Interviewing with Nathan Mellor, Ed.D. is Dr. Angela Passarelli.
Dr. Passarelli is an Associate Professor of Management at the College of Charleston, SC, and Director of Research at the Institute of Coaching, McLean/Harvard Medical School. She also serves as a research fellow with the Coaching Research Lab and an instructor of executive education at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University.
Angela has a long-standing interest in how people, especially organizational leaders, transform as individuals and collectives to realize their full potential. This draws her to topics such as leader development, intentional change, experiential learning, emotional intelligence, organizational neuroscience, motivation, self-regulation, wellbeing, and developmental relationships. Her current research focuses on how coaching relationships support learning and behavior change throughout one’s career. In particular, she is engaged in work that examines how coaching outcomes are shaped by characteristics of the individual being coached, the interaction between the coach and coachee, and competencies of the coach. She also studies the efficacy of coaching interventions for special populations, such as women entrepreneurs, new working mothers, and physicians.
Her work has been published in both academic and practitioner journals such as the Leadership Quarterly, Social Neuroscience, Organizational Research Methods, and the Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. Angela also serves as a representative-at-large on the board of the Organizational Neuroscience division at the Academy of Management.
Interview with Dr. Angela Passarelli, Organizational Behavior
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: Welcome to the STRATA leadership show, a podcast designed to help you gain clarity, lead effectively and drive results for yourself, your team, and your organization. I'm your host, Dr. Nathan Mellor.
Today is a special day on the STRATA leadership show, in part because this conversation is with someone that I don't know, and I am really looking forward to getting to know. Not only has she been recommended to me by one of our coaches who just thinks the world of her, her area of expertise, the things that she's involved in; this is someone that--I don't like talking to people on a plane, but if I were seated next to her on a plane, I would want to have a conversation entire time. So, I want to welcome to the show, Dr. Angela Passarelli. Angela, welcome to the show.
Dr. Angela Passarelli: Thank you, Nathan. It's a pleasure to be here with you.
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: I feel like a kid in a candy store just based upon the things that you're involved in and the things that you care about. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about your career, what you're involved in now, and the areas you're focusing on?
Dr. Angela Passarelli: Sure, my primary appointment is as an associate professor of management in the School of Business at the College of Charleston, SC. In that role, I spend most of my time teaching undergraduate and MBA courses in leadership management, organizational behavior, organizational change. I also do research in the area of coaching, executive coaching, and leadership development. And of course, as is part of all faculty, live service to the university to our department to our school. I'm also the director of research for the Institute of Coaching, which is housed in McLean Hospital and affiliated with Harvard Medical School and I'm a research fellow with a coaching research lab at Case Western Reserve University.
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: Well, we are so glad that you are spending some time with us and I know that your time is valuable, especially because you're on a sabbatical right now. Which is meant to help you focus in on different areas of research and all that. If you were having a conversation, maybe with one of those undergrad students that you enjoy doing life with and helping think about the future, what would you say is one thing that you wished you had known when you began your career?
Dr. Angela Passarelli: I think one thing I wish I would have known when I began my career is how much people want to help. One thing that I often talk to my students about and students who were like me--I was not a first-generation college student and I came from a small town where college was not an assumed next step. Even for kids at the top of the class. I get some of those students at the College of Charleston also who just don't see a lot of different opportunities. You know they don't have the perspective of all the possibilities that there are for them, and so I often have conversations with them about how to do career interviews. I mean informational interviews where they can learn about different careers and build their professional network. Along the way, and I wish I would have understood that earlier in my career and drawn on those various sources of support, people who really want to invest and help the young generation become the leaders that they'll be.
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: You talk about the people who have helped influence your life and you talk about the place where you grew up, which both of those things are so impactful in your worldview, your mindset, the way that you see the world. When you think back about those formative years when you were maybe even surpassing the expectations of your community by finishing high school and all that and doing that well, but the idea of you doing what you're doing now might not have been on the radar, but when you think back about that time, can you think of anybody that might have made an impact on you as a leader with their mentor, a teacher or someone that help you see the world differently.
