Leaders are Listeners


What’s top of mind with me is what’s top of mind with you

There are countless books about how to establish effective business communications, but I sometimes think George Bernard Shaw got it best when he wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

It would be nice to think that any time an official memo, blog, video post, or website article is published, everybody rushes to hear it and totally absorbs the information.

Nice, but unlikely.

The truth is, not everyone is as fascinated by corporate missives as leaders might like to think, and even those who do receive the communication filter it through the lens of their own experience and current situation. An email about long-term strategy isn’t as relevant to people who feel they are treading rising flood waters, even if the plan includes a state-of-the-art flood management system.

Communication implies a back-and-forth, talk-listen-respond cycle through which meaning is layered on, like house paint, until everything is thoroughly covered. It takes patience. It takes time. And it takes going over more than once.

Most companies rely on surveys to understand what’s top of mind with their employees, customers and business partners. I’m sure many of us procrastinate when we get a company survey, but in a large enterprise with offices spread all over the globe, it is often our best tool. At the very least, a survey helps set the agenda for a plan to address the points raised, along with a supporting communications plan.

At Freeman, we have been going through an organizational realignment, there is a greater need than ever to understand what our people understand and identify those points where there is still confusion. It is literally true that the things that are top-of-mind with our people are the very things we want to focus on as leaders. In just the past few months, based on surveys, we’ve issued official position papers and posted (on our internal website) articles, FAQs, and even videos addressing the most common questions. But it’s still not enough.

Recently, top Freeman officers and I held smaller meetings — Freeman Exchanges — with people in field offices to understand what’s top of mind with them. Although this takes a while to get through, it’s my favorite way to communicate. Nothing beats face-to-face. Nothing is as satisfying as being able to answer a question directly and know, by watching the person’s face, that they have heard and understood the answer, even if it’s not what they wanted to hear. And even more important, I value the opportunity to hear what people want to tell me — even if it’s not what I want to hear.

If I’ve learned anything from the many wise people it’s been my privilege to work with, it’s that leadership is listening. That comes first. Only then can we work together to find a solution, build a strategy and execute the plan. There’s an inherent reciprocity here, too. As leaders, we need to ask people what’s top of mind and listen to what they’re telling us. And as members of the larger team, we need to voice our concerns in a constructive way that helps formulate the plan.

That’s the trick with communication — it only works when it’s two-way. We all need to contribute. And we all need to stop talking long enough to listen.

Be Authentic

The advice I needed when I was 30.

About ten years ago, I gave a bit of unsolicited advice to a college student with dreams of achieving  some pretty big goals by the ripe old age of 30. I took him seriously enough to suggest a plan of action and, a bit reluctantly, he acted on it. Recently, I received a gracious thank-you note from that same man, who is now realizing his lofty dreams. I responded with a second piece of advice that will hopefully be easier for him to follow: “Ask yourself, what kind of leader do I want to be? What’s my brand as a leader? Whatever that is, be authentic.”

When I was a young man, I really wanted people to take me seriously. I wanted to project a no-nonsense image. So, I ordered some very serious letterhead on bond paper with embossed lettering and a serif font and the whole deal. I used emphatic exclamation points in my letters. Of course, the image I was trying to project wasn’t who I really was — a regular laid-back guy who preferred casual clothes, enjoyed a good time, and had a solid midwestern work ethic.  Any leadership skills I possessed had much more to do with an innate sense of empathy than any Machiavellian business school tactics. I wish someone had given me the advice back then that I recently shared with my 30-year-old friend and rising business leader — just be yourself. People respect authenticity.

Here’s something else I shared with him. Humility goes hand-in-hand with authenticity, and the flip-side of humility is vulnerability. Leaders don’t pretend to be something they’re not.  They understand that they don’t have all the answers, aren’t always the smartest one in the room, and that they need help from others. They welcome input. They acknowledge their own mistakes and shortcomings. They keep trying to be better people and more effective leaders.

