Creating An Organizational Culture Of Learners And Innovators With Mary Fedewa

The culture of a company plays a big part in its overall success. This has never been more true with the COVID-19 pandemic we’re in, where, now more than ever, we need team members who are in great relationships with each other, no matter their separation with the current remote work setting. But where do you start building a strong culture in your organization? Dr. Diane Hamilton sits down with Mary Fedewa to give us the answers. As President, and Chief Operating Officer of STORE Capital, leading the servicing function and guiding staffing and organizational structures, Mary has the wisdom and experience to share with us how she has helped create a learning environment within her organization and how she is maintaining it. She taps into the changes COVID has brought to the working environment and why it is needed to have a culture that supports innovation. Dr. Hamilton then takes the hot seat to take us deeper into the importance of curiosity to avoid status quo thinking—a trait which is particularly helpful in this uncertain time where innovation is most needed and high valued.

TTL 799 | Creating Culture


I’m glad you joined us because we have Mary Fedewa here. She was one of STORE Capital‘s Founders in 2011. She’s President and Chief Operating Officer. We’re going to find out about her journey. I’m excited to have her on the show.

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Creating An Organizational Culture Of Learners And Innovators With Mary Fedewa

I am here with Mary Fedewa, who was one of STORE Capital‘s Founders in May of 2011. As President and Chief Operating Officer, she leads STORE Capital servicing function, which encompasses portfolio management and information technology. She guides staffing and organizational structures within the credit and closing areas. I want to get more from you. I know it’s great to read these bios and it sounds amazing what you’ve accomplished. It’s nice to have you here, Mary. I was hoping to get a little bit of background from you.

It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me. Starting STORE many years ago has been an amazing opportunity and adventure but I started my career quite a while ago. I have a finance undergrad from North Carolina State University. Before that, I have a lot of women role models in my life, my mother and my grandmother who always worked hard. I learned that I like to work at a very early age, even if it was as simple as tying my shoes, so off I went and I’m destined to do this in this lifetime. My finance professor pulled me aside one day and said, “You should look into GE Capital Financial Management Program.”

Her dad had worked for GE for 30 years. I did that and that what launched my career with GE Capital. I spent twelve years there. I worked in many of their divisions and learning a lot. I have a broad array of experiences across many disciplines from finance to risk to operations. I had the opportunity in 2001 to be in Arizona and make the acquisition of Morton Fleischer’s and Christopher’s first company, FFCA. That’s where I met them. I was the integration officer and they integrated me. I like to say I went native and I fell in love with their entrepreneurial spirit and energy, which I always had even through my GE career. I found many pockets of entrepreneurialism. I tend to look for opportunities to find ways to do things and to add value.

I ended up helping make that acquisition and integrating them and then they integrated me. I left GE Capital to be with them and their second company Spirit Realty Finance now but Spirit Realty Company then. They took that company private. I moved back to the Carolinas and then I came back when they called and said that they were starting again. I bought a one-way ticket back and was able to be one of the founders here at STORE and build this great company, which is now on the New York Stock Exchange and an $8.5 billion-dollar company where we provide real estate financing to the middle-market companies. I love it.

I had a great conversation with Chris Volk on the show about that. My background was in mortgage and finance and that respect but never what you’ve done. I worked for a lot of people who worked at regular GE. Did you get a chance ever to meet Jack Welch and be part of that?

I did.

What was that like? My former dean at Ford School of Business and a lot of people I worked with on the board like Steve Kerr, who has been on the show. A lot of them worked with Jack Welch. What was that like?

I had exciting opportunities. One of the assignments I had at GE Capital was to help energize the private label business. The private label business was like the JCPenney Card and NordicTrack Card, where people get their private card. We wanted to add some analytics around it and determine who to target for the card, who were the best payers on the card and so on. I had the opportunity to work on that. We decided that not only would we do that but we would start our businesses and figure out if we could create some products at GE Capital.

We decided to create a debt consolidation product, which was at the time everybody was consolidating all their credit cards into one product. I had the opportunity to create that. We built a big business. We did near nearly $2 billion and we outsourced all the operations. We kept the intellectual capital inside. I had to present to GE Capital’s board, which was Jack Welch and his directory board. I went out and I presented this business that we did. After the meeting, Jack came up to me and said, “That was amazing. I want you to present that at my Boca Raton annual management meeting in Florida.” I was like, “I would love to do that, Jack.” I’ll be honest with you, Diane, I am terrified and thrilled.

It was amazing. I got a call from Jack’s speech coach. I went to Wilmington, North Carolina. I was coached and I practiced. When I got there, Jack approved every slide you did. He would pull people aside and he was like, “Who’s nervous? Who would need some help?” I ended up eating dinner with him and spending time with him and then presenting at his meeting. He was terrific. He came over afterward and said, “What a great job.” He was a neat guy and full of energy. He was energetic and I found him to be inspiring around people. I had a great opportunity there.

