Unity in Times of Crisis

When we’re separated, we need to get it together.

Remember the good old days when we used to worry about the distant future, instead of what’s going to happen tomorrow?

I’m only being a bit sarcastic. The truth is, when we are worried about the future, instead of panicking, we make a plan. But when the next few weeks are looking a bit wobbly, there’s a temptation to do anything to fix it, right away. Especially when we are feeling isolated from our colleagues and worried that no one is doing anything. That misdirected energy invites all kinds of mischief.

Here are two observations (among many) that we’ve realized during this pandemic:

First, it is more unsettling to worry about the present than it is the future. Of course, when something you can’t control starts squeezing your revenue stream, the sense of urgency can be crippling. But beyond that, I believe that it’s unsettling for most executives to worry about the present because we’re in uncharted territory.

The fact is, we usually have the here-and-now figured out, so that it’s just a matter of executing the plan. We have people to do that and they’re good. Conversely, the need to rethink current business plans and operations, when we are used to strategizing for the future, just seems wrong. And that’s the nature of a crisis, isn’t it — something that disrupts our here-and-now.

The second observation is that the importance of unifying our leadership teams increases in direct proportion to the difficulty of making it happen. Thanks to all of the live video conferencing apps available now, it’s relatively easy to invite everyone on your team to check in on a regular basis. We can even design custom Zoom backgrounds. The hard part is acting with intent to schedule regular conferences and make them mandatory.

This may feel pedestrian, but failure to communicate creates a vacuum that people will rush to fill. In the absence of unified direction and continuous recalibration, many people will invent their own narrative to fill the void. Others will get antsy and try to take action. Even those acting with the best of intentions (to say nothing of the paranoid) will busy themselves with work that may be redundant, counterproductive or completely at cross-purposes to the part of the plan someone else is working on.

In both cases, uncertainty is the enemy, and the best way to preempt that is with intentional, proactive orchestration. Make sure everyone is playing in unison, that they agree on timing, and on who is playing which part. Discuss and ensure agreement on what the final composition will be when everyone does their part.

Speaking for my own executive committee, we are absolutely confident that the future holds incredible opportunity for our industry and our company in particular. What keeps us up at night is the constant plan-revision process necessitated by today’s business uncertainty.

On some days, it can feel like trying to climb up the down escalator — it’s hard to see meaningful progress. That’s when alpha-dog leaders are tempted to just take things into their own hands.

But good intentions can have bad outcomes. That’s why we agree to make our weekly check-in call a priority. We can evaluate progress, offer encouragement or insight, and help course-correct the plan as necessary.

It’s vital as leaders that we don’t let physical separation pull our teams apart. Be intentional about finding the right cadence to keep the team connected. Keep the roles and goals clear. And be sure to orchestrate so that everyone performs at their personal best. Then, insist on unity.

Authentic Empathy

Staying true to who you are says it all.

If you follow my blog (thank you) you know that I’ve been thinking a lot about how leadership, in the best of times, demands integrity and authenticity.  And in darker times, we also need to be mindful about meeting people where they are — especially if we know they are feeling threatened, frightened or abandoned.

This has been a challenge for brand marketers who rely largely on mass media channels. One after another, brands with highly-targeted, award-winning campaigns have pivoted their messaging to something more pandemic-appropriate. It explains why we are seeing so many look-alike ads on TV these days — with meditative piano music, stirring images, and a trusty voice over assuring people that “Brand X is here for you.” The intentions are sound, but it starts to feel generic.

There’s got to be a better way — one that’s brand-authentic while still being empathetic. This timely Progressive Insurance ad gets my vote for best-of-season, because it is 100 percent on-brand and stays true to who they are.

Instead of playing the same sad tune as everyone else, they have a little fun by showing their quirky sales team experiencing the kind of epic Zoom fails that are emblematic of the new normal. With so many of us working from home, helping kids with distance learning, and wishing grandma happy birthday on Skype, it’s totally relatable. It’s funny. It creates empathy. The message is authentic.

We can all learn from this as we plan how to move forward, especially those of us in the live events industry. Regardless of whether we all meet in a conference hall, connect via streaming digital, or interact using a new hybrid platform, we need to approach people with empathy and authenticity. We have to acknowledge that they have experienced many, many changes in the last few months. And we have to be honest about setting expectations for even more change as we learn to interact in ways that are socially responsible and that mitigate contagion. Ultimately, it’s change for the better. But we are growing weary of constant change.

