I confess an odd fascination with chaos and improvisation. I prefer Coltrane to Chopin. Patrick Mahomes to Tom Brady. Batman to Superman. Zorro to Marshal Matt Dillon. And, I’d probably take Maravich at point guard over just about anybody. I like my heroes a little less uptight, a little more unpredictable, a little more wired to do things, uh, differently, or even as they have never been done before. I like that they love their options, trust their talent, and believe they can get themselves out of just about any fix. In fact, they have complete faith that they can even succeed.
I’m not saying it’s not better to have a strategy. I mean, the name of my company even has “Strategies” right in the middle of it. But, I also believe that no strategy is worth the paper or software it is written on if it isn’t also built to be flexible.
And, I’m also not saying that my heroes are surer bets. Maravich never won a championship. Batman wasn’t stronger than a locomotive, couldn’t fly like a plane, or jump over buildings in a single bound. Brady has more Super Bowls, super-models, and endorsements to his name than any quarterback in history. Zorro’s ratings never touched Gunsmoke’s. And, John Coltrane once allegedly got so deeply into one of his saxophone solos that Miles Davis had to tell him to “just take the horn out of your mouth.”
But, with each one of my hero choices, I just dare you to take your eyes off of them. The fact you never know what they might do, how they might escape, how they might improvise, was always too exciting to risk missing. The chance to see something done like never before, or like you could never imagine, was always too sure a possibility. They always offered possibilities.
America is going to need guys like these. And, before you think I haven’t female heroes, I’ll take Billie Holliday, Annie Oakley, Serena, and, in a bold move, Cat Woman over Wonder Woman – only because you were never sure if Cat Woman was going to be good or bad in any given circumstance. Again, unpredictable. And, I know unpredictable always makes for a little more tension, if not danger, but isn’t it exhilarating?
For most of America’s history, big business has accounted for much of the nation’s wealth, and more than a few of its jobs. It has been largely predictable, sometimes even regulated for success. In fact, big business has been pretty close to being infallible if for no other reason than it knew the government wouldn’t allow it to fail. Even public bailouts became predictable.
However, a larger majority of businesses in the country have been smaller. Employing fewer than 100. They have been more vulnerable to economic ups and downs, culture changes, demographic changes, consumer moods and trends, technology, and, ironically, sometimes government regulations that strangled. The fate of rural America, at least on its farms, was either up to “God and the farmer” if it was a smaller, or probably Monsanto or some other “Big Ag” business. Less predictable economics, for sure, but still somewhat manageable – if you had a decent, forgiving banker.
Over the past few months, however, conventions and predictability have been leveled by the Coronavirus – now having become more a siege than an attack. And, anyone pretending to know when and how it ends; what it will leave in its wake; and exactly how to plan for recovery from it, is delusional. There are way too many variables for rational predictability.
Quick! Send up the Bat Signal! Hello…..Batman?
No. Neither Batman nor Zorro had superpowers. None of my heroes did. That’s why I could relate. They did, however, have ingenuity.
Now is the time when every business, regardless of size – and every American, for that matter – needs to call up their human powers for resourcefulness, listen for their own truths, honestly evaluate their own real strengths and weaknesses, explore options, prepare to be flexible, exercise wisdom, disdain pessimism – because it’s a waste of time and energy – and prepare to scramble like your life depends on it. Tirelessly and with great hope and faith.
For very practical purposes, everyone is becoming more accustomed to conducting a mini business and personal inventory daily. Determining what can and should be done today. What can be afforded. We are slowly recognizing that a realistic true recovery, whenever that can truly begin, should be looked at in terms of months and years, not days and weeks. We can’t let that get us too down. Everyone’s going to be in the same boat. And, everyone’s faith is going to require a little bit of forgiveness, understanding, and investment from each other. We each only fully recover when all of us do. And vice versa.
If a business knows it is too big, or too bureaucratic to move as quickly as it may need to, then it ought to consider ways of diversifying, or breaking down a bit, or adopting some less expensive, more flexible, guerrilla capabilities to redefine how it measures success. There are, and certainly will be, options to do that. Start considering them now. The old big business “so far, so good” blueprint that depends on a slow moving economy and a benevolent government may be a risky plan. There will not be enough government dollars to save everyone and dueling lobbyists may find a confused path in statehouses and on Capitol Hill.
If you are a smaller business, begin re-imagining your basics. What you do best. What you require to stay afloat. How you can differentiate yourself from others. What matters? Size may not matter as much as you have thought in the past. A sleeker, more agile model may be more effective. And, you ought to put a premium on creativity, speed, responsiveness, and relationships.
I’m not suggesting, by the way, that you abandon your brand, reputation, or corporate/business identity. That would be foolish. I am suggesting that, just as most established companies have deputized “crisis communications” teams to combat brand or personal assaults, they should also name a “rapid response” team to deal with unanticipated – but very likely – business or economic threats, hiccups, or downturns. Every business should have a Plan B, C, or at least, a mechanism for calling management audibles.
