Welcome to Uncommon Leadership.
I’m Michael Hunter, with Uncommon Teams.
Today I’m talking with Melissa Boggs.
Melissa is a keynote speaker, leadership coach, and employee experience designer.
She is host of the Wild Hearts at Work podcast, a roller skater, and an ardent defender of the Oxford comma. Which is awesome.
Melissa Boggs 0:29
Thank you, Michael. Thank you for having me.
Glad to have you here.
In your journey to seeing people as people and learning to leverage the unique gifts that they each bring, when did you first recognize this might be a valuable approach?
You know what’s funny, is I recognized this was a valuable approach when it was being applied to me, and by that, I mean as an employee.
I was very fortunate that my very first grownup job, if you will, when I was 20 years old, was at a company that was so far ahead of their time, in terms of employee experience.
Our founder and CEO was personal friends with Verne Harnish and Patrick Lencioni.
Everything about our company was about centering the experience of the human, whether that human be the employee that works there, the team member, or the customers that we served.
I honestly, from a work perspective, never knew any other way.
There’s this funny joke with those of us who worked at the scooters store.
I was there for 12 years. I was in my early- to mid-thirties before I went on to a different job.
Many of us had multiple jobs after that company because we didn’t know that not every company was going to have that kind of culture.
We would go to a company and realize that they weren’t seeing us as people, they were seeing us as numbers. They weren’t valuing our unique gifts.
Then we would job hop and go to the next job.
A few years after several of us left, we were like, “Oh, this is why.”
Because we didn’t realize that we had something special.
But we really did.
That set me up for the rest of my career.
I went on to become the leader that I was and the employee that I was because of that being my very first formative work experience.
Was there a moment post that workplace that really stands out as, this was the moment where you realized how awesome that job was?
There were little moments.
I can’t put my finger on them because it has been a while now.
I couldn’t put my finger on one huge, if I had been there, this wouldn’t have happened.
At that company, everyone knew the mission. I could still recite it to you right now.
Everyone knew what our core ideologies were. I could still recite them to you right now.
I do remember going to other organizations and realizing, their mission is a piece of paper on the wall. People don’t base their entire work life around that mission, like we did. People don’t know what the core values are, if they even have them.
That’s a big part of the work that I do with leaders now, and even with individuals.
One of the first things I’ll ask someone is, “Have you spent time understanding what your core values are?” Or with leaders, understanding what the organization’s core values are?
So, I don’t know that there was one huge moment.
There were definitely things that I missed when I went elsewhere.
I started to focus on, how do I find a place that is similar to that? How do I enable that, as a leader myself? And then ultimately now as a consultant and a speaker, to help people see the importance of that.
What did that first company do that embedded a mission and their values so deeply that you still remember, all these years later?
They were everywhere.
I cannot stress it enough.
Our mission and our core ideologies were embedded in everything that we did.
We had a one-week we called “the NEO”, new employee orientation, that was largely focused around the values.
We recited the mission every day in that first week.
Which sounds very cultish, but it wasn’t.
Our performance reviews were centered around the mission and the values.
Our yearly awards.
Actually, more than that.
We had yearly awards. Those were a big formal dinner.
But we also had quarterly awards around the values where…it was really cute. It was in the last couple of years that we were there.
If you were a core ideology quarterly winner, then you would get a bracelet. They were like little rubber bracelets like the Lance Armstrong ones. There were different colors for each value, and it had the value on it.
You would go through the quarter with your bracelets on and people would know that you were a nominee or award winner.
It was everywhere.
They embedded it into everything that we did in a very real operational way.
There was a lot of pride in it, too.
We embedded it because they did.
I’m actually part of a Facebook group of alumni from that company.
Two or three weeks ago, someone came on to the Facebook group—it’s not super active, but it’s still there—and said, “Hey, I was trying to tell my boss the six core ideologies, and I could only remember four of them. Does anyone remember?” Within ten minutes, twenty people had responded. Some of them with pictures of the posters that used to sit on our desks that they still had. They still had the poster.
