In episode 85, we speak with Dr. Steve Yacovelli, Owner & Principal at TopDog Learning Group, LLC, and "The Gay Leadership Dude®". TopDog Learning Group helps its clients improve at leadership and organizational development, diversity, inclusion, and belonging, and change management. Listen as we chat with Steve about his career journey, why he launched TopDog Learning Group, the meaning behind "The Gay Leadership Dude®" and so much more.
We want to welcome over listeners to another episode of Minority Report podcast with Erik and Kerel. Each episode we talk with leaders in business, tech and media. And today's episode is sponsored by the MarketingEDGE, a national nonprofit committed to shaping the future of marketing leadership by connecting students, academics and professionals to the resources and relationships they need to see, move and stay ahead. Today joining us is Dr. Steve Yacovelli who is the Owner and Principal of TopDog Learning Group, aka "The gay leadership dude". Let's jump in and get to know Dr. Steve, welcome. How are you? Hello,
guys. Nice to see you.
We're thrilled you're here. We're excited to hang out with you for a little bit. So thanks for making the time for us.
Dr. Steve tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where were you born and raised?
Yeah, so I started my life journey in the burbs of Philadelphia. So that was kind of like my main city that I hung out with as a child and then made my way to Central Pennsylvania for undergrad headed down to Orlando for time number one, I tried undergrad to work for Mickey and then things progressed, I end up moving back up to Pennsylvania then boomeranging back to Orlando for time number two, with a completely different job. Couple years here, and then I went to grad school in Ohio. And then oddly enough, as my friends now call me, Boomerang, I made my way back to Orlando thrice. And it was good thing because on Monday, I moved down here and on Friday, I met my now husband, I'm 23 years. So it was clearly meant to be my timing was just a little off.
That's awesome. That's great. So going back and forth and actually becoming the boomerang. Tell us a little bit about how that impacted you. You know, they're very different sort of places. How did that shape who you are today?
you know, the thing I love about living in different places, and I've lived a couple other places, you know, abroad a few times, and every time you live somewhere different in a new culture, a new city, you just you pick up the nuances of those things, you know, for example, I mean, now it's been 20 plus years, collectively, even more so. But I finally dropped the "use guys" for the most part once a while to creep in now and again, and I say y'all, and that's just how we say it, even here in Central Florida. So it's the little things like that, you know, I spent a good bit time actually working on a cruise ship, when I worked for Disney Cruise Line, and you hang out with these people from all these other countries, and I kind of magpie their things, like I say pear shaped and you know, people like what's that I'm like, Oh, it's Australian, for things like going all the heck. And so it's like these little things that you pick up, not just from language, but also different cultural aspects, you know, understanding what it's like, what a Buckeye is from living in Ohio now. And it's not just a poisonous nut. It's also a really tasty treat. So little things like that, I think are the cool part about living in different places, and really gathering those cool parts of different cultures.
That's great. Tell us a little bit about what you're doing for work these days? What's going on on the work side?
Yeah, so what I do is, as you said, I'm the Owner, Principal of TopDog Learning Group and I like to think about our dog house is kind of sitting in the center of three different but very complementary areas, we play around with leadership and organizational development, we focus on diversity, inclusion, and belonging, very appropriate here. And then we played around in change management and resiliency. And actually, a lot of times, it's all three, you know, you can't facilitate change without understanding the leadership part of it, usually having that sense of belonging within the workplace. And we do things like formal training, both virtual and face to face, or face to face when we can do those. And we do coaching sessions, off the shelf solutions, straight up coaching stuff. And we primarily work with large fortune 500 is kind of our main gig large, not for profits, as well, primarily in North America, but most of those are usually global presence anyway. And it's, it's been really awesome. I've been so fortunate that TopDog Learning Group, you know, I started it as a part time venture with a friend as a side hustle, actually, when we were at Disney, and then I kind of kept it going. And then I took it full time in 2008, which was a fantastic time to start a business. But hey, it worked out well and flash forward to 2021. And we're still rocking and rolling.
That's fantastic. Can you tell us about "the gay leadership dude"? Love it! Can you tell us about that?
