APU Business Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

Creating a Positive Work Culture Where People Thrive

Podcast featuring Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages

Fostering a positive work culture requires effort and collaboration among all levels of management. In this episode, Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer about the components needed for a positive work culture including focusing on employee wellness, fostering social connections, providing meaning, listening and more. Learn about ways to change an organization’s culture and the invaluable role of middle management to be in tune with employees to help them along their career path.

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host Dr. Marie Gould Harper. Today, we are going to talk about creating a positive culture via culture. Our guest today is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Dr. Mercer is a department chair at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and a MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music. Dr. Mercer, welcome to our podcast today, and thank you for joining me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Thank you, Marie, it’s an honor to be here, and I’m excited about the conversation.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. Great. Well, let’s jump straight to the topic we want to discuss today. Creating a positive culture. When you say positive culture, what do you mean? Are you referencing the research on positivity in the workplace, or more of what we are hearing about today about the correlation between workplace culture and employee job satisfaction?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Great question. And I really focus more on what positivity means essentially on the street. Research is great. Journals are great. But, honestly, most managers, most VPs don’t really go deep into the literature when they’re saying, “How can we change our business? How can we change our culture?”

They usually read different articles, honestly at Forbes, at Inc., and all those other periodicals which are great. And so really when I say creating a positive work culture, it’s about how to create an environment, a culture, in which really everybody thrives.

Now I guess the question is what does it mean to thrive? And there’s so many different ways in which we can view a culture and an environment and people and how they interact, that it could almost be overwhelming. And so it really comes down to where are you? Who are you? What’s the history? There’s so much that goes into a positive culture.

And so what I’ll really start with is I’ll look at the macro level. So really look at the large picture of what say a positive war culture is. And I’m going to start with the Forbes article by Alan Kohll, in which really what he looks at. And there’s a variety of stuff in this article, but I’m really focusing on is to emphasize on employee wellness, to grow up for the current culture, provide meaning, create goals, encourage positivity, foster social connections, listen, and empower culture champions. And so these are different ways in which Alan suggests creating a positive culture.

Now, each of these, we can go into a different podcast, but some of these emphasize employee wellness. I remember when I started working, I guess that’s a good 20 years ago now, there wasn’t that much of an emphasis on employee wellness. I think that was more the auspices of the individual person. It’s their job to make sure that they’re healthy. And I feel like companies these days are really trying to encourage employees’ wellness healthy.

And then one of the other things he really looks at is to grow off the current culture. And that’s where like, individual companies, you don’t want to completely revamp the culture overnight, because that’ll confuse people. And oftentimes there’s a lot of really good things about current culture, but you can always change it.

One of the next things he said was provide meaning. What that means is different to everybody. And we’ll get to that in a second. I think with the culture, it’s very, very important to have very specific goals. That comes down to communication.

Encourage positivity in companies. Companies are not always positive. And so at the macro level, at the company level, you do need to encourage positivity. Foster social connections, that can be up for debate, but you want your people to be happy, you want them to have social lives.

A recent study that came out is men in America have zero to very few friends. And that’s a problem. That’s actually a societal problem. And so fostering social connections, even at work is a positive. And again, what Alan Cole also recommends is, listen. That probably sounds silly, but there are many leaders out there that do forget to listen.

And the final one is empower culture champions. Now that one for me is up to debate, because anytime you have company initiatives where you “empower certain ideas” and things like that that can come off as being very PR. But if it works for the company, that’s also working for them. Now, of these different things, Marie, what stood out to you, say on the macro level of creating a work culture?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: There was another question that I was going to ask you. It was the notion of positivity in the culture, how can you interject that type of behavior, and foster that type of environment in one that has had a lot the toxicity?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a great question. And any environment that’s had a lot of toxicity really needs time to heal. And where that toxicity came from can be very complicated, or it can be simple. Sometimes the leader of an organization is a toxic personality.

Now that’s not to judge somebody 100% as “they’re bad,” but there’s certain behaviors that they might do, which can seep down. Culture amazingly does come from the top, an overall view of the culture. And then that top person hires additional people. And typically that person will hire themselves. A poor leader will hire themselves over and over so then that way “a toxic personality” will seep through the entire organization, because essentially people just want to get hired. They want promotions. And so they want to make the boss happy.

And so how, how to change that? Sometimes you might have to change the head, the president, the CEO, the person in charge. They don’t always impact the average day worker, but again, they really do guide culture. And so by bringing in someone who is positive, and who will listen, and more importantly will assume a positive intent. Now from a management perspective, what I mean by that is that they trust their workers. They go to work and they know, and they support, and they verbally tell their workers “I know you can do your job.”

