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Creating a Connection Culture at Work — Mike Stallard

Contributor: Ali Ahmed

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Mike Stallard, the former Chief Marketing Officer for Morgan Stanley’s private wealth management business. He also worked for Charles Schwab. He’s the co-founder and president of E Pluribus Partners, which helps leaders to build “connection cultures” at work. He’s authored Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity and Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work. Stallard and Friedman spoke about the value of fostering a connection culture at work and encouraging leaders to take action to connect with employees. They also spoke about how the benefits of that can spread into one’s personal life.

Stew Friedman:  Mike, you have a background in marketing and degrees in both business and law. How did you get from there to the human side of business – the connections between employees and between employees and employers?

Mike Stallard: stallardIt is an unusual career shift. I saw, working on Wall Street, that so often mergers didn’t work. And I became interested in how work cultures were different. And I wondered, is there a best culture? That curiosity led me to eventually leave Wall Street, spend several years doing research, and start a firm that focuses on that. My first book came out in 2007.

SF: Was there a critical episode that led you to saying “I have got to go and figure this thing out for myself and then help other people to figure it out”?

MS: There were several. It was a confluence of events. One, was seeing financial services mergers.   The Morgan Stanley-Dean Witter merger, Charles Schwab and U.S. Trust — that merger influenced me, Morgan Stanley and Van Kampen American Capital. Then, also the deals over the course of my career. I saw cultures that were different. Finally, I had a very unusual situation happen where my wife, Katie, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, and ovarian cancer in 2004.  She’s healthy and thriving today.  But she had three episodes of cancer over the last decade. There was a time when we were going to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and we were walking towards the entrance, and there was a doorman named Nick Medley, who’s now a concierge. Nick locked his eyes on Katie and greeted her like a returning friend. And it really caught me by surprise.  People don’t typically make eye contact in New York City. Then, the receptionist was calling everyone ‘honey’, and the security people and administrative people were helpful and friendly in this particular part of Sloan Kettering. And her oncologist spent an hour with us.  She was upbeat, and optimistic, and answered our questions, and educated us about treatment options. And at the end of the day I had two reactions. One was I had done research and I knew that this was the best – one of the best – teams worldwide to treat advanced ovarian cancer. And the second, I knew they cared.  I observed a culture when I was there. It was such a contrast from what I experienced on Wall Street. And I decided I really wanted more of that culture. A culture where people felt connected to the work they were doing, that it was helping others, they felt connected to one another and to people they serve, their patients and their families.

SF: So that connection was inspiring to you?

MS: It really was.  I was just seeing the importance of connection. Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist at UCLA, has described human connection as a super power, that it makes us more productive, happier, and healthier. And I was seeing that in research after research. And then having that personal experience where I really felt a sense of connection and could observe that among the workers, doctors, and professionals; everyone in this gynecological oncology group really influenced me.

SF: That is a healthcare providing service and that is their purpose. It’s different than the rough-and-tumble world of Wall Street where the game is a lot of different. So, you expect a different culture right?

MS: Well, you do. On the other hand, Wall Street, because it does bring a lot of money, power, and fame to people who work there, attracts a lot of people who long for that. So, it’s focused on task excellence and results, and not so much on relationships. Relationships with clients have been more for the purpose of landing deals and generating revenue. And truly building strong personal relationships with clients doesn’t have to be that way. Because if you think about the purpose of Wall Street, the allocation of capital in our society has huge ramifications for people world-wide. And so it’s work that ultimately benefits individuals, but few people in Wall Street really bring that mindset. There’s a Manfred Kets de Vries article that described it. Everyone kind of has their number. Kets de Vries calls it the “F you” number, which, when you hit that number you can take off and you don’t have to work at Wall Street anymore. And I found it was the predominant attitude. A lot of people wanted to reach a certain wealth level and get the heck out because it’s just not a very healthy culture.

SF: So you saw a different path and saw the value in it. And it certainly is a topic and an issue that has become a very important one in the study of organizations. Over thirty years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I did a study of organizational culture. And this was when the field was just emerging, following Peters’ and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, which really brought the idea to the fore. And in the thirty years since, the term organizational culture in our understanding of its power and value has just become mainstream.  Now you’ve seen its power and you studied it, and now have developed a way of thinking about it and changing it that you refer to as “connection culture”, which you also wrote about in Fired Up or Burned Out. So, tell us what is connection culture? I think you’ve given us a hint. Tell us a little bit more about what it looks like and how to create it?

MS: We see, predominantly, three types of relational cultures. There are technical cultures, and sales and marketing cultures. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about relational cultures. We found that there are three types of relational cultures. A culture where people feel connected to the work they do because it fits well with their strengths and provides the right kind of challenge. They feel connected to their teammates, to their supervisor, to the organization’s identity, its mission and values, its reputation, and to senior management. Those connections motivate, they inspire people, move people to give their best efforts, align their behavior with organizational goals, more fully communicate so decision-makers have best information to make optimal decisions, and they contribute to conversations on innovation and creativity, and help advance the firm.

