When I received an invitation to participate in Harvard Business Review Quarantined, a new weekly LinkedIn Live series on navigating in a post-COVID world, I was curious for two reasons: I’ve never seen the LinkedIn Live platform before, and HBR Editor in Chief Adi Ignatius and publisher Joshua Macht were interviewing Bozoma Saint John, whose upbeat attitude and colorful personality won over the Convening Leaders 2020 audience during a Main Stage interview.
It’s only been a little more than four months since Saint John, chief marketing officer for one of the country’s largest talent and media companies, Endeavor, took the stage at Moscone Center in San Francisco on Jan. 7 to talk about branding, but it was a different world then. I was interested to hear her take on reinventing yourself in the middle of a pandemic.
The LinkedIn platform was a nice break from Zoom, with emojis bubbling up to the right of the screen, and a constantly scrolling chat feature that, as one participant noted, moved way too quickly to read the comments.
When asked how her life has been over the past 10 weeks quarantining during the pandemic, Saint John said a quote that she read recently has resonated with her: “We are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.” We’re all facing the same challenges and fears, she said, and like everyone else her emotions vacillate between being very motivated and “feeling like this is the time to do everything and anything to feelings of despair. Feeling like gosh, well things will never be the same again. … And what’s the point? And everything in between.”
Macht asked Saint John, as an inspirational speaker and personality, how she handles those sinking moments. “How do you pick yourself up?” he asked.
None of us have ever dealt with this before, she said, and so she’s also learning how to motivate herself — and some of her “old tricks don’t work.” Pre-COVID-19, Saint John said she had a dynamic schedule and was on the move constantly. “There was no time to wallow and wonder how am I going to get X, Y, and Z thing done.” As the saying goes, she said, if you want something done, give it to the busiest person. “And that’s what my life was,” she said.
These days, she said, because time feels infinite, she is finding it difficult to get even the small things done. What has helped, she said, is sticking to a schedule: waking up at the same time each morning, working out, and going into her meetings, vs. “endless hours that seem to run into each other.”
She sees this crisis as the best time to focus on yourself. “Right now,” she said, “while it might feel selfish,” it’s important to work on feeling whole and being your authentic self. That includes reevaluating who you are what your values are, she said, what makes you unique, and asking yourself what purpose you serve. If you’re not happy with your current role, she said, find ways to insert yourself in the industry you want to become a part of, including volunteering your time. The luxury we have right now, she said, which we didn’t have before, is that we’re straddling two worlds. You can schedule time during the day to devote to the new career or the new idea — that future self that you want to be.
How do you reinvent yourself, Ignatius asked, when you’re overcoming your own fears and doubts? Saint John said that she was struck by a meme she’s seen over the past 10 weeks that took reinvention to the extreme. It said that if you don’t come out of this quarantine with a new business or having learned a new language or some kind of new skill, you didn’t lack time, you just lacked discipline. “And I clutched my pearls,” she said with a laugh. “Oh my God, that is so harsh. What kind of pressure is that? It’s terrible advice. We can’t do any of that,” she said, if we are broken, so we have to concentrate on making sure that we feel good. “I implore people to make sure that they feel good,” she said, which has personally meant for her that she needs to embrace her imperfections — for example, she has recognized that she is a terrible 5th-grade teacher for her daughter.
As she is in the business of sports and entertainment, Macht asked, what does she see for the future of live events?
Like all things, it will make its way back, she said. “I don’t think that congregating in masses is over forever,” she said, but right now we have to figure out a way to manage that safely. “And that is what every entertainment platform is trying to do. Especially live entertainment.” We have to find innovative ways to gather people in the short term, she said.
“This is probably the greatest marketing test of all time,” Saint John added. “We have to innovate and go” — to innovate and go live immediately. “There is no test. So, we’re either going to really win or really fail.” But at this very moment in time, because of our audience’s desire to get back together safely, or just be in the moment, she said, we have to figure it out, because “that intense yearning is not going away.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.