Sept. 27, 2022

197 Infusing Design with Innovative Thinking To Improve Business Performance with Steve Polo, Managing Partner OPX | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

197 Infusing Design with Innovative Thinking To Improve Business Performance with Steve Polo, Managing Partner OPX  | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Steve Polo, the Managing Partner at OPX, a design consultancy with a mission to help good companies work better. In addition to his leadership journey, Steve Polo shares his unique perspective on how to lead with authenticity and think about the future of the workplace enabling greater human connection and collaboration.   In the episode, Steve Polo also talks about leading OPX through the pandemic and leaders' role in employee engagement. Finally, Steve Polo shared leadership practices for becoming a better team and organizational leader.  


Some highlights:

- Growing up in a multicultural household and how it developed Steve Polo's ability to connect with people

- Steve Polo on the significant impact of leadership mentors 

- The opportunities and challenges as a new leader at OPX, looking to lead the turnaround of the organization

- Steve Polo on the challenges of leading OPX during the pandemic  

- The importance of connecting with team members and how to do it well

- Steve Polo on the importance of continually improving leadership skills 


Dr. Vanessa Bohns (Listen to Dr. Vanessa Bohns’ episode on Partnering Leadership here)

Azeem Azhar (Listen to Azeem Azhar’s episode on Partnering Leadership here)

John Hunter: Teaching with the World Peace Game 

Connect Steve Polo

OPX Website

Steve Polo on Twitter

Steve Polo on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:


Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming. Steve Polo. Steve is the managing partner at OPX, which is a design consultancy in Washington, DC and their mission is to help good companies work better. Steve is a thought leader in this space. I love the conversation with him, finding out more about Steve's background and most especially his authenticity in leading his team.

I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. There's also a microphone icon on You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast. Tuesday conversations with magnificent change makers from the greater Washington DC DMV region, like Steve and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders. 

Now here's my conversation with Steve Polo. 

Steve Polo. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.

Steve Polo: Mahan. Thank you, man. I've always enjoyed our conversations in the past and I'm like super honored to be asked to be on your podcast. I think you're doing great stuff and I'm really happy to be here.

Mahan Tavakoli: I've enjoyed those conversations, Steve, and getting to know you better. You have a unique ability to connect with people and I know through our conversations, you've done a great job, whether it's connecting to me. I know you've done a great job with that with your team members over the years, having built a unique culture at OPX. All the value that you've brought to your clients.

But would love to first start out with your upbringing, where best did you grow up and how did your upbringing impact who you've become?

Steve Polo: I think we don't always know what our upbringing did for us or to us. I grew up in the Upper Midwest in Michigan and my grandfather was an immigrant from Finland and my father's first generation American. I had a lot of cultural influences that were maybe atypical and who knows, but part of what America really is. But interestingly enough, I moved nearly every year of my life. And I went to 12 schools before I graduated from high school

People ask me, so how come your parents moved so much? And the first thing they say is, were they in the military? They weren't. And then they go what gives on that? I never ask them. But I tell people now they were in the witness protection program. So, they had to move every year. But I really don't know but my point in that is that. If you move every year as a kid, you have two choices, you can either make friends quickly or you can hide. And whether or not I had the personality to make friends ahead of that, or that was contributory. I somehow believe that I'm able to connect with people because I was never in the same place for very long. I had to connect or I would be lost. 

Mahan Tavakoli: All those experiences, Steve make us who we are. We might not specifically be able to point out personality traits or characteristics that evolved as a result of those experiences, but your ability to connect with different people, to a certain extent, as a kid growing up was a survival capability you had to develop.

Steve Polo: It was. And I guess I did it but I'm stuck with who I am now whatever reason. 

Mahan Tavakoli: What was it that got you to study political science, Steve?

Steve Polo: It really wasn't political science that intrigued me. I started high school in suburban Chicago, another one of my moves. And I decided to take Russian, they had Russian language in this high school. 

It was an enormous high school, 3000 students. So, my Russian teacher, his name was Edward Katime Spa Polski. So, Ed was such an inspiring teacher. Was just so inspiring and of course he's teaching 14-year-old kids. So, you had to have the patience of Joe or you had to be super inspiring and he was. I developed this affinity Russian language and that later on turned into Russian studies with political philosophy as the underpin. And that was the whole reason I did that. 