The other cultures we found were the cultures of control, which is pretty descriptive. Most of us have experienced that. And the culture we see growing rapidly, because this is growing in our broader society, is a culture of indifference. Where people are becoming so busy and overwhelmed by tasks and becoming addicted to iPhones, and smartphones, and media, and other activities that we don’t take time for relationships. It’s squeezing out time for relationships. And that was certainly my story on Wall Street.   With the commute and long work hours, the first thing to go was time with my friends. And eventually I had some challenges where when I was home, Stew, I wasn’t mentally home. I wasn’t present. Because I wasn’t trying to figure out how to crack the code on some culture issues related to mergers I was involved in. I grew lonely, and I didn’t feel well, and it affected my health. I needed more coffee to get going, and exercise to stimulate me and keep going, and alcohol at night to slow me down. As I looked at the research, the opposite of connection is loneliness and addiction — just to self-medicate. And that is certainly what I experienced. So, the research really aligns with my personal experiences. That’s why I am really passionate about this.

SF: So, the missing link is the connection to other people, meaningful relationships, where you’re helping each other, you’re aware of each other’s core values and needs and interests in a way that the good people at Sloan Kettering are able to express. It’s a critical element to satisfaction at work, and of course all of our relationships outside of work. So how do you bring that in to an organization that’s crying for it?

MS: I think helping them, providing a language to understand these differences between connection, control, and indifference. Examples, case studies are great.

SF: So, it starts with awareness? There are different kinds of cultures, and here’s what yours might look like, and really letting people understand and have more refined, sophisticated understanding that there are variations. And that it’s not by magic or accident that they occur.

MS: We do find that people pretty quickly get the idea of what control, indifference, and connection feels like. We find that about half report they are in a culture of indifference, 25% in a culture of control, and 25% in a connection culture. And then we go on to describe culture. There’s been so much written about culture, but it’s almost come to mean everything. So, we boil it down to the predominant attitudes, language that is used, and behavior, both individual and organizational behaviors that bring about a connection culture, culture of control, or culture of indifference. So we focus on those things because we do a lot of work with technical communities, like the engineering section for the NASA Johnson Space Center. We worked with them for three years. We’ve been in MD Anderson Cancer Center and Yale-New Haven Health. We’ll spend a lot of time helping them understand the science. Now you would think that the medical community would understand the science. But I found they really don’t. We get into stress response versus a state of homeostasis in the body and when we’re lonely, when we feel unsupported, left out, or lonely, we’re more vulnerable to addiction because the body is in a state of stress response.  When we’re in a state of stress response, the body allocates blood glucose and oxygen to the fight-or-flight systems, the heart, the lungs, the big muscles. But it depletes, or under-allocates, those resources to parts of the brain, the digestive system, the immune system, and the reproductive systems. So, it has an effect on our health and will shave years off our lives.

SF: So, the workplace is doing that. I guess what you’re saying, Mike, is that connection cultures are the ones we want to have?

MS: Right and that’s where you see that strong sense of camaraderie, a sense of connection and unity and community across the group, whether it’s a team or organization.

SF: So, identifying it, that’s the first step. Giving people some tools for understanding the attitudes, the language, the stories that get told, the behaviors that lead to the different kinds of cultures. Then, what happens?

MS: We do an assessment. We have employee engagement surveys, that really is a connection survey. And when you look at employee engagement surveys, that’s what they are. They assess these different aspects of connection. Because really it’s the subcultures that matter the most. For example, in one multi-national corporation we worked with over the last year we surveyed their employees in sixteen different languages. And we were able to go to the CEO and say, “here’s where connection exists and here’s where it doesn’t exist.” And then it was really up to him and his human resources department to decide where do we make leadership changes, which he did, and where do we need to really become involved and provide coaching and training to certain leaders who we think have potential to change.

SF: So, the primary means for intervention here is to work on an individual basis with senior leaders?

MS: Yes, ultimately. Giving everyone the training, so there’s a common language in the organization, understanding how important it is, and then assessing to see where the needs really exist. Also, identifying where the strengths are. I can think of one example where a CEO took one of the best leaders in the organization who really created a connection culture and made him vice chairman. And now that leader is mentoring other leaders who need help around the world.

SF:  What does that look like, the shift, a senior leader’s approach to how she conveys attitudes, values, and beliefs that support a connection culture. Can you walk us through what the change process looks like?

