• Ben

Show 031

Having a “No Matter What” with Michael Brennan

This week on Taste For Tenacity, we hear from Michael Brennan, CEO and Co-Founder of Civilla. Michael shows us why you should always have a “no matter what”, and he dissects the mentor-mentee relationship.



This is Taste For Tenacity Show number 31.

Podcast Intro  0:05  

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What is going on everybody? My name is Ben Trela. And this is Taste For Tenacity. This week on the show we chat with Michael Brennan. Michael is the co-founder and CEO of Civilla, which is a design studio dedicated to change work, and it’s based here in Detroit. Civilla works at the intersection of Human-Centered Design and Social Innovation. And it works with courageous leaders to create solutions that meet the needs of those they serve. Brennan has worked on effecting positive change in communities for the past 30 years, having served as the CEO of United Way of South Eastern Michigan, and as Executive Vice-President of United Way of America. That is a mouthful. Michael, welcome to the show.


Ben, how are you doing?


Doing well, excited to have you. How are you?


I am doing very well working on the best day of my life.


Oh, yeah, I’m sure we get to unpack that a little more here. So, let’s sort of wind the clock back. You’re around age 18. You’re wrapping up high school. What was your life sort of like up until that point? And what were you thinking about doing after you graduated high school?


I always had a line of sight on two things ever since I was a young kid is that in the future, I would be married. And I would lead and I didn’t know who I would marry or what I would lead. And so when I left college or left high school, I set off what I would call meandering journey. I ended up, originally I was going to go to a community college, but I got accepted into MSU. We didn’t have enough money for that. My sister dragged me up to MSU and said, Get yourself re-enrolled and find a way to make the money work. So, my car and I got going on. And I would say my first two years there, I wandered in the desert. unclear about what I was going to do. I thought it was going to be engineering because that’s what my brother did that I thought I was going to be an accountant because that’s what my father did. Then I realized I shouldn’t build bridges and I shouldn’t do folks tax returns. So what might I do? And it was really not into my junior year that I just grab the steering wheel of my life and just began to say, super curious, really about how things change. I was interested in how institutions really change. So I ended up getting focused on an area called then Industrial Psychology, which at the end of four years and a quarter might get you a half a cup of coffee. But it got me a degree and it also actually ended up being an area of study that by and large worked on my entire life since.


Okay, so, it sounds like you were planning on going to college path but Michigan State was tougher financially. Was college sort of deep default path for you or was it something you more wanting to do for your own sake and to lead you toward those two goals of yours. 

I would say it was more the default. You know, I actually did not have a very wide sense of the world hadn’t traveled much, was, I grew up in a large family, six kids. I was the last of six. I was the runt of the litter. And I had some siblings that have gone to college, some that hadn’t, but it just was something I was interested in. But I actually had never stepped on the campus of Michigan State University until I got dropped off. You know, I mean, it just I didn’t have a bunch of contacts and then I was in this, you know, very large school system and that was, in some ways overwhelming to me. I was a bit lost. Yeah. But then I finally got my sea legs when I joined a group up at school in my junior year. And it helped make something large, small. And when you can you have the ability to kind of shrink the scale of some things that allow you to focus and actually form more meaningful relationships. And so the best thing that I did there is I joined a group that did service projects, like blood drives and different things on campus. And that actually put me on my way, and lo and behold, the very first meeting I went to, regarding this, that’s where I met my wife.

Oh, two birds with one stone in that organization. 




So, you started down this path and you said you’re sort of wandering for the first two years figuring out where to go. And then industrial psychology popped up. 




What do you think it was that drew you toward industrial psychology when it came up across your radar?


