Leveraging her background in therapy and the family business, Jeanne found the perfect way to marry her skills and passions by starting a business dedicated to solving workplace disharmony.
Tell us about your background leading up to your next act…
I grew up in the Pumpkin Capital of the world – Sycamore, IL. In this small farming town of 9,000 people, I lived a simple life, filled with family and friends and a never-ending yearning for outdoor adventures. At a young age, I became quite skilled at creating them, sneaking out at night to TP people’s houses, throwing chestnuts at cars, roller-skating in the neighborhoods, and playing “500” or Kick the Can. I was always up for some fun. As I grew up, I became editor of our school paper, officer on our student council, and homecoming queen. I realized I had many talents.
I was the middle of three girls and had a younger brother. Being the middle girl was no fun: I wasn’t the oldest—the Queen; I wasn’t the youngest—the Princess. And I wasn’t the only son—surely the Prince. “Who Am I?” became a question that lingered with me.
For my first job, at age 14, I was a “heat-detector.” During next five summers, I sat on my horse, out in the field, for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, watching several hundred heads of exotic cattle and one gomer bull. My job was to watch for the gomer bull to “jump” a cow. If the cow moved away, she was not in heat. If the cow stood still, I corralled her into the barn, where the veterinarian would arrive and artificially inseminate her. Yep. True story.
I attended Indiana University, where I planned to major in journalism. Before the first semester was over, I realized that being the Editor of the Sycamore Spartan High School newspaper was a whole different ballgame from studying journalism at IU. I switched my major to Parks and Recreation and spent summers as a camp counselor and wrangler at Cheley Colorado Camps and Pennington Travel Camps, working with high school kids. I’ve always loved that age group.
Two weeks after college graduation, I met my now husband, Marc, at a friend’s wedding. We were soon engaged and married. Poof went my dreams to move out to Colorado and climb mountains—or to be “Julie” on the Love boat. God clearly had another plan for me.
Two weeks after we were married—we just celebrated our 35-year anniversary—I had my first Christmas away from my family. We were with Marc’s family and friends, including Marc’s brother Rick, who was a basketball star at the time at Bradley University. One friend’s present was a navy blue t-shirt with white iron-on letters on the back. Everyone laughed when we read “Rick Malnati’s Brother’s Wife.” I laughed too, kind of— It triggered the “who am I?” question once again.
After working for a few months at the Skokie Park District, I decided to try my hand in my husband’s family restaurant business, Lou Malnati’s, which was founded by his dad Lou. I remember being ceremoniously given my first key to the Elk Grove Village location by Peachy Lis, Lou’s “right hand girl.” She had tears in her eyes as she presented it to me, remembering the day, many years back, when Lou Malnati, Marc’s father and the founder of the restaurants, presented her with her first key to a store.
The key was attached to a rubber band that I could wear around my wrist – just like her. I knew at that time that something was amiss; to me, it was just a key with an ugly rubber band.
During our first two years of marriage, Marc and I traveled to England and opened a Malnati’s Chicago Pizza in Newcastle, England. My role was to train the waitresses, who were absolutely pained at the thought of having to smile or be friendly with the customers. It was just not their way.
We had our first child after 2 ½ years, Kelsey Lee, William Marc two years after that, and Melissa Jeanne a few years later. I realized I was following in my mom’s footsteps: college, husband, kids, no career. Hmm… We were very involved in our church, Winnetka Bible Church, where we “did life” with the Young Marrieds Sunday school class. We were together with our friends in that same class for over 20 years, and still considered ourselves “young marrieds.”
When my youngest, Melissa, started first grade, I felt moved to do something more with my life and enrolled at Loyola University in Chicago to get my Masters in Social Work. What an exciting, life changing event for me. Marc and I had discussed the sacrifice he would need to make, many times, and he had agreed to step up and support me. And he did, for four years. What a gift that was to me and, just as much, to our kids – having dad around more than expected.
Upon graduation, I joined a private counseling practice, The Arlington Center, in Arlington Heights, IL. There, I saw individual clients, ran therapy groups, and co-facilitated weekend therapy retreats. A perfect fit for me. Life was beautiful, for many years, as we raised our children in the northern suburbs of Chicago.
