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Deb Boelkes of Business World Rising: “To create a fantastic work environment, mentor in the moment”

As a manager, I cherished those close-knit moments my team members and I had together. However brief these moments might have been, we each felt comfortable candidly sharing what was going on, what was working well, what could be improved, new or better ways to accomplish necessary tasks, and ideas to move the business forward.As […]

As a manager, I cherished those close-knit moments my team members and I had together. However brief these moments might have been, we each felt comfortable candidly sharing what was going on, what was working well, what could be improved, new or better ways to accomplish necessary tasks, and ideas to move the business forward.

As a result, my team never hesitated to share their out-of-the-box ideas with me or ask for feedback. Rather than being perceived as a superior who sat in judgement of them, on a mission to point out faults, they actively sought my opinion and welcomed any helpful pointers I might have.


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deb Boelkes. Deb is the founder of the leadership development firm Business World Rising, LLC and the author of The WOW Factor Workplace: How to Create a Best Place to Work Culture. She is not just a role model heartfelt leader; she’s the ultimate authority on creating best places to work, with 25+ years in Fortune 150 high tech firms, leading superstar business development and professional services teams. As an entrepreneur, she has accelerated advancement for women to senior leadership. Deb has delighted and inspired over 1,000 audiences across North America.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career began at age 12, working for my father in an agricultural irrigation firm in central California during summer vacations and school holidays. My father taught me basic accounting, office administration, and inventory management. Of all the people who worked for the company at the time, his two executive assistants and I were the only females in the business, so I became accustomed to working in a male-dominated business world early on. I found the goings-on in the C-suite especially fascinating.

When it came time for college, my father convinced me computers were the way of the future, so I enrolled as a Math-Computer Science major at UCLA. I ultimately obtained a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and an MBA in Management Information Systems because I actually preferred the business management side of things.

After grad school, I went to work for the Pacific Bell Telephone Company as a Systems Engineer. I was immediately assigned to resolve a disastrous call center system implementation for the largest cable television company in Los Angeles. The customer was suing Pac Bell because they were unable to handle customer calls. It was quite a high pressure, high visibility assignment for someone as junior as I was, but it turned out very well. Saving the account, I was immediately promoted. Ever after, I gravitated to seemingly impossible, high visibility projects. I honestly found them quite fun and rewarding.

For most of my Fortune 150 career, my clients were global 500 technology-intensive companies. I enjoyed being a business expert who could explain to C-suite executives, in simple terms, how to best leverage technology to take their organizations to new heights. Along the way, I acquired a reputation as an engaging and passionate, heartfelt leader who inspired and built great teams who could achieve the impossible.

Eventually, I noticed whenever I met with my C-level clients, I was often the only woman in the room. Although quite at ease in such settings, I came to wonder what was holding women back from executive leadership. So, I set out on an entrepreneurial mission to accelerate the advancement of women to senior leadership.

Over the past decade, the focus of my business has evolved to helping organizations become best places to work, where women and men at all levels love what they do and inspire those around them to be the best they can be.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Shortly after launching my company, I was invited to participate as one of five executives on a technology association panel discussion on passion and engagement. The other four panelists were fairly well-known CEOs and VPs from various industries.

Initially, each of us were asked the same questions. Eventually the audience was allowed to ask individually targeted questions. One gentleman from the audience referred to the other executives stating, “You each clearly lead from your heads, management by the numbers. I think we can all relate to that. But you…” he said, pointing to me, “…you lead from your heart, and we all know there is no room for that in business.”

Mind you, we were discussing how to drive passion and engagement. For the first time in my life, I was speechless. If I hadn’t been so utterly flabbergasted by this remark, I may have never become so passionately inspired to write either my first book, The WOW Factor Workplace, or my upcoming book, Heartfelt Leadership: How to Capture the Top Spot and Keep on Soaring.