That’s why we need to lean into the one thing that shouldn’t change — who we are and what we stand for. If people trusted you before the pandemic and you have stayed true to your core brand values, they will trust you going forward. So ask yourself how can I, my brand, my company, my business, my association, solve some of the problems my customers are grappling with? How can I make them glad they chose to work with us? What gesture of appreciation can I offer them, beyond mere platitudes? Start with authenticity: say what you mean and act on it. That’s all any of us really want.

Coronavirus: What Next?

When it seems that I’m being hit by a barrage of negative news items and feel I don’t have time to respond thoughtfully to any one of them, I think, what next? Although this exclamation comes from a place of exasperation and anxiety, “what next” is probably the right question. Once I’ve sorted things out and addressed the immediate and urgent concerns, I really need to take time to think about the next logical step.

I’ve been asking myself this question recently about the Coronavirus outbreak. We’ve all been concerned about the welfare of those affected by this and we all want to help and do the right thing. I choose to ignore the “should have/could have” accusations floating around, and try to ask myself: what next? Where do we go from here? What have we learned? What do we wish we’d done five or ten years ago that we need to start doing right now?

Earlier today, Freeman hosted an online discussion with industry experts designed to help decision makers in the conferences, events and expositions industry better understand their options and obligations when it comes to hosting their event, cancelling, or finding an alternate solution in light of the Coronavirus. If you were one of the 2,000-plus people that joined, thank you. And if you missed it, we recorded it — check out the link below.

Let me share a few of my personal thoughts expressed during that conversation.

To be sure, our industry is impacted. Freeman has seen some events canceled or postponed. But these represent fewer than 1% of shows we are scheduled to deliver in the next four or five months in the US, APAC, EMEA and LATAM regions. And we have already seen people who cancelled last week revisit those decisions. That’s because they realize they have more options — not necessarily to put on the exact same event — but to design other ways to leverage Live as a platform to get their message out. The shows that were cancelled were cancelled for the right reasons. And the same is true for the events that will continue more or less as planned. The important thing we all agree on is that, whatever our plans, it is critical to communicate them proactively and clearly. Transparency translates into trust. Trust equates to future viability.

The truth is, Live events as a communication/marketing channel is not going away. People crave connection, and ours is too powerful of a medium to just evaporate. I’m not just whistling in the dark here — I am actually optimistic. And my optimism lies in the answer to the question of “what next?”

We have already seen the integration of live and virtual interactions in hybrid events that take advantage of technology to connect more people. I believe we will see a breakthrough hybrid platform before long. (Full disclosure — I’ve been looking for this since the 1990s.)

We can never stop designing, creating, and building better ways to connect people in meaningful ways. Every day, we see new breakthroughs in technology solutions that enable us to be more agile in meeting our customers’ needs.

My hope is that out of the tragedy of the Coronavirus, our industry reaches a tipping point that knocks down some of the old business models. We can make our events more accessible. More inclusive. More engaging. More personal and relevant. We have the tools and the impetus to augment the live experience. We don’t have, and what we need to develop, is the right talent — a renaissance team of diverse thinkers who can see beyond now to whatever comes next.

I believe this is what is going to happen. And this certainty brings me hope and optimism for the future of our industry.

Coronavirus in the Events Industry: Precaution or Panic?

Why leaders need to plan, not react.

There’s a reason some people enjoy scary movies, roller coasters and parachuting out of airplanes. There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with socialized fear — and when it’s experienced in a controlled situation, it can seem fun. In real-world situations, however, this kind of fear contributes to panic. And no good ever comes from that.

Like many of you, I have mixed reactions to the reports I see in the news about COVID-19. On the one hand, I am concerned for the many people who have been affected by the coronavirus. As the CEO of a multinational enterprise with multinational clients, I keenly follow the reports of the CDC and other official organizations monitoring the situation. And we have been proactive about doing our part to protect our people and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Precaution, planning, and preparation are the order of the day.

I admit, however, that I’ve been disturbed by the fear mongering I see in the media — social and otherwise — and even in casual conversations. Urging people to panic needlessly is counterproductive. And enjoying the disruption it causes is wrong on so many levels, especially as it is disrespectful to those whose suffering or threat from the virus is real and immediate.