I hear a lot of good things and you also heard about how he got rid of the lower 10% or whatever of people who weren’t performing. You had a little bit of fear. People were a little bit worried about being there because even if you were great, if you were in that lower 10%, you’re still not as great as the greater people. That was a little intimidating, I imagine. Did you have to ever deal with that?

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GE Capital had a lot of processes and procedures, a lot of reviews and sessions, they called them. It’s important to be honest with people and to be realistic. People want to know, “Where do I stand? How am I doing? How do I do better?” At the end of the day, I’m a firm believer in voting with your feet every day and coming into an organization that you want to be there and you want to add value. It’s nice to get that feedback. I believe that everything works out as it should. People that it didn’t maybe work out for, I believe they went on to something better and maybe more in line with their purpose.

You went to bigger and better things and that was a big thing right there. I’m interested in your journey because I got a lot of women on the show that we talked about women on boards or get a seat at the table or what it means to. There is so much stuff going on. For me, the women on board discussion are fascinating, especially in California, with a certain percentage of women being on board for a certain timeframe and all that. What do you think about what it takes to get women on board?

My whole philosophy on women in the workforce and having been a woman in all male-dominated fields, when you think about my career. In most meetings, I’m the only woman and that’s been since the beginning. My advice is always to see a person and that’s what I’ve done. I’ve seen a person and I’ve looked for opportunities. I try not to get distracted by males, females. I try to see a person and the energy, who has the enthusiasm and who wants to add value. This all works out.

You have been what president, COO, director, all these different things at STORE. You worked in all these different companies. I’m curious about culture because that’s what I am an expert in terms of behavioral issues, curiosity, perception and all the things I study. How did you build the culture there? What do you think is important for a culture?

One of the most important things for a culture is to have a learning environment, a safe place where people can make mistakes and learn from them. They don’t have that fear. As much as you can eliminate fear is important. With enthusiasm and energy, it’s important to take responsibility. When you have a learning environment and people feel safe, they’ll take responsibility. They’ll say, “I messed up. I admit this.” That’s important. We look for creator’s solution-oriented environments, very open transparency, keeping everybody in the loop, welcoming honest feedback from all members of the team and leading by example. It is clear that it starts at the top and it’s about the energy at the top. It’s not what I say. It’s what I do. I’m a big believer in actions. I don’t pay a lot of attention to what people say right but I watch their actions. I try to teach that as a role model.

It’s such an important thing because I talked to many companies about this because they want to develop a culture of curiosity to be more innovative, engaged and all that. One of the questions they ask me is, “What can we do as a leader?” A lot of it is you have to lead by example. You have to be willing to ask the questions that make you look stupid sometimes so that other people will do that.

Admit when you don’t know. Admit when you mess something up and ask for help. We try to keep it open here.

That’s critical because I’ve had a lot of experts on the show. Employees have a fear of looking dumb but I don’t think they realize that a lot of leaders don’t know the answer to everything. Having been in sales, we’re always told, “Never pretend like you know the answer, you’re going to look dumb.” You’re better off saying, “That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. I’ll get back to you as soon as I get it.” You’re human. As soon as you start trying to fake it, that’s when you’re dead.

I totally get that. We’re all conditioned to try to fit in, to be liked or not be judged but the sooner you can believe in yourself, the better. If I look back on my career, that’s the one thing that I wish I would’ve believed in myself more sooner and that takes a journey. It’s a journey and I love every minute of my journey because I’m here. That is the one thing, to teach people to believe in themselves at a very young age.

I’m speaking into having that learning and teaching kind of thing since that’s my focus. It was interesting to me how many mentorships are coming up. I’m on a couple of boards with Keith Krach from DocuSign. I had a couple of different boards I’ve been on with him. One of them, he created this Global Mentor Network, which is fascinating. I talk to people about mentorship quite a bit. Kathy Ireland, the famous swimsuit model was on my show and I was asking her about her mentors. She said she had Warren Buffett. I’m like, “That would be nice.” That’s unusual. I’m curious, have you had any great mentors and what do you think of mentorship?

I love mentorship. I’ve had life coaches almost my whole life and I think it’s important. It helps with growth and perception. It sometimes helps to be able to talk with someone who is not in the middle of it all and gives you a different perspective and helps you with that but knows you. I’ve had mentors from a very early age, from my grandma to Morton Fleischer to Chris Volk. I’ve had life coaches that I’ve spent a lot of time with. I study a lot of coaches out there or leaders like Dr. Joe Dispenza or Eckhart Tolle. You spent some time with Brené Brown. I love her too. My team is very open to it and welcomes it. From what I’ve seen in my career, people welcome mentorship and are open to help for sure.

TTL 799 | Creating Culture
Creating Culture: The most important thing for a culture is to have a learning environment, a safe place where people can make mistakes and learn from them.


