Quit Pretending All is OK… And Communicate with Your People

I read recently about a restaurant owner who tried to deal with his difficult situation by pretending everything is OK…

…when it definitely was not OK.

Prior to reopening his dining room, he chose not to get rid of tables and create space between them. Instead, he kept all his tables and filled several of them with mannequins.

His thinking: By “filling” some of the seats with dummies, he kept the real, breathing, at-risk-of-infection customers properly socially distanced. Meanwhile, the restaurant seemed more full, making it seem more normal.

Everything’s OK, right?

Not really.

We all want to believe that everything is fine in our lives, community, and businesses. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and it looks like we’ll be facing uncertainty for the foreseeable future.

Rather than pretend all is fine, we as leaders need to recognize and acknowledge the threats we face — whether business, public, or economic — and communicate with our team openly and honestly.

That doesn’t mean we have to be all gloom-and-doom. We can reassure them when doing so is accurate and honest. But if you pretend all is normal — when it’s not — people will see through that, and you’ll undermine trust.

Here are some tips on how to communicate with your team when the message is challenging:

1. Use the STOP technique to calm your own stress.

S: Stop to pull your thoughts together
T: Take a breath to ground yourself in the present moment
O: Observe how you feel about the issue or situation
P: Proceed with crafting and delivering the message

2. Empathize with your audience.

How much does your team know already? What do they fear? What questions will they have? What information will they want right away?

3. Gather accurate information and data.

Your team will want and need the facts. When a bad situation is not clearly defined, our imagination takes over.

4. Discuss next steps.

Don’t just dump the bad news on them! Tell them what you plan to do and what they can do to help. Get their input and define specific action steps.

5. Communicate frequently.

Even if there’s no news to share, letting your team know what’s happening (“the situation hasn’t changed” or “we’re waiting for more information”) is better than having them create their own worst-case scenario stories.

Until everything is fine and normal again, let’s work on communicating with our employees — directly, honestly, and emphatically. Filling the tables with mannequins may make things look OK at first glance. But, soon they figure out that they’re in a room full of dummies — which is kind of creepy and not very comforting.

Now is the Time to Reimagine and Reinvent Your Organization

I recently asked a business owner what her highest priority will be when her office reopens.  

With no hesitation, she said, “Revise our strategic plan.” 

I’ve heard other business leaders say they can’t plan now. There’s too much uncertainty. Their plan: Go into survival mode, cut costs, and tread water until they can return to business-as-usual. 

I shared that plan with the business owner. She said, “Sure, we’re concerned about finances. But investing  in strategic planning is money well spent. Right now is the time to figure out how to thrive in the new normal!”

Given the choice between “Plan Now” or “Wait and See”, I’ll side with the business owner. Plan now — even though the future seems uncertain. 

The world as we knew it has turned upside-down, so resuming business as usual is not an option.  An outdated plan is as useful as no plan at all and leaves you at the mercy of fate. 

Now is the time to consider how your organization creates a new path for the future. 

Because none of us can predict with certainty how this pandemic will evolve, you’ll need to build more flexibility into your plan.  The plan will be for a shorter term…one to two years…and you’ll have to recognize the need to reassess and possibly pivot every couple months.

Here are a few tips on planning for an uncertain future:

  1. Revisit your SWOT analysis with a focus on Opportunities and Threats.  What new threats could impact your business?  What new opportunities might there be?  How can you leverage your unique strengths to take advantage of these opportunities?
  2. As you consider ways to move forward, look at your existing vision and strategies.  What goals are no longer relevant?  Look outside the box to define what business you’re really in now.  Think big…look at trends resulting from the pandemic and how our world may change in the long-term.
  3. Review your short-term priorities.  Update and reorganize them based on the new business conditions.  Focus on a few critical priorities.  Keep in mind that your internal processes are important, but one of your top priorities should be serving your customers…existing and new.
  4. Speaking of customers, look at industry trends and focus on markets that are projected to recover the quickest.  Once again, think big picture.  Are there new markets that need the services or products you provide?  What new services or products can you supply that are now needed.
  5. Remember, it takes a team to come up with a good plan.  Engage your customers, partners, vendors, and outside experts if you think they can be helpful.  Definitely tap into the talent within your organization, your employees.  Listen to their ideas and challenge their creativity to come up with solutions. 

