#BeBetter Podcast with Michael Kurland

Building Sustainable Inspiration Within Company Culture

How to build an inspiration strategy that drives exponential growth.

Allison Holzer and Sandy Spataro are two of the three Co-CEO’s of InspireCorps, and also co-authors of the newly released book, “Dare to Inspire: Sustain the Fire of Inspiration in Work and Life” (Hachette, November 2019), a book that redefines inspiration as a critical resource in modern work and organizational culture. Each has a passion to create and drive inspiration in organizations as an integral part of company culture.

Portrait of Allison Holzer

“When people are inspired, they’re more strategic and innovative in their thinking.”

—Allison Holzer


Portrait of Sandy Spataro

“Leaders are so refreshed to learn that the way to do better in their business is by investing in their people.”

—Sandy Spataro


16. Building Sustainable Inspiration Within Company Culture

Key Takeaways

  • Inspiration can come to life to drive better performance and results for organizations.
  • Leaders have a strong effect on how the culture comes to life and how influential it is over people’s behavior.
  • Get creative about creating remote culture and environment in a new and different ways.



Allison Holzer and Sandy Spataro are two of the three Co-CEO’s of InspireCorps, an inspiration strategy firm who partners with corporations, healthcare systems and higher education institutions to use inspiration to drive innovation and growth. They are also co-authors of the newly released book, “Dare to Inspire: Sustain the Fire of Inspiration in Work and Life” (Hachette, November 2019), a book that redefines inspiration as a critical resource in modern work and organizational culture. Allison Holzer is a Dartmouth alumna class of 2000 who studied Psychology and Art History during her time here. Before co-founding InspireCorps, she worked for several years with leading experts at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, creating the first coaching program to increase emotional intelligence.

Sandy Spataro has more than 20 years of research experience in organizational culture and social influence. She blends her Silicon Valley experience at Oracle with academic rigor in her work as a professor at Northern Kentucky University to craft innovative, high-impact solutions for leaders, teams and organizations.

Podcast Transcription

Hello, I’m Michael Kurland, CEO and Co-Founder of Branded Group. Welcome to the #BeBetter Podcast. To me, our company’s mantra to “Be Better” is more than a tagline; it’s a culture that permeates our organization, propelling our team to Be Better to each other, our customers and our communities as well as to ourselves. Each week on the #BeBetter podcast, I interview leaders who authentically exemplify how they are being better in their professional and personal lives.

Today’s podcast is dedicated to OneOC. Founded in 1958 as the Newport Bureau of Volunteerism, they are dedicated to providing solutions and support services to nonprofits in Orange County so that they in turn can deliver upon their mission and make a greater impact. Learn more about OneOC at https://oneoc.org/.

Michael Kurland (00:01):

Okay, welcome to another. Sorry, let me start over. Okay. Welcome to another episode of the BeBetter podcast. We’re very excited today. This is our first multiple guests podcast. We have Alison Holzer and Sandy Spataro. Two of the three co CEOs of inspire Corp inspire Corp is an inspiration strategy firm who partners with corporations, healthcare systems, and higher education institutions to use inspiration to drive innovation and growth. Alison and Sandy. Thank you so much for being on the show. Why don’t you tell the audience a little bit about yourselves and anything else you’d like to add about your company?

Allison Holzer (00:44):

Sure. Thanks, Michael. It’s really great to be here. We are super passionate about inspiration. We’ll talk a little bit more about that in the show. We’ve done some original research on how inspiration can come to life to drive better performance and results for organizations. That’s what we’re really all about. I’ll just add for me personally, before co-founding InspireCorps with Sandy, and also we have a third co-founder and co-CEO who is not here and her name’s Jen Grace Barron. We came together to found the company back in 2013. Prior to that, my work was in emotional intelligence at the Yale center for EI. So really learning about how emotions drive performance and results.

Sandy Spataro (01:33):

I’m also really happy to be with you. Anything called BeBetter is a good thing to be a part of so I’m grateful for the opportunity. I come from a combination of Silicon Valley and academic background. One really kind of fed to the other. I had to work for a while before I had anything to say and then got into academia to try to say that culture is something that I love to do research on and talk about. I’m excited for our conversation today.

