‘People Ahead of Profit:’ Jerry Colonna on Leading in Uncertain Times

Jerry Colonna is fondly known as the “CEO Whisperer.” He coaches some of the world’s biggest entrepreneurs – like the former CEO of Etsy and the folks who started Gimlet Media. He helps business leaders navigate uncertainty and chaos.

At a time when the coronavirus crisis is devastating the economy, unemployment is skyrocketing, and millions of people’s lives have been changed forever, the future is nothing but uncertain. It’s a time when many CEOs are asking themselves, “What do I do?”

Read an edited transcript below, or listen to the full interview on the First Contact podcast.

If we miss this opportunity, I will be heartbroken.

Laurie Segall: There’s not really a rule book in tech, right?…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…? You literally have dealt with some of the most successful entrepreneurs who have weathered things. I don’t think anyone’s weathered something like this, but what framework do you give leaders during this time to help make some of these decisions?

Jerry Colonna: 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. 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 fired up right now because if we miss this opportunity, I will be heartbroken. …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.” There’s no sugar coating this experience. This is painful. And what I said to him was “Don’t ever forget those faces.”