Now, as management, it’s also our job to do performance management. So there’s this weird balance of please do your job, but I also have to make sure you do your job. But with computers and productivity software, when people log in, every keystroke, I mean, we know so much about everything everybody does, potentially, that we could micromanage every single minute, but micromanagement will kill a company culture.

And so that’s why you trust them. You have the data potentially there if coaching is needed, if performance management is needed, but you only use that when it’s needed. If you lead with that, you’re going to create a culture of micromanagement and people are just going to be logging in and out and then they’re going to be done.

And so, changing a toxic culture is really, really tough, but it can happen, and sometimes you do need to replace people. Now, Marie, in your own experience, were you part of a situation, you don’t have to use names or dates or anything like that, where a certain person had to be replaced? Or maybe a different question, did you see a transformation of somebody who was toxic and they changed themselves somehow?

[Podcast: How to Address Toxic Behavior and Bullying in the Workplace]

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: My formal career was HR, this question came up a lot, the HR perspective and the emotional intelligence perspective is different on how to deal with what you have just referenced. And I was going to bring up to you that I was advised on how that whole movement was started as a certificate. The focal point centered on, how do you change the environment without removing the person? Most boards will hire a person because of their performance.

The senior management team usually has different leaders in place.  These leaders that were brought in to produce and increase the bottom line. 

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense. Because when you bring someone in to really focus on the bottom line and to transform a company, they bring in their ability to change, like you said, just their track record of success. And they also bring in their Rolodex, to use a good, old-fashioned term, where they have so many connections, usually within an industry that they bring that person in so they can change things.

Now there’s a variety of different leaders that help a company succeed and go up. And there’s different leaders that help a company that’s falling, to recover. And it’s amazing how within each of those different examples, the culture that is created, like you said, at the top, it could be different, it could be a little more complicated because they bring people in to really get the job done.

And that’s where it really comes into the mid-level manager. That mid-level manager is so important. And it’s so important to really connect with employees. Again, while being a manager, you have to do performance management.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: The manager of “beyond the pandemic” are they supposed to lead or are they supposed to coach?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It depends on the organization. Each mid-level manager has to follow the rules in whatever their leaders are telling them to do, they have to go in the same direction. And so I guess my question is what do you mean by coach? And so, for the mid-level manager, it’s to inspire, it’s to trust, and to help them as needed, of course, and that’s where coaching comes in.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Allow them to understand what they have to do as an individual to promote themselves. The “industry of old” usually focused on, how can the organization help you? We still have people who believe that there are opportunities for promotions, and getting a raise is the responsibility of the organization. But there has been a movement, especially with this great resignation, is how do you take responsibility for yourself while working for an organization? Almost like the entrepreneur concept, only you are the individual and you’re taking responsibility for making things happen for you, whether it’s within that organization or at another organization.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. It reminds me of how the individual is now kind of “a brand.” And I remember when that first was coming out and people were like, I’m not a brand. I am who I am, take it or leave it. Which is fine. It reminds me a lot of my past as a musician. A lot of musicians will come to the table and they’d be like, this is me, this is what I can provide. Take it or leave it. This is the style if you like it or not. But then a good musician will have a style, but they will also market themselves. They will network themselves. They will learn, and they will adjust.

And so, to me, moving forward, really good, and I’ll say “young leaders,” it doesn’t mean that they’re actually young in age, but leaders that are going up, it’s really on them to help themselves move up. It’s to become more well known within an organization. It’s to have a super positive perspective.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: And do they have to move up? Is it possible to move out? Because again, we are focusing on the individual, and what makes sense for them. So up may not always be the answer.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. In some organizations, there are so few positions that it could be impossible to move up. You might have to wait years for a position to open. And then when a new job or a replacement job comes about, the hiring process, you never know what’s going to happen. Maybe somebody else has been groomed for the position. Maybe somebody else is “a better fit.”

And so, as the individual, you always have to have your eyes open. And although you might be loyal and love your company, your institution, your organization, you do always need to have your eyes looking about. And again, that’s not because you’re an opportunist, you’re a realist.

And to me, like you were saying with The Great Resignation, people are really looking within themselves, which is a good thing and saying, look, do I like this place? Do I want to move somewhere else? And a lot of people are saying, I want to change.

