Employee Motivation: Lift up, encourage and inspire -Mike Vacanti [Interview]

Mike Vacanti is the Catalyst for Positive Change; Speaker, Consultant, CEO Advisor at MJ Vacanti. He is the author of ‘Believership: The Superpower Beyond Leadership’, founder of the #HumansFirst movement.

Employee Motivation: Lift up, encourage and inspire -Mike Vacanti [Interview]

About Mike Vacanti

Mike Vacanti is the Catalyst for Positive Change; Speaker, Consultant, CEO Advisor at MJ Vacanti. He is the author of ‘Believership: The Superpower Beyond Leadership’, founder of the #HumansFirst movement. Mike is known as a great listener and collaborative, creative problem solver. For generating speed and confidence through innovation and transformation. His mission is to lift others, helping people discover their potential and embrace a growth mindset.

Aishwarya Jain

We have the pleasure of welcoming Mike Vacanti today to our interview series. I’m Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick introduction of peopleHum. peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated Human Capital Management Automation Platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work with AI and automation technologies. We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.


Welcome, Mike, we are thrilled to have you.


Thank you very much, Ash. I’m really excited to be here. Congratulations on this wonderful series that you’ve put together.


Oh, thank you for your kind words.

I want to start by asking you about the human’s first movement. It seems like such an interesting concept. How do you go about humanizing workplaces?


Thank you for saying that and calling out the human’s first club. It started really as an exploration where we wanted to understand the experience people are actually having in the workplace.

There was so much research out there saying that these are challenging times with employee experience, employee engagement, and the mental and physical fitness of our workforce. And it seemed that we’re on a path that wasn’t desirable nor sustainable.

And, few of us just decided to gather people together and ask them the simple question of what is it like to be human in the workplace today? Do we feel that we’re being recognized for our individuality and our contributions? Are we being acknowledged as whole human beings or are we simply fulfilling a role to meet an objective?

And, it was that open and discovery. I don’t think I really knew where it would go, but had some ideas and was hoping that people would engage and share their experiences, which they have. So there have been 13 live events, and subsequently, we have weekly calls with people from all over the world. And, it’s brought a lot of people together and brought a lot of insight. So how do we humanize workplaces?

We could roll out a large list of ideas and contributions. I do believe that there’s no one best way to do anything. And so, I think that being open-minded to explore is the best way forward because each group of people will have their own values and mission.

And we want to get people to attach themselves to that mission, bring their values in and be able to commit to the greater good of the whole company and all the people involved. So the one element I would say to humanize workplaces is simply setting it as a priority.

“So the one element I would say to humanize workplaces is simply setting it as a priority.”

It’s not to stop necessarily doing all the things we do but put human wellness in human contribution and the value of people at the forefront and then see how all of the other processes and how we orchestrate business falls in line behind that.


Wow, it’s really an interesting concept.

And when you talk about humans first, isn’t it just natural to be humans first, why is there a need to have a club out of it. What happens to humanity where did we go wrong?


So I think if we look over the last 100 years, Ash, how we’ve industrialised our thinking and our business for maximum output.

And I think we became extremely proficient at extracting value from all resources whether it be extracting things from the ground or using new materials for manufacturing or taking intelligent tools and building phenomenal technology.

We became excellent at it. People are brilliant. I think that in that search for proficiency and optimisation, we started using people as a resource rather than igniting the ingenuity and the belief in people to go do better.

“I think that in that search for proficiency and optimisation, we started using people as a resource rather than igniting the ingenuity and the belief in people to go do better.”

We had them play a role rather than really honor and value their contributions. We didn’t invite them in as human beings. We told them to leave your personal life at the door. Come in and punch that clock. Do your job, be the horse that we’re going to whip to get everything we can out of you. And I think that became common.

I think that the theories we adopted to run organizations were very management heavy. And we turned leadership into a synonym. We managed business and therefore dehumanized all of the contributions instead of leading people to greater heights.

The fallacy there is we thought we were getting maximum value where I believe that maximum value was never attained because we didn’t let people bring their creativity, ingenuity, and all that they had to offer to the party.

We asked people to bring their hands and do the work. And for the same amount of wages, they would have brought their heart and their brains and all of their ingenuity with them as well. We just need to allow it.


Absolutely. I cannot agree with you more. There are so many humans out there that are probably not able to put their real selves out there because there’s so much constraint and people do not look at themselves as skilled or don’t give them the chance to just try and put a value on the table.


Say over the last 50 years there was a belief that, and this is how we taught when we raised people into the business. They came out of college, we told them, you know how to perform, and the objective was to be promoted over your peers.

So already it was a contentious environment that we put people into, and we asked them to make your money here when you check-in for work and go get fulfillment in your life and satisfaction and take care of your health outside of these hours. While you’re here, we own you.

And that’s the mentality that I think has caused a lot of harm that we’re seeing with our current mental and physical fitness or state of mind that we’re in. People are disengaged. 55% of people are looking for something outside of their current role. So, we haven’t allowed people to find their fulfillment to live their values and contribute with the best of themselves.