You know, I was on the verge of potentially leaving Michigan State after my sophomore year, because I didn’t know quite what I was going to do. And one of the real blessings that happened is I went to the counseling office and they had me take a basic, you know, version of Myers Briggs can’t remember what it was. But it basically gave me feedback. And I sat down with a counselor and she said, the last thing you ought to be doing is being an Engineer, but you actually have this real internal ability around people in town. So, you have to think about things like ministry. You have to think things about psychology, sociology, you are a person that has big, broad, wide ideas. It could think of something more in the creative domain and I started going I knew I wouldn’t have the capacity to do one on one counseling, just the emotional toll, I wouldn’t be able to do it. But I had always been interested in systems and large out how things worked together and Michigan State happened to have a program that focused on this. In essence, how do organizations behave and move and organize and change? And that just caught my imagination and soon as it got going on that I took off.


The rest was history.

Yeah, the rest is history.

So, now you met your wife. At that time would have been probably a girlfriend. I don’t think you married her after that first meeting.

Well, I knew I was gonna marry her after the first time I met her

So, you got box number one checked and now you know you’re going through this Industrial Psychology program. What was going through your mind? And what were you thinking as you started to wrap up your college career? Did you have a specific career path in mind? What was it like for you?

A lot of people that went into that either went on for an advanced degree and I didn’t have the resource or the inclination at that time. So I knew I wasn’t going to do that. I knew I wanted to marry Joan. So I had to, I know find an income. And a lot of folks went into human resources. Okay.


With that, and my father happened to set me up with a guy that ran human resources for a large company in the Metro Detroit area. I went and sat down with him. And he spent the next hour and a half convincing me I would never want to go into human resources. And here he was leading it or he’s like, he really doesn’t want to do this. I walked out of that sale, I don’t want to do that. And I happened to get a job in sales, okay, for a company based out of Ohio but working in the Metro Detroit area, and I absolutely hated the job. And nothing to do with the company, people, product, nothing like that. But and I couldn’t quite at the time, put my finger on it. But every day that I woke up that I went into work, I just had this pit in my stomach and newly married. So, I got married right after I graduated and starting this new job and of course, you’re supposed to like your new job and imagine what your future is going to be like. Now, mind you, this is 36 years ago. This is back in 1985, kind of timeframe. And I just woke up one morning I had been on the job for four or five months, and I woke up one morning, and I just said, I am way too young to wake up and go into something that I actually don’t believe in. It doesn’t capture my imagination. And I just don’t find myself excited. In fact, I find myself distressed about it. So I talked to my then-new wife. And she said, leave. 

So, I went in, and I spent four hours quitting, they didn’t understand why I was quitting, and I couldn’t, I couldn’t articulate it. I mean, yes, just, I could feel it inside. I didn’t have language or words to it. But I left, didn’t have another job, newly married, and I was back at the beginning. And then really through the grace of God, I ended up, I knew I wanted something that had more meaning behind the work. I didn’t want to sell just a commodity a product or service. I wanted something that had a purpose, I could put this language on it now. So, I was looking for, you know, an occupation that had deeper meaning find it. And I happened to get an interview with an organization that was then called United Foundation later changed his name to United Way in Detroit, and after like five interviews, and I had about a four-month gap between my job and starting this new job. I began what became a 32-year career with United Way both locally, nationally and internationally over those 32 years.


And what about the United Way or you said it was the United Foundation at that time? What about their mission, really struck a chord with you when you were first job searching?


Well, you know, back in that day that the model then was an organization that worked with companies by and large to raise money for a group of nonprofits that were doing important and vital services in the metropolitan Detroit area. And I just got interested in a couple of things. One, all the effort was around improving the condition of individual lives in the community, which I lived. That’s sounded way better to me than just sales. And in essence, in some ways that were because you had to turn around and ask companies and individuals to give up some of their discretionary resource money in order to be able to go do this good work and community, and I happen to work in the area that helped raise the money. That’s what I started out in. And it just gave me this exposure to very large organizations began working inside of them, helping them organize a fundraising effort gave me incredible exposure to leaders of all different industries, sectors, public sector, the nonprofit sector, private sector. And I was just beginning to see a community, the way institutions played a role in the community in a way that I was never afforded. Just as a kid I had a more confined exposure, and it just opened up my eyes to you know, not everyone gets dealt the same deck of cards. We carry unique responsibility in helping one another. And there’s actually this thing that helps a community do that and the United Fashion. And it happened to be this organization. And I fell in love over 32 years with that mission and gave the full measure of my life, working career towards that, to bring that mission to life.


