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Clarity in People Management: Striking a Balance with Claire Podulka – Episode #31

As a manager, how do you balance offering care and corporate responsibility? Many managers may not apply the label of caregiver to their work, but Claire Podulka, the Chief of Staff for TXI, a Chicago-based digital consultancy firm, points out that it is the manager “who can operate at the nexus of care and strategy and efficacy” who really brings out the best in their team—and therefore their company—in those inevitable times of change and ambiguity.

Episode Show Notes

New and established managers alike will feel an immediate connection to the topics Alida and Claire cover in this Care Work episode. Their conversation explores the mindsets and approaches that are essential in a great manager, covering concepts that will resonate with anyone who has ever had a direct report or is pursuing a future in people management.

Let Claire’s insights validate and inspire your inner managerial care worker:

  • The caregiving imperative for all managers and chiefs of staff
  • The equity argument for employee-owned businesses and ESOPs
  • Walking the line between clarity and transparency as a responsible manager
  • Throwing out growth for growth’s sake and building a new model for business success
  • Balancing self-care and taking care of your employees

Important Links from this Episode: 

Connect with Claire:

Connect With Alida:

Advocate for underrepresented and underserved groups in organizations with Ethos


CLAIRE: Part of being a great manager is being clear, which is different than being transparent. Sharing transparently can feel overwhelming to the audience, particularly if they don’t have a point of access. And as a manager, your job is to support your people in understanding their expectations clearly, in helping them understand where they sit, related to those expectations, helping them to grow and achieve the goals that they want and meet the expectations that are set.


ALIDA: Welcome to Care Work, a podcast about what it means to offer care for a living. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. For most of my career, I’ve been a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner, focused on teaching, love, healing harm, and scaling belonging. 

In my books, Cultures Of Belonging, Building Inclusive Organizations That Last and The First Time Manager: DEI, I explored what care inside of organizations means. Join me as I continue this journey with guests who take meeting the needs of others on as their callings, both inside of organizations and in any other way. 

In today’s episode of the Care Work podcast, I sit down with Claire Podulka, who is one of my favorite collaborators. As the chief of staff at TXI, a digital product consultancy, she is focused on organizational results and organizational development, and she is here to talk about how to create inclusive teams that are focused on things like efficiency, productivity, sustainability, and clarity. This is key to understanding my approach to management and the people that I admire as managers themselves. Hi Claire, welcome to the Care Work podcast.

CLAIRE: Hi Alida. Great to be here.


ALIDA: I think maybe the place to start is how do you see yourself as a care worker, uh, when you think about the role that you’re in today?

CLAIRE: Yeah, I’ve been pondering this question since we started talking about having this conversation, because I never would have consciously defined myself as a care worker. Right? That’s not a term that I would use about myself. But as I reflected a bit, I realized that it is a really essential part of the role that I play, how I show up in life, but also how I show up in work. As the chief of staff, I have accountabilities for strategic initiatives of the business. I have accountabilities around communication and the operating rhythm of the business, and taking on the equity officer role as well. Stepping into that for the first time, I have accountabilities to furthering our goals around diversity and equity and inclusion and belonging. 

Obviously, care is integrated within each of those pieces. There can be this false dichotomy in people’s thinking. Either you are someone who cares about people and cares for people. There’s that sphere of work. Or you are a strategic thinker. You’ve got the vision, you keep the big picture in mind. Or you’re an operator. You’re focused on efficiency, you’re focused on the tactical, on getting things done. 

Certainly people have relative strengths in each of those. But the real power, the real unlock. When I think about what it takes for organizations and people to thrive, particularly in moments of a lot of uncertainty, a lot of change, a lot of ambiguity, and some sense of fear. It’s fair to say we’ve been through a lot lately. We’re still going through a lot as a society, as a world. And when I think about what it takes to thrive in those kinds of circumstances is someone who can operate at the nexus of care, and strategy, and efficacy. I think there’s a real power in that overlap.

ALIDA: What is also interesting to me about it is this idea of bringing together seemingly disparate functions is very much what people think of in a chief of staff, and the idea of being able to bridge multiple ways of thinking, doing things, departments, et cetera. At the same time, I think that’s why it’s so hard for people to understand what a chief of staff is. And many people have an image of that role from the West Wing, as opposed to in contexts like yours, where you’re doing this in an environment where you’re running a technology company. So, I wonder if we can spend a little bit of time talking through what it means to be a chief of staff and also how that takes shape for you specifically.

