#BeBetter Podcast with Michael Kurland

Leadership Begins By Knowing Yourself with Susan Brady

Self-awareness is the first step to leading with empathy

Susan MacKenty Brady, is the CEO and Managing Director of The Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership, where she works with leaders on the importance of equity and inclusion. In today’ show, Susan shares her passion to help leaders become more self-aware so they can have a positive impact in their organizations.

Susan Brady portrait

“My goal as a leader, whether directly or indirectly, is for you to remember me as someone who helps you feel good about yourself.”

—Susan Brady

The Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership

61. Leadership Begins By Knowing Yourself with Susan Brady

Key Takeaways

  • Your best self is at the intersection of where your strengths and talents meet, where you bring value to others, and where you experience joy and vitality.
  • Self-awareness begins with what we think and feel. It drives what we say and do.
  • Leadership is a relationship.

Social Links


Susan MacKenty Brady is the Deloitte Ellen Gabriel Chair for Women and Leadership at Simmons University and the CEO and Managing Director of The Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership, where she advises leadership teams on how to foster a mindset of inclusion and create cultures of equity. She is the author of two acclaimed books on leadership and co-author of the forthcoming Arrive & Thrive: 7 Impactful Practices for Women Navigating Leadership (Spring 2022). Susan has been featured on ABC’s Good Morning America and has keynoted or consulted at over 500 organizations worldwide. Her passion is to engage and ignite leaders in a dialogue about what it means to lead inclusively.

“A leader’s job is to have a social contract with our teams.”

—Susan Brady

The Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership

Podcast Transcription

Hello. I’m Michael Kurland, CEO and co-founder of Branded Group, an award winning facility, maintenance and construction management company that services multi-site commercial properties such as retail restaurants, health care facilities and educational institutions. Welcome to the BeBetter podcast. Each week, I interview thought leaders from a variety of industries who will share their stories and the lessons they learn as they strive to be better for their clients, partners, employees and their community. Are you ready to be better?

Michael: Hello and welcome to another episode of the BeBetter podcast with me your host, Michael Kurland. Joining me today is Susan MacKenty Brady. She is the Deloitte Ellen Gabriel Chair for Women and Leadership at Simmons University and the CEO of Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership. Susan, welcome to the show. Tell the audience a little bit more about yourself.

Susan: Hi, Mike. Thanks for having me. I am the proud mother of two teenage daughters, one who is 16, a sophomore in high school, another who is in her first year in college at 18. And I have a lot of hobbies, but they’re all sort of around the same general theme and that is people in relationships. So my vocation is my occupation, and we can talk about being healthy or not. But I am around human behavior and have a master’s degree in applied behavioral sciences and have been a student and teacher of self-awareness and human behavior for a very, very long time, which in part sort of led me to my career and in leadership. So I am an author, a writer, a speaker and a leader. And my favorite thing to do is to spread the word about self-awareness, because the stuff that I talk about changed my life, made it better. I want to share it with people. So that’s me.

Michael: Yeah, that’s great. And thank you for being on the show. Always happy to have you. Now I want to dive into a few things that you said in your intro. First of all, let’s talk about your title and let’s dive into that a little bit more. What is the Deloitte Ellen Gabriel Chair for Women and Leadership? Let’s talk about that first.

