First Contact Transcript

Episode 20: “People Ahead of Profit:” How to Lead in Uncertain Times

First Contact with Laurie Segall is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media and iHeart Radio. 

Jerry Colonna: It’s extraordinary what’s happening, I’m talking to, to thousands of employees at a company, all at the same time, and I’m saying effectively the same thing, which is, “This is a time for pilgrims to travel by the stars.” And what are the stars? The stars are our values, our beliefs, our dreams, our wishes, our aspirations. I am fired up right now, because if we miss this opportunity, I will be heartbroken. And the opportunity here is to finally put people ahead of profit. It’s finally to put people and the planet ahead of profit.

We’re living in a  pretty scary moment right now. The coronavirus is devastating the economy. Unemployment is skyrocketing. Millions of people’s lives have been changed forever, and the future is nothing but uncertain.

As we face this virus and the destruction that’s come along with it – I thought we’d all benefit from hearing from Jerry Colonna. He’s one of my favorite people in tech – and well, maybe  in life. 

Jerry helps business leaders navigate uncertainty and chaos. He’s known fondly as the CEO Whisperer. Now, I can attest to this personally – because I’ve worked with him on my business – he will make you cry. 

Jerry is the CEO coach to some of the world’s biggest entrepreneurs – like the former CEO of Etsy,  and the folks who started Gimlet Media – for all you podcast lovers.

He coaches founders through the highs, and more importantly,  through the low points that we don’t necessarily see.

Jerry spent a good part of his career running one of New York’s most successful VC funds – Flat Iron Partners, and he speaks candidly about his own challenges with mental health.  

His book “Reboot – Leadership And The Art Of Growing Up” – is an honest take at what it means to lead and how to look from within. Two really important concepts right now. 

Jerry’s whole ethos is centered around the concept: better humans make better leaders. There’s never been a more critical time for humanity or leadership. And Jerry is the expert.  His message is simple: Show up.

I’m Laurie Segall, and this is First Contact.

Laurie Segall: I said this before and I will say it now that we’re rolling, like I do feel like, um, you are just like the equivalent of like a virtual hug.

Jerry Colonna: Aw.

Laurie Segall: Something about you is super, super comforting. So I’m really happy to have you on First Contact, and, and I guess I should start, I want to start with kind of the basic question, which is I guess like, how are you doing, right now?

Jerry Colonna: Aw. Thank you. I tend not to be a silver lining kind of guy. But I do think that there’s something powerful going on here, which hopefully we’ll get to. So how am I… Challenged.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: Um, yesterday afternoon, um, I did I think my third client call, and it was a Sunday afternoon and that’s normal in these times. And I felt depleted. And I am acutely aware of my own limitations right now. And, I am reminded daily of, of the very same things that I would advise other people to do, which is to hold those limitations without shame or guilt. And at the same time, I am breathlessly blown away by the joys that I see. I see people collaborating. I see people reaching deep down inside and finding ways to connect. I see adventure. I see people just finding their path to their best possible selves. And um, I love human beings more today than I did yesterday, and I loved them a lot yesterday. So that’s how I’m doing. How are you?

Laurie Segall: Um, same? I don’t k- um-

Jerry Colonna: Mm-hmm.

Laurie Segall: You know, I think for me, I s-, I- I was trying to figure it out, um- I always step into other people’s stories for a living.

Jerry Colonna: Mm-hmm.

Laurie Segall: Um, and I can be deeply empathetic and I can, try to understand how other people are doing and ask them challenging questions and try to understand human nature. But something that’s different about this story is that… um, I’m in it, and that all of us- … are in it together, and that we are all experiencing, issues like, you know, anxiety and loneliness and fear and joy and love and all of these things. And so never in my career, truthfully, have I, um been in the story so much as the one that I’m delving into. Um, you know, so I think an honest answer is, um, I’m okay, right? Like I- I’m sitting in, you know, out of quarantine but in self-isolation in New York City. Self-isolating alone. Worried about my, um, parents back in Atlanta and, you know, with these crazy questions you never envisioned yourself asking in 2020. Which is if I go home, could I hurt my parents?

Jerry Colonna: Right.

Laurie Segall: Um. When we come out of this, will everyone I know be okay? Will I be okay? How will I battle my mind? Um, will I be able to be an okay leader, a good leader? Um, you know, will I have a business out of this? I mean, I, you know, truthfully, to- to give you, I- I feel like with you, Jerry, like I can’t, you know, I-

Jerry Colonna: You can’t hide dear.

Laurie Segall: I can’t hide, so I might as well not try. And- and, um, you know, this show is called First Contact, and our First Contact was when we were shooting a documentary on mental health and depression, and- and you turned the tables on me when you asked me why I wanted to do this story. And- and I was kind of giving you a non-answer, and you asked me to show up.