Leading through a global health crisis and economic downturn is about as challenging as it can get.  

Stay positive, keep your vision, work your plan.  

Trust that you and your team will pull through this challenge together.

Staying Grounded During a Global Pandemic

I have a colleague who’s on edge. The pandemic sparked it. He and I discussed how he can deal productively with it.

He’s generally an even-keeled kind of guy. But he told me how stressed out he was when a potential client didn’t return his emails.

“I went through this whole range of emotions from frustration to anger and then panic,” he said.

At least with some time and perspective, he could add, “My reaction was out of line. I realized how on-edge I was.”

Sound familiar?

We’re all on-edge these days, aren’t we?

Our lives have changed drastically over the last weeks. We’re mourning the loss of our freedom to socialize with friends, see our co-workers at the office, celebrate special occasions with family. The list goes on.

All these losses, along with worrying about an uncertain future, have taken a toll on us.

Here’s the Good News

  • We will come out of this someday, and we will have learned a lot along the way. There’s no question all of us will be changed, but we also have the opportunity to be better prepared for the future.
  • There are things we can do NOW to stay grounded and turn “edginess” to our advantage

How to stay grounded and be more productive

Here are five tips that have worked for my clients and me to stay grounded and forge ahead while the world is upside-down:

  1. Focus on what you control. Recognize some things are beyond your control right now. If you focus on making the most of what you can control, you’ll feel more empowered and confident during this challenging time.
  2. Stay informed. I know, I know! It’s a lot more fun to watch another episode of Schitt’s Creek instead of the news, but ignoring reality will only exacerbate your feeling of helplessness. Don’t overdo it. You don’t have to binge-watch the 24/7 news station. But you should have the information you need to make informed decisions. Burying your head in the sand is not the answer.
  3. Connect with others. We’re all in this together, so keep in touch with your friends and family. Trust me, they’ll be delighted to hear from you. Don’t just maintain your relationships, take it one step further and build an even stronger support system.
  4. Master the art of re-framing. Consciously choose to view negative thoughts from a different perspective. Reframing whatever thoughts are hurting you will make you feel more in control and less like a victim of circumstances.
  5. Be kind to yourself. Breathe deeply, get outside and exercise, maintain a good sleep schedule, eat healthy. Life is full of challenges and you need to be in top shape to tackle them.

A crisis like this can unnerve us. Don’t be ashamed if you feel on edge and overreact occasionally.
Just step back and remind yourself: You can grow and learn through the process. You’ll come out stronger. You’ll discover that we can get through anything that comes our way.
Take comfort in seeing how our community has come together, how people are supporting each other, and how much stronger we are together.
Be strong, be safe, stay well!

Reflect on Failure to Achieve Success

Last month, I shared the story of how “groupthink” in President John F. Kennedy’s administration led to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.

Here’s the next chapter of that story: How JFK applied lessons learned from that setback to achieve his greatest foreign policy success.

Eighteen months after Bay of Pigs, the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba and aimed them at the United States. Those missiles could kill eighty million Americans.

Kennedy had to respond, but how?

Military advisors recommended an immediate strike to take out the missiles.

If nothing had changed in his administration, that recommendation might have taken hold. Cabinet members might have thought it was the wrong approach, but they might have sat on their hands. Groupthink might have led Kennedy toward another disastrous decision.

But after Bay of Pigs, Kennedy vowed to “profit from this lesson.”

That started with taking full responsibility for the invasion’s failure.

Strong leaders admit mistakes. They reflect on failure. They embrace, rather than deny, vulnerability. They welcome opposing views.

As he reflected on the Bay of Pigs failure, Kennedy revamped how his top team would make critical decisions. So when the military brass recommended aggressive action, Kennedy was prepared to nurture and explore other views. In fact, Kennedy insisted that his team consider other options.

To prevent turf wars and self-serving recommendations, Kennedy encouraged each person to focus on the problem as a whole, rather than approaching it from their own department’s perspective.

