Michael Lee Stallard: An interview by Bob Morris

Michael Lee Stallard

Stallard is the president of the consulting firm E Pluribus Partners. Formerly, he was an investment banker who later in his career became the chief marketing officer for businesses at Morgan Stanley and Charles Schwab. He is the primary author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity, and Productivity. Stallard has spoken at conferences sponsored by The World Presidents Organization, Fortune Magazine, and the Corporate Executive Board, among others. His work has been featured in various media including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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Morris: According to research conducted by The Gallup Organization, only 25% of employees are engaged in their jobs, 55% of them are just going through the motions, and 20% of them are working against their employers’ interests. What’s going on?

Stallard: Even though most leaders know better, they behave as if all that employees need in order to be engaged is to be compensated fairly and given the proper tools to do their work. This mindset ignores reality. Research has shown that emotional factors, such as how people feel about their co-workers and the company, are on average four times as effective when it comes to engaging employees versus rational factors such as compensation and job titles.

In our multi-year study of employee engagement and what brings out the best in people and organizations, we identified six universal human needs that people look to have met in the workplace: respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning. These needs are both rational and emotional in nature. When these needs are being met, we thrive. The problems begin when they are not being met.

In the modern workplace we operate at a very fast rhythm that makes us less sensitive to the people around us. It’s all about the bottom line. As a result, people tend to treat each other like human doings rather than human beings. It is interesting to note that in this high speed and high-pressure environment, brain activity actually shifts from the prefrontal cortex, the more humanly sensitive part of the brain, to the more primitive and less humanly sensitive part. Also, this environment produces such high levels of certain hormones in our bodies that they effectively become toxins. In a very real way, the modern workplace is toxic to most people and has a negative effect on their mental and physical health. It leaves them physically and emotionally exhausted, bored, depressed, less creative and/or less productive.

There is such a focus on task performance that there is little time or attention given to the “soft stuff” such as how employees relate to one another. What we found is that task excellence plus relationship excellence is the formula for sustained superior performance. In our work, we have identified the social, political and economic factors in the work environment that meet the six human needs above. We describe this environment that makes people individually and collectively thrive as a “Connection Culture.” Connection can be a real source of competitive advantage. Organizations with such a culture have employees who are more engaged, more creative, more cooperative and less likely to leave the organization.

Morris: Competition for talent has never been greater than it is today. One of the greatest challenges organizations now face is retention of valued employees. Any advice?

Stallard:  The competition for talent is going to get even greater in the years ahead as more baby boomers decide to work less and eventually retire.  Already, companies such as Google are reducing their growth forecasts because of the talent shortage.  The oil and gas industry expects half of its labor force to retire in the next five years.

The star systems in most of today’s organizations are on steroids and they are making organizations sick. It’s a matter of balance.  Over-focusing on star employees at the expense of the majority who make up the core is one reason why so many individuals are disengaged at work today.  That was the problem with the Chicago Bull’s basketball team back in the 1980s until Coach Phil Jackson persuaded Michael Jordan to stop acting like a star and start connecting with his teammates.  Jordan, to his credit, stopped traveling with his entourage and started investing the time to get to know and mentor many of his teammates.  The Bulls were transformed from Michael Jordan and his backups to a  “band of brothers”, as Shakespeare wrote of King Henry V and his brave soldiers in “Henry V”.  The connection that developed among the Bulls team members was the primary factor that lifted the Bulls to play at the top of their game and become a basketball dynasty in the 1990s.

Leaders need to focus on the basics of creating and maintaining a Connection Culture for the benefit of all employees.  First, identify and communicate the organization’s “Inspiring Identity” so that employees are motivated by the mission, united by the values and proud of the organization’s reputation.  Second, nurture “Human Value” in the organization.  When this element is in place people understand the universal needs of human beings, they appreciate the positive, unique contributions of their colleagues, and they help their colleagues achieve their potential rather than compete with them.  Third, stimulate “Knowledge Flow” which occurs when everyone feels informed and their ideas and opinions are sought and considered.

Morris: In Organizing Genius, Warren Bennis and Patricia Biederman discuss a number of “great teams.” Those associated with the Manhattan Project, for example, and with Xerox PARC. In your opinion, why are there so few “great teams” in the business world? In fact, why do so many teams either fail or fall far short of their goals?

