The need to belong is a core part of the human experience. We all have a deep desire to be connected to a group and to feel like we’re a part of something greater than ourselves.
This need is present in all areas of life, including work, and the best leaders know that fostering a sense of belonging in their organizations is crucial for success.
Join us as we discover how a dynamic roller derby league in Portland, Oregon has worked to create a powerful culture of belonging—and learn how you can start taking steps to make belongingness an important part of your personal, team and organizational leadership.
Rocket Mean (00:06):
So I started this with some friends in 2004 and it was definitely like me and my buddies were like, well, I grew up in a roller rink and I also really like to drink beer, and, um, and so I was like, what can I do with those two things together? And so we used to do a lot of drinking and skating in the early days, but it was, uh, it was about me and a bunch of my girlfriends who were like in their like late twenties, early thirties, wanting to kind of knock it around, um, and have a good time. So even the roots of what we did was about fun and community and skating.
Daniel Harkavy (00:37):
That’s Kim Stegeman, a.k.a. Rocket Mean or Mean for short. In roller derby, everybody has an awesome nickname. She’s the executive director and founder of the Rose city rollers, a women’s flat track roller derby league based in my hometown here in Portland, Oregon. What started out as a small group of friends coming together to create a space where they could have fun and do what they love soon grew as more and more people were drawn in by that dynamic community that Rocket Mean had helped to forge.
Rocket Mean (01:08):
So when I was looking at our membership as a group of people who loved what they were doing, and I think that at that point, it was probably about 80 people. And when I said to myself, this means a bunch of these people, they show up, they love practice, they’re having a great time, they’re building a community. You know, they’re finding their best friends they never knew they wanted to have, um, they’re going out and doing, you know, wild things together. And they’re kind of, they’re in love with this. And I was like, I need to be the person to help, you know, make sure it stays there.
Daniel Harkavy (01:41):
With her desire to nurture and grow this unique community. Rocket Mean along with other key members helped build the Rose City Rollers into what is today a successful roller derby league with world-class teams, hundreds of members, and a magnetic culture that everyone from skaters to volunteers to fans all want to belong to.
I’m Daniel Harkavy. And this is the Building Champions podcast. I’ve been coaching top business leaders and CEOs for over 25 years to help them to improve the way they lead and the way they live. This episode is about our need to belong and how we as leaders can leverage this to transform the organizations in which we lead and ultimately to drive to even better results.
Here’s Rocket Mean.
Rocket Mean (02:36):
I think that some of this stuff that really draws people in that I hear from people is one, a lot of people don’t realize they’re looking for community, right? And so they get here and, um, we’ve put a lot of time and effort into how are you welcoming at all different points? How are you welcoming when people start stepping onto the track for the first time, how are you welcoming when a volunteer enters the hangar for the first time, how are you welcoming as a skater to a volunteer that you see at an event? Right? So, um, first off you have to build in that sense of, you know, saying hi and making people feel appreciated for being there. Right? I think that’s a big thing that people are like, I didn’t know I needed a community until I found one.
Daniel Harkavy (03:18):
We humans all have within us, a deep need to belong, to connect with others and to be an accepted member of a group, renowned psychologist, Abraham Maslow made this clear in his famous hierarchy of needs when he identified our desire to be connected, to and accepted by social groups as our greatest human need after our basic physical and safety needs are met. We are a fundamentally social species. We forge intimate bonds with family and loved ones. And we devote ourselves to social and religious groups all for the sake of finding spaces where we can be known by others and give ourselves to others in the group. This is a truth that Rocket Mean and the Rose City Rollers realized. Many people need to be connected to one another, to be a part of something special, even when they don’t realize that’s what they’re looking for.
I went to my first derby bout in, I think, February or March of 2017.
Daniel Harkavy (04:17):
That’s Diff Pamp, a.k.a. Boots & Cats, or Boots for short. Remember what I said about everybody having cool nicknames. Boots is a newer member of the Rose City Rollers and she skates for the Wreckers which is a recreation league team. And she also serves as merch coordinator. As a fan, Boots encountered something during her first Rose City Rollers experience that was magnetic.