When you worked with a life coach, what kind of things are they helping you with? I’m curious what your experience has been. Everybody tells me something a little different. I’m curious about the kinds of things they helped you do.

For me, life coaches helped me make subtle behavioral changes. They helped me to go within. When you think about something or when you’re in an interaction, how are you feeling within? They’ve helped me to take responsibility and go within and you want to do that.

It’s self-awareness. It’s such a great part of emotional intelligence. I had written my doctoral dissertation on emotional intelligence in the day. I thought, “This is a fascinating topic.” I had no idea.

It’s amazing and we’re at the very tip of it. The world is shifting towards this. Even with COVID, I find that as a great awakening. People are starting family, self-care, health like let’s pause and let them nurture this emotional intelligence. It might not be everything but it’s certainly a lot.

I had Daniel Goleman on the show. He’s fascinating. Emotional intelligence is popular. It was exciting to talk to him about that. The pandemic has created a chance for introspection and all the different things that we don’t always do. I’m curious about what you guys have done. You did something with the pandemic. You created an externship. I want to know about that.

At STORE, we’re always looking to give back. Even in our business here, I say to my team all the time, “If your mom calls you and asks, ‘What value are you adding to the world?’ What are you going to say?” We’re not curing cancer. We’re not brain surgeons but we are financing real estate for early childhood education so that parents have a place to take their children while they work or were at restaurants. Hurried parents can drive through and get food to put on the table at night after a long day. It’s important to us that we are very customer-centric and we’re giving back to the world.

When the pandemic came up, what we found was there were many people losing their internships or companies not being able to do an internship. We’re big on growth and support mentoring. What we decided to do was create a virtual externship. We put it out on LinkedIn. My portfolio management team did this. I was proud of them because in the middle of chaos and economic shutdown, they created this program to give back. We had 125 qualified applicants that applied, a very diverse group, 54% were minorities, 54 colleges, 22 states, 5 countries and an enormous amount of interest. We put on a 2.5-day program for them.

People from our organization and employees from all levels gave great presentations on a day in the life or “How do I do financial modeling?” We had a woman in the finance panel. We had a diversity panel. We had our chairman who came on board and said, “Talked about the past.” We talked about the present and the future. We tried to give them something for their resume so that they could learn and not have a whole summer go by and miss a great opportunity for a good experience.

Was it a summer-long program? How long was it?

It was a couple of days program. It wasn’t summer but these interns were losing their entire summer of experience. We wanted to be able to give them something dense and rich that they could use. It was all learning, things they would have learned if they had been here. They would have learned to look at a transaction, do some financial modeling, how the day in the life of the sales team, how to prospect and how to close a transaction. We wanted to give them all of that in a short time as if they were here.

Are you going to continue this program?

[bctt tweet=”When we do things just because they’ve always been done a certain way, we don’t really progress.” username=””]

We’re going to continue both the internal internship and external externship. What I also love about what has happened in COVID and we’ve seen it with a lot of our customers is people have used a lot of technology. They’ve been innovative in terms of new ways to do things. You get to keep doing them. This isn’t a one-time thing anymore. It’s been a gift from that perspective that we have this program set up and there’s no reason not to continue it. It was great when you can touch all these countries.

The Zoom and everything and everybody else have had to do to communicate change everybody’s sense of how they do business. Jobs are being offered that weren’t offered virtually before. I’m curious how it changes when we talk about work-life balance and wellness and all the things that we went for our employees. What do you see that changes from all of this? Is there such a thing as having balance if you are working in your home all day long and you’ve got everything else going on? I’ve always worked this way but a lot of people haven’t, so I’m curious about it.

I’ll start with balance is very much a choice. I believe that if you choose to have balance, you can have it anywhere. In particular, this COVID experience has created a lot of balance for people. We work with a lot of Wall Street firms and I’m talking to people who are reading bedtime stories to their children who never saw their children by the time they commute in and out of New York. I’m talking to people as they’re walking their dog on a conference call or walking themselves from a wellness perspective. We have many employees that tell us that you’re getting up at 5:00 AM to get your workout in, to get your stuff ready, to get to the office at 8:00 or 9:00. Now you can get up and you get to your computer. At 10:00 in the morning, if you want to go for a quick run, you can do that.

There’s a lot more flexibility in terms of health and wellness, especially for people that have commutes. They’ve done a big deal. I think there’s a great opportunity. On the flip side, we’re missing people around here. We’re thinking very creatively and innovatively about culture and how do we maintain the culture and how do we onboard new employees. It’s the same thing that all companies are thinking about now. I think we’ll end up with a hybrid solution at the end of the day but we will work harder at maintaining culture. We’ve done a lot of that here where we’ve still done lunch and learns, although we’ve done them on Zoom. We’ve done all our employee meetings, no matter what, even though our office is fully telecommuting. We’ve kept very good cadence on employee engagement as if they were here and we’ve used the technology to do that. That’s important. You want to keep some normalcy and use the tools you have to do that.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens after this, especially in real estate, with companies. Are they going to need some different kinds of space than they used to have? If they start having people work from home? How’s that impacting how you guys do business and thinking about the future?

