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[SHOWNOTES] Shelby Scarbrough, Founder of Practical Protocol: Critical Diplomacy – ECEO023

[SHOWNOTES] Shelby Scarbrough, Founder of Practical Protocol: Critical Diplomacy – ECEO023

Listen to the full podcast episode HERE

What is Practical Protocol and how does it factor into events?

The word “protocol” means “first glue.” It’s Greek. For me, that sets the precedence for everything, because it’s about connecting people together, connecting cultures together. When you think of “protocol” in an international diplomacy realm, it’s about building that bridge – it is THE bridge – between two cultures, to the visitors, to the President of the United States or a head of state.

When I decided to name my company Practical Protocol, it was combining two loves for me. One is the practicality of events and getting things done and the efficiency of things, and at the same time, a little bit more of the romantic aspect of the word “protocol.” “First glue” is not very pretty, so Practical Protocol sounded a little bit better to me, and it was trying to really get at the heart of the way I looked at the world, which was trying to make relationships grow.

Events are all about connections, which is what you talked about. How does this concept of protocol influence the events you plan, and what is that underlying philosophy?

I’ve often said I’m not really a party planner. Most of my clients in the work that I’ve done has involved and revolved around things like high-level delegations, trade delegations – missions that have a substantive objective, and that’s not to say a party can’t have a substantive objective, but I tend to learn towards clients who have people issues, who want to deal with connecting people together with each other.

I extrapolate that into any event and say my love is to focus first on the guest or the client or the end user. What is going to enhance their experience the most? And then I work backwards from there. Instead of saying, “Here’s the venue; this is a great place to start, with flowers,” I back into it the other direction and say, “What does this person who’s going to be sitting in a seat or attending the event or hosting the event (or both) need to get out of this?”

What are some of these higher level events that we’re talking about? You’ve done some incredible work around the world. Can you give us a little bit of insight into what you’ve done and do?

My career started before I started my business at the White House, and I was in Presidential Advance, which was setting up events for the President of the United States. Again, you look at it – that’s the client, is the President of the United States – and the venues and the locations and all the things we were doing was trying to help him achieve his goal of leading the country. We would attend to every detail, but always we went back to the goal: What are we trying to achieve? And if the substance didn’t match the logistics, that’s where you run into a little bit of a problem.

From there, I went to the State Department as a protocol officer, which is essentially the same kind of work, but the focus on the client is the guest to the President of the United States – a head of state, kings, queens, prime ministers, and foreign ministers. We never went below the foreign minister level. It was quite an exclusive club. They all have special needs, and my world was looking at not so much making their lives easier. That really wasn’t my objective in life. In fact, that was an outcome. That was one of the byproducts, because it smoothed over the edges in their lives, but the focus and the point of it was to help them achieve their goals and to not have to worry about all that extraneous noise that us normal people have to worry about on a day-to-day basis, like “How am I getting from here to there? What’s the address? What floor is it in? What seat do I sit in? What are we having for lunch or dinner?” We take care of all of the noise so that they can focus on what they’re doing.

When I started my business, I was referred by the White House. My very first client was Nelson Mandela right after he had gotten out of prison. That was an extraordinary honor. They hired me to handle the visit of Nelson Mandela to the White House, the State Department, and Capitol Hill, because I had just come from that world, I knew all the people, and it was really easy for me to help set that up for them, and the rest of the group that was taking him all around the country didn’t have to worry about that part of the visit. Trying to make that smooth and successful, it was really quite an honor to do that.

I went on to handle visits with Pope John Paul II when he visited a children’s hospital in Poland. We had a big delegation, we had long receiving lines, and the Vatican couldn’t have been more gracious in helping us help them. Things like the President of Poland and other trade ministers of transportation, communication, aviation – you name it – that would come from other countries (a lot of ministers of health) that would come here to learn about our technology and essentially to buy American’s technology is what we were trying to get them to do.

