In the face of ever-changing market conditions, leaders are looking for any advantage they can get, and yet almost every attempt to adapt produces the same results–inconsistent adoption, non-existent innovation, and lagging performance. To get lasting results, it’s time for leaders to stop looking for quick fixes and to start building a culture of love. Yes, love.
In their new book, Love as a Business Strategy, Mohammad Anwar and Chris Pitre offer a new people-first framework for achieving any business outcome. This is love as you’ve never seen it–this is a love that leans into the hard conversations, a love that is equal parts inclusion and accountability, a love that focuses on solutions rather than dwelling on problems. This is a love that gets results.
Drew Appelbaum: Hey Listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with Mohammad Anwar and Chris Pitre, authors of Love as a Business Strategy: Resilience, Belonging & Success. Mohammad, Chris, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Chris Pitre: Glad to be here.
Mohammad Anwar: Thanks for having us.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, can we kick this off? Can you give us a rundown of your professional backgrounds respectively? Mohammad, you want to kick this off?
Mohammad Anwar: So, my name is Mohammad Anwar. I am the president and CEO of Softway, which is a business-to-employee solutions company, where we offer culture as a service. And, essentially, I started the business when I was 20 years old, still in college, pursuing my computer science degree, almost 18 years ago. That’s essentially my professional background and I hope that that does the introduction for me.
Drew Appelbaum: Sure, Chris?
Chris Pitre: My name is Chris. I’m the vice-president here at Softway. I’ve been with Softway since 2015. Prior to that, I had a few roles and, responsibilities across the digital marketing and technology, and digital agency space. And, have had a number of different seats, whether that be on the sell side, on the strategy side, just supporting all the teams that were outside of the creative and marketing animation function. So, from legacy technology, legacy modernization to CRM and CRM implementation, mainly Salesforce. I’ve been exposed to a lot but I’m excited to be here.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, did you two know each other before working at Softway, or did you meet there?
Mohammad Anwar: We met as a result of Chris being referred to us for a job at Softway, back in 2015. We did not know each other prior to the start of Softway.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, there are other authors involved in this book, and they contributed to the writing of this book. Did you want to name them?
Mohammad Anwar: Sure. We have two more authors in addition to Chris and myself. One of them is Frank Danna, he is the director of culture at Softway. Then we have Jeff Ma, who is the director of project management at Softway, so we all work for Softway and they are the additional two authors, so a total of four authors on the book.
A Transformational Journey
Drew Appelbaum: Now, why was now the time to share the stories in the book? The company’s been around for a really long time, you guys have been successful, was there something really inspiring lately? Did you have an “aha” moment?
Mohammad Anwar: I think we did have an “aha” moment that led us to even write a book, to begin with. So, to set the stage for that question, in 2015 or 2016, our business was on the verge of bankruptcy, and we had had quite a bit of success for 12, 13 years running the business as a technology company. And given the course of those troubled times that almost led to our existential threat, I had a big realization, as the president and CEO of our company, that it was my selfish behaviors and attitude that had led to almost a demise of our company.
During that time, I had to not only realized but committed to transform myself first, to try and change my behaviors. That led us to eventually get the rest of the leadership on board to try and change everyone’s behaviors to build what we call a culture of love within our own organization. And having to do that, we were able to, not only save the company, but we were able to thrive as an organization up until 2019.
Then, as we came through 2020 with COVID-19 changing the whole world with the pandemic, we saw a need that was required for organizations to become resilient. There was also a need for belonging and inclusion as a result of the crisis that had unfolded in the United States with the murder of George Floyd.
When we saw all of those things come to light, we knew that there was a need for sharing our story and presenting love as a business strategy in the workplace to allow organizations, more so than ever before, to bring about more empathy and humanity in the workplace. And so, that was the calling for us to write the book and share the story with the rest of the world.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, when you said, “Okay, we’re going to write this book”, a lot of times, you have the idea of the book rattling around in your head. You wanted to talk about what was happening at Softway, and the transition you had there, and maybe you even outlined that idea together but, during the writing process and just by digging deeper into some of the subjects you talk about, sometimes there are major breakthroughs and learnings. Did you have any of these major breakthroughs and learnings along the writing journey?