Mahan Tavakoli: That is incredible to influence a good teacher has on what you choose to study at the trajectory of your life.

Steve Polo: I actually believe that's right. And I think most of us can point to somebody like that in our lives. Often people are inspired not necessarily by a subject but by somebody and that, subject takes on the character of the enthusiasm and kind of power of that person. 

Mahan Tavakoli: I still remember my history teacher, Mr. Gil Hall, and the impact he had on me, it's incredible. The influence that teacher can have on the person's life. Because I know you also are a big fan of Russian literature.

So, this has become a part of who Steve polo is.

Steve Polo: I tell people that, I have a degree in Russian studies and you know that in five bucks you can get a cup of coffee. but I enjoyed it. It's funny. People also asked me what were you planning on doing with that? I said I thought I could be a teacher, but I'd have to get a master's and all that or I could go work for the government or the CIA. 

And teaching, maybe the CIA, probably not, I wasn't probably on their list or maybe I was, but maybe not for the right reasons, cuz I was radical in those days. So, I had to go find something else to do.

Mahan Tavakoli: What did you find yourself doing with a BA in political science after having studied a year of intensive Russian?

Steve Polo: That's a whole another thing. I wanna tell you a story about that intensive Russian class. It was at the university of Toronto and they knew so much more than me. They were a whole year ahead of me when I got there. 

So, I was like the dumbest kid in the class. Actually, there was a guy who was dumber than me, but he quit. So, he turned out to be the smartest. So here I am, the dumbest kid in the class I'm like flipping out. I'd always been a really pretty good student and I was not doing well. So, I called my dad and I said, dad, look I'm like, I'm struggling here. I think I want to come home. And he said, okay. 

So, let me ask you something. What would happen if you stayed? And I said I don't know. He said, do you think you could learn something and maybe pass? I was like, yeah. He goes, so why don't you stay? Wasn't what I wanted him to say. I wanted him to say, yeah, come on home. Didn't. That was one of those lessons that sticks with you for a really long time, because it's not just useful to you, it's useful when you talk to other people about things they're struggling with. So, what happens if you stick with it is a really powerful question, and you can say, I don't know. I don't want to okay, fine. But there's a chance that you just needed that little push to stick with it. That was that.

And of course, when I graduated with a degree, I couldn't get a job. Unlike now where you can get a job, like falling out your front door, but I couldn't get a job. So, I got a job in a retail business. Very last straw I think was the last place I applied. I applied on dozens of places so they hired me and I worked there six months and the owner of the company comes to the sales floor and he looks out over the floor and he looks at me and he goes, and I'm thinking this isn't good. 

So, I walked to his office and he says, sit down. Kinda like that he's at behind a big desk. So, I sit down, he said, do you think you're better than we are? I said, what? He said, do you think you're better than we are? I said no. He said you're acting like it. I said okay. He said, okay, what? I said, stop. He said, listen, there's nothing holding you here whatsoever. There's no change on your legs. There's nothing. And if you think that you're better than us or you don't want to be here, there is the door and you can leave now. 

I was shocked. I thought really, how could that be? He said, what's it gonna be? I said I'll do better. He said, good. Get outta here. And I walked out onto the floor and I realized he was right. I had this degree, big deal. But I wasn't better than them. And that was like such an important lesson as I reflect on it now in leadership because he recognized something in me or we wouldn't have had that conversation. He also made me realize that if you, as a leader, think you are better than somebody else in your own organization? That's a problem because first of all, you can't relate to them. You can't because you don't care what they do. And second, you can't empathize with them at all because you have no concept of what they're experiencing, both of which are really bad leadership mistakes. I just lucked into that completely. But I got to be the beneficiary in a big way. 

Mahan Tavakoli: I love that story, Steve, it goes to one of the points I make consistently in leadership and in coaching, the executives and teams I work with, which is kind candor. 

You can't have kindness without candor. You have to care enough about the other person to have candid conversations with them done with the kindness to want to elevate them.

I think we've seen two extremes on one side candor that is destructive meant to bring people down. Some leaders have done that over the years. But in many instances, we've gravitated far to the other extreme where we are thinking by just not telling people things in leadership, we are doing them a favor. That is not kindness when there is no candor.