For CEO’s out there operating in a global economy… so you’re preparing the President for these visits and these conversations, whether abroad or here. How do you prepare them for the cultural differences that they’re going to run into that they very well might not be aware of?

I was called down one time in an emergency flurry. “Please, we’ll send a car for you. Come down to CNN and talk about the fact that George W. Bush,” (I believe it was), “went to a former Soviet country, and he got off the plane with his gloves on and a coat, and the whole country was in a tither about the fact that he shook hands with the president of the country with his gloves on.”

We just don’t think too much about that these days, because we’re a little bit more informal as a culture, and some of those old-school rules don’t really apply to us so much, and we don’t wear gloves very much, right? But the point in the country is that they took offense to it as a nation, because they felt that it was an offense to not touch skin to skin with the president of their country, that that was almost like you’re putting a barrier up, because you don’t want to get close. I mean, such a subtle thing that we would not even begin to worry about these days. But I even noticed with Melania Trump, who had gloves on inside the Capitol. They were beautiful. It was very elegant, but I was like, “OK, somebody needs to tell her it’s time to take those off.” Just subtle things like that.

Now, why is that? The point is that the handshaking we do is a measure of coming in peace. I mean, it has a greater implication to us, and some people we don’t even really understand that when we do that. That that’s what the action is – it’s a signal that you come in peace, and you have no weapons up your sleeve, literally.

This is why these things become important, and we can discount them sometimes, because they’re old fashioned or they don’t make sense to us these days, but when you’re going internationally, some of these customs stand out more times than others, and it’s our job to sort of pay attention to that and put a brief together and catch them before they might make a mistake right on the spot, too. So it’s not enough to just give them a briefing that they are supposed to read on the plan or something like that, because it also goes back to gift presentation and business card presentation and “Where do you sit?” and “Who do you greet first?” All of these details in other cultures, especially in other cultures, make a big difference as to how people are received, how they’re taken seriously. “Do they feel respected or disrespected?” When it comes down to it, we’re all people, and we just want to feel basically respected, so that’s the ultimate goal, and subtle things can make a difference in that area.

And that’s vital to the connection. You talked about a brief. As a CEO or an event planner who is prepping someone or going over seats into events or receiving international guests, putting that together and making sure that everybody is informed as to what to do… How do you get that brief informed if you don’t know as an event planner? And you mentioned a lot of us in the U.S. aren’t as familiar. A lot of CEO’s aren’t familiar. How do you get conscious of this information? How do you get aware of it?

In a little abstract way, one of the best way is to be curious. That’s not a tangible answer at the moment, but if you are not open to understanding that… I have actually found many CEO’s that say, “Oh, I do this, and I travel all the time,” or “This isn’t that important,” or “We never do that,” these kinds of barriers, instead of saying, “OK, what do I need to know that I don’t know?” or just being open to recognizing that there might be something that could be learned here and wanting to do the right thing and look at the big picture on this. Being curious and open to understanding this first.

Logistically, functionally, tactically speaking, there are companies like mine that can help them with that, but there’s also a lot of information out there now because of the internet. The CIA [World] Factbook, you can go to the CIA and for a country, you can go to the country page and look up a lot of stuff. There’s plenty of information on customs and cultural issues per country all over the internet.

The danger of that is I always talk about the “why” behind something. Often, the rule can be “take your gloves off when you shake hands.” I go back to that example, because it’s simple. If you don’t understand the “why” behind it, sometimes you can make a mistake in another area, whereas if you understood the “why,” it helps inform other aspects into a culture. Asian cultures in particular are very different than ours in many ways. There’s a lot about saving face. You can make a big mistake or a faux pas without meaning to, if you don’t understand that that’s an essential part of the culture.

