Author and leadership expert Mike Robbins returns to the program to discuss his new book, We’re All in This Together: Creating a Team Culture of High Performance, Trust and Belonging. Mike reveals his own experiences with grief and loss, and what he’s learned from them, and shares insights about how to create in the face of adversity. Discover self-care practices, and how to pivot your career or business.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- How to create in the middle of uncertainty (11:00)
- Mike’s experience with grief and loss and what he learned from it (15:00)
- What inspired Mike to write his new book (20:00)
- How the current crisis could lead to more inclusion at work (24:00)
- How to create meaning out of grief and loss (29:00)
- How to build in self-care and grounding practices (31:00)
- The importance of slowing down (35:00)
- A hidden diversity dimension that is coming to the forefront (43:00)
- Why DE&I work is more important than ever (57:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Mike, welcome back to The Will to Change.
MIKE ROBBINS: Jennifer, thanks for having me back. It’s an honor and it’s always great to connect with you.
JENNIFER BROWN: It is. You are going to be a five-time author. I have to say there hasn’t been many guests that can say that on Will to Change or in my life actually. So it’s pretty cool. I know we all aspire to get there. If we could get through this year, we can do a lot of things.
MIKE ROBBINS: Yeah, listen, if it makes you or anybody listening feel any better I still don’t love writing. I still can’t believe I’ve written five books because it’s not my favorite thing to do. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful and blessed and privileged to do it, but it’s a journey.
JENNIFER BROWN: I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s excruciating is the word.
MIKE ROBBINS: Yes. For sure.
JENNIFER BROWN: But you are so glad you have it out there. And maybe we can come back to that during our conversation today. Maybe some advice for aspiring writers that listen into us because we talk all the time about everybody having a diversity story. We talk about getting those out into the world so that we can normalize more people’s true stories, right? Not the ones we kind of present to the world.
And so I think that what an interesting time to kind of undertake that. And I know that Jen Grace is a publisher I worked with on my first book and she’s got some interesting creative webinar type author development calls going right now that I would recommend for anybody who she’s at Publish Your Purpose Press. But if you even have an inkling of being a writer someday, like this is really interesting time to maybe make some more time than you could have to pour into that and see what you find. Right? Isn’t that true, Mike?
MIKE ROBBINS: For sure. I mean, you and I were talking about this earlier before we hit record on the podcast. Like I have found myself in this incredibly creative space in recent weeks with all this going on, even in the midst of my own fear and my own anxiety and my all the stuff that’s going on. I think the normal experience most of us are having as human beings right now on this planet. But I just have felt like I have a lot I want to say. And part of how I do process things and I’ve always done is that I like to talk and express and emote. And writing is actually easy for me when I feel like I’m sharing something as opposed to I have to write this thing that’s meaningful and deep. That’s why book writing is hard for me because it feels like, oh, I’m supposed to sit down and write something profound. It’s going to be in a book forever that people are going to read.
JENNIFER BROWN: Timeless.
MIKE ROBBINS: Right? But when I’m writing a Facebook post or a blog post or even an email to someone, it feels more like a conversation. And I’m a communicator and I love having conversations like we’re having right now. I’m not stressed out about, I have to say something deep and profound in this conversation as much as I just want to connect with you and everybody listening and for us to have a conversation. And I think that’s a lot of what creative expression and writing to me ideally is about. And I think a lot of times we get daunted by what we think it’s supposed to be.
JENNIFER BROWN: Agreed. And maybe the tip in that is when you’re journaling and when you’re writing and you don’t have the pressure of being perfect that’s the good stuff, right? That’s the stuff that comes out of you unfiltered and it’s truly who you are, honestly without any artifice or kind of massaging, right? It’s very authentic and a lot of books start that way. A lot of books just start with daily thoughts, some kind of practice where you’re literally recording what’s occurring to you. You’re reflecting and right now it is a really creative time and if you have, I’m always aware like you are, Mike, some of us who sit in more privilege right now than others and acutely aware of how this is impacting so many of us from a sort of, we’ve talked about Maslow a lot, right?
The food shelter, water part of Maslow that a lot of us feel we’ve been living in different parts of Maslow and now we’re like, everything is kind of on its side, right? And we’re wondering, is my business, is it okay? Will it survive? Will I be able to pay my mortgage? You’re an hourly worker. Will my restaurant ever open again? Will the job ever be there again? It’s so tremendously destabilizing what we’re going through and I’ve just been being gentle on myself and the surrender idea has been really powerful for me. Even though I’ve been pinging around in the stages of grief a lot. And Doug knows we were talking about like bargaining and anger and sadness and denial and then acceptance, occasionally acceptance. Occasionally you get to acceptance. You can just sit, right? Are you there or does it depend on the day and the hour?
MIKE ROBBINS: OH, it changes all the time. I mean, it’s interesting, one of the only things I can relate this experience to for myself personally, emotionally is actually grief, and having lost my father and my mother and my sister and a number of other people really close in my life I’ve experienced quite a bit of grief and loss. And anybody listening who has experienced grief and loss, which most of us have, and the longer we walk around the planet, the more likely we are to. It’s incredibly painful and disorienting and sad and all of the things. And then of course the different stages of grief we go through. And I’ve also personally found it to be unbelievably growth inducing and transformational. And similar, like when my sister died back in early 2016 of cancer and she’d had ovarian cancer for almost four years.
So it wasn’t a shock that she died because she’d been sick for a long time and she got really sick at the end. And so we knew it was coming, but there was something about it. It’s my big sister who I was really close with and we’d grown up together, single mom raised us and she was sort of like a second mom to me in a lot of ways. And really probably the most stable force in my life for the first 15, 20 years of my life. And it was just so disorienting and the way that I would for probably a year or two after Lori died, I would turn to Michelle, my wife and say, “Is she really dead?” I’d have these moments where I couldn’t believe that that was true.
