Rob Reiner: “Every movie is a startup”

Rob Reiner stopped by the SmartBrief office in Washington, D.C., on Monday to discuss producing and directing movies, the creation of Castle Rock, and his newest project, “Shock and Awe" (a DirecTV exclusive from June 14 to July 11, in theaters July 13).

The film explores the efforts of Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief John Walcott, played by Reiner, and his reporters before the 2003 Iraq War as they questioned the true nature of the Bush White House’s justification for the invasion. Walcott, now at Reuters, has also served as chief content officer and editor-in-chief at SmartBrief.

While Reiner is well known for his many television  ("All in the Family") and movie roles ("This is Spinal Tap"), he has also been a successful director and producer for decades.

SmartBrief CEO and President Rick Stamberger spoke with Reiner about his role as a business leader in a highly competitive industry. Excerpts of that discussion follow.

Why make "Shock and Awe"?

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

RICK STAMBERGER: I asked John [Walcott], “Why should a conservative Republican watch this film?”

ROB REINER: What was his answer?

Because nobody should go into war lightly. And they ought to go out to Section 60 Arlington [Cemetery] and see the cost --

There’s a line in the movie that I say, playing John, and that John actually in fact said to his journalists, right there at the newsroom. They had been watching this “Meet The Press” show in which Dick Cheney was giving the rationale for the war to Tim Russert, and the main journalists Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel were starting to question their reporting, wondering, were they getting it right? And John gives this incredible speech, which he actually gave and we wrote it.

But the line’s that’s the most important and the line that really resonates not only then but now is, “If the government says something, you have only one question to ask: Is it true?”

And that is the job of the journalist, to find the truth. Because unless we inform the public as to what is true and what is not, we cannot hold our elected officials accountable for the policies that they might put in place that could cause people to meet with their deaths. Especially when it comes to life and death, you really have to hold public officials accountable. That’s what the movie’s about.

Leadership lessons from film-making

You did “A Few Good Men,” which was also, I think, a leadership and moral lesson. Thinking of yourself as a businessperson, you’ve watched this film. What’s the message out of this?

I think the message is the American public not having the truth can be extremely costly. And even on a business level, if you don’t have something that is a truthful product in some way, you may have short-term gains but, ultimately, you’ll have big losses if you don’t put out something that’s based on honest research, honest performance, and so on. And I think that’s what this is about. It’s about telling people the truth so that we can have better-informed lives and less costly, in terms of life, blood and treasure.

And, when you looked at and heard what was going on with the leadership of Knight Ridder during this time period, what’s your take on that situation?

Tony Ridder, what I heard from John, was that he said, “Go get ‘em.” He trusted John, that John was gonna do the right thing, and he gave him full support, and that’s great leadership.

The reason I started Castle Rock with my partners was because -- again, when you’re starting up a new company, you have to find something that you’re gonna do that nobody else can do.

And so our thought, and the reason we had the lighthouse as our logo, was we wanted to send a beacon out to artists, filmmakers, creative people, that this was a safe place to come. That studios are cookie-cutter, they’re a certain kind of mentality, but if you wanted to come to our company, we were gonna respect you, we were gonna allow you to do what you do, we were not gonna be intrusive. Just like Tony Ridder did with John Walcott, saying, “OK, you can do your thing. I’m hiring you to do your thing.” And that’s why we did it.

I did it for selfish reasons because I didn’t have a place that I felt I could go to do the kinds of work that I wanted to do. So, in a weird way, it was like protecting myself.

You had what, a couple hundred people on set [for “Shock and Awe”]?

No, no, that you would have on a big, big set. I don’t know what we had, 75, 80, something like that.

That’s still a good number of folks.

[Editor's note: Rob's wife, Michele Reiner, joins in here.]

Michele: He runs a very congenial, relaxed, very nice set.

You’ve been elsewhere to see other experiences, or you’ve heard, certainly, of others.

Michele: Yeah, and heard about a lot of other directors. And he’s just basically a really -- and I’m not just saying that because he’s my husband --  he’s a very nice guy. … And he tries to make the hours not grueling, and people love working for him because he doesn’t go over time, he doesn’t do a million takes, and he just knows what he wants and he gets it.

Rob: I want to hire people where I walk into work and I go, “Hey, there’s that guy! I like that guy.” Or, “There’s that woman, I love her,” or whatever. The other thing that I’ve learned that, if you create a good atmosphere, and it makes it good for everyone, it’s gonna be better for me!