More and more executives are open to that and have experienced it, but I think the most savvy are the ones who have traveled a lot and still admit that they don’t know everything, and that every time they refresh their memory and make sure that they’ve asked the questions of their staff or their team or of who they’re visiting to make sure that they get as simple as when you’re doing a menu. We now ask very commonly, “Are you allergic to anything?” “Do you have any food allergies?” Well, that’s the kind of due diligence that we need to know about culture. We need to go that far and ask questions. If you’re going to give a gift, do they accept them publicly? With the Japanese, the gift wrapping, the presentation is more important than the gift in many ways. But, are you going to present that on camera in front of other people? Are you going to leave it for them for afterwards? Some cultures open things right in front of you, and others do not, so these are subtle things that are important to know when you’re going to visit another country, or they’re coming to you.

You’ve mentioned the U.S. has certainly become a little bit more informal from what we were. My suspicion is the world is also, with the breaking down and accessibility of things, becoming a little bit more informal. Not as much as us. Any trends you see in the protocol space, where you see some things going away or new expectations?

I think because of informality, there’s a tendency to write off the importance of paying attention to those details that seem a little bit old fashioned these days, and I just hesitate to acquiesce to that, to say that that’s OK. It’s sort of like being over prepared and then not needing something. In the White House and the State Department, one of the hallmarks of any visit that we did was we over-prepared every detail. But I look at is as you get your road map down, and you know exactly where you’re going, and this is the exact path that you’re going to take and what you’re going to do at every turn.

And then the real talent in all of this, the real finesse, and what really puts somebody at the top of the list as far as their skill sets and their professionalism in this is to be able to understand that life is never a straight line, and even though you’ve planned it to the straight line, you have to be able to adapt to change and to things that come up.

One of the philosophies that we’ve had in our business has always been “you can’t break a rule, unless you know the rule.”

Well, that’s a perfect example.

You have to know the rules in order to create any nuances within them, otherwise you can’t. You’re not allowed.

We used to say in protocol, “We don’t know every little detail of all of these things all the time,” but we looked at it from the standpoint of there are rules there for a reason. A good one would be something like the guest of honor sits to the right of the host. We can go into maybe why that is, but the significance is that’s the rule.

Now, what if the guest of honor is deaf in their left ear – which has happened? They can’t hear, so why would you do that just because that’s the rule? What we would do is we would switch it, but we would make sure that the guest through diplomatic channels, whatever delicacy we had to do to be delicate about it and sensitive about it and not make some basic big announcement, “Oh, he’s deaf, so I moved him over here!” I mean, that would be a faux pas, so you want to have them save face and all that.

But being aware of these simple things goes to your point. You can break the rule, as long as you understood what it is and why it was in place, and then be able to explain why you adapt it. Other people accept that.

Now I’m just curious… so why is it that somebody is supposed to sit on one side or the other?

I cannot honestly tell you! I have no idea. I mean, that’s just the tradition. Here’s another good example, the one that actually I can explain a little bit further. The seat of honor in a car when you’re driving up is, when you drive on the right-hand side of the road, on the opposite side of the driver in the passenger’s seat, so they’re kind of catty-corner to each other. Why is that? It’s because when you pull up to a curb, you’re closest to the curb. It’s also a signal. If that’s the traditional seat of honor… When we didn’t have Facebook and we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have LinkedIn and we didn’t have ways to actually have a picture of the person that was the person, it was actually the way to know who the principal was. Now, if you’re on the other side of the road, you flip the equation, so it’s catty-corner to the driver. They get out on the curb side. That’s the easiest way for them to get out, and you can greet them straight on and things like that, and they don’t have to walk in the street.

I follow those traditions. I notice this when people are getting into cars and things. When we’re doing something that may not be that formal, but I want to make sure that the person who is the principal person, I want them in the seat of honor.

That makes sense. Two questions. Where are you drawing inspiration from as you’re continuing to develop events, as you’re continuing to understand the current trends in protocol? Where are you drawing all of your content? I know you’re a world traveler. How are you doing this?

Probably two ways that may seem strange. One of them is I’m a complete technology geek. I love technology and all the social media… Again, it’s all about connection to people, and the irony of how both technology is bringing us closer together and, in a way, building new barriers. I am just very cognizant of if we overlay technology that we don’t use it to replace that bond between human beings.

