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Perspectives on Positive Organizations: An Interview with Ron May

“I truly respect Rick — his intellect, his ability, and character is just unimpeachable. I asked him this question, you know, what do you do when you’re retired? And he says, ‘First of all, don’t take on anything that you don’t want to.’ That was really good advice.” Ron is now working with both Riverbank and CPO, so we know that he has a strong intrinsic drive to be involved with the field of positive organizational scholarship. When I asked him about how he came to be involved with the field, he said it really started with how DTE decided to handle the economic crisis of 2008. First, he told me about what would have been typical for a company to do in such a downturn:
“We had a culture that typically would go in a room with the few deep thinkers and basically say, well this is what we’re going to do, and we’d pull the levers that are the easiest. Layoffs would have been a really good idea, cutting service to customers would have been a natural reaction, slowing down work would have been a natural reaction. We didn’t do any of that.” Instead, the leadership at DTE tried almost the opposite approach, leaning into the resources they had in the form of their relationships and human capital:
“What we did is we said, ‘Look, why don’t we harness the power of all the employees? Let’s harness the power of our regulators and our governmental officials. Let’s harness the power of our vendors and companies that support us and see if we can’t weather this storm and make it through.’ The interesting thing is we began to do all that without a deep knowledge of exactly why, but we came to be aware through some good insight of CPO. We became aware that the practices actually had names and titles and figures and research. We were doing things before we knew why, but we certainly took the time to investigate and make sure that we were not just doing something and got lucky, but that we were focused correctly. You can tick off all the things that happened — employee engagement went way up. We not only exceeded expectations from Wall Street, but we did it with improving vendor relations and customer satisfaction, and all that other stuff.” Not only did DTE survive the economic crisis, but they were able to thrive due to the practices they put in place. Oftentimes working in the field of positive organizational scholarship, we encounter people who think positive practices are simply nice to have and don’t think of them as tools to advance an organization’s business interests. But when we look at the research, we find that organizations that design for thriving experience higher productivity, higher citizenship behaviors, lower medical expenses, and lower turnover, not to mention the benefits to each employee’s lived experience with the organization. Having experienced the benefits of positive practices firsthand in DTE’s experimental approach, Ron is now drawn to the research, determined to learn and teach the ways in which these positive practices are scientifically backed. As he created his Leadership — Positive Engagement course, he ensured that he was grounding his lessons in verifiable fact:
“But again, it was research based, and without that, it didn’t make any sense to me. Without that, we were just telling stories — this worked, this didn’t work.” Through his dual roles with Riverbank and CPO, Ron gets to take his experiential and research-based knowledge and share it with students and organizations alike. He shared his guiding principle for all of his work:
“Let’s see if we can make the world better. Let’s see if we can help others become better leaders. Let’s see if positive practices can be deployed in a variety of forms.” I’m grateful to be able to work with both Riverbank and CPO, just like Ron and many of our other executive consultants. I sometimes worry that, as a student and an intern with both organizations, my visions for the possibilities in the workplace might be a bit idealistic. But as I continue learning from and working with people like Ron, I find again and again that these hopes for more positive organizations that care about the thriving of their people are realities — realities that our executive consultants have lived and studied and work to achieve with our clients.  Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.


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