CLAIRE: Absolutely. The number of West Wing references in my life has gone up exponentially recently. So I like to say that if you talk to ten chiefs of staff and ask them about their job descriptions, you will get 15 different answers, no two are alike. Each is very unique to the organization and to the person that they are most attached to. So typically referred to as a principal, right? The role that I crafted with the leadership team at TXI was one that was very focused on the organizational needs that we have. 

It’s going to be different for different organizations. For us, what that looks like is someone who is focused on facilitating the leadership team. So, how we gather as a team, how we make decisions, how we choose priorities and move those priorities forward, as well as facilitating the operating rhythm of the company as a whole, how the company gathers, how the company forms connections and shares input, etcetera. 

Very closely tied to that is internal communications, how we share about changes that are coming and changes that have been made, what’s next for our organization, how we collect input and data from all of our people, particularly as we’re an employee owned organization, that’s really important to us to make sure that folks understand where we are all going collectively with our business. So there’s a sense of keeping everyone aligned and on the same page. 

And then something that is common for most chiefs of staff is definitely true for me, is a bucket of special projects. So that’s the work that isn’t someone else’s exact accountability, but must happen to move the business forward. Things that I have done in my career, like the move to ESOP when we became an employee owned organization program managing that.

ALIDA: I want to dig into that example of ESOP because I think it is a really good entry point into this idea of operationalizing care, especially when we’re talking about a corporate environment. And I know that a lot of organizations are making this move to employee ownership. There’s been a huge surge in support for unions, which is not exactly the same thing, but this idea of collectivism, co-ops, ESOP’s, etcetera. 

So I would love to go into a little bit more why you all decided to do this and how you actually made this happen in a way that would ultimately make your employees feel like it was something that was being done for them and their benefit.

CLAIRE: It was a lengthy process, and one that originated with our founder, Josh Golden. He came to learn about ESOP many years ago, and the model really appealed to him because the company, TXI, has been founded in this sense of we’re all in it together. Own it is one of our core values, and previously own it was metaphorical. You own your accountabilities, you own your work, you own your part in a conflict. And the idea of making that literal was very appealing. It’s very based in our values to allow all of the employees to benefit from the work, from the value that we all create.

We had previously had a model where folks were able to buy in, right? This is a pretty common opportunity, uh, that’s given to employees where you’re able to buy shares, get stock options, something like that, RSUs. There’s other common variations on this. That’s okay, but that’s not equitable, because we know that capital is not distributed equitably in our society. Not every person has the same access to the capital that you would need to buy stock in a company. There are folks who are first generation knowledge workers. There are folks who do not have this generational wealth that has been handed to them. So that prevents them from accessing the ability to build on that. 

So the model of ESOP is one where you are granted shares of the company purely as a benefit of employment. You do not provide any of your own capital. What you’re providing is your work, your value, your knowledge, your skills. And as a benefit of that, you get shares in the company. And that builds over time, of course, and it ultimately grows over time as the value of the company grows. But that model was really important because it is based fundamentally in equity, in this opportunity that would be available to all. 

So that was really important. But it’s also, as you might imagine, from a program that is run by the IRS and the Department of Labor, really challenging to understand and lots and lots of paperwork and tons of hoops to jump through. So there was this fine balance to be had of being really clear with the people of TXI. Here’s what this looks like at a high level. Here’s why we’re pursuing it. Here’s what it will mean to you. You will not owe any money. It also doesn’t mean that TXI is suddenly a democracy. We’re not voting on everything, right? We still do each have our own unique accountabilities that we have to play. 

Teaching and educating and communicating about what it is and what it isn’t, while simultaneously going through lots and lots of complicated paperwork and due diligence and document review, talking to lawyers, talking to financial advisors, finding a trustee, lots of that. That doesn’t all need to be shared, because that’s frankly confusing and in the weeds that a bunch of people don’t need to know. So I think that’s where the care comes in is, I am trying to take the audience’s perspective. Right. The people who I am caring for’s perspective, what do they need to know? What might they be worried about that I can reassure them? Or I can validate, yeah, that might be a real risk. And, um, just be clear about those pieces. 

Well, the other part of care is taking care of all of those crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s behind the scenes and doing all of that work so that it is. This entire plan is set up correctly, is set up for the benefit of employees.

