(Un)Conventional Insights

Category : 2020

If you crack open Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, his overture sounds like the sentiment of both political parties during their 2020 conventions.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us . . .”

One hopes the similarities end here. Dickens set his novel in the period leading up to the French Revolution and the Jacobin Reign of Terror. But we digress . . .

While running the risk of offending everyone who reads this blog, a superlative opportunity would be missed if we didn’t reflect on the eight days of pageantry, posturing, portraying, and the inevitable prognosticating that emerged in our 2020 pandemic presidential convention cycle. Both political parties faced the unprecedented (there is that word again) challenge of capturing an audience, widening their sphere of influence, and communicating their message from multiple venues, using a symphony of diverse voices, and leveraging every conceivable form of media to get the job done. The 2020 COVID landscape eliminated the possibility of the edge-of-your seat suspense seen in the 1924 Democratic convention when it took 103 ballots over 17 days to secure a candidate—after a fist fight by two governors, spitting on delegates from the gallery, and delegations having to leave early because they ran out of the money needed to stay in New York city.  

In the whirlwind of disagreement and debate about who got a bump, who took a hit, or who missed a chance during their convention,  as senior leaders continue to explore ways to focus a scattered workforce around a shared vision,  two weeks of historic events leave us with some enduring insights.

Technology improves efficiency and creates complexity.

When both parties accepted reality and embraced some type of virtual conventioning, they set themselves on a course that required juggling dozens of locations, getting feeds from simultaneous events, and orchestrating everything so the networks would carry the best content during the few hours they devoted to the event. It worked, and it didn’t.

Pete Buttigieg left more than a participle hanging when one network stopped broadcasting his speech mid-sentence. A delegate roll-call across the states made for intriguing television, but without the opportunity to offer context, the impact of the identities of the delegates was lost. Using a location to add meaning to a message underscored the unfortunate reality that the desired interpretation of something cannot be assumed.

As communication teams try to help leaders engage with their organizations in fresh and innovative ways, the temptation to take the use of technology to new heights is alluring. While crucial leader messages are more engaging when presented live,  the risk of a wonky (or over-loaded) wi-fi, the unexpected occurrence at a virtual venue, or the inability of an employee to properly engage with an online platform may result in the message getting blurred by the medium.

Authenticity is hard to discern in a medium designed for illusion.

From the early days of television and for decades that followed, when Walter Cronkite said, “That’s the way it is,” or Huntley and Brinkley bid each other, “Good-night,” people knew the news was over and entertainment was ahead. As employees now live and work in the same space, they can, in seconds, shift from watching news, to hearing opinion, to engaging with social media posts that have no link to reality, to being entertained by illusions offered by people with too much spare time. Add to that mix larger-than-life FPS video games and augmented reality and for many people, fact is separated from fiction by choosing what to believe, not necessarily by knowing what is true.

Political candidates using television to communicate what they consider life or death, peace or chaos, me or the other guy messaging, somehow have to help people remember the candidate is presenting (one can only hope) facts, not reality TV.

As more work gets done online, leaders are wise to remember the broadly blurred line between what is real (true) and what is imagined. An employee escaping into the world of a video game or catching up on the Kardashians during lunch may not take seriously what happens in the next business call. Leaders wisely time important discussions and orchestrate serious presentations when team members are least likely to be distracted or to be reorienting themselves to work after a dive into virtual reality.

It is helpful to remember the wisdom of one media mogul who noted, “It is difficult to communicate an authentic message through an inauthentic medium.”

Less is more in a virtual world.

For decades, political conventions were multi-night extravaganzas filled with roll-call votes, crowd-stirring speakers, floor fights (the last was in 1976), and unexpected moments like when Dan Rather was roughed up by security guards while trying to interview a delegate on the convention floor. Those televised marathons were the exception. During the first forty years of television’s reign we developed 12-minute attention spans—the length of the average scene in a T.V. show before a commercial break.

The instantaneous nature of communication, the speed by which we can find an answer to a question, and real-time everything has reduced an adult’s attention span today to less than a minute by even the most generous surveys.

