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Returning to Work with Heart and Purpose: An Interview with Chief Heart Officer, Claude Silver


Two years after our lives were flipped upside down, we find ourselves in uncharted territory and at a crossroads with no map regarding the future of work. There is no default mode or “it’s always been done this way” rule. When traditional logic does not hold the solution to unparalleled human needs and organizational concerns, something interesting happens. We begin to seek answers and insight from a deeper place of intuition, introspection, and connection.


Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia, was born for this new era of leadership. She knows of no other way to go through life than to be kind and ensure others feel supported to be their greatest self. It is her natural default mode.


It’s no wonder that one of the world’s most influential entrepreneurs of the 21st century, and poster child of kindness and emotional intelligence, Gary Vaynerchuk, handpicked Claude Silver to scale and mainstream what it means to be a heart-centered leader—long before it was popular.


In this interview, Claude discloses the emotions, challenges, insights, and role that kindness and emotional intelligence played when navigating how VaynerMedia helped their team members return (or not) to work.

 

Brittney-Nichole: As a leader, what emotions did you feel when there was talk of returning to the office?


Claude: What a question. Excitement. Anxiety. Curiosity. Apprehension. Caring for people. Safety. … A little bit of not exhaustion, but more like, ‘Oh boy, we've gone back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.’ … But I will say my overarching feeling was happiness. I'm so excited to high-five people in the hallway two days a week.


Claude shared that VaynerMedia decided that each team would spend eight days a month in the office (2-days a week), with each team having the autonomy to determine their two days. Claude also expressed that some people will not be coming back into the office for various reasons.


Brittney-Nichole: How did you and other leaders make that decision?


Claude Silver: Oh my goodness. We did a lot of studying what others were doing. There's no best practice. It's all just a ‘next practice.’ We're all figuring this out. We did surveys in terms of how people would feel comfortable and how comfortable people are working at home.


We tried so many scenarios, in theory, but we only announced the ‘winner’ to the company. I should say to the New York office because London's already back two days a week. L.A. is back two days a week. We had thought it would be two weeks on, two weeks off; … It was just a jumble at the end of the day, working with other leads like account leads and department leaders to find out how many times a week they have full team meetings? How many times a week or a month do they expect to have clients in house? That was a deciding factor as well. Safety. It was all predicated on safety and what our people were saying they could do and manage.


Brittney-Nichole: You mentioned feeling many mixed emotions, like care and anxiety. I think care and anxiety go hand in hand. You get anxiety because you care so much about doing the right thing. But then, there's the question, ‘How do I know if we're doing the right thing?’ since there is often no ‘right’ answer. I'm sure many other leaders shared those feelings too. What feelings did you notice among your employees?


Claude Silver: It’s been almost split down the middle. There's not black and white; it's a lot of gray. There are extroverts that are dying to get into the office to chit-chat it up and go on walking talks and meetings... and then there are people who have really come out—I'm very proud of them—in the last two years to say, ‘Look, I have anxiety. This makes me more anxious. This isn't going to work for me.’ or ‘we moved.’


So, I would say it was a mixture of the ‘I can't wait to be back,’ then people that are like, ‘You know what? Home has been good for me; I'm an introvert; I have a special needs child; I get more done.’


We really listened to our people to see what works best for them, because at the end of the day, working from home has worked. We've had two wonderful, incredible years, and we have been able to balance patience and ambition.


Like you said, there are two juxtaposing emotions, fear and care, but there's a seesaw effect for emotions that juxtapose one another. There is that sweet spot you get to just before it tips to the other end.


Brittney-Nichole: I’m sure you have been in conversations with other leaders outside of VaynerMedia. What mistakes do you often see leaders making when talking about bringing people back into the office?


Claude Silver: Yeah. I don't know if it's a mistake. It's something I wouldn't do or say, which is ‘Creativity cannot happen if you're not sitting next to one another.’ I've heard that, and I think that’s a farce. … Or, ‘Unless I can show you my screen and tap you on the back, we're not going to get to good ideas.’ I think that's baloney. Complete baloney. When I hear that, it comes from a place of someone who doesn't actually know what the floor is like. … It’s a very “leading from the ivory tower” statement of ‘I know what's best for you,’ … and I wholeheartedly disagree with that.


Brittney-Nichole: I think trust also plays into that. Many leaders think, ‘If I can't see you working, how do I know you're working?’


Claude Silver: I can say we went through that in the beginning because this was brand new for us. I'm happy to say I don't believe we have that issue. I definitely think it’s an issue that is alive and well in other places [organizations].


Brittney-Nichole: Do you think this hybrid or remote work environment will restructure how people are paid in the future? Meaning do you think people will get paid by project or salary instead of being paid by the hour?


Claude Silver: Well, certainly, to your point, [working remote] has restructured how people work. … I’m not sure about the pay.


