Business demands emotional and organizational intelligence no matter where you are in the scheme of things. And you will be rewarded for your curiosity and your new abilities to be the thought leader in situations that demand extraordinary people and problem-solving skills.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lynda M. Ulrich & Liesl Ulrich-Verderber.
Dr. Lynda M. Ulrich, EWC CEO, DMD, is a writer, artist, global traveler, citizen scientist, and founder of Ever Widening Circles (EWC).
Liesl Ulrich-Verderber, EWC, is the COO, and the Founder of EWCed and Amazing World Media. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in architectural design and economics, Liesl started working with Ever Widening Circles as our COO and took up the mission to expand into education with EWCed in 2018, and explore how we could bring positive media to healthcare in 2019 with Amazing World Media.
Thank you for joining us Lynda and Liesl! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Lynda: In the first year of Ever Widening Circles, I began to reach out to the thought leaders around the world I was writing about, and for quite some time I was getting an icy silence. Then, one evening, my phone rang and a warm, cheerful voice on the other end said, “Hi Dr. Lynda, this is Daniel Kish. I love what you are doing. Let’s chat if you’ve got the time!”
Hmmm? Did I have the time to talk to the man who has no eyes, and yet he can see?
Daniel Kish has had so much press coverage that his CEO once calculated that Daniel’s work has been in front of 2.6 billion people? Yes, I wanted to talk to him! We spoke for 3 hours and have been fast friends ever since!
You may know of Daniel because he is the fellow who lost both his eyes as an infant to cancer and taught himself to see like dolphins and bats. He has traveled all over the world without assistance for decades, teaching others a kind of human “echolocation”, a kind of natural sonar.
He can walk down the sidewalk and describe where all the parked cars are, the height of the bushes, how far the houses are set back from the street, and where there are telephone poles. I have spoken to him on the phone as he was navigating O’Hare Airport alone, and another time as he was hiking alone on his way back from a primitive cabin he visits frequently in the hills of California. Daniel can ride a bike safely.
Daniel has taught me so many things since our first conversation, but he has profoundly changed how to look at fear. One night we had the most extraordinary conversation about “fear of the dark.” Of course, Daniel does not know what “the dark” is, so he has no fertile ground for the scary stories we tell ourselves. He has taught me that fear is easily extinguished by knowledge. And with knowledge, you can use reason to make decisions and avoid all the hemming and hawing. Whatever I fear, I do my homework on it and I always come out feeling confident about going forward or I’m darn glad I didn’t. Either way, fear is not part of my decision-making process.
Liesl: In May of 2018 our understanding of our potential was completely shifted. We had been growing at a steady pace for four years and we knew we had great content that was meaningful to people, but I’m not sure we understood our full potential as an organization. During our Friday check-in meeting, I went to look at our stats and saw that we had 70 people visiting our site at one time, a number much greater than I had ever seen before. I made a note of it and we celebrated the little victory.
A half-hour later, I checked our numbers again and saw that we had well over 200 people on the site at one time, and our traffic was rapidly increasing. It turns out, a post about us had made it to the front page of Reddit! We had gone viral! We had accomplished something that few organizations could ever hope to. As our traffic increased, we ran out to grab champaign! (I still have those corks lined up on my desk.)
That in one afternoon, we had 1.7 million search requests to our site. The vast amount of traffic cashed our servers in the coveted “Reddit Hug of Death.”
That day was pivotal for us as a team. It was our proof of concept day. It wasn’t one of our articles that had gone viral, it was just a post with word that we existed. Our viral day showed us that the world was hungry for what we had to offer.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Liesl: Yes! Right now, we are launching our new app for Apple and Android out into the world. We spend so much time on our phones these days browsing our social media feeds and news headlines bombarded by negativity. So, we wanted to create a place where people could easily take a break with meaningful and uplifting content whenever they needed it.
After seeing the way people resonated so deeply with the positive, meaningful, and uplifting content we curate for Ever Widening Circles, we knew that an app that allowed people to have their custom library and notifications would be the perfect place for people to find peace-of-mind whenever they need it.
