Stronger Through Adversity

Even in the toughest of business climates, a clearly defined brand strategy gives leaders direction.

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., C.S.P. has authored numerous books on business practices and productive workplaces with a focus on customer experience. In his latest book, Stronger Through Adversity, Dr. Michelli speaks with more than 140 business leaders of top brands (think Target, Southwest Airlines, Airbnb, Microsoft, and Siemens) who share their thoughts and experiences on leading through and beyond the most complicated business environment.

In this episode of Expert Opinion, Dr. Michelli shares some of the compelling stories told by these executives as they struggled, and led, through the storm of a global pandemic.

Topics include:

  • The importance of (and the strength in) admitting what you don’t know
  • Keeping your teams aligned with authentic communications (or messaging)
  • Worry less about where your employees sit and more about what they produce (#WFH)
  • The benefit in examining and defining your brand’s position


Episode Transcript

Welcome to Expert Opinion, the branding business forum where leaders share their views, insights and experiences from the world of B2B branding. And now here’s your host.

Ryan: Hello, I’m Ryan Rieches, and welcome to Expert Opinion. Today’s guest is Joseph Michelli, longtime friend, business associate, and multiple time guest on our podcast. Joseph runs The Michelli Experience, which focuses on culture, and improving customer experiences across the entire organization. Now, hear this, Joseph has just written his 10th book. I think the latest covers a very important and timely topic during this COVID experience. The title is Stronger Through Adversity. And similar to his other books, I really like the way Joseph shares his insights by interviewing world-class leaders who offered their perspective, and in this case, it’s sharing pandemic-tested lessons on thriving during the toughest challenges. Joseph, welcome to Expert Opinion.

Joseph: You know what I loved, and my favorite part of that introduction is the fact that we worked together in the past. So, thanks, Ryan. It’s good to be here.

Ryan: Great. Well, good to have you. So, based on the success of your other books, it’s no wonder why so many leaders accept your invitation to be interviewed, and you bring forth a number of different thought-provoking topics. So, I have a question to open this conversation up. Did you have this book in mind about leading through adversity before the COVID pandemic? Or did you identify the need based on what the world was going through?

Joseph: Well, I personally was surprised at how many leaders made themselves available. So I’m glad you had the confidence in me. I had no plan. Like everybody else, I had a very rosy plan for 2020. I had it all lined out. And then my Godiva book, which I was working on at the time, had consulted with them for a number of years, the book that I was working on with them, it fundamentally just didn’t happen. So as a result of that, I decided I would pivot. That’s a big word for 2020. I would pivot, and move in the direction where there was need. And as I was on these task forces with my clients, it became apparent to me that leaders were struggling to figure out how to approach this. We were all in this big storm, maybe on different boats.

Ryan: Well, that’s for sure. So just to give our listeners a little bit of a background, you actually had an opportunity to talk to 140 different CEOs and presidents who shared their point of view. And the list is pretty impressive. Leaders from Airbnb, Microsoft, Siemens, and Southwest Airlines. I’m glad you also took a look at other types of organizations like nonprofits, as well as even universities. And spoke to fire and police chiefs throughout our country. So not even sure where to begin, but let me just ask, did you find a universal theme across all the organizations?

Joseph: Yeah. And we tried to get to all kinds of sectors. We avoided politicians for obvious reasons. There’s a self-serving component to leadership there, but in terms of the nonprofits, for-profits, and public safety organizations, what we heard a lot of was this ability to serve others, started with serving yourself. And if you didn’t find a way to take care of your own health and wellbeing, if you didn’t find a way to reach out to others and colleagueship during this time, you were not likely to lead your organization or your team very effectively for very long, you might’ve sprinted for a bit and held your breath. But to really get through this, you needed to be reaching out, getting off your island, putting on your oxygen mask and then helping your team do the same.

Ryan: Boy, I think that’s a great place to start, and begins with a little bit of humility as well, knowing that you don’t have all the answers and you have to really get your leadership team together to kind of huddle and plan a path forward.

