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Updating Your Human Software

As a CEO, 2x author, and TEDx Speaker, Joe Mechlinski is a social entrepreneur who believes that an engaged workforce is the key to unlocking human potential. Joe has a deep-rooted passion for helping build engaged mission-driven cultures and challenging business leaders to think strategically about how they attract, develop, and retain the best talent to grow, regardless.


In this of TechTalk Podcast, Brad Cost, Dr. Jay Greenstein, and Joe Mechlinski sit down to discuss:


  • Joe's lottery ticket, and what he did with it.

  • Making shifts and updates to your human software.

  • TEDx experiences and insights on becoming a better leader.



4:24 – Baltimore boy making it big time. "I'm a Baltimore boy. I'm very proud about that. I live in Virginia, but don't forget, I am from Baltimore. I grew up on the other side of the tracks. I got a lottery ticket, a miracle if you will, into Hopkins. When I got there, I was like a fish out of water. I really knew I was not smart enough to be a doctor, an engineer, didn't think I could make it through grad school. I started a house painting company to pay for school and it turned into a 150-employee general contracting company. I parlayed that into a bunch of other little entrepreneurial ventures, so by the time I left school, I had a lot of experience in hiring people, building teams and cultures, sales and marketing. I also had my butt on the line, the buck stopped with me. I felt like I've almost been on my own since I was 13. I know what pressure feels like from a bunch of different vectors. I started a consulting company at 23 years old, so I've been in this game now for 23 years. I'm no longer a young pup when I walk into the room, but for many, many years, our team walked into rooms and really tried to do is to figure out how do you unlock this notion of work. This idea that we're going to work until we're 65, Monday through Friday. Since COVID, no longer this 9-5 shuffle that we've been doing. Just like anybody, like a natural human being, if you were told what to do or given a set of instructions or orders, most of us don't like that. Most of us are outdoor cats at heart. We'd like to be free, have some flexibility, have some choice. If you can move an organization and its team from having to do things, to authentically, from the inside out, wanting and getting to do things, that's it. That's what we've been up to for the past 20+ years. There's a little secret agenda I have, which is that I know that when people go home at the end of the day, they want to feel like their cup was filled up. It’s like going to the gym and putting in the work as opposed to going to the gym and eating Doritos or drinking Mountain Dew all day. I really do think that having purpose and meaning, it moves the needle. I've used this little consulting firm over the last 20 years to work on some cool projects. We've done 600 of them now and it's given me the chance to get into a lot of different things. I've written a couple of books. We're building a small tech platform to deal with all the unnecessary meetings that happen on a weekly basis. Ultimately, if you summed me up in one sentence: how do you change the way people work to transform the way they live? That's really what I've been about for the past 20+ years."

7:57 – Flywheel effect. "It starts with all of us being trained to come up with the answer, right? When we were in school, raising your hand and asking a question was generally looked at as a troublemaker. Most of us decided to go be that outdoor cat and be an entrepreneur. When you think about your team, imagine it's the difference between babysitting somebody else's kids or having your own. Which one do you put a little bit more elbow grease into? The one that you feel you have literal and figurative ownership of. This isn't about stock options. This is about giving people a vote, having their voice heard. We generally start this with what we call a flywheel effect. We go in and ask questions for the entrepreneur or the executive. We've done this for smaller organizations with 50-100 folks and we've done this at scale with 20,000 people. We have a series of questions that we think are interesting, not the stuff you'll get offline from Gallup. We ask questions like, what would make it worth it? What are the things that are preventing you from doing your best work? What are the ways that you would like to be part of the solution moving forward? We're shifting this responsibility from a top-down approach to sort of a bottom-up. As we do the first flywheel, we're gathering all this feedback and input, synthesizing it, and throwing it back to the executive team to understand what's preventing us, what we need to hit the ‘more’ button on, and sent it back into the field. Once we do the second flywheel, we then shift the responsibility from us back to the client. We form these teams and ask people to work on things they're interested in. A funny thing happens when you do this. Suddenly, time opens. We run this cycle a few more times, so these end up being multi-year engagements where we are all rowing in the same direction towards one common goal. It sounds a little cheesy, but it will also show up in all the basic blocking and tackling like onboarding, training development, the things that you need to do to build that type of healthy culture."

