There is nothing like staring death directly in the face to learn that life is too short to be rude and unkind. Former forensic death investigator turned entrepreneur and civility expert Sue Jacques is on a mission to create civil company cultures. Learn in this episode how to create “gossip-free zones”, why politeness translates directly to profit, and how align to your truth by listing your “pregrets”.
Melinda Wittstock: Welcome to Wings, Sue.
Sue Jacques: Thank you Melinda, I’m so pleased to be here.
Melinda Wittstock: Me too. You know, I’m so intrigued with your background. Being a forensic death investigator at the Medical Examiner’s Office for two decades. My goodness. You probably saw a lot. What did all that teach you?
Sue Jacques: Where to begin. I learned so much about life by investigating thousands of deaths. And what I say to people, and it is fascinating to so many people how I transitioned and I call this capturing my journey from corpses to carpe diem. I learned so much about life and how we can live this one life that we have with respect and kindness and a sense of calm that so many of us, when we’re in business especially, sometimes forget.
Melinda Wittstock: So being around death and facing that, I mean, I would imagine that you would have appreciation of the time. You can never get time back. And so your time is very valuable.
Sue Jacques: Absolutely. Every moment we have. I mean, I see life through the eyes of death. Which isn’t always a lovely way for people to imagine how I work, but what it does is it allows me to realize the value of my relationships. The value, as you said, of time and how much it matters that we are doing what we love to do. Because I have seen so many unfinished lives and I have heard from the families of people whose death I investigated about their regrets and I hope, if I can do anything in life, it’s to help people understand that if you can do what you love to do and be surrounded by the people you love to be with, you can get through life with few, if any, regrets.
Melinda Wittstock: Isn’t it interesting though how many people, and I’ve caught myself doing this upon occasion, less and less now, but who postpone the things they want. It’s kind of a procrastination or maybe a fear, that manifests as, “Oh but first I have to do this, this, this, this and this and that before I can do the thing that I want.”
Sue Jacques: Absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: And it’s so curious. Why do you think we fall into that trap?
Sue Jacques: Well part of it is the way we’ve been brought up. You know, we’ve been brought up, especially in a traditional sense, to you do this and then that’s finished and then you do that and then you turn a certain age and you retire and then you go travel. But I have to tell you from personal experience, I have seen so many people telling me that story about when somebody had passed away very suddenly and I was there to investigate the death, the person would look at me who was surviving and say, “But we were just going to …”, you know, fill in the blank. We were waiting to retire and then we were going to travel. He was going to get through this three months of work and then he was going to change jobs.
And so I encourage people to look at life through what I call the lens of pre-grets. And a pre-gret is when you look at a decision in front of you and think, “Is this something I really want to do? Is this something that really will benefit me and my loved ones?” And if not, you can avoid a regret by taking a moment, thinking it through and then having a pre-gret, where you don’t have to regret it.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that. A pre-gret. And so, this all manifested in you making a very big change into what you do now. What was the moment or that spark where you sought this change?
Sue Jacques: You know it started hitting me about halfway through my career at the Medical Examiner’s Office, I realized that I was actually witnessing the death of civility. I had seen so many people literally dying from disrespect. Literally. If they had made a different choice or if someone else had made a different choice, so many of these people might still be alive. And it occurred to me, I have to say, I was at a death scene and looking at some young person whose life, as I mentioned, was unfinished. And that day it struck me that maybe I could make a difference, because my experience is so unique to see these people with these lives ahead of them who will never be able to see what might have happened. And their families.
I decided that maybe what I could do was turn all that experience, all of those unfinished lives, into a message about respect and kindness and compassion and empathy and how that can help people. The trick is, though, how do you get in front of people and share that message? So I began by turning into the place where I thought I could meet the most people where they are, and that was in the world of work. Where people were at work, I started giving presentations about professionalism. You know, I’d get them into the mood of talking about things that they would hope to learn and through that I found a way to teach them or share my insights and inspire them how to be. Not how to do, but how to be. With the hopes that they would take that from work to their homes and into their communities.
And it worked.
