We had the good fortune of connecting with Michael Vargas and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Michael, maybe we can start at the very start – the idea – how did you come up with the idea for your business?
Since I was a kid, watching people come together always interested me. Over time I learned the power of team culture and I wanted to be a catalyst for bringing groups together. I figured psychology was the most direct path in doing so. I earned a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, moved to San Francisco, and worked at a residential facility for mental health. Supporting people who had Schizophrenia, Bi-Polar, PTSD, etc. I provided one-on-one therapy, case management, and lead groups on a variety of topics. This was one of my first experiences being a leader and I immediately loved it. Supporting people to be with one another in a way that allowed them to become better as individuals and as a whole. Also, I had been doing improv for nearly 10 years at this point and I started working at an improv theatre company. Teaching the basics to people with zero experience. It was such a blast to introduce people to this incredible art form. I felt such joy in bringing people together to have fun and connect with one another. Over time I slowly found ways to combine my psychology and improv background to create an experience that brought people together in a different way. People told me they learned how to communicate better with others, felt a sense of safety, built trust, and felt more confident when navigating conflict. One day, I was asked to bring the facilitation work into an organization. Employees and leaders had challenges with communication and saw how disconnected and siloed their team really were. The first organization I worked with was Dropbox. I saw a way to create impact using my two passions. I continue to develop my skillset along the way and now I get to work with incredible organizations like Kaiser Permanente, Salesforce, ACLU, The County of San Diego, and many others. Supporting teams to develop a collaborative, productive, high-performing team culture.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Behind closed doors of many organizations, there is a communication breakdown. The team culture is one of silos, broken trust, and unclear expectations. Organizations often have teams who avoid and lack true openness. I work with teams that are looking to develop collaborative and productive team cultures. I identify what is the particular challenge they have and help them figure out what new behaviors can they implement to try something new and get better results. I often focus on what is unclear, misunderstood, or just not working (processes, communication, behavior, goals, etc). I also look at the how, behind the what, of people’s behavior. When challenging ideas (what), how can we support a team member to do so without fear of negative consequences? When making decisions(what), how are the processes and power dynamics causing frustration and animosity? When the CEO responds (what), how is their behavior causing their staff to feel ignored, hopeless, or disengage? Often times business consultants who work with leaders and teams provide a cookie-cutter approach, “one size fits all”. What makes me different is that I make sure the experience is personalized to the team. My belief is that teams have the ability to find the solutions themselves, and I help create the environment for that to happen. Over time I’ve come to learn that people will empower themselves and take ownership when they are provided a safe, empowering environment. When people have clear “rules of engagement”, they feel safer showing up with integrity and humility.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
If my best friend had never been to San Diego and was coming for a visit here is a list of things I would take them to: Balboa Park (as much of it as we can) Extraordinary Desserts Hand balancing and Acroyoga group on Saturday Moonlight Beach in Encinitas The Art Gallery of Tim Cantor Handles Ice Cream Vin de Syrah (eating and dancing) The village of La Jolla and its Cove Gaslamp district
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
The people who deserve the biggest Shoutout are Jill and Chris Eickmann. Owners of Leela, the improv theatre company I worked at in San Francisco. They are the ones who gave me a shot and trusted me with facilitating classes to students who never experienced improv before. They encouraged me to bring my psychology into the experience. They gave me the opportunity to lead my first corporate workshop and always pushed me to find new ways of growing. Without Jill & Chris, I would never have found the amazing work I get to do today.