Joseph: Yeah. I think that information was scarce, for sure. Reliable information. And so, planning really narrowed down. I talked about having a plan going into 2020, you had to throw it out. And then you had to figure out how far out could we plan. In some cases, it was just a daily mission. And you got your team together in the morning and said, “Today, this is what we’re planning to do. And we’ll debrief at the end of the day. And we’ll set our plan for tomorrow as a result of what we accomplish today.” I think as the pandemic got a little bit more stable, that planning cycle could go out a little bit farther, but not certainly anywhere like what you were used to. And I think the humility of admitting you didn’t know, I mean, powerful, powerful words in 2020 is I don’t know, but where might we find information? I think that was a particularly important phenomena for leaders this year.

Ryan: Yeah. What we’ve seen is that not that long ago, it was focused on three-year plans, and then it was a one-year plan. And now it’s certainly quarter by quarter. So, things have changed. And now here near the end of 2020, and unfortunately the global pandemic is only growing. And so, the topic of adversity will clearly be with us for a while. And we’ve all heard terms like the new normal being tossed out. I don’t know what that means exactly. But in your opinion, what does this all mean in terms of how could B2B companies look at this in terms of their brand? What are your thoughts around that?

Joseph: First and foremost, I think the brand is everything through this, and all the decisions we make reflect back on the brand. I worked with a very small barbecue restaurant chain here in the South. One of my clients, I was on their task force, and they had done such goodwill. They had invested so much in their brand and rebranding and clarity of branding and internal communications about what their brand meant. All of the hard work that you guys do, Ryan, to really understand the DNA of the brand. And that work just paid off. All the decisions were made in alignment with the brand, everything was filtered through mission, vision, and values. And they communicated in accord with what the brand would expect for them in the brand voice.

They were phenomenal, and their success was phenomenal. They outperformed their industry by, I mean, they were always in the top 1% in their sector, and even sectors that were probably more immune to some of the challenges, the quick service restaurants, they performed against those, even though they were more in the casual category. So, I can just tell you for me, this was a year where if you didn’t have your brand aligned, it was going to show up, and you needed to get your brand strong and you need to have the right brand voice going and continually out there throughout the pandemic.

Ryan: To add on top of that, many people think branding is focused on the external. Of course, the customer is critically important, but you hit on a number of different topics related to the internal branding of aligning the organization through the purpose, vision, mission, the values, and then aligning the team on where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. So, I know it’s a big part of what you do, and maybe you want to elaborate on that a little bit more?

Joseph: Yeah. I quote Linda Rutherford pretty extensively. She and I had quite a long conversation about all of this. It’s her birthday today. I wish her a happy birthday. She’s the chief communications officer for Southwest Airlines. And you talk about a brand that took a pretty phenomenal hit during the pandemic, but her messaging around, you can under-communicate. Most people are worried about that, but you can also over-communicate, and worse yet, you can just clutter the communication up with misaligned messages, particularly in 24/7 news cycles. So, figuring out how to keep your teams all aligned on the core of your message. Everything has to be authentic. It can’t be disingenuous, but you can’t be just communicating just because the clock says it’s time to speak. You have to be able to have some purposeful ideas that you want to share. You need to make sure those messages are aligned with what you’re sharing tomorrow or else it sounds like it’s not truthful. This was a real year where the brand had to hold together through its internal and external communication.

Ryan: Yeah. We have a saying, continuity and consistency equal clarity. And so many people get that wrong. It’s the message du jour as opposed to just develop your brand, develop your message, stay true to it. You have to adjust according to the situation, but continuity and consistency equal clarity.

Joseph: I like that. I’m writing that down. That’ll be my new book title, I think. For 2022, or whatever year I’m allowed to actually plan my books.

Ryan: Well, you spoke a moment ago about the word pivot, and that probably is, maybe it could be Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, but just reflecting on that, we’ve seen recent research findings that mention that the majority of leaders are actually revisiting their business strategy. And we’re seeing that unfold as we’re experiencing and thankfully, an unprecedented number of inquiries from companies around the world who want to evolve their brand and their messaging strategy. So, as you reflect back on these CEO discussions, what would you tell other business leaders who are planning the future of their business?