Lynda: We began working on our app 6 months ago to attract a million users in one year and use that to send a message to mass media that people are ready to usher in a more positive, new era.
But within days of the COVID-19 outbreak, I realized my best role in the upheaval of our times was to get the word out that the Ever Widening Circles app could become the most trusted source for peace-of-mind on the internet. Now I look at the app as a way that people can have the antidote for the daily news right in the palm of their hands! I often say, “Want a better world? There’s an app for that, now!”
For every person who needs a break from the relentless fear and gloom of the internet and negative news cycle, we have published over a thousand articles about insight and innovation going uncelebrated. We curate the most amazing and uplifting TED talks, and we connect people to wonders in the natural world that are astonishing. We are revealing a wave of goodness and progress, well underway in the world that almost no one knows about. And we’ve been doing it since 2013. We didn’t just jump on the bandwagon and start churning out quick flashes of momentary light.
We have always had three promises that seem perfectly suited to that task: no politics, no ads, and meticulously-cited trustworthy sources. Now, more than ever, what we give our attention to matters, and we believe that goodness can be viral, too!
Ok, let’s 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?
Lynda: I suspect the breakdown happens at the leadership level. I am always amazed at how many people in positions of leadership have had very little formal training in that key aspect of organizational success.
I think it’s a function of how most of us begin our working lives as “technicians.” We have some technical skill or educational background that makes us good at a particular task. And if we are really good, we are the first to get promoted, and up the chain, we go. Unfortunately, with every promotion, we do less of the skill that made us shine and we get farther out on a limb when it comes to knowing how to manage teams. Getting the best from a diverse group of people is an art and every art must be cultivated.
As an example, I have been a dentist for 30 years and I came to the profession with enormous technical skills and zero management skills. My husband and I are both dentists so we have always worked with a team of 13–17 people. But for many years we were horrible leaders and there was constant employee turnover. Eventually, we saw the light and began a 7-year program that taught us leadership skills based on the Harvard School of Business. And that started me on a life-long passion for reading most of the NYTimes best sellers in business and leadership. Now we have people who have been with us for decades.
My advice if you are unhappy in your work is to start having some fun with developing your leadership skills.
Business demands emotional and organizational intelligence no matter where you are in the scheme of things. And you will be rewarded for your curiosity and your new abilities to be the thought leader in situations that demand extraordinary people and problem-solving skills.
Liesl: I think the answer to why people feel so unhappy in their work comes down to two major factors (1) finding fulfillment, (2) leading with empathy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the first factor a lot recently. Last fall, I had brunch with some of my friends from college. And as I was prattling off how much I loved my job and how fulfilling it was I heard the exact opposite from them. They had taken a job, just any job, out of college and they were all-consuming. They were in a position to not only not feel fulfilled by their job, but have no time to find fulfillment outside of their job. I don’t think that all of us can or will love our jobs 100% of the time, but we still should be able to find fulfillment in some part of our lives. Whether that’s through a profession or a hobby!
As for leading with empathy, I truly believe that it’s my responsibility as a leader to make sure that I create an environment where people can work with fulfillment and joy — even when the work is difficult and times are tough. But to lead with empathy, as a leader, you have to know what makes people tick, and how to best appreciate, uplift, and support your team. We have every new employee take a slew of personality tests from how they feel best appreciated, to their motivation style, to their Hogwarts house (hey, we have a lot of millennials). It’s a great way for us to get to know people on a deep level, and also for them to understand themselves better. This way, we aren’t upset by people’s weaknesses, but instead, learn to rally around them and support each other where needed. I believe that this helps us see each other very deeply and if people feel seen, they feel more fulfilled in their work and are happier.
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?
Liesl: For me, it’s a simple equation, if somebody is unhappy in their job, they’re not feeling fulfilled, and if they aren’t feeling fulfilled, they aren’t bringing the kind of joy to their work that is a fundamental value of ours. We do a lot of creative work, and that requires people to be all mentally. I’ve seen in myself and our team that when people are unhappy, it’s hard to do creative work. Productivity decreases, and our ability to connect with our community in a meaningful way plummets. More importantly, to me, though, is that if my team is unhappy, I know their health and wellbeing are suffering. For all of these reasons, helping our team feel fulfilled and supported by each other and their work is a central focus of mine as a leader.