We can’t change anybody else’s behavior but what we can do is inspire change by mastering our own behavior. #WingsPodcast #WomeninBusiness @TheSueJacquesClick to tweet
Melinda Wittstock: I love what you say about how to be. A couple times on this podcast we’ve found ourselves talking about the difference between being a human being and a human doing. And so, who you’re being in the moment, in the here and now, dictates all your life. All that you will manifest in your life, not just getting through this endless task list.
Sue Jacques: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Melinda Wittstock: Right? Because I think so many of us get caught on this task treadmill where we have lists and lists of all the things we’re going to do and I think inherent in that, the read between the lines is, “Oh, when I’ve done this, or when I’ve done that, I will be …” fill in the blanks. Like, happy. And it’s not that way because the moment of power or whatever is in the here and now. So how do you help people get into that sense of present? Like, being present, just being?
Sue Jacques: It’s not always easy, I have to say, but through stories. That’s one way that I really can touch people’s hearts and inspire them to be more discerning in the choices that they make at work, at home and in our environment. So stories, people are very fascinated to hear some of the stories. And I have to be very, very careful what I share, because I have some sacred contracts with people who are no longer here. So I’m very mindful of what I share, but what I’ve learned is by sharing some of these stories, mixing it in with some skills that will enhance their professionalism, allow people to make different decisions, it seems to work. This sort of soup that I’ve created of how to be and how to do.
Now, when we talk about how to be, I hope to inspire people to realize that there are so many external influences that have us on this treadmill. Thinking we have to do all of these things to keep up with everybody else. And in fact, we don’t. We need to take more time to think about what we truly want to do. There are too many people who are going to too many jobs with too much disharmony and too much dislike. And I hope to inspire them to look at their lives differently and make new choices.
Melinda Wittstock: Is there a belief out there that somehow to get ahead in business you know, you’ve got to be tough or rough or something like that. Where did that come from? And are we getting past it?
Sue Jacques: Well I’m not sure where it came from, but it’s certainly there. But what I’m seeing more now is we have to be connected. There’s this treadmill of connection. We have to be on this social media platform, we have to be on that social media platform. New changes on Facebook with the algorithms, oh my gosh, now we all have to do live video. We don’t have to do all of those things. We think we do because we’re trying to keep up with each other. But if we stop, if we pause for a moment, we can see that we’re being told we have to do these things. But says who?
Melinda Wittstock: Right. This is really about authenticity. I mean, really understanding who you are, why you’re here. What you’re actual purpose is. But you know, that’s easier said than done. I think so many people, you were sort of alluding to it before, you know, lead lives of all the things they think they should do. Not necessarily what is actually the authentic life or purpose that they have.
Sue Jacques: Mm-hmm (affirmative) yes. And there are sort of two sides to that coin. A lot of people in my business as an inspirational motivational speaking and writing, a lot of people talk about finding your purpose and following your purpose. And you know, quitting your job and going and following whatever it is you feel called to do. And I don’t disagree with that. I believe that that is very valid. But also we have to keep in mind that not everybody has the privilege of just leaving their job to go follow what it is they want to do.
It takes time and it takes forethought. And so, we can combine the two. We can do what we have to do to makes ends meet in order to enjoy our time apart from work to do what we love to do. And hopefully, if we’re, if we plan correctly and we take our time, we can then turn what we love to do into what we get to do. And it takes time, but it can work.
Melinda Wittstock: I think that’s true. I think there are so many women in particular out there who are in the process of or thinking of doing exactly what you did, in terms of reinvention.
So tell me more about what that was like? Was it scary to sort of say, “Okay, you know what? I’m going to quit this, and do this.” What was that like, that transition?
Sue Jacques: Well it completely took me by surprise. If you had told me that I would transition from being a forensic death investigator at the Medical Examiner’s Office to being a speaker and a writer and an author, I would have said you’re having a dream. I, it never occurred to me that that would happen. But I went with it. I listened to the taps on my soul. And we all get those. I encourage everybody listening today to listen to those taps on your soul, because they are helping you realize what your purpose is.
