Liz Kelly is CEO and founder of Brilliant Ink, an employee experience consulting firm with offices in Oakland, CA and New York. She has helped dozens of organizations tackle their employee engagement challenges, including PayPal, Visa, Genentech, Yahoo, and Novo Nordisk. A passionate advocate for women in business, she serves on the San Francisco board of Dress for Success, an international organization dedicated to improving women’s lives. If she’s not working, she’s probably chasing her two small kids, perfecting her favorite yoga pose (Standing Bow), or meditating in the dark at 5 a.m., her favorite time of day (seriously).
Why does the world need a work revolution? (In other words: the way we’re working isn’t working. Why not?)
I think many people feel as if they have two lives: their work lives and their personal lives. This idea is pretty much summed up by the dreaded corporate term “work-life balance” – as though our lives are what happen entirely outside of work! In our work lives, we are proper, buttoned-up, goal-oriented, serious. We use what I like to call “Mr. Businessy Business Man” language. We watch what we do and say because we need to appear a certain way. We are not, in any way, our authentic, whole selves.
Bad things happen when we try to live divided lives. We struggle to find meaning and authenticity. We have a difficult time trusting and really connecting with others. We trade in the strongest compass we have, our internal one, in favor of consensus, data and goals achievement. And when we ignore that internal compass, we make poor decisions – for ourselves, our organizations, and the world.
In essence, we need to reclaim our humanity in the workplace. And that starts by figuring out how to bring our whole selves to work. When we do this, everybody wins.
How are you or your organization reinventing work in some way (big or small)?
My company, Brilliant Ink, exists to help businesses tap into their humanity by creating meaningful experiences for their employees, in areas like recruiting, hiring, onboarding and communications. When we do this, we engage with employees in more authentic ways, inspiring them to be their best selves, and helping organizations perform at higher levels.
Why do you do what you do?
It’s my calling and my purpose. It’s what makes me feel alive, and it’s the contribution I want to make to the world. However large or small the contribution, I can’t NOT do it.
What kind of art (any kind) do you like and why? Any recommendations we should know about?
I love reading poetry. To me, there is something very primordial about it – when I find a poem I really connect with, I feel like I’m tapping into a higher consciousness. I also deeply admire poets for their spare language (or at least the ones I gravitate to). It takes a lot of courage and discipline to encapsulate your thoughts so concisely, and still be able to channel so much beauty. My current favorites are 20th century German poet Rainier Maria Rilke, Indian poet Tishani Doshi, and current poet laureate of New York Marie Howe.
I also recently began writing poetry again, something I haven’t done since I was a teenager! I’m currently participating in the 100 Day Project, aiming to publish one true sentence a day in the form of a poem via Instagram. It’s been great fun so far – I’m really trying to embrace the joy of creative expression without worrying if it’s technically “good.”
What is one specific thing your company does that makes your culture unique and/or different?
If I had a mantra, it would be “practice what you preach.” In other words, we can’t consult with other companies on how to improve their work experience and have a crappy culture ourselves! We are constantly experimenting on ourselves to make our culture better and stronger. That’s the purpose behind our Test Kitchen. Once a quarter, each of us pitches a new idea that we want to try on ourselves with the goal of strengthening our culture and potentially making recommendations to clients. In the year since we began, we’ve had a shared gratitude journal, hosted monthly salon-style discussions, and had show-and-tell sessions where we all present something we love to do outside of work. Next up? SSHH – that’s short for “Super Secret Happy Hour.” I get the fun of planning a surprise happy hour that brings one of our company values to life in a creative, completely unexpected way.
What is one discipline/industry totally different from your own that has inspired you? How does it impact your work?
It may seem odd, but I have been deeply influenced by my love of yoga. My practice of yoga runs counter to all the traditional thinking that permeates business today. Instead of setting goals and reaching for outcomes, I practice stillness and deep inner listening, and I celebrate small, incremental changes. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Bringing that attitude into the workplace has profoundly improved my own happiness and satisfaction, lowered my stress levels and improved my decision-making.
What’s one tangible and concrete technique other organizations should use if they want to create a more human and/or meaningful place to work?
Make time at your next team meeting to talk about your missteps and perceived failures, openly and without judgment. Leaders should start the conversation, and start with something raw and real. Nothing creates a safe space like a leader who’s willing to be vulnerable. Being able to talk about real issues in this kind of environment has the power to be transformative, and is a great first step toward solidifying a culture of authenticity.
What is one surprising thing we should know about you?
I could eat popcorn for dinner every single night.
What piece of technology (other than your laptop/smartphone/tablet) could you not live without and why?
Honestly, nothing. If I had another profession, I’d probably be a park ranger – just me and nature communing on a daily basis.
What does your preferred work environment look like?
Exactly like it does at my office in Oakland! I like having a big desk where I can spread out my work, and I try to surround myself with personal bits of inspiration, whether it’s pictures of my kids, images that I find meaningful, or quotes that have spoken to me at different points during my life. The Brilliant Ink office has exposed brick, lots of natural light and plenty of open space to congregate and connect throughout the day. I get a little happier every time I walk in the door.
Where in the world are you?
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