I worked on a campaign a few years ago, and I worked in the Reagan White House, and when we did all of this advanced work and everything, we had these big radios and earpieces and things hanging off our hips. They still have that when you need to wear a radio. Everybody uses – at the time, it was Blackberries or smartphones – when I came back into a campaign, I was sort of shocked to see all the senior staff, we’d walk into a campaign event, and the candidate would be on stage giving their all to Poughkeepsie or whatever it was, and all the staff that got off the plane were all sitting in the staff section with their heads buried into their technology.

Well, it’s a beautiful thing, because that’s how you got your updates, and we cut paper out, and you could make changes more quickly, and we could adapt and move, but the weird effect is the audience sees all of these VIP’s coming in with the candidate, and they sit down, put their head down, and don’t even pay attention to the candidate.

Those are interesting challenges. How do you keep…?

That’s a protocol.

Put your phones down, you know? Do it in the motorcade. Somehow try to stay present, and that’s the challenge with technology.

The other one is a little more esoteric. “Where do I draw inspiration?” I’m kind of into joy these days, and how does that translate into business is you have to keep the magic alive in this stuff. You have to keep surprise alive, as far as I’m concerned. The extra step that catches somebody by surprise, that you noticed something about them, and maybe you notice that they had young children, and when they were out, they were admiring something and they didn’t have time to get it, so you work out a way to get that children’s book that they were looking at, or that they made a passing comment, and you go that extra mile to just bring a little bit of joy to their experience. For me, that’s a constant inspiration, looking for those opportunities to bring a little joy to the world.

You’re an incredible entrepreneur. Not only have you had a ton of event experience working for other people, but also you’ve had your own successful companies. You’ve had several other companies unrelated to the industry. Let’s delve into that a little bit. Again, we’ve challenged our audience with thinking very differently, so let’s say you’re not the CEO, but you’re actually an event CEO, which we call someone who sits on top of an event. What does that mean to you? What do they need to be thinking about versus “Hey, I’m just planning an event?” What does it really entail?

My dad used to say, “Take ownership of everything you do.” When I worked as an employee for somebody, my attitude was “This is my event. This is my business. I’m spending money as if it were my own.” Looking at it in terms of P&L’s instead of an event budget, to me, the analogy is sort of like an event budget. Well, of course. That’s a normal thing, but if you think of it in terms of ownership, that sounds more like an employee. P&L is the profit and loss for the business is much more dynamic. It’s much more telling about the bottom line of a business, so if you think of your events in terms of a little business transaction every single time, instead of a client event or something… It’s just a reframing of how you see yourself, whether you are an employee or an event production person.

A lot of people in my world freelance, and that’s awesome, but I try to tell them, “You own your own business. You are an entrepreneur.” Sometimes they look at me funny. “Oh well, I just hire out for services…” Think of yourself as a business owner. Even the Lyft drivers and the Uber drivers I talk to. I say, “Look, you’re a business owner. Think of it in those terms.” One woman wanted to move to L.A. and didn’t have a job, and she was my Lyft driver, and I said, “You have a business. You don’t just have a job. You have your own business, and you can take it with you wherever you go. That’s the beauty of this.” She said, “Oh my gosh! Bless you!” It was very cute, because she just thought of herself a little differently. When she comes in, she just owns it. That’s really the bottom line.

I’m a member of an organization called the Entrepreneurs Organization, which is near and dear to my heart, and we share experiences with each other as business owners. I think that’s another core element for me in this, that we don’t tell each other what to do, because really no entrepreneur wants to be told what to do. We think we know it all…

Don’t we?!

Of course we do! But at the same time, the whole point of the organization is to learn to be a better entrepreneur, so we share experiences with each other so that we can maybe learn from others’ challenges and not have to make the same mistakes by doing it the hard way, and you overlay other people’s experiences with your own to see where it fits and how you can go forward with that and how to be a generous entrepreneur with other people and share those experiences so that others can learn, too.