Susan: Yeah, so, first of all, I’m in the very cold city of Boston today, this fine February day. And I work for a small, liberal arts university called Simmons University in the heart of the Fenway area of Boston. For those of you who’ve been to Boston, little emerald necklace, and we’re right in the Fenway. Simmons is a women’s centered undergraduate institution. Our graduate programs are for all genders. We enjoy a pretty solid reputation in the city of Boston for being a very open institution and really proud of our history with women in particular. We had the first women’s leadership conference called the Simmons Leadership Conference 43 years ago for women in leadership. Anyone can still go. It’s this year, it’s April 13th. We’d love to have you. We’re having Simone Biles and we’re having Amanda Gorman. And oh my God, it’s got Renee Brown. It’s going to be a very cool event. I’m launching my next book there with my co-author, so it’s going to be cool. So, we did that and we had the first women’s MBA because women couldn’t get into MBA programs. And since then we sunsetted our MBA because women can now get into MBA programs. In fact, every MBA program in the world wants one. So Simmons has its interesting place in the history of the arrival and advancement of women, and I chose to be here because I was traveling all over with my last book. Mike and I were, I don’t know, I was like five hundred keynotes into the same keynote, and it was awesome. In many ways I got to see the world. I worked for great, great companies and really cool people, and I hope to have the one woman role. For the most part, my audience was women. But if one woman came up to me after and said, this really impacted me and it’s going to change the way I am, the way I lead my life, then I’m going to do another one. And that just kept going for like five years. And I got a call from the president of Simmons, who wanted to stand up in a new institute. And so I said, OK, I’m up for the challenge so inherent in that was some executive education work that we were doing at the time, this big civic leadership conference. We’ll have 10,000 women join us, so we’ve had over one hundred and ten thousand women join this women’s leadership conference and allies. So I said yes to the challenge. I got off the road and I’ve written another book in the past couple of years because I was honored to get an endowed chair bestowed upon me by the provost and the president at the time of the university, which is the electoral chair. So not being an academic, I actually didn’t know I was like, What do I have to do to be worthy of a bit of an endowed chair? I don’t even know. What I could do is like a project or something. And it turns out that the person who sits in the chair, typically an academic, but sometimes administrators like me, deans and such. You can pick a project. And so it was a conversation with some amazing women at Deloitte who told me about Ellen Gabriel’s legacy. Ellen Gabriel was a pioneer. She’s a partner at Deloitte, and she started their women’s network and Deloitte US. And she had four battles, as I understand it, with breast cancer and lost her battle. About 15 years ago, when her colleagues started this endowed chair, I feel very honored to live out Ellen’s legacy and share good work in the world, especially around equity and parity and the advancement of women. And this book is, I don’t know, came to be in the school discussion with these other women, and one thing led to another. So it’s funny, you say, like, what’s the Ellen Gabriel chair? It’s like, Well, what it is now, it’s become sort of a movement called Arrive and Thrive, and it’s just starting. It’s just starting where our publisher, McGraw-Hill Professional, we’re out April 5th and the official launch of the book is April 13th at our seminar leadership conference.

Michael: Well, I got to say, Susan, that’s a lot of information. And you are helping me do my job. Here you are. Segue me so perfectly. So let’s backtrack here for a second. You’ve keynoted in front of over 100,000 women across the country. That’s amazing. So thank you for that. Appreciate that.

Susan: The Simmons leadership conference has had over 100,000 women. I don’t know. I’ve keynoted at several hundred organizations.

Michael: So how many would you say you’ve keynoted?

Susan: Oh, I’ve never stopped counting. I suppose probably over 100,000.

Michael: Let’s ballpark it, right?

Michael: Yeah, your work is touching a lot of women’s lives in a positive way, and that’s very impactful. And, you know, thank you. Thank you for doing that. And it seems like dedicating your life to this cause. So I was saying, you’ve written this book, let’s talk about it. Like, what’s the purpose of Arrive and Thrive? Like, what are you hoping it will accomplish when it gets out there?

Susan: Oh boy. Yes. So here’s the deal Mike, I don’t think humans are leading from their best selves. I think we’re in a lot of pain and I think the pandemic did us no favors in terms of, you know, I mean, maybe it was an introvert’s dream come true, but those of us who are extroverted certainly are in, you know, we’re under socialized by and large.

Michael: But don’t you think even the introverts are enough?

