The Improv Is No Joke Podcast

Welcome to the Improv Is No Joke podcast hosted by Peter Margaritis, AKA The Accidental Accountant and author of the book 'Improve Is No Joke, Using Improvization to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life'. This podcast series is also available on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

Ep 42 – Rik Roberts: Provider of Clean Comedy, Keynotes and Laughter


Today I’m excited to share a conversation with the hilarious Rik Roberts, who provides clean comedy and creative keynote presentations.

Rik also provides excellent comedy education in the School of Laughs, which includes a hilarious podcast of the same name and comedy classes that will help anyone who wants to add more humor to their writing.

Before Rik transitioned to the corporate speaking world, he spent years on the road as a stand up comedian. On the road, he learned many of the basics of comedy writing that he applies in presentations, and teaches to others, today.

“An artist removes things so that you can see the beauty of the art, whereas a laborious person would just use everything to show you that they can do it.”

If you want to master the art of comedy, you have to understand the economy of words. Rik uses the metaphor of a sculpture to illustrate why this is so important: if you give a sculpture 30 pounds of clay, they will remove pieces of it until they reveal a piece of art. They don’t add anything but their perspective.

To communicate effectively, comedians have to cut out anything excess. This is a skill that will help with presenting in front of any group, too.

In stand up comedy, the speaker usually wants to keep moving at a good pace. Laughs Per Minute are important. However, that isn’t necessarily the case in other speaking engagements.

At corporate speaking events, or when speaking to other people in a professional environment, it’s important that the speaker isn’t just talking at the audience – the speaker needs to have a conversation with the audience and listen to what they say.

When you are speaking in a professional environment, you need to slow down and hear what you are saying, as if it is the first time you are saying it, because that’s how the audience is receiving it. If you speak too quickly, you may blow past the key takeaways without giving your audience the time they need to process.

It takes a lot of practice, but good speakers are comfortable with silences, when they speak in professional environments.

“Listening to hear, not just to respond, is really key.”

Having a conversation with your audience also helps when communicating with Millennials and the generation under them. The younger generations value experiences, so they don’t want to just sit there and listen. They want you to engage them.

Way back when, before Rik was even in stand up, he was an improvisational comedian, and he’s still teaching improv skills and using improv exercise to help his audiences. The basic elements of Improv – like trust, team building, and listening – are things that every company and every organization needs, and sometimes all they need is a facilitator to show them how to do it.

If you are interested in hiring Rik to perform comedy or deliver a creative keynote, you can find more information on

If you want to hone your own comedy writing skills, you can take Rik’s online comedy course at

While you’re there, check out his podcast! I was interviewed on episode 80, where we discussed how I fell in love with improv, how I was dubbed the “Accidental Accountant,” and a lot more.

Download this Episode MP3.



Click to download the full Transcript PDF.


Improv Is No Joke – Episode 41 – Rik Roberts


Peter Margaritis: Welcome to Improv is no Joke podcast, where it’s all about becoming a more effective communicator by embracing the principles of improvisation. I’m your host Peter Margaritis, the self-proclaimed chief edutainment officer of my business, The Accidental Accountant. My goal is to provide you with thought-provoking interviews with business leaders so you can become an effective improviser, which will lead to building stronger relationships with clients, customers, colleagues and even your family, so let’s start the show.


Peter: Welcome to episode 42 of Improv is no Joke podcast. Thank you very much for downloading this episode. Today’s guest is Rik Roberts, who is a clean comedian and does creative keynote speeches. Rik and I have a fun time discussing how the skills in performing stand-up and improv comedy has an application in today’s business world. With stand-up comedy, it teaches brevity. I saw a quote that said “Brevity is the soul of lingerie: it should be long enough to cover the important parts but short enough to make it interesting.” But brevity in stand-up is the writing of the joke. You want to eliminate unnecessary words that get in the way of a great joke. As Rik states, those who are artists can take 30 pounds of clay and chisel it down to a piece of art. That’s what the professional comedian does. The business application is in writing. In today’s fast-paced business world, we have to write emails, memos, and reports with the same concept that a comedian has in writing a joke. Get to the point and move on. People don’t have time to read a dissertation anymore. Stand up also teaches us to be better at public speaking and presentations. When a comedian delivers a punchline, they need to pause and have the mental interaction with the audience before moving on to the next joke. Same thing when doing a speech or presentation. You need to have a pause; you need to have that mental interaction with your audience. If not, all you’re doing is speaking at them and not to them or with them. When you’re speaking at them, your audience will revert to the conference prayer. I explain what the conference prayer is in the interview. When Rik was discussing how improv applies in today’s business world, he reinforced everything I’ve been saying and writing about. He referred to a client that hired him to work with his team, and the client described the group this way: they thought they were the best at everything; they were very competitive and would not listen to each other’s ideas. Rik went in and demonstrated through improv exercises that the team needs to trust each other for the success of the group. I came up with a new way of describing what improv can do for your company. I was the closing keynote at the White Castle general managers leadership conference this year. The theme of the conference was “it starts with me.” In thinking about their conference theme, and how to relate it to improv, I came up with this: “It starts with me, and it’s not about me; it’s about us.” That’s what Rik was demonstrating with his client. If you have been listening to my podcast for a while, you know one of my goals with his podcast is to help you begin to make changes in your work and personal lives so you can better connect with others and create meaningful relationships. Many people have said it takes 21 days to start a habit, which I learned is incorrect from Dr. John B Molitor, PhD. John is a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University. He said that the research shows that it takes 66 days to create a habit. So now we gotta put in some extra work to create that muscle memory. That’s why I created the Yes, And challenge: to help keep these principles in front of you so you can build up your improvisational muscle. To sign up, please go to and scroll down to the Yes, And challenge call to action and click to register to begin building the productive habit of Yes, And and the principles of improvisation. And remember to show your experiences on twitter using the hashtag #yesandchallenge. If you’re unsure of what the Yes, And challenge is all about, I discuss this in detail in episode 0. Go back and take a listen. Remember you can subscribe to my podcast on itunes, stitcher, and google play. If you’d like to purchase an autographed copy of my book Improv is no Joke: Using Improvisation to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life, for $14.99 with free shipping, please go to my website,, and you’ll see the graphic on the homepage to purchase my book. Please allow 14 days for shipping. With that said, let’s get to the interview with Rik Roberts.


Peter: Hey, welcome everybody. I am with a friend of mine, Rik Roberts, and I just want Rik to know (because I can’t see him and he can’t see me through skype), but I know Rik is a big UK basketball / football aficionado and I’m wearing my UK hoodie today in honor of having Rik as my guest. So Rik, thank you so very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to spend some time with me on my podcast.

Rik: Excellent, and I’m actually wearing my UK sweatshirt inside out and turned backwards until we break this two-game losing streak.

Peter: Good point. Maybe I should do the same thing. They’re on tonight. I believe it’s at nine o’clock eastern time against Georgia, and it’s Musburger’s last game so… yeah, I will turn mine inside out once we’re done with this podcast.

Rik: At least we can celebrate its musburger’s last game.

Peter: Exactly. We have something to look forward to. Rik, can you give everybody a little bit of your background? They can go out on the internets, or whatever they call it these days, but I think you could do your background better justice than LinkedIn.

Rik: Yeah, I started a comedy about a year after I got out of college. Graduated in 1990 from a small school called Bethany College north of Wheeling, near Oglebay Park, in West Virginia. I moved to Columbus Ohio, worked a couple of jobs, Simon & Schuster was the longest job ahead and it was the last job I had before I started stand-up, and you know… joined an improv troupe. I didn’t have a big overhead back in those days. I think if I earned 450 a month I covered all my bills, including splitting rent with two other comedians and my car payments and all that stuff. And so I did improv exclusively for about six or seven years. I would do stand up a little bit on the side when things were slow at improv, but didn’t really start focusing on the stand up until probably ‘96 or so, and ever since then it’s been comedy pedal to the metal all the way. Full-time entertainer since 1991.

Peter: And that’s the condensed version. Here I have a few other pieces to that. One, he bills himself as a clean comedian, so let’s get that first and foremost. A lot of people think that could be an oxymoron, but you proved that it’s completely not an oxymoron. And you’re a creative keynote presenter. Now you said you did stand up in Columbus way back when in the mid-90s or so, and that’s where we met many years ago when I was doing open mics, and I think you were getting paid or you were the feature on those nights. You’ve turned your open mic into a wonderful career and you’ve got an online comedy writing course… you’re the one who probably helped push me over the “you need to start a podcast,” because it was almost two years ago, and I believe it was in DC, when you interviewed me for your podcast and I had no real clue about what a podcast was. And your podcast is School of Laughs, and you can find your podcast on iTunes. He has 135 episodes in the can already out, with 91 reviews and 89 five-star ratings. I mean, come on. He’s kicking it. And you don’t have to be a comedian to listen to your podcast. If you want to get funnier, and I think we all do whether you’re a speaker, a teacher a politician. We can all get funnier and I listen to your podcast a lot. I’ve also taken your online writing horse, and it is very very beneficial, both of them. And you’ve got how many albums out there Rik?

Rik: Nine.

Peter: [laughs] He’s a professional by far.

Rik: Well thank you man. I appreciate that, and the podcast, as you know, takes a lot of time and a lot of focus, but I’ve had fun doing it. We’re a little over 135-36 episodes, like you said, and this year, though, I did scale it back at the first of the year to every other week so I could write. I’m writing three books about comedy that I’ve been wanting to get out for years, and so I’m using the off week in between the podcast weeks to get that together.

Peter: Oh great! So what is your first book that you anticipate coming out?

Rik: It’s hard to say because it’s my first book and I’m sure there’s gonna be a lot of snags. I would love to have it out before the fall, but we’ll see. Right now I’ve got this and taxes are going to take up a big chunk of time, and then who knows what else, but at every monday and tuesday I’m spending a good four or five hours on the book right now.

Peter: That’s good motivation for myself because I need to start my next book, and my plan was to start it on February 1st… and that’s tomorrow.

Rik: It is.

Peter: I was going to start at least drafting the outline and moving forward on that so… I congratulate you on taking that adventure, as it may be. It’s like building a house. You’ve got a due date, but you never make it. But I also look forward to reading your book. You’ve done so many things over your career – oh, I did forget. Now some of the audience may be too young to know this, but if you’ve ever watched The Andy Griffith Show… who was the deputy? What was that guy’s name?

Rik: Bernard P5 Deputy, Mayberry County Sheriff.

Peter: [laughs] So, if you hadn’t guessed by now Rik, also can do an outstanding, 100% nail it Barney Fife, on radio and live and in person.

Rik: Hey, thank you.

Peter: [laughs] So thinking about your time in comedy your time in improv… we reconnected about four or five years ago at the National Speakers Association Annual Conference in Philadelphia. What did stand-up teach you about public speaking? How did it help you move your career from comedy clubs into corporate America?

Rik: Well, when I was into my 20s I worked at the comedy clubs all the time until I had an hour of clean stand up. And at that point, I noticed a lot of comedy clubs were booking me in December to kind of facilitate all the corporate groups that were coming to the club to have their Christmas parties. And they were charging those corporate groups pretty big dollars to come in, and I wasn’t seeing much of that, and a comedian friend of mine said “you just need to not book anything in December, unless you book at yourself directly with these corporate groups,” and I found that I enjoyed it. They treated me better than comedy clubs would treat me, they put me in better hotels, they paid a deposit. All these great things that you don’t have when you’re doing comedy clubs. And then when I got married I thought, you know, I’ll see if I can extend doing corporate speaking and comedy throughout the entire year. I left two weeks a month open to see if I could pursue corporate work, and pretty soon I realize I can. Then after we had our first kid 11 years ago I just said, hey, it’s going to be entertaining corporate groups only. Maybe a comedy club once or twice a year, if it’s close to some family or some friends, but besides that I just take the comedy to where the people need it – and that’s corporate speaking. They don’t have too many options when it comes to a clean performer.

Peter: No they don’t, and the one thing about doing corporate events: the checks usually bigger, and it clears.

Rik: Yeah, and it’s got a name on, and that name is still alive the next week when you try to cash it.

Peter: [laughs] Yeah, and I take my hat off to you spending all those years in comedy clubs, schlepping across the U.S., and honing your act. It takes a very dedicated and deliberate individual to be able to do that, and unfortunately I was not that deliberate, even though I still have the love for it; even though I still like to write. I think I’ve been able to blend my humor into the stories that I deliver and what I do, but I can’t tell you how many times I still have that urge and I still want to go back into a comedy club. And I do every now and then up here in Columbus, and unfortunately I haven’t seen you perform comedy live in a number of years, and every time lately… because you were here in Columbus, in December, to do the charity event that Dino Tripods and Dan Swartwout were part of, and I just missed you by the day.

Rik: Yeah, it was just unfortunate. To liken it back to the UK conversation we were having a minute ago: doing the comedy clubs was like going through all four years of college, and you get an education and you get that experience level from having faced every type of audience and tough crowd. Then, when you move into corporate… I wouldn’t say it’s actually much easier, but you’re way more focused you can handle. The toughest corporate crowd ever isn’t going to be scratching the surface of a wild night at a comedy club.

Peter: [laughs]

Rik: So just like UK’s freshmen this year are very talented, they’re all gonna play in the NBA but they’re not NBA players now, and I hate when they say “Hey, they’ve got five NBA players on their team.” No, they have five freshmen who are trying to figure it out, and the comedy club was kind of like college for me. Comedy College: just go out there and experience it, and take those lessons to the corporate speaking world.

Peter: If you remember when you first started out doing comedy, what was the hardest thing about being that open mic’er and getting up there and trying to entertain a crowd? What was the biggest hurdle that you had to overcome?

Rik: Well the biggest thing, and I laugh about it now, is that, at least seven or eight years into it, I really didn’t know why people laughed at some jokes and didn’t laugh at the others. It wasn’t until I moved from Columbus to down here in Nashville, Tennessee, that I found out. Because the guy that ran a comedy club asked me to teach a comedy class and I said “man. I wish I could… I wish I could take a comedy class! I’m not sure why my jokes hit some nights and don’t the others,” and he challenged me said, “Why don’t you look at your show, write out your jokes word for word, and figure out why they get a laugh or why they don’t?” And that was kind of the beginnings of this comedy course that I teach now. I isolated about seventeen techniques that, if my punchlines had one of those techniques in there, it was a joke and it should get a laugh. If it had two or three of those techniques, it almost was guaranteed to get a laugh (as long as the setup and premise was really clear). So early on I literally would just keep doing jokes that people laughed at, even though I didn’t like the joke sometimes or I didn’t understand why they were laughing, and then the jokes didn’t work I would just try to keep beefing him up and figure out a way to tell them. Or the trickiest thing, I guess, was that I had some jokes that destroyed on some nights and did nothing other nights, and I could not find out why they were inconsistent. And looking back now I know that those jokes had zero techniques in them. It was all based on attitude or sarcasm, and sometimes the crowd’s with you and sometimes they’re not.

Peter: Interesting, and would you also say that one of the first things you learned about doing a stand-up comedy, as you start moving up the ranks, is LPM, laughs per minute?

Rik: Yeah. You know, having a high laughs per minute… a professional comic’s gonna have a minimum of six to upwards of ten, sometimes more or less per minute depending on how they tell their jokes, and when you are new and you don’t have that you really stick out in a club. They think you’re kind of funny, but I’m not sure if you have what it takes. Then, as you get stronger and you write more material, you start cutting out what you don’t need. So I think one of the things is that, when people start comedy, they have to fill five minutes. So they kind of belabor the point or stall the punchline, and once you get to the feature spot you’re doing 30 minutes at a club and you’re still not in a big hurry to get through your material, because you want to make sure you have enough to finish the show. If they bump you up to the headliner, now you’re doing an hour… but it’s got to be a higher laughs per minute than what the crowd has seen before. So every comedian out there, who has gone through all the ranks of the comedy club, will tell you the the middle spot, the feature spot where you’re doing 30 minutes, is the best spot in the world because there’s no pressure to win the crowd over (the MC did that for you), there’s no pressure to close the show because the headliners can’t do that, most of the crowd has had their drinks and their meals served to them… so for 30 minutes they’re totally focused on you, and that’s where you really start to develop your confidence. But it’s tricky to to grow out of that spot because a lot of comedians will do the same 30 minutes because they want to be so funny that the headliner can’t follow them; can’t be as funny as them, and then they get bumped up to headlining. But I’ll tell you, when I got bumped up the headlining I had a really killer 30 minutes… and then I was stretching for 25 or 30 more.

Peter: [laughs]

Rik: And if I could go back I would say, during that 30 minute stretch, I would have done that for three more years and just developed way more material and taken more chances, because there was really no pressure. So you learn you learn as you go through it, but the key is those laughs per minute. If you have more than the guy before you, you’re gonna come off as funnier.

Peter: So a mutual friend of ours, Dan Swartwout, when we were talking in an earlier episode about comedy, and then I did a thing up in Detroit and he was helping me with some writing, and he liked to use these two words with me: “word economy.” Because that’s what stand-up is a lot about. Throw out the words that you don’t need and try to just be as precise as you can and make sure that you had the premise and the setup, which helps in increasing those laughs per minute.

Rik: Yeah, the economy of words is super important and I found a way to describe it to my students, and I think they they get it a little bit quicker: comedy is an art and sculpting is an art. So in comedy, if they gave us 30 pounds of words, we would try to use all 30 pounds. A sculpture would take those 30 pounds of clay and chisel away what doesn’t need to be there. Amateur comics don’t. They try to use all 30 pounds of words, but a professional will try to get that down to the bare minimum. So not only can you focus on what they’re trying to say, you’re also not distracted by all the excess. And that’s really the key. An artist removes things so that you can see the beauty of the art, whereas a laborious person would just use everything to show you that they can do it.

Peter: Wow, I like that analogy a lot. As a corporate keynoter, and you’re funny, is there a little bit of a different technique there? I mean, you may not use… well, let me ask the question this way: as you’ve transitioned out of stand-up and into corporate keynoting, and you’re telling stories around the point that you’re trying to make, are you using those same techniques of sculpting, as you would in stand up, or are you allowing a little bit more that weight to stay on there? Instead of 30 pounds, maybe you’ve got it whittled down to 20 pounds, where in stand up you may have it down to 15 pounds?

Rik: Yeah, I mean the one thing I’ll say when I deliver speeches… even though there’s plenty of humorous points in there and lots of funny stories and jokes, when I’m delivering the contents of the material (and it’s taken me awhile to learn this) I need to slow down and hear it as I’m saying it, as if it’s the first time I’m saying it, because that’s how the audience is receiving it. As a stand-up, I would have a quick delivery, a pace (kind of like a rhythm, once I start the stand-up show), and I try to do speaking like that and in some ways that’s good, but I was going too fast past the takeaways. So the one thing I would say I do differently is allow them time to process the thought and not being afraid of silence when you speak. I see speakers say “think about this for a moment,” and then they say what to think about and they keep on moving. They do not have a minute to think about it.

Peter: [laughs] Right.

Rik: Until you slow down and leave some of those pockets for mental interaction, you’re just talking at people instead of speaking with them.

Peter: Having that mental interaction, in any type of presentation, allows for the audience to stay awake… because they’re mentally stimulated versus you’re talking through them, you’re talking over them, you’re flooding them with all of these words at a pace that they can’t process it, or you’re not allowing in the process it, and in this day and age, when we’ve got these very short attention spans, then they begin the conference prayer (as I like to call it). That’s when they pull out their cell phone and look down at it and the glow from cell phone comes on their face [Angelic sound]. They’ve just tuned you completely out.

Rik: I love it. That’s hilarious.

Peter: They’re sitting there going “oh my god this guy is boring the hell out of me,” and you the speaker are looking out to this audience and they all have their heads down, and you’re going I hope your battery dies.

Rik: [laughs] right

Peter: But I think the challenge of any corporate event is to keep the audience engaged, to keep them mentally stimulated, and to make them laugh helps with that mental stimulation. When the laughter ends is a heightening of listening, and the more you make people laugh the more they’re sitting on the edge of this seats wondering what you’re going to say next. So they’re listening more intently, which makes you a much more successful corporate speaker, as you are.

Rik: Yeah, that’s right. And having that interaction and giving them credit for participating in the speech… a lot of a lot more groups are a lot younger, and Millennials want an experience. They don’t want to sit there and be talked to, and so I think a lot of speakers are missing on making that transition right now. They’re going to be left out if they don’t find a way to engage, particularly that age group.

Peter: Right. Early on, before stand up, you were doing a lot of improv. Are you bringing a lot of those improv skills to the stage with you, and those improv exercises to the stage with you?

Rik: Yeah, I have one program called “Listen Up, Laugh It Up.” A previous client of mine (who I’ve done three different programs for) wanted me back and asked if I had anything new. I asked about the struggles they were having with their company, and they basically had a bunch of people that thought they were the best at everything, and they were very competitive, and they never listened to each other’s ideas. I said let’s do do a little improv with them and show them that they have to trust each other for the success of the group, and before we get to that part I’ll do 15-20 minutes of stand-up to loosen them up, and I’ll talk about the benefits of laughter in the workplace a little bit, but this is going to kind of grease the wheels for their listening. Depending on the size of the group and how much time I have, I do two to three different improv games with them to kind of get him on the same page. I did one last week in Memphis, and then afterwards the CEO talked to me in the hallway for probably 30 minutes. He was is so amazed, I guess, that his group of salespeople stopped… and it took them a while, he knew it was going to be tough for them to do that, but he was amazed at the end they were able to finally come together and accomplish the goal of the scene and the exercise, and then he rattled off like 15 more applications I hadn’t even thought about. So you teach improv and you know about it. There’s a lot of little things – trust, team building, and listening – that every company and every organization needs, and sometimes all they need is a facilitator to show them how to do it.

Peter: Exactly, and the one thing I’m finding is that the message of improv seems to be resonating more and more out there, that I’m seeing, and I did a conference this fall, in Nebraska, with 400 CPAs. I based it around around the book, but I had them doing these improv exercises, and one of them (which you may be familiar with) is the last word spoken. You say a sentence and the last word in that sentence is the first word of my sentence, and we try to build this dialogue. Well, one of the participants was as a CEO of a manufacturing plant in Nebraska. I mean he just gravitated on that. He just absolutely loved that exercise, to the point that he brought me out a couple weeks ago to work with his sales team for two hours on it. I said I’d love to do that, but the one thing we’re not going to tell them is I’m a CPA because they’re going to just completely tune me out. And we did the whole thing and they loved it, and then when I told them I was a CPA their mouths hit the floor.

Rik: [laughs] If you’d told them upfront, they would have been auditing you the whole time.