Dr. Angela Passarelli: Yeah, absolutely. The first person who comes to mind other than my parents, of course, but the first teacher who comes to mind was Mr. Sproles. Steven Sproles, who was my 7th-grade homeroom teacher, but who was also the advisor to the high school in junior high School Student Council. Do I have the liberty of telling a little bit of this back story?
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: Absolutely.
Dr. Angela Passarelli: Perfect, because I think he knows what an impact he had on my life. I've told him before, but maybe this could be a small tribute to him. The way that my elementary and high school years were set up, there were a number of small K through 6th-grade schools that all fed into one big combined middle school in high school. If you lived in the same area your entire school career, you go K through six in one school where in my case I was with a class of 30 students and we were the only class. When I was in the third grade, that was the only third-grade class you could be in, and then we went into a high school with several other schools where there was 7th grade through 12th grade all in one building. Although they tried to separate sort of middle school developmental levels from high school. We were combined so we were with a much bigger class. I went from a class with maybe 30 to a class of 250 or so, and I've always been someone who likes to be involved, likes to take action, likes to try and make a difference where I see a need, and when I learned about what student council was, I thought, oh, this is a perfect thing for me. I signed up, got my names on my petition, but I really didn't know that many people in the school. It was the first few weeks of being in this new, big school and I wasn't confident enough maybe to campaign and so I was on the ballot, but I wasn't elected. I was disappointed of course, and probably my father coached me and how to go achieve what I was hoping to achieve anyway. I went to Mr. Sproles, who was the advisor at the time of both the junior high and the Senior High Student Council. They were separate. I knew that I wasn't elected and I knew I couldn’t vote, but I asked if there was anything I could just volunteer to do. He appreciated that initiative and he thought about it for a while and came back to me and he said, “I have a perfect role for you. We have these two councils. They operate in the same building but they don't communicate between one another so you could serve as a liaison. Junior & Senior High School liaison. Now you can't speak as there are rules of order. I wasn't in an elected seat. I'd like you to listen. I'd like you to write a report and when the time comes, provide that report to the various Councils.” So, no speaking role, no voting role. Just observation. That year was so impactful in my life because I got to watch all of these dynamics play out. I got to see how popularity and power dynamics played out. I got to see influence dynamics, decision-making. Got to see what happens when people disengage when they're not heard and it was just fascinating and I didn't realize it at the time, but it seated my interest in what I would eventually go on to pursue in my doctoral work and organizational behavior. After that year I guess I won enough friends to be able to get an elected seat on those councils and continued my development through student council in high school. It was just foundational to who I am now.
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: I love that story and I really appreciate you sharing it. I love the conversation you had and what that would lead you to. What can I do to serve even if I can't be in that role? I love that that was taken so seriously because the role that was assigned to you. That is a very challenging thing to be able to do. And I can't even imagine as a junior high kid really functioning as a mediator of communicating thoughts from one group to the next and translating all that. What an amazing gift that was given to you and one of the amazing things that you would offer for yourself to be able to serve like that. Thank you for sharing that. So, you start down that path, and I find this interesting. Working with leaders that other people often see something in leaders before they recognize it themselves. And it seems as if in this situation you might have had someone who saw something, and you find that observing people, helping them communicate more effectively was something that you enjoyed, or you thought useful doing that. Fast forward for us. You go through school, you finish up high school, what's next? What led you to where you are now?