Susan: I don’t know. I think they might even be like, Oh my God, a person. But the book came to be because there’s not a lot of record of women really thriving in leadership. And what I found while I worked with women and men, so I do a lot of work with men. I love to work with men. I love working with C-level executive men who want to make their organizations a better place for everybody. And what became abundantly clear is there’s not a lot of reference points for women to thrive, and thus women don’t aspire as much to lead. Like, we look over here at leadership like, wait a minute, I’m sorry, I have to do more work. I have to, you know, be away from everything I love, even more so that I can have a title that people now, oh, wait, I’m going to be in the arena and I’m going to be criticized for not doing it well enough. And I’m overruling and it’s just the whole value proposition. Isn’t that attractive? So it’s like, OK, so if you’re lucky enough to arrive, basically you’re surviving. That’s kind of a bum deal. What would we need to give to women and the men that support them to really thrive in leadership specifically, right? I think the practices of arrive and thrive there, seven practices that apply to everyone, are particularly, I think, helpful to women like I wish I had. Here’s my check. I wish I had this book 20 years ago because I didn’t really know how to manage myself as I navigated leadership when it comes right down to it and I’m in the leadership business, so that says something. So my hope, which is your question, my greatest hope for this book is that it’s a warm, extended hand from three pretty awesome women. You ask me, my co-authors, which I’ll tell you about in a minute to every woman who aspires to thrive in her life. And these are the seven practices that we believe can get you there. We interviewed 20 sitting C-level executives from big companies, coal companies and thought leaders and got them to weigh in and culled through all the research on things like cultivating courage and fostering resilience and leading a healthy team and kind of came down to the best of the best of the best. And so we packaged it up and I’m excited to bring it to the world.

Michael: Yeah, that’s great. And I think there’s so much to be said about what you’re talking about there because not only for women, but for men too. I mean, when you get into this leadership role, right, we have this Disney thought process of what it’s like to be a leader, right, like when I became a CEO, I was like a CEO, but the only way I was a CEO was by writing those three little letters. I had no idea how to be a CEO or what it even took to be a CEO. But, you know, you kind of have this fantasy about it. And then you realize, like you said, you’re going up against all these other people and then you’re going, you’re in this arena and you don’t know if you know the already as well as a woman. It’s, you know, it’s like it’s already harder for you to get in the race. So it’s just crazy like these tips that you need to get there and actually not have it. As fantastic as it’s hard work. It’s been a long time. It’s not being around your family. It’s not, you know, if you don’t have the support of your significant other. I think that’s a very good point you brought up because as a man, I didn’t have a significant other when I was going through this, and it was tough enough doing it alone. But if you have a significant other and hopefully they’re, you know, they have your back right as my wife, hopefully she has my back when I’m doing this. But when the roles are reversed, that’s a whole gender role reversal thing, right? And that’s just like, you’re everyone’s out of their element, right? So that’s kind of what you talk about in the book a little bit.

Susan: Yeah, I mean, some of it, right? It’s not. It’s not just, you know, it’s not just hetero, it’s not just for heterosexual women in a relationship with men or married women.

Michael: Sure. Sorry,

Susan: We’re still navigating past the paradigm of sort of a traditional relationship. And what’s true is you look around most senior suites of leaders, executive teams, and we’re still seeing like, you know, CEOs bragging about their one woman on their senior team if they have a woman on their senior team. Right? So we have made by and large all that much progress in the spirit of, you know, if you look at the reports that come out about how women are advancing in organizational life, it’s grim. And I think you know what I hope for is more than status or the title or anything else is that as we lead, we lead from our best self. And that’s the first practice is investing in your best self. And the way we define our best self is where your strengths and talents meet, where you bring value to others, and where you experience joy and vitality. And in the middle is your best self zone, and the surround is your well-being. So how do we support what the well-being package looks like that supports me being in my zone, my best self and as often as possible? So that’s really sort of my area of expertise in the book. And what I’m passionate about is if I’m consciously walking through my day, I am going to get triggered, someone is going to rub me the wrong way or I’m going to say something to rub someone the wrong way or my kid’s going to do something. Or, you know, chances are I’m going to get triggered. How fast can I come back to leading from a place that’s compassionate, that’s respectful of myself and others? That’s, you know, that’s the best part of me. And by and large, I find that most grown-ups don’t know how to do that, and they underestimate the waves they make in relationships with others. And, you know, they underestimate the real harshness in their own mind about themselves and about others in their efficacy and happiness. So, I’m fired up, Mike, to help package however we need to package the promise of a less stressful, more joyful, less and less tense way of being. And I think it’s a moment to moment practice, and I think we have to start with awareness of how we think and feel because it drives what we say and do.

