Author Archive for Melissa L. Michaels

Capiche Conversations: Interview with Suzanne Willow, Co-Owner of The Forest Conservation Burial Ground

Interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels, Capiche Contributor/Strategic Partner, Michaels & Michaels Creative, LLC

Where would you like to spend your death? Do you want to return to the earth, becoming part of nature in a way that continues to nurture the life around you? Would you like to be enveloped in the beauty of the forest, cradled in a magnificent landscape where your loved ones can return to celebrate your life until it is time for them to join you?

The first dedicated natural burial ground in Oregon, The Forest Conservation Burial Ground represents a transition from destructive chemical processes to more ecologically responsible, green methods of burial. Located just outside Ashland, Oregon, within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, The Forest offers a majestic final resting place while fulfilling its mission “to provide a space to reconnect our human experience of life and death with land conservation.”

Capiche’s Chris Cook became involved with The Forest early in its development, providing key marketing, public relations, research, and video production services that positioned the organization to succeed in its meaningful work.

Q: The Forest Conservation Burial Ground is the first of its kind in the state of Oregon. Can you describe The Forest and the inspiration behind creating it?

First Snow on Jolie's GraveA: The Forest Conservation Burial Ground is the first dedicated natural burial ground in Oregon. There are other “traditional” lawn cemeteries (what Americans usually picture when they think of a cemetery) that allow “natural” burial among standard burials. The Forest, however, is the first to specify the return of bodies to the earth in a way that specifically does not interfere with decomposition. We do not allow embalmed bodies; concrete or plastic vaults; metal; or exotic wood caskets. Bodies are interred in natural fiber shrouds or simple unfinished wood caskets. The grave is hand-dug three to four feet deep so the body remains in the biologically active layers of soil, fostering decomposition and mycelial activity. The soil is then carefully returned to the grave in the strata from which it came.

My wife, Lanita Witt, and I have always known we wanted to return to the earth on this piece of land. We were encouraged by a small group of people who wondered if they could also be buried here. Thus, this journey began.

Q: Reciprocity is at the heart of The Forest’s mission. What does reciprocity mean to you and those who choose this final destination for themselves and their loved ones?

A: At the heart of reciprocity are acknowledgment of the gifts the earth gives us and a desire to return the gifts we receive. Reciprocity calls us to live in gratitude and awareness of our dependence on the health of the earth. Our culture of extraction is the opposite of a culture of reciprocity. The cemetery enables us to conserve the land, and the act of returning our bodies to the earth in a respectful and low-impact manner is an ultimate act of reciprocity.

Sunset Burial at The Forest

Q: What is special about the location of The Forest?

A: This valley property was formed by volcanic activity 20 million years ago and has some areas that are very rocky with thin soil. In any ecosystem, there are areas where trees grow well, others that hold water in the wetland and are suited for meadows and willows, and still other areas that have naturally thin soil. We selected this site for The Forest because it is suited both in location and soil types. Distanced from the day-to-day workings of the farm and guest areas, the location allows quieter, private access. The land where we placed the cemetery does not have deep, fertile soil; is outside the wetlands; is not prone to sliding or slumps; and will not rapidly grow new trees. It will remain fairly stable into the future.

Suzanne Willow, Vicki Purslow, Lanita Witt, and Chris Cook at Willow-Witt Ranch

Suzanne Willow, Vicki Purslow, Lanita Witt, & Chris Cook at Willow-Witt Ranch

Q: Chris Cook started working with The Forest shortly after its genesis. What was her role?

A: Chris began working with us about a year ago. We needed advice on marketing, and she helped us develop an overall marketing plan and started us in a good direction. She handled strategy, research, and initial PR work. She continues to provide consulting services as needed. Chris also helped us produce a video and get some media attention at a time that was particularly challenging due to COVID blowing up the news. Chris got us positioned in such a way that our in-house team could assume marketing and PR responsibilities.

Mary Ann Perry, Sexton at The ForestQ: What are the responsibilities of your sexton, Mary Ann Perry, and how did her background prepare her for this position?

A: Mary Ann joined our burial planning team in January 2019. She has been connected to the Ranch for many years and was married here in 2014. Mary Ann’s life experience led her to become a home funeral guide and green burial educator in her spare time. She has long been passionate about community education on end-of-life and after-death care topics. Empowering families to make informed choices is a pleasure for her. When we opened in June 2020 and needed to hire a sexton, Mary Ann was ready and willing. The role is varied, from supporting burials and guiding tours to community presentations and marketing. She has been learning this role along with us, and she loves this work because it aligns with her values.

Q: Willow-Witt Ranch was founded in 1985. Tell us about the ranch and how you practice stewardship of the land.

Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt with GoatA: After Lanita and I purchased the land in 1985, we began experiencing the unique ecosystem that exists on this piece of the earth. We have always been called to share the magic of this environment with others. As we learned more of the natural history and ecology of this land, we felt driven to conserve the healthy functioning aspects of the ecosystem and work toward regenerating the systems that were out of balance.

We have continued this practice, and The Forest is a natural extension of this desire to protect and regenerate the ecosystem. Our stewardship activities in the natural burial cemetery and on the farm include regenerative certified organic farming; rotational pasture management for our chickens and small goat dairy; selective forest regeneration; and wetland function restoration. We have established a nonprofit, The Crest, for environmental education aimed at reconnecting people of all ages with conservation of the water, forest, and earth. We nurture the interdependence of The Forest, The Crest, the small farm, and the ecosystem in this small valley.

The Forest Freshly Covered Grave Green Burial

Q: How does green or natural burial differ from traditional methods, and why are more people gravitating toward this new approach?

A: Green, or natural, burial involves returning a body to the earth in the simplest way possible: without embalming fluid, grave liner, vault, metals, or plastics. Green burials that support land conservation take this a step further by ensuring all aspects of the burial process focus on care of both the body and land. It is not surprising that people are drawn to this approach, although there isn’t anything new about it. This is how burial has been conducted for thousands of years by most people around the globe. Many are simply beginning to understand that there are good reasons to do no harm in the process of laying our loved ones to rest and that cremation isn’t the most environmentally friendly alternative to conventional burial.

Q: Why is natural burial a more ecologically responsible choice than cremation? Do you accept cremains if the family so chooses?

A: We do accept cremated remains for burial and scattering at The Forest, knowing cremation is the right choice for some. With cremation, the environmental impact is air pollution of heavy metals and CO2. In the United States, the amount of fuel used annually for all cremations would provide enough fuel to drive halfway to the sun, according to the Green Burial Council (GBC). With natural burial, our bodies can actually give back to the life that’s continuing around us.

Q: What can a family expect when their loved one passes away?

Family Grieving at Burial in The ForestA: Burial at The Forest literally means burial in the forest. One helpful tip I recently heard is to “wear sensible shoes.” Whether families choose to host a home funeral and handle after-death care arrangements themselves or they hire a funeral home for some or all of the arrangements, the drive to the burial ground is the first opportunity to transition into another space. It can be soothing to mark each transition of this process with silence, song, or prayer. We welcome the family’s participation in all aspects of the burial process, including the digging of the grave, the procession with the body, creating a ceremony together, lowering their loved one into the earth, and closing the grave. We also invite families to return to the burial ground at their leisure. The grounds are open every day from dawn to dusk, and it is a lovely place to hike, bird-watch, meditate, picnic, and simply visit.

Q: The interment process itself can be a beautiful spiritual experience and part of the grieving/healing process. Family members are welcome to help hand-dig the grave with The Forest’s staff or leave it to staff completely. As you mentioned earlier, the soil is removed in layers and returned to the grave in the same strata as part of your commitment to land conservation. How do family members react to this unique experience?

Family Burial at The ForestA: One of the elements we love about burial at The Forest is we are truly able to meet families where they are. The nature and circumstances of the death—and, of course, personal preference—all impact a family’s ability and desire to actively participate. We are open to what makes sense in each unique scenario. Some family members and friends are most comfortable witnessing, and others want a hands-on experience. Our intention is to offer support and maintain the integrity of the green burial.

