What to Say When the Worst Happens

Photo by John Sleezer, K.C. Star

Yordano Ventura. Photo by John Sleezer, K.C. Star

Yesterday was a stark reminder that every day is not promised; rather it should be cherished. Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, just 25 years old, who went from high school dropout to millionaire World Series winner, died in a car crash on Sunday, Jan. 22 in his home country of the Dominican Republic.

Shock, disbelief, perhaps denial, but definitely sadness is being felt by anyone that knew him, felt like they knew him, or had any connection to him. A player who many felt his best years were still ahead of him, despite a meteoric rise the past two years. A player who many middle-aged people thought should learn to mature, (although how mature were many of us at 24 and 25 years of age?). A player affectionately nicknamed “Ace” (for the movie character Ace Ventura) whose smile warmed a room and melted any doubt that he was having fun playing the game of baseball.

When something like this happens to your team, to your company, or to your organization, what do you do? When do you it? How do you do it? But the most important question of all is: What do you say when the worst happens?

In a time of reeling emotions, it’s best to focus on just four words in preparing a response: let the heart lead.

That’s what many of Ventura’s teammates did in their reactions (see here and here), and what the Royals organization did in their initial response. They emblazoned their scoreboard (aka Crown Vision) with a tribute image, they offered a candlelight vigil at the stadium last night, and perhaps most importantly, they allowed fans to show their grief, support and emotion however they saw fit by creating makeshift memorial outside Kauffman Stadium.

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Royals fans create a makeshift memorial for Yordano Ventura outside Kauffman Stadium after learning of his death on Jan. 22, 2017. Photo by John Sleezer.

  • When you let the heart lead, true and genuine words follow. The fondest memories naturally rise and help create a great illustration of who the person truly was.
  • When you let the heart lead, you enable others to feel and share in your emotional connection, helping to create a shared bonding experience.
  • When you let the heart lead, you show your true sympathies, exhibiting a transparent sense of loss and understanding for those that feel the same.
  • When you let the heart lead, perfection is not expected and raw emotions are embraced. More often than not, these are the right emotions and the right words to address the situation, share in what others are feeling, and begin the journey toward healing.

As the days pass and the next baseball season begins, many other words will be written about Ventura. His number 30 should rightfully be adorned on the uniforms of Royals players this year. There is even a petition to retire his number, which would be just the fourth Royals number ever. All that will be determined in due time.

In this and any moment of sudden and tragic loss, whether it be a teammate, coworker, friend or colleague, no amount of preparation can prepare you for exactly how you will feel or react. But letting the heart lead will at least start you in the right direction and place you on the correct path of remembrance and recovery.

 

Note: Former big league infield Andy Marte was also tragically killed in an unrelated car crash in the Dominican Republic yesterday. Thoughts and prayers with the Ventura and Marte families.

Why Kevin Durant’s Decision Was a No-Brainer

Photo: Sporting News

Photo: Sporting News

Imagine if you received national condemnation for leaving the company you were with since college because you found a better opportunity for personal and career growth. You put your heart and soul into your first job, strived to do as much for the company as you could, and almost reached the pinnacle of your profession at that company.

But then, an opportunity arose at another company; one which may have even been a competitor. They offered you a chance to grow in your profession and perhaps a greater chance of reaching that career milestone that seemingly all great professionals in your industry are measured against. Why wouldn’t you take it?

That’s what NBA superstar Kevin Durant did. On Monday, July 4, he decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder (previously Seattle Supersonics); a team without a title in 37 years and just one conference championship since, in 2012. He opted to join the Golden State Warriors; a team that is a year removed from an NBA title and just a month removed from achieving the most wins in NBA regular season history. But people are upset.

People like ESPN sports personality Stephen A. Smith, who is paid to flamboyantly criticize others. Grown men in Oklahoma City are taking to burning their Kevin Durant basketball jerseys (sounds like bigger issues may be at play there). Other teams and fans are complaining that the “rich are getting richer.”

But how can you blame Kevin Durant?

Inevitably, all arguments about sports’ greatest players come down to “How many rings (aka championships) do they have?” It’s never, “Well they are the greatest because they never left their first team and they almost won it all one year.” Sometimes you give it all you got and it’s not enough in some situations. Just ask the Buffalo Bills teams from the early 1990s.

An athlete’s career is much shorter than us office warriors; their time to reach this type of opportunity far more limited. In any work environment, one should do the best they can and do all they can, not just from a personal development standpoint, but for the benefit of the organization. Sometimes there’s only so much an individual can do in that position as well. When you’ve maxed out the opportunity, it may benefit both employee and employer to look for a new fit.