Chris Pitre: Absolutely. I think as we really started uncovering and unfolding, you have this sort of internal catharsis, so to speak, where you start remembering some of the stories that distance and time have put past you. And you start really going back to your roots, but also into what change actually looked like for the organization. Then you start finding these new nuggets and start putting these puzzle pieces together, that when you’re living it, you can say, “Oh you lived it, so of course you knew that all this stuff was going on, and of course you had this perfectly laid out plan for change,” but that wasn’t the case.
As we started to coalesce our thoughts and our thinking, we started to really pick out, like, “Oh, this is what change looks like, this is really what we are trying to get our audiences to understand, which is learn from us.” We’re giving you a little bit of a plan to follow, so to speak, but also the lessons along the way where we failed, where we didn’t do it right, where we messed up, where our behaviors got in front of us, and hurt the impacts and the outcomes.
I think that was one of the biggest happenings through the writing process was just having that epiphany of the fact that we are coalescing a solid plan to help others go through what we went through, but in a more organized and planned-out and thought-through fashion, with individual and organizational takeaways in terms of what you can do individually if you are not at the senior-most table in your organization. But also, if you are, how do you operationalize and how do you create an environment where your teams and you are capable of creating an environment where love can truly reign? And you are putting people first in terms of your decision-making and not just assuming that people and profits are diametrically opposed?
A Better Way to Go About Working
Drew Appelbaum: Now, when you were writing the book, who did you have in mind as who you were writing for? Was it just people in tech? Is it executives only? Can people who are on the ground floor have takeaways from the book?
Chris Pitre: I would say that we were writing primarily for the middle manager who sometimes has a lot more influence than they believe, or think, or know, but sometimes isn’t as aware or as knowledgeable, or as comfortable pushing their ideas forward, but definitely has the influence to speak truth to power in certain situations. As well as those who are in those influential seats. That was the primary audience.
This was meant for anybody and in any function of the business, or even someone just starting out, and anyone who truly believes that there is a better way to go about working, and to have an environment where you want to belong, but also you want others to feel like they belong, and they can contribute in ways that bring value, innovation, ideas, and solutions that can transform, not just the business, but even the teams that they work within.
For us, it was really important to get to that audience primarily, but still allow for the senior-most leaders, as well as the junior-most members of any organization to feel like they can walk away with some clear insights, takeaways, action items, and commitments to making their environment that much more inclusive, resilient, and successful.
Drew Appelbaum: Mohammad, do you have anything to add to that?
Mohammad Anwar: No, I think Chris did a great job covering our target audience. The only thing I would add, another dimension to it, if anything, is we did keep in mind intentionally global audiences because we believe with the world being flat right now, there’s a lot more organizations that work globally, like ourselves.
We have offices in India and in the United States and we also wanted to present content from that international lens. If anything else, I think a person who would benefit greatly from the book, in addition to everyone that Chris mentioned, is any leader who has penal responsibility would probably get a lot more value that they can institute in their workplace right away from this book.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, what is the goal for readers?
Mohammad Anwar: I ultimately believe that the goal of the reader is to be able to look at a workplace from an alternate lens. I think the workplace has become an environment where we have just begun to accept what a workplace looks like as the rational place of work, and everything is being driven by business reasons and business rationality that is probably driven by shareholder value or profits. And, while that is all-important, I believe the goal of the book is to make sure the users understand that there are alternate ways of creating a work environment where your employees and team members can truly bring their full selves, and be passionate to do what they do, and still hit the business outcomes and goals that you originally set out your business to accomplish.
That’s kind of the real goal that we’re hoping is to give faith and hope and belief with the actionable steps for the reader to take away and say, “You know what? I don’t have to accept my workplace being the way it is. There is a way to create a work environment where we can have purpose and meaning and still be able to achieve business outcomes without having to lose the human aspect from the business.” That’s what I would say is the main goal.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, the book itself, it’s about love and culture in business, but you alluded to it before, that wasn’t always the case at Softway. Can you talk about that moment? You know, you touched on it, you said, Mohammad, you said you were acting, or you made some selfish decisions, but what really happened that caused this big transition? What else was in the works that made you stop and pivot at Softway?