Absolutely. And that is just so sad. We spend 8, 9, 10 hours at workplaces and we’re just doing something that you’re not passionate about or do not even care about what is the point. Then we must ask ourselves these questions.

So, Mike, you talk a lot about making organizations successful, and you want to bring a lot of positivity. What does it really take to change? A negative to a positive? How do you make these organizations successful?


Asking for people to or, I should say, allowing people to ask questions, allowing people to understand the level they need to understand. So all of us learn differently. All of us have a different capacity to accept or adopt change. And I think that We try to move people along the business paradigm by force and shame, rather than allow them to understand.

“We try to move people along the business paradigm by force and shame, rather than allow them to understand.”

If we’re going to bring 50 people across a river, we’ll go to the edge of the river and it will look rapid. We don’t know how deep it is, how cold the water is and all of the organizational design people and all of the highly trained theory people, will go off to the side and think about it in three years how could we build a bridge across this river and knowing that we have to get there today not in three years?

There will be that one person along the riverbank that will just jump in and take the risk, and they’ll know that it is cold, but we can survive it, that the current is rapid, but I’m able to find solid ground, and it’s only this deep, we’re going to be safe. So as that person starts to wait out, another might join hands, and all of a sudden the human chain starts going across the river.

But there are gonna be those that are still not willing or feel the fear of jumping into the water. And at some point, we need to know that creating that safety for them, that they will be able to step into the water holding on to someone else and be guided across the river to the other side. And then we all follow on the chain across.

Perhaps that’s a little too rough of an illustration. But the idea is because one person will be willing to jump into the river and take that great risk. It’s silly to command that everybody follows along with that intent.

We need to allow people to adopt change, find their level of safety, and engage as they see fit. Because once they’re engaged, they’ll perform at a great level. The positivity to that is stop telling people how they need to be and help them understand where they need to be or where we need to go together.

I think that we try to force people forward rather than invite them forward, and that’s language, it’s intent. And really, it’s the compassion and empathy that we talk about needs to exist in the business. But that’s how we demonstrate it. It’s an invitation, not a prompt or force.


Absolutely. And I think I have kind of heard that example from yourself, even from Chester Elton about WD 40 the CEO WD 40 you know, makes for great employee experience. And how do we create great employee engagement in workplaces, right?

There are just so many factors that, you know, come into play when you’re talking about good examples of effective employee experience, right? Are there any other important factors that would like to illustrate.


I think that calling out Gary Ridge of WD 40 is a wonderful one. Bob Chapman with Barry Wehmiller. What Herb Kelleher did in setting up the culture that has lasted for three CEOs inside of Southwest Airlines. Love Field that wasn’t a mistake. That was properly named.

In February, Gary Ridge spoke at one of our human’s first events. It was fun to have that experience with him. And, year over year, they have a 93 plus percent, employee engagement score. So the experience people are having is phenomenal, right?

So when we think of most companies are under 50 as they score engagement that they’re perpetually 93%. And he is very great at illustrating that. Look what we do. Isn’t that crazy? Right? We put oil on a can, so your joints don’t squeak on your door, so your hinges don’t squeak right, he said.

You know, there’s nothing sexy about our business. But people don’t go to work to make their product. People go to work to create great experiences for the people around them. That’s their mission.

“People go to work to create great experiences for the people around them. That’s their mission.”

The product that comes out the door is the revenue for the company and they do that well. But they’re mission for each employee when they go to work every day is to create positive experiences. That’s a mindset. That’s the mentality. And it’s fun to see companies like that that can prove that philosophy that intent can work, and we can set up those types of cultures.

Therefore, to encourage other companies to do that is, understand the experience people are actually having, rather than measure them against the one you’re telling them to have, that is how you become a listening organization, a healing organization, and an empowering organization by actually letting people express themselves and bring their best ideas, a smile on their face and put their best efforts forward because it contributes to the greater whole.


Absolutely. And it’s really about the learning part of it, having the very open culture. And there’s a lot of listening happening in the organization, as you rightly said, and it’s all just part of, one breathing ecosystem and revenue was just a consequence of all of this. And that’s an important lesson.


Yes and the fortunate thing for all of us is we’re seeing more examples of that. And, I think you’re highlighting that. When people see those examples, we can move away from the patterns that we’ve become stuck in.

And there you know, very deep, rigid patterns. We’ve been perfecting it for 100 years, and we need to make the leap forward into a new era.



We really need to do that and you also talk about a concept called divergent thinking. Can you let our viewers know, What exactly is that?


So there could be many discussions around that, right? There could be a whole workshop on diversion thinking, but to simplify it. So we understand the concept that I’m sharing or the context that I’m encouraging.

We hear the term mainstream. So put a visual in our mind. We think of a stream being perhaps a river or a stream being, one solid ribbon that’s flowing out in front of us into the future. And that ribbon being the mainstream, what I think we’ve done is, again in our organizational systems.