Your manager cared enough about you to share that point with you that you can do better. So, it was kind candor.

Steve Polo: My mom called that the wholesome chest ments of love. And then she spanked me. but I agree with you. Unfortunately, when my kids were playing soccer, you'd have coaches yelling, what are you doing? And, if they knew what they were doing, they'd be doing it. Why don't you, instead of shaming them, why don't you inspire them and teach them? 

And I think coaching in general is modeled that kind of bad behavior and that leaked into early leadership. So, I think lots of leaders are still under the notion that they just have to yell and scream and things will get done. But to your point, trying to be everybody's best friend without telling them the truth, that's a problem too, by the way, that's a problem in every relationship, not just employers, employees. So that's a really interesting point you made though about the pendulum swing, cuz it is not kindness to not tell people the truth.

Mahan Tavakoli: So, you had that opportunity now. Why did you, after five years of professional experience, decide to go back and study to become an architect?

Steve Polo: Really good question. And maybe you could tell me why. Here's the interesting thing. There's been moments in my life and can recount pretty much all of them where there's been a moment of revelation. Wasn't expected, but it happened, and I recognized it in the moment. So, I went to see a friend of mine's sister at architecture school, by the way, I became the regional sales manager.

So, I would open new stores, train the staff and leave. So, I did the very same thing in that professional career that I did my whole life. I spent one year and I left. So, I'm not sure I was loving that. So, I go to visit this gal at Virginia tech and she walks us around and she's pointing and I stopped her and I said, so this is what you do. This kind of stuff? And she said, yeah. I said shoot, I gotta do this. 

So, the guy who has this big degree in all this great experience doesn't apply anywhere else. But this one place, I didn't even know if it was a good school. That's how smart I was. What I was inspired by it, whatever that meant. I wouldn't have known architecture if it fell on me. I knew Aero and the finish architect, the JFK, because he was finished and I knew Frank Lloyd Wright, cuz I lived in suburban Chicago, but other than that, my dad was an engineer. My mom's a school teacher. 

So, I also didn't take the GRE completely unprepared to, to get into this school. So, I go for my interview, I talked to the guy he's very nice. And finally, he says, okay, thanks very much. Show me your portfolio. I said I'm sorry, but I don't have. And he said, gee, that's too bad. And the interview was open and I thought, man, you messed this up, dude. You spent all this time and now you came to this point you weren't even prepared. 

So, I went back to this gal's apartment, and I did two paintings. I'd been painting since I was 19. And I slipped him under his door with a note. And then I drove back home going, you idiot. And I got in. So, I get in and I decide I have a good job. I have a bunch of friends, all of that was garbage. Cuz I left my friends every year. I swear to God. I think they picked up the wrong application. I didn't love that job, but I told everybody I wasn't gonna go. And they all bought it because often, if you say something forcefully, people are willing to listen to you. 

So, I told this one guy he's a half a generation older than me. His name was Hank Brown. Another unofficial mentor, I didn't know was one until we had this conversation, I told him this song and dance, he looked at me, he goes, that's BS man. I said, what? He said, you're an idiot. I said, what are you talking about? He asked me if you were gonna drive from here to San Francisco, would you wait till all the lights turned green before you left? And I said no. He said, you got your first green light. I guess I better go. He goes, yeah, better go. 

So that was one of those other things, those moments where somebody, they weren't really my mentor, but they sure acted like one in the moment. So that's how I ended up studying architecture. I wish I could plan it from the beginning, but no such luck.

Mahan Tavakoli: What a beautiful analogy, Steve. And it also goes to your leadership. These stories show why you are the kind of leader that you are, you recognize the contributions that other people have made on getting you in the right course, rather than the story being Steve, who knew it, Steve, who was able to drive it, which is oftentimes the view that we might have.

And therefore, that translates to the way we lead as leaders. It's. Your view and perspective of the opportunities that came to you in part, because there were others who were willing to give to you and contribute to your journey along the way. And I think that's a great way to think about our lives and leadership.

Everything that we are able to accomplish is because of the many great people and circumstances we've been part of as much as anything else.

