CEO Nancy Lyons’ Guide to Making Work Better

CEO Nancy Lyons’ Guide to Making Work Better

With the release of her new book, Work Like a Boss, the tech entrepreneur talks work culture, diversity and inclusion, and bringing your whole self to your job.

Minneapolis tech CEO Nancy Lyons wrote the book on bringing your whole self to work. Little did she know most of us would be working from home when it was released this month.

“I feel like the timing is perfect,” says Lyons, author of Work Like a Boss: A Kick-in-the-Pants Guide to Finding (And Using) Your Power at Work. (Published by Minneapolis-based Wise Ink, the book features illustrations by local artist Lisa Troutman of Drawnwell.) “Work has very little to do with the place you do it. Good communication is more essential than ever.”

Although she wrote this book—her second—just last year, the co-founder of Clockwork digital agency, a national speaker on people-first business strategy, says she’s been working on it her entire career. “I used to think I was going to write an employee manual. I’m always thinking about what we want from our workforce. To be engaged, to be interested, and to step up. But work is the last space where we still struggle to make change.”

Lyons spoke to us (from her home office) about creating an open culture and thinking like a boss even when you aren’t one.

Before we get into the book, let’s start with its shape, which is unusual—especially for a business title. Why make it square?
I wanted it to stand out. I remember seeing a square design book that caught my eye and I thought, I want a square book! It wasn’t strategic. But this is not like every other business book.

How so?
I didn’t want it to be dry or dense. I wanted it to be something digestible, shareable, human. Humans are weird. We get into ruts

Nancy Lyons

and routines. As I say in the book, we assume work must be serious. We focus on how to make the widgets better rather than how to treat humans better. We don’t change into professional self at 9 a.m. and back into personal self at 5 p.m. All day, every day, we’re both of those things.

And now we’re seeing it all over Zoom.
That’s right, it’s all visible. Now there truly is no separation between work and our personal lives. Recently I was doing a keynote—from home—and my son came in shirtless with lunch. I had said to him, ‘I just need you to leave me alone from this time this time.’ Seventeen times, I told him, but that was moment he chose to come in. What the pandemic has done is get us over that hump. Before, there was still a separation—you didn’t have to bring humanity to work. Now, we’re all juggling all sorts of things.

So has remote work, in a sense, actually been a good thing?
There’s more self-awareness. We’re missing all the nuance we get from body language and physical cues so you have to be mindful and intentional–over communicate that you give a shit. It’s also important to understand when the energy isn’t there. When you welcome the whole person, you have to be ready for the good and the bad. People are messy.

How is your team at Clockwork holding up while working remotely?
We’ve hit the six-month fatigue point. Everyone is a little beaten down. You’ve got to recognize that it takes a toll on people, and care about it. Be vulnerable. One of our colleagues died recently. We had a remembrance in our parking lot. We were all separated and masked, but it reminded us, even in the midst of chaos and distraction, there are still simple, human things we can do to connect with each other.

What lesson from this book do you wish you could have taught yourself when you were starting your business?
I wish someone would have told me to be more open to contribution and more transparent earlier. Too many leaders keep the glorious collaborative aspect of ‘starting’ to a small group. Great ideas come from surprising places. I wish I’d been more open to tapping into that really good thinking and collaborative energy earlier.

Early in the book, you give readers permission to jump around and read the sections that feel right in the moment. If you had to point out one chapter you most want us to read, which would it be?
The chapter called Kick Your Fear in the Face is universal. Everyone can find something in it to help manage insecurities. Fear creates a barrier to progress. You can’t innovate without taking risks, but we’ve all been trained to be afraid of risk. That’s why entrepreneurs and bosses are so interesting: risk and failure are part of success. Individual accountability at every level is really important—now more than ever. People can’t wait for permission. We look to people who get shit done.

The death of George Floyd is prompting more conversations about diversity and inclusion in workplaces across the country. It’s something you’ve worked on for years in your own company and more broadly, as chair emeritus of the National Board of Directors at Family Equality Council. What advice would you give leaders who are early in their D&I journey?
You’ve got to be committed to doing the work. Committed to understanding inclusion; committed to anti-racism. It can’t be an initiative or a single role on your team. It has to be organization-wide and baked into the DNA. It’s not a project. It’s forever.

Get more work culture advice from Nancy Lyons on this episode of TCB podcast By All Means.