In on-line and virtual formats, less is more. An unengaging leader using Zoom or Microsoft Teams can become a speaker without an audience with the click of an employee’s mouse. People won’t listen to endless strategy presentations or boring quarter-end reviews when an alluring list of YouTubers are begging for “likes” or screaming to be discovered. However long a leader thinks a speech should be—it should be shorter. An executive unable to make a point in 3-5 minutes will quickly lose his/her audience and an opportunity to influence. Shorter engagements with enhanced interaction are critical when communicating important information in a virtual environment. The 2020 political conventions showed us that even an 88 year-old institution built around crowds and bravado can adapt to a virtual environment. The key concept in that statement is adapt. A leader that wants to engage more effectively with employees and expand their influence as a leader across a dispersed workforce will leverage technology to communicate authentically and make a point quickly in the new normal of employee engagement.


Leading from Both Ends of the Pyramid

Category : 2020

Do you remember early in 2020 when strategic discussions about your workforce focused on providing development opportunities for Millennials, creating meaningful recognition programs, and designing career paths that would retain top performers?

As Spring Break extended into a second and third week, conversations shifted to helping people feel connected and included in a virtual workplace that solidified into more than a temporary solution. As we moved into June and July, the bottom levels of Maslow’s hierarchy became an unavoidable priority as the loss of shelter, stability, health, end even food became very real possibilities for many workers.

French philosopher Michel de Montaigne observed “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” Many in 2020 wish they could say their lives were that simple. Corporate leaders will soon reach a six-month milestone of trying to ring a bell of certainty that can be heard above the COVID-19 cacophony. Executives now face the very real demand of continuing to allocate energy and resources toward resolving very real physical, security, and social needs for employees without losing sight of the longer-term expectations people still hold for their ego and self-actualization goals.

Complex problems don’t require complicated solutions. Order can be created in the mayhem. It is possible to find a place of equilibrium in the chaos.

Avoid pandemic panic. Build the necessary models and create the needed disaster plans without assuming the worst and feeding the already robust level of fear that pervades every industry. During a season of uncertainty (however long it may continue) people want their leaders to mirror confidence, without bravado. Blind optimism is little more than Pollyanna blather without a difficulty to give it meaning. Get agreement on the problems to solve while refusing to create complexity by swimming in the quicksand of speculation and conjecture.

Direct the disruption. Use uninvited forces of change to create fresh momentum. A disruption in a business, market, or industry implies there is energy to disturb. Companies that will emerge on the other side of the pandemic healthier than before are those that use market dynamics to generate ideas that will birth the disruptive innovations that will define their businesses in the future.

Communicate to inform. There is a difference between having information and being informed. In a time of uncertainty, it is difficult to over-communicate. Leaders multiply their credibility when they increase transparency when talking with employees during a crisis. Gary Kelly and the leadership at Southwest Airlines have used All-hands meetings, videos, and team meetings across the enterprise to provide employees with the information they need to make informed decisions about the future. While their 47 year run of continuous profitability has likely reached its end, executives at Southwest remain confident that their innovative approach to business and workforce management will get them through this storm. Four decades of balancing people with profits have paid off with hundreds of Southwest employees volunteering to take weeks off work with reduced or no pay to help ensure the future of the company.

Invest in the future. Companies that ignore the reality they can no longer be who they were and refuse to invest in whatever type of organization they are becoming, will be one of the dozens of case studies explored in B-schools in years to come. While facing dramatic changes in how they serve customers, secure business, and manage a diverse workforce, one Texas professional services firm is launching a comprehensive, company-wide talent development initiative to build their brand and create greater differentiation in the market. This progressive CEO recognizes that while physical, security, and social needs demand attention, future growth hinges on providing employees with resources to achieve their ego and self-actualization goals. This company believes it is better to invest in people during a crisis than invest in replacing people when they leave after the crisis is over.