And Mean, I don’t know if you remember this. And so I had been here with some friends and maybe had a few beers and went out in the parking lot. And I was like, this was the best thing, I had such a great night. I’d never been to a derby bout before. I had no idea what to expect and was having so much fun. And I was just talking out loud in the parking lot. And you came up to me and said, do you think you want to do this? And I was like, no way. I’ve never put skates on in my whole life. And you said, there’s orientation in a few weeks. What’s your email address? I’m signing you up. And you signed me up on the spot.
Rocket Mean (05:17):
I’m sorry, I’m about to cry. It’s funny. People have so many crazy experience about how I was a part of their first experience because I’ve been here every day for so freaking long. I didn’t know that! You’re so cute. We’re both crying.
Daniel Harkavy (05:30):
With encouragement from Mean, Boots showed up for orientation and she was hooked from the start.
I showed up and I found, I think you said it before, it’s a community. I didn’t know I needed. I, all of a sudden, found myself surrounded in derby 101 with 30 really close friends. And I’d say probably half of us had never put skates on before. And we all got out on the track and learned how to like hold each other’s hands and not fall over. Uh, and here I am two years later, still skating. I skate for the Wreckers, for our rec league, uh, cause I don’t want to skate five days a week and spend my entire life in derby. Although I spend most of it in derby.
Daniel Harkavy (06:13):
For someone in Boots’ position, walking into a group and immediately feeling like you belong can be a magical experience, but that magic doesn’t just happen by accident. That dynamic culture, that attracted Boots to the Rose City Rollers was there only because Mean, and other leaders had spent the time doing the hard work of laying that foundation for that culture. And the key of that foundation is a vision—one that is shaped by a clear purpose and strong convictions. Early on in the life of the Rose City Rollers, Rocket Mean realized the value of vision.
And I remember the day standing in my, uh, in my bedroom, I’d just gotten home from work. And I was like rushing to get changed, to run, to try out night. And then, um, the coach of the Fresh Meat Speed Bump, uh, called me. He said, Mean, you don’t need to come to this. I got this.
And I was like, Oh yeah. And it was like one of those aha moments where I was like, you know what? The only way that something like this is going to grow is if I’m really down with, uh, you know, kind of helping put forth a vision, but then letting other people execute and add their bits to it.
Daniel Harkavy (07:26):
That last part is key. And I love the way Mean explained it. Vision isn’t just some picture of the future that just a few leaders in the organization come up with and share once at an all team meeting, it’s something that you have to engage people in by showing them how their individual contributions will play a crucial role in getting the organization to be where it needs to be. When I or any of the Building Champions coaches walk our clients through the vision building process, one of the first things that we start with is purpose. Your purpose declares why your team or organization exists and why you do what you do. It goes beyond whatever product or service that you deliver and make; it puts meaning behind what it is that you do. For the Rose City Rollers, their current mission is to serve women and girls who want to play the team sport of roller derby, connect with an inclusive community and realize their power, both on skates and off. This mission, this purpose is more than a simple statement. It’s a meaningful goal that moves people and inspires them to want to work toward making that mission come to life.
Rocket Mean (08:37):
And I think it’s so easy to be part of a community that has given me so much. It’s given me, uh, in a place to be athletic, a place to sort of find myself, a place to find friends. Um, you know, when we even talk about like the merch committee, it’s given me a place to own something. I own merch for this league and that’s something that I do. Um, and so when it comes to, you know, a Saturday night, what am I going to be doing? I’m going to be here because this league has, has done so much for me that I want to give back to it.
And I hear that from, uh, the youth parents, a lot, a lot of them we’ll, we’ll get messages from parents that are like, you can’t even understand how much impact you’ve had on my skater’s life. Uh, my kid was a bookworm. Didn’t socialize a lot. Um, you know, parents were like, I was concerned that, you know, my kid didn’t have a big kind of supportive network. And then they’re like, and then we found derby and my kid who was very shy is suddenly, you know, talking to people and kind of coming out of their shell. And they’re, um, you know, we have every body type on the track, right there isn’t one body type. So my kid who was, you know, not so confident in their body realizes their body is amazing and strong and they can do stuff. So I get these parents who are like, oh yeah, I’ll volunteer—whatever you need me to do. Like, my kid is so happy. Like, you know, give me a task and I’ll do it because you know, the impact that you had on our family’s life has been tremendous.