Mohammad Anwar: Sure. As a 20-year-old who started the business, I obviously had a lot of lack of wisdom and experience but, at the same time, I think one of my driving forces of business from the very beginning was to make money, right? As I call out in the book, I said greed was our business strategy back then. I think I got to a stage where success was hitting me from a lens of status and I want to keep earning more money, drive a fancy car, take care of my lifestyle, and do the things from a very selfish perspective, even if that meant it came at a cost of employees’ wellbeing, and so forth.
When our business started to go through rough times and I was forced to make layoffs for the first time in the history of our business, we were almost 260 employees at the time, and I had to lay off almost a hundred employees in late 2015. The process by which the layoffs happened in our company just devastated me. And I was guilty because of it–I was the one who allowed this to happen. But when it happened, the experience that I had to go through was nothing compared to the people who got laid off. But that experience just didn’t sit well with me.
I had to introspect and figure out that this is not right. The way that layoffs happen in a workplace, that I was instructed by my senior management to do, just didn’t fit well with me. People with who I had years of relationships and had known for so long, the way that we had to lay them off was so inhumane and dehumanizing that I just couldn’t live with it. That’s what really stirred up the change where I realized, “I’ve got to do something different. I can’t go on like this.”
When Change Needs to Happen
Drew Appelbaum: When you decided that change needed to happen, did this happen overnight? What did that transition look like?
Mohammad Anwar: No, it was not overnight for sure. It went through, probably, several months, and maybe Chris can attest to how this whole process went from his lens as someone who was working at Softway, but it was a process. It took a while, it’s a journey. I still don’t believe that I’ve fully arrived at the designation of transforming myself and the organization for a better culture and a better environment, but it is something that takes a while.
It takes time and you have to go through several levels of self-awareness and uncovering the truth about how you are experienced by others, versus what you think you are being experienced as. And that self-awareness hits you as you become more welcoming to that process. And from there, you have to fight the various emotions that come with it and try to find that growth mindset to commit to transform for the betterment of yourself and your organization and the people who work with you. It’s challenging, it takes a while, but it’s definitely very rewarding once you start to see people resonate with it and appreciate it and the results that you see from it.
Chris Pitre: I would just add that I think, for our listeners, time is going to be dependent of course on each individual team, as well as organization. As you can imagine, a team’s timeline is going to be shorter than a whole organization’s timeline.
In talking with many clients, there’s always this question of, “How does this scale? When can this scale?” All of those types of things, and this type of change starts with yourself. As you start to become more self-aware, as Mohammad mentioned, and as you start to really understand why you behave and do the things you do, and you start to really make those changes, your immediate circle of influence and the team that you work with the most, is likely going to see that, and also start to embody that change as well. Right? Because most people learn their cues from their leader or an influential teammate. You start to see how that can scale if one person starts and adapts and changes, right? Then you get those new followers and those new subscribers who say, “Man, I really like the way they just handled themselves in that meeting. I want to do the same thing.” You start to see that happen over time.
As Mohammad mentioned, it’s really hard to put a strict timeline on something like this because, in essence, we are undoing, perhaps centuries if not decades’ worth of social norms and institutionalized behaviors within organizations that have been around for longer than Softway. Trying to undo that does take time, but to undo it with more improved or better or more human results and activity, you start to see that commitment last a little bit longer than perhaps a more inorganic change process.
The Refrigerator Email
Drew Appelbaum: Now, Mohammad, I do want to ask you about this infamous fridge email. Because it seems, you bring it up in the book and, if you’re listening, it’s a funny story. And it seems like you’re a little bit embarrassed by it, but it seems like every company I’ve personally worked at, somebody’s sent that email or put a note on the fridge that says the exact same thing. To be fair, every company fridge is very gross. Do you want to give us, maybe some context, and maybe how that was a learning lesson for you?
