It’s All About Connection

In this episode of The Faces of Business, Damon Pistulka, and Michelle Johnston talks about the importance of connection for leaders. Michelle Johnston is a Keynote Speaker, Executive Coach, and Management Professor who helps leaders achieve extraordinary results through extraordinary connections.  Michelle helps executives and teams connect better and be heard like they want to inspire and improve performance.

In this episode of The Faces of Business, Damon Pistulka, and Michelle Johnston talks about the importance of connection for leaders. Michelle Johnston is a Keynote Speaker, Executive Coach, and Management Professor who helps leaders achieve extraordinary results through extraordinary connections.  Michelle helps executives and teams connect better and be heard like they want to inspire and improve performance.

Michelle Johnson, Gaston Chair of Business at Loyola University New Orleans, speaks with Damon Pistulka. Michelle shares her experience as an executive consultant and how she became an executive coach.

She talked about being offered a professorship at Loyola University in New Orleans. When she was 23, she had no desire to be a professor. She eventually came across an article about Marshall Goldsmith and decided to pursue a career as an executive coach.

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Damon then moved on to the discussion and asked Michelle if any of the leaders who have seen how good they are at getting the message across will ask follow-up questions. Visionaries lose sight of the fact that they simply believe they will be able to disseminate this information, but this does not occur. And visionaries lose it because they simply want to put it out there and have everyone go about their business.

She explains that when she was younger, she was self-conscious about being one of the few professors in the College of Business who taught “soft skills.” She also wanted to show how soft skills and hard financial data are linked. Sales were higher for those leaders who created a positive team listening environment. So, she knew in her heart that if leaders created a positive team listening environment, which is exactly what you’re referring to when you talk about creating a culture, now call it a culture of connection, broad overview of it, she would be successful.

People want to feel like they have a real purpose and that they are valued and appreciated, she continues. Leaders cannot presume to know more than their followers do. It is also their responsibility to motivate, inspire, and articulate that vision.

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Damon goes on to say how much he admires her vision. In business, you were expected to come in a certain way 20 years ago. And this is a sea change because you just finished today, and it’s exactly what you’re saying. So, we can say that you must know yourself and show that you are not perfect. You must interact with people on a personal level.

Michelle Johnston agrees with Damon about what she discovered earlier. Leaders who expect perfection from their employees inadvertently create fear-based cultures. According to Johnstone’s research, a culture of fear is the polar opposite of a culture of innovation.

The host Damon ends their conversation by thanking her and wishing her luck with her new book, “The Seismic Shift in Leadership.”

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Damon Pistulka, Michelle Johnston


Damon Pistulka  00:03

All right, everyone, welcome once again to the faces of business. I am so excited. I’m talking fast even know I’m talking fast. I’m so excited. Because today with me we’re gonna be talking about well, in the title just tongue tied me. It’s all about connection. And with me today I’ve got Michelle Johnson, the gas stone Chair of business, Loyola University author just released the seismic shift of leadership. Thanks so much for being here today, Michelle.


Michelle Johnston  00:33

Oh, Damon, thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited about our conversation.


Damon Pistulka  00:38

Oh, this is gonna be fun. It’s gonna be fun. You know, so let’s just jump right into it. Now. You’ve been the gas stone Chair of Business at Loyola University for a while. And you’ve also been an executive search coach. So tell us a little bit about your background so we can kind of start there.


Michelle Johnston  00:57

Yeah, you know, it’s interesting when I was in graduate school in my master’s program at Auburn, I had no desire to be a professor. I was recruited by a consulting firm, one of my professors was a president of consulting firm here in New Orleans, and he offered me an internship and I came down and loved it, absolutely loved it. I was conducting training at all these different companies on communication, presentation, skills, meeting, management, listening, loved it. And then they said, You are so young, because I was 23.

They said, if you really want to be a good management consultant, you need to get a PhD. So I went to get my PhD at LSU and came back to New Orleans, and was finishing my dissertation continuing to work at the consulting firm. And I was teaching at night I don’t I mean, Damon, I look back, I don’t know how had how i Yeah, G right, like, all day, teaching at night, writing the dissertation on the weekends, and I was teaching a course.

This is communication at Loyola. And the dean at the time was saying, Pat O’Brien, and there’s some irony there, if anyone knows the best, one of the most famous bars in New Orleans is called Pat O’Brien’s. And he brought me to his office, he said, I want to offer you a full time job as a professor. I said, Well, that’s cool. And that’s how it all began. And so, you know, I was able to still do some consulting while you know, having a two day a week teaching job having the summers off, and then it morphed into executive coaching when I saw that New Yorker article about Marshall Goldsmith.


Damon Pistulka  02:34

Very cool. Very cool. So what really, what do you like about the about the coaching, what really drives you?


