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UNMUTED: Elevating Your Voice for Impact & Influence

This is our final episode with Rachel Druckenmiller, the founder and CEO of Unmuted Life. I’m just so excited for this episode because we’re digging into something that Rachel has devoted her passion and energy towards. We’re going to talk about how you can use your voice for impact and influence at pretty much any level of an organization. This ties directly to the name of Rachel’s the Unmuted Life, and the potential that exists when we hit the unmute button. 

How Can We Gain Impact and Influence When We Feel Powerless? 

Ruthie: It may be important to address what we mean by impact and influence. Those are really big words, in that they imply a lot of power. At almost any level of an organization, it can feel like you don’t have much power. So what should we be looking for when we’re mulling over those types of words?

Rachel: We often think that there has to be some grand gesture. But just like a habit, it’s the accumulation of little things that leads to your greater impact over time. When I think back to how I got started in my career, I started listening to lots of webinars, reading articles, and talking to lots of people in my industry that were doing things differently. 

It wasn’t until 7-8 years into my career of doing that, that I got the recognition of being the #1 health promotion professional in the country. It took me 8 years of getting curious, digging deep, and thinking about my own experiences.

Ruthie: What if you had quit at 7? 

Rachel: Exactly. I didn’t think I was where I wanted to be. I was like, “Man, I’m working for a 50-person company in Baltimore that no one’s heard of.” I could have just decided that. And then a year later, I’m on a stage in San Diego, in front of 400 of my peers from all over the country, and I have a platform overnight. It’s the accumulation of the little things done consistently and authentically that lead to these big moments of impact. 

So I think it’s showing up consistently with a goal of serving, helping and supporting. When we do those things consistently over time with the right intentions, it inevitably leads us to have the ability to influence and to shape people/outcomes. And when we have that higher level of influence, we feel like we’re making more of an impact. I never really thought about that before, but that’s what comes to mind when you ask that question.

Ruthie: No, that was wonderful. Referring back to the many books I’ve read as a business owner, the way that you consistently show up basically determines your life. That’s big. So I’m going to sit with that after we’re done here today. 

How Can Someone Use Their Voice at the Lower Levels of an Organization?

Ruthie: I’d like to look at the lower levels of an organization, because I’ve been one of the cogs in the wheel at the very lowest levels of an organization. Almost any civilian job doesn’t really compare to being like a private in the Army. They could literally make me cut grass with scissors. I didn’t have to do it, but I saw other people cut grass with scissors. It’s a very thankless job. How can someone use their voice at the lower levels of an organization to achieve any sort of effective change?

Rachel: That’s a big caveat, but an important dimension. Part of it is to recognize that your role does not determine your ability to have influence. When I started at this company, I was answering phones, taking boxes to storage, and going through 30pages of size 6 font on Excel spreadsheets, doing commission tracking. This was hardly glamorous work. 

But the 1st thing that really helped me was my attitude. I was grateful to be there. If I finished something early, I went to my boss and said, “Hey, what else do you have for me to do?” So that way they know you’re somebody who’s going to show up and work hard, and that they can trust you because they know your capacity. And you’re coming to them for more work, which means you’re somebody who clearly wants to be given additional challenges. I did that from the time I was 19. 

I was also very intentional about pursuing learning and connecting with people that I admired. This was when LinkedIn wasn’t really a thing. In 2007, I’d message people on LinkedIn who I’d heard on webinars and be like, “Hey, will you talk to me for a half hour? I think you’re cool.” Meanwhile I’m just some 21 year old who lives in Baltimore. I can theoretically do nothing for them. And they were like, “Sure.” People like to be flattered. Those initial conversations ultimately led to me having a panel on their webinars, meeting them and speaking at the same conferences they were. That was really cool, but it started small. 

So no. 1, not letting your title limit you, being there to help, serve and demonstrate that you desire to be challenged, and that you’re willing to pursue those opportunities. And no. 2, getting clear on what might be something that you’re interested in and want to excel at. I started asking to go to national wellness conferences when I was 1.5 years into the work I was doing. 

When you’re at a position where you don’t inherently have as much power, it’s important to make a very clear business case for your superiors. I said, “If you send me to this thing, I’m going to come back, bring everything that I learned about best practices to us, so that we can be positioned as thought leaders. And then I’m going to share that with our clients, so we can help our clients be positioned as thought leaders.” 

In doing that, I was unknowingly playing to something that was very important to our CEO, which was being seen as a thought leader. I took these small incremental risks. I was always on the lookout  for gaps, where they wanted to get something done, but couldn’t bridge the gap. I was the youngest person at the company, and I was like, “Hey, I can do PowerPoint. Do you want me to do that for you?” I was constantly looking for ways to be of service, so people couldn’t ignore me. I was always around.

