Rainey Foster, Executive Vice President and Partner at Leading Authorities, Inc., is here with Adam Markel to discuss the current state of online events. Even the highest-profile speakers and entertainers are finding their careers drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual solution may not exactly have the same appeal as the “real” thing, but it is our current reality. Rainey and her team are creating the best solution that respects the needs of both parties. In this wide-ranging conversation, Adam and Rainey also trade their insights on jazz and life, grief and resilience, faith and hope, uncertainty and creativity, and the ability to pivot in the face of change.
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Navigating The “New Normal“ Of Virtual Events with Rainey Foster
As I sit here at this moment, I am feeling great gratitude to be alive, to be breathing, and to be in such a wonderful creative opportunity. I know there’s a lot of turmoil. A lot of people have done remarkably well in a time of great change and chaos while others are suffering. There is always this tension inside of me between the place where I feel gratitude for the good and also for things that we might judge as not so good. I know in my heart, after many years of standing on the earth that many wonderful and valuable things have come out of time of pain and suffering.
It is not motivation nor inspiration. It’s a truism that so much will emerge from these times that we’ll look back on and be thankful for. I’m fast-forwarding the process a little bit because I know the magic of gratitude and what it does on a biochemical level inside of my body and in my brain. I’m incredibly grateful and I’m also feeling so much appreciation that I get to spend time selfishly with a friend of mine. Somebody that is a blessing in many ways to many people. I’m going to read a little bit of her bio and then invite her into this conversation. She is someone that you will all come to see as a remarkable human and a beautiful woman.
In the bio that I’m reading, I learned so much about her that I didn’t know before. She’s a musician, a recording artist, and an actress. For many years, Rainey Foster has been a partner and Executive Vice President of Leading Authorities, one of the world’s foremost lecturer agencies and event production companies. She understands the critical needs of a company’s high-profile speakers and the requirements of major companies and associations who book their services. She’s a member of the Corporate Advisory Board of SOME, So Others Might Eat.
Her goal is to put a song to the face of the mission for organizations like SOME, Rebuilding Together, Service Source, Home for Our Troops, and Operation Smile. She is also a member of the Women’s Forum in Washington, DC, and on the Board of Governors for Live Music Awards, where she also acts as a producer. Rainey, welcome to the show. I am happy to have you with us. That’s a mouthful. What’s not written in that bio that you would love for people to know about you?
It’s outdated because I’ve been on the board for many years, which is a great organization and a soup kitchen. We have been training and all kinds of medical facilities for our homeless. The board, the donations, and the charity goes out and buys buildings. It allows young adults and young families to live affordably in DC. The thing that is important for me for people to know is that I’ve been blessed in being able to do what I love to do throughout my life. The first few years of my professional career, I started to go because my forte is jazz, so that will get you across town. I didn’t ever think I would find anything that I would love as much as I do the business that we are in, which is recognizing, recruiting, and sharing talent and knowledge with the world in an impactful way. It’s being on jeopardy every day. I meet somebody new and learned something new. I am an expert on Bitcoin and FinTech. I didn’t even know what that was years ago, but it’s a fascinating business. I’m grateful for the opportunities to work in a cool business and meet such fabulous and wonderful people that changed the world.
You’re far more knowledgeable about jazz than I am, although I grew up listening to it. My dad had it on a lot and it’s such a beautiful form. We talked about resonance. People use that term a lot like, “Does that resonate with you? Is it something that resonates?” We get that resonance is this harmony of sound and people go, “That sounds great. It feels great. It inspires wonderful feelings inside.” In jazz, there’s also dissonance. There are resonance and dissonance. That’s what makes jazz in many ways different than other forms of music because there are these notes that ring and you go, “That’s a note I recognize. That note sounds the way it’s supposed to sound.” There are also these dissonant notes. These notes that almost sound like they’re off. It is a metaphor in many ways for life itself that there are resonance and dissonance. Without the dissonance in jazz, it wouldn’t be jazz. We wouldn’t be craving the resonance without those other notes. Tell me about your experience in jazz. Were you playing instruments or were you singing? What do you do?
I’m a singer. I love that metaphor because my uncle was my mentor. His name was George Greeley. He was a prodigy. From the time he was three years old, he picked up the mandolin and started to play it. My grandfather was a music teacher. It became clear quickly that he was gifted. The whole family out of Westerly, Rhode Island put all their energy behind this favored son who was the oldest. He went to Juilliard at the age of sixteen. When he graduated from Juilliard, he had a choice to go to either the concert route or the big band route. Being a great looking Italian guy with a smile like yours, he went with the big band route.
He joined the Tommy Dorsey band the same day that Frank Sinatra did and they became great friends. My uncle used to say all the time, “I don’t know why all the women are falling over this skinny Italian with the big ears and the blue eyes. I’m killing myself on the piano at the back,” but he was a remarkable artist. As a child, I grew up listening to his records. When Warner Brothers formed their recording label in 1960, he was their first artist. He did probably 25 albums with 40-piece orchestra with Warner Brothers. They were everything from George Greeley Plays George Gershwin to the great concert and movie themes. His album on Gershwin is one that my parents played and I grew up with. Gershwin resonated with me, particularly the dissonance, the blues, and all of that.
