Expert Interview: Julie Ann Sullivan

May 19 2020 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by Julie Ann Sullivan to discuss employee engagement and organizational purpose. Julie Ann Sullivan

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Mari Ryan:  Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan. I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Julie Ann Sullivan.

Julie Ann Sullivan’s diverse background gives her a unique perspective as a business culture expert. She earned a BA in psychology and an MBA in accounting, earning the designation of CPA. Julie Ann is an international best selling author and her current book is titled Catalysts of Culture: How Visionary Leaders Activate the Employee Experience. It’s based on what she has learned from her experience and vast research, including hosting “The Businesses That Care” podcast.

Julie Ann is also a certified “Laughter Leader” and trainer. When she is not speaking, training, podcasting or coaching, she lives in Pittsburgh with her wonder dog, Joy.

Julie Ann, I’m so excited to have you here today.

Julie Ann Sullivan: Well, I’m excited, too. I don’t know when this is going to air, but the day we’re recording it is Joy’s fourth birthday.

Mari Ryan: Happy birthday to your pup.

Julie Ann Sullivan: Hopefully she won’t bark through the interview.

Mari Ryan: If we don’t hear Joy, we’ll most likely hear from Zoe. One of them will definitely let us know that we are well-loved from our pups in our lives.

Let’s explore our topic a little bit. Today we are going to talk a little bit about the concept of purpose in the context of culture in the workplace. When we think about the traditional profit-at-all-cost business model, that’s long gone. We probably … you and I both learned that in business school. We hope it’s long gone, but what we learned in business school is not the way businesses are functioning today. They’re moving much more towards the goal of having a clear purpose in the world. It’s something that’s bigger than just profit. We’re also seeing that purpose becomes an essential element in engaging employees in the workplace.

A recent Daniel Goldman article stated that millennials are five times more likely to stay when they have a strong connection to the employer’s purpose. The data also shows that purpose-driven companies are more profitable over the long haul.

So, let’s explore this link between purpose, employee engagement, and employee wellbeing. Julie Ann, I’m curious, in your experience and from what you’re seeing in your work with your clients, what role does purpose play in creating a thriving culture?

Julie Ann Sullivan: It’s interesting because it’s important for people to have a purpose bigger than the small piece or job that they’re doing. Not only to be able to show people what the greater purpose is, but to live that greater purpose in everything they do. It’s nice to have a nice mission statement and values we want to follow, but if we don’t act like that every day it’s meaningless.

Purpose is important in a company. People should know the purpose of what it is they specifically do, and they should also know what purpose it has for the big picture. Let me give you an example; there was a company that I worked with who was an airbrake company for airplanes. They had signs everywhere, and they put it in all their mailings, and they talked about it all the time, and at the bottom of their paychecks it said, We save lives.

Now, that was their big purpose. An interesting thing about that is the people who were putting a screw in on the assembly line were far more valued and felt like they were far more valued and felt that their work was more valued than just working on an assembly line, especially in those situations. If you just decide, oh yeah, all I do is put screws here every day, that’s kind of boring and doesn’t really build your own self-esteem and worth. When you’re thinking that it’s put into everything that you do that every time you do that you’re helping to save lives, that person is going to pay attention to what they’re doing a lot differently than if all they feel like is I just put a screw in here a thousand times a day.

Mari Ryan: It gives them something to feel connected to. It has meaning, something that really has meaning.

Julie Ann Sullivan: Yes, that big picture and that meaning is valuable. Saving lives is valuable. Where they may not think their particular piece is valuable, even though it is. Picking a purpose that makes everybody a part of the wheel going ‘round and ‘round, if one of these spokes is broken, then it’s broken. The wheel can’t go.

Mari Ryan: Can you talk a little bit about when you’re working with clients, how do you integrate purpose into the culture of the workplace?

Julie Ann Sullivan: It’s interesting, sometimes you can run a survey and you can ask everybody in the room – I’ve done this with leadership teams – what’s the purpose of this company? The most interesting exercise is for everyone to read their definition. They are all so different, but what it does is give a starting point to work from.  You talk to the president or the CEO of that company and get their vision of what the purpose is, then you have all the leadership write out what their purpose is, and then you see, okay, we’ve got some work to do and it’s very easy to see what areas of work you have to do.

So, I always like starting with that. You have to know what you’re dealing with. Then the people who didn’t see the same vision as the CEO or the president … what’s missing? Asking them, engaging them by saying you’re at this point over here, how can we get you to this point over here? Like I said, if you lay everything out there, then you are building a pathway to move from one place to another. You can engage people by asking them how they see that bridge being built, or having them help build that bridge.

Mari Ryan: That sounds like a really good approach to be able to help people make those connections.