Michelle Johnston  02:43

It’s incredible, because, you know, as a trainer, when I was in my 20s, working for the consulting firm, I was a corporate trainer right? up in front of a lot of audience, helping groups get better at whatever skill I was trying to teach executive coaching is you really get to form a relationship with a very high performing leader. And after you conduct the 360, then you’ve got this action plan. And you get to be right there with them. And moving them and moving the needle so that they’re an even better version of themselves. And I find that really rewarding.


Damon Pistulka  03:20

Yeah, no doubt. No doubt. So this, I’ve always wondered this. So let’s see, I’ve never thought about asking this till now. So do you see a lot of patterns in in executives and go? I see this almost every time.


Michelle Johnston  03:38

Damon, that’s wild that you just asked that question, because that is exactly why I wrote my book. Oh, okay. I started, you know, the seismic shift refers to what I saw happening in the workplace, the leaders that were getting forced out, leaders who were so action and results oriented, which is why they kept getting promoted in the company, them right. And yet they got to a certain level and they had subscribed to a much more authoritarian, controlling, micromanage micromanagement, leadership style. And although I mean, Marshall Goldsmith, you know, wrote a New York Times best selling author with the name What Got You Here Won’t Get You There?

Yeah. And so I was seeing that, that these skills that they thought like, but these work because I accomplish all these goals, and I got promoted, and what are you trying to tell me my leadership style isn’t working anymore, and it wasn’t. And that seismic shift we were seeing is, is leaders really in 2022? They’ve got to pivot and focus much more on personal meaningful connection and no longer subscribe subscribing to that authoritarian leadership style. That doesn’t work.


Damon Pistulka  04:53

Yeah, that’s interesting. So are usually when you talk about that, and you see that shift as You’re seeing the people that were getting forced out? How many of them actually were able to when you’re working with people, you’re working with people, you know about how many people are actually able to recognize that and make the change?


Michelle Johnston  05:13

Craig? Question again, Dave. And so what I’ve realized is that the people who the leaders that I was working with who ended up getting forced out, thankfully, two out of three, were able to look at the data in the Data books. And although they recognize that they weren’t going to have the opportunity to be successful in their current organization, and lost the trust of their people, at least had the data and I followed up with them after they left these organizations that I was employed by.

And they were able to pivot and make that switch to a less authoritarian style, and more of a servant leadership style at their next job. Now, one of them that I worked with looked at the data, and this particular woman was an interim CEO of a distribution company, and at the age of retirement, so she looked at the data and said, you know, what, I was raised in that command and control, my mentors were command and control, it works for them.

That’s what I know, I’m ready to retire peace out. And so it really it depends. And another thing that I’ve learned too, is if you, as a leader, have been operating in this particular way, and now you’re being told this is no longer effective, we have no different types of workforce, we really need to become much more servant leader, right? If they are surrounded, and they have a critical mass of high level leaders who support them, and will give them the time because usually it takes about a year.

And it’s really about changing other people’s perceptions, right, you can change your behavior, for sure. And then you got to change how other people view your brand, your reputation, your style, and that takes about a year. So you can survive an organization, even if you’ve been told, you really need to change your style, if you’re surrounded by high level leaders who support you, if you don’t have that critical mass of leaders that you know, that will give you the time to grow and evolve, you might want to look for a different opportunity.


Damon Pistulka  07:19

Yeah, that’s something. And, you know, I think back to when I was leading companies, there was a time and I did turnarounds for a while. And then I then a couple of my ran actually through a turnaround and then into the long term growth beyond it, we get them running, you know, get them profitable and running, right and everything. And that with when as you’re talking about this, I think back to my experience, and that is it did take a more authoritarian approach in the initial phase of we have to do this right now. Because you really don’t have a choice.

But then as you get into the next phase of it, where you really want to develop the teams that are going to create a long term successful business, you’ve had to turn, you know, basically 180 From that point and get your team built, so they can take over and do everything and had to be that servant leader.


Michelle Johnston  08:08

You’re right, and talk about having to create trust in that atmosphere when you had been in the trio. Right. And so a lot of me a lot of copying, right. And so now all of a sudden, you’re like, Okay, let me tell you, I care about you. Yeah, yeah, you really had approval,


Damon Pistulka  08:28

I will tell you, there’s one thing I learned that if there’s anybody listening to this that ever is in that situation, the thing that will break the trust more than anything, is not because I did it five times, I was in the situation in five different companies. And you in the first round, you need to make sure that if you’re going to make changes, you make them way deeper than you ever can imagine you’d ever need to do it. Because if you go back and you make one round of layoffs and you go all that wasn’t enough, you make another round of layoffs, you’re done. You’re there’s no trust anymore. But if you can go through and in one round, you make the changes.

