used to doing things a certain way. Maybe some of the ecosystem partners we need to be looking at are people who are really focusing ahead in the future, right? We need people who might have more research, more understanding, more future focus to infuse some excitement or enthusiasm or maybe we realize that for the folks who we’re hiring, we need somebody who’s doing really interesting new work in culture development (you know, within the utility industry). So you can begin to really look at ways in which you can focus, the kind of partnerships that you want to have, and in doing it slowly, at first, you just have conversations. I’m a big fan of having the 15 or 20 minute conversation with somebody just to learn about them, let them know what it is you do, and then slowly share.
In the social world that we work in, I know for a lot of folks, even those that work for larger companies, they are sharing on LinkedIn, right? They're sharing their perspective about the role they might have in the organization, what their approach is to doing things, and when you can begin to share this great information about other ecosystem partners with your clients, I’ve found that it makes you a more valuable person. The greatest compliment, to me, is people are like, “Gosh, it’s just so interesting. I love to follow your work because you're always sharing such interesting examples of people who are doing complimentary things,” to which, inside my head, I say, “Yes! I’m successful in highlighting these other partners!” Of course, in doing that, that is something that a lot of folks appreciate, and then they can begin to lean in and tune into what I’m doing, and it just creates a lot of ripple and then eventually creates a lot of momentum, in terms of opportunities that I get invited to or things that I can participate in because we have that mutually beneficial kind of work.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, so much I want to follow up on there, but I’m thinking about, then, this desire of building an ecosystem and even connecting with people who do similar things takes a level of confidence, and if scarcity is running that or unhealthy competition -- not the healthy competition you're talking about with competitive martial arts, but a power over or where shame comes in and the not-good-enough, ‘cause if that’s running the show, then this ecosystem isn't possible. It’s just simply not possible. It just takes a genuine curiosity and a feeling of not being threatened by. An ecosystem approach still seems to feel scary to a lot of people. It doesn’t feel like a lot of people are doing it or there isn't a lot of self-trust, and I know you've run into those leaders. How do you help them build a little bit more self-trust and recognize that collaboration -- community over competition, right? How do you work with them practically if they're struggling with that fear of losing reputation or not knowing it all or someone taking away business?
Pamela Slim: It goes back to the earlier conversation we had about what it takes before you do any kind of an intervention inside a company. There has to be that awareness and that willingness to be open to making a change. If somebody just completely disagrees, which is totally fine -- I have a really clear point of view based on my own experience in research and my values and the way that I think things should go.
There are lots and lots and lots of people who are promoting and upholding more of the empire-dominant culture world. Business paradigms and models come from socioeconomic historical contexts, and it’s part of looking at something like empire culture. There are components. When I look at a lot of how I’ve been influenced by ecosystem culture -- my husband is Navajo, and we do a lot of work with Native entrepreneurs here. When I look at many communities of color within Latinx, within Black communities, within Native communities, Asian communities, you can see, for example, that there is a different worldview, often, in terms of how it is that change happens or how folks work together, right? There can be a specific sociocultural context. I know within my own identity as a white woman of different ways in which history has shown up, in which what it is that we see as being right, like, the right way to show up. To be the sole person who’s going out, claiming land, manifest destiny, you know, all these things, it’s pretty fascinating and, often, disturbing for me now to see the other side of history where there are components of that that have actually been very detrimental over the long term, and it’s never just defined, just like we said, for different generations, you know, only to people that are from one identity. But those forces of just looking for the individual outcome, not looking in the long term, not necessarily looking sideways and across for if we’re simply looking to extract the majority of financial gain from a business activity, there’s always gonna be folks who are excited about that, right? That’s a force that has been part of our history for so long.
For me, part of my passion in doing my work and writing books and talking about this is just to show there’s also been a way for a long period of time in which people have been looking out for each other, in which people have been sharing resources -- have, not only been looking at their own well-being, but that of others within their family and within their community, and one is not mutually exclusive.
