Michael is a CEO & Relationship Builder
Michael Ly talks about his passion for developing personal and professional relationships with people and how it benefits his career as the CEO of Reconciled! He also talks about the work environment he strives for at his company and how his background helped fuel his passion for developing relationships!
• Discovering his passion for building relationships
• Growing up in a refugee family
• How work=church for many people
• The environment he wants to create at Reconciled
• How he encourages building relationships at Reconciled
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Welcome to Episode 307 of What’s Your “And”? This is John Garrett. Each Wednesday, I interview a professional who, just like me, is known for a hobby or a passion or an interest outside of work. To put it in another way, it’s encouraging people to find their “And,” the things above and beyond their technical skills, the things that actually differentiate them when they’re at work.
I’m so excited to let everyone know that my book is being published very soon. It’s available for pre order right now with some really cool added bonuses as well as a buy one, give one offer. Check out whatsyourand.com for all the details and hook your friend up with a cool book. I can’t say how much it means that everyone’s listening to the show and changing the cultures where they work because of it, and this book will really helped to spread that message and please don’t forget to hit subscribe on the podcast so you don’t miss any of the future episodes. I love sharing such interesting stories each and every week.
This week is no different with my guest, Michael Lee. He’s the CEO of Reconciled in Burlington, Vermont. Now, he’s with me here today. Michael, thanks so much for taking time to be with me on What’s Your “And”?
Michael: Thank you, John. Thank you for letting me be here.
John: Oh, of course, dude. Of course. I’m excited that you picked up. It’s always good. It’s always good. I start out with my rapid fire questions, get to know Michael on a new level here. See if we go on with the rest of the episode. We’ll see. I don’t know. It might be the shortest one in the history of the show.
Michael: Like my height.
John: Oh, see, that was a dirty joke that I should not have brought that up. Since I am 6’3”, that’s just rude. Here we go. How about a favorite color.
John: Blue, yeah, mine too. All right. One for one. How about a least favorite color?
Michael: Oh, pink.
John: Okay, all right, two for two. Now, I’m going to stop keeping score. You’re good. How about favorite toppings on a pizza? Load it up.
Michael: Oh, all-meat pizza.
John: Nice. Good answer. Yes. How about a favorite actor or actress?
Michael: Brad Pitt.
John: I like Brad Pitt. Yeah, he’s in a lot of good stuff.
Michael: Yeah, he’s a good guy.
John: Yeah, he adopts like all the kids.
Michael: I’ve tied to model my own looks.
John: You’re getting there. Yeah. It’s going to be close where he’s going to start having to model after you. That’s what’s going to happen. Teeter-totter’s going to tip. How about pens or pencils?
John: Pens, no mistakes. I like that. How about when it comes to puzzles. Sudoku or crossword?
John: Crossword. Okay. All right. How about Star Wars or Star Trek?
Michael: Star Trek.
John: Star Trek, okay. On your computer, PC or a Mac?
John: PC. Yeah, me too. On your mouse, right-click or left-click?
John: Right. Yes. Open up all the cool stuff. That’s where the options are. There you go. How about cats or dogs?
John: Neither. Okay. All right. Humans it is.
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
John: You’re up there in the northeast. How about planes, trains, or automobiles.
Michael: Oh, planes.
John: Planes. Yeah, get there, right? As an accountant, balance sheet or income statement?
Michael: Balance sheet.
John: Balance Sheet. Okay, all right. That’s incredible. That’s really hilarious to you and me right now, but trust me, it’s super funny, everybody. All right. Jeans or khakis?
John: Jeans. There you go. Got four more. Favorite number?
John: Seven? Okay. I mean, it’s mine. But do you have a reason?
Michael: No. No reason at all.
John: I could hear in your voice. I was like, you sounded like you were guessing. You were like, that’s a pretty popular answer. How about when it comes to books? Mine’s coming out. Do you prefer Kindle or real books?