Steve Polo: I couldn't agree with you more. It's funny. I guess I can say this in this context, it's highly personal, but my mother was a school teacher. She taught children with learning disabilities, that was her thing. And she taught a really close friend of mine who has gone on to become an important figure.

He wrote a book called the World Peace Game and other Third Grade Miracles. His name is John Hunter and Chris Anderson from wired magazine said he had the number one, Ted talk of 2012. If you have a chance to listen to it, I would recommend him. he invented this game where children in his fourth-grade class solve for world peace every year and do it. It's an amazing story. 

But a friend of mine called me up and said, Hey, Steve, you gotta check out. John's, Ted talk. Mentions your mother. I was like, what? So, to your point, he says something like, and I'm here because of all these people. And he mentions my mom as one of his inspiring teachers, which to your point, she doesn't have a clue that happened. Not a clue, would never know. 

So, I think another point that's maybe hidden in your description of some of the leadership traits that we might want to cultivate is even if we don't know what the result. Might be, there will be one. So, let's be aware that there will be one. And let's also be aware that you can't control it. Now it's in their hands. You gave them this piece, now it's up to them to do. So, no matter whether they stumbled into it or they intended it, it's still up to them. 

Mahan Tavakoli: It's a beautiful way of putting it. Steve, I had a conversation with Vanessa Bonds. She's a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell. Has an outstanding book on influence. It's called you Have More Influence Than You Think. She shares a lot of great studies and examples of the influence that we have.

In many instances, influence that we are unaware of ourselves with the smallest word that we leave with someone, the impact and influence that has on that individual. So, to that point, your mom, as a teacher, might not have reflected on the influence and impact on this one, individual John, by the way, in the show notes, we will link to his Ted talk. So, the audience can see that Ted talk also. 

However, it's a recognition that we all have that influence whether it's with the team members we're interacting with on a daily basis, or even when we are at the grocery store or interacting with people standing in line somewhere, we make a difference.

Steve Polo: I think we should guard against thorough away comments also because people remember that 

Mahan Tavakoli: You must have listened to Vanessa's episode because she makes a point about that in the book. What ends up being a throwaway comment for one individual has significant impact for the person that is the recipient of it.

Steve Polo: Oh, yeah. I think there's a lot to pay attention to.

Mahan Tavakoli: Steve, your mom and dad had a significant influence on your life as many parents do, you lost both of them earlier in life. How did that impact you?

Steve Polo: Pretty profoundly. I was 30 years old when they died. They both died in the same year. And was totally unprepared for that. Completely unprepared for any of that. I inherited a house in suburban Chicago that was worth less than they owed. That was my first house. But I went into a tailspin. I spent, the next year thinking I was gonna die. And it took a long time to process. 

So, two things about that. One is that I remember saying, look, I'm a grown man and I should be able to figure this out. And this person I was talking to, they said, figure what out? There's no figuring in this. Steve, you can only feel it out. I went, oh, wow. Of course, I didn't want to hear it at the time. And I also said to somebody, oh sure, like I'm ever gonna use this experience again. They're dead. I can't lose 'em again. So how can I benefit from this? But I was wrong about that too, cuz I've had people say, I haven't talked to my dad or my mom in a couple years. I'm like, what in the world are you talking about? Just go call 'em right now. Cuz one day they'll be gone. You'll never be ask 'em another question about anything that ever happened to you. 

So, go figure that out. And I didn't have the foresight to know that at the time. But I think one of the real results of that was because I thought I didn't have that long. I needed to do something, which was really the impetus to starting a business. So, I guess I'm grateful. I wouldn't have picked it and who knows if I would've started a business otherwise but that was certainly a catalyst. I thought, okay, I'm gonna kick off. I better get to it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: So, you started a couple of businesses, but eventually you founded OPX. What led to that?

Steve Polo: Here I go again. I started first business I hadn't passed the architecture exam. I didn't know a balance sheet from page eight and phone book. and because I didn't know, I wasn't worried I might have been, but I wasn't, I also bought a house in an emerging neighborhood. I guess that was the right term for it. I was home study and I found that there were people moving out. And so, I started another business with a partner where we were buying and renovating houses and selling them. That didn't really interest me in, the same way that, the design world interest me at the time. 

