Tom Willis in conversation with Mike Rambarose
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Tom sits down with the President & CEO at Whitney Center, Inc. Mike Rambarose. They talk about culture, and what it reflects within the workplace environment. Mike talks about his new profound insight into what "coaching" truly is and the obstacles he has overcome and is still working on overcoming today as a leader. They also talk about the leadership retreat that they partook in, and how allowing yourself to be coached is so important.
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Mike Rambrose thanks for joining us on the podcast today. Thanks Tom I'm really really excited to be here a little nervous but uh excited nonetheless. We're both nervous I just realized I've been saying this every podcast I said uh thanks for joining us on the podcast as if there was like a mouse in my pocket um I think that's because Brad and I do all of our work together. So I just assumed that you know Brad's joining me on these Zoom these Zoom calls um so good to see you um you know it's uh the culture eats everything podcast.
Let's start there what what's your take on culture and and why is it and important to you as a CEO and as a leader . I agree I guess first off let me say that I I think the culture the essence of the organization is so important . I think especially in in the work in Health and Human Services um because our customers are Partners in many ways in in terms of how we deliver our services. How we build relationships and engage with them and the way we that the team members carry ourselves the way we interact the energy that we bring to the work is I believe a an expression of culture.
Our success then is really pinned to a positive culture um that helps to generate those relationships and and the service delivery that we're looking for and and how do you go about you know making that success happen what are the things that you do as a leader to to build up your people and to improve your culture wow that that's a that's a big big question right um well I I think um one of the most recent sort of um epiphanies that that I've had about culture is that I don't believe culture is something we do I don't believe it's it's um sort of a focal point that we can you know we can um sort of adjust culture this way or that way.
I believe at best we can we can nudge it we can influence it because um I I'm learning that culture is an outcome it's a manifestation of the collective behaviors um attitudes approach of all of the people in the organization um I I don't know how that squares with you know scholarly definitions and all the work that's been done around culture but I I truly believe that it reflects um leadership first and foremost it reflects the um the relationships that uh our team members have with one another with um supervisors with their customers it reflects their engagements their job satisfaction um all of that and so everything we do every interaction every relationship that we work on um I think ultimately affect culture in some way good good and bad yeah so I I would say I don't think there's anything we do that doesn't affect culture.
I think I hear a lot of a lot of what you're saying there Mike is it's who we're being you know it's who it's the relationships that we're building between ourselves um between our teammates between those that we serve so maybe talk a little bit more about relationships and how you how you look to relationships to form the culture well um you know one of the uh the things that I'll point to is our attempts we we're I don't think we're successful yet but our attempts at improving uh the relationships that our team members uh particularly our front line team members have with their supervisors um we a few years ago probably four or five years ago determined that we were uh we were not investing enough in those relationships and and
We've read about and it Bears out in our organization that people leave because of a bad or a poor relationship with their supervisor so we we decided that uh we were going to um sort of create a structure around uh building cultivating and nurturing those relationships and so we did away with our uh annual performance appraisals in in lieu of a uh quarterly coat what we call coaching conversation and really the the whole intent was to read uh regular opportunities for every supervisor to have a discussion with their direct reports and um now I can tell you in hindsight we really didn't know what coaching was we didn't fully understand how important it was so so the idea was probably ahead of our um you know our capacity to actually do it well so we're going back and and revisiting exactly what that coaching looks like but the point is that we we decide to shift from traditional metrics of performance to relationships still in some way holding holding one another accountable or um you know for that performance it's like music to my ears
Mike I don't know if you know this about me but one of my dreams in my life is to help kill all the annual performance reviews that are out there oh that that oh we'll need to talk more about that because uh we're we're revisiting it I don't think we're going back to it but we we want to elevate what we've been trying to do these past four or five years and what's the Insight that you've had recently around coaching and um the the new the new Way Forward it's yeah the the Insight is that coaching is not easy it doesn't come natural as naturally as I thought it might um to me or anyone else for that matter we we sort of assume that hey with a couple of uh guiding questions we that we provided to you know every manager and supervisor we um we would be able to sort of let them go and just take say hey go ahead and Coach folks right in these relationships and we're we we had it um we've fallen way short um but nonetheless I I think we've we've moved the needle in terms of building relationships you know it that the structure at least led to a formal um you know sit down with each person four times a year as opposed to just once after the year was over .
