Episode 20 Transcript

Published: Thursday November 2, 2023

A Conversation 💬 on Disabilities, Mental Health and Workplace Well-being

Alycia Anderson and Brian McComak discuss DEI, belonging and human-centered leadership


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson.

We are so excited to have you back for another episode. I have a great friend and colleague spending some time with us today. His name is Brian McComak. He is the CEO and founder of Hummingbird Humanity. He is a consultant, a speaker and author, and a facilitator with over 25 years of experience in DEI, HR, culture change management, internal communications and employee experience.

He is an openly gay man and a person with a disability who shares his life experiences in service of fostering workplaces where humans are able to thrive.

Welcome to the show. I’m so excited to have you on. Thank you so much for your time today. I just read your bio and gave all your accolades, but can you give us any extra little details.

Brian McComak: Well, first of all, Alycia, thank you so, so very much for inviting me to be part of your podcast. You know, I’m a huge, huge fan of yours, and I’ve loved every time we’ve had a conversation, whether it’s been in front of others, like in our virtual live audiences, or just even behind the scenes.

I always feel like I learned something from you. So thank you for again, for inviting me here.

What I believe is that when I started working in corporate America and then this is true for probably many of you out there, I just knew that I was supposed to, like, take off my coat of emotions and sort of put my humanity to the side and go fill the job description. This box that I was put into of like this is what you do and you need to show up that way.

And the reality is we can’t put our humanity to the side and it comes with us wherever we go, and so we are trying to celebrate that. And that is how we introduce ourselves at Hummingbird to acknowledge that. We need to bring our humanity and acknowledge our humanity, as well as sort of, you know, who we are as well as what we do.

So you’ve heard all the things about what we… what I do, and really, I just think about myself as an organizational change expert, and I work on organization change to move variety of different lenses.

Right now it’s really largely through inclusive workplaces where people belong and humans thrive, and that’s you know what… the work I love. And I’m so grateful I get to do it. It’s not easy, as you well know, Alycia but I love it, and of course, you know I’m gay and disabled, but there’s so much more to me than that.

I’ve, you know, I sing in the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, so I like to sing. I’m a dog dad to Bosco. Who is our Chief Happiness officer at Hummingbird, and he was a medical research dog for seven years. So he is his own beautiful soul on the planet. And he helped to test medicines for humans. I’m really close to my family. I became an uncle earlier this summer. So that’s really exciting. It’s the first grandchild for my parents, and you know, I like to travel. But I generally travel to either to have experience something… people I love or to go visit people I love. So there’s a few other things a little about me.

Oh, I guess I should mention I’m a military brat. So sometimes I say I’m a citizen of the world because people are like, where are you from? And like, that’s complicated. So I just say, you know. I’m a citizen of the world. Although I identify as a New Yorker.

Alycia Anderson: Oh, OK, good. If you’re comfortable, are you able to share anything about what your disability might be? I think the intersections of identity is pretty important. So…

Brian McComak: They’re, probably the two big one’s… is my mental health stuff and HIV and you know, sometimes when I talk about HIV, one thing that I recognize… and so if anyone’s out there listening and you’re like, I don’t know how to feel about someone who just shared they’re HIV positive.

Surprisingly it is common for people to have a difficult reaction to that information, and so I understand that I have a responsibility when I choose to share that diagnosis.

That sometimes it may inflict unintentional trauma on someone else for any number of reasons when I found out I was positive medication had moved to a place where I could take at that time it was 2 pills, once at 2 pills a day, and now I take one pill once a day.

The virus is not affecting me and I can’t give it to anyone else. So it’s a whole different ball game today, but if you’re still stuck with that imagery in your head from the 80s and early. 90s it can be really scary when you hear that someone’s positive.

So I’m OK and certainly medical science has come a long way and hopefully that’s helpful information for someone out there.

