Chris Kolenda, founder of SLA, helps principled business owners who want to drive their growth at the right time, with the right team, in the right way.

five friends

Do sappers, trappers or zappers surround you?

According to the Five Friends Theory, you start becoming the five people you spend time with the most.

Why it matters

You want to be the best version of yourself, so you want to surround yourself with people who bring that out in you. Sappers and trappers do not bring out the best in people, but zappers can! What are the defining features of each?

Sappers suck the life out of you

Trappers want to preserve you and will discourage your growth

Zappers give you energy and want what’s best for you

Breaking it down

My wife and I love Broadway musicals, and we saw Kimberly Akimbo last week. It’s a highly original play about a teenager with Progeria, so, at age 15, she looked seventy. The average lifespan is sixteen. Kimberly knew she was running out of time.

Her parents: an alcoholic father and a hypochondriac mother, sucked the life out of her. Her predatory Aunt wanted Kimberly to stay just the way she was so her manipulation could continue.

Kimberly started living when she met Seth, who brought out the best in her, and they escaped the toxic family relationships.

Sappers are like Kimberly’s parents; they suck your life out through constant complaining, gossiping, awfulizing, catastrophizing, trauma-dumping, and the like.

Trappers, like Kimberly’s aunt, want to preserve you like a bug in amber. They feel threatened that you will grow, so they discourage you.

Zappers give you energy, like Seth. They are the loving critics who want what’s best for you and are willing to tell you the truth. They encourage you to grow and soar to new heights.

To grow, find the Seths in your life and move on from the sappers and trappers.

Who are your five friends?

Take a minute today to think about who the five most prominent people in your life are and if you would put them in the Sappers, Trappers or Zappers category.

employee value proposition

As a million dollar CEO, attracting and retaining the right-fit talent is crucial for your company’s success. In today’s competitive job market, having a clear employee value proposition gives you a significant advantage even if your competitors offer higher pay.

Why it matters

Employee disengagement and turnover rank among the highest costs you face, and these costs hide in plain sight because few companies measure them. Right-fit employees are more productive, spread joy, and stay longer. Right-fit leaders hire and cultivate them.

George Santos has recently highlighted the importance of having an employee value proposition. Imagine if New York voters had a clear employee value proposition stating that their representatives needed character beyond reproach. Acceptable candidates, they might have said, must have a longstanding reputation for honesty and fair dealing, and a history of learning from past mistakes. With such clarity, candidates like Santos would not have run, and the media would not have been asleep at the switch.

How to create it

This chart shows four value areas for your employees.

employee value proposition

Short-term, tangible benefits are essential, but companies too often over-emphasize them. The risk is selecting talented people who do not fit your organization’s values and not selecting right-fit people who aren’t as good on paper. The former will vote with their feet; the latter will thrive in your company and stay there even if they can make a little more elsewhere.

The Short-term, non-tangible value includes a workplace where people share common values and standards, have good leaders, and enjoy camaraderie. This joyful workplace encourages people to contribute their best and support each other.

Long-term, tangible benefits could entail healthcare, paid time off, family leave, and skill development. This quadrant shows that people can earn a good living, care for their families, and have upward mobility.

The long-term, intangible value may include personal and professional growth opportunities, compelling purpose, and a sense of belonging.

Your prospective employees will require specific minimum tangibles. Still, their willingness to bring their best to work daily and stick with your company through thick and thin rely on the intangible value you provide.

Keep away the Santos’s and hire the right-fit people, and you will have a more joyful, productive, and profitable company.

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to create a compelling employee value proposition that attracts and retains the right-fit talent. Please use the chart above to create your own employee value proposition.

antietam and gettysburg

Could lessons from two Civil War battles help you lead your business into the future?

Is there a possibility that history could be the key to seizing new opportunities for growth and avoiding the pitfalls of inhaling your own gas?

Every year, a small group of leaders travels to Antietam and Gettysburg with me to unpack lessons that can help you get good at getting better in your business.