Peter: [laughs] And when I do speak to groups that aren’t CPAs, I don’t want them to get an idea before I even begin and put me in that stereotype of being a CPA, and begin to tune me out almost immediately. So it was a lot of fun when we told me that I was… but I think the art of listening is something that really is resonating out in the corporate market because there’s so little of it, where we’re truly listening versus listening and then responding without understanding what the person is saying.

Rik: Yeah, I think we both understand it as listening to hear, not just to respond, and that’s really key. I tell you it helps me with my children. I listen to hear the words behind the words, the question behind the question, with the kids.

Peter: yeah

Rik: With my wife, I make sure that… well, I have no choice.

Peter: [laughs]

Rik: But I listen, because she has to put up with me, so when she opens her mouth I just take a break. But it’s really key in any relationship you have, whether it’s business, friendship, spousal, whatever. Kind of leaving that pocket of silence for them to continue the conversation, sometimes, is a big difference. If you cut them off, then they’re not going to go there, so you have to let them speak their mind all the way out.

Peter: Exactly, but then after they’re finished speaking, if you’re listening, or active listening (as we used to call it back of the day), your next response may be a question or statement or something, versus bringing your agenda, what was originally on your mind, to allow to really understand what that person… because you said the words behind the words in trying to peel that onion back five or six times and find out where the real issue is.

Rik: Right. A lot of the time it boils down to they feel like they’re not being listened to.

Peter: Exactly. Exactly. I don’t know if you sell the Stephen Colbert interview with Keegan Michael Key back in August. If you haven’t, look it up on youtube. It’s wonderful and they make a lot of references to improv and Yes, And and Keegan Michael Key said improv is the exact opposite of show business. He was out promoting the movie that he did with Mike Birbiglia, and the name is escaping me right now.

Rik: Yeah, I need to see that one still.

Peter: Yeah, I saw it. I’m just drawing a blank on it. But I’m hearing more and more references out there to improv, but I want to take that improv piece and bring it back to when you’re delivering to an audience. Those improv skills that you’re using that you learned for becoming better at what you do. I think some of those who will be listening to this are those who have that fear of public speaking. How did you get past that fear? Was it comedy skills? Was it improv skills? What helped you get over that hurdle that most people would never think about standing up in front of an audience and even having any type of conversation?

Rik: I was never shy off stage, but any time I had an opportunity to get in front of people, even in grade school, I remember going way back to third grade we were talking about presidents and Jimmy Carter was coming into office and the teacher said something like does anybody know anything about Jimmy Carter, and I remember standing up in front of 20 other kids and going “yeah he’s a peanut farmer from Georgia,” I said it just like that and she just busted out laughing and she’s like do more do more. That was the only thing I knew how to say, so I said it like six more times and she just kept laughing. And then every year there’s a couple of spots where I could pick in class to kind of speak up, so I had the natural ham thing down. But, to maybe make it more relevant, when it came to speaking not in a comedy club, but in front of a group, all that improv definitely helped me out because I knew that if I was truly engaged with the group there would be opportunities to explore things. I think a lot of speakers have their three points, they want to get it done in 45 minutes, and then maybe 10 minutes of Q&A and then they’re out of there. So it’s really formatted. I have my points that I want to make, but I also have things I want to learn from the group so that I can decide where to finish up the speech. It can go a lot of different directions. I feel confident in the silence. When there’s a lot of silence and everybody’s afraid to speak up then there’s also an issue of control somewhere in the room. Maybe the boss has yelled at people for speaking up before. There’s a lot of things you can learn by asking a couple questions and sitting back and waiting for the answers.

Peter: So if I could translate that, it sounds to me like you’re not presenting – you are having a conversation with the audience.

Rik: Yeah, exactly, and that’s really key. Especially when I’m doing this “Listen Up, Laugh It Up.” keynote, in the comedy part of it up front I leave lots of pockets for interaction, and I had an experience with this guy in Memphis. We were talking about the person who’s been longest married in the room. I always ask that question with groups, and this guy says that he’s been married for 30 years. I said “that’s pretty good, man. Do you remember when you proposed to her?” He said “yeah, I had the ring in my pocket for two years.” I said “oh really, when did you pop the question?” He goes “oh it was a real spur of the moment thing.” I said “yeah, for two years it was a spur of the moment thing.” And he just started laughing. I just repeated back what I heard, but I listened to hear, and he came up to me after the show he’s like “you know what? That thing you said about the spur of the moment. I’m gonna remember that from the rest of my life. That was really cool that you took that and ran with it.”

Peter: Oh, that’s cool!

Rik: It floored me. I’m like this is awesome. This guy really is gonna remember that. He came up and told me and now it’s in his memory bank, but now I’m gonna remember that and use that as an example when I talk to other groups because making that one connection with him is paramount. So the audience can feel when you make a connection with one, and it becomes a connection with everybody.

Peter: Exactly, and I am a big believer that any time you are on stage, whether you’re doing a keynote for an hour or you’re doing an all day training session, it should be a conversation with the audience versus a figurehead speaking to or at the audience.

Rik: Yeah, there’s probably a handful of speakers where they’re there with a message and everybody came there to see that, and that’s fine and I probably even have a speech like that, but when I go to present two different groups the presentation is about them. It’s not about me. I might use examples from my life to help them resonate with similar examples in there’s, but having that idea going in that this is all about them so I’m going to make a justified effort to bring them in as often as possible, so they get something out of it. If I just tell them about my experiences only, then they’ll have to apply that. But if I bring them in during the speech with stuff they can relate to and can immediately latch onto, then they’re engaged right there.

Peter: And you said it it’s about them, it’s not about you, and I think a lot of those who begin developing the public speaking chops have that inverted at times. It’s about them. I’m here to deliver this message to you versus “no, this is about you and I need to find out what message I need to deliver to you,” even whoever called you up and booked you… you should ask the questions to get behind the scenes to figure out where’s the real issue there, or do you think you have the ultimate message.

Rik: Yeah, it’s all important. I have this pretty extensive pre-show questionnaire, or pre-event questionnaire, to help pinpoint some other major issues. Or, the biggest question you can ask as a speaker, I use this question at the very top of the questionnaire, is “how will you define if this event is a success?” And then I look at those words they use and make sure that happens.

Peter: So what have been some of the words people have used to define if this event is a success?

Rik: Sometimes it’s as simple as we just want to relax and have fun for an hour… we want to take a break from our our job. Other times, they’re like we have an issue integrating two companies into one, and we have a lot of people trying to figure out where they fit and so we want an experience that will unite them and do some team building. So that’s key. Then I can use my “Listen Up, Laugh It Up,” and that’s the best one for that because we’re gonna be on our feet interacting with people, and we’ll make sure that we mix up the groups. The responses vary. So that’s the first question. After the event, when I follow up with that before I ask for a recommendation, I say that leading up to the event these were the details that you described that you wanted to take place so that this might be a success, and then one by one I’ll go through and say, you know, team building. Well did you feel that, during that improv exercise, when everybody was laughing and then applauding each other for pulling off the event, did that feel like a success to you? And basically they can go right down the list to go “yeah, you knocked out what we wanted to do and we’re more than happy to give you a recommendation.” And maybe I thought that I accomplished something and I didn’t, and that gives them a chance to point it out so I can correct my speech to make it more clear the next time.

Peter: Yeah, that’s key because that feedback is critical in getting it right the next time. Yeah, I’m always asking for that type of feedback, and a lot of times you won’t get them to really tell you. But if you kind of tee it up to the point, like I really enjoy constructive criticism and I want to know what you guys like, how it worked, and then if there’s something I didn’t do just please point it out to me so I can work on getting that better. Maybe something that I’m not even seeing that I’m doing that I might see in an evaluation, or if I’m lucky enough to record the session. Yeah, and another great thing, too, is inviting other speakers out to see your program because they can give you some straight to the bone information that you need to hear to get better that maybe somebody who hired you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying. About 15 years ago, I did an event with another speaker. We both were doing humorous stuff. I was securing the area as Barney Fife and then did my stand-up, and then he was a Bill Clinton impersonator. But during that event we had an afternoon AV check, and actually we’re out in the hallway and he said “can I talk to you for a minute?” I’m like yeah, what’s up? “Are you gonna do this professionally for the rest of your life, or are you just goofing around?” What do you mean? He’s like, “You’re dressed in camouflage, converse, high tops, and an old sweatshirt. I know it’s the afternoon and we’re doing AV check, but you were in front of client there. You missed out on an opportunity to make a strong first impression.” And I was like, man, you nailed it. I never thought of that. In my mind, I was like I’m gonna show them how good I clean up, later on at eight o’clock when I come through the door.

Peter: [laughs]

Rik: But he’s right. I should have changed and cleaned up, and then came down.

Peter: [in Bill Clinton voice] “Rik, I remember that day very clearly. I remember talking to you about that day, and I’m glad you took me up on that advice because it obviously has worked on your behalf.”

Rik: [laughs] [in Barney Fife voice] “Well, I got advice from a peanut farmer down in Georgia.

Peter: [in Bill Clinton voice] “I told that peanut farmer don’t use email. I tell you, just ask Hillary about email. Don’t ever use it.”

Rik: [laughs]

Peter: but that is good advice, and you got me thinking. Yeah, I have to go back into my memory and think about what I have worn for an AV check, or even before. When I do travel, I do try to dress business casual, or as a one friend of mine said “I always wear a sport coat on an airplane,” because so many times so many people aren’t wearing sport coats and flight attendants just love it when they see someone dressed business casual was a sport coat. He goes, “Sometimes I get extra perks. I’ve been upgraded just because I wore a sport coat.”

Rik: Oh yeah. We could do a whole hour on how airlines treat you based on how you look, that’s for sure.

Peter: Yeah. Really, that’s the truth. So, as we begin the wrap up, I have to ask a couple of questions here because you’ve got a lot of war stories over your years of doing stand-up comedy and clubs. What’s your best story? When I say best, probably the most uncomfortable thing that ever happened to you.

Rik: Most painful?

Peter: Most painfully, yeah.

Rik: Well, there’s two or three things that stick out. I’ll let you pick. I can give you a story about when I worked at the improv group, a story that’s much more recent (less than a year old).

Peter: Okay, let’s take the most recent.

Rik: Alright. So, about a year ago, I was going to do my stand-up comedy at a golf course for members. It was one of those big neighborhoods that were built around a golf course, and just rode their golf cart over to the to the big community center, club house, and I told her it’s only clean comedy. I’m not going to vary from that, and the earlier in the evening the better the show for me, and for you since you’re spending money on it. I recommend starting right after dinner, and then if they want to party afterwards that’s fine. She says, “Sure, no problem. So we booked that and it sells out. And, on the way down to the event, she calls me and says “Hey, we sold out the early show and people are just there so mad that they can’t get to the comedy show. Can we add a nine o’clock show?” And I said, you know, I’m not the guy for a nine o’clock show when everybody’s been drinking on the golf course all day. It’s not gonna work. She goes “Ohh… I’ve already started taking reservations. I thought for sure you’d be up for. You know, it’d be another paycheck.” I said I can tell you from experience that the first crowd will be fine and it’ll be my kind of crowd. The second crowd is just gonna be combative. I can tell you right now. She says, “can we just try it?” I said I know you’re you’re not listening to what I’m saying. It’s not gonna work. And she says “I think I’ll lose my job if I cancel it because I’ve already taken money.” I said listen: if you really really want to do it, I’ve told you everything I’ve told you, then we’ll start it at nine and after 10 minutes I’ll look at you and go “see, I told you,” and then you can refund all of their money. But it’ll be my fault, it won’t be your fault. And so she goes “it’ll be fine.” So we do the first show and it was just shy of a standing ovation. I mean they’re couples in their 60s, 70s, 50s. Mostly retired. Just smart and love the clean, family-oriented humor.

Peter: yeah

Rik: Nine o’clock show rolls around and I mean it’s people dropping f-bombs left and right. Every swear word you’ve ever heard just in casual conversation. As I’m sitting on the guitar, some guys are like going F bombs at me. if I go to the lady and I’m like “this might be something we call at the 5-minute mark instead of the 10.” And so… sure enough, I tell my first joke and there’s these two twenty-somethings that were drinking with their flip-flops up on top of the table.

Peter: Oh god.

Rik: After I do my first punchline he’s like “ha-ha-ha-ha.” I look at him like really buddy? And I go on to my next joke “oh-ho-ho-ho.” And so I look at the planner and I said “it only took 50 seconds to prove my point.” I said “here’s what here’s what’s gonna happen guys. I can stand up here to do my show for an hour and we can listen to this guy with his sarcastic laugh, or we can ask him to leave and I can do my show and we can enjoy it. If he does that one more time I’m just gonna pack up and leave, and you guys can get your money back. I’ll give you a couple minutes to think about it.” I just sat on the stool and let them talk about it. So I go here’s the next joke, could be the last. I told it, and of course the guy goes “ah-ha-ha.” I’m like alright. It’s been a nice night. I unplugged my microphone, took my basketball, and headed on home, basically.

Peter: [laughs]

Rik: The point of the whole story is I should have never said “let’s try it anyway,” because I knew ahead of time how it was gonna turn out. So there I was for an extra hour, hanging out at a place that I didn’t need to be at, in front of a group that didn’t want to pay respect. Stick to your guns, know what your audience is, and just don’t waver on it. I was trying to be super nice to this lady who thought she was gonna get fired because she’d already sold tickets or whatever, but I should have kept, in that case, my best interest in mind.

Peter: Right, and gone with what your gut was telling you. I didn’t think about when you started describing what a nine o’clock crowd at a golf course is gonna be like. Oh man, yeah… that’s like a twelve o’clock crowd at a comedy club on a Saturday night.

Rik: Yeah, they have literally been drinking since nay 10 AM. They’re all sunburned, they’re dehydrated, they haven’t eaten… they’re halfway passing out, and that’s who you want to entertain? Not me anymore.

Peter: No. Not one bit. I think I remember one time listening, and we won’t have to go into this one, but I think I was listening to one of your podcasts and you were talking about the time that they put you in this fleabag hotel that there are gangs…

Rik: Oh.

Peter: Was that Detroit?

Rik: Chattanooga.

Peter: Oh, Chattanooga… yeah, you’ve got some great war stories out there and those go a long way. They’re painful when you’re doing them, but they are great stories after the fact.

Rik: That was a life-threatening evening and I’m glad I lived past that one, but basically the comedy club put me up at a hotel that was so bad that I called the front desk to inform them that I’m looking out my window and there’s two guys with handguns sitting on the hood of my car. Could you call the police? But the front desk said “Hey, I think they’re staying in the room next to you. I can’t afford to miss out on that rent for the night.”

Peter: Sheesh…

Rik: So literally I was there wide awake until this one came up and those guys disappeared. I drove my car over to the parking lot of the comedy club and waited for the owner to get there to put me in a different place.

Peter: Wow. Man… maybe one of your books should be about all the war stories that you have.

Rik: Yeah, I think there’ll be an element of that in a lot of these books. I probably should start collecting those stories and putting them together. I think some people don’t realize just how crazy it is out there, and it might be a good eye opener.

Peter: To that point, I think a lot of people who maybe don’t even do stand-up comedy, or they want to get into it, don’t realize how much time and effort it takes to craft just a joke, and how many dead jokes that you’ve got in order to just get that one decent joke.

Rik: Oh yeah. Jokes will go through a lot of changes, and all those changes have to be in front of live audiences to figure out if you’re doing them right. So when you see a comic like Jim Gaffigan run through a one-hour special on nail it, he’s been working on that for 11 months doing four to five maybe six shows a week to get it tight.

Peter: Yeah, it’s amazing. I think a lot of people have asked me about how Seinfeld talks about how long it takes to do a joke… because the perception is “oh you’re just coming up with this stuff, writing it down, and then you’re up on stage nailing it.” No, it’s like polishing a diamond.

Rik: Yeah, you’ve got to compress that sucker forever. It’s the goal of the speaker to be eloquent and make it seem like it’s flowing right off the tip your mind. Same thing with the comedian. You want to make make it appear as if you’re thinking of it right on the spot, to bring some urgency and immediacy to what you’re saying, and that takes practice. That takes skill.

Peter: It does take a whole lot of work. I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. I know you’ve got to get ready for the big game tonight… but I want to take another detour real quick. Your oldest son is how old?

Rik: 11

Peter: 11, and he plays the guitar as well?

Rik: Yes, so it’s funny. The day that we brought my daughter home three and a half years ago my son noticed that she was getting all the attention, and he started banging on one of my guitars. I said “hey hey hey, if you want to play that I’ll get you a little one and I can teach you.” So that was his way of making sure he got papa time every day, and after a year, after a single year, he knew everything I knew on the guitar and we had to start getting some lessons. Before you know it, he’s with this little kids band that was organized by the guys that teach lessons. He’s playing the Hard Rock Cafe, BB King’s, doing gigs at the airport and some outside festivals. It’s just amazing how fast he picked it up.

Peter: Wow, that is so cool. That’s a great story, and obviously he got that from you. I didn’t get any of those musical genes so I take my hat off to you and your son, and maybe someday we’ll see that you guys sell out Carnegie Hall.

Rik: Hey, maybe Carnegie Mellon first.

Peter: [laughs] Rik, I’ll put it in the show notes, but people can find you at your website at

Rik: Yeah, and if they’re interested in the comedy stuff then, on, there’s info on the podcast and lots of blogs and stuff like that, if they want to learn a little bit more about adding humor to what they do.

Peter: And you’re proficient on that and on social media: on Twitter, on Facebook. So there’s many ways to connect with you. I would suggest everybody in the audience connect with Rik and follow him to learn more about the art of storytelling, the art of comedy, and the art of standing up public speaking. Because he’s nailed it, but he didn’t start yesterday. It takes a lot of time. So thank you Rik. It’s always great to connect with you, and maybe we’ll see each other this summer in Orlando at the NSA National Convention.

Rik: I’m planning on being there, so let’s make sure we grab some lunch.

Peter: Sounds good. Thanks Rik!

Rik: Thanks buddy.


Peter: I would like to thank Rik again for taking time out of his schedule to give us his thoughts and experiences on how stand-up and improv comedy apply in today’s business world. You can find out more about Rik on his website at And if you want to take his online comedy riding course, go to In episode 43, I interview Cathy Fyock, who is the Biz Book Strategist. As she states on her website, “she is your possibility partner providing you with the intense support you need to get your book done.” Remember, you can subscribe to my podcast on itunes, stitcher, and google play. If you’d like to purchase an autographed copy of my book Improv is no Joke: Using Improvisation to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life, for $14.99 with free shipping, please go to my website,, and you’ll see the graphic on the homepage to purchase my book. Please allow 14 days for shipping. Thank you again for listening and remember to use the power of listening to understand and to better connect with those around you.



Production & Development for Improv Is No Joke by Podcast Masters

Ep. 41 – John Kelley: Chief People Officer at White Castle Systems


Today we’re excited to have returning guest John Kelley, Chief People Officer at White Castle Systems. We discuss how the skills of improvisation relate to change management, and how being a family business affects their company culture.

Change management is the process of identifying and implementing necessary changes during a major business transition, whether that is a merger, a shift in culture, or a new building.

White Castle Systems moved into their headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, in 1934. Currently, it houses four or more generations of family and team members, from the Baby Boomers to the youngest generation of workers.

They need a bigger space, and a space that better aligns with White Castle’s mission, vision, and core values moving into the future. They’re building a new headquarters that the company can use for another 80 plus years, and that requires a great deal of change management.

John faces cultural change management decisions to at almost every level in the company:

  • How are the work spaces designed for both collaboration and to allow privacy?
  • How can they make the space a place where people want to work, while offering the freedom to work anywhere?
  • How can they make shared spaces that people want to go to?
  • How do they keep things both open and secure?

To answer these questions, John is practicing one of the key pieces, and often most difficult pieces, of improvisation: listening. They are listening to consultants, touring the buildings of other companies in the industry, and conducting in-depth one-on-one interviews with their team.

John won’t be able to please everyone. However, by focusing on the company’s mission, vision, and core values – and asking why every decision they make is in line with those three things – they will be set up for success during the transition.

“Do all you can to listen and give people the opportunity to share. Make sure you’re listening and not coming in with your solutions”

Download this Episode MP3.



Click to download the full Transcript PDF.

Improv Is No Joke – Episode 41 – John Kelley


Peter Margaritis: Welcome to Improv is no Joke podcast, where it’s all about becoming a more effective communicator by embracing the principles of improvisation. I’m your host Peter Margaritis, the self-proclaimed chief edutainment officer of my business, The Accidental Accountant. My goal is to provide you with thought-provoking interviews with business leaders so you can become an effective improviser, which will lead to building stronger relationships with clients, customers, colleagues and even your family, so let’s start the show.


Peter: Welcome to episode 41 of Improv is no Joke podcast. thank you very much for downloading this episode today’s guest is John Kelly, who’s the Chief People Officer at White Castle Systems Inc. John was also one of the first to get an early reading of my book and he gave me a wonderful testimonial. Thanks John. John and I have a conversation on the topic of change management, but first we discuss the strong culture of the organization as demonstrated by the low turnover in the restaurants and extremely low turnover in the home office. I witnessed this firsthand at the general manager’s leadership conference in February. I was the closing keynote speaker, but I attended the entire conference. They kicked off the conference by asking for everyone to stand if they’ve been with the organization for five years or more – all 700-plus stood. And then they said “for 10 years or more.” A few set down. “15 years or more.” A few more sat down. “20 years or more.” More than half the room was still standing, which is incredible for any restaurant chain. On the topic of change management, we discussed the issues involved in building a new corporate office that will last for about 60 plus years. The current headquarters have served the well but they are growing it, and actually have been outgrowing it, as John describes. He says that you can walk the halls of White Castle systems and see the different eras in the building, as they’ve expanded over the years. But now they need a new building. He describes the process of taking the history and culture of White Castle and transforming into something that’s modern and sustainable. It’s an interesting conversation from blending the generations to security issues to consider. I’m sure you’ll enjoy our conversation. In the interview, you will hear the implied principles of improvisation: respect, trust, support, listen, and focus, which are necessary, along with the glue of Yes, And, so that you can adapt to a changing landscape and be successful. I’m sure you’ll enjoy our conversation. Now if you have been listening to my podcast for a while, you know one of my goals with his podcast is to help you begin to make changes in your work and personal lives so you can better connect with others and create meaningful relationships. Many people have said it takes 21 days to start a habit, which I just learned this week from Dr. John B Molitor, PhD, that’s incorrect. John is the Dean of psychiatry and community at Michigan State University. He said that the research shows that it takes 66 days to create a habit. So now we gotta put in some extra work to create that muscle memory. That’s why I created the Yes, And challenge: to help keep these principles in front of you so you can build up your improvisational muscle. To sign up, please go to and scroll down to the Yes, And challenge call to action and click to register to begin building the productive habit of Yes, And and the principles of improvisation. And remember to show your experiences on twitter using the hashtag #yesandchallenge. If you’re unsure of what the Yes, And challenge is all about, I discuss this in detail in episode 0. Go back and take a listen. Remember you can subscribe to my podcast on itunes, stitcher, and google play. If you’d like to purchase an autographed copy of my book Improv is no Joke: Using Improvisation to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life, for $14.99 with free shipping, please go to my website,, and you’ll see the graphic on the homepage to purchase my book. Please allow 14 days for shipping. With that said, let’s get to the interview with John Kelly


Peter: Hey everybody. I’m with John Kelly today, who is the Chief People Officer for one of my favorite companies in the whole US of A: White Castle Systems Incorporated. John, thank you for taking time to spend with me as a guest on my podcast today.

