July 21, 2022

178 How to Build Deeper and More Meaningful Business Relationships Through the Gather, Ask, Do Method with Susan McPherson | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

178 How to Build Deeper and More Meaningful Business Relationships Through the Gather, Ask, Do Method with Susan McPherson | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Susan McPherson, Founder, and CEO of McPherson Strategies, Serial Connector, Communications Expert, and Author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships. Susan McPherson shares the power of building authentic relationships and fostering meaningful connections. Susan also talks about the three phases of proactively connecting with people and how to go beyond our bubbles.   Finally, Susan shares what leaders must do to promote greater connection within their teams and organizations.

Some highlights:

-Susan McPherson on working for the late Senator Kennedy

-Why it is essential to build a solid reciprocal relationship

-Susan McPherson on factors that have contributed to a loss of human connection 

-The difference between networking and truly connecting 

-The importance of connecting with people outside of your bubble

-Susan McPherson on why we need to reconnect with people in our network 

-The impact of the pandemic on connections within organizations

-Susan McPherson's on the importance of leadership authenticity 


Michael Roderick (Listen to Michael Roderick’s episode on Partnering Leadership here)

Rob Cross (Listen to Rob Cross’ episode on Partnering Leadership here)

Connect with Susan McPherson:

McPherson Strategies Website

The Lost Art of Connecting Book Website

The Lost Art of Connecting on Amazon

Susan McPherson on Twitter

Susan McPherson on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:




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



[00:00:00] Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Susan McPherson, Susan is a serial connector, angel investor, and corporate responsibility expert. She's the founder and CEO of McPherson strategies, which is a communication consultancy focused at the intersection of brands and social impact.

She's also the author of the book, The lost art of connecting the gather, ask, do method for building meaningful relationships. We spent most of our time talking about Susan's book, and I really enjoy the conversation most especially, because connecting is critical to our own wellbeing at a time when more people than ever are feeling a greater sense of loneliness.

And it's also essential for us to be able to connect at a much deeper level. In our organizations. So this has personal professional and organizational relevance. I'm sure you will enjoy the conversation too.

I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. mahan@mahantavakoli.com There's also a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com, 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 and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders like Susan. Now, here is my conversation with Susan McPherson.

susan McPherson. Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me,

[00:02:05] Susan McPherson: It is wonderful to be here Mahan, thank you for the invitation to join you.

[00:02:10] Mahan Tavakoli: Susan, I love the lost art of connecting the gather, ask, do method for building meaningful business relationships. So that's why I can't wait to learn from your insights.

Before we get to that susan would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become.

[00:02:31] Susan McPherson: Well, It was a very long time ago. About after the dinosaurs crashed, I guess you could say. But I was born in 64 in upstate New York. About 20 minutes north of Albany which is the capital for people who are outside of New York and may not know. My father was a history professor for 39 years. And my mom worked in public relations for public television, but for both of them, connections were everything. And to give you an idea, when my dad, over the years when he was teaching, he would have students and he would have their daughters and then he would have their granddaughters and over the course of his career, and up until when he passed in 2008, he would stay in touch with them. Even in 2008, still using a manual typewriter. I'm not recommending that for anyone, but that's what he did. And my mom used the technology of the time the rotary telephone and the us postal service to, keep in contact with reporters. And one thing I actually learned from her was this notion of reaching out to reporters or others, not when you needed something. So that down the road, if you did need something, you had already built a real solid reciprocal relationship. And every morning at the breakfast table, they would, and this is no joke would have five of the local newspapers played out yesterday's or the day before his New York times and Boston globe, because they would come via the mail. They would clip and cut and then they would both go to their respective manual typewriters in our house and type short, little misses, plop them in envelopes and off into the us mail. And I just assumed everybody's parents did that. I will say that all of that was well and good, but they really ingrained in me from a very early age, as well as in my siblings, this notion that every other person on this planet that we come in contact with is deserving of our interest, our curiosity, our compassion and our kindness, no matter what role that person had, no matter what religion that person identified with, no matter what that color of the person's skin and, growing up with that embedded in you, I have to say led for a more interesting life because nothing was off the table.