On managing "stars"

It is a testament to you that you get a cast like the one in this movie, and you’ve done it before. [in jest] I can tell, you’re shy, reserved, it’s kinda hard for you to be infectious about anything. How do you get a Tommy Lee Jones? How do you get a Jack Nicholson?

I think the actors, the first thing they want is the script is something that -- if they’re of a certain caliber -- they want to be part of something that is of value. That has some kind of artistic value that will become part of the cultural tapestry and that they can be part of that. And there’s a part for them to play and they feel they can play it.

Secondly, they look to see a director that they respect and they feel is going to realize that script in a way that they’ll feel good about it. And, so, as time goes by and they see certain things I’ve done. It’s like, when Martin Scorsese -- I did a part in “Wolf of Wall Street” -- when he says he’d like you do be in the movie, you just say, where do I show up? Because you know he’s gonna do something of value, something that’s interesting and of value and you want to be part of it.

I’m lucky in that I made some things that people like and then they say, OK I want to be part of it.

And these guys and women are not exactly shy and retiring violets. The entire management of creative stars is its own subtopic for leadership.

It is. It’s well-known that actors have big egos. But if they have a respect for the work, the script, and they have a respect for the director, people tend to park the egos at the door and say, OK, we’re all in this together for this common good. And it’s rare, I mean, I do see it, I’ve seen it where people will act out. But what I find is that people will act out if they feel that the daddy or the mommy -- whoever the director is -- is wavering, is not sure. Then they’ll start acting out because then they don't feel secure.

What I tell a lot of first-time directors is, even if you don’t know what you want, say, “OK, we’re gonna do this.” Make a decision and do it, and then as you’re doing it, you may say, “Ooh, that was wrong. You know, wait a minute, we’re gonna do this,” so that at least they always feel that you are in control and you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t know sometimes.

Act as if.

And then you figure out what the right thing is. But give them a sense of confidence that you’re on top and you know what you’re doing.

Stamberger and Reiner
SmartBrief CEO Rick Stamberger and Rob Reiner (Joe Webster/SmartBrief)

On TV and movie production as an entrepreneurial activity

You’re an entrepreneur. I said this to John [Walcott] over the weekend, every time you’re putting a movie together, you’re going through the steps of starting a business.

Every movie is a startup.

And you’re actively involved in the whole experience of running the set, and the culture around that, and hiring.

Every movie’s a startup. And unless you’re in the studio business of franchise, they’re all new.

And the math on that, if you’re producing films, there’s a certain economics on that.

The economics on producing films is whatever profits -- you’re putting out production costs, you’re putting out marketing costs, you’re putting out publicity costs, and then whatever revenues you’re gonna get from, at that time, the theaters. At that time, there was DVDs -- not so much now -- and foreign sales, and all of that, and then whatever would come in, that would then cover.

Now, television’s different. In television, you’re producing all these television shows, and at that time you would be a deficit financer. In other words, you get a license fee from any one of the networks, and then if you ran over, you provide the deficit. And, as a deficit financer, you’d own the show, basically. Now, networks are allowed to own their own shows. But in those days, you owned the show.

So, we owned “Seinfeld,” so that was a good thing.

Everybody thinks you start a company, and it’s a home run and it’s automatic. But last night, I was watching the Tonys, and said, “You see those people who are coming up behind? Those are the investors.” And, I was sitting with a friend, and he said, “Why are they there?” And I said, “Because the likelihood of a success on Broadway is tiny. They want their moment in the sun.”

If it’s a new project, yes. ... for any kind of new project, it’s scary.

And I would think the same’s the case for film.

Without question, without question. What I say to people who want to be in the film business is, you should want to be in it for other reasons than to make money. I don't know now, but there was a profit margin of like 3%, which is not a business. But, if you own a studio, a huge library, you have an asset, and you’re building an asset. You may not have, on an ongoing basis, you may not have great returns, but you’re building the asset. It’s like owning a sports team. And so you’re adding value to the asset by putting new material into the library.

On the challenges of financing a movie

So in this movie, you decided you wanted to do this, and you figured out, here’s the angle. And, my understanding was it was a little challenging getting the financing on this. Is that correct?

It’s always challenging when you’re independently financing, because you start out with no distributor, so you’re cobbling together pots of money from different places --

You’re selling a vision, basically.

Yeah, and many times you’ll do foreign presales. You’ll hire a foreign sales agent. They’ll give you guarantees based on what they think they can sell in foreign presales, and then you can bank like 75% of those foreign sales towards production costs, and so on. So you cobble together all this stuff.

