Priorities as a leader: On this week’s episode of Track Changes, Paul and Rich sit down to discuss how the pandemic is impacting business and mental health. Priorities are changing, so what comes first? In juggling health, family, and work, it’s important to give employees space and empathy. But work can be a welcome distraction from the news and rising COVID-19 numbers.
Rich Ziade Always listen to us at normal speed. There’s just a nice—
Paul Ford Or really even half speed. Just get every little detail.
RZ Yeah [music plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down].
RZ Paul, how are you?
PF I’m doin’ good. We’re figuring out how to record remotely using our Yeti Nano USB microphones.
RZ It’s a nice little device. I like it.
PF I do too [music fades out]. What’s key is that it sends the audio out through your headphones. I can hear you really clearly and like I can hear myself—Anyway, it’s not about—this is not about gadgets.
RZ Well I wanna talk about product management.
PF Oh God. I don’t think this is the moment. I don’t think people are listening to this podcast to hear—
RZ Well I wanna talk about work flow!
PF Actually, speaking of work flow, hooooow are we gonna ventilators to New York State?
RZ What are you talking about? This is Track Changes, a technology podcast.
PF I know, I know.
PF Everything’s different for a minute. We have to kind of broaden the scope.
RZ I know [sighs].
PF Hello everybody. I hope everyone listening to this is in a healthy and relaxed place and figuring their world out. You know, I think what’s been interesting is—and I don’t wanna dwell on this but, like, our industry is surprisingly—not entirely, but surprisingly ok.
RZ Well yeah. Digital is what everyone’s leaning on right at this very moment. Technology is a big deal for people today. The whole world was moving towards sort of an experiential—you know people buy experiences now and—
PF Well and I think just literally everybody’s on their phone—everyone’s on their phone all the time, right—
RZ Well experiences hard right now. It used to be like, “Get off your phone and live life!” And now it’s like, “It’s ok. Use your phone.” [Laughs]
PF If you noticed, everyone’s like, “Go ahead and turn off that screen time app. Just—you’re ok.”
RZ Yeah, yeah, exactly, and everybody gets a pass for a while until we get past this, so.
PF Yeah but so it’s a little strange cuz like we’re home and busy and doin’ our stuff and then you just get this sense of like . . . wild catastrophe.
PF How are your kids doin’?
RZ My kids are great. It’s hard. We’re adjusting. My kids are seven years old and five years old and that’s not easy. We’re sort of figuring out cadence; we’re figuring out how to let them kind of blow off some steam somehow, some way. But it’s hard.
PF My son is in the other room as we’re recording doing distance learning and I go and I look on his Chromebook—also, by the way, there are not enough computers for kids in the public school right now. They’re gonna get like 300,000 iPads next week but it’s like—this is a boondoggle onto itself cuz like half of his class isn’t showing up. So [stammers] I’ve been like, finding old laptops and wiping them and putting Linux on them and distributing them—
RZ Oh you’re so happy.
PF Ah that part actually does feel good because—No, but you know what? I just want to talk about it for one sec. I know that everybody’s at home—
RZ It’s worth noting: we are in New York City where this is logistically, from an education perspective, far more challenging than pretty much anywhere in the United States. I mean there are 1.1 million New York City public school students.
PF Both of our kids are in public scho—Both your kids and my kids are in public school.
PF And—and so there are—when you send your kids to public school in New York City, what that means is that their classmates, they don’t have the same things at home that you do. They don’t have spare laptops and they don’t have fast internet. And you’re just really—I’m really aware of it right now and, you know, things you can do to close that up are really helpful. But I do wanna say, so like, laptops have been coming to the doorstep and we’ve been covering—you know, we’ve been bleach wiping them and they’ve been bleach wiped before they get there, and then I open them up—
RZ See it’s funny, you say ‘bleach wipe’ and I hear—I hear a piece of software—
PF Oh like it’s an app for bleach wipe?
RZ—it doesn’t format the drive. But you actually mean bleach wipe.