So in yes, there’s going to be some good people that have to go and it’s a lot. It’s really heart wrenching. But when you can look people a straight face and say you’re going to be with us and you mean it and you know that’s true or the business is going to be out of business. Then you’re in a much different position. But if you go and round after round of layoffs, it’s so it’s over you you’ve lost it after the first one you got one chance after that and the second one you’re done, if you have to do another one, you’re done. Or so


Michelle Johnston  09:44

right. It’s articulating after you make those deep cuts. It’s articulating to the team. You are our core team where we are on you you’re it you’re the high performers, let’s do this together. Let’s turn the company around together so much I think good leadership is about the language you use, and about how you frame situations.

And honestly, I don’t think that you can over communicate, that’s what I have found, you really can’t over communicate, it takes what five times really as for a message to sink in, and a lot of leaders think, Well, I told them last month, or I sent that email and you know, the only message that really is received, or the only message that you can count on to be understood is the one that’s received. How did they take it? You can’t count on the fact that they opened up the email and read it. Right?


Damon Pistulka  10:32

Yes, yes. Well, and so many leaders that I that I work with our visionary leaders, right, so you look at a visionary leader, and they expect to be able to tell somebody something, and they understand what they’re saying, right? But we all want to say we all don’t want to look like we don’t understand. And I’ll say that me you everyone does that. But the leaders that I’ve seen that are really good at getting their, the message through, will ask follow up questions. If they’re looking for those cues, they’re looking for the cues and people have it do they really understand? Do I see in their eyes? Do they ask them a couple of questions and go to really bounce back?

If you understand ask a question about it and say, What do you think about this part of it or that to really get that, that feedback from that person, you’re talking to you that they understand it, and visionaries lose that they just lose it because they think I’m gonna be able to put this information out, and everybody’s gonna go do what they need to do. And it doesn’t happen like that.


Michelle Johnston  11:36

No, I couldn’t agree with you more. And when I was a younger professor, I was self conscious that I was really one of the very few in the College of Business teaching what was referred to as soft skills, right, I was in charge of the business communication, the strategic communication, the leadership, and yet I knew in my head that they were the hardest, but I was young, and so a little self conscious. And I’m surrounded by all my colleagues who I really look up to, and they’re the finance professors and the economics professors, the accounting professors.

So I knew in my heart that if leaders created a positive team listening environment, which is exactly what you’re referring to creating a culture, I now call it a culture of connection, broad overview of it.

But if they create a positive team listening environment, where their team members feel like they have the space to speak up, ask stupid questions, not be judged about it, take risks occasionally make mistakes, then, I hypothesize, those teams would make more money. And I wanted to show the link between the soft skills and the hard financial data. And so my colleague, Dr. Ken Reed, and I, we went around and we found kW, plastics manufacturing facility with multiple manufacturing facilities, and we collected data.

And we’re able to prove that the leaders who took the time and really embedded this you know, open communication, open listening, the meetings where I value your feedback, tell me your input transparency to here’s how we did this last month, here’s what we can do better, what do you think, and then going back and saying, I wasn’t able to use this idea, but I really was able to use this one, those leaders had higher sales. And so we were able to link that listening the soft skills of listening to hard financial data. And we were very excited as you can imagine,


Damon Pistulka  13:29

no doubt, no doubt, because it is really important. You said creating that culture of people being able to, you know, ask questions, do the things but really, I think that culture allows people to engage their minds, you know, because we, you know, we used to be 100 years ago, businesses were driven by people engaging their bodies, their backs, their, their, their labor. Now, it’s so much more minds than when you can get their minds and their passion and everything into it. You get that extra level that you just don’t get. If you don’t,


Michelle Johnston  14:03

you are so right, Damon, Passion is everything. You know, the great resignation has taught us so much. Yeah, yeah. The great, you know, reorganization, re prioritization, prioritization, reevaluate, and have everything that they thought they knew. And then they spent two years going, Whoa, I don’t know, maybe I want more flexibility. Maybe I want more meaning. But one of the things that the real common theme is, is that people want to feel like they have a real purpose. And they want to feel that they’re seen, heard, valued and appreciated. And if you can actually be passionate about your job, oh, my gosh, that’s amazing.

Marshall Goldsmith, and I just did a podcast yesterday together. And he was able to frame it really well. What we’re both talking about, Damon, he said, Well, now leaders are managing knowledge workers. So leaders cannot assume that they know more than their people do. Yeah, it’s not necessarily the case they have to that they might know more than them. And that’s okay. And it’s their job to motivate to inspire, to articulate that vision and say, Come on, I know you can work in so many different places. But this is really exciting. And let’s go.


Damon Pistulka  15:17

Yeah, you’re right. It’s, it’s as cool as you’re talking about, because it is the real key to getting your organization to do the very best they can. I mean, I was, and I know this is bad, but I always relate things back to sports, right? Because when you look at sports and look at any professional sport, I don’t care if it’s tennis, I don’t care if it’s football, I don’t care, baseball doesn’t really matter. But the really cool thing about professional sports is everybody is really good. Everybody has put in hundreds of 1000s of hours to get as good as they are. There’s really no physical, they’re little bit of physical anomalies once in a great while.