Well, the fun thing about that title is you know, three things immediately about me. The first is I'm gay. Second is I self identify as a dude. And the third is of course, I play a lot with leadership and unleashed space. And it actually started when my book by leadership was coming out my publisher who is just this amazing marketing whiz and she's she's saying how you well you have your business brand. Do you have a personal brand and like, No, I don't Should I she's like you should. So that was kind of thinking through what would be the smart thing and I just kind of came up with the gay leadership dude, which is funny because my publisher she's like, well, that's funny do that, because I actually used to go by the professional lesbian Oh my God, that's pretty funny. They kind of compliment each other. So it's actually cool because, you know, when I'm doing the keynotes and all that fun stuff, people immediately know some things about me and and also to as a white cisgender. Dude, I do like people to know that I am from a minority group I am from disenfranchised group. And, you know, let's talk from that perspective versus like, oh, you're the privileged white dude. Well, that's sadly Yes, there's that part of it, and then you had the gender on it. But then there's also a whole other facet of me that that can relate to all of us others out there.
That's great. Steve, I actually want to ask you a little bit about pride leadership and what that sort of means. Tell us about that.
So my book Pride leadership strategies for the LGBTQ+ leader to be the king or queen or their jungle was kind of my book, baby. Secondly, my third book, actually, but the first is a dissertation, which no one will read, but it's there, you know. And then the second one is, I did try to go down the path of self publishing a book called overcoming poopy elearning, which might, thank you for laughing. That's my doctorates, actually, in instructional technology and distance education, which 2020 2021. That's interesting. But you know, I got that in 2005. And so I went down the path of trying to create a cheeky accessible book with the poopy learning. And I know a lot of people have some great success with self publishing, I did not know, it was a hot mess. But it was done. And then I met a conference. And I meet this woman actually said, awesomely awesome marketing guru, my publisher, Jen, but we're sorting business cards, and she strikes up a conversation, she's what do you do consulting, blah, blah, blah. So how about you, she's, I'm a publisher. So you know, there's a book in my head that needs to come out, because I've worked with leaders all the time. And she's like, let's get that book out. And so that's kind of how the process started. But it was gonna be like a generic, you know, leadership book for the masses. So I'm trying to think you like what are the things I see people work well, in the leadership space, people who don't work so well, and what they do or don't do. And then I started looking around at all the LGBT leaders that are in my world, and like many of us, I do advocacy work and social justice things. And then do yall remember Sex in the City?
For those who don't, Carrie Bradshaw would always sit down at her Little Mac and say, I couldn't help but wonder and so that kind of wrong in my head. And as I'm putting this leadership with the other mic, I can't help but wonder, do queer people using the general term, have an opportunity to flex their leadership muscles just differently than our straight brothers and sisters. And so that was kind of the lens I put pride leadership through. And so it became more or a less of a generic, more of a focus on the LGBTQ+ community. But the feedback I'm receiving is, allies love my cheeky dad jokes, with a side of leadership theory in there. And so that's kind of the focus. And it really is looking at just six competencies that are part of the book, thinking about your authenticity, having leadership, courage, engaging in empathy, effective communication, fostering relationships, and then shaping culture. And so those are the lenses are the six competencies that we focus on.
and Steve, I wanted to also ask you, you touched on it a minute ago, right. So you are a part of a privileged group, right, but then you are also part of an underrepresented group. Right? And so I'm curious to know how that intersectionality sort of plays into either your book or your leadership style?
in all of it. So that's, that's a fantastic question. I think what it does is it says I happen to have the competencies listed here, the empathy is an awesome one. Because you know, being that other and but spending a lot of my life is not that other, you know, and then turning things around you. Having very different experience, getting bashed, all that fun stuff that comes with the otherness, you really start to understand or at least try to understand the differences that my female colleagues have or my brothers and sisters of color or whatever that looks like so I think there's that but then the privilege part is the really understanding allyship. how and so how do you channel that position that privilege and advantage to help all of the others and so you know, while I'm seeing my three brothers and sisters do it for me, awesome sauce, what can I do for my differing abilities or my black and brown brothers and sisters to help lend my voice to help their voices be better or support them to get their back if that's the right allyship position to have
Hmm, okay, okay. And as an author and as well as an owner of your own business, right? What do you love about what you do day to day?
I love being the IT guy all the time. And shout out to all my IT friends
by the way that has never been said on this podcast. We are at 80 plus episodes. That's the first time we've heard that.
