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How Our Journey Shapes Us – Emily’s Story - EP 1

Emily: [00:00:00] So how can leadership and work and culture not be about heart, and not be about connection relationships? Because that’s a human need. Like that’s who we are. We need to feel connected ---- connected to what we’re working on, connected to each other, and most importantly, connected to ourselves.

Hi, welcome to Let’s Talk People. I’m Emily Frieze-Kemeny, and I want to give you a sense of who I am, where I’ve come from, and just to get to know each other a little bit better. So I’m one of those people who fell into the world of people as my work. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and a judge and ended up landing in HR at Morgan Stanley months out of college, after I quickly pivoted and realized I wasn’t going to be a lawyer.

And I think that I fell into it because the people who knew me best knew that I had this [00:01:00] curiosity about people, a deep compassion for them. And I like to help people figure out their lives from their personal journeys, and dating back in the day, to then helping people to figure out their careers and their life purpose.

So it was a natural fit. I have, early in my career, worked with people who are hired as high potentials right out of college and business school, help them to navigate their careers, their bosses. And those people went on to become managing directors at Morgan Stanley and across Wall Street. I then quickly worked alongside with the most senior executives in banking as well, because they cared about talent and they would confide in me about their own careers, about the challenges their businesses were facing.

And that’s when I started to realize that how leaders lead impacts every element of a business’s success. Because the way those leaders think about their own leadership, the [00:02:00] way they engage their teams, the way they think about the dynamics within their organizations drives the business results. And while I saw some of the most incredible things happen within those organizations, I also saw how the act of one leader could bring down practically an entire business or institution.

So I went on, then, to work with every level of leader. I created leadership experiences for middle managers, for vice presidents, off sites with managing directors, women’s initiatives, university concepts, really all the aspects of it and then moved on to helping teams develop a people strategy. So how do you even think about talent holistically?

So after doing this on Wall Street for many years, I then decided that I wanted to go deeper. I got my master’s at Columbia Teachers College, while working full [00:03:00] time. I then pivoted and went to IBM. I wanted to be at a place where I could work with the most senior leadership with a organization that was highly complex, global, matrixed, and that had a history of really consistently investing in leadership development.

That’s what IBM was for me. I had stepped out of being in a people management role and in a leadership role, to be an actual leadership and organizational development consultant at IBM, because I wanted to still do the work. So I, I kind of knew how to manage and lead, and I wanted to be able to be a practitioner.

And with IBM, the first two assignments that I got when I went there, one was helping HR as an organization to transform and change. So I was consulting to the leadership of HR and continue to do that throughout my entire career there. And then I started to work with their leadership, their top 300 [00:04:00] globally.

While they were reorganizing businesses, trying to turn around businesses, trying to set strategy for the top leadership, helping to craft what it was that we needed from those leaders to lead the whole enterprise. It took me all around the globe ---- to Brazil, Dubai, Turkey, Korea, you name it, working with leaders to lead.

And in parallel, the thing that really shaped why I’m here with you and hosting this podcast is, while I was the one from this very early stage in career being responsible for helping leaders to lead, I was also experiencing being led myself. And it was those experiences, being the receiver of leadership, that I learned my greatest leadership lessons. And some of them, maybe this resonates with you and your own experiences, we’re really, really rough. [00:05:00]

I saw leaders who were exceptional practitioners. And we’re really, really terrible people managers. They would lift you up when they needed you and they would bring you right back down when they felt that you were getting just a little too in their limelight.

And that happened even with colleagues. I noticed the dynamics that as people would perform and do great, that other people would have feelings about that, which would create team dynamics. And I would notice how the leadership wouldn’t deal with those team dynamics. I had experiences of where I’d see senior leadership make jokes like, “Hey, be kind to me in that 360-management survey.”

It was a joke, but you knew it wasn’t a joke. And so it was this contrast that I experienced, of knowing what best practice was, and teaching it, and coaching it and facilitating it. And [00:06:00] then not always seeing it in action, especially from the people who thought that they had a lot of expertise on how to lead.