The Forest, Flowers on Open GraveQ: The Forest is about far more than the burial and memorial services. It’s a place for celebration, remembrance, and healing. Tell me about the holistic philosophy behind embracing this sacred space as a place to enjoy during life.

A: Our mission at The Forest is to provide a space to reconnect our experience of life and death with land conservation. While grief and sadness are real and valid, it is difficult to ignore the fact that life is continuing when one is standing in the middle of a beautiful forest. The burial ground and the whole of Willow-Witt Ranch are full of life-affirming activities that are all equally relevant to the cycle of life and death. We know healing the land through conservation also means we are healing ourselves—whether through mourning a loss or celebrating a union.

Q: The Forest represents a return to the pre-1950s funeral home industry, before the time of embalming and toxic chemicals and artificial materials. Families used to picnic in cemeteries and return often to remember their loved ones. How has the burial and cremation industry transformed over the past century, and why is it so important to embrace a new model like The Forest?

A: In general, end-of-life and death care has moved out of the hands of families and friends and into the hands of paid professionals. This has happened for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is our death-phobic culture. Green burial at The Forest offers another way, which in some respects constitutes a return to the past but is also an orientation to what makes it possible now. Embracing natural burial is a way to get closer to the realities of death, see the continuation of life, and make a conscious choice to do no harm with our bodies as we lay them to rest.

The Forest, Vista Plot, The Meadow

Q: People can pay a little more to choose the location of their plot—whether it be in the woods, the meadow, on a little hill, in a sunny or snowy spot. How does the selection process work for those who prepurchase a plot?

A: For some, choosing the exact location where your body will be buried is important and meaningful. For others, it simply doesn’t matter, so long as they are in The Forest. We do offer plots on the edges of the meadows, but the meadows themselves are protected wetlands where we won’t be offering burials. We encourage those interested in burial at The Forest to experience the space in person, but visiting the land isn’t necessary or an option for everyone. It is not a prerequisite to purchasing a burial plot. Of the 18.4 acres of the cemetery, just a few acres have been surveyed and are open for burial. And yes, while it’s all a forest, each little nook calls to people in different ways.

Q: How can people be confident the land and their plots will be cared for in perpetuity?

A: Willow-Witt Ranch focuses on conservation of the property and restoration of the ecological balance within the ecosystem. Oregon is unique in that it allows stewardship trusts for purpose-driven businesses to direct the mission, purpose, and running of businesses in perpetuity. The stewardship trust has a business (in this case, the land and businesses) as the trustee; the trust is overseen by a stewardship board, which is directed to follow the purpose for which the trust was established. The cemetery is deed-restricted—the property of the cemetery can never be developed or taken out of cemetery status.

Q: You recently added the Pet Cemetery. Can people be buried with their beloved animals if they wish to do so?

A: We do offer burial plots on the edge with the Pet Cemetery for those who want to be next to their beloved furry family members. We also welcome cremated pet remains to be buried with their human companion at the time of the human’s interment. We do not allow burial of full pet bodies in the human burial ground areas.

Q: How do you protect the plots from scavengers and other potential threats?

Gravestone Marker at The ForestA: All bodies, whether in a container or shroud, are covered with at least 18 inches of soil. This creates a smell barrier for animals. According to the Green Burial Council, there aren’t any instances of animals digging up a grave. The GBC has a great FAQ that answers this and a lot of other common questions about green burial.

Q: What options are available for gravestones or markers?

A: Grave markers are optional at The Forest. We do place a simple survey-type marker on top of each burial engraved with name, birthdate, and death date. Stone markers sourced from the land of the ranch are available for purchase for those who desire this. We also offer memorial benches and the planting of native shrubs.

Q: Do you have special discounts for veterans or other groups?

A: We offer payment plans as well as a 5-percent discount for those who purchase a plot in full. We are building a Community Support Fund to promote equitable access to burial at The Forest.

Q: I understand you’ve been running Zoom webinars, which have been very well-received. What kind of information do you present, and how would someone go about viewing or participating in one of these webinars?

The Forest Webinar ScreenshotA: We have collaborated with several other groups in offering green burial community education. It has been a joy to work with the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass, Ashland Senior Center, and The Peaceful Presence Project in Bend.

We have upcoming presentations with Jackson County Library Services and Deschutes Public Library, both on July 14. People can visit the libraries’ Events pages to register.

These presentations focus on green burials in general, and we share a little about The Forest, too. For those who want to visit in person, we offer community group tours of the burial ground every first Saturday and Wednesday of the month, May through October. Registration is through our website.

Q: You have an open house coming up on Memorial Day weekend for people who have purchased a plot already as well as for family members who’ve had people buried there. You’re also planning another open house for the general public. Can you provide details about those events and how people can sign up?

A: Yes! We are so excited to finally be opening our doors to the (masked and distanced) community. The Memorial Day “Time of Remembrance” is a special invitation to plot owners, those interested in purchasing a plot, and especially families and friends of loved ones interred at The Forest. There will be tables and chairs for family picnics, self-guided tours, and a remembrance activity. Families are welcome to visit any time from dawn to dusk, and staff will be onsite from 11 am to 1 pm.

Our Opening Blessing Ceremony is our public opportunity to bless the land and honor this resting place together. This summer solstice celebration is from 4–7pm on Sunday, June 20. Registration is not required for either event.

The Forest Select Burial Plot in SnowQ: How has The Forest changed your understanding of and feelings about death?

A: We have always felt that we, as humans, are a part of nature—not separate from or superior to the natural world. A deeper appreciation of death and burial has brought us even closer the cycles of nature and life/death, living/dying. Placing a beloved family member in the accepting and encompassing earth clearly becomes a returning “home.” Natural burial does not erase the sting of death, but it helps ease the sadness, loss, and pain and brings a sense that we really do belong to nature and are one with the earth.

  • Marketing
  • Public Relations
  • Research
  • Strategic planning
  • Video production/coordination
  • Training/Onboarding

Capiche Conversations: Interview with Moneeka Settles, Program Coordinator of the SOU Innovation & Leadership Program

Interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels, Capiche Contributor/Strategic Partner, Michaels & Michaels Creative, LLC

When Moneeka Settles isn’t teaching communication courses, solving organizational puzzles, or Telemark skiing, she’s busy helping Southern Oregon University’s Innovation & Leadership (INL) students transform their careers and ultimately lives. Over the course of her three-decade tenure in education, Moneeka has been one of the founding forces behind new schools and new programs—a role her master’s degree in organizational leadership at Columbia University, Teacher’s College, prepared her to excel at. Capiche’s Chris Cook has been teaching one of INL’s cornerstone courses—the popular Working with Emotional Intelligence—for SOU since 2013, and together, they have a passion for developing confident, inspiring leaders with the resourcefulness, knowledge, and skills to keep their organizations thriving, despite adversity.

Q: Tell us about your background and how it prepared you for your current role as the Innovation & Leadership (INL) program coordinator at Southern Oregon University.

Moneeka Settles Head ShotA: I love being involved in the beginnings of new programs, and I love working in educational settings. I have been an educator for almost 30 years—starting with my work as a high school teacher and then as the director of a boarding school program in Portland, and then as one of the founding administrators of The Bay School of San Francisco. When my family moved to Ashland in 2011, I was immediately interested in teaching. I first worked at Rogue Community College and then applied to be the program coordinator for the Innovation & Leadership degree program at SOU. At the time, the degree was brand new—it had just been approved by the state. The first course was scheduled, and the first 17 students were enrolled. I was thrilled to market the degree, enroll students, schedule courses, and support the development of the degree and its students. My own master’s degree in organizational leadership at Columbia University, Teacher’s College, was modeled in a similar fashion to the INL degree—it was cohort-based and integrated many of the same types of courses, so I knew right away I could support the mission of this degree and enthusiastically nurture it.

Moneeka Settles at Innovation and Leadership Ceremony

Q: What is the mission of the Innovation & Leadership Program? What was the inspiration behind creating it, and how has it evolved over the years?