Daniel Harkavy (10:11):
Parents and people like Boots volunteer their time and energy because they see the profound meaning in the work that the Rose City Rollers does in the community. And they’d happily trade their time for a chance to use their talents and resources to drive that purpose forward. This is so important for every leader to understand—don’t miss this. If you can clearly identify your team’s purpose, the why question, why do we do what it is that we do and communicate that purpose effectively and regularly to everybody on the team, then you’ll unlock the passion and the potential of each individual member by showing them how they can serve a unique role in carrying out this meaningful work. But purpose isn’t the only key ingredient in vision. There are also convictions. These are the core uncompromising values, the beliefs, the things that you, you’re willing to fight for, you’ll make sacrifices for. When lived out by you and your team, they go a long way toward creating that environment, that culture, where everyone feels a sense of security and belonging. Coupled together, these convictions and the correlating behaviors that come from them, they form the foundation for your culture. They determine how team members are expected to behave and what they can expect from one another. Here’s Boots.
I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t put skates on every day if it wasn’t fun. For me, it, it really is the community. I put skates on cause I’m having fun, uh, and I’m being supported by the people around me. Um, I don’t skate because I’m the best skater in the world and that I’m traveling the world like our Wheels of Justice. Um, I skate cause I’m here with my friends and I’m having fun and they’re always supporting me, they’re always pushing me to be better. Um, whether that’s learning a new skill or whether it’s, you know, working on volunteering things, um, I’m here because it’s fun.
Daniel Harkavy (12:17):
Boots is clear why she skates and what it looks like for her to be a member of her community. In fact, she’s invoking those convictions listed right on the Rose City Rollers website, play strong, train smart and have fun, be welcoming and embrace differences, respect the game and each other, keep making it better, bring your best self and trust others to do the same. People like Boots keep coming back and committing themselves to this league because in it, they find a community where these convictions are consistently upheld. This creates connection and belonging because each member of the community trusts that the others are there to live out these convictions to the best of their abilities. It is these convictions and behaviors combined with the purpose that motivate parents and volunteers to want to give of themselves to this community. They work together to create a special culture—one where people feel empowered, engaged, they belong.
Rocket Mean (13:20):
I mean like you don’t have a lot of times in life where you can go into a thing and, be like, oh, here’s this awesome thing that I joined. Oh, wait, I also get to be a part of, you know, transforming it and making it look like what it’s going to look like for the next generation.
Daniel Harkavy (13:36):
That’s the power of belonging. That’s the kind of impact you can create when you cast a vision for your people, one with purpose and convictions. It gives them the opportunity to contribute to something greater than themselves, rather than merely clocking in and doing their work and then going home. When you help your people to feel like they belong to something greater, when they understand the role they play and how they’re contributing, it fosters a transformative sense of ownership and engagement in every team member, something that will be absolutely necessary for you to, to move the organization forward into that vision that you see in the future.
Daniel Harkavy (14:19):
Coming up, Todd Mosetter, our Vice President of Content Development will sit down with one of our Building Champions executive coaches to discuss the practical steps and the challenges of creating a sense of belonging in your own leadership context. But first I want to say thank you to Rocket Mean and Boots for sharing their stories and experiences with us. Also, if you’re ready to create belonging in your team or organization, but don’t know how to begin, our Business Vision tool is a great place to start. It will walk you through the steps to create the purpose and the convictions that will give your people something compelling to belong to. You can download it @buildingchampions.com forward slash podcast.
Todd Mosetter (15:04):
Hi, my name is Todd Mosetter and I work in the content team here at Building Champions. And this is the part of the podcast that we’re really excited about. We have a chance to sit down with one of our seasoned executive coaches. Talk about what we just heard together and take a look at how we can apply that to improve both the way you lead and the way you live. Today, I’m thrilled to be joined by Laurel Emory. In addition to being one of our executive coaches here for more than five years now, she’s held a variety of senior leadership positions. So she’s got tons of real-world experience, not to mention she has a PhD in organizational leadership. Laurel, thanks for sitting down with us today.