Yeah. And it seems like that was sort of a perfect intersection of your interests and what you’ve been working in at the time, right, being pulled immediately into the fundraising group for a purpose-driven and impact-driven organization, leveraging your sales background to actually go pitch and ask for this money. How did it feel to finally like, get all those pieces in place, especially for someone that loves seeing how things fit together?


You know, at the time, I’ll be honest, I was just doing it. I knew immediately when I was in a way I was in a better fit, I didn’t have this desire to flee. It just activated my curiosity ahead and the alignment of values. And so I didn’t carry that dissonance. But at the same time, I was pretty green. I mean, I can barely get myself out of a paper bag. You know. I mean, if you look at a picture, I looked like I was 12. At the time, yeah. And here I was dealing with very large companies and have to represent the organization and it was just putting me in situations that just caused me to grow. So, a lot of it was just focused on making sure I could represent the mission well, carry out tasks that were being asked of me, and just meeting the responsibilities. But then after I got my sea legs, and began to even see a bit of the wider picture of the role of the organization my interest started going towards, actually how can I play a greater leadership role? And how could I even pull this mission maybe even further than where it was. And that ultimately caused me to leave Detroit. And for over the next 15 years, work in small, the local communities work for us, nationally and for United Way nationally and globally. And to really help kind of reshape the nature of the mission and help these organizations get after it.


Okay, so now you’re realizing, and this was before you switch to the United Way of America level, so you’re still focused on the Detroit area. When you were there, did you just start in you realized that you wanted more of a leadership role to just go to like your boss and say, yeah, hey, knock, knock, promote me, or how did you go about getting into those leadership positions?

It’s interesting, I give these long passed away but the CEO of United foundation at that time, I had been there five years, five, six years. In Detroit, he came to me and he said, I got a phone call from the CEO in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And he is looking for someone who can play a leadership role in his organization. And he wanted to know if there was anyone on our staff that we thought would be a good fit, and I’ve given him your name. But it was a and so he, the CEO in Kalamazoo called me up and I went, interviewed and ended up getting that job learned a lot. So, I moved from, you know, someone that carried out function and tasks to what you would call a manager, kind of director role of a team carrying out, you know, on a much smaller scale, but carrying out the raising of X amount of dollars and handling communications and marketing and all those things. And it ended up, I got an invitation to do something comparable in Grand Rapids United Way. Okay, so after three years in Kalamazoo, I ended up taking a senior role at the United Way and Grand Rapids. And then after a few years there, the CEO departed. And at age 32, I put my hat in the ring, and I applied for the CEO position.

Interesting. So, you did this big tour of Michigan essentially. 


Yeah. And amazing.


Yeah. And now, this role opens up, you throw your hat into the ring after you’ve been sort of in leadership roles. But what was different about that CEO position compared to what you had been doing before in your other manager type roles? 


It’s a great question. I actually was not that attracted, I’ve never been attracted to the CEO role because of the status of the position. Okay. I’ve, what I realized is the level and the scale of the change that I wanted to see in the organization, the only place of influence to get that done was from that spot. If I could have done it from where I was, I think I would have been delighted and I might have still been doing it. But it was was a situation where I just had inside of me a vision of what it ought to become. And I didn’t see a pathway to helping the organization get there other than pursuing the top leadership role. But yeah, I had no experience as a CEO. I was 32 years old. And I was a young guy. Yeah. And it’s even Grand Rapids isn’t the biggest city in the world, but it’s not the smallest. I mean, it was, it’s a sizable job. And I knew I would be a long shot because that would be a very risky decision for a board of directors of the organization. 


