BEN ZOLDAN INTERVIEWED
by Symposium Marketing
We sat down with Jackson Melnick of Symposium Marketing, to discuss the Storyleaders work and vision. What emerged was a conversation full of unforgettable stories dealing with fundamental human issues.
JM: What are some of the first things you pick up on when a new team steps into the workshop?
BZ: One of the things I experience is that everybody, without fail, talks about “team”, “teamwork” and I wonder, especially in the sales profession, if it’s really teamwork. I just think we get a lot of lip service to the idea of teamwork. Then I think, if it were a team, what would you do— I think about firefighters, military.
JM: What about them?
BZ: Well, we in corporate America totally misunderstand what it means to be really in a team, in a collective community. I got to know a captain of a United States Nuclear Destroyer, he served 26-years in the Navy, and he talked about a ritual they have on a ship. It’s called the School of the Ship. The School of the Ship is a ritual that everyday at meals. The commanding officers, the higher-ranking people, would eat their meals with anyone except their own rank. And the idea was that they would get to know each other—a commanding officer would sit down with a 19-yr old enlisted seaman, and they would get to know each other. It was not just a team bonding, it was a ritual—and the results can be measured. The one thing he said you must have in the military is trust, and in order to develop trust you can have no secrets. No secrets to the point where somebody you work with you know so well that they walk into a room you know based on their body language how they’re doing. So the school of the ship is a safe space where they can share their life stories with each other and really get to know each other.
JM: Sounds like a Storyleader’s Workshop
BZ: It’s the same idea. The military measures everything- performance, attrition, everything- and they’ve found that the ships that do this ritual regularly perform better. This former captain told me a story as an example, which is so profound. So he says “we were testing the missile off the cost of San Diego. The missile itself was a quarter of a million dollars. We go out there and the missile self-destructs. Back to port, reload, it happens again.” They bring in all the smartest people to port, all the weapons people, the engineers, the civilian people from the corporation—no one can figure out the problem. They do it a third time and it self-destructs, they’re a million dollars into this now. They can’t figure it out. Turns out this twenty-year-old enlisted, private, who is in the weapons department, is able to figure out that the codes on the missiles are different—there was a digit off on the silo that it was shooting out of. So my captain friend goes, “a twenty year old solved the problem that all the smartest guys couldn’t. How do you create a culture where that happens?” Think about that for a second, how subtle that is—where somebody feels so fully empowered, a twenty-year-old can basically call out the fifty-year-old engineer veterans. My friend goes, “I attribute that to School of the Ship”. I’m naïve to the military—I don’t come from a military family, I’m not in it, I’m intimidated by it—but I want to learn how they do what they do. Because that’s teamwork. I have learned that in the military, people are not connected and galvanized first around the mission. They’re galvanized around each other. It’s the togetherness that we can learn from in the corporate world. It takes love to make that togetherness, and that love happens through hearing each other’s stories.
JM: Speaking of love, it was recently Valentine’s Day. My inbox, likely yours as well, was filled with corporate spam, all kinds of special offers reminding me how much I was loved. Sounds like the love you’re talking about is a little different.
BZ: Can I share a quick story about that? I remember getting pissed off when I was getting all those spam emails a few days ago—it is so superficial. And that day as I was thinking about love and what it means I remembered a workshop I had recently done where this woman Alicia told the most remarkable experience, that totally reshaped how I thought about that word “love”. She shared a story about how she wasn’t able to be a mother and at the age of forty resigned herself to the fact that she wasn’t going to have her own children and she fell in love with a man eleven years older than her. So she’s forty, he’s fifty-one, and he already had adult kids. And actually, when they were getting married one of his daughters had just had a kid so she was going to become a step grandmother. And she’s in love with this man, they get married, she’s a step grandmother, but she talked about how she had so much resentment, like “why can’t I be a mother”. She had so much resentment toward his kids. Well, her stepdaughter was a junkie, an addict. And they got called to the hospital one day and her three month old daughter was in the hospital in the most excruciating trauma where she had 27 broken bones, her eyes were bleeding from the inside out, her head had been shaken so she had head trauma, because her mother on heroin had shaken her so badly it created this trauma. Imagine that for a second. Alicia is telling this story in a workshop, she’s in tears, and over the next couple of months while the baby is in the hospital the mother gets arrested, goes to jail, Alicia and her husband are tending to the baby in the hospital, bring the child home as foster parents, and over the next few months they actually adopt her. She becomes the mother of this kid. The kid gets better. But she talked about even when they brought the baby home and she became a mother she still had so much resentment. She was so angry all the time. And she didn’t know why. So a year or two into this she decided to write a letter to her stepdaughter and essentially forgive her, tell her she’s a human being too, she must be going through a lot, ask how did she become a heroin addict…maybe it wasn’t her but the drugs that did it. But she said after she wrote this letter she couldn’t send it. It sat on her table for months. She was so angry she couldn’t send it. And one day, she says she didn’t know what came over her, she popped the letter in the mail. And she says this, “at that moment, all that anger and resentment, woosh, went away”. Like turning off a light switch. She describes the last six to nine months since doing that as just living freer; she’s a more present mother. She finally saw her stepdaughter, and saw her story. And as I was playing this all back in my mind on Valentines Day, I was feeling like the one in the wrong. Why was I getting mad at these companies for sending these superficial cards? There’s a story there too.
JM: What’s the story there?
BZ: That’s a good one. What do you think?
JM: There’s people behind those campaigns, people caught up in a corporate culture making those mass mailings who maybe hate their jobs, don’t feel seen by their coworkers, burdened by student debt they have to pay off and enslaved to their job, they spend all their time in a place where they feel they can’t relate genuinely to their work and each other?
BZ: Right on, right. I learn everything in our workshops. I learn all these unexpected things. I meet a guy who shares a story about losing his brother and never being the same person again, becoming a better person. He comes back and does a second workshop, this time as a coach—his company is going through extensive training with us—and I go to him and I say, “why don’t you share that story with the group about how your life was shaped by your brother’s passing and his battle”. And he said no, he didn’t want to use it for attention or personal gain now that he was a coach, and I kind of got it. But on the last day he stood up and told it I pull him aside afterward and ask him what inspired him to share that story and he just goes like this—“ Dude, I thought about it. It was kind of selfish of me to hesitate not telling it. That story doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the world. If we don’t share these things about our lives, it would be like the world’s great novels sitting on the shelf collecting dust.
JM: It sounds like hearing his story made you genuinely invested in his life.
BZ: Yeah—he passed on after a battle with cancer himself a year ago, and I feel like I can carry his torch by remembering the story of him and his brother. What else matters? We don’t tell stories to sell, we don’t tell stories to win. We tell stories because there is a deeper thing that happens. Stories can turn a dysfunctional family into a functional family, and unloving team into a loving team. Telling stories is what we’re supposed to be doing.