Laurel Emory (15:39):
Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here.
Todd Mosetter (15:41):
So when we look at the story, how amazing by the way, roller derby. If you think about what they’ve been able to build and that sense of belonging and community, what jumps out at you from a leadership perspective?
Laurel Emory (15:56):
Oh, there are so many things that are in it that I love what they talked about just from that sense of what is it that I’m a part of what, you know, within an organization and what the identity is that they’ve created, not just the organization itself but for the people who are a part of it, for the women who are part of the team, just that overall sense of, I’m a part of something that is fun and crazy and a little bit wild, but also just this heart of giving back to one another, like there’s that one part that they talk about how they get the parents involved. And so they obviously have created more than just an activity, but something that people come to to, to participate in and to be able to feel like they can give of their gifts and talents and skills as well.
Todd Mosetter (16:43):
Yeah. I love, um, when, when she starts off, when Rocket Mean starts, it feels like she’s passionate about it, right? She says, um, that they wanted to knock it around and have a good time. Even the roots of what we did was about fun and community and skating. Can you talk a little bit about that passion as a leader and how that really impacts the culture?
Laurel Emory (17:04):
Yeah. I think for most of the people that are listening to this, we’ve experienced something that we can see a leader’s passion and we can actually feel what their energy is derived from versus someone who doesn’t really have passion in the work that they’re doing or is just leading for leading sake or they’ve been promoted when they haven’t really wanted to. So there’s really that overall sense of what is it that is my purpose and my intention and do I have something that is an actual gift that I’m tapping into or a, you know, an opportunity that’s been given to me throughout life that I, uh, have a field like a, um, a burden for, I think lot of times passion comes from a burden that we have or, you know, something that we feel like we can actually a need we can fill.
Todd Mosetter (17:57):
I love when you use that word burden. I remember when Rocket Mean started off, she ended one of her quotes with, I need to be the person to help make sure it stays there. Right? She felt that personally. Yeah. It seems like skating was almost secondary that the, why was much more important than the what, right? It was about welcoming and creating community and creating connection. They just happened to be skating. Right. Can you talk a little bit about that interplay of how the why and the, what comes together in creating that sense of belonging?
Laurel Emory (18:31):
Yeah, that’s so interesting. I actually was just with the client, uh, in the last couple of days where we had that conversation around, it’s not about the vehicle so much as a, you know, like it’s not, it doesn’t matter what the industry is or what the, uh, you know, product is that we’re creating. It’s really more about that, the identity, the who we are behind it. So the, you know, that why piece being of more than just we’re creating X product, it’s more of what is it that we’re actually giving to the community or, uh, enabling the community to have. So how are we serving our customer? How are we serving our internal customer employees ourselves, and then moving from that place of, okay, here’s why we’re doing what we’re doing and into that, um, you know, how do we do it? What do we actually do?
I think Simon Sinek has such a phenomenal perspective on this and his concentric circles of rather focusing in from the why is starting from the why the center of the circle and moving outward to the, what is just, it’s such a backwards concept from what we have seen, you know, for many, many years, but really does make a lot of sense in our day and age. And, um, if we think about brands that are so successful, they are that way because they’re focusing first on the why, and then working themselves outward to the what and what are we actually creating? Um, you know, what are we doing? What are we providing?
Todd Mosetter (20:09):
Yeah, I think it’s definitely been a generational shift or more importantly, a cultural shift that we may not have asked those questions 20 or 30 years ago. But I think we all are asking those questions. Every one of our team members are asking those questions and to your point, organizations that answer them, uh, are going to be much more successful. So if we think about that for a moment, we have leaders that are listening and whether you’re leading an entire organization or you’re leading a team. Yeah. The question that could be having is, okay, I get it, I buy it. I want to kind of create the sense of community that people can belong to. If you had a client, where would you coach them to start?