Now, luckily for us, we had a relationship with Matt George, who was one of the financiers of the picture I did before about LBJ. We had a good relationship and a good experience there, so we were able to put together a similar kind of package for “Shock and Awe.”

Michele [Reiner] and I, there was a shortfall as we were heading toward production … when we put up some of our own personal money. And they tell you never, ever, ever, ever put your own money into your own films.

That’s what they tell entrepreneurs.

But to me, it’s like you have to accept the idea that every penny you’re gonna put in is never gonna come back. A lot of things that we do -- we do political things, we’ve done many things over the years -- we do put a lot of own money into those things because we think there’s value, that there’s value beyond whatever artistic, intrinsic value. There is societal value on some level.

And we felt that way. We said OK, we want to tell this story because it’s important in this day and age. And the election actually was going on while we were making the film … so we saw what was happening there, and it became all the more prescient and resonate.


SmartBrief publishes more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, including those covering leadership, satellite broadcasting, and cable industry marketing.

Bring the power of progress into your one-to-one meetings

Acknowledging team success via a “Friday Wins Meeting” like this one at content marketing tech firm Percolate has become standard practice at many companies. Many teams also informally share wins at their daily huddle meetings.

There’s something exciting about celebrating a win with members of your team that can start the day off right, or wrap up an especially busy week.

Beyond the momentary buzz that celebration provides, focus on success aids in a broader goal: enhanced performance.The late social psychologist Kathryn Cramer coined the phrase “Asset-Based Thinking” in which she encouraged people to focus on what’s going right in their world, rather than focusing solely on problems that need fixing. When leaders shine the light on what’s working, it opens up the potential for even bigger gains.

In addition to group settings, there’s another way you can use the idea of “wins” in your leadership role: during one-to-one meetings. Here’s an example from my home life. Every Sunday night, I check in with my 17-year-old son, who will soon start the college application process. We review the week’s progress and set goals for the upcoming week. At the start of each meeting, he lists three wins (he defines what constitutes a “win") for his week and we talk about it.

This process works well because:

  • It starts the meeting on a positive note
  • Incremental success is recognized, which maintains momentum as he works towards larger goals
  • He decides what serves as a win; therefore it’s more meaningful to him
  • It’s part of an established process that perpetuates framing of activities in terms of success
  • Although he dislikes public praise, my introverted son is comfortable sharing his wins in a one-to-one setting

Although I stumbled into this “wins” process on my own, it turns out that research backs up my hunch that a positive focus aids in goal achievement. In the Harvard Business Review article "The Power of Small Wins," researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer describe the “progress principle” — the human desire to feel that one is making progress on work that matters.

 “Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how [workers] feel and perform,” the authors write. Leaders who act as “nourishers” providing respect, encouragement and recognition are those best poised to help their team members capitalize on their daily (or weekly) wins.

If your one-to-one meetings with staffers have become bogged down in detailed status updates and problem-solving, consider changing up the agenda. Ask your team members to start the next meeting with a list of two or three wins. Listen carefully and without judgement. Assure them that you aren’t looking for huge, blue ribbon achievements. If you continue this process for a while, you’ll discover precisely what each of your employees finds worthy and rewarding.

As Amabile and Stevens point out, their progress principle only works if people feel that their work is meaningful. Luckily, “meaningful” doesn’t have to be “life-altering.”

"Meaning can be as simple as making a useful and high-quality product for a customer or providing a genuine service for a community,” they explain.

As a leader, it’s up to you to help connect the dots between team members’ wins and the value their work provides to your company and customers. In the process, not only will your team members experience satisfaction, their output will improve as well. And that’s progress everyone can feel good about.


Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Read more about leadership and AI on her blog The People Equation from the post, "7 Reasons Leaders Should Focus on Developing Employee Soft Skills."

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on career growth and leadership, among SmartBrief's more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.

How effective are you at using found pockets of time to get work done?

SmartPulse -- our weekly nonscientific reader poll in SmartBrief on Leadership -- tracks feedback from over 240,000 business leaders. We run the poll question each week in our newsletter.

How effective are you at using "found" pockets of time -- 10 to 30 minutes -- to get work done?

  • Very: I always have a ready list of tasks to do in these small moments.

  • Somewhat: Sometimes I use it productively and others I waste the time.

  • Not very: Most of that found time goes to waste.

