As founder and principal consultant of IdeAgency, Dr. Michael Brenner helps busy supervisors and managers lead more productive teams by strengthening communication, problem solving and conflict resolution skills. His doctorate in Adult Learning and Leadership from Columbia University, masters degree in Adult and Organizational Development from Temple University and background in arts-based learning help his clients get better results quicker.
In addition to serving as a facilitator, coach, and speaker, Michael is the founder and president of Culturology, a consulting firm specializing in workplace engagement. Michael also teaches organizational behavior and interpersonal relations at Immaculata University and regularly performs with the Philadelphia-based funk band The 9’s.
IdeAgency is a management consulting firm specializing in building strong leaders, teams, and cultures. Its clients include industry leaders in retail, manufacturing, financial services, healthcare, and academia.
MO: Where does your love of consulting, inspiring and motivating others come from?
Dr. Brenner: I think it stems from a desire to make a meaningful contribution to the betterment of society. Back in the 90’s when I was an advertising copywriter, I couldn’t help feeling that my work wasn’t accomplishing that. Nothing against advertising but it just wasn’t right for me. For me, doing satisfying work meant helping others in some way. I knew I wasn’t going to be a medical doctor or a fireman or a policeman. But what I could do was help people learn how to be more fulfilled at work. We spend so much time at work, often more time than with our own families. Why not look for ways to make that time more enjoyable, productive, and meaningful? Work should be more than simply earning a paycheck. It should provide opportunities to grow, learn, expand our minds, forge lasting relationships, explore possibilities, take risks – in short, it should provide an arena in which we can unleash our full potential as human beings. I believe people are capable of great things if they have the right tools and resources. Too often, they don’t.
MO: You seem to focus a great deal on the concepts of inspiration, innovation and creativity. Do you ever find corporate clients resistant or reluctant to engage in areas that seem more like play than work?
Dr. Brenner: Sure. But once I open their minds to my somewhat unorthodox training methods, that resistance doesn’t last. I did my doctoral dissertation on arts-based learning, which is utilizing the performing arts to foster leadership development in organizations. It sounds strange but actually the arts are an extremely powerful means of tapping our imaginations and helping us see alternate possibilities. When I introduce an artistic exercise in a workshop, for example, it’s typically met with some degree of skepticism. I’m fine with that because I know that within a few minutes – once people’s initial resistance has diminished – they are going to embrace the exercise. Their inhibitions fall away and they give themselves over to the creative process of self-expression and play. I’ve seen it happen over and over.
Now, if I failed to make the connection between the exercise and its relevance to work, they’d have every right to say it was a waste of time. So I am very careful to make that connection explicit. I’m reading a book on play right now in which the author states that play “is a force that allows us to both discover our most essential selves and enlarge our world.” I think that’s true. And I think just about everyone else believes it’s true. It’s just that we’ve been conditioned to think that anything that is fun or enjoyable or pleasurable is frivolous and therefore has no place in a “serious” organization. It’s a total misconception. I think the perception is slowly changing but we’re not there yet.
MO: With increasing amounts of people working from home can you provide some advice for staying focused in the home office?
Dr. Brenner: I have a few. Staying focused can indeed be very challenging because it is so easy to get distracted. I stay focused by setting a timer and establishing a specific amount of time to accomplish a task. So, I might set the timer for one hour and answer as many emails as I can in that time. Or I might work on marketing my business for an hour. Whatever the task, it’s important to work for the full hour without a break. Now, here’s the kicker. I reward myself after the hour with a BRIEF break (maybe 5-10 minutes). During my break, I take a mental and physical rest from the computer. I may watch TV, read an article, surf the Net, make a snack, get the mail, play with the cat, etc. The point is to accomplish a period of uninterrupted work and then follow it with a brief reward in the form of a break. I can work hard for an hour or so if I know a break is coming. It’s also important to set a “hard stop” after which you will not do any work. For me, that time is 9pm. After 9pm, no work is done. Of course, if I am on deadline or a client calls at 9:30, I make exceptions. But for folks working from home, it’s critical to set a limit and try to stick to it. In addition, I always have music playing while I work, usually classical (not bombastic classical but gentle classical). I find the music is soothing and actually helps me think better but readers should choose whatever works best for them. Keep a glass of water handy so you don’t have to interrupt your work by repeatedly going to the fridge. It takes the brain a long time to get back in gear once it’s been interrupted. Also, it can be quite tempting to work in pajamas (I am guilty of this) but I find that if I at least put on jeans and a nice shirt, I get more done. Pajamas equal relaxation and informality – not the right mindset for getting things accomplished. Occasionally force yourself to work where there are people, e.g. coffee houses. Just being around other live human beings can make you more productive. And finally, fight the temptation to clean, cook, or do other household chores during work hours. Pretend you’re in an office and that the same rules apply.