Lynda: I believe that a productive, profitable company — with employees that feel like they are thriving — will be one with absolute clarity about a vision and a mission that the team can get behind. Without that, people will be apt to go through the motions, uninspired, and often afraid to have the courage to bring new ideas to the table.
We’ve been fairly single-minded about our vision (the ultimate goal) and mission (what we’ll do to get there) since day one, but sometimes it takes time for a business to hone the message they give their employees.
For Ever Widening Circles, our ultimate goal (the Vision) is to change the negative dialogue about our times. And what we will do to get there (the MIssion) is to prove it is still an amazing world. Every member of our team knows that vision and mission, and every decision we make is in the service of those objectives.
Clarity makes great cultures.
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?
- Make it safe to experiment. If you hire good people, give them clarity about the vision then you should trust them to test their theories about how progress can be made. My team once decided to raise some money for a super non-profit, but I could see a lot of flaws in the system they created. And I could also see that the adventure was very “low stakes”, so I decided not to micromanage in any way, and sure enough it was a bit of a flop in the amount of money they raised. But the experience was priceless when it came to all that my team learned. Make it safe to fail and learn.
- Reward behavior you want to be repeated. My father was at the Mayo Clinic 20 years ago for cancer treatment and one day when I was sitting out in the hallway, I saw a nurse open a card and celebrate what was written in it. Then, I looked around the nurses’ station and I saw many of the same cards propped up all over the place. They were all printed with a huge word, “Applause!” So I asked the nearest nurse about the cards and she said that the doctors rarely thanked or complimented them so they had decided to start supporting each other. They had the cards printed up and ever since gratitude and excellence are celebrated and appreciated! I came right back to my office and had my Applause cards printed up. We’ve used them ever since. Some of my team members have stacks of them in their lockers! I have every single one that anyone ever gave me.
- Never put a system in place, that everyone has to manage, just because you have a problem with one or two people. Here is a really simple example, but I suspect it is a great metaphor for flawed policies, even in big corporations. There was a time, when I was a young dentist, that we had one dental assistant who was constantly missing instruments from her room. We eventually learned that she was rushing so much to clean her room that she was throwing away instruments from time to time. So instead of pulling her aside and making it clear that the carelessness had to stop immediately, we put in an elaborate system of marking the instruments from each room with a particular color rubber band. We made everyone jump through hoops for the flaws of one. It’s a terrible burden on a team. Don’t do it. Just tell people what you need for them to do to improve. Inspect what you expect and fix it with the one or two people involved.
- Start from a Position of Strength when trying to solve problems. Most problem-solving begins with a long grind that focuses on what’s going wrong and who’s to blame. It is almost impossible to get any goodwill going for solutions when you start there. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Now, when we want to get everyone on board with a new policy that will solve a problem, we start the conversation with questions like, “What do we want more of?” and “What makes us great?” and “What do we care about?” and we have about four other key questions that form a positive framework we can build on. The results are remarkably better and our relationships are stronger for the process. It’s always a home run. (This concept is a business article all on its own.)
- Always find YOUR role in the problem. I’ve learned that if I’m honest with myself, I can find the role that I played in 90% of the problems I’ve faced in business. As a leader and a follower, we control so much more of our destiny than we want to admit. And the best way to turn problems into leaps of progress is to go through a serious period of self-reflection about the situation and then consider every problem a gift of insight. I’ve had this model in mind for 30 years in business and I very rarely have to repeat a problem, because I have become so good at folding the lessons into my future.
