Facing Reality, Modeling Positivity

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)


MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who have dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they picked themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future. Today’s show is about gaining clarity, even when you’re anxious and times are tough. Whether you’re facing a career change you didn’t ask for and didn’t want or accepting that a goal you long-planned and were so close to achieving is just not going to happen anytime soon, it can be difficult to show up and lead right now.

Almost every professional in the world is feeling intense anxiety, fear, anger, and helplessness, and then we have to lead that Zoom call or forecast the financial future anyway. Today’s guest, Robert Glazer, says it’s about gaining clarity. It’s about asking yourself, “What do I want to do, and what can I do?” Working to gain clarity on these questions, convening with close advisors or your leadership team, and then communicating outward – that is the secret to leading with a growth mindset in these really difficult times.

Glazer will share what he’s learning about how leaders are managing well during this crisis and what it takes to sit in uncomfortable feelings right now, accept reality, and still lead. Robert Glazer is a best-selling author and global speaker. He is the founder and CEO of the marketing agency Acceleration Partners and was ranked number two on Glassdoor’s list of top CEOs of small and medium companies in the U.S. We started by talking about the line between sharing vulnerability with colleagues and being a mess with a visceral analogy.

ROBERT GLAZER: There’s a pilot protocol called ANC, which is aviate, navigate, and communicate. And the premise is when there’s a problem with a plane, the first thing is you figure out where you’re going, then fly the plane, and then tell people what’s going on. Because if you’re communicating with them and crash the plane, it doesn’t do a lot of good for people. I actually agree with that, and I think sometimes, people have had to aviate and navigate before they could communicate, but then very quickly I think you need to communicate. Have you ever been on an aborted landing, and no one said anything for 45 seconds? It gets pretty awkward after a while.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh my God. Yes.

ROBERT GLAZER: I’ve been in that position, and it was a German plane, and then a couple minutes later, the guy goes, “Oh well sorry, we had to make a roundabout and…” I knew the plane was intact, so I have sort of a case study here. We chose very early on to communicate openly and sort of rapidly. “Hey, this is a big disruption, here’s what’s going on, here’s where we’re being aggressive.” I mean we shut down hiring and did some stuff and canceled some events even when it was still hitting early because we just had that spidey sense that it wasn’t going to be good and that it was going to be fast.

And actually, we had a bunch of people communicate to us in the couple weeks, like “Why are you traumatizing us with all this information about what’s going on and all the problems and-”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: People on your staff said that?

ROBERT GLAZER: On our staff yeah, and we really wanted to be as open as possible. If we knew something and understood it, we wanted to communicate it. That’s always been our thing. And then interestingly, a couple weeks later, a few came to their manager or relayed feedback up saying they had a spouse or a partner who got no communication from the company and just assumed everything was great, and then they got laid off or blindsided. So, they retroactively appreciated how upfront we had been in the communication, even though it was difficult for them to hear all of that stuff. Because I think they preferred to know the unsavory details at some point versus not know and be blindsided. They had a case study in seeing that, weeks later.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, what I think I hear you saying is that it’s different for every leader in every company, but there’s a middle ground to be found it seems.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah. My general promise is, and ours as a leadership team, I communicate something once I’m clear about it. If it’s not something that people want to hear, or it’s bad or whatever, and I know it, then that’s not being upfront and honest, but I do think sometimes, if you communicate a mess of thinking or a work in progress, you make the situation worse. But that’s been my approach for my team. Once we have resolution on something and make a decision, we share that as quickly and as openly as possible.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Who does see the mess in your professional life? Because there is a mess obviously, right?

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, I think as a leadership team we certainly… To me, that’s like … we’re in the kitchen, and we’re talking about that stuff or in peer groups, but I think as soon as you’re ready to serve the food or as soon as it needs to be served, you might as well take the veil off that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow, that was a tortured metaphor, but I get it.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, that was a bad metaphor. I lost it in the middle, and I kept going. You might as well take the tray off the plate as soon as it’s servable, I guess is the thing. Yeah, I’ve always said that. You don’t want to communicate on a broad scale like a brainstorm or, “Hey, we might be contemplating laying people off or doing this.” I think when you have a plan, and if you say, “Hey, if X amount of reduction happens to our business, then this will be on the table.” That’s very different than sort of throwing it out there casually.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah, yeah, in fact, a therapist that I interviewed recently said almost exactly the same thing, which is that there’s a difference between sharing your feeling state and being a little vulnerable, and shoving the mess in your team’s face, which is totally scary and inappropriate. It’s a little bit like parenting. I always say, “Mommy cries, mommy gets upset, that’s okay,” but I don’t tell them why I’m crying because it could be something that’s not right for their little nine-year-old ears. Not that our employees are children, but you know.

