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 Rob Weinhold, a crisis leadership expert.
Rob is Chief Executive of the Fallston Group, which he launched in 2009 to help organizations manage their reputations during life’s most critical times. As an executive serving various organizations in the public and private sectors, including the Baltimore Police Department, the U.S. Department of Justice and Ripken Baseball, Rob developed deep experience in crisis leadership, innovation, business growth, marketing and public affairs. In all these roles, Rob also served as chief strategist and has appeared on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, BBC and many other media outlets. He holds a Master of Science in Marketing degree from Johns Hopkins University.
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?
My career started at age 11 when, depending on the time of year, I hustled door-to-door with either a red Craftsman push lawnmower or a snow shovel. At the time, there was nothing more rewarding than looking at freshly mowed grass or mounds of snow next to what was previously a covered driveway. The few extra bucks in my pocket — that I quickly spent at the local Farm Store — were sure nice too! During this time, I learned the value of work ethic, customer service and long-term relationships. Loyal neighbors would have me back during the summer or after a driving snow; they expected me to be there, and I didn’t let them down. Years later, I bought my first car — an 8-cylinder, 1970 Buick Skylark — from one of my customers who knew I’d been eyeing it for years. To help a young kid out, Mr. Kosten sold it to me for a mere $500. The entire experience piqued my entrepreneurial appetite, but it would be an unconventional path for me to become a business owner.
I began my professional career as a police officer in the City of Baltimore. I always had an interest in helping people during life’s most difficult times, and the job was extremely rewarding. It taught me a lot about humanity, as I saw the very best and worst in people. Surprisingly, policing provides a unique opportunity to use discretion and be creative while treating people with dignity and respect. There are many ways to problem solve; the question is which way is optimal for the situation. Yes, some people require handcuffs, but many more need authentic understandings and a clear path forward — hope — for a better life. I tried to view each service call as a challenge: How could I make the situation better for those who were depending on me? Through many trials and triumphs, the job became indispensable to who I am today.
Becoming the public affairs director/chief spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department was both an incredible honor and an awesome responsibility. From daily crime to public policy to, tragically, line of duty deaths, my job was to make sense of the senseless. This task was both challenging and required much preparation. One wrong syllable or insensitive expression, and my future easily could have been altered. The truth is, people hang on every expression, word and action.
After six years as public affairs director and thousands upon thousands of local, national, and international media interviews, I had the fortune of being recruited to Washington, D.C. to serve as chief of staff for the United States Department of Justice. There, I managed large teams and budgets and contributed to the creation of innovative public policy. I briefed the U.S. Attorney General, worked with the White House and traveled the country keynoting about improving the quality of life in our nation’s communities.
Eventually, I had the opportunity to reinvent myself from a bureaucrat to business leader. My personal passion for baseball made working for Cal and Bill Ripken, transforming 50+ acres of woodlands in Myrtle Beach into one of the world’s premier sports destinations, feel like recreation. The leadership, strategy, and communications skills I learned from my experience as a police officer and a high-level federal employee translated well to Ripken Baseball, and I learned a ton about business there. “Ripken graduate school” gave me the confidence to achieve one of my bucket list items: starting my own company.
My measure of success, whether in policing, public policy, or ballparks, was to provide an extraordinary customer experience. Therefore, when it came time to pursue my own dream, I realized my strength was in relationships rather than transactions. So I did what I knew how to do: leverage my relationships. I asked my bosses, colleagues, subordinates, friends, and family — those who knew me best — where they believed I could make the most impact and help people. Asking for unfiltered, honest feedback felt vulnerable and at times even painful. However, I knew the rewards would be worth it, allowing me to authentically follow my passion and build a successful business.
A theme developed quickly from this exercise. I heard things like, “Rob, you know how to lead, are a sound strategist and can communicate better than most. However, if there is one person I’d turn to when everyone else is running around with their hair on fire, it’s you.” many said, “You make the complex simple, are a calming presence and deliver through chaos!” I recalled some sage advice a friend had given me years earlier: When you find a calling that puts you in the crosshairs of your passion and competency, coupled with the ability to monetize it and make a difference in the world, stay there. You’ve arrived!
In 2009, I started the Fallston Group, a Baltimore-based executive advisory firm that focuses on building, strengthening, and defending reputations. Our unique blend of services fuses the skillsets I’ve developed throughout my professional life and allows me to continue my passion of helping people during life’s most difficult times. While I’m no longer peddling lawn mowers nor snow shovels, metaphorically, our team uses both tools to build value and guide organizations to more brilliant and prosperous futures.