Today, my personal “note paper” consists of colorful, oversized postcards with big, friendly type. (It’s not ComicSans, but it’s pretty casual.) It’s my hope that when I meet people for the first time, the “real me” matches whatever correspondence or social media we’ve used to connect. Every day, I try to put my energy into being a good leader, not just looking like one. And while I admire and even emulate many wonderful people, I try to stay true to that guy in the mirror — flawed, perhaps, but authentic. That’s the only kind of branding a leader needs.

Don’t Vilify – Debrief and Validate

When you hire the wrong person, own it

I’ve been in business long enough that I have been somebody’s boss, manager, or supervisor for many years. I’ve pretty much enjoyed every assignment I’ve had, but there is one thing I’ve never found easy — firing someone I was responsible for hiring. Especially at an executive level. Let’s face it, this should never be pleasant or even comfortable. But I have learned that there is one thing we should never do — even if it makes it easier on ourselves — and that’s vilifying the person being let go.

I am ashamed to admit that I used to do that. Many people still do. And looking back, the psychology behind this behavior is easy to understand. It’s all about cognitive dissonance. If I hired someone because I thought they were wonderful, capable, and a good cultural fit, and then they didn’t work out, it must be because they either deceived me, took on a radical personality change, or are sociopaths. The thinking is, “I’m a good person and a good manager, so it must be their fault!”

This is not only unfair to the other person, but potentially damaging to your business, because you have failed to identify a problem that needs an effective solution. After all, when you hire someone, it’s because you need a specific job handled. If it’s not being handled, you need to understand why. The best way to approach this is through a debriefing process. Is the individual simply a poor fit with an otherwise effective team? Has the organization or the assignment shifted in a way that requires different skills than that person brings to the party? Did you have unrealistic expectations, hoping that because you admired that person, they would somehow grow into the assignment, or that the assignment itself would evolve? In most cases, you simply hired the wrong person for the job that needs doing right now, and you need to own it. You need to be vulnerable, admit that you tried something that didn’t work, and make the decision to correct the situation. Ultimately, that’s the only fair thing to do for the person separating from the company, and for the company itself. Own the mistake and move on.

There’s another benefit here, too. When people see that you are willing to own your mistakes, they are more willing to tell you the truth, even if it means calling you out on a bad decision. Leaders need their people to tell them when something isn’t working. Sometimes, you may need to debrief with specific members of a team to make sure you don’t repeat the mistake, or try to “solve” the wrong problem. If people trust you, they can help correct or validate your assessment so that you can move forward. With compassion and honesty, the person separating from the company can too.

Making Things Makes You Better

Why just consume, when you can also create?

One of my favorite things about the annual Maker Faire is not just the scale and scope of the inventions — which are awesome — but how it never fails to inspire me to make something myself. It’s my belief that we all have an inborn urge to create, but it’s become so much easier to just consume that we’ve shut off that part of our soul. It’s as if the process of curating ideas, or aggregating art, or sampling and sharing scientific innovation is as powerful as making something from scratch. But they are different things entirely — and it has everything to do with what you get out of the process.

If I want a fine work of art to display in my home, I’ll visit some art galleries and purchase a piece by a true artist. But if I want the satisfaction of playing with color and form and fabric, if I want to experience and learn from the creative process, I need to jump in without worrying about whether the results will be “good.”  If you want to provide secure shelter for your family, you’ll buy a house from a trusted builder. If I want the adventure of creating something with your kids that they’ll play in for hours on end, you’ll build a treehouse.

The thrill of making something isn’t reserved for artists or engineers or architects. You can bake a cake. Plant a vegetable garden and share your goods with the local food bank. Make up a story for a grandchild. Write a haiku. Join a garage band and make music. Organize a reading club and build a basis for fellowship. Build a team where none existed before.

If we are very lucky, we’ll make something that can be shared and that matters to other human beings. But I suspect that most things get made because their creators gave in to the urge to just do it. The reward is the journey of creation, how it makes us feel when we explore this part of our brain and express a secret corner of our soul.

Making things makes us better people.

Do You Live Your Code of Conduct?

A case for standing up for people others put down.