While my contemporaries in the ‘70s and the ‘80s were listening to The Moody Blues and The Rolling Stones, I was singing the blues. I was singing Summertime or I was listening to the scores of that. My uncle’s recording of the Rhapsody in Blue was shortened. There are a lot of criticisms about that except Ira Gershwin, who was the lyricist and the brother of George Gershwin. He called my uncle over and said, “I want to talk to you.” My uncle said, “I would love two hours of your time.” He went over there and three days later, he left before he scored this album. That was a huge influence on me. One of my challenges when I moved to Los Angeles to sing was that there wasn’t a great appreciation for jazz.
I was marketed to do a lot of different things. It made me into a much better singer. When I came to my real truth about what resonated with me, I realized that maybe five people, four of them being my family, would greatly appreciate it. I had a remarkable ride learning production. I worked in a studio. I learned how to resonate and not to resonate, and not to use your vibrato. In recording with popular music or country, you don’t use your vibrato. All of that was a great experience. After several years, I thought what I love is jazz. That’s what I would like to sing. I don’t want to go on the road singing anything that isn’t true to me. I did do a project in Nashville and they were the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. They were the best musicians I’ve ever met in my life too. They love me in Nashville and my maiden name was Wheeler. They love that. It’s like Rainey Eighteen Wheeler.You can't rest on the success of the past. You have to figure out how to navigate the future. Click To Tweet
I was exposed to remarkable artistry through my uncle early on. It resonated with me. One of the challenges was that I was 24 years old singing songs that I didn’t earn the right to sing yet. Getting back to the original metaphor, they are beautiful, full ingenue notes. There’s the dissonance and it’s a great analogy for life. You have to live life. You have to experience the joys and the remarkable sorrows to sing jazz well. At this point in life, I feel like I’ve earned the right to sing jazz based on my experiences.
Is there a lesson for us about jazz? I didn’t expect that we would end up here in our conversation. What a joy. How do we take what you said about this concept of our experience in life is often modeled in art? We see it all the time that art is imitating life and even the other way around in some other places in the world. Is there a lesson that you can think of from jazz that we could think about?
When the emotion becomes too great for words, there’s music. That’s always something that I believe in. That’s why a great musical has a great script and a great book, but then when you move into the musical part, it resonates and it feels. It’s a great mirror for life and jazz, particularly has a lot of angst in it. It has a lot of pain in it. We’re all feeling that pain now. It can be reflected. It doesn’t have a great appreciation for a Cleo Laine, Oscar Peterson, the world’s greatest pianist. There’s a joy in being able to feel things on such a deep level. We’re all feeling that in many ways.
I had a lot of personal loss in my life in a short amount of time. All were sudden tragic deaths. My husband, my sister, my brother, and my business partner. I can now sing the blues, but you can’t stay in that place. There’s got to be a way to feel the gratitude and recognize the love and the experience that you had and also be able to find the next place. The greatest lesson is that all you have is this minute. It’s either chicken salad or its chicken shit, what are you going to make it be? There’s a lot of chicken shit, but I choose to try to figure out how to make chicken salad.
That expression, “People singing the blues,” I’m evaluating it in my mind as I’m sitting here with you. Singing the blues in some ways almost feels like someone who is in a place where there’s certainly sadness, maybe even victimness, and maybe even a place where you are in a state of self-pity. I’m bringing that up only because there’s something that’s even pejorative that singing the blues sounds negative. In some way, it sounds like that’s something we shouldn’t necessarily do. Maybe that’s a part of the challenge of blues. It’s interesting because jazz has never been widely appreciated. Does it take us into darker places that many people are uncomfortable being in? Is it somehow part of a human experience that people deny, that we’ve got to be able to experience darkness also to appreciate lightness or other things? What are your thoughts on that?
When you are living through darkness and we’ve all experienced that on different levels, I’m a firm believer that you have to grieve. All of us are grieving. Being able to go out to the store or I’m planning a trip to Puerto Rico to get a cat because I lost my cat. The only place I can meet this woman who has a cat that I want is in Puerto Rico, but I can’t figure out how to do it without taking the COVID test. You need to grieve. People are grieving their freedom, their life, their choices, the way business used to be, the certainty, and those kinds of things.
It’s super important to grieve, whether it’s death, a process, something familiar or a lifestyle. Grief isn’t linear. It’s not like I’m in denial, I am angry, I am bargaining, I have accepted it and I’m done. It’s not a linear process. I’m talking about how most people are feeling as they create a life that they knew, a certainty, a lifestyle, and a complete confidence level that they can pay their mortgage, pay their rent, continue going. It’s super difficult. You have to grieve because it can kill you if you don’t. What’s the next step? How to be proactive? How do you turn it around? What can you do at this moment to make the difference and change? That becomes important.