Yeah. Now, did you ultimately wind up giving that CEO position, or did you have to keep it?


I did really, they placed a bet on me, which to this day, I look back and I think what were you thinking? Because I didn’t really, I had this vision, but I didn’t necessarily know how to get there. And I set off, you know, at 32 to help the organization transform itself from primarily being in an organization that raised the money to an organization that defined itself how it made an impact on key social issues. It’s a different reframing, you know, we’re no longer an organization that is just about the transaction of raising money and distributor, we actually ought to be an organization that gets measured on the level of impact that we make in society. And we’re going to get very focused on some key issues, and I wanted to help the organization go through that change, and the big blessing that I had at such a young age, I was surrounded by an amazing group of mentors in Grand Rapids. Leaders and, you know, other industries and that who just stayed close to me and helped guide me, you know, to make sure I didn’t run anything off the tracks. Yeah, or pull me back when I needed to be pulled back or give me counsel. I made a ton of mistakes. But, I think it helped change the arc of the direction of the organization. And so I ended up spending 10 years in Grand Rapids.


Wow. So you’re essentially pointing out here that it takes a village to raise a CEO and in a lot of different counseling guidance comes into the picture when you’re in that role, especially at such a young age. How did you cope with a lot you know, receiving a lot of feedback from very established and very competent professionals.

You know, I would just give them high marks. It never came as to what you need to do or what you should do. They were much more sounding boards for me. I mean, there would be some times that it might come a little bit stronger than that, but generally, it was much more of a relationship, you know, where there was a mutual exchange. And I think one of the things that leaders can get in trouble with is often an inability or a willingness to demonstrate their vulnerability, their willingness to say, I actually don’t know, you know, because you’re rewarded for a level of certainty. People love certainty and there’s a lust for certainty. Yeah, so they love a CEO that is, you know, this is the problem. This is the direction, this is where we got to go. Let’s do that. Let’s go do it. And let’s take the hill and allow, there are definitely times and moments needed to do that. And I didn’t do that. But more often than not, it was we’re actually trying to go and create something new and there was no road, you know, map or anything for anybody. Yeah. So it was in that place of vulnerability, saying we actually I don’t know, and we collectively don’t know. But have confidence that gathers. You know, we can all bring something to the party, and will help the organization take meaningful steps, and if they’re wrong, of course correct, or we can’t stay still.

Gotcha. So, now In one last question before we start to move forward, you mentioned that with your mentors and with the people that were your sounding boards, it was very much a give and take relationship. You were both providing something and bringing something to the table. When you’re the younger person in that relationship, it can be tough to see what your contribution is. So, what are some of the things that you found brought that value to the table for you when you were in that role as a younger, you know, you said 32. So, as a 32-year-old CEO, what were you bringing to the table for them?


Yeah, well, you know, I always say for example, in philanthropy, it often gets viewed as a one-way relationship. I the person with the resource gives to the person without resource. But when you really think about that, the person that’s giving money is getting way more back than whatever they’re given. Either getting the satisfaction that, you know, they’re helping they might be improving someone’s life and condition and life. They have gratitude that they have this resource and they’ve got firms that gratitude for them. And they just had an exchange that they can’t go get Amazon or at Walmart. So if you are an effective mentee that is being mentored, you know, one of the thing gifts you can give is taking the council and the resource and the time and energy that a mentor is given to you and put it to good production, both in the development of yourself and helping to carry out a mission. And for a mentor. There’s nothing more satisfying.


It’s essential to multiplying, the mentors’ impact.