Mohammad Anwar: Sure. Yes, it is an infamous story at Softway, it even got posted on Glassdoor by one of our ex-employees as well. I mean, not proud of it, but I was having a rough day, no excuse, but I came into the office and opened the refrigerator to place my lunch and it was obviously gross at the moment. It was not clean, and I had been noticing it for a while that way, but I decided I wanted to do something about it.
So, I marched back to my office, opened up my laptop, and sent out this very nasty email to the whole organization about the upkeep of the refrigerator, and I accused people in my email of being lazy and not knowing how to take care of the refrigerator, and that we’re not obligated to keep a refrigerator in the office for any of you guys and take care of it. And it was just a very nasty email. It had lots of capitalized letters and yelling sentences in there, and so forth. But, when I sent it, I won’t lie, I felt good.
Just as soon as I sent it, and I think the way people started to receive it and how it was perceived, to be honest, I did not realize that until Chris actually came over to me and spoke to me about the emails. And maybe Chris you can add to the story?
Even people who were advocates of Softway started to question if they should even work for Softway any longer because of that email. And then, also, for those who did want to stay, it basically gave them permission because, as a CEO, I set the tone, “This is how you communicate when you want things done,” and I basically gave permission to all of my managers to treat each other this way or treat the rest of the organization by writing nasty emails. I basically said it’s acceptable to do it. And, at any other company, people would have gotten fired, but I’ll let Chris fill in the other side of the equation, how the organization perceived that email. Chris?
Chris Pitre: It was, as you can imagine, pretty impactful. What started to happen that Mohammad didn’t know, was that current employees were forwarding that email outside of the organization to old employees, and they were sort of laughing about it, but also commenting, “Why are you still there? This doesn’t make sense! This is crazy. This is not normal!” And so, all of those conversations were starting to emerge around the organization and outside of the organization. It got to a place since at this point, I was two weeks into my time at Softway, some of the older employees or veterans thought that, “Well, Chris, you’re new, so you can actually say more and get away with more with Mohammad. So, you should go and talk to him about this.” I picked the shortest straw and set up a time to talk to Mohammad one-on-one.
It was, I think, a Friday evening after most people had left. I said, “I don’t want to have an audience and whatnot”, so I went into the room and I was trying to position everything as diplomatically as possible. One thing you should know about me is that I practice diplomacy as much as I can, and so I am trying to convey and ask, “Well, what made you write that email? Let’s talk about that. What are you feeling?” He said, “You don’t understand, Chris! This has been going on for so long!” I said, “I get it but, do you think that there could be a different way than we can approach it in the future so we don’t create an environment where people are forwarding these things outside of the organization or feeling uncomfortable?”
He was still digging his heels in. I just finally said, “You know what? If you would have sent that message out to any of my previous companies you would have been fired,” and I think that’s what got his attention, and he said, “What?”
I said, “Yeah, that kind of content is something that people might consider harassing and that could be a reason for being dismissed.” So, that was when he stopped and stopped trying to defend and justify and explain. I said, “In the future, there are other ways that we can get to the outcome that you are looking for, which is a clean fridge. You know, we tend to go to the first thing that comes to mind, which is getting even or sending out that message and making sure people understand that the fridge needs to be cleaned, but the actual outcome that we want to see is a clean fridge. So, there are things that we can try, like maybe we set up a team calendar where certain teams clean it each week and we rotate? We could have it be a come-one-come-all session where everybody just comes and then takes what’s theirs at a given time on a given day. There are other ways that we can solve the problem without this.” I think it was after that conversation that Mohammad started to really introspect and reflect back on, “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have done that.”
As with any leader and anybody who is starting that journey, sometimes you just don’t see those types of solutions because you are emotionally invested at that moment, in terms of making sure people understand how you’re feeling, make sure people understand what you want them to feel, that we don’t think about what the actual end game is.
Drew Appelbaum: What would that moment look like now?
Mohammad Anwar: I don’t believe I would send an email like that anymore for sure, but even if I did, for any rhyme or reason, send an email with capitalized letters or anything, I think there is a culture in the company now. It’s not an excuse if I do slip and have that kind of behavior, but I believe our organization would be far more forgiving and would be there to support each other and also hold me accountable.
