How Voices Are Heard, Passion Followed & Innovation Empowered

Welcome to our interview with Michael Bonamassa. Michael is CEO at PLADCloud. He believes that companies that “do the right thing” create a thriving environment for employees and owners alike. In this environment, anything is possible, and indeed amazing things happen.

Welcome, Michael, and thank you for contributing to the questions at the heart of Forward Thinking Workplaces.

How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

The things that I found that open that up are trying to get a workplace that removes fear and judgment from people. Of course, that’s easy to say and impossible to do, but it should be something that leaders find a way to do.

If people are really connected to what they’re passionate about, they’re less fearful.

One of the ways I found to get around fear is to make sure people are aligned with what they’re passionate about. I’ve found that if people are really connected to what they’re passionate about, they’re less fearful. If it’s their own intrinsic worth they’re working from, it makes it more likely they will engage fearlessly.

On the judgment side, I think that can only be overcome by creating a safe space for dialogue. At Capital One, we have this mechanism called ten-tens, which are weekly cadences of an ongoing dialogue between associates and their managers or other leaders in the organization. In these weekly cadences, they’re able to talk about the things they’re passionate about and their aspirations. It’s not supposed to be a status meeting or anything like that. It’s really a place where people ask, “What are you trying to do?” Are you thriving here?

If you’re having a dialogue where you’re showing interest and truly listening and engaging with them, then they’re not worried about judgment.

I found that when those meetings are done correctly, they are effective in removing judgment. When people are working on something they’re passionate about, they’re engaging fearlessly. Then if you have a dialogue where you’re showing interest and truly listening and engaging with them, they’re not worried about judgment. If there are areas where they’re seeking permission to create a different type of workplace, you have opportunities to permit them or allow them to know that their voice is being heard. These are ways I work with associates to ensure their voice is heard, passion is followed, and innovation is empowered.

What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best effort?

To really get the most out of employees, we need to create a space for opt-in engagement. We need to listen to them and listen on multiple levels. When I say opt-in engagement, I’ve been doing a lot of experiments at Capital One. We gather direct feedback during the experiment, and we gather metadata from engagement feedback.

For example, I’m experimenting with principal associates on performance management. When we look at the metadata, we start to see that a few people are engaging, but that’s probably because they want to impress someone senior to them. But the clear majority is not opting in on this, so there’s something wrong. We not only listen to their direct feedback but also listen to the indirect feedback. We observe where people who sit back don’t truly engage. What this information does is it allows me to tailor my response then. Being who I am, I tend to be blunt and basically will bring what I’m observing to the forefront and say, “Hey, I see no one’s really engaging. Is this something you don’t really care about? Is this not aligned?”

We think engagement is when people are talking to us. I think engagement is also when people opt to not engage.

Then you start to get to the real core of it. I think we often want engagement, and we think engagement is when people are talking to us. I think engagement is also when people opt not to engage. We need to figure out what that is and directly attack it to get to the root of the problem. Doing this opens up the door for true engagement because now we’re really listening to our associates.

I truly believe that every person—no matter where you come from—has the potential to be awesome. If we’re not getting that from people, it’s not the people’s fault. It’s the leadership’s fault.

What do people really lack and long for at work?

When I think of what people lack, I think they lack clarity on purpose. I see that repeatedly. We throw around words all the time like customer and value. But if you stop and ask, “What is it we do that’s really valuable?” Almost every single person answers that question at the how level.

I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why. Sinek says, our Why is in the center, then there’s What, and then there’s How. Almost everyone talks about Value at the How level. It’s so much more transformative when you get down to the Why. I know How we’re doing these things, and What we’re doing is driving our How. But Why are we doing something? What is underneath it? When you get to that, that tends to be transformative.

When you truly get to the Why, then I think what people long for is to be passionate about what it is they’re doing.

I think looking for the Why also gets you to the thing that people long for. When you truly get to the Why, I think what people long for is to be passionate about what they’re doing. That’s where I think some of the work from Neel Doshi in his book Primed to Performcomes in. Doshi talks about getting below the surface level to your real Why. When you can unlock the passion and connect someone to why they’re passionate about, you’ve really opened the space for people to do things.

For me, it’s clarity of purpose that they’re lacking and then a passionate connection to their Why is what they’re longing for.

What is the most important question management should be asking employees?