You don't have to forgo having a healthy business and making money when you are looking to do more partnerships. In fact, with everybody that I’ve worked with, when you begin to really activate more of this ecosystem model, you have more flow, more clients, more opportunities. It really does open up many more possibilities for you to be connecting with people and creating business opportunity. It’s why it’s so important, I think, to be talking, often, about the historical context in the way that we talk about business ‘cause there’s always underlying assumptions that are based on values and behaviors, and there are people who will radically agree with what I’m saying and then other people who have said clearly throughout the years, “This makes no sense. Why are you doing this? Why are you investing so much time and energy in community?” I think, you know, for each of us, that’s where we have to use our best judgment for what we think, in the long term is gonna be the very best solution.
Rebecca Ching: Mm. Thank you for that. Thank you for that, and so, shifting to leaders finding community, that’s something that I hear a lot, and I’ve felt it myself of finding community and common ground with peers these days. I mean, it’s been a lot of understandable logistics and literal bandwidth and capacity and Zoom fatigue and all those things. People are so busy caring for others and leading others that they neglect their own needs, and the reflex to compete and then isolate are very strong I don’t think folks gets into what they're doing 'cause they don't want to do well and succeed and be the best, but it only perpetuates many still feeling lonely and frustrated and untrusting.
I’m wondering, for you, tell me about a time when you struggled with navigating that reflex to compete and to isolate when that came up for you ‘cause I think it gets the best of us, and what helped ground you?
Pamela Slim: Yeah, I’m trying to think if there was ever a time where I didn't have -- I’m such a community-builder that I have always built a business in the context of community and always have done that work. The times where I find that I let myself get stuck is maybe where I’m at a point of trying to update my business model or create some new products or ideas and I just get too stuck in my head where I don't invite other people in to have those conversations. There can be really specific, helpful environments.
I was just speaking earlier this week in Chicago at Agency Management Institute (AMI), which is an association for a membership organization for marketing agencies, and it’s run by a dear friend, Drew McLennan, who’s just a lovely person and very much a community ecosystem builder but also really, really smart about what it takes to have a successful, profitable marketing agency. It was so fun to be in a room with a few hundred people. I went there to speak about building community, and it was so fun to be in a whole room full of people who had the same kind of profession. Each of them was usually specialized in a specific niche, but they were able -- we had all kinds of breakouts and peer tables around different topics where people were able to have the safety to talk with each other about some of the hard parts of running an agency, and that kind of environment can be so helpful. For some people, it’s belonging to a mastermind of people from maybe a little bit different professions. For others, you might have a very specific field that you're in (you know, CFOs in high-tech or something) where it can be really helpful to be talking to people who understand your experience. I think that is so grounding, you learn so much, and it creates this really wonderful feeling of mentorship and partnership.
Rebecca Ching: It’s so true. I think some of the times I get the most stuck is when I’m in my head, and I just need to download and give air to some of these thoughts, ideas, struggles with other folks who get it. I love that this was hard for you to answer because community-building is so in your bones.
Pamela Slim: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: I love that. I want to shift to success. I’m curious how you view success. How do you define it now, and how is that different from what you were taught?
Pamela Slim: I define success -- one of the definitions I used in Body of Work that still is pretty true today is to enjoy my life while I’m living it, and so, inherent in that are where there are a few things that need to be in place. I need to really be enjoying the work that I’m doing and wholeheartedly embracing and giving respect to who I’m working with because as soon as I start to get to a place where I’m a little bit tired or burnt out -- I know the early stage when I was doing about ten years of early-stage start-up with Escape From Cubicle Nation, where people were leaving corporate just to start their first business, that work was so, so fun until it became a little bit boring where I’m like, ah, here we go. Another conversation about should I have an LLC or an S-Corp or how do I start a website, and so, as soon as I start to feel that edge is where I push myself, always, to be in the zone of doing work I love. I need to be, at a given time, making the kind of money that I require for supporting myself and my family.
So a lot of it is really just being conscious about that, but I was really lucky in that my dad was a huge inspiration to me. He was a photographer, a photojournalist, extremely passionate about what he did right up until the very end. I would always tell him he was gonna hold a camera in his hands until he couldn't, and that’s literally what happened. He worked as a freelancer up until his final years, and I really witnessed that, I think, from my dad where he was just so grounded and enjoyed what he did. It’s part of what really kept him fresh.
My mom is so present, and she’s a wonderful friend. She’s so passionate about family. She really helps to ground me and center me in the joy of being a parent and not skipping over that. So that’s just very present for me. That’s the main thing that I try to stay on top of.