There’s been an assumption that everybody is the same, and we need to find the lowest or this lowest common denominator or the thing that the assumption that everybody’s the same and we train and force and measure against that element of compliance, capitulation, sameness.

And so you and I would walk in as peers having the same job on the same day, and somehow with all the systems that are put in front of us and the training that they’re going to put us through, they would try to make you and I the same person because it would fit into their models. That assumption for the role would be the same.

Well, you have a different background. You have different experiences, right? I’m a male. You’re female. Instead of looking at our uniqueness, we were asked to put that aside and find that lowest common denominator between us.

“Instead of looking at our uniqueness, we were asked to put that aside and find that lowest common denominator between us.”

And that’s what we’re going to focus on. Divergent thinking is saying, ‘Let’s take all those multicolored ribbons flowing together in the same direction. They don’t have to become the one gray mainstream ribbon or river moving forward, that it’s the many streams and the many different colors and dimensions of each person.’

Divergent thinking is, not being compliant to becoming less than what you actually are, and allowing people to be everything that they are, rather than just the role that they’re fulfilling. We can get much, much more out of our experiences, and we can get much more productivity, creativity, and commitment out of each of our people.


Absolutely otherwise I think it’s just like making military or an army. That’s just all the same with the same training. There’s just no difference. But we’re human at the end of it, and we bring our differences to the table, and that’s why we’re unique. I completely agree with that.


Yes, that’s our opportunity because people have a lot more information at their hands. We have, you know, the opportunity to learn greatly every day where before it would take maybe a decade to compile the information that we can access at our fingertips every day.


Your book ‘Believership’ that stemmed from your past experiences from many M&As that you’ve been involved in. Can you tell us some important lessons that you learned with respect to people and leaders?


Yes, Thank you, Ash. The merger and acquisition experiences for me are being dropped into an existing team of people that have been forced together through the combination of companies.

And so the natural state is kind of fear, doubt, and chaos, where people are wondering what’s going to happen. What will this look like in the end? Will my job be there? Who are these new people on my team? Things changed. I’m not happy. And now they drop you in front of me as the boss. I don’t like you either.

And so what I learned is, I did what was most natural to me, and that’s get to know the people and get to understand their perspective on where we were in the journey. What this meant for them, answer questions to the best of my ability. Not always being right, but being curious. Taking the approach that I have very little interest in being right. But I have a great interest in being better, and we’ll be better together. So how do we get there? And each person comes to that in their own time frame. It can’t be forced. It was a very different approach.

While my teams were highly successful during those periods of time with a large P and L and big teams of people in multi geographies, the bosses I had, several of them told me they loved the results I was delivering, but they did not like the way I did it that I was too close to people and too close to the team, and I didn’t look like them as leaders, which I had no interest in being.

I had a great interest in the success of the people around me, and I was most comfortable becoming myself, which is a continual journey, not becoming somebody else. I was striving to become the best version of me, not a lesser version of somebody else.

“I was striving to become the best version of me, not a lesser version of somebody else.”

And so ‘Believership’ is based on those principles, that the true trait that’s common amongst people that have done phenomenal things is other people believed in them and put forward their best effort to make that company, that product, that leader successful.

So we think that we can list out a bunch of characteristics and traits and skills that are our leaders. And again we try to force everybody into that very limited mold. And in reality, those aren’t our great leaders. They are more diversionary, they are more unique, and the thing they most had in common is that others believed in them or the mission or the product.

And that’s what I learned in people moving forward and adopting and coming away from the chaos and leaving the fear behind and starting to believe in their success and the success of the team. And it just proved out time and time again. And so you’ll never see me write the seven traits of effective leaders or some silliness like that. The 10 things everybody does in common because I don’t think that’s real. Everybody is unique.


Absolutely, everybody is unique and it’s so important to motivate each other. And when you say that there somebody who is always believing in you, the motivation, the empowerment that you gain out of that’s just, you know, to another level to know the extent because you have faith in what they believe and they see something in you that’s just the faith cycle, it’s just phenomenal there.


The other beauty to that, Ash is it allows the leader to truly be vulnerable so you can actually be human and make mistakes because they believe in you, and like those that are closer to you. They’ll give you some grace to make errors, to be wrong, and willing to listen and change your mind. There is this regimented belief in leadership excellence that you have to be flawless and perfect and that breaks apart very fast.

“There is this regimented belief in leadership excellence that you have to be flawless and perfect and that breaks apart very fast.”

That is never attainable. And when people recognize that flaw, they jump on it because they feel shame about the flaws of theirs that are being called out. It’s a cycle that leads to 70% of people not being engaged. It leads to an experience that I want to escape, not embrace it which leads to communication breakdown because people are not open to sharing.


Absolutely, completely agree with you. And I think now that we are in this situation, it’s a very unique situation, right? We’ve never had something like this in history, right? In just so many unique situations.

How do you think that leaders must look at this situation as and how can they improve employee engagement right now?

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