Charles Vogl is an award winning author, speaking and executive adviser. His first book, international bestselling The Art of Community: 7 Principles for Belonging is a guide for leaders seeking to build a vibrant, living culture that will enrich lives. His newest book, Building Brand Communities: How Organization Succeed by Creating Belonging speaks directly to organizational leaders that seek to connect people in ways that serve both members and larger organizational goals.
Today, Charles advises leadership and operations within firms including Google and LinkedIn, among others. He is also a founding member of the Google Vitality Lab.
We highly encourage you to learn more about his work on CharlesVogl.com, and dive even deeper by picking up a copy of one of his books!
Click here to watch the full interview.
You can also read the full transcript of their conversation below. In the meantime, if you’re interested in finding out where you stand on community, check out our latest tool: The MixR Community Assessment Test.
Cecile: Charles, thank you so much for being one of the first guests on our MixR Talks series. We’re so glad you accepted because I’ve been reading your work for a long time. Actually, you’ve written two books on community. The first one, a few years ago, outlines your thinking on the practice of community, and the newest one, that you just published only a few weeks ago, Building Brand Communities.
I know Charles from what you’ve been doing in your life, from writing books to producing documentaries, you’re just an amazing person to begin with. You’ve been focusing your time lately on building community and unlocking the power of communities. I have a few questions prepared and I’d like to start with those.
So, as we said, building community is a very important matter for you. In your first book, The Art of Community, you take us on a really profound and personal journey, almost intimate, I would say, into the role of community and what that plays in your life. And what makes this really relatable is that you start the story by saying that there was a lot of loneliness and fear at Yale, where you studied at that point, and this is what triggered you to do something about it. That something was creating community with other students – and then you started organizing those Friday dinners. So, I’m curious, were you really intentionally creating community back then, and how come community became the answer to this very big statement about loneliness and fear?
Charles: Well, I’m delighted that you brought up that time of my life where I really had to learn to put into action consistent commitment to build community, which really, we could say community differently here: It’s just a network of friends, not business cards that we collect and put it in a pocket somewhere, but actual friendships. You know that in my work, I define community as a group of people who share mutual concern with one another, and I think most of us, in our life we would call those friends, so really, how do we create a group of friends that are connected together to be supportive on good days and bad days? You’re right, when I got to Yale in my mid-30s, early 30s, to go to graduate school, that was a time where I was in a new place doing a new thing, and quite frankly, I wasn’t good at that thing. Turns out, I was in a place with a bunch of other people who just showed up and they also were struggling…No surprise, it was a struggle. It’s a big surprise to a lot of people that at many highly selective schools, people will show up, they find it really difficult, and then if they’re like me (and there are many like me) they question whether they really belong there. Or said differently, we wonder whether we’re gonna be asked to leave at any given moment, whether we’ll be accepted.
So, that was what prompted that series of commitments, amongst other things, a lot of invitations went out to host dinners at our home on Friday nights. At the beginning it looked like it wasn’t going to be very successful because people had other exciting things to do on campus on Friday nights, or they could go to New York and do fun things, and it seemed like just a few of them were willing to spend a Friday evening sharing a meal at my home. But, after a year, it became very popular and we were running wait lists, and eventually, my wife and I would host over 500 people in our home, one small dinner party at a time. Turns out, there were hundreds of people at Yale alone that really were hungry for an intimate experience to sit down and share a conversation that wasn’t being judged, wasn’t being evaluated. And unfortunately, I learned that at Yale, and I’m sure this is true of many places, the number of times Americans are invited to sit down at the table for hours, say 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock, and have a conversation that’s unscripted, that doesn’t have an agenda, where they won’t be evaluated, unfortunately, the number of times Americans are invited into that kind of experience often hovers around zero. So, we learned what a precious thing it was to make that invitation.
To speak to your question, what inspired me, besides just that realization of my own experience, that I was in a new place with people I didn’t know, worried if I belonged there struggling to be good at this new job, which is to study ethics and religion. Before that, as you mentioned, I was a documentary filmmaker, and all of my work had to do with what we called high social impact media. We wanted to change the world with the stories we were telling, and fortunately much of my work was funded by, and then would air on PBS in the U.S. and sometimes internationally. So we were really doing it. One of the first things I had to learn as a really, really bad beginning documentary filmmaker was that I can’t do it by myself, not only can I not do it by myself, I’m gonna need dozens, actually hundreds of other people. And I never had enough money to just go and hire people to do the things I needed.