A lot of times, and for all of us too, it’s not just a day at a time. Sometimes it’s an hour at a time. As we’ve all gone through this remarkable earthquake in our business, how do we create something different? How do we pivot quickly, effectively, not reactively but proactively so that you can create personal goodness, impact, success and income for your family? We’re all highly aware of the people that were suffering. Our industry, yours and mine, has been hit super hard, similar to the cruise line industry or the airline industry, but there’s business out there. Clients need remarkable guidance more so than they did before when you are just calling about, “Who do you need for a speaker?”
I need to produce a four-day meeting virtually. I have four general sessions each day. I have one entertainment at night and I have five concurrent sessions on that same day. That’s the business I’m in now, which was one that I never anticipated being in. I considered myself an artist who was an agent who can understand, recognize, nurture and play talent. I am doing that virtually as well in our company, producing virtual meetings with my remarkable colleagues who have been producing in-person meetings for many years. We have pivoted super quickly to embrace the challenges of having companies and trade associations to touch their clients, members and employees in an impactful way in a virtual world.
They had to be resilient for sure. It is interesting the grieving process you brought up. How do you think corporations or organizations properly grieve?
You can’t rest on the success of the past. You have to recognize what you’ve done and what worked. You need to figure out what’s going to work. Hopefully, take care of your people in the process because what worked yesterday isn’t going to work today. Companies need to get out of the past and present. They need to figure out how to navigate the future. That only works if there’s a good culture in place and they take care of their people. I’m super proud to say at Leading Authorities, we’ve let go of five people. They were all new hires in the first week of this. It was one of those that we are not sure what’s going to happen. We have hired four new producers to embrace where the business is going right now.
I knew I wore this shirt for a reason, not knowing that we might take the approach that we have. Having one another’s back at every organization I’ve ever been involved in or had the privilege to speak to or facilitate workshops for, that concept of how it is that company truly demonstrates that they have their people’s backs is important. You can use the word ‘culture’ for it. It’s the feeling that you have with family and real friends that when things are difficult, when there’s grieving to be done, when there’s a loss in place, that people don’t abandon you. What does that look like in a commercial setting? Those are conversations that are up for grabs in ways that they haven’t been in the past because the change and challenge that’s out there is global. It’s not relegated to a particular industry.
There’s some comfort in that. My mom was saying, “I can’t go out.” I said, “Sweetheart, you are right but this is not just happening to you. We are all in the same boat. This is everywhere.” There is comfort in that because in isolated incidences, whether it’s a personal loss of death, I can tell you personally that when you’re grieving a death, you feel that people have remarkable empathy and want to help, unless they’re willing to sit at that moment with you and say nothing. Try to have the courage to sit at that moment and not say, “I know how you feel, but I’m going to just sit here with you.”
It’s the same thing with what’s happening now. We need to sit with each other. We need to say nothing. We need to recognize what’s been lost and what is no longer possible. Also, understand that we’re all in it together. There’s a great strength, power, and reward in that. Maybe you were a solo player and now you’re working in teams. For our company, I understand how to produce, but I’m not making the switch to virtual production. I was kicking and screaming like a crazy person. It was a baptism by fire that I learned. I learned that I have colleagues that know more.
As a team, everybody has a role to play. In our team of people, we love to work together for many years, so there’s a lot of trust. Our remarkable event staff are wearing 5, 6, 7 different hats. I am super proud of them because the bandwidth is ridiculous. Not being able to see each other or be in the same room, that’s something that I miss greatly. I miss seeing my colleagues and being able to work the problem together. It’s always virtual. It’s always working at Virtual Layer, our common phone, but you can still feel that glue. There’s remarkable comfort in that and it works on a pretty high level.
What are some of the things that we would call the early-stage wisdom? We always can look back on things with hindsight and say, “This is what was there to be seen and to be learned.” It’s always easier when you’re off in the distance away. In the first six months in your industry, what are you seeing as the new best practices that are emerging? Things that you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate, but you realize this is what’s true. This is the best way to meet organizations where they are in the moment.
For our industry, the first task was to take care of the client. When everything canceled, the answer was, “We’re going to kick this down the road. I’m going to make you whole.” As the speaker for March 2020, how does he feel in March 2021? I’m going to forward your deposit. I’m not going to collect the balance. Unless a lot of the things had happened in March, things were already paid for. With the client’s permission, we would pay our speakers. We issued $0 contracts because everybody needed that at that time. As time went on, people agreed that no one’s going to get paid. No one’s going to recognize revenue in 2020. We’re going to kick it down the road to 2021 and make everybody whole.
That was the first order of business. The second for us was we always had a production company for years, as well as a video company. My dear friend and partner, Mark French, who passed away from stroke after a valiant recovery for four years. When I joined, I was the crazy girl that he knew as a singer in LA through my sister and my brother. They had all worked together in the trucking industry and at the US Chamber. I used to come to their parties when I lived in LA. I come to their meetings with the American Trucking Associations and the US Chambers. I would be wearing a belt that was like a skirt and hair down to my butt.