There was such an emotional attachment that we had to the company and to those mission and values.
This was a medical company. We supplied motorized scooters for people with limited mobility. There was a real sense of purpose in that. I actually, my grandfather, who has since passed away, but when I worked there, my company helped my grandfather get a powered wheelchair. It literally allowed my grandfather to go to the restroom by himself. It restored dignity to him. Allowed my aunt, who lived in the same city as him, to not have to go over there every other hour to help him with things like that. She still went to help him.
There’s a lot of purpose in, what we’re doing isn’t just selling stuff.
That was the other thing that that leadership team was really good at: connecting that mission to what every single person did.
I had so many jobs at that company just because it was twelve years and I was growing up. I was in everything from sales to training to IT. Even when I was in IT, everyone in that team understood how what we did supported our mobility people who supported the customers.
There was a direct line to how we supported the mission.
I don’t think that’s common.
It is really important.
What size company was this?
At our biggest, we around 2100 employees nationally. We were based in a tiny town in Texas. Well, it used to be tiny. Then we had distribution centers all over the country. So, I think there in the office, maybe 1400. Then our different folks who delivered our equipment were all over the country.
That’s definitely big enough that this didn’t happen just by accident, where because there were twenty people that all knew all the things.
Yep, I hear that a lot. “Oh, yeah, that’s easy when you’re in a little startup.”
When I joined, it was smaller than that.
But by the time we got to our biggest, it was no longer that.
But that was the thing, too, is that because they did start that type of culture building when we were a smaller company, as we grew, all of us who had been there were culture champions. We were doing the work of culture just as much as the executive team was. And it just propagated itself, which was pretty incredible.
If I’m in a company that is not like that, and I want to take a first step towards getting there, how do you suggest I start?
For me, the number one propagator, I’ll use that word again, of culture is storytelling.
Storytelling can be seen as this ad hoc thing that you do when you have a chance.
I have a talk on this, where I talk about the power of storytelling and cultural change.
One of the things that I always tell people is, you have to build channels for storytelling.
That’s going to depend on what type of company you are.
I’ve had success with a couple of different companies that use Slack of starting a storytelling channel.
Saying, “This is the channel where you tell the stories of the people around you who are embodying the values of our company, or showing up as, this is what it looks like to work here.”
But it could be like, I think about like a childcare center. You could have a bulletin board, where people can write down the stories that they’ve seen.
The number one easiest and almost free thing that you can do is find a way to create storytelling channels in your organization.
Especially in remote companies where that doesn’t easily get propagated through the water cooler, like it does in a company that has that water cooler.
These stories are celebrating whatever the thing is that you want to start propagating?
But I always tell people, don’t just tell the pretty stories.
Because culture isn’t about everything being rainbows and unicorns all the time.
I have a really good friend who always talks about “the crunchy bits of culture.”
The parts that, you came out on the other side of it, but it was not easy, like that really difficult conflict conversation.
I always encourage people, don’t get on and use this as a place to vent about everything that’s wrong with the company. That’s also not what we’re looking for.
But if you had a difficult conversation yesterday, and at the end, you were able to shake hands, and by doing so, you embodied your company’s culture of courage, then go on and tell that story.
Obviously, omitting details that would embarrass anyone.
It does two things.
One, it shows everyone that they’re not alone.
You might be reading that and going, “I really need to have this difficult conversation. But I don’t think I can. But, oh, Melissa did it.”
It’s almost subconscious.
“If Melissa did it, maybe I can do it too.”
Number two is, it encourages other people to tell their stories.
If you posted a story about how your team had a really difficult time in their last sprint, but you came together and swarmed on something, it might cause me to go, “Wow, we had a similar situation, and I really should tell that story too. Michael told that story, and he got a lot of support when he told it, so maybe it’s okay for me to tell mine too.”