Michael Kurland (02:04):

Well, I’m actually very excited as well. I like to consider myself sort of a culture guru and to have the experts on culture, you guys can maybe give me a grade or a rate Branded Group after we’re all said and done. We don’t want to do that on the air if it’s not a good grade, but we’ll go from there. So let’s jump right in. I want to ask you ladies, how do you define company culture? How has culture been impacted by a remote and distributed workforce? Let’s talk about those two things real quick.

Sandy Spataro (02:37):

I’ll start. So culture is really how you live your values. It’s bringing to life. A lot of us have on a business card, five values set out there, and sometimes those are the real ones and sometimes those are just the ones we say. But it’s how those come to life in the company in really the informal or taken for granted way to approach things, the stuff you just know how to do, because that’s how we do it here. It reflects shared values again. So what we really all together hold as important. Members of the company, knowing what the values are, knowing what brings the culture together and then caring about them makes a difference in how strong the culture is and what influence it has on how people spend their days and behave. Leaders do a lot to drive culture by what they do formally in things like reward systems and performance management and ceremonies and rituals that different companies have. Those are really nice ways to see what the company values and how they like to treat each other. But it also shows up in how leaders themselves behave. If I say that I value family time and life balance, I better be leaving at 3:00 PM when my kid has a play at school that day and demonstrating that for the company. So leaders have a strong effect on how the culture comes to life and how influential it is over people’s behavior.

Michael Kurland (04:19):

Right. It can’t just be words on the wall. It’s got to be lived and breathed by everyone in your, in your company.

Allison Holzer (04:28):

Something that I think of often with culture is that it will happen no matter what, in the company. There is such an opportunity for leaders to be able to craft and create the culture with everyone together and it’s better that way because that’s when you can create a culture that aligns to your values instead of just waiting and seeing what kind of culture evolves, but it will happen no matter what.

Michael Kurland (04:56):

I think from our point of view, we had a firm come in and they are our PR firm, but they also work on putting culture together, well, at least values. They sat down with all of our team members and we had probably about 50 at the time. We did this whole exercise to really define what Branded Group’s values were and that bubbled up into growing into the culture. That was about four years ago. We still live by those. Those are the words on the wall today, but we live by those words. So to your guys’ point, how has culture been impacted by the remote and distributed workforce? What are you guys seeing out there in these crazy times?

Allison Holzer (05:45):

That’s a great question. I think one of the hard things is that culture is harder to reinforce right now because of so many being remote and distributed. Not everyone is in that situation, but even in situations where there are folks on the ground there’s more of a mix, where there’s only, the only allow certain number of people who are on the ground. So this distributed and hybrid format makes it harder to be able to reinforce culture and some of the ways that you might traditionally do it even in terms of environment matters. We’ve talked to several clients who their building is important that they go into. I talked to someone just yesterday who said they went into their building for the first time in months and they were not prepared for how emotional that experience was to be in the building because what came back to them in that moment when they walked through the door was why their work mattered.

Allison Holzer (06:40):

It was that reinforcement of the values and the culture that they felt in the environment. So we don’t have that. But the good news is that we can begin to get creative about creating remote culture and environment in a new and different ways. Some of that is taking the ways that you reinforce culture, if you were in person and translating that to virtual and in some of it’s innovating new ways to reinforce and bring culture to life, which we’ve also been hearing some interesting ways that people are doing that.

Michael Kurland (07:13):

I think you bring up some good points. It’s a blank canvas right now, right? Because we’ve gone from traditional office to this remote workforce and I’ve run out of ways, the Zoom happy hours and the Zoom trivia nights, right? That’s more bringing people together, but it is part of the culture. I’m looking for new ways to engage our employees for culture. So if you guys have any tips on that, I think myself specifically, and the audience would love to hear, how can we get the culture moving from this remote point of view?