Leaders do not have the luxury of maintaining an either/or approach to managing through a pandemic. Geodesic solutions must integrate demands of the present with needs of the future if leaders want to chart a path through the continued uncertainty they cannot avoid. For additional insights into Maslow’s hierarchy in a COVID-19 world, check out the insightful model created by Randstad at https://rlc.randstadusa.com/for-business/learning-center/future-workplace-trends/maslows-theory-at-work-employee-needs-in-the-covid-19-workplace


Get Ready for Tomorrow, Today

Category : 2020

If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. (Hamlet – Act 5, Scene 2)

During an unexpected, unpredictable, and now extended global economic tsunami, many executives have invested so much energy in disaster preparedness they’ve lost sight of the importance of opportunity readiness. Since school districts tacked an extra week on Spring Break in March to accommodate what we thought was a public health blip, CEOsleading organizations of all sizes have rightly focused time, energy, and resources on helping their companies and those they lead navigate the uncertainty, relentless change, annoying distractions, and like-it-or-not demand for attention COVID-19 has unloaded on the world. As businesses adapt to current realities and craft new strategies for the present, it is time for senior leaders to focus some attention on their personal preparedness for what’s ahead.

Surveys reveal an alphabet soup view of what people think the months ahead will look like. Some CEOs anticipate a U-shaped recovery while others see an L or W-shaped journey ahead. Perhaps it is best to not look for a recovery at all, instead charting a path to readiness for the future without preconceptions that whatever is ahead will resemble what we knew before.

A seismic shift in the business environment will likely perpetuate a parallel adjustment in the top leadership in organizations as boards recognize the capabilities they looked for in the C-team pre-COVID 19 are not the skills required to succeed in the unprecedented market shifts we are experiencing and will face in the months ahead.

Surveys by major consulting firms underscore this anticipated talent transformation. Boston Consulting Group found “. . . more than 80% of surveyed CFOs also see transformative change—for example, in their organization, in digital, or in innovation—as a strategic opportunity. (Boston Consulting Group, CFO Pulse Check #2, https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2020/covid-cfo-pulse-check-2). Boards now face the decision to rely on current leaders to drive needed transformation or to look outside the company for another skill set or someone with a different vision for the future.

If boards listen to voices beyond their circle, the likelihood they will consider new leadership is multiplied. McKinsey stated, “Our research has also shown that CEOs who are hired externally tend to move with more boldness and speed than those hired within an organization, (McKinsey, The CEO Moment: Leadership for a New Era (https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/the-ceo-moment-leadership-for-a-new-era). The demand for boldness and speed may drive a need to consider talent from another industry or situation.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger aptly noted, “The historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future.” As C-level leaders manage themselves for the future, it’s time to stop adjusting and begin anticipating. Forward-thinking executives will find a way to clearly articulate a differentiated message in a distinct voice and tone, that can be heard above the cacophony of uncertainty whirling around us.

Leapfrog Executive Services engages with C-level executives to help them prepare for the future while they drive results today. Recognizing that C-level leaders have unique career management expectations and limited available time, our turn-key executive branding package includes an executive resume, an engaging biography, and a market-focused LinkedIn profile.

Our approach to communicating an executive’s brand goes beyond a recitation of past successes. We help a leader articulate his/her resilience, agility, adaptability, ability to reimagine the future, skill in navigating through uncertainty, andability to balance expedience with ingenuity. We have completed executive branding programs for people leading as CEO, CFO, Chief Sales & Marketing officer, Head Data Scientist, CTO, VP Operations, and Chief Learning Officer, and others. Industries have included technology, consumer goods, manufacturing, and consulting.

Clients tell us they value the professionalism, personal service, and sense of urgency Leapfrog Executive Services provides. Executives we support approach conversations and new opportunities with a renewed confidence that comes from the ability to consistently tell their stories in an exemplary way across a variety of platforms. First century poet Ovid said the one “who is not prepared today will be less so tomorrow.” As you lead your organization through today’s challenges, invest some time in preparing for tomorrow’s opportunities. 


Wind in Your Sails

Category : 2020

…continued from a previous blog

Our last article began defining four dynamics that will help leaders move their teams and organizations forward. The last to consider is motivation.

Where We Find Motivation

We rarely get to choose our circumstances. We always get to choose our response to life’s events. Success is less about talent and opportunities, and more about commitment and motivation. Here are five ways to keep the wind filling your sails as you chart a course through rough seas.

Stay connected with positive, optimistic people. You weren’t wired to make the journey through life alone. All of us benefit from relationships that help us maintain perspective, remind us to believe in ourselves, and give us valuable, even candid, insights when we need them. If you don’t know any optimists — find some. You don’t have to lose touch with reality to maintain an attitude of optimism and hope in the face of whatever you encounter.