A: The Innovation & Leadership degree is a bachelor’s degree completion program for working professionals who are emerging and developing leaders within their organizations. The degree is designed to teach flexible high-demand skills for today’s job market, including interpersonal, technology, and business management skills. The degree was inspired by the realization that employers in the Rogue Valley wanted employees who had these strong skills and that there were adult learners in the Valley who had started their degrees but hadn’t found the right path to be able to complete them. The degree comprises courses selected from the Business, Communication, Emerging Media, Computer Science, and Psychology Departments to deliver a relevant and innovative degree path reflecting the realities of leadership in today’s workplace. The degree started by offering courses delivered in an accelerated face-to-face format with classes in the evening to increase access for working professionals, but we have since added a fully online format to reach students outside the Rogue Valley. We have accepted seven cohorts of students since the first group was accepted, and we continue to modify course offerings and delivery options to make sure we are meeting the needs of students and employers.

SOU Innovation and Leadership Program Graduating ClassQ: As an accelerated bachelor’s degree program, INL draws a broad range of nontraditional students—from firefighters to bankers to real estate agents. What are a few of your favorite stories of transformation?

A: I do love the broad range of professionals our degree attracts. But, no matter the profession, the transformation I love hearing about is the increased confidence in leadership skills our students consistently share with me. A recent graduate who is a successful marketing director for a national organization said:

I really believe the innovative approach of this degree did much more than help me complete my degree. It helped me gain confidence, visibility, and respect at my company. I am now seen as an innovator and leader who backs up their thoughts/ideas with critical thought and structure. While I’ve always been creative and passionate at what I do, I didn’t always have the right tools to explain the whys. That’s where INL really helped me.

I also feel a bigger benefit of the INL degree is toward the employer as it inspires/encourages people to apply every learning in some way to their current role, and that keeps people sharp and engaged on top of driving business results.

I hear time and time again about how powerful it has been to build a network with the other students in the cohort, how many terrific ideas folks bring back to their workplaces after every class, and how much more confidence they have in themselves. So many of them said they were joining the program just to get the degree, but they left with so much more.

Q: Rogue Credit Union (RCU) is a big feeder into this program. What is it about the program that makes it such a great fit for RCU employees?

A: RCU has some key core values in common with the INL degree. Gene Pelham is an innovative leader, and the culture at Rogue is one in which they clearly support the continued growth of their employees. RCU values keeping their best and brightest employees while giving them the opportunity to expand their knowledge base without leaving the Valley. They also value cross-disciplinary skills—having employees who can think critically, work well in groups, and tackle the hard skills of business management. The INL degree teaches those skills, so it is a great match for their values. We have three great interviews featuring Gene Pelham and another with Laura Hansen on our Testimonial Videos page if anyone would like to learn more.

Q: You teach Organizational Communication at SOU. What are four tips you can share with those wishing to improve communication within their organizations?

A: I teach Organizational Communication with a particular framework in mind. That framework asks the following questions every time we build an organization or evaluate one:

  1. How are you sharing the message to your employees that you can hear the human side of their experiences—their joys, worries, concerns, and hopes?
  2. How are you using rituals, ceremonies, and stories to communicate the core mission and vision of your organization and to inspire engagement?
  3. Have you evaluated the defined roles of employees and lines of communication between them to make sure both are structured to send the messages you intend to send about your organization?
  4. Have you looked for opportunities to map the networks within and outside of your organization, and how will you communicate with those networks to anticipate everyone’s level of investment?

Q: You also teach Intercultural Communication. This study identifies three approaches to intercultural communication: indigenous (seeking to understand the meaning of different cultures); cultural (adds a focus on the individual’s sociocultural context); and cross-cultural (compares/contrasts cultures to identify cross-cultural validity and generalizability). For daily interactions, which do you think is the most pragmatic approach among the three—or do you recommend a combination or alternative methodology?

A: For daily interactions, I think it is key to seek to understand the meaning of different cultures and the context within which they exist. The trick is we often don’t know what all the elements are of our own cultural values, nor are we very adept at recognizing the element of another culture. Thus, we tend to stumble around, clashing into contrasting values while not realizing they are deeply rooted in culture. As an example, I’ve just started to read Rule Makers, Rule Breakers by the cultural psychologist Michelle Gelfand. She makes the very interesting argument that there are “tight” and “loose” cultures existing internationally and in the United States, and our connection to one or the other may very well explain why we are more or less comfortable following government mask-wearing mandates and why we are more or less comfortable with creativity and innovation. We may think our reactions to these circumstances are driven by our personalities or wishes, but they are actually tied to our cultural background. Knowing what that background is and how it matches with others is key to understanding how to work well together.

Chris Cook Teaching Emotional Intelligence ClassQ: Chris Cook has been teaching Working with Emotional Intelligence for SOU since 2013. It is one of the most popular courses and consistently earns high ratings from students. What unique strengths does Chris bring to the subject matter, and how does developing emotional intelligence equip students to succeed in their careers and their lives?

A: First, Chris brings a tremendous amount of passion for the subject matter. She credits the course with changing her life and often gets the same reaction from her students. It is immensely helpful that Chris is highly knowledgeable about the subject and deeply committed to it. She applies her learning and offers examples from the wide range of organizations she has consulted with. Her work with the Ashland Food Co-op, Mt. Ashland, the wine industry, and Rogue Credit Union, to name a few, means she can offer a myriad of real-world examples in her academic coursework. The course content is then meaningful and relevant for the students. Learning about one’s own emotional intelligence and how to strengthen it means students gain confidence in their leadership skills and people management skills.

Q: Chris is also on the Innovation & Leadership Program Advisory Board. Can you talk a bit about the board’s work and Chris’ contributions in that role?

A: The INL Advisory Board was developed this past year to ensure the INL degree is staying as relevant and innovative as it could be. Chris is one of seven board members who will meet with me to give feedback on our strategic plan, including the types of courses we offer to make sure we are staying in tune with organizational needs. I asked Chris and the others to join the board because they are well-respected and well-established leaders in their own organizations here in the Rogue Valley. Their wisdom and perspective are invaluable to me as we ensure this degree remains as meaningful as possible for prospective students and employers. Chris’ work in marketing, strategic planning, and team building are especially valuable to me in developing the success of this degree.

Q: Your favorite endeavors include solving organizational puzzles and proposing creative solutions. Can you give an example of an organizational puzzle you’ve solved that was particularly gratifying?

Bay SchoolA: I have been lucky enough to have been a founding administrator to both the building of a brand-new high school and a brand-new university degree. Both of those endeavors faced multiple organizational puzzles that required creative solutions, thoughtful collaboration with others, and navigation of new waters. Both the high school and this INL degree have been successful, and since their success means students are completing the educational paths they desire, I find that particularly gratifying.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for businesses wanting to build resilience in the face of COVID and its concomitant regulations?

A: Each time I hear about the struggles organizations and businesses are facing because of COVID, I think about the message I have tried to learn from reading William Bridges, who states that it isn’t the change that is hard, it is the transitions. Transitions raise so many human reactions such as loss, hope, fear, and confidence. I believe leaders have to focus on helping the people in their organizations hold those emotions well so they can transition into new endeavors. Managing those emotions well will build resilience for everyone.

Moneeka Settles in the Screamin Tele Lizard Classic Race at Mt. Ashland

Q: If you read the interview with Hiram Towle in the previous segment of Capiche Conversations, you may have noticed a Telemark skiing theme emerging. Hiram (like you and Chris) is a fellow Telemark skier. You and Chris both participate in the Screamin’ Tele Lizard Classic, an annual event that takes place at Mt. Ashland. How would you describe this experience, and who does this fundraiser benefit?

A: Telemark skiing is a sport that takes a lot of perseverance to master, but, at the same time, Telemark skiers never take themselves too seriously. I love that about the sport and the people who do it. The Screamin’ Tele Lizard Classic embodies this in that everyone dresses up in very playful costumes to match the theme of the year and then does their very goofy best to Telemark ski through the race-course gates. We most definitely can’t take ourselves too seriously when, after the last gate, there is the option to go over a big jump, which inevitably makes us look silly and possibly flattens us as we cross the finish line. I love the joyful, playful nature of the race and the community that shows up for the fun. And it feels good to be raising funds for the Special Olympics.