Michael: See, there you go. There you go again, segwaying for me. So you talked about in our pre-call, we talked about self-awareness and that’s, you know, mastering your inner critic and you just touched on both those things right there. So let’s first talk about self-awareness because it’s a common theme in our country and our society, but I don’t think many people really are quite good at it. Let’s talk a little bit about it and how it affects leadership and our roles. You kind of touched on it there, but let’s go a little bit deeper because I think it’s a very important topic.

Susan: Look, I mean, self-awareness begins with the notion of what we think and feel, drives what we say and do and what we say and do as our impact. Right. So what I’m going to do is slow it down and meet a process. So self-awareness is thinking about my thoughts and thinking about my feelings in a way that helps me be most effective as I think and feel. And before I open my mouth. Right? So the self-awareness is noticing where I get triggered, where I have strong feelings, happiness and or sadness, anger and or joy, right? That’s just being aware of where in what situations and what contexts around what people do. I feel good right now. Do I feel reactive or not reactive? Do I feel impulsive or not? Right? Like, there’s all these human behaviors. Being aware of that is how I would say I think about self-awareness. The one two punch for self-awareness sake does not make us easier to live with. It just makes us more aware so that it becomes self-management. So what do I do about that right after? I’m aware step one is to be aware. Step two, if you’re in any relationship, anywhere in your life usually involves the following move breathing push pause, right? I think some of us can. Our energy can enter a meeting, a room or a conversation before our bodies and we bring our energy where we go. And so if we’re in a state of feeling any kind of extreme emotion, it’s going to come out in our tonality. It’s going to come out in our words, it’s going to come out in how we approach a conversation or a relationship. And so mastering the, you know, mastering the inner the exchange, I’m super interested in helping people do that better. It’s hard. It’s hard because, you know, there’s only two things you can do in conversation. You can recognize your own and others feelings, and you can respond to your own another’s feelings. You would think that’s elegantly simple, but it’s a hot mess, especially if you feel strongly about anything, right? So I think, well, I won’t get into those jujitsu skills of doing what I’m talking about, but helping people do this better.

Michael: I mean, I like the jujitsu skills of doing this better. I’ve had to teach myself self-awareness. I mean, I think I’ve always had self-awareness. I had to hone the skill of self-awareness when I became a leader because I think you made a good point. You talk about relationships, and it’s not just your traditional relationships with your spouse or your partner or whatever everyone you come in contact with as a relationship. And if you’re not self-aware when you walk into a room like you said and you just got mad because your deal fell through or whatever, you know, somebody quit and you’re walking into address your operations team and you’re pissed off because of that and you come in fire. You’re right. It’s about actions. I always said it was about actions and reactions, right? You can either actively listen, which is a great skill in the sales world, side note. Or you can talk or you can wait for your turn to talk, you can listen or you can wait for your turn to talk. That’s what I always say is I feel like that’s how it is in the sales world. You just you just are waiting for the entry into the conversation. But if you just sit back and listen, you could pick up something so much more. But I’m kind of like jumping all over the place. To your point, it is a hot mess. But the relationships are basically like actions and reactions to your point. And how do you how do you package what you as a leader? How do you package what you need to disperse without letting all the exteriors affect you at that moment?