Jerry Colonna: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: Um, and that’s kind of in your DNA, and I think this global pandemic has forced us all in some capacity to have to show up, right? And- and-

Jerry Colonna: I think that’s right.

Laurie Segall: So, um, so I guess that’s a long answer to, um, I’m doing okay. I’m trying to show up for myself so I can show up for other people and it just depends on the minute and the hour and, and my whole thing has always been trying to make people feel less alone. And so I think I find purpose in that, and then I, you know, and then every day I try to, you know, kind of make sure I don’t implode in my head, so… There. That- that’s- that’s how I’m doing. Um, so yeah. Now that that’s all out there. You know?

Jerry Colonna: Yeah, but you know, there’s something beautiful about you showing up, as you just did. You showed up. And, um, you know, I’m fond of- of joking. You know the phrase namaste?

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Jerry Colonna: Um, and it’s, uh, it’s loosely translated as the divine in me sees the divine in you. I like to translate it as the mess in me sees the mess in you.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: Um, ’cause it allows us to be- be together.

Laurie Segall: You know, we had Matt Mullenweg on, the founder of WordPress, and he talked about this being boss level mode. Like this is the most extreme. And I just feel like you’re the kind of person who’s on the front lines of some of the most extreme stuff, and so a lot of folks I know are losing jobs or having to lay off people and are having to learn how to lead. And I’m sure you’re on the phone with very successful tech entrepreneurs who are, I’m sure you’re hearing all sorts of different things. I’d be curious to know like, what is your advice to people right now on how do you lead during this time?

Jerry Colonna: Mm-hmm.

Laurie Segall: When, I mean, sometimes it’s kind of tough to get out of bed, truly?

Jerry Colonna: Well, there’s a lot to say about leading during this time. But the first thing that I would say actually harkens back to what you just shared in your, in your check in. If you will. And even in the reference to the First Contact that we had with the documentary, and that is, well, everything feels different and we all are wondering how different the world will be when we get through this time, and we will get through this time. The world is changing, but it’s not ending. And that’s a really important distinction to hold onto. What has been important, is what is important. Which is what will be important. Which is that leaders have to show up and be real. Always. Always. Always. Can I read to you a quote that I found enormous comfort from?

Laurie Segall: Yeah, please.

Jerry Colonna: I’ll give you a little backstory on this. So, Ani Pema Chodron is a Buddhist teacher, and she has come to my rescue many times in my life through her works, through her teachings, on one-on-one, and this is a quote that I’ve carried with me for many years. And I’m gonna read the whole thing. It’s, it’s a little bit large, but it’s worth it. She writes, “All around us the wind, the fire, the earth, the water, are always taking on different qualities. We also change like the weather. We ebb and flow like the tides. We wax and wane like the moon. We fail to see that like the weather, we’re fluid, not solid, and so we suffer. What we fail to see is that we can use everything, everything we do to help us to realize that we’re part of the energy that creates everything. If we learn to sit still like a mountain in a hurricane, if we learn to sit still like a mountain in a hurricane, unprotected from the truth and vividness in the immediacy of simply being part of life, then we are not the separate being who has to have things turn out our way. When we stop resisting and let the weather simply flow through us, we can live our lives completely.”

Laurie Segall: Mm.

Jerry Colonna: And that’s from her wonderful little book, Comfortable With Uncertainty.

Laurie Segall: I love that, and it’s this idea of leaning in to the inability to kind of control a lot of what’s happening right now. And, and the uncertainty of it, I mean, something I, I think about as… Even quote when we come out of this, right? As we come out of this.

Jerry Colonna: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: Nothing will feel the same again. I mean, you are talking to I’m sure entrepreneurs left and right, like, who are having to lay off lots of people. So, you know, this, it’s like you can’t say “We’ll, be okay,” you know? Because-

Jerry Colonna: Right.

Laurie Segall: … The world is gonna look really different after this. So, l you know,what you touch on in that quote is kind of being able to lean into to not being able to control a lot of this, to be able to be steady and go with it. How do you suggest, you know, I know you can’t really wave the magic wand and have all the answers… you talk to people at the highest levels, like how do you tell them to cope with this idea of uncertainty, 

Jerry Colonna: Well, let’s go back to what I was saying before about being real. When we are real, and we show up, and we allow space for the full magnitude, the full rollercoaster ride of our own emotional state, the ebb and flow, the wind, the, the earth, the rain that Ani Pema describes, when we allow the fullness of that to happen, and we don’t fight it… This is the key, when we don’t fight that, what happens then is that we can then hold onto the things that are actually not changing. See, part of the problem right now is that we have no idea what’s gonna change.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: And, the truth is, Laurie, certainty is the delusion. Certainty is the illusion. It’s a better word than delusion. Certainty is not the guaranteed thing. There, there is no certainty. We, we come to the edge of a curb, we look at the, the Walk, Don’t Walk sign, we see Walk, we say to ourselves, “I can cross the street safely.” And bang, we’re hit by a car. That is reality.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: But we have to walk around with this belief system that things are knowable, because otherwise it’s unbearable.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Jerry Colonna: But what we lose when we over-index on that, is the ability to respond fluidly to the shifts that are happening. And, by the way, I don’t know any other leadership skill that’s more important than the ability to read the weather, and respond with fluidity.