You will come away from the event with 1mm changes you can apply immediately that solve problems, boost innovation, and help you make the pivotal decisions that drive growth.

It’s a transformational experience with people saying things like:
This event has given me new tools to de-escalate intense situations, provide perspectives that reframe issues, and gain buy-in for solutions that get results.” Karen Seitz, Founder and Managing Director, Fusion Partners Global.

Return on Experience

Have you ever considered what the return on such an experience might look like?

  • What if an experience like this gave you the necessary steps to immediately improve your organization’s hiring, performance, and retention?
  • What if this experience connected you with other extraordinary leaders who became long-term trusted colleagues?
  • What if you gained new stories, process visuals, and thought leadership that helped you strengthen emotional connections within your organization?
  • What if the experience paid lifetime dividends that you could draw from for years?
  • What if the break from day-to-day is precisely what you need to reframe your future?

If any of this sounds appealing, I invite you to join us for this experience!

The next event takes place in early June. You can come on your own or bring your significant other if you’d like.


June 6 Arrival: break bread and have a scene-setter over a gourmet dinner.

June 7: Go to Antietam to discuss lessons from the bloodiest day in American history.

June 8: Travel to Gettysburg to discuss lessons from the biggest battle on American soil.

June 9: Identify 1mm changes you will apply immediately as you lead your company into the future; depart by noon.

You can expect exceptional wine, food, and accommodations in historic Frederick, Maryland.

The fee before March 15 is only $3500 per person (bring your spouse or significant other for just $500 more); after March 15, the price goes to $4500 (+ $1000 for your +1).

This is a small group; registration will close when we reach seven principal participants.

What do you think? Would you like to join us? Set up a call with me if you’d like to discuss this once-in-a-lifetime experience with me.

Clear Expectations

Have you ever had a team member who underperformed? And in that case, was the cause ever because you failed to set clear expectations?

You’re not alone, this happens all the time, and today I’d like to share a simple formula that I use with my clients to help them change this.

Clear Expectations Lead to Excellent Performance

There’s a casual relationship between expectations and performance. Unclear expectations create confusion and lead to poor performance. Clear expectations boost confidence and leader to excellent performance.

Use the “3 As + So That” to set clear expectations.

Why does this matter?

Clear expectations help you hire better, improve accountability, and reduce distress.

3 A’s + So That = Winning Formula

Last week, I worked with a client who wanted to improve accountability and performance. They had a massive turnover among new hires who weren’t representing the company well. The revolving door was pouring money down the drain, and the leaders were bogged down with corrective action and the associated emotional tax.

Their most crucial expectation was for people to show up on time, in uniform, and ready to work.


The first step is to paint the picture of what acceptable looks like.

Show up on time, in the right uniform, with the right equipment, and ready to work so that you respect your co-workers, get the job done right the first time, and represent the company well to our customers.

Define what is acceptable by using “so that” so that everyone knows what right looks like and why it matters.


The second step is to paint what awesome looks like when people go beyond what is expected.

You are 10 minutes early, so no one has to wait or worry; you’ve inspected the vehicle and equipment and know everything’s ready to go; you’ve got a positive attitude that makes working with you a joy.


The third step is to paint what awful looks like.

You’re late, out of uniform, missing kit, smell bad, or have a lousy attitude.

Put this to work now. Look at where your expectations are not being met, and create your own expectations using the “3As + So What” formula. Involve your employees so that you get buy in right away.

Imagine how much easier life would be if people self-correct and your employees hold each other accountable instead of it all falling on your lap.

Learn more

Would you like to learn more about how to set clear expectations and improve psychological safety?

My next live session is on March 9th at noon U.S. Central time. During this session, I will show you how General Dwight Eisenhower created psychological safety, its impact on winning WWII, and three actions you can apply immediately to improve performance in your organization.