Julie Ann Sullivan: Exactly, because if you don’t know where everyone’s starting point is, you’re just kind of shooting in the dark. You’re saying, this is the way we’re going to make everyone know our purpose. It’s going to work for some, but it’s not going to work for everyone, and again, like you said, asking people how to get to a goal, which again, is another new way of doing business instead of the CEOs coming up with all the answers. They’ve learned now in good business to ask people, and doesn’t that give them more purpose, too. We’re a part of where this company is going.

Mari Ryan: They feel committed to that purpose by knowing that their contributions matter.

Julie Ann Sullivan: Yes, absolutely.

Mari Ryan: That’s great. In the model that we use with our clients for wellbeing, which is adapted from research from the Gallup organization, purpose is one of the key elements of that, and I believe it’s an important part of wellbeing so that we feel that connection to something that is bigger than ourselves. I’m curious, from your perspective, how do you see the link between purpose and wellbeing?

Julie Ann Sullivan: I’ve read some research on this and the research has said that people who have purpose live longer lives. So, they’re not just kind of going through life, kind of running through bumper guards, going this way, going this way. They have a purpose. That’s in any part of your life, especially at work. One of the ideas I’ve done with companies is – and I’ve seen it work – when they have a long-term project, they celebrate along the way. They don’t wait until it’s finished.

So that adds purpose into what they are doing, and they don’t have to wait a long time to celebrate that piece of the purpose of the project that they are doing. Like I said, the biggest question I ask people is write down what the purpose of the work you do is, and then what is the purpose of the work you do, and the difference should be great. One should be small, one should be larger.

When people do that … first of all, when you think about wellbeing, and I’ve learned this from being a certified laughter leader, you have a lot less stress. Stress is just a killer. Stress is good in an immediate situation, like when you almost get run over by a car; you step off the sidewalk and a car comes by. That gives you stress, but it also saves your life. But elongated stress, let’s go back to the person who is putting screws into an assembly every day, a thousand times a day. If they don’t see the bigger picture, that’s a very stressful, boring, unworthy job. It becomes repetition. It becomes old school. It becomes something they don’t pay attention to. When you shift and give people purpose, they feel better about themselves. When people feel better about themselves, they have better resilience to stress. When they have better resilience to stress, then they have less stress in their lives. There is an abundance of research that shows that will help you with your weight, that will help you with your sleep – and sleep, I could go on about sleep forever because that’s connected to everything, too. Stress affects every organ in your body. It affects how sharp your mind works.

Connection; there’s a million connections with wellbeing, psychologically and physically as well. I think a lot of people forget about that. That cortisol that comes out when you’re stressed, when it sits in your body for long periods of time … I’m going to say it again. It affects your kidneys, your liver, your heart, your lungs. Who wants to do that?

I try to make people understand that by building a better culture, they are building better humans. That human in your workplace then goes out and deals with their partners, their spouses, their kids, their parents, their siblings, their friends, their volunteer organizations, the people at the grocery store, everyone they come in contact with. When you are creating a better human life for someone, you have a lot of influence way beyond that one person.

Mari Ryan: You’re right, the cascading effect that an organization can have when they look after and care for their people is wide-ranging. You’re right. It’s absolutely on target. Excellent.

Julie Ann Sullivan: I always think if we would all be ten percent kinder tomorrow, this would be a really different world.

Mari Ryan: Oh, what we can wish for, right?

Julie Ann Sullivan: You do it one person at a time.

Mari Ryan: You’re right, and I know you do that with your clients and with your audiences and everyone that you touch. Earlier in our conversation we talked a little bit about how we’ve come from this profit-model and now are working more towards this purpose-model. What about profit? Isn’t profit a purpose?

Julie Ann Sullivan: It’s got to be part of the plan. You’ve got to make money. Sometimes when I encounter people with horrible customer service I think to myself, if you’re not good to your customers, you’re not going to have any customers and then everyone is going to be out of a job. But you have to take a people from short-term thinking to long-term thinking, which is harder than you might think because of the world that we live in and everything is really quick. But yeah, profit is important.

The interesting piece of that is when I work with companies and they want to know about the ROI, I know that their ROI is going to show up in how much better they can recruit people, how much better their retention rates are going to be, and let’s face it, we already know that when people leave a company, it costs you 150% of their salary to replace them, if not more.

We know that over $500 billion is being wasted in lack of productivity every year in companies. Each company holds a piece of that. ROI, well, we just saved a lot of money right there, helping people be more productive and then if you happen to be anywhere, well anywhere there can be errors, but certainly in the manufacturing space, safety is a huge concern. When somebody isn’t paying attention to what they’re doing and they get hurt on the job, that affects everyone on their team, could affect the whole company. It’s huge.

Profit is important; purpose automatically flows out and creates more profit on many different levels. It will in sales, but it also will in these other areas that sometimes companies have to be educated. They only look at the revenue. Profit is a net figure, it’s not revenue.