We’re in the single-tenant operation essential space where we’re working with very vital middle-market companies, from fitness centers to early childhood education and restaurants. For us, they’re very real estate-intensive businesses and they need us. We fill a large marketplace that has a need. For us, the runway is great and the market is big. If you’re in the office space, you’re thinking differently and I’m not in that space. I wouldn’t have a comment on that. From the outside, it appears that telecommuting is going to make a difference. I’ve been around long enough to have seen IBM send all their employees home and bring all their employees back. We’ll see what the new normal is.

I used to call an IBM in the ‘80s.

I was in the Carolinas and IBM was big there in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area. My husband worked for IBM. It was his first job out of college and the first part of his career. I’ve seen him like I said, “Send them all home and bring them all back.” We’ll see where the new normal is one day at a time.

I haven’t thought about that in a long time. The things you think you’re going to figure out, you get surprised. I have never seen a time where we need to ask more questions, be more curious and be ready to pivot than now. I know you do a lot of amazing things at STORE. I had talked to Chris about your work and he was thrilled with everything you’re doing there. I was excited to have you on the show. A lot of people want to know if there’s someplace to follow your company or you? Do you want to share any link or can they follow STORE?

We have our website at Chris Volk, our CEO does a lot of publications out on Seeking Alpha. You could follow a STORE on Seeking Alpha or you can follow Chris himself. Those are great ones. We’re on the New York Stock Exchange, our ticker is STOR. Our website is terrific in terms of who we are and what we do. It’s very customer-centric. I’m sure Chris has talked to you about it. There’s a series called STORE University. You can go out and watch it. It’ll help you learn about us. There’s a cheesy video out there which is super fun. It helps us show how we add value to our customers. It’s very cool.

That is a great place to start. This was so much fun, Mary. Thank you so much for being on the show. I enjoyed it.

TTL 799 | Creating Culture
Creating Culture: What has happened in COVID is how people have really used a lot of technology. They’ve been innovative in terms of new ways to do things.


You’re welcome. Thank you, Diane. Take good care.

You’re welcome.

This show is going to be a little bit different and I’m excited about it because I’m going to be talking about curiosity. I talk on a lot of other people’s shows about what I work on but I want to talk to you about the value of building curiosity within your organization. I’m my guest today. I’m Dr. Diane Hamilton. In addition to hosting this show, I am also the creator of the Curiosity Code Index and I wrote the book Cracking The Curiosity Code. I give a lot of presentations where I talk about the importance of improving curiosity and getting out of status quo thinking. It sometimes helps if I share a story that I think you might find fascinating.

A lot of organizations are held back by a culture that doesn’t embrace curiosity. They go along with the way things have always been. I like to talk about an experiment that I share on stage about a hidden camera experiment where they looked at how quickly people go along with a group. This woman went into a doctor’s office thinking she’s getting an eye exam. Not known to her, everybody in the waiting room wasn’t patients, they were actors. Every so often an experiment was going on where they would have a bell ring. Every time that bell would ring, all of the actors around her which she thought were patients would stand up and sit down with no explanation. After three times hearing the bell ring and without knowing why she was doing it, the woman stood up and sat down conforming with the group.

They thought, “This is interesting. She’s going along with what everybody else is doing. Let’s see what happens if we take everybody out of the room.” They call everybody back as if they were patients one at a time and eventually, she’s alone in the room and the bell rings. What did she do? She stood up and sat down. She doesn’t know why she’s doing it. She’s going along with what everybody else had done. They thought, “Let’s add some people to the room who are patients and see how she responds to the bell ringing and see how they respond.” The bell goes off and she stands up and sits down. The gentlemen next to her, looks at her and says, “Why did you do that?” She said, “Everybody else was doing it. I thought I was supposed to.” The next time the bell rings, what do you think he does? He gets up and sits down with her.

Slowly but surely, what was a random rule for one woman is now the social rule for everybody in the waiting room. It’s an internalized behavior that we call social learning. We see what other people do and we think, “That’s what I want to do because everybody else is doing it.” We reward ourselves because we don’t want to be excluded. It’s the part of how conformity can be comfortable but going along with it sometimes gets you bad habits. You stunt growth, you get the status quo thinking and that can be the downfall of organizations. When we do things because they’ve always been done a certain way, we don’t progress. We don’t look for other ways to find solutions. I want to go beyond that. I want to know why we’re doing things. Why is it important and what are we trying to accomplish? That’s what I talked to companies about because I think they need to look at how and where they are modeling and fostering curiosity.