11:25 – Human software updates. "The greatest thing about what we've had the chance and the opportunity to do in terms of being of service and support is that we have not been in one vertical, one industry, one sector. We truly have been in 600+ diverse types of organizations. There are some common themes. The first, we've all heard the adage when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. If there is not an openness to accepting an update. I said this during the TED Talk, which was our phones have this interesting piece of software that every time there's a bug or it's broken, it updates 10-15 times a year without any of us really doing anything about it. It's like if you had a flat tire and it fixed itself. Well, as human beings, how do we update our software, right? Most of the time, it's a New Year's resolution once a year or when we hit rock bottom. It is not in peacetime, it's usually wartime. We try to look for folks that are open and curious, which is a big, tall ask for leaders that have a lot on the line, whether it's their money or someone else's. You're asking them to essentially trust other people, which we have a hard time with that sometimes. I've got a lot of empathy right now for executives and entrepreneurs who are running companies where in the last two or three years, they're burned out. They had to manage a crisis that no one saw coming. They had to think about their own wellbeing and their team's wellbeing. The pendulum swung from not being very empathetic to being overly empathetic with employees. We're not responsible for their lives, yet that's where that zone got to. At the end of the day, there's been a lot of employees that have taken advantage of this moment. As much as I'm from the people, for the people, by the people, want to help the people to be untethered and unlocked in the workplace, there's responsibility expected from the employees. I've heard stories from our clients like he had two jobs or she's not working at all. Those are the moments we teach to the C student, not the A students. I deeply feel when we get a chance to work with an executive, we have to widen our circle of empathy and perspective to say, I don't know what they've been through. People are funny, including the three of us."

18:42 – Making that shift. "I grew up in an old school environment where I was like, go, go, go before the pandemic. I worked really hard. I had multiple businesses. We have two small kids, and I was trying to be a plugged-in parent. It wasn't until the pandemic that I really understood I was way over dialed there. In a lot of ways, I hear a lot of folks that started asking, do I want to do it this hard all the time? Is this really what we're going to do here? I think you could have never had me ever do that unless you told me the whole world was going to stop too. We all did a pit stop. At the same time, we all had the ability to start to think about weekends having two or three days. We all had a chance to rewrite this. We are on a rock curling through the universe into nothingness and we're debating how many days we want to work every single week. It is a little bit of a strange thing to me. I start from that perspective. I would say, besides hybrid work, which is the most politicized and most enduring change from the pandemic, everything was reverted to the mean. You've got 50%+ of the organizations that want to give their people some freedom and flexibility but want to keep it fair. Here are a couple of things that I see. One, if you had a good culture coming into the pandemic, you basically are using that equity you've built in your home and you've been trading on that equity since. What happens when you hire a new person? They don't know who everybody is. They don't have that same level of connection. We're all trying to figure out how to manage the change. I remember Jay, some of the work that we did together, where we would not have meetings after the meeting. If we have to say something, say it in the meeting so we don't have all these extemporaneous things happening inside the organization. Right now, we actually could use some meetings after the meetings because when this conversation is over, we're all going to hit the leave button and that's it. We sort of scheduled conversation. You can't schedule the magic that was the space between human beings, particularly when we were in person, because somebody might say something, or some spontaneous moment might emerge. That was a key feature of our culture. Microsoft said we've scheduled 252% more meetings after the pandemic. Nobody was saying before the pandemic that we weren't in enough meetings, but then we just hit the more button to the tune of 252%. This is a great way to have a conversation across boundaries. I'm excited, fortunate, and grateful we're doing this, but we all know that if we were together, this goes further and faster by 10X. In the old marketing piece, if somebody's had to hear it seven times, culturally from a digital and a virtual perspective, they might now need to hear it 70 times, which means everyone's got to start putting some elbow grease into your digital culture.? Do your people know the difference between response rate on email vs. Slack? Do you have some dress code of how we show up? I was in a meeting the other day with somebody, and their camera was all the way down here. Folks, we've been doing this a long time. Can we not try to figure this out a little bit more?"