John: Sure, thank you, and thanks for the invitation.

Peter: I’ve been so looking forward to this. I always enjoy our conversations and, just so the audience knows, prior to starting this we’ve already had a 35 minutes conversation. The conversation we’re going to have today is going to be somewhere around the lines of change management, and different aspects of that. But before we get into the conversation, John… Oh, as a side note, most of my audience, if they know me, they know that I’m a connoisseur of the Kentucky brown water AKA bourbon. And I pride myself on my my Makers Mark bottle collection and my bourbon collection. Well, I’ve met the person who has blown my doors off, as it relates to the collection of bourbon. This man has more unique bottles of bourbon in his cabinet and his house than I could ever imagine. If I brought a few of my friends up here from Kentucky they would be in [heavenly sound]. So John, give us a little bit about your background.

John: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for the acknowledging the collection. You were the one that basically turned me onto it.

Peter: Oh, well, you’re welcome.

John: Yeah. So, real quick, I was an elementary teacher for about a year-and-a-half before I started working at White Castle. They lured me into something we were trying at the time, which was international franchising. So we did try, and we don’t franchise in the United States but we have tried internationally, and when I started we had stores in korea. During my time in international we opened up Mexico. Everything’s closed outside of the united states now, but we were trying it back in the nineties. At some point, then, I moved on. It gave me an opportunity to learn everything, a lot of different things about the company, especially operations. And I jumped into HR and training. With my education background, I think several people thought “what better?” And we had not had a centralized training function, so we’re kind of building everything from scratch even though we were into our 75th anniversary. So, slowly over that time, since the mid-1990s, I’m part of the family. So my great-grandfather started the company, I started with the company reporting my cousin, who’s our CEO and president. I have a brother-in-law who works here, two sisters, some other cousins. All of us have a great time working together and we are a family-owned company, so it’s been really interesting reporting to my cousin.

Peter: [laughs]

John: Because sometimes we see eye to eye on things, and sometimes we don’t. We have good conversations behind-closed-doors, but we we always present a united front and have really have been working to try and, I would say, give some new meaning to some of our values. We obviously have a very strong culture. We’ve got a very low turnover in our restaurants. We’ve got about 10,000 total people in the system, and we’re right around 100 percent turnover, which is low for the industry when we look at everything in the restaurants. In the home office, we’ve got exceptionally low turnover. We’re just trying to give new meaning to some of our values and guiding principle. They haven’t changed a lot, but just to give some new meaning to them. It will be our hundredth anniversary in 2021.

Peter: That’s cool. So, side note, it is a family-owned business. It’s been around since 1921. But working in a family-owned business, just in itself, presents a lot of different challenges than it would in a publicly-held or privately-held business that’s not family-owned.

John: You know, it does. On one hand I would say, like a lot of things, it’s kind of a double-edged sword. I know there’s people out there who have my back, I know that I can have a conversation with them, but sometimes you have to have difficult conversations with a family member and then realize… you know, we’re all gonna be at our family meeting in June, and everybody’s gonna be there. Or we have a cousin’s lunch that’s coming up. So if we don’t see eye-to-eye on something, you can’t take it personally and we really spent a lot of time trying to divide, and as a family, really work to make sure that the family survives, despite whatever happens in the company. Our identity is as a family that owns up that owns a business. So we don’t make business decisions based on family, but we want to make sure that we’re a family first.

Peter: That’s great, because a lot of family businesses start out with all the great intentions but stuff gets in the way, or they get themselves in the way, and feelings get hurt. And the next thing you know, somebody’s buying out somebody else or the business is absolutely dissolved because the family can’t get along.

John: Right. We’re in fourth generation. The other three generations transition pretty well. We just went through a transition from my uncle, Lisa’s father, to Lisa. Our generation have been working on that for about 10 years, where I’m the oldest of my branch, Lisa’s the oldest of her branch, and there’s another guy named Dave who’s the oldest of his branch of the family. And we had all, at one point, expressed interest that we might like to be considered to be President and CEO, when the time came. And then we worked with a family business advisor to, first, come up with a process that we would go through, and then present a united front to the rest of the family, to the board, to everybody else to make sure. And it was, again, around keeping the family together.

Peter: Which goes to the essence of the brand itself, which goes to the essence of the longevity of the company. I have always known of White Castle, but it wasn’t until we met some years ago that I learned about White Castle Systems: the inside of it and the family business and the challenges that you guys run into and stuff. And as you say that you’re about to turn 100 years old, you’ve been in the same location for…

John: We moved here in Columbus in 1934. We’ve been in a building that has been modified. You can you can walk in the building and see which era the construction was done on the second floor, whether it’s nice mahogany paneling up front or seventies paneling in the middle or wallpaper in the back. So we have done a lot, we’ve got one woman who sits in an old vault where the door has been disabled. We’re just trying to squeeze people in about anywhere, and we’re all excited about trying to build a new building, but with that comes, as you were talking about, change management. We don’t have any Silent Generation, but we’ve got a significant number of boomers, gen-x, some Millennials, maybe just starting even some of the younger Millennials and Gen Z and stuff. We’re looking at building a building that is gonna last for another 50 years 60 years, we’d like, and I’m really trying to figure out what kind of environment that’s going to be because everybody kind of has a different version of what would be best for them, and how we want our values of accountability and customer focus and responsiveness and healthy and energetic to come alive in that. Lisa and I really feel that our re-defining of some of our values moving into this building… we’ve got a lot of riding on how much this is going to help us advance the culture that we want to shift to, from a dynamic standpoint.

Peter: So I do want to touch of that, but I also want to say that when I’m out and about talking to people I always talk about this friend of mine who’s the Chief People Officer at White Castle, and the response I get, a vast majority of the time, is I love his title. Chief People Officer, vs Vice President of Human Resources, and some of us who remember the Saturday Night Live Gilda Radner… did you say human race horses?

John: [laughs]

Peter: Because it is the business that you’re in: you’re in the people business. Without people, White Castle doesn’t exist. Customers don’t exist; we don’t have them. And I love the fact that you’re the Chief People Officer because you’re trying to manage a mass amount of people within your organization and guide them in a direction that the company’s going, and as you’re talking about building this new building, and you said we’ve got maybe three to four generations who will be in this. Everybody’s usually trying to figure out how it fits for them, but should that conversation actually be what’s best not for me, but what’s best for the company and the culture as we move forward?

John: Definitely. We’ve been studying a lot of other buildings. We actually just got back from a tour of a couple other headquarters in the industry, and I learned a lot from them because they did talk about what’s best for the culture that we want and what’s best for the the brand as a whole. It’s interesting that you bring that up, because I specifically chose that title when I was promoted to this level. We don’t have HR, per se. We call our HR department team member services, and I chose that title as well because, collectively, our mission is to create memorable moments for our customers every day. We talk a lot in our home office about the customers being team members. So we’re trying to work to create memorable moments and make sure they’re they’re happy, and they can only give service and create great memorable moments to the level that they have experienced it themselves. So there is a little bit of a tension there, but I think it’s a good tension of looking at every team member in our home office as a customer, and what do they really want, and then also be able to define here’s what may not be exactly what you think you want, but this is what we know you will want at some point. Because it is it is bigger. As somebody who’s only got 10 more years out of that 50, or less, there’s going to be other people here, ideally, who are here for another 30 or 40 years out of that time frame. We’re also building it, obviously, to be a lot more flexible than this thing we moved into over 80 years ago, which was an old tire plant before we had it.

Peter: Oh really?

John: Yeah, my grandfather talked about his first job here was scraping rubber off of the windows because it was so so nasty.

Peter: Oh wow! [laughs] My first introduction to white castle systems, that just reminded me, was many years ago on the fourth of July. I was sitting in the parking lot watching the fireworks in downtown Columbus, because it was a great vantage point at that point in time. I was like, where we going? “White Castle” With all the the great little sliders? “Yeah, this is their headquarters.” Oh, it’s here in Columbus? I was like a wide eyed, bushy tailed kid that I was on the, in my mind, the hallowed grounds of white castle. But thinking about these past 90 plus years, going into a hundred and you’re moving into a new building and being Chief People Officer, you don’t have any gray hair… so.

John: Oh, I do. It doesn’t show as much when I get a cut, but my sister’s make reference to it quite frequently.

Peter: [laughs] But I imagine there’s a number of challenges that you’ve got to deal with. Even the way the new building is going to be designed versus the traditional way that you’re currently in today.

John: Right. Whether it’s the new building, and because we’re in an old building that is not flexible and somebody probably knows which are the load-bearing walls and other things, but there are a lot of hallways and a lot of doors and a lot of offices. Obviously, that does not make for a lot of collaboration, a lot of project team work. We’re trying to move more towards that, as a lot of companies are doing it very successfully, but I know the the newer team members that were hiring, the millennials, that’s how they got through school. That’s what the expectation was: I’m not going to be working on just this kind of thing; I’m gonna be working cross-functionally with people from marketing and purchasing and coming up with new products and contributing in a in a much bigger way than even I was when I started. So yeah, it’s trying to find that balance of what’s what’s going to be comfortable and what’s also going to be usable, and foster that collaboration. I recognized years ago, when I was trying to get people to sign up for some charity event, that, in our old building, we have no one place where we could hang something where everybody will see it. There’s multiple ways in and out of the building and other things that… it’s just we can’t communicate with everybody and know that if I hang a sign here in the lobby everybody’s gonna see it. Same kind of thing with our with our overall cultural shifts, because we had gotten to the point where team members were very comfortable. We always talk about our family atmosphere, the way we would call of our team members our family. We want to be one big family and a family culture, and in a family culture everybody looks out for everybody else. What does that mean? There were some expectations that if I had something now I would always have it into the future, and now as things change one of our big ones that we have recently been talking about is, up until january first of 2017, we had a an open, unfrozen a pension plan. We just froze that pension plan. We’ve been talking about it for a couple years and we had a pension plan a profit-sharing plan. Last year we opened up a 401k, but we we just started getting 401k because we’ve been trying to nurse this pension, and it’s getting so incredibly difficult. That, in and of itself, is another huge cultural shift of… you know, company taking care of you. You have some personal responsibility and the company will participate in that, but it was an exceptionally difficult decision to make for us. But it’s just an old plan, an old style.

Peter: Exactly. On one side, it kind of surprises me that you you guys just now are getting rid of the pension plan and moving to a contribution plan to 401k. But you’re a family owned business, you have team members, you have very low turnover… so you have a lot of people highly invested into this pension plan. Yeah, that is a real cultural shift of the company taking care of you versus we’re going to help contribute, but you’re more accountable for your managing your retirement. And I’ll just say, the a lot of people who are not CPAs and not accountants… numbers they’re afraid of.

John: Oh yeah.

Peter: A lot of times there’s fear, but it’s also a lack of understanding, but it’s also “I don’t want to ask a question because I don’t want to sound like I’m stupid,” but really the message is you’re not. You just need to ask more questions.

John: Right.

Peter: And have somebody there to say that this is how it works and let me let me teach this to you versus I can’t believe you don’t know this.

John: What I’ve encountered, being the leader of benefits, I love it when I go out because I’ve talked to many financial planners of our team members here, locally, who have gone out and and worked. They say “so you know Vicki in benefits?” And I say oh yeah, she is awesome about answering all the questions. She’s defined-benefit expert. And it really is. We desperately want everybody to understand it and trying to do a lot of things that people do. It was interesting. There was an interesting piece to this in how many thank yous I got when we talked about opening up the 401k. Because some of the younger people hadn’t looked at it, they really thought I’m missing out because everybody else in my circle of friends or family are saving for their retirement, and I don’t have this thing that called a 401k. But they didn’t understand, really, what the pension was, which was the companies are going to give you money when you retire. But it also is it also falls under that… “well gosh, I’m 22. I’m not retiring until I’m in my sixties. I don’t need to understand all those things. I got the the more normal day-to-day stuff.” To add to that that, our two largest facilities, where the biggest groups of people are, are our home office (with with about 200 people) and our largest food processing plant, which makes our grocery store sliders. Our largest one of those has 200. Otherwise, they’re dispersed in little castles with 20 to 40 people in them, depending on the sales. So 10,000 people dispersed over 400 locations… it just adds a level of communication challenges.

Peter: How many states are you in?

John: I think around 14.

Peter: But you’re more concentrated in and the Great Lakes region.

John: Yes. Our largest single region is Chicago, with 80. New York and New Jersey together have about 75, I think, and then we’re in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota.

Peter: Because I always wanted you guys to put one in Tennessee, Georgia, northern part of Florida, Central Florida, and Fort Myers down 75 so that, when I used to drive to visit my family in Fort Myers, I would have my stopping points. Because when I go to Lexington to visit friends, I always stop at the White Castle (especially coming back) that’s a just north of King’s Island in Lebanon. That’s my stopping point to grab about three jalapeno burgers and get back on the road.

John: We do have some in Tennessee. We looked farther south… I think, at some point, you’ll see something a little farther south, but we’re probably going to skip a lot of some of those states. A lot of people ask us, actually… there’s rumors about a gentleman’s agreement with Crystal. The company is very similar to us, copied us. They started about 10 or 12 years after we did. There is no gentleman’s agreement. Actually, Nashville, Tennessee and Lexington are the two places where we both have restaurants and compete, and it’s one of the fun things, if you’re ever bored, is to watch when a particular piece maybe goes viral on twitter or facebook or anything. The people who started out with White Castle are generally a loyal White Castle. If you grew up in the South, you’re gonna try and defend your your crystals a little more. But we love that are our cravers jump right on and and love us as much as they do.

Peter: Well, being a guy from the South who was introduced to Crystal… I was all in crystal and then I met the slider family, and I’m all in the castle these days. I haven’t had a crystal burger in 30-plus years, I think.

John: Oh wow.

Peter: The thing about this this culture and how you’ve grown and how you’ve maintained and the challenges that you have and your opening this new office, and you’re telling me that in this new office it’s going to be more of an open, collaborative type of office.

John: Yes.

Peter: Versus there’s no collaboration, per se, or the ability to collaborate. So that’s gonna bring its own challenges, in itself.

John: We’re still in the early design stages and trying to figure out how things are going to work in the new building, but we’ve been talking to team members about what what are they used to working with, what they like about their workspaces, and what do they not like about their workspaces. I think we had 98 percent of our team members fill out that survey, so we got a lot of really rich data around that. The pieces they like about the the office, their feelings about it and brand and all kinds of things. We had interviews with him, as well, where we were able to start… and I would say, because I sat in on about half of them and one of my colleagues sat in on the other half, and it was more of a qualitative part of a research project and trying to figure out…. okay, so tell me, you talk about really needing your doors. How do you use your office that you really need your doors? “Well I need it to be closed when I really need to do some heads down work and can’t be disturbed and I don’t want people coming up in this open environment,” and most of them had never really seen anything like this because most of the career has been here.

Peter: Right.

John: They they see pictures of, you know, Facebook, where there’s three people on a table the size I’m sitting at and everybody’s like all crunched together, and so we’ve been able to start talking about it. Imagine that your space might not be exactly where it is, but if there’s this quiet section and part of our culture becomes, when you see somebody in that room or in this area, it’s quiet and you’re not supposed to have your conversations there. Don’t go up and tap somebody on the shoulder because, whether it’s orange carpet or somehow divided, you’re there. Some of them are starting to come around.

Peter: Your current office, as you were describing it, and I’m trying to think what’s the one point in that office where you could collaborate amongst many, outside of a meeting room or conference room, is your cafeteria.

John: Yes.

Peter: And it just dawned on me: so as you move to a new building, from what I understand, the the first floor will actually be a White Castle restaurant, is that correct?

John: The first floor will be our cafeteria and it will serve a lot more of our products. We serve a lot of our products now in our cafeteria, but our cafeteria is in the basement. There’s no light and people don’t like going down there.

Peter: right

John: And I think one of our guiding principles, and this was confirmed for me on my recent trip, is that with technology… you know this because you travel so much: you can get a lot of work done and you don’t have to be in your office. You have your office with you wherever you go, with your phone your laptop. What a lot of companies are trying to do, including us, is people can do their work anywhere they want. They can work from home and work from other places… But create an environment where people want to come because there’s cool amenities, I know I’m going to see my friends there, I know I’m gonna have those spontaneous interactions, I know I’m gonna have those times where I can have a cool place to work that is even cooler than my dining room table or my office at home, and things like that.

Peter: So the first floor will be the cafeteria, but will it be open for retail customers or is it just going to be for White Castle employees only?

John: We are working through that. I would like to see it open for our retail customers as well. Now, figuring out security… that’s another interesting thing because we saw two drastically different versions of security on this trip with these two atlanta-based companies. Right now, as you know, when you come in to visit there’s kind of a room that you’re standing in and you can’t get out of that room until somebody comes to get you. In this new environment, we might have those little glass doors… or there’s a person sitting at a desk, but just anybody with any amount of strength could get over those things very easily and run. So there’s cultural change management things on almost every level. People are starting to realize that and so “Well, how am I gonna be protected?” Although there’s a lot to be protected from around here, there’s condo’s across the street, but there’s change management at every level. But I would like to see that: our cafeteria open to others as well.

Peter: Because I love coming down to visit you guys and eating in the cafeteria. Yes, it’s dark, but it still serves great product. [laughs] Security… so I don’t know this, when employees come to work at White Castle, currently, do you have to wear badges?

John: Yes we do. Your badge opens up the doors.

Peter: Okay.

John: I’m sitting, right now, in our training center, which is actually a detached building and it’s got its own badges as well. So we will still have some version of that, because the badges also, ideally, at some point they’re going to turn into here’s how I can buy a coke out of a vending machine here’s how I can pay for my charges in our mail room or in our cafeteria. It’s also how, using common printers, people can print their papers. Talk about a cultural change for a 95-year-old company to go we’re not trying to go completely paperless, but we’re trying to move that digital way, and even my HR department’s like “we gotta have that paper.” Well, we don’t have to have as much of it.

Peter: I don’t think there’s such a thing as a paperless office anymore, but I think we’ve moved to officers that consume less paper.

John: Yes. Actually, we did an early thing with CBRE, and they were from all over, but they they have one office, which, apparently, and I still can’t figure out how to do from IRS things and tax forms and stuff, but they say they are 100 percent paperless. They have no printers in that building.

Peter: Whaaaaaaat? That’s Jetson-y, man.

John: Yeah, it is. I’m not sure how they do it, but one of my personal things I’m trying to figure out is if there is a way… I still take paper-based notes in meetings and other things. I have tried to take them on my personal laptops or other things. Even with Evernote and some of those things, when they get in there it just never comes back out. And you know… sometimes I miss things or something. So I went back to paper and Lisa, my cousin, has done a very good job of of going much more paper-less. She does not take paper notes. She takes notes on an iPad or computer.

Peter: I do both. I have a moleskine that, at times, I’ll sit and I’ll take notes that way. Right now I’m taking some notes just on on a piece of paper. But when you said Evernote… I do a lot of taking notes and remembering things and jotting ideas into Evernote, and you’re right sometimes I can’t find what I know that I’ve written that I’ve put in there, which tells me I’m doing a bad job and tagging it. As a change manager, as a culture change, I think one of the challenges that you have is when you go to a paperless environment. So you’re in a meeting and you’re taking notes on an iPad or computer. There’s something I think, in the back of some people’s minds where they are thinking “are they playing solitaire?”

John: [laughs] Yeah.

Peter: I think early on in my speaking career, when we were using more paperless stuff and people in the audience were using more tablets and on their phones and stuff… I thought in my head that they’re multitasking. But it’s it’s not wrong, it’s just different.

John: Yes. I serve on on a not-for-profit board where somebody wanted to say… it was this juxtaposition. So the board packet that would come to all of us. It would come to us electronically a little bit ahead of time, and then somebody was saying well should I print it out there? And then finally somebody said well why can’t some of us… I do mine electronically, so I’m sitting with an iPad? Somebody said exactly that. “Are you reading your email? I think everybody should put all of their electronics away,” and so we had, ironically, a 15-minute discussion and came to the conclusion that we have to trust that, whether you’re checking on your email or not, you’re at least absorbing. And the other cultural piece that I have learned from some of this research is that my training department is going to be working on something to say, on the other side of that, here is how to have an effective meeting. If everybody is sitting there checking their email, your meeting’s not effective.

Peter: Right.

John: And could your meeting have been one of those emails I was checkin while you’re sitting there talking? So make sure you got your meeting planning down, make sure you got your agendas, make sure that people know what to expect, start and finish on time. All those kind of general meeting rules, and there’s another another friend of mine who talks about boring meeting stock, and his name is John Pence.

Peter: Oh yes. I know John.

John: There’s some good stuff around that and making sure that your meeting works. That way I can trust that they’re listening to me or they’re listening to my colleagues, not emailing and/or Amazon.

Peter: As it relates to meetings, I think what I dislike the most is the conference call.

John: Yes.

Peter: It’s frustrating because, without having eye to eye contact, and then people start talking over people and then people are quiet. You don’t know if they’re there. There’s just so many dynamics… I was on a conference call with a client that was the conference call from hell because it was something like this: “so does everybody have my email that I sent out with the latest update to the spreadsheet?” What spreadsheet are we talking about? “The spreadsheet that I sent out three days ago.” What was the name of the spreadsheet? I’m not sure that I have it. And then we start the meeting and they go “no no no, I got the wrong document here,” and they literally spent 20 minutes trying to figure out what documents they need to facilitate this meeting, and by that point the meeting was really done because it was just mass confusion.

John: Mm. People, around here and in other places, send out whatever we’re going to talk about next Monday are meeting. We don’t have a hard-and-fast deadline that it has to be out by Thursday. I honestly try because of my colleagues get on me. I will say this: some of my colleagues seem to be able to get away with since about eleven o’clock before our one o’clock monday meeting on Monday, but you know… it’s whatever. People will say they want to be prepared, I need to look at it, I want to look at the numbers in that spreadsheet… but then you can obviously tell exactly in that situation that some of us clearly haven’t open up that spreadsheet and looked at it. So, again, to me that’s all culture because I’ve read about different cultures. I’ve never actually seen one, I’ve been at White Castle for 25 years, but you know that if everybody is not prepared for the meeting, if you’re not prepared and get up and leave, or the senior most person in that meeting calls it and says wait a minute show up prepared. Part of our culture is we’re gonna have it sent out by Thursday for a monday meeting. Make sure you read it by monday.