My sister would get me a room because I was a starving artist. I would clean out the minibar. She’d be like, “You need to get audited.” That’s how Mark met me. It was through my siblings who both worked at the two organizations, the American Trucking Associations and the US Chamber. He split off and founded Leading Authorities. I was the crazy sister of Leslie and Clint, who was starting this. When I came back in 1996 and I interviewed with him for a job, he took a chance and hired me. A couple of years in, I realized that after understanding talents and being that I love recruiting, recognizing, finding and placing talent, and also being consulted by clients on a different and deeper level, my question to Mark was, “We need to do entertainment. Why aren’t we doing entertainment? Our clients are doing entertainment and we’re not hooking at that.” He said, “That might be a good idea. What about Helen Reddy?” I said, “Is she still alive?” He said, “How about Judy Collins?” He was a huge fan of Herman’s Hermits.
He’s in a different generation like the ‘60s.Anybody who tells you that virtual networking is great is not telling the truth. Click To Tweet
I said, “Let me handle this,” because this guy thought Dana Carvey was a stripper. We started forging relationships with big talent agencies. I was excited to be placing big talents. The point of this was that it led to, “If we’re placing your content and your entertainment, could I get a bid on producing the writer for that music act? Could I produce that? I think that we could get a team of people to do it.” As long as I’m producing your entertainment, I would love a shot at the RFP for producing your own meeting because after all, you have a stage, you’ve got lights and there’s a lot of redundancy here. We’re going to have to bring in special microphones, racks, and stacks.
Everything related and hung on all those pieces that have to fit like puzzle pieces.
Except it was a place where traditional lecture agencies hadn’t gone before. My background was in entertainment so I wanted to go there. I wanted to book the economist. I wanted to book the leadership culture speaker, but I also wanted to book the entertainment. I wanted to manage that talent. That led to us eventually evolving into having a full-fledged production company for live production along with videos. If you’re booking these high-ticket items, why don’t we go out to The Beach Boys and we’ll film the video where they do a welcome video that you could clip and then send your members, “Don’t miss this in October of 2020, we’ll be there.” That put us in a great position when this hit, through the initial shock of literally thousands of cancellations, all the paperwork, and the tracking that happens to make sure that it’s correct and everybody’s whole, and it’s good, fair and right.
When we were able to understand the chaos our clients were going through, particularly trade associations, which is pretty indigenous to DC, Virginia, Maryland, and then professional societies in Chicago, a lot of their revenue comes from these meetings. They need a way to touch their members and various corporations as well. They need a way to touch their customers and remain connected and also assure their employees. We all had to bite the bullet and learn how to produce an impactful virtual meeting and in a way, be able to where clients understand that sometimes it can be as extensive or more as an in-person. When you have all those things going, it’s like producing a television show. You need a person there that is directing it and making sure it doesn’t crash with multiple screens.
You are producing an end-to-end experience. If you’re doing it with a siloed approach, the possibility that the integrated whole is as meaningful as it can be. Not as likely as when you have someone that’s looking at the whole thing and put those pieces together. You were more uniquely situated in a number of agencies because you already had production in the works, but not virtual. What was that pivot like for you to look at what best practice is? How do you create that effective and impactful meeting over Zoom when people are Zoom fatigued, and when perhaps there’s not even a buy-in from companies?
There are two parts of that question. One is what are some of those things that you’ve learned that would be the wisdom guiding you now? The organizations and associations, have they bought into the idea that, “This is not just a temporary solution. It’s not like we’re going to make do for the next months until we can all get back in a room together?” We all know that that’s going to happen anyway, but the object and opportunity for that virtual meeting to be transformational to have a lasting impact. I’ve read statistics that the virtual meetings can produce remarkable, not just the takeaway at the moment, but the retention of the takeaway for 60 and 90 days. Whereas often in more live or in-person events and settings, those takeaways can have a shorter shelf life. What’s the mindset of the client as you see it? Where are they in the grieving process, to go back to past denial and all that kind of thing? What are some of those best practices when it comes to producing a virtual meeting?
Clients had a difficult time as well as those of us that serve them, but there is a huge recognition and acceptance that this is the way to connect whether you like it or not. What’s the best way to do it? There’s an awareness that it’s going to cost some money to do it well. Zoom is very limited. What we’re doing here is great. One-on-one for twelve people, but it’s hard to embed video in Zoom. Education is key. We had to learn about the various platforms. Platforms that exist and they’re doing great. There are brilliant IT guys that are not focused on customer service. The analogy is that you retain the platform and it’s an empty house. We come in and furnish it. We hang the paintings, paint the walls, and do the furniture. We put the people in there. We create the family and the experience. Everything is always going to be about the experience, whether it’s in-person or virtual.
There is the ability to have an intimate experience virtually when you are watching a great keynote, whatever it is regarding concurrent sessions. Anybody who tells you that virtual networking is great is not telling you the truth. It’s hard to network. For a lot of these trade associations, that’s a huge portion of pressing the flesh. They’re nonprofits. For the most part, they can only collect dues and registration for revenue. The ability to take your member out to dinner or lunch, that stuff doesn’t work. Boondoggles have been a thing of the past for a long time in this business, whether it’s in-person or virtual, but it’s certainly nice to go to a great place and play around golf and have a great dinner.