  • Not at all: I never get anything done in those pockets of time.

Make a list of small tasks. Most of you are somewhat effective -- or less than somewhat -- at using small time slots of “found time” to get things done. This occurs because when we find 15 or 20 minutes, we spend 10 of it trying to figure out what to work on and then 10 minutes saying we don’t have enough time to finish the task. An effective way to use this time is to maintain a list of small tasks that can be done in 15-, 30- and 60-minute spans. When you are given the gift of some found time because a meeting ends early or is cancelled, you can immediately turn to your list, pick a task and get it done. This small productivity enhancer will help you fill these times effectively and get a lot more work finished in a given day.

Mike Figliuolo is managing director of thoughtLEADERS. Before launching his own company, he worked at McKinsey & Co., Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He's the author of three leadership books: "One Piece of Paper," "Lead Inside the Box" and "The Elegant Pitch."

The right framing and questions lead to productive conversations

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today's post is by Cheri Torres and Jackie Stavros.

Imagine trying to lead an organization or team without words or conversation. Impossible, right? Everything leaders do is mediated through conversation. So, what are you doing with your conversations?

What if you had the keys to ensure your conversations would fuel productivity and engagement? Keys that would inspire creativity, motivate collaborative action, and generate innovative possibilities for resolving complex challenges? Think of how and where you might be able to take your team or organization empowered with those keys!

There are only two keys. They will help you do all of the above, and we're going to give them to you right now: Positive framing and generative questions.

The first key is to frame your conversations to talk about what you want, to focus on desired outcomes instead of on problems and deficits. Then, use the second key: powerful generative questions. Ask questions that indicate you don’t have the answer. Questions that invite diverse perspectives, new information and disruptive ideas related to the outcomes you’re after. The conversations that will evolve will allow you to collaboratively discover ways to move towards those outcomes.

Here’s an example. A leading Fortune 500 company had a serious issue with sexual harassment. Leaders, anxious to do something about it, began a root-cause analysis and conducted surveys to clarify the extent of the problem and solicit solutions. The more they looked into it, the worse the problem became. It seemed sexual harassment was rampant and tension in the organization grew even as they attempted to find solutions.

A curious consultant asked, “What do you want?” Leaders replied, “An end to sexual harassment.” The consultant pushed forward. "OK. If there is no sexual harassment, what will there be?”

After consideration, one replied, “Well, of course, we want high-quality, cross-gender relationships in the workplace.” 

After leadership began to ask questions about where those kinds of relationships were occurring, the solutions began magically to appear. Many people had examples of such relationships and from their stories they co-developed a strategy for teams and leadership to reinforce and ensure high quality, cross-gender relationships going forward.  Two years later, the organization won an award from the National Organization for Women as a Best Place to Work for Women.

Leadership at this company used the two keys to resolve a complex and seemingly overwhelming problem. The first key, positive framing, shifted the focus from sexual harassment to high-quality, cross-gender relationships (from problem-focused to outcomes-focused). The second key, generative questions, allowed these leaders to ask questions about high-quality, cross-gender relationships. When they did, they discovered many such relationships already existed and people were eager to talk about them.

As leaders analyzed those relationships, they discovered patterns, behaviors and practices they could implement as policy. It changed the way people worked across the whole organization.

Sound simple? It is, but it’s not easy to make these two adjustments in our daily conversations. As leaders, we are constantly in our own way. Deep down, we believe we should know the answers or be able to figure things out (we’re the leader after all).

Preconceived ideas, our expectations and our habits of thinking conspire to limit the chances of creativity and divergent thinking. Judgments and emotions cloud our capacity to see potential in people and situations. Discomfort with discomfort makes us revert to the known, limiting the odds we’ll catch a glimpse of what’s possible.

If you want to use the keys, get comfortable being uncomfortable and not knowing. We now live and work in a world of ambiguity and uncertainty, where complex challenges demand collaborative and disruptive thinking. Adopt an attitude of curiosity about almost everything: Are you sure you know? Could you be missing information? Are your perceptions skewed by your beliefs and worldview?

You can’t be sure. So be a leader-explorer. Look in the direction you want to move -- into the fog of uncertainty. Invite others to look with you. Then ask powerful questions that generate a pathway into a future that is co-created!


Cheri Torres is a senior consultant at, partner at Innovation Partners International, and an associate at the Taos Institute. She works with organizations to support effective leadership, team excellence, and culture change. She authored numerous books and articles, the newest is "Conversations Worth Having" co-authored with Jackie Stavros.