And so, I was, I just went with it. I followed what I was sort of, every breadcrumb along the way and the next thing I knew, I had developed a business plan. At the time I had a business partner. I had zero business experience. I was in the medical world and I had to learn about business. And that was the toughest part for me. I knew people. I know people inside out, but business was a tough grind for me. So I had to learn that and I’m so glad I followed that tap on my soul, because it brought me to sharing my message to try to preclude people from winding up where I was before.
So it’s all been a very interesting trail. And the breadcrumbs are certainly there.
Melinda Wittstock: I find that so many innovations come from people who have a cross-disciplinary expertise, where they combine things that haven’t been combined before. So your transition and your personal experience, making that move, how does that help you in that corporate environment help transition people in this way? I mean, help them be more kind, more respectful, have more integrity? All the wonderful things that you’re doing, Sue?
Sue Jacques: That’s such a good question and it’s interesting because, as an investigator, one of my biggest skills, of any investigator, is the ability to listen. And so before I’d even walk into the room to address an audience, a corporate audience, or a private audience, I would first listen to what kinds of challenges they were facing. And they really began to sound very similar from profession to profession.
Those difficulties people were challenged by included disharmony and primarily, the one I heard the most was problems with communication. And so as a skilled investigator, I could tap into the, what was happening inside. The things that were happening inside the organization that were causing disharmony and a lack of communication. And a lot of gossip and bullying was going on, even then, it still is, as we know.
And so by, I would, I have, I’m fearless. And I can talk to anybody about anything. That hit me one day. If I can speak with people about death I can talk anybody about anything. So I would shine a light on these things that were not being talked about. We would have open, honest discussions. And I would be, I still am, able to find ways to open the door, to invite those people into the conversation. Because when we have people creating their own solutions, they are so much more likely to follow the guidelines that they can create together to get rid of disharmony. To minimize miscommunication. And to realize that they can create bully free and gossip free business places.
And it’s all about helping them find their voice and then as they talk about what’s going on, they almost always reach their own solutions.
Melinda Wittstock: This is interesting too, because if you look at it the other way around, from the corporate perspective, or even corporate results and company results, the companies that are growing the fastest have the best cultures. And the happiest employees, I mean they, with a great culture where everyone’s in alignment and everyone’s really happy in their job and there’s a great workplace culture, people are more productive, they’re more innovative, they have better ideas. So it’s, I mean, it’s good for the bottom line as well.
Sue Jacques: Absolutely. There is a cost to incivility. There is a cost to un-professionalism. There’s a cost to how we show up at work, if it’s from a negative perspective. And yes, this does affect the bottom line. Professionalism is a, professionalism has its own value. And it is easily acquirable if you get the right training and if you can shift attitudes. And that’s what I do, I create more courteous corporate cultures and I help companies reach that place where they are proud, people are proud to come to work. They are proud to represent the corporate message and they are proud to help one another every day.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes, and it’s interesting too, in the start up world. You know, for people that become entrepreneurs, there’s this wonderful blank canvas upon which you can hire and create a team and create that culture from the get go, but a lot of that culture manifests a little bit top down. If the CEO or the co-founders or whatever, don’t walk their talk on this, it’s … I believe, I don’t know, I’m curious what you think, it’s much harder to attract employees or team members that are going to share that same perspective.
Sue Jacques: I am so glad you brought this point up. I work with a lot of start ups, and what I see happen, and I love working with start ups because they are so keen, right? They’ve got a great idea, they’ve got a great product and they’re ready to roll. But they haven’t stopped to think about their guiding principles.
They haven’t stopped to think about how they’re going to behave, what they expect. I believe in expectations. They matter. And so, what I do when I work with start ups, is I take them, everybody slows down, we meet. We talk about who are we? How do we want to show up in the world? Yes, we have this great product, that is not my area of expertise to tell you how, what your product is or your service, but I can help you create a culture where everyone works together. And I love it because it allows us to talk about things that most companies don’t talk about it from the get go. And it is the perfect time to create that culture, you’re absolutely right.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah and if you have clarity on that from the get go and everybody is aligned, when something goes wrong or when an employee or a team member, I don’t know, acts badly or makes a mistake or something like that, and the values are very clear, it’s much easier to say, “Hey, so was this action in alignment with our values?”