So what communications lesson can be learned from this announcement? Maybe just one: It’s a shame on a day when the country is celebrating its independence – noted by leaving its original situation and moving to a newer and better opportunity – that many also took the chance to denounce someone for doing just that.

5 Lessons You Can Learn from Upsets

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Photo by Chris Lee, STL Post-Dispatch

 

 

March brings us warmer temperatures, a change in our clocks, and the NCAA basketball tournaments. Each year we see lower-seeded teams upset higher-seeded teams in what can be described as March Mania (that other, more commonly known named is copyrighted, believe it or not).

As most of us watch in amazement at some of the team’s performances, such as a last-ditch three pointer by Wisconsin, there are also some great communications lessons that these teams share that can be used on both the basketball court and in the boardroom. Here are 5 lessons your team can learn from those teams that pull off the classic upsets in the month of March:

  1. Embrace the Moment: Sure, it might be a big stage or much riding on the moment, but instead of cowering at the fear of failure, look at it as a tremendous opportunity. After all, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Especially if you are the underdog, you have nothing to lose other than not giving your best effort.
  2. Remember What Got You There: Now that you’re “at the table,” don’t try to greatly alter your plan or way of doing things. After all, it’s the way you’ve done them which has got you to this point. Plus, this prevents you from having to learn or do something that may be foreign to you when the pressure is at its greatest.
  3. Focus on the Current Task at Hand: A team in the tournament typically needs to win six games in a row to become national champion. But, the task of a six-game winning streak may seem daunting by itself. Instead, focus on the current game or presentation you’re in, then worry about the next one hopefully when it comes. Breaking it down into manageable chunks helps you not only focus on the opportunity, but block out any doubt of the larger, overall goal. Just ask Texas A&M who somehow overcame a 12-point deficit in less than one minute to eventually win in double overtime.
  4. Control What You Can Control: You cannot predict how many turnovers the other team may have or what type of presentations your competition is giving to the prospect. But, you can control your team and what’s included in your offerings. Concentrate on what you do and do it well and let the other guys falter by worrying about you. If you simply just “do your job,” everything else will fall into place.
  5. Believe: If you don’t believe in yourself or your team, then you’ve already lost. Your team as this opportunity or has come this far because they are a great team. If teams didn’t believe, then there wouldn’t be any upsets in the tournament. But the fact that they do, means even a half-court Hail Mary shot has a chance to go in.

The Hoarding Issue at KU and Why It’s Not a Problem

KU2
(Photo by Orlin Wagner, Salina Journal)

There is a hoarding issue in Lawrence, Kan., and specifically within the confines of Allen Fieldhouse. The University of Kansas (KU) men’s basketball team has just clinched a share of their 12th straight Big XII Conference title and a 12th consecutive trophy. Let’s put that into perspective. When KU won the first title in this streak:

  • It began three consecutive, four-year classes to attend KU who would never know life without their men’s team taking home the conference title
  • KU has won consecutive titles four more years than anyone can currently be President of the United States
  • Twitter had yet to be invented
  • Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” was the most downloaded song of the year
  • George W. Bush was sworn in for his second term as US President
  • Gas was around $1.94 per gallon … so I guess some things have stayed the same

This feat trails only UCLA by one year for most all time, in an era where parody in college athletics may be at an all-time high. They also did it this year with arguably the best job done by their future Hall-of-Fame coach, Bill Self. As a blue-blood program, they’ve had All-Americans, staunch rim protectors, and dynamic playmakers. While this year’s team was good, it seemed to lack some of those standout performers in prior years.

But that didn’t matter.

What resulted was the continuation of KU’s hoarding problem in the form of conference trophies.

So what’s the secret? A multitude of things: a combination of KU’s dominance at home (it’s won nearly 40 straight), a raucous home crowd, and hell, maybe even the ghost of Phog Allen himself. But it boils down to an Oklahoma State graduate who was passed over by Missouri … Bill Self.

Each year, the master motivator finds a way to orchestrate the best from each of his players, while executing a delicate balance of tough love tactics. Perhaps the best part is any coach or midday manager can practice some of the same principles Self has seemed to master:

  • Play to Your Team’s Strengths: KU doesn’t have a dominant player this year, so instead, KU focused on its point guards pushing the pace and ball movement throughout the team. In the workplace, solid work by the entire team helps lift the burden of work on any one individual while helping the team accomplish its goals.
  • Expect Greatness: Despite replacing his entire lineup several times during the streak, Self never expected any less from his players than continuing to challenge for the title. Inside office walls, while much may be given to employees (flexible schedules, jeans on Fridays, team outings), much should also be expected … and then their performance should be recognized and rewarded.
  • Press the Right Buttons: Self likes to publicly question his team’s toughness in interviews when the team may have lost one or two games or he feels they’re not playing to their potential. After a shaky three-game stretch a month ago, Self again wondered if his team was “too soft” and they promptly found their form on their way to a 12th straight title. While calling employees soft in the workplace isn’t appropriate for many reasons, tuning it to what motivates each of your employees – regular compliments, tough love, subtle suggestions – is the perfect balance to have your team running on all cylinders.

