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      Michelle Loretta of ‘Be Sage Consulting’

      We Spoke to Michelle Loretta of ‘Be Sage Consulting’ 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 Michelle Loretta of Be Sage Consulting.

      Michelle is a strategist for the events industry and creator of Be Sage Consulting. Since 2009, she has blended her past as an accountant for Deloitte, a sales and marketing manager for DDLA, a merchandiser for Coach, and a wedding stationery business owner to coach and consult events industry entrepreneurs. Be Sage Consulting produces Be Sage Conference, a master-level event for wedding and event professionals nationwide. Michelle is an international speaker who has been featured in Real Simple, Special Events magazine, and was named to the TOP 1000 Event Professionals by BizBash in 2019. She lives in Miami with her husband, daughter, and son.

      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 roots in the accounting world, having started my career at Deloitte. But, early-on in that job, I was itchy for a more creative life. After leaving Deloitte, I worked in sales, overseeing the wholesale business for an importer of European children’s clothing. It wasn’t until 2004, that I finally took the leap into being an entrepreneur when I founded a wedding stationery business.

      I started to see some gaps in how people did business in the events industry. And, that prompted me to start writing a business blog for the wedding industry. In 2009 that blog, Sage Wedding Pros, gained a lot of traction for giving people hands-on tools that they could use to better themselves as business owners. We were the first in the industry that taught the ins and outs of how to write a business plan, and we became known for that. That blog evolved into a consulting business for event business owners. Today, I continue to consult and coach small businesses in the event space, particularly in financial strategy and business planning under the new name: Be Sage Consulting.

      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?

      When I first started blogging, my blog was called Smart Wedding Biz for about 3 weeks. I soon learned that there was another blog in our industry named Smart Wedding Planner. Oh boy! It was purely a naive mistake of someone (me) who had not done their research. But, it looked horrible to others — like I had copied the other site. I can laugh about this rookie mistake now. The big lesson I learned is: do your market research first! Smart Wedding Biz was also a horribly boring name. {haha} I look back on this and I know that these are the kinds of mistakes you make when you don’t have enough experience. Time helps cushion a lot of the poor choices we make. We do become more wise, more sage, the older we become in our lives as entrepreneurs.

      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?

      When Sage first began as a blog in 2009, I had some passionate readers who really encouraged me to keep going. Many of these people had been in the industry for a long time and I was surprised that they had found the blog. (I credit Twitter with that.)

      Julian St. Pierre was a leader in the wedding video segment of our industry and he called me out of the blue (on an actual telephone) and I was awestruck that he knew who I was. He told me that he liked what I was writing about and that I had a lot to share with the industry. It was because of him that I was able to get my first speaking gig in 2009. He passed away just a few months after we talked, and I always think of him as a guardian angel. We had such a brief encounter — just a few emails and a phone call. But, he was very influential and helped me make some of my first relationships in the educational side of weddings and events.

      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?

      My company’s purpose has always been to create financially and operationally sustainable businesses in the events industry. My goal has been to provide people with the tools to have the freedom, flexibility, and strong financial means that can come from being a business owner.

      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?

      By mid-March this year, it became very apparent that the wedding and event industries were going to be decimated pretty quickly given the constrictions on gatherings worldwide. The first to go was SouthxSouthwest, and the dominoes continued to crash after that. As a leader in this industry, I moved quickly to help event professionals feel a greater sense of control. The biggest fear for many has been the loss of income from the industry coming to an abrupt stop.

      I immediately began to host live webinars and meetings focused on giving the industry 3 things: a place to not only express fears but also to mastermind solutions with each other, tangible steps to protect themselves financially with cash flow planning and access to legal experts, and timely, heavily-researched, information on all the government and private aid (PPP, EIDL, grants, etc.)

      For my clients, I offered free ‘cashflow triage’ sessions in which we reviewed numbers to buffer up cash reserves. The payoff of those quick communications and sessions was immediate for the industry. Most of my audience was able to secure PPP funding, and later EIDL loans. And, many are, thankfully, much more secure on account of it.

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

      Oh — for sure. Anyone who says they haven’t considered giving up just hasn’t been around long enough, or hasn’t struggled deeply. I think if you have ever faced MAJOR business hurdles, you’ve considered giving up. But, I always circle back. I allow myself to rest and am able to reset my focus and energy.

      I’m SUPER motivated by creating NEWNESS. I love being able to create new opportunities, new ways to sell, new ideas, new connections. This is the part of business ownership that is the most gratifying to me. I like change. And, I can create change as often (or as little) as I want. I can spin my business in whichever direction I choose.