I worked for a few years at New Trier High School as a Social Worker and was there when one of my daughter’s friends, Elyssa, took her own life. It was such a sad day. I had the privilege and responsibility of sitting in a room for six hours, helping my daughter and her nine friends process the tragedy that had just touched their lives. It was a defining moment for me—the power of sharing and expressing feelings, of being real. Elyssa’s Mission, a nonprofit focused on the prevention of teen suicide, was founded in 2006 in memory of Elyssa.
Soon thereafter, I began a moms’ group in my home called MODs, Moms of Daughters. We met weekly for several years, helping one another support our high school daughters. We went on mom-daughter overnight retreats. It was powerful.
I taught MOTs (Moms of Teens) classes to over 200 moms one year. That was profound: Moms feeling safe, taking off masks, hungry to share their parenting journey. “Yes, my daughter has been cutting herself too… and I’ve never told anyone…” Tears. Truth. Trust.
When did you start to think about making a change?
After almost 20 years of doing therapy with moms, couples, teens, families, and women in transition, I found myself feeling weary of other people’s problems; I began to question my effectiveness (and desire) to do individual therapy, client after client. While sitting with a woman who was crying and sharing her story, I remember thinking, “We’ve talked about this 25 times, why aren’t you changing?” It was then I realized that I was done with therapy work. I closed my private counseling practice and began speaking more, and dreaming.
All the while, I was helping my husband—both behind the scenes and on the front lines— to grow Malnati’s Pizza. We won an award from the Chicago Tribune as one of the Top Workplaces in Chicago, as evaluated by our 1500+ employees, for many years, starting in 2010. Top Workplace? A pizza restaurant?
I said to Marc, “There’s a story here.” Marc—along with his friend and a psychotherapist, Rich Blue, and one of his Malnati’s business partners, Jim D’Angelo— had created a uniquely successful culture through an amazing communication system with their restaurant managers and executive teams. That’s what caused Lou Malnati’s to continue to receive Top Workplace in Chicago—and even be voted a Top 150 National Workplace in 2013.
For a few years, I remember passionately advocating, “Marc, you need to go out to other businesses and teach your leadership system.” He would respond, “I don’t like to speak.” So I’d counter, “Marc, you should write a book: It’s More than the Pizza.” Then he’d say, “I don’t want to write a book.” It was my girlfriend Jeanie who finally said to me one day, “Jeanne, Ms. Psychotherapist, this is Psychology 101. You are projecting onto Marc what YOU are supposed to do in this world. This is your heart and passion and message.” I remember thinking, “Oh, wow, yes!” It was a defining next act moment for me
By 2012, we had been empty nesters for a few years. I had a private counseling practice that I ran in one part of our home and was leading growth groups for women in transition called “Outta Your Cage.” I was also beginning to do more public speaking, which both challenged and inspired me. We were getting ready to open our 35th Lou Malnati’s location in Chicago’s Gold Coast that summer. Marc and I decided to rent a furnished apartment in the city for three months so he could be near the new store. And, much to our surprise, we loved the city. Neither of us had ever lived there. We were able to rent the apartment month by month, and one day realized that after living in the suburbs for 32 years, we were done with it. We were ready for a change. So we sold the house in the suburbs and most everything in it. We now live in an amazing space in the West Loop of Chicago.
The move to the city was a perfect opportunity for a career change for me. It was time: a new beginning, a fresh start. Although my oldest daughter and son-in-law Peter had had our first grandchild, Lucy, I knew that being a full time grandma, mom, and wife or volunteer was not enough for me. There was something more for me to do, in using my gifts to help to change the world.
But how could I combine my education, my therapy experience, and my knowledge of the successful culture that Lou Malnati’s had created into a new endeavor?
What is your next act?
At the age of 55, I decided to take my expertise with group dynamics, public speaking, and the success of Lou Malnati’s and, with the help and support of many, created a new business: The Culture Group. I now work with business leaders and their teams, helping to create and maintain healthy workplace cultures where people love arriving and performing each day.
My clients are leading edge CEO’s and business owners who see a gap or are experiencing a crisis with their organization’s culture. These leaders may be experiencing employee turnover and definitely a lack of employee engagement. The Culture Group is about leaders and their teams getting together and having the tough, honest, long overdue conversations, face-to-face, instead of talking behind each other’s back—gossiping, complaining, backstabbing, or engaging in passive aggressive behavior.
