Going into 2008, Chip Conley was concerned about the future, and not just for the obvious reasons. Yes, there was the looming possibility of another economic downturn. And with his company launching 15 hotels in a 21-month period, he wondered like many business leaders what impact a recession would have on his organization and its 3,000-plus employees. The difference was Conley’s personal life was also in turmoil.
“We were growing as fast as we ever had at a difficult time,” says Conley, the founder of the San Francisco-based hotel group, Joie de Vivre Hotels. “I also had a family member who was going to San Quentin prison wrongfully. … I had a long-term relationship end. I had five friends commit suicide during that time.”
Soon, the CEO faced the repercussions trying to juggle so many emotions.
“I had my own flat-line experience,” he says.
After finishing up a speech in St. Louis, Conley fell unconscious. In the five to 10 minutes that it took the paramedics to arrive, his heart stopped.
While Conley fully recovered from the heart attack, his experience sent him through a search for meaning, a way to make sense of all the things happening in his life.
“CEOs — you sort of think that they’re above all the emotions and the difficulties and no one should be pitying any CEOs,” Conley says. “You know — ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina.’ But the bottom line is that I was really confused by all of the emotions I was feeling — a lot of things were falling apart in my life at once.”
As the leader of a $250 million business, Conley knew that he couldn’t be the only one facing this challenge. To empower himself as well as other leaders he did extensive research on the psychology behind emotions and how this translates in business, writing “Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness+Success.” The book focuses on how business leaders and individuals can become more emotionally fluent, and subsequently, improve their organizations. To date, his transformational leadership practices have been featured in publications from Time to Fortune and The Wall Street Journal.
“In business, what we want to do is influence things,” Conley says. “We want to have an impact. And usually it’s very external: how can I have an impact or influence the world? What I’m saying is if you can influence and impact your emotions, you can actually be more impactful as a leader in the world.”
Become a CEO (Chief Emotions Officer)
Conley’s research on emotions led him to the work of author Daniel Goleman and an interesting finding that the author made in his book “Emotional Intelligence” 16 years ago: that two-thirds of the success of business leaders comes from their EQ — emotional intelligence quotient — while just one-third is due to IQ level or experience. This statistic struck a powerful chord with Conley.
What it means for a CEO is that the best leaders have more influence and control over their emotions. The most effective CEOs are “chief emotions officers.”
“First of all, the more that you’re emotionally fluent and emotionally intelligent about what’s going on inside of you, the more effectively you’ll be as a leader and the happier you’ll be,” Conley says.
The first step in becoming a chief emotions officer isn’t an easy one for all, however. It begins with becoming more attuned to what’s going on inside of you by taking your ego out of the equation.
Conley notices that many young leaders tend to use talking to motivate people. They have a tendency to think that if they give a good speech or make a proclamation that that the emotion will get people excited. While this works sometimes, he’s learned over the years that trying to motivate people without good information can also backfire.
Frequently when people want to get things done, their ambition in tandem with success can lead employees to interpret it as narcissism, Conley says.
“What happens sometimes is a leader of an organization wants to get people fired up and people think that he or she is really out of touch with what they are seeing,” he says. “So it’s a fine line, because you do want to be a visionary as a leader and help people see things that aren’t as obvious, but you also have to keep your feet on the ground.”
Practicing empathetic leadership starts with becoming a better listener.
Conley uses the example of commercial airlines. When jet fuel prices went up and they started adding new charges for items such as amenities, luggage and so on. The exception was Southwest Airlines, which considered the impact on employees when it decided to maintain many of its pre-recession policies.
“The airlines teed off us — the customers — for charging for bags and for food and no longer handing out peanuts, except on Southwest,” Conley says. “So they upset us, but more importantly, they also upset the flight attendants. Because they were going to start charging us for bags, we brought all of our bags on the plane. You turn flight attendants into baggage handlers and the level of the satisfaction of the flight attendants went way down. And guess what? Customer satisfaction plummeted, except at places like Southwest.”
Understanding people’s feelings takes a two-way conversation. So instead of giving a speech about how it’s going to be, Conley now asks his people how they want it to be. As CEO, he frequently had dinners with different groups of employees, taught classes for team members and maintained an open door policy to encourage people to share their emotions and ensure they felt heard.
“When you can understand the subtleties and the nuances of what this person in front of you is looking for in their life, it allows you to deliver on those needs a lot better,” Conley says.
Identify the variables
The challenge in learning to control emotions for most people is becoming more responsive to them. Because people tend to react quickly when something happens to us, they often don’t take time to think about the root cause of emotions or worse, push them off, Conley says.
Due to the stresses of day-to-day business dealings, it might take CEOs days or weeks to realize that something has been eating at them because they were too busy to deal with it at the time.
“Sometimes efficiency takes us away from our emotions and we just ignore them, and then they come out in other ways,” Conley says. “We wonder, ‘Why am I so angry about this?’ and you don’t realize that yesterday this person sort of blew you off when you were supposed to have a meeting with them. And you just had other things to do so you didn’t focus on it.
“So something happens and we react. The lifespan of an emotion physically in your body is usually 90 seconds long, but we actually hold on to it a lot longer than that. It gets stale, but it’s still that emotion that you’re holding onto. Learning how to be more responsive and less reactive is a good thing.”