How do you create value for your client in a virtual setting? Part of it is knowing what you’re talking about. For me, I know enough to be dangerous about the virtual world. I know everything about the best keynoters and the best entertainment and the cool thing you can do in between sessions. I’ve learned that I need my partners to help me on a call to explain those technical things about what the platform will and won’t do, how much it’s going to cost, how many days and sessions for days. How we’re going to come in and help enhance it with content, with graphics, with the voice of God, and with sponsorship opportunities like when you used to go to the movie theaters and see when they’d flash that quick picture of a Coca-Cola and popcorn.
It was subliminal advertising. I always say, “We can do that with your sponsors. We could have a watermark. We could have some banner in the background that’s consistently there.” That might be more meaningful than the two minutes she gave them at the microphone in real-time. It’s important to reorganize in teams so that we can provide value to the client and execute across the board and everybody’s in the know. They need guidance. The good news is they understand that this is not going to be $3,000, depending on the level of what the meeting is going to be and how many days. It’s up to them. I always say, “Keep it simple. Don’t do five concurrent sessions if you don’t have to.” Let’s keep it short, two days, general sessions, concurrency, CEO round tables, whatever you need. The more facets that you add in there per day, the more people you need to run it.
That’s the big secret is in the virtual world. You need people. You may think this sort of happens, that it’s magic, but you need people in making sure that camera angles, switching the channel, making sure the graphics get flown in. That’s comforting to me that even if you can’t see them there, everybody has a role play. Clients have begun to embrace this and understand. Even if it has begun to embrace speakers, speakers need to make a living. The margins are low virtually. I recommend to all my speakers, “How about your local themes, bill and increments of time and travel?” If you’re not traveling anywhere, you’re local to California and you’re in your local fee is this, that seems like it’s good, fair and right for that to be your virtual fee.
That is important for speakers to hear because a lot of people were being asked to work for free for a period of months and given opportunities while they were working out their virtual content. We’ve been delivering virtual training for a lot of years, so we’re also not terribly uncomfortable being in front of the camera and being able to use breakout rooms and being able to dive deeply into process and exercise. A lot of people were working out their content and what’s the difference between standing on a stage and what that paradigm is like for them as well as for the audience. Being more on a level playing field in a camera where you’re looking at people, they’re looking at you and you’ve got the opportunity for conversation to happen.
That is different. In the beginning, what we were hearing and what we were seeing was that there wasn’t an established marketplace, a way to value time and IP. We wanted to serve at the beginning. We weren’t looking to get anything, so we were putting on resilience events and other things to add value. We weren’t charging for those things. There was a time, but that time has passed now, where that shift has occurred and speakers do need to re-establish their value. It’s good to hear that part of the way you’re framing it is it’s your local. It’s the way you would if you were going to travel down the road fifteen minutes by car, that’s more the mindset of how you charge for the virtual event.
I had a challenging conversation with a very good client. They had asked me to find this speaker. I don’t wait for a second if someone asked me to find somebody. She was quite remarkable and she quoted a very low fee. I gave her the fee and got a conversation with her. By the time that they got off the phone, they had negotiated her doing three separate twenty minutes segments over the course of two days. I had to have a very difficult conversation, which I’ve gotten pretty good at. I said, “She’s going to be great, but I need to let you know that two days is two days and three segments are three segments. Twenty minutes is tough. Ask any TED speaker. To get an impactful message out there in twenty minutes, it’s much easier to do a whole day of training. Everybody breaks for lunch whether it’s virtual.”
I said, “This is a lot of work. It’s a lot of time. You are my client and I love you, but I also have to protect my talent because we have to value her time and her effort, and what it’s going to cost her to craft twenty impactful minutes over the course of two days.” Their response was a surprise. It’s a big corporation. She went, “I assume that speaker fees are low and this woman quoted low.” One of my conversations with her was, “You need to ask for more because you’re good. You’re worth it.” Also, we’re going to charge in increments of days. A lot of clients want to pre-record something for certainty, which is fine. They want my speaker to come back and do live Q and A. I said, “I am delighted to do that, but there’s going to be an upcharge.” The answer was, “They don’t have to.” They’ve got a tech check. They’ve got to do that tech run twice. They’ve got to brush their teeth twice. They’ve got to be prepared twice. It’s two days. That’s been challenging in some respects. You don’t charge double because the fees are decreased anyway.
If somebody is $10,000 for their local fee, then they’re asked to come back and do Q and A, I’m going to try to get half of that fee. It’s another day. I often say to clients, “I’m not going to do anything unless I feel it is good, fair, and right.” Do you think this is good, fair, and right? I’m going to protect you, but I’m going to protect them too because we are all past the denial phase of this. This is the new normal. This is a new reality. People need to be paid for their time and for their efforts in a fair way.