Prepare yourself to improvise. Prepare yourself for the unpredictable. Prepare yourself to have some failures. But as the writer says, always try to, at least, “fail better” until you start making up ground and finding success. Refuse to panic. Prepare yourself to be more patient than you have ever been comfortable being. It will pay dividends.
Also, surround yourself with people who are fearless, positive, nimble, creative, and – did I say positive? If you don’t have those supporting players to help you, find them. Or, become one of them. Either way, understand that strategy on the fly is different, but can be exhilarating and rewarding. And, you might as well try to find ways to make it fun for you. That will help you through the hurdles, inspire you co-workers, clients, and investors.
It will be a time for adjusting to “motion” business plans, filled with challenges and opportunities. You’ll want to be alert to both of them. There will be times to follow traditional plans, but plenty of others that will demand a little guile.
I have great respect for Chopin. Brady is a champion. Everybody has their own Kryptonite allergies. And, even Matt Dillon would be wearing a mask these days. But it will not be superpowers that will bring recovery, good health, normalcy – whatever that is – or success to America in coming days. It will just be us. And, we can think on our feet, and we can improvise, and we can depend upon one another, and we can scramble like all get out. An idea and a little self-confidence can go a long way. That’s a strategy, right?
Hunter Thompson once wrote, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
On formerly typical conference calls that have been turned into now typical Zoom meetings, I am discovering quite a bit about my clients and colleagues. Whether I care or not, I’ve learned which of them have pets, oddly growing facial hair, way too many children, bad taste in art, and – if I can look closely enough at their bookcases – good taste in literature.
More importantly, I’ve found that – given equal airtime – people who have rarely contributed a word to a meeting in person have been transformed into unexpected Zoom stars. I’ve found that big, daring ideas can tumble out of someone’s mouth if they know it is big, daring ideas that are required now. Desperate times create superheroes.
I have heard some incredibly audacious proposals expressed in virtual boardrooms in recent months, most of which I couldn’t have imagined last year. I have to admit, the expansion of boundaries – the limitlessness – has been a little exciting. Not to say there haven’t been some fairly banal or dumb suggestions, too. Crises may uncover brash genius, but they don’t necessarily hide stupid. But, the possibilities of a more valiant business environment feels a bit intoxicating.
The pandemic has panicked some traditional businesses, while other entrepreneurial types are chomping at the bit to introduce new strategies, cultures, and even traditions into their organizations. Life in quarantine is unquestionably producing some non-stereotypical work. Leaders are, necessarily, taking risks they might not have before, trying different things, being bolder.
One friend and client is so enticed by the future possibilities that he is choosing this time, despite the business and news prognosticators out there who sound more like depressing characters from Winnie the Pooh, to launch new enterprises. He believes the market is going to be absolutely ripe for barrier-breaking concepts and capital with a purpose.
There is certainly the potential that when the pandemic has subsided that “business as usual” will return, including some of its sometimes mind-numbing predictability, discipline, and hierarchy, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It is amazing in human nature how quickly patterns of behavior can be altered and old habits discarded, particularly when replaced by the effective and fun. Freedoms are hard to take back.
The American marketplace has always proven to be resilient and pliable. And, while there will not suddenly be a press release about the “old marketplace” being exchanged for a new one, it is already a working reality. The new marketplace seems to like the pace and imagination of fresh ideas. Innovative, lively, creative, “unfettered by label” brands will be flexing, and investors looking for an edge will not waste a whistle on the old tried and true if they show signs of lagging behind.
We have all been witness to extraordinary recent changes. We have seen idols come tumbling down – literally and figuratively – anachronisms that may no longer have prominent places in our society. Similarly, we are seeing necessary and practical evolution of some of the archaic ways we work, conduct ourselves socially, and even talk to one another. If the current challenges introduce a new era where the “great what’s next” can be inclusive, enjoyable, provocative, and profitable – and why the hell not? – then the next 12-18 months could be hold-on-to-your-hat amazing to watch, and even more incredible if you have the verve, nerve and imagination to get out there and participate.
Whether back at the office, or in the work nook at home – you may want to start deciding what role you want to play. There will not be a guidebook to keep you up on all the changes in the game. The times may be hard, certainly bizarre, occasionally uncharitable, but I guarantee that for those willing to dive in, there will be great reward. One can only believe that Thompson is smugly chuckling in his grave as we once again prove his words true – the pros are most definitely finding ways to make the weird work.
~ Len Sanderson
I’ll go ahead and answer the question before anyone asks.
Yes. If a bat hits a ball in a ballpark and no fans are there it WILL, in fact, make a sound!
And, just because fans are not in a ballpark and can’t line up four deep at the bar watching the game on television together, doesn’t mean you won’t hear plenty of joyful noise this week if Major League Baseball can avoid the latest Covid-19 hit and officially cry, “Play Ball!”
Call me an aging child if you want to. Call me naive, I’ve been called worse. But, two of the things I like best about ME are my ability to adapt, and my willingness to forgive and forget in the pursuit of happiness. And, believe me, I’ll be thrilled to do both this week.