I think we we move the needle a little bit not not quite as far as we wanted to yeah yeah and you're making making progress and that's what there is to do every day you just keep keep pushing forward right and um you know one of the things that we think is true with coaching especially um is that it's only coaching if it's asked for you know that fundamentally now people don't have to actually physically say I want coaching but there has to be a receptivity there there has to be an openness to it and many organizations I think followed pray to well if we just call it coaching then it's coaching um but that's not true there's a that's why I love your focus on relationship because when there's a genuine relationship between two people between a a manager and their teammate then and the person knows that the managers on their side the leader's on their side then they're going to be open to it they're going to be willing to accept the coaching and if if there's not if there's not a relationship there then it's not going to be seen as coaching it's going to be seen as something else that's not terribly productive yeah yeah I agree and you know um the the focus on the relationship is the key I I think you know some of what we what we've called coaching has not come out of a place of um sort of love and and caring for the individual or nurturing the relationship it it it might come out of a place of fear and um you know uh concern that hey if if my team members don't you know perform then I'm going to look bad as a supervisor therefore I I have to sort of defend you know and and I'm looking for a specific outcome and and so the coaching sort of gets I I think um uh was forwarded in in a way that it becomes about me rather than the relationship with the individual and I think that's where we really fell short in in helping all of our um management team members sort of develop their coaching skill and understand truly what what it's about and how about for you Mike as the as the CEO how do you go about um nurturing your own coaching mindset
well this is um it's new for me as well as you know so I I um I I think the the main thing for me is to be aware it's to really and I don't know if there's a trick to developing self-awareness right but it is that aspect of emotional intelligence that I I think on the on the EQ you know rating I I think that's my lowest score is is uh is self-awareness um and and social awareness was the other one so I I know I struggle with it and so I'm trying to be very intentional and present right when I'm when I'm speaking with someone um exchanging with someone rather than trying to drive my own agenda or trying to drive toward an outcome that I believe to you know that that will be the best outcome I I'm working on being more into more aware and more intentional about um about receiving you know the input and the feedback from the other person and then keying off of that and that that's uh boy that's that's a lot tougher than I you know than I've ever thought it would be and and how's it going so far I know we um we obviously worked with you guys um a few weeks ago your executive team had a phenomenal few days together and just a really really impressive team that's clearly committed to a much bigger purpose um and I know that many ways you're you're beginning this journey so how is it going so far well I think starting at at the retreat um it was that experience was profound I didn't expect to be um to be coached uh not only by you and and Brad during the retreat but also um to be coached by my team members I I fully was not expecting that and and that started you know the the it started the um uh the process if you will and since then we've debriefed as a team we have we continue our one-on-one meetings and I'm recognizing this this um mindset of you know what what am I called to do right now uh am I leading am I managing am I coaching and while I know those things fundamentally are important to pay attention to it's easy to get lost and and and you know revert back to um you know our that default success strategy right and and try to push things you know the way I've always done so I I would say that it's going it's going well I'm a little frustrated that it's not easier for me um but nonetheless it takes work and practice I think that's the key is every interaction with every team member is an opportunity to practice I think that's the mindset I have to I'm trying to adopt so so that I recognize that you know I'm not going to knock it out of the park every time it may take a long long time before I get even you know in a pretty decent batting average at it yeah it's interesting isn't it Mike if you think about in every other area of our life we know we have to go to work right if you want to become a really good at some sport um you mentioned knocking out of the park you know baseball analogy you know you can't just step up to the plate and take a 90 mile an hour curveball and hit another Park you know that's that's going to take some serious swings and some serious years of of batting practice and real game experience um but for some reason in the leadership game you know we think well how come I can't just step up and sort of hit it out of the park every time um we we talk a lot about this idea of mental Fitness that it's it takes mental exercise you have to practice over and over and