In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by author and thought leader Todd Cherches.


Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I’m Mari Ryan. I’m the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Todd Cherches.

Todd is the CEO and co-founder of Big Blue Gumball, a New York City-based consulting firm specializing in leadership development, public speaking, and executive coaching, as well as a founding partner of the Global Institute for Thought Leadership. He is a three-time award-winning Adjunct Professor of Leadership at NYU, and a lecturer on leadership at Columbia University. Todd is also a TEDx speaker and the author of Visual Leadership: Leveraging the Power of Visual Thinking in Leadership and in Life – and you can see I’m already well into this book.

Todd, welcome. I’m so excited to have you here today.

Todd Cherches: Mari, thank you. I just finished reading your book, and I look forward to discussing both our books on how to create a more thriving workplace.

Mari Ryan: Exactly. We’re going to talk a little about thriving workplaces today from the perspective of culture. So much has changed in the way that we are working now and different from what we were doing a year ago as a result of the pandemic. So many businesses have been forced to send their employees to work from home and now with these distributed workforces it makes it challenging to have a culture and create a culture where people feel like they belong and the impact that can have on the way people work.

As we discuss culture today, let’s talk a little bit about how do you create that culture of collaboration, community, and connection with a distributed workforce.

Todd Cherches: Today one of the challenges is … first, how do we define culture? One of the basic definitions I’ve heard is the way that we do things here is our culture. Whether it’s the culture of a country or religion, or anyone, culture is the way we dress and eat and how we interact with each other.

For example one of my clients, a big part of their culture – I won’t mention their name but they are a Wall Street company with a dot com culture – a big part of their culture is the pool tables and massages and all the old-school google types of stuff, Friday lunches. But when everyone is working from home, first of all you can’t do it, and second of all how much do people actually care about that stuff anymore.

So, in terms of on-boarding new employees, how do you get them ingrained in your culture in terms of communicating, as you said, communication and collaboration and connection, how do you do that when people are working from home? I know someone who has changed jobs twice over the course of the pandemic without leaving his living room. Every time he is working for a different culture, but what does that actually mean on a daily basis in terms of how you get your work done and how you interact with others? That’s a couple of things we are trying to wrestle with right now.

Mari Ryan: Yeah, we are wrestling with so much.  I’m curious, in the work that you do from a leadership perspective, both in what you are teaching in these advanced degree programs, as well as the work you are doing, both coaching and consulting with clients, what are the behaviors that you are encouraging leaders to strive for when we think about creating a thriving culture?

Todd Cherches: Some things stay the same and other things can’t. For example, one of the classic management approaches is called MBWA – Managing By Walking Around – the manager gets out of their office and stopping by people’s desks and saying how’s it going today? Is there anything I can help you with? Or my door is always open. When you are working from home that goes away. So one of the dilemmas managers are facing, and my focus right now is helping to manage and lead in a COVID and a post-COVID world. If you check in too often you seem like a micro-manager or a babysitter. If you don’t check in often enough, one, you don’t feel comfortable or confident enough in terms of what’s going on and then people may feel abandoned or disconnected or disengaged. That’s one of the biggest challenges in management.

I was talking to a new client yesterday and he is really wrestling with that. How often or how infrequently do you check in? In terms of coworkers, the same thing with collaboration. When people are working from home and you’re thinking, oh, they are taking care of a child, they are doing homeschooling or maybe they have health issues or whatever, you actually hesitate to reach out to someone. Instead of just looking across the hall and seeing who is in their cubicle and stopping by someone’s office, these are all things as employees, whether you’re a manager or not, what you are wrestling with is the behaviors, what’s acceptable and what’s not and what’s intrusive.

In a 24-hour world, we are all working different schedules. Some managers want their people at their computer from 9:00 – 5:00 or 9:00 – 6:00 every day, but is it okay if their employee doesn’t do that because they can’t and gets their work done at 8:00, 9:00, 10:00 at night? We were talking earlier, I’m a night owl. I get most of my best thinking done between midnight and 4:00 am, but that’s not for everyone.