Laurie Segall: Hmm.

Jerry Colonna: Because everything’s changing all the time.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: So the challenge is how do we deal with the fear that that change arises within us? And that goes to the other part of that image for me. For me the mountain isn’t some inflexible, brittle, pig-headed response to the world around us. The mountain is to remember the things that are important to us. You know, in your case Laurie, telling the human story it’s the tent pole that holds the entire canvas up of your life. It’s who you are. It’s not, “I’m gonna have a job at CNN,” or “I’m gonna have my own company.” Those are manifestations of the tent pole.

Laurie Segal: I think that humanity, in such an interesting way, is rising to the surface, and it’s forcing us to edit so quickly, the people, the places, the things in our lives that are so fundamental. And you’re right, so for me story telling around, around humanity and technology, and making people feel less alone, that’s been in my DNA for so long, and it has never been closer to the surface, right? You know, and I, I think this moment has solidified that. But, but you’re right. I-I don’t know how to describe this, but it’s like, even being a leader during this time, right? And you deal with leaders.

Jerry Colonna: Mm-hmm.

Laurie Segall: There’s just, in general, with tech, and we both know this, ’cause we’ve been in tech for a long time. You’ve been in tech much longer than I am, there’s not really a rule-

Jerry Colonna: Hey, not that much longer.

Laurie Segall: Right?

Jerry Colonna: All right, I’m older.

Laurie Segall: You’re very successful.

Jerry Colonna: Right.

Laurie Segall: You’ve been in this for a long time. There’s not really a rule book in tech, right? Like, you know, people kind of, they, they do their, their thing and, and they’ll follow the rules, but this, this thing that’s happened, it’s just like you don’t know, I think, as a leader, and this is, maybe you hear my own internal struggle, like, what is the right thing to do, right? And you see all these micro decisions that have happened, and every single leader making them. When did they shut down the business? Are they gonna lay off people? Are they gonna make the hiring decision that they pro… You know? I-I don’t know, do you, is there a framework? And maybe this is just me reaching for something. Your, you literally have dealt with the most successful people, some of the most successful entrepreneurs who have weathered things. I don’t think anyone’s weathered something like this, but like do you, what framework do you give leaders during this time to help make some of these decisions?

Jerry Colonna: Right. So, I think what you’re asking me, really succinctly is, what should we do?

Laurie Segall: Yeah. What do you do?

Jerry Colonna: Right. And so, I want to bring your attention to a couple of things. The first is, you said, “In tech, there is no rule book.” Well, here’s a newsflash, there is no rule book, not just in tech. Even our most codified wisdom traditions from the Bhagavad Gita to the New Testament, from the Qur’an to the Sutras of the Buddha, they’re all pointers. They’re all pointing out a path. They’re not The Path. And that has always been true. Part of our collective illusion has been to believe that there is one way to do things, because it quiets our nervous system to believe that that is so.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: There is no One Path, there is no rule book, and the fact that we are finding ourselves in circumstances that none of us have found ourselves in before points to the vividness of the reality that old maps no longer apply. Joyce Rupp pens a beautiful poem by that title, Old Maps No Longer Apply. And she describes the fact that there’s a moment in life for all of us, whether it’s coronavirus, or economic upheaval and turmoil, or an individual company collapsing. There’s that moment when we realize that the old map that we had been following is a map that was given to us written by somebody else. And beautifully, gorgeously, what she reminds us, is that there was a time when pilgrims traveled by the stars, and they didn’t need maps. And what I did with you, just by calling up the point of storytelling is what I am trying to do with every single person that I encounter right now. And right now, it’s extraordinary what’s happening, I’m talking to thousands of employees at a company, all at the same time, and I’m saying effectively the same thing, which is, “This is a time for pilgrims to travel by the stars.” And what are the stars? The stars are our values, our beliefs, our dreams, our wishes, our aspirations. You know, there’s a part of me, Laurie, you know how I can get preacher-like, I am, I am fired up right now, because if we miss this opportunity, I will be heartbroken. And the opportunity, and again, I don’t like silver linings either, but the opportunity here is to finally put people ahead of profit. It’s finally to put people, and the planet, ahead of profit. Can we be done with business as usual? Because you and I first met because we looked at the way businesses were destroying individual lives. Every single CEO I encounter, usually by video, are standing there with tears in their eyes, saying, “Four weeks ago, my company was doing well, and now I just laid off 50% of my staff.” I was talking to one friend, a CEO, he said, “I just find myself staring out the window all day.” And I said to him, “What do you see when you stare out the window?” And then he said, “The faces of the employees and their kids.” Right? There’s no sugar coating this experience. This is painful. And what I said to him was, “Don’t ever forget those faces.”

