Blue Ocean Global Technology Interviews America’s Crisis Guru®️ and one of the most sought-after crisis experts James E. Lukaszewski Author of 14 books and hundreds of Articles and Monographs.
Blue Ocean: How did you become America’s Crisis Guru® and one of the most sought-after crisis experts for the board room?
James: My career has been well focused on crisis situations, leadership failure, organizational problems, and, in many cases, management misbehavior. My approaches were based on rather simple, sensible, and constructive responses. Most of my colleagues began by assuring those with problems that they could be solved through public relations techniques. I have never believed that, and over time have learned that my approaches, if used earlier in an urgent situation would resolve it more quickly.
Clients began referring to me as Yoda and a guru. Not exactly sure when that began, that was a long time ago. Someone else owned “Yoda”, so I began using America’s Crisis Guru® as a part of my persona. Nearly 10 years ago I registered the phrase as a trademark with the US Bureau of Patents and Trademarks.
I attribute the growth of my career to four factors:
- Clients would recommend me or talk about me and I was able to maintain a rather rigorous public speaking schedule.
- I began publishing helpful articles and monographs early in my career.
- Finally, in 1999 I began doing webinars for the PRSA as an experiment. At the time it was a new idea and I partnered with PRSA in the business of doing webinars. These programs put me before hundreds, perhaps thousands of practitioners across United States. At the time, PRSA was experiencing some financial difficulties and the program produced welcome revenue.
In the same time period, I told my colleagues at IABC about the webinars and suggested that I could do webinars for their membership as well. The programs were equally successful with the IABC and from 1999 forward I did one webinar a month for each Association. I also wrote a dozen books during that time, but they pleased me more than they found buyers.
- The most significant source of new clients came from my public speaking.
Blue Ocean: You have authored 14 books and hundreds of articles and monographs. Your newest book is The Decency Code, The Leaders Path to Integrity and Trust. Tell us about why you decided to write it and who can benefit the most from reading it.
James: This is the first book I have written with a co-author; a long-time client and friend, Steve Harrison. It took just over a year to write; this is Steve’s second book. We come from very different backgrounds. At 83, Steve remains the chairman of LHH. His company, LHH was founded in 1990 and it was acquired by the Swiss firm Adecco about 10 years ago. His firm is the world’s largest outplacement company, Adecco is the world’s largest temporary help agency. We decided to write a book together about seven years ago, but it took until 2018 to figure out precisely what that book would be. The book’s title, The Decency Code: The Leader’s Path To Building Integrity And Trust, relates to both our concerns about how organizations are managed; leadership and management misbehavior and putting our brand of thinking on some of the larger problems businesses face; employee engagement; upsizing and downsizing; the ethical expectations of leadership; generational differences; creating an honest, civil, engaged work culture; and the cost and damage caused by instability, indecency and lack of integrity.
The Decency Code gives leaders a practical path to aligning performance with values. Steve Harrison’s first book, The Manager’s Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Build Great Companies, introduced the concept of workplace decency as a force multiplier for leaders who saw the strategic benefit of building a corporate cultures characterized by trust and respect.
The Decency Code is written for a new generation of leaders who are looking for inspiration and tools to create workplaces where honesty, civility, and ethical behavior are the norm rather than the exception.
Blue Ocean: You are clearly a leader of learning. What are some strategies for balancing how you invest in yourself with the relationships you have with other people?
James: In the business of crisis management, building relationships and trust are very challenging. Usually, the leader’s position is at stake, the organization has really stumbled badly, created victims, and in most cases tried to do everything but what they knew they should. I am never really hired first; although, when I am contacted about working for organizations, the moment they understand what the difficulties are, I can give them literally an instant prescription for how to make things better by the day after tomorrow. It’s a tough list; nine steps beginning with candor and truthfulness and ending with restitution and perhaps some serious organizational changes.
After this first talk, I generally don’t hear from these organizations for a long time, if ever. What I propose, even though it is sensible, is hard to swallow. Most companies spend a lot of time and money trying to avoid doing anything. When they fail to understand how to buckle down and get it fixed, someone tells them to call me.
Because meaningful responses took so long to begin happening, the perpetrating organizations find little comfort, even when they start making progress. I have worked with some 400 companies and organizations, resolving more than 300 different problem scenarios. Fewer than a dozen of the executives in charge at the time have worked to have long-term relationships with me. All of them have become literal disciples and work to implement what they learned from me in every aspect of their lives, even with their children.
