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Steve Cody of Peppercomm: “Empathy, transparency and flexibility go hand-in-hand”

Empathy, transparency and flexibility go hand-in-hand — Yanique Woodall, Head of Brand Communications at The Home Depot, advised, “Leading the team with empathy, care and purpose has been instrumental to walking this unknown and unique journey together. Ensuring we are transparent and vulnerable with each other and allowing a platform to express our thoughts and needs has […]

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Empathy, transparency and flexibility go hand-in-hand — Yanique Woodall, Head of Brand Communications at The Home Depot, advised, “Leading the team with empathy, care and purpose has been instrumental to walking this unknown and unique journey together. Ensuring we are transparent and vulnerable with each other and allowing a platform to express our thoughts and needs has helped us thrive as a team. It’s important to remain flexible, allowing the team to feel comfortable and carve out time for themselves.”


As a part of our series called 5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Cody.

Steve is the founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a fully integrated strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices located in San Francisco and London. In that role, he is responsible for everything from implementing strategy and counseling clients to leading business development and bringing new products and services to market. In short, he does everything but clean windows. He is also a comedian, climber and dog lover, but not necessarily in that order.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I founded Peppercomm in1995 — named after my dog, Pepper. Throughout my career, I have been passionate about helping others and promoting humor in the workplace — which is why I was so curious this year to learn how other business leaders adapted to the pandemic. I am so excited to be a part of this interview because Peppercomm conducted a very similar interview with some colleagues and friends from a variety of organizations and backgrounds about how they have — and continue — to weather the onslaught. Perhaps not surprisingly, one theme frequently emerged: resilience.

What has been the biggest adjustment while working from home from your in-person workplace? Can you please share a story or example?

It is crazy that we’ve passed a year since the pandemic hit. Despite all the pandemic has thrown in their path, many people and organizations persevered.

“What a wild ride this past year has been,” my friend David Horning, the Chief Experience Officer for Water Cooler Comedy, said. “At first, there weren’t enough 4 letter words to describe how I felt, but as time went on, I realized it was up to me to change the things I could control to get a better grasp on what I couldn’t. In doing so, I’ve grown exponentially by questioning what I thought I know, adapting behaviors to this new information, and taking action.”

As a communications company, our team at Peppercomm was so used to brainstorming, presenting, networking, doing everything in-person. One of our biggest adjustments was figuring out how to work from home without having immediate access to each other to operate in the quickfire work environment we’re used to.

Stacey Jones, Global Corporate Communications Lead at Accenture, noted a similar experience, “Leading communications for a company with more than 500,000 people, you quickly learn the value of resilience. But COVID was something else entirely. Almost overnight, our core crisis communications group of five expanded to a team of 100+ professionals across our global organization, collaborating to operate 24/7. Truly making a difference for colleagues ultimately fueled the team’s resilience along the way.”

What do you miss most about your pre-COVID lifestyle?

Two things: first, ice, rock and mountain climbing in different parts of the world — and I know my friend Clayton Fletcher, the Peppercomm Chief Comedy Officer, can relate to the second one — live stand-up!

In chatting with Clayton, he said it perfectly: “Performing stand-up comedy usually involves paying a tremendous amount of attention to the audience. Pandemic comedy now takes place via Zoom for people you can neither hear nor see and who never quite gel into a collective whole because, well, they can’t see or hear each other either!” But he noted a benefit of this as well, “This lack of audience feedback surprisingly sharpened one of my key skills as a comic: I’m expressing myself more clearly and directly than I ever have before.”

The pandemic was a time for collective self-reflection. What do you think are the unexpected positives of the COVID response?

I think some of the unexpected positives of the response are the same as the theme I saw throughout my interviews — how company leaders adapted and emphasized resiliency and compassion.

Monica Clark, Head of Communications at Pizza Hut International, said, “As I look back over the past year and think about how challenging it was — personally and professionally — what rises to the top is that we had to lead with heart and courage, putting our teams and ourselves first. We needed to be human and authentic and to recognize moments of levity and joy to keep us all moving forward.”

“From my perspective and actions during a crisis, it is not about proving speed and change in leadership initiatives. Rather, it is about ensuring our team’s safety, wellbeing and dignity with balanced, heartfelt and invigorating support for all our customers and partners,” said Peter Weedfald, SVP of Sales & Marketing for Sharp’s Home Appliances division.

All great advice, with a common theme — putting the team, wellbeing, and mental health first.

Another unexpected positive? Business innovation! Change can be tough, but it’s also the driver of creativity. The challenges of quickly adapting and taking risks invigorated leaders and inspired innovation over the pandemic.

Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D., APR, President and CEO for the Institute for Public Relations, presented a great example of this — “We dramatically shifted our operations plan. We had to think fast, move fast, and deliver fast-changing insights. Implementing new approaches and taking risks — like our virtual 5k Run for Research — was critical when the old ways of doing things just wouldn’t work the same anymore.”