John: Kindle. Okay. Early bird or night owl?
Michael: Night owl.
John: Night owl. There you go. You crazy. All right, last one. Favorite thing you own or the favorite thing you have?
Michael: My iPhone.
John: Your iPhone. That is a very honest answer right there. That was the opposite of seven as your favorite number. I actually believe the iPhone is your favorite thing. I don’t believe you on the number, but that’s alright. We’re good. We’re good. Well, this is going to be so much fun, Michael. So yeah, let’s talk about relationship building. Is this something that you were always into from when you were young? Is it something that’s been more recent?
Michael: I don’t remember it being something as a part of my life when I was young, but when I talked to my mother, and I talked to other family members, they do say that I was out of all the cousins that were around, I was the most outgoing cousin, sibling, person, little kid, and they always find it puzzling, because I was also the shortest of all of my cousins. So I was the most outgoing, the natural leader, the most outspoken. So yeah, so I think it just kind of came to an end. It probably stems from kind of my history of growing up in my family heritage of just needing to build relationships to kind of feel part of the community or part of the tribe as I was trying to find my tribe.
John: That’s huge. I mean, that’s really powerful. Your brief history, like if you can give that story a —
Michael: I was born here. I was born a month after my mother came, my parents came from Cambodia. My parents survived for years of The Killing Fields during 1975 to ’79, and then they spent about a year and a half, two years in refugee camps between Cambodia and in the Philippines, and then they ended up in Arizona, where I grew up. I was born a month after they landed.
Michael: Basically, if not for that plane flight and my mother lying to get on the plane, basically telling them that she was in her first trimester, I probably would have been born in Cambodia or Philippines or some other country. I was born here. When you grow up in a home of refugee parents at such a young age, when you’re born right after you get here, your identity starts as a refugee. It starts as an immigrant and not as an American, not as an insider, but as an outsider.
It was basically an immigrant life growing up, and then when I would go to school or go to church or go to the store, it was, oh, I guess we’re American, also but the primary identity was this kind of history of my parents surviving The Killing Fields and coming over and trying to make it in America, which was not their home. It was their new home, but wasn’t their home, home. I think I absorbed that. Every refugee immigrant child probably has the same story of just absorbing that even if they were born here.
John: Yeah, I mean, that’s difficult. I mean, I’ve lived in another country before. I mean, you can make it but it’s not comfortable. I mean, your guard is always up, just because whether it’s the language or the way things are, the customs, all that stuff is just different. At home, you’re getting that, but then yeah, when you go to school, you’re just another kid. It’s just like, yeah, you’re just Michael, like whatever. Yeah, that’s interesting.
Michael: A lot of people don’t know this about me. Like growing up, me and my brother, my cousins, we were the first Asian kids in our school, and the only other kind of non-white ethnicity around were Mexican kids because we’re in Arizona, so funny story I tell people is also my given name and my name growing up was my Chinese name. So I would carry this Chinese — everyone called me Chun growing up. And because it was assumed we didn’t know English because we weren’t white, I was put in an English as a Second Language class for the first three years of elementary school.
John: Oh, my goodness.
Michael: With all Mexican kids. I learned Spanish first.
John: I was going to say, right.
Michael: It was very funny. I remember writing in Spanish. I’m like, am I not supposed to be learning English in this class? And speaking perfectly fluent English. But you know, it’s just like, what do we do with this kid? We don’t know. Does he know English? Well, maybe he doesn’t. Let’s put them into this class.
John: That’s amazing. We got this Asian kid who speaks Spanish better than English.
Michael: What’s going on?
John: This is a sitcom. We’re writing a sitcom right now, Michael. We’re going to make it huge. No, but that’s really powerful to hear though, and how much creating relationships matter. It sounds like a lot of that was through your church as well, which I think you still carry on now.