It’s not just celebrating things that everyone says, “Well, yes, of course, we celebrate.” It’s celebrating all the things that move in the direction that we’re trying to direct things.
It’s also really powerful when the leader, the top leader, quote unquote, is willing to go in there and tell their own story.
There was a time when I was at Scrum Alliance as the chief scrum master, the co-CEO, that I had something that I had been really struggling with.
In fact it’s probably worthy sharing, but I wanted, every leader has had this in some degree: I wanted them to like me so much, that I was more concerned about being liked than being respected.
That meant that I was avoiding some conflicts that I needed to deal with.
This was early on in my tenure there.
I finally came on and said, “Hey, this is my story. And this is where I have been operating from. I hope that I have your support to actually embody our values of courage and do the things that need to be done.”
These weren’t big things.
It wasn’t like I was talking about some big thing.
But I was owning my humaneness and showing them that I was a people, too.
I got a lot of, I did get support for that.
Then people understood that what I’m doing is for the best of the company.
After I told that story, I definitely saw others come through after and tell their own stories that were somewhat similar.
Going first for leaders in a situation like that is also really helpful.
It shows how, so often as leaders, we’re afraid that if we show our vulnerability, and our human side, that people aren’t going to respect us anymore. Where the opposite actually tends to be true. That the more we show up as who we really are, and are open and honest about what we are going through, everyone else realizes, “Oh, I really respect Melissa for telling us what is really going on underneath that CEO veneer, and that maybe means that I can do this too.”
Brene Brown’s book, Dare to Lead. She talks about exactly that.
I love what she says, because she also talks about not using your team as therapy.
There’s definitely a balance.
There is such a thing as oversharing.
They are looking to you for confidence to some degree.
So, being able to say, “Here’s what’s going on, I’m nervous too. But I also have faith in us as a team.”
Hopefully you mean that.
“We can figure it out.”
I was there when COVID hit, and I didn’t have any answers at all.
I just kept telling them, “We don’t have the answers right now. I will give you as much information as I have at any given point in time.”
I wasn’t sitting there having the same conversation I was with my sister, with whom I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m terrified.”
But I was letting them know, “It’s okay to be scared. I’m definitely scared. But we’re going to work through this, we’re gonna make it, one way or another.”
There’s definitely a balance.
I couldn’t give you an exact quote, but I really appreciate how Brene talks about that in her book, because it’s a good reminder that you don’t have to unleash everything on the people that are looking to you for at least some level of competence.
Not all the answers.
As you’re working with companies to make this sort of a transformation, what do you find is the biggest blockers, keeping them from doing that?
Can you reframe your question a little bit?
What do you find most prevents them from being able to make the transformation into telling the stories that represent people doing the values and encouraging that behavior top to bottom?
The answer to any question—I’m probably being hyperbolic.
I feel like the answer to any question that starts with “What’s the barrier?” the answer is always “Fear.”
That fear shows up in many different forms, depending on the situation.
When it comes to storytelling, there is obviously a fear of vulnerability.
There’s also a fear of bragging, or being self-centered somehow, like we’ve been conditioned as we grew up, not to talk about ourselves.
There’s a fear of looking arrogant, if you told the story in which you might look good, heaven forbid.
Which is why, sometimes, it’s helpful to get people to tell, not tell other people’s stories, but tell their observations of other people doing amazing things, just to get the ball rolling.
There’s all of these fears that are always the barriers.
In that particular instance about storytelling, there’s not, in most instances, there’s no regulatory problem or legal problem. Unless someone’s going to tell some inside HR thing. Which still wouldn’t align with what we’re trying to do there.
More often than not, people are just afraid of what other people think.
How do you help people get past that fear?
I have teenagers. So, I’m still trying to figure that out completely.
One of the things that I have found useful is asking people, let’s use this as an example that I have someone who has a story to tell, but they’re afraid to tell it on the channel. Let’s say that the channel’s been going. This isn’t the first story.