SOU Women's Leadership Conference Board

Q: Last year, you served as chair of the Women’s Leadership Conference—an annual event that, like most conferences, was impacted by COVID. How did the organizers respond to the associated challenges? What was the theme in 2020, and what can we expect for 2021?

A: In the summer of 2019, the Women’s Leadership Conference had agreed on the theme of Embracing Change. This was well before we new what a predictive theme that would be. It is an important theme but has become an even more relevant one since the pandemic. We have kept that theme for our upcoming 2021 conference, which will be delivered virtually on May 7, 2021. We are excited because it means the conference can reach women even further afield than our Valley, and we are being met with a strong interest in this topic and a chance to connect over it. We have two incredible keynote speakers lined up and multiple breakout session speakers who will all speak to the skills and resilience we have all faced in embracing change this past year. More details can be found here.

Q: What keeps you inspired?

A: Working with connected communities keeps me inspired. I love working with people and being linked to their growth and innovation. I also love spending time outside in the snow and on our trails, Mt. Ashland, the mountain biking network of trails, and the terrific hiking trails in our Valley—all lift my spirits each time I go there.
It isn’t the change that is hard, it is the transitions. Transitions raise so many human reactions such as loss, hope, fear, and confidence. —Moneeka Settles Click To Tweet

Capiche Conversations: Interview with Hiram Towle, Mt. Ashland General Manager

Interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels, Capiche Contributor/Strategic Partner, Michaels & Michaels Creative, LLC

We are delighted to introduce Capiche Conversations, a new series of interviews featuring Capiche clients. Our first entry spotlights Hiram Towle, general manager of Mt. Ashland Ski Area, whose board Chris Cook has served on for nine years. Hiram’s passion for snow, skiing, and mountainscapes started when he was a toddler and sparked his move from Maine to Oregon in 2014, when he was appointed Mt. Ashland’s GM in 2014. Hiram has overseen the radical transformation of a ski area on the brink of economic collapse to a flourishing and robust nonprofit company. Ski Area Management Magazine named Mt. Ashland one of the winners in their annual Marketing Winners and Losers Contest for his trailblazing Hiram on the Hill reports and Dr. Snowe etiquette videos. Below, Hiram discusses the impact of working with Capiche on rebranding, leadership transition, strategic planning, and organizational development.

Q: If you reflect on the story of your life, how did it prepare you for your position as general manager of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area?

A: It all started at the age of two, growing up on a small community ski hill called Crotched Mountain in New Hampshire. My father was a ski patroller, and the mountain was our second home. The only life I know is one where when there is snow on the ground, we ski. This developed my love of the sport and made it a dream of mine to one day work at a ski area.

Dad Ski Patroller and Hiram Towle

Hiram with ski patroller dad

In 1988, I graduated high school and immediately started working at a high-tech company. I worked my way up over 14 years and was in just about every department before joining senior management. It was there that I learned all about business—from the loading dock to an office with a nice desk. I have no college degree, just 14 years of on-the-job experience. In 2002, the business dried up in New England, and our offices were going to move to Buffalo, New York. Although Buffalo gets lots of snow, with no mountains in sight, Jeannine and I made a conscious choice to move to one of the places where we loved to play to start our next careers.

That’s when I started a job at a large destination ski resort in Maine called Sunday River. They are one of the largest ski areas on the East Coast, getting around half a million skier visits a year, and they have a robust summer operation as well. I started in Mountain Operations. After nearly 13 years there, I moved over to the hotel and restaurant side of the business to broaden my knowledge of overall resort operations.

Mt. Ashland Bowl

Q: What do you love most about Mt. Ashland?

A: Apart from the incredible terrain and great skiing and riding, I would say it is all about the vibe. The mountain just feels like home for so many people, and it shows. You may never see the folks you’ve come to know at the mountain in real life, but when you are here, suddenly you are like best friends. We have always had an incredible team of employees who exude what we call “local mountain fun.” We hear from so many people how amazing our staff is at making people feel welcome and appreciated. Before COVID, it was all high fives and smiles. We are still a very tight family—we just smile from behind our masks at more than six feet away.

Mt. Ashland Lodge

Q: What makes Mt. Ashland special when compared with other popular skiing destinations—including Maine, where you and your family moved from when you were hired?

A: I came to Mt. Ashland despite the huge challenges it was facing at the time because I believe little community ski areas like ours are the most important on the planet. We provide this restorative, healthy activity to those who could otherwise not take part due to the many barriers in the sport. It is well-known that this sport tends to favor the more affluent portion of society. Not at Mt. Ashland.

Because we are a nonprofit, we are able to keep our offerings affordable—far lower than the national average for a day ticket, which now exceeds $130. We offer scholarships, low-cost learn-to-ski-and-ride programs, and free transportation on weekends to those who need it. We break down those barriers to entry and welcome people from all walks of life to enjoy this special sport.

At Mt. Ashland, we get back to the roots of skiing with a focus on the outdoor experience, not fine dining, water parks, hotels, and ski-through coffee shops. At no other time is that more apparent than this year, when we have no indoor amenities available other than checking in for lessons and rentals. Everything is taking place outdoors. Even with guests having to use their cars as their “lodge,” nobody seems to care. At the end of the day, we are in the uphill transportation business, and folks just want that unmatched feeling of sliding downhill on snow.

Q: Tell us about Dr. Snowe and your Hiram on the Hill reports.

A: It all started the day Facebook released its live feature. We have always been unique in the ski industry in that we are committed to truth in advertising. Well, what is more truthful than going live? You cannot sugar-coat things when it is raining if people are seeing you get wet in real-time. We all thought it would just be a flash in the pan, but to this day, I have people tell me they came up because they saw my morning update. We were actually named in Ski Area Management Magazine as one of the marketing “Winners” for our live updates in their annual Marketing Winners and Losers Contest.

Hiram Towle as Dr. Snowe with Chris CookAs for Dr. Snowe, that was another organic creation. I wanted to do an educational series that talked about proper mountain etiquette and covered problem behaviors in a humorous way. It started with a piece called “Powder Etiquette,” where the good Doctor describes how to preserve the most amount of snow on a powder day by taking “tiny turns” and not chewing up the whole trail going edge to edge on your first run. We added parking etiquette and others until Dr. Snowe became a stand-in for the Hiram on the Hill series.

Chris Cook Skiing

Q: You’re a Telemark skier—a passion Chris Cook shares as well. What sets Telemark skiing apart, and why are you drawn to it?

A: I started Tele skiing in 1986 as a vehicle to get into the backcountry, seek out fresh powder, and “earn my turns.” After that, I tele’d exclusively for 20 years. In 2006, I locked down my heels again. I was just getting a bit older and wanted to be able to be out all day. Tele was too taxing on my body to do full-time. Now I try and split my time 50/50 and throw in a little snowboarding, snowblading, and snowskating for good measure. I still love the grace and beauty of the turn, and it just feels different getting low and more in touch with the snow. It also makes the mountain feel bigger as you really have to work the skis harder to do the same runs that might seem easy on alpine skis.

Q: Chris fondly remembers being part of your hiring committee. What are some of the milestones you’ve witnessed at Mt. Ashland since becoming GM in 2014? What changes are you most proud of?

A: I am most proud of being part of taking the mountain from the brink of economic disaster to a financially strong nonprofit company. When I arrived, we were literally counting the dollars until we would have to close following a year when the mountain never opened due to a lack of snow. My first year was no picnic, with a total snowfall total of just 86″ against an average of 250″ annually and a meager 38 days of operation, when a typical season is closer to 90. We managed to squeak by and get into a few good years where we ran lean and put money in the bank. We now have more than a million dollars set aside that serves as a rainy day fund. We also generate enough operating dollars—even in less-than-average years—which we use to chip away at years of deferred maintenance. At the same time, through support from our tremendous community, we were able to invest millions of dollars in capital projects like a $2-million lodge renovation in 2017 that completely changed the experience for our guests.

