Connecting for Keeps

Emerging Leaders Conference Speaker Sean Bott gives advice to help leaders build authentic connections and servant leadership mindsets.

By Elsbeth Russell

People don’t leave companies; they leave bad management.

That’s the message that speaker, entertainer and mind reader (yes, mind reader) Sean Bott has for attendees of the 2023 Emerging Leaders Conference in his presentation, “Connect for Keeps.”

People stay, contribute and thrive where they are seen, and Bott aims to help new leaders learn how to make their teams feel understood, connected and valued.

Bott recently sat down with The MHEDA Journal to share a bit about his planned presentation, including the messages he hopes will inspire the up-and-coming leaders in the crowd.

TMJ: You have a very unique background. You spent much of your early life growing up in Saudi Arabia and learned about the hypnosis, psychology and stagecraft you incorporated into your presentation at the age of 12. Can you tell us a little more about your background and how you ended up where you are?

Bott: I found myself in the early 2000s working a job I despised. I was working in a 6-foot-by-6-foot holding cell that had been converted in order to digitize records for a court that I worked at, and it was incredibly depressing. I decided then and there to build something different. I built a career touring the U.S. and Canada, working for universities as a performing mentalist and a mind reader.

I had studied improv comedy at places like The Second City in Chicago and always had a really strong drive to entertain and create really great moments for people.

Over the course of a few years, I worked at about 900 universities and found that I was making a lot more money performing than I ever did at a day job. So I stepped away from the comfort of a day job and started being brought into spaces where I would mingle with VIPs or really important prospective clients for folks in the tech sector in the construction industry.

I learned how to break the ice with people ridiculously fast – sometimes in as little as five seconds – going from the outside of a group of people to the inside, where I’m getting everyone’s names, their business cards, and we’re all excited about our interactions.

I would have calls from them a couple of days later asking me to do the same for their events, and I realized that skill set of quickly connecting was maybe the superpower I could help others gain.

After about a decade of that, I started to condense down what I had learned and paired it with a lot of the relationship and social science research that’s out there to make sure everything made sense. Now I have a pretty lockstep process that’s really digestible and really useful for people.

TMJ: You’ll be speaking at MHEDA’s Emerging Leaders Conference. What can attendees expect to learn in your session? What do you hope they take away from the experience?

Bott: First and foremost, I will lead with some strong entertainment at the start. I think it’s really important to have something worth talking about happen, so I’ll lead with some great mind-reading moments that will be custom-tailored for the MHEDA crowd.

After that, I will teach the easiest, most direct skill sets to connect quickly – especially for new leaders, emerging leaders and leaders that are young at heart.

We have less face-to-face time than ever before, and the relationships we need to build, to make stronger, to make secure, need a lot of tender love and attention right now.

I teach three skill sets that will help attendees to connect quickly and deeply, whether it’s new relationships or whether they’re on-boarding, building teams, building leadership or if it’s relationships that are already established that just need a bit of a recharge.

TMJ: In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing up-and-coming leaders today?

Bott: I think the illusion of certainty is gone, and from an operational standpoint, I think leaders are dealing with attrition more than ever before. Attracting qualified talent with energy and enthusiasm is another giant hurdle.

Those are the pain points that we can deal with directly. There are other elements that are unsolvable issues. I know for the MHEDA crowd, elements like supply chain issues are unsolvable, but for leaders now, the most difficult spaces tend to be in change management as well as retention.

TMJ: What about the biggest opportunity?

Bott: I think leaders that can lead with warmth and empathy have a superpower that’s a lot more apparent now than at times in the past.

This is the kind of space where if somebody gains the skills or already has the skills to be good with people, you have the opportunity to build a thriving, legendary company or team.

It’s fascinating as people become a bit more brittle in the world. The people that are warm become a lot like unicorns. They become the kind of people others flock to, want to learn from, sit with and spend time with. I think that’s the opportunity.

TMJ: What characteristics do great leaders have in common? How can new leaders cultivate those characteristics?

Bott: It’s interesting. A lot of the research currently points out that the number one quality for an effective leader, a CEO in particular, is empathy, and that contradicts a lot of the business wisdom for the past several decades.

I think it’s really telling that the ability to help others feel seen, heard and appreciated is the thing that really determines how effective a leader is.

TMJ: If you could give MHEDA’s emerging leaders one piece of advice to focus on as they’re just kicking off their careers, what would it be?

Bott: Be warm consistently with people. What that means in a networking and growing sense is that you seek to serve first, and over time, others will seek to serve you.

It’s a slower process than we’re used to in this world today. But if your mentality is to just show up and, to be warm and care about people over time, those same people start to realize what your  dreams and your drives are, and they start showing up to enable those things often without you even having to ask.

It’s that servant leader mindset that a lot of people talk about, but very few people are able to embody.

TMJ: What would you advise someone who is strong at strategy but who is not naturally a people person?

Bott: I would say, with all the love in the world, build that skill. Do the uncomfortable thing.

Also, understand that the warmth that we’re talking about isn’t hours and hours and hours. It’s sometimes just in those three-second to three-minute interactions with people, and I think we can all do anything for 30 seconds to three minutes.

I’m a pretty pronounced introvert at times, but I learned early on that I loved attention on my terms as a kid. I learned that if I could get laughter out of people or gasps or excitement out of people, I really liked that feeling.

So even to my folks who are less the warm, cuddly types, I think there’s still a way to do empathy without having to be a bleeding heart.

I think it just means recognizing others’ experiences as being real and valid for them. That skill starts to flavor people that may not inherently be empathic. Empathy is a muscle.

The more you work it out, the more you try it on and use it, it becomes the master key to getting cooperation from people. When people feel like you care about them, they’re a lot more likely to care about the things that matter to you, whether that’s your initiatives, goals, drives or dreams.

I understand being hesitant with empathy at times because it opens up emotion and it takes vulnerability, but it can be a great strategy to create collaboration with people.

If you are a problem solver, if you are a solutions-oriented person, you’ll get better solutions, you’ll get better buy-in, and you’ll get better energy from people through empathy.

TMJ: What takeaways do you hope to instill for attendees of the Emerging Leaders Conference?

Bott: Two things. I hope they leave energized. Energized through experiences, through really funny or great moments, through wonder or shock or surprise.

The other thing is I want them to leave with at least one concrete tool that they can use immediately that helps make relationships easier.

If I can give attendees just one thought, one tool that helps make their world a bit easier, I think we’ve done something really cool.