They think, “Oh, people are gonna judge me.”
I’ll ask them, “Well, how much were you judging Jamie last week, when Jamie posted their story?”
“Well, not at all. I wasn’t judging them at all.”
So why would you think that people will judge you? When you’re not judging?
Why wouldn’t you offer yourself the same grace that you’re offering to other people?
The other one I always tell people, and this is actually a result of my own experience.
I’m a roller skater.
When I first got back to roller skating, I used to feel so self-conscious, about how I looked as I skated.
Then someone said to me, probably six months into it, something similar. “When was the last time that you were watching other people while you skated?”
And I was like, “Oh. Not super often.”
Certainly, I wasn’t judging anyone. If I was watching someone else, it was because I admired them.
It hit me.
Now I tell myself this from time to time, if I do start to get in my head, I’m like, “Sweetheart, no one’s looking at you. Literally no one’s looking at you. They’re just trying to stay on their own feet.”
It’s something similar, if you’re afraid to tell your story, from a judgmental perspective.
No one is sitting there waiting for an opportunity to judge you.
No one is sitting there waiting to rake you across the coals.
If what you are doing and telling is in good faith and, obviously, for the joy of the company.
Well, let’s go off in a totally different direction now. Since you brought up roller skating, there’s parallels from anything that anything. So, what have you found in roller skating that helps you be a better coach and leader?
Oh, my goodness. You just hit on my favorite topic of all time.
I don’t remember if we discussed this or not, probably not. I am actually developing a talk right now that encompasses all of that.
There are a couple things.
First, there’s this journey that we all go on, when we’re trying something new. Whether that new thing is roller skating or even being a leader.
This is kind of a new concept. So I’m trying it out with you, Michael.
That journey is from cautious to curious.
We have to be willing to open ourselves up just enough to be curious.
We don’t have to be jumping in with both feet yet.
Sometimes, courageous is where you sit.
In your position at your job, you can still be very courageous without throwing everything to the wind.
And then to audacious.
My journey in skating has very much been that way.
There are different things that you have to do in both parallels, leadership and roller skating.
One of them is consistency.
Knowing what it is that you need to maintain balance and then maintaining that.
I skate three times a week unless I’m traveling.
I show up.
Sometimes it’s a good night, and sometimes it’s not.
But that keeps me maintaining momentum, pun intended.
That’s also how you build community.
One thing you’ll find in any kind of hobby or in building trust with employees, is you have to consistently show up.
No matter how, again, whether it’s a bad night or good night.
Consistently showing up allows people to trust that you’re going to be there.
The first probably nine months that I skated, I hadn’t really built community yet.
I don’t think it’s a conscious thing.
But people don’t really notice you until you have shown up consistently for some amount of time.
Then they’re like, “Oh, you’re gonna be there. Oh, you’re going to stay.”
Even for leaders, especially in companies that have seen a lot of turnover in leadership, don’t expect me to trust you until you’ve been here for a while.
Because if I’m an employee, and I’ve seen three VPs or whatever come through, show up for me first, and then I’m going to trust you.
Another one of my favorite ones is that, in order to navigate at the roller rink, you have to be willing to take up space.
Your own space.
Not other people’s space.
Your own space.
It’s hard to show it here.
Imagine that you’re roller skating and you were keeping your arms in, or your arms crossed, and keeping yourself in a narrow, tight position.
Then, one, people don’t know what to expect from you because you’re not taking up the normal amount of space.
And you’re just simply, from a scientific perspective, off balance.
You are going to be knocked over more easily when you are holding yourself in because you’re afraid of getting knocked over.
It’s very counterintuitive.
It’s the same thing with leadership.
You have to know who you are as a leader.
You have to have a sense of what your values are as a leader.
You have to maintain those in spite of crisis. In spite of difficulty or being pushed back.
When you do that, people know what to expect from you.