Everything happens for a reason.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am in the process of interviewing several amazing women who have ascended to the top of their respective organizations, many of them in male-dominated industries, in preparation for writing my third book, Women on Top: What’s Holding You Back from Executive Leadership?

By giving the reader visibility and insights to outstanding female executive role models, highlighting how they got there and their lessons learned along the way, it’s my intention to inspire and instill confidence in the next generation of women that they, too, can rise to the top of their field. I want the reader to know it’s absolutely possible to do while remaining true to one’s values and beliefs.

In each of my books, I share simple yet profound leadership practices that are within the power of any leader and any company. I show aspiring leaders how the things commonly referred to as “the soft skills of leadership”, which albeit are the hardest skills for some managers to grasp, are really not that difficult to master. Yet, they are the keys to creating a great culture and sustainable business success.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

No doubt there are a number of reasons behind such metrics. The impetus for writing my books is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Certainly some people accept and for whatever reasons remain in jobs that clearly won’t put them on a path to achieve their own version of success. Some people take any job they can get in order to pay the bills … and then hope for the best … a method that may or may not pan out. Some people take jobs they think will be great, but then discover they don’t really enjoy it. They may elect to stay in place because the money is good. Some people end up with managers they don’t respect or like.

More often than not, it’s due working for a manager who is not doing what I believe are the most important responsibilities a manager has: hire for attitude and cultural fit; have regular conversations with every team member to develop trusting relationships; and make the workplace as engaging as possible. This is done by finding out what each team member really loves to do and crafting roles that enable each person do those things which they love and are also in alignment with the mission, vision and objectives of the organization. When managers do this, it’s a win-win for everyone. When managers don’t do this, it results in the kind of metrics cited in the Forbes article.

Of course, if a manager has an employee who just doesn’t fit with the culture, or is incapable of meeting the needs of the organization, it’s also the manager’s responsibility to help that individual move on to something more in line with their passions and personal vision of success, even if it means helping them leave the business.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

If you don’t love what you do for a living, you are not likely to ever be as creative or as productive as you could be and the workplace around you will not ever likely be a WOW factor workplace. If you are not thrilled with your job or your contributions, chances are you will be a drag on those around you, you will pull down your peers, and you will disappoint those you serve. An unhappy workforce will inevitably have a negative impact on profitability.

Unhappiness, in general, can lead to depression and a whole host of health issues which may detrimentally impact one’s wellbeing, both inside and outside of work.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Relentlessly share a WOW vision. Make sure everyone in the chain of command understands the organization’s mission, vision, and values. Each and every team member needs to find purpose and meaning in what they do.

It’s difficult for employees to get excited about the mission, vision and objectives of an organization if they don’t know what these things are. It’s impossible for managers to align team members’ personal visions of success with the organization’s vision for success if such things are not made crystal clear and readily understood.

Virtually every corporation I worked for during my Fortune 150 career administered an annual employee satisfaction survey. One company, which I worked with for nearly a decade, lured me in when a good friend who worked there suggested I would love the values and vision of their executive leadership team.

I met the CEO/Chairman of this company on the first day of new leadership orientation. He was so passionate about the company and its mission. He made it clear to each of us that his mission, and in turn our mission, was to instill that kind of passion about the company’s mission, vision and objectives in everyone who worked there. Most importantly, this CEO had a special way of making everyone feel like a cherished member of his family. We quickly felt we belonged there.

One of the topics he spoke about that day was decision making. He said, “With every decision you make, think about the ramifications. What if your decision ended up as the cover story on the next day’s New York Times? Would your mother be proud to read this article? If your decision won’t make your mom proud, then think again.” Certainly none of us would want to disappoint our mothers. None of us ever wanted to disappoint him either.

At some point, there was a falling out between him and the rest of the board. Our beloved leader was suddenly replaced with an outsider. The new CEO instantly set about reorganizing the firm, for no apparent reason to anyone outside the C-suite. The one and only thing the new CEO did make clear to everyone was that this was a business, not a family. It was jarring news.