What action plans do they have in place to avoid status-quo thinking? Do they have all the answers? How can they take what they learn from different events and utilize that to make some changes? It’s important because curiosity has been the foundation behind the Model T to self-driving cars. We know that leaders believe they encourage curiosity and exploration but I’ve had Francesca Gino on the show, who’s done a lot of great research in this area. We know that most of the employees don’t feel rewarded for it if they explore their curiosity. If we want organizations to generate innovative ideas, we have to help them through leaders developing that desire to explore. My job is to be curious. I ask questions and get information for a living. I do that through the show, teaching and speaking everything I do.

It’s something I want to share with other people because it’s such a huge part of what makes companies successful. I look at curiosity as the spark that ignites the process that everybody’s trying to achieve. Think of it as baking a cake. If your goal is to bake a cake, you’ve got all these ingredients, you have eggs, milk, flour or whatever it is it takes to bake the cake. You mix it together. You put it in the pan and you put it in the oven. What happens? If you didn’t turn on the oven, you get goo. Nothing happens. That’s a huge problem that organizations are trying to get. Instead of cake, they’re trying to get productivity or trying to make money.

They know the ingredients. They know they want motivation, drive, engagement, creativity, communication, all of the soft skills, all that stuff. They’re mixing those ingredients and what they’re not doing is turning on the oven. The oven, the spark is curiosity. If you don’t turn on the oven, no one gets cake. That’s what I’m trying to talk to companies about. We know that kids are naturally curious. I love a picture from the San Francisco Museum of Art from Life Magazine in 1963. They have these two little girls that are adorable looking through this crack on the wall that they can see behind the air conditioning vent. They’re supposed to be looking at all the artwork on the walls because it’s the San Francisco Museum of Art but what do the kids do? They want to see what’s behind the vent.

We were all that way. Three-year-olds ask their parents about 100 questions a day. At that age, you’re curious. You want to find out how everything works. There is some time that we eventually lose some of that. Think about it, when did you stop wanting to look behind the vent? Did somebody say, “Stop that. Get up. You’re getting dirty. Don’t look behind there.” We get that. That’s what our parents do. You have to behave. We’ve seen a big decline in curiosity and creativity. There are some great TED Talks about the creativity aspect, which ties in very similar to what we see in curiosity. It peaks around the age of five and then it tanks as soon as you go through school about the age of 18 through 31. We see very low levels.

Sir Ken Robinson has a great talk about how we educate people out of our creativity and out of our competencies. George Land also has a great talk about his work with NASA. He looked at kids and followed them at age five. He found that 98% of children were creative geniuses. By the time they were 31, only 2% were. It was a huge difference. He said that we have convergent and divergent thinking. He talks about it in terms of we put on the gas and try to come up with all these great ideas but at the same time, we over criticize them and we put on the brake. Anybody who drives a car knows that if you put the brake on at the same time you put on the gas, you don’t go very far. That’s what’s happening to our curiosity and our creativity. I thought, “This is interesting because curiosity can translate into business results.”

[bctt tweet=”Curiosity can translate into serious business results.” username=””]

CEOs get that but a lot of them are not investing in the culture of curiosity. Some of them are doing some amazing things. I want to talk about what the cost is of lost curiosity. There are many aspects of what costs companies. We know that they’re losing $16.8 billion due to emotional intelligence if you ask the Consortium for AI. If you look at Gallup’s numbers, they are losing $500 billion a year loss due to poor engagement. I’ve seen everything from communication that Holmes has at $37 billion. I’ve seen much higher. It depends where you look but we’re talking tens to hundreds of billions for each of these issues, emotional intelligence, communication, engagement. It’s a huge problem out there. Companies know that they’re losing money but they don’t recognize the value sometimes of curiosity.

When we talk about curiosity, there’s a big innovation factor because we want to be more innovative but we’re worried about job loss or jobs being automated. We know that if we’re not innovative, the majority of the Fortune 500 companies from 1995 are gone. No one wants to be Kodak. Nobody wants to be Blockbuster. We know that Netflix ate Blockbuster’s lunch. The reason those companies are not here is that they looked at things from the status quo way that they’ve always done things. They didn’t want to cannibalize their product that they had the success they had. If you do that, the world keeps moving and you get stuck. That’s a huge problem.

It was interesting to me to study curiosity. There’s a lot of research on curiosity but there are not the great statistics I’d like to see. There’s a State of Curiosity Report that Merck did in 2018. It showed that curiosity was higher in larger companies than smaller ones. It was 37% versus 20%. Millennials were more curious than Gen Z and Boomers. The US had a higher level of curiosity compared to China but maybe they weren’t as high as Germany. That’s one report. I’d like to see a lot more research done. It’s fun to look at what experts have shared regarding the value of curiosity. Francesca Gino did a great job with the HBR article she wrote. I loved having her on the show. I hope you check out that show because it’s amazing.