But I, did that for a long time and I didn't found OPX. The previous partners of the first company that OPX became asked if I would come back and join them. And over a period of time, they actually wanted out. So, we converted, that former company into what now is OPX. We inherited organization that was dysfunctional and pretty depressed. And I remember somebody saying, Steve nothing's ever gonna change around here because if it is, you're gonna have to do all the change, that's what someone said to me. 

It's wow that's a tall order. So, what I said to them was I can be the spark, but you better be the flame. And they went, what? I said, you have to be the flame, you and everybody else. Wood was wet. So, there was no flame at that moment but we got the flame going and, built it back into a pretty successful organization, 

Mahan Tavakoli: Curious how you were able to do that. Steve, I remember the first time we met dozen plus years back. You explained architecture very differently than I had heard others explained it. You explained it in terms of the business outcomes and the culture of the organization, and you seem to really care about the culture of your team and organization. 

So how did you go about making the change that created this new OPX with this culture?

Steve Polo: I wish I knew little known fact; I was a wrestler in college and I was a pretty good wrestler. I was on a scholarship. And at the end of my junior year, I told my coach I was quitting. And he said, why? I said, because I'm never gonna be an NCAA champion. He said, oh no, you I'm like Tommy. Enough. First of all, if I'm good enough, I'm not willing to sacrifice, but I'm probably not good enough been a pretty good college wrestler. And I got all this other stuff I need to do. There's a whole big world that I don't know a thing about, but I want to. 

He goes, oh no, you're just tired. You got tournaments to summer and you'll be this. And you'll be that. I'm like, no, you're not getting it. At the limit. I'm not gonna be any better. He goes you're gonna lose your scholarship. I said, I know I'm just not gonna be any better. Fast forward, I'm an architect for some period of time and I wake up one morning and I realize I'm never gonna be NCAA architect either. So now what am I gonna do? And I think there's a whole bunch of confluence of things at the time and they persist in some ways. 

Most businesses become commoditized because there's lots of people doing them and whatever, you think of other people can copy. Cuz there are a lot of smart people. there's always a striving for differentiation and for non-commoditization. But the only way to do that is to sell something that's more valuable than the market thinks you can do or that they recognize they've never seen before and actually is worth something. 

So, as we started thinking about designing stuff, really people don't want to design this stuff. They wanna operate better. how do we figure out how to do that? So, for me, as an architect, that's an identity and I think many of us pick an identity and it keeps us from doing the next thing. I'm an X and an X does Y. All great as long as there aren't too many Xs and there's plenty of Y to do. Otherwise, it's not so great. But if we strip away identity and we look at what skills we own, what are we capable of doing irrespective of what we call ourselves. And you start to aggregate those. 

So, what could you apply those to? So, what was I good at? I'm gonna say this with all humbleness, cuz there are lots of people good at some of the stuff I'm good at, but I'm good at conceptualizing. I'm good at living with ambiguity. I'm good at. Turning something from one thing into another, I'm good at seeing patterns in disparate stuff. What job is that? That's not a job. But it's skills you can use in service of other things. So, I thought we're good at all of that.

Why wouldn't we think about using those skills on all the parts of organizations? And that was the Genesis. It was another revelation as you start asking people, organizations wanted to inspire their people to do things and not have all kinds of friction in their way and not do heroic stuff to get their jobs done. I guess that's a short story about how that evolution happened.

Mahan Tavakoli: That's a great way of framing it. Steve, you did a beautiful job of explaining something that I find to be a challenge with a lot of organizations and individuals. At Clay Christensen's work on job to be done is not well understood if organizations really reflect on what Clay talks about and that job to be done, many of 'em would approach their business very differently.

So, it sounds like part of what you did is go through that framework of what's the job to be done. No one needs architecture. What is the job to be done that you are providing as value for those clients?

Steve Polo: To your point, I think a lot of the design world has recognized that their clients and customers are really looking for more than just, what they do. They're looking for what it does for them, which is vastly different. In the past, I'm sure we designed stuff for people 20 years ago, thinking it was the right thing. It was probably absolutely the wrong thing. 

It probably did harm to those organizations. We just didn't know it. And I think if you're not asking questions, like we were talking about of organizations, the answer will be wrong. You just won't know it. And I think that's true for everybody who helps any business do anything because all these parts are connected and once you know that it's hard to unknow it.

