Worrying About Worrying…

The next priority — caring for our heads and hearts

I’ve turned the corner on worrying about the physical health of my family, friends, and employees and am now worrying about everyone’s psychological well-being. We are all feeling the stress of living in this strange new world where it seems all the “givens” — job security, school, a strong economy, food, televised sports, entertainment options, and ready access to personal hygiene products — have been taken away. People without families are now literally isolated.

The breadth and depth of the pandemic’s impact is unprecedented in my time on the planet, and I suspect that goes for most of us.  And because it has provoked governments worldwide to take draconian actions —  at the federal, state and local levels —  the economic impact has brought our industries and our businesses to their knees. People are waking up to find themselves without employment. To exacerbate the sense of helplessness, when these over-stressed people stop at the store to pick up some basics, it seems the marauding hoards have already cleared the aisles. Ironically, people living paycheck-to-paycheck-to-no-paycheck can’t afford to hoard. So yes, once again, the people hit hardest are those already living closest to the poverty line. This makes me both sad and angry.

People who know me know I always lean into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to explain questionable behavior. And what I’m seeing is entitled people who are used to living near the top of the pyramid (with plenty of self-esteem and a strong sense of belonging) — suddenly experiencing a disruption in their basic supplies and going into freefall, straight to the bottom of the pyramid. And it was already pretty crowded there. As I’ve said before, desperate people do desperate things.

Some people have argued that our collective governments have over-reacted and forced unnecessary economic hardship. I won’t go there — historians can sort that out some day. I do think, as leaders of countries, states, industries and businesses, we need to think hard and act quickly to collectively mitigate the mental stress and helplessness people are feeling. Here are some top-of-mind thoughts:

  • Employee Assistance Programs — Our company, Freeman, has a program in place to help people dealing with anxiety and depression, as do many other organizations. We need to encourage people to seek help wherever it’s offered.
  • Faith-based support groups — Many places of worship have switched to online services, but also have support available that offers hope and reassurance — one-on-one counseling in person or by phone. They also offer pantry kitchens and emergency shelter. See what’s available in your area; if you don’t need help, you may be able to point someone else there.
  • Community outreach — Many communities are responding to COVID-19 by using social media to organize ad hoc help; local news sources are also helping to promote these.
  • Start something — If you are healthy and running to the store, reach out to elderly neighbors and loved ones. Organize a “shop early” program to buy gift cards today from small businesses who are really hurting and may not make it to the holidays. Offer to shelter a displaced college student who has no place to go because their school closed and they have no home to return to.  Post words of encouragement to healthcare workers – online or on posters or wherever you can — thanking them for their superhuman efforts.
  • Be kind — Everyone has a bad day now and again, and you could be the person who turns it around for someone else. Make kindness contagious.

Let me leave you with two simple examples of people making a bad situation better.

Some people in my own company are working harder than ever — tirelessly over long hours for a lot less money than they earned last week. Believe me, I’ve noticed and I won’t forget. Because they’re not doing it for personal reward. They are working harder because they believe their added effort can help turn things around and make it possible to hire back more of their colleagues and help our clients do the same at their respective organizations. They understand their role in getting the economic train back on track.

I also saw on a news outlet that, in parts of Italy, quarantined citizens are leaning out of windows to join together in song. Not to hurl insults. Not to complain. To sing.

That’s the human spirit we need to tap into. That’s how we beat this thing.


An Industry Tipping Point


Moving Forward Through the Coronavirus Outbreak 

To say the effects of the Coronavirus outbreak are evolving rapidly would be an understatement. In the last week alone, our reality has shifted frequently and dramatically as we’ve dealt with the pandemic response of global institutions and governments. We now find ourselves caught up in a world event that has brought travel, business, and global commerce to a halt like few times in our history.

When I last wrote on this topic, just over a week ago, I shared my hope that the events industry would reach a tipping point – one that would knock down some of our old business models and give way to a new way of doing things. It seemed obvious — and has for a while — that our industry needs a hybrid solution to augment and expand live experience with virtual engagement. It’s a matter of being more agile in how we anticipate and solve for our clients’ needs.