Laurie Segall: Yeah, yeah.

Jerry Colonna: Look, I cannot be the first responder in Elmhurst Hospital. As much as I might want to go in there, I cannot be you know, magically like Dyson just did, invent a new ventilator. I can’t magically make medical supplies happen, or, or protect the healthcare workers. But I can do what I was organized to do. I can do what I was built to do, which is to hold people’s hearts. And that’s how I will help. And that’s how you’re helping.

Ok we’ve got to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors. More with my guest after the break.

Laurie Segall: I know we talk about you being the CEO Whisperer and this and that, like, and that’s a nice, a great title that I, I think totally fits… But the reason why, um, people call you that is, yes, you make people cry … But there’s a reason. It’s because you force, I think, a lot of humanity out of people. And I think it’s because you’ve faced a lot of humanity in your own life, um… You were here in New York City for 9/11, you have faced, um, existential depression, right? You’ve talked very openly about that. That’s how we first got in contact, because you’ve been- Open in your community and, and outward about that. and you’ve been working with people for 16, 17 years, you’ve been working with first time entrepreneurs. So, when you, as a leader, have to let 50% of your staff go, or when you are one of those people that you’re worried that your job is not even gonna exist in two months when we “come out of this”, right? Who knows when we’re gonna come out of this, I don’t wanna put any artificial timeline on it. How do you, as someone who has literally been someone who has screamed about our messy minds- And how we have to take care of them for a long time. What advice do you give? Your advice to that CEO,, saying, “Don’t forget those faces,” I think is important. What advice do you give to people when it comes to taking care of their heads, as they make these decisions that they just a month ago didn’t even, couldn’t even comprehend?

Jerry Colonna: Yeah, you could summarize everything by the simple notion that when a full, real, messy human shows up, they are better leaders. And that when they use that messiness to explore their leadership challenges, they go back and they get to heal the messiness. Again, that truth remains. And so what I would say to people right now is, “You sit like a mountain in a hurricane, not brittley, but holding fast the notion of what does it mean to be human, and humane, in this time.” There are people who are laid off inhumanely, and there are people who are going to be laid off humanely. No matter how many things you have out of your control, and my God, so many things are out of our control right now, you are not powerless over whether or not you act humanely or inhumanely.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: I’m gonna say that again, ’cause it’s really important. You have a choice as to how you are going to hold yourself. And the embodiment of that choice is the embodiment of the, the, the mountain. What values do you hold to? How do you respond to the employees who are not being laid off? How do you hold them, and create space for them? I was on a call today with about 200 employees at this one company, and one of the senior executives checked in, and he said bravely, wonderfully, filled with self-love and self-care, he said, “I’ve been terribly unproductive today, and lately.” And that’s brave.

Laurie Segall: Right. Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: Because he just allowed himself to be in that space, partially because he had opened up his home to somebody whose borders had been closed, and he had nowhere else to stay.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: That’s being human.

Laurie Segall: I mean, and there’s something so crazy human about this moment. Look it, you’re literally looking into my home right… We, for our listeners… We’re Zooming, right? Like, you’re literally looking into my home right now, you know?

Jerry Colonna: Right, right.

Laurie Segall: There’s something so personal, I mean, it’s just extraordinary the contrast, right? I was thinking about it, I woke up this morning, and, and truly Jerry, it’s like it totally depends on the day, and the minute, a-as to how, how I’m doing. And I think I represent just everyone else too, you know?

Jerry Colonna: Right.

Laurie Segall: Like I don’t think that I’m unique in this, um, so I’ll say it, but like, you know it’s just there’s a stark contrast, it’s silent outside, and then there’s this war being fought, right? Then there are these sirens, um, and, and it almost feels like this thing is kinda closing in on us, and, and then you think like, “Will things ever be the same?” And so it’s just like these days of really trying, um, to mentally, you know, be productive and be there for, present for other people. Your parents, your employees, your friends, your family, you know, and then also really try very hard to, to create a structure for yourself to move forward. Um. it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, so I’ll be open about it, um, I just think, it’s, it’s extraordinarily human. It’s as human as it gets, you know?