Mari Ryan: Right. How do they create the … I guess that part of it is communication, part of it is the transparency, and part of it is about trust and autonomy. You have to build that culture where you deliver a message to your employees that says, I trust you are going to get the work done, or even among work teams that the work team builds that culture within the team that they trust each other, they know they are going to have each other’s back, they are going to get the work done, they are going to accomplish their objectives. Thoughts on that?

Todd Cherches: You’ve just reminded me on a quote from Good to Great by Jim Collins where he says, don’t discipline people, hire self-disciplined people and turn them loose within the framework of freedom and accountability. You treat people like adults, you allow them to get their work done, and a big part is coming up with guiding principles or ground rule or whatever you want to call them – expectations, clarifying expectations so there are no guessing games.

If you say to your boss, hey, I’m going to be unreachable for about four hours in the middle of the day today, the manager needs to hold people accountable based on producing results, not punching a time clock. So that Fred Flintstone punch the time clock thing – we’re living in a different world right now. So we need to have different measures of success in terms of what our expectations are for employees. Communication is the foundation of everything. One of my mantras is people are not mind readers. If your boss thinks you are working and you are not, it creates suspicion, but if you just say, hey, I’m not going to be reachable and the person needs to create a culture and a climate where it says, okay, thanks for letting me know, I’ll talk to you later.

Mari Ryan: Right. Again, it creates that trust and autonomy and builds for a culture where people are going to feel like they’re being treated like adults.

Todd Cherches: In his book, Drive, Dan Pink talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose, where autonomy is freedom to do your work the way that’s best for you, mastery is where you ought to be doing something where you are growing, learning and developing, and purpose is to be doing work that matters. So whether you are in the office or working from home, if you manage or lead with that mindset then you will set your people up for success.

Mari Ryan: Absolutely, that’s great. I’m curious, from your perspective when you think about culture and the way that you’re working with leaders and organizations around this, how does culture impact employee wellbeing?

Todd Cherches: If you have a culture of high pressure and high stress, people are going to get sick, people are not going to be able to do their best work when they are in fear and a state of chaos and panic. One of the things we can do as managers and leaders is to help to calm things down a little bit. One of the sayings out there is we’re living in a VUCA world, or we’re living in a hyper-VUCA world. VUCA is Volatile, Uncertainty, Complex, and Ambiguous. Actually there is a blog post on this, that leaders need to be doing the opposite of VUCA.

The opposite of volatility is calmness, so as a manager or leader, calm things down. Uncertainty; we don’t have all the answers, we don’t know what’s going on, but we need to acknowledge that and determine what we are certain about. What are some of the things that we know? V-U-C-A, the “C” is complexity. Can we simplify things? The world is complex enough in terms of everything. Technology, getting your work done, we need to try and make things as simple as possible. Einstein said make things as simple as possible, but no simpler. DaVinci said simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. How can we simplify complexity so we get things done and get the right things done?

And then the “A” is ambiguity, can we find some clarity in this chaotic world that we are living in. As a leader, if you can do those things you will counteract that VUCA world that we are living in and set your people up for success.

I always talk about “R and R,” not rest and relaxation, that comes later, but resources and roadblocks. As managers you need to get people the resources they need and remove the roadblocks that stand in their way. If you can do those two things, you are going to be setting your people up for success.

Mari Ryan: Such great advice. I love how you are turning VUCA around. That’s really great and so appropriate for everything we are dealing with right now. That is just wonderful. We talked a little bit about employee wellbeing and I couldn’t help, when I was reading your book, and again, I’ve got all my little notes here, as you mentioned in several places, and I was kind of fascinated by this, first I think what you called “the bosses from hell” and then “post traumatic boss syndrome” – do I have that right? I’d love to hear your story. Share with our audience your stories about these bosses from hell because I can’t imagine that must have been a culture that was a great place to work, so tell us a little bit about that.

Todd Cherches: I worked in Hollywood, I worked in Wall Street, two of the most toxic industries around. You noticed in the dedication in my book, it’s dedicated first to my wife, second to my parents, and third to all of the horrible bosses without whom this book would never have been written. That’s one of my claims to fame is having worked with some of the worst bosses who have ever set foot on this planet.