ALIDA: I think this is also important because, obviously, as you know, I have a new book coming out, First Time Manager: DEI. And one of the things that I spent a lot of time on in the book was with new managers. This feeling of, to be empathetic, to be caring, to be open, to be vulnerable. I have to give my employees everything that they ask for. And this idea of boundaries doesn’t get established in the beginning. 

At least that’s been my experience with the first time managers that I’ve coached, especially the ones who are trying to be equitable, because they essentially think that being equitable is being equal. So any information I have is information you should have without considering what the cost of that information might be. I would love to get your philosophy on what care actually looks like in context for a manager.

CLAIRE: Yeah. I think that what you’re calling out is so important because I believe part of being a great manager is being clear, which is different than being transparent. And this is something that has only come up for me, really, in the last couple of years. And it’s due to feedback that my colleagues have given me recently, which is that sharing transparently can feel overwhelming to the audience, particularly if they don’t have a point of access. If you can’t do anything with information, if you are not being invited to give input or provide feedback, if you don’t need to take any action based on this, if you have no power in this situation, there are still things you may need to know. And as a manager, your job is to support your people in understanding their expectations clearly, in helping them understand where they sit, related to those expectations, helping them to grow and achieve the goals that they want and meet the expectations that are set.

ALIDA: I know that we’ve talked about the fact that you have a lot of opinions about management and what good management looks like, versus what maybe management that could be improved looks like. I would want to know from you what you think actually makes for a good manager.

CLAIRE: There’s a lot that goes into being a good manager. I cannot stress enough how much training matters. You’ve got a new book coming out. Read that book. We were very fortunate at TXI to bring in some great partners when we first instantiated managers, to help train us in a cohort to really understand that. But we’ve all heard the story, some of us have experienced the story of, you’re really great at your craft, so now you’re in charge of managing people, as though managing people is not its own, entirely separate set of skills that people need to learn. 

And some folks have it really innately right? I really love the model that Kim Scott uses in Radical Candor, which is that you must care personally and challenge directly. And she has a very nice little matrix where if you are missing either of those key components, and if you’re missing both of them, you’re really destroyed. But I think that really summarizes, there’s a lot underneath each of those to unpack. But caring personally and caring authentically about your people, there’s a lot to the boundaries that you need to set there to care personally, but it is important to find that authentic point of connection with your people. Understand their motivations, understand their goals, understand their communication style. Every person you manage is going to be unique, and you have to, as a manager, adjust to meet them where they are, because if you don’t meet them where they are, you can’t get them to wherever they’re hoping to go and wherever the company needs them to go. It’s that nexus that you have to be focused on as a manager.  

And then challenging directly, giving that really candid, direct feedback that is actionable, not personal criticism, not fluff, but truly, I have observed this. What do you think about this? Or, I need this from you. That kind of direct feedback can be really hard to give because there’s a lot of shame bound up often in, you’re not meeting expectations. Well, maybe depending on, you know, I could think, well, you must know that. So I’m not going to tell you. I’m not going to be the one to share that, or it’s probably because of something else is happening outside of work. So I don’t want to make them feel bad, or that’s somebody else’s job. 

When you’re a manager, it is not someone else’s job. It is very much your job to make sure that your people, again, going back to the idea of clarity, have a really clear idea of the expectation is this, and I am meeting or not meeting that expectation. And here’s how I get from here to there.

ALIDA: One of my former colleagues, Karen Oates, used to say, kindness is clarity, and clarity is kindness. And it has a lot to do with expectations. If we all know what the expectations are between us, then we can decide whether we fulfill them or not. But if we don’t know what those expectations are, if everything is implicit, then we are not starting from the same place, and we may never reach each other. So I hear that a lot in what you’re saying, and I also wonder what makes it so challenging to manage other people.

CLAIRE: I think it’s a little bit implied in what you just said. They are other people, and we have this very natural human tendency, right, to assume that others are like us in so many ways. I have absolutely, particularly as an, earlier in my career, manager, when I hadn’t had any training and I hadn’t had a lot of experience, I just sort of assumed that people were mostly like me, particularly if they were in some kind of surface level way like me. If we had some identity in common. I was like, oh, well, she probably wants to get ahead in these ways. She probably worries a lot about this. Maybe she’s dealing with imposter syndrome, because I’ve dealt with imposter syndrome. 

