Leadership Lessons From A Motivational Speaker During Covid-19

If you’ve been following my work, you know I’m a customer service expert. I help my clients create amazing customer experiences for their customers (or clients, guests, members, etc.). In addition to training and consulting, a big part of what I do is delivering motivational speeches about service and CX at conferences and meetings all over the world. Well, that’s not happening again any time soon. We’re now eight months into a new way of doing business, not just for me, but for almost every business on the planet.

Yes, it’s bad. Companies are laying off employees and even shutting down. Industries like travel, hospitality and restaurants are getting hit hard. I think that I’ve fared quite well through the turmoil. Several people have asked me to share how I’ve done this. I thought about how I adapted and realized that it’s not just about the speaking business. It applies to every type of business-big and small, B2B and B2C-and any industry. Getting through the Covid-19 pandemic (which is still going on) took everything I knew about business, a tremendous amount of mental energy and a realistically optimistic outlook on the situation. Here’s the story.

It was early February when the rumblings of something big-and bad-were first felt around the world. I was returning from a speech in Mexico and ended up sitting next to a friend, Steve Miller, MD, the chief clinical officer at Cigna. I asked him how bad this could get. He told me the deaths we were reading about in February would barely scratch the surface of how big this would be. It would be worldwide. It would impact every business. In short, it would be very, very bad. I heard him loud and clear. I thought about what this would mean to a professional speaker who makes a living on stage before audiences of hundreds-even thousands-of people. I knew what would happen. My business was about to change. I braced myself for the worst.

A few weeks later, I was flying to a conference in Houston. So far, nothing had really changed. I ran into another friend of mine, Jeff Toister, a fellow customer service expert. We talked and I warned him. Get ready. Our businesses were about to be disrupted. Clients would start canceling in-person events.

Two days later, on Saturday, February 29, I was scheduled to fly from Houston to Miami for a speaking engagement the next day. That afternoon, I received a call from the client. They were canceling the meeting. Even though a number of people were already at the resort, they made the decision to get everyone home to prepare for the challenge that was to come.

On Monday, March 2, another client canceled an event. By the end of the week, five more speaking engagements were canceled. Within a couple of weeks, all bookings (with the exception of two events that were to take place later in the year) had vanished from my calendar. It was only a matter of time before all events around the world were canceled or postponed.

It’s been eight months since that first cancellation. The main part of my business-speaking onstage at conferences and events-has been annihilated. After flying over 150,000 miles (or more) to different cities each week in 2019, I haven’t been on an airplane since March of this year.

I share this story with you, not to garner sympathy, but to share the thought process I went through. I’m a very optimistic guy. I find the silver lining in dark clouds. I know it takes darkness to see the brightness of shining stars. I’m also a realist. When will the speaking business return to normal, if ever? And what will I do in the meantime?

Now you know my story, and what follows is the part that applies to you. Below are the thoughts and ideas that got me through the initial shock and helped me not only survive, but potentially thrive during a catastrophe in my business. I realize that some businesses have fallen during the pandemic. Not everyone has survived-or will survive. Restaurants are struggling and shuttering. The same goes for retailers, hotels and other types of businesses in many industries. I know some people in my business who have left the profession. But we all must fight and continue on. That’s what this article is about. The ideas I’m about to share are what kept me focused. Some have called these ideas leadership strategies and/or tactics. I’ll agree. It’s what leaders must do to keep moving forward and bring their people with them. This was-and still is-my process.

Deal with It: Maybe this is motivational rhetoric, but I believe in the quote that’s attributed to Greek philosopher Epictetus: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.” On March 11, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Two days later a national emergency was declared in the U.S. Shortly thereafter, we were told to shelter in place. My office shut down and my business was essentially at a standstill. Not once did I ever think it was over. It was time to think, and think I did. My wife and my daughter, who returned from New York City after being furloughed, said that deep thinking took me almost two weeks before I returned to something that resembled my normal personality. I had dealt with it.