Q: How did Capiche help Mt. Ashland with the transition to new leadership, which included both you and Director of Marketing & Development Michael Stringer?

Michael Stringer

Mt. Ashland Director of Marketing & Development Michael Stringer

A: We are so fortunate to have Chris’s expertise on the board. She has a way of getting to the bottom of what makes an organization its very best. Her leadership on the board helped forge a very clear path to success, and she coached both Michael and me through some very difficult times. She took on so much during the transition to be sure there would be a soft landing for me as I dug into the operational and financial changes needed to revive our little ski area.

Q: One of the first projects you embarked on was rebranding. You recently told Chris, “I think we got our Nike swoosh.” What did you mean by that statement?

Mt. Ashland LogoA: All iconic brands have an image that is unmistakable even from a distance. The McDonald’s M or the Chevrolet bowtie. Mt. Ashland just had the words “Mt. Ashland.” Now we have our unmistakable MtA image, and you can see it all around the Valley and beyond. From vehicles to water bottles, the new logo stands out and screams “Mt. Ashland” and can stand alone by itself enough to grace the front of the lodge without actually saying the name.

Q: Can you share more details about the rebranding process?

A: Thanks to Chris’s work on our DNA statement—an exercise in really assessing what makes Mt. Ashland Mt. Ashland at its very core—we were able to share a very clear vision with our partners at Lithia Motors to come up with a new brand, a brand that would transport us into the next 50 years and leave a challenging and often controversial history behind. Chris was right there by our side through the whole process as we created a new graphic identity and redesigned the website with the support of our partners at Lithia. They really knocked it out of the park, providing our little local ski area with Madison Avenue results!

Skier on Mt. Ashland

Q: How does Mt. Ashland navigate the challenges of working with the Forest Service and other governmental entities?

A: We have a wonderful relationship with the US Forest Service. We act as partners under our special-use permit, which authorizes our use of the land the ski area occupies. There are certainly challenges, but many of them exist for a very good reason. For example, the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process, which needs to take place whenever we want to do a project that impacts the land. The process is slow and sometimes cumbersome, but it ensures we are being good stewards of the land and minimizing and offsetting any potential impacts. The Forest Service is also the authority that ensures our lifts are safe and pass a yearly inspection, and they provide oversight for our explosives program so we can safely mitigate avalanche danger on steeper terrain like the Bowl.

Save Mt. Ashland Montage

Q: The Mt. Ashland Ski Area is owned and operated by the Mt. Ashland Association, a 501(c)3 nonprofit. What’s the story behind the Save Mt. Ashland campaign that led to the creation of this nonprofit in 1992?

A: The story is quite long, but the Reader’s Digest version is that Harbor Properties, a Seattle-based company that owned Steven’s Pass ski area in Washington, planned to sell Mt. Ashland and move the lifts up to Steven’s Pass after a few bad winters. In 1992, the community rallied around the mountain, raising more than $2 million to purchase the ski area to save it. The 501(c)(3) Mt. Ashland Association was formed and put in charge of overseeing the operation of the ski area. We have remained a nonprofit corporation serving the residents of the Rogue Valley since that time.

Mt. Ashland Association Board on Mountain

Q: Chris has served on the Mt. Ashland Association Board for nine years, including her current post as secretary. She recently spearheaded the first true strategic planning effort ever undertaken by the board, which took place entirely via Zoom. What was that process like, and how did Chris help transform any skepticism toward strategic planning into ardent support?

A: We are all “Zoomed out,” so having a solid agenda with well-defined goals was important. After the first meeting, it was clear a change in course was needed. The Capiche team, which included John Lamy, was able to quickly adapt and move in a new direction that invigorated and engaged the board. When the sessions were over, we had a crystal-clear direction for the board, my staff, and me. We forged a five-year strategic plan outlining capital expenditures and significant operational improvements with unanimous support. We defined the committees more clearly and set goals for each. The leadership from John and Chris really made a difference and kept us from spinning our wheels. They created a space that allowed for rousing conversations and welcomed contrasting views, which resulted in every board member feeling like they had been heard and mattered. I look forward to the tremendous work that will get done with this new understanding of what is essential for our success. I have sat on a number of boards and have seen a dozen ways to approach getting actionable results during strategic planning sessions, and unfortunately, many plans still sit on the shelf. I believe what was created here will easily guide us, is realistic, and will yield the result we all want—to carry Mt. Ashland into the future stronger and more capable so we can do the good work we do for generations to come.

  • Strategic planning & leadership transition
  • Surveys & research
  • Marketing & PR consulting
  • Board member, secretary, and chair of multiple committees
  • Rebranding
  • Community relations
  • Organizational development
  • Zoom meeting facilitation
  • COVID pivoting

Q: Can you talk about the purpose and impact of the newly formed Governance Committee, which Chris chairs?

A: One of the more important roles of a board is to govern the organization and the board itself. It is the “not-so-fun” part of being on a board as it is more on the business side of things versus the fun part of getting things done on the ground to support the mission. We have always had a very strong group of working committees that get a ton of tangible work done those we serve can see, which is what drives most board members. The Governance Committee, on the other hand, is charged with more boring stuff like reviewing bylaws, procedures, and being sure we are continuing to operate ethically and to the letter of the law. It takes someone with an eye for detail and a passion for getting it right. Chris is the perfect person for the job at hand, and with all of the committee’s hard work, the Mt. Ashland Association is now running like a well-oiled machine.

Skier on Mt. Ashland

Q: Chris previously chaired the Community Outreach Committee, which conducted three community surveys to discover which direction Mt. Ashland should be going, what people like and don’t like, and what they want more of. Sent to all season passholders and the community at large, the first survey occurred around the time you were hired. How did that survey help inform the tack you took in the ensuing years? What have the subsequent surveys revealed?

A: Since we are a community-focused ski area, what matters most is what the community perceives us to be now and what they would like us to be in the future. Although we receive a lot of direct feedback and anecdotally know quite a bit about our shortcomings and strengths, the community surveys created a detailed look at the hot topics that were on the community’s mind. The results, which Chris helped us effectively boil down and report out, gave us a tool to make important decisions such as where we should focus our capital expenditures and how we would craft our new voice through our messaging and branding.

Q: Mt. Ashland achieved STOKE certification in 2015. What does this certification mean, and how does your commitment to sustainability play out in practice?

Stoke Snow-Certified BadgeA: STOKE is not just about environmental sustainability like some third-party certification programs. Of course, environmental impacts are a huge part of the program, but they also look at impacts pertaining to business sustainability; social and economic ramifications; and how we embrace and affect culture and heritage in our area. The benefits have been many, including a reduced cost of operation, more engaged staff, and more loyal customer base fully supportive of our efforts to be leaders in all areas of sustainability.

Q: You serve as chair of the Travel Ashland Advisory Committee under the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. What does that role entail?

A: The Travel Ashland Advisory Committee oversees the activities of Travel Ashland, the destination marketing organization for the city. The committee has representatives from retail, restaurants, hoteliers, outdoor recreation businesses, B&Bs, and inns. We help support Chamber staff with developing content for the Travel Ashland website, reviewing marketing plans, and generally offering guidance and feedback from the business community. We form ad hoc committees to address specific needs such as a recently formed group of outdoor recreation leaders that helped gather a list of local outdoor rec assets and worked on storytelling ideas and media content for the website. A number of our members are also on a committee that’s currently working on efforts to rebrand Ashland to highlight all of our wonderful offerings such as wine, food, and outdoor recreation. Our visitor numbers are slowly catching up with traditional theatergoers.

Parent and Child on Ski Lift at Mt. Ashland

Q: How have community members and local businesses come together to support the mountain over the years? What are some of the ways in which folks can support the mountain today?