But I didn’t stop and ask, I didn’t check those assumptions. I didn’t engage in as much of a dialogue. And now, the most recent times I’ve been a manager. I manage people who are quite different than me in lots of ways, the obvious ones and the not obvious ones. And I think a great manager needs to build those personal connections and really understand it doesn’t matter my perspective, I need to take your perspective for the purposes of supporting you in a way that’s going to resonate, that’s going to be meaningful. I have someone who was my direct report previously. I don’t have any direct reports now. It’s the one downside of a chief of staff role is I’m missing that for sure. But there’s someone who was my direct report previously. 

And she and I are just, are very different in terms of our levels of energy, our levels of motivation, our ah, levels of risk acceptance and challenge, acceptance in life. She is just much more on the edge of that than I am. I am like a more reserved and mellow person, particularly at this moment in my life. And at first when I managed her, I hit up against that a lot of times and we had to have a few conversations, some of which was her in a sense, managing me and saying, but I want that. I want more challenge. I’m not feeling burned out. I am, I do want to push. 

And that was a moment for me to check myself as a manager and say I was enforcing or assuming burnout on a situation that looks like burnout, maybe because of the hours or because of this or that factor. But you’re a human and you’re telling me my experience is not burnt out. I am not experiencing that in this moment. That was a learning for me, right? Yes, I could have these bits of evidence, but the strongest evidence is what you, the human, are actually experiencing. I need to listen to you. And as a manager, it really does just take the time and the conversation, to get to know the person so that you can care personally and support them.

ALIDA: I think too, this comes up for me in what the responsibilities of a manager are in balancing the individual versus the team, the responsibility you have to the organization versus the team, and then what it is that you are meant to do in terms of who you serve, whether that be a customer, or a client, or a community. 

When I was preparing for this conversation, I was going back to my notes from Kids These Days by Malcolm Harris. He talks a lot about how the growth of growth has led to catastrophic results for a lot of people in a lot of different ways, but especially younger people. And his whole analysis in that book is that, we have all of these ideas about millennial workers in particular, that are rooted in the idea of generational struggle, as opposed to what it means to have grown up in a world obsessed with the growth of growth for growth’s sake. 

And so you have people who are coming into the workplace, who have been in training camps, essentially through school, through coaching, through sports, through extracurricular activities, to achieve and excel and do, do, do, and be as productive as possible. Millennials are the most likely to work the longest hours of any generation before them, and who feel that this is their responsibility and may be exceptionally challenged when they’re coming into the workplace. At both bow this drive to achievement and productivity, with the desire to be good humans, essentially, and lead people well. 

And so I think, for me, it’s a few things to unpack, but the first place that I would love to dig into with you is thinking about what it means to be a responsible steward of a team, when ultimately, the job that you are being held most accountable for is growing a business or making revenue.

CLAIRE: I love this topic. Anything that I can do in my own small corner of the world to defeat this idea of completely false idea of growth for growth’s sake, I will do. And I think managers play this really interesting, as you say, middle part between maybe higher up leadership and the team. And I think part of being a manager is, managing up. 

So one of the ways that, as a manager, you can play a key role here is you will be receiving some kind of guidance, goals, instructions, whatever, from leadership, and really thinking about and having empathy for the leaders, trying to put yourself in their shoes and say, like, what are they actually aiming for? 

So whether that is being incented on productivity or incented on lowering operational costs or whatever, that is like understanding what is the goal and then using that as a lever to pull when it comes to pushing teams too far. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, but I saw a survey recently from Slack came out that was like, working more hours damages productivity. You do not get more productive the more hours you work. You get less productive. And that ultimately leads to burnout, which also then leads to attrition and turnover and the high cost of onboarding and the lost knowledge and the damaged relationships and all of that. 

So if what you actually care about is, you know, actual productivity per hour worked, if what you actually care about is operating costs and operating efficiency, right sizing those hours worked and not pushing to the extreme. It’s actually the fastest way to get to the goals that you have. So I think it’s using that business acumen that you would be expected to have to speak the language of whoever it is in leadership who is asking certain things of you to say, okay, yeah, I understand our goals, and the best way to get there is to keep our folks working like a nice, steady 40 hours a week with very reasonable and achievable goals. That’s half the equation. 

The other half is then what you communicate down to your team. I think it goes back to some of what we talked about in the early part of this conversation, which is, what do they need to know that they can do something about? And a little bit, what is the tone that you use? I don’t mean any of this to come up as paternalistic or like, protecting the team in a coddling sort of sense, but I do think it’s your job to protect the team to some degree. So if you know that leadership was having a really charged conversation around, like, you know, we have to hit these numbers because our, you know, the investors are all pushing for this, and if that got really heated, that gets communicated to your team in a really even handed way. 