Stallard: Great teams are rare because Connection Cultures are rare, as are great leaders and great members of organizations.  They are interlinked.   Having learned this has given me a profound respect and admiration for great leaders, great members of organizations, and leaders and members who are working hard to become great.

In our work with organizations, we describe these key individuals who make Connection Cultures happen as “Servant Leaders” and “Committed Members.” Servant Leaders are motivated to achieve the organization’s mission and to help employees achieve their potential.  They create Connection Cultures that have Inspiring Identities, Human Value and Knowledge Flow.  Committed Members also bring about Connection Cultures by knowing their responsibilities and striving to meet them.   

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what can organizations do to establish and then nourish a culture of collaborative creativity?

Stallard:  First, organizations must educate every member so that they understand what a Connection Culture is as well as the values that produce it.  Second, organizations need to keep these values that create connection in front of everyone in the organizations.  Here’s an example.  While I was writing Fired Up or Burned Out my family spent a few days at the The Ritz Carlton in Key Biscayne, Florida.  The Ritz Carlton is noted for its excellent customer service.  I sat down with the property manager to talk about some of the organization’s best practices. I learned that each week he makes a point of citing an example of an employee or group of employees who lived out the Ritz Carlton values during the previous week.  Sharing stories that reinforce these values is essential. Third, organizations must measure employee engagement or connection.  Finally, the values that promote connection must be factored into hiring, compensating, promoting and firing individuals.  They must also be considered in the rest of the organization’s processes.  In our work with organizations, we help leaders create and maintain a system that increases connection among their team members and, as a result, boosts productivity, innovation, and employee retention.

Morris: The subtitle, How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity, and Productivity, suggests that a “fire” of some kind has gone out. What is it?

Stallard: Fire has traditionally been a religious symbol for the spirit.  The French term “esprit de corps” or “spirit of the body” gets at the same idea.  The spirit of a group falls somewhere along a continuum between being fired up and being burned out.  It’s also interesting to note that the word “corporation” is based on the Latin root word “corpus” meaning body.  Sadly, few organizations operate like a body whose members cooperate to a high degree and share a fired up spirit. 

Morris: Why has it gone out?

Stallard:  In some case the flame has gone entirely out.  In most, the flame has been reduced to a flicker.  A leader who creates a Connection Culture can restore the flame.  It all comes back to meeting human needs.  Today it’s even more important than in the past because more people derive their self identities from work than from family and community as they have historically done.

Morris: Again with regard to the book’s subtitle, are you and your co-authors referring to teams in general or to groups of people assigned to a specific project?

Stallard: The principles in Fired Up or Burned Out, a Connection Culture, apply to any group of people from a family or project team to a department or whole organization.  In general, the larger the group becomes, the more difficult it is to maintain connection.  Individuals can feel alone even in a crowd.  The culture of the group determines whether individuals feel included or become relationally and emotionally isolated.

Morris: As Bennis and Biederman explain, all great teams have great leaders such as the Manhattan Project’s General Leslie R. Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer as well as Xerox PARC’s George Pake. To what extent (if any) does a great team leader such as they differ from a great CEO?

Stallard: The type of actions a leader must take to increase connection among the group members depends on the size of the group.  Team leaders have fewer individuals to connect with so it’s easier for them to give attention to individual members by coaching them and personally encouraging them.  CEOs have more people they are responsible for leading and so signals sent by their words and deeds become the primary means to increase connection. Andrew Grove, the former CEO of Intel, refused an executive parking space and worked out of a cubicle like everyone else. When David Neeleman was CEO of Jet Blue airlines, he rode the planes one day each week, served passengers and got down on his hands and knees to clean planes alongside other crew members.  Paul Spiegelman, CEO of Beryl Corporation, is the type of leader who feels a sense of responsibility for Beryl employees and their families.  Beryl has a program called BerylCares that gathers information about significant events in the lives of employees. Paul can’t respond to every situation but he personally reaches out to connect with many employees in their times of need such as a sickness or the death of a loved one.  These actions send a powerful message that we’re all in this together, that, in a sense, we are a family.

Goodyear Tire was an investment banking client of mine and I witnessed CEO Stan Gault revive the spirit of employees when he agreed to join Goodyear after an illustrious career at GE and Rubbermaid.  To begin, Gault turned down a generous pay package and insisted that his performance be tied to the performance of the great people at Goodyear or he wouldn’t take the job. He communicated frequently with employees and he was very approachable.  Stories circulated throughout Goodyear about sightings of Stan Gault chasing down customers in Wal-Mart parking lots over the weekends to find out why they did or didn’t buy Goodyear tires. The employees loved his energy, passion and commitment and those of us on Wall Street did too.  It reminded me of historian David McCullough’s quote that oftentimes the outcome of great events in history has turned on the character of a single individual.  That is especially true with leaders.