Yeah, and you can’t, a mentor can’t go pick that up at the mall. Doesn’t matter if you have a zillion dollars, you know, the only way you can do that is actually, you know, just before we got on the phone, one of my longtime mentors, we just had an exchange via text. He just did a big announcement just sent him a note to say how proud I am of them and how much I believe in him. Yeah. You know, I mean, carries on. And, you know, so there’s always the mutuality. But the one thing I coach younger folks on is in a mentor and a mentee relationship. As the mentee, you carry the responsibility for managing that relationship. You’re setting up the next time to connect your, it’s just, just owns that, you know because you could end up with a life of disappointment. And it’s just I just think that that’s the way it goes. 


Got it. So, now you’re the sitting CEO of United Way you’re out in Grand Rapids. You were there for you said like 32 ish years?

I was in the United Way for 32. I was in Grand Rapids for 10.

Okay, so now you’re nearing the end of that 32 years and what was going through your head what ultimately made you want to move on to something else if you’re comfortable talking about it, or what helps you move on to that next chapter.

Actually, when I was in Grand Rapids, I got introduced by my mentor to an idea called Human-Centered Design. This is in the mid-90s, run Steelcase now runs comfortably. And he had taught me how to begin to look at problems through the eyes of the person that you’re trying to serve. Not through the eyes of the institution or the technology or the money, but look at it through the eyes that you’re trying to serve. And that captured my imagination and I wasn’t trying to redesign office furniture or vehicle or mobile phone. I was interested in how you read design, how help is provided in the community. And so, after I left Grand Rapids, I wouldn’t work in Washington, DC and then ultimately ended up back in Detroit with United Way. Over that period of time, I kept trying to weave in this discipline in this practice. But I was never able really to quite put the amount of energy on it that I knew I needed to. So, about eight years ago, I went back to my mentor. He was still in Grand Rapids at the time. And I said, I actually really want to double down on the intersection of design and social impact, changing the conditions and community through the capability of the design. But what I realized is I had a bunch of individual learning to do first, okay, before I could help my organization, before I could help a wider community. So I asked him if he would coach me on basically, on learning what I learned over 30 years. How do I begin to learn a new way? And how might I begin to help bridge that into the organization that I was in charge of? All that to say that ended up being about a three four year journey that ultimately had me go out to Stanford for three months. I was still CEO at Grand Rapids I took a bit of leave. And I did a deep dive at the design school, in Stanford, and on Human-Centered Design, I began to work with a hospital out there on applying human-centered design methods on having the Stanford Cancer Center, reimagine the patient experience. And during that time, I realized I actually wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to this intersection of design and social impact. And after I returned, it was about a year and a half later, I ultimately wrapped up my time at United Way I’d spent 32 years doing that it was a good time for transition. So, we made the transition to United Way. And I’d left on a Friday and a Monday morning helped open up the doors to Civilla with two other co-founders that I had met out at Stanford, here in downtown Detroit.

So, now you’re essentially starting your own thing from the ground up. What made you want to create Civilla and create it the way that you did?


First, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. If it was already out there, I probably would have found a way to join it. But I couldn’t find what I was imagining in the world. Like, I just didn’t know us to develop like, organization. So, I came to the conclusion that I was gonna have to create what I was imagining instead of already finding that in place. Okay, so that was the first decision. The second decision I made was I didn’t want to create it alone. I think it’s actually.


Yeah, I had seen what I, you know, the kind of the sole leader at the top of an organization at seeing that movie over and over and over and over again. Oh, yeah. For myself and then others. And I just felt like what I was imagining was way beyond what my own capability was. And I thought not trying to create it on my own because it wouldn’t serve the vision, ultimately, the mission very well. And I had a sense it would take a long time for it to come to life. So, there was just recognition for me that I actually partner with some folks that are much younger than I am but bring unique abilities that I would never have. And they would be able to that we could complement each other. Yeah, in ways that would never be able to do alone. So, we rented storage closet in the middle of the new center area and Detroit for a few hundred bucks a month that had no heat and no cooling, square foot storage closet. put up some lights , yellow before, hauled out all the stuff in it. And we had enough money from our own money. that we could prototype the organization for four months. And that’s what we agreed to do is take our own resource, put it in the middle of the table, give it about four months, and to see if the myriad of ideas that we were imagining with Civilla if any of them would take flight to be sticky in the world.