Sandy Spataro (07:51):

I think it goes back to Allison’s earlier point about a culture’s going to happen and it’s going to happen in your distributed team or department just as well as in an in-person one. So you really do want to actively shape it. There’s the social aspect to it and the feel good part of it. But it also goes back to the substance of the values that your company has, like you talked about emerging organically from team discussion. So for example, at InspireCorps, one of our top values is relationships first. That really matters to us. That was easy to model and live when we were in a coworking space together and saw each other very frequently and water cooler conversations happen quite naturally. Well, we’ve had to be a little more systematic about how we do that. So our Monday morning 8:00 AM huddle starts with a good 20, 25 minutes of just checking in, how is everybody, how are we doing, connecting on whatever photos may have shared with each other over the weekend, through texts, group texts and that kind of thing and really going back to the values and saying, what does this look like in a distributed environment and then how do we bring it to life? So that there’s that really tight connection there. What do you value and how do you live it?

Michael Kurland (09:13):

I think that’s great advice. I actually just stole a little piece of myself because our Monday morning huddle usually starts off with, we did 400 calls and we did a hundred thousand dollars last week. And, you know, no one even takes a deep breath to talk about how their weekend was or how their kids are or whatever. I usually go last because I’m the CEO, so I’ll let everyone else talk, but I think we’re going to go first this week and I’m going to lead off with, how’s everyone feeling? How’s the weekend, especially after all the things we’re going through last night and today.

Sandy Spataro (09:45):

Then the second thing we do is wins and progress. Just like you’re saying. So what’s going on that we can really celebrate and feel good about and reinforce.

Michael Kurland (09:55):

I love it. So let’s get into inspire in your name, InspireCorps. How do you know if the culture is inspiring or not? Because that’s really what you guys are the experts at, right. So let’s talk about that.

Sandy Spataro (10:13):

Let me start by talking about how we think about inspiration and what really came up from our original research on it. We define inspiration as the intersection of possibility. So seeing more options, broadening your view of what could be possible, and then the intersection of that with a greater sense of invincibility, more confidence and more courage. So I see more options available to me and I feel courageous and confident to go after them. That’s inspiration. You’re looking for evidence of that in your culture, ways to bring that to life in your culture. People being more resilient when they’re faced with setbacks. They’re able to see more possibilities for coming back. They feel more confident in it. Just being more generative and creative in a problem-solving situation, more alternatives, come out of a sense of agency of confidence especially during a difficult time like this one or where there’s a lot of change or uncertainty people feeling like, “Yeah, this is rough, but we got it.”

Sandy Spataro (11:30):

We’re doing it. We’re taking it day by day. We’re getting there ourselves. So it’s looking for and instilling a greater sense of possibility and invincibility in what’s happening. In our book that we recently published “Dare to Inspire,” but we’re coming up on our one year anniversary that happened fast. We’re actually engines of inspiration. These are what we call these reliable pathways or ways to spark inspiration. Those can be used to infuse a culture as well, things that you connect to your values and purpose, but we also have a set of engines that are about relationships and a set of engines that are about circumstances.  Alison was referring to the environment you’re in and what about that can bring your culture to life more. So it’s these different ways of finding greater possibility and invincibility, then it leads to some pretty great outcomes.

Allison Holzer (12:36):

I think the other thing to keep in mind with as Sandy was saying possibility, invincibility and the culture really think about if you’re looking or asking yourself, the question, “Is our culture inspiring or not really?’ The opposite of that is burnout. Now, when you’re feeling low energy, when you’re feeling like you don’t have any possibilities in front of you, when you don’t feel energized to take action or move forward. Now those are at polar opposites and we often will feel somewhere in between and we’re always navigating that process. But when you start to notice burnout in the culture, that’s a sign, or individually for yourself, but it’s a sign that more inspiration would be beneficial and help people essentially perform and collaborate better.

Allison Holzer (13:25):

In our book, we talk about, inspiration, it’s not just because it feels good, which it does generally. We feel better when we’re inspired. But it’s not just that kind of feel good emotion. It actually drives better business results. So when we look to measure and track a culture is it inspiring? We’re looking for these outcomes of inspiration, which we found are things like now when people are inspired, they’re more strategic and innovative in their thinking. They are more agile and resilient and responding to change, which is really important right now. They actually have closer connections and relationships. So in culture, this can look like better collaboration, more information sharing, more trust across groups, and they just overall have better performance results. Because when you’re inspired, you’re thinking outside of the box, you’re more energized to take action. That generally leads to better results and whatever you’re working on in your work. So those are really important business outcomes that it leads to.

