Laura Putnam: An interview by Bob Morris

PutnamLaura Putnam is an author and CEO of Motion Infusion, a well-being training and consulting firm that provides creative solutions in the areas of engagement, behavior change, human performance, and building healthier, happier, and more innovative organizations.

Laura is a frequent keynote speaker, provides training workshops nationally and internationally and has worked with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, academic institutions and nonprofits. She also serves as the chair of the American Heart Association’s Greater Bay Area 2020 Task Force and is a recipient of the American Heart Association’s “2020 Impact” award. Recent appearances include MSNBC “Your Business,” NPR, Business Insider, Investor’s Business Daily,, The Globe and Mail, and San Francisco Chronicle.

Laura’s unique voice on workplace wellness and engagement is informed by her experiences as an urban public high school teacher, learning and development professional, community organizer, staffer for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, nationally competitive collegiate gymnast, professional dancer and certified Pilates instructor. A graduate of Brown University School of Education and Stanford University, she lives in San Francisco with her fiancé.

Her book, Workplace Wellness that Works: 10 Steps to Infuse Well-Being & Vitality into Any Organization, was published by John Wiley & Sons (June 2015).

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Laura.

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Morris: Before discussing your book, Workplace Wellness that Works, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Putnam: My grandmothers. My grandmother on my dad’s side taught me about love and living life according to steadfast principles. My grandmother on my mom’s side, who incidentally married 5 times, ran for Congress, and looked like a movie star, taught me about really going for what I want in life – and doing it in style!

Morris: Who and what have had the greatest impact on your professional development?

Putnam: Bill Baun, wellness officer at MD Anderson Cancer Center and leading voice in the field of workplace wellness, has been a mentor, a good friend and has acted as a big brother to me. He has helped to navigate my way through the field of wellness and I actually dedicated my book to him. One of my favorite students, Loran Simon, challenged me every step of the way when I was a public high school teacher. A gymnastics coach, Bobby Semes, taught me about living life with a good sense of humor, lots of joy and being in the moment. All three influenced me in my efforts to bring a playful spirit to the work that I do. I’m at my best when I’m having fun – and I sincerely believe that this is the way to effect change.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow?

Putnam: Yes, there were two things. First, as a professional dancer turned urban public high school history teacher, I was interested in finding ways to bring movement into the classroom. I discovered that integrated movement (which might be as simple as getting students out of their chairs) was one of the most powerful ways to deepen engagement, sharpen focus and spark creative thinking. This experience led me to my mantra: “When we move, not only do we get healthier, we get happier, and we even get smarter.”

Second, as a Pilates instructor, I found myself saying the same thing over and over again to my clients: “Great that you’re here, but it’s really important that you move the rest of the day – especially at work.” And, invariably, most responded, “I wish I could, but I really can’t at work.” This conversation compelled me to look for more effective ways to get at the source, namely the workplace. Considering that the majority of adults spend the bulk of their waking hours at work, we could transform the health and well-being of our country – one workplace at a time. Each employer, I believe, has the opportunity to build an oasis of well-being to offset the effects of a larger environment that has become increasingly toxic for our health and well-being.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Putnam: My undergrad and graduate alma maters, Stanford and Brown, have provided me with a network of peers that is unmatched. For example, one of my roommates is now the highest-ranking female executive at one of the largest technology companies in the world. It goes without saying that these friendships are enormously helpful, not to mention incredibly inspiring.

Beyond this amazing network, my schooling shaped my capacity to maintain an autonomous mind-set. Being an entrepreneur, as well as an author, calls for a relentless pursuit of thinking differently.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you first went to work full-time?

Putnam: I wish I had known how important it is to brand yourself – and that it’s never too young to start. I often feel like I’m playing a game of catch up, especially in the world of social media.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Putnam: So true! The goal is to motivate people by instilling a sense of ownership. Nothing is more powerful.

Morris: And here’s Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Putnam: Yes – and something that I have to remind myself of over and over again as an entrepreneur. Vision, while important, is only the start. The hard part is the doing part. Success happens as a result of perseverance and relentless tenacity. My favorite Edison quote (which hangs on my refrigerator door) reads: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.” Grit and putting on our figurative overalls everyday is what counts the most in the end.

Morris: Finally, from management leader Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Putnam: Well said. I feel like one of the hallmarks of success is being able to identify early on which paths are worth pursuing, and which ones are better off left alone. I’m constantly looking for ways to streamline my efforts.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Putnam: Storytelling is everything. If you want to be an influencer, you have to be a great storyteller. Workplace wellness largely boils down to influencing behaviors, and it’s the storytellers who captivate followers, rendering change on a large scale. Oprah Winfrey, for example, wields tremendous influence as a result of her ability to tell stories and connect with people.

We need a lot more of this in the field of wellness – and we’ve made the mistake of lauding statistics over stories. It should be the other way around. While science is critical, health promoters need to become masters of persuasion – and the only way to do so is by becoming a phenomenal storyteller. This is why I coach others in the field to not only stay up to date on the science, but to also build their story banks. The latter is what is going to move people.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what author and business professor James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Putnam: Great question. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, “Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.” Culture is incredibly powerful. In fact I would contend that we are less creatures of habit and more creatures of culture. So, increasing the likelihood that employees will engage in their well-being requires curating a culture and an environment in which the healthy choice is the easy choice and the “normal” choice. Perhaps one of the best examples is Patagonia. Shaped by the founder’s call to “Let my people go surfing,” well-being at work, which might be surfing at lunchtime or holding a meeting outdoors or giving back to the community during work time, is business as usual.

Morris: Looking ahead 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face?

Putnam: Reconciling the need to perform with the need to recoup. It’s harder to keep up with a fast-moving world, but ironically it demands that we re-energize ourselves by restoring our energy and ourselves. As comedian and actor Lily Tomlin says, “For faster-acting relief, try slowing down.”

At this point, there is a giant disconnect between the recognition of stress and burnout as a problem and the willingness (on the part of the employer) to actually do something about it. According to a recent survey conducted by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health, 78 percent of employers identify stress as the number one workforce risk issue, but only 15 percent of them are actually doing something about it. That needs to change!

Addressing this growing issue, however, is much more than giving stress management tips, tricks and tools to employees. For many, the workplace itself is the primary source of stress. Therefore, employers need to proactively uncover and then confront deeper and broader issues such as long hours, demanding deadlines, work overload, lack of
job security, along with perceptions of unfairness and lack of control.

* * *

Please click here to read the complete interview.

Laura cordially invites you to check out the resources at her website:

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