I think back in the day, Chris was able to come and speak the truth to me because, as a CEO, people are scared to give me that kind of feedback. But I believe today if I did end up doing anything like that, even my project managers or anyone in the organization, no matter what their rank or their experience or tenure with the company, I would imagine that they would actually first come in and check in with me and say, “Hey Mohammad, are you okay? Is everything all right with you?” from a caring empathetic standpoint. But then also give me the feedback and tell me, “Hey, you know that email you sent? It didn’t really come across very well so I would consider not sending an email like that again.”
That’s what I want to believe. I don’t know, Chris, if you have any thoughts about how you think the organization would respond to anything similar to that today?
Chris Pitre: I think it would be all of those things. I also think there would be a degree of helping Mohammad solve or resolve like, what do you do next time? Because we believe at Softway that humans are humans, so mistakes are going to happen and, even on your journey of self-awareness and as you are building more inclusive behaviors and really trying to send up a team to be resilient, there are going to be setbacks and mistakes and mishaps that are going to be there.
It’s about how you respond and also talking about, “How do we get better at this as a team?” If Mohammad has that weak moment, which we all, again, are human–lives are happening, stress is happening, et cetera–how we come around to figure out, “Oh, if that is your trigger, here is what I can do differently, or here’s what we can be more conscious of in working with you.”
But also, if there are ways that we can change things, maybe this is another or a new way to improve on a process, right? Letting these conversations also be an opportunity to change something that probably would not have been changed otherwise, right? Where there’s conflict there sometimes is an opportunity for innovation and so using those moments as opportunities is just as important as helping Mohammad, and any other leader or individual who is trying to exhibit better behaviors, learn from that themselves.
A Culture of Love
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s move on and talk about the title of the book, Love as a Business Strategy. Can you talk to us about what you mean by that, what the definition of love is here?
Mohammad Anwar: The simplest terms in the context of the book title is that every decision, every strategic plan that you make for the company, people should be at the forefront of all of that. People, at the end of the day, are foundational to your business and you can make a lot of strategic plans and decisions in the business, but if you keep the people at the forefront and the primary focus while you are considering all of your strategies, you will have far better outcomes in the strategic initiatives.
That’s essentially Love as a Business Strategy in a nutshell. Chris, if you want to add any definitions or anything else in addition to that, please go ahead?
Chris Pitre: I think you covered it. That people-centric viewpoint on business is something that we really want to promote. And, I will tell you that I’m sure there are a number of listeners, as well as veteran executives who have been in the business game for longer than I have, that are just like, “I don’t believe it. This feels too soft. This doesn’t feel real,” and we really believe in the concept of tough love at times as well as accountability.
I think that is critical in a loving environment, and I think that that’s something where, as you think about centering around people and making sure that our people are set up for success, that does include feedback, that does include all of the performance management pieces. It includes the hard decisions that come with letting people go who are either abusing the culture or environment, as well as underperforming, and they have not shown the ability to improve.
I think those hard decisions are part of Love as a Business Strategy. It’s just now, how do you handle those conversations? How do you set the organization up to accommodate people empowering each other, as well as the profitability that can result when you actually have people that are caring about profits?
Most of my previous employers, you know, it was always this pitting of people against the numbers and also the hiding of numbers from the people. We believe that when you have people who care about the environment, they will naturally care about the numbers. And therefore, everybody is worried about the same numbers, right? We’ve seen that at Softway in the past few years as we’ve adopted this process, where you have people who historically never asked about where our revenues were, or what they can do to either bring in business or reduce cost, et cetera. Those are very open conversations now and everybody is trying to find ways to add value, not just because we care about the customers that we serve and we care about each other, but we truly care about the longevity of the business.
Mohammad Anwar: I would also add that this whole name, Love as a Business Strategy, was inspired by sports teams. As I mentioned, there is a chapter in the book where we cover my experience of going to a football game, and they had this wild success as a football team. The realities behind why a team, even with not such talented football players, were having so much success was attributed by the coach to their culture of love.