Alycia Anderson: Well, I think that’s part of the work of wherever we’re comfortable sharing our experiences, because the path of disability, whether it’s non-apparent… anxiety…

Brian McComak: I mean, my disability identities are invisible and you wouldn’t know about them unless I choose to share them. With the exception of mental health. This is something that you might experience of someone else going through a mental illness at an episode of mental illness. So you can see and experience that in some way, shape or form if you’re you’re paying attention and you’re close to someone. But generally it’s, you know, most days I’m just fine and you wouldn’t know that I… that either of those experiences are part of my life. And, what you would see and…

This is something that actually thank you for bringing this question up, Alycia, because it’s also important for me to acknowledge that for you know those of you who listening unless you’ve seen my picture you know I’m also, a white cisgender man and I’m also, 6 feet 6 inches tall and heteronormative, so I fit into the typical stereo… you know, stereotype of what masculinity looks like.

So when I have those that like, when you, when those and I and recognize those collection of attributes that make me fit into the ideal of what corporate America was built for… is people who look like me and who show up like me.

And so some people like when I get on stage. Sometimes the first thing I’ll do is I’ll look out in the audience and I’ll be like you’re all wondering why the white guys up here on stage talking about diversity, aren’t you. And, you know, I get a lot of chuckles, but I get a sea of nodding heads… like every head in the room nods.

And you know one thing I say first is that we need white guys to be part of this work. So I’m one of those white guys who’s part of this work. Because they believe it’s so important for those who’ve been marginalized in our systems of the world that certainly in workplace environments. But I’m also someone who’s experienced what it feels like to be othered or to be an outsider or to be different.

And, I don’t want anyone else to feel that way, and if I can be part of the change that allows, as you know, you shared earlier allows humans to thrive in the workplace, then I want to be part of that change and use the skills I have and the passion I have for this work to make a difference.

Alycia Anderson: I love both of those points that you just brought up, and I think they’re very impactful to create change, not only in our society, but specifically in the workplace as well.

So thank you so much for sharing that.

Brian McComak: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely and I couldn’t possibly agree more about the value and importance of community and you know that the chorus is…, you know has made a huge difference in my life.

Alycia Anderson: So, I read somewhere I think it was on your website or something that your identity has given home to powerful perspectives of well-being in the workplace. And so my question to you is first of all, why DEI? Did that start before or after you started kind of identifying with all of your layers, and can you tell us a little bit about this powerful perspective philosophy. And what that means?

Brian McComak: When I started doing DEI work, I would say that social impact work was really the external expression of DEI work and that’s I think… I still think that’s true and I think it’s also bigger than that in many ways.

And when you bring in sustainability efforts and ESG efforts but those of course can have the DEI lenses. As and then I… you know as I continue to sort of think this through it’s… it also includes what I call human central leadership.

So the things that we need to be embracing as leaders today to meet the needs of the humans that work in our workplaces and honoring well-being. Well-being is often the sort of like set of activities that happens in workplaces, but it doesn’t really fully embrace the potential of well-being, so that’s what this framework is all about.

There are two moments that I’ll highlight before I entered workplace environments. So the first was growing up. I was always different. I always felt like I was… I never… I always felt like I never really fit-in. I felt like, you know, I wasn’t included.

Part of that just because I was always awkwardly tall and awkwardly thin, and I didn’t really act like other boys and I didn’t have the same interest as other boys and you know, so all of those things, and I remember having a conversation with my parents. And I’m asking like you know, am I… Am I, painting this picture of my childhood in a way that is… isn’t honoring the reality of what it was like to grow up as a white boy in America? And like, no, that was you and you always wanted others to feel like they were included. So you… that was like just who you were because you didn’t like the feeling of, like, not being part of things. So I think that’s part of the foundation of who I was as human. I grew up with parents that expected my sister and I to treat everyone with respect, regardless of who they were, you know, so that you know that all comes together. I think for from a foundational perspective, how do I do this work in the way that honors what I’m here to do to really change systems that allow for all humans to thrive.

And you know, as part of that journey. I mean I started as you know as I mentioned at the beginning of this I started to look at well… DEI is so often is introduced to organizations in this silo or this other thing that needs to be part of everything.

