Anthony Casablanca of GriefLeaders

    We Spoke to Anthony Casablanca of GriefLeaders on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Casablanca.

    Anthony Casablanca is the co-founder of GriefLeaders, a training and consulting organization devoted to educating leaders on how to help grieving employees excel at work. He is a senior executive with 30-plus years of experience and a proven track record of purpose-driven leadership. He has held several leadership roles with Batesville Casket Company, the world’s largest funeral service products provider, and was named the 2009 Human Resource Executive of the Year for Indiana. He is the co-author of The Dying Art of Leadership: How Leaders Can Help Grieving Employees Excel at Work.

    Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

    On the personal side, I worked my way through college as a night shift supervisor at a trucking company. After graduating with an accounting degree, I went to work at Arthur Andersen & Co in Cincinnati, which is where I met my wife of 35 years. She is my best friend and the best thing that ever happened to me. We have two incredible children. Our son, Chris, is 32 and works in human resources for a global distribution company. Our daughter, Vicki, is 30, and she administers proton cancer treatment regimens for a major health organization in Chicago.

    On the leadership side, I spent the last 15 years of my career studying Lean leadership principles. Lean, when done correctly, is all about respect for people. I had the opportunity to put my learning into practice in my roles as the vice president of human resources, the vice president of global manufacturing and supply chain, and finally, as the president of an operating company for a major global durable goods manufacturer.

    With my brother, Guy, a dually licensed funeral director and a successful leader in his own right, I decided to co-found GriefLeaders to address a gap in leadership training that we feel needs to be closed. Leaders are never taught, in any forum, how to deal with emotionally traumatized employees, which studies have shown can lead to $75 billion of lost productivity annually. This is more relevant now than ever before, as people navigate through this unprecedented, more complicated time and look to their leaders to demonstrate they care.

    Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

    Wow. I made so many mistakes starting out that it will be hard to narrow my answer down. While not a leadership mistake, I learned a valuable lesson nonetheless. I was a young director, and I was meeting with the president of the company about a special assignment I was about to start. I had asked for the meeting to discuss the objectives and desired outcomes from his perspective. At the end of the session, I thanked him for his time, got up, and we both walked to the door. I reached down, turned the handle, pulled open the door, and promptly walked into his coat closet. We both laughed, and he said, “Let me get the door for you.” At that moment, I learned that life is funny, and being able to laugh at yourself is a gift. This lesson would help me lead large parts of the organization later in my career. By laughing at myself, being human, and being vulnerable, I was able to create a culture of openness and trust that allowed those around me to speak up, challenge the status quo, and take risks.

    None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

    Again, there are several. I have always been fortunate to have people around me who served as role models and mentors. I will share three examples that have helped shape the first of my five personal leadership platforms.

    Clayton Mathile was a neighbor of ours when I was growing up. You may know him as the former owner of the IAMS pet food company. I had no clue what I wanted my college major to be when I graduated high school. Clay spent an entire afternoon talking with me and asking me questions. As my career progressed, I would call him for advice. No matter how busy he was with his global company, he always made time for me. To this day, I still meet with Clay. In fact, I met with him to discuss the idea behind our book, The Dying Art of Leadership, and our leadership training company, GriefLeaders. After every meeting, I would thank Clay for taking the time, and he would respond in the same way: “You don’t need to thank me. Just pay it forward someday.”

    John Dickey brought me into human resources. Aside from being a master at his craft, John had an unbelievable ability to make you feel like you were the only thing that mattered to him. It didn’t make a difference if you worked for him, were a colleague, or worked on the shop floor. When we had the unfortunate task of having to close a factory in the Northeast, John insisted that we personally meet with all 192 employees within 24 hours of the announcement, even though the plant was not closing for a year. To further complicate the matter, there were three languages spoken in the plant; English, Spanish, and Portuguese. John wanted each meeting to be conducted, and each benefits package to be explained, in the worker’s native language.

    Ken Camp was the first company president I worked for directly. He had several leadership philosophies. Here are the top three:

    • Lead from the front.
    • Do what is right. If we make a mistake, make it right or if we cannot rectify the situation, apologize.
    • A ship can only have one captain, so solicit input and collaborate, but never forget it’s the leader who must ultimately make the decision.