I was interested in everyone.

[00:04:50] Mahan Tavakoli: What a beautiful perspective, Susan and if listeners take anything from this is just the fact that whether it was with your parents or with you now with technology, that genuine interest in the beauty of other people is a key part of being able to connect with others. Now, before we get to lost art of connecting though, you spent some time in DC as an intern for Senator Kennedy.

What was that experience like?

[00:05:25] Susan McPherson: Well, It is because of connections that, I had the privilege to be able to work. And I'm not putting that on a pedestal because we all know, many people don't have that privilege, but years and years and years ago, my late grandfather, was the editorial cartoonist as a refugee who came in the early 20th century and then he started working at the Boston Herald traveler in 1921. And he was the editorial cartoonist for Almost he retired in 69 and his drawings were of interest to politicians. So he got to know Kennedy family cuz he was of course in Boston. And then my mom got her first job when JFK was a Congressman at the deacons hospital in Boston. So years later, because she stayed in, and this was only a year before, sadly she was killed. She made a few phone calls and I was able to interview to become an intern. But yes, in 1985, I worked for the late Senator Kennedy.

And I have to say, regardless of what your political feelings or thoughts about the Kennedy family, if you're going to work for a Senator. Do work for a Senator that is making an impact like that because everyone and anyone who came in that office walked by me Jerry Chrystal at one point, Whoopi Goldberg, I still remember this. And as a 21 year, that's a big deal.

[00:06:41] Mahan Tavakoli: It was a wonderful experience, I'm sure for you . So your book is titled the Lost Art of Connecting. Was there a time where we were better at that connection.

And why did we lose it?

[00:06:56] Susan McPherson: It's a really great question. Several things, one when people see the title, they often assume I wrote it in response to the pandemic. Actually I put the proposal together five years ago, long before the pandemic. What I started to see was we had become slaves to technology.

Now mind you. I am definitely pro technology, but what had happened is, was we had lost that intentionality. We had lost that, thinking a few minutes before we hit send. I think that's what has led to a lot of the vitro on social media. Like If you type something up and it's not very kind, if you read it again, you might not all of us, but some of us might say, wait, you know what? I'm not gonna put that up. But it became so easy to push a text, a WhatsApp, a DM, a post that we got caught up in that. And that is when I started to think about putting the book proposal together. Then a friend of mine told me that when she took her 10 year old and 12 year old, obviously they're much older. They're, five years older now, but when she would take them to the bus stop, she would hug them both goodbye and send them up onto the big yellow school bus, and they would take their respective seats. And as soon as they sat down, their heads would bow down to look at their phones.

But here's the scary thing, every other child on the school bus would do the same thing. No one was talking to one another and now mind you, my school bus memories are not all a glow. However, I talked to my classmates, and so that kind of hit me and I was like, you know what, it's time I wanted to harken back, not to a better time, but a time when there was more intentionality. When my parents would sit there and really think about who am I sending this to and why? and I realize we're in fast paced lives. We don't maybe have the same luxury of time that they had, but I do think we can be more intentional. So that is how the book came about.

[00:08:43] Mahan Tavakoli: That intentionality Susan is just as important for us as adults. I find that many adults, I interact with make fun of teenagers for being glued to their screens, but it's a lot of times the parents that are just as glued, we can't stand in a grocery line or in an elevator without looking at our screens.

In many instances, we can't sit in a restaurant with another individual without being glued at our own screens. So this loss of art of connecting is not just for the younger generations. It's for all of us.