But most of it is not physical anymore. It is mental it is it is how well the team works together, how well you engage with each other that around you how well that coach inspires them to do that little bit of extra that they wouldn’t do for someone else, or they’re doing because of the person beside them. And I just think that as we as businesses become more focused around knowledge, and in trying to get the entire person working in the business are doing their best in the business not really working, just doing their best in the business. This is so key. It just


Michelle Johnston  16:45

great. Oh, I love sports analogies. Don’t apologize for that day, man. Absolutely. Um, I’m so fortunate, you know, to be in the 100 coaches organization. So I’m on these Monday calls with, with people like Curtis Martin, you know, a former NFL star, who now as an executive coach is trying to help other NFL retirees. And he really, he articulated it quite well. He said, the high performing athletes, he said it’s unnatural to do what they do. Yes, you much rather sit on the sofa, then train all that they train.

So they’re the elite of the elite, because everything is unnatural, and they have to go and above and beyond. However, they get so much of their validation and the accolades from how other people are perceiving them that when they retire, it is tough, because they’re no longer getting that enormous positive feedback. And so that’s what he’s he tries to do to help them.


Damon Pistulka  17:47

Yes, yes. So let’s, let’s talk a little bit about your book. So the seismic shift in leadership, it just released recently. So when did you was it in March or?


Michelle Johnston  18:01

February? 2 February? Yeah. It’s five weeks ago. Yes. And it’s just, it’s an Amazon bestseller.


Damon Pistulka  18:10

Oh, awesome. That’s cool. That’s cool. That’s cool. Good. So good. So the, what inspired you to write this book?


Michelle Johnston  18:21

Yeah. So when I was an executive coach, and I was seeing these leaders get pushed out when, you know, growing up that sort of style that authoritarian command and control was very invoke. And guess what, I subscribe to it as well. I mean, when I was a brand new professor, I looked around, and I targeted those professors who were getting faculty members of the year. And I asked them to be my mentors.

And we, they would take me out to lunch, and they would tell me what to do. And it was all like a military drill sergeant. Like you beat them down, and then you build them back up, if they come in late, you slam the door, you kick them out. I mean, it was. And guess what I thought that’s what success look like. And so I tried to be that person in the classroom, and my evaluations would come back and they were low. They were below average.

And I’d go to my dean, and I’d say, I don’t understand. And then he would sit me down and say the same thing. You’ve got to go in there, you’ve got to be so in lecture on hours, and, and so that was, that was the norm. And then all of a sudden, you know, years later, I realized that in order for me to be successful, I had to figure out and take the risk, how to be authentic and be myself and to take my strengths, which weren’t necessarily what I was seeing around me in the College of Business. I was probably way too excited at 8am in the morning, you know, I was much more of a nurturer and a coach than I was an authoritarian style leader.

But I finally took the risk and said, You know what, I think I got to figure out how to be me if I’m ever going to be successful and hallelujah day It worked. And I was able to be successful. But then when I started coaching, and I saw the same thing happening with my leaders that I was coaching, they also thought they had to be these other people, they couldn’t really focus on the personal side of their employees, they had to keep that wall up and had to keep it professional. And they were one, you know, they brought their professional self to work.

But then if somebody saw them in the grocery store, they were somebody else. That’s, that’s just not effective anymore, particularly with the pandemic, right, we’ve seen it all you’ve got to focus on each person on the individual level. So that was my big Eureka, I realized that what I was seeing in the workplace also had happened to me. And I wanted to get the message out that that’s no longer effective. And so it true my big aha moment was the leaders who were truly succeeding that I was watching. It was all about connection.

And the leaders who were failing what appeared in the data books from conducting the 360 interviews, the data books, told me those leaders had lost the trust of their teams. And of course, when you lose the trust of your team, you’re no longer leader. But I had to dig deeper and say, why were they losing the trust, and they were losing the trust, not just because they were disconnected and they had walls up, they were losing the trust, because they weren’t connected with themselves and had walls up.

So connection, it just kind of was like a lightning bolt, I was hit by lightning bolt. And I realized that today, for successful for leaders to be successful. You got to be connected at three levels. It starts with that foundation of truly that self awareness, the self assessments, owning your story, giving up perfection, trying to be somebody, you’re not just owning and getting comfortable in your own skin. So that connection with yourself is the foundation. And then when you have that, you don’t have to have a wall up because perfection equals disconnection, right?

So you’re you bring your full self to work, you actually show your people you care about them. And then you have the connection with your team. And then once you have both of those levels, then you have the connection with the organization and you have alignment. Right. And so I was able to interview Drew Brees and one Martine the global president of Kind bars and, and really learned so much about because that’s what I did, I had this big Eureka this lightning bolt realized my theory.

