People focus on so many things that they can’t control in work culture — it drains energy, it drains productivity. If you can teach people how to let go of things that you can’t control, they can become more successful.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Brody-Waite.
Michael Brody-Waite is an award-winning CEO, tech-startup entrepreneur and recovering drug addict. In 2009, Brody-Waite left a Fortune 50 company to co-found and lead InQuicker, a healthcare SaaS company that allows patients to self-schedule appointments. His leadership grew the organization exponentially and landed InQuicker a spot on the Inc. 500 list of Fastest Growing Private Companies. In 2015, InQuicker was sold to a publicly traded company.
In the time since InQuicker went public, Brody-Waite has made a name for himself as an untraditional leadership coach. He credits his success to the tools he learned in the 12-step program, and now teaches others how to lead his Mask-Free Program. His unique views are captured in his TEDx Talk, “Great Leaders Do What Drug Addicts Do,” which has been viewed more than one million times. Brody-Waite’s first book, Great Leaders Like Drug Addicts, will be available for purchase on May 26, 2020.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Believe it or not, being an addict brought me to this specific career path. On September 1st, 2002, I woke up at the Betty Ford Center, which is a rehab facility in Rancho Mirage, California. I had been fired from my job, kicked out of my house, kicked out of college, and evicted from my apartment–I was throwing up blood and had hit rock bottom. The Betty Ford Center is where I learned how to stay clean. I then moved to Nashville, Tennessee to continue my recovery and went to a rehab facility there. I was later sent to a halfway house to where I was told I either had to get a job in 5 days, or I’d be back on the streets. I was lucky and somehow got a job a Sam Goody — and then my life changed for the better.
I am a recovering addict that learned how to use principles that addicts use to recover in order to lead myself and live what I call “mask free.” I used the skillset that I learned in recovery to set myself apart from everyone else I worked with, and within 17 year I’ve become a successful leader and a three-time CEO. So now, I’m taking the intersection of addiction and leadership and I’m teaching “addicts” and “normies,” — A.K.A non-addicts — how to also do what I did.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Right around March 1, 2020, we were about to enter the promotion window for my book that was coming out in May. I was slated to go to Los Angeles to visit an A-list celebrity that was going to help promote the book. We were starting to book all of my media in Nashville and New York for book launch week. I was in the midst of doing all of these speaking engagements.
Then COVID hit. I called my PR team they told me that basically all of the earned media opportunities in this promotion window were going to go away because of COVID and the pandemic.
Just as I started to understand the implications — my speaking business was gone, the promotion for my book was gone, my business strategy needed to pivot — my wife gets sick with COVID-like symptoms and so I had to take care of our daughter. She gets a little bit better and then I get sick with different symptoms that are also COVID-like symptoms, and I enter a two-week period where I have only almost a cognitive fog that I’ve never experienced before.
I find myself on calls with my team saying, “I don’t know what to do. At night I’m terrified I don’t know what’s going to happen to us financially. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the book, the speaking business, or even the family.
Then to top it off, my program is called the “Mask-Free Movement,” and so we are getting messages of people who are infuriated thinking that we are promoting not wearing a physical mask to the supermarket. Who would’ve thought that as a leader of the mask-free movement, when I started this three years ago, that I would’ve timed perfectly the release of my book in the middle of pandemic, where I would be telling people to take their masks off when suddenly the whole world is talking about how they should put the mask on. It has been one of the most surreal experience I’ve had in any of the businesses that I’ve run.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, we officially launched the mask-free program on May 26, 2020! It is a program that equips people with a system, a sponsor and a society that teaches them how to live and lead mask-free in less than one minute a day. We launched this program in the middle of pandemic and the first week we had 40 users, the second week we had 140 users. It’s been six weeks and now we have over 400 users.
We built a program that will teach people how to lead themselves no matter the external or internal circumstances, and we are well on our way to creating what we envisioned when we started 3 years ago.
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?