Peter: Right. You may not be familiar with the detail around it, but just be familiar with the documents. We can have a conversation about it, and I see a lot of that even when you’re on a board and you’ve got a lot of different personalities around the table, from a lot of different industries and stuff, and you’re having a conversation. Has everybody read the documents? And some might say well this doesn’t pertain to me and not read it, so…. they’re not able to participate.

John: right

Peter: I do want to take a real quick sidestep here because you said you’re on a board of a local not-for-profit. So let’s give it a good plug. What’s the name of the group that you’re with?

John: Actually, there’s three. One is, and I’m stepping down from my tenure as board chair, but I’m still on the board of A Kid Again.

Peter: That’s the one.

John: It’s an organization that does activities for children and their families with life-threatening illnesses. So any kids get to come. We take thousands of kids to King’s Island. A big thing for that is we’ve got a chapter in Cincinnati and a chapter in Cleveland, a chapter on columbus. Not only are there multiple activities throughout the year, so kids are sick and they’re going through the hospital for chemotherapy or whatever. They want something to look forward to. And the other big piece that we’ve been doing, and we’re 20 years old this last year, is that the families and siblings are involved. Because a lot of times kids with siblings, somebody’s got cancer or leukemia or something, and it’s all about getting the kids to school or to the doctor or to the hospital. The other siblings can bond around that, and we’ve got some research to show it really helps. So that’s, ironically, not the one that we had that conversation on, but… we struggle with it sometimes. But all three are different. So another one I’m on is Godman Guild, which was an old settlement house. It’s a hundred and seventeen years this year. It’s over in the near Northside. It’s moved around a little bit. And then Ohio Dominican, which is where we met. I’m on that board of trustees now.

Peter: That’s right [laughs] you and Jamie. I’ve interviewed Jamie in a previous episode, but yes John and Jamie were actual MBA students of mine.. I don’t want to know how many years ago. I think Jamie said it and I’m still don’t believe it’s been over 10…. but a kid again is a great cause. Is it national, locally, or state?

John: OUr home office is here. Largely, we’re actually looking at expanding. We just went through some strategic planning and are in the throes of implementing that. We’re establishing more of a national board and a local board, because everything was all run by Columbus, both chapter and advising the northern ohio and southern Ohio chapters. And we’re actively looking and and restructuring to help grow. Our vision on that one is that every every child in America has a chance to be a kid again. I know there’s a lot of sick kids out there that we can help.

Peter: Now, the thing about kid again and what you do… do you work closely with the ronald mcdonald house?

John: We work closely. I think we do get some referrals there. We are wholly supported by… we get a couple grants, every once in awhile, but by private donation. We are not a united way agency. We don’t get government grants for anything because a lot of those, rightfully so, should be going to cure or find more treatments for leukemia and other kinds of cancers, and the challenges that our kids face. So we work with some other agencies, mostly on referrals to make sure that our children that they may be serving, the families they may be serving, know that this exists. Because this is really all about fun and our name came from interviewing our parents. Because the other thing that’s very difficult, and our leader is a guy named Jeffrey Dameron, and at every one of our meetings we have a mission moment where he talks about one of our children and one of our families, and more often than I would like you hear, and I just don’t know how he deals with… you know there was this kid named Gabriel, and Gabriel is no longer with us, and how many funerals with little teeny caskets that he goes to… that’s gotta be tough. But ours is all about having fun and, really, the name came from our parents because they said “when I was at king’s island my kid wasn’t the kid in the wheelchair. He was a kid again.”

Peter: What a great way to get a name, and there’s a special place for people like the leader of A Kid Again because there’s a special place in heaven for somebody who can do that, be passionate about it, but also have to see the other side of it. I know that my DNA is not made of… I don’t think I could ever be that strong to look at that many tiny little caskets. So we’ll start wrapping this up because I don’t take too much of your busy time, because it is friday and if we were in Hawaii its Aloha Friday. We call it buckeye friday around here. What is the one piece of advice, as the Chief People Officer of White Castle Systems, that you would give my audience in dealing with any type of change management situation.

John: I would say, from a change management standpoint, basically do all you can to listen and give people the opportunity to share. Make sure you’re listening and not coming in with your solutions, which is something I have to personally work on because I come in with a solution, sometimes, and think I don’t understand why you don’t all see… this is perfect. I even did it in some of those one-on-one meetings. Imagine this space over here, you can do this, you can do that. But I would say really listening and to what they want. The other funny thing, when I was talking to my cousin Lisa on the way home from this trip, is we’re not gonna make everybody happy.

Peter: right

John: We desperately want people to like us, especially with that piece of our culture that’s family and we’re all part of our extended family. It’s listening, starting early… too many people give this, I would say, a short lead time. “We can start dealing with that later, once we get plans done.” Start earlier than that.

Peter: Yeah, as I’m hearing the word listen, I’m obviously very sensitive to that word, it being one of the key pieces of improv, but the other piece that you say is we’re not gonna be able to please everybody. And I think, at the end of the day, as long as you go on this listening tour that you have, and this fact-finding tour, and you develop a strategy, a plan, and a culture to move forward… knowing that we’re not going to please everyone, but the one piece that we have to please is the mission, the vision, and the core competencies of the organization. And as long as we’re doing that it will all work out. I think it’s when we lose sight of that and we’re trying to please everybody, but we forget about our mission, vision, and core competencies… I think that’s when a bigger issue occurs.

John: Right, and actually where I thought you you might go to is the other piece that we’ve been concentrating on around here, and it ties right in with that, and it is why? This is the reason why we’re going to not have officers, and while a lot of people have asked for them our values are around accountability and collaboration. That why, and making sure that you hit those, that’s really good.

Peter: There will be challenges in those early days with this different environment that you’re creating, and that will provide different… there will be some challenges that you guys haven’t even scoped out yet… when is the expected date of completion and move in?

John: Um… we’ve got another year… I think we’ve got two, given where we are and what we’re trying to do here on our location. We haven’t even really settled that we’re trying to build it here. We haven’t worked things out with the city yet.

Peter: So you are way ahead of the curve in this change management process. Knowing that if it’s in completion in two years, you’re taking this time so that, when we get to that two-year period… there will be some things you won’t expect, but you may have already minimized them to maybe just a few. It sounds almost a three-year outlook.

John: Yeah, because we did start in the middle of last year, so it has been close to that. We always talk about hope is not a strategy, and that’s the expectation. We do know that there’s going to be some stuff that we missed, but hopefully through our partners that we choose, places that we’ve gone in to see, and others that have shared with us their journey and have gone there before us. And again, listening to them. My mind was changed by listening to these two companies that we met with, because I was kind of thinking one direction and now, after listening to them, you know… we thought that too, but then this told us take the other option, and I’m thinking that might be the best one. Because, back to your last point, it serves the mission and the vision and the core values.

Peter: And I love the fact that you guys are collaborating with others who are in the industry, and looking at best practices and learning from that in order to not go through what they’ve gone through and to try to minimize that day one change impact to create, almost, a seamless transition, even though you and I both know it’s not going to be seamless. But, to your point of take time, think it out, and start early versus when you’re throwing in late and you’re trying to shove something together… that’s just going to lead to a lot of other problems. That’s going to take a lot longer to smooth out versus getting in front of it.

John: Yeah, definitely. That’s one of the things, as I said in my bio with starting out in education, which was a lot of sharing. I love the restaurant industry because you make friends and maybe move all over, but when you call up and say hey can you come down, and I know it’s not necessarily anything to do with training or HR, but we wanted to tour your building. Can you hook us up with the right person? We all open up our doors to everybody else, and that’s a fun part of our industry.

Peter: Yeah that is pretty cool. It’s basically a big family industry even though we are helping out competition, per se, but it’s in a much collaborative way, and we’re all trying to compete for a lot of the same customers… but then again, some of our customers are very different. So, John, thank you so very much for taking time out to have this conversation with me. I know that my audience will take some of these nuggets of wisdom that you’ve left them and think about how they handle whatever change that they’re going through, whether it’s to build a new building, to create a new culture, to merge two companies together and all the change issues involved with that. So, once again, thank you so very much for your time. I look forward to our next conversation in the near future my friend.

John: So do I.


I’d like to thank John again for taking time out of his schedule to give us his thoughts and experiences on dealing with change. In episode 42, I interview Rik Roberts, who is a provider of clean comedy, keynotes, and laughter. Rick has a very successful podcast titled School of Laughs, and after he interviewed me an episode 80 I began my quest to start my own podcast. He is a very funny guy with a lot of wonderful insight to becoming a better presenter. Now remember, you can subscribe to my podcast on itunes, stitcher, and google play. If you’d like to purchase an autographed copy of my book Improv is no Joke: Using Improvisation to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life, for $14.99 with free shipping, please go to my website,, and you’ll see the graphic on the homepage to purchase my book. Please allow 14 days for shipping. Thank you again for listening and remember to use all of the principles of improvisation in dealing with change.



Production & Development for Improv Is No Joke by Podcast Masters

Ep. 40 – Phil Kim: Associate Professor of Business at Walsh University and Founder of Ideapath Consulting


Korean Proverb Shijaki banida: “The start is half the task.”

Today’s guest, Phil Kim, is a highschool dropout turned accidental accountant turned tenured educator and professional speaker. He shares the remarkable story about how he fell into a hole and then turned his life around by chasing BIG goals through small actions.

In December 2016, Phil gave a talk at TEDxAlbany called “Chase One Rabbit: The Power of Small Wins” (related to his book of the same name).

Phil based his TED talk on a Confucian saying: “If you chase both rabbits, you catch neither.”

The book and TED Talk both explain how we can use focus, accountability, and small wins to achieve more.

  • Reach high. Expand and stretch yourself beyond what you think you can do. Choose a single, big priority.
  • Chase the rabbit. Take your singular goal and break it down into smaller, doable chunks or small action steps.
  • Intentional Accountability. You have your goal and you have your action steps. Now you need some sort of accountability, either with just one or two people or through a small community (like a mastermind).

There’s a theory called the the paradox of choice. It suggests giving users too many choices causes them to worry about making the wrong decision, so they don’t make any decision at all. Too many choices can effectively lead to no choice.

So don’t try to do everything at once. Finish your top priority and then move onto your second priority.

We’re almost done with the first quarter of 2017 (wow that was fast!). I want you to watch Phil’s TED Talk or read his book and then reflect on your goals for the year. Do you have too many? Are they ambitious enough? Prioritize your goals and get hyper focused on just one rabbit – you might surprise yourself with how much you accomplish.

You can watch Phil’s first TED Talk on YouTube or pick up his books on Amazon.

Download this Episode MP3.



Click to download the full Transcript PDF.

Improv Is No Joke – Episode 40 – Phil Kim


Peter Margaritis: Welcome to Improv is no Joke podcast, where it’s all about becoming a more effective communicator by embracing the principles of improvisation. I’m your host Peter Margaritis, the self-proclaimed chief edutainment officer of my business, The Accidental Accountant. My goal is to provide you with thought-provoking interviews with business leaders so you can become an effective improviser, which will lead to building stronger relationships with clients, customers, colleagues and even your family, so let’s start the show.


Peter: Welcome to episode 40 of Improv is no Joke podcast. Thank you so very much for downloading this episode. Today’s guest is Phil Kim, who is an associate professor of business at Wallace University in Canton, Ohio and the Founder of Ideapath Consulting, which is a management consulting firm for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Our discussion centers around the powerful TEDx talk he gave an Albany, New York in December 2016. His talk is titled “Chase One Rabbit: The Power of Small Wins.” I’ll put a link to his TED talk in the show notes for you. Phil based his TED talk on a Confucian saying: “person who chases two rabbits catches neither.” In today’s world we are chasing so many things that we want to get done, and if we don’t have focus nothing gets accomplished. The need to focus on those critical things and setting them at the highest priority. Phil says that if you hit all your goals for last year maybe your goals weren’t challenging enough. What he tells his clients and students is to stretch yourself: set high goals and then break them down into little chunks, action steps, and be accountable to someone or a group. Phil tells a great story about an app named bourbon, which got my attention, that was developed back in 2010. Now bourbon was a social app designed by Kevin Systrom and his buddies, who named the app after their favorite adult beverage. Now this app was a party app and also would allow you to give restaurant reviews and ratings. By doing this you would earn badges, and if you accumulate enough badges you would get discounts to those places. Now that really never took off because what users were doing with it was taking pictures of cats and what they were eating at restaurants. Ultimately they took the app down and redesigned it and launched it under a new name. You may have heard of this name: Instagram. What Kevin discovered was that they were giving users too many choices and decided to reduce the number of options to picture taking, and the rest is history. Phil refers to this as the paradox of choice. This is when you give people too many choices and they’re afraid of making the wrong decision, which leads to no choices. Well that might explain why it’s been forever since I’ve been to a Cheesecake Factory. Phil has a lot of great stories in this episode and one of my favorites is how he became a college professor. I’ll leave it at that and let you listen to his story. Clearly, from an improvisational aspect, focus, being present in the moment, is critical in accomplishing your goals, along with the yes and, attitude to help you make those small wins for the bigger accomplishment. Now if you have been listening to my podcast for a while, you know one of my goals with his podcast is to help you begin to make changes in your work and personal lives so you can better connect with others and create meaningful relationships. Many people have said it takes 21 days to start a habit, which I just learned this week from Dr. John B Molitor, PhD, that’s incorrect. John is the Dean of psychiatry and community at Michigan State University. He said that the research shows that it takes 66 days to create a habit. So now we gotta put in some extra work to create that muscle memory. That’s why I created the Yes, And challenge: to help keep these principles in front of you so you can build up your improvisational muscle. To sign up, please go to and scroll down to the Yes, And challenge call to action and click to register to begin building the productive habit of Yes, And and the principles of improvisation. And remember to show your experiences on twitter using the hashtag #yesandchallenge. If you’re unsure of what the Yes, And challenge is all about, I discuss this in detail in episode 0. Go back and take a listen. Remember you can subscribe to my podcast on itunes, stitcher, and google play. If you’d like to purchase an autographed copy of my book Improv is no Joke: Using Improvisation to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life, please go to my website, PeterMargaritis, and you’ll see the graphic on the homepage to purchase my book. With that said, let’s get to the interview with Phil Kim.


Peter: I’m with Phil Kim. Phil, who is a recovering auditor, banker, and currently in higher education. But first and foremost, Phil, thank you for taking time to be a guest on my podcast.

Phil Kim: Pete, I was looking forward to this. This is awesome. Thank you for having me.

Peter: Oh Phil, I’m so looking forward this conversation because I want my audience to know, first and foremost, that you recently did a TED talk at a TedX in Albany, and your talk was called Chase One Rabbit: The Power of Small Wins. As I listened to the your TED talk, which is absolutely fabulous, I was thinking about that thing about chasing one rabbit, and when I think of that in my business I think about rabbits and how they multiply.

Phil: [laughs]

Peter: and unfortunately I don’t think I’m chasing one, I think I’m chasing a herd of them. So when I was listening to you talk, I went “man I have to really narrow that down to just one rabbit.” So you know, I usually ask about my guests to give me a little bit about their background. But I think our conversation about this Ted talk, and about your message here, will enlighten everybody to your background. So tell us about this chasing only one rabbit.

Phil: [laughs] Yeah, that’s good. I’m glad you brought that up, in that way. Yeah, I was able to do a TED talk in December in Albany, as you said the title of the talk was Chase One Rabbit. It’s really based off of a Confucian saying that if you chase both rabbits, you catch neither. So that is what germinated this idea, which led to a book, which obviously led to the this TED talk. But the idea is really about this power of focus, and specifically focusing on small doable action steps. And what I like to say is a series of small wins leads to great results, and I mean we can delve into that little bit more but I think what you said was was perfect. I think so many of us, especially entrepreneurs and leaders and business owners, we feel like we’re chasing so many things. There’s so many things that we want to get done, and it’s especially either year end or beginning of the year, whenever your audience is listening to this, I think there can be almost a laundry list of things that you want to get done, which is fine. I think we should have multiple goals. However, if we’re spread so far thin we’re not going to do anything really well, and I guess that’s my main point. In order to achieve a certain level of either expertise or success or to accomplish something… if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing well, and the way to do that is to really let go of all the peripheral things and let go of all the things that, in my opinion, really don’t contribute to your end goal, and then really focus on the things that will contribute to where you want to go.

Peter: Well, you said the magic word there. There magic word, in the world of improv, is focus, and being completely focused on that, and somebody who’s got ADHD as myself (which is really difficult at times – squirrel!). And as you’re laying this out and I was listening to it I’ve got a whiteboard and I’m looking at my things that I want to get accomplished in ‘17, and I’ve got seven items on there. Now, prior to listening to your TED talk, there were no numbers besides them in priority. Instead of me going [as Elmer Fudd] “be vewy vewy quiet, I’m happy wabbits” and now I’m just hunting one wabbit at a time, which really helped me to try to get that into some type of focus. I’m terrible at that at times. I can work on four or five projects at one time, and a lot of times I never get them done. I get about 50 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent through them, but sometimes I never get a hundred percent. I think to your point, I’m chasing too many rabbits.

Phil: Yeah, that is excellent. In fact, I talked about this in the TED talk, but it really takes this… I call it intentional accountability. So first of all, I was just going to say what’s your priority? If you were to look at the list of seven things, what will be THE most important thing that you would want to get done? And then what’s the next most important, so on and so forth. So obviously I would say, if you if you hit all your goals, if you think about 2016, if you hit all your goals in 2016…. first of all, kudos to you, but most people don’t. And I would argue, if you’re a person that hit all your goals from last year… then your goals may not have been big enough. It’s one of those things where it’s like… you know those people that have those checkoff lists and then they cross them off? There’s some sort of satisfaction in crossing something off, but there are certain people that will already have done the thing. I don’t want to fall into that almost fake satisfaction of getting something just to cross it off of your list, so what I say to my clients and to the students that I’m advising is I want you to reach high. I want you to expand and stretch yourself beyond what you think you can do and then, to chase that rabbit, I want you to chunk it. I want you to break it down into smaller, doable chunks. And then this accountability piece is where it really sort of ramps it up to the next level. So you have your goal, you have your action steps (where you’ve broken it down into what I call small wins), and then you have some sort of accountability either with with one or two people or just like our mastermind. I don’t know if our audience knows, or maybe you’ve discussed this on another podcast, but Pete and I were part of a, in my mind, very successful mastermind with professional speakers. Every week we had to update each other on where we were with our progress. So again, you probably could have given the TED Talks. Many people have all these different projects in different stages of completion, and my argument is: okay, well that may work for a short period of time, but at a certain point you have to finish something. You have to take it through, you gotta take it across the goal line, or else you’re gonna feel like your year was not as successful as it could have been. A way to do that is to have this hyper focus on getting something done, even if it’s poorly done… at least it’s done. So then you can either move on to the next thing, or now you can look at ways that you can improve.

Peter: Exactly, and I want to come back here in a moment or two and talk about your professorship and your students. He is a professor at Walsh, which is in North Canton. But I want to take a step back and want to go back to your TED talk and how you started your TED talk about the app. That was a great story.

Phil: Thank you, I appreciate that. It’s one of my favorite stories. It’s the story about Kevin Systrom, and some of your audience may have heard of… well, probably recognize the name, but once you what he’s created. He and his buddies created an app. It was one of the premier apps at the time. It really was. You could give restaurant reviews, ratings, and if you got enough badges and checked into another place you actually got discounts to those places. So it was like a money saver. It was just a really well-designed app, especially for its time. He named a bourbon

Peter: [laughs]

Phil: After his favorite drink, nonetheless. It had nothing to do with the app, but he liked the drink, so… but it’s a party app, a get together with your friends app, but after a few months it basically went nowhere. There were only a couple hundred active users of the app, and he had raised over half-a-million dollars to take this app to market. Even at that point, 2010, was a lot of money for for an unproven app. So he was going back to his investors: “what should I do? Should I shut down the app?” But before they decided to effectively shut down the app, they took a closer look at what their users were actually using it for. I say this in the TED talk, but they were effectively using the app to do two things: take pictures of their cats and take pictures of their food.

Peter: [laughs]

Phil: So if you think about it, in 2010, this was way before the selfie revolution. And I see, seven years later, we as a society have not moved much beyond this. So they went back to the drawing board they took the app off the market, actually, which is sort of like the death knell for apps. If you take it off, that basically means that you’ve given up on it. But they stripped away all the other ancillary things. You could check in, get badges, get stickers… but they focused in on the pictures, and then specifically that you could add filters on your pictures, and then of course they renamed the app Instagram.

Peter: Oh!

Phil: Yeah, exactly. The day one relaunch of Instagram they got twenty-five thousand downloads.

Peter: Wow.

Phil: They thought man, we’re onto something. A year later, they were over a million downloads, four million or 40 million pictures, then of course facebook came calling. They got bought out for a billion dollars, I think was 1.2 billion dollars in cash and stock, and at that point it was just unbelievable to go from almost bankrupt with a few hundred users, because they had all these cool bells and whistles, but then when they stripped it all away and they allow their users to focus in on one thing, that’s when it just took off.

Peter: Wow.

Phil: The other thing that’s crazy is… 1 billion dollars for something that just takes pictures? Well, analysts have valued Instagram it over 37 billion dollars now. So Mark Zuckerberg obviously made a good investment choice, and it’s caused more users to download his his app. So, no matter what people say, Facebook and Instagram, at this point, are still the 600-pound gorillas in the room, and I don’t see it going down anytime soon.

Peter: Yeah, I don’t either, and that’s a pretty remarkable story about an app called bourbon. Because they had too many options out there, and by stripping away a lot of those options and just, I guess, keeping it simple…

Phil: Yeah, exactly. So there’s a theory called the the paradox of choice: when you give users too many choices they worry about making the wrong decision, so they don’t make one at all. So too many choices effectively leads to no choice. That’s what happened with instagram.

Peter: But if you’ve got a goal in mind.

Phil: mhm

Peter: and you talk this in your TEDTalk, and you bring really your own personal experience in it, that you take these small steps, this series of small wins, that leads to great results. So if you could tell my audience about your background, about these small wins that you took in order to get this great result.

Phil: Yeah, well, so again this is the straight from the book and also the TED talk, but actually I have somewhat of a storied background. You introduced me as an auditor and a banker, which I was, but actually up until about tenth grade I was pretty much the model student. I grew up in a traditional Korean house, and if you know anything about… actually, I was gonna say Koreans and asians, but it’s this probably true of many American immigrants that move over. Their parents hold a value and esteem for education above all else, and corporal punishment.