PF No, no, literally I bleach wipe them. And then you boot up Windows 8 machines that have self updated to Windows 10.
RZ That is an unbelievable moment.
PF First of all, it’s weird cuz you’re like in a teenage girl’s bedroom at that moment. It’s like [Rich laughs]—like really—it’s cuz it’s the older sister’s machine [yeah]. It’s like you know really hot young dudes screensaver and you’re just like, “What—where am I?” [Rich laughs] “What’s happening?”
RZ Oh no.
PF And I’m here to install Linux and you know like I got the password—It’s just a lot of signal I wasn’t ready for and then you let it boot into windows because God knows how you get into the firmware on an HP Pavilion. It actually turns out you hit F9 once a second while it’s rebooting but that didn’t—
RZ Yeah there’s always that key combination at—and you gotta go look at that up cuz it’s different for every machine.
PF I’m like losin’ my mind. And so you let that Windows startup happen and it plays a little song and then it is like something from—it’s like they’ve slowed down time. Like—
RZ It’s the worst.
PF Like one icon starts showing up on the desktop and then like five seconds later there’s another one and it kind of—it’s like a movie. Like it’s just like, you’re like, “Oh! There’s the start bar!” And then you start to click things and it’s like [chuckles] no, no, no—
RZ Not just that but then Candy Crush shows up in the like start menu.
RZ “How did you? Who invited you to this right now? Like this machine is crawling on its knees and hands. How is Candy Crush wedging its way into this process?”
PF Everybody is runnin’ in there as fast as they can. So then I finally, you know, figure out the firmware, boot from the USB drive. And you install Linux and it’s just like—it’s like a little pokey on an old machine. But it’s fine—just fine. Like I go—
RZ Well it’ll work. I mean, you know.
PF Yeah and I go and get Chrome and Zoom and it’s like everything’s fine.
RZ I mean that’s all they need. It is highlighting, though, and this is not the moment to be overly critical of remote learning and the tools they are using and whatnot but it’s been—what’s the word I’m looking for? It’s been really sort of back of the mind and not really priority, and nobody’s like, “Oh, this is kind of neat once in a while. It should be a thing maybe.” The homeschooling industry or sector or whatever you wanna call it is non-existent more or less from a business perspective, so these tools are garbage. I mean it’s bad. It’s really, really, really bad. And, you know, I’m an optimist and I like to think on the other side of events like this we learn a ton and we stick—some things take hold and they stay and that’s ok because they should’ve been there to begin with. One of our larger clients, it was unheard of to use Zoom and then Zoom took over and they made Zoom happen in like four days. And you know what? They could’ve made Zoom happen in four days. Change can happen. This is what I call an ask for forgiveness moment, not an ask for permission moment.
PF Yeah. You know what—
RZ People are barrelling through! To try things, to keep things working, you know?
PF You know what I’ve noticed is like people on Twitter who are disabled going like, “You know we’ve been asking for work from home for like a decade and—”
PF And everyone’s like, “Well it just doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.” And now they have it! And they’re like, you know, “Thanks. I guess? I guess this is it.” It’s almost—I have empathy for both sides of this system, right? Like obviously the disability rights people have a very strong moral case and then the big organizations—it’s just very—they can’t get out of their own way and then an event like this happens and it’s existential and suddenly everyone can unlock the challenge. And I think what’s weird is—you know, we’re a small business, so we live in a world of existential threat at all times. And I don’t think people process that about like a 60 person company but you just always feel that the world could come and take it away at any moment. And you have to run the business that way with a real sense of a rainy day coming.
RZ You been for Postlight?
PF For Postlight, right? Like—
RZ We’re a small, young agency with a handful of clients. Yeah. Existential is sort of part of our mindset in terms of how we manage the company and make it healthy and durable so to speak.
PF And also—and every single small business, man. The minute I see small business owners relaxing and going like, “Well, yeah don’t worry too much about quality or don’t worry about this or that,” and you’re just, “Neeh.” And then like two years later you find out that the outcome wasn’t that great.