And I’ve been finding myself in the last few weeks turning to Michelle and saying, “Is this really happening? Like this whole pandemic thing. Is this really happening? Because this seems so bizarre, like out of a movie.” And I say all that because again, however we’re experiencing it, I think it’s important to what you said, to have some grace and some compassion and give ourselves some space to like we’re going through something we’ve never gone through before collectively and individually it’s impacting each of us differently. To your point, some of us it’s more life altering and even scarier in the circumstance, but we’re all having whatever emotional reaction and experience we’re having. And I think it’s important for us to honor that and then also try as best we can to have empathy and compassion for other people in their experience because it may or may not be the same as ours in any given moment.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. It’s a lot to hold and it’s unprecedented. So we can’t bring our type A lens to it to say we’ve got to pivot and you have to have the answers and solutions. Like it’s actually about detaching with love. Like, what about how when you’ve built a business, right? And I know you’re a business owner, I am too. You have ramped up to promote a book and release it in May and now maybe April. Right? And we’re sitting here recording this episode in the end of March in 2020 so everybody knows what’s going on. And I’m staying really close to my author friends who are releasing this spring, right. Because it will be very atypical. And I know that we pour everything into how to support getting our message out if we can.
And it’s just like birthing something, right. And that birth is happening in a really interesting time. And yet your book is called, We’re All in This Together, isn’t it? Right. So that’s-
MIKE ROBBINS: It is. Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Things are not an accident. And I guess I wondered how are you looking at the message of your new book in a light of what’s going on? Like, what is kind of especially poignant as you reflect on what you wrote in it that you think contains something that would be helpful at this particular moment and for the foreseeable future for all of us.
MIKE ROBBINS: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. It’s actually Jennifer, great to be talking to you about this specifically right now because, so you and I met a couple of years ago and my fourth book was called Bring Your Whole Self to Work, which I wrote really focused on the work that I do with teams and in organizations around authenticity, around vulnerability. Can we be ourselves, can we bring ourselves? And one of the things that you said to me, which I appreciated is you saw the title of the book. That phrase is used a lot, particularly in the world of diversity and inclusion and belonging and equity that you operate in and are an expert in and right.
And I don’t have an expertise in that area, although a lot of interest. And got my degree in college at Stanford in American studies with a specialization in race and ethnicity and even as a straight white cisgender man with some privilege and all of the things that go with that. Like I’ve spent a good part of my life in my career, specifically doing this work for the last 20 years. Not avoiding necessarily overtly avoiding talking about issues of race and gender and orientation. But feeling as though I don’t know where my voice is in that and I don’t know if it’s appropriate and I don’t know if it’s respectful and learned a lot growing up as a white kid in Oakland, California, raised by a single mom, as I mentioned before, but playing sports.
And often being in the minority, not in the culture in the country, but in the environment. The high school that I went to and all of these things about my experience and in the last few years through what’s happened in our world kind of waking up more to, oh my goodness, there’s all this privilege I have that I don’t even realize. And I thought by not engaging, even though I tried to pay attention, I was doing that out of respect. But in reality one of the ways I want to use my privilege if I can is to learn more, is to listen more and to try to then bring forth some ideas and perspectives that might get other people who look like me to pay more attention.
And so that’s a long way of saying that was part of the big impetus for me to write this book at this time because quite frankly I didn’t want to write another book because it is hard and it’s a lot. My family wasn’t even on board. My wife was like another one seriously. Because it’s disruptive to life and it’s a lot of work and I have to go away when I write and we have a 14 year old and an 11 year old who they roll with it.
And so the book is really about teamwork and collaboration and how we come together, but very specifically, the title was really important to me, We’re All in This Together and I wanted it to come out in 2020 because the world is so divisive and there’s so much us and them and you and me and right and wrong and left and right. And I just was like, I want this to be related to my work, but I want to start to move more in the direction of, there’s one of the key pillars in the book that’s around inclusion and belonging. So for me it was to put myself out there and to engage more directly with the mentorship of amazing people like you who have been teaching me and I’ve been learning from in the last few years. Specifically, I did not write this book, assuming it was going to come out in the middle of a global pandemic.
Right. That was not part of it. That was not a thought. I didn’t even think of that as a possibility and so here we are, as you said, we’re recording this the end of March. The book’s supposed to come out May 5th, we got an email from our publisher last week saying I emailed him, actually, he emailed me back. I said, let’s put it out early. Let’s put it out as soon as the books are in the warehouse, because everyone on the planet right now that I’m hearing is just texting me and saying, “I just heard this person say, we’re all in this together. I just heard this…” Because people are saying that because right now, collectively, globally, with all of our uniqueness and all of our difference, we’re all in this same experience dealing with this pandemic, trying to figure out what it means for us personally, health-wise, society-wise economically. And we don’t know where it’s going, but we do know we’re in this experience collectively in a way that maybe we’ve never quite been before in anything.
JENNIFER BROWN: And we have to rely on each other. I mean, that’s kind of the knowable part of this is when you think about abundance. I know for me, I’ve been having community calls every day and just literally let my entire list know you can come and get on the Zoom and talk. And it’s just been so restorative and so the blessings of literally the strength in community and the number of amazing people we know it’s such an abundant thing to focus on. And it’s a creative space, right?
MIKE ROBBINS: It is.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s comforting. It’s reminds you that you’re not isolated. And that we can provide strength to each other, particularly as that field that I’m in may really suffer in a real economic way from this. Because as you know Mike, it’s always been viewed as a nice to have, right? We fought that battle before this and so the big question mark that I’m trying to use my voice to influence however I can, is to say like now more than ever. This is an opportunity to shape that broken workplace, to shape it into something different that works for more of us.
