Work and Life Interview About Connection Culture

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Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking on Work and Life, 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. Below is a transcript of our conversation. 

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: It 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.

Read the rest of the interview on the Work and Life website

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