Stavros is a professor at College of Management, Lawrence Technological University; appreciative inquiry strategic advisor at Flourishing Leadership Institute and an associate at Taos Institute. She’s recognized for creating SOAR, a positive approach to strategic thinking, planning, and leading. 

The book "Conversations Worth Having" can be accompanied by a training program and product. To learn more visit

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership and communication, among SmartBrief's more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.

You’re a chef, not a chemist

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

SmartBrief offers more than 200 newsletters, including SmartBrief on Leadership and newsletters for small businesses and marketers and advertisers.

Every family has at least one: A years-old recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation.  All that may have survived is a dog-eared index card with weathered handwriting and a couple of stains from kitchens past; the recipe itself isn’t pretty, but what it represents is remarkable.

Whether the recipe originated from a grandmother, an aunt, an uncle or an old family friend, somewhere along the line somebody wrote it down. Before that, someone had to come up with it. They took whatever ingredients were available to them and tried something, repeatedly, until they found a unique combination that worked. That’s how recipes become lasting -- through intention and iteration. They’re judged first by how well they taste to the chef, then by how they perform on the family table. Over time, some even make it to the marketplace.

Contrast that with chemistry. When a prescription drug is being formulated, it’s vital that it be done so with precision. Not only will the drug be ineffective if something isn’t right, it could also harm or even kill someone. Chemists creating drugs can do a great deal of experimenting, but when it’s time to serve it up, they have zero margin for error.

Whether it’s a prescription drug or a potato salad, there’s a recipe, a formula. But that’s where the comparison ends. The former must be nailed the first time. With the latter, you can learn as you go.


A few days ago, I was chatting with an executive of a Fortune 100 corporation about the need for rapid iteration in a world where every company is trying to outrun the Grim Reaper. He described the way his old-industry company -- one that I had wrongly perceived as a slow, lumbering giant -- is increasingly approaching change more like a chef than a chemist.

“It used to be test, test, test, test, then rollout,” he said. “Now it’s “test, rollout, learn, modify -- and as a result, we see a lot of half-baked stuff.” He wasn’t complaining, mind you, just observing how things have changed.

It’s true up and down the value chain. One of our clients is a closely held company a long way from the Fortune 500 that has made a remarkable transition through a 40-year cycle of maturation, saturation and commoditization. The management team has generated accelerating growth via the development of a whole new business model while navigating a succession plan, to boot.

The CEO knows the general direction his company is heading, but he’ll be the first to admit he doesn’t have a master plan all figured out. Should he pour it on to seize every opportunity the company is uncovering and risk overexpansion? Or slow things down to consolidate his gains and risk losing first-mover advantage? That’s just one of the many forks in the road he’s facing; as he comes across each one he has no choice but to choose.

Yet another client is a startup, pioneering a new industry that’s showing signs of being a genuine gold rush. Its management team knows, generally speaking, in what direction its nascent industry is heading, and they know they need to stake their claim in a relevant, differentiated and defensible niche. But (forgive the mixed metaphor) nobody can say what the final chessboard will look like. As arrogant as it would be for the team to assume they know how the industry will shake out, it would be foolish to not pursue a singular direction despite many uncertainties.

In "Brand vs. Wild: Building Resilient Brands for Harsh Business Environments," my colleague Jonathan David Lewis recounts the story of the 1972 disaster in which a plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crash-landed in a remote region of the Andes. It took months, but the survivors were ultimately rescued because a few brave souls acted on the one thing they knew: “To the west is Chile.”

It wasn’t much to go on, but based on that information they started making their way in the only direction they believed offered salvation. Had they stayed in the (relative) comfort of the torn airplane fuselage trying to develop a perfect survival plan, they would have all perished. Instead, they went with what they knew -- precious little that it was -- and made it, despite inevitable missteps along the way.

It’s human nature to proceed with caution, but one of the things that can paralyze business leaders in uncertain environments is the belief they need to get their strategy exactly right.

In research we conducted this year, 41% of corporate leaders agreed with the statement “we tend to overthink things.” For those whose growth was slowing, the number jumped to 55%.

The important thing to remember is that momentum beats perfection. As business leaders, we’re chefs, not chemists. Our task is to make something of the tools and ingredients available to us -- nothing more and nothing less. The odds of what we come up with being exactly right on the first try are next to nothing. So what? We have to keep chopping, keep stirring and keep experimenting with a pinch of this and a dash of that. After all, we have mouths to feed. 