[00:09:17] Susan McPherson: Think of the signals we send to the younger generation. When we are sitting at a restaurant and staring and not actually having conversation down a whole, we could have a whole another podcast about being present, but I do think to truly connect with people, we do have to be present and we have to put those tools down. On the same token though, those tools can be fabulous means to connect, to reach out, to stay in touch, to reconnect. So I'm not dissing technology. I just think that there's a time and a place and again, not to overuse the term, but to be intentional when we are reaching out to people

[00:09:51] Mahan Tavakoli: That intentionality is really important. Susan. Now you differentiate between connecting and networking and a lot of times people use those words, especially in a business context interchangeably, what is connecting as opposed to the typical networking interactions we have with people

[00:10:10] Susan McPherson: I love that question. I didn't call the book, the lost art of networking. And if you look up the definition of networking in the Miriam Webster dictionary, everything we dread. It's transactional, it's one to many, it's not going deep. It's, the traditional. And even if we took it to the virtual world doing the quick handshake and then, five hours later being like, who did I talk to?

And connecting is reciprocal. It is leading with how you can be helpful to the other person and then listening for cues when you talk to them so that you actually can be helpful. And for people who might be shy or introverted, it's much more one to one, maybe one to two, which perhaps it's less scary and more doable and feasible. So that's how I see the difference.

[00:10:57] Mahan Tavakoli: You mentioned that you also advocate for people to reflect on how they can help others. Question you mentioned is how can I help, which needs to be done sincerely. I've heard people ask that Susan and the same way as sometimes people ask, how are you doing? And, they have no desire to find out how you're doing.

Want people to ask that with a real desire to help. On the other side of it, I had a conversation with Michael Roderick for the podcast and he talks about the givers fix in that the opposite side of this is some of us that have this desire to constantly help and get that fixed just by helping. How is that connecting balance so you don't just get a giver's fix helping for the sake of helping without ever getting anything in return.

[00:11:49] Susan McPherson: I believe when you are helpful to others, the help will come back. And in my book, I talk about two things, one learning to ask the questions of others so that you can find out what their hopes and dreams and goals are, so you can be on the lookout. Maybe it doesn't mean you're helping them tonight or tomorrow or the next day, but maybe a year from now.

And you listen carefully. So you can maybe take down notes or some way so that a year from now or three months from now, you can remember. Two, I fervently believe also in asking when you need help. And there's a different part of the book where I talk about something called the five minute ask and that is, you keep people that you're close to or semi close to apprised of what's happening in their life so that they have a vested interest when you do need an ask. So that it isn't just out of nowhere “hi I'm raising, $20,000 for a nonprofit that I support. Can you help?” But instead over time, you're giving them updates about the impact of the nonprofit, the help the nonprofit is giving. So that then when you come to them and maybe you give them three options, rather than can you write a check? maybe you could forward this note Maybe it's can you, if you, can't write a check, are there a couple of other people that might have interest or , onto social media. So in other words there's two things, one learning to ask the meaningful questions. So you can find out how you can be helpful. And then two, instead of just, Asking, when you have an immediate need is keep people informed. That speaks to more of what the book is about. I also just wanna clarify, I don't walk around a room and just say, how can I help? How can I help? It's more, how am I listening for cues of ways I can be helpful.

[00:13:34] Mahan Tavakoli: One of the most important points in my view that you make in the book and you have 11 questions to break the ice Susan is that we have to ask the kind of questions that solicit deeper conversations. That enable us to find out how we can help others. A lot of times I find we go through the same boring questions, get the same boring answers, and then with an exchange of a business card we think that has been a meaningful conversation when it hasn't.

[00:14:03] Susan McPherson: A hundred percent.

[00:14:05] Mahan Tavakoli: you mentioned that there is a process you talk about to proactively connect the three phases of going through that connection gather, ask do. What is the gather phase and how can that be done? Susan.

[00:14:21] Susan McPherson: The gather phase is connecting first and foremost with the most important person in your life. And that is you and doing a self audit to find out. What are your superpowers? How can you be helpful to others? And what are your goals over the next let's say one year, three years, even five years. Then you think about. How you are going to break that hermetically sealed bubble in your life, where you only connect with people that look like you sound like you the same age, race, and color as you, and to circle back onto the goals, when you think about your goals, who is it that you wanna connect with or reconnect with? That are aligned with your goals or that you can be helpful to. So that's very much of, the inward focused part of the book.

