• News post

    You can’t fix what’s broken if you don’t know about it

    14 October 2019

    Have you ever worked in an organization where the executives believed “silence is golden”? Leaders bearing this attitude want to hear that all is well. Their message to employees is that they don’t want to know about problems.

    A sign that said “Only Good News” was reportedly posted on a conference room doorway in the office of a Facebook senior executive. Do you really think that employees felt safe and welcomed in reporting problems to this executive? Probably not.

    Such written, oral or implied communiques send the message that leaders don’t want their days to be burdened with employees who talk about what is wrong in the workplace. They may even have a predisposition to tag individuals who report problems as nay-sayers or troublemakers.

    While on the surface one might think that complaint-free days are to be coveted, from the perspective of proactive risk mitigation, such convictions border on being reckless because they discourage transparency in the workplace.

    Celebrate feedback

    Corporate America is overflowing with companies that have unhealthy cultures in which limited, if any, feedback is provided to leadership regarding opportunities for improvement.

    A trend is now emerging where executives and boards are realizing that culture can no longer be perceived as “soft stuff”. Research has proven that healthy cultures with free-flowing feedback to and from leaders actually correlate with stronger bottom lines and highly engaged employees. This winning combination can be instrumental in strengthening the muscle required for organizational risk mitigation.

    Let’s face it. As leaders, we can only fix what’s broken if we know about it. As opposed to thinking that silence is golden, the savviest leaders embrace the philosophy that transparent feedback is not only to be liberally encouraged, but it is also to be celebrated.

    Action from the top

    For years, I have purposefully asked employees and physicians to share one thing we should change to improve the workplace experience as well as the customers’ experiences. We told them we could only fix what was broken if we knew about it. Because they had the best view of reality in the workplace, we shared openly that we needed and valued their expert, transparent opinions about what was broken.

    Talk without action can be counterproductive. As such, we made it our practice to follow through by communicating what we had done to address the prevailing issues. We were careful to thank them for their feedback and to reinforce we would warmly welcome their sharing additional concerns.

    While all employees should theoretically own organizational risk mitigation, the tone clearly must be set at the top. It is the leader’s responsibility to create a culture in which employees feel safe to speak up. As good as your organization may be, there will always be opportunities for improvement.

    You can make a significant difference in teaching your employees to join in efforts to mitigate organizational risk. Start today by empowering your staff and praising them when they share feedback regarding vulnerabilities and other concerns within the workplace.

    Originally posted on Smart Business on September 23, 2019.

  • News post

    An “It’s a Ten” Culture

    26 August 2019

    I vividly remember my first cruise. I was a rising junior at Ole Miss, and approximately twenty students were traveling as a group. I shared an inside stateroom with three other coeds at the back of a very old ship. With four bunkbeds and luggage that seemed to multiply every day, we coexisted happily for seven days.

    My colleagues and I absorbed way too much Caribbean sunshine. Our group seemed to be the last to leave the dance floor every night. This week at sea was one big party with a nice group of grounded young people enjoying immense fun, delicious food and awesome service.

    Over the years, I have found wide variation in the quality of my cruising experiences. Some ships have had more amenities than others. Some vessels catered to a smaller number of passengers while others competed to see which ship could accommodate the most guests. Regardless of these nuances, the main difference I have found in cruising has been grounded in the culture of the ship’s staff. 

    My husband and I recently experienced the Celebrity Silhouette, a ship that appears to have an “It’s a Ten” culture.

    From the minute we arrived at the cruise port, every interaction was perfect. When we approached the ship, we were slightly frantic, having arrived just minutes before the official deadline for check-in. As we boarded the ship, we were happily welcomed like old friends. Our panic immediately melted into a sense of calm. Clearly it was time for our bon voyage martini!

    During our first dinner at sea, we met Christine Joy, a specialty restaurant assistant waiter from the Philippines. Her smile was like a warm ray of sunshine. When we asked how long Christine had been with the ship, she responded “Nine months, and I’ve already been promoted”. Smiling widely, she proudly shared, “Celebrity is a great company. They encourage their employees to experience different roles so they can pursue a career path they enjoy.  Each time we saw Christine Joy throughout the week, that beautiful smile was always shining brightly. Perhaps it’s no accident this young lady had joy both in her name and in her heart!

    Our waiter, Adrian, had been with Celebrity for eighteen years. Clearly, he was the very best server my husband and I have ever encountered at sea. He was always jovial and quickly established a bond with us, fondly referring to my husband as “Papa”. He anticipated every need and bent over backwards to ensure we were happy with all aspects of our dining experience.

    Assistant waiter Jola had only been aboard for one month. As a brand-new employee, she raved about the crossing training opportunities that she was already being encouraged to pursue.

    Suffice it to say that everywhere…. and I do mean absolutely everywhere we went on the ship, we were greeted by highly engaged employees who seemed to love their work. We encountered no grumpy expressions nor faces buried in smart phones. We experienced a great performance by all. And this mesmerizing culture was accomplished with many of the employees being new!

    In Gracious Leadership: Lead Like You’ve Never Led Before, I included a chapter entitled “Caramel Cake and Culture”. Within this chapter I shared my convictions that like making a cake, the recipe for a great corporate culture requires that the key ingredients of Gracious Leadership be consistently applied.

    While I don’t know the specific leadership principles being taught by the Celebrity Silhouette Leadership, I did see some similarities with my convictions about Gracious Leadership. These leaders were clear about expectations and required accountability for performance. They were purposeful about developing their people. They understood the importance of positive relationships with customers and employees They reinforced the significance of seemingly small acts of kindness. They sought and provided feedback. 