Complain if you will about all of the reported hassling between players and management about when, and if, to play in 2020. Throw your hands up, turn up your nose and say you are perfectly happy to return to your croquet game in the backyard if you must. That’s okay. That just leaves more “happy” for me to have to myself.
I confess I’ve worked in baseball for nearly 30 years, and fell in love with it at 11-years-of-age when I first saw Willie Mays run out from underneath his cap turning a long single into a triple. Over those years we’ve probably worked with 22 of the 30 teams on one issue or another. And, I’ll be the first to tell you the least appealing subject for public discussion about any professional sport is money.
While over recent weeks and months I’ve fretted along with everyone else about whether management or players were going to stop talking about the “M” word and get back to MY interest in the game – actually playing – I also never lost sight of the fact that my baseball fretting, like my gripes about travel, masks, the lack of hugging, and my inability to find or make a decent muffaletta, was caused by the Coronavirus.
I have found no evidence that either players or management was responsible for the pandemic. In fact, a week before America “closed for Covid-19,” I spent a few beautiful spring days – as our little company has for decades – visiting a Spring Training sight to talk to owners, management, and players about communication challenges and opportunities for the upcoming season. All parties seemed to be getting along just fine.
If it were not for the virus, the biggest baseball beefs sportswriters and fans would be dealing with right now would be centered around best and worst performances during the season to date, or who should or should not have been on All-Star rosters for the game that had been scheduled to play at Dodgers Stadium in two weeks.
If it were not for the virus….
Let’s face it. Whether talking about our sports clients or our clients from the world of business, higher education, energy, and the rest, the pandemic changed everything. What each of us was doing around mid-March came to a screeching halt. The most well-planned strategies required a rain-out plan. We all had to wait and see. “Postponed” became one of our least liked, but most utilized words.
None of us knows what the latest news or warnings will bring about the virus. We’ve come to know that Covid-19 doesn’t respect any schedule, that virtually (another word, “virtually,” that has become a word I’ve had to incorporate into more conversation) any new idea or plan may require an asterisk.
One thing that we know for certain? We have had to, and will continue to, ADAPT. Whether we hate adapting, or love it, is beside the point. We shall adapt or we shall be miserable, irrelevant, or beaten by a virus the entire world agrees to despise.
From a strictly baseball perspective, I will share a couple of real behind the scenes bits of information gathered during the pandemic. The players, privately, continued to workout, and to dream about seeing their teammates and getting back on the field. Team owners and employees have continued to maintain ballparks and communication with fans, and dream of the day when the sounds of the game could come alive. And, despite distracting money-talk, neither party wants to risk the health of players of fans, and both prefer the game of baseball to the business of the game.
I’ve got my fingers crossed and sent up a prayer for the safety and health of everyone involved in the return to the field. I’ve hung my most positive and potent good-wish Gris Gris over my MLBTV screen in hopes that a picture will light up and “Play Ball” will drown out the sound of my air conditioning.
I will leave it to those who refuse to adapt to debate or complain about the modified schedule, regional realignments, and other compromises. And, am absolutely prepared to forgive and forget whether players or management deserve more blame for the delay of games that couldn’t have been played because of the virus anyway. In fact, I applaud them for this good faith try. I, for one, just need to feel the pulse of the game again. It will make me feel better about other adaptations required in coming days – for health, for business, for entertainment, and even for muffulettas.
I have had to adapt quite a lot since I was 11 years old. I no longer prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate. I can no longer run the hurdles. I can go more than six hours without listening to The Stones. I need to carry reading glasses at all times, everywhere.
But, I still take pride in a day’s work. Pleasing people I like to please. Finding solutions to puzzles – sometimes of my own making. And, pursuing happiness, which includes hearing the crack of a bat live or on television, under nearly any circumstance. Things worth adapting for.
Besides, if I squint my eyes just right, I can also – no matter how old I get – even now see the brilliant Willie Mays sliding into third with his cap still hovering somewhere above second.
~ Len Sanderson
I once had the nerve-wracking experience of sitting in to play with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and his quintet. For those who don’t know, Miles Davis was an absolute musical genius. And, mind you, the word genius – tossed around way too generously – is not even close to being an exaggeration in this case. His ear was perfect.
At 15 years-of-age, I only had the opportunity to be in a room with Miles – never mind performing even one short piece with him – because the man who taught me drums was a musician Miles respected. My teacher said I could listen to his own instruction for years and not learn what I could from Miles in ten wordless minutes.
He was right in more ways than one.
Obviously, I was never qualified to sit on a stage with Miles Davis. Talent matters and I was way out of my league. But, the lessons I learned served me well over the years – outside of music – in a meaningful way
Miles, with his beautifully muted and minimalist manner, notably said of jazz that the notes one doesn’t play, the silences, are as important as the ones that are. The key, he said, is knowing when to play them or not.