With all sincerity.... What I love about it is, is charging my own path and the blessing and the curse of solopreneur ship and I have a army of awesomeness as I call it. I, my top doggers, my consultants who do stuff, but it's really thinking, Okay, so where's TopDog going to go today? What's the gay leadership dude going to talk about today? And I love that exciting opportunity. It's scary as heck, as many of you are listening will know. But I think that's, that's kind of part of the fun. And then to clarify, as Steve Jobs, I want to make a dig in the universe. And so as a keynote speaker, as an author, you know, my my jam is, how can I help create consciously inclusive leaders, and that's really where I try to focus my energy. And yes, it can be just for the queer folks, or just leaders in general, that doesn't matter. The story is still the same. If we're consciously inclusive. As a leader, we're not only much more effective, but we make the world kind of a lot better. And that's kind of my hope.
Gotcha, gotcha. I'm sure you've gotten this question before, probably a lot over the last year. I know, Erik, as I know, I have as well, too. What do you say to people when they come up to you and say, I want to do something I want to improve Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? I'm just not sure where to start? Yeah.
I hear that a lot. Yeah, and I'm sure your listeners do as well. You know, I think the first thing is get your own house in order. It's my recommendation first, with the work that I do on creating consciously inclusive leaders. It starts with well, what unconscious biases do you have? Why don't know, they're unconscious? Steve? There's a starting point, you know, let's go to project implicit. Let's like, explore, what are some of those potential unconscious biases that can get in the way of you doing the good work that you want to do, but you intention is fantastic. Let's get some knowledge and then kind of work your way from that starting point.
Steve, I want to ask you a little bit about your life experiences, and you're confident, you're positive. But I'm sure you've you've gone through some moments where things weren't always so positive. And what I mean by that you mentioned some of the things like bashing or being bashed. Can you talk to us a little bit about some of those experiences and what that's been like, and you mentioned, you know, your husband of 23 years, I'm sure there's been moments that were difficult for you. So can you talk to us about some of that, and how you handle some of those issues?
Yeah, it's a great question. And I think it's one that a lot of us face in this other space, if you will. It rhymed. It's kind of cool. You know, the most recent stuff was actually with relationship to my book. I haven't had to ever mean, this is a big blessing. As a business I've never had to advertise. It's all been you get a couple of those clients. And then they tell two friends, they tell two friends you shampoo commercial. So it wasn't until 20. Really 2019 when pride leadership was coming out no pun intended for a gay leadership book. But you my publisher is like you really need to start marketing this like to the masses, not you know, I typically go b2b, she's like, you need to go b2c, right to the consumer. Like, you're right. So I started doing some things, you know, but Facebook page out there for the gay leadership dude, and started doing a little bit of ads. It was incredible, the amount of hate that's out there, when they receive a message from the gay leadership dude. And I put that because I actually, years ago, do have a background in in PR marketing. It's actually my undergrad now is a little different in the 90s versus now via social media. But I get the concepts. And so I'm using Facebook ads. And you know, in my criteria, it's like people certain ages, living in certain countries, you know, English speaking, because of the book is English and English, you and I had things like they like RuPaul drag ways, they go to pride events, I mean, it was pretty darn targeted toward the queer community. But still, I'm getting these people who are just doing these horrible posts on my Facebook page, because it's a public page. I mean, it has to be it's for the public. And a first it really, really upset me because I am blessed enough to be surrounded by a lot of love. And you my family that is part of my bloodline, my family that I've earned and collected along the way, they are insanely supportive. And that's where I get a lot of my energy, my positivity. So now here's these blips that are coming into my bubble, that are pretty, not cool. And so it really rattled me at first and I started thinking, then the logical side of me, I let my emotions do their thing. But I'm on that side for a second and said, let's think about this. How are they getting into this feed? And so it was really easy for me to take a screenshot of the criteria and I just simply respond, you know, even more love less hate, I mean, Orlando, we that's our motto, you know, Orlando, strong, all that good stuff and really showing the people you know, this is the criteria that got you into this bucket. So you might want to relook at your house versus like, putting it out online. And I think that's a good general term that describes how I've approached life. With those adverse times is that you know what, this is more about you that it is me, and you go have a think I will be over here with my bubble of love. And we'll just kind of go from there.
That's awesome. Steven, and I think, first shoutouts to people who are always encouraging, supportive, can see it works. You can see we feel it seems that it matters. So for anyone listening, that always is just encouraging people and being supportive. You can see how it works. I wanted to ask you, you know, but you mentioned a few people being surrounded by love and being surrounded by good people that have been inspiring or helpful. Who are some of those people? Or the family or the folks you've worked with?