- Have a coaching mindset. As a leader I don’t think of myself as a “boss,” I think of myself as a coach. It’s my job to coach my team to not only find the best position for them where their skills meet their passions but to coach them through weakness. Creating a great work culture, for me, starts with stepping away from the thought that a leader is a master delegator, to the mindset that a leader is a coach. A great recent example of this comes to mind as we brought on two new teammates. They both came with a great set of skills and as I worked with them in the first few months, I consciously put into practice the coaching mindset and was able to onboard them faster, help them flourish in their roles, and feel fulfilled even as remote members of the team.
- Start from a place of trust. It seems like a simple notion, but leaders forget this time and time again. Trust that your employees want to work hard and are doing their best work. I had a mindset shift about this last fall when one of our team members seemed to be becoming more and more unhappy with her work. I stopped trusting that she wanted to be working with us. That is until I made the conscious decision to shift my mindset and trust that she was working hard and wanted to feel fulfilled by this job. With that shift, we were able to have some incredibly productive conversations that helped her, and our business, flourish.
- Get to know the people you are coaching. Two of the most important personality tests we have our team take is to understand how people feel best appreciated and supported, and how people are motivated. As a leader, these two “non-traditional” personality tests in the world of business, when combined with a classic personality test like DISC, are an incredible way to create a company work culture where people feel deeply supported.
- Have One-on-Ones with your team, and make them open to whatever. I recently started instituting one-on-one meetings with each of my team members, and it has been a game-changer. I’ve found that some of my team members are better ideators one-on-one, while others need this private time to ask for help. It’s a great way for me to act as a coach and build trust with my team even if that means taking some time to talk about our latest gardening projects, or what we were up to last weekend. One-on-ones are a great way to not just “get work done” but to build relationships that are fundamental to a supportive work environment.
- Take time to help people develop. This is particularly important for people who inevitably take on greater responsibilities and leadership roles in the company. Time and time again, I’ve seen companies and institutions raise people to their level of incompetence. But, just because somebody is great at what they do, it doesn’t mean they will naturally have the background and training to manage others. We consciously set aside time for leadership development and personal growth. For us to continue growing, this is an important time investment to help out team members feel more fulfilled in their work.
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?
Liesl: I think that COVID-19 has been a big wakeup call for so many companies that were doing “business as usual” when it comes to remote work, and finding new normals in a work/life balance. Ourselves included. I don’t think there’s a one size fits all approach to whether or not a company should work remotely, or what kind of work schedule a company expects. But I do think that we start to make a change when we begin to open ourselves up to breaking the model on what a traditional workday looks like. On our team, we are finding ourselves more connected, communicative, and productive than ever as we’ve moved to remote work. That is in great part to our history of treating “everything as an experiment”. I think if more work cultures embraced the idea of experimenting with new policies that bent “traditional” work culture we’d start to unlock more potential in people.
Lynda: I believe the #1 thing we can do as a society to improve work cultures is to discover the strength in the blending of the generations. We’ve got to stop struggling for power. Every generation has its gifts and its gaps. The people on the older end of the team’s spectrum need to realize that the youngest people on the team are closer to the horizon and can see what’s coming much more clearly. And the younger people need to realize that the elders on the team have some instincts sharpened by the arc of time, that are unavailable to anyone who has not lived a long life.
Far too often we spend time complaining about our differences — millennials ignoring boomers, gen X’ers complaining about millennials, boomers wanting everyone to work the way they do — and the division leaves so much potential on the table.
My daughter and I are business partners and when we each realized the recipe for blending our points of view, then the magic started to happen. We became multipliers for each other’s strengths! I’ve decided that the millennials and Gen X’ers are going to be right about 80% of the time in my work environments, whenever a decision relates to timing and the zeitgeist. And I’m going to be right the other 20% of the time whenever a decision deserves the wisdom of experience, a cool head, and an instinct for human nature. To quote Ryan Holiday, “The Ego is the Enemy.” If we go to our corners and just complain about each other, we are missing the secret sauce of generationally mixed cultures.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
Lynda: My management style is very hands-off once I understand my employees’ strengths and how much they care.
I am one of those people who is curious about everything, always looking for connections that can only be seen from the 100,000-foot view. I do not see barriers, only problems that have not had enough imagination thrown at them. It is almost impossible for me to prioritize because I see possibilities everywhere. I am so dialed into learning from everyone and everything, that I am prone to say, “This changes everything.” about every four hours.