They can make a choice whether that’s the type of leadership that they want to be with or not.
If you’re at the rink, someone that you want to skate around or not.
But when you are constantly blown by the winds of change, if you will, then no one knows what to expect. That makes it really difficult to lead and to roller skate.
It shows that, holding your space and respecting someone else’s space doesn’t mean, your arm isn’t going out in front of their chest as you and they are doing wild gyrations, because you’re speed skating down, or whatever. It means you’re doing that sort of as a dance with each other. That is, not that you’re knocking them in the face. That you’re aware of where they are. You understand where you can throw your hand so that you keep your balance and your momentum without blocking or slowing them down. They’re keeping their momentum and space.
That’s a perfect analogy and I will even take it one step further.
I also do partner skating. That is somewhat similar to swing dancing on skates.
That is a skill that you have to learn, because like you just said, you have to be aware of your own space and aware of the other person’s space. In leadership, your own boundaries and the boundaries of the people around you.
It is a beautiful dance when both people can be present and open in their own space and twirl around each other, if you will. Showing up in their skills in the workplace. It’s pretty incredible.
It’s amazing, and so beautiful, when people are doing that.
Not even with skill, necessarily, but with intention.
Someone who, this is their first time ever, on the rink or attempting this sort of partner thing. Or the first time leading a team.
As long as they’re coming out with intention.
All of their actions can be super rough and it’s still so beautiful.
This has been a great conversation today, Melissa. What else should I ask you?
What else should you ask me…. Ask me….
I’m literally blanking. I was so ready for this. And now I’d like to….
Ask me what my favorite animal is. I have a good answer for this.
What’s your favorite animal?
I have long identified with the hummingbird.
I actually can’t even see on this thing but it’s on my necklace.
What I love about the hummingbird, first of all, everyone used to joke because I used to eat a ton of candy.
I think I’ve gotten better with my age, but one of my friends once said I flit around everywhere and I also subsist on sugar.
So that’s where it started.
But the more that I learned about how the hummingbird exists in the world.
First of all, the way that their actual skeletal structure is designed is literally to be agile, to be nimble.
I use that analogy a lot when I’m talking with Agile audiences about the intention of design in organizational structures. You have to know what you are optimizing for. You have to know what the organization needs in order to figure out the best structure for that.
The hummingbird is also fast.
It’s funny because someone once said to me, I guess they are pretty territorial. What does that mean for me, because I am someone who really doesn’t actually believe in ownership of other people or hierarchical structures, things like that.
I resonate with it, because I can also be very protective when people are living up to their values and those values are being crossed. I’m still there. I’m still there with the hummingbird. I can be protective or territorial in that way, if I feel like there’s injustice in people being challenged on their values.
So there you go.
Nice. That’s lovely.
What is the best way for people to connect with you if they’d like to learn more? Find out about your upcoming talks. Or talk roller skating.
I always want to talk rollerskating—I have a funny shirt. I’m gonna answer your question. The funniest shirt that says, “introverted but willing to talk about roller skating.”
I’ll link to those in the show notes.
What would you like to leave our audience with today?
Every audience I want to leave with two words that are my new challenge to myself.
That is to be audacious.
That can mean all sorts of things.
Audacity has different forms depending on where you are and what it is that you want to accomplish.
In one little way in your life, however it is, have the audacity to do something.
What are you being audacious about right now?
Honestly, the talk that I mentioned, the roller skating-centered talk, is by far the most audacious thing I have ever attempted. It will literally include not just me talking about my roller skating journey and the leader lessons that come from it, but delivering it on roller skates with choreography. It’s the most ambitious, audacious thing I have ever done in my life. So yeah, it’s a big one.
Sounds amazing. Definitely audacious. I can’t wait to see it.
Thank you, Melissa.
And thank you, audience. Please let us know: what are you being audacious about today? And what’s keeping you from doing that?
Melissa and I want to know.
Yes, we do.
Have a great day.
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