What is your professional background?
I am a licensed clinical social worker, having received my Masters from Loyola University, Chicago, when my youngest child went to first grade. I was in private practice for more than 20 years focusing on women and mothers of teenagers. I also led therapy groups and did three-day therapy retreats. I loved all of it, until I didn’t, and it was time for a change.
I have been married for 36 years, and so have been a part of the Malnati family pizza business for that long, too. On the front line, I’ve led communication groups with our company’s executive directors and store managers. Behind the scenes, I’ve coached and consulted with my husband about the people side of the business, which has helped us, I believe, to receive one of the Top Workplaces in Chicago for six years in a row now.
Four years ago, after moving to the West Loop in Chicago from the North Shore suburbs with my husband, I “retired” from therapy and moved into the business world, starting my own company, The Culture Group—The Business of Conversation.
Describe your work with The Culture Group. Why you think there has been an increased focus on workplace culture in recent years?
Some believe “culture” is a new buzzword. It’s not. It’s here to stay, because the health of the interpersonal communication and relationships between co-workers and teams is of utmost importance. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
There are two kinds of culture focus. One I call “Cocktail Culture”—where companies compete to have the coolest “nap-room” or best prizes for their weekly in-house ping pong tournaments. There’s “Free Haircut Wednesday” or “Beer-Cart Friday,” but who wants to hang around after work and have a beer with people you don’t like?
The second kind is a “Relationship Model Culture” where the focus is on the people. The relationships. The communication that is or is not happening. This is what The Culture Group focuses on. Getting people in a room and “cleansing the relationship container”—having the difficult conversations face-to-face. Team members/colleagues must dig deep at times (be honest and express your thoughts and feelings) so to heal the “infection,” the wounds that fester, causing dysfunctional places to work. No more band-aids, such as “let’s do a ropes course” for team building.
We go into an organization and diagnose what the ailments are among the people and administer what is needed to create an organization where people look forward to arriving and performing together at work each day. We also teach simple yet powerful tools that literally shift the feel of an organization and the engagement of employees, within half a day’s time. It’s amazing. It works. It’s needed.
How important is open and honest communication to creating a positive company culture?
Open and honest communication is very important to have—consistently—not just once a year at a person’s 360 review. When the honest, difficult kind of conversations are not happening, there is gossip and complaining behind closed doors. There is blaming and passive-aggressive behavior. Cliques form. Fake smiles behind gritted teeth abound. There is not enough genuine kindness and care for one another. There is a lack of trust and clearly a lack of respect. Instead, when you have the hard face-to-face’s, share feelings, take responsibility for your role in the mishap, commit to different behavior, and extend grace, you are on the way to creating a positive company culture. Oh, and have fun; lighten up. We all take ourselves and work way too seriously.
What do is the biggest stumbling block preventing productive conversation in the workplace?
There are a few major stumbling blocks: Pride (“Everything is fine around here.”); lack of self-awareness (“It’s not me that has the problem—it’s her.”); and a lack of knowledge/skills/tools on how to have productive conversations. Often people believe the stumbling block is time and location. You must have the courage, take the risk, and make this kind of communication (relationships) a priority. And yes, you can and need to have them even if you are not sitting across a table from each other. The skills and tools can be applied virtually as well.
What is your advice on how to initiate a difficult conversation with a colleague?
This depends on the depth of difficulty you are talking about. If it is something that has been festering and building for a long time, there are pre-steps you individually need to take before having the conversation. We teach this to companies. If it’s deep and wide, an outside trained facilitator is highly recommended. There is more to be done than just a quick convo. People often don’t take the time to analyze the difference and need.
Many women are interested in cultivating leadership skills to advance their careers. How important is effective communication in becoming a productive leader?
It is of utmost importance that women leaders learn the art of honest, integrity-filled communication. Too often women are remarkably successful in their profession because of their high IQ in their respected field, yet their EQ (Emotional Intelligence) is still at the jr. high level. I have a mission in this world—that all adults, especially women, learn to be responsible, loving citizens modeling conscious speech, leading with purity of heart, and having compassionate action. fw