That shift is happening faster than I could have imagined. We have seen suspensions of major cruise lines, theme parks, sports leagues, hotels, casino and convention centers and an abrupt cancellation of virtually all in-person events and gatherings. In the context of this new normal, it is now more important than ever to find creative solutions as people and businesses everywhere navigate the near-term reality of remote operating.

For Freeman, this means finding ways — virtual or otherwise — to support our clients, while continuing to meet their demand for unique and impactful live event experiences. Whether these events take place digitally or in-person, we are committed to designing meaningful ways to keep people connected — now and in the future. As we shift our focus to strategy, creative, digital events, live steaming, and long-term in-person event planning, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to scale back some of our business operations supporting in-person events. Our hope and our plan is that this a short-term action that will be reversed when the market recovers. We announced this decision yesterday in an effort to preserve our business so that we can continue to serve our valued clients for generations to come and protect our most important asset — our people. As we adapt to these new and unfolding challenges, we recognize that we are hardly alone, and that the current environment has forced changes big and small for nearly everyone, from the way we go about our daily routines to the way we operate our businesses.

Rather than dwell on the difficulties of this situation, I remain steadfast in my belief that as a people, as a company, and as an industry, we will come out on the other side better and stronger for it. There’s no getting around the hard facts and devastating impacts of this global tragedy, and so I continue to ask myself, what next?

The one thing that’s clear is that there’s no way of knowing what tomorrow will bring. But as we move forward, Freeman is here for our community, as we always have been and always will be. We are in open dialog with industry leaders, clients and valued partners. We are working to access the situation, consider possible outcomes, and collaborate on recovery scenarios.  Now is the time to push innovation and creative problem-solving, and we are committed to sharing those solutions with as many people as possible.

As always, it is in coming together and communicating openly that we will get through this.

Still have questions?

Visit our Coronavirus resource page for more information. 

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.

To Infinity and Beyond

A continuation of the Coronavirus discussion

It’s amazing the extent to which sports analogies have infiltrated the language of business. We hit home runs, slam dunk presentations, and complain about moving the goalposts. In these analogies, it’s all about winning and losing. But these analogies reinforce a short-term look at success that really doesn’t support a sustainable future.

When I think about containing the Coronavirus, I don’t think about “winning.” Lives have already been lost. There will be no dancing in the end zone. We need to take a thoughtful, long-term view about how best to contain COVID-19, protect those in harm’s way, and mitigate the damage to people’s lives, communities and businesses.

I think it’s telling that contemporary business writers have abandoned ball-sports metaphors and now lean into game theory to better understand what’s really at play. Both “Finite and Infinite Games,” by James P. Carse, and “The Infinite Game,” by Simon Sinek distinguish between playing to win, and playing to keep playing.

Companies focused on the Finite Game – making money and getting out – set their priorities in this order: revenues/profits, then customers, and lastly their people. It’s a “won and done” perspective. Those playing an Infinite Game know that if their people are their first priority, their customers will be taken care of, and the revenues and profits will follow. It’s the virtuous cycle played out into infinity.

Freeman has been playing the Infinite Game for 93 years and has put in place plans that allow us to build for the next 90 years and beyond. Our values are constant – our strategic imperatives are mutable. It’s about taking the long-view, staying nimble, and changing the rules of play organically as things unfold. The goal is to do what’s required to allow continued game play – which means keeping our customers and their customers in the game. It’s collaborative. It’s consensual. It’s communal.

This must be our approach in addressing the Coronavirus. We must listen to everyone with a stake in the game. And this, in a nutshell, is our advice to show organizers: listen to your constituents. They need to have confidence that you have their best interest at heart. Take the long view. Obviously, if your event poses a general health risk, the decision is easy – you need to consider alternatives. And there are myriad options and solutions that can be designed on a case-by-case basis in order to serve the most people’s needs and allow the most people to stay in the game.

We are urging industry decision-makers to join us for a virtual dialogue today, March 5, 2020, at 11:00 a.m. CST. We will explore methods for evaluating risk factors for your events, best practices for business continuity, and how best to honor the needs of our constituents. I invite you to register here.

Let’s work together to keep our people and our industry healthy and viable long into the future.

See you online.