ROBERT GLAZER: Or you want time, you want time to think about it.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s right.

ROBERT GLAZER: You want time to process it. I do think there are moments where raw vulnerability is important, but then I think that there are others where you need some control and some thought. I shared a story, where I did share with our team at one point, in one of my update videos. It was just one of those days I had not slept, I had been going for 14 hours, and I just sort of crawled into bed on the verge of tears. I just was done, and I shared that with some people saying, “Look, we all have our moments.” And someone on the team also had a similar thing and said, “I just need a day or two off,” and came back totally refreshed.

Someone shared with me the cascading effect that that had on their team, where they shared with their team something similar, and someone said, “Look, I just always thought that you had all this stuff together and were sort of a knight in shining armor. I just feel so much better knowing that you’re not perfect.” She projected a very stable outwardness. So that kind of stuff does have a cascading effect.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think that’s right, and I think that we as humans, again our spidey sense, can read people when they are totally out of touch with reality and not acting normal. It would be weird right now if our boss was totally chipper and pollyannaish, and we’re investing $10 million in a new campus, and everyone would be like, “Huh?” Because we’re human, and we pick up on emotion.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, and I think Andrew Cuomo’s been really good at this in terms of he’s very vulnerable, he’s had the moments, and he’s clear about that, but then when he’s onstage, he has a commanding presence and gives you confidence.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: He’s got the PowerPoint, yeah.

ROBERT GLAZER: Right, which you want from your leadership, right? He’s emotional, but when he’s giving you the information, and he actually… I wrote about this in a Friday Forward. In one of his early speeches, he gave three characterizations of the main causes of fear, which I thought was kind of lost in his speech but was really great, and it was that you’re not receiving the information that you need, you don’t trust the information that you receive, or the information that you receive is really frightening. I think there’s been more cases of the first two than the last one.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Mm-hmm, and I think also coming back to general data about employee engagement. We know that employees want to feel clear about their role in achieving whatever goal the company sets out. They need to feel that buy-in and that sense of purpose and vision and path and milestones, and I think the pandemic is no different. Crisis is no different. “Here’s why you’re important, here’s why we need you, here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know. Okay, let’s try to do this together, even though we’re all scared.”

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, and to that point, I think there’s so much more that we can control than we believe. There’s sort of a stimulus.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Really?

ROBERT GLAZER: And then an effect of … this thing happened, but then am I throwing it all out until I don’t control it, or do I control it? We actually had a moment in our company, and we’ve been stressing to people, “Hey look, let’s focus on what we can control. There’s not a lot we control.” And we had some panicked partners calling up our team and saying, “Can you get on the phone?” And people were responding via email or with incomplete information, and we were getting some feedback about that. We went to the team, and we said, “This is one of the things that we control. We’ve talked about all this stuff we don’t control, but you guys can pick up the phone, get the right information, calm them down.” But this is actually where you can create the problem, and we had that discussion, and it totally changed in the next two weeks.

Then we went back to say, “Look, we really… There’s a lot you can control in this,” but we’ve been very clear to point out to people the specific things they can do, where they can add value, the groups they can join, the brainstorming of ideas. Because to sit there downstream of the waterfall and feel like you have to take everything that’s coming at you is not a very good position to be in.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How is this different for a services business? As you were saying that I was thinking… because you’re in client services ultimately.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. I am too. What’s the role of communication right now for people who are in client services who also have to manage the emotions and anxieties of our clients in a way?