In a business culture, emotions are contagious, from smiling to yawning and frustration, to fear and anxiety. So not addressing the fear or anxiety of one person — or yourself — can quickly turn into the emotional neglect of many, causing creativity and innovation to suffer.
When Conley researched “Emotional Equations,” he found that although emotions seem fleeting and uncontrollable, they are actually quite predictable. Once you identify the emotion that you or your people are feeling, you need to examine ingredients that created it. Most can be broken down into simple math.
In a study done several years ago, participants were given two choices: get an electric shock now or get an electric shock randomly in the next 24 hours, but it would be half as painful. The vast majority of people in the study chose the option to get the shock immediately.
Why? They had more control over the situation by knowing when the shock would happen, lowering their anxiety.
“Anxiety has two different ingredients: uncertainty and powerlessness, or what you don’t know and what you can’t control,” Conley says. “Once you start to realize this you can actually influence the ingredients and then may influence the emotion.”
Other examples include (Disappointment = Expectations - Reality) and (Workaholism = What Are You Running From?/What Are You Living For?)
By dissecting emotions into variables, leaders can influence the variables to better control the emotions themselves. Take anxiety, for example.
If employees in a company harbor anxiety, they will eventually become distracted and less productive. So when leaders find out that people are anxious about their jobs and finances, they should look for ways to deplete some of the powerlessness and uncertainty they may be feeling.
“If we know that uncertainty and powerless is what creates anxiety, and we know that anxiety makes people less creative, less innovative, less engaged, less productive, then when we have bad news, we better figure out how to package it quickly and get it out to people,” Conley says.
“When people are just stewing about what they think will happen, it becomes a big distraction from what they really should be doing in their work.”
While reassurance with words is always helpful, you also need to take action. Set tangible goals. Provide comprehensive feedback. Get employees more engaged in innovation.
The same goes for anxiety of a CEO. By creating more certainty in your life and taking power over the areas that you can control, you reduce the anxiety that can paralyze you and your organization.
“Even in a time when people are worried about things like layoffs, they can feel like ‘Ah, I have some power or some influence in terms of my effectiveness if I do the following three things,’” Conley says.
Make it a commitment
CEOs who use empathy in their decision-making processes can create cultures with happier employees, who in turn, provide better service.
“What we saw is the more employees felt engaged, the happier they were and the more likely they were to give a great experience to our customers,” Conley says. “So our employee satisfaction went up and then our customer satisfaction went up as well.
“When you get more engaged employees in a service environment, you’re able to put an environment together that allows the customers to get solutions faster. And the employees are going to feel not just engaged but they feel like their fingerprints are all over the business.”
Seeing the power of emotional equations, Conley began teaching them to leaders at Joie de Vivre to help them better identify with their emotions and empathize with the emotions of others. And so far, the impact on organizationwide morale has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Initially people thought, ‘Oh God. Here’s Chip with his New Age stuff again,’” he says. “But honestly, the last few years have been an emotionally trying time for people in the business world. So the fact that I was being vulnerable and authentic about my own fears and frustrations and concerns about life meant that people felt like, ‘OK, I can breathe. I don’t have to be Superman.’”
Giving more voice to emotions doesn’t mean productivity has to suffer either. In fact, it should be the opposite. When people have the safety to express their emotions, they’ll be more empowered to make decisions because the fear of making a mistake or anxiety about their job security won’t be distracting them.
“If you have a problem in a hotel or any kind of business, you want the person right in front of you to solve it,” Conley says. “You don’t want to have them say, ‘OK, well, I’ll talk to my manager.”
While he’s transitioned from the role of CEO, Conley continues to promote the equations at Joie de Vivre as a strategic adviser. Today he focuses on creating one emotion in particular: joy (Joy=Love-Fear), which is also the company’s mission statement.
“Our company name is Joie de Vivre, which means joy of life,” Conley says. “The fact that we have an underlying message and many of us wear these wristbands that say “create joy” is a reminder that that’s what we’re in business to do.”
How to reach: Joie de Vivre Hotels, (800) 738-7477 or www.jdvhotels.com
The Conley File
Founder, former CEO and strategic adviser
Joie de Vivre Hotels
Born: Long Beach
Education: BA and MBA from Stanford University
What was your first job?
The fries and shake station at McDonald’s
What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?
Compensation is a right and recognition is a gift so I try to provide two honest and detailed forms of personal recognition to people I work with daily. If I slack off one day, then I add those to the next day.
What would your friends be surprised to find out about you?
I’m not sure that many people know that I have a 35-year-old stepson, a six-week old baby and three grandchildren, with the oldest being 17 and 3 inches taller than me. As much as Joie de Vivre and our various hotels were sort of like my children and family, I feel fortunate to have these kids and grandkids in my life as they remind me of what’s truly important at the end of the day.
If you could have dinner with one person you’ve never met, who would it be and why?
Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines who was in that position for 37 years. He created a compelling culture that walked its talk around the customer coming second and the employee coming first. The airline industry is brutal — cyclical, high fixed costs, lots of unions, big risks — so I’d want to learn more about how he dealt with the emotional roller coaster that came with being CEO for three dozen years. He outdid me by a dozen years since I was CEO of JdV for two dozen years.