Minimize time with people that enjoy a negative view on life. You will always find plenty of people that will do what they can to encourage you to be as miserable as they are. Use social distancing as a reason to stay away from them or maintain clear boundaries in how you allow their thinking to influence you. Negative people have an amazing ability to pull the unaware and unguarded to incredible levels of misery.

Manage your mental input. You don’t give anyone unguarded access to your money or your time. Why would you allow anyone free access to your mind? Analyze what you engage with on social media, the blogs you follow, your movies and weekly shows. If your mental diet is negative, it will be hard for you to stay positive. Begin and end your day by reading something positive or listening to music that relaxes or energizes you — depending on what you need at the time. What you consume mentally has a lot to do with how you feel emotionally.

Keep active. Your doctor isn’t the only person who will tell you regular exercise releases endorphins — powerful, natural mood lifters. You don’t have to train for a marathon to gain significantly from physical exercise. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise can do wonders in keeping your motivation high. Get up after every video conference and move around. Your body and brain will thank you.

Keep moving. Study the lives of highly successful people from any corner of life, across history, in any environment, and you will discover they share one trait: They keep moving forward. Sometimes slowly. Often with great difficulty. Frequently after painful mistakes, defeats, or failures. In the past 150 years there have been over 45 financial crises impacting one or more countries. The majority of those have been in the last 35 years. We will find a way through this.

We’re beyond looking for quick solutions and temporary options. It’s time to put together a game plan that will drive whatever growth we can create. We’re not alone and we are far from finished.

Adapted from Sharpen Your Life, Copyright © 2016 Joseph M. Jordan/Jordan Development, Inc. Used by permission.


“Until” is Now

Category : 2020

Like an annoying relative that comes for a weekend visit and stays for three months, what we thought was temporary has become life as we know it. Six weeks ago, statements like…

  • When things get back to normal,
  • I’m doing this until,
  • We found a workaround, and
  • This is only temporary  

…were logical and expected explanations. As the Covid-19 pandemic gains new ground and economic uncertainty takes on alarming dimensions, professionals committed to success recognize that much of what was judged temporary has become the way we now live and work.

More than ever, executives must lead forward, not around. It is time to replace temporary plans implemented in May with strategies that chart a course for 9 or 12 months, or even longer. Businesses and those who lead them can no longer afford to engage with customers or employees using an “until things get back to normal” mindset. This is normal and leaders face the responsibility of creating agile plans that create a path for growth and achievement with the assumption circumstances will not change dramatically for the foreseeable future. The past three months have shown us that, in many cases, the model of work and engagement used in the past is not necessary and, in some environments, not viable.

Leaders will benefit from helping people embrace four new dynamics we can’t ignore.

How We Talk

Mindsets drive language. How a leader views a crisis defines how the leader responds to and speaks in the crisis. While there is a heightened need to invest time in showing empathy and care when connecting with video-fatigued employees, it’s time to stop beginning calls with a review of the latest cycle of bad news. Without turning on the sunshine pump and ignoring the magnitude of the situation, leaders can choose words that convey confidence, courage, and hope—while remaining firmly anchored in reality. Shorter and more frequent connections with teams and clients will improve effectiveness. If a phone call will work—use it to reduce video overload.

Where We Work

It’s time to move beyond conducting team and client video conferences from a setting that shouts “this is the corner in the house I claimed.” If what is behind you when you are on-camera doesn’t look professional, invest in a $50 green screen or black backdrop from Amazon. If lighting doesn’t provide a clear view of your face, invest another 50 bucks in some small video lights. If your laptop’s camera is grainy, order a high-definition video camera. Demand may require that you pay twice or three times the normal price, but the investment is worth it. And while you’re at it, improve eye contact on video calls by looking into the lens of your camera rather than at the screen.

How We Engage

Rather than fighting the digitization of job functions and the expansion of AI, leaders can help people let technology do what it does best—free people to do what technology can’t do. Technology isn’t designed to make people feel heard, understood, respected, and valued—the four driving needs of every human on the planet. People do that. Leaders do that. The current environment gives leaders—and those they lead the unprecedented opportunity to transform their roles to provide greater value than being purveyors of data and information.