The reason that over half of the workforce is so unhappy is because companies continue to use benefits like free lunches and office ping pong table to motivate their employees. We have shifted from the traditional trappings of external success being titles, jobs, corner offices, money, cars — now younger generations are looking for fulfillment. And it’s pretty demoralizing to go into a workforce where you are encouraged to hide your true self.
We have found that ninety percent of leaders are hiding their true selves, or what I call “wearing a mask,” at work. That’s demoralizing. And as our generations look for more self-actualization as a part of what they want out of a job, making them wear a mask is the opposite of what gives them joy.
So, next time you want to talk about employee engagement, think through what will make an employee feel fulfilled and encourage an environment of authenticity. If employees can take their masks off that means they can go work at a place where they can be their true selves for forty more hours a week. People want that capability and yet they are stuck working for companies where hiding your true self is encouraged and the norm — no wonder so many people are depressed.
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?
When someone is unhappy at work, they tend to wear one of four masks. These four masks are:
- saying yes when you could say no
- hiding weakness
- avoiding difficult conversations
- holding back your unique perspective
Thirty-one hours is the average that employees spend in meetings that are unnecessary. That is some serious loss in productivity and since employee hours are the number one most expensive resource for a company, that’s also an incredible drain on profitability. That also leads employees to doing too much work because they’re wasting so much time not getting work done in these meetings, so they’re not able to work out and eat healthy — so it impacts their health.
Let’s look at mask number two: hiding a weakness. How does that impact productivity? Well, I once spent twenty-two hours trying to figure out how to use a Microsoft Excel pivot table, because I didn’t want my boss to think I didn’t know how to do it. Which brings us to number three: we avoid the difficult conversations — like telling my boss that I spent twenty-two hours trying to figure out how to use excel. How much productivity is lost when employees silently suffer and they don’t know how to do something? How much anxiety and poor mental health does it cost the employee?
Finally, a majority of people in an office have held back on sharing their unique perspective. Everyone has been in a business meeting where two things happen: a blind spot goes unnoticed and innovation gets passed by. And it’s usually because the people at the top are the ones doing all the talking, but if you could teach your employees how to represent their unique perspective instead of holding it back, you could identify a blind spot that could make an entire plan be like ten times more successful. Plus, your employees will feel valued, giving them the confidence to speak up and helping to reinforce sitting in anxiety because you are too afraid to speak up.
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?
There are five things that managers can do to improve company culture. Number one: create a culture where rigorous authenticity is encouraged. Where being true to yourself is more important than the consequence of being true to yourself. Number two: where even though we are responsible for outcomes, we learn how to surrender them. Teach people how to let go of the outcome so they can focus on the things that they need to do in order to achieve results. Number three: teach people how to let go of things they can’t control. People focus on so many things that they can’t control in work culture — it drains energy, it drains productivity. If you can teach people how to let go of things that you can’t control, they can become more successful. Number four: teach people how to focus exclusively on what they can control. Once you’ve reclaimed all this energy from not focusing on outcomes and not focusing on things that you can’t control, you can start to really identify what you can control, and when we become a culture of only focusing on what we can control, we become far more productive. And number five: teach your team how to do uncomfortable work. Everybody, every team, every individual, every professional, every company knows what smart work and hard work are — they are physical and intellectual. Uncomfortable work is emotional — it’s sensations in our body that deters us from taking action that we know is good for us, and this is all over the place in company cultures when people are avoiding difficult conversation, hiding weakness, saying yes to things they could say no to. This happens all the time. So teach people how to do uncomfortable work so they can not only be more successful in work but they could be more successful at home.
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?
The answer is actually really simple. Don’t worry about the work culture in the U.S. That does you no good, at all. That is an outcome and something that you cannot control, but here is what you could control: how you control and lead yourself. Whether you allow what other people think to deter you from taking action that is true leadership that is leading yourself, that is the willingness to do something despite the consequences that may occur when you do them. In a work environment, this could be as simple as saying no to something that everybody else is saying yes to. This could be sharing a weakness when you think you need to look strong. This could be having a difficult conversation and prefacing it with, “I’m scared to have a difficult conversation.”