So far, I’ve lived a life with some pretty amazing opportunities and experiences — authoring a book, captaining a yacht, winning a golf tournament, appearing in an Old Bay commercial, becoming a grandfather and being loved by my family, among many, many others — and I don’t take anything for granted. Most importantly, I am grounded in faith and believe one is never standing taller than when bending over to help someone else.
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 the Fallston Group, I hired a seasoned PR pro with great credentials. Together, we had a meeting with a client to strategize about how to best share some good news. I had known this client for awhile, and he was someone with a big ego, a former boxer and, let’s just say, rough around the edges. My new employee pulled a draft of a news release out of his folder — a draft I hadn’t seen nor even known about — and handed it to the client.
After reviewing the release, the client looked at my employee, pointed and said, “If you spell my name wrong one more time, I am going to kick your a — !”
My employee quietly sunk down in his chair and said, “Well, I don’t that will be necessary…” Then, we all started laughing — at least I was laughing on the outside. Inside, I was mortified and learned a valuable lesson about knowing exactly what was going to be presented to each client so I could ensure it was correct. I also learned that I needed to be certain I could professionally trust a new hire before turning them loose. Thankfully, the experience did not harm the client relationship, and he gave us a lot more work afterward.
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?
Unquestionably, mentors have played a critical role in my career; in fact, two of my longtime mentors — Sam Ringgold and Stephen Amos — are now part of my company because of the personal and professional confidence I have in them. Both have been major parts of my growth spectrum.
Sam hired me as a departmental spokesperson in the Baltimore Police Department and groomed me for the media. The experience he gave me was a major building block in my career, and allowed me to become an expert called upon by many national and international media outlets over the past quarter century.
Stephen, who I know from my federal governmental days, is perhaps the best leader I have ever been around. Even during difficult times, he knows how to teach, communicate, motivate, empower, and hold people accountable. Stephen’s level of empathy and focus is unparalleled, and that’s saying a lot because I have traveled among some impressive leadership circles! When employees have honestly made mistakes, I’ve known them to come to Stephen and ask if they should resign. He tells them no and supports them. He says to them, “You’re much more valuable to us today than you were before you made the mistake.” Stephen views this as investing in his people and in the future.
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?
Since day number one, our team’s purpose has been to help people during life’s most difficult times. We hire hungry, humble, smart people who are mission-driven; they must have a level of compassion and empathy for those who are struggling. The work requires us to immerse ourselves in people’s lives so we can help them turn short-term adversity into long-term advantage.
This purpose comes from my drive to help people, a drive I’ve had since I was very young. When I was asked why I wanted to be a police officer in Baltimore, I vividly remember my answer to the detective: “I want to help people.” That hasn’t changed. After decades of helping people during life’s most critical times, I’ve come to realize that crisis is not to be feared. In fact, crisis is a growth strategy.
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?
I did this many, many times during my career as Public Affairs Director for the Baltimore Police Department. One situation that stands out is at a press conference I had to give after two officers tragically dies in the line of duty, in short succession. While live on camera during a press conference, I was asked by a reporter to describe the feeling of our department in the wake of these tragedies. I had worn the badge and uniform too, and I realized how momentous it was to imagine and then describe how 4,000 of my sworn and civilian colleagues, and the officers’ loved ones, felt. It was the closest I ever came to becoming emotional on camera.
I focused on maintaining my composure as the voice of reason while humanizing the information so the reporters would get not only the facts, but also better understand what each of the deaths meant for the community and the wider world of public policy. The news was shocking and tragic, but I found a way to deliver it in a compassionate, credible, and articulate way. The result built both public trust and earned me the respect of my colleagues. For me, composure was the cornerstone to making people think, feel and act differently through my words and expression.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think everyone has moments of weakness when they question their purpose, direction, or place in life — I certainly have. What sustains me is my firm belief that I am helping people through my unique craft. It is my “why,” and so when my body says no, my heart still says “yes!” Also, my faith is an important part of my life. Helping others is part of my core values, which helps me stay focused on the big picture. Generally, I believe pain is temporary, and if you can get through a few troughs, you’ll be okay. The bottom line is to act like a pro and never quit fighting for your causes and the causes of others.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During times of crisis, there are several things a leader must do all at once: always have an accurate command of the facts, operate with the utmost levels of integrity, communicate clearly, take responsibility when things go wrong and praise others when they go right, be decisive, be optimistic and demonstrate a path forward. That’s a big role, but by maintaining composure, treating people fairly, and modeling compassionate and empathetic behavior, leaders can build the levels of clarity and trust required to navigate an organization through a crisis. Leaders need to always be focused, available and responsive, having the organizations short-range and long-term goals in mind. All of this provides a deep level of emotional safety, which is foundational in chaos.