I’m going to say, “Amen, sister,” to that. We’re finding new footing. I don’t want to diminish any aspect of the inquiry because on one hand, it makes common sense that that’s the case. Yet, all of us are finding new footing. The companies still are not yet all bought in nor would that be an easy thing, but that they’d be bought into the new belief system that the virtual event might create the KPIs they’re looking for or create even better results than they were looking for when it came to bringing people together from all over the country or the world even. I want to pivot a little bit and talk about resilience because part of the reason I wanted to have you on, in addition to I am madly in love for who you are and what you do, is the fact that you have been a model of resilience.
As you said, through multiple tragedies and the loss of close people that you loved and adored. People define resilience in many ways often as the ability to get back up. That’s one way to define it. I want to get your take on resilience. You’ve been a great leverager of the challenges, the adversity because you’ve continued to move forward and create new chapters in your life, new love in your life, new business opportunities, and all of these great things. You model what a resilient life looks like. Who better than you to ask what your definition of it is? I’ve got one other follow up to that.
When you said that, the one word that came to mind for me was faith. As a devout Catholic, I don’t mean it in that respect. You have to have faith in the sense that once you get through the darkness, there will be light. Who knows what that new chapter will bring. I never thought I would get married again. I was done. I had the remarkably great love of my life. I joked that I was going to become a lesbian because I thought I would be a popular lesbian. I have zero interest in dating and much to my surprise, eight years later, I fell in love again and married.
Who would have thought? At the same point, the thing I feel a lot of pride about is in terms of resilience. I have worked hard to push to live through grief to understand and live in gratitude for that particular person that’s been lost. They were all people I adore deeply. I’m really strong right now. There are very few things that can knock me off my feet at this point in my life. This whole thing is a walk in the park compared to what could be happening. That recognition is something we all have to recognize, no matter how bad it is for you. My mom used to always say, “You bring your troubles to the middle of the table with everybody else, and you are grateful to live with your own in comparison.”Resilience comes from the faith that once you get through the darkness, there will be light. Click To Tweet
For me, the way to always get the emphasis off of what you’re feeling in grief is to figure out a way to pay it forward. That’s why I personally got involved in many things like Service Source and Operation Smile, and having songs written from my music community that can be used for an organization and put on a website. Every time somebody downloads one, $10 goes to those organizations. If you sit in the corner and suck your thumb and say, “This happened.” It did happen, so recognize it and live through it. Help somebody else out who’s in much worse shape than you are, even if it doesn’t feel like that’s possible at the time.
Be in service. Service is love and action.
My dear friend Steve Farber said, “Service is when you can help somebody else out who needs it.” It helps you in your grieving process. That’s what’s happening now in business too. It feels rewarding to be able to have a conversation with a team of people that I trust, colleagues, and with clients that are in shock and have let go of 30% of their staff and still need to produce something impactful to keep going. It feels good to be able to give them information that’s helpful, that they can use and that works. On a personal level, all of us have to live in the moment, live in the now, and recognize it because it could be gone the next day. That’s a great lesson that I’ve learned. I realized that we’re all mostly in beautiful homes quarantined. It is tough not to be able to have the freedom to go where you want, but it’s nothing compared to what most of the world is going through. Not being able to pay their rent, to pay for food, or make the decision between rent and food.
There’s so much uncertainty. As human beings, we don’t deal with uncertainty well. I’m a recovering control freak maybe, but we’re addicted to knowing and certainty. I’m more than a little interested and even fascinated by how it is that we leverage uncertainty. We’ve got a book coming out in the spring with McGraw-Hill called Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-Term Success. You’re one of those people that have been able to be in that place of uncertainty at various points in your life and emerge something valuable. Things that you can use to not just sustain life or business, but to get into momentum again. My question to you is, what is it about uncertainty that you think is leverageable? Where’s the power in uncertainty for you personally or professionally?
Everybody hates uncertainty. It’s totally hard not to know what’s around the corner. The only thing that’s good about it is it causes a lot of creativity. You have to problem-solve. You have always to be prepared for uncertainty. That lackadaisical attitude of, “This is the way we’ve always done it. This is the way it works. This is the way we’re going to do it.” That’s a death sentence. That is something that I will give 100% props to Mark French. He used to make me crazy because the minute we got used to something, he would change it. I’d say, “I hate this change. Can we please be in this one place? This works.” He’d be like, “Nope, we’re going to change this.” Without him, that’s what we’re doing. Our new CEO is Matt Jones. We’ve worked together for many years. We were all mentored by Mark. We eat change for breakfast. We hate it but we’re going to eat it.
You guys don’t make friends with change. You make change your best friend.
If you don’t change, you will die in anything.
Disruption is the one thing we can count on. You can’t count on the timing of it but it’s always out there. It’s constantly on the horizon. To self-disrupt is counterintuitive, that’s what I’m hearing you say is that part of the culture within Leading Authorities is this self-disruption. Disturbing your own status quo like shaking the Etch A Sketch.