We were documentary filmmakers, and my most famous film was about a family surviving genocide. So you could say I was a genocide filmmaker, I didn’t have a lot of money, and I had mentors that taught me that if I wanted to be successful, not just in this endeavor making a difference in telling important stories, but really in life, what I had to get good at was bringing people together around shared values and purpose. Their point was: Charles, if you’re really good at everything else, writing budgets, writing letters, answering phone calls, looking over contracts, if you’re really good at that, and you can’t do the part about bringing people together, you’re gonna fail. If you’re really good at bringing people together and you’re okay at looking over contracts and understanding IP laws and what not, you’re gonna be great because you’re gonna have the people around you that are gonna be great at that and helping you cross the finish line.
So, before I got to graduate school, I had spent years… really, my whole life revolves around getting good and bringing people together around shared values and purpose, and that was amongst the crucibles that taught me how to use those muscles and learn those skills. Then when I got to graduate school, here I was in this new place without those hundreds of people that I had been connected to for years and I in some ways had to start at the beginning. Start at the beginning meaning start making invitations to people I didn’t know, start picking a place and a time where we would get to know each other, invite them to something compelling enough that they might show up… It’s not rocket science. It was dinner. And then do it on a budget that I could make work and I didn’t have a lot of money, so we weren’t going out to steak dinners in restaurants, I was buying groceries and often making a lot of rice, and that was enough to bring what turned out to be hundreds of people together. I’ll tell you, I’m now in my late 40s, and it’s been so many years, and many of those 19-year-olds I met on campus now are mid-career. They’re doing fantastic. I’ve heard time and time again that sitting at our dinner table, in that not very large apartment, in a not very glamorous neighborhood, eating a meal that was not very expensive for many people were the highlights of their years at Yale. Yale is a fancy place, a lot of fancy buildings, a lot of fancy programs, and it used to startle me that people would say that, and now it doesn’t anymore, because I know what you know: we’re living in the loneliest era of American history. So if you’re listening to us right now and you feel lonely, you’re not special, and unfortunately, everybody you know is also living in the loneliest era of American history and they didn’t ask to be born in this generation, and so when we invite someone to share time with us, just to build friendship, not to show off, not to make more money, not to get a bigger platform, just to see is their friendship here worth forming? That can be a highlight of someone’s year or maybe even a few years.
Cecile: What I was reading between the lines and when I’m listening to you speak, it seems so obvious. It’s about bringing ‘aliveness’ and putting life into something that seems kind of dead, where you need to go to classes and you’re task oriented, and then suddenly there’s space for life to happen.
Charles: I think that’s a great observation. You and I talk to people who are often leading organizations, very often for-profit organizations, and even the non-profits, they’ve got Big Hairy Goals they’re working on. We know, you and I, that making friends at work is amongst the seemingly silver bullets. If there is a silver bullet, one of the silver bullets is making friends with work for burnout, for mistakes, for accidents, for absenteeism. Going on and on, right? But it takes time.
Cecile: It’s really interesting that you say that because lately, not even 10 days ago, I was talking to a company and what they were sharing with us is that they really doubt the fact that having work friendships is even something to consider. Actually, they’re trying not to do that. So you still have people here in America that believe that work is for work, and life is something else, friendship is life and work is work, and that makes me think about what happened at Basecamp. Did you follow that?
Charles: I’ve heard some things about it. You may know more than I do.
Cecile: It was really interesting because one of the things that the CEO is saying is: We’re talking too much about politics and social issues at work, so from now on… We’re not going to talk about it anymore. It’s forbidden at work. And what’s really interesting is the consequence of that, because for me, political, social, social issues are things you talk about with friends, so work can be a place where that happens, and it better happen in an organized manner, otherwise, you may have issues. And, the result of that is you already have about 30% of the company that decided to leave, quit the company, and it’s really interesting for me going back to what you were saying. I don’t know if that triggers any thinking…
Charles: Well, I think it’s a perfect reflection of what happens when you try to tell your employees exactly how they should behave in a really non-humane way at work, and I think you’re making a great point. That particular CEO lost 30% of their workforce. You tell me, do you think the most talented or least talented 30% with the most options or the least options decided to leave that week? So he’s left with the two-thirds of his company that had the least good options, such that they didn’t leave in the first week, and I’m not even sure the other shoe hasn’t fallen yet. Look, if your firm doesn’t need any innovation, if you don’t want any surprise efficiencies, if you never make mistakes. Yeah, maybe your firm can work without people making friends at work. That’s possible. I’ve been working for over a year now with Google, and Google has me working with hundreds of people that are critically important to their future, and Google is crystal clear that they need to be an innovative company: they’re in tech, if they’re not innovative, they might be history in 15 years. And they brought me in to help connect people important for that future and they’re regarded as one of the most creative, quite frankly, dominating companies in the last generation. If that isn’t a signal to CEOs, that it’s important to invest, that people critical for your success are connected in a healthy and proactive way, I don’t know what is… And, if they can’t hear that, I can’t help them.