Brittney-Nichole: For example, if a boss fears their employee is only working a handful of hours out of their workday, the boss may say, ‘Why am I paying you for eight hours if you have only worked four.’ However, the employee is still getting all their work done in those four hours. Would you agree that it shouldn't matter how many hours someone works if they get the job done?


Claude Silver: Yeah. I mean, you have got to trust your people. If you don't trust your people, then I think you might want to find a different kind of career for yourself. I truly do. If you get your job done in two hours, good on you, you've got six hours to go play.


Brittney-Nichole: I agree that employees shouldn’t be punished for managing their time effectively.


Claude Silver: Here’s the thing, who owns you? You. Who's the CEO of your life? You. Who is in charge of your own self-awareness? You. Who's accountable for you? You.


Brittney-Nichole: Right! Before the pandemic, there were studies that showed that people only worked, on average, three productive hours out of an eight-hour day. So, the pandemic didn’t necessarily change that, right?


Claude Silver: It didn’t necessarily change. And honestly, what we've seen is people speak up and rise up. We've seen that many of us are now trying to find a flow state that works for us rather than our companies. Most of the time, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. … But we need to offer people autonomy and flexibility to figure things out while we're figuring it out. As we said in the beginning, no one has this right. No one. What's right for you is not going to be right for Jack, Jill, and Sally.


Brittney-Nichole: One-hundred ten percent agree with you. I’m now going to divert our conversation a bit. When it comes to critical conversations and strategies for returning to the office, what role do you believe emotional intelligence and kindness play in that?


Claude Silver: Kindness is the most important role, and then I think if you take the word empathy, which is the emotion, kindness and compassion are the actions of it, that's how you show that you care. That's how you show that you’re concerned; that's how you show ‘that must be really challenging for you.’ I think that [kindness/empathy] has to reign supreme all the time, and having enough self-awareness to know that just because I'm happy to run into the office three days a week doesn't mean that ‘Bobby’ is.


And there has to be a middle ground. We are a business. We need to have people doing the work to service our clients and touch our consumers all day long. But I don't think that we have to be Big Brother about that, and we're not Big Brother about that. To answer your question, I think there needs to be an enormous amount of emotional intelligence. There needs to be self-awareness or awareness of your culture. There needs to be warmth, gratitude, generosity of spirit, transparency, all of those things. The candor to have hard conversations also. We call it kind candor because kindness is the most important.


I'm probably very spoiled because I work for and with a CEO that has enormous emotional intelligence and really professes that. That's what the basis of our company is built on. Our guiding principles … leaders eat last, and those types of things. I don't know what you can do in life without it. But that's coming from a very skewed vision of emotional intelligence and the world based on who I am.


Brittney-Nichole: It's timely that you mentioned kind candor because that leads me to my next question. When I was reading Gary's book, Twelve and a Half, he talked about having kindness without candor led to a sense of entitlement amongst some employees. How can leaders be kind without fear of a sense of entitlement among employees? Can you elaborate on kind candor?


Claude Silver: I sure can. The way to get to kind candor, I believe, is by having leaders feel like they can be more emotionally brave. They can show their vulnerabilities. They can share transparently who they are, that they have fallen, and that they have made mistakes. I think for anyone to go into a kind candor meeting and be able to share that … I, too, am human. I think it softens the conversation in a way that does not minimize the essence of the conversation, which is to help reframe, re-guide, or re-prioritize someone, but it also shares with that person, ‘I am human, I got you, I'm going to have your back, and I'm here for you.’


… Gary and myself, we lead with kindness, and we both had a hard time with the candor.

… Feedback is a gift, and it's all in the delivery. You need to absolutely try to empathize with the person you're talking to and understand that before this meeting, they've been anxious about the whole thing. … I don't know if they had a fight with their spouse or had five meetings before this meeting, and they haven't had a sip of water. Whatever it is, we're just human. We're not robots.


We were moving so fast before [the pandemic]. I still think we're moving fast, but I think there is some kind of comfort when you're at home and at your own desk and you've got your dog, or you've got your favorite plant next to you, and it's your space. I think it might be a little bit easier to set yourself up both to give the kind candor and to receive the kind candor. And by the way, everyone deserves feedback. Everyone. … How am I doing as a leader? That's a really important question. Tell me, please. I can take it. I want it. I want to grow too.

 

The takeaway is this:

There will be ups and downs and everything in between when it comes to life and work, and it is normal to experience emotions that juxtapose one another because life is complex and not cut and dry. To overcome any challenge, we must be kind to ourselves and others and not feel that we must have the answers when one may not exist yet.


What Claude demonstrates through her leadership is that heart can overcome what logic can’t—navigating and overcoming challenges that have no logical solution or straightforward answers, such as returning to the office, and supporting others based on their unique needs, which takes compassion and understanding.

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