Now if they do change, the grass is not always greener on the other side. And you have to know yourself, you have to know your skills. And that’s why, to me, there is this weird spot between director and VP. It’s different in different companies, but where you can really work hard and become a director or a senior manager at various organizations and your body of work will prove it.

But then going from that level to like a VP or Associate VP, that’s a different step. And that’s where your brand and how well known you are. You have to have your body work, of course. You have to be well known. But there’s so much more that goes into going to that “next level” that it’s very complicated for people to learn and to teach. And that’s honestly where mentorship comes in, where you have somebody who can just talk to about how can you move up? What does that mean? What does that look like? Because although there’s books, every place is different.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: A lot of the notions we have had in the past are being challenged. And I’m one of those people that challenged them as well. Moving to the next level, I think level needs to be determined because most people always thought of the corporate or career ladder. That’s not how the game is played now. And I don’t think the younger generations, at least the last two that are in the workforce, that’s how they perceive their career.

They’re looking at skill set. And a number of companies are promoting that people look at skill sets, because that’s how more opportunities come about, versus the traditional. I look at myself, you’re the Dean now, what do you want to be next? I don’t even know if it would still be in academia. So to look at something and say, this is the next level. I may be mentored or coached to something that’s not even my dream or something I don’t know yet, because I haven’t explored other things that may be possibilities.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And when I said the next level, that doesn’t even mean “a promotion.”

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. That’s why I wanted it correct.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s a lateral that better fills your skillset or your interests that you’re able to do something that you are more passionate about. And then you’re actually able to create a product that is good. And people recognize that.

Back in the day, when, I always think of “the ’50s” where the employees having lunch or going out to dinner with the boss, and does that happen? I don’t even know. I mean maybe, but I can’t even imagine going to the boss’s house or having the boss come over with their spouse, and making dinner for them. That just sounds really antiquated. And to me, there’s a lot of risk factors that go up. Part of the article at Forbes with Alan Cole, which is fostering social connections. That’s great. But one of the things I would recommend is never go out and have drinks with your employees.

Now, in certain situations you can, but again, the risk of things go up. And so you always have to be careful about what happens. Everything. Creating a positive work culture is also when you are in certain social situations that everything goes well, nothing happens. There’s no misinterpretations as far as “going up or moving up the ladder.” The ladder is a weird—it doesn’t always go up. I remember-

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: It could go out.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It could go out. Before I got my first directorship, associate director, I had to take a demotion to go from one department to another. And I literally had to be demoted to get that opportunity. That opportunity better suited my skills, and where my career was going. And then after I got that new job, I was able to “move up” because finally I was in a place where I guess I can say my skills, my personality, it was a better fit for the work culture, versus previously, not so much. And I don’t know if there would’ve been anything I could have done without changing myself to move up, and people can do that. But you also be true to yourself.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. And that’s something I think in every industry and every position that I have ever had, especially in the leadership role, I have always taken the approach of talking to direct reports and saying, where do you want to be? Not where society tells you, you should be, but where do you want to be? And then we look at that gap between where they are and where they want to get to.

And even speaking, as recently as my former administrative assistant, she shared how much she loved working for the School of Business. But my concern was, where should you be? We love having you here. You do excellent work, but what is your next step?

And so we spent time on just doing different things, some things out of the box, some things that were new to her, to broaden her skillset. And I’m glad about her promotion, but even if she were to leave the company, I still would’ve been happy, because I would’ve felt as though I assisted her in making her next step.

And sometimes I wonder, because some leaders are not comfortable with that. They want that person that will do their work. But at what point do you change your mindset as the leader, as the mentor, as the counselor, to promote people where they should be in life at that given time?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I think that’s a wonderful conversation. I think for each person and each leader, it’s somewhat of a philosophical conversation, where when I look at employees or people, I try to see their potential. And just like you said, where are they going in life? I don’t expect them to be here forever, if they want to, and they want a “stable job” that is reliable, that’s great.

But if they want to go somewhere else, it’s my job to help them do whatever that is possible. If that means within the organization, great. If that is, say, their three year plan is to get a “promotion” external. That’s great. And if we can have a hardworking employee for the next three years where we help their resume, we help their skillset. They go somewhere else. And then that place says, “Ah, you are so well trained and you’re so good.” And they got it at that organization.