I’ve applied that principle many times over the years while writing speeches or columns, telling stories, media training speakers, politicians, businessmen, or just people who had things they wanted to say more effectively.
In the wake of the brutal slaying of George Floyd, a black man mercilessly killed by a white Minneapolis policeman, I’ve thought about Miles’ point on the power of silence. And while silence may have extraordinary value in the right place, it may be detrimental in these circumstances.
During the months of this pandemic, most Americans watched the world electronically. While on many issues we picked our channels, platforms, and opinion-leaders according to our personal world view, nearly all of us saw the same agonizing eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the brutal final moments of George Floyd’s life, in exactly the same way. No amount of spin can make us un-see what we witnessed with our own eyes. And we have been changed by it.
Like nearly every other responsible human being, I am struggling to come to grips with the nature of his murder, its meaning, and how to respond. Even IF to respond. I wonder is my voice the right voice? I wonder if I will be misunderstood and do more harm than good. I wonder who even cares what I think? But we can all be certain someone is paying attention to what we do or don’t do.
Whether or not we’re in the public eye, we each have colleagues or employees or clients and family members who expect to hear from us – as an individual, as an organization, as a business. We’ve seen that it’s not always easy to get the words right – reputations may be made and broken by the notes we hit or fail to reach. But this isn’t music and none of us is Miles Davis – silence right now has little value.
~ Len Sanderson
Several years ago, I had some mishap and got a concussion. I think that particular time the lid of my trunk without warning or provocation, rudely crashed down on the back of my head.
I’ve had my “bell rung” – as not very well-informed coaches used to tell us before there was appropriate attention paid to the dangers of trauma to the brain – enough times that I knew exactly what was wrong.
After a couple of days of headaches and double vision I decided to go to the emergency room to get it checked out. When I checked in they asked my age and took my blood pressure. Well, because of my headache pain, and the stress of the ER, my pressure registered a little high. Because I was in my 50’s they told me that because of my elevated pressure they would have to do a scan of my heart. I was annoyed because that had nothing to do with my headache.
Shortly, a grim-faced doctor returned to tell me there appeared to be something wrong with my right lung. Now I was really annoyed because I knew that I had lost my right lung in an auto accident years earlier, so the likelihood of there being something wrong with a non-existent organ was not too great.
The doctor then checked my blood pressure again and told me it had gotten higher. I told him I was certain of it because I came in to have my head checked for a concussion and, so far, the hospital had only reminded me I had a single lung. He was unimpressed and said he would take an X-ray of my head but, because of my age and the blood pressure, he would have to keep me overnight. I could now FEEL my blood pressure rising further.
After the X-ray I told the doctor I was not going to stay overnight. I insisted I get my head diagnosis and that I would then be disconnecting various wires, cords, and other connecting devices to my chest and would be leaving. He then called my personal physician to complain of my behavior and ask him to “make” me stay in the emergency room overnight.
After I told my personal physician I had no intention of staying overnight he got back on the phone with the ER Doctor and proceeded to make a deal with him that I could leave the ER today, but ONLY if I would agree to come in the following day for a stress test. By this time I would have agreed to anything to get out, so I agreed to come in the following day.
And, oh, by the way, my ER doctor told me, “We have absolutely ascertained that you have a concussion.”
I had an unhappy evening anticipating what I believed would be a needless procedure the following day.
When I checked in for my stress test the next morning, the young physician’s assistant asked me why I was there to take a stress test.
“Because I have a concussion,” I told her.
“That’s odd,” she said, “normally we wouldn’t conduct a stress test for a concussion. Has anyone in your family ever had heart trouble?”
“Why, yes,” I said. “In fact, my father died of a heart attack a couple of years ago at the age of 91.”
“How did that happen?”
“Well,” I said. “Actually, he died taking a stress test.”
“That’s crazy, why would anyone give a stress test to a 91-year-old man?!” she exclaimed.
“I don’t know,” I said, flatly. “Maybe he had a concussion.”
… As we return to our jobs and, hopefully, a more predictable future in the next days and weeks we will face a lot of challenges. We will, in short, have to figure out what about our futures WILL remain the same, or necessarily need to be altered.
Over the last couple of months we have already begun to measure what matters most to us. We have already begun thinking about what needs to be done differently, better. Determining what are the things we do well or not so well in our businesses, and in our lives. We can only make those kinds of decisions if we first make the right diagnoses about ourselves, and what we truly need to fix, or keep, or change.
There will be plenty of experts and authorities that will be telling us all what kinds of decisions we need to make, or how this or that will threaten us economically, physically, emotionally. Be prepared to push back.
Not every cookie-cutter answer will fit you or your family or your company. We aren’t the same. We each have our own histories, experiences, knowledge. We absolutely need to own our own diagnoses and be bold enough to prescribe our own medicines.
I would gladly offer more insight and advice…. but all this has given me a headache. I guess I need a stress test.