Jerry Colonna: You know, there’s not one person, and in fact, of the billions and billions of humans who have existed, not one has been through this before.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Jerry Colonna: And so, in the social distance, isolation that you’re going through right now, don’t lose sight of the fact that whatever fears you’re having, whatever rollercoaster of emotions you’re having, whatever ups and downs you’re having, you’re not alone.

Laurie Segall: Yeah. I think that’s so important to realize. That we’re all collectively alone, but going through this together. I know that you guys put out, and I read it and actually it was super helpful to me-

Jerry Colonna: Mm-hmm.

Laurie Segall: Under the Reboot Guidelines, like what are, for mandatory, I- I- like, isolation, here are some guidelines of-… what you can do as leaders or for company and for connection…

Jerry Colonna: To provide peer support for each other. Yeah.

Laurie Segall: To provide peer support. Could you walk us through some of those? Like I love the idea of giving people just like tangibles, right?

Jerry Colonna: Mm-hmm.

Laurie Segall: Like, um, could you walk us through like some of, um, what- what you would suggest?

Jerry Colonna: So what we did, and you’re right, and this is a message that I’ve sent to my small little company and- and uh, uh, band of brokenhearted warriors that we are. What I’ve said is we were built for this. Not for these times, but for this call. And, this is how we will be helping is to lean in and be there for individuals and large and small organizations to help them in their processes of being human right now. And so this is a document that, um, Chris Vandenbrink, one of my colleagues, wrote, which is really a summary of what we’ve learned in offering virtual peer support groups. And just for context, one of the things, virtual happy hours are great.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Jerry Colonna: And one of the challenges is that we’re all taking on this sort of odd little burden of trying to make each other happy.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: And that can create a- a kind of brittleness that doesn’t allow the fullness for the experience. And so one of the first things we always recommend is you start with a check in, and you and I actually did this.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Jerry Colonna: And we started with that very famous Jerry question of, “How are you?” And you turned the tables and you started with, and you tried to catch me, I know what you were doing. Um, and the thing is that we have always advised that business meetings start with a check in. And the check in usually goes, um, we tend to use from the, from polyvagal theory, uh, red, yellow, green as a means of identifying how we’re doing. Red obviously is not in the best of all places. I’d rather be someplace else. Yellow I’m kind of in the middle, green I’m good to go. And it’s a way of quickly being able to identify our feeling state, and then people are welcome to name any color or not use any color at all. We’re actually putting out a little recording about how to do red, yellow, green check ins. But the point of the check in is to establish an emotional rapport with people. I’ll add that one of the really powerful things of video is if you can manage to tilt the computer or your screen or your camera in such a way so that you can look into the camera with your eyes, so that your partners can see your eyes, it’s really powerful. Because when we’re at physical distance, what we lack is the emotional rapport that comes from being able to read each other’s energy. And it can increase the sense of isolation, especially if people are on a video call and they’re actually looking away, like if I turn my body away, okay?

Laurie Segall Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: So that’s a really important piece. The second is, um, we often think of setting the container, and I always talk about a glass of water, and an empty glass is purposeless. And water without a glass is useless, and so when you set the intention to have a peer support group and a peer check in, that’s the water. That’s the content. That’s what it is that we’re really there for. But if you don’t have a proper container with a proper set of rules about how to do it, it can quickly become useless. And so we have a couple of norms and guidelines that we talk about. One is presence. Really show up. Really be there. So simple thing: turn off the notifications on your computer. Nobody else needs to hear, “Ding, ding, ding.” A second, much more important is you ask questions before giving advice. In fact, dial down the advice giving. Dial up the questions. How are you feeling? What would be different? That sort of thing. It’s often helpful to sort of bring forth a particular issue that the group is working on. Hey, you know, f-, if it’s four or five vice presidents at a company, you might come forth and say, “Hey, how are we going to be communicating about this layoff. And there may only be one person who has to deal with that, but by talking about it together, it can be really powerful and it can, first of all, you can get more perspective, which is always helpful. But you can get, more support in that regard. There’s a whole long list of, uh, things here and there’s lots and lots of links on that.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: And I’m sure you’ll make that available to people, but…

Laurie Segall: We’ll put it on our show notes. We’ll definitely, we definitely will. And I- I love that. Um. I’m going to ask you a… I don’t normally do these types of question, but I, because you’re on the front lines and you’re hearing things, I’d be curious to know, and as, I’m going to ask two questions at once, because I don’t want you to think I’m just asking the first. What is the most heartbreaking thing that you’ve heard from a CEO over the last couple weeks, and what is the most heartwarming thing you’ve heard?

