22 Nov Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
In some ways, I have the quintessential American immigrant story — wrapped in a love story. I’m originally from Bombay, India, but haven’t spent much of my life there. My parents moved to Lagos, Nigeria, when I was around a year old. They ended up living there for 25 years, and I spent my elementary school years in Lagos. I briefly moved back to Bombay, where I lived with my grandparents for middle school. I was a fish out of the water, and my grandmother, with whom I was very close, felt very strongly that I needed to “spread my wings.” So, she managed to convince my parents that I would be better off in the UK where I went to high school. After wrapping up high school, I planned to take a gap year and learn languages while returning back to Lagos to live with my parents again. Well, you know what they say about best-laid plans…soon after moving back to Lagos, I met my husband, a Puerto Rican US Marine, from the Bronx, stationed in Lagos. We fell in love, moved to Greece, lived for about two years, married and then moved to the US.
I worked my way through my undergraduate degree in business and fell into the HR profession. I worked with some amazing people, and had incredible experiences at world-class companies that were going through transformation and change, and got my MBA in International Business from Georgetown University along the way. I quickly moved up the corporate ladder wherever I worked, taking on bigger, more complex roles dealing with organizational culture and people strategy at companies like CGI, Fannie Mae and Visa. I ended my corporate career as a Senior VP of HR at a large trade association and began my career as an entrepreneur in 2016.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I know I am not alone in having this happen, and I also don’t know if it was funny but it was definitely a mortifying experience. I forwarded a confidential report to the wrong client with a similar name. It was at the start of my business and the person I sent it to was a prospective client and lawyer. I was convinced he’d not give us the work because of this mistake. Luckily, he was pretty chill about it. But then, instead of sending a new email to the actual client I forwarded the old email which showed the wrong recipient to the client. I had meant to delete the old email and only send the report…but I was working fast on my phone and took a short cut…. Thankfully it did not end badly. Client called and we had a good chat. I apologized and now triple check the recipients’ names, the contents of the emails, and any embedded conversations. Sometimes I really hate smartphones.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve had incredible bosses at Fannie Mae, Visa, and CGI, who have nurtured me, given me tough feedback, and challenged me with incredible assignments that helped me learn and grow, and ultimately allowed me to bring all that experience to bear as we work with clients. They took the time to get to know me, what made me tick, and how to best use my talents and gifts. My first client came from a colleague and leader at CGI, and I am always going to be grateful to him for that opportunity.
If I were to only pick one person though, my husband deserves much of the credit — he has always had faith in me from the very first minute we met. He’s the one who has encouraged, supported, and cheered me on no matter what hair-brained idea I pursue. He asks good questions, challenges my thinking and elevates what I do. He’s been my rock and my inspiration — he’s always there for me even when I get into the workaholic mode and ignore everything around me.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I totally agree! In fact, my book, The Conscious Workplace, is based on the premise that when you put people and purpose first, you’ll be able to build sustainable, thriving companies that are also profitable. When I launched the business in 2016, Our vision was simple — build better, more inclusive workplaces where everyone can thrive. My kids inspire me to help companies create better workplaces so that they don’t (hopefully) have to settle for a bad boss or out of touch company. There is a better way that we can all operate that helps us build better workplaces and communities. That is what drives me and the team every day — that our work touches those beyond the direct people we work with through our clients.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The story that comes to mind is a recent one in the first few days after the massive shut down we had in March 2020. I was on calls a lot talking with clients and figuring out what to do. They were in a tailspin and needed guidance and direction that was not part of our scope of work. The team was nervous and anxious, about some of the clients that had pulled back, the general uncertainty and their own health. It was unchartered territory for me. It was a difficult time for everyone -what I felt was most important was to check in with everyone every day and keep people focused on the work we still had to deliver.
In these situations, and generally when I get overwhelmed, I remind myself of the “circle of influence.” At the center is what you can control directly, the second ring is what you can influence and the third is stuff that is out of your control. I usually go for a walk or a run, put on some music, and then start to mentally categorize what things I can control and influence and what I need to let go off. It’s incredibly cathartic because I literally just leave it behind me on my walk or run, and then I focus on what is within my control and what I can influence. That also energizes and focuses me on what I can impact.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There are definitely days when I think about packing it all up and setting up shop renting chairs on a beach somewhere! But I think that goes with the territory of building a business. I am a pretty motivated and driven person intrinsically — and ultimately, it’s a testament to the fact that when your work is fueled by your passion then it’s easy to keep going even when there are setbacks like not winning a piece of work or having a challenging conversation with a client. I know that when we work with a client, they are incredibly pleased with our efforts to help them transform their cultures and lead in a more inclusive way. And that in turn makes it a better place for everyone — including women, people of color, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community, and so many other marginalized groups to have a great experience. I am particularly driven to have my kids — who are members of Gen Z — to have a very different experience when they enter the workforce. If I can help make leaders think differently and my kids and their generation (and those to come) benefits, then I feel like I’ve made a difference.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
This is a tough one — I have a lot of favorites but the one that had a very tangible impact on my leadership is “The Next Level” by Scott Eblin. I read it at a time when I had just taken on a new role and was learning how to be a part of a senior team. I didn’t understand the many dimensions of leading at all levels of the organization and the concepts around looking “left, right, and diagonally as you lead” that Scott shares in his book, versus just managing up and managing your team were a big insight for me. Before “getting it” I was mostly focused on managing up and ensuring the boss was happy and managing my team — but only to the extent that it facilitated making the boss happy. Recognizing that as a senior team leader you have to build relationships with all levels in the organization was a big “aha” for me. I was particularly oblivious to the management level that was not part of the senior team — thinking that I just needed to manage my peers on the senior team. It was an arrogant and misguided view and I was so grateful to get the feedback, have the book as a resource and be a part of a leadership cohort going through a group coaching program.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role is for the leader is to be a calming force yet still being authentic and vulnerable. Calm doesn’t mean robotic or completely unflappable — but it does mean not freaking out and making short sighted decisions. It means taking a few breaths to center oneself and to also be honest about how you might be experiencing the turbulence.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Get to know the people on your team. Each of them are unique and have their own individual goals and aspirations. While we tend to talk in generalities…women this or generation Z that or whatever stereotypical category we put people in. However, we are all people with our own needs and to create an environment that is inspiring, motivating and engaging it’s about understanding what makes a person tick — what is their family situation, what are their hobbies, what types of projects energizes them, what doesn’t, how do they deal with uncertainty, how do they like to digest information, how can they learn and grow? When your team feels you care, they are more likely to feel happy and connected, and that boosts morale.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
First, I like to put myself in the others’ shoes and think about how the news will land on them. Will it be a shock? Will they have a different point of view? Will they get combative? I am a big proponent of being as transparent as possible. It actually drives me nuts when people beat around the bush and sugar coat things. It may be because I spent the first 20 years of my life overseas where I feel people are more direct. I advise leaders to come out and say “I’d like to talk about X and get your perspective on it. I’d also like to share the perspective of the team. How do you think X is going?” That usually opens the conversation up. While it’s important to be direct we need to be kind too — direct isn’t a pass for being a jerk. And listen too. You don’t always have to have a response but you should have an empathetic ear. Sometimes you have to simply say, “it’s unfortunate we can’t agree on X. We feel strongly that we’ve given you what you asked for and more. I wish you and the team well.”