Morris: A wealth of recent research suggests that, with rare exception, disconnected organizations are dysfunctional organizations. Your own thoughts about that?

Stallard:  I agree.  As I stated earlier, when the human needs for respect, recognition, belonging, personal growth, and meaning are met, people thrive and the organizations they are a part of thrive too.  When the needs are not met, people seek their fulfillment, oftentimes in illegitimate ways that contribute to organizational dysfunction. Unfulfilled employees often withhold cooperation from others they perceive as unjustly favored by the organization. A subset of unfulfilled employees will go so far as to act in ways that sabotage the organization.

Morris: It seems ironic, if not ludicrous, that despite having the Internet, e-mail, satellites, PDAs, and cell phones, many people feel out of touch. How do you explain that?

Stallard: We have an ever-increasing capability of gathering and imparting information yet it does not always equate with being in touch. The need for human connection is only partially fulfilled through electronic modes such as email and telephone conversations. In-person communication is still the best way for people to meet their need to connect with other human beings.  In-person you have the extra benefit of reading non-verbal cues as well as hearing the other person’s tone of voice.  A good rule of thumb to follow that my friend psychiatrist and author Dr. Edward Hallowell recommends is to strive to connect with another human being at least once every four hours.  Coffee and lunch breaks are ideal times to do this.   We recommend that leaders encourage people to take time during the workday to connect with their colleagues. Taking the time to connect will result in increased trust and cooperation in the corporate environment.  Our website FiredUpOrBurnedOut.com and the book contain a long list of ways to increase connection in the workplace.

Morris: In Part IV of your book, you and your co-authors examine an unusually diverse group of 20 leaders. They include the Marquis de Lafayette, Anne Mulcahy, Michael Jordan, George C. Marshall, Queen Elizabeth I, Prince Frederick I, and Warren Buffett. Although there are significant differences between and among them, what do they share in common?

Stallard: What I find astounding about this group of leaders is how they led in ways that enhanced human connection.  As a result, people were united to accomplish something great, whether it was George Washington uniting the militias of 13 bickering colonies to defeat the most powerful military power of his age, John Wooden uniting young basketball players at UCLA to win an astounding ten national championships and four perfect seasons, Frances Hesselbein uniting the Girls Scouts of America in a way that restored the organization’s vitality or Anne Mulcahy uniting employees of Xerox to bring about a turnaround that has been described as a miracle.  Each of these great leaders led their teams to accomplish great things because of the power of connection.

Morris: Near the end of your book, you suggest that the root cause of leaders who leave less desirable legacies can often be traced back to a failure of character.  How so?

Stallard:  Each of the elements in a Connection Culture has as its foundation a set of character values. For example, the element of Knowledge Flow is present in an organization when its members believe and behave in a way that is consistent with the character strengths of humility, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective and bravery. Knowledge Flow will be severely curtailed if an organization’s leader is arrogant, or uninterested and unwilling to consider the ideas and opinions of others. His failure of character, if you will, will impede the flow of information, negatively affecting decision-making.

When we studied the elements of a Connection Culture in terms of character strengths we found that they lined up with the 24 character strengths that psychologists in the Positive Psychology movement identified as character values that have been universally admired throughout history and have favored survival. Religious leaders and moral philosophers have been the primary teachers of these values in societies.

Character matters because it affects the degree of connection among group members and connection affects the productivity, innovation and adaptability of the group.  We call this the CharacteràConnectionàThrive Chain. 

Morris: Based on all that you have experienced and observed in your life thus far, including your career and research for the book, what is the single most important lesson that you have learned about passion, creativity, and productivity within but also beyond the business world?

Stallard: People thrive individually and collectively when they align their life’s work with their strengths and passions, and live by the character strengths celebrated by religious thinkers and moral philosophers throughout the ages.   Let me add, the only way to achieve this aspiration is by living in community with others who love, encourage and help us grow to that end.  No one can do it alone.   We are wired for connection.

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Michael Lee Stallard cordially invites tou to check out the resoyrces at these websites:






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