Yes. Oh, I guess I guess I have to say, Richard. Yeah. Luckily, he's not home. So you can hear me in the guest room slash his office. But no, I mean, I'm really fortunate I have so many my families, of course, always been there. And you we just had a lovely long family zoom last night for the holiday weekend, which was nice. I taught my parents zoom, which they're, they're only 75 they're not old, and they're fairly tech. Okay. But they're now really into it. I got him a light, it's cool. Well, side note, my dad's insanely creative, especially if he does woodworking as like a project. And so the very first time we had a FaceTime call at the start of the pandemic, you know, finally, at the end of the call my dad, I love you, please get a stand or something, because I'm tired of looking up your nose. He's, he's like, on it. And the next week, he's like, Oh, your God, he does something. And he made a stand in his wood shop. I'm like, how did you do that? He's like, I don't know, I just had this part. I'm like, You're crazy. Incredible. It's awesome. But my parents are pretty cool. My family's cool. And, and, you know, the one thing that I've learned about being gay, is that, you know, families aren't always supportive. And so I'm insanely fortunate. Mine is Richards is I mean, we have it. We're lucky, I knew that. But I've also realized that within our community, much like other ones, you create the family that you want. And that's going to support you. And so, you know, along the way, I have my gay brothers and sisters. And you know, and we have a supportive network. And I think, now more than ever, that's been super important with COVID. With the pandemic going doing it's thing, you know, I pretty much almost lost my entire business last April, like so many of us have. We're almost did, and so that that support network has been really fantastic. And those cheerleaders really can egg you on and those not so cool times.
I hear you, interested to know, Steve, going back to your business for a second, what led you to founding your own business?
So in 2002, I was at Disney Cruise Line, and I was taking over the role. It's like an internal consultant role based on kind of what I do now is just for the folks internal. So I'm shadowing this woman named Ruth, and we're on one of the Disney ships and she's like, we should have dinner tonight. I'm like, we're on a seven night voyage doing consulting. There's not a whole lot going on. We're gonna have dinner anyway. She's no, no. So let's go to let's go to the spa, and have a chat. And side note, if anyone who's ever worked for cruise line, you see your co workers in swimsuits a lot. It's weird. Because it's just weird. But yeah, it is what it is.
Cruise Lines and lifeguards, I guess. Yeah, exactly.
So we're sitting in the sauna. And she's like, we should start a business like, well, we have jobs, is it? No, we'll just do a side hustle. And I was like, it could be interesting. So we with our senior HR leader and said, you know, Patti, here's what we want to do. She's like, thank you for coming to me. First of all, that's awesome. Don't use Disney stuff. Don't use Disney time. Have fun. We're like, cool. So we started TopDog a part time gig. And it was really more of an excuse for Ruth and I to meet once a week, drink some wine, say how we're going to conquer the training world. And we had a couple clients here and there. Well, then, too late 2007, I found myself in between jobs, we'll use that euphemism. And I was trying to figure it out. I was doing some applying for some roles. And I'm like, you know, I have this whole infrastructure of a business. Let's give it a go. And so early 2008 I put the full time shingle out there and then knock on wood, I got some pretty strong highlights even in that weird economic climates. You know, Flash forward to 2021 we're still rocking and rolling. It hasn't always been smooth sailing, of course. But you know, I've been really fortunate that I mean, some of our first clients we ever had are still a client to this day and different fun training things for them. And that's been really, really cool. But it's also been very rewarding. Yeah, people still keep wanting to hang out in the doghouse and see how we can make them better.
Awesome. Awesome. You mentioned last year and obviously last year was the year like no other for a lot of people, especially business owners, and I'm curious to know from you, Steve, what got you through last year? What kept you going with the business and you still being here today with TopDog Learning Group?