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, I think it’s a much heavier burden because it is all people. It’s people worried about their job talking to other people about their job as they’re doing it. It’s clients and partners that are really upset and nervous. What’s rare about this crisis is that everyone’s on the same playing field. Everyone understands that it has universally impacted people. A lot of times, you have a situation that’s going on in one company, and then a company’s talking with another company, but you can almost be sure in this case that when you’re communicating with someone else, they’re going through very similar things. And yeah, you need to get yourself in a right mindset to do that, or you could actually make… What you’re doing can make the problem worse. It actually becomes about the stuff you control, not the stuff you don’t control.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think that’s right, and I think also it’s interesting, now that you say that, there’s been a temptation for me to… We’re all trying to glean information from each other about what’s going on. “What are you hearing? Who’s losing funding? Who’s not? Who’s laying off? Who’s not?” I’ve been trying to be mindful of boundaries with clients and then also colleagues in my field because we have that need to try to gain control by getting understanding, but you have to keep it professional too.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, and if you’re in a services business, the one thing I think a lot of people struggle with, their sort of Millennials and maybe Gen Z employees, is the value of picking up the phone. In email, you lose tone. You lose a lot of stuff. You say, “Look, even if you don’t have the answer, pick up the phone and have a conversation with the people.” It will reduce the tension. You can just tell them that you hear them, and you can listen to their complaint. They want to feel heard. I’ve seen phone calls really be helpful during this or video calls.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: 100%. I mean, I hate talking on the phone, but I also think, just circling back to the check in, that if you are a manager and wanting to check in with a team member, don’t email them and ask if they’re doing okay. They’ll think they’re getting fired. Make it a little bit more personal and one-on-one. Pick up the phone.

ROBERT GLAZER: Right, one thing I’ve leaned into during this, which I wanted to do more before, I think this has accelerated a lot of things that people want to do more of, is asynchronous video. I had a person on my management team, we were debating something. He sent me an email, and it was very complicated. I realized it was going to take me 45 minutes to probably answer all the points and we were starting to debate a little bit. I actually just opened my thing, turned on the camera, and recorded a response in five minutes. I said, “I just want you to know, here’s what I’m thinking about this.” And so they can actually see the emotion behind it and the decision, and they got that video, and we made a decision, resolved it, and it actually was like 80% less time than if I had tried… Because you can send a video that’s rough, but you don’t send an email that’s rough. You spend the time to clean it up and not have typos.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Also, you know why I love that too is that the person got the benefit of the nuance of the emotion but didn’t have to react on the spot. I’m super anxious and also kind of introverted. I’m really bad at reacting on the spot to tough things, so I’m stealing that, that’s amazing.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot more, asynchronous video. I use it separately also because we have kind of a no-update meeting philosophy. One of the things with everyone being remote, I don’t believe in getting a whole bunch of people together on a call, a meeting, and just talking to them for 30 minutes. You can record the video and let them watch it when they want to watch it. They don’t all have to assemble to basically watch. You give a dialogue. I think meetings are a monologue. Meetings are really for dialogue.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So many of us, myself included.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: In the midst of feeling all these existential anxieties about life and death and the future are feelings of grief, sadness, and anger because we were on the cusp of some big change and growth and pivot that just got killed by the pandemic. Whether it was a promotion or going back to graduate school or selling your company or whatever. And I wanted to talk to you, because you’re so good at capacity building, about how someone who is still itching for growth and change in their life can execute or think about a pivot right now even when things are scary and when your father-in-law might tell you not to because you could lose all your money and go out of business.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What’s a good way to think about making consequential decisions right now?

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, and look, there’s a pivot because you wanted to, and there’s a pivot because you have to, and I think there’s people in different buckets, right?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well thank you. Thank you very much. That’s an absolutely essential thing. But just to the first one of the positive pivot, 2020 was going to be a reset year for a lot of us. The economy was good. We were sort of looking forward to new things, and then it literally got crumpled.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, there’s two things. I think for a lot of people it’s really important. This is a great time to really clarify your values rubric of what is most important to you because that allows you to look at those decisions through a short-term and a long-term lens. Are you doing it because it’s the right thing to do today or because this is the thing that puts you in the direction that you want it to go anyway or that you’ve been talking about? Or is it towards that thing that you can no longer do that you wanted to do in February? I do think there’s some aspect of just accelerating the mourning period too. The faster you come to accept that we’re not going back to February 1st, 2020, maybe anytime soon or ever, the more you can put yourself in that, “Okay, so what are my choices? That’s not one of them anymore.”