RZ Yeah. It’s unfortun—sometimes, you know, how do you put the risk calculator in the drawer. Right? This is a moment where like, “Well this isn’t useful right now, why am I calculating risk? Like let’s just go. What can happen that’s—” The status quo is so severe. All the kids are home. We gotta do a thing. We gotta do something. So they just start pickin’ up tools and tryin’ stuff. They do these—I dunno what they call ‘em where they run simulations, so to speak, of disaster like, you know, municipalities do this sometimes.
PF Oh sure. Sure and there’s a lot of different science and thought behind this, righ?
RZ Yeah. And there was more of that—do you remember all the like . . . the terrorist attack exercises that were going on for the years after 9/11 and those kind of died off.
PF Operation Jade Helm. Stuff like that.
PF I mean there’s war games, right? There’s always been war games.
RZ Yeah but you know what? [Chuckling] Humans get—they get relaxed. The shoulders go down and they’re like, “You know this is good. We’re good. I think we’re good.” [Laughs]
PF There’s two relevant stories here. One is we have this wonderful global warming client who is focused on increasing awareness around climate change and his point—and we’ll have ‘em on the podcast at some point. But his point is so good which is just like, “We have never known the disruptive event.” And actually here he’s like—with the pandemic, he’s like, “This is it. This is what it looks like. This is the thing I’ve been telling people about.”
PF But the other thing is there was—we can look it up but there was this war game—So, like, processing that has been interesting just even as someone who’s already really paranoid.
RZ Just a thought on that, I mean, to me I feel like the message around climate change has been, “It’s coming.” Right?
RZ “It’s coming, and it’s getting worse.” And they try with the charts because 2019 looks worse than 2017 and so on.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ But it feels so slow. And humans, I think, assume they’ll figure it out and they’ll have enough time, and, you know, you get framed as alarmist and what not.
PF We’ve always solved it before!
RZ We’ve always solved it before. What’s interesting about this is it feels like the climate change narrative. Like you know when you can hit 5X on your podcast player [yeah] and listen to everything really fast? It’s not that different, except what happened here was—
PF Don’t—don’t do that, by the way, you’re gonna miss some really important details and funny jokes.
RZ Yeah, yeah. So March 5th—March—no, let’s go back: Feb 15 was 2012.
PF Yeah, that’s right.
RZ The Feb 15 of this pandemic is the equivalent of 2012 or 2010 of climate change. Essentially—
PF In America! Honestly, China had a little bit of warning. We might’ve done a little better at paying attention.
RZ To me it’s the exact same psychology.
PF Oh it totally is.
RZ Is that we’ve got time and I don’t know—we don’t know if this is really correct. It might be wrong. The studies might be off.
PF [Crosstalking] Look, we always come under terrible criticism for American exceptionalism, right? Cuz we are kind of an awesome country in our own heads and that exceptionalism and that arrogance allows us to make and do really awesome things from time to time but it really—it’s got us in a pickle now. We looked at the world and we were like, “Ah that virus is gonna like—that’s their problem.”
RZ Yeah but I don’t consider this—To me, this is just human psychology around the world. [Alright, fair—] There are many countries that have been caught flatfooted here. I just think humans in general would rather not live in a paranoid state and in a defensive state and rather our—we’re naturally optimistic and then here we are. Right? I mean people keep looking at numbers right now and those numbers really reflect two weeks ago. They’re just a snapshot of what actually occurred a while ago [laughs] as if there—[yeah, that’s right] it’s real time. Nothing is real time. Like that’s the thing. We’re already—Like the behindness doesn’t register for people but that’s the truth, right? The data that we have is not for the moment.
PF You know we’re so used to things getting solved, right? And it’s just—there isn’t a solution. There’s no answer. It’s just gonna take—not only are we two weeks behind but this is gonna go on for a while. It’s not how we’re wired.