My fallback position in addressing any challenge is to approach it from a design-thinking perspective. What is the nature of the threat? What does the data tell us about the risk? What is the upside and downside of any actions we might take? How do we improve our response? And improve again on that?

In a blog written a few years ago, I quoted my friend Bruce Mau as we launched a discussion about Freeman’s #1 design-thinking principle: “First inspire… lead by design.”

“It’s actually helping people to see the potential in a way that they don’t see,” Bruce said. “It’s a very different methodology, when you say your job is to inspire …. Because you can’t get there unless you take people with you…. The design-thinking methodology that Freeman has embraced is unique in that it is fundamentally a leadership methodology.”

Our industry is beset by travel restrictions and event cancellations, and it is up to leaders to offer a perspective and a plan. We all agree that the safety of our people, our customers, and communities is our #1 priority — we can never lose sight of that. However, cancelling events could have long-term negative consequences for our people. Is that really what’s best, or even what’s advisable, in areas with no travel restrictions?

Obviously, this will all need to be sorted out on a case-by-case basis. When making a decision to postpone or cancel an event, it’s important that clients and partners consider the following when making a decision that’s best for their constituents:

  • Collaborating with industry leaders to offer tools for assessing the risks
  • Considering data-based approaches that lead to thoughtful, designed solutions that address the right problems
  • Helping clients think through the risks and rewards of hosting, postponing, or cancelling an event given the information at hand
  • Offering best practices to keep participants and events as safe as possible

As we collaborate in forming a response that will inspire our people — and each other — we have the opportunity to remain calm to be our best selves. Others may panic. Let’s choose to lead.

JOIN US!  Thursday, Mar. 5, at 11 a.m. CST
Freeman is hosting an industry webinar focused on business continuity and insights on how Coronavirus is impacting our industry. Join me as I speak with experts from the travel industry, employment law, and risk.

I hope you’ll join us on the webinar.

Get schooled

Thoughts while visiting colleges with my daughter

I really enjoyed the privilege of taking my middle daughter on a tour of potential colleges. She is a bright young woman with plenty of options; she is clear about what she’s looking for. That’s good, because, personally, I felt drawn to each school we attended. Not just as a parent. I imagined attending EVERY school we visited as a student. To me, they all seemed like magical places of learning, with beautiful campuses, rich histories and a who’s who of professors just waiting to impart the secrets of the universe. After four years within their hallowed halls, I would emerge a well-rounded, brilliant, empathetic and nearly perfect human specimen. By the way, my children find this fantasy of mine hilarious. I suppose it is.

It’s the curse of the life-long learner — every opportunity to learn new things seems invaluable. Every educational environment seems awesome. And every earnest place of learning, especially a few of the prestigious schools my daughter was considering, seem like a big deal. At least, it did to me. No doubt, some of this derives from my experience as an Indiana kid reared in solid Midwestern values; I sometimes wonder what I missed by not attending a popular school. But I think what really struck me is the incredible opportunities available to all students. I’m not sure younger people are geared to see this. I suspect it’s an adult’s reflection on the narrowing world of “what’s possible” for us at a time when, for our children, anything seems possible.

Anyway, on this journey with my daughter, two things became really clear: 1) Any environment designed to optimize learning is good. 2) In choosing a college, we drive ourselves crazy for all the wrong reasons.

As a father, I want what’s best for my daughters. What parent doesn’t? But it occurred to me, even as I was being awestruck by our tour of colleges, that the ultimate choice was important only insofar as it was my daughter’s choice and it provided her an environment conducive to learning. What mattered most was my daughter’s own commitment to learn and her overall happiness. And if she chose to attend the free city college for a couple years, and then transfer to a local university, she would thrive. She will succeed because she is primed to get the most out of every opportunity to learn, and there are innumerable, excellent opportunities.

Just about the time the college visits were going on, the scandal broke regarding certain wealthy, entitled parents hiring someone to fraudulently inflate their kids’ entrance exam scores and bribe college admissions officials. Sobbing mothers appeared on the nightly news saying they just wanted to secure their children’s futures. Again, what parent doesn’t? But it’s not something you can achieve just by writing a check, and they must know that. So it makes me question their real motives.