MS:  We believe it could be very different in terms of the attitudes, the language, the behavior depending on the context whether you’re in, say healthcare, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, or you’re at investment bank across town.  We tend to use a tool we call “a hundred ways to connect”. Just having conversations with individual managers to think through what are some things they can do based on the feedback we’ve seen through the employee engagement survey to strengthen connection in this particular area.

SF: So, you have some specific ideas there? We got Vincent calling from Texas. Vincent, welcome to Work and Life. What’s your question?

Vincent: Thanks. I work at a software company and I’m in sales. And I’m curious what are some of the action items that you would recommend to have that connection culture because so much of a sales organization is individualistic performance and metrics. It’s really easy to get caught up in your own little world and microcosm of things you need to perform. And you kind of lose sight of relationships with peers as well as treating a customer like in that healthcare example you used because you’re so concerned about hitting your goal so you do well financially, but also for yourself.

SF: Great question, Vincent. Mike, what do you have to say?

MS: Yeah Vincent, great question. You know, I find sales can be very lonely. If you’re out on the road, and calling on prospects, and working with your customers to gain greater loyalty, and you’re doing that alone. You really need that relational support. So, number one, helping sales people who are in that type of position to understand that they need connection. So, they need to be intentional. And Stew, this fits well with your work really living an integrated life, and therefore, the different domains you talk about. Connection needs can also be met from your relationships outside of work. It’s good to have them at work also. There are just a number of things you can do. Everything from taking time to get to know the stories of some of the people you work with, even if it’s over the telephone or Skype. I always tell sales managers they really need to be proactive in staying in contact with the sales people who they are responsible for leading. Learning to be present in conversations, developing a habit of emphasizing positives.

SF: Let’s go with that ‘learning to be present in conversations’, which is something that Vincent may or may not be experiencing in his world, but is probably pretty common. What do you do to help people to do that? Because I hear that a lot as a very important need. How do you stay focused and psychologically present?
MS: Well, number one, just understand that people are in different modes. Some people could be in deep connection mode, really focusing on one individual. Another person you’re interacting with could be in a more multi-tasking rhythm at this particular time and day.  There could be a disconnect because you are wanting to connect on a deeper level or just to get to know them socially. If people interrupt you and you’re in a state of flow, immersed and focusing on a project, sometimes it’s not easy to come out of that mode and interact with them. So, I think understanding some of these different rhythms that we get in, and how we get into these situations. Giving people language to help make smoother transitions. Those are just some of the examples.

SF: Vincent, thanks for your call. I hope that was helpful in giving you some ideas. The basic concept here is to form those human connections wherever you can. Let me pick up on this further, if I can, Mike. So, what if you don’t know your team well, or you’re not connected because you’re in a different location? How you get that relationship going to begin with is an issue for some people.

MS: There are a number of questions you can ask. So, for example, just simple things, like,  What have your experiences been in the past in terms of work in the past? And that’s a very natural question for a supervisor to ask. What managers have you worked for? What are some of the things they did that really inspired you, energized you that you really liked? And what are some of the things that aggravated you, or were energy-drainers? You can learn about that. The question I love to ask is what are your interests outside of work? What do you like to do in your free time? I just find it so fascinating — some of their hobbies, interests, passions – it really gives you an opportunity to connect. Also, when there are opportunities to empathize, really seize those opportunities because when we feel another person’s emotions, if it’s a positive emotion it enhances that positive emotion for them. And if it’s a painful emotion they’re experiencing, empathize and feel how that emotional connection diminishes their pain. And in both instances, it connects us. So, little things like that, Stew.

SF: And they can have a really big impact. Mike, we’re just about at the end of our time here. What’s the big idea you would like to leave our listeners with about what you discovered with the work you bring to the world?

MS: Our broader society is becoming more disconnected. And I know for me, this was not something I was aware of, Stew. I didn’t realize I was hardwired to connect, so I was dysfunctional and developing addictions. And you see that in the broader society when you see the decline of health of Americans under 50. Now Americans under 50 have the lowest life expectancies versus the sixteen other wealthiest countries, according to the Institute for Medicine. I think a lot of this is loneliness driven. We’re hardwired to connect and we need to be intentional about connecting and meeting that need for ourselves and for the people we’re responsible for leading and the people we love in our lives.

SF: And that’s going to have a ripple effect, right, in terms of the other parts of your life?

MS: Absolutely. It helps the whole life. If you don’t connect in your life outside of work, then chances are you’re not doing a good job connecting at work. And when you’re intentional and you become a stronger connector in the workplace context, it spills over and strengthens those connections with your loved ones and friends.

SF: Absolutely. That’s certainly something I’ve seen and you speak about it with a lot of authority based on real experience.

For more information about Michael Stallard visit his website http://connectionculture.com and follow him on Twitter @Michael Stallard.

About the Author

Ali Ahmed Ali Ahmedis an undergraduate senior majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Cinema Studies.

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