To discourage advisors from reflexively deferring to the “boss” in the Oval Office, Kennedy:

  • Convened meetings in informal settings, rather than in the White House, with no formal agenda and protocol.
  • Established sub-groups that were free to brainstorm alternatives that didn’t surface in larger meetings.
  • Scheduled meetings that he did not attend.

The new procedures helped Kennedy and his team discover and explore all options, solicit diverse viewpoints, debate possibilities, and select the best plan based on its merits.

Kennedy and his team decided to execute a naval blockade of Cuba to force the Soviets to remove the missiles. The plan was successful. Most historians agree that Kennedy’s actions prevented a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union.

The lessons learned from Kennedy’s “perfect failure” serve us today as guiding principles for effective decision-making.

All of us make mistakes, all of us fail. How we handle failure and what we learn from it is the key to success.

At this moment of unprecedented crisis, these lessons are more important than ever.

How Groupthink Undermines Foreign Policy… and Your Business

When he became President in 1961, John F. Kennedy inherited a plan to invade Cuba and depose Communist leader Fidel Castro. 

Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, hatched the plan to arm and train 1,500 Cuban refugees and send them to attack their homeland. 

The newly-elected President shared the plan with his advisors and asked their opinion. Virtually no one spoke out against the plan so the mission was on. 

On April 17, 1961 a CIA trained and financed guerilla army landed on the shore of the Bay of Pigs.  Within three days, the rebel troops were in retreat. Nearly 150 fighters died and more than 1,200 were captured and imprisoned.  

This is now considered one of the greatest foreign policy disasters of the twentieth century…

…and it all could have been avoided if Kennedy’s advisors had aired their concerns. 

Several later admitted they didn’t like the plan, but they didn’t speak up. 

Why not? Because they deferred to the President who was determined to show the world that the U.S. was winning the Cold War. 

They also didn’t speak up because the group seemed to be behind the President, and it’s hard to be the “lone voice” of dissent. 

Kennedy and his advisors were suffering from “groupthink” — the dynamic in which pressure to agree within the group results in a lack of individual analysis and input.  

It happens in the White House “situation room,” and it probably happens in your meeting rooms. 

When it happens, it leads to poor decisions which, like the Bay of Pigs, can be disastrous. 

The good news: You can avoid this fate if you establish the right practices for group decision-making. 

Here are 3 tips to avoid groupthink and make better, collaborative decisions: 

  1. Leaders should not voice their opinion first.  As a Mayor leading Board of Aldermen and community stakeholder discussions and as a business leader running a company, I admit that it was sometimes really hard to refrain from voicing my opinion.  But if the leader speaks first, team members might feel they need to agree and won’t speak up. 
  2. Encourage brainstorming and debate.  Make sure your team understands that everyone’s ideas, thoughts, and opinions are important and welcome.  Remind the group that the best decisions are made after analyzing an issue from multiple perspectives.
  3. Select one person to be the “devil’s advocate”.  It’s important for the group to think critically throughout the decision-making process.  Assign someone to “think like the enemy”, remind the group of worst-case scenarios and challenge the prevailing opinion.

These tips will help you minimize the possibility of groupthink.  But groups generally strive to be cohesive and gain consensus among the members, so recognizing groupthink and trying to avoid it needs to be an ongoing effort.  


The Swing Vote

Making Tough Decisions

Tensions are high at City Hall.

Residents have filled all the seats in the Council Chambers. Reporters with microphones, television cameras and spotlights are scattered throughout the overflow crowd standing along the walls.

The crowd is here for a public hearing regarding a controversial development project. Everyone in the audience has taken a side and wants to voice their opinion on which of two developers has the best plan and should be chosen for the project.

After hearing the two proposals and listening to the public’s comments, it’s time for the elected officials to express their views before voting.

One alderman has recused himself, so only six elected officials weigh in. It is apparent that the vote will be a tie…neither company will win the project. The mayor announces “I’m going to delay the vote until our next meeting. We have a new alderman being sworn in later this evening, and we’ll have seven people voting then.”

There’s total chaos as everyone vacates the Council chambers, the press racing after the developers for their statements. But I remain seated…stunned and speechless…until I’m called to the front of the empty room to be sworn in.

I am the swing vote.

Before running for office, I anticipated that I would face tough decisions. That began with my very first day in office and continued until I retired fourteen years later.