Lithia4Kids LogoA: We have tremendous support from our community through donations of cash and in-kind donations as well as business sponsorships. Our largest supporter, Lithia Motors, supports our ski school through their Lithia4Kids Program and provides in-kind services like the rebranding efforts we talked about earlier. We are always so blessed by the generosity of our community as they support us through donations, business sponsorships, and volunteering their time—as Chris does on our board of directors. The best way to get in touch with all the opportunities to help is through our website, where you can sign up to volunteer, donate, or even leave a lasting impact by including us in your will or trust. I find the best way to support us is to purchase your tickets and season passes and get up here for some Local Mountain Fun!

Q: Thank you for your time, Hiram. See you on the mountain!

A: Thank you for the opportunity, and I will definitely be up here when you come.
I am most proud of being part of taking the mountain from the brink of economic disaster to a financially strong nonprofit company. —Hiram Towle Click To Tweet

Executive Coaching: Why Bother? Why Now?

COVID-19 is spiking, Oregon’s Governor Brown just declared a two-week freeze, and businesses are scrambling to determine what the 2021 landscape will look like. Some predict the virus’s spread will worsen and further shutdowns will be necessary, while others anticipate a return to quasi-normality following the introduction of a vaccine. In any case, uncertainty is the name of the game.

As a leader, you need to be prepared for not just the present, not just what’s around the corner, but what lies beyond the foreseeable future. Instead of lamenting potential revenue losses during these fragile times, begin to think of this pause as an opportunity to deepen your and your team’s knowledge, skills, and vision so your company is resilient enough to withstand and even triumph during times of crisis.

To give your organization the best chance of surviving—and thriving—you need to focus on your own growth, sanding down the rough edges while equipping yourself with a toolkit for success.

Co-Active Coaching

Executive coaching can take you there … but not just any type of executive coaching. Capiche leans on co-active coaching techniques like those taught at the Co-Active Training Institute, which emphasize clarity of communication, conversation, awareness-raising, and concrete actions.

A co-active leadership coach partners with you to reveal your strengths and push you toward greatness. Together, you will identify problem areas and strategies for addressing those weaknesses. Be prepared to be inspired—and held accountable.

Are You Ready?

Before you dive in, ask yourself, Are You Ready to Be Coached? Don’t fool yourself—the co-active coaching process is hard work. But that hard work yields exceptional results.

Growth can be painful. It may require you to examine aspects of yourself you’d rather leave hidden. Exposing those vulnerabilities, however, can divest them of their power over you and enable you to rise above them.

Co-active coaching is a creative, experimental process. You need to enter it with an open, willing mind to fully benefit from the experience.

You also need to let go of perfectionism—waiting for the perfect moment to start, the perfect moment to pursue a new idea, the perfect moment to resolve issues that have been festering underneath the surface. The perfect moment is NOW.

What Do You Get Out of Co-Active Coaching?

Honing your emotional intelligence (EI), strengthening your willpower muscle, developing true grit, deepening your humility, heightening your sense of responsibility—all of these occur as part of the co-active coaching process and ultimately result in your becoming the finest leader you possibly can be.

Perhaps the best-known executive coach in the world, Marshall Goldsmith has conducted extensive research on what drives leadership success. As discussed in this Capiche blog post, the level of employee engagement is not the responsibility of the employees but rather their managers. It is when leaders accept that responsibility that their team begins to mirror that behavior back. You need to model the type of person you would like your team members to be.

Is it worth the effort? If you care about your company, your team, and yourself, then the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

In this Forbes article, business thinker and author Erika Andersen outlines the following benefits of executive coaching:

  1. It helps you see yourself more clearly.
  2. It helps you see others more clearly.
  3. It teaches you new ways to respond.
  4. It illuminates how to leverage your existing strengths.
  5. It enables you to build more productive relationships.
  6. It gives you the tools to achieve what you want.

It’s Time

So you’re convinced. You realize it’s time to stop procrastinating and to commit to co-active coaching. How do you find the right fit for your personality, needs, and goals? Read this blog post for starters. Then contact Chris Cook at or 541.601.0114 to schedule a complimentary phone or video consultation so you can discover if she is the right co-active leadership coach for you.

11 Ways to Bring Your Web Presence to the Next Level

First impressions can create a lifelong ambassador or a disappointed grumbler—and those impressions can spread exponentially for the positive or negative, depending on the customer’s experience. Whether it’s your label design or website, this is your chance to woo prospective patrons. Before that can even happen, though, they must be able to find you online.

Here are 11 ways to bring your web presence to the next level so you’re not only reaching a wider audience but ensuring those who find you have an enjoyable, memorable experience.

  1. Be unique. If your website doesn’t currently align with your branding (or your branding itself needs honing), it may be harming rather than helping your online presence. You don’t want your website to look like another cookie-cutter template users forget as soon as they bounce but rather a reflection of your unique culture and graphic identity. Ideally, it will wed aesthetically striking design with seamless functionality to create a gratifying user experience that inspires visitors to explore—and come back.
  2. Make it mobile-friendly. The number of people accessing websites via mobile devices increased 222% from 2013 to 2018, and that upward trend is only growing. If your website is not responsive (adapts according to screen dimensions), users on mobile devices will have trouble navigating it—and, worse, Google will penalize your site in its search engine rankings.
  3. Lock it down. Google recently announced that Chrome will start blocking insecure elements on sites with mixed content, beginning with a disconcerting warning to visitors about insecure content in an upcoming Chrome release with full blocking of insecure elements (e.g., images, scripts, stylesheets, or pages) by January or February. That means sites with http elements instead of https (secure/SSL) may appear broken or be altogether inaccessible to people using Google Chrome as their browser. Try viewing your website in Chrome and take a look at the url bar—if there is a lock next to the url on all your pages and posts, you’re good to go. An information icon (circle with an ‘i’ inside) indicates mixed content, whereas that same symbol followed by “Not Secure” warns all of the content on that page is insecure.
  4. Streamline images. Google has been placing growing emphasis on the speed of page loads in its search engine algorithm, and that has become heavily weighted in recent years, especially in the context of mobile devices. One of the ways to accomplish a significant speed boost without compromising image quality is to convert images to the new WebP image format recently introduced by Google.
  5. Track conversions. Ever wonder how traffic flows through your site, where it comes from, and whether these referrals result in valuable actions? You may be paying for a directory service or advertisements but have no idea whether those investments are worthwhile. Setting up conversion funnels and tracking will help you make decisions that garner the best bang for your buck.
  6. Scope out the competition. An SEO expert can conduct a competitor analysis to identify challenges, tease out unique opportunities, and recommend how to make your website rise above the rest. A one-time investment in in-depth SEO research and analysis can pay huge dividends when it comes to crafting and implementing an effective online marketing strategy.
  7. Make it accessible. Getting an ADA compliance audit can help you determine whether your website is accessible to those with disabilities—a concern that has escalated with the rise of ADA lawsuits, including winery websites. This is one of those situations where an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure as it potentially saves thousands in lawsuit costs.
  8. Build buzz. There’s no denying the power of social media, and harnessing that power is crucial to the success of every business these days. If you’re not regularly posting to Facebook and Instagram (and to a lesser extent, Twitter), you’re missing an opportunity to broaden your fan base, encourage engagement, and create faithful followers who happily spread the word about your business.
  9. Reach out. Whether it’s a Facebook post, Instagram story, or Google ad, geotargeted ad campaigns can zero in on the precise demographics best-suited to your products or services, making your brand visible to thousands who may otherwise be unaware of your company.
  10. Keep in touch. Your mailing list is one of your most precious assets. These are folks who have already expressed interest in your business and want to keep up with the latest news. By providing valuable dynamic content through regular blog posts and sharing that content via e-newsletter campaigns, you reward existing customers with pertinent information and draw new users to your website through compelling blog topics. Philip vanDusen’s Brand•Muse and Keto Savage’s 7-Set Sunday are two exceptional examples of engaging, authentic, valuable e-newsletters that follow consistent patterns so you can always jump to your favorite sections—or read top to bottom to savor every morsel.
  11. Control your Google presence. Do you have a Google My Business page, and if so, is it up-to-date? When you do a Google search, the relevant Google My Business page is displayed in the righthand sidebar. It provides a synopsis of the business/service provider, contact info, relevant images, and a link to your website. Setting up a Yelp page is also essential for those with brick-and-mortar establishments. Both Google business and Yelp pages inspire greater confidence and contribute to a professional, unified online presence.