Peter: [laughs] Oh, okay.

Phil: Yeah, I grew up in a house where education was number one and, if it wasn’t, then I was… “highly encouraged” to pursue education. So up until 10th grade I was pretty much model student, got straight A’s or the occasional b or b+, but it wasn’t really do to any sort of hard work or diligence on my own. I basically just showed up and I was able to get those grades, but in my junior year I ran into a buzzsaw, and I call her the buzzsaw, and her name is Ms. Ryan. So, Ms. Ryan was a was my AP physics teacher, and I went to her class and I failed my first exam.

Peter: [laughs]

Phil: I thought what in the world just happened? Honestly, up until that point, I’d never failed an exam. She said, “Phil, you are smart but you’re lazy,” and it was just one of those hammer between the eyes sort of moments. Nobody ever told me that, nobody ever accused me of it. I thought don’t you know the agreement that we have here: I show up and you give me an A. So she said no I want you to show up, I want to do you know turn in your homework on time, I want you to pay attention in class. I thought okay. I’m going to give her game one more shot. So I go back the next day and it was a pop quiz, and obviously a pop quiz, it’s unannounced, I failed that one too. And it was at that point I bailed, and I first started just by skipping her class, Pete, but then it became so much easier to skip my other classes as well because I really wasn’t getting anything out of it. And then a few classes became a few weeks became over 75 days of school missed for that year, from January through about May. So it’s almost like every day, monday through friday, I would come and check in with my homeroom (because that’s how they checked attendance) but then the rest of the day I was… I don’t know if any of your listeners are Millennials, but I used to go to a thing called a mall where they would have stores, and I used to I used to play at thing called an arcade. I know don’t exist anymore.

Peter: [laughs]

Phil: Where you have to put quarters into a machine, and I would just waste my day away just playing arcade games. That was it. It wasn’t like I was doing anything fun or cool. I was hanging out with old people at the mall playing arcade games. Like I said, I missed over 75 days of school and ended up having to drop out of high school because I couldn’t pass that class. It was a small high school and she was the only teacher teaching that class. There was no way around it. And, at that point, while my friends were going up on stage to get their diplomas and kind of doing their thing, it was the summer of 1995. I was just a mass of self-pity and my dad had basically said “you have two choices: you can either find a way to to finish out your education and and go to college, because that’s what we came to this country for, or you can join the military. Those are your two choices.” And I found out real quick that all college applications said the same thing: high school diploma or equivalency, so like I need to find out what that means. So this was, again, pre-google. So I looked up in the yellow pages.

Peter: Whaaaaat?

Phil: Yeah, I looked up in the yellow pages and found a testing center. I went to a testing center. It was me and a bunch of adult learners. It was military folks, single moms. It was a very humbling experience for me. So I went from almost the height of arrogance, you know I don’t have to do anything to get an a in high school, to really just almost forcing my way to get this GED, general equivalency degree, and like I said already got my SAT scores. Thankfully, I had gotten that before this whole thing went down, and I filled out an application. Even in my application I explain how I made these mistakes but I was looking to turn my life around, that kind of thing. So it did provide some story, but it was one small step after another. So get the GED, make sure that the standardized testing scores were still valid, I had to apply to schools, had to write applications…. so it took some work but I chunked it down to small steps. And if you were to look at me, especially at the end of my junior and senior year, you would think this kid’s go nowhere. I mean he’s just to screw up. All he does is hang out at the mall and he’s gained a lot of weight, and it was just a period of my life where nothing I did was right. I could do no right. But I sort of glommed onto this idea of just small wins after small wins, and it was really my dad that sort of forced me into looking at life that way. So eventually I got into one college – only one college accepted me, and it was a struggle even then. I didn’t get great grades but I knew I sort of had to at least pass one class. So you kind of build up to it and then, eventually, I got my first job. Like I said, a CPA consulting. This is kind of funny. I got a job, and this is right around y2k, so really everybody was hiring. It was y2k of sarbanes-oxley.

Peter: Yep.

Phil: So for those of your audience who aren’t either in the financial world or CPA world, this was like one of the biggest governmental regulations that caused a hiring spree. So, in the year 2000, basically this company was looking for somebody with a college degree and a pulse. So I had both… barely.

Peter: [laughs]

Phil: So they hire me and I’m thinking I’m on top of the world now. I’m working for an up and growing company: they had a hundred associates, had about a hundred fifty clients all throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia. I’m traveling around, doing my audits, learning on the job. Well, they basically say two years on-the-job learning is what it takes to learn this job. Well two years had passed. I had done pretty well. I started getting offers from other banks to join their teams, and it was the year end christmas party and the managing partner is a little bit drunk and he says “Phil, I want to tell you something.” I’m thinking okay, great. I’m thinking this is going to be some great big compliment. He said, “Do you know why I hired you?” I begin, no, I’d love to know why you hired me. And he says, “It’s because you wore a belt.”

Peter: [laughs] A belt?

Phil: He said you were up against three other candidates and none of them wore a belt, and at that point I realized… it was just such an arbitrary moment and I don’t even know why I was like I have to wear a belt, but it really kind of brought me down to earth, so to speak. It just humbled me and I thought some of the things in life that happened to us are as arbitrary as that.

Peter: [laughs]

Phil: It’s not due to any great talent that you have. You might get the client because you wore a blue colored tie that day. I guess my point is that it was very humbling to me and, at that point, I thought I don’t think I want to be in this industry where such arbitrary decisions are made off of what you wear. And to this day I wear a belt. You know, even to bed I’ll wear a belt.

Peter: [laughs]

Phil: That’s like my thing, so I don’t want to lose out on any clients.

Peter: Are you wearing one right now?

Phil: I am, indeed.

Peter: Okay, good good good. That’s a great story!

Phil: Yeah, I just thought oh my god. Here I was thinking he’s going to compliment me on how well I did in the past two years, how I’ve grown this firm. Nope. You wore a belt. To be fair, he was a good boss and he was a little bit drunk that day, but it was at that point that I thought I think I need to move on to something a bit more meaningful. So that was really what got me started into looking at grad schools. So two years into my career I knew that I didn’t want to be in banking and auditing for the rest of my career. Now to be fair I lasted in that industry for about 10 years. So while I was working full-time I would take these small steps. I would take a class here for grad school or I would take a teaching assignment. Oh! This was crazy. There is a school… so we were based out of Indiana, Pennsylvania. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that area, but it’s about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. They call it pennsyltucky,

Peter: [laughs]

Phil: But it’s basically western Pennsylvania. And I’m working for one of the client banks there. Great organization. One of the top 100 places to work. Loved what I was doing… but there was always sort of this gnawing feeling in the back of my throat that I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do. I’m sure you know what I mean, because you’re a recovering accountant yourself.

Peter: Right.

Phil: But for me, it was this idea that I wanted to make an impact on people’s lives beyond just saving them money or keeping their account secure. But one my mentors said “Phil, if you want to teach full-time, first of all you got to get your doctorate, but then, secondly, you have to teach. Like you have to take any classes that you can.” So I was applying to all these colleges within a 50-mile radius, and all of them either turned me down or they had their gigs lined up already or they had people. Until, finally, it was at one of those networking sessions, but there was a buddy of mine who taught full-time at Frostburg State University. It’s a small College in Frostburg, Maryland. And if you can draw a line from indiana, PA to Frostburg, Maryland… first of all, you can’t. There’s no direct line to it. You are driving through mountains… and it took, one way Pete, it takes three hours to get there. And he said “I really need somebody to teach this wednesday night class. Can you do it? It start six o’clock.” Okay, so I checked with my boss and thankfully he was very flexible. He knew I was going back to grad school and he knew that the ultimate goal was to teach, so he allowed me to flex some hours. So on wednesdays I would come in at like five in the morning and I would work through until about three and I would hightail it. I mean I would just break land speed records to drive from Indiana, PA to Frostburg, Maryland. It took three hours. I would teach that nice night class from six to ten, and then I would drive home and I’d get home around 1am. And I did this for about six months, and even now to this day my wife and I just laugh about this. Can you believe that we we got through that? And it just goes to show that, really, you need a series of small wins… and sometimes the small wins don’t look really glamorous. Lo and behold, after I got that job, that’s when I got started getting calls from other schools saying “hey, we see you have some teaching experience, can you teach our class?” So eventually I got some teaching experience to some schools closer to Indiana, and then what made my resume that much stronger against other candidates. Whenever I went for my full-time teaching gig they had seen that I had about three years of teaching adjunct courses at various different schools. It was just another classic example of a small wins leading to remarkable results.

Peter: First, I gotta back up. So for my audience, next time you’re going to an interview make sure you have a pulse and you’re wearing a belt.

Phil: [laughs] That’s right. You’re halfway there if you have those two things.

Peter: So you went from from a high school dropout to… your position at Walsh College now is?

Phil: I’m an associate professor of business.

Peter: That’s remarkable. Kudos to you for having that that drive to pick yourself up and and figure things out and make that move. That is one remarkable story. And how long have you been at Walsh now?

Phil: I’ll be completing my seventh year by the time May (2017) comes around. So I’ve been here almost eight years. Crazy.

Peter: I was at Ohio Dominican for six or so years. Are you tenured faculty?

Phil: I am, yeah. In fact that was that was one of the goals, obviously, to obtain tenure. That’s kind of a neat story too. For those who are, in fact, higher higher ed or familiar with it, you know it can be this long, drawn-out process. In fact, my predecessor, the reason why I got hired here, was because they recently had gotten rid of three or four faculty. It was sort of as a clean slate within the business school. And my year, 2010, they had hired three or four faculty members, and the accountability group that I’m in, the mastermind group that I’m in here with faculty, three out of the five of us who were up for tenure last year all got it. So it was sort of… recognition or celebration of the hard work that we put in. So yeah, for here it’s a six-year process. After your sixth year they review your profile, your teaching evaluations, how much scholarship you’ve done, your service, and it’s it’s a really neat thing to be recognized by your peers, because it’s a vote by the by the committee but also there has to be a majority vote by your peers. So that was what was most meaningful to me.

Peter: That’s awesome. Congratulations on tenure.

Phil: Thank you.

Peter: I’m trying to remember how Dominican was, but I’ve been away from it for so long. But I remember that process. I don’t have a PhD but I was full time because of the equivalency of a master’s in a CPA.

Phil: Yeah.

Peter: So I could never get tenure, but I had some things that I needed to fulfill in order to maintain my contract. The story of you as a business professor, and I know you’ve mentioned this before (we’ve known each for about a year or so)

Phil: I think it was more than that, but go ahead. In fact, were you at the NSA convention in Philadelphia?

Peter: Yes I was.

Phil: I’m not here to embarrass you, but I think we actually met then, and the only reason why I remember it is because I was listening to either one of your podcasts or talks before and you were talking about being at the laugh lab. I thought, you know what, I think I actually remember that. it was sort of a serendipitous happened. We didn’t know each other but I think we had actually met then… so it’s actually been a couple years, but you’re right. Actually knowing each other professionally and as colleagues and friends, yeah, a little over a year.

Peter: So we’ve know each other for a while, and one of the things I remember – maybe you were talking about this in our mastermind group – is about the garage. Could tell our audience about the garage?

Phil: Oh my gosh. I love this. Thank you for asking. So this was, again, just a classic story – almost an entrepreneurial story, actually. So these four students on campus wanted a place to meet, to collaborate, and to create. And they really couldn’t find any place on campus. I mean, they could meet in the cafeteria but that was sort of loud and you can’t really do anything there. The library had limited hours, and nobody really wanted to meet in one person’s dorm room. So they’re scouring the campus, they’re asking around, nobody’s giving them any positive responses, but they somehow find this empty storage space, basically, on campus. I honestly have no idea how they found it, but it at one point it was a literal garage. So it’s not a part of the new buildings, it was sort of across the street, but it was all owned by the university. So they start asking questions, they meet with the faculty, they say hey have you heard of this? What are we using this space for? No clue. They end up meeting with the facilities Department. Hey, what are we doing here? They kept on asking questions, and if you think about it these are students that have no money, have no connections, no influence, really… they just have an idea.

Peter: Yeah

Phil: and eventually they met up with the the president of the university. His name’s Richard Jusseaume and he is an entrepreneur himself. He’s built up multi-million dollar companies, but he has a strong tie to to Walsh University in that he was actually… I don’t know what the correct term is, but his life plan was to be a brother Christian instruction but, eventually, he found his wife, wanted to get married and have kids. They took a different route, but they brought him back as the president. He’s been here for about 10 years, or 15 years. In terms of tenure for university president, that’s really long. They usually last about five to six years, on average.

Peter: Exactly.

Phil: He was here, the students got an audience with him, and he got it right away. He green-lighted the project. They raised I want to say a $150,000 or something like that to renovate the space. It went from a junk storage space to really sort of decked out with state-of-the-art technology. We have a 3d printer in there. And, if you could see it, it’s really cool too. It actually looks like a really cool garage. Like it went from dirt floor to sort of this slab sort of concrete with whiteboard paint on the walls are, it’s Wi-Fi decked, and every technology that’s relevant to them. It’s perfect for them. It’s suited for them. And it’s run by students ,and it’s really designed by students. They’re the ones who booked the speakers, they book innovation challenges and hackathons, and in the past year we’ve had I want to say at least three to four student-run businesses that have actually been born out of there that garage. So it really went from nothing to, now, some sort of revenue-generating thing for the students, and obviously a great sort of success story for the university. The reason why I was brought in is because I’m the faculty advisor. I’m the one that makes sure that the place hasn’t burned down, make sure the kids have access when they need, but it’s open 24/7. That’s the other thing. They have access 24/7 because, as you know Pete, creativity and innovation doesn’t happen between the hours of 3 and 5 p.m.

Peter: [laughs] right.

Phil: I mean, you need this open, collaborative space with students from all majors. So you have management majors, a nursing student, somebody who’s in physical therapy and wants to design a new running shoe, there’s a museum studies person in there. I mean it’s it’s a really cool place where there’s a lot of energy and a lot of creativity and innovation happening. So that’s on the student side, and then we also have community mentors that will agree to come in once a month to give their opinion on something or give a short 10-minute talk, and then there’s almost a town hall meeting, back-and-forth Q&A type thing. So they’re sort of these formal either meetings or speakers or gatherings, and then outside of that it’s just sort of this free-flowing students come in and out and they work on whatever project they want to work on. They call it the garage, because they they did their research and companies like Apple and Microsoft and Disney and Mattel all started in garages. So their goal is to start the next bourbon or Instagram there, if you will, in that garage. I’m really excited about it. It’s one of things that I’m most excited about here at Walsh: just that students are super motivated. The other thing is they don’t get credit for this. This is on their own time, there’s no course associated with this, and that was by design. They didn’t want to get a grade for attendance or things like that. They just wanted it to be there space where they can meet with other like-minded students and community mentors and start building stuff, so it’s a really really cool thing that they have on here.

Peter: That is way cool and kudos to the students for the initiative of starting it, and you just blew me away. They don’t want credit for it. They just want to place where they can collaborate and create and build, and please correct me if I’m wrong but I think in the TED talk when you’re kind of talking about this, is this where you use the term MVP?

Phil: Yes, thank you. So one of the key tools or methodologies that they use is the MVP, and they get it from agile rapid prototyping or agile programming. This idea of this minimum viable product. So what’s your MVP? So these students will come in and have, essentially, if they’re not familiar with the garage process, they’ll come in and they have these great ideas. We wanna build something that can that can mow your lawn and that can cut your hair and that can do your laundry and file your taxes, too, and it’s all in a mobile app.

Peter: [laughs]

Phil: and it’s going to change the world. And we kind of laugh, but every student comes in that way because it’s the Instagram story all over again. Okay, that’s great, but let’s boil it down to “what is the core essence of what you want to do or what business problem you want to solve or what pain you want to provide a solution for.” And we force the student entrepreneurs to kind of scale back to what is the core essence, what is your MVP? So that’s what I usually ask them to do, and it takes a little bit for them. We want a working prototype so you can actually see how it works in the field, in the wild so to speak, and then if we were to pair you up with a community mentor… they’re not gonna have expertise in culinary arts as well as haircutting as well as tattoos. I mean, maybe they might, but ultimately we want you to have a laser-like focus because that’s going to provide you with the best opportunity to have a working prototype to either take it to market to test in the wild, or to get investors. So that sort of changes the narrative from I have all these great ideas. No, let’s get to your MVP. What are your core things that you need to get done before you move onto the next thing? I’m not limiting you. What I believe I’m doing is I’m allow you to achieve the most success that you can by chunking it down into these sequential steps. So our brains don’t really work in sequential steps, I understand that, so I want to respect that process because that’s how creativity happens. But once we get down to actually producing a product or service or improving your business or getting more clients, it really does take this almost laser-like focus to get a thing done. To prioritize things and to get that thing done, and then move on to the next thing. You’re going to feel a lot better about yourself when you do it that way.

Peter: So as I listen to you describe this, it is like a baby shark tank.

Phil: Yeah, that’s well said. Yeah, exactly.

Peter: Let’s get you focused, let’s get all of that you need to really think about with this business idea, let’s polish it and refine it, and then we’ll take it to the sharks and see if we can get some investors.

Phil: Yup.

Peter: That’s awesome.

Phil: Yeah, that’s a great way to sum it up. It’s baby shark tank, or pre shark tank if you will. Yep. So that’s the MVP. I know Jim Canterucci talks about the lean canvas: sort of a one-page business plan, if you will, and we allow them to utilize that as well. It forces the entrepreneur to look at their business from a macro level, but then it forces them to do their business at a micro level. I think that is sort of the nice mix right there. So you look at it from a big picture point of view so it doesn’t confuse you, you make the complex simple, but then when you really want to move forward you have to choose what small wins or small steps that you’re going to take and then just kill those. And just a series of small wins, one right after another, that how you get success.

Peter: Yeah, and it takes me back and I use this in some of my presentations – and I know you’re very familiar with this – when like adult learners come back and want to get into a master’s program and that first class they’re all so excited, they’re all like I’m gonna get my master’s degree, and about halfway through it you lose a lot of students. 18 months is taking forever!

Phil: [laughs]

Peter: Because you have all this other stuff going on and I would tell faculty, when the class is done, when the finals are over, go celebrate. Celebrate those small successes because, if you celebrate those small successes, the likelihood that that student will make it to the end dramatically increases versus going “okay, we’re done, you got two weeks off before we go to your next class.”

Phil: I love it. I love that. Absolutely.

Peter: It keeps the momentum going. And if you set those small goals, and when you achieve it, you can celebrate and there’s a little bit of excitement there.

Phil: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s just like those checklists we talked about earlier. So glad you said that because I teach MBA classes as well, and there was a student of mine who had taken a 20-year break.

Peter: Wow.

Phil: A 20 year break, and I’m not even saying 20 year break from undergrad to grad. It was graduate school. She took her first class 20 years ago and then life happened. So she had to take a break and had to focus on raising her family, and 20 years later she comes back. Obviously, none of those courses transferred over, but she was just pointing out that this was a goal of mine and I realized exactly what you said. She had all of her classes charted out on this calendar and said I can only do one class at a time, one class a semester, so it’s gonna take me at least two-and-a-half years to get through this. But now I’m on my fourth class and I see some progress. So it’s nice to chunk it down into small steps, but to your point it’s also really encouraging to kind of get a small step and and look back and say “hey, I did it.” It’s like being on day 4 of a diet.

Peter: [laughs]

Phil: I mean. day one, everybody’s excited. Day two, ninety percent of us have given up. But day four it’s like, okay, I got three days behind me. I think I can do this. Let’s get to day five. So yeah I think we definitely need to to celebrate the small wins, and in fact that’s one of… I actually have another TEDTalk. You said this will be March, but my first TEDTalk was in December. My second TEDTalk will be on February 18th, and it’ll be on YouTube as well. But the TED talk there is entitled “Reboot: Everyone Deserves a Second Chance,” and that really speaks to this idea of resilience and how people bounce back from failure. One of the key characteristics of people who are able to do that is this idea of persistence. Stick-to-itiveness. You know, having some grit. In light of failure, how do you respond? So what you said was perfect: these students that have taken a long time off need to take the small wins, but it really takes a lot of grit and determination to stick through it while your other friends are out partying and having their fun and your home studying. And it’s this idea of delaying instant gratification for the long-term benefit, and that’s what often separates people who are able to bounce back from failure.

Peter: I will let you know that I will put a link in the show notes to the TEDxAlbany Youtube, as well as this recent one that’s coming. I’ll have both links in the show notes so you can go to it on my website under this podcast and be able to click it and watch it. I will say to everybody in this audience that it’s worth 17 minutes, and you said this next one coming up is gonna be a little bit shorter?

Phil: Yeah, about eight to nine minutes.

Peter: Not seeing the second talk, just based off the first talk and what I know: it’s well worth the half an hour watch both of them because, as you’ve heard through this interview, there’s a lot of great stuff. To go back and relive it, obviously you can relive it through the listening to this podcast over and over and over and over and over again and over some more.

Phil: [laughs]

Peter: Or you can go out and on youtube and find Phil. Where’s your book being sold at?

Phil: It’s on Amazon.

Peter: It’s well worth taking the time. Phil, before we wrap up, I want you to tell the audience, at the end of your TED talk, the Korean lesson.

Phil: Ahh, yes, thank you. So, again, I don’t want to paint the audience with a broad brush but, for those of you who aren’t Korean, this may be your first Korean lesson and I’m gonna force you do with me, Pete. Repeat after me: Shijaki banida.

Peter: Shijaki banida.

Phil Ah, beautiful. Man, better than me. Okay, so basically that translates to Shijaki, which means the start, and banida, which means half. That literally translates to the start is half the task. So again, what I often say is I want you to think big, I want you to start small, but whatever you do I want you to start. So many of us have these great ideas that basically we think in our heads and that’s where dies, or we even write it down and that’s where dies, but in order for us to move forward in our businesses in our lives, to get stuff done, to pick ourselves back up, we have to think big and we have to start small, but the start is half the task. So I want people to start. Whatever it is, even if it’s a bad idea, you won’t know unless you start. So the start is half the task.

Peter: And as I always say, bad ideas are just bridges to good ideas; no ideas lead to absolutely nothing.

Phil: I love it.

Peter: That’s straight out of improv. So Phil, thank you so very much for taking time. This was a great conversation you dropped so many nuggets for this audience to act on, and I look forward to a future conversation in a future venue. So thank you once again my friend.

Phil: Awesome, thanks Pete.