Cecile: Yeah, and actually, there’s one thing, if you’ll allow me to read from your book that I thought was really enlightening, something you said about reminding us that Americans, and probably people all over the world, spend more time at work than with our families. This is a fact, and then you continue on saying that “research indicates that strong social connections at work make employees more likely to be engaged with their jobs and produce higher quality work, and less likely to fall sick or be injured. Without strong social connections these gains become losses.” So it’s really speaking to what you just said, and then you even go further and say that our work-based communities are kind of disintegrating, and you mention work from home as something that frequently creates an issue with loneliness. Obviously given what just happened over the last year, and with flex work or “partly at home, partly at work,” where do you see that going? And how can the community help us keep the ‘aliveness’ of organizations?
Charles: Well, first of all, when we talk about where it’s going and how a firm should think about how they’re going to bring their people together – virtually or in the physical world – when you think of why they would want to do that… And one of the things that happens when people are friends at work is there is an informal network of communication. Which is to say when the formal one breaks down, because someone’s on vacation, or if someone’s got a political beef, or someone’s confused about how approvals work, someone can pick up the phone and say, “Hey, could you help me get this through? Can you help approve this? Can you help this innovation?” or, “Hey, I noticed there’s a problem over there, we can help you with that this way.” If you don’t have those friendships, that evaporates.
As we separate with more virtual working, which is fantastic for some people, and we can talk about that if you want. Unless we invest for those informal networks to happen, they’re not gonna be created – full stop. And so one of the things that firms that understand that they need to invest in do, is they’re scheduling time just for staff to connect, to understand each other at a personal level, or said differently, to show up to work as a whole self: That I know you something other than what you do for me or how you’re a block to me. There are a number of ways to do that, and one of my colleagues just released a book: Rituals for Work, and for example, there’s many principles there on how we can start meetings, end meetings and even punctuate meetings. To invite time, to let someone show up as a full person rather than to be task-oriented. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s a lot better than in an entire year with colleagues where there’s no room to show up as a full person to understand. I was in a meeting on one of my Google Projects and someone in the meeting said, “Before we start, let’s go around and share what’s fully present in our minds.” It turns out on my colleagues at that moment was sitting in Portland, Oregon, and while she was sitting there, she could hear the violence of the protests within ear shot from where she was sitting, I had no idea until she was invited to bring in that comment, well, sitting in a meeting listening to people hurt each other, blocks away is a very different context than where I was sitting, and that changed the dynamic of that meeting. And we have no idea how many others are sitting through context that would change our interaction, were they invited to share it.
Cecile: And even being in a different time zone: when it’s early for you, and when it’s late in the evening for me, my energy is completely different. Knowing that could help a lot. The other question I had is around those communities at work, ERGs and social clubs, and things like that that should become communities, intentional communities, the way you describe them. One of the questions I have is, do you think that those communities have a new space to evolve, is there something for them in the future of work, as we call it, is there a place they should take?
Charles: Absolutely, there is potential there. Let’s just be really clear that when many people say they’re building community inside a firm, often what they’re really doing is compiling a list. And, you can even have just a list of people attending an event, but if you’re not creating events that are structured to deliver on the intention of connecting people, you have what we often call an arena event: which is set up in a broadcast way where there’s someone at the front of the stage or on a microphone somewhere, sharing information to other people… Nothing wrong with that, it just doesn’t provide a venue for the people we want to be members to connect. So one of the ways that, what we call segmented groups, within a larger community or group can be created, is to make sure that we’re creating intimate experiences.