And can you imagine we are being forced to do it. And I might argue that we wouldn’t have done it of our own accord. Because nobody likes change and everyone’s in denial all the time about like technology and virtualization. And I know we just had some serious problems. And when I think about what this is going to enable on this silver lining, and I start to think about what could be possible, like what could go right, which is the question we’ve been asking a lot.
We could end up with greater inclusion coming out of this through the sort of deeper relationships that will need to be built in order for us to produce anything, right? We’re going to have to be more intentional. We’re going to have to be more connected. We’re going to be more authentic with each other. We’re going to have to look out for each other so that voices are heard in a conference call or a Zoom meeting. Like the whole question of everything feels kind of like it’s flattening and democratizing. And it was a wish that I’ve had for the workplace for so long that it wasn’t so much an us and them game. And that’s… right? And so it’s actually kind of, when you start to think about that, it’s easy to get a little bit even excited. Dare I say it.
MIKE ROBBINS: I agree. And I mean I think we can hold both at the same time. We can look at the reality and the severity of the situation and realize there is a real impact right now. There’s going to continue to be on people’s lives, on people’s health, on the economics. And to your point, there are certain things both in the diversity and inclusion space and also just in the larger, not larger but different. I think about this in terms of when the last recession hit in ’08, ’09, 2010. So I’ve had my business for almost 20 years. And the work that I do focuses on teamwork, on leadership, on professional and personal growth and development and all of that stuff was cut as, well, we don’t need that right now. We’re not going to do training.
We’re not going to do events. And I make a living primarily going and speaking at events for organizations and coming in and working with teams. And so the thing that I noticed in that experience, it was hard. It was painful. My business took a hit. We personally my family, we had two young kids at the time. We bought a house at the top of the market. We ended up hundreds of thousands of dollars upside down in the house and in debt and in this place where my wife and I woke up and went, “Oh my goodness, we thought we knew some things about things, about life, but there were some really basic things.” I mean, what crisis will do is it shines a light on a lot of things that don’t work, both personally and then societally.
Oh wow like we’re seeing a lot of things that a lot of people knew and they’re listening going, we’re saying to you, the healthcare system doesn’t work and it’s not fair. Or the economy’s not set up in an equitable way for people. And oh my goodness. So it shines a light. But what it also does is it then forces us, it’s a cliché, but it’s true. It’s like necessity is the mother of invention. All of a sudden just think in the last couple of weeks on a really basic level, like using technology, like Skype or Zoom or things like how many people have had to scramble around if they’re fortunate enough to be in a situation where they’re working remotely, how does this work?
I have to make this work because I have to figure out how to do this, right? If you’re in a situation where you have to, as a business owner, reduce your staff or cut back on some things which you and I were talking about before we hit record, which is a horrible thing to have to do and super painful. But then all of a sudden it’s like everybody’s got to step up and do different things that they weren’t doing a month ago, which is both hard and stressful and exhausting, but also like, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize I had that capability. I guess I do.” You know what I mean? And so-
JENNIFER BROWN: I guess I do.
MIKE ROBBINS: And again, I don’t mean to sugarcoat it or minimize it, but I also think at some level when I look at what’s happened over the last 10, 12 years and all the progress that we’ve made in certain areas, there’s still a lot more progress that needs to be made clearly. I do think that part of that came out of the last recession because what I remember from that recession myself personally, as painful as it was. Me and so many other people that I talked to had to stop and really take a look in the mirror and go, “What am I doing and why am I doing and why are we doing this? And what’s this all about?” There were a lot of deeper questions.
It’s the same thing that happens again, going back to grief, when someone dies, as awful as it is, the two most beautiful parts to me are A, the community. Because we’re all collectively grieving this person that we loved and we lost, and it stops. Life stops, the BS of life kind of goes away. And we connect to who and what matters most. It prioritizes things in a really significant way, right? So there’s that community connection and that prioritization that I love and I always think to myself, how do I hold onto this awareness when life gets busy again, when I get back to worrying about right now we’re in this collective state of like, “Oh my gosh, the world has come to a screeching halt. What does this mean? What’s going to happen? Am I going to be okay? Is my family going to be okay? Is my community going to be okay? Is my business going to be okay? Am I going to be able to…?”
All these things that are going down to that base level of Maslow’s hierarchy that you were talking about? But the reality is at some deep level, even though it’s hard to remember in the moment, we kind of know, I think I, and we’re going to get through this. I mean look and there are people that are going to get sick and they’re going to pass away that aren’t going to make it through this. So we got to tell the truth about that. But the vast majority of us will in some way, shape or form get to the other side of this. And then the question is going to be like every other time in life. I remember a therapist years ago said to me, “Mike, don’t waste a good crisis.”
And I said, “What?” And she said, “Look, you’re going through hell right now personally. And it’s painful and I’m not trying to sugarcoat it, but if you waste your time during this crisis, just trying to survive it and get to the other side, you are going to miss all the lessons and all the growth. And all you’re going to have is some scars and some bruises and some stories. But that’s not really going to benefit you.” And I was like, first I thought it was super insensitive of her to say that in the moment I was like upset. But then I thought, “You know what? She’s right.”
And if we all look back in life, the worst things, the most painful things, the stuff that didn’t kill us, what did it do? Another cliché, right? It made us stronger. The heartbreak, the disappointment that… And so again, I think it’s important that we try to have some awareness of that if we can. And there are moments when, look, I want to crawl under my desk here in my office and just start sobbing because I don’t know what to do and I don’t know what to say and I don’t know how to be a leader and I don’t know what to say to my children.
And I don’t know. And I think about all the people right now that are suffering and scared. And it’s just like earlier today someone said to me, they were just kind of giving me some feedback. It feels like you’re tapping into the collective fear and pain that’s going on in the world right now. And I said, yeah, I mean, I personally think it’s one of the things that allows me to do what I do is that I’m open and sensitive and try to connect. And the other side of it is when people are in a lot of pain, it’s also hard for me personally, I’m sure a lot of people listening, and I know you can relate to this, Jen.