My personal opinion is that as parents we often have so much invested in our children’s success that it becomes an extension of our own personal equity. We like being able to casually mention at dinner parties that our kids are attending a popular school and rubbing elbows with the elite or Nobel Prize winners. We like to flaunt our own brilliant parenting skills.

I suspect we also do this as business leaders. How many times have we heard about C-suite corporate leaders who make a short-term decision to impress Wall Street, their shareholders, or the people at the club, knowing that it will hurt long-term productivity, innovation, and growth? How often is our first consideration “how will this make me look?” instead of “how will this affect future growth?”

Whether we are acting as parents or business leaders, we need to constantly examine our own motives. If we’ve launched our children into a lifetime of learning habits, and designed our organizations for continuous improvement, we’re doing our jobs.

What have I done for you lately?

The best cure for feeling unappreciated is to show appreciation.

I suppose everyone is entitled to the occasional pity party. Even people in the C-suite. Some days it seems that no one knows how hard we work. No one treats us with the respect we’ve earned. No one gives us what we really want. Are we that hard to please?

Yes. Yes, we are that hard to please. So take a deep breath and try this — show someone else some appreciation. And instead of asking, “what have you done for me lately?” ask, “have I done enough for others?”

These two questions typify distinct personalities at opposite ends of the leadership spectrum.

One has a bloated sense of entitlement that is constantly disappointed because no one else seems to prioritize their needs as highly as they do themselves. Their focus is all inward; they can never get enough attention, praise, pandering, credit, or reward for what they see as their due. They enjoy being the boss, but reject the actual pain that can goes with leadership. At best, they are the lonely person in the corner office. At worst, they are the self-centered country-club poser.

The other type of leader is outwardly focused. They worry that they have not given their people enough of themselves — enough inspiration, enough encouragement, enough instruction, enough recognition. They accept the responsibility of leadership, which often includes some ingratitude. They take the high road. They are the real deal.

I’ve learned from both of these types, and I’ve tried to model my behavior on the second. It’s not all that altruistic. The truth is, doing our best for other people feels pretty good. It’s all part of a true leader’s identity — we help organizations and individuals be their best selves. We will fail sometimes, and we will feel bad about it. We may even feel unappreciated. But not for long. Because there are more people who need our help. Who need our encouragement. Who are relying on us to stay outwardly focused.

Every morning we have a choice. Which is the priority — my needs, or their needs? The irony is, the second choice can fulfill them both.

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.

When Empathy Trumps Authority

Early lessons in leadership — #1

I’d love to tell you a story about myself as the child prodigy who led a fund drive to acquire new life-saving equipment — that I helped invent — to support the local children’s hospital. But for me, the path to leadership has been less Hollywood and more humbling. Leadership, in my experience, is about earning the trust of the people you hope to lead. Trust begins with empathy. And I had to learn this a few times over in my career.

My first gig out of college was with a big hotel chain in Cincinnati, where I was quickly put in charge of Housekeeping. It really made no sense. It was the toughest department — with purchasing responsibility and hundreds of employees — and I had the least experience of anybody. Plus, the housekeeping staff was already disgruntled; there was a lot of tension and some talk of unionizing when I took over.

Two things you should understand about this situation: First, I was a twenty-something 150-pound kid from Indiana, trying to manage a group of much older, tougher inner-city women who could easily have wiped the floor with me. Second, it was my job to convince them that they should love their jobs — that they should be personally invested in cleaning some entitled guy’s room and creating a welcoming experience for our customers.

Lacking any real experience of my own, I had to lean into “me.” I was raised to be an empathetic person. So, I tried to put myself in their shoes. And when I walked around in those shoes, what I saw was dismal. The Housekeeping Department room where we had our meetings every day was dirty and ugly. There were no tables, no chairs… so people who were on their feet all day had to either stand or sit on the grubby floor. The housekeeping caddies they took from room to room were old and broken. The supply cupboards were a mess. These women were not being treated with respect. So how could I ask them to show respect for the hotel and the work they were doing for our guests?

One weekend when we knew things would be slow, I called in my managerial staff and we personally fixed or replaced the caddies, cleaned the break room, organized the supplies, and brought in furniture and plants. I personally ran that giant floor polisher — actually, I think it ran me.