Here’s one of the things that really surprised people about building community. Many people, certainly C-suite executives, that I talk to want to think big, they want to reach tens of thousands, or sometimes hundreds of thousands of people with these programs. What they don’t understand is that ‘community’ is always formed at the small level, and I always encourage people to think five or smaller at the beginning. If you think of communities that you really feel connected to, you don’t feel really connected to 500 people, you feel connected to probably five to ten. Three might be enough, and if you’re all part of a bigger community then you may feel more connected, but if those five to ten people were to leave for some reason, then you might not feel connected to the other 490. That’s not to say that we can’t invest in bringing hundreds or thousands of people together, and there are ways to be successful at that… And you know that I’ve written about that, but we need to think on a leadership level, where are we giving our members, or potential members, an opportunity to connect with four other people, in an intimate conversation over a meal, or on a walk, or in the gym, or after a yoga class or… We can go on forever, but we need to look for these intimate experiences, I call them a campfire experience, and the only reason we call them a campfire experience is because most people have sat around a campfire at one point, and noticed when they stood up to leave, they felt more connected to people around that campfire than they do in other conversations. If we think: how are we creating campfire experiences with certain criteria, we’ll eventually grow a larger community.
Cecile: What I’m hearing is, we need to accept the fact that you may have a delayed reward in investing in community. As a CEO, I might not immediately see the impact of the investment I’m making. I need to accept that I might have a delayed reward, and in a world where everything is instantaneous, I want to see it right now, I want to do something and measure the effect of it the next day. How do you tell that story? Because it takes time to see how powerful building, intentional community can be.
Charles: Well, I’m really at a loss on how to tell the story. If someone looks over their own life and doesn’t recognize all the important relationships that they have: they have saved them when they needed saving, that held them up when they felt weak, that celebrated with them in a meaningful way when there is a win… If they can’t recognize that all those relationships took time, then they just don’t understand enough about humanity to really engage in this work. As soon as we reflect on that, I would say: “Great, you can’t make a baby in three months, you can’t renovate a house in two weeks, you can’t learn to hike Everest in six weeks, you can’t… You just can’t.” That’s how it works. All of those things can be really great life-changing experiences, and you have to put in the time that it takes, and I like to be really clear, there will be no obvious return on an organization quickly investing in community. Because it just takes time.
We can think of community as happening in dyads. At the end of the day, no less than two people have to at some point connect in some way where they build trust, and build empathy, and build a perception of understanding and belonging. I say perception because that might actually be there, but they don’t perceive it or they might be mistaken, but that’s another situation. That’s just takes the time it takes. Everybody listening has had friends, hopefully, you notice it takes more than 10 minutes. When we build enough of those dyads and they network together, now we have a community, and a community can be as small as three people. Hopefully, you have a group of three friends that really come together when there’s a tough time. Once that is in place, extraordinary things happen, and you know, I wrote in the book, Harley Davidson actually credits bringing that firm from the brink of bankruptcy to being a market dominator, because they invested (almost accidentally) by inviting their customers to come ride motorcycles with them. It wasn’t rocket science. It turns out that investment, the CEO claims, was the most important variable in making them a market dominator by connecting those people in the community of riders. That sounds pretty life-changing for an organization, I also write about an organization working on religious violence around the world. They have leaders from different sex, different traditions in different places, all working on this. Well, traveling for them can be dangerous, they’re literally going to places where there’s religious violence. Having a community of leaders working on this to support each other is absolutely life and work-changing, because they know they’re not alone when they show up. So once you make the investment, things that are literally impossible start happening.
Cecile: That’s awesome. So I do have two small additional questions for you. When I was reading your second book, it literally stopped me in my tracks when you were talking about practicing community… I just loved it. There’s something about it. It’s practicing a skill, it’s something that you need to develop, it does not happen in one day, and so I think this idea of practicing community really deserves to be looked at in a very profound way. What does that mean for you? Practicing community?
Charles: We talk about community as being a group of people who share mutual concern, and I think you and I both want to wake up every day and know, “Hey, today there’s a group of people out there who care about me, and they know that I care about them.” It’s a practical matter – since we spend time together, they have relationships beyond me, it’s a network, not just a wagon wheel connected to Charles. That doesn’t happen by accident. There are practices I need to make so that when I wake up on any given day, those people are there in the world and it’s a practical matter – their contacts are on my phone. And you know that I’ve written quite a bit about this.
One of the things I need to do, and that I encourage everybody to start with is start making invitations. You may, like me, have more people say no than yes. Because they’re busy. They’ve got kids, they’re moving, they’ve got important jobs, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. I have to make invitations, and if I don’t make invitations, people don’t know they have invitations to spend time with me. That can be taking kids to a park, that can be throwing something on a grill, it can be literally sitting outside of a bakery and enjoying a pastry, that totally accounts. But I have to be making those invitations, and quite frankly, this morning, I was making invitations for this weekend, and so far I have more nos than yeses, because people are busy, but I only need a few yeses and I have relationships invested in. The next thing I need to do is I need to practice hosting, and I don’t mean learning how to fold napkins, I don’t mean how to decorate a room, I mean just making the space comfortable enough for the people that I want to know better to show up and when they get there, understand that they’re welcome, and quite frankly, that could simply be French fries and iced tea in a park, and I’ve done that actually. There’s obviously more than that, but people like French fries and they like iced tea in a warm park, good enough. And then, there are a number of skills within that that we can practice. One of them is what I call acknowledgment. We know people know how to think, and people know how to judge, and it happens all the time when people meet me and they don’t know me yet. They say “what do you do?” That’s a very classist question and not necessarily a bad one, but very classist.