Mahan Tavakoli: Steve, we are at a point in time when we've gone through over two years of change in the way, many have worked. Many of the leaders that I interact with are having a very hard time. Some were hoping for a return to the way work was done before others have included two, three days of in office, which in essence is two, three days of the way work was done before.

So, there isn't really rethinking of that workplace. So, as an advisor to organizations, what do you believe the future of work will look like so the job of collaboration of the humans is done effectively rather than going back to either the way things were or a few days of the way things?

Steve Polo: In the last month, I've been on three different panels talking about this very thing. And most of the advice I give to people is something they don't want to hear. Because when people ask you a question, they want to know the answer, and that's great. Except if you ask an unanswerable question and expect an answer, that's a problem. 

So, one of the things I say to leaders is that you need to take a breath and live with some ambiguity for a while. Because whatever answer you come up with today will likely not be the right one. We've already seen that. And when I say that to people, they're like no, it'll be fine. And I said, yeah, you're still taking off your shoes at the airport 20 years after nine 11, you think that's fine? 

So, I've said to them, here is your opportunity. You have never, ever in your entire career, had this opportunity before you. And that is you get to ask yourself the questions that are most important to what you think your organization needs to accomplish. And provide a series of answers under some decision criteria lens that's only important to you and recraft how you do what you do. Oh my God. Why in the world? Do you want me to give you the answer? Because it won't be right. 

First of all, buck up, roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of figuring out what the next thing could be, but do it with some optimism by the way, that 40-hour, five day a week, it was a construct. Anyway, you think people worked eight hours straight at their desks, no way. But here's what they couldn't do, they couldn't answer their kids' question about math or they couldn’t do a 20-minute Peloton workout now they can, by the way that genie is never going back in that box. Maybe I'm wrong, but why would we want it back? We've made it binary. Here's what we've said. Either you're in the office and we get collaboration or you're out of the office and we don't. Who made that rule? Do you think your people stopped collaborating over the last two years? They've been at home. If you manage by walking around, you're gonna have to manage by zooming around, which means you have to be really intentional about your leadership. 

In the past, you might let it slide. You can't do that anymore. Absolutely cannot do that anymore. And what a gift you're being given, I'm sorry, I don't have much passion around this. What a gift you've been given and think of how we could re-craft the working world. I'll call it the platform of work so that people are really inspired to do the work that they wanna do, which also happens to coincide with the work you need them to do. What a great opportunity. So, let's work on that.

Mahan Tavakoli: It is an outstanding opportunity for leaders. Steve. It does take a lot of more cognitive calories than many want to dedicate to it, but it's the reality of where we live. I would submit that it's going to be ongoing, not necessarily for the next couple of years. One of the authors I interviewed, I love Azim Azar’s work and his book, The Exponential Age, and he talks about the impact of exponential technologies.

The difficulty we as humans have in understanding exponential growth and the different exponential technologies that not within the decades ahead, but within the few years ahead are significantly going to transform our lives and the way we work. 

Therefore, that mindset that you talk about of rethinking how we work. Collaborate, taking advantage of the new opportunities is something that leaders need to have. It's not just biting their time until fall, spring. Whatever time when things go back to the way they were, they won't, and it's a great opportunity.

Steve Polo: Yeah. And when you have people like Elon Musk saying everybody needs to come back or they can pretend to work somewhere else. Looks like just a way to, lay off people that without actually having to lay them off. But I think that people, working at their jobs they're not gonna stand for the way it was, they just, aren't going to. 

It's also interesting when you talk about exponential growth. I think the challenges we have as leaders is twofold. One is one of imagination. We have a hard time imagining what something could be or might be. We're good at saying what it used to be. And we're good at saying what it is, except I'm not sure we really know what it is, but we tell ourselves we do, but we're lousy at thinking about what it could be. And I think you're gonna have to get people on your team who are good at imagining possible futures and scenario planning. If you don't have something like that in your organization, you're gonna have to go find them. 

The other mindset is from Simon Sinek's Infinite Game. The notion that the timeframe under which we're operating as businesses is really long, like life. And he says there are two kinds of games. They're finite games like chess and soccer. And they have a definitive number of players. They have rules. They often have a time limit and they have a winner life doesn't have that. Life has an infinite number of players, infinite number of choices, and infinitely long time in which to do that.