And I think that’s where the limitations of some leaders where they don’t want to lose talent. But when you lose talent, they go out into the world and they help create the buzz of where you are. Here at APUS, we do everything we can. And when we “lose” people to other universities, that’s a good thing, because although we have to replace them, and that’s fine, those people will go out there and they’ll prove themselves. They’ll do a great job because of everything that we’ve been doing here for so many years, all the great things we’ve been doing online, and with COVID, accelerated the move from traditional to the online option for many other schools, honestly, employees that we have in faculty and administrators, here at APUS, are going to be in demand. It’s a tough loss short-term, but it’s a good thing long term.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: It’s also to the point, because a couple things that you said that I noticed, the pandemic should have taught us there’s no such thing as stable, anything can happen. Just how quickly it changed, and how we had to go to a format that most people fought against. And that was remote working.

But also that, hmm, at least when I go to sleep at night, I feel comfortable when I know I’ve done the best that I could by people. And that is helping people to make the right decisions for their life, regardless of who it may affect. And by that, I don’t mean negative or positive, but there’s change. The pandemic has shown us that sometimes it comes before we’re ready. And if it comes before we’re ready, how are we going to respond?

And I think we owe it to our workforce that we, and I’m speaking like an HR person now, we need to prepare. And I think that’s why you see a lot of programs, more geared towards what do they need to learn? What type of skills do they need in the short-term? Just like the virus, we don’t know when something else is going to hit, and how quickly it’s going to hit, and what the impact is going to be.

So how do we best prepare people that they are in the position to do what’s required next? It’s almost like we’re talking about the employees, but I believe that for leaders, because I personally do not believe that every person that was a successful leader in the past will be as successful in the future post pandemic, because there’s a new skill required, and that will take people having the desire to go that way. I’ve talked to a number of college presidents who they’re like, “It’s time to get out of the game right now, because my course has run.”

There are so many factors, and I find it exciting, but there are so many paths to take, and it’s almost like we have a million or so people trying to make different changes, because they’ve recognized it’s their time. This is the season to make that move. And they’re venturing out on things that some of us may not have known was one of their heart’s desires. But I think, regardless of where you work, I think every leader should be an encouragement. And assist those individuals to try to get from point A to B, which is their next journey or their next path in their journey.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And we all have different journeys, and that’s where the old adage of well, it’s only business. And that’s not a good adage because business is all about people. Even when you go and buy a soda at a local convenience store, that can got there because countless humans helped get it there. And all those humans had lives, and all those humans had leaders, and all those humans had reasons to get there. We’re thinking about a product that is what I would describe as relatively people just don’t think about it. They just don’t think about how this soda can gets there.

But we have to always think about where are our people? Where do they want to go? It’s showing empathy. And that’s where the old adage of the boss and the aggressive boss, to me, really is old. And I guess it exists out there, sound really funny, but in my life I’ve had very few bosses that I would describe at as aggressive.

Now, the ones I did have, they were pretty aggressive and it created a work culture that I would describe as extremely negative. But for the most part, most bosses have been there and they’ve shown a variety of different support. But the best bosses just show empathy.

And I think a lot of what you said, how can I help you get from plan A to B, but also just in the daily work, showing empathy and understanding that the employees, these people are working as hard as they can. Sometimes they don’t do the best job. Guess what? We don’t do the best job every day either. And it’s really giving them grace to have that consistency over time so they can do whatever they need to do. And then as an institution that we’re able to create, “the product,” whatever product we’re creating. It really allows us to do the best job.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. And I think when the day is over, that what’s important in the immediate future, is what is the best job possible. But I also think about what has that learning experience been for the individual? What do they take away from it?

Probably about an hour or two earlier, I was having a conversation with a new colleague, someone that I needed information from, we were in the same role, but we were talking about all of our different experiences. His first career happened to be HR like mine. And we were just talking about different things in our experiences and how we got to where we are now and why we are here.

And it’s interesting, because we both had the same philosophy. We didn’t have a job title industry in mind. We knew what skill sets we wanted to use. And that’s why we are where we are right now, because more on skill sets versus there was a dream job that we wanted.

And I think as time goes on, you’re going to hear more stories like that. And hopefully with people more focused on what does their journey look like? We will have less stats where most of the polls, when they do the poll on a question, why did you leave a particular company, more often than not, it has always been the immediate supervisor. That’s why an employee has left.

So hopefully we can turn those types of statistics around when there’s no longer an emphasis on that supervisor-employee relationship, because it will be about the person and where they want to go. So that supervisor’s perspective, and sometimes toxic style, will not have as a big of influence on where a person goes in life in terms of their career. Do you think that would be helpful, or a positive change? When it doesn’t require the organization to do anything, it will evolve as of a result of the employee him or herself.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: 100%. One of the things when I look in the future and with management software or AI, there might not be as needed of a manager. I’m just totally looking in the future where there could be one manager who supervises a bunch of people, because the computers, the software or whatever they develop will keep track of “productivity.”