Michael Kurland (14:26):

Absolutely. You guys are inspiring me right now to read your book, which I plan on doing anyway, but you touched on a few points that are hitting home for us. We have burnout because when we first had the pandemic hit, we furloughed, 75% of our workforce out of pure necessity. We just didn’t know what was going to happen. We kept a skeleton crew of which was the 25% and they’ve been working since March. As we’ve been bringing people back, we’ve been doing it very slowly because, and we’re almost back to our full staffing right now. But the people that have been working since March are burnt out and they need some inspiration. Back to what I was saying before about what we’re doing in terms of remote culture, that stuff is f not working right now.

Michael Kurland (15:19):

I don’t want to do another Zoom happy hour after I’d just worked a 10 hour day, after I just worked two weeks straight and couldn’t take time off because I had to stay on top of my work because we didn’t have enough people. I hope that’s available on audio books because I’m going to probably download it very shortly. So you just talked about the inspiration inside of a company. Do you have any specific companies that there’s an example of where this culture and this inspiration is currently, that can be reference points?

Allison Holzer (15:55):

First of all, I’ll mention, I used to be on the board of Conscious Capitalism, Connecticut and conscious capitalism is actually nationwide, actually global now movement. We even talk about it in our book. But it’s really about companies that not only care about the bottom line, but they also value things like having a higher purpose and how they are taking care of and engaging their employees and stakeholders. We do find that companies that are purpose-driven in this way and really caring about their employees and culture, they typically are good examples of inspiring and effective company culture. So I think you could look there, that would be a place where you can see many different examples of companies that are inspiring in their culture or working on becoming inspiring and their culture.

Allison Holzer (16:47):

It is a process. It’s not like a, you are, or you aren’t. It’s more dynamic than that. I’ll also share that there’s a company that we write about in the book and that we know really well, and they’re called Peach. They are a women’s athleisure company. They do some really innovative and dynamic things. What we love about their story is that their CEO basically decided at the very beginning, day one of their company, we want inspiration. We want culture to really matter, and that the people are what drives success and so we’re going to bake inspiration and positive psychology into everything that we do as much as possible. So they’ve baked, they have infused strengths into all of their language and culture, how they run meetings. They have people taking the strengths assessment.

Allison Holzer (17:42):

They infuse positive psychology and inspiration into their performance management systems. They’re really having conversations with people about and what matters to them and how they can bring that into their work. They do some of the team practices that we talked about, like opening up team meetings with connection and with wins. Those are just some simple examples. One of my favorites is when the CFO shared that he actually measures number of laughs in the company and reports out on that when they report on their financials, which I just think is a great example of how much they care about their culture.

Michael Kurland (18:20):

That’s great. I don’t know how you measure laughs, but I’m sure that they have figured it out, right. So I too am a subscriber of Conscious Capitalism. It’s actually how we came to the BeBetter brand of culture at Branded Group. I was feeling empty and I was talking with my PR person and she actually recommended it because I think that’s how you guys know each other. Alison is Conscious Capitalism. So I read the book and it really inspired me. I was at a point where I was turning a little bit of a profit. It was early on, I think after year one. I was trying to find my way as an entrepreneur and we made some money, but I was feeling empty inside and I read Conscious Capitalism.

Michael Kurland (19:12):

That’s how we started, we had a program called the One for One program where we donated a minute of community service through our employees to Habitat for Humanity of Orange,  County, that was for every service call that we completed. We’ve outgrown that program now because we’ve got so many calls that we would have to hire someone full time just to do community service work. But we do pledge about 2,500 hours a year of community service across our three partners in Orange County, in New York. You just hit a good note for me.  I’m glad that we brought up conscious capitalism.

Sandy Spataro (19:54):

The old business thinking of I can either put money into my people or into my business is just false. We’re finding that leaders are so refreshed to learn that the way to do better in my business is by investing in my people, is to really let people treat people well to drive the business forward it’s a great model.