And no one wins and losses. They might have success and they might have failure, but they don't win and lose. If we just expand our horizon a little bit, to your point and not just to wait around going, oh, it'll just come back. Not gonna happen.

Mahan Tavakoli: In order to do that, there's the potential opportunity to reflect on anti-fragility and the strengthening that happened as a result of the pandemic for many organizations. How did the pandemic hit OPX?

Steve Polo: Like many organizations we got hit really hard. Not as hard as the retail business or the service industry but hard nonetheless. There, were times where we'd never experienced anything like that in our history.

Not even close, even nine 11 and things like 2008, none of those had anywhere close to the impact this had. I can remember basically a call a day for two weeks from our clients saying, we're laying off two thirds of our organization and we're stopping all our work. Oh my God how could that happen? Like lots of organizations. We had been banking with a fairly large bank and the large banks did a terrible job of administering the PPP loans.

And they put small businesses like ours in real payroll, I have no doubt about it. I'm in a Vista group and they're businesses, a similar size to ours in that. And they all experienced being left, high and drive by big banks, it was appalling actually. I think part of our work in helping people think through what might be the next thing was a saving grace for us because then people came back and said, so what should we do now? 

And I tried to be a little less philosophical at that time. But that was part of the deal. We have really strong existing relationships and those folks carried us. We had people here in the organization who said, okay, let's just figure this out do the best we can. To answer your question, I think if we didn't have a strong culture, if we didn't, look back and say, why we in this? And be able to say we're in this because we wanna make a difference in our customer's lives and we wanna make a difference in our lives. And we care about a bunch of stuff and we could be true to those without all that stuff. I think we've been lost. 

And by the way, that's an organization, that's not a person. That's a unity. it's not somebody waving their arms and saying, we gotta do this. Not that at all. One of the things we did do, however, is we said, okay, we got eight weeks with the PPP money. We're gonna act like a startup. We're gonna come up with five or six new products that we think we can sell. Obviously, we couldn't come up with five or six products to sell. 

But we came up with some, but what that did was it gave people, focus and energy towards something positive rather than being upset about what we didn't have. But I also think many leaders aren't aware of the psychological trauma that the pandemic has had on people. And they may want to talk about it. But talking about it and understanding how to deal with it are two different things. And I think we, as leaders, need to educate ourselves a little bit and tap into the empathetic side of our leadership skills in order to help people get past it, cuz a lot of people suffered. And that kind of stuff sticks with you for a little while. 

Mahan Tavakoli: It does Steve and it’s really important point for us to keep in mind when you look at it, the number of traffic fatalities have gone way up compared to the miles driven. Number of pedestrians hit. Signs of anger, signs of tension are in all parts of our society. 

So, all people have been impacted. Some have been impacted more so than others, but everyone, all of our employees, all of our loved ones, all of the people that we interact with have been impacted over the past two years. Therefore, it takes tremendous empathy and compassion 

Steve Polo:  I want to confess something. At the beginning of the pandemic and we were all at home, we had our Monday morning zoom meeting and we had a Thursday afternoon. It's evolved into a fun thing. Somebody's responsible for doing something fun on zoom every Thursday.

We were building into that and I kept thinking, okay, we probably need another zoom meeting. Then I thought we should be calling people and checking in. And my first reaction was they don't want me calling them checking in but I was wrong. They did want that. And it took some convincing. I was convicting myself, and it wasn't personal. It was that really that won't talk to me but as it turns out, they did they still do. And so, until they tell me, stop doing that I'm not gonna stop doing that. And the truth of the matter is I also need it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: Good for you, Steve. For keeping it up, one of the things that happened early on in the pandemic, leaders did more of that, which is why employee engagement numbers ticked up because people felt like their managers and their leaders cared about them.

But as we settled back into normal patterns of behavior, more of the meetings of let's get things done were scheduled. Fewer of them, let me connect with you and see how you are doing and you can see the trend lines, the employee engagement numbers have gone down again and are now below the levels they were pre pandemic. 