Rebecca Ching: You've had incredible mentors and role models, and whether they come from our parents or other people in our lives, that really, really makes a difference. That really makes a difference to have that.
Pamela Slim: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And so, I think that what would it look like to do what you're doing and enjoy it and to live your life and enjoy it and be present to it real-time? That, I think, is enough to shoot for. It’s not what are your investment plans or what are your next steps or what’s your growth edge and all those -- let’s just keep it simple right now. [Laughs] Let’s just focus on that. I love that.
Pamela Slim: Mm-hmm, that’s right, and it’s gonna be different for each person and different at different stages of life for sure.
Rebecca Ching: So one more final question, too. Is this what you thought you’d be doing today?
Pamela Slim: No. No, no, no. I don't think I saw it coming. I didn't really know. When asked, when I was little, I probably said, “Oh, I want to be a teacher,” ‘cause my mom and my grandma were teachers, but my degree in college was actually in community development so it’s really funny I have a specialization in the use of non-formal education as a tool for social and economic change. I was focused in Latin-America (in Mexico and Columbia) and in Brazil for my studies, but, really, that’s what I’m doing here every day is non-formal education as a tool for social and economic change. So, actually, there’s been a path that’s not always been a straight line, but it really has brought me back to probably the greatest amount of joy that I have where I can be advocating for community, I can actively be building community and helping people take twinkles in their eye to actual full-blown businesses that make a positive impact in the world. I couldn't ask for anything better than that.
Rebecca Ching: Ah, well, I appreciate the example that you're giving so many of us. Thank you. So I want to wrap up with some quick-fire questions. Are you ready?
Pamela Slim: I’m ready!
Rebecca Ching: Okay, so what are you reading right now?
Pamela Slim: I will be very honest right now. I’ve been traveling on planes, and I have been reading sort of like romantic kindle -- what is it, spicy talk or something on TikTok, I think, that initially got me connected to that, and it’s been great! I went to Philadelphia, I went to Chicago, and three, four, five hours go by, and it’s kind of just reminded me -- ‘cause, of course, I read tons of business books all the time 'cause friends, clients, partners are sending them which I use for research, but I kind of forgot the joy of that summer read, that trashy novel on the beach, and it is so dang enjoyable, so I’m sure Amazon’s having a field day with my algorithm now ‘cause they're like, “What happened? She used to read business books, and now it’s all about spicy romance,” so…
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Spicy talk on TikTok. I am learning new things everyday.
Pamela Slim: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Oh, my gosh. What song are you playing on repeat?
Pamela Slim: Probably because of TikTok, Lizzo’s new song. Yeah, it’s one of these really catchy songs that has the whole dance. I have teenagers so, you know, we have a lot of TikTok in the house, but I love a good pop tune myself.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh. Have you seen Lizzo’s Amazon reality show where she’s --
Pamela Slim: I haven’t seen it yet.
Rebecca Ching: Transformational. It is amazing. Talk about leadership. Pay attention to Lizzo and her choreographer and how they talk to each other and lead the team too. It is amazing.
Pamela Slim: I love it.
Rebecca Ching: I love it. Best TV show or movie you've seen recently?
Pamela Slim: I’ve gotten way down the European period drama -- Sanditon was really fun, and I’ve watched -- I don't even know the names of, like, a million Italian, French, Scottish ones. My husband came home one day. He’s like, “Can we please watch something in English? I’m really tired of reading the subtitles.”
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] it’s exhausting.
Pamela Slim: I watch a lot of them. Yes.
Rebecca Ching: That’s awesome. What is your favorite ‘80s movie or piece of pop culture?
Pamela Slim: Moonstruck, 100%.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh!
Pamela Slim: All day every day.
Rebecca Ching: I have not thought about that movie. Cher and --
Pamela Slim: The best movie of all time.
Rebecca Ching: Cher and Nicholas Cage, right?
Pamela Slim: Yes, Cher and Nicholas Cage. Ask my kids, I quote from Moonstruck at least three times a day, and they're, like, “Not Moonstruck again,” but it’s the greatest movie of all time.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] That’s my kids with me quoting Duran Duran songs which, actually, don't mean much but still. It’s Duran Duran. What is your mantra right now?