Now that could create an environment where everything is just terrible, but if you have a really good human connection, and that’s where managers, I think will never be replaced by a computer, because you need that human connection. And that’s where those type of managers are going to be really important. Because, yeah, if you have one person who is particularly toxic and they manage a bunch of people, and the other half of the management job is a computer, it sounds like the worst job in the world. Sounds like the worst environment in the world.

And so that’s where a really good fit, we talk about fit when it comes to organizations, and especially leadership, where a really good fit is really key. And that’s where those mid-level leaders are extremely important, because the employees that deal with what’s actually going on, they are the heart of an organization. They get the job done. And those managers are the ones that help foster that, help motivate them to go every day.

It’s tough because, like you were saying about The Great Resignation and some people opting out because they can’t quite go along with the times, and that’s understandable for everyone. Everyone has a different time in their life where they don’t fit the change. And it’s better to have that self-realization versus continuing to do your job and then you realizing that you’re failing.

Always try to have the reflection to know where you are, where things are going, and where your skillset is, both being used and is productive. And that’s going in the future with again, AI and management software or automation. It’ll be key that when there is that human interaction, it’s still extremely important, because if that human interaction is misaligned, it could really destroy lives.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. And I think another thing you brought up, the middle managers, there is a movement that discusses how they are not needed. Now I’ve always been a proponent of team leadership, and that ties into the other subdiscipline of diversity, is if you have a good team and there’s diversity of thought and each member complements each other, and they target markets that are, I would say, similar or particular to some of their own background, I think that’s what a lot of organizations are looking for. And they’re moving towards.

[Podcast: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force: Enriching Corporate Culture]

Macy’s comes to mind with their omnichannel, where they look at what their sales are like. And then a particular store may stock more of that particular item, because they have been able to identify that a particular product will move quicker in one store than some of the others. The leadership team, as a result will also hire more employees that are appealing to that customer base. I’ve always believed if you want to make the customer happy, make sure the employees are happy too.

So if you have employees who can relate to customers, to talk on that intimate level, to move a product that the store has already identified as being a money maker, I think you meet the needs of both groups—goes back to that question of toxicity, and looking at the type of people who are hired, especially at the top, the type of individuals that they bring in.

Some of that goes away if you go the approach of starting with the customer first and looking at what makes you successful as a company. And then, based on that customer preference, what type of employees should one hire to make that customer experience more appealing? If that makes sense. But Macy does something, and I always use them as example because I had the opportunity to witness that. And it’s a new concept, the way of looking at things, starting from the customer perspective versus the employee perspective.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a great idea. And I like that you’ve mentioned diversity and diversity of thought, because every organization needs to really listen to, just like you said, the customers. If the customers give feedback, every organization should be flexible and adjust to that. And then the employees, if they can meet the needs of the customer, and if the customer then associates and really trusts those employees or whomever they are interacting with, that’ll only make, say, customer satisfaction, or even potentially customer loyalty that much higher.

It’s complex, but it’s one of those things that every company just has to try, and they have to really focus on it. And it reminds me, and I don’t know if this example makes sense, but I grew up in El Paso, Texas. And so it’s right on the border. And so El Paso is 85% Hispanic. To me, any company that goes into El Paso needs to really look at the demographics of El Paso, because when you’re on the border and you look at Brownsville, you look at Tucson, Arizona here, where I live, there’s a different demographic than there is in the rest of the country.

And if you just have a one size fits all, it’s not that you’re not going to be successful, but you might not have brand loyalty, or that trust, or even that much interest. When you have a country like the U.S., that is so big and so diverse, everybody has to be on their best game when they’re thinking about customers, employees, everything like that, versus say decades ago, when I think most companies didn’t think at all, they just had one perspective. And that’s where it came from. When we look at today and how they’re viewing, creating a positive work environment that all plays into it.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree. And I think those companies who will survive and be successful are those who are willing to keep a pulse on what’s going outside of the company, and being very agreeable to change. And it’s easy for me to say that, it sounds like it’s so obvious and there’s literature out there to support that as well as practical examples. But it’s still a struggle for people.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It is a struggle for people. And change is one of those things where again, I’m using all these old adages, I think today, where as you grow older and say, you’re in the last quarter of your life, whatever age that might be. One of the things you have to do is, life is about change, in the first quarter of your life, to the second quarter of your life, you change. From the two middle quarters you change. The last quarter, you change.