Dr. Angela Passarelli: Well, there were a few stops along the way. The first stop was at James Madison University, where I pursued a degree in psychology and general business. I had a small stint in sales and special events. As my early career, and while I liked the skills of organizing, I was very detailed and focused all my life--I still sort of am--I didn't really like sales. I realized at one point there was a major event for a nonprofit and someone was at the helm speaking and I thought to myself, I want to be speaking at this event. I don't want to be pouring wine making sure that everything goes off without a hitch, even though I was good at it and so at that point I decided to go back to school. I followed some advice of some of my college mentors and pursued a master’s degree in higher Ed administration with a focus in adult development and student affairs. It was there at Texas A&M while I was getting my Master’s degree that I really started to understand human development, identity development, learning--especially experiential learning--which would go on to be pretty pivotal and in future decisions that I made. I started advising students, which I realized in retrospect, was not at all advising it was actually coaching. Using the helping skills that we were learning in our counseling courses and things like that and there, I also worked on several university wide leadership development initiatives. I was introduced to Strengths Quest and did some work for a friend as a not paid employee but a friend of the education division at the Gallup organization at the time, so I was also introduced to the positive psychology movement. I went on to direct a leadership program at Elon University and it was there that I decided if I wanted to continue a career in higher Ed, I needed a terminal degree. It never occurred to me that I would have a master’s degree, and it certainly never occurred to me that I would have a PhD at some point in life. I maybe thought I would be an MD but decided against that path very early on. At Elon I started to think about well, what I was really interested in and intrigued by was how do we know that the interventions that we're doing with our student leaders are working? How do we know? And when is it not? Why isn't it? And so, it was reading quite broadly at the time, and I came across this field of organizational behavior and there was a faculty member in the School of Business who worked with some of our programs who I sought out to just ask a few questions about this field because I wanted to understand more. I decided that rather than continuing my education in education, that switching to organizational behavior, which is generally housed in a School of Management or School of Business, was the right decision for me and she helped to direct me to Case Western Reserve University which was known at the time for a very strong scholar practitioner approach, but also with very rigorous methods, training, and preparation for an academic career. I played there amongst other places. But what really drew me to Case was that I met two people who would be just pivotal in the rest of my career. One was Dave Cole, who I had known his work from my Master’s degree, and honestly, the experiential learning model is central to everything I do. It's how I design all educational experiences. From a whole semester down to each separate course I follow sort of that learning cycle. I've done some research in that area that helps me think about my own roles, the roles that I play in helping to facilitate learning from experience, and so I used that in coaching and education so well when I realized Dave was on faculty there, that was an immediate draw. While I was there I interviewed with Richard Boyatzis who would eventually become my thesis advisor, and that interview sealed the deal for me because I felt so challenged, intellectually challenged in a good way, and I felt like he was someone who was really going to push me to be a better version of myself than I thought was even possible. That was so true of him. There were many influential people in my time at Case, but Dave and Richard were probably the most central. For those listing in, if you're not familiar with these names, if you end up doing much in the world of organizational behavior and really organizational development and align, these are not just people who have written a book. You know valuable, but these are people who, when you think about over the course of a century and you're making your lists of the most influential people in a field, these are in those conversations every time.
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: What was it like when you were accepted there and you began working with people who are, in that sense, something of a celebrity living legend in their field. What was that like to have that awkwardness, maybe even of being in a room with someone that is regarded so highly?
