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To Build a Fantastic Work Culture, “Realize that we need to understand and consider the human factor,” With Michelle Sherman

…Socially Intelligent Leadership — The capacity to direct, manage and optimize human systems judiciously and empathetically for the benefit of all stakeholders by creating a psychologically safe environment where employees are able to contribute their best. As part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing […]

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…Socially Intelligent Leadership — The capacity to direct, manage and optimize human systems judiciously and empathetically for the benefit of all stakeholders by creating a psychologically safe environment where employees are able to contribute their best.


As part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Sherman, Founder and Creative Director of The VAST Institute®. Michelle has served forward thinking individuals and companies as a highly influential thought leader and advisor. Her insights and expertise have dramatically improved the lives and bottom-line results of those seeking to experience an elevated level of balance and command in their personal and professional worlds.

While working closely with visionaries, business leaders and forward thinkers on growth and transition, something quite remarkable was revealed … “Even the most successful individuals are unaware of how to effectively harness their personal power and apply it on their own behalf”. Clients are often referred to Michelle because they have gone as far as they can on natural ability alone and are ready to integrate new skills and success on a more advanced level.

Michelle discovered while coaching her clients on the intentional use of personal power through the practice of The VAST Institute Personal Integration Model, that they could unlock invisible and essential elements that serve as a platform for unparalleled and sustainable success.

As a coach, mentor and inspirational speaker Michelle downloads professional and interpersonal perspectives and techniques that quicken, enhance and create the results that are most highly valued by clients and event guests.

Michelle is dedicated to Peace on Earth in her lifetime through daily choices. Her favorite flavor of ice cream is swiss chocolate orange.


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

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about this topic.

Ever since I can remember, I have wondered why we do not play nice and enjoy one another as unique, imperfect and lovable beings. I have always had a better opinion of humankind then it had of itself. As a social scientist at heart, I have studied and watched how to encourage the authentic expression of self as a platform for thriving and contributing one’s best. When I departed academia for business It was in the executive strategy meetings of a national retailer where, I witnessed first-hand how substandard leadership in many areas negatively impacted the entire organization especially the bottom line.

After about a decade of developing corporate strategy, I launched my success coaching practice to support closely held companies to create a profitable environment while maintaining top tier team, solid relationships with vendors and enriching the community at large.

My clients are amazing and brilliant business leaders who want to do the right thing with the variety of human stakeholders that ultimately support or diminish the quality of their offering. They understand these people are their friends and neighbors. At VAST we believe that how we treat one another at work, home, play or in the community matters. In a global market this mindset builds the world we live in. This is where Conscious Commerce began.

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

This story began as a request to create an “under the radar” program for the executive woman of a Fortune 100 company to address and remedy the bullying behaviors experienced throughout their organizational culture. The program, by invitation only offered its participants the opportunity to deploy a socially intelligent leadership model and become role models of effective leadership.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?
After 30 years of working with the best and brightest developing their unique approach to leadership and building successful enterprises, we have created the Masterpiece of Humanity™ Certification Program to impart our interdisciplinary whole system approach to attract, develop top tier talent and profitably manage the human capital under their care.

How do you think that will help people?

The VAST Institute Personal Integration Model unleashes a leader’s potential to be the confident beacon of light they were meant to be on their own terms in an authentic manner.

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?

Because employees are treated like tools of production instead of valued human capital. This type of treatment promotes a lack of trust and respect between the talent and the company. This lack of perceived mutual benefit impacts productivity and stifles innovation.

Children Play and Adults Work

Work is where we spend 30% of our time, talent and energy. There is a certain level of trustworthiness that is required to allow human systems to flourish. Business is an opportunity to work with terrific people, solving important problems for the benefit of all concerned. It is a great place to learn, grow and thrive.

When leaders provide a socially intelligent environment it allows for people to relax and contribute their best. Applying socially intelligent leadership techniques allows your team to access higher levels of problem-solving capabilities. They actually use a different part of their brain, the collaborative portion. The desire to contribute their best efforts creates personal satisfaction and supports outstanding organizational results.

When each person is treated with a respect for their place on the team entire working system clicks into a state of coherence. This state creates amplified organizational results with identical resources. Step back and take a minute to appreciate what your colleagues, friends and neighbors do to make this world great. We call that Conscious Commerce: a place where Trust, Respect and Mutual benefit are sought and considered as a vital aspect of a truly profitable strategy.

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?

Studies have shown that bullying in the workplace increase absenteeism and induces costs associated with teams comprised of people who are more interested in protecting their interests than contributing to synergistic outcomes. The absence of psychological safety significantly hampers innovation, problem solving and the willingness to identify and remedy mistakes or problems. People who do not feel respected and fairly treated provide mediocre results and result in greater instances of stress related illness.