Joseph: Yeah, this is, I mean, if you haven’t figured this out by now, what got you here is not going to get you there. I mean that notion that you can rely on the same old, same old in a world that, I don’t know if it’s the new normal, I hope to think it’s going to be better than normal. That we’re going to take the best of technologies for example, and we’re going to deploy them to create human convenience, but we’re also going to make sure this craving for human interaction is something that gets met by high quality service delivery beings. We’re going to care more about our people. We’re going to worry less about where they sit and more about how much they produce.

I think there’s a lot ahead, but because of that, strategy around how you want to position yourself in the marketplace is going to be a huge differentiator. And it’s going to dictate the tactics you take, the choices you make to really live into your brand. And that’s the coolest part. Once you define this is who we are, this is what will bring us distinction, it’s in keeping with our core. Then it’s a matter of figuring out how do we actually make choices that align with that true North so that we can stay differentiated in a relevant way to our consumers?

Ryan: Very well said. Yeah, we’re seeing across a number of different industries, companies change where previously they would have been very resistant. Some of those norms are being broken down, and digital transformation has been accelerated by years. So it’s really changing the way they’re building the organization for the future. And it relates obviously to the way that people work within the organization as well.

Joseph: Yeah, I remember in 2008, I was at a Ritz Carlton, this senior executive board meeting, and the CEO turned to me and said, “Do you think we could actually serve beer in a bottle at a Ritz Carlton? We are the Ritz Carlton. And our customers are asking for beer in the bottle. They’re kind of a new generation of consumer.” And it’s kind of ironic that the more gravitas you think you have in a brand, the more legacy, the more equity you have in your brand, the less you want to change. Well, it’s nothing like a gut punch of 2020 to tell you that you shouldn’t worry so much about what you used to be. You should be focusing on what’s relevant for today and tomorrow.

And that fluidity of understanding your customer, and making sure you’re positioned relative to their value proposition, that is it. And customers have been wanting technology all along. Some of us, maybe not as much, because we weren’t digital natives, but after you’ve experienced the convenience of technologies, you’re going to want them to reduce pain and friction in your relationship with the brand. At the same time, you want a brand that has some identity, some soul, some character, as reflected through their people.

Ryan: I remember that book well, and many of your books, so terrific insights. In fact, it just makes me think of one of my past podcast guests, where she wrote a book called Stop Random Acts of Marketing. And it kind of goes back to your over-communication, and before you get to the marketing part, you have to first figure out the brand strategy, and through the lens of the customer. And I know that’s a big part of what you do as well. As you did this research for the most recent book, did your CEO’s talk much about how to get that information out of the customer as to what is important to them?

Joseph: Well, the thing about this last year is that I think customers were willing to talk because they were so emotionally primed. And if anything, it was trying to figure out what was the real signal through all of it. I talked with a variety of consumer marketing research experts, those over at HBO Max, and all kinds of places, when there was a great deal of trying to figure out what do we provide by way of content to consumers who are locked at home. And they would tell you that people were very responsive, pulse surveys were at an all-time high. For a while, you had to kind of ride it a little bit to find the signal in there, because there was a lot of chaos.

But once you start getting the signal and you get in the habit of just asking customers, and you don’t make it laborious, and you also sometimes just reach out in a human way, that brand I mentioned from Florida, that Sonny’s Barbecue restaurant brand, they literally were calling customers after they’d gone through the curbside pickup, not only to thank them, but to get a little bit of intel. What did you observe? What was most salient to you? What caused you anxiety? What gave you comfort? What increased the likelihood you’ll come back again? What scared you off? All of those questions were very important and very casually weaved into an otherwise important opportunity to simply say thank you to a customer for coming out and buying some food curbside.

Ryan: Great example of being able to get that information firsthand. And we experienced the same Joseph, we’ve seen an increase in the number of participants who are willing to offer their opinion where before, everybody’s so busy, it just wasn’t always possible, especially B2B executives, but we’ve actually seen an increase in people who are willing to respond to that inquiry.