Peter: I would like to thank feel again for taking time out of his schedule to give us ideas about how we can chase only one rabbit at a time and gain greater focus. In episode 41, I interview John Kelly, who is the chief people officer at one of my favorite companies: White Castle Systems. Our discussion focuses on the topic of change management, and how this has evolved over the history of this family-owned business. White Castle was founded on September 13th, 1921, and they will be 100 years old in only four years. Thank you again for listening, and remember to use Yes, And along with your focus to help achieve your goals on one rabbit at a time.


Production & Development for Improv Is No Joke by Podcast Masters

Ep. 39 – Maureen Zappala: Founder and CEO of High Altitude Strategies


Today’s guest, Maureen Zappala, is a rocket scientist turned professional speaker. She shares how we can get over the fear of public speaking and the Imposter Syndrome.

The Imposter Syndrome is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by the inability to internalize their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.

We all fight it and Maureen has some great advice to help you move past this syndrome.

It’s important to understand that the Imposter Syndrome is not a confidence issue – it’s a cognitive issue. It takes confidence to achieve most things worth achieving… but many people then experience a cognitive distortion separating themselves from their accomplishments.

A big part of getting beyond the syndrome is identifying yourself with the accomplishments. It is putting yourself in the place of the person who did the work, and accepting that it’s not somebody outside of you or a set of circumstances that allowed it to happen. You created it, you did it, and now you need to own.

Another critical part of getting over the imposter syndrome is recognizing its prevalence: you are NOT the only one suffering. Everyone can start moving past the issue when it is addressed, but sometimes it takes someone like Maureen to come in and start the conversation.

If you suffer from the Imposter Syndrome, you need to accept that there is no possible way you can know everything about the position you’re in, the technology you’re involved with, the company you work for, or the reach that you can have. There’s no possible way, so you need to let yourself off the hook. Practice saying “I don’t know yet, let me get back to you.”

I greatly appreciate Maureen taking the time to share her important advice. If you are interested in having Maureen speak at your organization, you can contact her at

Download this Episode MP3.



Click to download the full Transcript PDF.

Improv Is No Joke – Episode 39 – Maureen Zappala

Maureen Zappala: People with self-confidence will take risks. They’ll go to school, they’ll try out for that position, they’ll put in for the promotion, they’ll take on the responsibility. The confidence gets them to that position… but yet the internal dialogue in their head makes them doubt their right to be there.


Peter Margaritis: Welcome to Improv is no Joke podcast, where it’s all about becoming a more effective communicator by embracing the principles of improvisation. I’m your host Peter Margaritis, the self-proclaimed chief edutainment officer of my business, The Accidental Accountant. My goal is to provide you with thought-provoking interviews with business leaders so you can become an effective improviser, which will lead to building stronger relationships with clients, customers, colleagues and even your family, so let’s start the show.


Peter: Welcome to episode 39 of Improv Is No Joke podcast. Thank you very much for download this episode. Today’s guest is Maureen Zappala, who is the founder and CEO of High-Altitude Strategies. She’s a mechanical engineer who has reinvented herself into an outstanding speaker with a powerful message. Maureen and I start our conversation off by talking about how she became a better speaker by joining Toastmasters. Now she’s still involved with Toastmasters and has moved from competing in competitions like the world championships to provide content to Toastmasters’ monthly magazine. She’s currently writing an article about the corporate Toastmaster clubs and Harley-Davidson. Now that’s cool! She also states that a recent Toastmaster poll on “Why Did You Join Toastmasters?” and the number one reason was to get past the fear of public speaking – not to become a better speaker. Listen carefully as Mauree talks about surviving the fear of public speaking. Great advice. Then we’ll discuss the current speaking business and how her business changed after reading the book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, and it was about the Imposter Syndrome. That’s when she had an aha moment because she had felt that way every day she went to work at NASA. She lived it and built her business around this topic. Now the Imposter Syndrome is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by the inability to internalize their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud… you know, it’s a story that you have in your head. We all fight it and Maureen has some great advice to help you move past this syndrome. As I reflect on this episode and the principles of improvisation, this is very much a Yes, And interview. Yes, And is implied throughout the entire conversation, from getting pasture fear of public speaking to dealing with the Imposter Syndrome. I’m sure you will enjoy this episode. If you’ve been listening to my podcast for a while, you know that one of my goals with this podcast is that it will help you begin to make changes in your work and your personal lives so you can better connect with others and create meaningful relationships. Many people have said that it takes 21 days to start a habit, which I just learned this week from Dr. John B Molitor, PhD, that’s incorrect. John is the Dean of psychiatry and community at Michigan State University. He said that the research shows that it takes 66 days to create a habit. So now we gotta put in some extra work to create that muscle memory. That’s why I created the Yes, And challenge: to help keep these principles in front of you so you can build up your improvisational muscle. To sign up, please go to and scroll down to the Yes, And challenge call to action and click to register to begin building the productive habit of Yes, And and the principles of improvisation. And remember to show your experiences on twitter using the hashtag #yesandchallenge. If you’re unsure of what the Yes, And challenge is all about, I discuss this in detail in episode 0. Go back and take a listen. Remember you can subscribe to my podcast on itunes, stitcher, and google play. To pick up an autographed copy of my book Improv is no Joke: Using Improvisation to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life, please go to my website, PeterMargaritis, and you’ll see the graphic on the homepage to purchase my book. With that said, let’s get to the interview with Maureen Zappala.

Peter: Hey everybody, I’m here with Maureen Zappala. First and foremost Maureen, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule and taking time to be a guest on my podcast today.

Maureen: Thanks for letting me join you, Peter. It’s been fun getting to know you and I’m really privileged to hang out with you today.

Peter: Oh, well. The check’s in the mail. Thank you very much.

Maureen: [laughs]

Peter: Maureen and I are both members of the National Speakers Association and the Ohio Chapter, but we really got to know each other earlier this year when we were in a virtual mastermind group and I have a lot in common. She’ll talk a lot of what she speaks on, but I don’t want to give away her background because I can’t do justice to a background like she could do it. So Maureen, if you could tell us a little bit about yourself. Let the audience get to get to know you a little bit before we start our conversation.

Maureen: Sure, Pete. It’s kind of interesting. I started out as an engineer. I worked for almost 14 years at NASA. NASA has a center here in Cleveland, it’s now called the NASA Glenn Research Center, but back when I was there is the NASA Lewis research center. I did research in jet engine propulsion. Jet propulsion engines… long story, won’t go into. But I worked there for almost 14 years, quit to raise a family, and then started doing some speaking on the side. Now it’s kind of ironic because my background is mechanical engineering. I went to University of Notre Dame, and you know what? Engineers.. we’re really not known for verbal skills.

Peter: Hey, welcome to my group! [laughs]

Maureen: I know you speak to a lot of accountants, a lot of know you know number crunchers, left-brain thinking, logical type people. But I found that I had a skill for communication and the skill for speaking. When I was at NASA I was in a management position and we had to make a lot of presentations and my boss said I was awful. That I was awful… and I was. When I quit NASA, I took a cash buyout actually. The government was downsizing. I joined Toastmasters.

Peter: Oh!

Maureen: Yeah, and it’s funny because I didn’t join Toastmasters to become a better speaker. At the time, I was also selling Mary Kay Cosmetics.

Peter: Okay.

Maureen: And because of my background in NASA, mostly men… men and color cosmetics are not a good fit. So I needed to meet women… So I say I joined us message to meet women! [laughs]

Peter: [laughs] Okay! I’m thinking maybe I should have started selling Mary Kay products many years ago.

Maureen: [laughs] So I no longer do Mary Kay but I have done a lot more speaking, professionally speaking. When I get my key notes and I talk about being an engineer, as a speaker, it’s just fun to bring up the contrast of how engineers were not known for our skills, but if I can do it anybody can do it.

Peter: And Toastmasters helped you achieve that goal, I take it?

Maureen: It did. It completely transformed my speaking, gave me opportunities to connect with people that could hire me as a speaker, helped me to formulate my topic… plus it’s a great, fun environment. Lots of fun people, lots of energy, it’s encouraging, uplifting, celebration, applause. It’s a great environment.

Peter: I joined Toastmasters not to meet women but to learn how to speak and do presentations in public, and I can still to this day see the person at the end of the table counting the ums and ahs. They really do a good job of getting rid of those filler words. They really do a great job of taking that diamond in the rough and polishing it up.

Maureen: Yeah I found the same thing. It was one of the first noticeable pieces of improvement I I saw in my speaking: getting rid of those verbal crutches. Some people may take it to an extreme, but everybody’s a little different. I know that all of us can sit in a sermon at church, we consider a meeting, we could even watch newscasters or public figures on television, and once you start to realize how much they ah and umm their way through, it starts to get distracting.

Peter: Yes it does.

Maureen: And you don’t even know you do it yourself until somebody calls you out on it, and once you start being aware of it then you can make the conscious efforts to eliminate it… and wow does that make a difference.

Peter: Yeah it really does. And, actually, uh… there goes another um.

Maureen: [laughs]

Peter: I found that, after they pretty much get rid of about 90 percent of it, I had another verbal crutch that I didn’t realize I had, which was the word okay.

Maureen: uh-huh

Peter: and it wasn’t until I got evaluations back from one of the speaking engagements that they said I I overuse the word okay, we’ve turned it into a game, and one of them said we broke our lead you said the word okay so much. And I never heard it until I went to teach that next monday or tuesday and I heard it, and I made my class, over a two- to three-week period, anytime I said the word okay they threw stuff at me, they made raspberry sounds, they did everything distracting so I would start to hear it. Because you don’t hear, or nobody calls you out on it, but it is very very distracting.

Maureen: Mhm. I agree.

Peter: So you are a professional speaker now, but let’s back up. Are you still involved with Toastmasters?

Maureen: I am, to a much lower extent. I joined Toastmasters originally way back in 1998, I think. I can’t remember the exact date. 97-98. I took a few years off when my kids were really little, and when they went back to school full-time I rejoined. I was really plugged into the contest side of Toastmasters. There’s basically two sides: communication and leadership. Communication has a lot of contests. I love to compete and I did pretty well, and I competed again this past season. I actually made it to the semi-finals in the world championship and had a great run. It was great, it was great.

Peter: Wow.

Maureen: It was fun, fabulous, exciting. I didn’t even care that I didn’t win because it was such a great adventure.

Peter: [laughs]

Maureen: I still am a member of a club, but my biggest focus now has been contributing as a writer for their monthly magazine. That’s been been a lot of fun. I did not realize how much fun it was to write. Even as a speaker, I do a lot of writing to create my keynotes and to just brainstorm ideas. But to focus it on a magazine article, about once a month once or every other month, has been a real joy for me.

Peter: What are your articles on? What’s the topic? I imagine it’s a variety of topics.

Maureen: It is a variety because Toastmasters will come to me and say “here’s a topic, would you be willing to research it and find some people to survey or interview and write an article on it?” I said sure, why not. For example, I’m currently writing an article on the the corporate clubs that are sponsored at Harley-Davidson, at their corporate headquarters.

Peter: Cool.

Maureen: Yeah it’s really cool because I’m going to get a chance to interview some of the c-suite level executives and get some background on their corporate culture. It’s really fun, so I’m excited about that.

Peter: Where’s the Harley-Davidson headquarter located?

Maureen: in Wisconsin.

Peter: Wisconsin, okay. What’s the the crux of the article?

Maureen: They’ve got four corporate clubs up there right now. Their first club was started by a member of the IT team who saw that people in IT, and I’m sure you see it with accountants and I thought with engineers, they needed a little help with their communication skills. Whether it was for an internal presentation they were making or maybe just communicating with vendors or customers, whatever, they just needed a little bit of polishing.

Peter: Well, why do so many people need to be polished, as you say? Is it because of the fear of having an audience and having people look at you when you speak?

Maureen: Yeah, in fact I just saw a statistic not long ago… somebody polled a bunch of Toastmasters and asked “why did you join?” Most people didn’t join to get better at making presentations. They joined to get past what you just said: the fear of speaking either to a group or even in conversation. They wanted to get past that crippling, mind-numbing, body-sweating fear. And I’ll tell you, and I’m sure you’ve probably experienced it too because you do a lot of speaking, that’s fear doesn’t always completely go away.

Peter: Oh, no. I never want it to completely go away.

Maureen: Yeah, because it is kind of energizing, and it keeps you on your toes, but at least you know that now the techniques and the specific things to do to get past it. You know your topic, you love your topic, you are an expert at your topic, you know that you’re there to give something of value to the audience. That’s all part of diminishing that fear that most people don’t know before they maybe even joined Toastmasters.

Peter: I was actually doing a presentation on public speaking and presentation skills and somebody in the audience, it was probably about a year-and-a-half ago, said “Peter you do this all the time. You probably don’t have any fear.” I said I do have some. And then they went “but you don’t know what the fear is because you’ve gotten so far past it that you forgot what it’s like.”

Maureen: Oh no [laughs]

Peter: And you know I kind of took that to heart.

Maureen: Ah.

Peter: and earlier this year… as you know, I’ve done some stand-up comedy in my day.

Maureen: Mhm.

Peter: And it’s been on and off, but I decided to get back up onstage earlier this year. And for somebody who’s a professional speaker, who can go eight hours, I was terrified. I had those same feelings that somebody has if they’re getting up to do a presentation within their organization and I had to use my improv skills and the word Yes, And just to get through it. But same thing: I worried so much about it that those internal demons were just beating me up, but after it was said and done I kept saying it wasn’t that bad, which really helped me to relate again with my audience. Yeah, I know exactly what you’re feeling, and to some extent it can be absolutely paralyzing.

Maureen: Mhm, it is. And there’s some validity to what your friend said, that you’ve been doing this so long that you don’t know what it feels like. However, it’s that you do know what it feels like but you know that you’re going to survive it.

Peter: Right.

Maureen: And a lot of people don’t know that they’re going to survive it, and that’s why they shut down. That’s why they would rather go vomit. That’s why they gotta go pee in their pants, you know whatever it is. Just they’re not familiar with this and they don’t know how to get past it.

Peter: Yeah, that’s that’s true. But going back to earlier this year, I forgot how to get past it. My wife is out of town and my son had ski club, and he was gonna get home about nine thirty that night and that’s the time I’m supposed to be onstage. And that morning I said Steven, you sure you don’t want me to be home when you get home?

Maureen: [laughs]

Peter: I texted him at school and I text him on the bus ride. He said Dad, stop it. Just go and do your comedy thing. And I was trying to find an excuse… but that really that really did help me once again realize what others go through in getting up and getting past that fear.

Maureen: Mhm.

Peter: So Toastmasters helps you get past that fear.

Maureen: It did. Mhm.

Peter: And helped you become, obviously, a better speaker, to get to the World Championships. Now when you made it to the World Championships, what was your topic? What was your presentation, your speech about?

Maureen: A little bit of background on the whole contest: it’s a six-year journey. It starts, usually, around February, around the world. Close to 35,000 people enter the contest, around the world, in january-february time frame at the club level. Then the winners advance through different levels. By the time they get to the finals, which is usually in August, that field of 35,000 has been whittled down to nine or ten… depending on the year.

Peter: Wow.

Maureen: Yeah. In 2009, I made it to the top 10. This past year, 2016, I made it to the semifinals, which is about the top 85-90. Somewhere around there. Still very significant. Now, there’s six levels of the contest. At each level you can give the same speech, until you get to the sixth level, the last level. You have to come up with a different speech. So in 2009, my final speech was on the topic of how to overcome pride. Now it is kind of interesting because people are like, “well that’s kind of a weird topic.” Well, you have to know your audience. Toastmasters really enjoy motivational, inspirational, character-building, you set the world on fire, kind of dream it do it kind of speeches. So I chose that topic how to overcome pride because I have struggled with pride my entire life. I have parents that built into me, told me I was great, and I think that’s a good thing to do, to build into your kids until then they’re great, but when they start to define their whole life by “I am great” you have a problem, which is exactly what I did. I really really thought I was all that more.

Peter: Yeah.

Maureen: So I had life situations kind of knock me down and really recalibrated my whole sense of self. So I spoke on that topic, and you don’t just speak on a topic. You build in stories, you build in humor, you use metaphors and analogies, and it’s a seven-minute speech. So you have to take them on a pretty good ride in seven minutes.

Peter: Wow, yeah.

Maureen: Yeah. This past year, this past season, my semi-final speech was about, basically, rebounding after a setback in your life.

Peter: Okay.

Maureen: I lost my parents when I was a teenager, and that was a literally a trampoline into other great things in my life. I use that as a springboard to talk about how do you bounce back from other things in your life. You know, is the pain in your life useful? Is it constructive or destructive? Choose to make it constructive.

Peter: You said something earlier: you know your audience, you know what you’re looking for. And and in any get type of presentation, the more that you can add some humor…

Maureen: Oh yeah!

Peter: It goes a really long way of keeping them away from their cell phones,

Maureen: Oh yeah [laughs] well I’m sure you know, being in the NSA, that the line is “you don’t have to use humor unless you want to…

Together: Get paid.”

Peter: Exactly [laughs] and humor does… David Nihill, founder of Funny Business, I think that’s the name of it, I kind of stumbled upon him and he’s talking about how to write humor into your stories and along those lines, because engineers, accountants, when we have to do a presentation, the more that we present data, the more we put more words up on the screen and don’t build an emotional story and add humor and stuff, they’re not gonna retain it. It’s just going to fall flat. So the more that we can use humor in a presentation, one, I think he says “after the laughter stops the–

Maureen: learning begins.”

Peter: Yeah.

Maureen: I’ve heard that. Where the peak of learning comes after the peak of laughter, or something along the same lines.

Peter: Yeah, and he says, and I believe this, that when you laugh and you hear that you are more inclined to be more “what’s he going to say next, what is she going to say next?” Be more engaged in to it vs “oh my god I can watch the grass grow and have a better time than listening to this guy. Anyone? anyone? bueller? anyone?” You know, it’s Ben Stein’s scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Maureen: [laughs]

Peter: So you’ve gone from being a rocket scientist.

Maureen: Mhm.

Peter: Now I actually know somebody who’s a rocket scientist.

Maureen: Well it’s funny because I use that line a lot in my keynotes, also. I’ll tell them I have a background in engineering, I work Jet Propulsion, I’m a genuine rocket scientist… but don’t be impressed. It just means that when I do something stupid, you can say oh what are you a rocket scientist? and I can say yes!

Peter: [laughs] that’s great.

Maureen: Yeah it’s a pretty good laugh.

Peter: It got a great one here right now.

Maureen: [laughs]

Peter: So you’ve taken all of that and you’ve built yourself a speaking business. Tell the audience what you speak on these days.

Maureen: That’s funny. I spoke for a long time on leadership. Generic, vanilla leadership. As an engineer at NASA, as a lower level / middle level manager at NASA, I figured I can talk on leadership. I was led by great people, I led great teams. Leadership. But there’s a million and one leadership speakers, so what else could I talk about to really cut to really set me apart? I read a book a few years ago called The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, and it was about something called the Imposter Syndrome. As I read through the book, I really felt angels were surrounding me and singing. I thought “this is it, this is so me,” because the Imposter Syndrome is an internal voice that usually strikes educated, successful, influential, creative people that have really made a mark in the world. It’s the internal voice that says “oh my gosh, everybody thinks I’m smarter than I really am, or everybody thinks I’m more talented than I am, or everybody thinks I’m more prepared than I am,” and so you think of yourself as an imposter. You think to yourself I’m faking it and they don’t know, and I’m a millisecond away from being found out as a fake. When I read through that book, I thought oh my gosh I lived that at NASA. Every day I walked into work thinking “it’s a fluke that I’m here.”

Peter: [laughs] Wow

Maureen: “It is an accident they put me in this position as a manager with all this responsibility and all this accountability.” I mean I was world-known for the job that I did, for the position that I held, and I really thought it was only because I was a girl that they put me there.

Peter: [laughs]

Maureen: So back then I didn’t think of it as an Imposter Syndrome. When I read through this book I thought oh my gosh yes, and so I had to backtrack through my days at NASA and think “what did I say to myself when I walked into work every day that let me stay there and not go flee to the hills in shame?” Well. there were some things that I did tell myself that, yeah, I did earn this position and I do have a background in this field and I have a record of establishing relationships and making things happen, so I definitely had the criteria that allowed them to put me in this position so I need to own it. So when I speak on the Imposter Syndrome, I teach people the things that I did for myself to get them through that that mind-numbing fear or that almost-paralysis that says “I don’t I don’t deserve this job and I don’t belong here.” Yes you do. You did something right to get there. They’re not idiots for putting you in this position. You didn’t fake it, you didn’t you didn’t snow them. You legitimately own the right to be in this position. Now let’s move on from here.

Peter: So we were talking earlier and you said that self-confidence that gets in the way, because you have to have that self-confidence to get to that point.

Maureen: Yeah, and that’s that’s the kind of a paradox about it. It is people with self-confidence will take risks, they’ll go to school, they’ll don’t try out for that position, they’ll put in for the transfer or the promotion, they will take on the responsibility. So the confidence gets them to that position… but yet the internal dialogue in their head makes them doubt not even their ability but their right to be there. That somebody else made a mistake. So it’s an unusual cognitive distortion. It’s this distortion of believing the facts. It’s like they look at their own resume and they think well that looks really cool but it’s really not me.

Peter: [laughs]

Maureen: But, well, it is you because you created that resume. So it’s not a confidence issue – it’s a cognitive issue. Because confidence is more of an emotional thing.

Peter: Right.

Maureen: Whereas the Imposter Syndrome definitely is a thinking thing.

Peter: And I remember when I published the book and my friends’ comment to me was “does it come with crayons?”

Maureen: [laughs]

Peter: I remember when…. fill in the blank. And for a couple I laughed at them, but I’m still thinking “okay, what the hell is going on here?” Because I think I was, to some degree, going down that imposter syndrome. Like my mother would introduce “my son the author.”

Maureen: Aww.

Peter: and I’m looking at myself thinking I never thought those words would be in the same sentence as my name, and it took it took me a while to… accept it? I don’t know if that’s the right word. I’m like I’m not an author… I took the risk and I have the self-confidence enough to do it, but then I think once it was out there I was like what have I done?

Maureen: Yes. People that have the Imposter Syndrome tend to discount their own accomplishments, and when you say it took you a while to accept it… acceptance is part of it, but really it’s identifying yourself with the accomplishments. It is really owning it, it is really putting you in the place of the person who did the work (and not somebody outside of you or a set of circumstances that that allowed to happen). You created it, you did it, and now you need to own. So it’s tough… it’s a big leap for a lot of people.

Peter: Oh yeah, I can see that. So what groups do you speak to? Is it any and all? Because I imagine most people who are successful entrepreneurs in corporate America might be a little bit hesitant to come to a presentation on the Imposter Syndrome.