The more direct answer to this question is that I am a very serious person. I am constantly learning, constantly discovering, constantly sharing the new information I develop. As a result, I have several thousand followers who count on me to provide fresh but sensible, doable, important problem resolution suggestions.
Blue Ocean: Corporate Legal Times once listed him as one of 28 experts to call when “All Hell Breaks Loose.” What is your advice when that Hell Does Break Loose?
James: I have a pattern of recommendations whenever I am brought into a situation when, “All hell is breaking loose.” And, as you have gathered by now, I talk about these approaches perhaps a number of times before clients resign themselves to having to listen to me. Here is the pattern of advice which I provide and begin teaching immediately:
- Seeking Forgiveness
- Managing the Victim Dimension of Mass Casualty Situations
- My Five Step Grand Strategy
- Profiles in Failure
- The Ethical Expectations of Leadership
- The Power of Positive Language
- The Ingredients of Leadership
- The Destructive Power of Negative Language and Leadership
- Answering Tough Touching Sensitive Questions
- The Perfect Apology
By the time I’m talking to these people they have tried so many things that have failed and to a great degree they’re starting over, but now they have a set of core values, a structure that helps them understand what the steps are and where they lead, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even though it may turn out to be an oncoming train.
Blue Ocean: Your nine steps to Rebuilding and Rehabilitating trust are profound. Share with us how they have helped your clients.
James: I learned quickly that the nine steps in this process were the most powerful markers for indicating an organization and its leadership was serious about rectifying the crisis situation. it focuses on the victims which is crucial to succeeding. It’s actually nine compassionate deeds that convince even victims that the company, organization or leadership is sincere about resolving the issues and settling the victim’s concerns.
In the beginning, leadership generally discounts, disdains, and disavows victims as troublemakers who have found a free lunch and I are making it all up. Once management begins to understand the power victims have to redesign the future and people’s careers, they commit to clearly and carefully resolve the nine issues and begin to improve relatively quickly. If you just review the nine steps you can see that the design has a purpose and that’s to respond to all the outstanding questions simply, directly, through deeds rather than words and is extraordinarily responsive to resolving the victim issues which crises cause.
Blue Ocean: You have said that “Workplaces with integrity, civility, respect and decency are safer and more ethical.” Its sounds so simple and easy. How does a leadership team or board of directors improve so that they align with your advice?
James: We are beginning to see data in some industries that reflects this statement. Interestingly enough, much of the data is coming from healthcare. Healthcare as an industry has a very complex sociological structure. The most important people are, by a large margin, men. Employee population is overwhelmingly female. The majority of individuals actually saving lives and overseeing successful resolution and healing are women.
Male domination in most aspects of healthcare have led to historic and destructive disrespect for women. What is beginning to show from institutions who are putting much more emphasis on civility, decency and integrity is that employee satisfaction improves, turnover is reduced, and women especially feel safer in the workplace; that is, from their coworkers. The risk factors with patients remains. There is a long way to go in this culture but progress is being made and perhaps as management absorbs newer generations of men and women this trend will continue.
Blue Ocean: Imbedded within every challenge is an opportunity. What are some of the challenges you have faced in your life as an entrepreneur? Share with our audience how you overcame them and what you learned.
James: I mentioned earlier that my boundless curiosity, and constant teaching based on that curiosity, has many times put me ahead of those situations that trouble the typical entrepreneur. But the truth is, I had a secret weapon. I met her when she was 16; I was 18. I had just graduated from high school; she had a couple years to go. It’s really quite a story, but I spent much of my early years trying to figure things out. Barbara went to dental hygiene school, got a degree, went to work, we got married and we simply bonded with each other on everything.
It took me 14 years to finish college, that is also a pretty remarkable story, but my productive life began at age 32, upon my graduation from Minnesota Metropolitan State University in the Twin Cities. I had been in state government from 1973 to 1978.
I was a deputy assistant press secretary to Governor Wendell R. Anderson, the direct result of a major internship I undertook while at Metro state. When I left government, I convinced Barbara to start a company with me that specialized in a new field called crisis management; some new techniques for coaching executives, called media training; and I began publishing and speaking. I became very active in the PRSA and IABC as well as other important professional associations in human resources, security, public speaking and association management.
I mention all of this because Barbara and I were complete partners in all these efforts. She understood them, she’s the one who spotted opportunities, and obligations which I had as a professional leader to be certified, to be accredited to focus on students, to become a mentor to many, and to be extremely engaged in the professional public relations organizations and leadership as well.