We all make a variety of decisions every day. Some are so routine that we make them without giving them much thought. But difficult or challenging decisions demand more consideration. Here are a few tips to help you make better decisions:

  1. Determine how important or urgent the decision is. Step back, take a deep breath, and gather your thoughts. Other than emergencies, many decisions don’t have to be made instantly. Take the time you need to think clearly and logically.
  2. Do some research, gather facts, collect data. What information and resources do you need? Ask for others’ perspectives on the issue; who will be affected by your decision?
  3. Consider your options and the consequences of each option. What’s the worst that can happen and how likely is it to happen? Take time to think through the best course of action for everyone involved.
  4. Think about similar situations and past decisions. What’s worked? What hasn’t?
  5. If you’re still undecided go with your intuition. Even if there’s no perfect solution, making a decision that aligns with your personal values will give you peace of mind that you did your best.

If you get the decision wrong, admit your mistake, try to correct the error, and learn from the experience. Don’t beat yourself up. If you’re honest with people, they will respect you for trying. Just be sure to analyze what went wrong so you don’t make the same mistake twice.

Prioritize Prioritizing


A friend who owns a small business complained to me recently that her company didn’t achieve all its goals this year.

“We’re a startup so everything is a priority,” she said. “It’s just total chaos trying to deal with so much.”

This is an annual ritual with her: Establish lots of goals at the beginning of the year; complain that there were too many competing priorities at the end of the year.

Sound familiar?

The old “competing priorities” frustrates many business leaders.

I get it. But I don’t buy it.

Most business leaders, including my friend, establish a big, messy, unorganized pile of goals, without prioritizing them.

Then they dabble in a little bit of everything without focusing first on what is most important. By definition, “prioritizing” defines what is most important.

Whether you lead an organization, community, or board, nothing significant gets done if you don’t prioritize. Without priorities, goals and initiatives trigger chaos, not progress.

How do you prioritize when everything seems like a priority?

  1. Begin with a clear vision of what success looks like:It’s important to start with a vision, then set goals and work to achieve them. As Yogi Berra once said “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”

  2. Force rank goals:Let’s face it, “everything” is not a priority. A goal that addresses a threat to your organization’s mission or existence takes priority. The former retailer Blockbuster Video either didn’t perceive streaming as a threat to their business model… or they didn’t prioritize jumping on the streaming bandwagon.

  3. Break down goals into strategies to achieve them:BHAG’s (Big hairy audacious goals) can be daunting. Break down your goals into a series of smaller action steps with reasonable timelines.

  4. Review last year’s goals to help position you for success this year:If you set goals last year, take a look at what worked, what didn’t, and why. If you were successful, how can you repeat that? If you didn’t achieve your goal, what got in the way and how can you avoid it this year?

Everyone has too much on their plate. Plan to get things done this year by staying focused on your vision and disciplined about working towards your goals.

What NIMBYs Can Teach Us

When I was Mayor of Clayton, MO, we sometimes locked horns with residents when we proposed development projects in their neighborhood.

These were the residents who wanted no change at all… EVER…

…The residents were referred to as NIMBYs (Not In My BackYard).

Sound familiar?

Dealing with NIMBYs is a major challenge for government officials. I hear it often: “We have a great plan, but the NIMBYs are fighting it.”

I recently presented a workshop called “UrbanPlan for Public Officials” for a group of mayors.

The workshop, developed by the Urban Land Institute, engages public leaders in a case study about the challenging issues, complex trade-offs, and economics that influence land-use decisions and commercial real estate development.

One of the challenges we discussed was, of course, NIMBYs.

I shared lessons learned from my fourteen-year career in office which included more than a few battles with residents who said, “Not in my backyard.”

Here are those lessons:

    • Government officials must listen and ask the right questions.
    • Residents who oppose your plan are not the enemy. They are stakeholders in a shared community.
    • If you listen carefully, ask the right questions and encourage respectful dialog, you may identify ways to work together and reach a workable compromise for all.
    • Participatory policymaking sparks community input and results in more innovative solutions. Citizens who would otherwise be uninvolved in their community are more apt to tune-in when their neighbors are discussing important issues. More participation means more satisfaction with the ultimate decision and fosters the public’s support for this and future initiatives.
    • Grassroots participation and respectful citizen protest can stimulate community interest and help elected leaders make better, more informed decisions.