Productivity and profitability are hampered when people withhold their best and committed efforts if they do not feel respected and safe to stumble in the name of innovation. Some call them stumbles, I call those who go first, brave and we should thank them for their new and fresh ideas.

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?

Our studies have shown that when the following VAST six core competencies are practiced, the results align with a greater sense of confidence that evokes a higher quality of enjoyment and overall contribution.

Socially Intelligent Leadership — The capacity to direct, manage and optimize human systems judiciously and empathetically for the benefit of all stakeholders by creating a psychologically safe environment where employees are able to contribute their best.

Example: A client creating world class luggage needed to monetize their artful and handcrafted approach to production. They were not charging enough to cover the value of the products they were providing. While working with the team to own the quality and value of their product they created, we uncovered their invisible discomfort in charging what the product was actually worth by market standards. Once it was safe to acknowledge and address the issues related to their discomfort, everyone relaxed, and confidence prevailed. When the new pricing structure was presented to customers they fully expected and supported the price increase as the newest purchase orders were signed.

The business grew and thrived with its artful CEO in command with renewed confidence.

Cognitive Replenishment — The intentional care and nourishment of one’s mind. It fosters enhanced problem solving through a regimen of self-care and healthy boundaries that elevate creativity and enliven a sense of well-being.

Example: A C-Suite insurance executive sought to our advice in attracting top tier talent to their newly minted firm. They were unable to compete on a purely financial level and were seeking an alternative strategy. I implemented multitude of stress reducing, family friendly or self-care moments for the entire team were adopted throughout the organization. Soon after the organization had every employee singing its praises to their friends and colleagues creating a long list of loyal team members and an increase in new applicants.

Healthy Relationships — Generating an environment where each person is free to learn, grow and thrive.

Example: Changing other people’s behavior takes an inordinate amount of energy. People make new choices only if they do so on their own. By understanding this and knowing how to craft harmonious relationships with others, you reduce your stress. By understanding your personal value system and how to relate to those who share and those who do not share your worldview you create healthier boundaries with greater ease.

I had a client in the finance sector who was very talented, warm, professional and friendly. Once recruited his boss became quite insecure around him and refrained from acknowledging his contribution to the team. Our strategy was this; instead of being angry or rude that his boss did not understand the benefits of his work. He was to compassionately understand this was about trust issues, not him. We planned for him to spend the next six months being an example of a healthy relationship by focusing on their professional strengths, differences and opportunities to grow. My client was consistent in thought word and deed knowing that it would either result in a breakthrough or new employment. Well months later after a well-run meeting to the entire organization my client was publicly and genuinely acknowledge and showing the appreciation previously reserved.

Self-Wisdom — Becoming comfortable with one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Furthermore, to develop intentional self-awareness and apply that knowledge to construct a happy and healthy life.

Example: Before you can achieve a quality of life that reflects who you truly are and what great deeds are yours to do, you must achieve a certain level of self-awareness. That knowledge of self, as a whole, imperfect human striving to do their best, can significntly improve the quality of your life and work experience.

An executive from a local publishing company hired VAST to improve their profitably. During our work we identified that their challenges were based on the owner’s lack of confidence. This occurs for most adults at some point in their life and is called the impostor syndrome. When experiencing this syndrome even the most competent among us have uncertainty or doubt that can impact decision making and performance.

We teach authenticity as a platform for success. In this case after working on identifying the gaps in his leadership skill base we focused on improving his interpersonal communications, boundaries and social intelligence. After regaining his confidence and focusing on his skill gaps, his company posted a 60% increase over the prior year.

In our experience, once adopted, our enlightened leadership model inspires expanded levels of imagination that inspire success.

Positive Imagination — A hybrid of optimism and critical thinking.
It generates enhanced outcomes in life as well as masterful insights from traditionally uncomfortable situations.

Example: While participating as a strategy advisor to an international joint venture company hired to install food processing equipment in countries with emerging economies, the practice of positive imagination allowed our team to visualize and commit to accomplishing a shared vision. We understood that our ability to imagine and innovate solutions and outcomes for the first time was necessary to accomplish our goals. My job was to teach and apply positive imagination techniques to inform and align all members of our international team. Through this technique, and the hard work of the team, we succeeded in the planting of crops, their processing and created a distribution channel to provide both jobs and infrastructure for ongoing food distribution.

Peace on Earth — Citizen diplomacy is the idea that individuals have the right, even the responsibility, to positively shape the global community through their personal interactions with people from other countries, cultures, faiths and ethnicities.