Even if you really are a chemist in your professional life, when it comes to corporate leadership, you must operate as a chef. You’ve got to start cooking and be willing to mix things up mid-course. While (unlike your grandmother) you’ll likely never perfect the recipe, you will find that you’re becoming an increasingly good cook.

4 simple ways to become a more effective leader through mindfulness

Midlevel managers are among the busiest people in the business world. Not only are they managing teams and overseeing projects, but they’re also answering to the bosses above them.

The more successful they are, the more responsibilities they have — and the more demands are placed on their time. When you’re juggling so many tasks and expectations, you become reactive and productivity drops. You’re so busy putting out fires that nothing meaningful gets done.

One reason for this state of chaos is that midlevel managers suffer from an overwhelming quantity of thoughts about all their looming priorities. The mental cacophony makes it impossible for them to be fully present, which makes them ill-equipped to process important information and make smart decisions. But there is a way to reduce the noise and become a better leader, and that is through mindfulness.

The mindfulness solution

Mindfulness helps leaders devise innovative ideas, improve employee interactions and facilitate better team communication. Fortunately, becoming mindful doesn’t require you to go on a meditation retreat or take a vow of silence. You can begin cultivating mindfulness today by pausing to observe the chatter in your mind and re-grounding yourself in the present moment.

I find that defining my core objectives helps with this. If I know why I’m pursuing particular outcomes, it becomes easier to stay present when I’m discussing those aims or the relevant strategies. It’s also easier to tune out what’s unimportant. I simply remind myself of my purpose and bring my attention there.

Here’s how you can develop mindfulness and bring focus and clarity to your day:

1. Begin from a place of stillness

I start every workday with a few moments of mindfulness. Whether I’m on a flight or in my car, I breathe mindfully and note the quality of my thoughts. By the time I get to my desk, I’m centered and ready for whatever comes up.

Try incorporating this habit into your own day. Start by sitting quietly for two minutes. Don’t check your phone or look at your computer. Just find a quiet place where you can focus on your breathing and connect with your body. Over time, you’ll become more adept at coming back to that quiet mental place even when you’re dealing with crises.

2. Set your intentions

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos starts every meeting with a period of silence, during which everyone present reads printed copies of the meeting agenda. I have a meeting ritual, as well, that’s designed to serve the same purpose. At the outset, I ask everyone to articulate their intentions for being in the room and the objectives they hope to achieve. Both tactics help everyone stay present and focused on the tasks at hand. In my experience, this has led to significant increases in meeting productivity.

3. Focus on the impact

Worry is the antithesis to mindfulness. When you fixate on potential outcomes, you waste valuable time and mental energy. The only thing you can control is your effort, so making careful, deliberate decisions and working diligently is the only thing worth spending time on. Be mindful of where your thoughts go. If they spin off and create disaster scenarios, gently bring them back to the next task at hand.

4. Take time to reflect

Part of being mindful is noticing what happens throughout the day rather than letting the weeks and months bleed together. Before heading home or going to sleep each night, consider the challenges that went unsolved.

Ask yourself, “What am I not hearing?” or “What am I not paying attention to?” Reflecting on these questions quietly and mindfully will help you become a more well-rounded leader because you’ll be able to identify and break unproductive cycles.

Listening to your thoughts can be an illuminating practice. You’d be surprised to hear the way you talk to yourself, and you may find that harsh self-criticism is bleeding over into how you treat your employees. When you learn to observe your thoughts, you hone your ability to address problems and opportunities, connect with your team members more meaningfully, and become a thoughtful and effective leader.


Sona Jepsen is responsible for the in-house to outsource sales program at Fidelity National Information Services. Her team empowers FIS clients with the knowledge, expertise and results of moving their technology needs to FIS so her clients can enjoy higher security and greater business efficiency.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership and communication, among SmartBrief's more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.

How drama can accelerate your leadership growth

Many people believe workplace issues are distinct from personal issues. However, if you pay attention to your family dynamics, you’ll see many parallels. Both family dynamics and workplace dynamics offer many of the same opportunities for personal and leadership growth.

For example, I traveled to Boston a few weeks ago to attend a convention. I called my mother several hours after landing and getting settled in. I expected her to be happy and grateful to hear from me. Instead, I got chewed out.

“Why did you wait so long to call?” she asked.

You see, she had heard about Southwest’s engine blowing out a window and almost sucking a woman out of the plane. Naturally, my worrywart mother assumed the woman sucked out of the plane was me.