I think it’s so important that people really look at events in that light, because I think you also gain traction with a client that way, to present with a P&L versus just “Here’s a budget with things that we’ve aggregated for you,” is a very different conversation. It certainly elevates you with anyone that’s sitting above you, any stakeholders in terms of the C-suite level. There’s really advancement in that.

We’ve talked about what keeps you inspired, but how do you grow? What do you do to grow personally and professionally?

I’m a life-long learner. That’s really a motto for me, and again, it goes back to being curious, constantly in wonderment of the changes in the world, and I stay up on technology as much as I can. I try to absorb all of that. I’m a member of things like SeedInvest and some other online angel investment groups, and I don’t always invest, but what’s fun is to watch the innovation that’s coming and stay on top of that kind of stuff. You don’t have to get super invested in it to see what other people are doing in the industry of technology in general. I watch that. I just recently finished a program through the Harvard Business School called the OPM – Owner/President Management Program. What that is is basically 150 people in your class for 3 years, who own their own businesses from all over the world. For me, the classmates and the interaction with the classmates are as inspiring as, if not more than, the actual curriculum through the business school. We’ve stayed in touch, and I find that developing that network for me is completely motivating and keeps me in touch with people all over the world, and it helps me help my clients, because I can pretty much solve a problem with a couple of clicks and a phone call.

Stability is actually another topic of great interest to you that I think you’re writing a book on – is that correct?

I am, yes. I just finished a chapter. I should have brought the book! It’s called The Crisis of Disengagement. It’s by Andrew Sherman, and it just came out this week on Amazon. I am a guest essayist, and I look at disengagement in the workplace through the lens of civility and protocol and basic business manners.


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shelby-photoGUEST: Shelby Scarbrough

Shelby Scarbrough combines an entrepreneurial background with the pride and responsibility of public service to bring new perspectives to each endeavor. Her skills and experience blend protocol with practicality for business and government executives alike.

She demonstrates a diverse background with experience in small business, entrepreneurism, government affairs, international relations, public relations, marketing, fundraising, and philanthropy and takes ownership of whatever she tackles.

As Global Board President for the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) (, an international association of over 10000 highly motivated entrepreneurs worldwide in 40 countries, she spent three years traveling the globe speaking to international businesses on behalf of the organization. As a chief “EO Ambassador,” she initiated legacy programs in global sponsorships, external awareness, and raised the global stature of the organization with a year long, global 20th Anniversary celebration.

Shelby is a public speaker covering topics ranging from customer service, to civility. In August 2015, she was chosen as graduation speaker and reunion chairman for her Harvard Business School graduation class of the Owner President Managed program.

An avid angel investor, Shelby co-founded nCourage Entrepreneurs an Angel Fund in association with The Rice University Business Plan Competition and serves as an advisor for business development and strategic relationships and planning for a number of start up companies.

Throughout her career, Ms. Scarbrough worked with such notable figures as: His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, Presidents Reagan, Bush, Ford, Carter and Nixon, President Walesa of Poland, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and members of the Royal Family, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela. She planned events and meetings in locations ranging from the Vatican to Buckingham Palace to The Kremlin and The White House.

Her career began in The White House Office of Presidential Advance, and a Protocol Officer at the U.S. Department of State. Upon the death of President Reagan, she was asked to serve as the Deputy Lead in Washington, DC for the State Funeral of the President.

In 1990, Shelby founded Practical Protocol, an international special events management and business protocol training organization specializing in custom-designed logistic plans addressing the unique needs of high profile clients.

She is a published contributing author for “The Power of Civility” – a book that explores the various ways civility is part of our world and how civility still remains a worthy goal of society and for an upcoming business book, “The Crisis of Engagement” with a chapter called “Engaging in Civility.”

A champion of customer service and small business ownership, in 1993 Ms. Scarbrough was a Burger King franchisee with 10 restaurants in Northern Virginia (recently sold). She graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles with a B.A. in English.

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