Mari Ryan: I like to think about it as profit is an outcome. When you have a well-defined purpose and a strong culture where you care for your people, profit will follow.

Julie Ann Sullivan: It does.

Mari Ryan: Profit is the outcome.

Julie Ann Sullivan: It’s been shown a gazillion times. I’ll give you an example. I interviewed the CEO from Dwyer Group, which is now Neighborly, and they had … when I talked to her, they had a list of values and every time they had a meeting with two or more people, they would either recite their values or they would talk about one of them for one minute before the meeting. The two years where they were doing that consistently, everywhere, all the way down to the franchisees, they doubled their revenue.

There were probably other factors in there, but they do put a lot of that in that practice that they incorporated into their everyday life. That’s what some people do with purpose and anything they change in their culture. It’s an idea, it has to be a practice.

Mari Ryan: I love that idea and I love the tangible aspect of that. It’s something an employer can specifically do. I’m curious if you have any other specific actionable items that employers can do to integrate purpose into the culture of their organization?

Julie Ann Sullivan: Again, like I said about this one airline brake company, they just had that saying, that small quote, which made what they did really big, and they had it everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere you looked, everything you took part in, anything that you got in your hand that was printed on the screen and in the signatures, it was everywhere. It was a part of the fabric of the company.

The other is in communication. I highly recommend a CEO, president, C-suite leaders coming up with what their purpose is and then going out to their workforce and finding out what they think the purpose is. I always recommend having an outside facilitator helping with that because it’s like if anybody out there has kids, you can tell your kids something 50 times, and then one day they come home and say Bobby’s mother just told them this, and it was brilliant, like you never said it. It’s just human nature.

Mari Ryan: It is.

Julie Ann Sullivan: I think that is a huge tangible idea. I was just talking to somebody the other day, yesterday, about a lot of changes they are going through in their company and some things were sold off, and some things were purchased, and now they have a new “soup” so to speak, and I have to figure out what to do with it. They have several cultures coming together and whatever. So, I said the most important thing in change, because I’ve done a lot of work in change management, and the biggest thing with change is that you have to have a plan first, and then you have to cut it down into little, itty-bitty pieces and take baby steps to get to the end result, knowing that by the time you get to the end result it could look very differently.

A CEO can say, this is the purpose of our company, and then realize that he or she is missing the mark somehow. If most of your workforce comes back and says we see the purpose is this, maybe the two meld together. Maybe they have to let go of what they have and see that their company has turned the corner. Maybe that purpose is “old school” and now we’re into “new school.” Having that open-mindedness, being open to new ideas, is really important.

Mari Ryan: I totally agree with you with the approach of having the conversations and the input from the employees, and making their voice heard, and their understanding of what it’s like from them doing their job day in and day out, and translating that purpose into their everyday job. So, totally agree with that approach. That’s great.

Julie Ann Sullivan: Yeah, because people in C-suites are not doing the jobs of the other people and they don’t know what works and what doesn’t work. It’s like somebody buying – and this is from my accounting days – somebody buying a software, and I’ve seen this in companies a million times, people who don’t use the software buy the new software for the company and never ask for anybody’s input and then they figure it’s going to work. What?

Mari Ryan: It doesn’t work. Right. Exactly. Well, I appreciate those good suggestions on specifically the kinds of approaches that employers can take. Julie Ann, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you are doing, where can they get in touch with you?

Julie Ann Sullivan: They can look for me at without the “e” on the “ann” and I think you’re putting it on the screen right now so they can see that. I’m on LinkedIn, I’m everywhere. I have a podcast, Businesses That That podcast, every week has something, some idea, some strategic idea that you can use in your business and most of them are … I’ve interviewed over 60 C-suite leaders who are utilizing these ideas to create and sustain great cultures. So, it’s not just an idea, it’s real and it works. You can adapt it for your own company. Maybe some of them you’ll listen to and say, I can’t do that. Maybe you can, or maybe you can adapt it to fit your size. I have interviewed companies from all industries, all sizes, and all longevities. They all have tremendous ideas. I would suggest listen to Businesses That Care podcast, along with this one. I would suggest going to my website or going to LinkedIn, and contacting me with any questions. I’m happy to have a conversation with anyone that wants to find out what that first step is, or what their next step is. There’s a lot of companies out there that have great cultures, but that’s kind of like saying it’s a living document. It’s a living philosophy. At some point it might run out of ideas and want some new ones.

Mari Ryan: We certainly appreciate you sharing your wisdom with us today. We’ll definitely check out – hopefully our audience will definitely check out your podcast, as well as visit you on your website or be in touch with you. Julie Ann, I’m delighted to have spent this time with you today. Thanks so much for being here.

Julie Ann Sullivan: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Mari. Thank you so much.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, wellness, employee experience, employee wellness, worksite well-being, employee engagement, employee well-being, organizational culture

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.