The purpose and meaning that had inspired thousands of employees for years quickly disintegrated. Quarterly results soon took a downturn and employee turnover increased dramatically. That was jarring.

When the company conducted its annual Employee Satisfaction survey the following year, ratings came in at an all-time low. The one survey item that received the worst rating of all was “I understand the vision and objectives of the company and I understand how I, in my role, can help the company get there”. The write-in comments included, “Maybe the folks in the C-suite have a vision, but they aren’t telling us what it is”. The result of employees no longer having a clear sense of the vision and mission of the organization had a dramatic and jarring impact on the business, worldwide, for quite a while.

All employees at all levels need to clearly understand and find meaning in the organization’s mission and vision. Never assume they just know.

Know what makes each team member tick. One of the most importantresponsibilities a manager has, yet few seem to do, is to help each team member be the best they can be at whatever it is they love and want to do.

I can’t begin to count the number of times a senior executive has enrolled a “high potential” employee in my firm’s leadership development program, telling us the individual seems to have tremendous potential but, for whatever reason, is not living up to that potential. “I hope you can fix them,” the executive will say.

When I ask, “what is it you want us to fix?” they usually can’t quite define it. It’s up to us to figure it out.

More often than not, we will find the high potential employee simply doesn’t love what they were doing. They feel stuck in their role. We find some stay in their positions because the money is good, or they believe this position is their quickest route to the C-suite. But they aren’t enjoying the journey. When we ask them, “If you could wave your magic wand and do something else, something you would really love to do, what would that job look like?” The answer is often quite surprising.

One example was a director of an accounting function. By asking her this question, we discovered she had always wanted to be in marketing, but with a degree in accounting, she felt she had to stay there. She felt stuck and was clearly not happy in that role. It was amazing to watch what happened when we encouraged this individual to have an exploratory dialog with the VP of Marketing in her firm. Not long after, a new marketing role was created for her, doing something the company had never done before. Her new responsibilities were far better aligned with her personal desires and the new functionenabled the company to enter a new, more profitable market.

Lo and behold, this “high potential” was soon thriving and her performance in the new role exceeded the sponsoring executive’s wildest dreams. Magic happened for both the employee and the company.

Just imagine what could have happened if the high potential’s manager had only had such a conversation with her months earlier. Her productivity and well-being, the well-being of each department, and the profitability of the company could have been improved much sooner.

Maintain high expectations. It’s crucial for managers to pay attention when individual performance is not up to par. Your best performers can quickly become demotivated when those around them are allowed to slack off or — worse yet — when underperformers are promoted merely to get them out of the department. Nothing will demoralize an otherwise highly-motivated team faster than promoting an underperformer.

I always made a point to develop close, trusting relationships with each of my team members. I made sure to put each one of them on paths that would enable them to achieve their personal visions of success and I could hold them accountable for high levels of performance.

Because of this, I rarely had to put underperforming team members on a Performance Improvement Plan, but I never hesitated to do so when necessary. I learned early on, with a chronically unhappy or incapable employee, or an obvious cultural misfit, doing so was always the right thing to do, and in the end, ALL the team members thanked me, even the underperformer. The underperformer either got their act together, or they moved on to something more in line with their passions and desires, which was typically the underlying issue.

As a result, my teams virtually always exceeded our objectives and we had superior camaraderie. We never lacked for great candidates to fill openings because the best people wanted to work in our WOW organization and we were able to keep a steady stream of pre-interviewed high potential superstars waiting in the wings. It is impressive how high performance begets more high performers. Set and keep expectations high.

Be a WOW role model. No matter where you are on the career ladder, never forget others are always observing you, just as young children observe and then mimic their elders. It’s up to you to set the stage. Make the environment as welcoming and engaging as possible; set the bar for performance and behavioral standards; be the one everyone else wants to emulate. Let your WOW shine and the world will come to you.