Jerry Colonna: Well, actually the most heartbreaking thing I’ve heard is not actually from a CEO. But it’s from a woman who’s, um… So many people are worried simultaneously about their children and about their parents, just like you are worried about, you know, your parents and are they safe and are they actually listening to you and… This woman, she was part of an all hands conversation, and she was just talking about, her father, who is an immigrant from China who lives in Sheepshead Bay, and is a postal worker. And he takes the D-train I imagine, or maybe the F, from Brooklyn to Penn Station to work at the Farley Post Office, the main post office in New York City. And I c-, I can’t get that man out of my head. How dangerous, to get on a subway, which is I’m sure empty, in a community right now that is struggling mightily with, uh, racism, um, coming from our highest leaders. And he won’t stay home. I mean, I can’t stop thinking about that man, and I can’t stop thinking about that young woman who cares about her father.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: You know? Um, I grew up in Brooklyn. It’s kind of obvious from my accent. And there are a lot of people who think of New York and the glitz of New York. They think of New York as Manhattan between 96th Street and Wall Street maybe. But that’s not my New York. My New York are postal workers and sanitation workers and, I’m sorry. The firefighters, the ambulance drivers, you know, somebody’s going out and repairing traffic lights. And it ain’t me. You know? These are the people I grew up with. This is what grit really means. We- we talk about so much about resilience and leadership circles. You want to know resilience? Catch a subway that started off in the Bronx at 3:00 in the morning or 4:00 in the morning and watch people going to work with construction boots on or white nurse’s shoes. Think of the- the woman who immigrated from Haiti who’s a nurse in Elmhurst Hospital. You know, Elmhurst, Elmhurst, what, 120, 130 languages spoken in that one zip code? That’s New York. That, as you can tell, breaks my heart. Um, and- and, you know, there are people like that in every community.

Laurie Segall: Yeah. And what do you think, 

Jerry Colonna: Well, can I give you like the joyful moment for me?

Laurie Segall: Yeah, yeah. Sure.

Jerry Colonna: So, um, one of the moments of joy was actually something that happened internally for the company, and I’ve had lots and lots of moments of joy usually around seeing human beings come together. But last Friday, you know, many of my colleagues have- have little rugrats, little munchkins, and you know, my youngest is 22, so its been a long time. And so I did story time for one of my colleague’s four-year-old, and just over video read a book, and you know, it was more for me than for him. ‘Cause he could barely… But uh, Thomas the Tank Engine. But um, you know, a promise I’ve made to myself as a CEO is that I’m not going to forget that. And I’m going to not wait for times of crisis to inquire about the health and well-being of my colleague’s four-year-old son. You know? Um, so there’s- there’s a tinge of bitter sweetness in that joy.

Ok we’ve got to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors. More with my guest after the break.

Laurie Segall: What do you think resilience is in the era of coronavirus?

Jerry Colonna: Well, it’s really important to remember about resilience, that we- we oftentimes misunderstand resilience as a kind of false, uh, capacity to always take a punch. Right? To take a punch, get knocked down, and stand up. And that’s great if you can do that. But true resilience is the ability to duck. I’m a boxer, right? And you know, my boxing coach would yell at me if I stood there blithely taking a punch. ‘Cause you don’t really last very long. And so true resiliency, true grit, if you will, is the capacity to sort of really be flexible and to shift and to respond differently to changing circumstances. And so resiliency in the age of coronavirus… I think resiliency in this age requires us to go back to and remember what was vitally important about us in the first place, what brought us together, and what remains. What is true regardless? Resiliency being in the form of being able to withstand the heartbreak of connecting with a postal worker who’s commuting on a train at, 5:00 in the morning or something like that. And knowing what is our work to do, and knowing that, that my job as a leader right now is to hold myself steady, to remind people of their true worth, their true values, and call that forth. Call forth that humanity, as you mentioned before. I suppose in the end, resiliency is really a quality of leadership in that way, more than a thing unto itself.

Laurie Segall: When you talk about holding close what’s important to you, um, I think I’ve done a lot of thinking about what is important to me during this time. Thank you, quarantine. Um… What is, what is that for you?