    These three individuals, along with countless others, helped me to formulate my primary leadership platform: “People First…Mission Always.”

    Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

    There is an excellent message embedded in this question, and I am a great proponent of connecting people to something bigger than just making money or creating shareholder value. No one in a company is inspired by either of those objectives.

    I first learned the purpose-driven lesson when I ran the global manufacturing and supply organization for Batesville Casket Company. We always kept our bigger purpose out in front of our people, and that was, “Helping families honor the lives of those they love.” We wanted everyone from the president to the line worker always to view their job from that perspective.

    Our book, The Dying Art of Leadership, was written, and our company, GriefLeaders, was formed with the purpose of providing leaders with the skills and confidence to engage emotionally traumatized employees to help them excel at work during a time in their lives when they need support the most.

    Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

    Natural disasters create difficult times for those in the impacted areas. Vicksburg, Mississippi, is home to the only wood processing plant for Batesville Casket Company. Hurricane Katrina caused physical damage to our facilities and was emotionally traumatizing to our people. The company is blessed with an incredible hub-and-spoke distribution system. We had learned from past experiences that, while built to move caskets from plants to customers rapidly, the system can also carry supplies to devasted regions quickly. Each of the five strategically located distribution hubs stores several pallets of generators, baby wipes, diapers, portable air conditioning units, water, pre-packaged food, and countless other supplies needed when disaster strikes.

    As soon as the storm was over, we began checking on our people and moving truckloads of goods to the area. We used our plant parking lot as the staging area. We told our people to come to the plant to pick up supplies. For those who could not get out of their neighborhoods, several members of the leadership team loaded up their pickup trucks and ran what supplies they could to our folks. We also provided plant leadership with cash advances to ensure our people had money until we knew the banks were open. Running the plant became secondary to ensuring our people were getting the help they need. Those not impacted came to work and began the cleanup process. Once our people were taken care of, we turned our attention to our customers in the area, providing them with the supplies they needed. We also started a disaster relief funding program where the company would match what the company-wide employees donated. We awarded one family $12,000 to help them rebuild.

    Our plant was running in a few days, but our people and our customers never forgot our response.

    As I mentioned earlier, my first leadership platform is, “People First…Mission Always.” My second is “Dedication to the Customer.” This example speaks to both principles.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    Leadership requires constantly balancing what is good for the people with what is good for the customer and what is good for the shareholders. Being purpose-driven helps you to strike that balance, and great leaders achieve that balance more often than not.

    During a financial crisis, like we experienced in 2008 and like COVID has forced many businesses into, striking this balance gets exceptionally difficult. I was president of a $100M company during the 2008 financial crisis. We tried very hard to be creative in our approaches to achieve that balance but we still had to let people go. However, we made sure there were no surprises. We communicated with our people openly, honestly, and with vulnerability and compassion. Everyone in the company knew we cared deeply about them.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    Communicating openly and honestly, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

    Those two things will create a calming influence in the company. Frequently communicating with honesty and compassion allows people to feel engaged in the process and stops rumors. Being vulnerable creates a safe environment on an emotional level. When people feel safe on an emotional level, their trust and engagement increase, this, in turn, allows the team to focus on and work the problem to find creative solutions.

    By being vulnerable, I am not talking about being weak or scared or incapable of making hard decisions. It takes a strong leader to be vulnerable. Vulnerable, in this sense, means being willing to let people know you care and that you don’t have all the answers, but we are going to figure this out together. Being vulnerable means that tough decisions will not be taken lightly, and you will lead by example and be the first to feel the pain.

    When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

    In our book, The Dying Art of Leadership, we talk a great deal about acknowledging and engaging. If leaders want to inspire and motivate their teams, they first have to recognize what their people are going through and then engage and encourage them to talk about their struggles. I have heard great stories of leaders who have set aside their “role” and just connected with their people during this crisis. I heard of one leader who started a regular “Coffee with the CEO” session, via Zoom, where no business talk was allowed. One morning, he cooked a traditional Indian breakfast for the group that was special to him. Leaders who demonstrate they are human inspire.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    Quickly, openly and honestly. People and customers are smart, and they are more resilient than leaders give them credit for. They also have a keen sense for detecting spin and BS.