[00:15:11] Mahan Tavakoli: I love the perspective that you share Susan to connect with people outside of your bubble. And one of the things that I find is that it's become even harder for many of us to do that. How do you connect with people outside of your bubble? Whether it is from a socioeconomic background or political background?

I find we are closing in our bubbles and making sure that people around us are more like us, at least in terms of their thinking. In some instances there's diversity of faces, but not diversity of voices and diversity of thought.

[00:15:46] Susan McPherson: Well, It's hard and I don't have the specific answer for that. What I've done over the course of. Professional career is always when I would move to a new area is get involved in a nonprofit or a local civic organization so that I could meet people or have that a different socioeconomic perspective than I did. Perhaps grew up in a very different part of the country and that really helped me break out of my bubble. Also, I've gotten, much bolder in my leader years, to just ask people that I know and say, I need to diversify my community so that I can learn so that I can improve. And you happen to know these three people and I would love an introduction. I think sometimes we're afraid to ask because it sounds oh, I don't have any latinx friends, or I don't have any black friends, but you do and I wanna meet them. And that's not what I'm suggesting.

What I'm suggesting is we be intentional about broadening our networks and use various ways to do it. And one way we can is be bold and say it I need to, and realize we've been faulty in doing so in the past.

[00:16:52] Mahan Tavakoli: You also mentioned and refer to the strength of weak ties studies that they had done at Stanford. The question, a lot of times I get Susan is people say you are an extrovert and I'm not fully an extrovert myself, but they say it's easy for you to say when you gain energy by seeking people out, having conversations with them, asking about them.

I don't. So how would people that don't get their energy from interacting with other people approach this

[00:17:24] Susan McPherson: Yeah, well there's days I don't either. . And I Hearn back to Adam Grant's first book where he talked about the importance of taking meetings, because you actually were more efficient. The more meetings you took now I get that your question is a little bit different, but I wanted to state that when people are like, oh my God, I can't take meetings because I don't have time there is science behind the fact that you actually become more efficient. But for people who are generally like, I'm just not into this not feeling. What I say is , don't set huge expectations. And the pandemic in some way might have been a gift, right?

Cuz you've had lots of time to be by yourself but, set tiny goals for yourself, and when you are going to an event, whether it's in real life or via zoom or Microsoft teams, or what have you set a goal of maybe meeting three people, sharing three things and perhaps Learning three things, right?

Or two people or four people, whatever feasible and doable. The other good thing that we have in our world today is we can often find out who's gonna be in the room before we get there. This is where you can be a bit more strategic. Now don't get me wrong. I am all about meeting just whoever, if your time is limited or generally don't like meeting new people, but you have a professional life that you need to continue to grow. Then I would suggest going ahead, finding out who's gonna be in the room and thinking about two or three people, and then focus on that. And then go hide in the bathroom.

[00:18:49] Mahan Tavakoli: For many of us, it's hard to do that. But the intentionality that you talk about, Susan becomes a big part of it cuz one of the things that has happened, and this has nothing to do with the past couple of years. And in some studies they show that it is not even related to technology. It's the fact that more and more of us are feeling lonely and that loneliness epidemic is having an impact, especially in the United States. The blue zone studies show one of the contributors to longevity is people having those social connections. So this can help with our wellbeing. It's not just something that helps us advance our business or professional lives.

[00:19:36] Susan McPherson: A hundred percent, it is. I often say when people are like, what is one take away from your book? And I say, it's gonna make you healthier. All things being equal, but actually will help you more than eating kale and running every day. And I love kale, I live in Brooklyn. By connecting, I'm making up for the lost running time.

[00:19:58] Mahan Tavakoli: That's an outstanding perspective for all of us whose knees are starting to wear out with the running.