It doesn’t always end with happy consensus. But when you respectfully treat opponents as fellow stakeholders, not “dreaded NIMBYs,” the process is less heated and difficult.

Instead of the negative stereotyping, perhaps we should be thanking the NIMBYs for promoting positive change in our communities.


Here’s a link to book a 30 minute call to discuss “UrbanPlan for Public Officials” or any of our services: http://bit.ly/LG-consultation.

Redefine BHAG to Achieve Big Goals

I once knew a CEO who was fond of BHAGs — big, hairy, audacious goals.

He encouraged his employees to think bigger. He prodded them to fill strategic plans with one BHAG after another.

Then, he asked me why those plans collected dust.

Because, I told him, there’s a difference between “audacious” and “achievable.”

Those responsible for implementing plans will stall, delay, divert or flat-out quit when they think they’re pursuing something they can’t achieve. Setting the goal too high causes a person not to try at all. People will lose their motivation and quit before they even start.

Then your plan sits on a shelf.

I’m all for big thinking. Big, hairy goals? Go for it.

Just make sure those goals are achievable.

Here’s how…

  1. Conduct a more thoughtful SWOT analysis.  Take the time to discover all possible obstacles facing your team. There may be one or dozens. When all possible obstacles are addressed, you are actually left with a strategic plan, not a list of goals or a pipe dream.
  2. Hire a facilitator.  Sometimes only facilitators can get to the truth.  An unbiased third party can ask “forbidden” questions and get honest, direct feedback that some team members might be afraid to communicate to their boss.
  3. Have a more detailed action plan Define the steps needed to achieve the goal.  This will help you cull the un-achievable from the plan. It will set the stage for successfully achieving the achievable.
  4. Give people the authority to achieve the vision and goal.  Responsibility and accountability without authority is not only meaningless, it’s frustrating and demoralizing as well.

Strong leaders should still ask their employees to think big and pursue stretch goals. With the help of a planning facilitator, they can avoid those dust-collecting BHAGs and launch their organization in pursuit of big, hairy, achievable goals.


How to Keep Your Team Focused and Productive in Challenging Times

With the possibility of a recession looming over us, global warming threatening the future of our planet, and mass shootings horrifying us way too often, who isn’t more than just a little distracted these days?

Leaders have always had to lead amid some level of uncertainty, but the stakes for today’s issues are higher and create more stress than usual. In troubling times, the need for strong leadership is particularly important. Beyond the basics of having a clear vision, a high functioning team, and the right culture, what is the secret sauce for success when your team is facing an elevated level of anxiety?

Many of you remember the Good Friday tornado that hit St. Louis in 2011. I was heading up a commercial flooring company at that time and had several crews working at Lambert Airport that evening installing new flooring and providing floor maintenance services.

Lambert was hit hard and suffered significant damage, and I heard harrowing stories from my employees. One of the men installing ceramic tile in the baggage claim area was blown across the floor and slammed into a wall when the wind blew through the glass doors. To this day, I’m thankful that he was “just a little banged up and sore, but not really hurt”.

My crews and countless other workers went back to Lambert as soon as it was safe and their extraordinary efforts enabled the airport to return to a full flight schedule less than four days after being devastated a tornado. As the airport’s Director said, it was “miraculous”.

Floor installers and other construction personnel always work hard, but what inspired them to perform a “miracle”? After experiencing the trauma of living through a tornado, how were they able to focus on cleaning up the wreckage? Where did they find the physical and mental reserves to work such long hours?

To a person, their answers reflected the feeling that their job wasn’t just replacing damaged floors. The purpose of their work was to get the airport functioning again…and they were passionate about making that happen.

Purpose and passion kept them going during this challenging time.

The most productive condition of all is when team members are aligned behind a shared purpose and passionate about achieving their collective vision.

In “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

A good leader has mastered the basics of clear vision, the right people, and positive culture, but a great leader knows how to inspire people to go beyond what is ordinarily possible.

In other words, great leadership inspires people to perform “miracles”.