RZ You know what it is, Paul? The number one enemy of anything . . . [chuckles] I think—I mean I’m a manager and I oversee teams and I oversee other people who oversee teams. And the number one enemy of anything is losing focus, right? Is distraction.
PF Yeah. I have bad news.
RZ I know! This is the thing, right? [Stammers] And usually you can avoid that through—Look, there are things that happen in people’s lives that cause distraction like, you know, “I have to go and have a baby. And I’ll see you later.”
PF Or, “I’m having—I’m having surgery.”
RZ Or, “I’m having surgery!” Or, “I’ve checked out.” Like that’s harder to pick up, right? When you’re a manager or you’re a leader and you’re like, “You know, something’s off. This person seems elsewhere when you’re talking to them.”
PF You know a tough one actually? I have small children. And everyone pretends like somehow that isn’t a giant, ambient source of static in your life but it is constant.
RZ Oh yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
PF And I mean you figure out how to accommodate but it is—it is a real thing. And now we have the mega super distraction.
RZ Exactly, exactly, and one of the ways—
PF You know what, we should say: it’s more important than work. Like surviving a pandemic is more important than your job.
RZ Yeah. And I think the other thing I’m realizing: I’m slightly older. I’m 50 years old as of this recording of this podcast.
PF You look good though! I gotta say—
RZ I appreciate that, Paul and—
PF No, you’re lookin’ good.
RZ And I’ve been through some stuff. We moved a lot when I was young, never really had a lot of stability. For a lot of people who are in their 20s, even 30s, this—there is no precedent. I think they’re trying to orient themselves. I think there’s—there’s anxiety and also—they also wanna signal out that, “Hey, I’m here for this job.” Cuz I think people are thinking about their jobs on top of all of that.
PF Oh yeah, of course, of course.
RZ So it’s a lot. It’s just a lot. And what I’m trying to do and this isn’t my style, to be frank, Paul, what I’m trying to do is really get into their heads and whatever I’m putting across, really conveying it as secondary to what they’re going through. And that, I think, is the best thing we can do. We can send snackboxes. We can tell people to, you know, take an hour, go for a walk or do whatever and clear your head.
PF Well, you know—
RZ But the best thing we can do [no] is deprioritize . . . the thing we’re so used to prioritizing.
PF Look, there’s—there’s always been this aspect of work life balance where like the big company says, “Hey, work life balance—” They always have to put it in terms of the bottom line. So it’s like, “We value your happiness because happiness is worth 17% more!” Right.
RZ [Laughing] Right.
PF And that kind of bullshit like it has its place in giant orgs and I mean it’s better to have that—
RZ No, it’s not flying right now.
PF No, it’s better to have a healthy snacks program than not, overall, right? [Rich laughs] So it’s like—everybody kinda goes with it, it’s like, “Cool! I get my gym discount.” But that is just bullshit in this moment. In this moment—and we keep saying in the all hands like, “Prioritize the health of yourself and your family before anything else.” And there’s a part of me that whenever I say that I’m like, “What am I risking?” You know, I say that out to the whole world [yeah], I say—and I go, “Ooh God. Is this gonna hurt us? Are we gonna be ok?” But the reality is: who gives a shit?
RZ Yeah. And look I think the intellectual property that Postlight possesses that it gets to sell to the world is its people. So we are [yeah] a very particular kind of business, right? I don’t have—You know, if I was producing—what do you call those pillows that you put around your neck? Neck pillow?
PF That’s a good bet. That’s a good bet.
RZ Ok. If I’m producing neck pillows for people who travel a lot.
RZ It’s kind of a different conversation.
PF Can you imagine their all hands meetings?
RZ Yeah! And that’s terror, right? Like that’s sheer terror and as a leader what you wanna do is absorb that stress and not give people . . . not project fear and stress and anxiety. But look: it’s neck pillows in a warehouse [laughs].