And then I went and interviewed 18 leaders. And so what Drew Brees his leadership in the locker room taught me is he was all about servant leadership. And he connected with himself, he really knew himself. And at the very beginning of training camp each year, he had a notebook. And he brought the whole offensive team into the locker room. He said, I want to know your personal goals. And I want you to I want to know your professional goals.

I don’t care if you think that you’re just going to be on the practice squad, or you’re going to be traded, or you’re going to be cut or you’re going to be one of the All Stars, I care about each of you the same. And I care about your goals. Let me tell you what I’m going to work on this year personally as a husband, as a father, and I’m going to tell you what I want to work on professionally help me and I’ll help you. I thought that was super powerful. I mean, talk about meaningful connection, right? Huge. Yeah. And the other example was a really good example was one Martine of the global president of cotton bars.

His Mars is a privately held company and when they bought kinda bars from Daniel Levitsky, the founder, Mars, the family who’s still very involved in this company went and looked at all their global leaders to see which leader was truly connected with him or herself so that they could represent kindness. So, they looked for a leader who really genuinely demonstrated kindness. And they found it in one, Martine. And he said he had had to do a lot of work on himself for years, trying to make sure because he grew up in Spain, where it was much more invoked to be macho, macho, macho, and you were not supposed to lead with kindness.

But when he finally working for I think he was in charge of Europe and Africa, the pet food and the candy division, and when he finally gave himself permission, you know what, I can’t do that anymore. Because that’s not me. I’m going to lean in and I’m going to operate from a place of kindness. That’s when the Board found him and said, You’re our guide to be the global president of content because he was able to demonstrate that Yeah.


Damon Pistulka  24:30

Wow. That’s, that’s, it’s something because you do see that in people now that that are that are the kind of leaders that really seem to connect with their team, their organization, the people around them, they know themselves really well. That’s


Michelle Johnston  24:48

Yes, yes. And Damon when I looked back and reflected, I think one of the reasons why I didn’t spot it right away when I started working with some of the leaders is because I had been struggling with it too, right? I had been trying to be somebody who I wasn’t thinking that’s what success look like. And so it all is a journey, you know, and think that oh, if you’re listening, the listeners right now you’re thinking, Oh, my gosh, Michelle and Daymond are telling me that I’ve not been doing a good job.

No, no, no, no, it’s just that there is a seismic shift. It’s happening beneath our feet. But leaders should be evolving, you should be growing, you should be changing. And that’s okay. You just want to be in an organization that, that celebrates that. And is not trying to say, I want you to be something that you’re not.


Damon Pistulka  25:38

Yeah, that’s the big thing. Well, let’s, let’s be honest, 20 years ago, in business, you are expected to come differently. And this is a seismic shift, because you just end today, when you look at it, it’s exactly as you’re saying, you have to know yourself, you have to show you’re not perfect. You have to you know, in engage on a personal level with people. And for people myself, that was a hell of a change. It was a hell of a change to let people know that yeah, I you know, I get down once in a while I have I’m not I have trouble just like everyone else.

I you know, this, all these kinds of things. And you were taught for so many years, like you said, is beat into your head that you know, you come to work that’s that you’re professional you and in even things like stupid things like Facebook 10 years ago, nobody knew I lived on Facebook, because you couldn’t do that. Now. You’re expected to be on you know, people are expected to be able to find you on Facebook and Instagram. And


Michelle Johnston  26:41

to learn more about you and your family. Yeah, worry. Exactly. I still, as you can imagine, Daymond, I still have leaders that I coach, I coach a bunch of CEOs in the show, I read your book, I know I’m supposed to meaningfully connect, I don’t want to, yes, I want results. I need results, I don’t have time to show my people to, because I really do. One of the easiest things you can do particularly in this hybrid work environment, is just begin your meetings by asking a personal question, just ask a question.

You know, and one of my leaders, she said, Michelle, I did the typical on a scale of one to 10 How are you feeling? Personally professionally, she said, I did that for one year of the pandemic. And that got really old, fast, fast. So the second year, I just call it happy, crappy. She goes, we just begin every meeting with give me a happy give me a crappy. And that seems to work.

And so I tried to tell my leaders, you know, if you want in this hybrid work environment, if you want your people on Zoom, or in teams to collaborate, you’re gonna have to embed more time for discussion for those breakout groups for your team to get to know one another and talk about things not just business so that they can have that psychological safety and that trust so that they can then collaborate and be innovative in order to drive financial performance. You just can’t expect that it’s going to happen organically over zoom, because it’s not.


Damon Pistulka  28:18

Yeah, it’s interesting. You say that because I was talking to somebody about that last week, and we’re creating about intentionally creating the watercooler time. Yes. And the break time and things like that together and actually saw my daughter worked while she worked for an engineering company. And they were they had it scheduled in where they just had, we’re on Zoom, and we’re just having lunch. And she thought that was kind of goofy.