Sue Jacques: Yes. You’re right. And in doing so, it also allows everybody who works within that organization or that start up to know what they stand for. So if they are off hours and they’re somewhere traveling and someone asks about the business or the company they work for, they know right from their heart what to say and how to respond, because they were part of creating that culture. And so they have a lot more buy-in because they, like I said, they’re proud of the level of professionalism they’ve been able to reach before their product went to market.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, so getting it right from the get go is really important, but for those companies that haven’t done that, and find themselves, you know, they’ve gone through the initial joy of the start up rollercoaster, right? All those ups and downs and exhilarating moments and heart palpitating moments and all of that, the ups and downs, but they’re out there now and they’re maybe getting to 20 employees, 30 employees, 40, 50. Sometimes a lot of founders don’t even recognize their own company at that point.
Sue Jacques: Right? Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: And have to kind of come back and figure out this culture thing. So there’s a lot of, I imagine there’s a lot of change management that you’re actually doing. And so, what’s the way? Do you have to get buy-in from everybody? And how do the executive team really set about changing attitudes or putting in place a culture once the train has left the station, if you will? Those companies at that stage?
Sue Jacques: It’s never too late. And I really encourage people who are at the helm of any start up or business, small or large, to be very observant and listen to what’s going on around them. It’s really easy to put the blinders on and just not address some of the things that are beginning to happen. And so I encourage people to really have a look around. Ask good questions. Do have open forums where people feel comfortable speaking out, which isn’t an easy thing to do.
But it’s never too late to even bring someone in to observe, have a look around, talk to people. It’s about creating a safe environment as well. So that sometimes I’ll have one on one conversations from the top down or from the bottom up, and talk with people about what’s really going on here. There are unaddressed issues in every company. And it’s a relief sometimes, I see, for people to have the opportunity to speak out.
Sometimes one on one is better, some people do want to speak privately. Sometimes a group is better and sometimes addressing everybody is better. It takes steps. It takes time, and it’s like a spiral. We keep going, and going and going as the change occurs. We shift the culture as the change occurs we shift the culture. And it works.
Melinda Wittstock: So when you’re working with men as opposed to women, what are the differences? Let’s focus on women first in terms of where they let themselves down. I mean, you know, we have this fear of the B word. Right? We can sometimes be so nice and so people pleasing that we leave ourselves behind in the dust, trying to be kind. So what’s the right balance? What are the mistakes, I think, and again, it’s a generalization, but maybe give us some examples, some of the mistakes that women make in this context. And some of the things where we’re really strong and we should accentuate that more.
Sue Jacques: Women have so much to offer in the corporate world. In business, in education, in medicine and science. We are amazing. We see things differently because of, we have a different perspective. What we do sometimes though, is, and I see this a lot recently, we distance ourselves. Ah, how do I say this?
I worked in a male dominated environment for most of my career. And yet I never saw us as men and women, I saw us as a team, working together to help people understand what had happened to their loved one. It never occurred to any of us, I don’t think, that there was the men doing this and the women doing that. And I encourage women in the workplace today to do what you can to look at this as a team, rather than there’s the men and we’re the women.
It’s one thing that if we can get past that and honor each other for our differences and realize how similar we are. We can add to the fabric of the functionality of the business.
Women, you’re right, sometimes we do become a little bit timid. We’re afraid by speaking out we will be misunderstood as being over the top or really forceful. And on the other end of that scale, sometimes we’re too nice. And there’s a price to nice. We bottle up things that are bothering us inside and what we sometimes do, it’s not only women, but it sometimes is more than men, is when we don’t say it out loud we say it quietly behind each other’s backs.
And what I mean by that is we’ll take what we are displeased with and we’ll start buzzing about it without including the people who might be the problem. And that’s called gossip.
We can stop gossip if we simply get up and go when it starts. #WingsPodcast #WomeninBusiness @TheSueJacquesClick to tweet
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, gossip is something, and it begins with mean girls doesn’t it? Doesn’t it begin in school?
Sue Jacques: I think it begins at home. I think we see our parents talking about other people negatively and that becomes our norm. I think we as adults have to take responsibility for what we’re showing our children. But I have a great gossip hack. And here is how we can stop gossip. If you look at the word gossip, I begins with the letters G-O. Go. And it is so simple. We can stop gossip if we simply get up and go when it starts. We are silent partners in the damage that gossip can do, as long as we sit and listen to it. So we don’t need drama. We don’t need to make a big fuss about it. We can simply get up and go when it starts.