A lot of people don’t want to be judged by what they do when they’re not talking to us. That doesn’t necessarily set up a space to be really welcoming and then they judge us for what we say, “Oh, that’s great” or “That must be hard.” So one of the things we can learn is how to acknowledge… And one of the things that I do when I’m meeting new people or even with friends, I’m listening to what they’re taking on in their life, what they’re committed to, making sure their kids are safe and healthy to pandemic, making sure they’re taking care of their mental health in a pandemic, making sure that they’re taking care of people they know who are sick, and one of things I can do is not necessarily judge that because they don’t wanna be judged by me, but I can acknowledge it and I could say, “it sounds like you’re really working to make sure your kids are healthy in a time where they’re not going to school and they can’t see their friends.” They may be doing a terrible job at that. I don’t know.
Cecile: Well, I just love your pages around your birthday: what you do on the day of your birthday, when you write those acknowledgement letters to your friends. That was just brilliant. I loved it.
Charles: So there’s a great use of acknowledgement. I use my birthday as a type of reflection and my life is pretty good, but it wasn’t always that way. It is now, and one of things I do is I look at my birthday and the previous year, and I look at who fills my life, because those people who fill my life are largely, almost exclusively, what makes my life so fantastic. So I start calling the people in my life that made the last year fantastic, and I don’t tell them they’re the best in the world, I don’t tell them they’re the best friends in the world, I don’t tell them that there’s something they could have done better. Because maybe none of that is true. What is true is that my life is better because they’re in my life, and so it’s a pretty quick phone call. I call and I say, “James, I want you to know that birthday is a time of reflection for me, and you’re my brother, and you’re someone that I can call whenever I need help, and I know you’ll pick up…I know if you can, you will, and I often don’t call you, but when I do, you’re there for me and that makes a big difference. So I just want you to know that.” And that’s the whole call, and if James says something, I’ll listen to him, but if he’s busy and doesn’t want to say anything else, that’s all it is. And I just keep making those calls until, quite frankly, the day ends. At the end of that day, my community is stronger because they know that I see them and appreciate them, and usually what happens is they tell me they see me and appreciate me. So the day after my birthday, my life and my community are stronger.
Cecile: I love hearing it. I was reading it, and now I’m hearing it. It’s awesome. My very last question is concerning an expression that you use in your book that made me think, and I actually had to look it up in a dictionary to really understand what it meant. There’s a certain energy to it. You say: godspeed. And I would just like to understand what that means for you? It seems important.
Charles: It’s a little bit subtle in my use, and it is important. It’s a term that I understand comes from naval communication, in a time where formal communication was a little bit more explicit about the faith of the participants. My work is explicitly ministerial, and I think, you know, I have a degree in religion, and so I like to think that my work is a healing work of ministry inspired by faith, inspired by my understanding of my place in the world (which is a really small and humble part of it.) All of my work, I like to think, is about supporting other people, like you, in sharing ideas, in improving our eyesight and how we understand what we’re seeing such that we can provide a more healing cultural context. Quite frankly, we do things to heal other people who are lonely and in pain. And all of that work is inspired spiritually for me, so when I wish others to go at godspeed, it’s a subtle nod that this is a ministerial work, and that I’d like you to do this quickly, but quickly in the sense that we’re ministering, in whatever way that looks appropriate for us, and is appropriate for the people we’re serving.
Cecile: Thank a million, Charles. It was amazing to have you today, and I’m just hoping that all of the people watching us will be able to grab those two books, they’re very different and you really do need both of them to go into depth on what you’ve shared with us today. I really appreciate this opportunity and I wish you a very lovely day. You’ve made my day, so thank you for that.
Charles: I’m delighted to be invited and I’m delighted that this is something you’re working on. Hopefully our work will inspire millions of others to step forth and connect with the people we care about, since we’re in such a lonely era. At the end of the day, to find the health, safety and peace that we want for this era, what we’re going to need is more empathy and more connection.