I shouldn't say wine. I'm kidding. And lots of walks with my dogs now. I mean, it's just like so many of us you just become resilient. And yeah, that's one of the things we teach. So it's kind of one of those physician heal thyself kind of things. Yeah. So for me, the business setup, our biggest thing was face to face training, you know, we would have a handful of year-long contracts we do and renewed every year, we go on site and do training for specific clients, and usually fortune 500 kind of folks. And so, in the normal years, that's fantastic. You know reoccurring revenue every month. It's either me or my team going. Awesome. And we usually sell for the year by February. So we know, revenue generation for the entire year, which is, you know, that's a nice position to be in. Well, of course, COVID hit March, we were like, What's going on here? By April, all of our big clients said, Yeah, you're not coming here this year. It's like, so that was everything. I'd lost the entire sales year. And you know, it's ironic that my doctorates in instructional technology and distance education. But that wasn't the main part of our business, we would do little things here and there. But that became like, I hate the word pivot. But that's really the appropriate word now. Yeah. And so we really did a lot of, Okay, well, let's let's move to the zoom world, because we were already there. But we just didn't really do it pervasively. And so it was pretty easy to not just turn on the dime for us as a business. But then we also went from a service leadership perspective. And now I specifically said, Okay, I'm going to be better off because of this. What can I do to help others and the little things like I have a webinar to do on how to give webinars, which is so metadata. I mean, I made that a couple years ago, for a client, I own the intellectual property articles to heck with this, I just dusted it off, updated it and started doing those for free for people to help them adjust to the world of zoom, I took one of our classes on being resilient in times of change, oddly enough, very timely, I turned it into a self paced training program, and were was giving it out to people like here, you might want to benefit from this. And so those combination of you focus on the business, but also give back to those who are really struggling. Yeah, it was really what kind of inflated both our bottom line but also our souls as well.
Gotcha. Gotcha. Really good to hear. And yeah, I think that the businesses that were successful last year, I think, did exactly what you just said, right? There had to been that line between sort of, you know, giving away some content while at the same time, still watching your bottom line as well, too, though, I'm curious to know from you, Steve, if there's anyone that's out there right now thinking about starting their own business, just about to start their own business, maybe in that first year? What advice would you give to them?
I would give them three pieces of advice. The first is it's absolutely never too early to start thinking and defining your corporate culture. So when it's beyond just you, what's the culture like? What are your values as a business. The second is, don't underestimate the power of good marketing, whether you have it or outsource it, that's your engine, that keeps keeps things kind of flowing through. And the third would be thinking about the brand. So it's different than the culture. It's the brand positioning that you want. And as a kind of a 3.5. It is absolutely not a bad thing to niche your business. Even if you think you're going to cut out market don't niche is a fantastic way to throw yourself up to the top of the pack, when you might be doing the same thing. I mean, gay leadership dude for example, there's a lot of great leadership consultants out there, I work with a lot of them. But there's only one gay leadership dude. And that's not an accident. And so those little things can really go far into really, you're not just starting your business engine moving. Keep those engines kind of coming back for more.
Love that advice. Love that advice. Yep. All right. Fun question. I love asking every guest that we have on the podcast, which is to name the top three apps that you use on your phone, but they can't be email, text messaging or calendar.
Ooh, can I look at my phone?
I always ask the question, who's on your wallpaper on your phone? So I would say the first one is my hue lighting system. So I have all the Wi Fi lights all around. And so mostly monkeying around with those, which drives my husband crazy. Yeah. Husband crazy, because normally I'm on the road a lot. And sometimes I'll just get you know, I'll be like at dinner somewhere random, and I'll just get on the app and change the colors of the house to like, purple and he's like, stop it. I think the second one would be I just gonna say my delta app I just saw that but I laugh because I'm not using that one right now. But it used to be one of them. Yeah, I would say that really play around with Can I use Facebook Messenger is that acceptable?
We'll let that one go.
Mostly because a lot of family and friends you I would throw in WhatsApp in there at the same time just because I have a friend lot of friends in Europe and stuff. And I think the third one is and this is gonna sound nerdy but it's not meant to be.. Spotify, I am a big music junkie. I have a whole smart house bunch to my husband's chagrin. But you know, I'm always streaming music everywhere in the house and, and I'm often like just trying to find like something cool that I've never heard of before.
Nothing wrong with Spotify. This podcast is on Spotify.
Great, Steve, thanks for hanging out with us. A lot of our listeners love to stay in touch and sometimes reach out. So what are some ways that they can find you stay in touch.
The easiest way is our main website https://topdoglearning.biz biz. There you can find more about me and my team. The books that I have out there are some of our free training classes we have what we call learning topics, little bite sized nuggets of learning. There's a bunch of free ones out on our website as well. And then there's a way to get on my calendar or send me an email just to say hello.
Excellent. Well for friends at MarketingEDGE. Thanks again for sponsoring the podcast. And you can find more episodes where you find all of your audio and video just search Minority Report Podcast look for the logo. Thanks Dr. Steve.