Michael Kurland (20:17):

It’s one of our values. It’s BeBetter to our people. We have a retention rate of 96%, used to be 98, but we’re down to 96 now we had a couple people leave to go back to school or things of that nature. This was a pre pandemic, not counting the furloughed people, and we knew that from what we did as a company, which is facilities management, if we took care of our employees, they would take care of our clients, which would give us more sales, right? So it’s like a chicken and the egg thing. So we started putting more money into our employees, and that’s why our culture is so very important to us. Being that you guys are the gurus on culture and inspire inspiration. What stands out the most about your culture for your employees and clients? And if you could change anything about that culture, what would you change?

Sandy Spataro (21:15):

I think for our culture, I’ll go back to the value we already mentioned, which is relationships first, because that’s just so core to who we are as a team internally, that’s very important to us, but it’s also our leading edge with our clients. Sometimes we’ll meet a client who just wants to buy a training program and we’re interested in an actual relationship that’s going to have impact and last. So words like partnership and sticky learning and things like that are pretty important to us in terms of integrity in the relationships that we have with our clients. So I think it’s one of the things that our clients experience in us and of our culture first and foremost. What to change in our culture is a tricky one. We’re a high love team of women.

Sandy Spataro (22:20):

It’s a women owned business certified. One of the things though that I think we have to all watch each other for in protecting the relationships is we’re all high achievers and hard workers. Sometimes there’s just too much of a work ethic and we can burn ourselves out. So as leaders in our organization, we try to really reward people with things like time off and a trip to the spa and a holiday with things and praise people when they take their time off and really look for balance in their lives. When you have such strong commitment from your team, you really have to help them keep boundaries to protect and be able to sustain their high level of charge.

Michael Kurland (23:11):

I totally agree. I think a lot of burnout is currently because what else is there to do, right? These people are just throwing themselves into their work specifically at Branded Group, because there’s nothing else to do. They just want to excel and succeed. I totally agree with you. I have been forcing my leaders to take their time off and I’m don’t even care if you just sit home and watch movies and eat popcorn all day. That’s fine. There’s nowhere to go anyway, but you just need a mental break. What we do is facilities management. It is break fix every day. So there are days where there are emergencies, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a day or two off just to take that break. So I appreciate that.

Michael Kurland (23:57):

Relationships, like you said, it’s so key. The one word you said that struck with me is partnership and I feel like it’s a lost word at least in the world prior to the pandemic.  I always tell my clients when I’m out trying to close a deal that I want to start a partnership with you. I want to get to know your spouse, your dog’s name, your kids’ names, what drives you, what you’re interested in. I’m not trying to just sit here and sell you. Yes. I want to sell you something, of course, but that is old school mentality where you’re just trying to close a deal and then pass it along to the ops team and never talk to them again. That’s not how you grow a business. That’s not how you grow a partnership. So I want them to know I’m the guy they can call when they have the big issue. I think that touches on some really great things. Thank you for that information. So next question. If leaders want to make their cultures more inspiring, what steps can they take or advice would you give them in the short term and the long term?

Allison Holzer (25:08):

Great question. I would say that this is something we talk about in our book, how a leader’s first job is to inspire yourself. That your own energy and inspiration levels are modeled and cascaded to all those around you. So culture starts with you and that’s certainly a good short-term place to start. In our book “Dare to Inspire,” the first, basically three quarters of the book is all about that. How do you manage your own levels of inspiration in your work, but then what we get into and we actually have some great exercises in chapter 12 of the book on inspiring organizations and culture, where you can get into and really think through how this is looking in your culture and what are some ideas and places that you can look. One of the first things that we talk about in that chapter is purpose because it is one of the most high octane kind of engines of inspiration.

Allison Holzer (26:09):

It’s one of the places that you really can go back to time and time again, even if you have a purpose, the truth is it evolves over time. Especially during a pandemic, when there’s so much change, it needs to be dynamic and alive and not just at the company level, but for each individual to feel connected to it. So that’s certainly a good place to start. I think you can go through the exercises and think about other engines of inspiration that resonate in your culture, places that you can systematize them and reward them in different ways. That’s where I would recommend to look longer term and shorter term, really start with yourself.