That’s when leadership and culture got real personal for me. And then there’s all the other things that happened along the way, because as we lead and as we work, we have a whole life that goes on in the background. So I continued on my journey. I, at some point left IBM, went to Avon to head up all of leadership development, building out their entire leadership development portfolio from scratch, helping them rethink their whole learning strategy, performance management, helping them with board succession, while the business was really going through a significant transformation.

And what I experienced is, when businesses go through significant transformations, it brings out all sorts of interesting behaviors, because people don’t feel safe. They don’t know their worth. [00:07:00] They don’t feel job security in the same ways. And stuff happens in terms of interpersonal dynamics because of that, and it’s totally normal and natural.

So now let’s contrast me being in that environment as a new executive who has to prove themself, and deal with some really major objectives of what we want to deliver on in terms of, you know, revamping all of leadership development, performance and learning almost simultaneously. I was going through my own personal journey.

So, before I left IBM, out of nowhere, having a one-year-old baby, I ended up having a cancer diagnosis. And something between being like a mama bear at work, and not wanting to burden others in my team, and just with my own need to compartmentalize and navigate this on my own, I didn’t tell anybody. So I was [00:08:00] working like crazy. I was a new mom, and I was going through a major unexpected health crisis that carried over into that new journey at Avon, and nobody knew.

So I’m now navigating a new executive position in a new company, with all sorts of dynamics because the business is going through a transformation. And experiencing leadership, because you always experience leadership when you work in an organization, no matter how senior you are. Even CEOs have boards in many cases. And having my own personal stuff outside of work.

It was a lot, and nobody knew it. And that’s what happens. So when we lead and what I experienced so personally, is there’s a whole another level of what’s happening for people in their lives. Some of it goes all the way back to their childhood. Some of it is in the present moment.

And so I was getting to experience leadership kind of in these three different [00:09:00] dimensions. The one of teaching people and guiding them in their own leadership journeys, while being a person who is leading with all sorts of dynamics ---- interpersonal dynamics, business dynamics ---- to navigate, while navigating my own personal journey, that went from cancer, to then issues with fertility.

So it was like, boom, boom, back-to-back. And it was a lot. And so what I learned is that leading, and leadership is personal. It is deeply personal. It’s personal because we care about our jobs, and we care about our bosses and how they treat us. And because it’s personal, cause it’s a hugely internal game to lead. But it’s also personal because we’re one human being. We’re one person, and we don’t, and we can’t leave parts of ourselves outside of work.

Because that’s not natural. And so it was these firsthand experiences [00:10:00] of seeing all these different angles of leadership: receiving it, doing it, and teaching it, and the layers of complexity that go around it. Because we’re a whole complex being beyond what people often see at work, or need to worry about about us at work, that I wanted us to be able to spend time together as a community, talking about the deeply personal nature of our work and of our humanity.

And that the same way I always held myself accountable for high performance, even when things got really difficult, and I held others accountable for high performance, and we expected leaders to deliver the business results and goals, we can still care, and we can still have a heart.

And that’s what I know I had needed in those moments. That’s what I always chose to give. People who know me would say [00:11:00] that probably my number one quality is I have a really big heart, maybe to a fault. I’ve done a lot of working on the people-pleaser in me, but I have a big heart.

And so how can leadership and work and culture not be about heart and not be about connection relationships? Because that’s a human need, like that’s who we are. We need to feel connected, connected to what we’re working on, connected to each other, and most importantly, connected to ourselves.

So the journey continued. I was at Avon for about a year and a half when I confidentially found out that they were going to spin off the North America business, and then eventually, they made the decision to move the headquarters to the UK, which coincided almost to the day with me being three months pregnant with my second child ---- a child that took three and a half years for me to have, given my fertility journey that I did in silence.