Maureen: Yeah, it’s really interesting that you say that. I will speak to entrepreneurs, I’ll speak to tech groups, engineering groups, professional associations… the common thread is that they are the target audience. They’re educated, influential, successful, accomplished. I’ve spoken to blue collar workers, line workers… this doesn’t resonate with them because that’s just not their world. They have a different identity. But it’s interesting that you mention… I don’t know if I want to go here and talk about Imposter Syndrome. I spoke last last year at a conference called CodeMash, which is the biggest conference for computer coders. So these are tech people on steroids.

Peter: [laughs]

Maureen: This is the heart and soul of our communication industry, and the name of the talk was called “how to oppose your imposter,” and I put it out there and then later on I realized that’s probably not good marketing. Like you said, anybody who walks into that room is admitting that they’re an imposter. Yet, the room was filled. I thought it was going to be mostly women, because originally the Imposter Syndrome was identified as a female thing (of course now I know that it’s not. It affects men. Men and women respond to it differently, which is a whole nother question). But the coding world is a male-dominated industry, so there were hundreds of people in this session and it was really cool because I read the tweets afterwards… the tweets blew my mind! Over and over I said “wow I was surprised to see so and so in there, it’s good to know I’m not the only one.”

Peter: Oh wow.

Maureen: That was a lightbulb moment for me because I realized that one of the points I make in my keynote about the Imposter Syndrome is that the Imposter Syndrome is both magnified and alleviated within community. Now it’s magnified in community because, when you’re by yourself, you can be your own rock star. You could say “I’m a rocket scientist, I’m the best, you know I’m really awesome.”

Peter: [laughs]

Maureen: But you get into community with your workmates, your peers, and then you start to feel a little “oh I don’t know… I’m not as smart as they are or not as accomplished as they are” blah blah blah. So the imposter voice starts to get louder… but it’s diminished when you get in a community and you realize “wow I’m not the only one,” but the only way that happens is if people start to talk about it. So what I do in my keynotes is I give people their permission to start a conversation. I’m not gonna ask them raise your hand if you feel like your imposter, although I will say in the keynote that I’m not going to ask you to raise your hand if you think you’re an impostor but the very fact that you walked in the door kind of gives it away… so let’s just all get it out there. [laughs]

Peter: [laughs]

Maureen: And that that breaks the ice and it starts the conversation, so it’s both magnified in community and diminished in community. And that’s the turning point for a lot of people. Once they realize “wow I’m really not alone in this.”

Peter: So it sounds like group therapy.

Maureen: In a way it is. [laughs]

Peter: [laughs]

Maureen: You know, in a very high professional level.

Peter: Exactly. But I did make a note to ask you: where does ego come into this? and I’m talking very large, strong ego. Or does it come into play?

Maureen: I haven’t done research on that but that’s a really good question, because on the flip side of the Imposter Syndrome is something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s not quite on the opposite, but if you were to call something an opposite this would be the closest thing. And if have you ever seen talent shows like The Voice or American Idol?

Peter: Not a lot, but I’ve seen some of them.

Maureen: American Idol is really good for this, especially the early parts of the series where they’ll go out into the field and they’ll find really awful singers.

Peter: Yeah.

Maureen: and have them sing and then the judges are are telling them to go find another line of work. Then the singer walks out all storm and stopping mad “they don’t know talent when they see it!” Well people that suffer from the dunning-kruger effect think that they’re way more talented than they really are. Imposters are not convinced that they are as talented as they are. So ego tends to be more along the line of that dunning-kruger person.

Peter: Okay.

Maureen: They really do have a very inflated sense of self-importance. Sometimes even narcissists or other people that have suffered from borderline personality disorders. People that suffer from Imposter Syndrome, but yet are afraid to admit it or think “oh no that’s not me,” I wouldn’t say that’s ego… it might just simply be they’re not yet informed. And once they realize what it is, what the symptoms are, how it may have held them back, how they can overcome it… they tend to be a lot more open to exploring the idea.

Peter: So share with the audience a couple of things that, if somebody’s listening to this one going “good I’m glad on my in my car. I hope nobody sees that I think I’m an imposter.” But what advice would you give them to get past this syndrome, per se?

Maureen: One of the first things is to realize you’re not alone.

Peter: Okay.

Maureen: Many people suffer from it. When you realize you’re not alone, you can start to have your radar up to look for opportunities, maybe, to talk about it more or to just have the internal dialogue with yourself that says “I’m not alone. I really am as good as my resume says that I am.” The next step would be to realize that there is no possible way you can know everything about the position you’re in, about the technology you’re involved in, about the company you work for, about the reach that you can have. there’s no possible way, so you need to let yourself off the hook from needing to know everything about everything. Another thing I tell people is it’s okay to say “you know what? I don’t know that yet. I don’t know the answer to that, let me get back to you. Let me put you in contact with somebody who can tell you.” I know that, when I was the engineer at NASA in the management position, I was terrified that somebody was going to ask me something that I didn’t know the answer to… terrified! And it never occurred to me to go ask for help! To go find somebody who knew. I really felt that, because I was a manager, I had to know. Well that’s not true. Practice saying to yourself “I don’t know yet, let me get back to you,” or “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you,” or “I don’t know, I’ll put you in contact with somebody.”

Peter: It’s interesting you say that because, in an earlier podcast within the last few weeks, I was interviewing a gentleman by the name of Matt Horan and we were talking about leadership. Now Matt went to the naval academy, he spent six years out at sea, and we were talking about leadership. He said one of the first things you learn about leadership is just to what you said: I don’t know everything, and if I’m in a meeting and somebody asks a question or they’re talking about a specific topic, he would go “Okay, can you can help bring me up to speed here because I’m not quite sure,” but it said it took him a little bit of time. I don’t he said the word courage or whatever, but to realize that he doesn’t know everything. Even though as a leader we were perceived to know everything, but he had to ask those questions. I thought that ties right into what you’re saying.

Maureen: Yeah, it is, and you know what there is a level of respect that you earn when you admit you don’t know everything and that you’re willing to ask for help. There’s something weird about it. It’s welcomed by the people that hear you say that and you need to accept it in your own head that it’s okay to say that.

Peter: Well, I think the people looking at you going “oh my god she’s human.”

Maureen: And not only are they saying “wow he’s human,” but they also might be saying “pick me, I want to help!”

Peter: Exactly. I can get from the boss look better now. And as we move up any type of ladder in our careers, I think one thing, especially with linear thinkers, is that we love to be right.

Maureen: Mhm.

Peter: We love perfection. And I when I talk to my our my audiences about standing in front of an audience, I say the first thing you need to do is let go of perfection because you will mess up. And I said, especially, like if you’re in a Q&A and you get asked a question and you don’t know… don’t BS an audience because somebody out there knows it, and they will rip you to shreds. Hopefully not in public, but after the fact. I give them a couple tips and say, if you don’t know the answer but you’re pretty sure, ask the audience if anybody knows it. So maybe somebody’ll chime in, which will give you a few more minutes or seconds to think through it. Maybe you do know it and you had this little block, and if not then you ask after this come up, give me a business card, write the question, and afterwards I’ll research it for you.

Maureen: Oh yeah, mhm.

Peter: But the caveat there, if you’re doing a 10-minute Q&A, and after the 10-minute Q&A you get 10 business cards…

Maureen: [laughs]

Peter: Yeah, you didn’t do your homework. If you walk away with zero or one, you’ve done a great job.

Maureen: Mhm, yeah. Good point.

Peter: But it’s letting go of perfection because we love being right and saying that, one, I need help or I don’t know. I think that actually might be even scarier than doing a presentation, for some.

Maureen: Mhm.Yeah, I think you’re right. Yeah we just feel like our identity is tied up in what we do and what we know, and when we say we don’t know something well there’s chink in the armor, and that’s not true.

Peter: And I call that the sheldon cooper syndrome. From Big Bang.

Maureen: [laughs]

Peter: Because he’s right about everything.

Maureen: Everything.

Peter: In that perfection, even when he’s wrong, he’s right.

Maureen: [laughs]

Peter: You were saying this doesn’t resonate with a lot of blue collar workers, per se, but I bet it does when that person gets moved into a management role.

Maureen: Oh yeah.

Peter: That gap, at that point, has to be huge.

Maureen: It does, because I think there’s a flaw – and I speak from my own experience in engineering with NASA and government facility – but I see a lot of parallels in the industry and manufacturing and sales organizations. They will promote into management from the technical positions… not smart, because they’re not trained to be managers. They are trained to be technical experts. So you lateral them into a into a management position and don’t give them the right people skills, the right management tools… and it’s sink or swim. The sink or swim… that’s the breeding place of the Imposter Syndrome. It really is.

Peter: I take this quote from peter drucker and he says we’re using the peter principle. We’re promoting them to the level of incompetence.

Maureen: Yeah. Mhm.

Peter: And to your point, because we haven’t provided with with the necessary people skills to become that manager role. Now if I’m a technician and I’m working on the line, no matter what I’m doing, and I get moved up into a manager role… I still want to be buddies with my buddies but I’m trying to also manage them. Who am I to be here? And I can just imagine that dynamic is probably maybe even 10 times worse.

Maureen: Yeah. It does depend, too, on the corporate culture. It depends on your own personal culture: where you came from, childhood messages you got, the incidents in your life that shaped and formed you, how you view relationships and people and success. I mean there’s just so much that goes into the feeding this imposter sense. This feeling of being a fraud.

Peter: So if anybody in my audience is listening to this one thinking “man I gotta get her into my organization,” how can people find you?

Maureen: I am probably one of the most findable people on the planet. My website is My contact information is there, my phone number, my email. I’m on facebook all the time, a little bit on twitter and linkedin, but Facebook is is my happy place so I’m easy to find on facebook.

Peter: And you’re based out of the Cleveland, Ohio area.

Maureen: Right. In cleveland and Akron, an old town called Medina.

Peter: Oh, I know Medin. I had a good friend who used to living without any Peter Korte. Well, Maureen, thank you so very much for taking time out of your schedule and I really enjoyed this conversation. I realized a few things about myself that maybe I didn’t at the start of the conversation, which is always good. Self-awareness goes a long way. I have enjoyed the conversation. I look forward to seeing you at the upcoming NSA Ohio Chapter meeting, and by the way… she is the incoming president of our chapter beginning in the Summer, so she’s got a lot on your plate.

Maureen: You know what, you talk about Imposter Syndrome…

Peter: [laughs]

Maureen: Yeah, I hear it loud and clear. Because, as you know, our chapter president now Lisa Ryan is a total rockstar.

Peter: Oh yeah.

Maureen: She’s just jamming. And so now I have to step into her shoes. And she’s a good friend, dear friend, I know she’ll be in my back pocket as I take over… but still you hear that voice that says “can you do it? Is this an accident? should I even be here?”

Peter: And the answer is yes, you should be there.

Maureen: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. [laughs]


Peter: I’d like to thank Maureen again for taking time out of your schedule to give us ideas on how we can get past the fear of public speaking and the Imposter Syndrome. Lots of great advice Maureen has given us. In episode 40, I interview Phil Kim, who is an associate professor of business at Wallace University in Canton, Ohio. He is also the founder of Idea Path Consulting, which is a management consulting firm for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Our discussion is around his very powerful TEDx talk that he gave in Albany, New York titled “Chase One Rabbit: The Power of Small Wins.” Thank you again for listening and remember to use Yes, And to get past your fear of public speaking and dealing with your Imposter Syndrome.


Production & Development for Improv Is No Joke by Podcast Masters

Ep. 38 – Lisa Ryan: Founder and CEO of Grategy


Did you know that…

  • when a customer stops doing business with a company, 68% of the time it’s because they feel ignored, underappreciated, or taken for granted?
  • when an employee quits, 67% of the time it’s because of their manager?
  • only 42% of employees say that they received any kind of recognition in the past year?

Those surprising statistics show why we need today’s guest, Lisa Ryan, and her business, Grategy, LLC.

Grategy is a portmanteau of gratitude and strategy. The company teaches other organizations how to keep their top talent engaged, enthusiastic, and committed to long-term employment by harnessing the power of appreciation in the workplace.

“You keep your employees AND your best clients from becoming someone else’s by the way you treat them.”

You might be saying, “Hey, why should I thank my employees for doing their job?” Well, if you want your employees to give you their blood, their sweat, and their tears, that’s what you do: you acknowledge them. As an added bonus, it costs nothing!

On top of all that, you’ll see tangible results in your team’s productivity, attitude, and overall profitability to the company if you take the time to look at your people as more than employee IDs.

Appreciated employees are more profitable in the short-term and retaining them will save you money in the the long-term. The process of hiring a new, minimum wage employee can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $16,000. That’s a big ROI for a change in attitude!

Another way to show appreciation is to invest in your employees, and to invest in all of them. Investing in everyone creates connections, conversations, and opportunities for people to learn and grow together. If you empower someone with an opportunity to grow, they just might surprise you.

Employers need to be sincere, be consistent, and can’t put a compliance factor around it.

Lisa is inspiring an incredibly necessary attitude change in business environments. As the Baby Boomers retire and a new generation fills in the workforce, you will want those employees to feel appreciated and respected – you want them to work for you.

Remember: show appreciation and gratitude to your talent so you can keep them on the payroll.

Download this Episode MP3.



Click to download the full Transcript PDF.

Improv Is No Joke – Episode 38 – Lisa Ryan

Peter: Welcome to Improv is no Joke podcast, where it’s all about becoming a more effective communicator by embracing the principles of improvisation. I’m your host Peter Margaritis, the self-proclaimed chief edutainment officer of my business, The Accidental Accountant. My goal is to provide you with thought-provoking interviews with business leaders so you can become an effective improviser, which will lead to building stronger relationships with clients, customers, colleagues and even your family, so let’s start the show.

Peter: Welcome to episode 38 of Improv is no Joke podcast. Thank you very much for downloading this episode. Today’s guest is Lisa Ryan, who’s the founder and CEO of Grategy. Grategy is a combination of gratitude and strategy to help companies keep their top talent from becoming someone else’s. Lisa and I talk about when she was restructured out of her full-time sales job and how that became the inspiration for started her own business. She was well-known and well-liked in the company and she was having the best year ever but then the company had to restructure and she lost her job. You would have thought, as a valuable employee, the company would have thanked her for seven years of service or shown some type of gratitude towards her. They didn’t show any gratitude… and born was Grategy. You keep your employees and your clients by the way you treat them. Show the appreciation. Period. The best part is that it doesn’t cost you anything. Zero zilch nada nothing. However, companies spend a lot of money on stuff. Points. If you get enough points you can pick from this catalog and maybe you get to go home with a big-screen television. Lisa states “you don’t need to spend that kind of money if you’re paying them a livable wage. They’re not going to leave you over money if you’re treating your people with respect and showing them gratitude.” As mother Teresa once said, “We are more star for appreciation then we are for bread.” Research shows that people with a gratitude practice are happier, they work out more often, and they complain less, and have fewer physical ailments, and they are emotionally available and nicer to be around – gratitude works. I’m sure you’ll enjoy our conversation and, as you listen to our interview, you’ll hear many references to the principles of improvisation, just like the two above. If you’re new to this podcast go back to episode 0 and listen to when I discuss, in depth, about the principles of improvisation. One of my goals with this podcast is that it will help you begin to make changes in your work and personal lives so you can connect better with others and create meaningful relationships. Many people have said it takes 21 days to start a habit but a lifetime to keep that pattern. That’s why I created the Yes, And challenge to help keep the principles of improvisation in front of you so you can build up your improvisational muscle. To sign up please go to and scroll down to the Yes, And challenge call to action and click the register to begin building the productive habit of Yes, And and the principles of improvisation. And remember to share your experiences on Twitter using the hashtag #yesandchallenge. Now if you’re unsure of what the SN challenge is all about, I discussed this in detail in episode 0 as well. Remember you can subscribe to my podcast on itunes, stitcher, and google play, and you can purchase my book Improv is no Joke: Using Improvisation to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life on Amazon. It’s available in paperback and on kindle. Now with that said let’s get to the interview with Lisa Ryan.

Peter: Hey everybody, welcome back. I am with Lisa Ryan today and, before I introduce Lisa Ryan, I just want to read what’s on her LinkedIn page. I find it extremely fascinating. She’s an employee engagement speaker and a workshop facilitator to help you keep your top talent from becoming someone else’s. Now if that hasn’t got your attention I don’t know what will because we’re all looking for the best and the brightest, but if they keep leaving and going someplace else we need somebody like her to help us keep these people in our organization. So, first and foremost, thank you so very much Lisa for being a guest on my podcast today.

Lisa: You are very welcome, my friend. It’s great to be here.

Peter: It’s good to have you. Just to get everybody in my audience up to speed, tell us a little bit about who Lisa Ryan is.

Lisa: Okay, well I spent most of my career in sales marketing and training. I have been wanting to speak for most of my life. It actually showed up on one of my goal list for the first time in 1987 when, of course, I was six years old (if you’re doing the math).

Peter: I was thinking three but that’s okay.

Lisa: See, there you go. And when my position was eliminated in October of 2010 via group conference call, with 12 of us getting the boot at the same time… that is not a great way to get fired, by the way.

Peter: No.

Lisa I just decided that I would not let any organization do that to me again and Grategy was born on that day. My friends would tell me hey Lisa that phone call was a blessing in disguise and my only response is, of course, oh honey there was no disguise.

Peter: [laughs]

Lisa: [laughs] So when it comes to doing something that you absolutely love, sometimes it happens in ways unexpected. I always thought, hey, I’m going to build up my speaking business then I’m going to quit my job, but I had a very lucrative job and it wasn’t one that you just quit. You feel that you have those golden handcuffs on but, when this when the opportunity is given to you to have a choice… I could have wallowed or I could have done something that I loved and I’m very happy to say that, six years, later I’m still loving it.

Peter: That’s great. We have a little bit of a similar background because, at one point in time many years ago, I was downsized, reengineered laid off, fired, something along those lines, from a company in Columbus, and I remember that first Monday waking up going “Well what do I do? This isn’t vacation. What do I do?” And that kind of held on for a little bit. A couple days later, somebody said this could be the best thing possible for you and I did a complete change in attitude. And, at the time, it was. It actually turned out to be the best thing possible for me. This is back in the late nineties.

Lisa: uh-huh

Peter: I probably wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t have been re-engineered back in the day. So you took that opportunity and turned it into a business. Yeah, because I knew that one of the things that I went through myself is that I’ve been with this company for seven years. I was on every product team that they had. I was well-known, well-liked in the company. I was having my best year ever and then, when they had to make a difficult choice and I’m sure that it was for them to do that kind of restructuring, but there was really nothing along the lines of “hey thanks for your service, we’re so sorry to see you go.” There was there was really nothing like that and I knew that it really just brought to light the gratitude, the appreciation that acknowledging your employees is something that you do, whether you’re in my situation like this and you have to let go a valuable employee or just to keep your employees there. You keep your employees and your best clients from becoming someone else’s by the way you treat them.

Peter: Wow, such a novel concept that it’s so hard and a lot of organizations to accomplish and, on your LinkedIn page, you go “do you know that when a customer stops doing business with a company, 68 percent of the time it’s because they feel ignored, underappreciated, or taken for granted? Or when an employee quits, 67 percent of the time it’s because of their manager.” Okay, the last one. “Only 42 percent of employees say that they received any kind of recognition in the past year.” Man… one, those two numbers are very high and, two, that last one is very low, in my mind, because we are all in the people business no matter what product or service it is that we sell or do. Without people we can’t do business, so we should be appreciating our people a heck of a lot more than we currently are.

Lisa: Well, absolutely, and I hear different responses. Some managers will say “but Lisa why should I thank my employees for doing their job?” Okay, well if you want your employees to give you their blood, their sweat, their tears, that’s what you do: you acknowledge them. It costs nothing. Now so many companies are focused on giving stuff. Get so many points and you can pick from this catalog and you can do this and this and this and I’m going to give you a big screen television, but sometimes, when it actually comes down to it, you don’t need to spend that kind of money. If somebody is making a livable wage and they feel appreciated, they’re not necessarily going to go down the street for more money. They may go down the street because they feel that that company is going to recognize them more, but like Mother Teresa said, “We are more starved for appreciation then we are for bread,” and I think that this is a message that corporate America really needs to get to because the talent pool is shrinking. And when we have those awesome employees that we bring into our company, we have to figure out how to keep them so that they don’t take those talents and go somewhere else.

Peter: When you said the word appreciation, I remember one owner of a company making this comment. Something along the lines of “my employees they want appreciation. They want appreciation? I’ll show them appreciation. It’s called a paycheck. I keep signing it for them.” And go that’s kind of the wrong attitude… but then I also want to explore this concept of why we aren’t spending the time with people? Are we are using that 80/20 approach? We’re spending eighty percent of our time with the bottom 20 percent of those within the organization, thereby ignoring our other 80 percent?

Lisa: Yeah, I think all of the above. Because we always pay attention to our rockstars, of course. We’re going to give them all kinds of kudos because of who they are and we spend a lot of time with our problem children because we have to fix them, because obviously they’re “broken” (I’m saying this in jest).

Peter: [laughs] Right

Lisa: But a lot of times it’s that’s that steady Eddie that doesn’t get any attention. Eddie’s the employee and he shows up and he does his job and he’s never going to be a rockstar. He’s not a problem child. But because he’s there and he gets his paycheck, we don’t really pay any attention to Eddie. I tell my clients it’s like what if you went up to Eddie and just said “I just want to let you know that I can always count on you, your work is done well, and I’m just glad that you’re here,” you may be the first person in Eddie’s whole life to ever acknowledge him. And we go back to mother Teresa, who talks about how starved we are for that, and Eddie might go “wow, that was pretty cool, how do I get me more of that?” And then he does something else and he gets acknowledged. So we can actually, by our words and by our acknowledgement and by taking action – and again it costs very little time and no money to acknowledge those people – and we’ll see tangible results in their productivity, in their attitude, in their overall profitability to the company because we took the time to look at that person as more than employee ID, more than somebody that we’re writing a paycheck to.

Peter: So how do you change that thought process? If most of corporate america, and it doesn’t have to be corporate America. It could be almost any business if they had that attitude that they’re there for me to pay them so why should I give them appreciation because it’s their job. How do you change someone’s attitude along those lines?

Lisa: I have found, in my audiences, that the companies that desperately need me the most are the ones least likely to hire me. It’s the companies that are already doing things well, that already see the hint or something happened, they know that a change has to be made. They’re the ones that are making the investment. Unfortunately, unless upper management is willing to get that buy-in… and believe me I use a boatload of research, I have so many numbers that I can put dollars on this, like you read on my on my LinkedIn profile. How much money that that eight dollars an hour employee costs. That eight dollar an hour employee can cost you anywhere from $2,000 to more than $16,000 to replace. So if we start looking at the the facts behind it and the money behind it and we see wow, maybe if I start acknowledging Mary and saying thank you and appreciating her for the job she does, maybe it’s not going to cost me $16,000 to replace Mary when she leaves and goes somewhere else down the street. Some people you have to talk to them in terms of numbers. I know a lot of your audience are accountants. It’s all about the numbers, and maybe the people skills aren’t always there because we’re seeing them as numbers. But if we can get beyond that and know that that person is so much more in their ability to contribute to the organization, that’s when the changes start.