Michael: Definitely. It’s been a part of my life. My parents, when they came over, they were sponsored or heavily supported by a community Christian Church in Arizona and so were about 200 other Cambodians that came over to Arizona. My uncle was the first person to become a Christian. So he became the pastor of that group. He’s still pastor of that church until today.
I always fill this debt, regardless of whether — I tell people. Regardless of whether I even have my own faith, which I eventually did as I began to understand faith and Christianity, I grabbed my own faith. I think I just feel this indebtedness to the church because of their role in helping my family and us culture to American society and for helping me not have an accent, things like that, whatever it is.
I feel this indebtedness. I’ve always been involved ever since even after leaving Arizona, meeting my wife in Arizona, getting married, we left and I’ve always been involved in helping volunteer at churches, starting churches, pastoring churches. Right now, I volunteer as a pastor here, and one of the key leaders at our church here, I give the sermon once a month at the church. It’s great. We host a small group at our house. I’m just always finding myself welcoming people, whether it’s at my company or at church or in my community to our home and being that relationship builder everywhere I go.
John: Now, that’s awesome to hear, man. That’s really awesome. Do you feel like that gives you a skill that translates to work? I mean, it sounds like you’re doing it there at work anyway. It seems like something that would translate over.
Michael: Yeah, no, definitely. You know, I often find that the “church” for most Americans, most people, in our culture is work. That’s our church. If you think about it, we spend the most time there. It has one of the most influences in our beliefs and values. We choose where we want to work now and a lot of us get to because we want to follow a certain specific leader or vision or mission. We want to feel meaning and impact in the world.
I’ve heard several CEOs of Big Fortune 500 companies say they’re the pastor of 10,000 employees, right? It’s just very interesting to think about it. Today, not only are you seeing companies and CEOs having to care for people’s just financial and compensation and well-being, but they’re thinking about well, what is their mental well-being? What is their spiritual well-being? What’s their emotional well-being? How are they doing at home?
Now, COVID’s hit, what’s their health and well-being? Stuff that I think a lot of companies used to never think about or were never intentional about. Now, they’re all intentional about and if you’re not, you’re actually losing like the low bars, you have to actually care about those things now.
Spiritual well-being, you know, I tell my employees all the time, I do care about what’s meaningful to them whether or not they believe in something or not, or if they’re passionate about something or not, and I want to hear about that. I want to hear about it even if it’s a completely different faith or non-faith than me, I want to hear about it because it forms who they are inside. And then they bring it to work. That’s really important.
John: Yeah, I mean, as you alluded to, it’s not necessarily the norm or it certainly wasn’t, and maybe now it is, but it’s probably in an awkward adolescent phase. We’re trying. It’s like, you can do better, right? But it’s such a novel concept to actually care about your people. I mean really, but I guess what is it that made you want to do that? Have you been doing that from the beginning?
Michael: Yeah, with Reconciled, definitely. I wanted to build a place that I was excited to go to work at. I think what was unique about why did I put this personal take on it is everywhere I worked post-college and during college in accounting, I felt like everywhere you went, you had two lives you were living. You were living your life at work, and then the life outside of work. You carried these two identities around of the professional Michael and the non-professional Michael, and the internet wasn’t around until the ‘90s, so no one knew about the non-professional Michael at work, because they couldn’t look you up, unless they were in your circles, they really didn’t know about you unless they asked.
Then oftentimes, employers never cultivated an environment where they wanted you to talk about those things at work, but I was always curious about that like, wow, that’s really crazy. That would be very hard to carry on that number of identities. I already knew growing up, it was already hard because I would have an identity at home. I would have identity at school, identity at work. I’m like, these identities aren’t the same and I need them to be the same to be sane in my life.
John: Yeah, that’s exhausting.
Michael: Yeah, it is. It is exhausting. Now, with the internet, everyone’s lives are exposed and transparent. You can’t present a different person at work than outside of work anymore, unless you literally are going to disconnect from the internet for your whole life.