JENNIFER BROWN: And my entire audience.
MIKE ROBBINS: Right? It’s that feeling of how do we manage that? Because I don’t want to shut myself off from feeling that. And at the same time, there’s also the aspect of if I take all of that on, it can completely incapacitate me to the point where I don’t know how to get up and do the next thing.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. And that has to do with you are what you eat right now from a media diet perspective and not tuning things out. But I think putting some boundaries around it, making sure, I think meditate. Those who have meditation practices right now, I’m sure you have one, but it’s a good time to start. And I’d say those who have a practice already, it’s like that muscle has been exercised, right and is strong. And I wonder about the resilience of those who have an existing practice right now. And I can’t say that I’m one, I struggled to build one, but I have failed so far. That’s okay. But I think maybe there’s other ways for me to meditate. I find it really meditative to be in community and I think that’s why when all this happened, I said to my team, I don’t care how we do it.I just need to hold virtual hands with my people.
And so like, let’s do this every day. Let’s do it at noon. Anyone can come, they can meet each other. I can feel their presence. And that’s how I feel the healing and centeredness and groundedness and the panic slows down. And that somehow the reassurance that even if all of our jobs change, even if our companies should have to shift, there is a hopefulness in the human connection and I think that’s such a fertile ground and such a creative place. Anything’s possible if you can just maintain that.
MIKE ROBBINS: I agree. And I think if you think about it, I mean, we know this, humanity knows this. You think of some of the great spiritual traditions or religions of the world. I mean, think about the idea of the Jewish tradition. So my family, my dad’s side of the family is Jewish, mom’s side of the family is Irish Catholic, and it’s like, and we were never religious growing up. My parents split up when I was three. My mom was in survival mode most of the time.
But when I think about or read about or understand some traditions or have experienced some of them, think about, back to the theme of grief of death, right? What do we do in the Jewish tradition when somebody dies, you sit Shivah, meaning you sit and people come and you spend time grieving and connecting and talking about the person that died and laughing and telling stories and crying.
And it’s like you do that. And there’s a process over the course of the whole year in Judaism of the different things you do to honor the person who died. And again, I think we live in this culture where we… I mean I love the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos where we talk about and we bring forth, let’s talk about all the people that we’ve lost, because in our culture, in American culture, there’s this sense of like, “Oh, it’s bad. We don’t want to talk about it. It makes me sad.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Rush, rush, rush.
MIKE ROBBINS: “Rush, rush, rush. Take a pill and just get over it.” You know what I mean? Even sometimes to the meditation practice is like people have started to meditate, the mindfulness movement that’s really exploded in the last 10 years in the business world and in general. What really drove a lot of that was this notion, this understanding that we have like, “Oh, it’s good for you, it’s good for your wellbeing.” Which is true. But the truth is that like people who really sort of deeply understand meditation, it’s about sort of being with yourself and being with the moment. And sometimes what’s in the moment is sad or scary or painful. And I think that a lot of us have been taught about our emotions too. Like you’re only supposed to feel certain emotions and we get this training, right? Men get different training than women on this notion, but it’s like I was taught as a little boy growing up. It’s like boys don’t cry, suck it up, be a man. All those things were taught. So as a man, you’re supposed to feel like a couple of emotions just a little bit.
You can feel some anger, you can feel some excitement and like that’s about it. Everything else you’re supposed to just sort of suck in and push forward. Right? And there’s a whole different training, right, that women get. And then depending on your orientation and where you are on the continuum of things like, it gets shamed out of us that we’re supposed to not really have certain feelings. You’re too much. You’re too loud. You’re… quiet down. One of the things too right now is like trying to calm ourselves and each other down. It’s a tricky thing but one of my favorite things, I love this and I often, whenever I see it online I’ll always repost it because it’s like, but it says basically in the history of calming down, no one has ever calmed down by being told to calm down.
And we’re doing that to each other. Like, “Take a breath, relax, calm down.” That’s actually one of the most disrespectful things we can say to another human being. You’re basically saying like, your experience is not okay. And look you know this Jennifer and teach this in the context of how we do this to each other based on race, based on gender, based on orientation. And that’s a really painful, really, really problematic thing that we do. But we actually do that to each other irrespective of race and gender and orientation, just based on like, I’m not comfortable with your emotional experience right now. You’re not supposed to feel that way. And I spent a lot of my life as an athlete, as a boy even as a white kid that wasn’t always around a lot of other white kids being told like, you’re not supposed to be the way that you are, even though if you look at me and you read my resume and you’re like the epitome of privilege of sort of dominant culture.
And that’s all true and I understand that. But that feeling of being told directly and indirectly, it’s not okay to be who you are, to feel how you feel, to communicate the way you communicate, to want what you want, whatever it is. That’s a universal human experience that we all have that’s painful. And some of us have that experience way more than others in a way more dramatic and overt and horrendous way.
But underneath all of that, and this is what ties back to my book and my work is like, I just feel like it’s a human desire, we talk about Maslow’s hierarchy, right? Maslow’s hierarchy, we know belonging is not just a nice to have is not just a thing. It’s not just a communal thing. It’s not just a catch phrase. It’s a need. We have a need to belong. And your desire to call your community together right now is coming in part, I would imagine from that need to fulfill within yourself and others. We belong to each other in this. We don’t know where this is going or what’s happening. We don’t know if our work still going to be valued in the same way after all of this, but I belong and we belong to each other. So let’s lock arms metaphorically because we’re not touching each other right now. Let’s lock arms and say we’re going to get through this thing together somehow, some way.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. And I mean, yeah, that’s beautiful Mike. It’s the one knowable thing and it’s like the thing you can count on. And we are there for each other, even if perhaps the economy isn’t, even if perhaps our employers aren’t or will not be our employers anymore at some point. I think that the level of change people are going to be going through is going to be intense. It’s going to be a sort of a wholesale reinvention I think of also how we talk about belonging. I think there’s a really interesting moment right now to put some meat on the bones of belonging, right? I think as a term we’ve started to use it a lot more, but I am often asked, “What does it really mean? Define it.”