In recent years, we’ve been inundated with news about industries, corporations, athletic teams, colleges and even faith-based organizations who have dismissed leaders because of egregious misconduct.  Many of these transgressions had gone on for years while others turned a blind eye, and I give a lot of credit to the trailblazers who have denounced both the perpetrators and those who protected them. Still, I wonder how much of the ensuing remedial action was for show, and how much was a sincere interest in reparation.  I worry that, as individuals, we are all too willing to abdicate responsibility for abuses perpetrated on someone else, simply because they aren’t happening to us.

I’m always uncomfortable when I hear colleagues talking about horrible things inflicted on  “other people” at places they used to work or do business. Sexism. Racism. Ageism. Entitlement. Intimidation. I want to shout, “And that was OKAY with you? Why didn’t you call them out?” Have we become apathetic about injustices that happen outside our immediate circle? Or are we afraid of what might happen when we speak up for each other? Is “integrity” just something we pay lip service to, but don’t embrace in our personal code of conduct?

The other evening I was going to dinner with some friends when a man near us began loudly pestering a young woman. I told him he was being disrespectful and asked him to stop. Later, the friends I was with told me I shouldn’t have said anything, not because it wasn’t my business, but because the guy could have pulled a gun. Seriously? Have we reached the point that we won’t to do the right thing because we’re that afraid? I only did what I would want someone to do for my wife or daughters. I’d want someone to have their backs by telling him it’s NOT OKAY.

What do you think? Are we justified in calling out someone when they are being disrespectful to another human being? Is it a duty? What if it’s a colleague? What if it’s our boss? My intuition says that, as a society, our moral reprobation has a governing effect on bad behavior.  In that sense, we owe it to each other to police outrageous behavior. Not with “shaming.” Not with righteous indignation. But by simply demanding that people treat others the way we all want to be treated.

Many companies have a stated code of ethics. At Freeman, I think most people can list our key values, even if they can’t recite the entire code of conduct. It begins with integrity — with its implication that we behave in the right way whether or not anyone is watching.  At what point do we take this personally, especially when is it easier to just look the other way? What’s the point of a code of ethics that is subordinate to embarrassment, fear, or ambivalence?

It’s something we each need to consider for ourselves. Especially those of us in leadership positions, where it’s critical to model the behavior we expect see in others.  How do we want people to treat our spouses, our family members, ourselves? The thing with bad behavior, as we’ve seen in all too many news stories, is that the longer people get away with it, the harder it is to stop. Abusive behaviors can become institutionalized anywhere, but only if the people who witness it do nothing. Don’t wait to act, or only do it for legal reasons; let’s do it because it’s the right thing to do. Maybe a word from you is all it takes to turn things around.

Solutions Disguised as Problems

Designers begin by defining the real need.

We’ve all the heard the adage that problems are opportunities in disguise. But did you ever consider that people might be bringing you so-called problems that are really solutions in disguise? Think about it. I’m sure this happens to you, too.

When you were kid, did your mom or dad have a problem with your choice of music? It was probably expressed in terms like, “turn off that #@*! music” — which was really their solution to the problem.  If instead they said, “Gee, I hate that Megadeath song, please make it go away,” you’d understand the real problem. To solve it, you could choose to put on headphones, or listen to your music in the basement, or switch to Rachmaninoff. Three easy, workable solutions that get at the heart of the “real” problem.

Let’s play this out. Do your colleagues or clients ask you to solve their “budget problems” by cutting your price, when the problem is not too much cost, but too little revenue? Wouldn’t it be better to work on solutions for growing attendance, or sponsorship, or merchandising?

Bruce Mau talks about the value of design thinking and how, when people hand us a “problem” that is really a solution, we need to push back, clearly define the problem, and then consider ways to solve for it. In 1997, when Capitol Records asked the marketing team to help launch the new Duran Duran CD, their “problem” was how to boost radio play to create demand for the CD and earn prime display space in music stores. Instead of solving this problem, a couple of people pushed back and suggested that what they really needed was cut-through publicity in a crowded market. They convinced Capitol to release “Electric Barbarella” as a single on the internet for 99 cents a download, and create an exclusive remix for $1.99. It was a first. The publicity was crazy — and the entire music industry was disrupted.