In the past, I have avoided these kind of family phone calls while on trips. It seems that, when I’m gone, there’s always a fire to put out or some concern that must be handled now.  

As a consultant, I also see avoidance used as a workplace coping mechanism.  Bosses avoid difficult performance conversations, executives avoid talking about upcoming changes, and employees avoid giving bad news to their managers. However, avoidance and withholding often makes the situation much worse than if we would just address the issues at hand and keep everyone updated.

In short, both family systems and workplace cultures experience a fair amount of avoidable drama.  We falsely assume that the real problem is drama when, in fact, the problem is the avoidance of addressing the drama square on. We see the elephant, but no one is willing to acknowledge it.

Why we avoid has less to do with character and more to do with awareness and courage. We are unaware that, at the root, we are simply afraid of all the emotions that will surface -- theirs and ours.

We are afraid of our own anger. We don’t want to have regrets. Or we may be afraid of hurting their feelings or seeing their surprising reaction. In the end, the root issue is fear of feeling our own emotions.

As a result, we learn how to cope by using avoidance or taking on the other person’s issues so that their worries becomes our problems. I call this “rescuing” in "Stop Workplace Drama."

In my own personal growth, I’m working on letting others feel what they feel without having to change them to make myself feel better, or without reacting to their personal drama.

I reassured Mom that I was fine. I didn’t take the bait. I didn’t engage in the drama. I was glad that I was able to stand in peace rather than avoid the conversation just so I could have peace.

What good came out of the situation is that I saw some leadership lessons just waiting to be shared.

The leadership lessons

  1. Drama is a part of life at home and at work and requires us to grow personally.
  2. Avoidance is a coping mechanism where we disengage when we use the irresponsible language of blame and excuse-making.
  3. The root problem is not drama, but the fear of strong emotions.  We fear our own anger and other people’s emotional reactions.
  4. Sometimes we are the ones others avoid. When we as leaders lead with worry, negativity and doubt, our employees learn to avoid sharing important information.
  5. Growth requires the courage to engage in a conversation even though you already know how it is going to play out. The key is to not take on someone else’s emotional issues.
  6. It takes two to play games unless you’re playing solitaire.

If you are in the midst of some type of drama dynamics, here are some questions to consider:

  • When have I lead a conversation with a scolding?
  • When have I started a dialogue from doubt and worry?
  • What can I do to break the dysfunctional patterns?
  • What kind of results are my conversations driving?


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of "Stop Workplace Drama" (Wiley 2011), "No-Drama Leadership" (Bibliomotion 2015) and "7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice" (Greenbranch 2018).  Download "The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results." Connect with Chism via LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter and at

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership and communication, among SmartBrief's more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.

Is the “silent killer” sabotaging your performance?

Is your energy level lower than you’d like? Do you feel you’re not performing at the top of your game? Are you so busy that it has crowded out time to truly connect with trusted confidants?

If the answer to these questions is “yes,” you may be suffering from the effects of the “silent killer” of individuals, and it may also be holding back your performance and the performance of your organization.

Recent research by Cigna, the insurance company, found that more than half of Americans are lonely. Earlier this year, Cigna surveyed 20,000 American adults using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a scientifically validated survey that is commonly used to assess loneliness. Cigna’s research found the average response was above what is considered lonely, which is consistent with other research that supports the news that America is facing an epidemic of loneliness.

Death by a thousand cuts

The loneliness epidemic is significant because it acts as a silent killer in many ways. Loneliness makes us more vulnerable to chronic stress, which deprives parts of our brain, digestive system and immune system of the blood, glucose and oxygen needed to perform well and live a longer lifespan. Research has found that loneliness (feeling lonely, although one is around people) and social isolation (not being around people) are both associated with early death that is on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Loneliness makes people less sociable, less cooperative and less collaborative, which further isolates them and makes them vulnerable to stress-induced anxiety, depression and suicide.

Organizations populated with lonely people experience lower employee engagement, poorer quality of decisions, and a reduced rate of innovation. Lonely people who work on the front lines directly with customers are not good for customer satisfaction and loyalty. These effects of loneliness sabotage performance and can shave years off of the lives of individuals and organizations.