And I said, No, it’s not because you’re talking to people are eating right. Yeah, yeah, they’re talking to people. And they’re doing those kind of things. Because there, it’s not there anymore. So that intentionality has to be brought back in you have to schedule the time. And it’s completely new, because it hadn’t organically before.


Michelle Johnston  28:59

You are absolutely right. And intention is the keyword. And so I’m really telling the leaders that I coach that, first of all, they have to own their calendars, right? They have to own their operating rhythms. And so now they’re going to have to if it’s if it used to be a one hour team meeting, and you could walk in, and as you’re walking in, Hey, how was your weekend or like you said at the watercooler all those interactions that happen?

So you get to the meeting and you spend the hour going through the agenda. Well, now, you really need to embed at least 10 minutes, 15 minutes in the beginning to go around and have that water cooler talk. How was your weekend? What are y’all doing, you know? And you can make it and you’ve got to as a leader, you’ve got to pick questions that reflect your personality. So say you are really trying to move your team to be more innovative than say, You know what?

I’m going to begin by telling you about a $25 million mistake that I made. Because I want on here about your mistakes. We’ve got to get in the habit of recognizing that to be innovative, we’re going to have to take risks and sometimes stakes. So I had one of the leaders that I coach, he’s a CFO. And he got up on stage at a big leadership meeting, because his big push was to be the most innovative company. I said, if you’re going to ask your people to do that, you better start off with a big mistake that you made, and it was this $25 million mistake.


Damon Pistulka  30:22

Yes, that’s, that is so true that you need to help people to see that you are willing to be there with them. In those situations,


Michelle Johnston  30:36

yeah. Going back to perfection Daymond what we were talking about earlier, what I found, too, is that the leaders who tried to be perfect themselves didn’t have a hair out of place, had the whitest teeth, the most polished shoes, you know, those leaders, right? Yeah. And when I would conduct focus groups, is that they inadvertently created cultures of fear, because they expected their people to be perfect.

And then all of a sudden, there are people I mean, and these were extreme examples, but I would see it on Zoom calls, these type of leaders would slap you down if you weren’t prepared if you made a mistake. And so then they stopped asking questions, they stopped taking risks. And so they cultures of fear are the opposite of cultures of innovation. Right?


Damon Pistulka  31:27

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s interesting that you say that? Because you can see those people that are I mean, not that a dressing great look good is awesome, if that’s what you want to do. But you can it’s intimidating, and it does create the wrong environment, if you let it.


Michelle Johnston  31:46

Oh, absolutely. We have to embrace imperfection. One of the books that made the biggest differences in me and how I evolved as a leader was Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, because I’m a recovering perfectionist, like I shared earlier, I wanted to be I wanted to be successful. So I just tried to try to act like what I thought perfect look like and I was not successful. Once I just said, I’m an imperfect person. Sometimes I mess up, but hey, let’s do this together. I care about you. Then it clicked that it worked.


Damon Pistulka  32:20

Yeah. Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it. Because you know, it’s perfection is, is just, you’re asking for craziness. That’s all it is. It’s gonna you drive yourself crazy that again, I like that. Damon, you’re just asking for craziness. If you expect him perfection, because he’s gonna drive you crazy. It’s gonna


Michelle Johnston  32:39

be a lot of anxiety. Oh, god. Yeah,


Damon Pistulka  32:42

yeah. Yeah. Whether you made a mistake, or you did just get over it. Hopefully, it’s smaller than,


Michelle Johnston  32:48

you know. Just don’t make the same mistake. Yeah,


Damon Pistulka  32:51

yeah. If you do it over and over, that’s not it. That’s, that’s your that’s on you, for sure. But, no, so this is great to get to talk about this. Because there are a couple things that that really struck out as struck me when I was doing this and, you know, start off with the have to be connected with yourself. Because that I think, is one of the hardest things to really do. So, I mean, you’re taking people through the 360 assessments. And even at that point, how many times do people see that and they go, Hey, this is you. And they go? No, it’s not?


Michelle Johnston  33:36

Well, yeah, sometimes I do think reading those 360 reports is one of the toughest things that a leader can do. At least that’s what they share with me. I’ve heard of a lot of alcohol being imbibed on the nights that I deliver the reports to my leaders, and because it is tough to see how other people perceive your behavior, it because a lot of it, you’re not intending for it to come across that way.

One of the things that I have found is after the leader gets this data and says, Whoa, there are some things that I can do to be even better. I do step back to help them connect with themselves. And I have them own their stories. And I just gave a keynote today a keynote luncheon, keynote speech, speech of the luncheon. And I actually had the people at the tables, you know, share with their partner, a significant life event that made them who they are today. I think that process of really owning your warts and all this is where I’m from. This is kind of a significant life event. It was really hard, but it made me who I am today.