These sessions are only available for people in my Circle community which you are welcome to join. Click here to join our community, go to “Live with Chris,” and accept the invite for this session.

three types of innovation

ChatGPT is an ingenuity killer that allows you to innovate. Innovation is applied ingenuity. Somebody turns an idea into an opportunity. ChatGPT, Bing, and other AI platforms recycle conventional wisdom, but they can free you from the mundane so you can innovate.

Why it Matters

Innovation is the lifeblood of your company. Complacency is the opposite, which is a business killer. Just ask Sears, Toys’R’Us, and Blockbuster. Chatbots deliver conventional wisdom authoritatively, making you comfortable with the smell of your own exhaust. Let the bots help you with routines so that you can devote more energy to innovation and leadership. Please don’t use them for coaching.

Three Types of Innovation

  • Revolutionary
  • Evolutionary
  • Opportunistic

Revolutionary and evolutionary require you to apply new or existing ideas in new ways that change the market. Opportunistic innovation occurs when you use existing ideas to take advantage of a particular situation.

Amazon used revolutionary innovation (a new idea) to upend retail shopping. Uber, by contrast, created a ride-hailing app to improve the sclerotic taxi industry — an evolutionary innovation. Designer masks, an opportunistic innovation, came about during COVID.   

Chatbots comb the internet to assemble answers to your questions. Algorithms search relevant content, weed out the crap, and deliver authoritative solutions. Their replies are thus subject to input bias — the garbage in, garbage out problem.

For contentious issues like COVID, abortion, and race, the person writing the algorithm is likely to privilege specific inputs and discount others. Voila! Welcome to confirmation bias, which is an innovation killer.

What Not to Use Chatbots For

Live coaching is among the worst Chatbot uses. HomeServe USA, a home repair service company, uses chatbots to live coach call center employees. While the customer speaks, the Chatbot gives the employee a steady stream of advice based on historically successful conversations and then evaluates the employee based on tone and keyword use.

Imagine trying to do something complicated, like hit a golfball or deal with an angry customer, while someone is constantly correcting you. Soon, you stop focusing on the task and fixate on the advice. Good coaches rarely give in-the-moment counsel because distraction kills performance.

What to Use Chatbots For

Handling routine matters is an excellent use for chatbots, freeing you and your employees to challenge conventional wisdom, develop new ideas, and apply them to grow your business. Fewer employees doing mechanical tasks reduces your payroll and allows people to play more productive roles in other companies.

Psychological safety is a foundation of innovation.

My next live session shows you how Eisenhower created psychological safety that won WWII and ways you can apply them immediately.

Live with Chris sessions are only available for people in my Circle community. Join here, go to Live with Chris, and get the calendar link.

To gain exclusive thought leadership, resources to improve performance, and live sessions that give you massive impact 1mm changes

imposter syndrome

Discomfort means you are playing at a new level. Here’s how to get good at it.

Why It Matters

The same habits that got you to a $10m company will not get you to $100m. You can run a $10m, company through brute force and expertise. Try that approach at $100m, and you’ll be the reason your company fails.

You must grow into a WHY leader to succeed at $100m, which means shedding your body armor and relying on your subordinates’ expertise.

You’ll experience fear and anxiety along the way; below are good ways to handle that.

Worry if you don’t feel distressed. It means you are in a comfort zone, firmly cased in your body armor, and unable to grow.

By the Numbers

Imposter syndrome is typical and can be healthy:

Take These Steps to Get Good at Imposter Syndrome

  • Label the emotion. “I am feeling anxiety” because getting it into the open lessens the feeling’s power.
  • Determine what’s causing the emotion. “I am feeling anxiety because I’m not confident that Kevin can handle the job I used to do myself.”
  • Identify an advance and a retreat. Advancing action brings you closer to your goals and values; retreat takes you further away. “Developing Kevin and developing my ability to develop Kevin is an advance. Doing the job myself is a retreat.”
  • Take action. Invest in advance.
  • Avoid positive rescripting and happy talk because struggling with the emotion strengthens the feelings.
  • You are better off accepting the emotion and taking advancing action.
  • When you feel like you are thriving, look for new ways to grow. The right coach will keep you from being trapped in a comfort zone.
get good at imposter syndrome

Abraham Lincoln made 1mm adjustments to deal with imposter syndrome. His legendary melancholy never faded, but he developed non-stylistic techniques to manage it. In this 30-minute live discussion, I’ll share the practices that worked for him and how you can work them into your 1mm adjustments so that you advance toward your values and goals.