Alycia Anderson: What does a well-being program look like?

Brian McComak: Well, there are a variety of different. So I think one of the first things I would offer if you’re in the role of defining or designing a well-being program is figuring out what is needed for the people in your organization.

So, one of our beliefs at Hummingbird is that we start with the belief that the people in your organization are unique… from the people in the organization next to yours and the one next… to the next … next to theirs.

And so you need to understand what do the people in your organization need, what’s important to them?

So sometimes what well-being is mental health programs and there’s certainly lots of great offers and services you can offer there, but it’s also telling the stories about mental Illness and helping to elevate those conversations.

And that’s one example of many different disabilities.

Alycia Anderson: This is a perfect time to take a quick break, you are listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia and we will be right back.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia, and we are so excited to have you back for another episode.

I have a great friend and colleague spending some time with us today his name is Brian McComak. He is the CEO and founder of Hummingbird Humanity.

You left corporate you started your own business. You’re an entrepreneur. You are helping your customers. You fill in the blank.

Brian McComak: We typically work with companies and organizations that I the way that I describe it is they’re big enough to need a strategy around their workplace culture and the elements of workplace culture but aren’t big enough that they’ve been able to buy all of the expertise that they need to be able to do that work.

And so that’s typically where we lean in. Is we help the… that you know company organization first to understand where they are today. And so we assess where… you know we do an assessment and help paint that picture. And we paint the picture through a variety of different lenses.

We do head and hearts perspectives.

So, you know, numbers and analytics. And stats and things of that nature, but also quotes and messages from your actual people, people that work there, so we can really illuminate this very… this multifaceted complex picture of what is your culture like today, and then have a conversation about where do you want to go?

What? What do you want your people to feel like and let’s anchor that in the voices of your the people that work here, because I can come in and say, like, here’s what I think it should be but I don’t work… if I don’t work there like… it’s not about me.

It’s about the people, the humans that are part of that organization and what’s right for that organization and that community.

We anchor our workplace culture efforts in DEI methodologies and change management principles and communication mechanisms to make sure… because communications often what’s forgotten in these programs.

They don’t work without change management and certainly if we want to be part of the change that allows all humans to thrive, it has to be anchored in an understanding of systemic oppression.

So we bring those elements into how we help organizations evolve their workplace culture, and I think that’s part of the foundation of who I was as human. I grew up with parents that expected my sister and I to treat everyone with respect, regardless of who they were, you know, so that you know that all comes together I think for from a foundational perspective.

In college, I read a book called the Customer Comes Second by Hal Rosenbluth and then it’s all about how if companies create workplaces, again the language I use is where humans thrive, and they’re going to do great work and the great work is then going to impact the success of your company and you know, reach your customers and clients.

So that’s been part of you know the combination of those two things I think was always part of who I was as an HR professional. When I was at Disney. I worked… I struggled at Disney to have to when I call and referred to it as fitting in… and I’ve I just recently heard Renee Brown, a couple of Renee Brown, talked about how the opposite of belonging is fitting in, because fitting in is, how are you making yourself fit into this other environment, and you’re not. You’re not your true yourself.

You’re like, I’m gonna put on this shirt. I’m gonna put on these sunglasses. I’m gonna put on these shoes. I’m gonna adopt these ways of saying things or doing things, because I need to fit in rather than I get to bring who I am and bring that magic to the environment.

Alycia Anderson: I’m going to pretend like I don’t need accessibility and it’s not OK to self identify and it’s not, you know, like and fit into the book.

I think that I can relate to that. Before I ask you the final question, did we miss anything because I want to make sure that we got in, squeezed all the juice. That was super important to you today.

I think we had a great conversation, but did we miss anything that you would like to share?

Brian McComak: You know, there’s one story I eluded to early on that I should I should probably just share in spirit. I promised the story, and it’s also a …it was also a powerful moment of where my… the two disabilities that I’ve talked about really intersected.