A big part of that was having worked in the entertainment industry. I started out in advertising in New York, decent bosses, good bosses. I moved out to L.A. and then I worked with different companies, including Aaron Spelling and Columbia Pictures, Disney, and CBS. Then around program development, I just happened to get one of the worst bosses in history. She was not only incompetent, but she was also insecure. That’s like a deadly combination. There was no trust there and she was always thinking I was doing something behind her back, but all I was doing was trying to do my job.

One of the stories I tell that my students are always horrified that I lived through this, but I was just sitting at my desk at a major TV network – I won’t mention which one by name but it has a C, a B, and an S in its title. I’m sitting at my desk, typing up a memo and I hear my boss’s office door fling open and I feel something whip by my head and it turned out my boss had thrown a box of pens at my head and started screaming at me because they were the wrong ones. They were Paper Mate, but she wanted the fine point and these were the medium point. When I am teaching feedback in my leadership classes, I actually pose the question to my students, if you were the boss there, is there any other way you might have given your employee the feedback that these were the wrong pens? I’m at a loss, I can’t think of anything. You throw it at their head, that’s the only way they are going to learn.

Mari Ryan: Oh my God!

Todd Cherches: It sounds like a scene from a movie, but it was literally a scene from my job and I actually kept an abuse log, which I still have to this day, and I post a little picture of it in my book. Every day she did something that was either sadistic or passive-aggressive. You start to think you’re crazy. You start to question your own sanity. A normal person just wouldn’t act like that. One day I actually sat down with her and I said, can we talk? And she basically said to me, quit whining, get back to your desk, and if you don’t like it … she said and I quote, when I had your job, I was treated like, let’s say crap, and now it’s your turn. If you don’t like it, I can replace you tomorrow.

I was 30 years old at the time, I finally achieved my dream of working for a TV network, and that is what I was thrust into. There’s a lot of stories beyond that, but that’s the essence of it.

Mari Ryan: I’m curious, how long did you stay working for that horrible boss?

Todd Cherches: Long story short, she walked in one day and opened her door, she said come into my office for a second and said to me, I can’t take it anymore, you’re fired. She said, pack your stuff and leave.

Mari Ryan: So it was your fault?

Todd Cherches: I didn’t know what to do. I put my stuff in a box and I was heading down to HR, and I stopped by the vice president’s office – this is my boss’s boss’s boss, and we had kind of a good relationship because was a fellow New Yorker and I said, Jonathan, I just want to say goodbye and thank you. He said, where are you going? It’s 10:00 in the morning. I said, Terry just fired me. He said, why? I said, she wouldn’t tell me. She just said, you’re fired. He said, tell her to get her ass down here!

So, I went back to my office again, I’m walking around with my box, everyone is looking, all my peers. I’m sitting there on my desk holding my box, not knowing what to do, and then I said, Jonathan wants to see you. We heard screaming from down the hall, and then she came walking back, mascara dripping down her face, and she just said, you’re not fired, get back to work. She just slammed her door.

She was put on notice, she lasted for about three or four more months, she got fired, and I took over her job with the promise that if I did a good job I would be promoted into that role. Then I find out one day, Todd, I want to introduce you to your new boss. They brought someone in who was younger than me and inexperienced, but had gone to the same university as the president and he said, here’s your new boss, can you train him to do that job?

The writing was on the wall that this toxic environment was not for me. I’m an introvert even though I talk loud and fast because I’m from New York. I’m what you call the “three Bs,” I call myself the back of the room, behind the scenes bookworm. For me to deal with this … I didn’t really speak up or speak out and I finally left because I realized there was nowhere to go from there. Anyway, that’s my story. You pulled it out of me.

Mari Ryan: Yeah, I certainly did. I think it’s a classic example of a toxic culture. It fits all of the requirements.

Todd Cherches: That’s the Hollywood culture and people just got away with that. We hear about the Harvey Weinsteins, that’s the biggest, but there’s a lot of mini-Harveys and Harriet Weinsteins – it was not just males but females as well – but a big part of Hollywood is a culture of power, control, ego, money. Those are your values and that’s all you care about. There’s no management or leadership development. Well, I can’t say there is not now. It’s changed a lot since then, but back then in the early ‘90s there wasn’t’ and people just got away with that behavior.

