Finding Solid Ground: Pi IIs Cope, Pivot, Push Forward

Imagine you’ve been forced to climb one of the most dangerous mountains the world has ever seen. The only purpose of this quest is to endure; climb continuously, reach the peak, and journey down the other side. You left base camp over a month ago. Life as you know it seems like a distant memory. You’re exhausted, yet the cloud-obstructed top seems impossibly far away. One foot in front of the other, you remind yourself. And then imagine that mountain begins to shake.

It’s April 20, and Rhode Island is nearing the projected peak of coronavirus infections. With a pinnacle predicted for late April or early May, our state has been soldiering up the side of this particular summit for five long weeks, upending how we work, learn, and live. The end is theoretically in sight, because the measures we’ve taken are working: social distancing, stay at home orders, and taking our lives online. But just beneath us, the societal foundations on which we stand and often take for granted are trembling, and for many, threatening to shatter entirely.

As of April 20, Rhode Island is nearing the projected peak of coronavirus infections.

All over the planet and here in the smallest state, people are plagued by unanswerable questions and daunting unknowns when looking toward the future. According to Gallup, 52% of Americans say that it’s either likely or somewhat likely that COVID-19 will cause major financial struggles for their household, and 72% are very or somewhat worried that they or a family member will be exposed to the coronavirus. People’s wellbeing — financial, social, communal, familial, physical and professional — has been placed in a precarious and unpredictable position the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Coronavirus has changed the world, and one of the only certainties seems to be that the aftershocks will last for years to come. In a time of such chaos, people are looking to leaders more than ever before, and leaders are being challenged in unprecedented ways. As together we face an invisible enemy and an amalgam of ambiguous threats, leaders across the sectors  are in a position to provide one of the scarcest resources in the COVID-19 era: stability.

Listed as one of Gallup’s four key components to successful strength-based leadership, alongside hope, trust, and compassion, stability can come in many forms. People often rely on schedules, traditions, expectations and routines to guide them in their regular lives. Now, stressed and strained from coronavirus disruptions, lack of stability has left many feeling stranded.

The team at Leadership Rhode Island has been working tirelessly to bring consistency to their constituencies, pivoting their signature programs in the newly digital age while imagining new ways to help, all while staying true to their mission.

“The world changes every day, and we are being asked to change every day along with it,” says Kristin Zosa Puleo, LRI’s Director of Programs. “At LRI, our work and lives have been one big pivot since all of this started, but it’s all in service of bringing people together to innovate and have a meaningful impact on the lives of people in Rhode Island.”

One of the most well-known ways that mission manifests at LRI is through the Core Program, a yearly class convened with the purpose of making people into better leaders and leaders into better people. This year’s 77-participant-strong Pi II class kicked off as usual in January with their class retreat, followed by two late-winter sessions dedicated to Leadership in Action and Economic Development. Education Day, slated for March 25, was postponed when the pandemic’s effects were beginning to seep into the state. Their next session, Government Day, will be held virtually, taking full advantage of Zoom functionality to debate and pass legislation during a full-day simulation of the General Assembly.

The 2020 Pi II class during their two-day retreat in January. The April 24th session focused on Government Day will be the classes fourth session together, the first to be held virtually.

Zosa Puleo is working hard to provide stability for the Pi IIs, relying on her own strengths to transition the Core Program online for the foreseeable future.

“My strengths are all about people: adaptability, input, arranger, ideation, restorative. After I meet someone, I file things away about them mentally—the way they act, what makes them happy, what they do for work—and that’s what comes out when I’m planning the curriculum for session days. Now that approach has evolved to incorporate how people are handling this situation. I want them to feel comfortable and confident so they can have the best experience possible,” says Zosa Puleo, who is applying a lot of the same tactics to homeschooling her two daughters, Nadia, 7 and Olivia, 9.

“For my girls, all the normal ways they interacted with the world—school, home, support—have changed. But even when home doesn’t feel like home and school doesn’t feel like school, there are still bright spots. It’s the same with the Core Program—yes, it will look strange and feel different for a while, but my hope is that the Pi IIs will be pleasantly surprised. They’re in for something special.”

Kristin Zosa Puleo, Director of Programs, is creating stability at home for her daughters Olivia and Nadia, as well as in a virtual space for the Pi II class.