So in September of 2008, I was diagnosed as HIV positive. And I was one of those people who still had the imagery from the 80s and early 90s in my head, and so death was what appeared in my minds, not… not life, and not necessarily hope.

And that moment ignited a significant episode of depression and anxiety.

And I worked at an organization at the time that I don’t remember there being messages that you could talk about these things there. So I didn’t know how to talk about my diagnosis and I certainly didn’t know how to talk about my mental health challenges at the time.

And I’m not saying that that’s anything that the company did wrong or the people I worked with did wrong. I just don’t think that, that was necessarily my experience and so I just tried to show up every day and do my job.

So I didn’t take a leave of absence, which I think in hindsight, I probably should have.

Well what that experience was for… so certainly for me, I was lost and I was physically at work every day like the physical being of Brian McComak was in the office every day, but he wasn’t really doing his job.

And what that was… so that experience for my colleagues was like, “Why? Why does he not? What doesn’t he have to do his job? Like what? Why? Do I have to pick up the things that are… he’s not doing? Why? Why is this happening?”

And it increased their frustration and their anger and you know…, and I felt some of that and they I’m sure they really tried not to… for me to experience that. And they’re… I think they’re great humans who would have been like if they would have known the story they would have helped me figure that out and wade through that in a very different way than what I… the way that I… the path I chose.

But, it was just like it didn’t work for any of us, so when I think about, you know the conversations we have around how do we create workplaces and cultures where humans thrive?

Yes, it’s about someone like me who in that moment really needed to be cared for and supported, but it’s also equally important for the people I worked with who were like I don’t know what’s happening right now, but this doesn’t feel good and I don’t have a way to work through it or name it or to be part of the solution.

And I think that was not only unfair to me, but unfair to them.

And I certainly wish I could go back and rewrite that story in so many different ways, but I think that’s, you know…, I tried to.

I remember that story a lot as I’m doing this work because I remember like it’s not only the people that are marginalized that are impacted. It’s everyone who’s impacted. So how do we? How do they? And, which then honors that whole concept of environments, workplace cultures where humans thrive.

Alycia Anderson: So, I think that’s really a nice last thought there and it definitely shows why you’re doing the work that you’re doing.

I think you’re doing really good work there and in creating that space.

So congratulations on all of your accomplishments. How do our listeners find you?

Brian McComak: So I am certainly on LinkedIn. That’s probably the best place to find me. You can search for Brian McComak, which is Brian with an I MCCOMAK. It’s a unique spelling. So I’ll say it again, MCCOMAK. So that’s probably the best place to find me. And then if you want to connect with Hummingbird, visit hummingbirdhumanity.com and you can check out what we have going on there. You can join our newsletter, and certainly Hummingbird is also on LinkedIn, so that’s another place to follow what we’re doing.

Alycia Anderson: We’d like to have a final pushing forward moment to send our audiences our listeners off with something… a mantra. Something that might inspire them in their own spaces, whether it’s in the workplace or in their lives… What is one little gift that you could give away?

Brian McComak: I think that this conversation has centered a lot around my battles with anxiety and depression and so this is what I’ll offer. Is this tool that there’s probably a collection of things I’ve learned from professionals is the first thing I do is, I just stop and try to quiet my mind, and I say, “am I OK right now?”

The starting point of am I OK right now? Then moves me to what am I grateful for in my life and one of the things that I can be grateful for today in this moment and centering, and today, and particularly in the now is what usually then helps me get to a place… to get out of that what was about to become something… that could have been problematic.

Into a space that is healthier and then I could say, “OK, I’m OK, and I have a lot to be thankful for. Life is not perfect. Life is never perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. That’s not really the goal anyway, but I’m OK, and now I can tackle whatever… whatever’s ahead of me.”

Alycia Anderson: Brian, thank you so much! You’re doing great work.

Thank You to our listeners for tuning in again.

This is Pushing Forward with Alycia, and that is how we roll on this podcast.