And once you own it, and you put it out there, then if you think about you know driving a car and you want as a leader you want to accelerate, but I found that the leaders who were self conscious about who they were their background or something about themselves and they were trying to hide parts of themselves. they never could really push that accelerator as fast as they wanted, until they put it in the rearview mirror and said, Hey, this is me. This is where I come from. It’s okay warts and all. I’m good. And Kenneth Polito is in my book. And he’s now second in command in the US Department of Justice.

He’s in charge of the Criminal Division. He was our US Attorney here in New Orleans. And when I interviewed him for my book, I was fascinated because he grew up as poor as poor gets by two teenage parents that did not marry in housing projects in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. And he says he just vividly remembers when he got a scholarship to a high school uptown, a private high school uptown right around the corner from me. And he would take bus after bus after bus and then finally the streetcar along beautiful St.

Charles Avenue, and go to this high school. And yet he never pretended that he didn’t. He never pretended that he didn’t take the bus from the Lower Ninth Ward in the projects. He’s like, this is me. And he said, Well, it’s it serves me so well. He said, I ended up at Harvard. And then the Harvard without a sweater, Thank gosh, the scholarship came with a money for warm clothes. I had never even visited Harvard, you know, he said, but I got there. And I didn’t try to be somebody I wasn’t. I was like, This is me. I’m so grateful for being here. And he said it really helped him.


Damon Pistulka  36:30

Yeah, yeah, it is. Like you said, it’s, it’s owning yourself and being good with that. So that you can I think it really, you have to be there. So you can be good with others.


Michelle Johnston  36:44

Yes, exactly. I wrote in my book, and it was such a risk. You know, academics typically don’t self disclose academic books, or just all research. And, and I really, I just felt like I needed to share my story in the book, so that other people could relate and, and I had really hid things about my childhood. Because I was so self conscious. I was a corporate brat. My father was really good at what he did with General Motors in the finance division. And back then, if you got promoted, you couldn’t stay in your market and actually lead the people who were your peers, you had to get transferred. Yeah.

Then if you wanted a corporate career with a big company, like General Motors, you had to say yes. So we moved every two years. So I never felt like I knew where I was from, I would say they would say, hey, Michelle, where are you from? I would say I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, oh, Washington, DC, cool, because people want to kind of put you in a box and figure you out.

But I wasn’t from there. I didn’t grow. I mean, I was born there. But I didn’t grow up there. And then I had lived in the north and I lived in the South and I, and people couldn’t understand me. And I felt like I confused. So many people that I just stopped talking about myself. If somebody said, Where are you from? I would say where are you from? And if they said Birmingham, Alabama, I’d say my parents live in Birmingham, Alabama. And I would make that connection.

And then I’d stopped talking that they would think oh, she’s from Birmingham, Alabama, was not from Birmingham, Alabama. And it took me a while to realize I wasn’t making meaningful connections with people. Because I was so self conscious. I didn’t know what to say, you know, and so I had to work really hard at that of just kind of owning that and saying, You know what, it’s okay. And then rehearsing how I would answer when somebody would say, where are you from? I’d say, Oh, I’m a corporate brat. I moved around growing up, just so that I could be real and not pretend that I was from somewhere that I really wasn’t, you know,


Damon Pistulka  38:44

yeah, yeah, that’s something. That’s something and it’s a great example. I mean, we all have those things, and we just need to get, we need to figure it out. Because it’s gonna, it’s gonna hold us back. If we don’t,


Michelle Johnston  38:57

we need to figure it out and own it and give ourselves permission that it’s okay. And sometimes the stories that you have in your head need to be tweaked. So, some leaders that I’ve worked with, they’ll, they’ll be leading in this super aggressive way. And I’ll ask the story that they’re telling themselves, and it’s from way a long time ago, it’s not current. For example, there was a leader who was a divorced mother of three up in the Midwest, and the company called me and said, the President said, Michelle, we read this, this woman really deserves to be in the C suite.

She’s hurt her people don’t necessarily like working with her. Can you help? And when I started talking with her, she was telling ourselves that, you know, she was scrappy. And she had to do it all by herself and her people can do it all by herself. She worked nights and weekends and never called in sick.

So they’re going to work nights and weekends. And I said, Whoa, let’s stop. That was your story from 15 years ago. Where are you now? shoes. Oh my gosh, I’m engaged. My three daughters that I raised just all graduated from college, they’re starting their new jobs. I said, Let’s tweet that story that’s going on in your head. Yeah. Is it really keeping you from interacting in a positive way with your people? You know, sometimes your story needs tweaking.


Damon Pistulka  40:19

Yeah. That’s great that every just that just the hear how you’re talking to the people and helping them work through this is incredible, because I can only imagine when you come back after people take this really process and really start to live a new or project a new as you’re saying and start to create, model the behavior that will help to connect better with the people around them. I bet there’s tremendous improvements in a their happiness and be the working environment.