Also something in my mind when I reflect on Dunbar's number and for those not familiar with it, dunbar had studied that human communities were primarily in groups of one-fifty.

Eventually they did studies even looking on Facebook, not the number of connections people have that they call friends, but people that they fully interact with are somewhere around 150. So meaning our ability to maintain deeper relationships. For many of us, the ceiling is somewhere around 150.

How do you balance that with this need to continually engage with and connect with new people, getting to know them and establishing those weak ties.

[00:20:49] Susan McPherson: For good and bad, the 150 people are gonna move on. People are gonna decide they don't wanna be in your orbit anymore. As hard as that may be, it's reality. So I think, in some ways the shuffling around gives you an opportunity because we also don't wanna rest on our laurels and think people are always gonna be staying around.

Now. I'm also a big believer though, when you have lost touch with somebody, so maybe one of the 150 or 200, you actually reach out to them. Especially now as we're breaking outta this pandemic, use the pandemic. It harmed us. We might as well use it for all we can. But I just think, unless somebody has actually blatantly told you, they never want to be in touch with you, it's worth a try.

You do run the risk of rejection, which is never a pleasant experience or to be ghosted, but at least you tried. Sometimes that is as important, reconnecting as is getting new contacts. The 150 it probably goes to 170, so I think you'd be OK.

[00:21:50] Mahan Tavakoli: One of the points that you make is that it's not only in relationship acquisition, in many instances, it's re-engaging and reconnecting with people that are already in our circle.

[00:22:04] Susan McPherson: A hundred percent.

[00:22:07] Mahan Tavakoli: Susan, as organizational leaders are reflecting on the future of work. What are some of your thoughts and perspectives on how leaders can promote greater connection in the work environment?

[00:22:21] Susan McPherson: First And foremost leaders have to understand this is a business vitally important role, I specifically reviewed Rob Cross, who's a professor at Babson, who's done a lot of research around friends at work and how that affects your productivity. And I'm sure your listeners already can guess what's coming out of my mouth. But when you have friends at work, when you have better relationships, when you have more meaningful connections at work, you are far more likely to be productive, stay at the company and recommend the company to others. So if you're a business leader and you're looking and you're staring out at now hybrid workforces, to me you need to go above and beyond to figure out ways you are going to connect your employees and not delve in to the monthly happy hour or the annual sales meeting and actually make it part of every meeting, virtual and in person. And you need to do everything you can that for the people who aren't in the room to encourage them to feel safe and make them feel safe. This whole notion about bring your full self to work, whether virtually or not. People can only bring their full selves if they feel safe enough to do. So those who hold power have to do everything they can to bring those people into the fold and continuously check in. Overcommunicate is what I think that's my thought on this, especially if they are looking at wanting their organization or company to last for the long haul.

[00:23:46] Mahan Tavakoli: I had a conversation with Rob Cross a couple of months back for the podcast, and he emphasizes that need for the connection and the collaboration. You build on that, Susan, you had a great article in Harvard business review nn sharing your authentic self. So how would you recommend for leaders in organizations to be more willing to share their authentic selves?

I've heard concerns from leaders saying, I don't know what is the appropriate level of myself to share . So What do you advise on that?

[00:24:25] Susan McPherson: You really have to align with the culture of the company. Grounded in reality, ask your team members, your employees what would they like to see? And let that kind of dictate. Because if the culture has always been one of nobody shares anything, for you to all of a sudden, come on to the loud signal and be like here's everything that's happened to me in the last 20 years. This is gonna be a little crazy. But I also think bring your true self can mean a thousand different things. But In my perspective, over the years when I have been open as a leader, as an employer, Generally, what has happened is more people open up more people feel comfortable. The people that have stayed working has been remarkable. In my company I have 15 employees. It's a much smaller organization then certainly large corporations. But if that is offered any proof that has certainly been helpful for us.