There was a good TED talk by Michael Neill called Why Aren’t We Awesomer? I think that’s a great question, “Why aren’t we awesomer?” What is it that’s keeping you from being more awesome? Awesome in terms of engagement. Awesome in following your passion. Awesome in being an attractor of people to join the company, being a leader, and thinking of it in those different terms. Then just having it being an open-ended conversation to see where it can go.

Why aren’t we awesomer? To me, that’s a great question to ask.

What is the most important question employees should be asking management?

What it comes down to for me is to ask myself, “What would my contribution look like if I couldn’t wait to get to work each day?” If I was to draw that out so every day when I wake up, I’m thinking, “I can’t wait to get to work to do this thing,” what would that contribution be?

What would my contribution look like if I couldn’t wait to get to work each day?

If we all ask ourselves that question and then use that to drive the questions we ask at work, then one of two things will happen. One, we’re either going to unlock our potential at work and do great things. Or two, we’re going to recognize that where we’re at doesn’t recognize what we’re passionate about, and it’s going to stop us from wasting time in a job that’s just a salary. We’re going to realize we’re not resonating with the organization quickly. We’ll either self-select out of the organization, or the organization will select us out.

Sometimes people think that’s a bad thing. They’ll say, “I want to make sure I’m the best at my company.” Well, you can, but I mean, you really have to be the best at what you’re passionate about. So if you’re not asking yourself that question and driving that, you’re never going to be fulfilled with the company. You might fake it for a while, but fundamentally, that’s not fulfilling. You have to ask what is it you’re passionate about and how do I make that my job every day? And if it’s not, move on to something that that is.

What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves?

Do I really care about what I’m doing? Do I care about the people I’m working with and does that translate to being present enough to listen and trust life as it’s coming to me?

You have your workplace. It’s a huge part of your life. You have your family, and you have all these other things. Ultimately you have this personal relationship with reality. To me, it’s really looking at that and saying, “Am I deeply connected into a reality I want to be connected to?” As things flow into my reality, am I constantly working against them? Or are they constantly leading me to new revelations about myself or new growth or that sort of thing? Then being present to watch that and discard the things that don’t serve you while grabbing on to the things that do.

As things flow into my reality, am I working against them or are they leading me to new revelations?

I think too many times, we tend to grab on to everything. Grabbing on to every single thing that comes to us is impossible. Many times things present themselves even though we have previously de-selected them in our lives. This is the test to see if we are truly focused on what we want.

You’ve talked about some things here today that aren’t commonly associated with large corporations. What do you think accounts for that?

I used to work for Capital One, which is a big bank. Many people in the world are not too thrilled with large banking institutions right now with what’s happened in the recent past. Yes, Capital One is a big company, and it’s too big to fail and part of our core financial system. But it’s also representative of how a company can be that and yet still be its own way. It can be part of a system that isn’t perfect, but it can be part of the future solution.

That’s one of the things that attracted me to Capital One. It had a culture where we know that we can always be better. It’s really inspiring to me to work with a company that gets a lot of the things we talked about today. Not only does it do it internally for employees, but it does it for customers as well.

Capital One has a culture where we know that we can always be better. It gets a lot of the things we talked about today. Not only does it do it internally for employees, but it does it for customers as well.

I was at a bed and breakfast last weekend in Charlottesville, VA. I was checking out when the innkeeper asked me where I worked. I said, “I work for Capital One.” She said, “Thank you.” I asked her, “What’s your story? You usually don’t hear someone tell you to thank you for working for a company like Capital One.” She started to tell me then that her husband died a few months back. She was dealing with his credit card and needed to get her own credit card. She called Capital One and explained the situation. She said, “They really helped me. They understood the situation and did all the stuff that was needed.” But that wasn’t it. The next day she got a bouquet and condolences. She said, “That really, really touched me.”

I think all the things we talked about today manifest ultimately in the things we do for others. I don’t think that thing would have happened from Capital One if it wasn’t for a person who had the presence of mind and empowerment to do things that are out of the ordinary. For me, it’s been a great opportunity to work here and to be able to explore what I’m passionate about in a stable large company.

But I think it really comes down from the very top. Rich Fairbanks, the CEO of Capital One, does a strategy session with the employee associates every year. In these meetings, he talks about caring for employees, caring for customers, and innovating. That’s why Capital One has invested money to become a tech company. Capital One is more like Google today than it is Chase or Bank of America. It really comes from the top down. It really comes from leaders who truly care. At the core of this company, the things that are truly valued and celebrated are those things that align with that cultural vision.