How did you deal with the tedium of being locked up indefinitely during the pandemic? Can you share with us a few things you have done to keep your mood up?

It was hard — I won’t lie. I am an active person, I like to be in the office with my team, I like to have a crowd at my comedy shows — it was hard to even go rock climbing safely. But I was given some great advice by my friends and colleagues.

“For this kind of sustained resilience, I found that compassion is required — starting with a little self-compassion.” Peggy Northrop, Watermark CEO, said. “So, I started taking micro-moments, where I do things like go outside for fresh air and sunshine, get a little exercise, have some quiet time. Then, I can have compassion for others and help them preserve.”

“I was hyper-focused on my team’s mental and emotional well-being,” said Henri Pierre-Jacques, Harlem Capital CEO. “Ensuring they took time for themselves and family was key to giving them more to focus on besides work.”

What has been the source of your greatest pain, discomfort, or suffering during this time? How did you cope with it?

The pandemic laid waste to so much. We’re now more than one year after lockdown. = On March 11, 2020, there were 118,000 cases of the coronavirus in over 110 countries around the world, with a significant risk of further global spread, and a pandemic was named. We went into a physical, social, and economic crisis virtually overnight but — again — resiliency was the theme. People across the globe were tested in a variety of ways — and most had conflicting personal and professional priorities, with having to help children figure out virtual school, or being laid off in the middle of an economic crisis.

Bumper Carroll, Creative Director, Producer and Strategist noted of his time, “At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt like I was stuck inside a washing machine, each workday more tumultuous than the last. By the summer, I’d been hung out to dry. But in the months since being laid off, I’ve bounced back in an unexpected way: by realizing that I don’t want to sign up for another cycle. With the support of family and friends, I’m working for myself, and feeling more creatively challenged and professionally fulfilled than ever before.”

Eileen Sheil, Vice President of Global External Communications at Medtronic, said it helped to find a positive in everything. “I always try to look for the ’silver lining’ in difficult times. I found there were many. I had time at home with my children who were in college learning remotely. That would never happen in “normal” times. I could work at home sitting next to our elderly dog that I feared we would lose while I was in the office day after day. I found that resilience is trying to do what you can in very difficult times to make things a little better.”

I personally have coped with the non-stop negative news in two ways: intense daily exercise and doing my very best in some way and, on every day, to make someone smile or, better yet, laugh.

Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Humor in everything — What was the biggest lesson I learned? Aside from what others told me — others tend to be wiser, as evidenced by the fantastic advice of the following four business leaders I interviewed — I found myself more dedicated than ever to make sure my team, family, and friends kept laughing.
  2. Lead by example — Silja Litvin, Psychologist, CEO and Founder of PsycApps, noted, “I introduced unofficial mental health days to the company by example. Every now and then I would say that I’m taking a day or a few hours off for self-care. Eventually, the team picked it up and it works wonders.”
  3. Empathy, transparency and flexibility go hand-in-hand — Yanique Woodall, Head of Brand Communications at The Home Depot, advised, “Leading the team with empathy, care and purpose has been instrumental to walking this unknown and unique journey together. Ensuring we are transparent and vulnerable with each other and allowing a platform to express our thoughts and needs has helped us thrive as a team. It’s important to remain flexible, allowing the team to feel comfortable and carve out time for themselves.”
  4. Endless optimism is essential — Linda Rutherford, Southwest Airlines, Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer said, “The last 12 months have been a lesson in vulnerability and humility. Managing an organization through a year-long crisis has been an on-the-job exercise in creativity and experimentation. Through it all, the team has met the challenge of increased communication volume, superior quality, and pivots to the usual way of doing things with endless optimism that is infectious.”
  5. Transformation is inevitable — Francesco Lagutaine, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at M&T Bank, said “We transformed from our business selves to our personal selves, with our children and pets interrupting during our most important meetings. That allowed us to bring our true selves to work, which is a core tenet to drive diversity and compassion in the workplace. It’s hard not to have empathy for others when you see your coworker’s husband in the background walking around in his pajamas.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and share how that was relevant to you during the pandemic?

My favorite quote is: “If you’re leading and no one’s following, it means you’re just taking a walk.”

I found my ability to lead challenged in every conceivable way throughout the pandemic. So, before I made any decision, I thought long and hard about how it would be received and whether it would motivate my colleagues. The most important thing was to under-promise and over-deliver.

Another favorite quote of mine is from a good friend Charlene Wheeless, Author, and Senior Advisor for Equity & Justice at APCO Worldwide — “My resilience is based in a strong belief that better days are ahead — we just have to ride out the storm. We are in one of the most human moments I can recall in my lifetime, and it’s important that leaders model resilience by showing people that sometimes it’s okay not to be okay.”

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/stevencody/

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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