In that report, she talked about leaders recognize that curiosity is important and they think that they’re encouraging it. We found that most of the employees don’t believe that. Only 24% feel like they’re curious about their jobs and 70% said they face barriers to staying curious and asking questions. She did some great research. If you get a chance, I would recommend reading that episode and also check out that HBR article. I’ve had Daniel Goleman on the show. He was incredible. We talked about how emotional intelligence ties in.

He was cute because he said he could see why I developed a measure of curiosity because I’m very curious. He was talking about an article in HBR as well by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz saying that curiosity is one of the most important competencies in the future. That’s a huge plug for curiosity coming from Daniel Goleman. He was talking about younger generations of questions organizational missions more than older generations. We got into a great discussion about that. I hope you take some time to read that episode.

Another great episode on the show was with Amy Edmondson who has an incredible TED Talk. She gets into curiosity and how it ties into collaboration. She does a TED Talk about teams and teaming. She gets into how the Chilean miner disaster was able to be resolved and a lot of it was because of curiosity. She says, “You’ve got to look at what are you trying to get done, your goal, what’s in your way, your concerns, worries, barriers and what resources, talent skills and experience do you bring?” She talks about how they did all that to get those Chilean miners out from under that rock. It’s definitely worth watching her TED Talk. All of them have TED Talks that are amazing.

A great guest as well on the show was Doug Conant, who is the guy who turned around Campbell’s Soup. He did that by asking questions. He asked employees what motivated them and then he looked at how to build engagement by writing 10 to 20 personal notes, six days a week. He counted it 30,000 plus, which is huge. When he took over in 2002, they had 12% engagement. By 2009, they were up to 68%. He did some amazing things by asking questions, writing comments and giving input. All that stuff comes out of curiosity.

Another great guest of the show is Zander Lurie, who is the CEO of SurveyMonkey. They are so much into curiosity. They got permission to change their street address to One Curiosity Way. I love that. I was asking him some of the things that they do because they have a culture of curiosity there. They ask, “How can we make our products more productive for our customers? How can we create an environment where people do their best work?” He says they do skip-level meetings so that they can find out what works and what doesn’t. Those are some examples of people who are on the show. There are other examples that are fascinating. Some companies like Monopoly, Ben & Jerry’s, VanMoof Bicycles, I’ve looked at some of them to see how they used curiosity to go a step further.

Monopoly did some research. They always come out with the dogs’ version or cats’ version. They didn’t want to come out with another version. They decided to come out with some research to find out what people did with Monopoly and what they can learn about it. They found out that over half of the people cheat when they play Monopoly. They came out with the cheater’s edition. That was their second-biggest release since the initial release of Monopoly. It was a cool thing. Ben & Jerry’s got some interesting information. What they do in terms of not getting into status-quo thinking, they don’t keep flavors around forever. They do research and find out what’s working. They ask questions, “What’s a good flavor? What’s no longer a good flavor?” Instead of freaking out that their flavors are no longer successful, they celebrate them and give them a burial. I love that. They even have a headstone or whatever on their website where they show, “This flavor was alive from this year to this year.” They celebrate their success and then they move on.

The story that’s interesting is VanMoof. They make these bikes and they would send them in packages in the mail or through UPS or whatever they would send. A lot of them were ending up broken. They kept trying to fix these bikes. It’s the issue with the packaging. They didn’t want to spend a lot more money because they make the package twice the size. They get a lot more expenses and they’re trying to figure out how to do this, to make their bikes not break and yet not go over on the spending. What they’ve looked at was the type of box they were using. They noticed it was very similar to a flat-screen television box. They looked into how many flat screens broke and they weren’t breaking. The only real difference was the flat screens had a picture of a flat-screen on the box. They thought, “Let’s draw a picture of a flat-screen, a little bit of extra ink and see what happens.” It was a dramatic difference in the amount of a damaged bicycle. It’s thinking outside the box.

Sometimes it’s asking questions. Disney did a lot of that. They did some great questioning to find out what was happening with their turnover. The laundry division of Disney, as glamorous as it sounds but is not. They were losing a lot of people that didn’t love working there and they couldn’t figure out why. They put out a questionnaire to their employees and said, “How can we make your job better?” They didn’t expect to get things back that they could do anything about but they did. They got back great things like, “Put an air van over my workspace. Make my table adjustable, so when I’m folding things, it works for my height.” Those are things that they are like, “We can fix that,” and they did. Going to the horse’s mouth or the employee and say, “How can we make this better?” It was huge for them.

TTL 799 | Creating Culture
Creating Culture: Some of the greatest ideas come from thinking outside of our silos.


Sometimes it’s not the employee. Sometimes it’s leaders. In the book Cracking The Curiosity Code, I gave a story about Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. They were having a lot of patients that were dying when they were being transferred from one unit to the other. Some physicians were watching a Formula 1 race car event one night and were impressed by how quickly the Formula 1 pit crew would take the car park, put it back together in seven seconds. They’re looking at this going, “They did that with no problems and we can’t transfer people from here to here.” They thought, “Why don’t we have these guys come in, this Ferrari team and they can show us any improvements that we can make.” They did get some great ideas which reduce their errors by more than 50%.