Dr. Angela Passarelli: There was never awkwardness. There was never awkwardness and I think awkwardness is probably the product of a dynamic that arises between two people. So, I'll give myself a little bit of credit for that. But I'll give most of the credit to the two of them where they are both really educators at heart. They're stylistically very different. Dave, we would sit on the porch of this house and just talk about research about life, about what we were observing in school or in the world around us. We played softball together in a league and we would talk about the learning process on the softball field. It was just a very kind of almost fatherly experience. And probably what I think of when I think of an ancient European education that was that the style of date, but I also was with him at the very end of his academic career, right as he, in fact he retired while I was a doctoral student. Richard is fast paced and he, at the time, was just embarking on a set of really cutting edge neuroscience studies and I think they're probably quite a few moments that solidified my relationship with him. One that's very salient for me is that he sent an email to a group of the new doctoral students who could come in and he outlined a number of projects that he had that we could get involved in. Some of which were funded and some were not. And there were a series of sort of wish lists. fMRI studies that he would need help with. He would need someone to pull off, but we didn't have any funding for so saying yes to that meant doing work and not getting paid for it. Which is a serving doctoral student. That's not easy to do. But I was so compelled, and this goes back to that. At one point I thought about being an MD and always had an interest in the body and have always been appalled at how little attention we pay to it in the organizations. Yet it's the vessel by which we do our work every day. So here was this opportunity for me to understand the neuroscience, the cognitive machinery that's behind all of this and all I had to do was raise my hand and say I'll do it. So, I did that of course. And then fortunately, some funding came through and we were able to launch those studies. I was with him on three different fMRI studies with different collaborators, and it was exciting, it was, you know, we pushed boundaries. It was a lot of work. It was not rocking on the porch. It was hard work, but it was really insightful and exciting for me and I think for him too and for the entire team.
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: You are not going to agree with my next statement, so I'm go ahead and have you suspend judgment for just a second here. But you, now as a researcher, especially in this new area of coaching, and specifically with the Institute of Coaching and some of the things are happening right now. You are trailblazing like they were in the past, and so now when people are going to be reading what you find and the things that you discover and the research that you're doing, that same dynamic is going to happen with students who are interacting with you. How does it impact you when you're dealing with them because of how you were treated in the past?
Dr. Angela Passarelli: When I'm interacting with them, meaning students? Wow, that's a good question. Oh, you're right, I don't know that I completely agree with you and that I don't see myself as the thought leaders that they are. But I do know how powerful of force educators can be in the lives of students. Oftentimes when people come to education, whether it's an undergraduate graduate, PhD, they come at a place where they're poised for transformation. And I see it as my responsibility to create the space for that transformation to happen, whether that's intellectual, whether it's an identity transformation, whether it's just a shift in mindset, certainly an acquisition of skills, but I actually find the acquisition of skills and knowledge less interesting and less rewarding than being part of the personal development journey that accompanies that learning process. You know from my experiences with advisors and mentors like that, of course, I would pay it forward. I also recognize that I have to have my own way of doing it. As a woman, my approach may be different and what works for them and how they sort of manage and raise, so to speak, the next generation of scholars. That approach is very individualized, so I have to figure out my own way of achieving this. Same means that they achieved and so for me, I think I take one thing from each of them, and I actually never put this together, but you know we're asked to write philosophies of teaching and philosophies of just who we are as educators. Two things are always central to how I answer that question. One is that I put experience at the center of how I teach, so I try to give learners experiences. I try to draw on the experiences they've had. Before their experience, especially if it's not all the same and that comes directly from Dave Cole. The other piece for me is that it's all relationship-centered. It has to begin, I think, all high-impact learning has to begin with a sense of mutuality. Not just between me and one student, but also between the students as peers. So, I work hard in class and I feel like it's part of the learning journey, not a distraction from the content to build community and build this through a safe space where people can share their own ideas and can be wrong and be willing to modify their ideas and have healthy debate and so that relationship-based element of who I am as an instructor or as an educator I think comes from Richard. In some ways both of them right there in my own philosophies of teaching. Around you know experience and relationship-centered approaches.
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: I'm so glad you had those experiences and I'm so glad that you grew up in a context where it was not lost on you that most people will never have experiences like those and that you were able to really take advantage of those in the best way that you could. You mentioned a safe place a moment ago and then I went back to the rocking chair on the porch looking over the world, thinking about the future. I wanna go to that porch for a moment and you and I are just talking about life and the question comes up and this is one that you might have a different answer tomorrow than you do today. And it's not meant to be chiseled in granite. But we're sitting there just talking about life and the question comes up. What is the biggest challenge that leaders are facing today and we had to just kind of think about that. And I know that that's a huge thing and it's an unfair question. Of course, that's why I'm asking it, but if you thought you know what is it, the biggest challenge you think leaders are facing today? And say there was a dry erase board so you can change your answer but just right now, what do you think?