Yeah. So you had four months of runway to work with. And I’m guessing that this all happened more than four months ago was back in like 2015. Correct? 

Yep. So we are now four years and two months old.


How did four months become four years?

During the four-month period, we tried a myriad of things. And about 90% of them, we scrapped, okay at the end of four months, but there were a couple of things that stuck and one of them was an idea that we had been working on over those four months to take this toolbox of Human-Centered Design and begin to reimagine how residents apply for an access public benefits in the state of Michigan. So this is food assistance, childcare support, Medicaid. The very difficult, cumbersome process doesn’t work well for the state of Michigan doesn’t work well for the resident. Two and a half million residents every year in the state of Michigan for these supports. And there’s 5000 workers that helped guide those two and a half million residents through this. So, it’s a large scale thing. And we are very focused on a single item that we thought was at the center of where it all began. And that was on the application for these benefits. Okay, and lo and behold, the application is 42 pages long 18,000 words over 1000 questions that you would have to complete in order to access these benefits. And we thought there has to be a better way. And so we started spending hundreds of hours with residents and hundreds of hours with the frontline workers in the state of Michigan to ultimately help the state reimagine a way that was 80% shorter in words and questions and 60% shorter and pages and went through the system and half the time. And all of that came from understanding the problem and the issue through the eyes of the resident. The frontline worker, yeah, and to design it around their needs. And that’s what we got going on over the year one year to year three. And that’s ultimately led on to our other work


That’s interesting too because we heard back on show 29. That was Scot Tatelman, he was talking about how important it is to essentially go where the people are, and understand what their needs actually are, instead of what you think their needs are. And so you’re really finding a way to get out in front of the people who deal with this the most to understand the actual issues the most. And so, now, how to do you like triage and figure out the best way to help those that you’re working with and ultimately serving. But one, obviously, you got to spend a significant amount of time with those that are wrestling with the very problem because we would consider that individual a subject matter expert, even though they’ve might be a resident of getting viewed as a client or a recipient, they actually carry a deep subject matter expertise. And if you understand the problem through their eyes, you can begin to imagine solutions. And you can actually help co-create it with them and get feedback from them to say, does this work? And when you do that, enough and an iteration and prototype your way forward, you actually can come up with a solution that’s much more enduring and can actually move to scale. So, for example, the state of Michigan had tried to improve this process of applying over 30 years, five times. Wow. Not really made much headway. But all this work with the frontline worker and the resident actually produced a solution that allowed them to sunset what they had used for 30 plus years and bring forward a year ago. Something that people can get completed in under 15 minutes. 

Wow. So totally reimagine the process. Yeah. And now, just to sort of wrap things up on this portion of the show, you’re working with large institutions. And, you know, one of the things that aren’t mentioned on the Civilla website is that you’re dealing with entities that are by their nature, very entrenched, because they have to be stable and they have to be, they have to give certain results guaranteed almost. And so how do you go about changing an organization that’s designed to not be changed.


That’s our whole life. They’re cracking the code on that. There are a few what we would say core ingredients. One, you have to have courageous leadership inside the institution. Meaning that someone is very committed to getting very focused on the user, you know, the person closest to the problem into the issue and to learn and design around their needs. And that takes a high level of commitment, fortitude, and courage. Yeah, champion. Yep. So you have to have that, two, most institutions go too wide, too fast. So, large scale implementations, you know, a lot of certainty about the problem, a lot of certainty on the solution. We’re big believers on start small, tightly scoped and iterate your way forward. And in essence, earn your stripes along the way to proceed to the next level. And in that, you can build confidence on the key stakeholders around whatever problem you’re tackling, where they’ll walk with you. And the thing that we learned with Civilla, one of the hardest things was that the idea of Civilla working with public-serving institutions to create large scale change through human-centered design is a very abstract idea. And, and when we set off on that we had this idea and that’s hunch but there was very little social proof in the country or in the world, for that matter. Yeah, that’s the statement. So, you know, our big hill the climb was how do you proceed forward without social proof? And who’s going to take that bet? It was going to go play set that. And we happen to have a group of courageous leaders in the state of Michigan previously and currently that have been willing to go a place that bad. And now, there is a proof point, right. There is a working example, that Harvard Kennedy School identifies this work that we’ve done with the state as one of the top 25 social innovations in America last year.