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leading in modern times is about courage and agility. Everything is moving at an incredibly fast pace and it is hard to keep up, let alone predict what’s ahead. What we do know is that there will be continual change so we need to plan to adapt and pivot as needed. It’s also important to think about a few different plans so you don’t just get wed to one particular strategy.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Relationships are key. If you invest in the relationships with your employees, partners, clients, vendors, etc it makes it easier to guide the company through the ups and downs. When we work with clients, we get to know them and them us — we have open dialogue and feel that we can be candid with each other. Being greeted with big hellos and hugs also tells you that you’re doing it right!
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Leaders withhold information or lie like when they know they are planning a layoff but unequivocally say they aren’t
- They make short term/knee jerk decisions like cutting expenses across the board versus surgically
- They do the efficient thing vs the effective thing which may take more time and thought, and may also be more uncomfortable.
I like to always direct leaders back to their company values and think about decisions in that context.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
When everything is turbulent and uncertain around us, we have to remember that people feel that chaos as well. They may feel more insecure, more stressed, more worried, etc… So as leaders, it’s our job to help be a source of strength and stability.
- Show up centered. It starts with being aware of how are you showing up when you are stressed yourself. One of the things that I find helpful is being clear about what your north star is. What are the values that drive you? Are you living those when things are tough? If not, how do you make sure you can get back to them? Make the time to do things that help you stay grounded. I know it’s hard, but it is super important. When the pandemic first started and everything was turned on its head, I found that being outside and with nature, was what helped me clear my head and think more calmly. It also helped me filter out the noise.
- Be focused on what matters. When everything is spinning around you, it’s really important to be clear about the priorities. Making decisions by using a people-first filter is a great way to ensure that you are focusing on what matters most. It may be a time to re-look at your strategy and ensure it makes sense for what you’re facing. Don’t add things on to people’s plate and ensure what you do adds value to them. A happy hour get together may be the last thing people want to do. And often what matters most is ensuring your team has what they need to be able to bring their full selves into the workplace.
- Lead with Empathy. Everyone is unique and we all respond to crisis and change differently. Especially when things are bumpy, it is key to understand where people are coming from in their own individual lives and experiences. Even if empathy doesn’t come naturally, this is a muscle you can build that will serve you during uncertain times and beyond. When you lean into empathy it allows you to invest and develop relationships more deeply which results in better, more trusting relationships. It’s a win win!
- Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. We hear this often. People need information. And they need to know it’s authentic. So just be straight with people. My pet peeve is when people beat around the bush. Be up front. Don’t sugar coat. Be transparent. Share what you know — and what you don’t. Tell them when you think you’ll know. Your folks are smart — so don’t try to pull the wool over their eyes. You may need to try different ways of communicating — whether it’s all staff video meetings, emails, Slack updates, whatever — most often it’s all of the above. And, make sure it’s authentic. Everyone will know if you are just reading a script written by someone else.
- Don’t be shy about getting advice! Every CEO or leader should have a “cabinet” or “roundtable” whatever you call it — it’s about having a group of advisors — from all walks of life, be there as a sanity check, a source of inspiration, a sounding board to help you see things a different way. One of my former bosses always used to use the old African proverb — “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. There may be some quick decisions you have to make, but those will be more sound and sticky if you have input from others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do one thing every day that scares you” is an Eleanor Roosevelt quote that my grandmother used to say to me all the time. My grandmother was a huge force in my life and I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t encouraging me and challenging me to challenge the status quo or try something new. Those words along with her support, encouragement and nurturing gave me a ton of confidence and courage, and the willingness to make mistakes. While I can’t say I do something every day that is a risk or something new, I don’t let things hold me back. I tried my hand at real estate and mutual fund sales in my early twenties — and failed, yet learned so much that I apply now in my business. I applied for jobs that were a bit of a reach and didn’t get them but built incredible relationships with the hiring managers. It powers me to get on stage in front of 5000 people for the first time and know that I’ll crush it.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Shaara Roman is founder and CEO of The Silverene Group, a culture consultancy that helps companies align their people programs with business goals.