Can you see the nightmare emerging for my team? I suspect you can, and fortunately, I can too.
And that’s the most important thing I recommend to leaders and managers: you need to know as much about your weaknesses as you do about your strengths. And then you have to empower people you trust to excel in your gaps!
Liesl: I approach my leadership style from coaching and “in the trenches” mindset. I see my role as a leader first and foremost as a coach; assessing the situation as things unfold, drawing up gameplans for our team to execute, and coaching my teams to use their skills in the best ways possible to succeed. I also think that it’s really important to lead by example. I always respected the coaches and leaders I had that worked alongside us. As a leader in business, I live by the mindset that I won’t ask anybody to do something I wouldn’t do (or at least give the old college try before passing on to an expert). I think that leading by being in the trenches and a coaching mindset begins with being a real person; laughing at your folly, admitting when you’re wrong — even when it’s the hardest thing to do — and asking for help when you need it. Leadership isn’t about being stoic and unavailable, it’s about being the person your teammates trust and turn to for guidance, direction, and help.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Lynda: I don’t mind admitting that I have been on an intense journey in the last 7 years, going from ordinary web-user to founder of a global media company with three platforms for progress. There have been incredible highs and lows, most often stemming from the fact that I have been groping in the darkness of an unfamiliar landscape with barely a penlight for illumination.
At one of the very lowest points, we were headed for ruin, and I had no idea what my next step should be. All I could think to do was dive into the internet to see if I couldn’t find someone at a marketing agency that would talk to me. After a random search, and a random selection process, I found one that listed the direct phone numbers of their consultants and I told my head writer to choose one for me to call. (I think I was laying on the floor of my office in an almost Arianna Huffington moment.) Samantha chose a fellow named Anthony Helmstetter, of Convince & Convert, because he mentioned a giant fish tank in his bio, and that was good enough for me.
And on Friday, Easter weekend, 2018, I dialed a stranger and gained an invaluable friend.
Anthony picked up his phone and I thank gosh his curiosity got the best of him! He talked to me for an hour that night and countless hours since. He has been there for us with savvy advice, the wisdom of experience in the digital world, and a keen eye for human nature. Ever Widening Circles would not be here today had it not been for his kindness and generosity of spirit.
Liesl: Well, I have to credit so much of my success to my mum. I mean, she’s my mother, so obviously I learned most of my life-lessons from her. Growing up, I watched her building her dental practice into a remarkably successful business. And for as long as I can remember, she was asking me for advice on problems in the office, or for ideas on how to do things better. Looking back on it now, I was 12 years old and thinking through problems that would baffle most MBA students. It was like studying a case study after case study in leadership, management, team building, and owning your own business. I remember her giving me a 3-inch thick binder filled with excerpts from her favorite leadership books and notes from her annual planning meetings when I turned 13. It seems as though she thought this was the proper coming of age gift. I think because of that, and the way she treated me since I was very young, I always saw myself as a leader, and I’m so grateful that’s the lens I’ve always had the privilege of seeing myself with.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Lynda: In 2013, I received an email from a 19-year-old boy who I’d known since he was a toddler. Cameron was writing from a very bleak part of the world where he had landed after signing up for the army. Unfortunately, he made comments familiar to most of us now: “Every time I hear the news, I get more depressed.” “Whenever I look at social media I feel awful about life.”
He had lost confidence in the future for us all, and yet, somehow he thought to write to me. I wasn’t Cameron’s relative, his teacher, or a coach. I was his dentist. And that day, I realized that my impulse to keep humanity in healthcare had been a good instinct.
Every day in the office as a dentist, I share tears, hugs, and lots of laughter with patients, and I always find something to celebrate in people’s lives. And that’s why Cameron knew he could count on me.
So I fired off a very comforting email, and the situation sent me on a mad search of the internet for a trustworthy place for news worth celebrating. And I quickly found that the linchpin in that quest was the “trustworthy” bit. Every place I landed had a political agenda, or they’d be bombarding us with ads, or we would have no idea where they got their information.