23:31 – TEDx Experience. "Back in 2014, I had a chance to have lunch with the founder of TED Talk, Richard Saul Wurman. It was a charity auction kind of thing, but it was me and two other guys that all had lunch with this guy. At the time, I guess he was in his early eighties, and it was an amazing conversation. I started my second book, Shift the Work, with the full story of how it went, because he was sort of surly, a little grumpy and we weren't sure how this whole thing was going to go. Six hours later, it was a pretty fantastic experience. I've just been fortunate to be mentored by some amazing intellectual giants that understand the game. I was a stage five hanger-on. I was always finding another way to hang out with him. He had a book coming out in 2017, 2018. I was just helpful around that. All of a sudden, I had him speak at one of my events and then I flew him to another. I have this guy who, in 1984, started one of the top 10 websites online and one of the top five trusted brands. It's an idea generating machine. He took the best of conversations and removed the podium, the hour talk, the PowerPoint. He just wanted it to be unscripted, unfiltered conversations. He sold it in 2004 to Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, who had the idea to start up TEDx. There was the big TED Talk that happened once or twice a year, but his philosophy was that you didn't have to be big TED to have big ideas. TEDx showed that we should have ideas happen everywhere. For background, when YouTube came out, it was right at the same time of TEDx, so you put these two things together and it spread like wildfire. In fact, Simon Sinek was his first big hit that went viral. Secretly, I always wanted to do one, so I got asked to do it a couple of years ago and I quickly found out I am not really geared for this. I do a lot of speaking, but it's more of a facilitated conversation, a workshop, a hands-on experience just between us. I want to have a conversation with you, not at you, but that's not what TEDx is all about these days. It's the first time in my entire life I've memorized the talk. I picked a concept focused on who says it's got to be done this way? Who says work has to suck? Who says we have to retire at 65? Who says we can't use business as a force for good? Who says it's just business, it's not personal? Who said that? I gave all these cool, funny examples and weaved in some of my story about how my relationship with work is really part and parcel to my parents. I grew up in an environment like the HBO show, The Wire. My high school had a 23% graduation rate. I watched my dad never lose his job, which was the only difference of me talking to you right now and doing something else with my life. We had stability. He worked for a small business, sweeping floors for 47 years and then found himself in the executive room of a 4,000-person company without a college degree. He's the one you want to talk to, not me. I should be setting him up royalty every time I tell him the story because you know, in a sense, Shift is my parents. It's the values they gave me. It's this old-school blue collar. Do what you say you're going to do. When you mess up, say you're sorry. Don't let the little things get in the way of the big things. Ultimately, just try hard to do what you got to do. That's what the TED Talk became. It released, and you were there. Lots of our friends, my 80-year-old uncle, my kids were all there. It was a really lovely experience. It released in August out into the wild. For August, it was the #1 watched Talk in the world. For that year, there was a list that came out and I hit 40 out of 16,000 talks. It was pretty cool."

30:48 – Problem makers to problem solvers. "We are problem makers and problem solvers. As Spider-Man said, with great responsibility comes great power. Depending on how big your shoulders are or on how big your heart is or how much grit vs quit you've got, you choose a path that makes your heartbeat faster or what you have the capacity to solve for. I know often I try to take on way too much. I, for some reason, just want to keep learning that lesson over and over again, because I couldn't possibly think about what 90% of something looks like. I mean, that last 10% might be where all the gold is, right? As we all mature, the world is starting to open. A 10 second story I told in the TED Talk was about a guy named Charles Skoll who basically got the patent on the world's first typewriter in 1862. For seven years, this thing broke all the time because the keys were mirrored the ABC pattern. He developed the QWERTY keyboard 142 years ago. We all took typing class to type on the most complex configuration of the keys. We could just go back to the ABC because it would be easier to not have to teach ourselves since the typewriter has improved and doesn't break now. School bells. Why do we have school bells? Because that was the way public school was based on your manufacturer date and based on when you started. We learned that if you start and end the school class with a bell, it's the same as the factory floor, which increased productivity. You don't be self-solving the world's biggest problems. This isn't about having some virtue of doing something more important than yourself."