Jerry Colonna: Hm. Now you’re going to make me cry. So you referenced the fact that, uh, I’ve had my own existential depression and suicidal feelings and, uh, and attempted suicide when I was a teenager and then a return of those feelings in my 30s. And as I, as I left that period, uh, and entered a new period, still connected to the pain of that, I, um, began exploring Buddhism. And, um, it works for me, and I don’t mean to proselytize. Find what works for you is fine by me, whatever. But it worked for me because of so many different reasons, but one of the things that I found fascinating is the notion of the bodhisattva. And the bodhisattva isn’t just another saint. I was raised in Catholic traditions, so I have a deep and profound awareness of saints. Um, a bodhisattva is someone who could attain enlightenment, who could leave suffering behind, but chooses to take rebirth time and time again until all beings are free from suffering. So what matters to me, Laurie, is, uh, my bodhisattva vow. I am wired to care. I am at my best when I am caring. And what matters to me is love and compassion. And what coronavirus has taught me already is that which I thought was true, I have now confirmed as in fact, true. That the only response to fear is love. It’s the only response that works. And so when we’re terrified, find the compassion. You know, Fred Rogers lovingly, wonderfully used to advise children to look for the helpers. I’ll amend that by saying there’s a helper inside of you. Look for that helper. ‘Cause we can all do something special. We can all do one little thing.

Laurie Segall: Pulling out a little bit, I, there was something you said earlier I thought was interesting about businesses changing after this. Like, when, as we come out of this, you talk about, you know, maybe people will look at people over profit. Maybe things will be different. Um, when two, three, four, six months, a year down the road, like, do you think that businesses change? Do you think that we lead with heart? Like, what do you think happens to businesses?

Jerry Colonna: I don’t know for sure. But I know what I’d like. I don’t, I can’t tell you with certainty, but I know what would be a tragedy, and what would be a tragedy is if we let this time pass and we let all those lives go and we still find ourselves squabbling over nonsense. And we do that a lot. I find it hard to believe that- that the vast majority of us will somehow forget what this time period was like. I- I don’t believe humans are like that. And I think back to what happened in the 1930s after the Great Depression hit, and the, not just you know, the stories that we tell of our ancestors who saved every little bit of string and turned it into a ball because they had grown up in the Depression, but because of the entitlement programs that were created as a result of that. The commitment the government made to taking care of people. I think in a similar fashion, there were entitlement programs that were created, despite its profound racism, the 1950s, we created the middle class, because there was a commitment that that sacrifice was going to mean something. I know that we have the capacity to do that as a species, not just as a country. And you know, that’s my hope and my wish, and k-, you know, to me, businesses are the best organization structures to manifest social change possible. They are fast, they are efficient, for the most part, they do miraculous things. We just need to make sure that the leaders are leading from their heart. That’s all.

Laurie Segall: I do wonder, having covered tech and having seen us through this tech lash and having watched it come all the way over the pendulum swing one way, I wonder if we come back, I wonder if this is a reset for many of these tech companies that are now kind of the most powerful companies, in the world? I- I wonder what this will mean for them.

Jerry Colonna: Well, if, t- take a look at Amazon, which, you know- Is of course a tech company, but is also a logistics giant, right?

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: Let’s hope that giants like Amazon, and I think it’s true, I think they’re having… I mean, I’m talking to some of these leaders and they see it. They have, if not the direct family, then they have cousins who are impacted. They see the lives impacted by this, and they want to do something.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: And let’s just hope that they have internalized the change.

Laurie Segall: Um, I had this thought before I got on with you. I just, what does this virus mean for the American dream? I look at friends of mine who have small businesses, folks who work at restaurants, I’m already seeing jobs lost, and so that question of like, what does this mean for the American dream? I don’t know. What do you think?

Jerry Colonna Well, what does it mean for your dream?

Laurie Segall: Well, I think my, it means for my dream, it means it’s more tangible than ever. You know, I think storytelling, is kind of a- a method of survival for me personally. But I also think, I said this in my last episode, which is, um, my favorite Joan Didion quote is, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Well, that’s essentially what I- I’ve got to do for myself and others right now. But that’s, you know, I think for- for me, that’s- that’s my dream. Um And I, and I think that survives. I think that survives this, you know? Hopefully- I mean- for me personally, hopefully, um, you know, I- I think about those things ’cause we are a small business and we are, you know, we are new, and- and, uh, the … it came at a, at a weird time, and we had to throw everything out the the window and- and rethink from quarantine. Um-

Jerry Colonna: Mm-hmm

Laurie Segall: Like many other people, right? Like a lot of other folks. But, um, but it got me thinking about the American dream. Like…

Jerry Colonna: I- I think what you’re referring to is the American dream of an individual crafting their own future.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: So, I think, uh, let’s make a distinction. There are some dreams that will be dashed. That is true. There’ll be some dreams, like … Was it Lorraine Hansberry who wrote, “that will dry up like a raisin in the sun,” from the Langston Hughes poem?

Laurie Segall: Mmm.

