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 Len Herstein.
Len Herstein has over 30 years of experience in business and brand marketing. Prior to founding his marketing and events company (ManageCamp Inc.), Len innovated, managed, and grew brands for major consumer packaged goods marketers, including Campbell Soup Company, Coca-Cola, and Nabisco. Since 2015, Len has served as a reserve deputy sheriff with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado. Learn more at lenherstein.com.
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?
Such a pleasure to be here! I started my career in management consulting with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). After obtaining my MBA, I transitioned to consumer packaged goods brand marketing — working for Coca-Cola, The Campbell Soup Company, and Nabisco. I then took an entrepreneurial turn when I started ManageCamp, the producer of 19 annual Brand ManageCamp conferences since 2003. In 2015, I entered the world of public service and law enforcement when I became a reserve Sheriff’s Deputy. I initially expected this was going to be completely different than anything else I had ever done. It didn’t take long to realize that I was learning things that were directly applicable back to my business and personal lives. The first and most powerful concept was that complacency kills. It struck me that complacency is not only dangerous in law enforcement but it also destroys businesses, brands, and personal relationships. This led me to write my first book — Be Vigilant! Strategies to Stop Complacency, Improve Performance, and Safeguard Success — which represents the intersection of all my experiences to date!
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?
I’ve had a lot of ‘starts’ in my career and have certainly made mistakes every step of the way! In my most recent endeavor, the biggest mistake I made at the start of writing Be Vigilant! was inadvertently using a voice that wasn’t my own. I wrote the first few chapters and then took a step back to read them. Surprisingly, I could barely recognize the writing as my own. I realized I was writing in a much more formal tone than I speak. It was as if I was writing in a way meant to make me sound smarter than I was, and I hated it! Not only did I hate reading it, but I knew that I was going to hate writing it. I figured out in that moment that if my book was going to have any chance of success, I was going to need to find my own voice. I spent a lot of time writing and re-writing those first chapters until they actually sounded like they came from me. This process drove home a point I already knew but had someone forgot. Authenticity is truly one of the keys to happiness and success. The jury is still out on the success of Be Vigilant!, but I absolutely know that I’m happy with the work because it truly represents who I am and what’s important to me.
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?
Over the years, I’ve had the great fortune to work with many great and brilliant people. Throughout these last 19 years of producing the Brand ManageCamp conference, I’ve worked with scores of amazing business and marketing minds — most of whom are bestselling authors. I knew all these people were giving and generous, but I was blown away by how much so many of them graciously helped me as I went through the two year process of writing Be Vigilant! People like Jay Baer, Shep Hyken, Mitch Joel, Carla Johnson, David Meerman Scott, Ann Handley, Brant Pinvidic, Joseph Jaffe, and so many more took the time to listen and help guide me down this path. One specific story that sticks out relates to bestselling author Lt. Col. Waldo Waldman (Never Fly Solo). One day I called Waldo to tell him about my book and get some advice. Waldo had just started a workout on his exercise bike, but he put on his headphones and we talked. He asked me some of the hardest questions I’d been asked about the book. He put me on the spot time after time. After 45 minutes he had completed a high intensity workout, but I suspect I was the one sweating the most. I walked away from that call with so much more clarity than when it started and I was so grateful for Waldo’s time. Since then, Waldo has stayed involved and shown a real, genuine interest in helping me achieve success. Of course, I’m grateful for his input on my work. But, most of all, I’m inspired by his passion for helping others and just generally being of service to anyone he can.
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?
I completely agree that purpose is critical to business and personal success. In fact, I wrote a whole chapter about it in Be Vigilant! My purpose in this journey — whether it be in writing the book, speaking about complacency and vigilance, or consulting — is to empower organizations and individuals to safeguard the success they’ve worked so hard to attain. The end goal is not achieving success, it’s keeping it!