Laurel Emory (20:45):
Yeah. So I think a big part for us is starting with that why, so, what is the, what’s the actual purpose of the work that you’re doing? Why did, why did you even get in this to begin with, so what is it that, um, that from a philosophical sense, you know, actually drove you to start it. Like Daniel started Building Champions because he saw a need to serve a certain community of people who were wanting to grow and develop and, you know, didn’t have the ability to do that. So it was really that growing and developing people that there wasn’t another, um, mechanism for them to do that. So figuring out that purpose, first and foremost, you know, why is it that I want to actually be driving toward this and doing this, and then moving into, uh, essentially convictions, what we label as convictions or other companies refer to them as values, um, that had probably some potential nuances between those, but looking at, okay, what is it that is our identity that is going to help us to carry out our purpose. So what are those, um, non-negotiable behaviors that as an organization, we want to make sure that we are embodying and that are noticeable characteristics, you know, of ourselves, of our team members, of our company as a whole, you know, that, uh, that we know, and we see within ourselves, but then also are noticeable outwardly. So really starting with those are critical, the purpose of why are we doing this? And then what does it actually look like to carry that out? What are some of those behaviors and characteristics that, uh, that carry that purpose forward?
Todd Mosetter (22:30):
So let’s back up for a quick moment because I think it’s worth unpacking for our listeners. You said there could be a nuance difference between a, a value and a conviction. Um, unpack that a little bit for us.
Laurel Emory (22:43):
Yeah, for sure. So conviction, what we look at within a conviction is truly that non-negotiable sense of this is how this is what I belong to. This is the identity of the culture of the organization. That if, uh, all things were, you know, essentially stripped away or we were in a competitive place, and we were asked to question certain, um, beliefs, those would stay. So whether it’s something that has to do with integrity or, um, you know, I think essentially it could look at it as the DNA of an organization of what is it that is the, what are those innate qualities that just are never changing, that regardless of success, regardless of competition or competitiveness that will always remain and be a part of that, that’s really, at least how I would look at convictions and then values would be more of like, okay, these are things that are important to me and that we want to have, but that they actually could potentially fluctuate with time with seasons, with, um, product changes or service changes that they have the ability to kind of just flex based on the needs of the organization.
Todd Mosetter (24:10):
That makes such perfect sense. I mean, two quick examples that would come to mind is, you know, I can say I value my health, but am I hitting the drive-through cause I’m a little tight on time, you know, I can say I’m going to respect, I value my teammates respect, but am I looking at my phone during a meeting? And am I actually showing that, right? So values to your point may not be as iron clad as a conviction.
Laurel Emory (24:34):
Yeah. That’s a great way to think of it.
Todd Mosetter (24:36):
Um, so back to Rocket Mean and Boots, right? Because they had such a great story in such a great, um, example of what we can learn from leadership. Um, Rocket Mean had that, um, she had a quote where she was, uh, she was getting ready to go to train some of the new recruits. Right. I love that they called it the fresh meat, uh, squad. Right? But one of her teammates called and said, I’ve got this, you don’t have to worry about it. And her quote was, um, she wanted to put forth a vision, but then letting other people execute and add their bits to it. Right. So let’s talk for a moment as a leader, you kind of set a vision and we talked about that authentic give and take, but what happens when you have to let go a little bit and allow the culture to take on a life of its own?
Laurel Emory (25:23):
Yeah. Well, I think first off, that’s making the assumption that letting go can happen well. So knowing and understanding your team well enough to, you know, to know that they are the convictions of the organization or their convictions as well, and participating in that. So yeah, I’d love that in her example, that handover piece was she knew that there was part of it that she wanted to hang onto, and that, you know, a leader, that’s their job, that is part of what only a leader can do. But then there are certainly are pieces that the employees can actually be a part of, can be, uh, should be, you know, have delegated to them if they have the heart of the business and the heart of the organization and the way that, um, that the leader does. So I think from an actual hand-over process and a participative process, it comes back to that, um, what are my strengths versus what are your strengths and where do we complement one another?