Barbara was my secret weapon on so many levels. One of the most important realities in my life is that math and I have never been friends. Barbara loved math; she was raised as a Swedish girl who knew how to save money. We gloried in my success together at every level. She retired from the business in 2010. We had been living and working in New York since 1986. She first noticed and later confirmed that she had Alzheimer’s. In the middle of that episode she had bilateral ovarian cancer. That was removed in 2015, but following that, the Alzheimer’s simply grew stronger and she died in July 2019.
She was a stunningly happy person the day we met in a park in downtown Chicago in 1960 and she was an amazingly happy person for her entire life including how her life ended. We had two children, both smart and entrepreneurial. They had a variety of ingredients in their careers including a couple of stints of being in business together. During the teenage years, they worked for us in our business. Barbara was the center of our world, held it all together and her extraordinary dedication to me and my life allowed me to spend time exploring my curiosities and have the freedom to become well known, both of which she was always a part of. Our life together can only be described as magical from start to finish.
I always described Barbara as the source of every good idea I ever had in my life and the person who, when confronted with the choice, always chose the most positive, constructive, helpful, and happy course.
While I’m certain we were as afflicted as most, perhaps every entrepreneur is, her legacy is that she made everyone she met happier, understood me and cared about me better than anyone else on the planet. What you remembered most about Barbara was her smile. Her smiles toward me every day were proof that I had a life.
Blue Ocean: What are your sources of happiness and inspiration?
James: My ability to explore my curiosities and apply them to my daily work and life and the work and lives of others has always been a daily inspiration to me. I’m inspired by being able to work with many truly important people on serious problems; ironically, mostly the result of bad decisions by these very important people. There is something awfully empowering and confirming when people take your advice, or at least some of it, and acknowledge that, “If I’d only met you 15 years ago…”
I am a voracious reader and listener of audio books. I have listened to over 800 audiobooks, there are currently around 80 audiobooks in my iPhone. The biggest inspiration has always been Barbara’s companionship and deep engagement in my work and thinking. In our work, her most valuable quality of was the way she kept our business running, working, and producing 24 hours a day, every day. She was constantly rewriting, editing, and transcribing my dictation packets. While I worked late into the night dictating, Barbara then spent her early mornings hours transcribing She would be finished by the time I woke up. My life has been devoted to problem-solving, helping others with problems have better lives, knowing repeatedly that I have left a useful imprint on so many careers. When introducing me, a friend of mine who works all over the world one time mentioned that wherever you go on this planet to study public relations you will read, hear, or view something from Jim Lukaszewski.
When I first became a national practitioner, there were at least eight countries who had discussion groups of my work that met monthly. Several of them published and translated my works, without my permission, especially in China and South America. Turns out, I really was not offended, I was just surprised. After all, Barbara and I were a couple of kids from Robbinsdale, Minnesota who got to the big time for more than 25 years.
Blue Ocean: What are your hobbies and passions outside of your professional life?
James: You can probably tell by now that my work and my world have been extremely engrossing. Barbara and I met by accident but learned quickly that both of us were essentially introverts. I was the person who learned empirically, Barbara was the person who studied by memorizing everything. As a result, she was a magnificent editor, grammarian, editorial idea person and enhanced everything I ever did. She had five rules for happiness, which we never talked about in our entire life except when she got ill and those who knew us always talked about our model relationship. We always kind of blew it off and continued enjoying our lives together, avoiding analysis.
But after these persistent observations about couples modeling their lives on the way we were together, we began talking about it, while Barbara was still able to speak. We agreed on six ingredients:
- Whenever there is a choice, take the positive route
- if people come into our lives who are unhappy, negative, or seeking to enlist us in their pain and suffering: avoid them
- avoid issues and problems where it is clear that they are unconscionable; clearly the acts of bad actors who are still on the scene
- avoid saying two or three troublesome things that we’d love to mention every day
- always say positive things to and about each other wherever we are, whatever we are doing.
- Release or abandon clients very promptly if they fail to take and execute our advice as we advised them.
Blue Ocean: Please share a quote or life mantra you live by.