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’ve obviously all gone through (and continue to go through) an extremely difficult time brought on by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. At ManageCamp, we’re in the business of live events, so you can imagine how challenging the last year and a half has been as our entire business model has been turned upside down. When things really started to get bad back at the start of 2020, we were just getting into the full swing of promoting Brand ManageCamp 2020 which was scheduled to be held live in Las Vegas in September of 2020. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that, as much as many of our vendors wanted to promote the concept that things would be fine by then, it was clear that things were a long way from being fine. My approach to leading our team during this difficult and uncertain time was simple and straightforward. We focused on what was important and what we could control. We understood that this was not just about us. Everyone’s world had been turned upside down. People were much more interested in figuring out where their next roll of toilet paper was coming from than what was happening with the Brand ManageCamp conference! So, our first step was to understand where we stood in the grand scheme of importance from our customer’s point of view. We put out a message that acknowledged the situation, expressed our sincere concern for our constituents, and told them that we would be going dark for a period of time so as not to bother them while also giving us time to figure out what we were going to do. And then we left them alone and went to work. We put our efforts into plotting a path towards being of most use to our customers. We identified our areas of opportunity and the gaps in our skill and knowledge sets that needed to be filled to realize those opportunities. We let go of our conventions and our comfort zones and dove headfirst into building capabilities around virtual event production and delivery. Within a couple of months, we had pivoted into virtual events. The concepts I applied in this journey are the same I apply during any time of difficulty — stay calm, focus on what’s important, understand and respect your customers, your vendors, and your employees, be flexible, be quick to adapt, be open to change, act quickly, and learn as you go.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I never considered giving up. It wasn’t even an option. I’m driven by a deep desire to succeed. However, having the flexibility to redefine success within the context of an ever-changing environment is core to maintaining the motivation to continue through. Sure, my vision of success is different now than it was a year and a half ago. But the desire to achieve, and maintain, success is just as strong.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is communication. When people are scared, they crave information. Without that information, they’ll start filling in the holes to the questions they have on their own. And the answers they create will rarely be the most positive. When there’s a lack of information, there’s a lack of trust. And when there’s a lack of trust, the benefit of the doubt disappears. Accountability and transparency are core towards creating a culture of trust. And transparency is really all about honest and consistent communication. This concept is so important, and there’s so much to learn about accountability and transparency from the experiences of law enforcement, that I dedicated an entire chapter to it in Be Vigilant!
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?
The things a leader can do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team are the same whether the future seems uncertain or set it stone. We’ve already talked about the importance of communication, especially as it relates to accountability and transparency. A couple of other concepts that are critical to employee engagement are autonomy and discretion. There’s no quicker way to ensure team members check out than to make them believe they have no control over their work product and/or have no room for creativity or personalization in the way they do their job. Chapter Eight of Be Vigilant! is entitled “Autonomy: Fighting Complacency through the Power of Empowerment.” In this chapter, I talk about a study that has shown that as autonomy increases, engagement at work and commitment to the job can increase by at least 17 percent, while job satisfaction and role clarity also rise significantly. The more scripted a job is, the more likely the employee is to check out. This is especially dangerous because complacency is never far away once an employee checks out. And, even if you believe you’re being vigilant in the executive offices, checked out and complacent front-line workers will often blind you to the most imminent threats to your business.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news is swiftly and honestly. As we’ve discussed, when people have questions and don’t get answers, or get answers they suspect are false due to a lack of trust, they’ll fill in the holes themselves — often with the most pessimistic view of the situation possible. Especially in times of crisis, no news IS bad news. So, make sure you get out there with communication that is timely and true. But also focus on paving the path towards a more positive future. There are three pieces that must be included in the communication — the WHAT (what has happened?), the SO WHAT (why is this important to us and what does it mean?), and the NOW WHAT (what are we going to do about it?). Most people stop at the WHAT or the SO WHAT and neglect the NOW WHAT (which, in my opinion, is the most important part!). Convey the present but show that you’ve thought through the implications and show there’s a path to a more positive future.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future’s always unpredictable. As soon as we believe we can predict the future based on past success, we’ve developed the over-confidence and hubris that breeds complacency. By understanding that there are many possible paths in the future, we can embrace the concept of scenario planning. We do this all the time in law enforcement — not just focusing on the most probable outcome but also planning for what happens when things go wrong. It’s a core part of developing a vigilant mindset. The worst time to plan for a crisis is when you’re in the middle of one. By understanding the variables that can change the future, you can develop plans for the different potential outcomes so that you’re prepared, calm, and confident if any of those other outcomes were to evolve.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My number one principle to help guide through the ups and downs of turbulent times is to focus on what you can control. I can’t control how the world reacts to a pandemic of catastrophic proportions. I can control how calm I remain, how flexible and adaptable I am, how much I understand and value my customers and other constituents, how much I scenario-plan and prepare for potential future outcomes, how honest and trustworthy I am, etc. Focusing on what you can control not only guides you through the storm but also allows you to avoid the indecision of fear and uncertainty and decrease your time to action.