~ Len Sanderson
Years ago I spent a good bit of time in South Korea along the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. A colleague considered himself a serious student of Sun Tzu’s small classic The Art of War. I thought it a little pretentious and maybe dangerous. I was more of the “don’t want to study war no more” demeanor.
I did pick up his worn copy and gave it a quick read because, well, it’s a quick read. Plus, his copy was fantastically illustrated with warriors of God knows which century. I’m sure I knew when, since it’s in the introduction, but it’s irrelevant to my point.
For those who’ve read it, you know it lays out a strategy for winning wars. It includes the obvious: know your enemy, know your terrain, know your own weaknesses and strengths. It also includes a lot of what western civilization would call Machiavellian advice for leaders, warriors, winners.
During the ’80s and ’90s, writers careened into adopting some of the central elements of Art of War into a primer for business, sports, leadership, team-building, and even relationship building, believe it or not. The sports example would probably be the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of the last decade of the 20th Century and their Triangle Offense. You’ll have to read through Tex Winter’s notes to understand it, however. (Trust me, we worked for the Bulls during some of those years and I tried to find a simple way to explain it, and, well….)
When I saw many of those applications of SunTzu’s strategies, I generally pushed away from them. I thought too many would read them as too cutthroat, cold, heartless, and may rationalize callous actions.
Recently, however, as I have fought the good fight against slowly morphing into my television-watching chair, and reading like I was facing final exams without knowing which subjects might be covered, I picked up Art again. This time I looked at it for its harvest, rather than its harm. There was plenty.
We have worked over the past couple of decades with many new businesses or ones suddenly operating under new management. As companies and leaders face the challenges of reentry into the marketplace post-coronavirus, many will find themselves once again confronting a new landscape and a different way of doing business.
Every company will have to reestablish its relationships with not just clients and customers, but also with employees, vendors, fans, contractors, or anybody else on whom they depend for success. It’s not that they will have forgotten about your companies or services, it’s just that they have also learned, in many cases, to cope without you. Habits have been interrupted. It will be fruitless to curse the fact; rather it will be necessary to assess the new realities with eyes wide open.
Just as the last few months have changed each of us at our core, so have they changed the way people think, shop, buy, are entertained, and live. Decision-makers must be able to inventory just how those changes will affect her or his particular business.
An honest assessment will require an analysis of a company’s position in its market, its strengths, weaknesses, points of distinction, needs and wants. It must also provide honest insights into the same questions about one’s competitors. Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig – with whom we worked for over 20 years – always used to say, “Things are only good or bad by comparison.”
Once those subjects have been both objectively and subjectively audited, leaders and companies must determine how best to publicly or privately position with clients or customers. That will require knowing where and how key audiences get their information, make decisions, and the kind of language required to get their attention and demand their consideration.
Doing what has always worked before is not necessarily a sound strategy. The only way to effectively reestablish old relationships and make new ones will be to understand the new paradigm and language, the best messengers and messages to penetrate the cubbies we’ve all curled up in.
Sun Tzu never faced the kind of enemy we are now encountering, with no history and an unknown future, but the steps for defeating it are the same. We must get as much intelligence as we can. We must be honest with ourselves about our own strengths and weaknesses. We must know how to capture the hearts and minds of our audiences. And, we must be patient and empathetic.
Okay. I can’t believe I just used warlike metaphors to discuss adjusting to a truce if not a victory over a virus. And, applying a battle strategy for recapturing brand recognition, market place, and economic recovery. However, what I have come to learn over the years is that there is no substitute for having a strong set of goals and objectives, a disciplined set of tactics, and a solid means of making fact-based evaluations of progress.
I do recommend not taking Sun Tzu too literally or seriously, by the way. Those that do still scare me. In fact, without a sense of humor, I would still stay away from him. I promise you after we recapture our confidence and stride, I will never recommend The Art of War to anyone without caveat, irony or precise context.
~ Len Sanderson
“In this time of uncertainty….”
When I was in high school, an English teacher told us on the day we were to write our first opinion piece that anyone who started with that sentence would get an automatic F on their paper.
She had lived through two world wars, a depression, the Korean conflict, the Cold War, assassinations, and the Vietnam War, so she had learned that there was never anything other than uncertain times.
I thought she was being a little small-minded, that surely my teenage years represented the most uncertain and compelling times of all. Of course, she reminded me and everyone else that what we thought about her position was beside the point, since she was the one with the grading pencil.
This last weekend, I recalled her no-nonsense approach and wondered if she would be willing to make an exception for dealing with Covid-19. These times have GOT to be the most uncertain.
Then, I reminded myself that on several occasions five unpredictable seconds had changed my life. Particular years vastly altered me. Some unexpected moments, like those that brought love, were amazing. Others, that brought death or sickness, not so much. All they had in common was that none were scripted.
For the past weeks, many have had their worlds changed in ways they could not have imagined even three or four months ago. Social and family lives have changed. Businesses, schools, healthcare providers and other emergency responders have faced issues they never have. Fear, dread, psychological angst or “the blues” are pretty commonplace.
So, I shifted my thinking to what things ARE certain.