Instead of starting with solutions, consider what you want to accomplish and solve for that. If you define your problem as “I need a hammer” you will attract a lot of people selling nails. But if you say, “I’d like to display this picture,” you may discover that a refrigerator magnet does the trick.

Waking to Win

Why not losing is not the same as winning.

The alarm clock goes off, the professional athlete jumps out of bed, walks into the bathroom, looks in the mirror, and starts the day with this affirmation: “Today I will try not to lose.”

Huh? Who does that? Certainly not top achievers. People who succeed know that setting high goals elevates their perspective and helps them reach a personal best. It motivates them to push harder and go farther than the day before.

I suspect we all know this at some level.  Yet in business, I often see people who begin their day by assuming a self-defeating posture.  Rather than take a risk ­— consider a new solution, explore new technology, or seek input from different people — they simply try to not lose. Maybe it feels easier than the disappointment of a spectacular and public failure. Maybe it just feels easier – full stop.

Have you heard the expression, “only the mediocre are always at their best”? It’s attributed to a variety of people, but it really rings true for those who obsess about failure instead of trying to win. There’s no room for that in the world of live brand experiences. I’ve worked with many event planners in my day, and the difference between the good ones and the great ones is a willingness to break something that may not need fixing. Maintaining respect for tradition can be admirable but using it as a security blanket simply smothers innovation.

Complacency is never a good long-term strategy. When you wake up to win, even if you fall short of your goal, you’ll probably finish better than you started. That’s an important wake-up call we can all use.

Grandstanding: Just Say No

 It makes you stand out for all the wrong reasons.

You meet two kinds of fans at spectator-sport events. One is the fan who is so excited and passionate about the team’s chances that, as she cheers and shout encouragements, her enthusiasm becomes infectious. Everyone pays more attention and pulls a little harder for the home team. The other guy you meet is the hotdog who is so loud and obnoxious that you realize he’s just trying to attract attention. He may even shout abuses against the home team, because it’s not about the game, it’s all about him. He needs to impress you with his superior knowledge of the sport and be acknowledged as the #1 fan.  Of course, we are simply embarrassed for this guy and how insecure he is.

Unfortunately, I often witness this kind of grandstanding in meetings and other business situations. It happens at every level. Someone tries to take over a meeting. Not in the passionate way of an enthusiast, but in the “I’m the Alpha Dog” sense. No one is impressed. Usually, I wonder what just happened in that person’s life to make them feel weak or threatened. Exactly what are they compensating for?

Of course, even the true enthusiast can suck up more air in the room than they should. I have been guilty of commanding more than my share of agenda time in a meeting, especially when I feel strongly about the subject and have a clear sense of urgency. It’s only later I consider that, when I turn my passion on, I effectively shut others down. It’s something I’m trying to work on. Even so, when I see this happen to someone else in a meeting, even if I have to play agenda-cop, my empathy is with the person evangelizing for their cause, because enthusiasm is contagious.

That is different, and vastly more forgivable, than grandstanding. I just cringe when someone tries to commandeer a meeting, manage a conversation, dominate an interview, and otherwise prove that they are “in charge” for no better reason than to upstage everyone else in the room.  Please — don’t go there.  When you try that hard to flex your muscles, it only makes you look weak. When you crave our approval that much, you lose our respect. And when your showboating simply rocks the boat, without creating forward motion, you distract us from the real business at hand.

If you are ever tempted to grandstand, consider that there are better ways to demonstrate both authority and acuity.  Invite others to listen to someone who might be reticent to speak. Throw your clout behind an underdog’s idea that deserves attention. Indulge a less secure person with your undivided attention. You’ll earn their appreciation and our respect.