Wow. Wow. 


So, you get that? That proof point, then you’re able to move on to a conversation of leaders saying, let’s go do this work, the way that work happened. You have a proof of concept, proof of concept. There’s something that can be point pointed to. And that allows a leader to I think, ultimately build alignment, common language and momentum.


Love it. Now one, one sort of the last question on the Civilla. font. I know back in the day you guys used to do like family dinners all the time. Do you guys still do family dinners? And where did those come from?


Well, part came from, we just didn’t have any money. So, let’s just add people to the house. You know, and we all can bring a dish or we can cook up something. And we keep a practice. As an organization, every season, you can think of every quarter but every season we operate by seasons. At the end of every season, we take a couple of days. To say, where have we been? Where are we at? And where are we going? And what is the purpose of principles that we’re building this organization upon? And we host those inside the homes of the team here. So, it’s, yeah, the rhythms and rituals inside Civilla. Like, for example, we work very hard to all eat lunch together. Every day. We all bring our lunch and we huddle around a table. And there’s something about having time to just connect as people instead of just being on the work and breaking bread together. So we’re, we love the role that food plays in the culture of an organization.

Definitely. Awesome. So now we’re going to shift into part two of the show which is more focused on our quick Hits, in particular walking through what you’ve learned from your experience. So, what are some of the key takeaways from your career or your projects?


I would say there are two things on that, one, I have not seen very strong progress for an individual or an organization unless there is clarity on some level of a vision that has a pole. And I call this you’re no matter what. And the more that someone has a sense that no matter what, this is what they’re going to be in pursuit of, or this is what they want to be in, put into the world, or this is the way in which they want to go about their life? And have that, write that out and visit that often and stay close to your no matter what, okay, and make decisions based on that. I think that’s just fundamental for an individual and an organization. And where I see things often stumble for both an individual and organization is they’re not really clear about what they want to be. So, they’re on a variety of things that they’re doing. Right, and they have a hard time articulating what it all means and where it’s going. 


They’re going on to shallow on too many things.


Yeah. So get clear about your no matter what. I think we’re in a society that rewards go it alone. And just a huge believer on don’t go it alone. Find a partner. You know, when you think about it, it could be like in my life, it was marriage, 35 years and but you think about many, you know, occupations and I’ll fly an airplane. You don’t do that alone, pilot and the copilot. Yeah. And you know, it’s just like, who’s your co-pilot on the pursuit of your no matter what. And don’t go it alone on it. And then the third thing I would say is prototyped your way forward. We tend to overthink things, and you can really think it all the way through. So if someone’s listening right now, and you know, it’s just like, you know, I want to write a book or you know, whatever might be, and it’s just like this big task that they have in front of them. And I like the term just what’s the latest, cheapest, fastest step you could take? So, instead of a book, what’s the paragraph that you could write in 15 minutes. 


And then build it out from there.


Yeah. What’s the email that you could write to someone? What’s the article that you could start with? Take the lightest, fastest, cheapest step that you can have prototype your way forward and be open to learning. You know that everyone and everything is your teacher. So, be open to that.


Definitely. Next up, what is the one piece of advice that you would give to your 20-year-old self?