Susan: Yeah. You know, first of all, leadership is a relationship. You know, it’s a social construct. It happens between people. And sometimes we think leadership is something other than that. It’s actually what makes it really hard. And it’s what makes executive coaching, which I’ve done and it makes leadership and the field of leadership and leading super interesting because it’s completely subjective, right? As you know, since you’re a CEO, what inspires one team member to be great and their best self may actually deflate another team member, right? So we’re dealing with differences at every level preference personality. And so a leader’s job is to have a social contract with our teams, whether we know them personally or not, depending upon how big your organization is. And it’s a tall order to meet people’s needs. So I love what you said about listening, I concur. I think the social element of leadership requires caring. And I think that notion of connecting, especially during the pandemic, has been brought to the forefront. The concept of empathy is now talked about by C-level executives. I mean, there was like 10 years ago I was trying to remember thinking like, Oh my gosh, we have to care. We want our people to care. We have to show we care. And that’s all about what I see in you, the human being, not you, the human resource, and so I remind people all the time when I connect about leadership and about leading from your best self and navigating consciousness that in any human at work, we’ve got two things going on. We’ve got their human being. That’s who they are as a human being who are deserving of respect, you know. And then we’ve got the human resource and sometimes we don’t have the right human being as the right resource in the right roles, right? And so that’s where leadership in management gets all sorts of difficult because then we think we sometimes treat the human being not so nice because it’s not the right resource for the job. So I’m on sort of a peace path to remind us all that we are.

Michael: Yeah, I totally agree. I think empathy is probably the number one skill lacking by most leaders. And I’ll say America today, I think it’s definitely on the upswing because it has to be, I think, you know, with the great resignation and people are not keeping jobs because you pay them more, they’re keeping jobs because they like it there. I actually was just in a meeting with my team. And you know, we’re coming up on our eight year anniversary. It’s actually tomorrow, which is very exciting. And you know, it’s just pulling people where we did some volunteer work this morning, then we’re out to lunch. And it was good because I haven’t seen a lot of these people in months, if not ever right. And so we’re sitting down because we are virtual workers at this point. I’ve seen them over Zoom, but I haven’t actually got some break bread over lunch with them. And I said, How do you like working here? And is it great here? And I said, Well, what is it? And they said, Well, it’s because you care. I had one employee who is in my H.R. department and she said, I like working here because I know you care. You’re very approachable. I can have a conversation with you. And I’ve only been here three months. And you know, I’m not saying this to tell you how great I am, but I’m telling you as a leader, like, that’s the kind of stuff I’m striving for because my employees, I mean, they can go, leave and make more money somewhere else, but they don’t want to because I’m bringing the empathy to caring to the table, which best leads me to my next question for you. Do you think this is what I think? So I’m going to preface what I’m about to say with my opinion, right? So my opinion is that leadership, the reason that they don’t have great self-awareness or that we need more of it in this world. And to your point that the human may not fit the human resource role and then that we don’t treat them with the kindness and caring that they deserve as a human is because we, as leaders have too big of egos and we think that we cannot make a wrong choice because that person was hired by us, right? So if the person isn’t working out, then let’s just cut that person out and get rid of them, right? Instead of finding a new role for them that maybe suits their role better. So that’s just my opinion, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.

Susan: Well, Mike, when I work with a CEO, I usually remind him and sadly, I work with far more men than I have at the C-level than women. I remind any executive that the higher up in an organization you are, the harder people laugh at your jokes and the less they tell you the truth. And so it’s incumbent upon the leader to check in about our impact. So here’s my intention. How did it land? Right? Here’s my intention. How to do it. I just got feedback right before this podcast from the CEO who runs the institute. And she was like yesterday in the meeting, like when you said X, it landed as this, and I was like, Oh gosh, I know exactly that moment. I am sorry. It’s my job to say I own what I did and not to explain, not to defend and say that wasn’t my intention or really sorry. And if I were you I would have felt the same way. I’m really sorry. And so every time I hold myself in warm regard despite my imperfection because I’m a human, I’m going to mess up the fact that she felt it was safe enough to tell me the impact of my health means I’m. Doing a good job. It’s when they need to choose the right one.