Learn by Doing It with the Best

#24 Those Who Do Teach — Get Out There And Do

This is the final installment in a series of blogs based on conversations with Bruce Mau, designed to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

The last of our 24 Design Principles throws sand in the eyes of the old, unkind adage that suggests ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ Bruce Mau understands that when we design our processes and procedures in the right way, those who can — especially those who can do specialized work — are always teaching those with whom they work. And in an industry (and business world) in which it’s impossible to know everything, we all have an opportunity to teach and to learn every day.

“Doing is the best learning methodology that we have,” Bruce says. “Instead of teaching by talking about it, teach by doing.”

That’s an added benefit of working in Renaissance Teams — by collaborating with people who have expertise outside our own, we are always learning from the best. And it’s another area where the scope of our industry and our enterprise works to our advantage. “If we think about Freeman,” Bruce notes, “if we learn by doing, no one can learn more than us, because we do more than anyone.”

It’s no coincidence that successful companies build this strategic advantage into their processes, just as we do at Freeman. In fact, it’s built into the design-thinking approach that’s captured in the 24 Design Principles of which this is the capstone. In the events industry, we are privileged to touch so many business sectors, health care practices, lifestyle and entertainment arenas, that acquiring expertise in any one field brings tremendous value to the assigned team. Multiply that by the specialized capabilities an individual might represent — in strategy, creative, digital, event tech or logistics — and it becomes clear that we are all called to be both teachers and learners for the very reason that we are doers.

Bruce becomes animated when he applies this to how we work at Freeman. “This is where the ‘learning’ of all the principles comes into play,” he says. “We are a doing industry. Our product is an experience of doing something.  We’re a verb company. So that puts learning clearly in our business model…. We’ve been doing the Housewares Show for 40 years; we want the next 40 years of Housewares Show to be 40 years of innovation. It’s possible because we’re learning by doing, because we’re applying the Learning Cycle and the Debrief experience that, in every case, drives us forward, and maps out what we should be doing and can be doing with our clients.”

Talk to the best people in the live events industry and ask them how they learned to do what they do. To be sure, their expertise was launched from an academic foundation. They may even have specialized certificates – which is awesome. But most of us can point to the people and assignments through which we gained our most valuable experiences. This is proven out every time I meet with industry colleagues and swap stories. Inevitably, people start sharing tall tales that involve a ‘trial by fire’ experience — or more accurately, an opportunity to jump off the high dive into the deep end of the pool and learn by keeping up with the strongest swimmers.

I remember taking Bruce to a CES planning meeting that’s known, internally, as “the garbage meeting.” It’s one of the best ways to learn about logistics. In addition to helping the team at CES advance its sustainability goals (recycling and repurposing exhibit materials) we have to understand how to remove consumer-generated garbage in a way that prevents log-jams in loading out the show. Our people have developed an expertise that could only be learned by working on a show of such enormous scale. For example, in 2017, more than 1.6 million square feet of carpet were reused and more than 23,000 square feet of paper and mesh banners were recycled. CTA’s booth donation program enabled exhibitors to repurpose raw materials and furniture no longer needed after the show — 285,000 pounds of materials donated to organizations such as Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, and Opportunity Village.  Bruce was blown away, remarking that a plan of this scale works like a military operation. He’s right, of course. But it’s not the kind of thing you can teach someone without having them be part of it.

“The only way you can do CES is to learn CES,” Bruce says. “Our people who do CES know things that no one else in the world knows…. We would never think of garbage as a design problem, but it absolutely is.”

Freeman is in the process of realigning our organization to make it easier to harness the full breadth of our expertise in service to our customers’ businesses. The idea of learning while collaborating is essential to the premise. So is the notion of flexible leadership. A sales growth person who heads an account may have more client-expertise to contribute early on, but she’ll want to learn early in the process, from her colleagues in design and delivery, how best to bring the customers’ dreams to life.

“The knowledge and experience we have in our people, because of what they do every day, is such an extraordinary asset,’ Bruce explains. “And the way that we’re organizing our work is to get that intelligence into the original conception of the design and, in fact, into the conversation with the client at the outset.”