over again to get really good at being a leader being a manager being a coach and each one of those is very distinct from the other and yet I can't tell you how many times people are frustrated just like you that they're not like perfect at it know like how come on that um hitting us out of the park every time um it's that uh maybe it's part of that American sort of quick fix uh mindset that we have I don't know what do you think yeah it might be it might be a combination of that it might be with um sort of a little bit of imposter syndrome uh and some other stuff sprinkled in you know um so I've been a CEO now this is my 10th year Chris hit my 10th anniversary actually and um uh when I stepped into role I remember sitting here my first day coming to the office and sitting at my desk and thinking oh man what am I gonna do what am I doing now I had all these plans going in but they just seemed to like dissipate and I thought oh boy it's real like the dog that caught the car you know that one um but it's interesting that we lose this idea of continue to practice that in hindsight that that's that was the starting point of my leadership Journey it wasn't a culmination and I think we we can fool ourselves right everything that I had done you know in previous positions to get me to the point where I was confident in interviewing and then ultimately um thankfully selected for the role um had told me I was a good leader the you know the the feedback was hey there's there's good things ahead for you you're capable you have good skills and so on you're a good leader and so it was almost this sigh of relief of like wow I'm here I I kind of got here and I did it and and not recognizing that that was the actual that was the real beginning of my leadership Journey everything I had done up to that point kind of prepared me to begin um but I I I didn't realize at the time I wish someone had told me that this is a start this is not you know the destination and and so um it took me a while to figure it out and when I quickly recognize that that first day that I I didn't really know what I was doing I had these skills but I I never had to apply them with this kind of pressure in this kind of this kind of way and so had I had a coach at that time to tell me that this is just beginning you know what what has gotten you here isn't necessarily going to get you much further if you don't build on those things rather than just continuing to do those things yeah that's a that's a profound shift I think for most of us I'm I'm smiling year to year because I had the same thought you know once I became a CEO I was like oh I made it you know I'm done I'm good and I had the same realization like Oh no I got a long ways to go yeah I've never done this CEO thing before right um and just that mindset can be a great one because then you're not worried about doing it perfectly you've got that beginner's mind you're willing to keep going and keep growing and keep keep learning and I think some some of the worst advice I I ever received were from people I love dearly you know with stuff like fake until you make it right just pretend you know what you're doing until you actually can figure out what you're doing that that's like the worst advice ever right because it prevented me from asking for help it prevented me from inviting others in to say look I've never been a CEO before um this is a unique organization with and each one of you are unique let's do this together right um I have lots of questions a lot lots of things to figure out before we can actually say let's go in this direction or that direction and everyday sins continues to be a new experience right I mean who Among Us have dealt with anything like covid before right especially in in these kinds of roles with these kinds of responsibilities so asking for help um it becomes harder over time the less we do it right so it really does take a you know change fundamentally right and how we see our roles um and how we Define um what leadership actually means yeah I'm being willing to to to just be open you know um and to ask for for help from whether it's a professional coach or one of your fellow teammates um just being willing to set the ego aside is really hard to do you know yeah uh how do you how do you go about doing that I know you said you're working on being more self-aware but how do you open yourself up to different perspectives into coaching well um like what well I think one example I could point to is during during our Retreat um you know I I noticed myself as I was being coached by you and Brad and as the team uh members were expressing how they you know how they react to my approach to things you know my wording of things my energy and so on I I noticed myself sort of boiling inside right um being like Oh you know wait a second we've worked together for how many years and I'm hearing this for the first time kind of stuff and I've always had this fear of being the emperor without any clothes and there I was right all of a sudden being you know the guy in the in the in the sea where people not comfortable telling me what they were seeing inside oh yeah so it's sad to have this realization like I've become the thing I fear the most and um and in that moment thank God I there was I I think it was the environment um of of support that I I felt it was strong enough to to help me to um I don't want to say suppress the the passion I was feeling inside but rather recognize that in this moment if I don't choose to be coachable