I’m like, “We’re trying to.” Actually we don’t need to define it because it’s this deep feeling and sort of know it when you see it, know it when you feel it. But the question might be as a strategy, the question was perhaps what do I put in place to generate belonging and what can I do as a colleague to create that circumstance and environment? Or how can I generate my own if I’m not feeling it right? It’s kind of this interesting two-way street, but what have you been reflecting on in this new way of working? Perhaps we can term it the virtual team world, work from home, whatever it is. What are you reflecting on from a belonging perspective? I know it’s really interesting for me to think about what could be transformed. And when you thought about the book you wrote, what do you wish you could almost add or talk about that you’ve learned in the last couple of weeks? Could you put a finer point on something? Could you like elucidate something differently? I’m just curious.
MIKE ROBBINS: Yeah, no, I think one of the things that I’m personally finding fascinating about the work from home phenomenon I’m getting, first and foremost, I said earlier, I think it’s important for any of us who do have the ability to work from home or work remotely if we can, to be grateful for that. And to be aware of the fact that there are many, many people in our country and in our world that don’t have that luxury, that don’t have that privilege because they work in an industry where that can’t happen. But if we do, I do think it’s really interesting that we’ve all just intuitively kind of understood the rules have changed. And this again goes back to the analogy of grief. You ever notice after like a loss or a death, people say things like when my sister died, I had clients of mine tell me that they loved me or that they were praying for me in these ways that moved me to tears.
And it’s like, oh, the rules change when someone goes through a tragedy or someone goes through a loss that people were reaching out and saying these really personal, heartfelt, very moving things that I would. And I have pretty strong relationships with clients. And the work I do is very open and heart-centered. But I was even struck by that and I think what’s happening, I’ve been on Zoom calls today and many days with clients and things and there’s like someone’s three-year-old is crawling all over them or the dog’s barking. And we kind of understand that in the work from home phenomenon that was months ago that some people work remotely. But even now it’s like everyone seems to have an intuitive sense of empathy and compassion and we’re not judging people for what they’re wearing or that their kids are running around in the back and because you know what I mean?
We just understand like it’s crazy right now. And I was on a call earlier today where someone was saying their CEO had a virtual sort of town hall with the whole meeting. And they were saying, listen, “We want everyone to do the best they can. We’re not expecting you to be as productive as you would be if you were at work. Spend time with your family, take a break, don’t work all the time.” And she was saying it was really important message to hear like everyone needed that reassurance that it’s okay if you need to tend to your kids because school’s at home now and you’re trying to do that. I mean, I think it’s giving us a deeper appreciation. I’m loving all the posts I’m seeing on social media or people saying, “Oh my gosh, teachers should make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because their job is so hard. I’ve been homeschooling for three days and I want to quit.”
So again, my 14-year-old, Samantha said to me the other day and she’s like so sad and a 14 year olds world, it’s like we had to cancel our spring break trip. And she’s not sure if she’s ever going to see her friends again from this middle school where she’ll be graduating in June and going to a different school. And, I mean but she said to me the other day in the kitchen, she said, “Dad, when all this is over, it’s going to be amazing on how much I appreciate all the simple things that I wasn’t appreciating before.”
And I was like, oh it warmed my heart and broke my heart at the same time to hear her say that. But I do think that, if we can think about that in how we’re engaging, it’s even more important for us to connect with each other, human being to human being, which I’ve always believed to be really true. As simple as that is. But I think now more than ever, because we can’t see each other in person. We can’t sit in a room with one another. We’ve got to recreate that experience virtually if we possibly can. And it’s harder, but even more important.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, did you see, I think the vulnerability that we have the opportunity to show each other and the realness is another thing we often talk about. I know you do an exercise similar to one that I do in your keynotes, which is if you knew me, if you really knew me and if you really, really knew me, right. And it’s that… I do it as the sort of iceberg. And what’s under our waterline and something we spend so much time and energy covering and it distracts us and it exhausts us and we feel depleted from the sort of perceived need to cover and carry that around with us. It affects our health and all of it. And so it’s just really like, I don’t know if you saw, we’ve been talking a lot on our chats, on our Zoom calls about the Marriott CEO did a video and it was just such a beautiful and heartfelt… Did you see it by any chance?
MIKE ROBBINS: I didn’t, no. I’ll check it out as soon as we’re done.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Check it out, check it out. Because they’re going through massive layoffs? And so actually I had an ex Marriott employee tell us about it on the call because she was really moved by it and he’s been going through cancer treatment. So he shows up with a bald head video and he talks from the heart and he shares about that a bit. And then when he starts to talk about having to say goodbye to so many associates that make Marriott what it is, he gets very choked up and it’s a very real moment. And it’s just this kind of opening for leaders to practice the kind of skill that I always felt like I was encouraging.
I never had the tidal wave behind me to kind of make it happen. And now it’s just this huge force of nature that is going to, I think cause us to, and hopefully compel us to be like that with each other and do so much more. And like with one kind of pandemic, one crisis, one recession. I mean, I hope not. But the humbling of it, right? The flattening of it, the accessibility to leadership. A lot of people are telling me they have access to people. People are just being themselves with each other. There’s the hierarchy sort of falling away in a really interesting way.
