Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D., C.S.P., is an internationally sought-after speaker, organizational consultant, and New York Times bestselling author. He consults for and writes about transformational leadership and ways to deliver extraordinary employee and customer experiences. Joseph’s insights encourage leaders and frontline workers to grow and invest passionately in all aspects of their lives.
Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
My start was a bit pernicious. I was placed in a trash can at two days of age by a mother scared to tell her parents she had given birth out of wedlock. Remarkably she hid my entire pregnancy before giving birth out of state. I was blessed to be extracted from the trash and adopted into the amazingly loving home of Joe and Marie Michelli in Florence, Colorado. I’ve clowned with Patch Adams in Chinese orphanages where many children started life with similar abandonment. I am forever grateful for my tremendous blessings and try to never forget from whence I came.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I’d been more accepting and realistic about my limitations and spent more energy developing my talents. Over time, I’ve learned people aren’t looking to work with or follow “perfect” leaders. They want to partner with individuals who are aware of their strengths and limitations. They prefer people who are self-accepting and who embrace the strengths and limitations of others. Most people want us to add value to their lives and recognize where they add unique value to ours.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I am not a fan of the guidance that “leaders must either put their team members first or put their customers first.” For example, Sir Richard Branson emphasizes employee-centricity, and Jeff Bezos advocates for customer-centricity. Fundamentally, I believe these prioritizations represent a false choice. Sustainable success requires a balanced approach to human experience elevation. While people can be categorized as team members, customers, shareholders, vendors/partners, and community members, experience elevation requires attention to everyone in the ecosystem.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
In a 6-month period, I faced the death of my wife and my mother. At that time, my son was in college, and my daughter was mid-way through her senior year in high school. My wife’s death was the culmination of a six-year battle with breast cancer. I emerged from that time with insights into the varied ways people grieve. I also was fortunate to learn that we can’t take health or life for granted. I also have the time to ensure that nothing was left unsaid before my wife passed.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
That success is the joinder of readiness and opportunity. Often those opportunities are the result of the kindness and generosity of others.
My father was employed as a heavy equipment operator, and my mother was a police dispatcher. As hard as they worked, they didn’t have the money to send me to college. Contrast my background to that of Katrina McCormick-Barnes. Katrina’s mother and father were US senators, and her father was part owner of the Chicago Tribune. Fortunately for me, there was an unlikely intersection between her path and mine. Katrina’s generosity of spirit availed me a full-tuition scholarship, housing expenses, and a stipend to the University of Denver. Once selected for her scholarship, Katrina asked for just one thing from me and seven other scholarship recipients – individuals from diverse racial backgrounds (African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, etc.). Katrina asked that we peaceably live together, learn from each other, and actively pursue our respective bachelor’s degrees. Katrina changed my life and the lives of so many others. She inspired social action and made the world a better place through her compassion and generosity. People like Katrina have helped me appreciate the importance of acting similarly.
What is your morning routine?
I wake up at 6 am, enjoy a cup of fresh ground coffee, and savor a few hours of uninterrupted time. I usually start client meetings around 9 am, have a second cup of coffee, facilitate a daily team planning meeting, squeeze in time for exercise, and eat my first meal of the day at lunch.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Playing instruments and listening to music are essential habits. Music has mood-elevating properties, it’s as if I get an endorphin or enkephalin high, and I lose myself in music creation – alone or with others.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I believe I have a responsibility to use the time on this planet to make a positive difference for others. As such, I try to make choices that foster that difference. Sometimes I need to “recreate” in order to create. Sometimes a positive difference comes from spending time playing with grandkids. Other times, I need to work into the early hours of the morning to contribute value to a client. I strive to avoid activities that drain my mental energy. My mental traps include playing video games, doing endless internet searches, or spending too much time reading social media posts. For some people, those activities are energizing, but I find myself numb and depleted. So, I am better off taking a walk and thinking about where there is a need I can fill.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Two books have had a profound impact on me, and I re-read them periodically. They are Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and the book series the Story of Civilization written by Will and Ariel Durant. Victor Frankel’s book (albeit about the horrors of the holocaust) captures the indomitable resilience and resourcefulness of the human spirit. It’s also rich with stories of how prisoners demonstrated service and compassion to one another amid unspeakable hardships. Will and Ariel’s work reflects herculean research and masterful writing. The eleven-volume series takes the reader from the birth of civilization through the Napoleonic age. This remarkable series brings to life Sir Isaac Newton’s observation that “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Credit for the positives in my life certainly goes to those who have cleared my path.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
My favorite quote comes from Henry David Thoreau. He wrote: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” I love the eternal wisdom reflected in well-traveled quotes like this one from Thoreau and sprinkle them liberally throughout my books.