MO: Can you give managers a few tips to promote team chemistry and productivity within the work place?
Dr. Brenner: Fostering team chemistry and productivity within the workplace doesn’t lend itself easily to quick tips. That’s because people are complicated, relationships are complicated, and consequently the workplace is incredibly complicated. Short of possessing an advanced degree in human psychology, however, there are a few suggestions that come to mind. The first is something I came across in Stephen Covey’s book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Habit #5 is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I think that’s great advice but it’s tough for most of us to do consistently. It requires us to suspend judgment and refrain from responding long enough to hear the other person out. It’s a skill that needs to be practiced but one that can really strengthen your credibility and rapport with your people.
Another suggestion is to understand the leadership and communication styles of the individuals on the team. This can be done through any number of profiles and assessments that are available on the market. They’re not free, of course, but what they reveal about team members’ tendencies and personalities can be extremely eye-opening. Let’s say Joe and Jane aren’t getting along at work. Jane may believe Joe is “difficult and stubborn” while Joe may believe Jane is “lazy and sloppy.” Through the use of a scientifically valid and reliable assessment, however, Joe and Jane learn that they have vastly different leadership styles. Suddenly the light bulb comes on! Now the discussion can be elevated above nasty labels to a far more constructive place. And both employees can learn to flex their styles in order to be more effective with each other. Finally, recognize that motivation differs from person to person. It’s a mistake to think that everyone is motivated equally by money. Sure, money is important but it is only one of many, many factors. Make sure the people on your team are being motivated by the right things. If you don’t know what they are, ask. This is something that separates great managers from average ones.
MO: Why do you think that it’s important for employees to have a holistic perspective of the organization that they work for?
Dr. Brenner: A good analogy is a car that has been taken apart. On the floor of the garage, all the pieces are arranged – spark plugs, valves, pistons, rods, wires, the battery, the steering wheel, the radiator, the windshield wipers, etc. Would you have a better understanding of how a car functions by looking at all that stuff? Of course not. What makes a car a car is not a random collection of parts; it’s how those parts function together to produce motion. The same holds true for an organization. If I work in HR and I lack an understanding of how the HR department impacts, influences and affects the sales, marketing, IT, legal, and PR departments, I really have a very limited perspective from which to work. To be most effective, I need to understand how decisions made in my department act on the entire system. In one of my courses, for example, I ask participants to consider all of their department’s “touch points.” Internal customers, external customers, vendors, the public – every “touch point” they can think of. It’s a great exercise because it gets them thinking holistically. They realize how truly expansive their “universe” is and it changes their perspective. You simply don’t appreciate that perspective when you work with the same people on the same tasks every day.
That’s why I’m a big advocate for cross training, which entails shifting an employee from one task to another with similar skill requirements. Cross training helps employees experience different aspects of the organization so that when they return to their jobs, they have a better understanding of how their work contributes to the whole. Traditional organizational structures tend to limit holistic thinking. We need to change that.
MO: You’re currently writing a book on the parallels between artists and leaders. Why have you focused on the areas of art and leadership, subjects that are often viewed as being on the different ends of the spectrum? How are you able to draw parallels and how can they complement each other?
Dr. Brenner: As a professional musician and management consultant, I’ve long been interested in the parallels between the two disciplines. One of the reasons for my interest is that, to your point, both subjects are often viewed as different ends of the spectrum. I wanted to explore whether that was really true, which is why I chose arts-based learning as the subject for my dissertation. It turns out that the arts and leadership have much in common, and that artists and leaders have much to learn from each other. The discussion really starts with the idea that, in today’s business world, creativity and innovation are among the most desired competencies leaders want from their people. There is all kinds of research to support that. But the problem is that increasing creativity and innovation in organizations requires a different set of skills than those typically prioritized in business.
That’s where art comes in. Art, as you might expect, taps into the very skills that unleash creativity and innovation. For example, art reframes our assumptions about the way things “ought” to be. Think about how Picasso reframed what a woman “ought” to look like. It was revolutionary. He totally changed the way people look at things. Art also simplifies complex ideas. Take the haiku, for example. Due to their brevity, haikus can get at the heart of something in very few words. That ability to simplify complexity is critical in business. Art encourages exploration, freedom, and self-expression, all necessary for creativity to flourish. These are only a few examples. The point is that art has much to teach us about leadership in the 21st century, about creativity, possibility, collaboration, curiosity, risk-taking, and managing chaos. As Picasso himself once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Look at today’s most successful and respected companies, the ones that are pushing the boundaries. I guarantee you their leaders have more in common with artists than you might think.
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