Steve Polo:  Interesting. I hadn't realized the employee engagement numbers went down. It makes sense. I also think that early on we said, look, the office is open, but you never have to come in as long as you do these four things, tell everybody where you are, connect with your team, get your work done on time and make sure the client's happy and we had a meeting and you could tell they were tense. 

And were like, we're just waiting for, the other shoe to drop. And I said, what another shoe? Like we're gonna have to be in on Thursdays and Wednesdays and Tuesdays and Mondays. I said, why do you think that? They said that's what everybody else is doing And I said, we're not planning to do that. They're like, you're not, I'm like, no, you're not planning to do that. They were are you sure? Yeah, we're sure. And that's not to say we don't want it. See our friends and colleagues we do, we do. I'd rather have people being happy about managing their lives than checking a box. 

Mahan Tavakoli: That is a really important part of great leadership. Steve. You've already shared a bunch of practices of leadership. I wonder if there are any other practices or resources you typically find yourself recommending for people as they want to become better leaders, whether in their own personal leadership journey or in leading teams and organizations?

Steve Polo: There used to be a comic called Pogo. And one of the Pogo comics said, if you want to be a leader, find a parade and stand in front of it. I don't tell people that one of the things that I often tell people and have tried to model this. in some way. I never had a mentor. That wasn't the thing. But as we've talked, I clearly did. I just didn't know it. And I think part of my personality pushed mentors away. Otherwise somebody wouldn't have said, so you think you're better than we are. But I think there was some part of my personality that said I'm not gonna mess with him. 

But I tell just about everybody that asks me questions like that. Please find someone that is interested in asking you questions about your development. They don't have to give you any answers. They just have to keep asking you, is this the right thing? Is this what you want? Did you think this through? Or any of that sort of stuff? So, I tell people go find somebody that resonates with you that you respect, and who's willing to spend that time with you because it'll be so valuable to you.

And you'll build leadership skills a whole lot faster than if you don't. I think finding someone you respect and is willing to spend the time is the best resource you could ever have.

Mahan Tavakoli: Mentorship is really important. And it is important to seek it out, to look for people who are willing to do it. And I think people would be surprised at how many leaders with experience, how open they would be to reach back, to contribute and become a mentor if and once they are asked. 

Now you also referenced the Pogo cartoon about if you want to be a leader, go stand in front of a parade. It sounds like I need to go to New Orleans and stand in front of a parade because you seem to have something to do with parades in New Orleans at carnival time.

Steve Polo: That's too funny. So, there have been revelatory moments in my life. The first one was when I heard my first jazz fusion music when I was in college and I was transformed. The next was when I visited this gal at Virginia tech and found out what architecture was like. And the third was when I went to New Orleans to take my daughter to college and realized that, I belonged there. 

I know that sounds completely silly. Some, like regular guy from the upper Midwest says he belongs to New Orleans. But Hey, you feel what you feel. So, the interesting thing about New Orleans is that such a diverse place, ethically and socially, economically, it has so many influences that it creates its own thing.

I don't think I've been in another city in the US, maybe in the world that's really like New Orleans. So, if you've ever been to New Orleans and you've seen, what's known as a second line, which is often the back end of a parade that might be a funeral or a wedding. What you often find is the people in the second line, if you're standing on the side will pull you in or ask you to come in because you don't watch a second line you are in it. In general, New Orleans is like that. So, when got to know people there, I just, found myself participating in these things. it's been a blessing to me. And my daughter still lives there, so I get to go visit her in. So, it's a pretty amazing place if you haven't been.

Mahan Tavakoli: Next time I wanna be a leader. I'm going to go there, stand in front of a parade and wait for you to come join me there, Steve,

Steve, I really appreciate you taking the time to share some of your personal journey in my view, one of the reasons I love doing these podcast conversations is I get a chance to have a conversation with someone like you as a mentor and learn from your life experience.

And the audience gets a chance to listen to authentic leaders. Like you share your experience. I really appreciate you taking this time to share your leadership. Steve Polo.

Steve Polo: Mahan. Thank you. I know that you're going to be humble in this also, but I think when you first contacted me even the questions you asked me, they weren't business questions. They were real life questions. And I think you've made it easy for us to tell our stories and be authentic.

So, thank you for that. And thank you for including me I can't wait to hear the next one.