Joseph A. Michelli: Second Interview, by Bob Morris

Joseph A. Michelli

Joseph A. Michelli is an internationally sought-after speaker, author, and organizational consultant who has been described as “catching what is right in the world and playfully sparking people and businesses to grow toward the extraordinary.” In addition to writing best-selling books about enduring business principles, Dr. Michelli offers direct consulting to select clients. Michelli also transfers his knowledge of exceptional business practices through keynote presentations that explore ways to develop joyful and productive workplaces with a focus on the total customer experience. His insights encourage leaders and frontline workers to grow and invest passionately in all aspects of their life.

His published works include When Fish Fly: Lessons for Creating a Vital and Energized Workplace, co-authored with John Yokoyama, owner of the “World Famous” Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. Also The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary, published by McGraw-Hill, The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton, and most recently his New York Times #1 Bestseller, Prescription for Excellence: Leadership Lessons for Creating a World Class Customer Experience from UCLA Health System. His next book, The Zappos Experience: 5 Principles to Inspire, Engage and WOW!, will be published by McGraw-Hill in October. Michelli believes his greatest accomplishment is his ability to learn from the laughter and humor of his children, Andrew and Fiona.

Morris: Before discussing Prescription for Excellence, a few general questions and then some that focus your earlier published works. Based on your own experiences as well as what you’ve learned from others, is the quality of customer service today better, worse, or about the same as it was (let’s say) five years ago? Please explain.

Michelli:  Robert, people who do surveys consistently suggest that service delivery is deteriorating.  Personally, I think the complexity of service makes a simple answer to your question impossible.  Bad service is definitely getting worse.  I literally have seen disengaged employees who are too busy texting to be bothered with taking care of customers.  Service expectations are also increasing.  The level of entitlement and self-centeredness of some customers today is rather appalling.  That said, I see great service providers pushing the envelope on service delivery.  I know companies like the Ritz-Carlton, Zappos, and Starbucks are not only delivering classic service excellence but leveraging technology to increase speed, accuracy, and personal emotional connections with those they serve.

Morris: Companies, individuals, and even governments (municipal, county, state, national) governments continue to survive the current Depression, Recession, Great Reset, etc. In your opinion, during an economy such as the current one, are business opportunities better, worse, or about the same as they are during a robust economy? Please explain.

Michelli: Well thankfully this is an easy answer.  Now more than ever service excellence is paying dividends.  Companies that use to neglect existing customers to chase more exciting prospective consumers have refocused their resources.  When you have to cut-back on staff, you had better make sure those staff are serving you highest value customers first and executing flawlessly to drive long-term business sustainability.  I have watched companies like Starbucks, who did not have customer loyalty programs in place before the recession, begin to reward their highest value existing customers through fantastic programs that integrate social, mobile, and relevant forms of recognition.

Morris: Given all the changes that continue to occur throughout the global marketplace, what will be the unique leadership and management challenges during the next 3-5 years?

Michelli:  Wow, so few people ask me to look beyond the next quarter or fiscal year.  How refreshing!  In 3-5 years companies that are simply focusing on transactional service will be commoditized to the brink of extinction.  The days of SEO page ranks based on trafficked content are gone.  The success of companies will hinge not only on website traffic but on the genuine convergence of traffic, consumer reviews, and consistent relational engagement of customers.

Morris: In your opinion, to what extent (if any) are even the most prestigious schools of business in urgent need of improving the preparation of their students to meet the leadership and management challenges that await during the next 3-5 years?

Michelli: I have been influenced by thinkers who suggest that our modern form of education replicates that of the 17th century.  If our forefathers came back and walked into an operating room or aeronautic venue they would likely be overwhelmed by the technological advances we enjoy.  However, if they walked into a business classroom they are likely to see little advancement from the training methods of their day.  I believe advanced business education will need to be more personalized to the needs of each student through customized curriculum development aided by technology.  I envision a radical shift to more applied business opportunities that match the talents of students to business settings where those talents can be best deployed.

Morris: Several books and countless articles have been published in recent years that focus on design thinking. For example, books written by Tim Brown (Change by Design),  Thomas Lockwood (Design Thinking), John Maeda (The Laws of Simplicity and Redesigning Leadership), Roger Martin (The Design of Business), and Roberto Verganti (Design-Driven Innovation).

Here’s my question: How have the principles of design thinking helped Pike Place Fish Market, Starbucks, Ritz-Carlton, and UCLA Health System to achieve and then sustain superior performance?

Michelli:  Well I am a customer experience designer.  Every customer is having an experience with every business they encounter.  Those experiences happen by default or by design.  People I work with like the leaders at Pike Place Fish Market or UCLA Health System strategically design experiences based on the optimal outcome they desire at every customer touch point.  These design processes often seem cumbersome to entrepreneurs whose passion for seizing opportunities exceeds their discipline to evaluate all key customer moments of truth but I have seen the monetary and sustainability benefits of this approach.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: What business lessons can be learned from them that will be of greatest value to small companies such as family-owned business and local franchises of major chains?