So, “Given where I am now, what are my choices?” And it’s not an easy thing to do, but I almost think of the inverse situation. I know someone who sold a business I think on February 15th, a massive business in the sort of… in-person wax and tanning. Something that would have been down 80% two weeks later, and the transaction closed. I promise you they’re not wallowing in, “Oh I’m so lucky, I’m so lucky.” They’re kind of like, it is what it is. I know it’s the other way, but they’re sort of like, “It is what it is, I can’t control that.” The faster I think that people can get through their mourning period and say, “All right, what do I do now?” … The best choice for what you do now I think meets that dual test of it aligns to your values, it’s the right thing to do in the short-term, but you would have wanted to do it in the long-term. It’s something that really pushes you in the direction that you want to go.

Again, what do I learn from it? You mentioned selling their business. There are a lot of people I know who thought about selling their business, but everyone when they’re having a good year, they wait for the next good year, and there’s a ton of regret. I’m sure actually when things recover, they will probably think very differently about how they want to diversify or take risk off the table. This will be the formative event for them that maybe for the next 20 years affects how they think about risk mitigation in terms of growth.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So what’s the first question you ask when you’re ready to move on from the wallowing and think about what’s next?

ROBERT GLAZER: What do I want to do, and what can I do? I think when I’ve seen these companies pivot, the ones that have done it really well have done it within their value set. It’s a logical extension to their business, it supports their brand, it’s part of their mission, and it’s something they have the capacity to do so they do it. There seems to be very similar anatomies of a lot of the pivots, which is, “Get over it.” I don’t mean that like… I know it’s not that easy … but I wrote an article about an event planner who last week, when this hit, just thought her job was done, and then she planned one of the largest virtual quarantine conferences in a month and taught herself all this new stuff and saved her job and grew the business.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Dear God.

ROBERT GLAZER: I think she just had a very brief mourning period, and I think probably her anxiety drove her to think about a solution-oriented mindset.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What about someone who is forced to pivot when they weren’t looking to?

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, what’s interesting is that people are doing… It’s just accelerating some of the stuff I think that was going to happen anyway. There’s people that are forced to do stuff that they don’t want to do, but that’s a decision you want… This again goes to your values hierarchy. I’ll give you an example. Restaurants I think are fascinating case studies in this. You have some that are doing delivery, doing totally different stuff, and they’re saying, “Look, my job is to keep as many of my people employed and busy as possible.” No pride, “And we’re going to do what we need to do, and if it gets us 50% of our revenue, that’s 50% more people I can keep working until we can get back to something that we were doing before.”

Then you have other ones who say, “Look, this isn’t us, we’re not going to do any of this. We’re going to stay closed until we need to.” That might be a never, but that person believes so deeply that they would rather do what they… It’s almost like art. They would rather do what they were doing or not do it at all. I’m not sure either if it’s a right or a wrong answer. I think it’s a very personal decision as to what’s most important to you and also I guess if you have the resources to make that decision.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So you’ve been talking to a lot of leaders. What do the leaders-

ROBERT GLAZER: It’s like group counseling.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean I’d love to be a fly on the wall. What do the leaders who have a growth mindset have in common?

ROBERT GLAZER: So, it’s really interesting. A friend of mine, Todd Herman, who’s a top performance guru, and I wrote an article on this, interviewed 180 CEOs. And what he’s been doing is recording the conversation and then doing tag word and sediment analysis. And in the initial one that he did where he talked to 30 CEOs and broke them into three groups, there were the fear-focused, the unfocused, and the strategy focused, and just some interesting things. I’ll give you the opposite spectrum. The fear-focused group was consuming five times more media than the strategy group. They used words like “government” and “Trump” 11 times more than the strategy group. And they used the words “COVID” or “Coronavirus” seven times more than the strategy group.

The strategy group was actually nine times more likely to be shifting their product or service and four times more likely to have already made changes to their team. And they were using future words 13 times more than the other group, and most of them were meditating. I thought it was a very interesting parallel. I’ve seen things that parallel that. What they don’t know is how long it’s going to go on because this is a very rare thing, where a medical crisis is causing an economic crisis, and none of the business leaders are medical experts. There’s a lot of belief that as soon as the medical crisis is better, the economic crisis will get better, but it’s very hard for them to… The main decision everyone is deciding is whether they end up being too long or too short.