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

      The most critical role of a leader is to SHOW UP. Leaders are present — whether it’s in vocally guiding their community — or whether it’s in offering quiet support. Either way, a leader rolls up their sleeves and gets to work. I see leadership as providing people with the foundation whereby the members of that community can do their best work. That’s my job as a leader: to make people’s lives/jobs/businesses easier so that they can succeed on their terms.

      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?

      I find that people value REAL TALK and not fluff. But, at the same time, it’s important to remind people of all the opportunities that are ours for the taking. Yes — the events industry is hard-hit right now, but there is a lot of innovation happening. How we respond to these changes and challenges is going to dictate how events are done for the next 10–20 years. How can we, as an industry, dictate the terms of those changes? I love the feeling that we are catalysts for the change, as opposed to being victims of it.

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

      The best way to communicate difficult news is with honesty, transparency, and humility. In early spring, at the start of the pandemic crisis, and then later in summer as our industry grappled with racial injustice issues, I spoke with my community from the heart. I shared my personal experiences and observations. These weren’t moments for big PR pitches. People wanted to hear what was in my heart. They wanted my honest perspective on the state of our industry. And those early conversations allowed business owners in the events industry to open up about their vulnerabilities. This has given everyone the power to vocalize: “We’re not OK. We need help.”

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

      This is the hardest thing we are facing right now, especially in the events industry. There are a few things that have been really helpful in guiding my community. The first is to look at history in terms of economic impact. While we don’t fully know the timeline for the virus, we can look to our most recent recession 10 years ago to gauge the economic impact on small businesses and adjust plans accordingly.

      The second thing we can do is look at other parallel industries to see how they are preparing: tourism, airlines, restaurants. These are all parallel segments of hospitality that have made changes that we can learn from. Everything from their cancellation policies to staffing decisions can help dictate how small event businesses can make changes to their business models.

      The third thing we can do is bolster our businesses financially. Small businesses that entered this year with cash reserves have a greater chance of survival than those with a weak financial foundation. But, it’s not too late. I’ve been encouraging people in the events industry to create a cash flow strategy for the upcoming two years. While much of it is guesstimating, it will give people clarity on the peaks and valleys of their business finances during this difficult time.

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

      I think leaders often feel like they need to be the cheerleader for their community or team. And, that can actually be defeating in many ways. A leader may feel the need to look strong, and say, “let’s all get through this.” Or, “let’s pivot!” The reality is that change is really hard for most people. And, change through a crisis is even more difficult.

      An important principle is to understand the emotional needs of people going through crisis. I have found that understanding the change cycle, much like the stages of grief, has been very valuable. In the change cycle for organizations (according to the Kubler Ross Change Curve) people need to pass through the stages of shock, denial, frustration, depression, experimentation, decision-making, and integration.

      Knowing that everyone in an organization or community passes through these stages at different speeds has been helpful in navigating the ups and downs of this crisis within my industry. Some people have been quick to move onto their pivot strategy, while others have been stuck in a mode of frustration or depression. This is completely normal. As a leader, I’ve worked to understand where each person is at and speak specifically to that. Are you depressed about the state of events, and your business, right now? Step away, and do something for yourself. Are you experimenting with a pivot strategy? Let’s talk through with this business model looks like. Forcing everyone to move forward, when they may not be ready to do so, is completely counter-productive. Being attuned to people’s needs and emotions, and their place in the change curve, is critical for guiding a company through changes.

      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?

      The most common mistakes I see businesses make in times of crisis are:

      • Responding impulsively as an emotional reaction
      • Not addressing the emotional needs of the audience (staff, clients, community)
      • Leaders who do not create space and time for their own personal grieving and who do not manage their own personal needs at the time of crisis

      hen people get stressed during challenging times, it’s natural to go through a myriad of emotional reactions. (We see this with the above referenced Kubler Ross Change Curve). A big mistake I’ve seen people make during difficult times is to respond impulsively. This is often as a result of what leaders are going through emotionally, without taking into account the full scope of the challenges at hand. While many crises require that we act swiftly, it’s also important to take a pause, examine options, and work through a strategy to see if it makes the most sense for the business and all stakeholders (staff, clients, community, owners).

      Some businesses choose to forge ahead with the idea that “everything’s great, everything’s fine!” This is dangerous because it’s hard to keep up a strong facade in times of crisis. Eventually, the house of cards begins to crumble. (We’ve seen this with the United States management of COVID.) You’ll lose credibility with your audience. People want sincerity, honesty, and authenticity from others. And this is true for the messaging you share with your staff, clients, and community.

      Lastly, a big mistake that owners and leaders sometimes make in an effort to remain strong for their people is to not take personal time off to manage the weight of the crisis. I found this early on in the pandemic. I was holding up to 10 webinars a week, managing client calls until all hours of the night, trying to help give guidance to event business owners. And, this doesn’t even cover all that was happening at home with my kids in virtual school, and our family’s survival mode. After about a month of this intensity, I began to fall apart myself. I could not continue at this pace. I caught myself and took off several BIG CHUNKS of personal time. It’s important to take this time off (even a small time) for any crisis: whether it’s a pandemic crisis, a divorce, the loss of a loved one. We need time and space to rest and heal so that we can be effective leaders.