Ruthie: That is a really good point. People do like to be flattered, and you’re able to get on the phone with people who would have seemed out of reach at your age. The worst they can do is say no, I might as well ask. I think we need to be more conscious of the actual value of potential failure. The worst they could have said was no. 

They weren’t going to report you to your supervisor and get you fired, and then you were never going to get another job, and then you’re going to be living under a bridge somewhere, never able to recover from asking the wrong person for a phone call. That’s not what’s happening. 

We have this misjudged value of what the cost of failure is. We’re not paying enough attention to the benefits of that potential success. What if they say no? Then you move on. But what if they say yes?

Rachel: Along those lines, I started making a list of my highest payoff activities, which were the things that I did best and that I loved to do. And I started to realize people gave me consistently positive feedback about that, so I’d track those in one column, and in the other column I’d do the opposite. I’d write down my “energy vampires.” What are the things that suck the life out of you? Make a list of those and be mindful of that. 

I would go to my boss and say, “Hey, these are the things I do particularly well and that you’re getting the best deal out of. Other people can’t do these things quite the way that I can, and they seem to be having a positive impact. And these other things are things that take away from me doing what brings you the greatest value. So might there be a way that we could delegate some of these to an intern and knock out a plan for that?” 

I was asking for support when I was 26 years old because I was able to show consistent value of the work that I was doing when I was at my best. So we have to understand what we do particularly well, and what takes us 10 times the effort to do. And we might need to find somebody else to do those difficult things, or at least have a conversation with our leader and say, “If you want to get the best out of me, having me do these things is not the way to do it.”

Ruthie:  And that’s an honest conversation. I think this ties back to our previous episode on connect and care. If you’re a leader and you want your employees to be able to come to you and tell you why they aren’t as efficient or as effective as they can be, then that has to come from a  connect and care place, not from a command and control place. Because the person who’s in command and in control is not the person who’s open to that type of feedback from the bottom-up. 

Small Steps Leaders Can Take to Not Feel Muted

Ruthie: So this year I’ve been a part of a few more diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. I wanted to ask you what people at higher levels can do to elevate their voice to unmute? Because when we look at the numbers for women or BIPOC leaders, it can be hard when you’re the only woman or obviously brown person in the room. I’ve had these discussions before and I’ve determined that I would rather be the only woman than be the only Brown person. 

But for people who live a life in which they feel muted because they aren’t reflected in their surroundings, do you have any particular guidance as to how they can have impact and influence? 

Gender identity and racial and ethnic backgrounds are just a couple of reasons why we might feel muted. If you’re in the LGBTQ+ community, around 1% are at the leadership levels and open about their identity. So if you’re a leader who’s not yet comfortable enough to be open, then you’re also muted. That’s a piece of your life that you’re not bringing to work. 

So there are a lot of different intersectionalities which could cause one to be muted. The collective effect is that even at leadership levels, we can still feel muted. So what I was hoping to get is your advice on small measurable steps we can take, as leaders in an organization where we may feel muted?

Rachel: That’s a powerful question. One thing that comes to mind as you’re asking that, is the importance of a leader creating space for conversations where people get to hear each other’s stories. If we just see someone as a label, it’s really easy to diminish, discount, make assumptions and judgements. I’ve seen a particularly powerful, specifically designating exercise to help combat this. 

I was involved in a women’s retreat called The Story of Us a couple of weeks ago. In a small group, each person gets to share a story that really reflects a part of themselves that they’d want to share with people. 

Think about how infrequently people get the opportunity to share the story of how they become who they are, or a time where they’ve gotten through something that felt incredibly insurmountable but they showed up on the other side of it with strength and in a way that they’re proud of. How often do we create the space in the workplace to have those types of dialogues with each other? We don’t. 

If we can’t first connect as humans through our stories, good luck getting systemic change to happen. I really think it’s important that we start to see someone as human first. This person struggles with insecurity. This person struggles with fear of judgment. This person has held themselves back, and they’ve shown up courageously in this way. This is something they’ve been through that has made them who they are. 

If an organization were to facilitate an experience like that, you would perhaps start with a group of leaders and the prompt of sharing a story about either a time you’ve been through a seemingly insurmountable obstacle or a story that reflects something important about who you are as a person. You get 5 minutes to share that . You get to be seen and heard, without being interrupted. 

Another step to take is to have people reflect back, “Something I appreciated about what you just shared is…” And then you get to have that reflection strengthened. You get to have your voice strengthened because somebody listened enough to be able to reflect back something that they see and appreciate in you. 