The College Leadership Rhode Island program has paved the way for the Pi IIs, having wrapped a virtual Career Readiness session day earlier in the month. For Sam Bergbauer, LRI’s new CLRI coordinator, conducting the session digitally opened up new possibilities for participants.

“They trusted us to provide this experience for them in a way they were used to, even in this new form, and the feedback has been unexpectedly positive,” says Bergbauer. “We heard from students we haven’t heard from all year long in that session. One classmate said she was more comfortable sharing digitally, and we should always have this session day via Zoom. Another participant shared how glad they were that they got out of bed that morning, and they hadn’t felt that way in a long time. It was a necessary dose of normalcy and hope for people.”

The 2020 College Leadership Rhode Island class enjoyed the virtual transition of their Career Readiness & Personal Development session day.

Though one of the most popular adages of the coronavirus crisis is that we are all in this together, individuals are searching for stability in many different ways. Here’s how some members of this year’s Pi II class are coping, pivoting and pushing forward, both personally and professionally:

Giselle Mahoney, senior account executive/partner, RDW Group  

Letting others know—and reminding yourself—that it’s okay to be imperfect helps to instill stability in uncertain times. It’s also more important than ever to connect with others on a human level by checking in and asking “How are you doing?” before diving into work projects.  —Giselle Mahoney, senior account executive/partner, RDW Group  

Initially I thought structure would be essential in a time of significant uncertainty, but I soon learned that flexibility is needed even more. Forcing structure creates stress for your team, your family and yourself. You need to remind yourself and others that we’re going to take this one day at a time, one week at a time, one month at a time. —Ted Kresse, Director of Communications, National Grid

Stability is challenging even in the best of times. My life is one of change and upheaval. Toss in the virus and I’m just trying to keep my chapeau on in a hurricane. I am trying to eat well, exercise and watch the sunrise.  At work, I talk with people desperate to know the status of their unemployment claims. I accept their emotions and try to help. —Laura Hastings, Grant Advisor, RI Department of Labor and Training

Justin Mandese, owner/agent/coach, Reality United at HomeSmart Professionals

My family functions well with structure so we immediately established strategies, timelines and schedules for school, work and time for creativity, recess and relaxation. This provides everyone with a degree of certainty in uncertain times. For work, I developed a 30-day action plan with metrics for measuring progress. These steps have increased my productivity and kept anxiety and depression at bay.  —Justin Mandese, owner/agent/coach, Reality United at HomeSmart Professionals

 Our kids are going through a tougher time than some adults. I keep talking things through with them, trying to make sense of it all and telling them we will get back, but it will be a different normal. I think a shift is already underway. This whole episode of working and learning at home is helping people appreciate the things that really matter —family, personal connections, and having time together. —Erica Olobri, Director, Marcum LLP

The state’s self-isolation directive could have serious repercussions for vulnerable children, who are most in need of the direct support they normally receive in school, in daycare and from our agency. Ensuring stability while protecting staff from Covid-19 infection calls for achieving balance and encouraging flexibility. We have shifted support of social workers and mental health counselors to remote platforms but continue to intervene in person when a family crisis erupts.  —Beth Bixby, CEO, Tides Family Services

Victoria Bernardo, Assistant Director of Stewardship, Rhode Island College

Adaptability is one of my strengths so I’ve been comfortable with the adjusting, changing and pivoting required to find stability in an uncertain environment. I provide a level-headed approach to issues and a sense of calm during this storm. —Victoria Bernardo, Assistant Director of Stewardship, Rhode Island College

 I practice gratitude; I remain calm, helpful, and positive, and I stay informed and transparent. And, I keep the work flowing; it’s important to keep putting one foot in front of the other. —Mary Grover, Senior Counsel, Everysource Energy

 Prioritize the importance of human contact because this situation has thrown klieg lights on the idea that the niceties are really necessities. And, help everyone see a way forward without over-promising that this is going to be easy. —Adam Olenn, CEO, Rustle & Spark

Danielle Crafford, General Superintendent, Gilbane Building Company

My kids, ages 4 and 6, know something is wrong and different these days so I tell them openly what’s happening outside while making sure their little minds are worry-free and continuing to explore wherever their imaginations take them.—Danielle Crafford, General Superintendent, Gilbane Building Company