Feeling Overwhelmed?

Don’t panic—Capiche can help you with all of the above services and more through our affiliate Michaels & Michaels Creative, LLC. We can create a custom plan tailored to your particular needs and budget. Don’t hesitate to email Michaels & Michaels Creative and ask for the Capiche discount of $200 on combo packages featuring four or more services. We look forward to helping you bring your web presence to the next level!

Note: This post was originally published at our sister site,
First impressions can create a lifelong ambassador or a disappointed grumbler, and those impressions can spread exponentially. Click To Tweet

Eureka! Why Relaxation May Be the Key to Optimal Performance, Creativity, and Flow

There’s a reason Eureka moments tend to strike in the shower—or in the case of Archimedes, the bath. Performing mindless activities gives our brain an opportunity to relax, kicking the prefrontal cortex (a.k.a. the brain’s command center) into autopilot mode. That daydreamy state is when creativity emerges.

In this Business Insider article on why 72% of people get their best ideas in the shower, Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman explains, “The relaxing, solitary, and non-judgmental shower environment may afford creative thinking by allowing the mind to wander freely and causing people to be more open to their inner stream of consciousness and daydreams.”

Whether we’re scrubbing dishes or practicing meditation, letting our brain idle increases alpha brain wave activity, known to boost creativity and reduce depression.

How does this translate to the workplace? No, we’re not saying you should install showers or offer transcendental meditation classes (although that may not be such a bad idea). Rather, you may wish to cultivate an organizational culture that encourages play, humor, quiet, and relaxation—all ingredients to heightened productivity and creative flow, most famously studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

No number of hacky sacks and hammocks will counteract the toxic miasma of a stressful, high-anxiety workplace, however, and that cortisol-spiking atmosphere often starts at the top.

If an organization’s leaders exhibit stress, fear, rigidity, and panic under pressure, those emotions quickly spread to the employees.

How many times have you entered a meeting in a good mood only to leave feeling anxious and tense? This article by Psychologist Daniel Goleman discusses a study that revealed the contagious nature of moods in work groups and calls on leaders to practice the emotional intelligence necessary to prevent their own stress from infecting the group.

It’s no surprise that people want calm, assertive leaders as this Psychology Today piece explains. If you are wheeled into the hospital for emergency surgery, do you want the head surgeon to fly into hysterics, or do you want her to calmly assess the situation, lay out a clear plan of action, and set to work?

How people respond to crises reveals a lot about them, and demonstrating resilience, resourcefulness, and ingenuity in the face of obstacles instills employees with confidence and trust in their leadership.

That’s one reason this Harvard Business Review article encourages first-time leaders to relax. Employees sense insecurity and anxiety in their leaders, and that lack of confidence derails productivity.

As the Tao Te Ching states:

“When your body is not aligned,
The inner power will not come.
When you are not tranquil within,
Your mind will not be well ordered.
Align your body, assist the inner power,
Then it will gradually come on its own.”

If you want your employees to achieve the optimal performance, relaxed alertness, and creativity possible in a serene, inspiring environment, you need to cultivate your own inner balance, emotional intelligence, and mental well-being.

To get expert guidance from an empathetic yet challenging co-active coach, contact Chris Cook about her leadership coaching services. If your organizational culture could use an injection of positivity and transformative authenticity, Capiche can help with that, too.

The Success Secret Every Company Knows but Few Achieve

Adobe understands it. And Google, Apple, Microsoft. Airbnb does, too. LinkedIn, KPMG, Accenture, the San Diego Zoo—they all get it. Zappos, certainly. And these companies are paragons of it, according to Entrepreneur.

Companies who know this success secret tend to have quadruple the average profit and double the average revenue—even while being a quarter smaller than other organizations Jacob Morgan analyzed in this article for the Harvard Business Review.

If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ve probably already guessed what this elusive alchemy is since we’ve written about it a lot before. That’s right—employee engagement.

But why is it so hard for companies to get right—even while pouring millions into trying to obtain it?

For starters, most companies are slapping a band-aid on a broken leg and calling it good. That’s not going to do it.

Many of the problems at organizations with poor engagement are systemic, and it takes a deep cultural shift to address the underlying causes of disengagement and build a more authentic, inspiring workplace.

For Morgan, this means creating an experiential organization with desirable cultural, technological, and physical environments.

Out of the 250+ organizations he studied, only 6% were intensely focused on all three—and they had the performance upswings to show it. He also found a correlation between investment in these areas and inclusion on “best of” lists. Further, these companies saw substantial gains in stock value.

On the flip side, a fifth of the companies analyzed scored very low on all three fronts, and employees ranked over 50% of the organizations poorly in one or more of these areas. This shows how far most companies have to go.

But where to begin? Andrew Sumitani of TINYpulse wrote The Ultimate Guide to Employee Engagement to help managers take those crucial steps toward organizational transformation.

Sumitani starts by sharing this TED talk on employee motivation by Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely:

He documents the significant financial advantages enjoyed by companies with higher employee engagement—including as much as 18% higher revenue per employee. Combine greater profits with the enormous savings yielded from employee retention and less absenteeism, and you start to understand why experiential companies are raking in the bucks.

Sumitani outlines two strategies for boosting engagement:

  1. Create recognition programs that honor contributions. Don’t hand out token achievement awards for simply reaching milestones like working a certain number of years. Most will move on before reaching that five-year anniversary if you don’t have an appealing workplace. Instead, acknowledge employees for substantive accomplishments, innovative ideas, and other extraordinary behavior. This recognition should be highly personalized and spontaneous rather than generic and perfunctory. Lastly, establish peer recognition programs that give employees opportunities to honor co-workers, whose accomplishments may otherwise go under the radar of high-flying managers.
  2. Survey, survey, survey. If you want to know what matters to your employees, ask them. Don’t burden them with bloated surveys every year or so. Rather, short and frequent is the way to go here. Bolster trust and open communication by transparently sharing the data. Then do something with those results. Formulate an action plan to show you are not only listening but genuinely committed to responding to concerns.

Capiche Can Help

Are you ready to propel your company to the next level of engagement, productivity, and profit? We can help you conduct the organizational analysis, collect the data and implement the strategies that can turn your organization into the next paragon of employee engagement. Email or call 541.601.0114 today.

Empathy in the Digital Era

Think the internet is deepening our perceived social isolation, increasing envy and amplifying feelings of disconnection?

Well, yeah, maybe—especially if you spend most of your time on social media—according to this 2017 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. And given the growing body of research on the higher rates of morbidity and disease associated with social isolation, we ignore these reports to our own peril.

But the internet also has the capacity to connect kindred spirits across the oceans, create community and cultivate empathy. You just need to know where to look.

What Is Empathy?

Surprisingly, many of us aren’t clear on what empathy really is. I love Brené Brown’s simple explanation:

As Brown states, “empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.” She outlines the four qualities of empathy nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman discovered in her research:

  1. perspective-taking
  2. avoiding judgment
  3. recognizing emotion in others
  4. communicating that emotion

Teaching Digital Empathy

One textbook, Developing Digital Empathy, provides tools for teaching digital empathy, which author Yonty Friesem says involves:

  1. empathy accuracy: the ability to assess another’s internal state;
  2. self-empathy: possessing a sense of identity and agency;
  3. cognitive empathy: recognizing, understanding and predicting others’ thoughts and emotions;
  4. affective empathy: feeling what others feel;
  5. imaginative empathy: role-playing; and
  6. empathic concern: being compassionate toward others.

The article Developing Empathy in the Digital Age further explores how educators can strengthen students’ empathy. Arguing that technology cannot create the conditions (e.g., eye contact, conversation, vulnerability) required to develop such skills, Matthew S. Howell thinks reducing time spent on screens is a step toward reclaiming our humanity. With the average person staring at a screen for 10.5 hours a day—and research indicating digital stimulation can cause damage to the part of the brain (insula) related to developing empathy—instituting practices like Screen-Free Fridays at schools can help students rediscover face-to-face connections. How could you carry this over to your workplace?