Jerry Colonna: But the American dreaming … will go on. The act of dreaming is more important than the dream itself, because that’s resiliency. I spoke to a Venture Accelerator this morning, a group that incubates lots and lots of entrepreneurial endeavors, and their entire mode of operating has to change right now. And I reminded them of their purpose, which was two, three, four, five, six months from now, nine months from now, whenever it is that we’re through this period, their job is to take care of those dreamers, so that those dreamers can manifest their dreams. The dreaming will continue, but what we dreamed up will be different. Right now, somebody is inventing a new ventilator. Right now somebody is saying, “The logistical nightmare of not being able to get seven-cent masks,” that’s how much they cost apparently, uh, N95 masks, the logistical nightmare of not making enough of those is gonna be solved by an American dreaming entrepreneur, or an entrepreneur from another country. That will not stop.

Laurie Segall: I am so excited to watch technology entrepreneurs step up. I mean, I- I got into this, uh, in 2008, interviewing entrepreneurs when we were coming out of the recession, when there was the iPhone launch, the app store was launched, and there was just, like, this canvas for creativity, right, and, like, people dreamed. Like, there were a ton of dreamers, and I have a feeling, that we’re gonna have a lot of dreamers come out of this, that we’re gonna see … have a lot of people who have a lot of heart, um-

Jerry Colonna: That’s right.

Laurie Segall: … who will have seen things happen to their parents and their friends, and have seen that there’s a system that is broken. I- I hope, you know, that- that that- that ethos of tech that I so fell in love with as a startup reporter, you know, in my early twenties-

Jerry Colonna: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: I can hopefully, not to try to find a silver lining, ’cause again, I’m not sure if I- I, you know, but I- I can see that, I can see that we are gonna … I hope we are gonna have … We’re already seeing that, and that, you know, that makes me really happy. So-

Jerry Colonna: You know, in the early days when I was a VC, um, one of the entrepreneurial archetypes that I could not stand to back and I would not back were people who were in it for the money. I just, I just, I- I c- I could- I couldn’t bear to be around them.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Jerry Colonna: One of the things that will happen in this time period is those people who are pursuing something because they think it’s a path to riches will probably not continue pursuing things, but the people who rise up are the people who genuinely lean in and say, “I have an idea that might help,” and that to me is the essence of entrepreneurship. “I have an idea that might help.” “Wouldn’t it be cool if …” “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could triple the production of ventilators inside of two months? Hmm. Here’s an idea.” Right? That’s the American dreaming process.

Laurie Segall: Um, I want to end on something you said that I love, that this is in your book. I like scribble notes in your book , um, like a crazy person. Um, and I just think it’s, uh, it’s really fitting. You said the call to lead is the call to be brave, and I think, all of us are trying to lead in some capacity, whether or not we own our own business, whether or not we are parents trying to figure out how to homeschool our children. But I think bravery is a, is a big one, so, I appreciate that statement. And I don’t know if you have anything you want to add on it, but … when it comes to this moment, but I- I think it’s super fitting for this time.

Jerry Colonna: Well, I- I agree with you. It’s, um … I think the call to leadership is a call to bravery, but the call to bravery is a call to be human, and I think that as much as anxiety and fear is a foundational component of us and our survival technique, just as true as that is is the, is the truth that we are called to be brave. It takes courage to grow up and become an adult. It takes courage to hold ourselves steady like a mountain in a hurricane. It takes courage to homeschool our kids, to use a video call to talk to a parent and remind them to stay inside. Right? It takes courage to put that structure to your day and go about your day. It takes courage to admit that you’re afraid. That’s true bravery, and- that’s the most fundamental source of joy that I’m experiencing, is ’cause I see bravery every day time and time again.  Maybe what we should say, you know how we’ve all taken to saying to each other, “Stay safe”?

Laurie Segall: Uh-huh.

Jerry Colonna: Maybe we should say, “Stay brave.”

Laurie Segall: I like that. I really like that. “Stay brave.”

This episode is coming out Monday April 6th. If you want to talk to Jerry – I’m hosting a town hall with him *tonight* at 8pm. Check out my social media for a link to register. We want to hear your questions about leadership and resilience in these crazy times.

I’m @LaurieSegall on Twitter and Instagram. And the show is @firstcontactpodcast on Instagram and on Twitter, we’re @firstcontactpod. 

Also, feel free to reach out directly. I know this is a tough time for a lot of you.You can text me, 917-540-3410.

And we’ll also be hosting more Zoom town halls – not just tonight – on different issues during this time so follow along and participate for some human-ish contact. 

First Contact’s a production of Dot Dot Dot Media, executive produced by Laurie Segall and Derek Dodge. I will say we’re being creative and executive producing this from home at the moment, this episode was produced and edited by Sabine Jansen and Jack Regan. The original theme music is by Xander Singh.

I’m sending my thoughts to each and every one of you guys and so is our whole crew at First Contact. During this time I hope that everyone is staying home, staying healthy, and staying human. 

First Contact with Laurie Segall is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media and iHeart Radio.