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 best morale booster is optimism. Workforces feed off a leader’s composure, vibration, and articulated path forward; the shadow of a leader is alive and well. Having authentic optimism allows a leader to operate with a strong sense of integrity and decisiveness. The latter is supremely important; people would rather follow someone who makes a wrong decision than no decision at all. However, that’s also one of the many reasons to double down on opening communications lines and really listening and hearing people. Having more information will lead to better decisions. Plus, when people feel heard, they also feel cared for. An adage that has served me well as an executive is, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Happily, loyalty goes both ways, and effective leaders get things done through others.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Communicating bad news calls for open and straightforward honesty, and the message needs to be provided in as timely a fashion as possible. If you do not do this, mistrust will arise as people fill in information gaps with rumors. Rumors are destructive. I always tell my clients if you don’t tell your story, someone else will. And, when someone else tell your story, it certainly won’t be the story you want told. People must be given reliable information, even though that information may evolve.
Find the root cause and be the source of truth. Lastly, Follow the Resilient Moment Communications model. The underpinning of success is the ability to communicate effectively, especially in dire, unexpected circumstances. The Model, developed by Dr. George Everly, Jr., Ph.D., one of the founding fathers of the modern era of stress management, provides an excellent communications blueprint:
- What happened?
- What caused it?
- What are the effects — realized and anticipated?
- What is being done about it?
- What needs to be done in the future?
If you can fully answer the above questions during times of crisis or adversity, you will have answered the key questions most people have during life’s most critical times — you will provide effective leadership.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders must look over the bow and get out of the engine room — there are others who can tend to the engine room. A leader needs to evaluate research, look at marketplace trends and speak to others in their industry. They need to assess what the trade or regulatory bodies are saying. They need to consider whether they have enough resources to pivot and ride the current versus being in a slack tide; they should establish financial reserves in good times to prepare for winter. They must widen their perspectives and ask for the diverse opinions of people who do not think like they do. They must learn how to separate their emotion from science — and make sound business decisions that drive their executive dashboards. It’s also beneficial to learn from history and gather as much intel as possible. A lifelong journey for leaders is to know themselves — emotional intelligence is a gift — once one understands themselves and how they interpret the world around them, decisional clarity surfaces. Then, be decisive and make decisions.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The answer is to have integrity. The most resilient leaders never do anything that compromises their integrity. Trust is on the line. Remember, reputation leads to trust, and trust leads to valuation. Not all currency is financial.
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?
Mistake #1: Staying stagnant and hoping that things will go back to normal. There is always a new normal after crisis. The question is whether you have taken the time to reimagine your business by embracing lessons learned and seizing new opportunities.
Mistake #2: Not making relationships a priority. Relationships are critical during difficult times. A strong sense of community and ambassadorship is the foundation that will carry you through. Crisis is isolating; dependence on community leads to creative solutions.
Mistake #3: Refusing to put up your hand and acknowledge that you are in crisis. Many do not ask for help due to ego, embarrassment, or the blind hope that things will get better the next day. However, hope is not a strategy, and the longer a leader takes to establish their navigational fix, the more quickly the window of opportunity closes. Being forward-thinking, optimistic, and resilient reaps wonderful dividends, and you may need the perspective of others to get there.
Mistake #4: Not asking trusted advisors for help. In my experience, the leaders who cycle through crisis the most efficiently and quickly acknowledge they are in crisis and ask for help. Those who don’t do these two things get stuck and waddle through a prolonged difficult time.
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?
During difficult times I have found it incredibly important to maintain a predictive mindset while anticipating client needs. Our business is driven by three verticals: crisis and issue leadership, strategic marketing and PR, and training and workshops. All of these verticals support our reason for existing: to build, strengthen and defend reputations. With that in mind, we have diversified our offerings, so the primary point of client entry falls within one of the three verticals. From there, we work hard to establish trust, overdeliver and then broaden our offerings within the other verticals. In other words, we go in narrow and pull out wide in terms of the business that is entrusted to our team.
However, you have to focus on what is going on in the world around you and be willing to make adaptations — even disruptive ones — as necessary. During the COVID-19 pandemic, my team and I made a conscious decision to reimagine our business to operate under a virtual model. We were already focusing on our operational infrastructure by adding new team members, expanding geographically and investing in training infrastructure to over-deliver for our clients. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to test a virtual work environment. We realized that technology had evolved to the point where we were connected enough to make a fully virtual model work. The lease on our physical building was expiring, and so we took the plunge.