um I will set the tone for everyone else in that room and I will undermine this entire retreat if I don't demonstrate the the behavior that I hope to see in others and so in that moment of being coached I I was recognizing that I am also the leader and it was important to me to model the behavior that I want I want to see and and so um I'm not sure if that answers your question but it you know it it's sort of being able to um understand what's happening in real time from a Content perspective from a feeling perspective and from a role perspective like who am I called to be in this moment how do I feel about that and then what am I hearing and how do I process that it's incredibly um complex and and that by the way is that articulation is with help of Brad um to who walked me through that process it's it's not it it's not very easy and we take it for granted many many times and and so there's this Consciousness that we need to develop around the role that we're playing in the moment and how that is what the Ripple effects are right uh to the people around us and and how do you feel now Mike you know the using the emperor has no clothes analogy how you how are you feeling now a few weeks later um I'm I'm feeling much more comfortable that I that my team members are feeling a little more comfortable in expressing to me you know what they're seeing how they're feeling um but every day that's going to take work right that's going to take reinforcement you know in terms of um how I show up how I respond to them um and and so one of the one of the the um I think critical skills is asking questions and I'm and I'm really starting to appreciate what that how powerful that is and and you guys talked about this at The Retreat as well you know this this concept of layering and you know using the words the phrases that that resonate with me from the other person and sort of bringing it back to them inviting them deeper into the conversation so that I can better understand what they're trying to say it creates an openness it creates a uh you know um an environment where they're comfortable in in sharing with me and being honest yeah which which you're actually modeling for us right now Mike it just it just occurs to me you know that you said the very first beginning of the podcast here that you were a little nervous and now you seem very relaxed you're just being you're being Mike you're being open um and part of that maybe because you settled in but part of it may be the questions I've asked have been you know layering in a way I'm I've used the the emperor has no clothes as a follow-up question that allows you to go deeper into your own thinking and to um yeah and these are the I'm not pointing to it for myself I'm pointing to for the audience that this stuff works you know these open-ended questions layering asking follow-up questions it this this is the stuff that people call soft skills that are really really hard to do they're really really hard to be conscious of you know to your point and you know the retreat which by the way for the audience um Mike's referring to the beginning of our five-month journey that we do called the trans information leadership experience where we take executive teams through a very intensive as Mike said oftentimes profound leadership experience that's that's different than the traditional trust Falls and rubber chicken throwing or high ropes courses um uh experiences not that those are bad it's just not what not what we do um we want to help people have real conversations and and real insights um and so um the time always flies by and these things Mike and and you know as you as you think about why you do this you could be doing a thousand things you know you are very talented um and you could be a CEO almost anywhere why why this job why this work
you know um I I think this answer grows sort of um grows every day and and it's it's crystallizing more and more um I believe that um uh God has blessed me with with gifts with talents um to be applied to the betterment of my fellow man now I can do that anywhere right but um I choose to do it here for this organization at this time because I I I believe in the people that um that choose to do this work which is incredibly hard um I'm not why I'm actually not I don't believe I'm wired to do the the direct service work that they do um I'm better wired to support them in in that and so I want to apply those gifts and I want to apply my learning my uh my life story um for their betterment that is what fulfills me yeah I have I I have a great deal of passion around bringing experience bringing perspectives to someone or to a team and helping them see themselves as better and ultimately perform better and deliver something that they they're looking to deliver