RZ [Laughing] It’s just you can’t talk around that! Right? That’s hard and so we feel incredibly fortunate. Not only are we, you know, a consulting firm but we’re also one that isn’t as tied to marketing campaigns and consumer-centric stuff.
PF We’re actually—we’re doing the thing that people need more of right now.
RZ Exactly, exactly. So, you know, deprioritizing as a leader. You know, hearing people out and understanding that you’re negotiating with their mindset and their mental health is a big deal.
PF Well here’s the puzzle, right? Because our job is to always put the company first. And the way you have to do that right now is to put the company second—is let people put the company second.
RZ Yes, yes. A Product Manager at Postlight said to me recently, “I’m really looking forward to this.” I was essentially debriefing him on a new engagement. And he just paused and said, “I’m just looking forward to digging into this.” You know?
RZ And he was welcoming it, right? He was welcoming the—viewing it as a distraction, as feeling productive. When you’re a passive observer of the news right now and there’s like that bit of drool on the corner of your mouth, you feel pretty useless.
PF I think the worst thing for somebody inside right now is 12 hours of free time.
RZ Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
PF That’s a really bad feeling. I’ve been there in my life. Like I was unemployed after September 11th and I was—I’d been working in Israel and I came back here and my company was shut down. And I had to find ways to keep busy in, you know, starting on September 18th, 2001. As [yeah] a freelancer. So I mean that year I think I made maybe 14,000 dollars. Like I just barely covered my rent.
RZ It’s a bad feeling.
PF You get through it but you gotta stay busy. I think that’s when I did a lot of my blogging. Unless you do something, you’re really in a pickle. But of course the nice thing about that time is as screwed up as it was you could at least go out and have a drink.
RZ Yeah [laughing] this is true. I’ve been making dry gin martinis for myself.
RZ But running out of glasses—cuz—
PF How bad right now would you like to go out to a bar and just have a couple right now and talk about Postlight? Like—which is what we normally do.
RZ Well my wife did it with like five of her friends last night on Zoom.
RZ And it just doesn’t cut it, right? They all said, “Make your drink, be ready by 9pm, and we’ll all get on.”
PF Well, no we’re simulating our day to day lives while we figure out what the new normal is.
RZ Yeah, yeah. I think there are two takeaways here and I think this is something a lot of businesses and a lot of companies and there are some people who listen to this podcast that are outside of technology and whatnot. The first is to put your company second. That sounds counterintuitive. It sounds insane and dangerous but it actually isn’t. And people will really, really appreciate you for it. And the second point is give people work. They want the work. You’ll tell them, “Hey, don’t worry too much,” but they actually wanna worry. They wanna worry about your business. They wanna worry about the smaller things that they usually worry about. And so put that work in front of them. I wouldn’t extend that first bit of advice which is put your company second to mean give people less work. I think people wanna [music fades in] keep busy; they wanna keep their brains active right now.
PF Well, you know what I’d say also too is like a little productivity hit here is to be expected. Like you’re just gonna get—no one, including you and me, is fully there in the way that we are when we—you know, when we were a month ago.
RZ No. Yeah. 100%. To everyone out there: be safe, take care of each other. If you’re a business owner, I hope you’re in a position where you’ll be able to weather this and we’ll talk to you soon. Have a good [yeah] week.
PF And I mean it’s worth saying—
RZ I wanna pitch Postlight, Paul, but I’m not going to.
PF Here’s all I would say: we’re open for business. We also have a lot of people reaching out for advice and whatever you need. firstname.lastname@example.org.
RZ Great point.
PF The same offer we always make goes double in a pandemic. Just get in touch.
RZ Yes. We give advice just on an inquiry, so talk to us.
PF You know, whoever we can help, we’re gonna help right now, and we try normally but now even more so. So: email@example.com. And we’re gonna keep this podcast going and we’re going to keep things moving, so we’ll see you next week.
RZ Have a good week.
PF Yeah, good luck, everybody. Stay healthy. [Music ramps up, plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end.]