Pamela Slim: We all need each other.
Rebecca Ching: Oof.
Pamela Slim: That has been the mantra -- really, the hashtag is, in all the seven years that I’ve been writing the book, I see it all day every day in pretty much every aspect of our life. If we’re gonna get through this extremely pivotal time -- I mean, without a hyperbole, we are not going to survive as humans for many more generations at all, maybe not past our own generation, if we don't figure some stuff out. My 17-year-old the other day was like, “Mom, what I’m learning in Earth and Space Science about climate change, we really need to make some changes or by 2100 there’s gonna be even more significant things happening.” So the stakes are so high, and we have to really learn how to work together in order to resolve things.
Rebecca Ching: What’s an unpopular opinion that you hold?
Pamela Slim: It’s one I’ve already talked about on the podcast! I think it’s so important to talk about history from a multitude of perspectives. I think it’s so important to be looking at, really, systemic change in some of the systems that have impacted folks differently, and I always find I either get a reaction if I’m on a podcast or on a stage or something like that where I can notice folks lean in and maybe smile and nod, I also notice when people lean out, maybe get less comfortable, but I just find it’s such an important thing.
It's liberating. It actually is extremely connecting which I know for a lot of folks is a bit counter intuitive that the more we’re able to look sometimes at the hard truths, at the ways that different people have been impacted in more severe ways, it helps us to have much better, more intelligent design for the future. So I probably never will stop talking about systemic impacts on our society, about the impact of sometimes a very patriarchal culture. It’s just part of the lens through which I see the world, and I think we need to find a path through it.
Rebecca Ching: Leanin’ in on that one from my end.
Pamela Slim: Yep.
Rebecca Ching: Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?
Pamela Slim: My kids are absolutely my best barometer. My daughter, especially, she’s just really funny, really honest and truthful, and so, she will absolutely tell me if I’m being cringy (very clearly and directly), and she is one of my biggest champions. I just did a talk in Phoenix at the Creator Economy Expo earlier this month, and so, we were here local and she asked if she could come and sit in. It was just so inspiring to me. I was just so conscious about the way I was showing up, what I was talking about, and she told me, “If people don't laugh at your jokes, don't worry, I will sit in the back, and I will laugh really loudly for you,” and then -- I hope she doesn't mind me sharing this, but she said it was so wonderful that -- at the end, you know, everybody left the room and we were talking, and she said, “Mom, you know, when you were talking, and I noticed that people were leaning in and they were really connecting with the message,” she said, “I felt it too. I felt like, in some way, they were really leaning in for me as well,” and I said, “We’re related! I actually grew you inside my body. We’re connected that way,” but I also felt it, I think, more in that metaphorical mother-daughter of, like, I really need to be leading and I want to be leading in a way in which she is really proud and she feels that real sense of integration by what I’m modeling.
So it doesn't get better than that to me. Of course, I was weeping. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: I’m getting choked up just thinking about it too. That’s a beautiful word to end this really, really enlightening and insightful conversation on. Pam, thank you so much for your time today. I have no doubt anyone listening to this is gonna get a lot out of it. Thank you so much for your time today but also for your leadership, how you're showing up in the world and helping call us all up to be better and reminding us that we really do need each other.
Pamela Slim: I appreciate it so much. Thanks for having me.
Rebecca Ching: Traumas of all kinds continue to break down community, and we need to stop fearing naming these things and instead respect their presence so we can tend to them and help heal them because difficult life experiences influence how we build and lead community. The impact of our individual and collective trauma impacts our ability to feel connected to a larger community and, often, just fuels our individualistic lenses. Pam showed us we can push back on toxic community by having an ecosystem lens to how we lead and cultivate community.
So I’m curious for you, what support do you need to move from a top-down way of leading community and move to an ecosystem way of building community, how can you support your places of work as vessels for healing, and what impact do you want to have on the places where you lead and live, because when you befriend your pain and the pain in others instead of exhaling it and fearing it and fearing saying words like trauma, [Laughs] you can lead this pain better instead of it leading you, and this is the work of an unburdened leader.
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can sign up for the free weekly Unburdened email, find this episode, show notes, and Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me, at www.rebeccaching.com.