Going Deeper.

Imposter Syndrome is a tape playing in your head that you aren’t good enough to do the job. Russ Harris explains in The Happiness Trap that the most common advice — positive scripting — is counterproductive.

Imagine your favorite dessert — think about the flavor and texture and how much you enjoy eating it. Now, try to stop yourself from thinking about the dessert, and you’ll find the images keep coming back.

It’s the same with anxiety. Try to push the thought away or put a positive spin on it, and the fear tends to return more frequently. Struggling with the emotion hooks you. Obeying it can move you further away from the kind of leader you want to be if it leads to retreating action.

Growing requires you to get good at handling discomfort, which means you need productive ways to deal with the tape playing in your head.

You reduce its grip when you label the emotion (“I notice that I am feeling fear”). You can identify the sources of the fear and take action that moves you toward your goals and values (advancing action) while avoiding activities that move you away (retreating steps).

Not feeling imposter syndrome could indicate that you are not pushing the envelope far enough, avoiding risk, and settling into your comfort zone. Complacency kills.

gratitude in leadership

Gratitude in leadership is less of a feel-good idea, and more do-good practice of putting your intentions into action. The good news is that you don’t have to spend hours journaling, sitting in the lotus position, or manufacturing empty praise. Instead, focus on the 3 A’s of gratitude.

The 3 A’s of Gratitude in Leadership

  • Affirmation (reminding people that what they do matters) 
  • Admiration (praising people for doing things well)
  • and Appreciation (recognizing employees appropriately).

Put these gratitude practices into action, and you will see better productivity in your company and lower stress for you.

Why Gratitude Matters.

People have high morale at work when they know what they are doing is essential, they do it well, and they know you appreciate them.

Gratitude from leaders in your organization is a key to high morale.

Gratitude is the intersection of affirmation, admiration and appreciation.

When organizational leaders regularly express gratitude to employees, you are highlighting tangible examples of what right looks like. Employees know what behaviors to emulate because leadership affirmed, admired, and appreciated their contributions.

Gratitude is like honey — when you spread it around, some always sticks to you. People who practice gratitude have lower stress and better peace of mind. Leaders naturally become more successful when they see results like having 81% of your employees become more productive.

By contrast, fewer than half of employees work harder due to boss’s demands.

By the Numbers

Companies with high-gratitude leaders experience:

  • Better productivity (81% surveyed work harder when they feel appreciated).
  • Higher retention (53% report higher willingness to stay; 66% who feel unappreciated report wanting to leave).
  • Higher employee morale (59% of employees report that they’ve never felt appreciated).
  • Greater employee engagement (Only 32% of Americans report being engaged at work; 18% report being actively disengaged, spreading dissatisfaction, and the remaining 50% are disengaged, mailing it in, punching the clock, etc.

Putting Gratitude into Action

  • Affirm that your employees’ work is essential by showing them the links between their job and the company’s success.
  • Be specific about what they’re doing right (admire); avoid generalities that come across as empty praise.
  • Show your appreciation by identifying how their work is helping you and the company and investing in their professional growth. Talk is cheap; investing in your people shows genuine appreciation.
  • Pay attention: meeting with your direct reports for 15 minutes each week boosts their productivity (use this check-in guide).
  • Use RAVEN when someone disagrees with you or offers fresh ideas.
  • Journal if you want to; some people find it better to do event-driven journaling rather than make it a daily routine.

Differentiate Through Gratitude in Leadership

High-gratitude-leaders stand out. HBR found that the more power organizational members wield at work, the less gratitude they are likely to feel and express due to elevated feelings of entitlement and reduced concerns about their relationships with others.