    I once worked with someone who operated under the principle, “If it is true, it’s not mean.” His communications certainly met that criteria, but they were devasting to people and harmed the culture of the organization. When delivering difficult news, leaders need to realize that they are creating an emotionally traumatizing event in their people’s lives. Depending on the circumstances, the event can cause people to enter the stages of grief. When this happens, leaders need to engage their people on a personal level and adapt their leadership style to help and support the team. This is a skill that is rarely, if ever, talked about or taught. This very situation is the focal point of our book, The Dying Art of Leadership, and our leadership training company, GriefLeaders.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    The future is always unpredictable. I can tell you that the company I was leading in 2012 had plans for a record year until the “great recession” hit. Mike Tyson once said, “My opponent’s strategy will change when he gets hit in the face.” We have experienced massive economic downturns before. We have experienced pandemics before — Swine flu, SARS, H1N1. Any leader who falls prey to this line of thinking needs to either be removed or step down. Here is the silver lining in the current situation: We know exactly what caused these “uncertain times.”

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    I am a student of Lean thinking. So, I would offer the following points:

    • Know your true purpose as an organization and as a leader.
    • Respect your people, always. Having an ethics policy and harassment training is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about genuinely demonstrating that you value your people.
    • Relentlessly pursue perfection in every area and function of the organization. This goes well beyond continuous improvement to cut costs. What would your company look like if everyone asked the person receiving their output, starting with the customer and working back through every internal customer all the way back to your suppliers, “What could I do next time to make your job easier to get done?”

    Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

    It is said that power doesn’t corrupt; it reveals. I believe the same is true of difficult times. Difficult times reveal the true nature of organizations and teams. In many organizations, when difficult times emerge, everyone hunkers down. So-called leaders retreat to their function and begin to hold closed-door meetings with their trusted few to figure out how to salvage as much of their kingdom as they can. The CEO looks to their CFO and says, “Here’s the goal; figure it out.” To which the CFO responds by handing out arbitrarily allocated targets, like everyone needs to cut 15% of their operating costs or staff. Leaders like these seem to treat every difficult time like it is the first difficult time in the company’s history.

    When the “great recession” hit in 2012, our company did the exact opposite. Instead of holding closed-door meetings with just a few in attendance, we invited more people into the discussion. Instead of each leader going off to figure out how to protect their function, we met to agree on what our company’s purpose was and what segments we needed to support. Everyone left the room with a mindset of sacrifice rather than salvage or protect. Targets were never assigned. In the end, we minimized the impact on our people, met the requirements of our parent company, and came out of the crisis quickly and more profitable.

    Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

    Unless you are Amazon, Home Depot, or Lowes, I am not sure any strategy would have kept you growing during this downturn. However, the word I would use to answer this question is: Focus. Often in times like these, businesses will take any revenue they can get. I learned the hard way that not all revenue is created equally.

    While it is best to conduct this focusing exercise when times are good, times like these can make this exercise even more critical. You would likely call me a liar if I told you that 80% of your company’s revenue and possibly over 100% of its profits come from 20% of your business. However, it is true. I have led one company and been on the board of another who used turbulent times to focus. In the company I led, we found that half of all the work we did added zero dollars to the bottom line. In the company whose board I sat on, they fired 10% of their customers for the same reason. It will take courage to focus and act on what you learn, but your company will better for it.

    So, as strange as it might sound, getting more focused on understanding who your best customers and what your best products are would be my answer. I would recommend a consulting company named Strategex for those who are interested in exploring this concept.

    Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

    #1: Stay grounded in your purpose. Rather than tell a story, I would recommend an excellent book for your readers, It’s Not What You Sell; It’s What You Stand For, written by Roy M. Spence Jr.

