As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Carlton, founder and editor-in-chief of Beyondish. He is an author, filmmaker and speechwriter, and has written events for global leaders and CEOs all over the world.
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?
I have been a writer since 2nd grade. I founded the elementary school newspaper and never looked back. That has led to a writing career ranging from numerous screenplays, teleplays and books, to a dozen years writing for the Fortune magazine conference division. I have scripted events for leaders from President Jacques Chirac to Kofi Annan, and many, many in between. My passion, however, has always been food and my hobby is driving the back roads of America. I take a lot of pictures and eat a lot of grilled cheese. It seemed a logical step that this should become a business. Hence: Beyondish.
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?
Well, it’s a good idea to know what a P & L is when you are starting a business. But I’m a quick study. I think tamping down fear is an underrated talent. I’m yet to meet a challenge or new angle of my business that can’t be analyzed and surmounted with a little old-fashioned focus and concentration. Best piece of advice? Ask, ask, and then ask some more. Experts are so happy to have an audience. Take notes. And apply.
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?
My dear friend in the UK has run huge divisions of large scary companies. He knew me when I was a budding novelist. When we were done chuckling that the “unshaven writer” now had a budget and employees, he was an invaluable mentor. I still turn to him whenever the mountain seems a bit insurmountable. It’s amazing what good information and a calm head can achieve.
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?
Provide good recommendations to local dishes at restaurants across America. And in the same breath, tell the human stories behind the food. We have not swayed a drop. The vision remains the same.
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?
We are primarily a food review business. Last March, every restaurant in America shut down. Our principal software engineer got wracked with Covid. Our designer’s home office got hit by a hurricane and a tree came through her roof. Into her office! She moved to a hotel and the power in her region went out. That was not our best week. The main thing I did was remain human. Try to get inside people’s heads and hear their problems and feel their pain. Imagine their problems are yours and wait for the wave to break. Get your feet back on the sand and start fixing things from a firmer position.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Give up? Nope. Who gives up on their passion? Something I say a lot is there is no Plan B. Everyone on our teams loves food. We love our idea. We know this works. So hard times simply meant weather the storm and keep moving forward. Plan A. People are going to keep eating and start going out soon. We’ll be there.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Be a rock. Keep smiling. Make bad jokes. Even if no one laughs on Zoom.
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 my case, as the spiritual leader of the team, last Labor Day I scored a few dozen really good masks and started going back into our Manhattan offices at WeWork. I got tested, rode the subway, double-masked, kept a safe distance, and returned to the fold. Even though our entire staff continued to work mobile, I was running meetings from our old offices. People could see that. We used to have 6 p.m. wine, cheese and charcuterie meetings in this really cheerful conference room. So of late, no wine, no brie, no prosciutto. But the message was loud and clear. We are still oh-so here, and we’ll all be back together again, soon.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Couch it in reality and fix things. When a critical piece of our original website design crashed and burned, we took a deep breath, did an end-around, and kept going. That’s the beautiful thing about a web-based business. No one remembers what they never saw. Just rebuild and make it better. And if the piece you replaced is really cool, that helps, too.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plans? We just try to score a win or three every week. There is this unbridled confidence amongst my team that we are here for the long run. So the “plans” are just the oxygen in the room. We’re not ignorant to the numbers and projections. But those don’t change every week. They adjust. So I guess you would say we adapt. Adaptability is a good trait for a new company in challenging times. By the way, which times were not challenging?
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Believe in the vision. Love the vision. Really easy when the vision is delicious and everyone wants a bite.
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?
Overplanning. Negativity. Analysis paralysis. A friend shared a saying that maybe everyone has heard, but I had not. “When you’re going through hell, don’t stop.” Think about that for a second. Once it sinks in, it makes a lot of sense.
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?
Since we’re brand new to the space, we bank on being the pleasant surprise in everyone’s in-box. We have a kind of weird name that you usually have to say twice. We don’t have a long track record to defend. Every new interaction is promising, and hopeful. And we are not afraid of screwing up. Again, that web thing. If we go one way and it looks like a labyrinth, IT and editorial and advertising weaves and dodges and tries 6 new approaches. It’s like a recipe. Keep adding stuff. Something is going to work.
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.) Wear empathy on your shoulder like a well-worn jean jacket. Understand and forgive duress. Feel others’ pain. When half the staff has Covid, get the other half working on something new. It all comes together in the end.
2.) Drive the passion! No one, not a soul, has joined Beyondish unless they love food. So when things look bleak, keep everyone focused on where you are headed. Not always easy. But it is why I have a framed 1960s Rand McNally road map of the US over my desk. It inspires me every day, and that is a reminder that my job is to inspire others.
3.) Do Things Different. (Hopefully Apple won’t come after me for that.) (Or my 2nd grade English teacher!) My favorite example? Zoom fatigue. At the heart of this past year, people were zooming to their kids to put their laundry in the hamper. Too much! I have an employee who famously hates Zoom. She told me. I heard that. We did most of our business by phone. It made her happy and we accomplished the same amount of work.
4.) Be mindful of personal space. Everyone keeps that phone on their night table. I can’t tell you the number of times I stopped myself from sending an email or text at midnight just because I had a brainstorm. That brainstorm is vibrating next to someone’s bed. I am yet to meet The Brilliant Response that a great employee has not crafted with fresh eyes over morning coffee.
5.) Inspire and reassure. The first part is a Reminder to Self. If I’m not feeling it on any given day, how can I ask a staff member to? Never assume everyone is running at 2,800 rpms, which admittedly, I usually do. I take a deep breath before every call, zoom and interaction, and remember who I am talking to. And I really try to engage on that person’s passion. It seems to work. On the “reassure” part, I just find it helps to let people know they’re doing a pretty good job. We even celebrate the screw-ups. We pay for trying, stretching, and creating. Successes are a by-product. So are failures. If you’re with us at Beyondish, you’ve already proven that you bring something to the table. I like to let people know we know that. And value it. Deeply.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Plastics.” The Graduate made me choose this path of writing for a living. I named my firstborn after the lead character. The look on Ben and Elaine’s face in the final frame of the film just shouts out over “The Sounds of Silence” that they are unclear precisely where they are headed. But they are thinking about it. Everyone should pause once a day, hum a Simon & Garfunkel song, and think about where they are headed. Thinking has become underrated. So I guess, stop and think? “Plastics.” It’s something, right?
How can our readers further follow your work?
Visit Beyondish. We tell food stories. I suspect you will know what’s on my mind on any given day, based on our home page. Also, foodformarriage.com. That’s my personal website. The writer still opines there. Lots of good recipes, too.