If you’re acting like the sky is falling, your team, who is a degree removed from having any power over that, is going to extra feel like the sky is falling because they can’t even try to hold it up even with one hand. Similarly, you should not share that information with them, that’s something they need to know to do their jobs well. But trying to keep your people informed without overburdening them, again, with like a lot of emotion or a lot of information, they can’t do anything about giving them the information they need so that they can operate in the real organization that you’re working in. 

Even so that in some circumstances they might opt out, they might say, actually, what is being asked of me here is not something that I am willing to do. You know, all of your employees have entered into a business agreement with your organization to trade labor for money. And if the organization is changing the terms on them, they should know that, so that they can opt out of that business arrangement and make a different one with a different organization that is going to be more aligned. 

So I think about it that way of communicating what your people need that they can actually take action on. And simultaneously, if you are getting unreasonable requests from above, doing your best to manage up.

ALIDA: So much of being a manager is essentially looking at what burdens your team would need to hold, and then either mitigating or eliminating those burdens. But you yourself may be overburdened, or you may not have a manager doing the same thing for you and your peers. What can you do for yourself in that situation, especially if you aren’t in a position to leave?

CLAIRE: Yeah. And that’s a very real position. Most folks, especially in this market, it’s not just easy to go and find another role. I think about finding support and space. Each of those things, in turn. Something that I have found very valuable in my career is finding community outside of my own organization that are still in a comparable professional position to me, so that they get it. But I don’t have to worry about, you know, folks who don’t have the context of, well, what does it mean to work in tech these days? Or what does it mean to be in leadership? 

So, I have a really wonderful chief of staff community, for example, that I’m part of, and being able to have very candid and confidential conversations with those peers just to gut check, to get a different opinion, or maybe somebody has solved a really similar problem or has a different angle on it that I haven’t considered. Or even just to hear that my concerns are valid. Yeah, I’ve been there. That actually means quite a lot that you can’t always get within your own organization because there are confidentiality, uh, and politics, and you just have to navigate more within your organization.

So I think finding a cohort of peers and a community, in some sense, is a really essential support for being a manager. And I think also of finding space. Of being able to take some time to decompress from what is really demanding work. It might seem from the outside, like it’s not, because mostly what it is, is talking to another person on a screen like you’re sitting down, you usually like you’re in the comfort of your home, usually these days, and you’re just talking. 

Certainly there are other very challenging types of work that are more physically challenging, for example, and other things, but acknowledging that it is hard work, that this is challenging work, and, you know, whether that is deciding that after a one on one with a direct report, you’re going to find just 15 minutes to step away from the screen. Just decompress. Let your brain get to a different place, let your body relax and come back to center. Whether that’s deciding to maybe after review season is done, which can be really burdensome to managers. Take a day off for yourself, if you can find that space. 

So just give yourself that break and that pause, small or large, because it can accumulate over time. Certainly something I’ve noticed for myself is I’m the mom to two small children, three and five. And they, as a fellow parent, you know, takes, they take a lot of energy and a lot of attention and a lot of care. And there are days when I am so just spent from the work that I’ve done during the day that there’s not capacity left for my family. And those are the days that I, really wakes me up and say, oh, no, this is not in balance. I need to take more space during the day. I need to find something that is restorative. Because work will come and go. Work is not going to be there when I’m 90, but these two little people will, so I better show up for them.

ALIDA: What would you say is the one thing that you would want folks listening to take away?

CLAIRE: It is the focus on clarity, I think, that comes up so often as a manager. Clarity of expectations of your people and of yourself. Clarity around goals, clarity of, you know, who am I serving in this moment? The person, the organization, myself. And differentiating that from transparency, which can become overwhelming or confusing or burdensome to your people.

ALIDA: Final question, where can folks stay connected?

CLAIRE: You can always find me on LinkedIn, where I try to be very active, engaged. So definitely reach out to me there. I always like meeting new people and having actual conversations with them.

ALIDA: Well, thank you so much, Claire.

CLAIRE: Thanks, Alida. It was great talking to you.


ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with your community to help uplift and advocate for more caring cultures everywhere. 

This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and me, Alida Miranda-Wolff. I’m also your host. 

Theme music Vibing Introspectively was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass. Audio editing and post production assistance was provided by Organized Sound Productions. 

If you want more of me, be sure to order my books, Cultures Of Belonging and The First Time Manager: DEI.


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