Get clear about what your daily practice is. In my experience, I’m 57 years old. I have many mentors in their 90s and 80s. Almost to a person, they have a daily practice. You know, they’re very clear that this is the one thing that I’m going to make sure I get done every day. And everything else gets organized around that. And absent of that, then every day is like you’re writing a new script every day. And I think to have and organizing rhythm and ritual that is daily in your life that grounds you are super important, often missed, rarely developed. And it’s a powerful skill. 


Yeah. Have that one consistent thing to keep you grounded. 




Next up, what has been one book or resource that should be your favorite book or resource that has helped you along your journey.


Probably the book I’ve given away or assigned or recommended to folks, is I’m just a big believer of stay focused on your strengths. Okay? Don’t the world is by and large wired to tell you what you’re not strong at and what you need to go spend all your time improving on that. And there’s nothing wrong with improving on things that you don’t do well. But you’re going to go a lot farther, you’re going to be happier, more satisfied if you really get focused on your strengths. There are all kinds of research that affirm this. And there’s a book called Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath.  Out of the Gallup organization, very simple to take. It’s about a 30-minute thing online. It’s 20 bucks, maybe. Yeah. And out of that comes a profile of your top five strengths. And the more you can design your day, your week, your month. than your year around your strengths, more than likely you’re going to be in an on work that matters in the world that matters to you.

Definitely a big fan of Strengths Finder. I took it back in, I think 2017. And it’s, it provides a lot of clarity for sure.

Yeah, it’s a super simple tool, but quite powerful. And I’ve been staying close to that for the past 12 years. Okay. And a big fan. So we’re a strengths-based organization, you could talk to anyone inside of Civilla , and they could articulate their strengths and what are the strengths that they need around them to partner with in order to help them stay strong? How to complement each other. Yeah. Awesome. Now, Michael, where can people learn more about you?


They can go to the Civilla website, which is just That’s, and if anyone ever wants to just email me, they can email me at


Awesome. Michael Brennan, CEO, and co-founder of Civilla , the strengths-based social innovation and Human-Centered Design organization. Michael, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you


I really enjoyed it, you make it the best day of your life, every day.


Love it. Thank you, Michael.


And that does it for a show with Michael Brennan. Now, Michael had a lot of gems of wisdom throughout this conversation. First and foremost, he realized that or in his early 20s, that he was way too young to be in a job that he hated. And so he took the leap. He pulled the plugin left that sales position to pursue something that had more of an impact and more aligned with His values. And he ultimately found that it only took him about four months to find, which is very awesome, frankly, because a lot of times it takes even longer to find something that we’re truly, truly passionate about. But Michael knew that that sales job and his career path were totally different than what he wanted in the impact that he wanted to have. And he had the courage and he had the partner that was willing to back him when that decision came in. He ultimately took action on the fact that he was unhappy in his job. Michael also outlined the responsibilities of a mentee and a mentee and mentor relationship. So a lot of times as the mentee, you think, Okay, what am I bringing to the table, but frankly, you’re helping spread the mentors’ legacy. And so it falls on you to enact the things that your mentor is teaching you. And if they fit with your lifestyle and your goals, you should follow that advice and put it into practice, because that is the greatest way that you can reach the time that your mentor is investing in you. Now the mentee is also responsible for maintaining that mentor-mentee relationship. As the one being mentored, you have to set up all the meetings, you set up the coffees and catch-ups and whatever the case may be, to keep that relationship in that communication open. One of Michael’s final points is also one of his most impactful and that’s the fact that we have to have a no matter what we need to have that one thing that one vision that one image and goal for our future that we have to achieve no matter what. Because otherwise, when life happens chaos inevitably sets in, we’re going to be very dissuaded from the path that we’ve chosen. And so having that no matter what and having that one thing that we are chasing allows us to hone in and keep driving toward the impact we ultimately want to have. With all that being said we’re going to get out of here from Taste For Tenacity show number-one. This is Ben Trela. Thanks for listening.

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