So this was a miracle baby. I was three months [00:12:00] pregnant and it was one of those, “Oh boy, what am I going to do now?” kind of moments. And I decided that I wanted to stay at Avon.

I was loving the work I was doing. I cared about the organization and the team. So I helped them to restructure and transform and put some pretty important initiatives in place around succession for their top revenue leaders, to do succession planning for the board, and to help, you know, the team to operate in a completely new organizational structure and still drive value, and not to look for another job, which was a decision. We all have these kind of crossroad moments in our careers, where we have to kind of choose which path are we going down. And I stayed there till one week before I had my baby. And then for the first time in my career, I was a mom only.

And that was a complete identity crisis. I had never planned that. I never planned to be a stay-at-home mom. [00:13:00] I love my children and it’s the most important identity I have, but I’m a better mom because I’ve always worked. So there I was. It took me a long time to have this baby. I have a preschooler and an infant. And I have no job or clue of what my next job is going to be and when it’s going to show up. So I really was a stay-at-home mom for a really significant period of time. And while I did look for another job, I also pursued some personal interests that I had no idea would become a part of my work.

I have always done a tremendous amount of self work, therapy, healing work, body work, whatever it is, I’ve done it. You name it, I’ve done it. And that was just because I wanted to be able to show up in the world as a kind, loving, and capable human being, because we’ve all got our stuff.

But then I started getting certified in all of it [00:14:00]. And just one by one,

I started training in a form of therapy. I got certified as a yoga teacher. I got certified as a energy healer, and started practicing Transcendental Meditation, having no idea that this would ever be a part of my professional work. It was just an area of passion.

So that went on during my kind of mama sabbatical, as I call it, and I started consulting and this concept of having a consultancy in a business started to percolate a little bit.

And then somewhere between a passion for driving impact within organizations, and probably a little bit of fear of kind of branching out on my own at that stage, I jumped back into the inside. So I went to Scholastic as their head of talent, learning, and OD.

And Scholastic was similar to why I went to Avon. It [00:15:00] was all heart. I had young kids. I’m a passionate reader and love reading to my children, and it just resonated, and I was so excited to again work with a brand with such an important and long history, that kind of hits people again in that heart space, that I jumped all in. They were going through a transformation from a platform perspective, from a technology platform perspective, and they were really rethinking very similar to Avon all of their talent practices and strategy, which is work I have always loved to do.

So we hit it all: talent strategy, diversity, equity and inclusion strategy, rethinking talent acquisition as a full function, workforce planning and putting leadership development in place for all people, managers. All of that was kind of year one, and then boom, the pandemic hits.

And [00:16:00] we had to pivot real fast because Avon’s most profitable and significant business is book fairs. Book fairs are those school reading events that get rolled into your school that we even remember from our own childhoods. And it was brought to a halt because in person was dead. And if you remember, we had no idea what was going to happen with the pandemic.

So as a result, we had to figure out how to handle that business, not knowing if it was going to be shut down for weeks, months, or years, or forever. And I jumped in with the new president of that business, who had just started about a month before the pandemic, and we just dug in, and we learned that business inside and out.

We stripped the concept of it to its core and thought about what’s the purpose of this business. And then thought about how do you build something when you don’t know what the future is going to be. And we did that within months. And [00:17:00] it’s a pandemic. And our nanny just stopped showing up for work.

And so we have now a three-year-old and an eight-year-old, no childcare. My husband and I are both working and we’re trying to save a business with no advance notice. So you can imagine how that went.

My daughter one day on a school zoom, which yes, that was a total joke for a three-year-old to be on a preschool Zoom. I left the room. I’m like within feet of her, but I left the room to do dishes while she’s on her Zoom. By the time I got back, she had markered her entire body. She may have flashed her entire class. We’re not sure. And no one ever talked about it ever again.

So that’s what it was looking like at home as I’m helping to transform an entire business. So, been there, done that, and it was wild.