Universities Miss the Mark Trying to Protect their Brand

KSU
(Photo by Ann Williamson/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

 

Universities have the challenge of constantly being in the risk management business, while trying to promote the education and advancement of its students. In the past week we saw two universities with communication missteps. Kansas State University (K-State) tried to further remind its students how it thinks they should behave at sporting events. The University of Tennessee (UT) attempted to showcase its positive athletic department culture despite being in the midst of a federal lawsuit charging them with a hostile sexual environment.

Both instances involve collegiate athletics; something that inherently stirs passion from fans, students, alumni, and those from opposing schools.

UT(Photo by Randy Sartin/USAToday Sports)

Quick Backgrounds:
K-State:
Required students to sign a sportsmanship pledge at the start of the current school year. They followed this up by banning* the fan-favorite song, Sandstorm at basketball games, due to profane chants that had been heard when playing their in-state rival. Prior to their most recent home-game against the same in-state rival, K-State issued a video, again reminding its students how to act.

UT: All 16 of its varsity coaches held a press-conference without the athletic director (who was out of town) or school president to reassure player (and more directly current and future recruits) that despite current federal lawsuit accusing the school of a hostile sexual environment, that everything is fine.

Why these were missteps:
K-State: There is certainly merit in K-State trying to establish what they deem as good sportsmanship behavior. But:

  • A “sponsorship pledge” and then repeated reminders of “you better be good” is incredibly juvenile. The additional “taking your song away if some of you can’t play nice” and a reminder video before the game were repeated reminders of “we don’t trust you.”
  • If you want a target audience to change their behavior, treat them as adults, instead of cranky 5-year-olds. Or else, they’ll act just like those cranky 5-year-olds and do the opposite of what you want them to do.
  • As it relates to your in-state rival, realize that not everyone is going to extend open and welcoming arms to them at their home games. Just imagine if they tried this at Auburn and Alabama. There are always a few bad apples…when that happens, don’t pretend it’s the whole bunch.

UT: The coaches may have had the right idea of trying to get in front of the story and insert their own narrative into the current message. But:

  • It wasn’t until later in the news conference when the head football coach –whose players were at the center of some of these allegations – finally addressed who matters most by saying, “Our hearts, our thoughts and our prayers go to out to the alleged victims.”
  • These comments should have been at the start of the news conference to express empathy. Your target audience doesn’t care what you know until they know that you care. All 16 coaches should have focused less on how great their culture is and how they have a renewed focus on protecting their student athletes and all students at the University.
  • They lauded the “culture” of the university and departments as the best it’s been, cohesive and united, despite charges that the university “enabled a culture that led to sexual assaults and then administrators influenced the handling of discipline by accused athletes.”
  • While not addressing the lawsuit may have been expected, saying everything is fine when it clearly isn’t causes your audience to roll their eyes in disbelief instead of nodding their heads in agreement with your message.

What they should have done:
K-State: Crafted an open letter to fans at the start of the year by the athletic director welcoming them to the school year, while including these “sportsmanship” parameters about what makes the students and its fans great.

UT: Never held the press conference. Now we’re talking about their misguided message which is the exact opposite of what the coaches hoped to accomplish with their “press conference.”

With these improvements, the schools’ brands can hit the mark instead of seeming misguided.

 

*The school has since reinstated the song and the athletic director thanked students for adhering to the new sponsorship pledge (even as some still did the profane chant, perhaps out of frustration and/or rebellion).

The Play That Helped the Tide Roll

Bama

Alabama’s tide rolled to is fourth title in seven years. (Photo by AP)

Last night we saw the University of Alabama Crimson Tide capture their fourth national title in the past seven years. However, it boiled down to one play based on planning and communication; both what was said, and what body language tried to hide. It went a little something like this (via SB Nation):

A routine kickoff became a trick play that turned the game’s tide solely in Alabama’s favor. Read this breakdown of how many things had to go right to pull it off, including the player catching the pass actually dropping it half the time in practice.

Special teams may sometimes be considered the stepchild to the offense and defense in American football, but more often than not, it plays the biggest role in shifting momentum within the game.

The Alabama coaches had a plan if they saw Clemson in a certain formation on kickoffs. Sure enough, with the game tied in the fourth quarter and just over 10 minutes to play, it was time to try it. In summation:

  • The kicker began his approach just like any other kickoff; then suddenly altered the direction of the kick at the last second.
  • The receiver – who is actually a defensive back on the team (don’t worry, this stuff happens on special teams) – started running his route like a normal kickoff. He suddenly altered his route to the outside just after the ball was kicked.
  • The ‘receiver’ caught the kick in midair and then bolted out of bounds to secure the ball for Alabama.