Making yourself “available” by communicating, sharing positive messages and offering support to those in your universe—employees, family, loved ones and friends—  provides much-needed stability in unprecedented times. Also, be “available” to yourself by finding time each day to exercise, meditate or whatever you want. —Mike Macarone, Production Manager, Edesia Nutrition


Siu-Li Khoe. Vice President, Business Development, RI Commerce Corporation

For immediate family: Eat meals together. For other family: Make cakes and use FaceTime to sing and connect. For friends: Check in with three a day by text or phone. For colleagues: daily stand ups, weekly happy hours. —Siu-Li Khoe. Vice President, Business Development, RI Commerce Corporation

Walking through a cemetery in Hope Valley, I see headstones of adults and children, struck down by the Spanish Flu 100 years ago, Now, thanks to a cell phone and a laptop, I stay connected with friends and family, connections that help us all endure the coronavirus pandemic. Continuing to work at a job that plays to my strengths gives each day a purpose and provides stability, too. Being the recipient of neighborly gestures of care and concern is comforting and reassuring. —Lisa Huftalen, Graphic Design/Marketing Manager, VIBCO

Brian R. Casey, President, Pariseault Builders

Adhering to routines has always been my route to stability.  I still go to bed at the same time, exercise and pray every morning, stick to the same diet and even dress the same. The new Covid-19 rules have led to new routines for work, such as daily virtual meetings with leadership team, weekly emails expressing appreciation for everyone’s cooperation, job site visits, and finding time to consider positive issues, not negative ones. — Brian R. Casey, President, Pariseault Builders

Aware that the pandemic has caused widespread suffering and upheaval for so many, we are concentrating on ways to help others within the bounds of social distancing. We are checking in with our parents, donating to charities, and buying gift cards to support local businesses. We even unearthed a box of N95 masks and had them delivered to South County Hospital. None of this feels like enough.  — Caitlin Chaffee, Policy Analyst, RI Coastal Resources Management

See all of the Pi II class member responses here.

And as one Pi II classmate noted in an LRI alumni and participant virtual social: “We may not get what we initially expected, we will always be the class that came together because we went through this together!”

Stability is a balm for chaos in the midst of a pandemic. In the Ocean State and beyond, as we trek up the mountain and over the peak to the other side, our foundation may buckle and sway beneath us on our way to a new normal. The dangers are real, but so are the footholds: strength in ourselves, inspired leadership, and support for one another.

Leadership, Virtually: Working alongside the talented and exceptionally versatile Leadership Rhode Island team on this initiative is an alumnae team with expertise in journalism, communication, digital technology, and nonprofit excellence. They are charged with chronicling this time of bringing people together virtually to make connections and offer critical support.

Luann Edwards, LRI ’19, is founder of Socially Professional, a social media marketing consultancy. You’ll find her at the intersection of communication and technology, where some of the most meaningful connections are happening. As a strategist, she meets a challenge with a plan and tenacity. She’s grateful to be a small part of the leadership that our state, and Leadership Rhode Island, is bringing to this unprecedented time.
Strategic | Learner | Context | Connectedness | Input

Jane Nugent, Ed.D. LRI ‘95, nonprofit professional in RI since 1982, believes in the power of nonprofit organizations to be the key problem solvers for society.  She has witnessed the power of Rhode Island community based groups provide the greatest good for the greatest number over a long period of time. She has worked with many groups in the state and knows that this time will be no different than difficult times past — they will rise to the occasion and lead the way.
Learner | Analytical | Individualization | Relator | Achiever

Ashley Rappa, LRI’19, founder of Human Writes Consulting and Director of Marketing & Communication at Lincoln School, is a writer at heart and a Rhode Islander by choice. At her best, she believes in the power of words to elevate our lives, and the deep beauty of human connection. At her worst, she still believes that, but likely needs more coffee.
Input | WOO | Communication | Empathy | Positivity

Carol Young, LRI ’92, After 45 fabulous years at the Providence Journal, she bid adieu to the Fourth Estate.  Ten  years later, she still has printer’s ink in her blood and welcomes opportunities to work with writers while  keeping her editing skills sharp.
Harmony | Achiever | Learner | Communication | Significance