And conversations with people they never would’ve been able to access are all available now. I know for me, I’m watching some of my favorite thought leaders on Twitter saying, “Hey, I’m sitting around, hit me up if you want me on your podcast.” It’s like these people that I’ve never thought to approach. So anyway, there’s opportunity all around us and it’s so fascinating, if you kind of change the frequency on your dial, all of a sudden you start to perceive a very different activity going on right now.
MIKE ROBBINS: Totally. Well, and I love, I’m going to check that video out of the Marriott CEO because I just think it is an opportunity for all of us and most of us aren’t CEOs of big fortune 500 companies that are laying people off and having to deal with that and in our own lives, the way it’s impacting us. It’s funny, as I was thinking about this earlier and now that you brought that up, so a few years back, I think it was 2013 I was at a conference that I love to go to and I’ve had a chance to speak out a few times in the past called Wisdom 2.0 which is-
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that conference.
MIKE ROBBINS: It’s so great, right? It’s the intersection of mindfulness and technology and business. And Bill Ford, who is the chairman of the board of Ford Motor company and was the CEO, he’s the great grandson of Henry Ford, was invited to the conference and he gets up on stage. And my first thought is like here’s this white guy, CEO Ford. We’re like, “Why is he here?” Because most of the companies that were coming to the event at that point were mostly all Twitter and Facebook and Google.
And he started off by saying like something almost to that effect. Like, “Why the hell did you invite me here?” But it turns out as the interview goes on and he starts to talk more what comes out is first of all, he’s had his own personal mindfulness meditation practice for many years and it’s been a really important part of his own journey.
And he had to grapple with a bunch of things in his life that he starts to share more vulnerably and authentically. And then what then he shares about is during the recession that now at this point is 2013 so the recession is just a few years behind us. And he said, I was the CEO and the chairman of the board here of Ford motor company. As we’re going through this horrendous time in the car industry, the automobile industry had to be bailed out by the government. And he said, “And I had to grapple with the fact that here’s this iconic brand that I’m part of this legacy family of Ford, and this is one of the most iconic American brands. This ship might sink under my leadership. And I’m having to lay off tens of thousands of people who are multi-generational Ford families. They’ve grown up, they’ve been a part of our community, and I’m breaking people’s hearts and I’m making really hard decisions.”
And he said it was the most challenging time in his life, and he didn’t know what to do. And he said, “And every morning I would sit and I would do my mindfulness meditation. I would do my loving kindness practice.” And he said, “At one point it hit me really clearly that this is hard. I don’t like this. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But you know what? If this whole thing goes under and the company implodes and it doesn’t exist anymore, that’ll be really painful and that’ll be sad. And I don’t want that to happen, but I think I’ll be okay. The people who know me, the people who love me will still love me. We’ll all go through collectively a ton of pain and sadness and grief.”
But there was this sense that when he shared, and I was sitting there just on the edge of my seat riveted because I’m thinking here’s this man with enormous wealth, enormous privilege, he doesn’t have to work a day in his life. Coming from the Ford family and being Henry Ford’s great grandson and just imagining what the pressure, I can’t relate personally to what that experience would be like. But on a human level, knowing what it’s like when I have to make a decision that’s a hard one that might have negative impact on other people, not sure if it’s the right one. And that if he could sit up there and say, “I made peace with the fact that this might not go the way that I want to and it’s going to have a lot of negative impact on all these people and I’m still going to choose to be okay.”
He wasn’t saying it in a like, “I’m not responsible, I don’t care. It’s not my problem.” Kind of way. It was like the opposite of that. And to me as I think about this moment right now and all of us, and most of us aren’t in those positions, like these big CEOs necessarily, and it’s easy for us and understandable that a lot of the way CEOs get paid and a lot of the public comments and when they’re sitting in front of Congress trying to defend themselves, like I’m not here, I’m not apologizing for CEO’s and their pay and their behavior by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think, again, if we can try to connect with and relate with people on a human level, and this is something Jennifer, that I feel really fortunate for my experience growing up the way that I grew up, because I didn’t know it at the time and I didn’t fully understand it at the time.
And I don’t mean for this to sound weird, but I’ll just say it. It’s like to be a white kid, a boy growing up the way that I grew up with the significant influence of my mother and my sister on me. With the significant influence of so many of my friends, most of whom were African American, it was challenging in the sense that I often felt different and I often had a hard time relating to some of the specific aspects of life. But it was really beautiful and helpful because there was an aspect that I just got without anyone lecturing me or telling me or teaching me that down below the water line of the iceberg that you talk about, we’re way more alike than we are different.
And there’s all these differences above the line that are important to understand and to see and to appreciate and to try to get. But it’s that interesting paradox that I could see and go, “Wow, I’m different. I’m different, I’m different.” Even though in the world I sit in this dominant role if you will, given my race and my gender and I get that now. And I’ve understood that as an adult. But as a kid I felt very different a lot of the time, but I still didn’t really feel different because when I would connect with another human being, it’s not that I didn’t see or appreciate the difference that we had in race or gender or whatever it was. I absolutely did and was aware of it. But I also got this sense that they’re scared about the same kind of stuff that I’m scared about or we share a common sense of joy or a common sense of pain.
And even if their life story and some of the circumstances they walk out in the world dealing with are different than mine. I don’t know, I just think that there’s more common humanity than we realize. And I think right now more than ever, maybe in any of our lifetimes it doesn’t matter if you’re Tom Hanks or you’re an NBA superstar, you’re a corporate CEO. It doesn’t matter all those things, this coronavirus doesn’t care where you live, how much money you have. And even though people who are disenfranchised in our country and in our world are way more vulnerable to the impact of this than those of us who have more privilege, that’s clear and obvious. At some level, no matter who we are, no matter how much privilege we have, we can’t run away from this thing.