John: Right. Exactly. Yeah, like you said, with the Coronavirus, working from home we’ve Zoomed in each other’s homes now.
Michael: Exactly, yeah.
John: You can’t act like I don’t know what’s hanging on your wall or what pictures you have or what you look like when you haven’t showered in the morning.
Michael: Right, or what sports team you’re a fan of because it’s literally hanging on your wall everywhere. You never told me you were a Vikings fan.
John: Or Yankees. Now we’re going to have to talk. I don’t know if you can actually be friends anymore. That’s the one thing. But it’s so true because I mean then, I mean and I love how you said, excited to go to work at and doing the job is only a fraction of the excitement. I think that for too long, we told ourselves or professionalism has told us that no, no, it’s got to be the work that you’re jacked up about. It’s like, that’s only a fraction of it really.
Michael: Right. It’s only a fraction. It’s got to be what is the company about? The place or organization you’re helping build, you’re spending the majority of your week, your time, often more than with your family.
John: Yeah, totally. Waking hours for sure.
Michael: Exactly. If you’re going to give this time, don’t you want to know the people that are working next to you? Don’t you want to feel like you got their back and they got yours? Don’t you want to feel like you know who they really are, and that it’s just not a hidden thing? It shouldn’t be surprising. Don’t you want to know what the leaders are thinking and where you’re going?
I would assume you’d want the people you work with, you spend this much time with to be your closest friends in the world. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the norm in the past. I don’t think it was. I wanted to create a place where it became the norm, where the people that I work with are amazing people and that I would want to spend time with them and have them be a part of my life.
John: Yeah, well, actually, so Tom Rath, he wrote all the books, the StrengthsFinder series, but he also wrote my favorite one is Vital Friends. I remember he did a study and it was like, I forget, 96% I think, of people who have three close friends at work, are more satisfied with their lives.
John: You’re not just satisfied with your job. This goes outside your job to your life. It’s like, wow, you know, how do you get three close friends by being the person that memorized all the technical skills? No one’s ever friends with that person.
John: You’re doing the macro wrong in Excel. How about you shut your pie hole and just be a normal person? You’re creating that environment, which is great, because, it’s one of those boomerangs, like people are more satisfied with their lives and they’re going to be better with their job and it just keeps going up in a good way. That’s cool, man. You did it on accident. Good for you.
Michael: It’s been great. Once you build it — in the beginning, obviously, it’s just you. It was just me. But you echo and you make it very transparent. This is what you’re trying to build. And it’s funny, people who want that are attracted to it. People who want it flock to it. They hear and articulated that you’re trying to build something. If you’re just starting out, you’ve just got to start telling people, this is what I want to build. Do you want to join me? Are you interested? You want to take a risk? You’re going to find people out there that want to, that want to do that? And they’re great.
John: Yeah. I think that translates whether you’re building your own business like you did with Reconciled or it’s building a department. Look, I’m the new head of this department. This is my vision. This is what I’m building here. Are you in or you’re already out? Anyone out is crazy. I mean, like, oh, you mean be around people that are awesome and care about me? Nah.
Michael: I don’t want that.
John: That’s terrible. Why is there smiling and laughing happening? That’s not for work. Yeah, that’s crazy. But that’s super cool to hear, and especially with that mindset, because a lot of people that are in leadership positions you would think are, you know, get the work done, billable hour, whatever it is, like we got more work to do. It’s cool to hear where sometimes, it’s okay to take your foot off the pedal just for a little bit to get to know each other.
Michael: Yeah, yeah. I think relationship building probably starts with this idea of everyone you meet has value, right? Inherent value as a people person, and then every person you meet, you have something you can learn from them, even if it’s a little baby all the way to the oldest person you’ll ever meet and especially if you can meet and engage people who are completely opposite or different from you.