It is certain that the national quarantine will end. It is certain that some people will have lost friends or loved ones. It is certain that some will have lost their jobs and nearly everyone will feel some economic pain.
It is also certain that all Americans have felt a spirit of shared experience as never before. It is certain that we have seen amazing acts of bravery and kindness. It is certain that we have felt a need to reconnect, go out in public, see one another, feel more vital.
The lists of uncertainties and certainties moving forward are going to be largely up to us.
It would be nice if kindness could be a certainty, that empathy for all could run a little deeper. It would be nice if, as we all hit the reset button on business, we could return with a greater appreciation of the value of every employee, and the caring from our employers. It would be nice if we could, at least for a little while, work to make an economy that benefits everyone not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we now see that it’s good business. It would also be good business to give everyone a chance to catch up without being preyed upon or taken advantage of.
If this Note sounds a little preachy or naïve, that is not it’s intention. Its intention is to suggest that as we write the American story of the pandemic that we give it a smarter, deeper, more brilliant significance. It is uncertain whether we will face this kind of crisis again — perhaps sooner than we would like — but I would hope we could walk away from all of this one day more committed, less divisive, sharing a more positive ending to the story.
This is not public relations, it’s society relations.
And, I don’t care if I get an F for my form on this Note, because the exercise made it worth an A to me.
For weeks now we have been adjusting to being away from the workplace. We have been worried about the great what’s next. Some of us have been furloughed, or laid off, or had our salaries clipped. We may have had to explain to family, friends, or co-workers how we’re going to move forward, how we can possibly make ends meet.
In weeks we will be told we can ease back into our lives, perhaps without a job, without much money, with perhaps fewer job prospects, and chock full of insecurities.
For employers and employees returning to their jobs, we may feel some discomfort. It would be unusual for there to be none.
How comfortably we can return to relationships, if not former working conditions, will be a test of good management. How we begin to build back trust will necessarily demand patience, tact, encouragement, humor, and empathy.
I assure employees that no employer enjoyed making sharp cuts in her or his budget. The tough economic decisions that drove those actions may have been the hardest of his or her business life. They will be eager to see their work colleagues, but they may be nervous.
I assure employers that every employee hated the events that took them out of the workplace, altered or ended jobs. Unless those employees had been living under rocks for several weeks, however, they likely could not quarrel with the logic behind sacrificing in the short-term to ensure that a long-term is possible. They will be eager to get back to work but may have some residual discomfort around those who made the decisions that affected them.
Better managers said all the right things to their employees when tough choices had to be made. They took the time to explain the circumstances that guided immediate actions and spoke of their hopes and intentions for the future.
Better managers will likely have kept in touch with their employees during quarantine days to remind employees of their value, kept them up to date on company plans, or brought them into conversations about what the business needs to do as soon as the whole team returns.
I would recommend employers greet their returning employees when the doors to their businesses reopen. I would recommend that personal messages, emails, texts, and even written notes be waiting for employees at their workstations, and that managers make time to walk through their departments to welcome employees back. If businesses have regular social events at the workplace, one should be considered at an earliest date.
Perhaps most importantly, employers need to be honest with employees about best and worst-case scenarios in their businesses and what will be required to reach necessary goals. Face it, building back is going to be tough. Everyone needs to be made a part and given roles for contribution.
Oh, and be sensitive to emotions. Be cognizant of everyone’s circumstances. Some may have lost loved ones, or been ill themselves. Others may have been locked away alone with their fears. It may be too soon for certain humor, language, or personal treatment.
All of these suggestions seem obvious, I know, but the obvious is often what is hardest for us to cope with. Keep your social distance, but you may need to dip your mask just enough to tell your coworkers how much you care. And, ask how you can help.
For the better part of 30 years we have represented professional or NCAA sports teams, players, coaches, GM’s, and owners. I’ve seen players become world champs, all-stars, Hall of Famers, record-breakers and barrier-breakers – I’ve seen them hold trophies and drink champagne. Matchless moments for them and their teams. But, in all those years whenever I talked to a retired player – whether or not they retired last year or 20 years ago – they said what they missed most was the camaraderie, their teammates.
Now, I’m not saying they couldn’t – and wouldn’t – at the drop of a hat describe in great detail what they hit off Nolan Ryan, Jennie Finch or some other Hall of Famer on a 3-2 pitch, or what they did on a third-down play or a goal at the buzzer, but that wasn’t what they would dwell on. Instead, they were more likely to tell me about a road trip to Detroit, or L.A. or NY. About rookie hazings they survived or jokes they played on others. Who was the funniest, the most supportive, the best behind the scenes, the most exciting to watch on the court or the field or the ice.
I recently asked a retiring ballplayer, as we were sitting in the clubhouse, what he’d miss most. He spread his long arms out in front of him and in a grand sweeping motion, simply said, “all this.” He was, of course, alluding to his teammates, the lockers, the guys padding around from the showers, or playing cards, bantering, or shouting insults.