The omelet chef at one of my favorite breakfast cafes never fails to delight customers because she goes out of her way to make everyone else feel special. She never fails to treat customers, as well as the other staff members, as though they are long lost friends who she is excited and blessed to see. She always seems to have a big smile on her face and that smile magically grows even brighter whenever anyone walks up to her omelet station. Of course, this makes everyone want to order one of her special omelets, just so they can stand there and chat with her while she is making it.

This ever-cheerful omelet chef loves to talk about how much she loves her job. As she tells it, her job is not work, it’s a passion and pure joy. For this reason alone, people want to be near her. Her joyful enthusiasm brightens their day. She is fun to work with and the café consistently receives the highest ratings on social media and online restaurant reservation services. She is indeed one WOW role model.

Imagine how much brighter your workplace might be if everyone there behaved like her.

Mentor in the moment. Mentoring should happen every day, not just during annual or quarterly performance reviews. If you wait to discuss performance issues for weeks or months, until formal review time, you lose the opportunity to continuously improve performance and build close, trusting bonds.

Take time to walk the office each day — if you have direct reports nearby. Keep your office door open whenever you can and let people know you welcome drop-in visits. Smile when people come to see you. If your direct reports are located remotely, pick up the phone and call — just to say hello and see how things are going.

If team members only hear from you every now and then, or only when problems arise, they’ll begin to perceive you as the bearer of bad news. They’ll want to avoid hearing from you. With regular, friendly, and helpful communication, you will build a trusted ally and confidante. You’ll be perceived as the mentor you should be.

As a manager, I cherished those close-knit moments my team members and I had together. However brief these moments might have been, we each felt comfortable candidly sharing what was going on, what was working well, what could be improved, new or better ways to accomplish necessary tasks, and ideas to move the business forward.

As a result, my team never hesitated to share their out-of-the-box ideas with me or ask for feedback. Rather than being perceived as a superior who sat in judgement of them, on a mission to point out faults, they actively sought my opinion and welcomed any helpful pointers I might have.

You might be surprised how easy and fun this kind of mentoring can be. Do it in the moment, every day.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I strongly believe business schools and MBA programs should put more emphasis on developing caring, inspirational leaders. Graduates of university-based management programs should be proficient and comfortable with building welcoming, trusting relationships, not just with peers, but with those above and below them on the org chart, and with others outside the organization and around the world. When more leaders finally learn it’s not only acceptable but a far more productive and profitable venture to exude a heartfelt and caring command presence, others around them will emulate them. Perhaps then the culture regarding work culture will change.

I learned through trial and error, not in undergraduate business courses or in MBA school, that far better results and higher morale could be achieved and sustained when the personal priorities of each team member were aligned with the goals of the organization. Exceeding our numbers was simply a byproduct of all the fun things we enjoyed accomplishing together.

Armed with this self-discovered knowledge, I acquired a reputation as an engaging and passionate, heartfelt leader who inspires teams. Yet my leadership style was quite unlike that of most leaders in the high-tech industry.

To create such a culture should be job #1 for every manager. But how does anyone learn to do this in today’s society without a great role model or two? Business schools need to offer such programs.

Think about it. How many managers have you reported to — or how many peers have you worked with — who energized and inspired you? Have you ever had a manager who caused you to believe, in your role, you could accomplish something significant and important to you? If you are like most people, your answer is “no.”

Given the number of topflight business schools in the world and the number of best-selling leadership books published in the last half century, why are there so few heartfelt leaders? You would think business schools and military academies would be cranking out thousands of outstanding and inspiring leaders; the kind for whom we would all do anything. If such leaders were as prolific as one might expect, millions of employees and their leaders should be achieving successes beyond our wildest imaginations every single day, in every aspect of society.

Why, then, is this not so? Business schools need to rethink what they are teaching tomorrow’s leaders.