When you lead with gratitude, you get better performance. When you act like a pirate who found buried treasure every time you discover a fault, you get slight performance improvement and live with higher anxiety.

Since faults tend to stand out more than excellence, you must be intentional about opportunities to express gratitude. The best leaders still see the problems and address them and find greater buy-in with gratitude.

An Example of Gratitude in Leadership

We can turn to leaders like Julie Frymyer, the Kansas City Chiefs assistant trainer who put gratitude into action. Her efforts helped Chief’s quarterback Patrick Mahomes recover from injury and get back into action, sending the Chiefs to Super Bowl LVII.

Reaping the Rewards of Gratitude in Leadership

What could your organization accomplish if your leadership team practiced greater gratitude? Our SLA Community helps leaders tackle cultural shifts like this one to create tangible benefits like increasing profits and reducing employee turnover.

Schedule a call with Chris to learn more.

gratitude in leadership

I’m writing about gratitude today in memory of Daisy, our German Shepherd, who we had to put down due to cancer. We rescued her in 2017, and we brought tremendous joy to each other’s lives. We miss her.

P.S. My psychological safety article was so popular that Dr. Mark Goulston and I created the Net Psychological Safety Score so you can assess your organization.

psychological safety

CEOs, wanting to appear decisive, damage psychological safety by speaking too quickly.

Shut your mouth if you want people to speak their minds. CEOs, wanting to appear decisive, damage psychological safety by speaking too quickly.

Why It Matters

People must believe they’ll be heard and treated respectfully before they disagree with you or a colleague, offer fresh ideas, or try new things.

Stating your preferences upfront chills conversation and invites band wagoning. People will keep ideas to themselves — why waste energy when the boss has already voted?

Making statements on contentious social or political issues tells people who believe differently that their views are not welcome.

React quickly to stop bullies from badgering or intimidating others into silence.

By the Numbers

Companies with high psychological safety experience:

  • 27% lower turnover
  • 76% higher engagement
  • 50% more productivity

Your employees experience:

  • 74% less stress
  • 67% willingness to try new things
  • 29% more life satisfaction

Take these steps:

  • Let others offer their views and ideas before you weigh in.
  • Use RAVEN when someone disagrees with you or offers fresh ideas.
  • Enforce mutual respect. Don’t let the self-righteous create a hostile work environment.
  • Don’t comment on political and social issues or make people display symbols. Do reinforce your values.

Suppose mutual respect is a core value, for example. In that case, emphasize that the freedom to disagree agreeably is central to your company’s ability to report bad news quickly, explore fresh ideas and innovate.

Going Deeper into psychological safety

We’re in a workplace crisis. 40% of Americans report that their job harms their mental health. Psychological safety gets dangerously low when people worry that anything they say or write puts them at risk of being scolded. Workplace fear heightens anxiety.

Universities have significant problems. At MIT, for example, over 40 percent of the faculty report self-censoring more today than in 2020. Large publishers increasingly reject books that might stir controversy, fearing another American Dirt fallout. 

CEOs often feel pressure from employees and customers to take a stand on divisive issues. Major League Baseball moved the All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver over concerns that Georgia’s new voting law would suppress Black voters. Disney waded into Florida politics over the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. CEOs from several companies spoke out against the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v Wade.

Principled arguments exist on most issues, and CEOs have found themselves looking foolish or retracting statements as more facts emerge. Taking one side alienates employees and customers who see the issue from another perspective. You can reaffirm your values and commitment to mutual respect without getting burned on the hot buttons.

P.S. My psychological safety article was so popular that Dr. Mark Goulston and I created the Net Psychological Safety Score so you can assess your organization.

fire employees

The people you fire become ambassadors or detractors, and everyone in your organization is watching.

The economy is heading toward recession, and companies participating in the post-COVID hiring frenzy are laying people off. Ferocious firing has replaced quiet quitting.