And when the Housekeeping staff came for our next meeting, they saw what we’d done for them and they felt the respect. They saw that they mattered. And many of those women remained my friends long after I left the hotel. And by the way, they voted not to unionize.

That was an important lesson. I didn’t do anything profound. I didn’t spend a lot of money. I treated people the way I wanted to be treated. Ultimately, I guess they empathized with me, too. And those women made me successful and jump-started my career. Lesson learned.

Cynicism Is a Luxury Leaders Can’t Afford

#2 Begin with Fact-Based Optimism.

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, 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.

Bruce Mau likes to remind us that, as design thinkers, we are called to be critical but not cynical. Our responsibility is to design a new or better way of achieving or creating something — a product, a process, a piece of art, an experience, etc. If we don’t believe a better solution is possible — the cynic’s point-of-view — we’ve failed before we’ve begun. Buck Freeman understood this when he embraced the value of enthusiasm, which remains a core Freeman value today. Freeman values are essentially design values.

Although we can’t afford to be cynical, we can’t forego the rigors of critical thinking. Bruce urges us to qualify the essential challenges before we try to solve for them: “We have to start with, ‘This is really the true problem and we’re going to figure it out. What about this problem can we measure, and what kinds of proxies could we measure to help us understand the problem?’”

This is where data enters the picture.  In the history of live events, good metrics were hard to come by, so we relied on anecdotal evidence and hunches. Today, most things are measurable if we have the will to seek, analyze and believe the data. There are two problems here: One, we collect so much data, without thinking about what we need to learn, that we become inundated and just fall back on assumptions; Two, we initiate surveys or focus groups designed to affirm our assumptions, or make us look good to our bosses and our clients, instead of unearthing insights that could drive improvement.

To be designers, we have to be honest. “And when you start to think like that,” Bruce concludes,  “then the process that you’re in is a design process, because you’re actually looking for the truth.”

Integrity, of course is another Freeman value that aligns with a design-thinking approach to leadership. If we punish our people for delivering bad news, they will quickly learn to bring us only the good news. This begins the spiral of complacency and slow, sure death.  If we choose to believe that the things that have always worked will continue to work — that the next generation of attendees at our medical convention or auto show or user conference will engage the same way as their predecessors — we are doomed to fail. Conversely, when we form the habit of collecting meaningful data, when we think about what kind of proxies and metrics we can start to gather, and design that continuous cycle of learning into the process, we are well on our way to being a design-thinking company.

Cynics are usually just waiting for something bad to happen so they can say, “I told you so.” They treat the future as a minefield they refuse to cross. Designers consider all the bad news early in the process, when they think about the opportunity for improvement and formulate their plan. Having flagged and defused all the landmines, they can afford to be optimistic about their success for the future.  And people are inspired to follow them.

You can read more about Freeman’s decision to become a design-thinking company here.

The Wisdom of Patience

Leadership is understanding when to force change and when to let it come to you. 

Guy Kawasaki is quoted as saying, “Patience is the art of concealing your impatience.” As a leader, I need to work on this, as I suspect most of us do.

When we are fired up by a plan to transform our company, disrupt the industry, and delight our customers, patience is hard to come by. In fact, if the change is that important, we owe it to our organization to make it happen as quickly as possible, right?

Not always. Often, the most worthwhile idea is the one that you just can’t force; you must let it come to you.

Gardeners get this. They till the soil, plant the seeds, and nurture the plants so that they can enjoy the best tasting fruits and vegetables when the season is right. Hot-house plants, picked before they are ripe, can be forced to grow year-round, but flavor-wise, they don’t measure up.

We need to nurture new ideas with the same thoughtfulness. As a leader, it’s your job to know when to force a change and when to let it come to you. Ask yourself what a speedy execution gives you…and what it costs. If the price of expediting change is strictly a matter of dedicating more resources to make it happen, and you’re willing to make the investment, go for it. But if the mission requires changing the hearts and minds of the very people who will make it succeed or fail, exercise some patience. Once your people recognize the value of a new idea that involves change, they will bring their ideas and energy to the solution. But until they get it, and embrace it, they will just keep going through empty motions, certain the idea will fail and ensuring that outcome.

“Workforce math” dictates that 10 people, working for one day, can sometimes achieve what one person can do in 10 days. But nine women can’t have a baby in one month. Some things – things worth waiting for – can’t be rushed.