I love helping individuals and teams move from communicating back-to-back—knife in the back, conversations behind each other’s back, backed into a corner—to face-to-face, honest conversations. The goal is to have teammates standing side-by-side and focusing together on the problem out there instead of pointing the finger and blaming each other for being the problem.
Facilitating these kinds of interventions or conversations can be hard work; it is also exciting and rewarding work. I believe in challenging leaders to become more self-aware, to ask people in their life what their blind spots are with the goal to become a better leader, supervisor, parent, or partner. It’s about teams being FOR one another, helping each other to become the best they can be. It involves learning simple yet powerful tools that, when used with discipline, on a regular basis, will help to transform their workplace environment and employee relationships, quickly. It’s about being courageous, disrupting the status quo, taking a risk and addressing the issues, taking 100% responsibility for your life, for your role in your job, for outcomes and how you impact others.
Can you give us an example of how you helped a team of business leaders through a crisis?
I received a call saying, “We hear what you do and we need you” (which is often what happens) from three partners in a law firm who were also best friends for almost 30 years. The past 2-3 years, there had been virtually no communication between the 3 of them—and when there was, it was hostile. I got them together in the same room to have the difficult conversations. We did a “cleansing of the relationship container.” Through exercises, using tools, and creating a safe place for them, it was amazing to see their anger and fear turn to tears of appreciation for one another. When that kind of breakthrough happens, then healing and understanding can take place, allowing for renewed collaboration and teamwork. It turns the negative trickle down effect into a positive one for all the other employees.
I have seen numerous examples like this one—just the faces and company names are different. My hope is that more start-up businesses will do this work preventively, creating a healthy culture from the beginning, from the ground up, being intentional about what kind of culture they will have. I’m not talking about a “cocktail culture” where some of the millennial start-ups are bragging about “Free haircut Wednesday” or “Beer-cart Friday.” Who wants to stay after work and have a beer with people they don’t like?
I’m currently working with a CPS (Chicago Public Schools) school, helping the teachers and administrators focus on the health of their interpersonal relationships. A high-ranking USPS (United States Postal Service) leader heard me speak recently and reached out to me: we are now in conversation to see how I might be able to help them. The work The Culture Group does is needed in most every type of organization, if only top leaders would have the courage to identify and acknowledge this need, and seek support.
How did you figure out which way to go?
I love to journal and believe in its benefits. When I knew I was winding down being a psychotherapist, I engaged others in conversations—those who knew me and believed in me— and asked for their feedback about my gifts and strengths. Friends and family listened to my heart. I re-read emails written, or letters sent about how, and in which ways, I had impacted people.
Getting to the point where I could own my role in helping Lou Malnati’s forge a successful culture, enough so that I was ready to take that success out to other companies, was an exciting moment for me.
When we moved to the city, a whole new world opened up for me: Networking—rubbing shoulders and exchanging ideas with other business people and heart-centered entrepreneurs. I joined a high end Mastermind group in California for a year, through sales expert Lisa Sasevich; as a result of this eye-opening experience, I joined a group of amazing women on an advisory board for Star Ladin’s Women Entrepreneur’s Group in Malibu. It’s fun, rewarding, and helping me connect with women outside the Midwest.
Next, I designed a number of websites to allow me to explore ideas for my new business: Spiritfree.com, Thecleanslateclub.com, Deepdishcommunication.com. I played. I created. I took risks. I put myself out there.
I tend to be perfectionistic so just the act of having a website built was much more time consuming and taxing than it needed to be. I would dip into moments of hearing my dad’s voice from many years past “Who do you think you are?” Yes, who did I think I was—working with businesses? I was a parks and rec major. I did therapy. I wasn’t about business executives. But I trusted my intuition. I knew it was time for something new. Life is too short to stay comfy cozy.
My discovery stage was completed and Deep Dish Communication, LLC was born. For my business name I finally landed on: The Culture Group ~ The Business of Conversation. Our office is a beautiful, 1950 square foot loft space in the West Loop. I walk across Mary Bartelme Park each day to get from my home to work. Three blocks away is Soul City Church, where I’m an elder and Marc is on the stewardship team. We recently opened a Lou Malnati’s in the West Loop. The Blackhawks are a 4-minute drive from our place. The West Loop is our home, our neighborhood—who would have ever thought?
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband, Marc has always been my biggest cheerleader, and next to him, my children. They know I have big energy and big ideas and encourage me to go for what I want—as I do with them. I’m sure, over the years, that there have been a few eye rolls and “what now?” when I’ve started talking about some new idea.