Michelli:  In a nutshell, tell your employees what the ultimate customer experience looks like.  Create a set of service standard necessary as a foundation for achieving that experience.  Then, paint a picture of what it takes to innovate in the direction of experiential perfection.  Share stories of staff that deliver operationally excellent service and then offer examples of those that “wow” or “astonish” customers through their compassionate improvisation.

Morris: Obviously, all organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas. Some effective leaders can be hired but most must be developed. However different Pike Place Fish Market, Starbucks, Ritz-Carlton, and UCLA Health System may be in most other respects, what do their leadership corporate values and development initiatives share in common?

Michelli:  The esteemed group of leaders you reference are positive and passionate.  They take a stand for values and live those values on a daily basis.  They expect all managers in the organization to model value based leadership that in turn inspires value-based service of customers.

Morris: Now please focus on Prescription for Excellence. When and why did you decide to write it?

Michelli:  I am not sure if I decided to write it or if I was just given an incredible opportunity and was inspired enough to say yes.  UCLA Health System was looking for a leadership speaker for a conference and it came down to the late John Wooden or me.  I have to assume that John Wooden was already booked because I got the gig.  Rather than doing a canned speech, I always customize my presentation to the audience and in this instance as part of my prep work I flew to LA met the CEO of UCLA Health Systems Dr. David Feinberg, other leaders, and toured an as yet unopened new hospital building.  I remember Dr. Feinberg and I standing in this phenomenal futuristic facility the Ronald Reagan UCLA Hospital and him saying to me, “You have to help me make sure that the service doesn’t let this building down.”  Over the ensuing years, I had the privilege of journeying with Dr. Feinberg and other leaders as they transformed UCLA Health System from a marginal “service” business to a world-class service provider.  UCLA was always world class when it came to medical education, research and even seemingly miraculous medical outcomes.  But the experience of patients had left something to be desired.  I had to tell the story of UCLA’s transformation because it offers powerful lessons relevant to leaders irrespective of industry.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form different from what you originally envisioned? Please explain.

Michelli:  It is longer.  I got into the writing and more and more stories surfaced.  I shoehorned as much of that content as I could in the book and still I left a great deal of terrific information in drafts that didn’t see the light of day.

Morris: Did you have any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Michelli:  Yes, I have learned a lot about what it takes to have true leadership impact.  CEO David Feinberg understood that to be effective he needed to have a laser-focused agenda.  Rather than having a 15-point strategic plan, he had a singular passion.  He will leave a legacy of transforming service at UCLA because that was his unwavering vision.  Every meeting starts with a customer story.  He lives his life outside of his office talking with customers.  He has attracted amazingly talented people who believes as he does that we are placed on this planet to serve one another.  He creates business processes that force managers outside of their offices and requires them to talk to their customers as well.  He champions metrics that measure the voice of the customer and creates transparency in the sharing of those metrics.  Thanks to David, I have been doing a better job with my disciplined approach to singularity of service focus.

Morris: As I suggest in my review of Prescription for Excellence, if it were a novel, Dr. David Feinberg would be its hero and protagonist. As you wrote the book, to what extent (if any) did you view the material as being suitable for an epic narrative?

Michelli: That makes me laugh.  I can almost see Dr. Feinberg sweeping in with a cape as a superhero attacking the villain of marginal customer service.  I’ll leave novel writing for those with passion for creating in that genre.  I am privileged to be given access to tremendous leaders like Dr. Feinberg and his team.  My job is to capture their decision-making processes and principled behavior so my readers can emulate as appropriate.

Morris: Of all the challenges that UCLA Health System’s leaders faced since 1947, when Stafford L. Warren agreed to serve as its first dean, which challenges do you consider to be most formidable and how was each resolved?

Michelli:  I am not good at rating the relative scale of challenges.  For most of us the challenge we face is as bad or worse than that of the next person.  Clearly UCLA had to establish a world-class medical school and research center far from the shadow of the great eastern schools.  While that was a challenge, it also appealed to many bright adventurous medical leaders.  Over time it’s location has continued to be a double edge sword. The high value real estate around UCLA (Brentwood, Bel Air, and Beverly Hills) makes it difficult for hospital staff to live near their place of work.  The high profile nature of its clientele makes for great privacy challenges under the spotlight of the Hollywood paparazzi.  However, for me, one of leadership’s greatest challenges was to realistically look at a landscape of “world class” clinical care, research, and education and admit that the actual patient experience was lacking.