And I encourage every business that I speak to, to create themselves. To declare themselves as gossip free workplaces. And I’m telling you, once you empower people to do that, the gossip all but stops because everybody has been, has heard the same message and they’re able to say, “Hey, that sounds like gossip to me. Remember we’re a gossip free zone here.”
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, that’s wonderful. I think, we’ll there’s a great meme about this, it’s successful people talk about ideas, and unsuccessful people talk about other people.
Sue Jacques: So true.
Melinda Wittstock: And so, I mean, I think what’s interesting for women, is it’s the fear of direct. And so, I’ve always, maybe it’s because I grew up with two older brothers, you know, very, again, was often the only women in the room. I got used to being very direct. And speaking directly to the person that I had an issue with or whatever. But to some cost, because even if I was very kind, which I always was or tried to be, right? Or gentle with it or no matter how I did that, other women, it was other women who would say things like, “Wow, gosh, you’re very direct.”
Sue Jacques: Mm-hmm (affirmative) yeah. I hear ya.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes. I am.
Sue Jacques: And I think the bottom line, the one word I would use is, we can be direct, as long as we’re being respectful. And you more or less said that. It sometime surprises people when we stand up and we say what we have to say. With confidence, with courage. Respect is the bottom line. As long as what we’re saying is said from the perspective where we’re not maligning somebody, we’re not hurting somebody, we’re not slamming somebody. You know, we can say anything if we … Like I said, if we pause and think about it. How’s the best way that I can get this message across? It takes some thought and respect is how all of our communication … Online we’ve kind of lost it. But I think that it is doable to think through, think in your head, will the person who hears this or reads this or opens this, still feel respected after I hit send or pick up the phone? Will they still feel respected if I say it this way or would it be better to say it that way? You can still get your point across.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely and I think in social media posts too, it’s sort of like when you walk into a room, personally, I want to leave the room better than how I found it. So when I think of social media, are you posting something that’s going to uplift someone? Or is it going to kind of knock them down? I mean it’s so much better to create that uplift, that sense of positivity or inspiration. So much more value comes from that.
Sue Jacques: Yes, and what I see happening, and I’m sure that you’ll agree and your listeners will as well, what we’re seeing happening is you put a device in someone’s hands and you give them their thumbs to tap on it with, and suddenly they get this sense of false confidence. And we begin saying or typing or taking pictures of things that we, especially saying, we say things with our thumbs that we never would have the guts to say if we’re looking in people’s eyes.
And that’s why I recommend that the more difficult the conversation, the more touchy the topic, the more we need to be in front of people when we have the conversation. It makes a difference.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, that’s a really interesting segue too, into the whole #MeToo movement, which must be very much front and center with a lot of the work that you’re doing. On one hand, just the tremendous courage and bravery of the women who have stood up and confronted this issue, you know, hats off. Because often it doesn’t go, there’s no immediate reward for doing that and they sometimes do that at tremendous personal cost, like a lost job or a lost opportunity or somebody in the case of Hollywood who blacklists them from acting opportunities or whatever it is. And so, how does that manifest in the workplace now? And I’m interested too, because men, obviously have a role to play in this in terms of how they show up. Is there sort of more of a self-consciousness of men now? They don’t really quite know what to say or what to do or sort of a fear around that?
Sue Jacques: I think there is. There’s a couple things that I can address here. One is, if we chunk this down into the everyday person’s workplace, there’s a Me Too movement happening everywhere, but it may not be about what we’re seeing in lights. And that is, there are people, men and women, standing up at work and saying, “I’m not going to be treated like that any longer.” Whether it’s working with a jerk, whether it’s working with somebody who’s awkward or difficult to work with, we are finding our voices at all levels. Whether it is, as I said, problems with men we may be working with, more importantly, just people we’re working with. So Me Too means, as well, standing up and saying, “We can’t work like this anymore. We need to change the culture around here.”