Simply, they saw a different formation that matched their trick pay, so they executed their plan. Some may call it genius, but at its core it is about having a plan for different scenarios. When the opportunity presents itself, implement the plan that gives you the advantage.

This is true for any communications plan. In this instance, they not only verbally communicated on the sideline, but the players also had to master their non-verbal skills until the right time to help pull the play off.

While many things have to go right in those scenarios, ultimately the better plan, and the core practice it has been given, prevails. Even if it only works half the time in ‘practice,’ from Alabama’s football team to your communications team, anyone can follow the same game plan:

  • The stakes are high
  • You trust your players and have instilled confidence in your team
  • You communicate the plan and the players understand their important roles
  • It catches your opponent by surprise
  • Take the shot

Hockey player Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” Alabama took their shot and once again, the ‘Tide is Rollin.’

 

 

 

‘Fear Nothing, Attack Everything’

EBerry1
(Photo: kcchiefs.com)

Two hundred and forty-seven days. That’s how long it’s been since Kansas City Chiefs defender Eric Berry went from beginning his journey against cancer to, remarkably, reporting back for training camp. After their game against the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 20, it was discovered that a lump in Berry’s chest was not just an injury from the field, but rather a much larger affliction: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Fast forward to this week on July 28 when Berry addressed the media after practice on his first day back. He sat at a table with his father, James, and his mother, Carol. He took his audience through a journey that none of us had any insight on, until now. Berry described the tears, the struggles, the challenges of six rounds of chemotherapy (Dec. 10 – May 13), and the goal of just trying to do five push-ups a day.

Berry also talked about his decision to take chemotherapy directly into his veins so that he could still work out and stay in shape for football. As a result, his veins now have track marks all over them, but Berry knew that was going to happen if he chose that option. This is a person who amazingly gained a pound during treatment.

After hearing the initial news, many rallied around Berry to support him on his journey, not knowing how long it would last. At the same time, I couldn’t but help feel a personal connection to him, only because I had begun a similar journey as well. On Nov. 20 – the last game Berry would play that season – I had just undergone my seventh (of 19) radiation treatments for testicular cancer. Of course Berry is an elite athlete playing at the highest level. My athletic career has peaked at adult soccer leagues and corporate challenge events. However, we do have several things in common: being young, healthy, fit individuals, who didn’t see it coming, but yet tried to attack cancer with the same vigor, and having an overwhelming support system behind us.

EBerry2
(Photo: CSM/Landov)

In June, I had my second round of checkups to see how the treatment and my body’s resolve were fighting off cancer. Turns out my blood levels were looking great and so far, there was no emergence of additional lymph nodes that looked like trouble. Still, I have four more years of checkups just to be sure. Later that month, on June 22, Berry also received good news at his checkup: he was cancer free.

Just 36 days later, incredibly, he was reporting to training camp for another NFL season. Only this time, he was starting the year as not the biggest, but perhaps the toughest player in the league.

There are many great takeaways from Berry’s last nine months. Sticking with the theme of this blog, here some great communication learnings stemming from the messaging he provided upon his return:

  • Address the Issue Up Front: Rather than let any questions linger, Berry and the Chiefs smartly held a press conference for media on Day 1. This helped everyone hear from him, ask the questions they needed, and to collectively begin moving forward with the season. Most importantly, it let his audience know that he is okay.
  • Include Your Support System: Berry included two of his main champions of support: his mom and his dad. Having them also describe what they went through helped to provide additional perspectives and insights into the positive network they helped create for him during treatment.
  • It Can Pay Off to Get Personal: Berry opened himself up on his personal feelings, thoughts, and struggles during treatment. In doing so, he humanized himself even more, connected with his audience, and perhaps whether he knew it or not, helped others cope who may also be facing similar challenges.
  • Let Your Story Provide Natural Speaking Points: As far as Berry knew, he was just telling his audience his experience over the past nine months. However, in telling that story, the audience heard so much more. They heard a message of shock, concern, struggle, and being scared. But they also heard a message of support, strength, resilience, and recovery. Yes, there are times when prepared “talking points” are certainly needed, but sometimes the most impactful points are ones that others interpret for themselves.

Finally, many who heard or have read Berry’s words on Tuesday took away some of the same things, but they also most likely each took away something different. Personally, four words stuck out to me that I feel not only summarize his journey, but that I can use as I continue on my own. They serve as a final takeaway no matter what struggles or obstacles any of us may face in life. When in doubt, just remember: “Fear Nothing, Attack Everything.”