Marc is always game to help me in anyway. He is a wonderful business coach, keeps me grounded, and tries to keep me focused; it can be a challenging job. I was the first member of my family, or Marc’s, to get a Masters degree. I am thrilled and proud that my girls followed my example. Melissa (who now has her MSW from Loyola) and Kelsey, (who has her Masters in Special Ed and is working in the CPS school system for her 6th year) have hosted some of my women’s events, which I love. It will be fun to see how we may work together over the years.
I’ll also turn to my son Will—an entrepreneur and business owner living in New York City—and ask his advice and get his straight shooting answers. My two sisters, both successful in their careers, are great sounding boards. I also appreciate the wisdom, support and honesty from a few close girlfriends who have walked by my side all these years. They know me. They love me. Love, support, and creative talent surround me. I am a blessed woman on many levels.
What challenges have you encountered?
I’ve never run a business before. Organization is not my strength. Neither is marketing myself. I’ve never had to advertise, market, or heaven forbid put together a website or do social media. Psychotherapy was the complete opposite, very low key. It was all about referrals, not tooting your own horn. Yet I did love public speaking, which could be considered a horn-tooter. (When I was young I always wanted to be an actor—public speaking fulfills that dream for me.) Sharing my message, my beliefs, my passion with audiences has become an avenue that brings me joy… and clients.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What keeps you going?
I would say often. Even today. There are so many wonderful distractions: The desire to be with my grandchildren, Lucy and Max, more often. Helping my daughter Melissa as she prepares for a job interview and as we plan her wedding. Visiting my son Will in New York City. Taking more time for self-care, like working out. And more vacations with my husband—why not? I’m really getting into golf these days…
What keeps me going is the conviction that my message, my “Clean & Clear Communication” system, is having great impact. It’s helping to change organizations, to change lives, to change workplace cultures. Individuals take the conscious leadership principles into their personal lives, breaking through old beliefs and healing broken relationships, using my teachings, coaching and experiential exercises. There is a ripple effect that The Culture Group is having in the world. That keeps me going.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I continue to learn that I need to trust myself more, to listen to my gut, my intuition. I have a tendency to ask others, “What should I do?” “Who am I?” A bit of that is healthy; too much of that can have me second-guessing if this is how I am supposed to be using my time and talents.
I met with this amazing woman to discuss the possibility of her joining my team and taking The Culture Group to the next level. During our energized conversation, I got excited. We have different, complimentary gifts. Yet I realized that for her to leave her affluent job at a top 5 accounting firm to join me, we would need to push the business up to the next level, and then some. But I love how The Culture Group is growing organically. I love my hours and being able to be present with my other loves, my family and friends.
I have learned that there is also a time to sit, to be still.
What advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Dream. Talk. Become very self-aware. And be honest with yourself. Take risks. Pick yourself back up. It’s not always pretty. There were, and I’m sure will be, many “messes” I have made because of the human side of me—stepping up without knowing what I was getting into. I can be impulsive, get triggered, and speak my mind too quickly. Oh how there have been many times when I wished, the minute words came out of my mouth, that I could have jumped and rewound them… I’ve hurt and been hurt. My heart is good; other people’s hearts are good too. Pain is a part of living life full out. Getting out of our comfort zones. I’m not going to stay a victim and lick my wounds. I support others in doing the same; instead, learn from mistakes, extend grace (to self and others), and keep moving forward!
Take the time to listen deeply to yourself. Make lists of tasks you have done, jobs you have had, volunteer roles. Which parts of them did you LOVE? When you could have done it all night long? I am a believer that this type of reflection and soul searching will help you to connect with your longings, your unique mission. It is often where we are deeply stirred and convicted that our next act can be found. I encourage women to take tests to become more aware of what their passions and gifts are. You don’t need to have an advanced degree—unless you feel led to go back to school and get an advanced degree in something you LOVE. Then do it. I remember sitting at my graduation from Loyola, thinking, if I never use my master’s degree a day in my life, the journey and positive experience of returning to school would still be a win.