We spend so much time trying to focus on the world out there because unlike before, when the only way we could know what was going on in the world was in newspapers and on the evening news, we now have so much information at our fingertips. We compare ourselves to everyone else in an all-consuming way, and we focus on the things that we can’t control, instead of focusing on what we can. Don’t change the workforce culture, don’t change U.S culture Change yourself and then help one other person do the same and that’s how we create that change.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
My leadership philosophy is to live and lead mask-free. I am intentional about integrating the three principles of practicing rigorous authenticity, surrendering the outcome, and doing uncomfortable work into everything I do as a leader, and then teaching my team how to do the same. So what that means is, at the beginning of a month, I spend time with my mask-free sponsor and I go through my mask-free action card that sets out on a very simple piece of paper what my intent is that month in practicing these three principles in my work life. One month, it may be, I’m going to say no to things that I have a temptation to say yes to. Another, it may be I’m going to share a weaknesses where I typically hide where I’m weak. Another could be I’m going to have difficult conversations I typically avoid or I’m going to communicate my unique perspective in situations I’m typically scared of.
Whatever it is, I create that intent by creating a mask-free action card with my sponsor, and over the next twenty-eight days I do what’s called the mask-free minute, and I spend one minute a day reading it. I know it sounds crazy but one minute a day creates automatic awareness that drives automatic growth and automatic growth drives automatic leadership. And so, if you want to put your leadership and your company on automatic, start with yourself and do the mask-free minute that creates automatic awareness.
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?
Everybody has a mentor or somebody that helped them along the way to be successful. And so, I had that as well. In early in my career as a startup leader, I had no idea how to lead my company. We were in the middle of a recession, we didn’t have investors, I put all my financial resources on the table, and I had no idea how to lead a company and I was completely lost. I remember walking into a twelve-step meeting feeling like a complete imposter as a CEO, and when I was in the twelve-step meeting with all these recovering addicts, I looked around and I was like, “Well, wait a second. Surely, I can be a startup CEO because I overcame addiction. How did I do that?”
I looked around the room and I thought, “Oh, I have a sponsor,” and realized I need a sponsor for my career as well. It just so happened that there was a place called the National Entrepreneur Center and their CEO was Michael Burcham. I walked into the National Entrepreneur Center looking for a mentor and I walked out with Michael Burcham as my mentor. He took the time and energy when he didn’t need to and he wasn’t paid to. There was no natural reason why, but he took me under his wing, he taught me healthcare, he taught me how to build a business, he taught me how to become a CEO.
He did everything for me that my sponsor in twelve-step recovery had done by sharing his experience, strength, and hope. I would not be where I am if it were not for him.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When I did my TED Talk and decided to write my book, the goal wasn’t to start a business. It was just to share with others what worked well for me. I hope that each of the 400 people who are currently in my program are changed for the better, and that I was able to bring a little goodness to their individual little worlds.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is “pain is inevitable, and suffering is optional.” In my early recovery one of the things that I learned was that I had an aversion to pain, as an addict I did everything I could to try to escape the pain. It was so freeing to accept the fact that pain was inevitable.
But the second half of the quote is where I learned so much and got so much freedom. I asked my spiritual mentor what do they mean by “suffering is optional”? It was a very simple answer, he said “suffering is what occurs when we resist reality.” The suffering we experience is proportional to the amount of reality that we resist. For example, if I don’t get a job that I interviewed for that I really wanted, I’m going to feel the pain of not getting it — that’s inevitable. But, if I sit there and beat myself up over it, all that happens is that I suffer. Instead, I am able to say I can’t control that it happened, and I can’t control that I feel pain, but I can control what I do next.
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?
It would be the mask-free movement. I want every person to feel like they have the ability to practice rigorous authenticity, surrender the outcome and do the uncomfortable work.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!