Imagine if organizations were to do that every other week. I just feel like certain conversations would naturally shift. I refer to this as “the soul behind the role”. When we get to know the soul behind the role, we don’t show up the same way in our interactions. You’d start doing this in a small group at first, as you can imagine why that would be important.

Ruthie: People can be a lot more comfortable in a small group.

Rachel: But can you imagine? I mean, people always cry when they share these stories because they’re used to coming to work as a divided self. There is me that shows up at work, and there’s me that I am when I’m not there. These 2 people are never going to meet each other, and that is exhausting.

Ruthie: Last night I was telling people that being in the military is hard. It’s a Good ol’ Boys Club, and it favors physically stronger people, which often tend to be men. I was a bodybuilder while I served and I purposely cultivated not just physical strength, but also a particular persona that intimidated people on purpose. Because I felt like that was how I had to show up. Were there elements of my true self in there? Absolutely. But some of them were incredibly exaggerated, and some of them just weren’t true at all. 

I found that that was the most effective way to get the sort of change I wanted to see. That was my coping mechanism, and I didn’t realize until later that it was my empathy which allowed me to  be a situational chameleon. And that was exhausting. 

If I was in 3 different environments with different expectations, emotional temperatures and what was considered acceptable, I could match without fail. But by the end of the day, I was exhausted. 

Rachel: Yeah, it’s truly exhausting to do that. And. It’s amazing how powerful these experiences can be. I remember sitting around in an executive leadership dinner I got invited to. I don’t really know why I got invited to it when I wasn’t an executive leader.

Ruthie: You impact executive leaders though, Rachel! You do.

Rachel: Well, thanks. I guess I was like, “I’ll take a free steak!” But I remember the question was, “What’s something that happened when you were a kid, that has affected who you’ve become as an adult?” People went around the table and they shared their stories. I have to say, that was the most vulnerable I ever saw one of our leaders up to that point and since then. The story he shared really opened up a world of understanding for me of why he shows up the way he does. He still thinks he’s that 13 year old kid who was feeling some kind of way. It creates this level of empathy and compassion, and judgment can’t coexist with those things. 

If some of the things we’ve talked about feel a little too deep, you can ask, “What’s something people often misunderstand about you?” We all want to be understood. All of us feel misunderstood in some way. Can you open up the door to have that conversation? It allows for us to build trust. That is assuming that we’re not in a toxic environment, because those conversations are going to be held against you in a toxic environment. 

But if you’re in a place where the leaders genuinely care and you can do that, what’s often required is that a leader goes first. So if you’re going to bring people in a conversation like that, you as the leader should go first. If you’re in a leadership team, perhaps the one that people respect the most should go first. Or even the person you think people struggle the most with, so that you can humanize them. 

When the leader goes first, that creates a space that says this is normal here and now that I’ve done it, I’m giving you permission and an invitation to join the conversation.

Ruthie: With this season coming out in the latter portion of our last quarter of the year, I’m positive that you’ve given a ton of people a lot to think about. Even more so as we’re looking towards the future and moving into 2021. So Rachel, thank you so much for doing this series.

Rachel: Yeah, I enjoyed it!

Ruthie:  I was incredibly honored that you agreed to do it, if I’m being honest.

Rachel: Oh my goodness! I was excited. I knew this was going to be fun, because you’re just funny, entertaining and thoughtful. So I knew it was going to be a good series of chats.

Ruthie: That’s exactly right. So if you enjoyed Rachel’s interview series and the topics that we covered, she talks about these things all the time in a variety of formats. She’s doing lots of interviews, lots of speaking, and she’s on LinkedIn and Instagram every day. So I highly encourage you to follow her in those places. We’ll have all of her links in the show notes. 

Rachel’s got some stuff cooking guys, so don’t sleep on her. Follow her now so as her business grows, you can be the first person to have this information and move on it. Rachel, which social media platform is your favorite?

Rachel: LinkedIn.

Ruthie: So make sure you follow her on LinkedIn, for sure. Even if you don’t like LinkedIn, logging in and seeing Rachel’s content will not just inspire you and move you to action, but it will get you to log onto LinkedIn and handle your business. Thank you so much for joining me for this. I’m really excited to see everyone’s feedback.

Rachel: You are so welcome. And I look forward to hearing from people about what resonates with them and what’s helpful to them!

Ruthie: And before I sign off, I just want to remind you that you can get Rachel’s Resilience Toolkit, which we will also link to in the show notes. Make sure you check it out. If anything at all resonated with you, then you need to check out the toolkit. And again Rachel, thank you so much.