Don’t Wait to Celebrate

Validation helps us fight the good fight.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “the Great Reset.” That’s my shorthand for everything that’s rocked our world and our industry in the last 100 days as we navigate a pandemic, fight a global recession, and come to grips with a new Civil Rights movement that is justifiably disrupting the status quo. I used to think that companies like Freeman, who have overcome every conceivable challenge and adversity in 90+ years, had seen it all. But we’ve hit the trifecta of sea change, compressed in an unimaginable time frame.

I suspect that this is what it means to live at the speed of digital, where there is scarcely time to process the significance of events in real time because they are coming at what feels like warp speed. It’s physically exhausting and emotionally draining for everyone. But baked into the formula of rapid change is inherent hope that rapid change can also bring positive transformation. And that’s why, even when we are scrambling to keep the plates spinning and feeling overwhelmed — especially when we’re feeling that way — we need to celebrate our victories.

Cause for applause came from a surprising quarter last week when Forbes officially included Freeman on its annual list of America’s Best Employers for Women. This unsolicited accolade from such a credible source served as validation that when we act with intent, live our values, and refuse to accept the lazy, ingrained habits that excuse discrimination, we can affect positive change. The Freeman manifesto states that all employees can expect a “career experience to promote an enriching life of learning, creativity, growth, and fulfillment.” We are committed to the relentless work of ensuring equity in the way people are hired, compensated, and afforded opportunities for promotion — regardless of age, gender identity, race, or any other point of differentiation.

We are not ready to declare absolute victory in the fight to ensure diversity and equity at Freeman. But as an organization grounded in design thinking, we know that diversity is critical to success in an industry that demands innovation. This affirmation encourages us to push harder. And on a larger scale, it is a welcome reminder that the seemingly thankless task of tilling the soil today may bear fruit sooner than we think. Until then, we would do well to stay focused on promoting growth. And let’s make time to celebrate each green shoot.

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.

A Poorly Kept Secret

It’s all about people.

Today closes what has been the toughest week the people of Freeman have faced since the industry shutdown during WWII. The pandemic has hit the Live Events industry especially hard and our people have been heroic in their efforts to support our customers and strategize a way through. Ultimately, with the cancellation of all large public events for the balance of the year, an industry-wide reset is unavoidable; we have scaled accordingly.

I know we’re not the first to do this and we won’t be the last. Our customers are facing equally challenging decisions. There is no “us” or “them” here — if anything, there is a sad but comforting sense of solidarity as we try to plan for what comes next.

It’s a poorly kept secret that, in my opinion, the success of Freeman, its secret sauce, has always been our people. Our “killer app.” Ninety-plus years of sharing a culture that is grounded in integrity, empathy, and innovation has pretty much weeded out the weak players. It’s been awesome knowing that we work with the best in the business…until we have to part company. Then, it hurts.

During this time of deep uncertainty, I have had the privilege of working with people whose number-one concern has been for customers’ businesses. Even as they could see their jobs going away, their professionalism overruled self-interest. I have taken calls from colleagues impacted by our cutbacks who want to make sure that some detail of a client commitment is fulfilled. I have been briefed by account leads who want to make sure “their show” will be in good hands when it comes back. I have been humbled by the graciousness and professionalism of those who are grateful for their time at Freeman and who want nothing more than to see it succeed well into the future.

Our plan to go forward is an implicit promise to everyone who has ever worked for or with Freeman: employees, customers, and partners, all stakeholders.

No doubt, the Live Events industry has taken a hit. No doubt, it will return — changed, but better designed for the shape of the future.

Here’s what will not change: Our pledge to support each other in moving forward. Our commitment to customers to ground our success in their success. Our ability to act swiftly and decisively on behalf of our clients the moment they are ready.

Our allegiance to all who make up the Live Events community is steadfast. Speaking for Freeman, and for any business determined to bounce back, this much is certain: success is assured only when our people insist on it. When it’s their culture and their legacy to do the right thing, they will accept nothing less.

A Perspective On Sacrifice

Thoughts for Memorial Day 2020

Across the United States, the last Monday in May is Memorial Day, a federal holiday set aside for honoring the men and women who gave their lives while serving in the military. I know many countries have similar remembrances that mark the sacrifice made by fallen heroes. Here, it’s often observed with small-town parades, cemetery visits to lay flowers on the graves of loved ones, and family gatherings that celebrate the beginning of summer.

This Memorial Day, many of us will still be under quarantine restrictions. Parades have been cancelled. Picnics will be limited to nuclear families. It sometimes feels as if we are actually at war, and everyone is experiencing battle fatigue. In fact, the language of war has infiltrated daily conversations and newsfeeds. We talk about combating the spread of the COVID-19 virus, declaring war on the pandemic, arming medical staff, and deploying our frontline workers. Just as in WWII, we’ve seen the conversion of manufacturing facilities to produce a new arsenal — in this case, ventilators, hand sanitizer and protective equipment. Just as in war time, we have true heroes who put their lives on the line: doctors and nurses, first responders, and other essential workers. And just as in war time, some of these people have made the ultimate sacrifice. Sadly, their grieving families can’t even receive the consolation of a public memorial service.

So, this Memorial Day, I salute our veterans, of course. They have earned our eternal gratitude. But I am also thinking of everyone who has had to “soldier up,” who’s had to take a very deep breath and just keep marching forward without knowing what lies ahead. To be sure, the most pressure is on the frontline workers. Thank you to all who serve in this way. But my admiration extends beyond their huge sacrifice. It embraces parents trying to keep their children educated and entertained, neighbors keeping an eye out for each other, and the more vulnerable among us who are quietly self-quarantining and trying to flatten the curve. We are all in this battle. We are all trying to make the right choices and fight the good fight.

I am grateful to each of you.

Focus on outcomes, not inputs.

Don’t be a helicopter boss.

Whether you are managing hundreds of people or leading a small task force, you’ve been hired for that job based on what you know, not what you do. If everyone on your team shares the same vision of where you’re going (this is your job), you don’t need to control every step of the journey (their job). And if everyone operates using the same basic values (everyone’s job), they don’t have to do things exactly the way you’ve always done them.

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Give people room to experiment, grow and develop their own skills.

You probably learned by having a few failures; give your people the same opportunity. If the goal is to make it to the top of the mountain, don’t insist that everyone use your brand of climbing gear and stick to your trail. Some may choose to climb up the way you did. Others may parachute down from a higher elevation. Either way, you’ll end up in the right place.

And here’s the secret: focusing on outcomes isn’t just a gift to your direct reports – you owe it to yourself. Micro managers who never learn to mentor or delegate generally become so overcome with minutia that they fail to reach their own potential as leaders.  Results matter – focus on that.

Integrity first, in every situation

Integrity is an essential Freeman value, but I hope it’s also a personal value for each of us. I like to think we all listen to that little voice in our head that reminds us to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. You were probably taught, as I was, to tell the truth, be helpful, and earn my keep.

Integrity First

People with integrity give everything their best effort. They are honest – with a truthfulness that begins with self-knowledge. They have a moral compass that’s points to True North and they follow it.

Although some people think “dishonesty” is the opposite of integrity, in my experience, it’s not always that obvious. A breach of integrity can be a failure to do anything at all. And it often slips through the door dressed up like old-fashioned, “harmless” hypocrisy.  That’s what we need to guard against. Integrity means acting according to the principles we’ve sworn allegiance to – even when it’s hard, even when it’s “no big deal,” and even when we are the only ones who will ever know.