His face reflected real sorrow, as he fought back tears by hollering at a nearby buddy, “Of course I won’t miss this sorry %!@. But, I’m not sure he ever contributed enough to even qualify as a real Major Leaguer.”
During the 2019 MLB season the World Series Champion Washington Nationals excited not just the fans of DC with the sheer joy they had in playing together, they also attracted fans who may have drifted from the game, or were fans of other clubs. Some who’d never been fans at all. The Nats players clearly rooted for each other, regardless how big or small a role they played on the field. They danced in the dugout after home runs, were known to celebrate pitching performances with group hugs, and they brought a children’s song, “Baby Shark,” to the ballpark first as walk-up music, then as a song of celebration for everyone there. After a miserable first half of the season, no one begrudged their display of amazement as the wins kept coming in.
We all saw how much these guys enjoyed each other, rooted for each other and we’ve heard them all talk nearly every day about how they can’t wait to get back to the game and their teammates.
For weeks now, most of us have been isolating away from our teammates. And we may be missing their collaboration, the ability to quickly and casually bounce an idea off the people who share our office space, the satisfaction of watching an idea root and bloom based on our combined energy and enthusiasm.
I haven’t been on a sports team in years, or played in a band for even longer, or worked on political campaigns in a while, but I have certainly been conscious of missing my coworkers, allies, clients, or others with whom I’ve shared some wonderful moments, or even some trials. People who I was proud to call not just colleagues but friends.
Luckily, we’ve found ways to connect – more conference calls, Zooms, perhaps taking more time for the luxury of one-on-one calls than we’ve allowed ourselves the past years – and although not completely satisfying, they give us a glimpse of what we’ll be returning to as the lights go back on in our offices and we start slowly coming together once again. In the meantime, we’ve done what we can to show each other our interest and our appreciation, to unveil a little more of our personal sides while we check on each other and our families, glimpsing kids and pets as they wander into the meeting space on our computer cameras. And we tell each other, soon, soon, soon I’ll see you again. Teammates.
I grew up in a family of storytellers. In fact they were such storytellers, I was never quite sure what was true or just an invention of convenience. My father’s particular talent was making us laugh with his versions of children’s stories. They would often take an unexpected twist or have a special message. One of my personal favorites was his take on what I recall as an old Mother Goose nursery rhyme, Jack & Jill. It starts out like this:
Jack and Jill went up the hill
to fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
and Jill came tumbling after.
A little dark, right? Especially when we figured out that “crown” meant head. And we never quite knew why Jill came tumbling after – also clumsy? Empathy? And, since I grew up with sisters and knew very well how treacherous they could be, I always wondered if it was a cover-up – did Jill actually push Jack and then fall down as well to escape blame?
But my father said that wasn’t the whole story – that I had only learned half. He said this was the second part:
But up jumped Jack and said to Jill,
as in his arms he held her.
You’re not hurt, brush off the dirt,
and let’s go get the water.
So Jack and Jill went up the hill
and got the pail of water,
and brought it down to Mother Dear,
who thanked her son and daughter.
Now, that’s a whole lot more promising, isn’t it? We all fall down at times and there’s no shame in that. Dad would say the question really is what we do after. Do we just stay on the ground and cry, or do we dust off and go on up to get the water?
It wasn’t until many years later I discovered that there was no second half to Jack & Jill. The bleak original verse ended with both Jack and Jill lying at the bottom of the hill. My dad had made it up! He wasn’t satisfied with the tragic tale and decided to finish it himself. And it’s so much more heartening, isn’t it? Everyone is fine, the siblings stand – a little shaken but in one piece, they share a hug, complete the chore, and mom gets her water. Definitely what I would call a better moral for a story.
But the real lesson I learned from that day when my father admitted to his creation – and what I’ve told friends and clients ever since – is if you want a happy ending, you have to tell your own story.
~ Len Sanderson
Within a couple of days after Hurricane Katrina powerfully struck the U.S. Gulf Coast, devastating everything in its wake, SSG was called in by a leading disaster-recovery company to oversee their public communication direction and coordination. No area suffered more than New Orleans and swaths of the Louisiana coastline where small communities clutch desperately to its edge. To describe the destruction would take books to recount.
There were shortages of nearly everything required for health and safety, much less comfort – housing, food, water, medical supplies, communications reception, and information. Public reports were wildly confusing, often false, and certainly incomplete.
As government teams from local communities, the state, and the federal government converged on the area it was nearly impossible to know where to start. Families were searching desperately for their loved ones, as some were already relocated to different parts of the country, or in hospitals, or in emergency facilities, or just plain missing.
As even some New Orleans elected officials were forced to move to Baton Rouge just to function, they too were dealing with questions and concerns they couldn’t begin to have answers for, while also tending to their own family needs, uncertainties, and in some cases, still missing kin.
With every element of normalcy unavailable, tools for recovery seemingly out of reach, strategy for public action was very nearly secondary to finding a strategy for order, sanity and solid ground upon which to stand — physically and emotionally.