Too short means they’re a little too opportunistic, and they just ran out of runway, and too long is if they were more conservative than they needed to be, and then there might be some criticism.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: They missed an opportunity, yeah.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah. They missed opportunities, they laid off people they didn’t need to lay off. Being in that seat now or eight weeks ago without a crystal ball, it’s really easy to write a book in 12 months saying what the right decision was. It’s very hard to be in that seat at the time and put yourself there with a crystal ball and say, “What am I going to regret more, being long or short?”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You know, it’s interesting though because you said that the CEOs that you see making more positive changes, or at least we hope they’re positive changes, are consuming less media.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Which makes me think does that include financial media? Are they consulting-

ROBERT GLAZER: So interestingly, so I don’t know, but one of the other things he said is that they’re three times more likely to know Taiwan’s response to the Coronavirus and sort of why it worked well. So, I actually think they’re consuming facts, more data and not… A lot of our media now is very… News is very opinionated. It’s not just news. I think they’re gathering the facts, and that’s true. Most of them are very factual versus repeating stories and narratives that have some agenda to them.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to come back, when you and I spoke, you brought up the Stockdale Paradox. But I want you to tell listeners what it is and why you brought it up in the context of now.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah, so the Stockdale Paradox was something that Jim Collins identified in his kind of landmark book “Good to Great,” which I think is probably almost 20 years ago now. It’s sort of made a resurgence through this crisis. I knew the term, and one coach had sent it to me, and then I heard it somewhere else, and then Jim re-recorded a video, and so I wrote an article about it, which was just shared more than anything I’ve written this year. And I realized it just described kind of where everyone was. And so Stockdale was an Admiral in the Navy during the Vietnam War, and he was captured and held as a prisoner of war for seven years. He was tortured and really had no reason to believe he’d make it out, and he did. When Collins was interviewing him years later, he talked about how he got through that, and he said it was really this combination of never losing hope that he would get out and really confronting the brutal facts. That was the key.

When Collins asked him, “Who didn’t survive?” He said, “Oh that’s easy, that’s the optimist.” Collins was totally taken aback, and actually, what Stockdale found was very tied to Viktor Frankl’s… What he had learned in “Man’s Search for Meaning” about the Holocaust, is that once they thought they were going home that Christmas or that month, and it didn’t happen, they kind of like-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: They gave it all up.

ROBERT GLAZER: Lost hope and died of a broken heart. So to me, leadership during this … the best leaders are really getting that middle ground. Here is the really ugly brutal truth. However, we’re going to get through it, here’s what it’s going to look like on the other side. There’s going to be a future because of what we were talking about before. If you’re on one side of that equation, if you’re on the “rah, rah it’s all going to be great” and then suddenly stuff starts falling apart around people, you will totally lose them, and they will not be very excited to continue to follow you. And then conversely, if you’re just talking about all the bad stuff all the time, and there’s just despair, and there’s no potential other side of it, then that’s not going to work either.

That got me really focused. I think we were leaning in that direction but became really clear that both of those messages are important. There’s a long-term … We’re going to be around, it’s going to be our defining moment, but yeah it’s not going to be fun, it’s going to suck, here’s what’s going on right now. And that was the Stockdale Paradox.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But also some of us could die.

ROBERT GLAZER: Yeah. There are health realities, there’s economic realities, there’s a lot of realities. If we forget about some of these health realities like a lot of people are doing right now, a sort of suspension of disbelief because I think people are just… They have some pent up need to get out there and back to society, which I understand but yeah, they’re forgetting some of those stark health realities right now.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So are you an optimist by nature?

ROBERT GLAZER: I am a pragmatic optimist, I would say. I’m not a bubbly optimist, but I tend to believe that there are solutions to every problem, and I try to focus on solutions.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Bob Glazer, I just want to thank you for your candor and your time and wish you all the best.

ROBERT GLAZER: Thank you very much Morra. It was great to join you.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for this week’s show. If you liked what you heard, please leave us a rating or a review, and tell your friends. If you have an idea for a show or would like to send me feedback, you can email anxiousachiever@gmail.com. You can send me a tweet @morraam or send me a message on LinkedIn.

Special thanks to the team at Harvard Business Review, and this week to Amanda Kersey. Thanks to my amazing producer, Mary Dooe, Anne Saini, Colin Howarth, Adam Buchholz, and the team at HBR. And our music, if you like it, is from Signal Sounds NYC.

From HBR Presents, this is The Anxious Achiever, and I’m Morra Aarons-Mele.



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