September 28, 2011 by Speakers' Spotlight

How A Fifth Floor Culture Changed A Life – And A Company

Guest blog from Tommy Spaulding

As associate vice president of corporate relations for Ashford University, Margie Tlapa understands the value of relationships.  She oversees a team of about 70 people who work with corporations around the country, helping their employees take online courses and attain degrees through Ashford.  Building strong relationships with corporate clients has been key to the college’s tremendous growth (from 350 students to over 80,000 in just seven years).

But for Margie, the focus on real, transformative relationships begins from within. It begins with her team. It begins with building what I call a Fifth Floor culture.

It’s hard enough to build strong teams when everyone works in the same building, but Margie does it with a team that’s spread all across the United States. In my speaking and coaching work with Bridgepoint Education (holding company of Ashford University), however, I’ve seen firsthand how Margie puts into action the ideas behind building a Fifth Floor culture. I’ve seen how it’s changing the lives of the people on her team – and throughout her company.

Last year, Margie invited me to speak at one of her semi-annual team meetings in San Diego. During the dinner banquet, I sat next to Michelle, a wonderful lady from Los Angeles who, as I learned during our conversation, had Stage Four cancer. Doctors told her she had a year, maybe 18 months, to live. Margie, she told me, was the only person on the team who knew about her diagnosis. She wanted to enjoy this meeting – perhaps her last with the team – without the sadness of a final goodbye.

Michelle told me about her fears, not just of death but of leaving her young daughter behind.  I was amazed by her faith, positive attitude and genuine spirit for life. When I asked what she wanted to do with her time, she said spend it with her daughter, maybe take her Disney Land. So after dinner, I talked to Margie about Michelle’s situation and we agreed to make the Disney Land dream come true. I put her in contact with Lee Cockerell, a former executive at Disney and the author of Creating Magic. Lee and I got to know each other because we shared the same book editor at Random House, and Lee agreed to arrange a special day for Michelle and her daughter.

Margie handled all the details for creating a trip to Disney. But she didn’t stop there. With Michelle’s permission, Margie shared Michelle’s story with her company’s leaders and they approved a plan to let Margie’s team members donate vacation time to Michelle so she could afford to take time off to spend with her daughter and for cancer treatments. When Margie sent out an email about Michelle’s condition, that team of 70 people responded with cards, baskets, homemade gifts – and nearly a year’s worth of donated vacation time.

“This couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t all felt we could love one another in that way, not just as coworkers but as family,” Margie told me. “To me, it’s an example of a team understanding ‘netgiving’ as opposed to ‘networking.’” The generosity and Fifth Floor culture of Margie’s team inspired Bridgepoint’s executives to put together a new “donations” policy. “Now our entire organization can gift vacation time when someone is in need,” Margie said. “It all started from the original idea of caring for one another in ways that go beyond the traditional work culture.”

The best news is this: Michelle’s condition took a turn for the better. She’s still in a battle, but there is tremendous hope. I don’t know if the time off work and the time spent with her daughter impacted her condition, but I don’t know it didn’t.  There is a reason why Ashford is one of the fastest growing universities in the country. It is because of Margie’s, and Ashford’s, commitment to building a Fifth Floor culture.