    #2: “People First…Mission Always.” We have talked about this throughout this interview. This concept does not mean avoiding the difficult decisions — quite the contrary. Remember the 192- person plant closure I mentioned earlier? Here is the rest of the story in bullet form:

    • We provided our people 12-months’ notice, against the wishes of many on the leadership team.
    • We met with the union to bargain in good faith, but we knew the standard we wanted to hold ourselves to, regardless of whether the union asked for the benefits or not.
    • We met with all 192 people individually with packages in their native language, and interpreters when needed to explain how the plant would be closed and what their benefits would be.
    • Recognizing that we had just caused an emotionally traumatic event in our people’s lives that would likely result in their experiencing and exhibiting the stages of grief, I flew up to the plant every week to meet with people. We plotted every employee on a matrix to identify who might be the most vulnerable, and I focused my efforts on them.
    • We worked endlessly with the state workforce department to secure additional benefits for our people. We also brought in a placement service to help our long-tenured workforce with writing resumes — a task many had not done in 25 years.
    • We hosted job fairs at the plant, inviting area employers in to interview our people.

    At this point, you might be asking, “Why would they have done all this for 192 people they would never see again?” Here is why:

    • There was not a single case of vandalism or sabotage throughout the shutdown period.
    • The plant maintained its safety, quality, and delivery standards throughout the period.
    • The plant achieved all of its monthly cost targets throughout the period.
    • All 192 people either found a job or were able to retire by the time the plant closed.
    • Most importantly, there were 2,300 other people in the organization, watching to see how we treated these people.
    • Our leaders could sleep well at night, knowing that we did everything we could to help these people excel during a time when, through no fault of their own, their lives were turned upside down.

    That is “People First…Mission Always” leadership.

    #3: Dedication to the customer. In its purest form, a company’s value stream is simple. Your customers define value, as only they can, and your people who make the product or provide the service create that value — end of story. While parts of the rest of the organization may be necessary, the only way they add value is to make the work easier for the people to get value-adding work completed. That is especially true of leadership.

    #4: Communicate quickly, openly, and honestly. Your people are smarter and more resilient than most leaders are willing to admit. As the vice president of human resources, I supported a president who would hold weekly roundtable lunches with a group of randomly selected employees. After the sessions, he would invariably say to me, “Our people ask me better questions about the business than the board does.” I took this practice with me when I became the vice president of global manufacturing and supply chain, and when I was named president of an operating company.

    I once consulted for a company that was shutting down one of its plants. They were moving this particular operation’s production to a sister plant in Mexico for cost reasons. The communications group wanted to avoid the image of “outsourcing the jobs to Mexico,” so they constructed a communication plan that said, “We are moving production to a sister plant.” The problem with this approach: the Mexico plant was the only other plant that could handle this plant’s product. All they wound up doing was destroying the trust and credibility that their leadership team had worked so hard to build.

    #5: Resist the temptation to lead uniformly. In our book, The Dying Art of Leadership, we discuss the importance of avoiding this trap — especially when leading emotionally traumatized or grieving employees. Not every employee is the same. They are all at different points in their development cycle. It is up to the leader to adapt their style to meet the development needs of the individuals. This sounds easy, but rarely is Adaptive Human Resource Leadership taught to leaders.

    Here is an example. Earlier in my career, I had identified myself as a highly participative, employee-empowering leader. This style worked great with my high-performing and high- potential people. However, I had hired a new employee. Being new to the company, he had not adapted to our demanding culture or work pace. Six months later, I fired him for “performance” reasons. Reflecting back on that experience, the employee may not have been the problem. Delegating tasks to him like I did to my other people was the problem. I was managing uniformly when he needed more support.

    Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    “People of integrity expect to be believed; if not, they let time prove them right,” by Ann Landers.

    This quote has reminded me to always put my integrity above all else. It has also prevented me from expending negative energy, worrying about what others thought of me or my ideas, or taking criticism personally.

    How can our readers further follow your work?

    GriefLeaders was formed with the purpose of providing leaders with the skills and confidence to engage emotionally traumatized employees to help them excel at work during a time in their lives when they need support the most. “People First…Mission Always.”

    Visit our website at or follow me or my brother and co-author, Guy, on LinkedIn.

    You can also order a copy of our book, The Dying Art of Leadership, on the Bookbaby bookstore or Amazon .