Michelle Johnston  40:53

Oh my gosh, yes, I was. I read an article in The New York Times. Not too long ago, I think only about two months ago, that talked about Yale’s most popular course in Yale’s history is called the hard science, I think the science of well being. And it’s so popular that a donor gave money to put it free on Coursera.

So I took it. And because I was so intrigued, you know, how can we help these leaders even become happier and more comfortable? And what are the factors that drive well? Well, well being. And the number one factor that I found, at least in the three sessions that I took was connection, true, meaningful connection with yourself and stop trying to be perfect and stop trying to be somebody that you’re not?


Damon Pistulka  41:46

I just, I just giggle would you say that? Because I think back to you know, how many years We live where we had to be this segment person didn’t even say it to ourselves, he would say to ourselves, that’s That’s Tom Damon, this is work, Damon, you know, we would see, people would say that.


Michelle Johnston  42:04

I had a leader recently. That said, Michelle, I was thinking about having a cookout for my people now that everybody’s working from home, we don’t see each other he said, but I was told in my former job that don’t get that close with your people. Keep the keep the nut the wall, but there’s a patient. And I said that doesn’t exist anymore. And if it’s nice weather exists or not. It’s not effective. Yeah.


Damon Pistulka  42:29

Yeah, that’s for sure. So let’s let’s talk a little bit about where you live just for a minute, because I New Orleans. And we don’t know we talked about this before. It’s one of the favorite places that our family likes to visit once in a while. So I mean, we’ve spent Thanksgiving there before when people don’t think of going to New Orleans for Thanksgiving. But when you live in the Northwest, and it’s rainy and cold, it’s a lot better. So a couple New Orleans questions for you. So what’s your favorite restaurant?


Michelle Johnston  42:57

So before I answer your questions, can I tell you something that I never thought would happen was that I dedicated this book to the city of New Orleans. Awesome. And I dedicated it I said to the city, this is this book is dedicated to the city of New Orleans, where you don’t have to be perfect. Because that’s, I think, why the city resonated so much with me as a corporate child.

You know, I’d lived in so many different cities where I felt like you kind of ended up being a cookie cutter and you caught it all the people ended up looking alike and talking like and actually like, and then I got here, and it’s so was not cool to be a cookie cutter of anybody. It was much cooler to be your own. Right. Your own individual with your own quirks and this city accepted that. So I fell hard for New Orleans. So I just wanted to say that so my favorite restaurant. Right now it’s a newer I mean Gallach bars is for the whole experience to go on to gouge bars on a Friday before a big holiday is like something Have you ever done that Damon?


Damon Pistulka  44:07

No, no gala tours? Oh my. Okay. That’s one. That’s one. Good, good, favorite place to visit in New Orleans. sightseeing.


Michelle Johnston  44:19

My family. My dad and my brother and sister in law came in town just a couple of weeks ago for the big book launch party and signing. And they lived 12 hours away in South Carolina and they came down and we had one day and they said what do you want to do? I said I want to take you to my favorite park, which is called Crescent Park and it cradles the Mississippi River. And right along this neighborhood called by u m is the Bywater which is like super cool and hip and it’s just real park with art and you’re right on the river and you have to look up at the river and you see cruise ships coming. That’s one of my favorite things to do.


Damon Pistulka  44:59

Very cool. Very cool. Yeah, cuz I had to get a couple questions in there about it. It’s a great place to be. And we enjoy our time there. So what’s new, you’ve got the book launch now. I mean, do you have more books in the works? I mean, this I can’t


Michelle Johnston  45:16

even imagine right Damon. I mean, I thought that the hardest thing I ever did, besides raise a fantastic daughter was writing a book. And then the hard part started once I turned in the book, and then you have to promote it, right? Yes, that’s really where the hard part starts.

So, I can’t even imagine I’m writing another book, I am just enjoying the ride, and I’m loving, get getting the message out there and just feeling like if there’s one listener, you know, who’s listening right now, who’s gonna work on owning their story, or who’s gonna kind of give up perfection? Or who’s gonna say, You know what, I’m gonna let go of that authoritarian style, then that makes me really happy. So I’m just enjoying this ride of getting the message out there and helping people.


Damon Pistulka  46:06

Awesome. Well said, well said. Well, Michelle, thanks so much for being here today. It was a pleasure. It was a pleasure to get to talk to you. I’m so excited about the your book, The seismic shift in leadership. I wish you all the best then. And if you do decide to do another book, we’ll have to talk again.


Michelle Johnston  46:27

Oh, I would love that. But yes, exactly. I mean, I’m sure I will for sure. And I’m just trying to live in the moment. Yeah.


Damon Pistulka  46:34

Oh, no, no, right. Awesome. Awesome. Thanks so much,


Michelle Johnston  46:38

man. Thank you so much. Thank you to the listeners for tuning in.


Damon Pistulka  46:41

Yes, wonderful. Thanks, everyone for listening today. We will be back again next week to talk with another interesting person in business. Thanks so much, everyone.

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