The implications of this final design principle are pretty far reaching.  The notion of teaching by doing  brings with it an obligation to be a patient, intentional teacher and, conversely, an eager, open-minded learner. Further, once we agree that people learn best from watching their leaders, we have to own that this “teaching” extends beyond the work we accomplish to the values that define us. How we do the work, the trust we extend to our colleagues and earn from our clients, is every bit as important as the actual skill sets we’ve acquired.

Ironically, perhaps, but entirely by design, this final design principle, which instructs us to teach by doing, brings us back full circle to the first design principle: First Inspire. Design Is Leadership. Lead by Design.

When design thinking becomes a matter of habit, we are intentional about what we do and how we do it. We know that success is an iterative process. We are both optimists and realists – we constantly seek data in pursuit of better solutions. We are entrepreneurs. We embrace collaboration because we know we don’t know everything. We despise waste — which is a manifestation of bad design — but we love huge, thorny challenges that present opportunities for massive change.

Design is leadership. You now have 24 lessons in leadership that you can apply to your work, your world and your life. Lead by design.

Reconnecting in the 21st Century

Is the fight between face-to-face and phone time legitimate?

The need to connect with our fellow human beings seems to be hardwired into our DNA. The popularity of social media, combined with the ubiquity of mobile phones, feeds this basic need. Ironically, our addiction to the very devices designed to keep us connected often gets in the way of more meaningful face-to-face encounters or life experiences. This is the premise espoused by many and clearly articulated in a Forbes article last July.

We’ve all seen examples: people preoccupied with taking selfies at the Grand Canyon instead of actually enjoying the view; kids playing video games at the dinner table instead of talking to the family; teenagers so absorbed in their text-life that they’ve lost the inclination to converse with the people around them. It’s annoying. But let’s put this in context. When I was a kid, adults worried that my generation watched too much TV. And their parents probably thought they listened to too much radio. Edgar Allen Poe’s father warned him not to waste all that time scribbling stories and poems. So it goes.

As the father of three amazing, uniquely gifted young women, I would never underestimate the importance of on-the-go connectivity in their lives.  They grew up with it. It helps them navigate the world. They may be dependent on their phones, but they aren’t obsessed.  And to be honest, as a busy executive who needs to consult with colleagues and clients, review plans, answer email and make important decisions every day, I have learned to treat a simple Lyft ride to the airport as golden work time with my phone.  When my colleagues glance at a text message or email when we’re together, I understand that the ability to conduct digital triage is precisely what has let them make time for me in their busy schedules. And they know the same goes for me.

The problem, clearly, is that some people can’t put their phones down long enough to interact with the people around them — people with whom they could be sharing a live experience. It’s now routine to announce before a play, lecture, concert, worship service or other collective experience that people should silence their phones. A number of educators and performing artists require students or audience members to bag their cell phones before the event starts, to remove the temptation to disrupt the experience. I think this is great — if only because it sets the expectation that we don’t do that here. It’s understanding the expectation that is important. Our standards for social etiquette need to catch up with technology so that people recognize what is and what isn’t appropriate behavior. The best way to do that is to validate the right behaviors using social media, not dissing it. (#SocialProof)

As a marketer who has spent most of his career in the business of creating opportunities for face-to-face connection on a massive scale, I am committed to the power of live engagement. I have seen how an idea can be amplified, expanded upon and embraced by thousands when people share the experience of walking through an expo or simply network in the hotel bar. But I refuse to dismiss the mobile phone experience as unwanted competition. In fact, I see this as an opportunity. I want to create brand experiences that are so engaging, so relevant, so inspiring that people actively participate in them and then capture and share the moment on social media.  Instead of telling people not to bring their phones into the General Session, I want them to solidify the connection by inviting their questions and comments using second-screen technology. Instead of shoving paper at people, I want to give them information digitally, so that they can comment, search and share it all from that shiny little rectangle they take everywhere.

Do people need to spend more time exercising their social skills than their social media skills? Many do. But instead of complaining about it, or shaming those caught in addictive behaviors, we can present an enticing alternative. When we design irresistible, inspirational brand experiences —and give people a better reason to pull out their smart phones — everyone wins.