How to fire employees well

You will also fire employees, whether by economic necessity or common sense, and you should put the same care into letting people go as you do in bringing them on board.

Doing it wrong is a smell that keeps on stinking.

  • You come across as incompetent
  • Your employees focus on their exit strategy instead of their jobs
  • You get a reputation as a jerk and your company as a bad workplace

Doing it right boosts your credibility.

  • People feel valued as you give them an off-ramp
  • Your most productive employees stay engaged
  • People you let go will want to rejoin your company
  • Good reputation spreads

Going Deeper

Every good company has an onboarding process. Do you have a dignified off-ramp?

Recession is coming; not inevitable, but likely, and layoffs are stacking up. Finding a new job takes most people 3.5 to 6 months.

Tech companies are firing people poorly. Google reportedly fired 12,000 by midnight email, even as CEO Sundar Pichai doesn’t cut his compensation. Netflix let go of hundreds and yet wants to hire a $385,000 flight attendant for the bigwig’s private jet.

Apple has avoided the Google, Netflix, and Meta mess thanks to slower hiring and leaner perks.

HBR has good advice for CEOs.

Only a third of the workforce is engaged, while the percentage of actively disengaged increased to 18% in 2022. One out of every five employees is both unproductive and spreading dissent. By firing well, you are doing the latter a favor by allowing them to find a better fit.

Hiring slowly means you’ll make fewer errors and find that you don’t need as many on the payroll. You can do without a significant percentage of the fifty percent who report being unengaged.

invest time

The best leaders invest time

The best leaders that I have studied create implicit understanding with their new subordinates.

Relying on implicit understanding can damage your organization. Leaders need to take the time to invest in their new subordinates.

It’s as if they can read each other’s minds, anticipate their responses, and be on the same page in the most fluid situations. Implicit understanding powers your organization through volatility and uncertainty.

What happens when people who share implicit understanding split up and new people arrive? 

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is one of the best to have ever played the position. I started being a Packers fan when he got the starting job, and I have loved watching him perform and elevate the team’s performance as a leader. For the past few years, Rodgers and Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams had a unique chemistry that comes from an intuitive understanding of how each other thinks and reacts to situations.

There’s an excellent chance that you have a similar relationship with some of your subordinates, which creates a sense of flow whenever you are together. You know that you can rely on these subordinates to be at the critical points, respond appropriately to challenges, seize opportunities, and bounce forward from setbacks.

Rodgers lost Davante Adams and a few other receivers before the 2022-23 season and gained a crop of talented replacements. As usual, Rodgers did not attend much training camp before the season began. He knows the offense cold.

The result of not investing time

Missing training camp deprived Rodgers and his new receiving corps of the opportunity to build trust and chemistry before the season began. The offense was out of sync as the Packers lost eight of their first twelve games before winning four straight and heading into the final game with a playoff berth on the line.

Rodgers and the offense were off all game, and the Packers lost. Setbacks happen in professional sports, business, and life. While it’s easy to spend time dissecting the reasons for the poor performance in the final game, I go back to the pre-season’s lost opportunity. Had Rodgers invested time as a leader in his new receivers, the Packers would have won a few more of their first twelve games and been a lock for the playoffs.

Why it matters

Intuitively believing that your new subordinates “get it” and get you as well as their predecessors is a standard error for even the most experienced leaders. Confederate general Robert E. Lee made the same mistake with a new corps commander, which cost him at Gettysburg. I remember being frustrated with a new subordinate until I looked in the mirror and recognized that I had not invested as much time building the new relationship as I had with his predecessor.

Performance usually drops when a dynamic leader-subordinate duo splits up because the leader presumes the implicit understanding transfers seamlessly. Disappointment always follows.

You cannot transfer, teach, or scale intuitive relationships and processes. As a leader, you must make expectations as explicit as possible by using commonly understood visuals, terms, and behaviors. By doing so requires you to invest time in developing your relationships and being prepared to shift your behavior to bring out the best in your new subordinates.

Explicit communication is the foundation for implicit understanding.