      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?

      The best thing a small business can do during turbulent times is have a financial strategy in place and actively use it to make all decisions. I work with business owners to build a cash flow plan for the upcoming two years. This not only gives them the clear view of where they stand financially, but allows them to make stronger decisions to remain viable. In building this cash flow plan, an owner can identify when cash begins to slip and decide how to make corrections, whether by pivoting, seeking financing or relief aid, or making budget cuts. Even with things very uncertain over the next two years, we can still make some guesstimates in terms of our income and expenses. Business owners without this roadmap are running blindly through the most challenging time in our modern history.

      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.) Be aware of people’s emotional vulnerability and lead with empathy.

      During uncertain times, it’s critical to feel the emotional pulse of what people are experiencing. Some people will be fearful, others angry, some sad. Taking into consideration that everyone is likely vulnerable and raw will help lead with empathy. Empathy is feeling WITH others.

      Barack Obama was outstanding in his awareness of people’s vulnerability and responding with true empathy. After the Sandy Hook shooting, he addressed the United States: “Each time I learn the news, I react not as a president, but as anybody else would: as a parent.” He felt our pain as parents, and as Americans.

      2.) Leaders should share REAL TALK with their community.

      People don’t want sugar coating, and they don’t want fake optimism. It’s important to trust that people will know the best way to respond to difficult news. Anything less than complete honesty and transparency will erode any confidence in the leader. It also allows people to begin making the right changes, whether it be for their business or their personal lives.

      I live in Miami, and our local leadership during the pandemic has been strong. In March, our city Mayor, Francis Suarez, contracted coronavirus. He posted videos on Twitter each day with how he was feeling and shared with our community the importance of taking the virus seriously. He shared what he was doing to make sure he was not spreading the virus to others (sending his family to isolate with other family members, while he was quarantined alone.) Mayor Suarez had mild symptoms, but he never downplayed the gravity of the virus. And, since then he has implemented policies to protect our citizens, often to the opposition of state and national leaders. He’s always been honest and open, and completely candid. He has supporters on both sides of the political spectrum on account of his transparency.

      3.) Share tangible action items for people to feel control and clarity.

      During a crisis people can become paralyzed or frenetic. By giving people action items, they’ll have direction for how to move forward in a constructive way. A leader should share 2–3 small things that they can do. Simple consistent messaging is valuable when people don’t even know where to begin. It’s why in emergency communication, like earthquake preparedness, they will advise people on the steps: “Drop, Cover, and Hold On”. These are simple steps that people can remember and act on.

      I found this to be very effective in the events industry in the early days of the pandemic. In the early days I encouraged people to seek protection and preparation in 3 ways: review their legal coverage, communicate proactively with clients, and bolster their finances.

      4.) Listen.

      Leaders are open to learning from their community. What do people need most from their leader? Where are people hurting? What tools do they need? Where can I do better? It’s important that leadership come in the form of a conversation rather than a lecture. Leaders listen.

      I’ve seen this done well by some high schools and colleges in the United States. During the recent racial ‘awakening’ in the United States many black students created Instagram accounts labeled @blackat___ sharing painful experiences of racism and disrimination at their campuses nationwide. Many schools responded by admitting faults in their systems, and the ways they are working to learn and actively change things so that these communities are safe for all. While they may not have all the answers, leadership shows that they are in a conversation with their community. They are LISTENING.

      5.) Lead by example.

      The biggest mistake leaders can make is thinking that the rules don’t apply to them. This isn’t leadership. This is a power trip and power does not equal leadership. A true leader will lead by example.

      Chef José Andrés is the perfect embodiment of this. He is the founder of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit that provides meals to people in the wake of a disaster. It would be easy for him, busy with all his restaurants and enterprises, to sit on his kitchen throne and direct his foundation in name only. But, he is often the first person on the ground. He was in Puerto Rico after Maria, in the Bahamas after Dorian, in California after the wildfires, and so on. He is non-stop. And, the reason why World Central Kitchen is so successful is because he is there, getting his hands dirty, inspiring people with his actions.

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

      “The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth.” I’m not sure who said that. But I have found this to be true for the last 20 years of my career. Each time I have faced something uncertain or scary, it’s pushed me to become better at what I do. I see this for my clients too. I love when they come to be with some complicated challenges because all I see is opportunity for them to be better, to grow. Anything else would be boring.

      How can our readers further follow your work?

      People can visit my website: www.besageconsulting.com or find me on Instagram @besagealways