Counteracting Negativity with Positivity

This GoodThink article on spreading positivity online suggests we can counteract the destructive patterns of cyberbullying and negativity through such simple acts as watching videos by and positively rating valuable content. When we reward the creators of constructive content instead of getting sucked into gossipy, cruel feedback loops, we are magnifying the impact of those positive messages and diminishing that of the negative ones.

In “Empathy and Vulnerability in the Digital Age,” Richard Raber writes eloquently about the power of the internet to simultaneously propagate voyeurism and identification, judgmentalism and understanding, pity and empathy—suggesting we can harness technology to support “meaningful action and empathic construction … if we can find ways of binding together our fractured sense of self and community instead of allowing social media and the internet to splinter us.”

Digital Tools for Strengthening Empathy

So how can we foster community, deepen our sense of connection and stimulate empathy in this digital age? By storytelling, witnessing, listening.

Here are eight tools to help with that journey:

  1. The Moth: Listen to ordinary individuals share funny, educational and poignant stories like this one that will influence the way you see others and stay with you for years.
  2. Storycorps: Watch animations of audio recordings by people sharing pivotal moments in their lives like how this man reacted to being robbed at knifepoint.
  3. School of Life: Explore fascinating topics such as philosophy, love, psychotherapy, political theory and emotional intelligence through aesthetically compelling, thoughtful videos like The Meaning of Life – in 60 Seconds.
  4. SoulPancake: This more lighthearted channel approaches topics ranging from dating to biases to forgiveness to kitten therapy with humor and compassion.
  5. Cut: Along the same lines as SoulPancake, this channel deals with the humorous to the profound, like this video of parents explaining suicide to their children.
  6. Humans of New York: View photos and learn the moving stories of individuals living on the streets of New York City.
  7. Seize Your Moments: If you’re tired of being bombarded by cynical news about the worst of humanity, take a moment to refresh with these inspirational stories from around the world.
  8. The Good Cards: Instead of going on a meaningless goose chase for Pokémon Go, try a game that encourages you to practice a good deed, one card at a time.

Other Ideas?

What are your favorite ways to cultivate empathy in the digital age? We’d love to hear your ideas.

Is Radical Candor the Key to Transforming Your Company?

You know that employee who means well but is so ill-suited to her responsibilities that her coworkers have to pick up the slack? Or the knowledgeable guy who looked great on paper before you hired him but who is now disrupting the workplace with his logorrhea?

Let’s face it—sometimes we make mistakes. We get one impression of a candidate during the hiring process and later discover he or she is a poor fit for our organization’s culture. Maybe we inherit a bad apple from a predecessor. Whatever the reason, as managers we occasionally encounter a problem employee whose behavior compromises the effectiveness of the team or even the larger organization.

But you’re a nice person—how do you tell these folks they’re not measuring up to your expectations, or even more awkward, that some personal idiosyncrasy is irritating the rest of the staff?

Perhaps the offense isn’t egregious enough to merit termination, requiring tact given that you and your team will need to continue collaborating with this individual.

So what do you do? Candor, Inc. cofounder and CEO Kim Scott has two words for you: radical candor. Forget the spoonful of sugar—pour that medicine right down their gullet. Be brave enough to give employees candid feedback about their performance.

In Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity—currently the #1 Best Seller in Workplace Culture at Amazon—Scott presents a management philosophy based on two counterbalancing approaches: you need to care personally while simultaneously challenging directly.

Scott coins the term obnoxious aggression for the brutal honesty managers exhibit when they don’t care. Those are the one-in-five-psychopath CEOs we discussed in a previous article. That’s not the kind of candor we mean.

On the flip side, compassionate managers who don’t want to hurt their employee’s feelings are practicing what Scott calls ruinous empathy. That is equally destructive, not only undermining your leadership but compromising the integrity of the workplace by allowing poor workmanship to slide.

What may surprise you—when you do muster the courage to confront an employee about problematic behavior—is that withholding honest assessment of a person’s abilities and performance actually harms the employee, too. He may find himself continually fired from job after job without ever understanding why and being given the opportunity to correct his behavior.

While Scott’s advice may be old hat to veteran leaders, less-seasoned managers can benefit from her general rules of thumb: practice humility, offer immediate feedback and deliver criticism in private.

The last thing you want to do is shame an employee. That will only serve to trigger her defense mechanisms, and she won’t be able to absorb your instruction.

Instead, take more of a mentorship approach. Maybe you’ve made similar missteps in your past—share an example of where you went awry and how you appreciated when someone took you to task for your shortcomings. Let the employee know you’re on her side and you want to come up with a solution together, whether it involves reconfiguring the job description to focus on strengths and offset weaknesses or introducing some ground rules to help curb the problematic behavior.

However you choose to approach situations like this, remember to practice emotional intelligence along with radical candor, and you’ll be ahead of most bosses when it comes to giving honest but sensitive feedback.

Meet the Plurals: What’s So Special About Generation Z?

They were born texting, their itty fingers swiping across their cell phone screen while they listened to their iPod on earbuds as Blue’s Clues played on the television, Dad watched cat videos on the laptop and Mom slew Doom demons on the desktop.

It was the mid-nineties to early 2000s, and the iGeneration was born into this quasi-anachronistic mash-up scene. Tech-savvy from toddlerhood, these youngsters grew up wending their way around the Internet, “playing” with friends over social media and communicating via emoticons.

At more than a quarter (25.9%) of the US population and growing, Generation Z has already surpassed the percentage of Millennials (24.5%), who themselves outnumbered Baby Boomers (23.6%) by a million (77 to 76 million) in 2015.

These Post-Millennials are your next wave of employees, entrepreneurs, leaders and customers, and it’s time to meet them.

This generation is known for being resourceful, self-motivated and driven. Three-quarters (76%) aspire to turn their passions into careers, whereas only half of Gen Y had such hopes. Nearly as many (72%) wish to start their own businesses one day.

Growing up in a post-9/11 world and witnessing the Global Financial Crisis, they earned yet another moniker as the Homeland Generation for preferring the safety of home and feeling less secure in the world at large.

Gen Z has been reared by protective parents who emphasized tradition, academics and social-emotional learning (SEL). Perhaps because of living in a more uncertain world fraught with the possibility of terror, these kids are turning out to be more conservative than their Millennial predecessors.

They have no illusions about achieving the American Dream, but they do want to better the world, and 76% are worried about the future of the planet. More than a quarter of 16- to 19-year-olds volunteer, and three-fifths (60%) hope to secure jobs that make a difference in the world. Like Millennials, they seek a sense of purpose in their work.

Other epithets (e.g., Gen Tech, Net Gen and Gen Wii) emphasize the group’s tech fluency. Spending a minimum of three hours a day on the computer for activities unrelated to school, the curious Digital Natives value visual and video forms of communication (Instagram and YouTube over Facebook), bite-sized content (Reddit and Twitter), choice (more options with greater levels of customization) and connection (social media, live-streaming).

According to the 2014 study Generation Z Goes to College, the teens use such terms as “loyal,” “compassionate,” “thoughtful,” “open-minded,” “responsible” and “determined” to describe themselves.

These Gen-X offspring instantly spot inauthenticity and patronizing attempts by marketers to court them. If you do win their respect, however, Gen Zers are known for being brand-loyal, and they will evangelize on your behalf if they believe in your products and services.

The most diverse generation to date, the Plurals embrace multiculturalism. While they are more pessimistic than Millennials, this bleaker attitude may propel them to seek pragmatic solutions to crises such as global warming, economic inequality and terrorism. Greater consciousness of planetary problems could well lead to direct action.

Whatever the future holds, these enterprising and creative self-starters give us cause for hope.

See below for a fun and informative infographic on Generation Z courtesy of Marketo.

Generation Z: Marketing's Next Big Audience Infographic