I’m with you on that. It is a part of our culture and for the first 4 or 5 years, it made me crazy. I was doing 3 or 4 jobs, singing jazz at night, working with a 40-piece orchestra, booking indie acts on the weekends. I didn’t understand this corporate world, but I realized that being agile and being proactive instead of reactive. I am not saying, “What if this happens?” It’s saying, “Most likely this is going to happen. Here’s your speaker. We could also do entertainment. We can also produce entertainment. We can produce your meeting if there’s redundancy. We can do any special videos and sponsorships. If you want fries, here you go. Here’s the menu. Who knew?”
I can’t take credit for it. It was always Mark.
What is it about him? I got to meet Mark and spend a little time with him. I feel that it was wonderful.
He was insatiable.
Is that the reason that he was committed to disturbing the status quo? That’s rare that you find somebody that embraces. We’re not talking about tolerating or in the consulting space, it’s about management of change. It is about utilizing change in an affirmative and proactive way.
It’s like if you’re doing musical theater. There are some personalities that love musical theater. I’m playing this role every night. I’m going to sing that song the same way every night. I’m going to do this show for as long as I’m on the road. That made me insane. I was bored out of my mind. I didn’t want to sing the song the same way and play the same role every night. That was Mark. He was driven. He would see an opportunity. It would excite him. He would challenge himself to see if he could make that happen. He would be dragging us all behind him, kicking and screaming. The industry kicked and screamed too. All of a sudden, it became the norm. He would do outrageous things. He had remarkably crazy ideas and all of them weren’t great, but some of them were. He would put the talent and the money behind making it happen. He grew up in Turkey. He was extremely well-read. He was a shy person in person. I like to say that I gave Mark his sense of humor. I would say to people, “He said that to you, but I speak Mark. Let me tell you exactly what he meant.”
When you speak, and this is emerging from this. Having a little distance on our conversation, I can see jazz as a big part of this. Mark was a jazz musician in the way that he approached that business. It is improvisational and something that’s not necessarily linear. It’s not being afraid to try something that produces a nonresonant or a dissonant note. That resonance that would otherwise bore the shit out of you. Even the same beautiful note constantly becomes monotonous at a certain point. We know when it comes to speaking, it’s the death knell of any speaker to be predictable, to be quite boring because they are monotonous. It’s interesting that the conversation about music has emerged which Mark was great at that. You came from jazz and as you said, this is one of those ironies of life, embracing that improv way to approach certain aspects of a business is not so comfortable.
It certainly wasn’t comfortable and then it became the way we do it. I am super grateful to him because it is part of our culture. It did allow us to pivot and it has helped us serve our clients, get closer to our clients, and help our clients. The thing I’m proudest of is that we still have our entire staff. We’re not owned by anybody. We’re a freestanding agency. We live and we die by the sword, but our people are the value of the company. Otherwise, it’s a bunch of chairs, desks and computers. How does it feel to do business with Tony? How does it feel do business with Chelsea? It feels a certain way. How does it feel to do business with Rainey? That’s my goal. Hopefully, I’ll be able to offer solutions and execute.
I love your version of jazz. This is all good stuff. Do you have a ritual? Do you have something that you do on a daily basis, every morning, every evening?
I have to make my bed.
Is this how you maintain your resilience, you make your bed every day?We eat change for breakfast. Click To Tweet
I think there are certain rituals. It is important to me to get up and make my bed before I do certain things.
It’s right out of the gate immediate win to do something you don’t have to do for one thing. There are no demerits. There’s nothing on your permanent record because you didn’t make your bed.
The day doesn’t go well. I’m a little bit OCD. My husband will get up in the middle of the night and he’ll come back in the bed. He’s former Air Force, so he digs it too. My practice is I always say to clients, “If you email me, call me and you have not heard back from me within twenty minutes, I either didn’t get it or I was hit by a car.” My ritual is responsiveness. If someone emails me at 9:00, 10:00 at night, I was on until midnight with clients because this is a 24/7 gig. We’re lucky in the sense we get to stay home, but even so, problems don’t occur between just 8:00 and 5:00. If I don’t have staff members that are able to respond to clients’ needs after 5:00, they’re not right for our business. This is showbusiness. No matter how you look at it. It’s not 9:00 to 5:00 and people need guidance, especially with these things.
I’ve said this to my wife numerous times, “Rainey is so responsive.” We see many open communication loops in business and in personal things. I don’t know if you’ve noticed the same thing, but people just go dark. They become silent. They don’t answer texts. They don’t respond in ways that used to be common decency or professionalism or civility. That has disappeared on some level. For years, I’ve remarked that you are uncommon in that way. I appreciate that. I always thought it is because you love me and now it’s even better. It’s not about little me. It is who you are with everyone.
From my perspective, that makes me feel special because someone who I communicate with, who is busy like I am, still makes the time to respond in a timely way. That’s a part of coming back from this in many ways. It has a lot to do with re-evaluating how we treat people and how we show up. Better than before, communication is something we started talking a lot about. What does it look like in a time when people are living with this great uncertainty. To me, the great opportunity and uncertainty is leadership. Creativity is a way to approach the new or the next normal creatively. Leadership has everything to do with how people feel when they’re in contact, in relationship with you. I’m reflecting back to you that your leadership is felt. The way I feel it is somebody that cares enough to respond in a meaningful way quickly or in a timeframe that makes it seem like I’m a priority. I don’t know if people have said that to you before, but that’s my experience of your love and I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that.