James: Most of my teachings are framed as mantras, manifestos and strategies. I have constructed the following documents to help those I work with and those I counsel understand who I am, what I believe in, what my limits are, and the ethical guidelines that guide my practice and life. I am ready to share these things because so often, I’m asked questions about these things, mostly from people who have never thought these concepts through. Someday, if there’s time I intend to write a book called the perfect communicator which will tie together all of my philosophies, thought processes, understandings and purposes. If you were to be around me long enough you will see that everything I advise and suggest is part of a pattern or philosophy of ethical, constructive, compassionate, truthful, objective, helpful achievable, sensible, sensitive, appropriate and somewhat obvious ideas all of which would pass the mom test.
Quite often, clients will kind of wake up and say, “Hey Jim, what you just said sounds really familiar.” I will respond immediately, “Do you have a mom?” I continue, ”She told you this stuff when you were six, when you were 13, again when you were 17, and 27, and now you’re paying me to tell you the same things at age 55.”
While this may seem a bit off the wall, one of the things I learned about senior leaders, male or female, is that if mom is alive, they may talk to her every day. So, when I’m meeting a client for the first time, I never have to ask about something probably pretty stupid, “What were you thinking?” Instead, I always ask,” what will your mom tell you, what’s the truth?”
But, I do have some rather complicated but powerful beliefs about the work I’m doing:
- All questionable, inappropriate, unethical, unconscionable, immoral, predatory, improper, victim-producing, and criminal behaviors are intentional.
- All ethical, moral, compassionate, decent, civil, and lawful behaviors are also intentional.
- The choice is always clear and always yours.
- Unconscionable intentions, behaviors, actions and decisions; those that vilify, damage, demean, dismiss, diminish, humiliate, cause needless but intentional pain, express anger and irritation, demand or bully are mean, negative, insulting, disrespectful, disparaging, tone deaf, without empathy, intentionally injurious, accuse, over bear, punish, harmfully restrict, and exceed the boundaries of decency and civility and integrity are per se
- The two most powerful tools in crisis management and victim management are apology and empathy:
- Apology is the atomic energy of empathy. Apologies tend to stop bad things from starting and starting bad things to stop.
- Empathy is positive, constructive actions and deeds that demonstrate civility, decency and integrity while speaking louder than words possibly can.
I also believe in the truisms of crisis management:
- Bad news always ripens badly
- Every moment of indecision creates unseen but avoidable collateral damage
- There is no such thing as 2020 hindsight because there is no such thing as 2020 foresight
- Silence is the most toxic and destructive reputation destroying strategy
- Critics and victims accumulate
- There will always be bellyachers, bloviators, gripers, second guessers and backbench bitchers; mostly from our colleagues
- Once a critic, enemy or victim; always a critic enemy or victim
- Speed beats smart every time
Blue Ocean: What advice do you have young entrepreneurs and future CEOs? In other words, what would you tell a younger version of yourself?
James: I give them several documents to review:
- The Ethical and Practical Principles That Guide Jim’s Practice
- The First 100 Days (Plus 1148 More)
- Communicating Intentionally Profiles in Failure
- Lucas Asking Civility and Decency Manifesto
- Your Personal Daily Ethical Audit
- Powerful Reasons for Acting and Talking Now
- Seeking Forgiveness
- What I Believe
- My Personal Profile
- Concept of Completed Action
Our true business secrets:
- All phone calls were answered with great cheer and friendliness (Barbara’s magic voice).
- If I was available, I got on calls immediately.
- Even if I was not available, Barbara had a sense about knowing when I should be interrupted.
- When we promised something it went out the same day.
- We always provided more information than was requested
- We answered questions immediately and solved problems quickly, often on the first call.
- Everything produced was perfect, grammar, spelling, syntax, sensibly formatted, and early.
- Being first to respond was a powerful advantage. It set a tone that is hard to match.
- We wanted the recipient to say and think “wow”. That is how being called Yoda and America’s Crisis Guru® came about, from clients.
- While our competitors formed a committee to respond to an RFP, we finished and sent ours.
- We always followed, trained, and taught the Concept of Completed Action.
- We always provided three options our clients could act on.
- We always brought in or suggested voices who were smarter than we were.
- We always knew when we were done before the client did.
- When we did not know how to do something, we recommended someone who did.
- We always taught our clients and other consultants our values, purposes, and intentions.
- Barbara developed policies and procedures for everything. We taught them to our staff, ourselves, to clients and shared them with colleagues.
- Our fees were substantial, reasonable, explainable. Never a cost overrun.
- We rarely sought long term relationships, except with clients constantly in trouble, who listened.
- We worked to be known as specialists in a limited number of fields.
- We always told the truth.
- We promptly left clients who ignored our advice . . . turkeys never become eagles.