I love it I love it so it's all about the the teammates that you get to serve all about the the team out there that's doing doing the work providing the direct care and as being of service to those who you're charged to serve yeah absolutely absolutely and and the stronger the team the more the more compelling the work becomes I believe you know it's it's sort of uh there's a mutuality in that in there right the work is gratifying in itself to be able to see that the difference we make in people's lives but then the difference we can make in each other's lives as team members right is as gratifying and kind of plays on they play off one another um I love that I love that and and what and how like how did you how did you get here Mike what's your what's your story that got you to this job oh oh I I stumbled into it um really I um I have a technical background um I I'm actually I I dropped out of college the first time because I didn't know what I was doing I I didn't I didn't know why I was there and what I was really looking for and I served in the military for eight years ended up up in uh sort of an engineering type work pursuited finally went back to school pursue a degree in that and thought that's where I was headed and working in uh Aeronautics and Aviation and um sort of stumbled into this work and took it as a temporary job until as I was pursuing my career and um about a year in I noticed something about the people who choose to do this work in in Aging Services which is what our organization does um these are people with huge Hearts huge commitments to to serving elders and um it was something I admired very much and and I I was conflicted because the company I worked for um didn't treat them very well and so what I saw was hey you know an opportunity to contribute whatever gifts and I I had to the uh the betterment of their experience and as they choose to do this hard work that I I just admire and um just appreciate so much that people are actually choosing to do this kind of work and so that was about a year into it and um it was I had stopped thinking about that other career path that I thought I was on and really fell into this and um and has been with it now for uh gosh 23 years I've been doing this kind of work yeah no 23 years and 10 is the CEO and I know I know you have a Relentless focus on improvements and getting better um what what excites you about the future for for the Whitney Center well um I I think the same things that scare me excite me there is a dramatic sort of tectonic shifts in uh the landscape of Aging Services um long-term services and supports um you know all the work that we do um Health Care Wise from a lifestyle perspective consumer preferences are changing the workforce itself um is uh is a what we're seeing these days in terms of Labor Supply and especially in the healthcare sector is unprecedented and so all of these challenges excite me because what they what they say to me is there's opportunity that we need that we can find out of all of this um sort of turbulence in in the marketplace and uh out of that comes you know I I think we can find some nuggets to really move the needle in terms of the relationship that we have with our customers the quality of their lives as we serve them through the end of their lives and hopefully in in a way that changes the um the way we as a society view aging and the way we engage our elders as opposed to what we've seen these last you know three four five decades in terms of the trajectory of how we have um sort of sidelined Elders and um and put them in a box uh where they we see them as takers from society rather than contributors and I think this is the opportunity to reset that
well um it's absolutely an honor to to be a part of that Journey with you Mike and I find it a uh no coincidence that we met um and I feel eternally grateful for that and blessed to to know you and to know your team and just excited for what the the future holds because I think you're absolutely right this work is so important it's become more and more important to me personally in the last four or five years as my parents of uh aged and and my father passed from cancer a few years ago and watching the challenges my mother's gone through and um you know it's uh it's a whole different mindset that I've come to appreciate and I'm just so so grateful to folks like you who are doing this work day in and day out to be of service seems sort of uh sort of ending on a flat note here but I always want to ask you know for a book recommendation um so I don't want to miss that question what would you recommend for our our listeners out there well um there's so many I I the one that immediately comes to mind is um start with Why by Simon sinek I I think the um the focus on purpose on you you know the why why we're here why why we choose to do what we do is so fundamental to every to to every aspect of of the work we choose to engage in um to the relationships that we choose to to cultivate and nurture um understanding who we are and what our purpose is or at least attempting to understand it I think can make all the difference in the world in terms of how effective we we can actually be in those relationships and in that work I love it yeah it's a that's a phenomenal um book and uh he's done a tremendous job of really sharing that exact idea that the purpose does matter and it's not a purpose statement it's not a vision statement it's not a mission statement it's how do you get those things to live and breathe within your your people within the culture so that you can feel it you don't have to to read some stale stagnant uh statement out there so love it love it well thanks again Mike for the time appreciate it and um uh just so glad to have you on today my pleasure Tom thank you God bless God bless [Music]