When I could not find any place for news about real progress — with no politics or ads — I decided to build it! Since 2014, Ever Widening Circles has published over a thousand articles about insight and innovation going uncelebrated. Our goal is to change the negative dialogue about our times, and we might just do that thanks to Cameron’s inspiration.
Liesl: In the last speech at my undergraduate graduation, I remember the speaker begging the audience of fresh Harvard graduates to go out and use their success to bring goodness into the world. I think at the time, like so many of my classmates, I brushed off that ask. But, when I started helping mum build Ever Widening Circles from a blog into a publishing platform, and eventually into a larger media company, I realized that I was doing exactly what had been asked of me. As a media company on a mission to change the negative dialogue about our times by celebrating the insights, innovations, and good news that proves it’s still an amazing world without politics or advertising, we are doing something unique and having a profound effect on the people who become readers. For so many people, we are the positivity they are searching for on the internet, the respite from the negativity, chaos, and division that feels like it has become synonymous with media. I feel fortunate to have my success come from bringing goodness to the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Liesl: “Laughter is the closest distance between two people” -Victor Borge
I love this quote, and it’s one that I live by and lead by. Our work with Ever Widening Circles is about bringing people together; whether that’s with our team or our readers. I believe that laughter is the quickest way to bring people together and welcome them. Making joy a part of our values and team culture is central to creating work that sparks joy in others.
If you can laugh with somebody, you’ve found a way to connect with them. Laughter helps us feel connected to each other, it helps us heal, and it gives us the space to be present with each other. Whether I’m writing or leading our team, I want to be cultivating the kinds of connections and relationships with our readers, our team, and our collaborators where we can laugh together, and enjoy the same moments with each other. I started using the sign off in my articles “Stay beautiful & keep laughing!” as an aspirational phrase, but after writing it over 500 times I’ve internalized that idea of keeping laughing. Laughter really can get you far, and bring wonderful people into your life.
Lynda: Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they are yours. — Richard Bach
I think this quote is central to my journey to starting Ever Widening Circles. When I began, I could barely use Facebook and yet I set out to change the world by re-imagining the way the internet was shaping our worldview. Maybe, I thought, the situation called for an outsider to the internet with a fresh set of skills.
I never focus on limiting factors. Instead, I look at every challenge like a riddle to be solved.
I try to ask better questions than have been asked before. I double down on what I can do and pay no mind to the ney-sayers. I’ve been an early adopter of technology, have traveled the world, spent decades in the service of others, and all that has taught me to connect ideas that no one ever thought to combine.
You are people 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. 🙂
Lynda: In the course of our work, we have discovered that there is an enormous wave of goodness and progress well underway in the world, that almost no one knows about. And we’re calling that wave a Conspiracy of Goodness™.
It’s a silent march away from the division and chaos builders. More and more, people are tuning out the zealots on social media, turning off the negative news, and doubling down on what they can do to make the world a better place, right in their circles.
In May of 2019, we launched #ConspiracyofGoodness as a movement to highlight the ways, big and small, people are doing good in the world.
Without even realizing it, the people who are part of this quiet movement are rescuing our shared future!
The original story behind the phrase “Conspiracy of Goodness” is a remarkably powerful reminder of the kind of unheroic, quiet, goodness that keeps humanity moving forward. It’s short, and you can check it out on our website.
Liesl: It’s amazing to see how, over the past few months, people have been acting with such kindness and how excited people are to share those stories. We are already seeing a shift in the way people are celebrating the good happening in the world,
We can continue to change our shared future if we are all part of a wave to celebrate and point to the Conspiracy of Goodness that is all around us!
- We can support news organizations that consider signs of progress “newsworthy.”
- We can celebrate the influencers who use their position to tell positive stories and do good in the world.
- We can share the stories of thought leaders who are finding ingenious ways to solve problems.
- We can share signs of goodness and progress!
We think it’s time to make goodness go viral, too!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!