Ultimately, we knew from a public strategy standpoint that we needed to face issues as calmly and sensibly as were the engineers and emergency recovery personnel.
Our advice began with recommending people not take on more than they were capable at any given time or they risked becoming overwhelmed and shutting down. We suggested every day be divided into three-hour increments. There was a designated time for the workday to begin. Plans would be made to determine what could be reasonably accomplished in the next three hours. When that deadline was met, we could measure results and plan for the next three hours, and on and on. As important as the designated start time was a designated stop time so people could focus on their personal family needs without feeling besieged.
This strategy was quickly applied to other disciplines and work schedules. The first steps had been valuable to allow workers to concentrate on what was in front of them; to provide order, breathing time, and incrementally rebuild confidence. Communications revolved around the team meetings and reporting times. The impossible slowly became manageable.
What we will all face post-pandemic will be quite different than Katrina, but the advice for moving forward will be much the same. Don’t take on more than you can handle. Measure results. Take one step at a time to build a sense of accomplishment, giving an entire organization the ability to better execute while, in the process, allowing inspirational leaders to take bold leaps when the time is appropriate.
By the way, having been raised in Louisiana, one other meaningful lesson I took from the Katrina experience was the recognition that every crisis is personal to someone. I now consider them all personal to me, too.
~ Len Sanderson
When I was growing up and feared my family was facing some kind of crisis, I would ask my father what we were possibly going to do. He would always look me in the eye and say, “we’re going to go to work.” He made it sound reasonable, and simple. He would say there is “always something to do.” That’s the way I’ve approached every crisis since.
I learned from him to move from those things over which I had no control and concentrate on those things I did. After dealing with all manner of client crises over the years – like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, the opioid epidemic, corporate meltdowns, scandals, law suits, and social media or other notable public embarrassments – I’ve found that no matter how different they may be, the one thing they all had in common was they eventually came to an end.
Another thing I’ve found true is that those who can remain more positive and deliberate during a crisis, and use those times to prepare for what happens next, will be the ones most likely to succeed when it is over.
And, how did the successful ones prepare for the great “what’s next?” First, they knew precisely what made their business tick, and could name the five points critical to a return to “normal” or to “reset” for the future.
They could focus on exactly how to hit the ground running and what in their business was critical to a fast, flexible, and profitable return. They had a plan: a clear understanding of the business mission, a solid set of goals and objectives, and a communications plan for employees, customers, stakeholders, and, in some cases, the public.
The second constant the successful shared was a genuine appreciation of their employees. They knew how to communicate both sensitivity and leadership simultaneously. They were mindful that, in crises, every single one in the business had his/her own set of personal and professional concerns.
The best were ambitious, but patient. Hard-driving, but sensitive. Totally focused and prepared, but flexible.
If all this sounds too simple, I assure you it isn’t. But, if the steps in the business plan are broken down into single steps, then they will be attainable. And, finally, as corny as it sounds, a display of personal inspiration, engagement, energy, and a clear positive leadership message will go a long way.
– Len Sanderson
“It’s hard to design a pattern for a suit when your pants are on fire.”
That quote was one of many I heard from the mouth of my old boss, Jody Powell, the former press secretary to President Jimmy Carter who later became the head of the Washington, D.C. office of Ogilvie & Mather and then went on to co-found Powell Tate with Sheila Tate. Jody had a metaphor for nearly every situation and they were not only always spot-on, they also tended to provide learning moments for those of us who worked with him.
The aforementioned quote was a description of what businesses or individuals feel when they face an overwhelming crises. And, if this metaphor doesn’t fit the circumstances most organizations face – or will face – during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, then I don’t know what would.
Businesses large and small are facing enormous challenges during the pandemic. How do I hold on to loyal employees without revenues coming in? How do I stay in touch with customers or clients when I can only provide minimal services? And, what do I try to accomplish when I first get back to work, knowing that I’m not starting from where I left off, but rather much further back, because I may have customers or clients that need attending to with employees I can’t immediately pay, my financial reserves may be depleted, my inventory aged, and literally, I still feel as if the last weeks have been out of my control and I am facing decisions I’ve never faced before?
During these moments it is worthwhile to “take a knee” and be honest with yourself about your personal strengths or weaknesses. Some managers are gifted with being able to see the big picture of his/her business, and understand how all of the pieces fit together. Others, may be more capable of focusing on specific problems or areas and need to put their energies into those. Both will need to rely on trusted lieutenants to execute.
Some organizations prefer to contract with outside crisis counsel to add more experience and firepower to their management team during uncertain times. Such counsel gives leadership the benefit of a different perspective on their challenges, providing a confidential sounding board for big decisions and help in crafting and delivering messages which best translate those changes effectively and sensitively.
Ultimately, every decision-maker wants to find herself/himself in the position to make the wisest choices with as many positive solutions as there were problems. They want to, as Jody might have said, find themselves with a fine new suit ready by the time the fires are put out and the pants saved.
~ Len Sanderson