We think inside of our cubicle or our silos but sometimes we need to think outside of even our industry because that can be important. Some of the greatest ideas are from that. I’ve given you some examples but we know we came up with a Velcro from a Swiss engineer hunting with his dog and came back with burrs in his fur. He’s like, “What are these things? Why are they sticking?” What he did was he stuck it under the light to look at it and he saw the way it hooked together. He thought, “Why don’t we try this?” In 1998, they made something like $93 million in Velcro and it was sold in 40 countries. It did amazingly well.

You have to build a culture of learning. To do that, it’s important to look at some companies that do a great job of it. I know a top company I work with that does that is Novartis. They’ve done a great job because curiosity is part of their core cultural value. They encourage employees to spend 100 hours a year on employer-paid education to broaden their interests. They do everything from paying for them to watch videos, to having them perform in mini TED events, having employees be the actual speakers. It’s cool how much they do this. They have the whole month of September as their curiosity month. I’m one of the speakers for them. I know how much time and effort they put into this. If you look at how much everybody talks about how they liked working at the company, 90% of employees surveyed approved of the CEO. Think of how often you see that. That’s a huge thing.

I know they’re doing some ongoing research with curiosity with me and I’m excited for that. One of their employees is writing her doctoral dissertation. We’re looking at the curiosity and how it compares to if you intervene and give them some information about things that are holding them back. I’m anxious to share that information when it comes out because I did a lot of research for a lot of my talks and for my book, Cracking The Curiosity Code. I looked at so much that’s out there. We know that there are some great TED Talks from Daniel Pink, who wrote Drive. What a great book. Simon Sinek’s Find Your Why and all of the stuff that he’s talking about. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. All those are huge.

I started to look at this curiosity thing. The Max Planck Institute coined the term, curiosity gene because it’s in people, it’s in animals and it creates dopamine. It makes us feel good. If you don’t have curiosity, if you’re a bird flying around a bush and you run out of berries, you’re going to die if you don’t have the curiosity to look at another bush. As I was researching for the book, I wanted to write about curiosity but I’m like, “Where’s the assessment that tells you what stops it? There isn’t one.” That surprised me because the assessments told you if you were curious or not. That’s all well and good because you do want to know if somebody is highly curious or not. The big five factors will tell you if you’re open to the experience and things like that.

I want to know what stops it. Nobody had studied that. I did. I wanted to know what holds us back. I found out what it is and it’s FATE. It stands for Fear, Assumptions, Technology and Environment. I want to talk about these separately because fear is about failure, fear of embarrassment, loss of control. Nobody wants to feel like they said something stupid in a meeting. We all want to feel like we’re all prepared. We’re all in the meeting and we’re thinking, “I want to ask that but I don’t want to look dumb.” You lean to Joe next to you, “Joe, why don’t you ask?” It’s better for Joe to look dumb. You don’t want to look dumb.

That’s a huge problem within companies because you get a lot of yes men, yes women because nobody wants to shake up things or look like they are trying to confront their leaders. Leaders who haven’t modeled the value of curiosity will come across that way. I’ve had leaders look at me and say things like I had one guy who asked me to do something and I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to do that.” I’ve never had to, “How do I do that?” He looked at me with disgust and said, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

What does that make you feel? First of all, it tells you you’re an idiot. It tells you that you should know this. You should lie or pretend you know things. I don’t know. We get a lot of leaders who will say, “Don’t come to me with problems unless you have solutions.” That sounded good at the beginning because it sounded like we were going to get rid of these whiners and complainers who didn’t have any ideas but a lot of people don’t know how to solve the problem. If we say that then we’re saying, “We don’t want to know about problems.” That’s a huge issue.

The assumptions that we make, that’s that voice in our head that tells us, “We’re not going to be interested or apathetic. It’s unnecessary. The last time I did that, they gave me more work.” Whatever it is. We all have that voice. It talks us out of stuff. Sometimes I’ll hold up a bottle of water at a talk that I’m giving. I also ask, “How heavy is this?” They’ll say, “6 or 8 ounces.” I’ll say, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is how long I hold it? Because if I hold it for a minute, it doesn’t bother me. My arm’s fine. If I hold it for an hour, I start to get tired. My arm gets tired. After a day, my arm feels paralyzed.” That’s how our assumptions are, the voice in our heads. It’s a fleeting thought, no big deal. We get past it. After an hour, we might hold on to it a little more. After a day, it starts to stay with us. We have to recognize that we might be telling ourselves all of these things that we could maybe be interested in or maybe somebody would help us learn but we talk ourselves out of them. Assumptions are a big thing.