Write down your experiences, what you love to do, starting in your youth. What brought you joy? Freedom? Who told you their life was touched by something you did or said? Take tests like: The Strengths Finder, by Marcus Buckingham; the Enneagram; the Myers Briggs. All of these are helpful to understand your unique self and how you are wired. I remember the first time, years ago, when I took the Strengths Finder test. My #1 strength: Activator. I also have the strength of Command, which is leadership and speaking candidly. I loved learning that…because I thought I was just a B—-. Reframe old stories and beliefs about yourself. Get unstuck. Begin with a clean slate. Do a refresh. It’s so freeing. Let go of the old stories.
I am a huge believer in personal growth work. There are two types of people in this world: those who are in therapy and those who should be. Help yourself to get unstuck. Break old patterns and negative messages. Get a referral from a friend for a psychotherapist. Or seek out spiritual direction. Find “consciousness” work to do. Connect deeper with your heart and soul. Grow closer to God. Join a small group for support.
My first life coach was a woman Pamela Mitchel, founder of The Reinvention Institute and author of The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention: Essential Survival Skills for Any Economy. She is an amazing woman who helped me to look inside myself and acknowledge the gifts and talents that are already there. She helped me to break through my fears, to see how ready I was for a new beginning.
Put together a group of like-minded women who are in the same place as you, who are asking, “What’s next?” Take your masks off and get real with one another. Stop talking about the kids or exotic vacations; instead, talk about the yearnings of your heart. Share your outrageous ideas and dreams. The world needs each one of us to help make it a kinder, gentler, more real place to raise our children and lead our teams. A friend of mine, Sue Blue, leads these kinds of groups through her center Blue Life Coaching.
I love the quote by Myles Munroe: “In the cemetery there is buried the greatest treasure of untapped potential. There is a treasure within you that must come out. Don’t go to the grave with your treasure still within YOU.” Just do it – today!
What resources do you recommend?
I love books. Here are some of my favorites:
The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary D. Chapman
The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People by Gary D. Chapman and Paul E. White
The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention: Essential Survival Skills for Any Economy by Pamela Mitchell
The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level by Gay Hendricks, PhD
Even Eagles Need a Push: Learning to Soar in a Changing World by David McNally
The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success by Jim Dethmer and Diana Chapman
The Charge: Activating the 10 Human Drives That Make You Feel Alive by Brendon Burchard
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni
The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything by Stephen R. Covey
Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton
Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute
Just Who Will You Be?: Big Question. Little Book. Answer Within by Maria Shriver
The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book) by Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills
The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge by Beatrice Chestnut
Designing A Woman’s Life by Judith Couchman
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield and Shawn Coyne
What’s next for you?
Six years ago, when my daughters and I were in South Africa, I got the idea for the three of us to begin “spreading hearts” to individuals as we felt the urge. I had brought with me 20 small pewter hearts, which we shared during our journey in order to acknowledge and thank people who moved us. I’m not sure who was more blessed—the receivers or we, the givers. When we came home, we knew we needed to continue to spread more hearts.
Forward to today. Over 18,000 small pewter hearts, made in the USA, have been spread around the world through our nonprofit, Spreading Hearts. It’s a beautiful movement that is growing organically. I incorporate this idea into my message when I speak and have leadership teams share hearts of appreciation with their staff, but I am sensing that it’s time to take this movement to the next level. At the urging of my close friend, Bela Ghandi, from Smart Dating Academy, we are putting together a Spreading Hearts Advisory Board to help us focus on the many opportunities and ideas that are coming our way.
I’m also excited because I will be doing some team building and leadership development with the staff and counselors from Cheley Colorado Camps this summer—coming full circle!
And… I have two books underway. I’ve had fits and starts with them: My perfectionistic side gets in my way. One is The Little Book of Clean & Clear Communication Tools and the other will tell the spreading hearts stories and encourage doing a “heart check” each day.
A third book, It’s Not About the Pizza: How to Create a Healthy Workplace Culture, is still on my wish list for my husband and I to write together.
I recently was at a 9-day retreat in California, where I chose to lock up my phone and computer. It was a profound experience. I was with 22 people from around the world, none of whom I knew. Together we grew personally, professionally, spiritually, in more ways than I could have imagine. One of my biggest takeaways? I need to get back in nature—be with horses, go camping, hiking… My soul was reawakened. So what does that mean? I don’t know… Let’s wait and see!
Contact Jeanne Murphy Malnati, Culture Transformation Expert, at 312-929-2274 or Jeanne@theculturegroup.net
112 S. Sangamon, Suite 100, Chicago, IL 60607
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