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?
Sure! I think the most common mistake businesses make during difficult times is focusing on themselves as opposed to their constituents. We saw this over and over again at the start of the pandemic. Businesses used email (the easiest way they could communicate during a lockdown) to tell everybody what they could sell them. Was this the best thing for their customers? Or did their customers have more important concerns at the time? That lack of empathy for their customers is something that sticks with people for a long time. A second mistake I’ve seen is an unwillingness to adapt or pivot. Businesses decide they have so much invested in their current path that they’re going to do everything they can to keep things on track. It comes off as tone-deaf and serves to erode relationships. A third mistake I’ve seen made is a lack of communication. As we’ve discussed, people view a lack of communication through the worst possible lens. This doesn’t mean to overcommunicate for your own self-satisfaction. It does mean that you need to understand if there are questions that your constituents have and make sure you provide answers as swiftly as possible.
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?
To succeed in turbulent times, I believe you have to be able to do four things. First, you need to have a complete and intimate understanding of your customers. Second, you need to have a complete and intimate understanding of yourself. Your strengths, your weaknesses, your purpose, your culture. Third, you have to be able to manage the intersection of the first two things so that you can be of most use to your customers as possible. Fourth, and perhaps most important, you must have a commitment to being of use to your constituents and the flexibility to understand the definition of that usefulness may change over time and circumstances. If you can achieve these four things, you will ensure you always have a path forward.
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.
The five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times are:
- Practice accountability and transparency so as to maintain trust with all constituents.
- Give team members autonomy and discretion in performing their jobs so that they’ll remain engaged and will decrease your organization’s reaction time to evolving threats.
- Embrace your organization’s purpose, and ensure everyone understands it, so that it can guide actions and reactions in ways that keep everyone moving towards a common goal. Especially in turbulent times, it’s critically important that everyone can articulate the ‘whys’ behind their actions — and the ‘whys’ should always translate back to the shared purpose of the organization.
- This one is something that must be practiced BEFORE times become turbulent! Develop a process for threat awareness and scenario planning so that the organization can remain calm and execute confidently when situations arise.
- Be aware of where complacency can develop due to over-confidence, self-satisfaction, and/or hubris bred from past success and develop vigilant strategies for stopping that complacency, improving performance, and safeguarding that success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is just three words from bestselling author and past Brand ManageCamp conference speaker Bruce Turkel. The quote is so powerful, it became the title for one of his books: All About Them. In these three words, Bruce conveys the importance of making sure everything you do is all about your customers or your consumers, or your audience, or whomever you are serving at any given time. It is a constant reminder that we should avoid the lure of making things all about us. This quote helped me design and execute Brand ManageCamp conferences. It helps me prepare presentations (Is this slide about something I WANT to say? Or is it about something my audience NEEDS to hear?). And it certainly helped me write Be Vigilant!
How can our readers further follow your work?
Most everything we discussed in this interview relates back to my new book Be Vigilant!, which is available through Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Apple Books, or your favorite book retailer. You can find out more about the book and me at https://LenHerstein.com.