    We saw in action aboard the Silhouette some of the key ingredients of Gracious Leadership. Just like making a Caramel Cake, when it’s right, you know it! Even though several thousand passengers were onboard during the two-week journey, the staff made us feel like the only guests in their world. Hats off to this fine team of leaders and frontline staff of the Silhouette for getting their hospitality culture “just right”.

    It’s no wonder that in the gangway of Celebrity Silhouette, the staff proudly displayed banners touting that their ship had been recognized as among the best within their company for excellence in the customers’ experiences at sea.

    Corporate culture clearly matters in the hospitality industry, and corporate culture matters in every industry. For this reason, leaders and board members are placing increasing emphasis upon the strategic imperative to create and to sustain positive corporate culture because of the correlation with organizational returns.

    Could you say without reservation that your company’s corporate culture is a “Ten”? If you don’t have time for a cruise, but you are interested in learning more about fully respectful, peak performance leadership, be sure to visit www.graciousleadershipbook.com.

    Watch for Gracious Leadership: Lead Like You’ve Never Led Before becoming available very soon as an audiobook on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

  • News post

    Caramel Cake and Culture

    24 June 2018

     I recently received a message on LinkedIn from a woman who had attended one of my book launch presentations. This professional was hosting a Round Table Discussion, and all the participants were reading Gracious Leadership in anticipation of a group conversation regarding this time-critical topic.

    The woman was specifically writing to share that she was making a Hattie Bell Caramel Cake to serve at the Round Table, and she was having difficulty getting the icing to be thick enough.

    I smiled to myself as I read her message. You see, I had experienced the same frustration many times throughout the years as I tried to master both the science and the art of making a Caramel Cake. It’s really tricky to get the icing “just right.”

    Now, you may ask yourself, “What in the world does making a Caramel Cake have to do with Gracious Leadership?” The answer is actually quite simple.

    Making “this” particular Caramel Cake definitely requires all the key ingredients as specified within the recipe, but it also calls for the “art part” … meaning the right amount of patience, persistence, perseverance and, yes, even a little bit of love!

    Becoming a Gracious Leader and building a healthy, high-performance work culture are like making a Hattie Bell Caramel Cake. Simply put, neither aspiration is easy.

    As with any recipe, all 13 Key Ingredients are required to become a Gracious Leader. Not even one ingredient can be omitted, and no shortcuts are allowed. This, my friends, is the science of Gracious Leadership.

    As a Gracious Leader, to guide your team to peak performance, you will need to be purposeful in building and maintaining a healthy work culture, one in which your team is empowered to soar to new heights while achieving the right results. So, in addition to teaching your followers the Key Ingredients of Gracious Leadership, you will also need to add your own version of the “art part” … the right amount of patience, persistence, perseverance, and love that are emblematic of your personal leadership style.

    Whether you’re making a Hattie Bell Caramel Cake or you’re well on your way to become a fully respectful leader who inspires a healthy corporate culture, when you get it right, you will absolutely know it!

    Just as this woman reached out to me, I hope to hear from you, too, as you aspire to become a Gracious Leader. If you have not yet begun this journey, please start today, and together let’s lead like we’ve never led before.

    5 from 1 vote

    Hattie Bell's Caramel Cake

    Author Mrs. Hattie Bell Johnson, Carthage, MS



    • 1 cup butter
    • 5 eggs
    • 1 cup milk
    • 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
    • 2 1/2 cups sugar
    • 3 1/2 cups flour
    • 1 tsp vanilla

    Caramel Icing

    • 3.5 cups sugar
    • 1 cup milk
    • 1/2 pound butter
    • 2 tbsp white Karo
    • 1/2 cup Cremora
    • 1 tsp vanilla


    For the Cake

    1. Cream butter, add sugar, and beat until light and fluffy. Add whole eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla to milk. Sift flour and baking powder. Add part of flour mixture, add milk and then remaining flour and beat until smooth. Pour batter into three greased and lightly floured 9-inch cake pans. Bake 30 minutes in preheated 375-degree oven.

    For the Icing

    1. Mix sugar, Cremora, Karo, and milk in a large pan. Cook for 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup sugar that has been browned, cooking until it forms a soft ball when dropped into cold water. Add butter and vanilla and cook until butter dissolves. Beat until icing is right for spreading between layers, then beat until creamy for icing the remainder of the cake.

    Recipe Notes

    I have passed along Hattie Bell's Caramel Cake recipe exactly as it was written in the New Hope Baptist Church Cook Book. This collection of favorite recipes was published to honor the American Revolution Bicentennial 1776-1976.

    I will add a few clarifications. These steps represent the "art part."

    • Be sure not to overcook the cake so that it will not be dry.
    • Cook the icing in a 5 quart, non-stick pot. Use powdered Cremora. In addition to the 3 1/2 cups of sugar required in the recipe, brown 1/2 cup of sugar in a small, non-stick skillet during the time that the sugar, milk, Karo, and Cremora are cooking.
    • I use a candy thermometer and cook the icing to 236-237 degrees, still applying the soft ball text that is required in the recipe.
    • After adding the butter and vanilla to the icing, I beat the icing with a mixer until it reaches the right consistency to spread between the layers. I then beat the icing by hand until it reaches a creamy consistency that is right for icing the remainder of the cake.
    • Remember that no shortcuts are allowed. Always use patience, persistence, perseverance, and love to get the icing "just right."