To reduce loneliness and isolation, boost connection

To protect yourself and your organization, be intentional about developing and maintaining a “Connection Culture.” In my book "Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work," I make the case for connection and describe how leaders including Alan Mulally, the CEO who saved Ford Motor from bankruptcy; Bono of the rock band U2; Frances Hesselbein, former head of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.; Ratan Tata, former head of the Tata Group; and Victor Boschini, chancellor of Texas Christian University led in ways that boosted human connection in their organization’s culture.

In an earlier SmartBrief article, I wrote about Costco’s Connection Culture and how it helped the organization surpass Google to be recognized as America’s best large company employer (according to research by Forbes and Statista).

Human connection is boosted in cultures in which leaders communicate an inspiring vision, value people and give them a voice. An easy way to think of these elements is through this formula: Vision + Value + Voice = Connection.

Communicate an inspiring vision. If you are a leader or manager in your organization, communicate an inspiring vision by reminding people of how the work they do is helping others. Chuck Schwab inspired people who worked at the company he founded, Charles Schwab, by establishing a mission to provide the most useful and ethical financial services in the world.

Costco inspires its people with the motto “do the right thing,” which is defined as obey the law, take care of members, take care of employees, respect suppliers and reward shareholders, in that order. Costco has a reputation for doing the right thing and its employees rightly feel proud, knowing that they are part of an ethical organization.

Value people. Show you value people as individuals by taking time to get to know their names, career aspirations and interests outside of work. Even simple gestures such as making eye contact and saying “hi” when you see them communicate your interest in them. Providing training or coaching to help them advance in their careers further shows that you care about them as individuals and want them to be able to succeed even beyond their current role with you.

Give people a voice. Sincerely seek the ideas and opinions of the people you lead, especially on matters that are of interest to them and on actions you are counting on them to implement. Be sure to follow up by recognizing them for their contributions.

Being intentional about connection with the people you lead will boost connection and performance, individually and across the team, as well as protect you and your organization from the loneliness epidemic.


Michael Lee Stallard is a thought leader and speaker on how human connection in cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations.  He is the author of "Connection Culture" and "Fired Up or Burned Out." To receive a 28-page "100 Ways to Connect" e-book, sample chapters of "Connection Culture" and Stallard’s monthly email newsletter at no cost, signup here

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership and communication, among SmartBrief's more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.

The danger of being pigheaded

Being stubborn is part of being human.

This quality comes from the notion that an executive knows better than anyone how to run the business. He hews to his path even when it comes into conflict with reality. Such behavior is not ideology per se; it is egotism or, in plain language, pigheadedness.

Doing your own thing without regard to others can be ruinous in three areas: policy, process and people. Let’s take them one at a time.

  1. Policy is a catchall term that comes down to the phrase “the way we do things around here.” You could refer to it as culture but, in reality, it is less specific. Such norms and behaviors bind people together but executives who put themselves first look at such things are policy as things to be ignored rather than obeyed.
  2. Process is the set of rules and procedures by which managers keep things running smoothly. While some processes are onerous, they very often exist for reasons of compliance with regulations rooted in fiscal, security and safety objectives.
  3. People refers to employees. Egotism can be ruinous when an executive develops an opinion of a subordinate that is totally subjective. The executive perceives the subordinate as an underachiever and, as a result, the individual is banished to oblivion.

Unless an executive is willing to let go of being pigheaded, only more trouble will occur.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. Global Gurus ranked him No. 22 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including his newest, “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.”

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership and communication, among SmartBrief's more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.

How many close personal advisors do you have that you can go to for guidance in challenging times?

SmartPulse -- our weekly nonscientific reader poll in SmartBrief on Leadership -- tracks feedback from over 240,000 business leaders. We run the poll question each week in our newsletter.

How many close personal advisors do you have that you can go to for guidance in challenging times?

  • 5 or more: 3.0%
  • 2 to 4: 55.7%
  • 1: 21.0%
  • None: 20.3%

Build your personal advisory board. We don’t have all the answers. Getting fresh, objective and outside perspectives can help you make better decisions. Consider creating your own personal board of directors. Find people you respect and trust and, most important, who think differently than you do. They’ll push your thinking, offer good ideas, challenge your assumptions, and help you make better choices. The board doesn’t have to be large but it should be larger than the zero to one people 41% of you have (or don’t have) as advisors. Investing time in these relationships can be one of the best investments you’ll ever make.

Mike Figliuolo is managing director of thoughtLEADERS. Before launching his own company, he worked at McKinsey & Co., Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He's the author of three leadership books: "One Piece of Paper," "Lead Inside the Box" and "The Elegant Pitch."