That’s probably where the biggest win for your life goes. I grew up doing that. I grew up always interacting with people that were not like me. I felt like the odd man out everywhere I went. Now, I’ve got to spend my time engaging and reaching out to people who I know feel like the odd person out or maybe don’t feel like anyone else is engaging with them. I want to engage them because I have something to learn. I have something to grow in.
I think taking that mentality and then deciding, I don’t know everything, deciding I don’t have all the answers, that helps me stay kind of humble and curious of always wanting to build new relationships and always wanting to form or deal with the ones I do have.
John: Yeah, when you grow up, as always the outsider, you’ve been doing this forever. I mean, so it’s not even like a skill that you had to learn, or you had to learn it as a survival mode. It’s like breathing now. It’s like, well, I mean I do it. I’m not even thinking about it, which is really cool to hear, but then it translates to work, it translates to life. How much do you feel like it’s on management to create that tone at the top or how much is it on an individual to be like, well, I’m just going to start with a little circle of peers that I have, or is it a mixture of both?
Michael: I think it’s both and obviously, it accelerates if leadership’s modeling it and actually genuinely modeling it. Is the CEO or is the leadership team accessible? Do they make forms and ways that they can be accessible? Are they themselves modeling and sharing stories about the impact people are having at work in their lives, right?
If all the stories they share are always about outside, and nobody at work is ever impacting their life, the team’s probably thinking, wow, this guy is not accessible, he’s not approachable, no one really likes them. But if you’re stories are man, like let me tell you about my relationship with the HR leader or with the marketing leader or sales leader. Let me tell you about how close we become and why that’s important. Let me tell you about like this new front office receptionist we have and how dearly I love this person, and I love getting coffee with them, whatever.
I think leadership helps accelerate it, but then if you’re not in a leadership role, you consider yourself in the maybe semi-leadership or you’re one of the individual contributors, you’d be surprised how far it goes to just do little things to start relationship building, which most of us are frankly not great at. We’re actually not great at doing it, and because most of us are self-absorbed or self-consumed and we’ve been taught to in this society to be that way —
John: Which reminds me, I wouldn’t talk about me first. No, I’m just kidding. No, but you’re so right. You’re so right, and then social media makes it even worse. It’s like just have some empathy for others and ask a question, and zip the lip. Who are you or what do you love to do? Those kind of questions. That’s so true.
Michael: I posted something the other day on social media was, you know, you probably are self-absorbed or narcissist. If you look back at your recent conversations with family, friends, how many of the conversations were you the one that spoke the least, instead of the most?
Oftentimes, your closest friends won’t tell you that you talk too much. It’s hard because narcissists and self-absorbed people are offended by that honest, direct statement. It’s like well, no, I’m not. Well, no, you are. You just proved that you are. I think we just got to get better at asking questions. We got to get better at listening and being genuinely curious about people, unless it’s an interview on a podcast where I’m supposed to be talking.
John: I know, I know.
Michael: I try to ask questions. I try to actually be the one asking the most questions so I can show the person I’m talking to that I actually care about them and their well-being.
John: I love that. I love that so much. Yeah, it would be super weird to have you as a guest on the podcast where you’re asking me all the questions. Yeah, but John, I’d like to know — Michael, you’re doing this wrong. That’s so cool to hear.
That’s something that you do there at Reconciled, because I feel like a lot of corporate leaders, it’s very directive coming from the top, and they’re all statement command type things. There are very little questions other than, why did you screw this up? Or maybe I’m the only one that heard that, but they’re not questions about you as a person. Are there things that that you do specifically that other people might be able to latch on to, besides just ask more questions then what you are now, which for most people is one?
Michael: Yeah, there’s two things I do now intentionally as a leader that anybody can pick up if they’re in a leadership role. One is I have an open coffee every week, Tuesday mornings at 9:00. I have an open coffee. Any employee can jump into the open coffee. They know it’s coffee with the CEO. Basically, it’s time to not talk about work, it’s a time for you to share with me what’s going on in your life. How are you doing? What are you thinking about? What are you reading? What are you watching?