Joseph: And Ryan, I think that’s why I was surprised at how many people participated in my book. How do you get Brian Cornell, the CEO of Target to talk to you? Now, I knew Brian from a prior set of experiences, but it was always just very quick little emails that we’d send back and forth to each other. But here we are talking to each other at some length about the challenge that he was facing in taking that brand in a direction that was consumer-relevant.

Ryan: Wonderful. So, here’s a question for you. Is there one thing, just one thing that leaders should start doing today, or maybe just as important stop doing?

Joseph: Yeah. Stop thinking you need to be perfect, and listen more. I mean, admit your mistakes. I think to stop thinking you need to be perfect is pretty critical. We learn now more than ever; people don’t want to be led by perfect leaders. They want to be led by people who are as imperfect as them who have a vision and have compassion and a willingness to make the world a more perfect place by aligning with their teams to get you there.

Ryan: That’s a hard lesson to learn, isn’t it?

Joseph: Yeah, well I’m perfect though. So, I haven’t quite learned it fully yet.

Ryan: Speaking about your book just really quickly, I like how you broke it up into the five main sections, set the foundation, build connections, move with purpose, harness change, and forge the future. I also like how you put in a summary of practical takeaways, as well as something you call the strength plan. Can you share with the listeners how to think about this strength plan?

Joseph: I think I learned this a long time ago. It’s really nice to write about all these highfalutin leaders, but if you can’t bring it home to the dry cleaner in Poughkeepsie, then nobody’s going to buy your book. It’s kind of an interesting piece of work. It’s always about saying to you, “Now, you just heard this from Brian Cornell at Target. Now God knows you’re probably not running a company like Target, but what is the takeaway for you? How do you apply this in your own life?” And you probe around, put some provocative questions in the mix, and people can really cull from that the commonalities that we all face, whether you’re a Microsoft trying to scale teams, when we’re talking to Matt Renner, the president, or you’re Stephanie Linnartz over at Marriott, trying to figure out how to manage furloughs. We all have some commonalities.

Ryan: So as leaders think about the future, certainly the world’s a much smaller place aided by technology. Did you get into that topic much?

Joseph: Absolutely did. And all the more reason that your brand has to stand out in the context of that. When the world kind of shrinks itself down into your fingertips on a mobile device, you better be able to give a strong defining value proposition that differentiates you from all the other people they can get with a swipe of their index finger.

Ryan: We’re all trained that way today, for sure. So, Joseph, we’re almost out of time. I know it’s gone fast. Any final takeaways from your lessons through this experience?

Joseph: Yeah. I just think that the people who are listening to this podcast are people who are constantly looking for ways to grow and develop. That is the key ingredient probably for us all, as long as we keep an open mindset, we’re looking for solutions on the backside of problems. We develop resilience, and we get through the world stronger through adversity.

Ryan: Joseph, thank you for being a guest today on Expert Opinion. Typically, I know you’re probably out on the tour promoting the book now that travel and conferences aren’t happening. How can people reach out to you or get a copy of your book?

Joseph: Yeah. We’re still doing everything virtually. Thank goodness for video conferences. They can find the book at, It’s available in all the places you would otherwise get your books as well, but that’s probably the best pricing deal. And then in terms of getting a hold of me, it’s just That’s Joseph

Ryan: Well, I know you have a lot of resources on your website as well, a lot of videos, and of course all these other books. And so, thank you so much for your time today. Any final thoughts?

Joseph: I’m a big fan of Ryan, you guys do great work out there, and it’s an honor anytime I get to work with you. And I think anybody who’s thinking about marketing, they need to have a conversation with you and understand branding.

Ryan: Very kind of you Joseph. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for being a guest today. Well, that concludes our show. This is Ryan Rieches, and you’ve been listening to another edition of Expert Opinion, a BrandingBusiness forum where thought leaders share their point of view. If you’d like to listen to past shows or read our blog series, visit