Michael Kurland (26:45):

Don’t ask anyone to do anything that you’re not willing to do yourself, right. That’s one thing that, there’s one rule that I’ve tried to live by, roll up my sleeves and show them I’m willing to do anything I’m asking them to do. It usually will help them. So I guess I have to inspire myself as is where I’m going with that.

Sandy Spataro (27:04):

We’re finding during this time, one of the antidotes to burn out, or one of the pathways out of burnout really starts with going back to purpose and the desired impact, really the “why” behind the work you’re doing. So, as Alison said at the company level yes, but also for each individual and connecting to that is really a lifeline out of the empty burnout feelings. Those questions of what contribution do I want to make? What kind of impact do I want to have? What strengths do I bring to my work that I can leverage to do that end up creating new vision for people, new possibilities, new ways of seeing things through. So it’s particularly useful at a time like this.

Michael Kurland (27:54):

That’s very encouraging that there is a lifeline out of burnout, right? Because you don’t want to think you’ve totally lost that person going forward. For our audience, how can they best track and monitor their successes for the short and the long term for more inspiration?

Allison Holzer (28:17):

We have certainly folks are interested in individually monitoring and tracking. We actually have a short survey slash quiz that they can take that you can find on our website, if you go to inspirecorps.com and you go to the section where you’ll see it should be pretty clear where to find it. It’s a nice place where you can go and take a quick assessment of your own inspiration levels. We also, in our book have a couple of different indexes there. So we have an individual, and we also have a way that you can think about and track on that for your team actually, and also for company culture. So those are some ways that you can begin. It really starts with honing a practice of self-awareness and really learning how to gauge it internally and, you want to be able to recognize and identify your own emotions. Inspiration is part of that. Being able to have a sense of it, to know when it’s waning or when you want to fire things up and then it becomes a practice. It becomes a muscle that you work like one at the gym and it gets easier. The more you use it and stronger.

Michael Kurland (29:28):

I totally agree. I feel like there was a part of my life where I didn’t have as high of self-awareness as I would probably have liked. That was also the time of my life, where I went through a lot of, and I was not an entrepreneur, but as I came into my own to become the entrepreneur, I am today, my self-awareness probably a year before skyrocketed. I started really understanding what was I putting out there and were my vibes negative. Were they positive? Were people picking up on those negativity or positive, those vibes that I was sending and I had to start owning some stuff.  It’s tough, because a lot of people don’t want to take responsibility for their actions when they’re negative and they may want to play the victim or victor. So we could probably dive into a whole other podcast about that.

Michael Kurland (30:21):

I guess what I’m trying to say is I so agree with the self-awareness being something that’s so key, especially for people that are trying to lead and inspire. If you don’t have self-awareness, how can you put anyone in any direction of any positivity? Ladies, this has been a great chat. There’s so much more, I want to dive into, especially emotional intelligence. That’s something that I think CEOs specifically don’t even have on their radar when they should, or at least not enough CEOs have it on their radar, but it’s something that I try to lead with on a daily basis. We’ve talked about it on the ancillary parts of our conversation, but I’d love to have you guys back and maybe dive deep into some stuff like that. But for now if anyone wants to get ahold of you guys, how can they reach you? Allison, why don’t you go first and then Sandy.

Allison Holzer (31:18):

Sure.  If you’re interested in learning more about our firm, you can visit our website. It’s inspirecorps.com and you can also find us on all social media channels, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and our handle. There is inspire CorpsCEO at the end, and you can find us there as well, but if you’d like to reach out personally my email is Allison@inspirecorps.com and I’m Sandy@inspireCorps.com. Please reach out. We’d love that.

Michael Kurland (32:01):

Great. This has been great ladies and to the audience, thank you for tuning in, and I hope you guys got as much out of this conversation as I did. Until next time. Thanks.

I’d like to take a minute to thank you, our valued listeners. My intention is for this podcast to inspire you, in some way, to be better.  Change starts from within and radiates outward. Therefore, start with being better to yourself and only then will you recognize how to be better others and your community. Thank you for joining us today! If you want to learn more about Branded Group, then visit us at www.branded-group.com. From our website you can follow us on social media. Also, always feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. Until next time, Be Better.

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