Dave Raffaele: Why it Takes Sensitivity to Be a Good Boss
“Scaring is a trauma that you keep.”
This is Dave Raffaele speaking. His insight comes mid-story, as he recounts helping his young daughter overcome her fear. In my conversation with him, I learned that this insight informs not only his parenting style, but also his leadership approach.
Creating safe environment is how he gets his people to flourish. He listens closely to their needs.
When we talked, Dave revealed his sensitivity to how employees feel and the importance of establishing the trust that creates a culture of risk taking.
I know Dave from the coach training we did together. He reached out to me almost immediately when I started this blog, because he had something to share.
I responded without hesitation, because not only is Dave invested in the Gifted Girls conversation about women (he has two daughters who he wants to flourish in life) but he’s also invested in the subject of sensitivity and leadership.
Dave is a sensitive. In our coach training, we could count on Dave to share, in the most sincere, direct, dignified way, his intimate experiences of growth. We were all growing by leaps and bounds.
I thought of Dave as one of the leaders in our group, because he was always willing to be vulnerable for the sake of a group’s learning.
When I interviewed him, he spoke about the vulnerability he sees around him at the workplace, and how it’s often overlooked as a key part of growth.
“Throughout my career, I have sat in meetings surrounded by people that never talk. I can guarantee they at least have one idea but there’s a fear there. There’s something there, holding them back from speaking, from bringing their ideas forward.”
“Certainly much of that is personal, but I also believe that it’s part of the organization’s job to help put people in situations to allow them to take risks and grow out of their comfort zones.”
But those people need to know they’re supported, he says.
“When you don’t have someone like that supporting you, it can be a scary, lonely and paralyzing place to be.”
Worries about anything from being negatively perceived, to missing a promotion or getting fired can build a pretty good case for holding back.
But, Dave explains, a climate of worry prevents us from finding out how great we can be. He’d rather see a prevailing attitude of: “heck, I’m gonna go for this, ‘cause I know my manager is gonna high-five me for taking that risk.”
“There’s an empowered employee, and a scared and disengaged employee,” Dave says. To him, the latter is an unnecessary waste of resources. But openness and curiosity can change that.
“Life is emotional. And people have feelings. And when I hear people say to me, I can’t cry at work, at this point in my life it bothers me deeply. Emotions are not weak, they are part of being human.”
People need to feel safe to “let their true feelings out,” Dave says. For him, creating a space to explore what’s behind that feeling is a necessary part of the process. It’s part of acknowledging the human behind the work, and it’s often informative.
“I think about how many managers sat in front of me and told me what they think I should be doing or what is ‘a good career move’, but never actually asked me what’s important to me, what my strengths are. What do I want? Where do I want to get to?”
“Those are questions that actually help to define who I am. It makes me a human being versus a widget. There’s too many times when… I see organizations just treating employees like widgets. And I probably did the same thing in the past. That’s the culture of growth and efficiency, of we gotta do this, we gotta do that.”
What happens when you focus on the success of the organization and overlook the individual? “…You’re not making decisions about where that person wants to go,” he says. As a result, their personal potential gets sidestepped.
That’s where disengagement comes in.
“I think a manager and a company’s job is to ultimately help their employees grow,” Dave says.
This may seem sideline to what companies are really about. After all, isn’t everyone there to help the company succeed? Dave explains how in reality, empowering the individual creates the impact companies are looking for.
“Inevitably the employee feels more supported, feels more comfortable taking risks, ultimately will speak up more, bring ideas to the table and feel… more a part of the overall purpose of the organization.”
“Which in turn translates into a person that’s constantly trying to improve things, going above and beyond the call of duty, to make sure their clients are successful.”
Magic happens when an individual’s personal purpose and a company’s mission align.
Dave has learned this through his experiences as both manager and individual contributor.
“I’ve had some really good bosses. They weren’t managers, they were leaders. I trusted them. I knew they weren’t going to throw me under the bus. I knew they cared about me as a person. I knew their focus was truly to help me succeed and give me that support and give me ground cover when I need it.”
The other thing Dave understands is that, in order to create that safe environment where employees and team members take risks, it helps to lead the way- which often means being vulnerable- with his coworkers.
“For me when I truly open myself up and share my emotions, my feelings, my dreams, because it’s not all bad things, right, it’s great things, and it makes other people comfortable. It allows them to open up. It creates connection at a personal level that otherwise would not be there.”
This ability of Dave’s to show up and share himself in the warm, comfortable way he does, is something he’s cultivated over time.
He shared with me an eye-opening experience he had at a workshop, with another participant with whom he felt great trust. They stood facing one another in silence for some time. And the result was a deep experience of empathy.
“I could feel his pain. And this eighty five year old guy, who had spent his life suppressing his feelings, could feel my joy. And he actually turned to someone and said ‘I can’t believe this I can feel his joy.’”
“It was just two human beings completely connected. But that couldn’t have happened unless both of us… let go of the ‘roles’ that had made us different before, and just saw each other as two people looking to get the most out of life.”
It’s experiences like these that have inspired Dave to move toward openness, humility and humanity at the workplace. He’s experienced the value of it first hand. He’s also braved his own risks and stretched into his own potential.
Over time, this kind of exploration has expanded his leadership capacity.
“Whether other people will be able to experience the connection I had with that guy, gosh I hope they do at some point. But I think just pushing yourself to fight that fear, or that resistance, to raising your hand in a meeting or who knows, jumping off an airplane, whatever that is,” he says, “It’s transformational.”
“It’s going to open you up that much more, and allow others to really start to see what you’ve been hiding.”
That’s Dave’s main goal as a leader- to establish trust and create growth opportunities to discover the potential that people have hidden. That kind of growth is great for the individual, and it’s great for the organization.
It’s clear Dave fundamentally believes everyone has something big to contribute. But he wasn’t always someone this good at laying the relationship groundwork to invite it.
“You know I’ve really learned to look at people as people… I look at their emotion, I look at their face, their body language. I now believe in people by default. In the past, I wouldn’t have, or if I did notice some angst or some sadness (I mean there’s a lot of emotions that happen in work that people ignore), I would have ignored them. Probably at some point I thought they were weak.”
“I was like a task master. I would just rip into people. I spent a lot of time forcing my expectations on others.”
And he was also miserable.
“But I think that experience and probably many others has taught me to see the person, to see a struggling person, and offer help. To see a person who’s really great at what they do and raise them up, even higher.” It’s a much more collaborative mindset.
That shift in approach has paid off. Dave says that after years of changing jobs, searching for the one that will make him happy, he’s realized that unleashing others’ untapped potential makes him happy. And he can do that in any job.
And, working this way, he’ll leave a legacy of empowered employees.
“I look back at what I really enjoy about my career is helping others succeed and grow… And to me that’s what leadership is. I’ve learned that I am a leader. I couldn’t say that in the past.”
At the end of our conversation, Dave shared with me a story about his daughter that serves as a metaphor for how he leads people into growth.
“When my daughter first stared martial arts, she was good in class and they had this jamboree, where all the kids were out doing kicks or something, and we were there, just me and her, and she wouldn’t go out there.
“But I wasn’t going to push her to go do something that she didn’t want to do, that was a scary, scary thing for her…”
“There’s a difference between stretching people, and scaring them. Scaring is a trauma that you keep.”
“Stretching someone is me taking my daughter out to the middle of the floor with me, and kicking with her. She was still kind of looking around, but in the end she was more comfortable because I was there.
“And by the end, I was able to walk off and she ended up kicking by herself. To me, that’s what leadership is all about.”