Then secondly is every quarter, I try to check in with key employees, whether they report to me or not. People who’ve been around since the early days that I know that were hired by me directly probably or played key roles, and now maybe they’re reporting to a different leader. I want to check in and see how they’re doing and see what their satisfaction is like in their life. Personally, when it’s not work related, texting friends or family at random times. I’ll do this freaky thing sometimes. You know Facebook Messenger?
Michael: I’ll literally just instead of calling somebody on the phone, I’ll call them through an app, just to mess with them.
John: They probably didn’t even know that was a thing. It’s like, oh, I didn’t know I could get a Facebook phone call.
Michael: Exactly. Because it’s so unique, usually, they’ll answer and go, oh, hey, what’s going on? Oh, I’m just calling to see how you’re doing. That’s all. I have nothing to say, but I wanted to see how you’re doing and I wanted to just have fun doing it. I think those things that are not normal, try to be spontaneous about it and not have a schedule. But everyone has usually a commute home.
I mean, nowadays they don’t because of this, but at the end of your day, if you have five minutes before your day ends, just saying I’m going to call or text somebody and just say, hey, I’m just thinking about you. How are you doing? Then just going through your Rolodex and doing that and you’d be surprised. You do that regularly, and you do that just with each person, you’d be surprised how much relationship building that creates in your life. If you did it once a day, 365 people in your life, you’re building and encouraging and you’re checking in on, people do not expect that from each other. They just don’t.
John: Or it’s going to be Michael 365 times, so that’s pretty much my extent. Buckle up, buddy. No, but that’s such a great idea where it takes five minutes, even if you call them. It’s just a, hey, how’s it going? All right, cool. Five minutes. All right. That’s it. Just checking in. But it’s being genuine about it like you said earlier. It’s not as a leader, oh, I have to talk to four people today. Then hey, how are you doing? Okay, and not even listening to the answer. Just like, my computer exploded. It’s like, oh, I didn’t even hear it. Like, whatever.
This is really awesome, Michael. It’s only fair before I wrap this up that since I have rapid fire questioned you at the beginning that now it is the Michael Ly show. I wasn’t joking. This really is the Michael Ly show. You’re now the host. You can rapid fire question me. I’m buckled in. Ready to go.
Michael: Who’s one of the most influential people in your life right now?
John: The most influential people in my life right now.
Michael: Right now. Who’s the most influential person in your life right now?
John: In this moment, Michael Ly.
Michael: Oh, there you go.
John: But outside of this moment, I guess my wife. I mean she’s pretty influential and keeps me grounded. She’s got great ideas and really great to just bounce things off of and very supportive and yeah, that’s definitely very helpful to me.
Michael: That’s great. Tesla, or Ford F-150?
John: Oh, Tesla. I look like an idiot driving a truck. I look so weird. I know I look weird and I will not drive a truck. If somebody’s got a gun to my head and they’re like, you have to drive this truck. I’m like, you know what? This is the end. This is how it ends. Tesla for sure.
Michael: Taco Bell or McDonald’s?
John: Yeah, that’s a tricky one. Because this is also how it ends, Michael. I guess I’ll go McDonald’s. It’s just maybe a little more classic. Just I’ll go McDonald’s.
Well, this has been so much fun, Michael. It’s so encouraging to hear this and I really appreciate you being a part of What’s Your “And”?
Michael: Great. Thank you, John.
John: Awesome. Everybody listening, if you want to see some pictures of Michael outside of work or connect with him on social media, be sure to go to whatsyourand.com, all the links are there. It’s also where you can read about the book that’s for pre-order right now. While you’re on that page, please click that big button do the anonymous research survey about corporate culture.
Thanks again for subscribing on iTunes or whatever app you use and for sharing this with your friends so they get the message that we’re all trying to spread that who you are is so much more than what you do.