I do love you and I can’t ignore anybody. There are some people I will ignore. If you want to be in business, you take care of your people internally, externally, all across the board. It doesn’t cost a lot to answer somebody. It makes me crazy when somebody doesn’t answer my email. I often send an email to a client and I always call them and say, “I want to make sure you’ve got it. Do you want to walk through it? Are you okay?” It’s the way business needs to get done. It’s courteous.
We’re moving towards more personal, not less. More intimacy, not less. With that, I want to thank you for taking the time and for us being able to chat about some of these things. I loved what you said at the beginning about when the emotion becomes too great, that’s when there’s music. As a music lover, I know a lot of people will appreciate that sentiment. When the emotion gets great, what are you doing for yourself at the moment to deal with that, to work through, and find a creative opportunity in that emotion? It might be to think into something like music, whether it’s to take a walk and listening to it or sing in the shower or wherever you sing. It’s a wonderful insight. I have a ritual that was the subject of my own TED Talk. This ritual about waking. I always ask the guests this question and I’m going to ask you, Rainey, did you wake up today?
It sounds like a straightforward question, but we’re in the process of waking up. Some of us that means more coffee and for others, it means to expand our thinking in some way to find some new insight. To me, that’s a part of what a successful life involves that each day we wake up a little bit more aware than yesterday. That has nothing to do with the pandemic. You can have quite a bit more insight and awareness in times of challenge, even then in the status quo times when the wind is in your sail and things seem to be going perfectly. Yet, even in those times, people are quite often unhappy. Waking up, you did that check. The second piece of this ritual is when you woke up this morning, was there something that you were grateful for or appreciated consciously that you can recall?
Every morning I wake up and I count the chickens that I love. As long as they’re all still with me then I’m good to go that day.
The value of gratitude cannot be overstated at this point, the science behind it and everything else. It’s as elixirs go. It’s not snake oil. It’s the real McCoy. Wake up and be grateful, that’s step two. The third piece, which was both a beautiful aspect of that TED Talk and one that’s been controversial is the words that come out of your mouth. The declarations that we make when we speak. I truly believe that we speak our lives into existence. We speak constantly. We are manifesting through our words. If nothing else, the words that we speak all day long are recorded subconsciously. We hear them. If we were to have those words replayed to us, a lot of us would cringe. It’s a question of, what do you consciously choose to say and speak into existence? Do you recall the first words that you said this morning? Do you have any idea? Maybe you picked up the phone and you looked at a Facebook post, or you saw some headline and you went, “Shit.” I used to start my day by saying, “Oh shit,” a lot when I was a lawyer.
I was posting on Facebook and I think you saw it, so it could have been that.
That’s what you typed out. Do you remember what you might have said out loud if there is anything?
Jeff and our dog had left at about 5:00. I think I said, “Shoot. I have a guy working in the office.” I talked to myself. I don’t recall. For me, it’s every day checking in on nothing traumatic has happened. Everybody I love is still breathing. It is checking my pulse on that every morning. I then get up and start doing my thing.
This is beautiful. We know that when we go to sleep at night, we don’t have a contract to wake up. It’s not a guarantee. Even at that moment, when we realize we are waking up, you can conceive that there are people who are taking their last breath at that same moment. There’s a lot to be grateful for in that moment. If you’re inspired to say something out loud, I would love to know what you would say tomorrow morning as a result of this conversation. My four little words, “I love my life,” is going on for many years. Those are the words that I begin my day with. I said in this talk and I’ve said to people often that it doesn’t mean I love my life because everything’s going my way or things are right with the world or right in every way because it’s contrary to what is reality. I love my life, no matter what. What are your words tomorrow? What is the “I am” statement or the statement out loud that puts the wheels in motion of things that we can’t even put to words that might only be able to be expressed through music?
I’ll email you.
We’ll get what are Rainey’s words when she wakes up. Love, it’s been a pleasure and thank you.
Thank you very much.
- Leading Authorities
- Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-Term Success
About Rainey Foster
Rainey Foster is executive vice president and partner of Leading Authorities, Inc, serving on the company’s Management Committee. During her 20 years at Leading Authorities, Foster has developed strong working relationships with both her clients and the firm’s exclusive talent. She understands the critical needs of the company’s high-profile speakers and the requirements of major companies and associations who book their services.
Rainey Foster joined Leading Authorities in 1996 following a successful career in entertainment and the arts. A musician, recording artist, and actress, she produced a hit single record and was on contract with legendary songwriter, Hal David, in Nashville.
Foster continues to work with clients to write and produce original music for charitable causes.
She is a ten-year member of the Corporate Advisory Board of SOME—So Others Might Eat, and her goal is to put a song to the face of the mission for organizations like SOME, Rebuilding Together, Service Source, Home for Our Troops, and Operation Smile. She is a member of the Women’s Forum in Washington, DC, and on the Board of Governors for the Live Music Awards, where she also acts as a producer.
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