Listen, Observe, Learn and Act: During this entire time, and especially during the two weeks in the beginning when I was in deep thought, I was also listening to and observing what my colleagues in the industry were doing. Not once did I criticize anyone, not even mentally, for doing something I thought might not work. I soaked in every idea, suggestion, tactic and strategy that anyone shared. There were plenty of Zoom meetings in which fellow professional speakers and entrepreneurs shared what they were doing to survive. I took lots of notes, had many conversations and then took action.

Make a Plan: One of my early actions was to write up a new business plan. All my presentations for the foreseeable future would be virtual. I’d been doing Zoom-like presentations and webinars for years-about 15 a year. Now I would do 15 a month. I went online and ordered higher-end video equipment and started practicing. I called all my best clients and even some potential clients and offered virtual presentations at no charge, just to practice. I made budgets and projections. I was back in business.

Change the Budget/Forecast: In the early days of the pandemic, we refigured projections and set new revenue goals. I didn’t know what we could sell moving forward. The only thing I knew for sure was that we lost a lot of business. Because the future was an unknown, I worked backward from what we needed to survive and formulated new weekly, quarterly, monthly and year-end numbers. As the future unfolded, I was able to revise our projections. Simply put, we reworked our numbers and monitored them until we could see a pattern. Then we changed them again.

Realistic Optimism: I knew that I would be okay. At the same time, my family and employees (my work family) were greatly concerned about their future. I did what I could to alleviate those concerns. I shared my plan and openly discussed what we were going to have to do to ensure we were all still together this time next year. I told them it would be hard work but promised that if they were willing to go along with the plan, we could ride this out together. I also said we would be back to normal one day, but it wouldn’t be soon. My best guess then was 2021. My new best guess is now 2022. Six months from now I may change that again. I’m optimistic, but I’m also realistic. Realism can help you make a realistic plan.

Create Confidence: Riding on the heels of realistic optimism, I realized everyone needed to have confidence in their future, otherwise they would be paralyzed with fear. It’s difficult to move forward and see a brighter future without confidence. Having focused on my family and my team at work, it was time to focus on my clients. I called to just talk to them and see how they were. Everyone was working from home and seemed very willing to accept a call. I wasn’t selling anything other than confidence. That’s what I wanted to give my clients-a sense of confidence and realistic optimism. When you give your clients confidence, they naturally gravitate toward you and the relationship strengthens.

Don’t Pivot, but Be Flexible: As part of my virtual presentations that I presented after the shutdown, I shared five strategies to help make it through the pandemic. One of them was to have the ability to pivot. While that wasn’t a bad strategy, it wasn’t the best. I’ve learned that when you pivot, you turn your back on something or someone. A better way to describe what I meant is to be flexible. In the situation that Covid-19 created, you can’t do what you’ve always done. You must be flexible and move quickly. Opportunities may present themselves to you and you must be prepared to seize them, even if it’s not the way you’ve always done business.

Don’t Stop Moving Forward: Some sharks, the ones we typically think of, like great whites, makos and whale sharks, will die if they stop moving. They must have water flowing through their gills or they will perish from a lack of oxygen. When people and businesses are hit with a crisis, one reaction might be to stop or even retreat. There may be an initial time of regrouping, which is different than stopping. That’s part of making a plan and figuring out what to do next. I’ve watched some organizations fail because they came to a complete stop. Metaphorically speaking, they curl up in a ball and close their eyes. The problem is that not facing reality has consequences. Some companies perish. Go back to the first strategy that includes those sage words from Epictetus: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.”

Celebrate Success: The celebration isn’t always about banner achievements. In any crisis, you look for even the smallest wins. Rethink goals. Recognize the milestones along the way. Look for ways to find optimism. This will fuel you toward future successes.

This process worked for me and helped keep my team in alignment while working through the crisis. Some of these steps may not apply to your situation. Maybe just one of the steps will apply. Take advantage of it. If reading through these steps makes even the smallest difference, it will have been a valuable investment of the few minutes it took to read through this article. So, remember: keep moving forward and never lose hope.

Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.

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