Dr. Angela Passarelli: What comes to mind for me immediately is the context in which leaders are finding themselves. You know, we're in the throes of the pandemic. One that I think we had a lot of hope for a few months ago that we were coming out of, and then a new spike hit us and there's just this ongoing uncertainty that I think for many people, 18 months ago or more than 18 months ago, at this point, thought that it would be a few weeks or a few months, and here we are working on two years later. I think in that context the biggest challenge that faces leaders today is well being. We have had a mental health crisis in the United States well before the pandemic, but it's been exacerbated by the pandemic. Put on top of that, George Floyd’s murder added another level of emotional labor and stress on top of our workforce, especially for black men and women who have to shoulder extra emotional angst during this time that often goes unnoticed. I think the challenge for leaders is to figure out, well to decouple efficiency and productivity from well-being so that we can start with well-being and let productivity and efficiency follow. When we start with productivity and efficiency and that's our focus of how to get more out of people who are doing more with less anyway, it's not a sustainable strategy. So, I think what leaders have to figure out is how do we invest in our people but also create systems that will support people in truly being well. Whether it's clinical, mental health or it's just things that pop up with stress and burnout along the way. Leaders have got to pay attention to that right now. Otherwise, nothing else is going to function well.
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: I really appreciate the thought. I also appreciate the way that you present the thought of we start with well-being and then we make our way out from there. I began noticing it myself and then other people on the team. When we got through the first few rounds of the challenge you had the health scared in the financial realities of what's going to happen, and then we had. There was no opportunity to hit pause, and then as people who are dedicated to serving other people, we were inundated with need. And so, we were trying to serve everybody as fast as we could and as well as we could. And then we began noticing the impact it was making on our own team. And so, we made the decision to do every other friday off and then we began working with how do we change the workload so that the stress level can go back down and I would just say out there to people who are listening in, not only did the amount of work that we got done not decrease, I would say that we were able to do our work even better, but that's not the point. I'm grateful for that. But the point is, people break. I'm taking Saturday, I'm driving from Oklahoma to California to spend a week in Yosemite National Park with executives on this great program we do. When you drive through the desert, you have to think is my car OK? Do we have the fuel needed? And if I am not taking care of the car we are going to find ourselves in a really bad spot if it breaks down in the desert. When you said that about well-being, that image comes to my mind. We're not talking about something that's optional. You don't want this to not work when you really are vulnerable and need this to work, and I think the way you said it is so helpful. That's a great analogy. Well, I so appreciate your time and you are involved in so many different types of things for people who are wanting to become better leaders, which that's an interesting phrase to be a better leader. You know, is that more effective, more efficient, a better person, all the different things that that can entail. When you think about someone who's saying, I want to become a better leader, what resources, if any, that come to mind would you recommend or things that you might just have noticed in your own career that have helped you so that someone is able to thrive?
Dr. Angela Passarelli: Yeah, sure. My first response would be take care of yourself, get more sleep, drink more water, be careful about what you consume, both on the radio, on the television, and what you eat, and take care of you physically first, then, then after that I think everyone's path is different. I mean, of course. You and I are going to say work with a coach. But seeking out support that will help you grow and where you think you need it are really, it's really vital. You know I'm never gonna be someone who says all leaders should read this book or should go through this particular program. I think it's pretty idiosyncratic to where people are and research on intersectionality also. Very much shows that when you layer on various identities, I'm a leader. I'm in the tech industry. I'm a woman, I'm a mother. It becomes very individualized, and so there's I think the steps toward how to become a better leader than our individualized one thing. I would say that I think many leadership development programs and also some coaching programs get wrong is that they start too early with goals. So, we set goals about what I want to achieve or what I want to do. But sometimes those goals are not in a larger context and don't lead us to where we need to go and so part of developing into a better human being of any sort, whether it's a meter with a formal or informal position, an individual contributor, I think, is clarifying who I want to be. What impact I want to have on others. What I want to do perhaps, but not in the form of short term goals, in the form of goals that are aspirational and too far out for you to have a formal plan. And once you can really do some soul searching and wrestling with that, get clear on those answers, then the rest of the steps fall in place.