Example: In our experience there are two general ways of doing business Win /Win or Win / Lose. Companies that embrace the philosophy that every interaction has human beings as part of the equation and seeks solutions that allow for mutual respect, shared success and profit, ultimately thrive.

These forward-thinking companies create a surplus of social capital that unites their stakeholders, generating synergistic results and that encourage peaceful outcomes with expanded cooperation.

We have worked with many entities that mistakenly believed that winning at any cost indicates market strength. The problem with that approach is that the participants who are unfairly treated along the way, learn to mistrust the company, their goals and the agreements made between them. This leads to substandard relationships in all arears of business and contributes to lost profits due to mediocrity on your behalf.

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?

Realize that we need to understand and consider the human factor. When you are running a company or team or meeting, you have the lives of human beings in your hands. The responsibility to conduct myself honorably includes advocating for the people we work with, their families, the people who enjoy your product or service and the community within which you operate. If each of those constituents can rely on you to be a trustworthy member of the community improved relationships and outcomes naturally result.

How would you describe your leadership or management style?

I like to listen to a broad group of stakeholders and help the team identify a solution that encourages mutual benefit. I then task the team to imagine outrageously wonderful outcomes for as many constituents in the achievement of the stated mission. From my experience the results normally follow this pattern; 50% good ideas, 20% are clinkers, 25% are terrific and 5% are genius. The goal is to make the environment safe for everyone to contribute their best. I as navigator often contribute my own clinker ideas as I formulate the really good ones. Socially intelligent leadership demands that I am an example of and practice all of the things I ask of others. Welcoming authentic participation of a talented team learning to contribute their best as they celebrate each other is my leadership style.

On occasion there are a group of people who mistake kindness for weakness. By treating others with dignity, you unleash a wave of goodwill throughout the organization and beyond. Surrounding yourself with people who wish you well, do a much better job in protecting your interests as they share their great and not so great ideas.

Can you give us a few examples?

Yes, while working with a senior executive team at a Local Tech Company where many were uncomfortable actually speaking up and participating due to bullying behaviors. The environment was intimidating by design. The introverts, who had terrific ideas were rarely provided the space or forum to contribute. I implemented with a group of forward-thinking execs a socially intelligent code of conduct designed to shift the predominate cultural behavior from intimidating to cooperative in support of the inclusion of diverse stakeholders.

After a few months of meetings chaired by those who had adopted the respectful code and supported one another to step up to name and defend good behaviors, people started to speak up and contribute their best ideas.

Those present gracefully acknowledged the new contributors while professionally setting a new example when confronted with a situation out of integrity with the agreed upon code. This new professional example organically disseminated into other divisions of the company ultimately influencing the culture. All because a group of brave, talent colleagues stepped up to example and encourage an inclusionary approach to leadership.

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?

Ray Fair- best boss I ever had.

Two weeks after being told by an insurance executive, who was interviewing me that I should bland down my resume, Ray hired me saying it was because of those same exact qualities he thought me the right choice. What were they you wonder? Innovative Problem Solver and Optimist Outlook. Now I think that Ray appreciated those qualities because he gave me many opportunities to shine. As a junior executive he showed me how to run the business, the numbers, my career and the show. Very generous but he got a great deal of value from it. He celebrated the people he developed and enjoyed their contributions. He was a terrific carver, sailor and always a gentleman. Ray encouraged me to think outside the box instead of fitting in with conventional wisdom. This kept going with the coaching practice and advising to achieve their brand of greatness and after of working with all of these amazing people, I still think of Ray and how he encouraged me to celebrate and enjoy the contribution of the talented people around me.

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

Yes — I have the pleasure of seeing the greatness in most people before they do and supporting them to advocate for their authenticity in how they are achieving that greatness. In holding up a mirror and showing people their unique brand of personal power, they become comfortable enough with themselves to create something really amazing that is uniquely theirs and currently beyond their imagination. In achieving that comfort, they discover their whole and imperfect self is enough to create a quality of life that honors, nourishes and delights them.

That translates into goodness.

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

I love the Albert Einstein Quote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. Our goal at VAST is to provide nourishing ideas and practical tools to achieve extraordinary results. This more likely to happen for those who practice the competencies of cognitive replenishment and positive imagination due to their ability to become original thinkers.

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. 🙂

My goal is to expedite the illumination of humankind and humankindness.

It is my honor to infuse human thinking with the nourishing idea of our thought leaders and that we are each magnificent in ways that we do not yet fully understand. We can each make a huge difference by merely imagining that we are a species capable of peacefully co existing on this planet despite current evidence.

Look for the beauty in each other, your neighbor, colleagues friends and you see it more easily. If we can shift our attention to what we want, we can move forward. At VAST we stimulate optimism about the future of humankind. It is about illuminated possibilities, shared. Join us.

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

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