Morris: As you explain, UCLA Health System’s leaders have achieved excellence in four specific areas: growing while maintaining quality, inspiring innovation while generating cohesion, balancing technological advances with humanity, and achieving recognition and respect for extraordinary accomplishments. Here’s my question: Did that all this occur concurrently? If not, how? Please explain

Michelli:  I hadn’t thought about that issue until you asked.  My first reaction is to say that many of these trends had been percolating but the filter of Dr. Feinberg’s leadership has been to humanize all aspects of care delivery.  If you start with the premise that you are not in the “business of medicine” but in the “human caring business” and if you process all decisions with an awareness of their impact on current and future generations of people you will see a tectonic shift in the way work gets done.  In the end, I believe and UCLA demonstrates, doing the right thing for people leads to growth and innovation of your business.  Conversely, overly focusing on growth can often produce negative affects and limit your sustainability

Morris: However different Pike Place Fish Market, Starbucks, and Ritz-Carlton may be in most respects, are these not the same areas in which each has also excelled?

Michelli:  Absolutely, it’s not about fish, coffee, beds, or medical care (all of those products and services have to be operationally excellent) but they are table stakes.  The companies I write about excel in the way they care about their people and how they inspire them to care about those they serve.  My book contains stories of emotional engagement, empowerment, and a level of leadership that is more committed to long-term relationships than to short-term sales.  If the relationships are health the sales follow.

Morris: Throughout the book, you include several “Your Diagnostic Checkup” sets of questions. My own opinion is that they serve two purposes: To focus on key issues, and, to encourage the reader to interact with those issues. Is that a fair assessment.

Michelli:  Yes, it’s my effort to do an applied review of the content, to let the questions challenge readers to activate the information they recently experienced.

Morris: At one point, you observe that UCLA Health System “is among the most complicated organizations…at least three businesses in one: a world-class medical-care provider, an extraordinary medical training center, and a cutting-edge facility where the future of medicine is being created today.” Here’s my question: Of all the business lessons that small businesses such as family-owned local merchants can learn, which do you consider to be most valuable to their own pursuit of excellence?

Michelli:  I think it is fairly simple, don’t leave service to chance.  Talk about it all the time.  Never forget who pays the bills and refresh your people as to the positive impact they can and do have on the lives of their customers.  Champion service professionalism, hold people accountable to service excellence, and celebrate victories.

Morris: You also include dozens of human-interest stories. In your opinion, which of them offers the best illustration of “never enough care”?

Michelli:  Wow! That’s like picking which of my children is my favorite.  I don’t want to be trite with this answer but I honestly believe that all of the stories have a special place for me.  They are included in the book with the hope that different stories will resonate in important ways that inspire readers.  I am personally committed to the pain and suffering of children and those who serve to protect us.  In fact the proceeds of the book are going to Operation Mend which provides reconstructive surgery to wounded military men and women. That said, many of the Operation Mend stories are especially close to my heart. Morris: Please explain what you mean by “transformative evolution.”

Michelli:  I think you can incrementally evolve at such a slow pace that you are hardly making progress and in essence have not “transformed.”  You can”transform” through a status-quo jolting  “revolution” or you can evolve aggressively in a transformative way.  UCLA leadership chose the transformative evolution approach to change their customer experience.

Morris: Long ago, Thomas Edison observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” How specifically does UCLA Health System sustain continuous improvement of what is done at all levels and in all areas of its operations?

Michelli:  You don’t want me to get into their “dashboards” and performance improvement teams used at UCLA. You really. I could go on about them for hours.  Fortunately, much of that is in the book.  Suffice it to say, they measure, reward, challenge, and sustain focus on accountability for excellent execution against the visionary goals.  If leadership didn’t create this measurement infrastructure, the service transformation would be a blip on the radar or simply an hallucination.

Morris: Which lessons are embedded in Katherine Wolf’s story?

Michelli:  All of them.  Katherine’s story is the conclusion of the book and it illustrates each of the 5 principles the reader experienced in the book.

Morris: What do you make of the fact that UCLA Health System, a [begin italics] state [end italics] institution, has probably set “the gold standard” for a “world-class customer experience” in health care?

Michelli:  To all employees of  government institutions that has suffered a “less than” syndrome when comparing themselves to the private sector, I offer a toast to UCLA.  I don’t care if it is a government agency, an NGO, a for-profit, or a Fortune 500 company, people binding together for a noble cause in the service of others (particularly when they are adhering to standards of excellence) can do amazing things!

Morris: Here’s a question I simply must ask: If a film were made of Prescription for Excellence, whom would you cast in the role of Dr. David Feinberg? Why?

Michelli:  I will call Dr. Feinberg and let him know that I was asked this question and tell him my answer, so this better be good.  It has to be someone who conveys warmth, authenticity, and great compassion with a twist of playfulness.  Yikes, lets go with Tom Cruise – assuming his personal views of medication would allow him to take the role.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Michelli:  Maybe where do I go next.  Please, look for a book to be released in October about Tony Hseih and the great leaders at Zappos.  The book is titled The Zappos Experience: 5 Principles to Inspire, Engage and WOW!

Before I go Robert please accept my heartfelt thanks.  In a world of sound bites and purported reviewers who only skim books, you are the “real deal” and one of the kindest people I know.  Your passion for sharing knowledge is an inspiration to me.

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Joseph Michelli cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites.



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