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: I laugh a little bit when you say that just because our focus at STRATA, we had a program even last week and we said we want to do two things. We want you to contemplate deeply who you want to be and what you want to be able to do. And I would say that I've done it the other way before. It's what you want to be able to do. What do you want to have as an outcome? And then who would you have to become to be able to get that? And it is such, it's a devastating thing to see someone succeed in becoming who they don't want to be, and so well, put it. That's what happens. And so to go back to that question that you are getting at which I love and I'll ask our listeners to think about right now. Imagine you're having a conversation with Angela right now, and she says tell me about who you want to be because that's a very different question, and that is the question, and that's that whole thing of you are the CEO of your life and what would you like? That question is on the table at any point in your life. You are not stuck, but you do have to answer the question well and what I would say on that is you also have to recognize that sometimes who you want to be you're not going to be able to be that for whatever reason, and then at least you know what you're not being, the sacrifices you're making, and it gives it value. And I love that depth of conversation that would be required to have that question come up. Thank you, Angela for your time. Thank you for where you've dedicated yourself to. It is a exciting but also potentially challenging and lonely thing to be a trailblazer, and you are definitely doing that in the work that you're doing. And I am so grateful of all the things to invest your life and to invest it in other people. To me seems like a pretty worthy investment, and so I'm so grateful for your dedication and the commitment you've made to helping other people's lives better by helping them understand themselves in a different way. I'll let you say anything that you would like to say to the audience of people who are often leaders. People who are trying to make a difference, anything that you have said to them as we close.
Dr. Angela Passarelli: I hope that we do not become vaccinated against the humanness that the pandemic has allowed us all to experience. I think many leaders who I've spoken to have more empathy. They have more understanding for folks where they are. They're more likely to ask questions before making assumptions, which is such a powerful lesson to have left this experience with and I would just hope that as we move through this very challenging time in our American and global history that the thing that comes with us is a deeper connection to one another and to elevate our sort of collective humanness and humanity when. I was just beginning the process of going through the pandemic, I signed up to do some programs as a participant with the Institute of Coaching and so they bring coaches together and they talk about things and then the pandemic hit and through that I had to stop for a moment. Then I had, then I was able to come back and it was one of the few places that was in oasis. For caregivers, because we can talk about things and it was so helpful to me. But one of the themes that kept coming up was the idea of post traumatic growth that people go through experiences in life that they would prefer to sidestep. But sometimes you can't. And what do you do when you go through it and it was such a message of hope? This is not OK, but what could be learned from it and I appreciate your focus there in that idea of what is the good that can come from a time that's been very traumatizing and it does go back to the human. Missing does go back to the dignity that is inherent in the lives of people and in to find ways of connecting.
Nathan Mellor, Ed.D.: I'm so thankful for this time Angela. This has meant a great deal to me. It's an honor to have you on this show. And for those listing in we are so grateful for people like Angela who are making a difference for leaders. That's what leaders do. Leaders set the pace, they set the tone, they look for opportunities to serve other people, and when your goal is to serve and when your goal is to see a need and fill a need, you will never struggle with purpose because there's always an opportunity to serve. And still today for those listing in make that decision to be intentional, ask the question. Angela asked earlier. Who do you want to be? And then begin the process of really thinking deeply about that so that you don't get to the end of your life and wish you had done it differently, but that you would live a life that has meaning and value. So for those listing in the STRATA leadership show is an opportunity to build community through conversation, and we are glad that you are part.