And guess what, when you’re in your middle to last quarter, you sometimes have a hard time connecting with the younger generation. And the only reason you have a hard time connecting is because you’re not talking to them. You’re not trying to empathize with them. And if you’re a leader who is a little older, and if you have employees who are all younger, guess what? You can still connect with them, but you have to try. Versus if you stick to well, you know what? This worked when I was in my 20s and my 30s and 40s and even my 50s and I’m just going to stick to it. Well, you know what? You might have to change.

There’s a lot of things that are timeless. There’s a lot of cultural, moral, ethical values that are timeless, but there’s also certain things that you can do to again, just connect, show empathy with the diversity of your people. And by understanding that, and by understanding, what you said, what’s going on outside the company. And even if you want to, it’s not always required, and different companies do different things, connecting with different social movements.

If you have certain companies that say nothing about social movements, people can perceive something about your company. If you have a company that does something about social movements, people can perceive something different about company. It gets very complicated, but there are different ways which you can connect with employees and the wider culture.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. And I think that’s what’s going to be the exciting thing. As we have intergenerational workplaces, watching people learn from one another, regardless of their roles and their positions in certain organizations. And I think it’s the openness of being agreeable to trying things that may not have been the norm, because we’re not living in the norm. Things have changed drastically. It looks like things are going to continue to change drastically. So how do we position ourselves to be ready for whatever comes our way. And I think that is probably part of a goal, even if you want to reword it, but what’s going to make you ready for the unknown? And how will you respond?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is a great question. And I think everybody needs to seriously meditate on that. And meditate means a variety of different things. Each person has a different concept of meditate. Sometimes pray, people can pray about it. People can meditate, people can focus on it. But how do you prepare for the unexpected? And again, this is not to be a narcissist, but you need to know how you’ll react.

One of the number one things you have to do in life is know yourself. And what that means is how do you respond to people? How do you respond to stress? And how do you respond to change? Because life is change.

Every generation comes and goes, and the “older generation” will oftentimes say, well, the younger generation, they’re doing this. It’s all the tired and annoying articles about millennials. Millennials do this. Millennials do that. And guess what? 50 years ago, they’re saying the exact same thing about the boomers. You go back in the ’20s, you go back to 19th century, every single generation. You’ll have the exact same commentary about the younger generation about they don’t do X, Y, and Z. And guess what? The world still turns.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And if you want to survive as a leader, you have to change and you have to be able to talk. I’m able to talk not successfully all the time to 20 year olds, I’m able to talk to 70 year olds, I’m able to talk to every gamut, because one of the things I always start off a conversation with is I ask people questions. I ask, what are they interested in?

And it could range wildly from literally somebody who talks about sports all day to theology. And guess what? Those are all great conversations. And if you’re open to those conversations, and if you’re not judgmental, in a simple way where somebody says, Tom Brady’s the best quarterback of all time, then you fervently disagree. You know what? It’s just a conversation that doesn’t matter. It’s fun. At the end of the day, we all disagree. They’re fun conversations.

And if you put all the different types of conversations together, there’s very few things in life that are so important that you get into arguments about. And so always have perspective. And if you have perspective and you’re not judgmental, you can get along with anybody. And that comes back to showing empathy, and that’s coming back to helping to create a good company culture.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree. And I like how you basically came back to where you started off, what the key factors are. And for us to make sure that there’s a positive, creative workplace for our future employees, our future leaders, developing “playing ground” for them to be creative and to try new things, to see what will be successful and what needs a little bit more work. And I want to thank you, Dr. Mercer, for joining me today and sharing your expertise. Are there any additional things that you would like to leave us, parting thoughts?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’d just like to thank you so much for the opportunity, have a great conversation. And my only parting thought is show empathy, live humility. Humility is one of the words that I always try to use all the time, because if you can be humble and understand the person across from you, you can typically be successful at anything you do. Now it doesn’t mean that you become a millionaire, but life is not about actually becoming a millionaire. Life is about joy in helping people out.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: And having peace. And thank you for sharing that, because sometimes I think we get away from that, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and trying to figure out what are they experiencing, and what if we were in the same situation, would we react the same way? And I think that’s how we get to that point of what you call humility. So thank you for sharing that. This is Marie Gould Harper, thanking you for listening to our podcast today.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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