And there, I mean, there was a great example where in their conversation together, um, of, uh, Boots and Mean where there were pieces that they each now kind of have as own responsibility. So over time they’ve learned with like, what are each other’s strengths and where they can participate in that together. So whether that’s, you know, actually doing an assessment of gifts and assessment of strengths, uh, there’s plenty of wonderful tools out there to do that, or whether it is, um, a leader actually saying I’m not a hundred percent sure that this person is ready to fly, so to speak, but I’m gonna push them out of the nest a little bit and, you know, kind of force that a little bit and help them to see what their, I see that potential in them. So I’m going to help them to see that potential within themselves. So I think maybe you can come at it from a couple of different angles, just depending upon what the need of the organization is or of the department is.
Todd Mosetter (27:31):
I love that, so, I see this image in my mind, where as a leader, you had this passion and you had this burden and you’re probably never going to be able to totally abdicate that. But there’s a difference between guiding it and making sure that it doesn’t get too far off course while making it feel like a dictatorship, right? Because people aren’t going to truly belong if they don’t feel like they have a voice or there’s gotta be a balance. Yeah. So I’m, I’m sitting here and I’m thinking for a moment, many leaders are on teams and whether they want to admit it or realize it, they have an existing culture on our team and they may have, um, put some thought into it and they may not have, and they may have just accepted that there are a subculture of the big culture, but each team has its own individual, um, makeup DNA, as you touched on earlier.
So they already have an existing culture. The question is how are they going to take the steps to define what it is to make sure it’s where they want it to be, or if there’s a gap. In the example of Rocket Mean, and some of the examples we kind of came at it from this entrepreneur or startup, right. They came from nothing and created something. But if you find yourself that you’re already in a culture, you touched on something about the vision and getting started. There’s this key about articulating it and actually getting in writing. Right? Because it exists now, whether you’ve put words to it or not. Yeah. So if I’m a leader of a team, coach me real quick through how would I get started in getting it actually articulated?
Laurel Emory (29:02):
Hm. Well, I think, you know, within existing, uh, organizations there usually is, if it’s not already actually in writing somewhere to some degree, there is at least an unspoken. So even just going through the exercise of what does it currently look like, and just writing those things down of, we, you know, what are the unspokens that are happening and maybe even doing something, uh, you know, an exercise with the team members where you’re collecting their input, where you say, you know, what do you think our team is about? What, how would you describe the culture of our department or organization and just, you know, starting to actually get, uh, you know, those pieces down on paper of the current, current reality, if you will, and have that as a starting place. I just worked with a team last week that they actually, um, about two years ago, went through the exercise of defining their, uh, their vision and their roadmap and realize that that actually didn’t fit them, that they were, uh, in a place now as a team that, that no longer served their needs.
So just being able to first and foremost, like figure out, okay, what do we have either in writing or as unspoken that, you know, we, it was our code that we’re living by, that we don’t even really know that we’re living by it necessarily, or we haven’t specified that we’re living by it. And then taking that as a starting place and saying, okay, in these, do we want this? Or is it, you know, did these not fit for us? Are these things that need to change or that, um, the needs of the organization are, uh, you know, shifting enough that we need to focus on something different and need to redefine them together.
Todd Mosetter (30:56):
As leaders and as team members, we are spending so much time at work, right? So we can either embrace that and there’s ownership both the leader and the individual that come together and create something that really is going to be an accelerator to the team, to, to engagement, to customer service, to productivity. Right. We can embrace it and use that with all the great tips you mentioned, or we can just kind of bob along with where we’ve been. Right. As a leader, I think the answer should be pretty, pretty clear. Yeah, definitely. So we can either have something special, like the Rose City Rollers, or we can, I guess just have what we’ve always had.
Laurel Emory (31:32):
That’s right. Yeah, absolutely.
Todd Mosetter (31:34):
Laurel, thank you for taking time to sit down with us. It’s been great to hear your experience and your knowledge. Again, listeners—building champions.com/podcast to get any tools or resources we mentioned. We’d love to connect with you as well. If you haven’t had a chance yet to hop online and subscribe, please do so. We’d love to make sure that each week we can leave you, um, an easy way to engage with us and get our new conversations as well as we’d love to hear what you think. So please take a minute and give us your honest opinion. It’s how we get better. So we’d love to hear what you think. Thanks so much for joining us and look forward to the next episode.