When you think about it, there is a lot of talk of love on sports teams, “We love each other, we support each other, we go out in the field or the court for each other, we go out there to win for each other, not for myself.” And so, I was heavily inspired by the sports team culture of love and I challenged myself, “How do I bring in that culture of love inside a business?” And, you know, these sports teams are obviously achieving ultimate success in their sports and their seasons and so forth, and they are high performing. So, I wondered, “How do we bring that into the workplace? And how can love in the workplace be similar to how love exists on the sports teams?”
So, a lot of our inspiration for the name was driven by the sports team analogy. We use love in the sports teams concepts a lot but not at a workplace, so I wanted to see how it would fit in. And that’s where we got inspired to try this culture of love. And there is tough love, there are tough conversations, there is accountability. It is not soft, it is not all about just being nice. It is about really pushing each other and supporting each other to achieve better business outcomes, just like any sports team. That’s where we got inspired and that’s where the name came about as Love as a Business Strategy, how you can instill love in a business context and still achieve outcomes.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, what are some questions that business leaders can be asking themselves to see if they have enough of this love going on in their company?
Chris Pitre: I think some of the questions that I would be asking is, “How is my attrition looking these days?” People don’t stay where they don’t belong and where they don’t feel like they are getting value, let alone bringing value. I also think that when we start talking about the connective tissue between culture and performing as a business, I would be asking myself, “What money is being left on the table simply because we don’t have the right process? Our teams don’t talk to each other? We are not flexible, reliable, or even nimble enough to respond to market demands?”
I think those are always the last questions asked when poor numbers or poor performances are happening. I think it’s a matter of trying to find the blame first, “Who do we blame? Is it time to replace?” And not necessarily, “Wait, what can we enable in the organization to allow for everyone to lean in?” Because we honestly believe that behaviors are really reflected in balance sheets and financial statements, so any number that you’re reviewing or looking at as a business is technically tied to someone’s behavior. It could be a whole team’s behavior.
So, when you start looking at it that way, you can get creative with how you handle problems versus just the go-to solutions, which may include firing a whole team or getting a new leader, whatever the case may be. And I am not discounting any of those solutions, I am just saying that in this day and age, having more solutions or more possibilities in terms of solving those types of problems allows for a lot of opportunities and a lot of also collaboration internally.
I think for me, if I were a senior leader or a middle manager or someone just interested in business, asking, “What is driving those numbers truly in my organization? Whether that would be financial, whether that would be people analytics? Why is a certain community of folks leaving in a given organization or on a given team? What is contributing to our lack of recruiting? Or our inability to recruit certain talent?”
All of those metrics and the current things that people are measuring matter, but turning the perspective to, “What behaviors are now driving these things? And where do we go?” And to highlight or pinpoint places to truly impact those behaviors.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, Mohammad and Chris, I know we just touched on the surface here, but I just want to say that writing a book, which is really going to help so many entrepreneurs and managers and really bring love, as you say, and bringing the right culture into their company, is no small feat. And I just want to say, bringing in the highs and lows of what you experienced and putting yourself out there is not easy to do, so congratulations on putting it out there and congratulations on having your book published.
Mohammad Anwar: Thank you.
Chris Pitre: Thank you.
Drew Appelbaum: I do have one last question and it’s the hot seat question.
Mohammad Anwar: Uh-oh.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, if readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
Mohammad Anwar: I’ll go first, it would be behaviors eat culture for lunch. As Peter Drucker rightfully said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” I’d say the big takeaway is you can’t build a culture without the right behavior. Behaviors eat culture for lunch. That would be the takeaway.
Chris Pitre: It’s going to be similar but I would say that your behaviors actually are what matters most and the only thing that you can change in any environment or situation.
Drew Appelbaum: Well said from both of you. This has been a pleasure and I am excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, this book is called, Love as a Business Strategy, and you can find it on Amazon. Mohammad and Chris, besides checking out the book, where can people connect with you?
Mohammad Anwar: They can go to our website, and find our bios and LinkedIn contacts and other contact information if they would like to connect with the authors. Again, loveasabusinessstrategy.com.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, I just want to thank you both for coming on the show today. For the authors that couldn’t make it, I am going to say congratulations to you and them. And best of luck with your new book.
Chris Pitre: Thank you.
Foolish: Gil Baumgarten