What I found interesting was technology was also a big factor and curiosity is impacted by the underutilization of technology. It could either do it for you or you’re not trained in it or you’re overwhelmed by it. Some people have had great experiences in their childhood where they had a lot of foundational learning and technologies. Steve Wozniak is one. I loved his book, iWoz. He talks about his dad telling him how to connect gadgets. He would come back with all these wires and get things from work and show him how electronics should be connected and why this wire was necessary and how it brought electricity. A lot of us don’t have that experience. A lot of us might be the greatest mathematicians in the world but if somebody threw us a calculator or Siri did it for you, you’re not ever going to have the foundation behind it. There’s got to be times where we have high foundation days where we build without technology and we learn behind it. There’s got to be days where we take advantage of it and learn how can we use it and not become overwhelmed by it.

The environment is a big one for a lot of people because it’s everybody from your teachers, family, friends, social media, leaders, peers, past leaders, current leaders, everybody you’ve ever worked with. We know that curiosity can be influenced by everybody we’re around. The numbers I gave about how curiosity peaks at about age five, and then it tanks after that, a lot of that could be going into school and the teachers don’t have time because they’re teaching to the test. You’ve got many students in the class. You can’t answer why all the time. Our siblings can be brutal. If you do something that they don’t think is cool then you can take the wrath from that.

[bctt tweet=”Thinking outside the box is sometimes just about asking questions.” username=””]

It’s challenging to look at what has impacted us. That’s one of the reasons why my research was so interesting to me because I looked at these four factors of fear, assumptions, technology and environment or FATE. Those were the inhibitors for the Curiosity Code Index. They were evenly matched. The assumptions and the environment were higher than the technology maybe but then you can have an overlap. You could have fear from technology, for example. It was fascinating to do the research. I studied thousands of people for years to see what inhibited them. I started out by putting a thread in LinkedIn and asking people and then I got interested in that. I hired people to do all this factor analysis and ended up doing my own research because a lot of the research kept coming back in the same fashion of trying to find out if you’re curious or not. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to find out what inhibits us.

It was interesting to look at the difference between men and women. Men were less impacted by fear than women but they were more impacted by that voice in their heads. They were equal to women and technology but then maybe more impacted by their environment. These results are what I’ve seen and I’d like to see more research done but it is interesting to take a look at how these different factors impact us. I train people to, first of all, they take the Curiosity Code Index and I either go do the training at companies myself or I train consultants to give it or I train HR professionals to give it. If those people get certified, they get five hours of SHRM recertification credits. There are a lot of different versions of training that I offer.

What’s interesting is when the employees go through the training class, when they’re training about this, they get to find out their results from the CCI. It’s like taking a Myers-Briggs or a DISC that takes ten minutes. You get the big report back to the PDF within a few minutes of taking it. It’s really simple and they get to get their results then they go through this personal SWOT analysis, which is cool because they look at ways to create smart goals, measurable goals to overcome some of these areas that are inhibiting them. They do that but then we do a similar thing for the corporation as a whole like back to how they did at Disney. You go to the horse’s mouth, you go to the employees and say, “How can we fix these things within the company? How can we help you become more curious?”

If there are issues with innovation or engagement, whatever the company issues are, the training classes are a great starting place to go to the employees and say, “How can we make you more curious so we can have this end product? How can we get cake?” You find out and the trainers go back to leaders with this great report, “This is what employees would like to do to help them improve so that we can all improve and make more money.”

It’s important to the future of companies that people have to try it, explore it, poke at it, question it. It’s a huge thing that you need to ask yourself about, “How can I be vulnerable and allow this culture of learning? Maybe I don’t have all the answers.” Think about, what are you doing to foster curiosity and what action plans do you have? How do you do this in this tumultuous time? Thinking about this, it’s challenging for a lot of people. I have created a free course. A lot of people could get a lot of value out of it if you’re interested in taking it.

If you go to and scroll down to the bottom, it offers a free course. If you sign up, it’s a simple thing, they send it right to you and you can learn a lot more about curiosity, the factors and see a lot of videos from some of the talks I’ve given. Some of the stuff I’ve talked about here is in there but a lot of the chapters from the book are in there. It’s a good foundational way to learn more about curiosity. I wanted to give you that information and I hope you check it out and

I’d like to thank Mary for being my guest. We get many great guests on this show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, please go to and I hope you enjoyed this episode and join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.

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About Mary Fedewa

TTL 799 | Creating CultureMary Fedewa was one of STORE Capital’s founders in May 2011. As President and Chief Operating Officer, she leads STORE Capital’s servicing function, which encompasses portfolio management and information technology, and guides staffing and organizational structures within the credit and closing areas. She also leads STORE’s acquisitions team in cultivating opportunities in new and existing markets and growing the demand for efficient net-lease capital solutions among middle market and larger companies. Known throughout the industry for her thorough understanding of the business and her solutions-oriented charisma, Ms. Fedewa has over 20 years of experience in a broad range of financial services.


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