JENNIFER BROWN: So true. And so many new, I think diversity dimensions are going to come to the fore. Things like mental health, things like parenting and caregiving, things that we’ve known were commonalities across difference that we shared. And I think one of the ways that the whole sort of way we’ve defined diversity dimensions continues to kind of shape and change away from some of the focus areas and to these new, they’re not new always been with us, but we haven’t spoken about them. I mean they’ve been also deeply stigmatized and hidden and to our detriment. We haven’t felt seen and heard in a variety of ways in a workplace that wasn’t built by and for many of us. But you’re right that there’s more about us that we share and this is going to show us that in this moment and it’s going to reorient, I think. I’m certain it will reorient how we consult and what we advise companies to see, truly see and acknowledge and then normalize in their workplaces.
That this is the actual truth that everybody was keeping from you and from each other because we don’t know how to talk about it. It’s not okay. But I can tell you mental health and mental illness, when I poll my audiences, it’s like number two in terms of what people spend the most energy covering. And then parenting and caregiving is number three.
So I know, and this is allegedly like a diversity keynote, right? And so it’s really mind blowing and I think it’s funny, it’s almost like this is the opportunity that I felt it was needed to kind of pull some things to the fore and shine some light on what’s really going on in our lives that we have all been struggling to manage. You and I know not… maybe not personally, but I know so many who struggle to just literally bring half of themselves to work, it’s really hard. And then you add stigma and bias and microaggressions and all of that. And it just is so fricking exhausting.
MIKE ROBBINS: It is. No, it really is. And having grown up in a family where my dad had bipolar disorder, a lot of mental illness in my family and it’s still to this day stigmatized it was much more so 10, 20, 30, 50 years ago. And hearing stories from my father of what it was like to be a young man who was diagnosed manic depressive is what they called it in those days. The people just didn’t know what that was and like they literally send them to a mental institution where he got tranquilizers and electroshock therapy at 20 years old because he dropped out of college and didn’t know how to manage himself because he was mentally ill. And fast forward to today, it’s like we’ve made a lot of progress. There’s a lot better research and understanding and medication and all of this.
We talk about it more openly than we did and it’s still really hard to both grapple with when we’re struggling with our own mental illness or that of the people close to us. And people still in our culture like we were talking about earlier, it’s about looking good. It’s about producing results. It’s about not talking about or dealing with things that are hard or that are painful. And again, I keep circling back around to death and grief, not to be overly morbid about it, but it is I think again, when we’re grieving or when someone dies, it is such a beautiful equalizer because again, it does not matter how much money you have. It does not matter what you look like in the sense that when someone dies, that person is now physically not here. And those of us that love that person are going to grieve in a very natural, very beautiful, very human way.
And so much of the other hierarchy of stuff that we get ourselves caught in and have to deal with kind of doesn’t matter. And one of my favorite things that I’ve experienced in grief is that like I kind of just stopped caring so much in those moments in the days and weeks and months after. That I’m someone who prides myself on being as real as I can and tell him the truth and kind of bringing it. But there’s usually a whole other level of, I just don’t give a you know what, you know what I mean? And I don’t do it to just say and do all kinds of horrible, nasty things at all. It’s more just like, oh my gosh, what have I been holding back and why have I been holding it back? Because who really cares and what am I trying to protect myself from?
And again, all of us are in different situations with respect to that, but I do think there’s an element of what you’re talking about that stuff’s going to bubble up to the surface and we’re going to have to continue to deal with it individually and collectively. And I do think for what it’s worth, not that I know for sure and the fear I think is real for a lot of us on what does it do and what happens to all the important work, Jennifer, that you and your team have been doing and so many people in this space over the last number of years and made so much progress. Might it be stalled? Might it go sideways? Might it get right, might companies cut budgets. Yeah, that’s all possible. And the work that I do the same thing, but I think and just like you said at the beginning of this conversation, it’s more important than ever. And over the long haul and whether it takes us a few months or a few years to get back economically to where we need to be to where the resources are there.
I don’t think you can put the genie back in the bottle on lot of this stuff. It’s out and people know it and it’s been in our face in so many ways in the last few years. Very importantly, and you and others have been on the forefront of leading that and that’s not going anywhere because the issues and the lack of access and equity, the lack of understanding and awareness around a lot of this stuff is just like, that’s not going backwards from my perspective, and I don’t want it to, and I don’t think… there are a lot of people that don’t and aren’t going to let it. The question is going to be how do we show up in the midst of all this and how do we continue to bring it forward when maybe there is less money to be spent or less attention being put on it directly, that doesn’t make it less important in some cases. I think it makes it more important.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right yeah, that’s really the question. I mean, you just articulated the uncertainty and the ambiguity and the fear as a result of the ambiguity that a lot of us are sitting in. It’s sort of… is the thing I’m passionate about going to matter or will it survive? I might ask instead will it survive in its current form? I think when I’ve talked to a lot of folks who are scared about their employment or scared about their newly fledged consulting company and all of their hopes and dreams and all of their passions, bless their heart. Some of us have been in the trenches for a really long time and we know how hard it can get and when we’re going to be really tested.
But there’s a lot of really hopeful people, I think over the last year or two who’ve been so excited. It’s almost like they’ve woken up and they’ve had this aha like, “Oh my gosh, this is what I want to do. Like this is what I need to contribute.” And then they get on my calendar. I’m sure yours too. I want to be, I think this is what I want to do and I’m so excited to have found it. It’s an interesting conversation particularly now to have, because I am just saying, I don’t know what it’s going to change into. I’m sure it’s going to change. And I think it’s going to draw on, I tell people that this belief in equality and the skill set we have developed wherever we are in these careers, we will always carry those with us.
And it’s a lens that we will always problem solve. We will always deliver things through. We will always communicate through. Whether it’s what we do in the world that is what might change. The physical manifestation of that. And you may end up after this, you may need to go back to your roots. You may need to do something you haven’t done in 10 years or 15 years. You may need to think about, in a very practical sense what do I know how to do and what would be of value to other people and who is spending money on anything that I know how to do? We may be at that point. And I thought about that too.