Peter: So going into an organization, they contacted they because need your help. When you go in, are you doing a series of workshops? What type of process are you put in place for these organizations to change that culture?

Lisa: You know, all of the above. Two weeks ago I was at an insurance company and they were bringing in their teams from all over the country. It was their management teams and they were doing a full-day workshop. I was the kickoff speaker. Well they had somebody come in and kind of give a company update and then I had a two-hour session with these managers, and a lot of it is that the company was looking at ways that they can better understand their customers. So getting their managers together to have those conversations. They were looking at transforming the way that they did business because they realize that some of the things that they were doing weren’t working, and I went on Glass Door and I saw some of the things that weren’t working (the website that is kind of like the Yelp of working at companies) and they also wanted to look for ways to delight their customers, and to delight to light their employees. Sometimes it’s giving your managers permission to do these things. To have the conversation so that they can do a better job, but a lot of times I think that that’s really where the program is. When the company is looking at making some changes, when they’re starting to address their their culture, my program is an excellent way to get that kickoff going. Then we continue the conversation and, depending on the clients, sometimes it’s webinar, sometimes a teleseminar, sometimes it’s going in on a regular basis and doing a follow-up program. So it really depends on the client because I really like to personalize my programs to exactly what the client’s looking for.

Peter: Okay, I have to go back a little bit because you said something, a website that I have ever heard of.

Lisa: Yes, it’s the Yelp of employments. I compare it to Yelp because it’s very rare that people write positive things on Yelp.

Peter: [laughs]

Lisa: It’s only the people that are really unhappy that go there, and I find the same with glass door. They rate the CEO, they rate the the company itself, and it’s all anonymous. So you know when things are anonymous that people are even more brutally honest than you think that they would be. It’s a good way to get a barometer of how your organization is perceived in the marketplace because, if I go and I check out your company before I come there for an interview and I see that 67 percent of the people are saying “oh this is a horrible place to work, management doesn’t respect us and you know all we are pieces of meat to these are managers here,” I’m not going to go. I’m not gonna waste my time. So even though that’s their experience and mine may be different, that reputation may be keeping employees away from your organization.

Peter: Wow. I actually just logged onto it and I think, after this interview, I’m going to snoop around. You’re using it for a lot of different reasons, but you’re also using kind of pre-screen prospects or potential clients on how you would fit within that organization or are they really actually looking for your services or could they just be giving lip service to the employees. I’ve never asked you this question but I have to believe that you’re there not to be the event, you’re there too to be a longer-term goal to help an organization. And if it’s not right, yeah, why do it? Because you’re not gonna have an impact or make a difference in the organization, where your goal is to come in, make a difference, and help the organization understand how to, in this case, retain top talent, and how to retain that steady Eddie person to help the company grow. It’s really a change in attitude and, you know, attitude comes through in reviews.

Lisa: Right, and I think that when it comes to the way that I use that, by the time I’m having that conversation, the potential client has already called me and we’ve started the process. In most cases, they’re already looking at doing things different. Glassdoor I use, really, as part of my research process. I’ll go and I’ll read press releases and I go to the website and I just use a lot of different avenues so that I can get a feel for myself, as far as what’s going on in the organization, and a lot of times, if there are problems, I can have a pretty candid conversation with the potential client and say, “Why are you bringing me in? Why now? What’s going on at your organization?” And a lot of times, because they’re focused on it, I had one Fortune 50 company basically say that we put out our annual employee engagement survey, our annual employee survey, and the number one thing that was coming up is that our employees don’t feel appreciated. So it’s just, like I said, I think that by the time it gets to the conversation where a company is calling me and I’m starting that research so I can build that program that’s personalized to what it is that they need, instead of the things that I believe I should tell them.

Peter: So this underappreciation, is it just more than a thank you? What else are you hearing and seeing out there from your clients? Why do their people feel like they’re underappreciated?

Lisa: A lot of it is empowerment. It’s not allowing them to make their own decisions or figuring out things on their own. It’s treating them like they’re valuable, smart, creative individuals, and companies that are making their company their employees jump through a gazillion hoops to get a five-dollar approval for something… it’s stupid. You’re treating them like they’re in kindergarten and we need to start looking at ways… because a lot of times when we empower our employees to make the right decision, they’ll do it. They’ll surprise us. Also the investment in your employees. Investing in training, bringing someone like me, or doing something so that you’re providing additional ways for people to grow. I came across an a cartoon a couple years ago, in an HR magazine, and the CEO was talking to the HR Director and he said “well why should I invest in my people? They’re just gonna leave anyway,” then the HR manager said, “Well what if we don’t invest in them and they stay?”

Peter: [laughs]

Lisa: I was that I was talking at a Sherman Conference, a society for human resource managers, and I would put out the question of how do you invest in your people? And one woman raised her hand she said well we offer a thousand dollars for each of our employees, every year, to take whatever professional or personal development programs that they want. And there was this collective gasp in the room as people were saying “I can’t afford that. I mean I have 100 employees. I can’t afford a $100,000 dollars to do this,” and as the murmur is going around I asked the woman, “So what percentage of your employees actually take you up on that?” And she said about three to five percent.

Peter: That’s it??

Lisa: The thing is, though, that the other let’s say 95 percent of the people that don’t take advantage of it, because of the things they have on their plate (the families, all that kind of stuff), whatever decisions they make they still know that their company is investing in them and they can take advantage of it if they want to. So again, there’s a different level of connection, and the three to five percent that are taking advantage of that that opportunity – those are the ones we’re keeping our eye on because that’s where our emerging leaders are coming from.

Peter: That’s really cool, and I like the way you use the word investment versus cost because the person in the audience who said we can’t afford that, in her mind, she’s thinking it costs too much. And a mutual friend of ours has made this comment, when you talk about investment, where will it take us? And when we talk about cost we’re just looking at today and it’s not forward-thinking, in a way. “How do we invest in our people?” goes a long way in helping with that retention.

Lisa: Absolutely. Like I said, there’s so many opportunities for companies to provide a training and when you look at the opportunity to take an hour off to have a lunch and learn, to bring in subway or something, watch a webinar together, participate in a teleseminar so that your whole team is having the same conversation. Versus sometimes we just send our managers or I’m going to send one manager to training because goodness knows I can’t afford more than one person being off. But you have the synergy of that group of people having the same conversation and being able to brainstorm ideas and and get things done versus one person who goes to training comes back with all these ideas and then the first person says “well that’s stupid, I don’t know how we do that,” and then they give up on it.

Peter: [laughs]

Lisa: So we just look for ways that we can bring that learning culture into our companies and we can do that, like I said, with technology and everything. Just with us being able to have a conversation on Skype or on Zoom, it feels like we’re sitting in the same room having a conversation together. You can do that. We create these connections and the opportunities for people to learn and grow together.

Peter: And it goes to the attitude. It goes to the attitude the organization and it goes to the attitude of the individual, because we can provide this investment to them. However, if they’re in a teleseminar or on a webinar, I want them 100 percent focused on the teleseminar or the webinar. I don’t want the multitasking and I think that’s part of the challenge with technology. I think it looks at that that attitude of that individual as well, and what are you seeing different between the generations? The younger generation wants more of investment into them, they want that learning to be part of their overall career development. Are you seeing any differences between generations, as it relates to this? Is there any rub out there? What do you see?

Lisa: Well, definitely with the the youngest of the the generations coming through, the Millennials and beyond, there is that desire to learn, that desire to grow with the organization, and sometimes when boomers or gen-xers look at the track record of the Millennials coming through they don’t take the time because they’re like “well why would I waste my time with that person if they’re only gonna be here for six months or a year?” Well maybe if they had the opportunity to grow, if they saw that you were willing to invest some time in them, then then they would stay longer. Are they gonna stay for 20 years? Probably not. But the thing is, when you look at it, the Boomers had the advantage of the traditionalists kind of putting their arm around them and mentoring them and stuff. The Boomers tried to do that to Gen X. And now we have this group of people that people are not paying attention to because they’re not necessarily seeing the value, the creativity, the desire for growth. All they’re seeing is a bunch of jobs on a resume and they’re discounting this magnificent group of of people that, I believe, by 2020 will make up 75 percent of the workforce. So we have to figure out a way to connect with all of the generations.

Peter: Yeah, as we’ve seen this past year, the Millennials outnumber the boomers in the workforce. So boomers, we’re number two. There’s only one way we can be number one: to start killing them off.

Lisa: [laughs]

Peter: And that’s not the right idea, so we’re going to be number two. And also it was about this time last year on CNBC that I saw that Millennials contribute over 2 trillion dollars in consumer spending in the US, and that’s their money not their parents money.

Lisa: Right.

Peter: Yeah. And when I hear the word millennial now, I go here’s a millennial for you that might put things in perspective: have you ever heard of Mark Zuckerberg? He’s a millennial. [laughs]

Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. I think the other thing that companies are also mistaken is they’re not doing any succession planning for when the Boomers leave. I was doing an HR training program and one of the reasons why there was one woman in the program, and the reason why she was in HR, is because, in one month, her four boomer buddies retired. In one month. And the company had not planned for that. We’re losing a boatload of knowledge, skill, and company history as you’re taking this generation that was the largest generation and is no more, but we are not making the adequate plans to look at who our emerging leaders are and how we can invest in them to, again, help them stay, to help them get the job done, and to not lose so much when that boomer decides it’s time to go.

Peter: Yeah, in the accounting profession they’re dealing with that big time, with succession planning, because the Millennials and even the Gen Xers are going “I don’t work like you guys have done. I really don’t want want to do that. There’s gotta be a better way,” and I have shared this story in previous podcast but, in one of my presentations, this one manager came up to him and share the story that he had one of the partners come and give him some work and they said I think we should do it this way, and the manager said well I think I got a better way, and the partner listened to him and he was right. And then he looked at the partner said if this is my firm I’d run it differently, and I said that took some guts. He said yeah, but it but I knew the partner would listen. The partner said what would you do differently? He said you have 10 partners in this firm. You’re killing yourselves. I would move that partnership up to 20 partners, spread out the work and spread out the time so we all have lives that we can lead and that those lives are not always inside of this office. They are looking at things from a different perspective and we need to begin to embrace that different perspective and the creativity that they’re bringing to the table if we want them to take over our businesses or have that succession out there that we can leave them with.

Lisa: Right. Oh, absolutely. We’re never going to have work-life balance but we can have work-life integration, and that’s part of the company culture too. People who are working in offices are spending more time with their co-workers than they are with their families, so how do we, again, create the culture where you have that peer to peer recognition? Where you have people who are appreciating each other and it’s not coming across as though you’re just sucking up to the boss.

Peter: [laughs]

Lisa: That we really genuinely appreciate the efforts that each other are making in the organization and creating that culture where it is fun. Where we are bringing in the family. Where we are bringing in the things that we like. Those connections that, again, are different than they used to be, where you just worked and went home. We don’t have that anymore. We’re connected 24/7 with these smartphones.

Peter: Yes we are, and I’m trying to get mine down to only 20 hours a day versus all the time, but yeah we are much more connected. We have many more distractions. We are being inundated by content constantly, and you mentioned something about work-life balance. I don’t believe there’s such a thing unless you’re dead, and hopefully you’ve got north not south and that’s completely out of balance. Work-life management: how do we manage that at times when we have to be there because the business requires versus those times that it’s not mandatory? How can I get some time to spend with the family, do hobby, wherever I want to do, and allow for that? And the organizations and accounting firms over this past year that I’ve gone house and worked with, I’m starting to see that. I’m starting to see them recognizing that now because they’re taking that initiative to go out there and say, you know what? We need to do a better job. We need to appreciate our people a lot more versus the way we did it in the seventies. One person shared a story that he remembers a partner back in the seventies. An associate resigned and this is when you gave two weeks and worked two weeks, and the partner came up to him and said, “Imagine there’s a bucket of water right there. Stick your fist in there.” He sticks his fist into this imaginary bucket of water and pulls it out. He says, “What size is that hole?” He says there is no hole. The partner says “that’s because it’s insignificant, just as you are to this business right now.”

Lisa: [gasp]

Peter: I can’t make that up even if I tried.

Lisa: Ouch…

Peter: And I’ve had some conversations, even with some recent partners, who have said we can’t be mean to them anymore. I said well we really should have been mean to them at the beginning.

Lisa: Right.

Peter: But that’s part of that old kind of culture that’s out to there that we’ve got to change. Everybody wants to feel appreciated, even if they’ve given their two-week notice, because I’ve always felt that when somebody leaves, that person leaving could be an opportunity down the road.

Lisa: Absolutely. And I think that you bring up a good point with the with the hole in the water, and I think that guy was just being mean, but a lot of times it’s the hole guys joking around, which also can really hurt people. I was speaking at one program and a gentleman came up to me afterwards. He had just started. He was with this company for about six months. It was a big box store. One of those where, when a customer writes a kudos letter, it’s a big deal. And every month, at their management meeting, they would read these letters. So as this guy’s sitting there and he’s listening to his manager you know read the kudos letter from this lady and she’s going on and on he’s feeling all proud and recognized and appreciated, and the very next manager that got up there said “Hah, yeah his mother wrote that.”

Peter: [laughs] Wow.

Lisa: Within three weeks that employee left to go down the street to another company.

Peter: Ahh..

Lisa: When when the joke’s at somebody else’s expense, it’s not funny.

Peter: Yeah.

Lisa: Not funny at all. It’s something that can potentially hurt somebody… you don’t know how that person is feeling. You don’t know that the deep wound that you can create. I’m sure that that partner, that the guy who was subjected to that rude partner, to this day that still gives him that same knot in his stomach when he thinks about the fact that somebody could talk to him like that. We make a huge difference and those don’t get repaired.

Peter: Uh, no. No they don’t. And being a humorous, as I want to consider myself, there are times when humor is appropriate and there’s time when it’s not. And in that guy’s case that you just described, that wasn’t humor. That was a bad joke that, you know, cut deep, and it was like sarcasm to a degree.

Lisa: Right, exactly. And like I said, I’m all about humor. I mean I love to laugh and have fun, and I also know that humor at someone else’s expense… a lot of times you don’t know the damage that you can do to a relationship, for the rest of that relationship, because there’s no going back once you say it.

Peter: Yeah and I say I think the best humor to do self-deprecating humor because the person that you described, if he had stood up and said wow that reminds me of the letter that I got, it was very similar to that…. it was from my mother!

Lisa: uh-huh [laughs]

Peter: So you got a laugh to get the self-deprecating humor, but you also appreciate and praise the person for the hard work.

Lisa: Absolutely, and that’s what it comes down. It’s just being aware of our language. It’s catching people doing things right, and also you need that buy-in. I know that’s one of the reasons why I really love to work with management teams at management retreats and that type of thing. Because unless the leaders get it and they buy-in, and this is not just another thing we check off. If there’s not that heart level, there is not that sincerity, then employees can see that all day long so why bother.

Peter: Right. Be sincere, be consistent, and don’t put a compliance factor around it.

Lisa: Right, absolutely.

Peter: Wow, that’s great advice for everyone in business, whether you’re at the top of the management ladder or even at the bottom of the management ladder, especially when words do matter. We’ve all been hurt by words. Remember that when you’re saying something to another employee or to another manager or whatever. I think just watching our language and being positive in responses goes a long way in overall employment appreciation.

Lisa: Absolutely.

Peter: And I’m going to run with this comment for a second because I’ve been hearing this a lot, and I think it goes to to the attitude within the organization. Those who aren’t in a management role are often the first to criticize management’s decision, but not knowing everything that went into that decision. And I don’t know… those who say that my manager’s an idiot, or something like that… well you have to change your attitude. Can you explain to me why he or she’s an idiot? And it basically comes down that the person doesn’t agree with the decisions that are being made, so… then if you can’t make those changes, then you have to change your attitude or you’re in that bottom 20 percent of the employment pool within an organization.

Lisa: Right, there’s always got to be personal responsibility for everything. When it comes to the gratitude research that I’ve done, gratitude is not an IOU. “I said thank you to her and she never says thank you back or you’re welcome back or anything.” You know what? It’s still my choice to decide if I’m going to let that person mess up my day. So it’s the same thing in the workplace. We have to decide to change our attitudes; to realize when we can make a difference; to realize where no matter what we say it’s not gonna make a difference and be okay with that because we always have a choice, and sometimes a choice is maybe my talent is spent some somewhere else better; maybe this is the opportunity for me to do something better or maybe it’s not that bad, it’s just because of what I’m going through and I need to suck it up and move on. But we always have the choice and that’s what I say in my programs: nobody can make you mad, just like nobody can make you happy. You choose your emotions and sometimes you just gotta watch Frozen a dozen times and sing “Let It Go.” [laughs]

Peter: [laughs] Would you like to do a little song for us, please?

Lisa: Oh, no no no.

Peter: [laughs]

Lisa: There’s a lot of things I do well… singing is not one of them. [laughs]

Peter: Yeah, and attitude goes a long way and I think it’s Maya Angelou who said “if you want to change something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” And I think that we all have a lot of pressures on this, day in and day out, but I think, as you said earlier, we spend a lot of our time within these organizations and I want to be happy inside the organization, so if I’m not feeling happy is it something I’m dealing with personally? If it is, okay, then let’s change the attitude o, as as this one attendee made this comment to me at one of my session, she said “I don’t understand people.” I said well this ought to be good, tell me what you mean, and the example that she gave is that somebody left the organization and they had an opening and normally they would post for this opening. However, they had the ideal person, we will just call her Lisa, to fill that role. So without posting they put Lisa in this role and the whole office went bat crap crazy. And when she called a meeting of everybody to talk to them and she said “You know why Lisa got the job? Because every day she’s walked into this office he has been interviewing a thousand percent better than everybody else here. Every moment that you walk into this organization, don’t think you are not being interviewed because you are and you’ve got all eyes on you so you guys need to do a better job at interviewing every single day, in order to be considered for that next role, which I think goes back to the point of that attitude.

Lisa: Right. And that’s why, again, in my research on gratitude things like keeping a gratitude journal, which again is a whole nother conversation for another day, but it’s taking responsibility for yourself to start looking for the good. I have a 30-day gratitude challenge: write down three to five things that you’re grateful for every day for 30 days. I guarantee you things will start to change. What it does is it actually changes your energy, because I believe that we can all change the world one thank you one interaction at a time. One looking for the good, one choosing a positive emotion versus a negative emotion. We all have that choice and we can do that for ourselves. We can also do that for our organization when we don’t think that anybody’s paying attention to us, but it’s still our choice to do the things that we believe will take ourselves and our organizations forward.

Peter: Wow, well said.

Lisa: Thank you.

Peter: Yeah, and we will have a longer conversation as relates to the gratitude journal and along those lines. But I think, before we end this, I think I’d like to take a little shameless plug here and would you tell us what else you do, Lisa?

Lisa: Well I am the current president, serving my second back-to-back term, of the National Speakers Association, the Ohio Chapter. I love NSA. I’ve been a member for seven years. I’ve been serving on the board for, I think, six of those years, and it’s just a great place for people who are looking to build a speaking business or to build another business through speaking. It’s just fun to hang out with people who are excited and love what they do. Like I used to tell my Minister when we would be on Sundays (we’ve recently switched to Saturdays), they are my five favorite Sundays of the year. [laughs]

Peter: [laughs]

Lisa: Much to his dismay. But now we’re moving to eight meetings a year. September, October, November will still be on sunday so we don’t have to deal with Ohio State football traffic, but the rest of the year (January through May) we will be meeting on Saturdays in Columbus, Ohio. If you’re listening outside of Ohio, or even outside the United States, there is a National Speakers Association in just about every state and every country. You also have a Global Speakers Federation so look into it because it’s a great organization.

Peter: Lisa has a ton of energy and and I’ll just tell you that firsthand. I had been a past member of NSA years ago, when I was apprentice, and then I became a member of National and I was kind of deciding would I come back to the local chapter because the leadership has always been good but to me there’s been something missing, and then Lisa jumped into that role and I’ve re-engaged myself back with it within the organization, and I’m so happy that I have. She’s done a great job. She’s got a lot of energy, and I’m thinking about passing a motion at the next board meeting to keep you as president to 2020 or something like that.

Lisa: Well that’s not going to happen… but at least I’ll get to be past president, so I have another year and a half on the board and it’s all good, because I love serving.

Peter: And next in line is Maureen Zappala, who I’m also interviewing and I believe, if my schedule is correct, she is the one coming right after you. So I know it’s a shameless plug but I tell you what: she does a great job, she’s got a lot of energy, and running your own business as well as being a president of a local chapter of anything requires extensive time management and energy management, and she brings that attitude and passion to every meeting that we have. I just wanted to give her a chance to call that out, and also for me to say, once again, thank her for her time and energy that she’s put into the chapter for the past year and a half, two years, and I look forward to working with her for the main part of the next few years on the board.

Lisa: Well thank you thank you. It’s been my pleasure.

Peter: And so how can people find you?

Lisa: Okay, there’s a couple different ways. I have my website, which is, just like gratitude strategies. At, you can actually sign up for my gratitude thought of the week, which is a short inspirational message that seems to show up exactly when you need it.

Peter: [laughs]

Lisa: I’ve heard that from a blot of people, so it’s not just me saying it. I can be reached by email: lisa (at) And all of my books, I’ve written eight books, they are all on Amazon. There is another Lisa Ryan, but all of my books, except for From Afraid To Speak To Paid To Speak, are about gratitude.

Peter: [laughs]

Lisa: So that’s how you’ll tell us apart.

Peter: Well, one, thank you very much. I know you’ve provided so many useful tips to this audience to better engage their workforce so they’re not leaving to the competition. They’re staying with the organization. Thank you for your time and, once again, thank you for your service to the National Speakers Association Ohio Chapter.

Lisa: They are very welcome. It’s been my pleasure to be here.

Peter: I would like to thank Lisa again for taking time out of your schedule to give us ideas on how we can keep our top talent from becoming someone else’s. Lots of great advice that Lisa has given us. In episode 39, I interview Maureen Zappala, who is the Founder and CEO of High-Altitude Strategies. She helps smart people match their confidence to their competence. This is a very interesting interview because Maureen discusses the imposter syndrome. If you don’t know what the impostor syndrome is then get out your encyclopedia britannica and look it up… or just go to Google. Thank you again for listening and remember to show appreciation and gratitude to your top talent so you can keep them on the payroll.


Production & Development for Improv Is No Joke by Podcast Masters