33:46 – Tractors, then AI. "There are roughly 10 million open positions, but there were 270,000 people that lost their job last year and 160,000 in 2021. We're on pace for 270,000 because of AI. In the same way the tractor displaced 70 %+ of farmers and let us think about something else with our time, now it's coming after the elite, the office worker, the creative. People are going to have to adapt."

39:14 – 3 steps to become a better leader. "Alex Chevron said, “if you don't have the business you want, you haven't become the leader it takes to run it yet.” So often, we point to finger out. There was a great book 30 years ago called Question Behind the Question by John Miller and a big takeaway was, be a walker, not a talker. Be the model and example, not the explanation. When you are not happy about where things are, or you want your business to grow 20 or 30%, the question is, are you growing 20 or 30%? That requires people to be good at adding. The second piece, you have to be good at subtracting, at killing, at filing things away. How do you do more with less, but the less that matters more? Grab your favorite adage here but find leverage. A lot of us sometimes, me included, still like to work hard. I get a little something out of it because it makes me feel good. It feels like I did something. We're still traveling down this path that value does not equal time. The last piece, if people feel like they get an option, a vote, a voice, they will find an unlimited capacity to work. It shouldn't be a workforce; it should be a work choice. When we start to unravel the language in business, it's all based in warfare. I'm going to launch a campaign. I'm going to crush the competitors. There was a time and place for that, but I think the time and place now is to think about the organization. Churchill said, “we shape buildings and then they shape us.” You think about the industrial design. But if we go fully remote? What does that mean now that we're not going to see each other in the parking lot, the elevator, the hallway, the conference room? Well, we have to find a way to have empathy and authentic connections with each other across boundaries, across distances. We have to over think routines, rhythms, and rituals a bit to find what it’s going to take for us to have great relationships. 90% of the tough moments I've had with people over the last three or four years have all been through Zoom. All of them. I know a lot of guys who are very tough behind this keyboard, but they would never say these things to your face. It checks us. It creates reverence and respect to understand that you just can't say anything to someone you don't know. We've lost that decorum because you can't hit me when I'm overheating. You can't touch me, and I think that's a problem. We have to go back to shoulder-to-shoulder thinking. My operating assumption is everyone's doing the best they can, and then sometimes their best is just not good enough."

45:04 – Keeping up with the trends. "What does good look like in this role? Defining what good looks like will also help you understand what the character of that person is going to be. Then I would say, and I wrote about this in my first book, Grow Regardless, we still think of our employees as indentured servitude, as people who that have to listen to us. It's not a free market. If we thought about them as customers and free market, we would just listen. What does the market want? The millennials are in a dopamine culture where they're skimming, scrolling, and scanning. I'm not into all of it, but if they were my customers, I definitely wouldn't fight with them over it. I would try to understand more and be more curious because maybe they're thinking about things differently or better than I am. As opposed to, this rooted power dynamic that's sitting in most organizations, big and small, that my way is the highway. If you can be polyamorous in your ability to connect with multi generations, that is a secret weapon and part of it is just giving a little bit of care and empathy. Just acknowledge that they grew up differently than we did. We went from playing sports to watching sports to gambling in sports. We went from writing things to reading things to just reading the headline. Now, we can all debate good, bad, or indifferent. I'm not saying just jump in without keeping your virtues, but I'm saying you've got to have the ability to connect with other people just like you would with your customers. Treat your employees like your clients and your clients like employees. One standard that is a very simple way to live life and run your business."






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