[00:25:13] Mahan Tavakoli: Susan, I mentioned Satya Nadela quite frequently on the podcast and had a conversation with Carolyn Do of McKinzie. And she studied the top performing CEOs and Nadela is one of them. One of the things he does really well. Is to share that authentic side of who he is so people can connect to him. We need to give people an opportunity to get to know us

[00:25:41] Susan McPherson: I could not expect during the pandemic my team members to come to meetings and actually share their fears, if I wasn't going to share my fears. And the beginning of March of 2020, I was terrified. I had three new employees starting in beginning of March of 2020, and I was staring down this, few months and thinking the first thing companies are going to cancel is social impact because nobody knew what was coming and everybody was afraid. And I could have come to those first few meetings and been like, everything's gonna be fine. And instead, I let them all know. I said, this is scary, but I'm gonna do everything I can to keep the lights on here and keep you all employed. And there's gonna be meetings where some of us are gonna be feeling really downtrodden and boy, the light switch went on after that because people would sometimes come and people would maybe burst into tears. And I came of age professionally in the nineties when if a woman cried, it was check mark on your professional viability.

[00:26:46] Mahan Tavakoli: It's learning to show that humanity. And you also mentioned going through these challenges at McPherson strategies would love to know how have these past couple of years impacted McPherson Strategies and how you are helping organizations.

[00:27:02] Susan McPherson: Thank you for that. It or not, we doubled in size and I credit that for two things. One, I have a remarkable team. Brilliant, creative, lovely humans, and two, the world. The communications of impact now is vitally important for corporations, for foundations, and for nonprofit organizations. It used to be impact communications was at the end, after a particular initiative or campaign was created, it was like, oh, then we'll worry about it. And now it's definitely part of the table where the strategy is created. And I think that's good.

That goes back to that intentionality of how we're gonna be communicating, how do we want to be perceived in the world and how do we wanna show up? So the same way we are as individuals, companies, and organizations need to be very intentional about that. And we have been a benefactor of that.

Knock on wood, I know there's lots of talk about a potential recession, but I hope that organizations still put value. For all the reasons why, the state of the world, the gen Z and millennials wanna work for organizations that they perceive to have purpose at very core as well as just the fact that we are all living online and we're constantly consuming information.

So organizations need to be strategic on how they want to get through all the noise.

[00:28:20] Mahan Tavakoli: With the stakeholders demanding more from the organizations and also to the fact that the Judy Samuelson of Aspen says employees have become the new check and balance on organizations. That social impact is not a luxury anymore. It's a must have for organizations.

Susan, in addition to your book, the lost art of connecting, are there any leadership practices or resources you typically find yourself recommending for leaders, whether in looking to connect more deeply or just in grounding themselves better to allow others to connect with them?

[00:29:03] Susan McPherson: Social media is a great way to get a sense of what's happening, but I'm a big believer in listening and engaging rather than just throwing stuff out there. So LinkedIn, Twitter, there's just a bastion of information if cut out the noise and the vitrol. I mentioned Adam Grant. Anyone who's a business leader reads his books. I Follow his newsletter. You mentioned Rob Cross. These types of I think pontificators can be hugely helpful for companies trying to build a culture of connection. Obviously you can read my book. Prya Parkers, the art of gathering is in terms of bringing your employees or your members together can be a tremendous guide.

[00:29:43] Mahan Tavakoli: Great recommendations, as well as your book. How would you recommend for the audience to find out more about you Susan and the lost art of connecting?

[00:29:51] Susan McPherson: Thank you. What a joy this has been. The  Company is McPherson strategies, so it's McP strategies. I can be found on all the interwebs at Susan MCP one and the book, the law start of connecting can be found at bookstores both online or anywhere you reside.

[00:30:09] Mahan Tavakoli: Well, I really appreciated the conversation, Susan, and I appreciate your book, the lost art of connecting. It has wonderful insights in there coming from a person who also embodies what she talks about. So I really appreciate you showing what connecting to humanity of others is all about.

Thank you so much for joining the conversation, Susan McPherson.

[00:30:33] Susan McPherson: Thank you Mahan. This was wonderful.