So what we’ve learned is that life is anything but certain. And life is anything but compartmentalized. We may not talk about what’s [00:18:00] going on that is not related to the work, but we all are having it. And we are all experiencing it. And even though what we’ve been through over the last few years in terms of the pandemic and human atrocities, losing some authorship of our own bodies, there’s been a lot…. Is that there is no longer an ability or a desire to hold the line between who we are and our work.

And this is really different. So when I left Scholastic, this is about a year after this business transformation moment for them, I left not knowing exactly where I was going to go next. But all I knew is that nothing was going to be the same again, for me or really, for any of us. And in some ways, that’s hard. And in some ways, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us in terms of the world of work.

So I started working [00:19:00] with a couple startups year one, so very different than my big corporate background. And I loved it. One was in home services. One was a wellness platform, and it was building businesses.

I come from a really entrepreneurial family, which is why I ran in the exact opposite direction and went into very big, stable companies. But I had it in my blood, and it snuck back in and took over, because building businesses was fun, and it was creative, and it was uncertain. It was ---- I love chaos and it was all chaos.

So after journaling and some therapy and working with these other startups about six months later, it poured into me like I had always known it, a vision for a company that I now call Arose Group. And it just all became clear that we are our work, and our work is organizational, [00:20:00] it’s driving results, and it’s personal, and it’s relational.

And Arose Group exists to work in all of those ways. We work to help organizations to create an incredible experience through leadership, through culture, through moments of change and transformation, and through well being, because we are our work.

We help individuals because people need support in their lives, and sometimes they want the privacy of doing that outside of work. And we work in the places in between, by bringing people together in coalitions, in communities, in groups, in retreats and off sites, and all the places. Because that’s what brings change, is coming at it from every angle.

So I had this vision for business. It also includes a technology solution and many, many other facets that will happen over time. [00:21:00] And that was it. I took everything that I’ve done my whole career and loved, and that knowledge and that passion. And I said, let’s do this for as many organizations as we can support.

And they keep showing up. And the best part is they keep showing up with the most incredible people to collaborate with. Because we feel like our clients are our team and our partners. Because this work, again, it is personal. It’s personal for us and it’s personal for them.

I think of it sometimes like Noah’s Ark, like it’s two of everything. Nonprofits, founder led companies, public companies, P. E. backed companies, startups, early stage. And we love all of it. And the thing that we love the most about it, at least, you know, this has kind of been my vision, is it keeps you sharp.

You cannot assume that you know them or what they need. [00:22:00] Every client and every organization is unique and special. And that is the learning journey of it. I love learning new businesses, and so does the team. And I love helping leaders to solve problems. That’s kind of the ---- like the fixer in me. I don’t take no for an answer.

My friends make fun of me about this. Anytime there’s some sort of an issue, they’re like, all right, Emily, you go at it. Because I don’t ever take no and I do it through, I’d say tenacity and compassion. And I bring that same energy and effort to what my clients want to accomplish.

And that’s where we are.

We’re building a business step by step by step. And I don’t want to do it alone. I consider this more than a business. But it’s a movement. It’s a movement to unite leaders, organizations, and each and every one of us in creating the conditions of how we want to work and live, [00:23:00] to be fully human and connected, and to do incredible things that do deliver results and profitability, because they go together.

Hence, the tagline and purpose of Arose Group, which is to bridge humanity and profitability. So bringing it full circle back to us, here’s a space where we can get to know each other. We’re going to have real conversations. We’re going to talk about the things that go on at work, outside of work, that impact us at work, that everybody talks about privately, but maybe not publicly.

And there is no place we are not going to go because we’re going to talk. And we’re going to talk as people to each other about the real things of leading, living, working, and being.

And in doing so, I have a feeling that we’re going to create a better future of work. That’s really the [00:24:00] one we’ve always wanted.

I think it’s time. I look forward to this journey with each and every one of you. Thanks for joining.

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