Perhaps business schools should be staffed by the real-life leaders of Best Places to Work rather than professors proficient only in theory.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I am a high energy, passionate, enthusiastic, and strategic leader who enjoys enabling people to do what theylove and do best. I’m a cheerleader, a fire-starter, a bureaucracy buster, a remover of roadblocks. I find virtually everyone amazing. I have faith that most people are good and want to do the right thing. I push people beyond their comfort zones, yet I’m always there to support them. I would never ask anyone to do anything I am not willing to lead from the front. I don’t take no for an answer to anything I firmly believe in. I believe there is always a way, we just need to figure it out. I love the leadership quote by the legendary UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden: Make each day your masterpiece.

I founded my company a decade ago, originally called Business Women Rising, with a mission to accelerate advancement for women to senior leadership in major corporations. One day, a senior executive of a global financial services company called to enroll one of their younger “high potential” mid-level managers into our program while she was on maternity leave. They were concerned this high potential was going to resign to become a stay-at-home mom and they did not want to lose her. They hoped if they invested in her continued development and kept her connected to other high potential business women, they could improve the likelihood she would return to work at the end of her maternity leave. The high potential voluntarily agreed to take advantage of the developmental opportunity.

Once in the program, she confided she indeed planned to tender her resignation, not because she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but because she thought she was not measuring up to her manager’s expectations. She believed her boss was trying to get her to quit because he constantly assigned her seemingly impossible projects. She was convinced she was doomed to failure. I jumped at the chance to mentor her, to help her see such opportunities from a different perspective.

It was a thrill for me to work with her. I enjoyed sharing stories of the “impossible” missions I had gravitated toward throughout my career. As we got to know each other, she grew increasingly interested in taking on the kind of challenges that potentially awaited her back at work. We discussed ways she might address such challenges head-on, and how she might leverage her unique style and skills with more confidence. She began to look forward to gaining more visibility with the senior leaders at corporate headquarters.

To make a long story short, this high potential returned to work at the end of her maternity leave. She handled each new assignment with aplomb, was awarded one promotion after another, and ultimately went on to become the youngest senior vice president in the company’s history. She was a masterpiece.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been very fortunate to have had a number of insightful people help me along the way. Here’s a story about one of the first people to have a significant impact on my career.

Back when I was a senior systems engineer at AT&T Information Systems, I was supporting the top sales rep, Phil. My job was to make sure the technology solutions Phil sold performed as expected. When he surprisingly quit one day, his sales manager, Betty, offered me his job. When I replied I wasn’t cut out for sales, she responded, “You obviously don’t know why Phil was so successful. It’s all because of you. You can still be you, only better, as a sales rep.” Betty’s vision and persistent encouragement changed the trajectory of my career. Never again was I afraid to take on challenges, thanks to Betty.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have always tried to serve as a role model who inspires others to believe superior results can be achieved when leaders demonstrate that they care about their teams as much as they care about the mission of the organization.

I have loved every day of my Fortune 150 and entrepreneurial careers, and the most fulfilling times have been spent helping high potentials achieve their visions of success. I hope that by publishing my leadership books, each based on my own as well as others’ experiences creating best places to work, aspiring leaders the world over — wherever they are on the corporate ladder, in whatever industries they are in — will achieve their own visions of success as they create best places to work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

For many years I had a brightly colored sign hanging on the wall behind my desk which said: “Attitude is everything. Pick a good one.” I still keep a small version of this sign in my kitchen for all my family and friends to see and take to heart.

I learned long ago, and it’s paid dividends ever since, conveying an “I’m confident we can do this” attitude is sometimes all that is needed to generate the talent, the ideas, and the traction necessary to make WOW factor results a reality.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire a movement that will turn all workplaces into Best Places to Work — WOW factor workplaces — where all workers, the world over will find purpose, meaning, joy, and fulfillment in whatever they do, each and every day.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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