Moving to a virtual model has reinforced my instinct and desire to deepen the Fallston Group’s crisis leadership bench. There are now no artificial geographic boundaries to consider. Because our clients invest in what is between our ears rather than our physical presence and we have a much higher level of virtual connectivity than ever before, we can recruit hungry, humble, smart professionals from anywhere in the world. Bottom line, we can help even more people during their most critical time — our “why?”
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.
- Be an effective communicator, and realize that everything you do communicates. Communication is an art, not a science. The best communicators I know are obsessive about every syllable they utter, every piece of clothing they wear and ever message point they deliver. They deliver messages in a jargon-free, conversational manner and emotionally connect with their audiences. They understand the big picture — it’s what they do best — see the whole room and move people to proper perspective, balance and action.
A clear example of this occurred after the death of George Floyd and the questions of racial inequity that it raised. Many organizations came under scrutiny, including private schools. The schools doubled down on communications to demonstrate that they were committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. They conducted listening tours with parents, students, teachers, coaches, vendors and other groups to find out what their concerns related to equity were. These micro-communities felt not only heard but also validated. The schools developed diversity, equity and inclusion roadmaps and communicated these plans. By opening up the lines of communications, the private schools were able to reduce the temperature and reach a place of stability during a time that could have been tumultuous.
2. Have integrity, a quality that embraces taking responsibility as well as being honest. In 2018, Southwest Airlines had a situation in which an engine exploded in mid-air, which not only killed a person, but was caught on camera. The airline did a magnificent job of proceeding with integrity. They didn’t shift the blame for the incident but took responsibility for it. They worked closely and transparently with the National Transportation Safety Board to collaborate on finding out what caused the incident so it would never again be repeated.
Southwest Airlines didn’t spin their way through this crisis; they led their way through. As a result of their integrity-filled response to the tragedy, their stock of good will and trust with the public actually rose. One of my hallmarks — You don’t spin your way through crisis, you lead your way through.
3. Maintain your composure as if driven by something bigger than the moment. During a crisis, a leader must strive to remain composed, with calmness and positivity. They need to be able to slow the process down and make wise decisions rather than being compulsive. I often tell people they need to “Google Earth” out and gain some perspective.
Good examples of leaders who do this are the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, although it’s not necessarily a religious thing. I look to these men as people who act as if driven by a higher power. They are often a voice of reason because they operate at the speed of nature and have the ability to tune out visible, vocal pressure. This gives them a high degree of objectivity, which helps them build trust with others. Having the quality of composure can also help you communicate with authority — even when there are few answers to give.
4. Be decisive.No matter the crisis, leaders must remember they are playing chess, not checkers; they need to keep the mid- and long-term goals in mind as well as the short-term milestones. A crisis leader must take authority over a situation and confront the issue head-on. They must embrace the ability to make decisions that account for the well-being of employees, stakeholders and the business.
When Starbucks made the news because two African-American men waiting for a business partner at one of their stores in Philadelphia wouldn’t leave when asked, prompting a call the police, CEO Kevin R. Johnson responded quickly and decisively on Twitter, saying that he wanted to meet personally when the men. Not only did he do so, but he decided to close 8,000 of his stores, sequenced a short time later, so that his 175,000 employees could participate in racial bias training. Johnson was very decisive and had a view towards the future: He was more concerned about doing the right thing rather than profits.
5. Embrace an optimism mindset, and surround yourself with people who give you energy.
I often say there are two kinds of people: those who give me energy, and those who take it away. Optimistic people are the first kind, and I thrive around people who are positive and know how to rally a teams and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
I’ve seen this in action at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, part of the University of Maryland Medical Center, and the first trauma hospital in the United States. It was built around the idea that after a severe injury, it’s crucial to undergo surgery quickly — the reason why we now send trauma victims to the hospital via helicopter. The emergency care teams at Shock Trauma have such optimism about saving lives. It provides them with creativity as they exhaust all options with a view towards saving each, individual life. This optimism also helps them cope with extreme pressure. They are all about success, and it pays off — about 96 percent of patients brought to them survive their injuries.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When all is said and done, what do you want to have said and done?” I open keynote addresses with this quotation and reflect on it regularly. Considering what my legacy will be grounds my thinking and keeps me focused on what is important in life. I believe everyone has a platform; the question is: What do you do with it?
How can our readers further follow your work?
Besides visiting our website (fallstongroup.com) where I have a blog and some media clips of mine posted, people who want a deeper look into my thoughts on leadership can check out my book, The Art of Crisis Leadership (Weinhold & Cowherd, 2016).