A Healthy Conversation

A continuation of the Coronavirus discussion

I’ve been closely following the important discussions relating to the Coronavirus and its implications on those of us in the meetings, exhibitions and events industry. This includes not just show organizers, corporations, show exhibitors, and suppliers, but also travel and hospitality industries. And each has a unique perspective. The big question for organizers and exhibitors is, “should we cancel, or should we carry on with a cautionary plan?” The health of our communities — their physical well-being as well as their economic vigor — is at risk in any decision, whether it’s to proceed or to cancel.

To do what’s right by our employees, clients, suppliers, event participants and others, we have to understand the risks involved in whatever decision we make. We must ask ourselves tough questions that provide the necessary information to make thoughtful, informed decisions. These can include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Is the event planned in a location where COVID-19 is active or at risk?
  • Can the event be relocated?
  • Is the volume of attendance, the nature of the interactions, or the international-travel mix a consideration?
  • Can or should the event be re-thought as a virtual experience?
  • Is the event critical to the marketing plans of small businesses that rely on the show for the health of their companies?
  • How might we best serve each of our constituencies and our communities?

A number of organizations have made the tough decision to cancel their events rather than risk spreading the Coronavirus. Likewise, some organizations have determined that their event is at low-risk for spreading the virus and that cancelling could cause considerable harm. I’m certain that no matter what decision is made, it comes after thoughtful assessment and thorough conversation.

It’s worth noting that the livelihoods of many tangential employees are at risk — those in hospitality, travel, catering, and the long-tail services of the events and conventions industry. It’s been estimated by the Meetings Mean Business Coalition (MMBC) that meetings and events contribute to 1.1 million jobs in the United States alone. How do our decisions affect their well-being?

At Freeman, we are working closely with our clients and other industry experts to help them evaluate the merits of hosting or cancelling an event given the information at hand. We have equipped our people with best practices to keep participants and events safe and shared this with our clients. And we are hosting a virtual dialogue on March 5th, 2020, with a panel of industry experts including representatives from the U.S. Travel Association to discuss best practices for business continuity. We will consider various scenarios to determine if an organization’s event is impacted — as well as what factors their leadership should evaluate when accessing those risks. We encourage you to register here.

It’s time for a healthy conversation.

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.

Looking for a fight?

Don’t get angry. Don’t get even. Get real.

Do you ever have the feeling that someone is trying to pick a fight with you, but you can’t quite figure out why? It’s a lot like the schoolyard bully — some big kid who’d pick on you in hopes you’d take the first swing, so he could really pound you. Now that we’re so-called adults, this kind of behavior is usually less physical and more passive-aggressive. Either way, it’s unproductive and unprofessional. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen often enough that I’ve learned to decode the behavior. I find it helps to remind myself that, most of the time, it’s not about me. It’s about something they’re working through and, for whatever reason, I have become the target of choice.

Often this kind of bullying behavior is triggered by some minor or imagined offense on our part. Instead of responding right away (so we know we’ve given offense), our colleague harbors the resentment, nurtures it, and when it finally erupts, it is over-the-top and inappropriate. I suspect most of us are willing to excuse it as, “they’re just having a bad day.” But there is a danger that our colleague is digging a hole they can’t get out of. As business leaders — and as friends — we need to help pull them out, even if they are reluctant to own up to the real source of the grievance.

No one likes to be called out. Especially in a public forum. But if you feel someone is consistently giving you the passive-aggressive treatment, or even worse, if you find that everything someone else is doing seems to rub you the wrong way, so that you lash out at them, it’s time for a one-on-one chat. Be honest. Talk about what you’ve observed, and try to achieve reconciliation.

This is more than business etiquette. Our work is too important to allow for unproductive, disruptive, adolescent behavior. We expect our colleagues to be intelligent; we should be able to insist on emotional intelligence too. This works both ways. If we never learn what we’re doing to offend our colleagues, we can never make it right and relationships will deteriorate, along with the quality of our work. You don’t have to be best friends, but you need to respect each other and the work it’s your job to accomplish together. Instead of digging trenches, you need to march toward mutual goals.

I wish we could simply mandate that passive-aggressive behavior is unacceptable in the workplace. Our time is too valuable. Our emotional construct too vulnerable. Honest, one-on-one discussion can untangle and preempt a lot of office drama. It requires a degree of vulnerability, but it’s imperative to organizational health. And it’s the only way to disarm and redeem schoolyard bullies.

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.