Mari Ryan: We can only pray that people are being held accountable for their behavior and that those kinds of work situations no longer exist in that industry or in any other, but perhaps I’m a little hopeful and naïve about that.

Todd Cherches: Well, it gave me a lot of great stories. In some ways, as painful as it was, I learned how not to be … in all seriousness, I learned how not to manage and lead people. Like somebody who was abused as a child, either you become the abusive parent or you say I know what that’s like and you become more empathetic and compassionate. As a boss, as a professor I would never have done that anyway, but knowing what it feels like, I’ve coined the phrase “post-traumatic boss disorder.”

I had a situation where I ran into another toxic boss. I was sitting in an NYU faculty meeting and I looked across the room and my second most horrible boss was in the room. My heart started pounding through my chest and I actually started shaking. I experienced the reaction I used to get working for her, even though it was 20 years later. I actually had to go to the men’s room and splash water on my face. That’s how ingrained it is in us, that’s what a toxic culture can do to us psychologically.

Psychological safety is one of the topics that we can talk about, but how do you create that climate where people do feel safe and can be vulnerable in your workplace. That’s how you contribute to an environment of wellness. You can’t be well if you are under that level of stress while you’re trying to get your work done.

Mari Ryan: Well certainly not. We can see how that would certainly diminish the wellbeing of anybody who is working in those kinds of situations.

Todd Cherches: It affects your health, your mental health, your physical health. I had stomach issues, I was having those little aches just from what I was subjected to.

Mari Ryan: It’s so amazing that 20 years later it could trigger that physical reaction, not just that emotional reaction, but that physical reaction from you as well.

Todd Cherches: My doctor, Dr. Ruden, wrote a book called When the Past is Always Present, and it’s true. The past doesn’t leave, there are all kinds of triggers. Yeah, it can come flooding back to you in a second with a reminder of it.

Mari Ryan: That’s amazing. Let’s go back to this idea about leaders and what why should leaders care about creating thriving cultures in the workplace?

Todd Cherches: One, it’s the right thing to do, but also I always say when you’re talking to someone there are two thought bubbles over their head, which is WSIC – why should I care, and WIFM – what’s in it for me. For a leader, what’s the why should I care and what’s in it for me, it’s basically very practical. If you treat people well, you’re going to attract talent, you’re going to engage people, you’re going to retain talent, people are going to be more willing to jump through hoops for you and get things done for you and the organization if they are treated well and if they are respected.

One of the other books that I mentioned was Dan Pink’s Drive and autonomy, mastery, and purpose, but another model I teach in my class is the book The Progress Principle. You set people up so they make progress and then recognize and acknowledge that progress, they are going to feel that sense of satisfaction and engagement in their work. Again, it’s about being kind, it’s about being empathetic, it’s about being compassionate, it’s about helping your people succeed, creating an environment where you can be vulnerable and say, hey, I’m struggling, or I’m having a bad day and knowing that you won’t get beaten up for that. So in the Hollywood job, in that industry, people couldn’t do that. People couldn’t say they were having a bad day. It was like, just deal with it. I don’t care.

I think there are tangible benefits. What does it cost to have a disengaged employee? What does it cost to replace an employee that you’ve invested in? They leave and they take their knowledge and experience out the door with them. So there are real, practical, monetary reasons, but also a real human reason in terms of integrity and doing the right thing. Peter Drucker said, management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right thing. When you do this, you are doing both; doing it right and doing it because it is right.

Mari Ryan: I love that. That’s the right reasons. Let’s hope that people understand that this the reason to do it. Todd, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you are doing, where can they find you?

Todd Cherches: The best way is to go on my brand-new website, and you can sign up for my lists and download my book, my list of top visual leadership books. Follow me on LinkedIn, and those are the two best places to reach me. Check out my book if you want to learn more of my stories, both success stories and failure stories. So, thank you for having me, Mari.

Mari Ryan: This was really fun. Thanks so much for the conversation. It’s always wonderful to spend time with you, Todd. Thanks. 

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