MIKE ROBBINS: It’s very true.
JENNIFER BROWN: I thought like, yeah, I mean this may be sort of a moment where he had sort of, I think of like a forest fire, like just going through and just wiping everything out and sort of what stands.
MIKE ROBBINS: I totally agree. One of the things as you’re saying as I’m reflecting back, so at the end of, or probably middle of 2009 as we were really getting deep into the recession. My second book had come out. We had two babies and I wrote two books in the span of about three and a half years, which was both super exciting and crazy. I was exhausted and we were in debt. The business wasn’t going well, things were just, I was like, “Oh my goodness, I failed.” One of the biggest fears I had about getting married, having babies was like, “What if I fail?” My father had really struggled with his mental illness, hadn’t been there for us. Put my mom and our family in a really difficult situation and I remember saying to Michelle, “You know what babe, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep doing this.”
And I started my business in 2001 and I felt like I had gotten pretty good at it. I’d published two books. I was out in the world speaking. But I was like, we’re broke and this is not working. And I said to her, I remember that moment because we both had worked for and volunteered for Barack Obama’s campaign and we were so excited that he’d gotten elected. And we were really engaged. And I said to her, I remember this one day, I said, “What if all of this that I’ve been doing for the last almost 10 years has been training me for something else that I can’t see right now?” And I said to her as a hypothetical, I said, “What if we got a call from the Obama administration right now and they said, hey, Mike, we heard about you. We need you to come to DC. We have this job for you in the White House, are you ready?”
And I said, “We would pick up the family right now and we would move to DC.” Now, that didn’t end up happening, but as silly as that almost sounds, me thinking that way and I started to brainstorm all the things I could possibly do that I think would use my gifts and talents if I weren’t so attached to the ideas and the goals that I had about the business and where I thought it was going. And that exercise, I ended up continuing my business and it was lean and it was painful and we lost our house and we went through some pretty tough times ultimately. But I can look back on that whole experience now and say you know what, that was fantastic for me personally and I’m fortunate that I was able to come through it.
I’m fortunate that the economy recovered in a way and that I lived near Silicon Valley and I have a lot of relations. I mean there’s a lot of reasons why my privilege definitely played a role in that. But I also would say that unlocking myself from that I have to do this thing in this way, even though I still do a lot of what I was doing all those years ago. It’s continued to grow and evolve. I didn’t actually end up getting a job in the White House or going and doing anything radically different, but giving myself the space to say maybe that’s what’s needed. And in some cases, and again, I don’t mean to minimize it, the market or the world makes that decision for us. I was a pro baseball player, Jen as you know, right? I played baseball in college. I played professionally.
I was a pitcher. I tore ligaments in my elbow. I had three surgeries. I wasn’t able to come back. The universe intervened and said, “Your baseball career is over.” Even though I played from the age of seven until I was 25, that was super painful. That was one of the biggest heartbreaks of my life and it sucked big time. And looking back on it now, it was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. The hard part is when we’re going through it, when we’re in the middle of it, not sugarcoating it, not Pollyanna like, “Oh, it’s all good.” No, sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes, but trusting and believing and having some sense of faith that I don’t know how and I’m not sure where, why or what, but I’m going to get through this and we’re going to get through it. And that goes back to the community thing and the belonging and the like, we’re in this together because we can’t get through this thing by ourselves. We don’t have that necessary capability or experience, but we can if we lean on each other.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. That’s so great. I know you and I have similar trial by fire stories in our lives of being deprived of or what we thought was being deprived of our passion.
MIKE ROBBINS: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: And then discovering in the ruin, so to speak, that actually we were getting ready for something different. And I think it’s a beautiful note to end on. It’s such an important message for our audience right now who feel so destabilized and may continue to be further destabilized. Right. There’s every week brings surprises right now and so-
MIKE ROBBINS: Crazy.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. So let’s stay open and remember the lessons that Mike has shared with us today and wish him well with the book launch, which you are moving forward actually.
MIKE ROBBINS: We are.
JENNIFER BROWN: So hopefully to April. Right. So-
MIKE ROBBINS: That’s the idea.
JENNIFER BROWN: Let’s try to support Mike. Yeah, let’s get your book and are there any websites you’d point us to so that we can support you and the new book.
MIKE ROBBINS: OH, I appreciate it. Yeah. The page on our site that we put up, is at mike-robbins.com/together. So that’s where you can find out about the book and all the stuff. So, yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Awesome. Awesome. Well, good luck to us and I shouldn’t even say that because the path will appear when it is ready to.
MIKE ROBBINS: Yes, it will.
JENNIFER BROWN: And our job is to pay attention when it appears and follow not knowing where it’s going to lead. And that may be our reality for a good long while. And it is such a transformative place to be, as you’ve said today. And that is just such a beautiful sentiment. So thank you Mike so much for your voice. Thank you for writing the book you have written and I can’t wait for people to read it. We didn’t really get to talk about too much about your identity and the lens that you’re bringing to this topic from a pretty unusual place. So I also want to commend you being that white, straight, cisgender guy writing chapters on inclusiveness and belonging and how that feels for you, what you recommend for others.
I think we have to support voices that are like yours, that are broadening the way that we… who is allowed to speak about belonging. And I believe, I’ve always believed, the second I met you, that you could be an incredible teacher in this field, in this topic. So keep going.
MIKE ROBBINS: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: And because guess what? A lot of people that might look like you may see you doing all that you’re doing and say, this is something I can do as well, and that can lead to the sea change that we’ve all been hoping for and waiting for. And gosh, we’re going to do it together, aren’t we?
MIKE ROBBINS: Yes, for sure. Well, thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks so much for joining me.
MIKE ROBBINS: You are welcome.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks Mike.
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