We are silent partners in the damage that gossip can do, as long as we sit and listen to it. #WingsPodcast @TheSueJacquesClick to tweet
I will share with you an interesting thing that happened to me very recently as an example of how this has affected the men that I’m seeing. And this has really surprised me. I was actually at a funeral not long ago and it was a family member. And from the funeral we then went to a reception. And at the reception, a gentleman approached me. I had met this man before maybe once, I didn’t really know who he was. And he came up to me, red in face, and said, “May I please have a moment of your time privately?” And I said, “Of course.” And he said to me, “While we were at the funeral home I gave you a hug, and I’m afraid that my hand might have slipped and I touched you inappropriately. And I wanted to apologize for that.” And I was so surprised Melinda. I said, “I am, no, no, no. I don’t recall anything like that, please don’t worry.” So it is affecting people at every level.
Melinda Wittstock: It’s confusing, because people don’t …
Sue Jacques: Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: …People don’t know where the boundaries are.
Sue Jacques: Yeah and they’re scared.
Melinda Wittstock: Right. And I think of some of my entrepreneurial groups, we have all kinds of hi jinx and fun, but you know, but it’s tricky. Because the boundary may be different for different people. But yeah, oh my goodness, it is confusing.
Sue Jacques: It is confusing. And I felt so badly for this gentleman. And of course we talked about it and it was quick and over with. But this, it’s just as an idea. That’s what’s happening, I believe, and what I’m hearing in a lot of workplaces, is people have lost sight of how are we going to behave around here? What is and is not acceptable? These conversations are healthy and it’s, rather than everyone walking around on eggshells, wondering what they can do and what’s acceptable, lets open up a conversation and talk about it.
Melinda Wittstock: Sue, there’s a very interesting cultural moment right now though, to have a President of the United States whose comments are very divisive and very offensive to a lot of people. Sort of downright bullying, you know, verbally and social media. And yet, it might be having an interesting impact that it’s making people say, “Oh wow, I don’t want to be like that.” It might be actually, weirdly, helping people move more in the direction of kindness.
Sue Jacques: I see that. I think you’ve touched on a really interesting observation here Melinda. I do see that people are sort of rounding up the troops, at least rounding up themselves and saying, “I’m not going to be like that myself.”
You see, what happens is, we can’t change anybody else’s behavior. We simply can’t. We can try, we’ve all tried it. We can’t change anybody else’s behavior but what we can do is inspire change by mastering our own behavior. Making decisions ourselves for how we’re going to behave.
And as you may know, I am on a mission to reverse rudeness and revive respect. And I do that, every day, through this personal motto of mine, which is, when in doubt, choose kindness. We don’t have to follow the flock.
And in fact, speaking of flocks, people I’m seeing are kind of flying away from Twitter at furious rates because of the way things have turned into this negativity. But, it’s shifting back. The pendulum, as you said, has gone so far to one side, that a bunch of us are realizing we have the power and the perfect opportunity to help it come back through our kindness, through our compassion, through our empathy, through our professionalism and through our civility.
Because we are otherwise watching, we are watching live a game of rudeness roulette. And we don’t have to play the game.
Melinda Wittstock: Rudeness roulette, my goodness, there are so many of these wonderful sayings from pre-grets to rudeness roulette. My goodness, Sue, this is just an incredible conversation. I love how you make these concepts so clear for people. There’s just such a cost of not being kind and not being in integrity. And my goodness, they should hire you over at that place here down the street from me, ah, the White House.
Sue Jacques: Oh wouldn’t that be fun?
Melinda Wittstock: You’d have your work cut out for you there.
Sue Jacques: I’m up for it, trust me, if I can help, call me.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh my goodness, indeed. How wonderful to talk to you today. How can people find you, funnily enough we’ve been talking about social media, but how can people find you and work with you?
Sue Jacques: My website is suejacques.com, my surname is spelled differently than it sounds, it’s J-A-C-Q-U-E-S. Suejacques.com. And on social I am @thesuejacques.
Melinda Wittstock: Wonderful. Thank you so much for [crosstalk 00:45:37 all your inspiring words and putting on your wings and taking flight with all of us today.
Sue Jacques: Wonderful flying with you Melinda, thank you.