On the client side, give clients what they need while you wait for them to need what you sell. Clients are struggling to find a path to the future as well. They need expertise, new insights, and connections with other leaders that can help them determine the best path forward. Keep researching your client’s business and their clients’ needs. Use your expertise to help clients become better thought leaders in their industries. Are you wishing you could take a client to lunch? Ask them where they like to eat in the city where they live and order lunch to be delivered to their house. Do the same for yourself and enjoy the virtual business lunch together. It may be a long time before you enjoy the luxury of a meal in a restaurant or your business club.

To be continued…


Listen, Learn, Lead

Category : 2020

The words “listen” and “silent” use the exact same letters.

Hostage and crisis negotiators are taught that a barricaded person or hostage taker will generally move between two styles of behavior. When showing instrumental behavior, the subject presents a list of demands and defined objectives that will benefit the person. Expressive behavior communicates the subject’s passion, despair, anger, or other feelings. The only way a negotiator can deescalate a volatile situation and guide a negotiation to a successful resolution is by using active listening to determine what the person wants and what the person wants someone to hear.

Words like hear and listen are slippery. We use them so often their meanings become blurred, so when we encounter them in conversation, we slide past them to the next idea. When we hear, we perceive a sound. When listening, we give attention to the sound. In a hostage situation, the difference between perceiving and giving attention can be literally, life and death. In a business context, the impact of choosing to hear and not listen may be less immediate, but it is no-less perilous.

The bad news about leading people is you don’t get to pick your crisis or choose when it happens. And crises have a nasty way of not waiting for one to pass before a second hits. A health pandemic, an economic tsunami, painful decisions about business survival, and the impact of long-standing social inequities have arrived at the door of every leader—and these challenges will not be ignored. Listening is quickly becoming a force multiplier.

Most communication courses focus on better presenting, not better listening. But talking before listening, perpetuates the malady captured by Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier 30 years ago when he said, “Listen to all the conversations of our world, between nations as well as between individuals. They are, for the most part, dialogues of the deaf.” 

A leader that wants to effectively lead through the smorgasbord of crises currently facing corporate executives will refuse to hide in a dialogue of the deaf and will leverage three tools that turn conversation into communication.

Ask for the opinion you don’t want to hear. Andy Stanley is right—”Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” In a moment of crisis, a leader is tempted to seclude him or herself in an inner circle of close relationships that generally align with the leader’s thinking. Leaders that find a solid path through a crisis promote with their teams and across their organizations, the psychological safety that encourages desperately needed cognitive diversity. An effective crisis leader possesses the self-security that welcomes opinions and ideas that challenge and reveal inadequacies in commonly and even widely-held beliefs.

Seek understanding before a solution. Stephen Covey insightfully taught that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply . . . reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.” A leader that effectively traverses the unanticipated is someone that stops saying, “I understand,” and says instead, “Help me understand.” When people in an organization show anemic enthusiasm for a proposed solution, it is often because they aren’t convinced leadership is fixing the real problem. Symptoms are noisy. Root causes often are not. The only way to get past the noise of symptoms is by taking the time to fully understand what problem demands a solution.

Pursue and speak only the truth. One senior leader discovered as he inherited greater responsibilities, he also acquired a group of people whose jobs appeared to be keeping the truth from landing on the leader’s desk. This wise executive assembled a clandestine network of people he could call to tell him what was really happening across the organization he led. While the truth does set one free, that doesn’t mean the truth is easy to hear, that truth never hurts, that it results in a pleasant ending, or that telling the truth solves the problem. In some cases, stating the truth creates more problems. The leader that guides people through a crisis accepts that while discovering the truth can bring pain, it is much preferred to the agony that comes when the truth finds you.

The tragedy of this entire discussion is that many crises could be avoided if someone had led effectively from the start. The leader that guides people through an unexpected crisis is usually someone who is already leading in a way that prevents or avoids a calamity. Leaders rarely get the opportunity to choose their crises. They always get to choose what they will do in a crisis. Their priority in a crisis is to listen—deliberately, carefully, and openly.