Michael: Yeah, totally, you’re open to hearing it and you’re approachable enough to tell it to.

Susan: I know it’s still such a bummer, though, because I’m like, Oh my God. And doing the work that I do, obviously, I feel like there’s a higher bar for me to behave in ways that are just more conscious. And so it’s super hard. And that’s where it’s sort of the bullying of knowing holding myself in warm regards my responsibility and not crashing into shame when I mess it up and not allowing myself to continue grandiosity. But, you know, being in a place of, I call it, a compassionate center and best self, my best self zone is no better or less than another human being. And from there I lead, I value. I know you add value, right?

Michael: Right. And I think you’re a comparison favorite person, the way you described humans and human resources, I think is very impactful, and I really want the audience to think about that because you know, you get hired to do a job and you feel like you’re a commodity, right? You know you’re working these hours and sometimes that’s where the the disconnect happens where you, as an employee, get frustrated because you feel like you’re being overworked. I as an employer am frustrated you because I may be overworking you, or maybe, you know, pushing you harder because you’re not giving me the results I want and I think pushing you harder. And sometimes the human doesn’t fit the human resource. And I think that if everyone could just take a step back and really listen to what those words mean. Sometimes you have a square peg in a round hole, and if you can just find the right square block hole for that person to go into, there’s still a great resource for you. They just may not be in the right role and us as leaders, we need to figure that out.

Susan: Yeah. And sometimes, look, there’s not a fit, you know, there’s not a need in the organization, and it’s a gift to take it out of the pain of not being right. Imagine, you know, coming to work every day, not feeling like you’re quite right for the role that you have. And so, you know, it’s up to the employee and to the employee or the leader to do that. I wanted to mention because I was reminded when you were talking of a quote that I ended my keynotes with some of my favorite quotes. It’s a Maya Angelou quote. And people will forget what you said and people will forget what you did. But people won’t forget how you make them feel. And so what? My aspiration as a leader is to be somebody, whether I was directly responsible for managing or leading you or indirectly or you were a client or you were a service provider or you’re one of my kid’s friends, my I take a leader sort of an expanded in my life. I want you to remember me as someone who when you were with me, you felt good about you, who didn’t make you feel less bad and who celebrated your value. You know, that’s how I want to make people feel and be leaders. We don’t sometimes what’s the imprint we want to leave on other people. And then check in about that. How am I doing? It helps with self-awareness.

Michael: Well, Susan, I got to say you have been a segue queen on this show because you just ended it on segue. You just ended it with a quote. So we’re coming to the end of the show, if the audience wants to get a hold of you, how can they do so?

Susan: Probably LinkedIn is the best thing. I mean, I might email Susan.Brady@simmons.edu, but you can find me on LinkedIn. I use my maiden name. Susan MacKenty Brady. And you know, there’s going to be a lot of arriving and thriving hubbub. You’re going to be able to see the book at bookstores near you. I wish I could hold one up in airport bookstores, all that jazz. My co-authors are, I didn’t mention my coauthors. Ben Perry is the president of Simmons University and Janet Foudy is the executive chair of Deloitte. And so we’ve got a sort of a cool trio who’s going to bring this work to a living life.

Michael: Excited, awesome. And the books arrive and drive seven impactful practices for women navigating leadership.

Susan: Today you can preorder on Amazon, Barnes Noble. It’s available everywhere.

Michael: And what day is it out?

Susan: April 5th.

Michael: April 5th All right, cool. Thank you, Susan. So much an audience until next time. Thank you for tuning in. I hope that today’s episode inspired you to become a purpose driven leader in your career or your community. There’s no doubt that when we lead with purpose, we can change lives. If you enjoyed today’s show, I’d be grateful if you would take a moment to rate us on your preferred listening platform to learn more about Brandon Group’s better experience and how we provide industry leading On-Demand facility maintenance, construction management and special project implementation. Visit us at www.branded-group.com. Be sure to follow us on social media, and you can also reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. Until next time, be better.

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