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Dr. Joseph Michelli: “Here Are 5 Things You Need To Do To Become A Great Author”

Extraordinary writers and speakers are even better listeners and observers. Listening and empathizing are much more sophisticated skills than I had realized. Over time I have come to learn that my writing, speaking, and consulting career soars when I listen more than I talk.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joseph Michelli, Ph.D. Joseph is a certified customer experience professional, one of Global Guru’s top 3 experts on customer service, the author of nine business books about companies like Starbucks, Zappos, Mercedes-Benz, and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. In addition to being a Wall Street Journal and New York Times #1 bestselling author, Joseph helps leadership teams improve the experiences they provide for team members and customers. He also is an internationally sought-after keynote speaker on leadership and customer experience.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Thanks for having me. I think my journey is the convergence of two paths — one involving communication skill development and the other pertaining to change management effectiveness.

On the communication front, when I was 13 years old, I won a contest at a radio station. After touring the broadcast studio, I asked the station manager if I could work there. I think he was half-joking when he told me that if I studied and passed a test for a third-class broadcast license, he would give me a job. Six months later, with my license in hand, he honored his word. I have been a professional communicator ever since and stayed in radio throughout college and for over a decade as a drive time host in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The skills acquired in radio have served as a foundation for my professional speaking and writing careers.

As it relates to what I talk most about these days, I have always been interested in human behavior and received my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southern California. My dissertation focused on how to drive positive change in marital systems. Across my career, I’ve increasingly worked with business leaders to affect desired changes for their employees and customers. That’s what I am blessed to do full-time today.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

My interesting story is that there are a lot of good and kind people leading businesses today. My career is a testament to remarkable leaders who have extended trust, kindness, and mentorship. Early on Johnny Yokoyama, then owner of the Pike Place Fish Market, trusted me to co-author his personal story of creating a magical experience where they throw fish in Seattle, Washington. From there, people like Howard Schultz have shared their time and insights with me, and I’ve learned greatly from mentors like Horst Schultze, the founder of the modern-day Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For me, this example is funny not in a “ha-ha” kind of way, but more from the perspective that “it’s funny that the world is like this” sort of way. Having written a number of bestselling books about businesses like Starbucks and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, I was asked to write a book about UCLA Health Systems based on the success of my prior works.

To that point in my career, I had ascribed to a model where I secured a collaboration agreement with the companies about which I would write — so I had complete freedom in content and marketing. In the case of UCLA, I made a very different agreement — wherein UCLA hired me to write their book (giving me full control on content, but not marketing) and I donated my royalties to Operation Mend (a program at UCLA that provides care to wounded warriors). I thought I was doing a good thing.

UCLA then hired a marketing team to get the book into the hands of hospital administrators across the country and drove the book’s success on bestseller lists. A reporter did a story on the practices of the marketing team that UCLA hired — with no mention that I also had been hired by UCLA and no mention that the royalties of the book went to a good cause. From that experience, I’ve come to learn that telling only part of a story can be harmful and that I need not to yield my involvement in the way books with my name on them are marketed.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I have just returned from speaking engagements and consultations with clients in South Africa, Singapore, and Australia. I am preparing to launch my new McGraw-Hill book about Airbnb titled The Airbnb Way — 5 Leadership Lessons for Igniting Growth Through Loyalty, Community, and Belonging. Additionally, I have signed a collaboration agreement for a book to be released in 2021 about Godiva Chocolatier.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I am not sure I am a great writer, but I am a prolific one, and I do write about great companies and leaders with whom I’ve worked. If I’m forced to choose only one writing habit, it would be my effort to empathize with my reader and my subject. I want to put myself in the shoes of a small-business owner who is picking up my book in the hopes of finding a few tips that will enable them to make payroll more easily next month. Conversely, I want to be able to understand the wants, needs, and emotions of the leaders, frontline workers, and customers at each brand about whom I write.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Wow, this question is almost like asking which of your children is your favorite. The Airbnb Way is chock full of interesting and heartwarming stories from some of the best Airbnb hosts across the globe. You’ll read about small and large actions taken by hosts to create belonging, foster trust, and drive magical end-to-end experiences. The range of interesting stories include hosts being asked to help with wedding proposals, hosts staying the night in a hospital with guests who have fallen ill far away from home, and a myriad of other examples of hosts delivering service with heart.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Phew, an easy question. I want each reader to realize that we are “all hosts” and that we’re all in the people business. Howard Schultz once shared that Starbucks “is not in the coffee business serving people — we are in the people business serving coffee.” I hope people will read The Airbnb Way and say I can do more to be an effective host to all I serve. I can work harder to create belonging, foster trust, and build commonalities with people. I believe that as readers strive to make improvements in these areas, they will create happier relationships, drive business success, and soothe divisions in a highly polarized world.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

I think it was finding and trusting my voice. I remember when my amazing editor at McGraw-Hill, Donya Dickerson, read my first manuscript she offered feedback like: “This is not a dissertation you don’t have to have a citation at the end of every sentence.” or “You have to Joseph-up this paragraph.” The latter comment meant she wanted me to put a little more of myself into the section. For me, it was safe to use a lot of quotations and reference material, but in the end, readers are looking for a point of view and a writer with soul — not a document that could have been curated through AI technology.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I am a fan of non-fiction books about history, science, and social evolution. For me, books like Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization reminds me — to use Isaac Newton’s words — “that we stand on the shoulders of giants.” Books like A Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel helps me realize how the human spirit can rise above the most abject of circumstance and books like A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson humbles me to the vastness of the universe and the endless scientific discoveries to come.

How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?

I am genuinely surprised by how many people take the time to write to me with stories of how they have taken something from one of my books and used it in their business or personal life. As an example, I get letters from artists who talk about how they have applied principles from a book about Starbucks into their creative process. Let me be candid, I never wrote that book with the intent to affect anyone’s creative process, but it’s the power of the medium. Sometimes I will read about someone’s business innovation purportedly inspired by an idea from one of my books and will scratch my head to understand how anyone could have possibly made such a remarkable leap of genius. All I want by way of impact is for people to try to find a few ideas in each of my books that will make them better able to serve the needs of those around them.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?

In a nutshell, put words on paper and tell the voice in your head to be quiet until you go back to review it. Don’t just let friends and family read your work. Publish pieces of your writing on social platforms, gauge reaction, keep an open mind to feedback and look at writing as a craft or journey.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You don’t have to be great at the start of your career; you should strive to be great at the end. I think it takes patience to become successful. Early on, I could get down on myself for all that I didn’t know or all the deficiency in my craft.
  2. Service serves us. I wish someone had told me to trust that if we serve others well, it will all work out in the end.
  3. Extraordinary writers and speakers are even better listeners and observers. Listening and empathizing are much more sophisticated skills than I had realized. Over time I have come to learn that my writing, speaking, and consulting career soars when I listen more than I talk.
  4. Strive to deliver value. When in doubt, I ask myself how can I add value? That applies to the next sentence I write, my next utterance from the stage, or the next tool I provide a client.
  5. There’s more to your life than your career. My family has taken a few hits from my withdrawal to my “writing cave.” My wife, Nora, died after a 6-year battle with breast cancer at the age of 51, and my mother died three months later. That year was a giant wake-up call on the criticality of life balance. In that regard, I am still a work in progress.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I am passionate about elevating social discourse and treating one another with respect even when ideas diverge. I guess I would be a champion of a civility movement. I could crusade on behalf of not belittling or degrading the dignity of others, through words or action.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We largely engage on LinkedIn and Twitter @josephmichelli, but can also be found on Instagram and Facebook.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!




In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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