As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Leesa Schipani, SHRM-SCP.
Leesa has deep expertise in change management, workplace culture and employee engagement. She has a unique ability to “corral chaos” by breaking down complex change challenges into manageable initiatives. Leesa is a partner with KardasLarson, an HR consulting firm based in Glastonbury, Connecticut.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up wanting to be a teacher until I spent a semester helping in an elementary school classroom. Clothing and fashion were my other passion so I pursued a degree in Fashion Merchandising. I began my career by entering the Executive Training Program of a Boston based Department Store then spent a number of years in retail operations for both department stores and specialty retailers. My love of training helped me transition to Human Resources with a small organization and an eventual move to a larger company and progressed to significantly more responsibility. I made my mark as an innovative Human Resources practitioner and strategic business partner.
I had the honor of working with many leaders who understood how to navigate turbulent times. And, of course, there were those who struggled. By its nature, apparel retailing has its ups and downs. I graduated from corporate eight years ago, entered the world of Human Resources consulting and became a partner at my current firm a few years ago.
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?
Today, I can laugh at this mistake as I couldn’t at the time. When I joined the Executive Training Program, I was young compared to many of the other trainees, having just earned my Associate’s Degree. I thought I was pretty special to be chosen to go immediately into managing a department while auditing the training program.
Anyway, I was placed in the children’s department where all of the women were mature and had grandchildren. My plan was to shake things up as the new kid on the block and I made sure they knew just how young I was and right out of a retail merchandising program. They were not impressed and just kept doing what they had been doing, and giving me feedback when I was out of line.
What I learned has stayed with me to this very day — be a student when you walk into a new role or work with a new client. Over the years, I’ve learned to go into a new situation and observe and listen before making recommendations, dispensing advice and challenging the status quo. The women I worked with educated me in a way that I have valued throughout my career. Their empathy and mentoring left a lasting impression on me.
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?
At ten years old, I watched my mother navigate a heartbreaking situation. We were driving home from my orthodontist appointment when breaking news of a bank executive being fatally shot in a robbery attempt came over the radio. My mother pulled over to a pay phone, called the bank where my father worked as an executive, and learned that he had been murdered trying to tackle the robbery suspect. With tears in her eyes, she got back in the car, hugged me and said we’ll get through this together. She proceeded to drive us another 30 minutes to our home. I was in awe of her strength and composure and at that moment knew I would grow up to be a formidable woman.
While my life was forever changed, I learned that with faith and resilience, we can heal, we can reinvent ourselves and we can move on from turbulent times. My mother showed me how to get up, dust myself off and head in a new direction. I have carried this strength with me throughout my personal and professional life and I’m deeply grateful for it. I needed to draw on it when I lost the hearing in one of my ears, suffered the loss of two husbands and the sudden loss of a job that I loved and thought I’d retire from. My 180 degree change muscles are well defined. I’ve worked for good leaders and poor leaders along the way and I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors who’ve helped me navigate my career. I’m grateful to each one.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When KardasLarson began, it was founded by two women who were actually in competition with each other. Both were determined to use their expertise to help organizations strengthen their workplace practices ensuring compliance with ever changing laws and building effective leaders and teams. After losing business to each other, they joined forces and built an organization with a terrific reputation. I’m honored to be walking in these ladies’ footsteps and working with very talented HR professionals. Today, our purpose remains the same — to help organizations maximize performance. While KardasLarson’s service areas are broad, my specific expertise is helping corporate and nonprofit leaders navigate change successfully.
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?
In my corporate days, I was a part of a lean HR team that was involved with mergers and acquisitions as well as divestitures and economic uncertainty. My team was very small and took on a variety of initiatives to ensure that we treated people with dignity, communicated transparently, and asked for feedback. We separated 3000 employees across the United States and didn’t have one EEOC claim. This alone speaks to the leadership of the organization during a very difficult time.
Increasing communication by being as transparent as possible and asking employees to help solve business challenges has always been my starting point. During difficult times, doing what I say I will do has built credibility among my team members. While this can often be a challenge as I may be dependent on others for information, resources and technology, I work hard to deliver and keep stakeholders informed on the progress.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I don’t give up! I believe that there is a silver lining in every difficult time and while we may come out on the other side having lost something, we’ve also gained new skills, relationships and insights.
Curiosity and growth keep me going. My family and clients will tell you that I ask a lot of questions and they’re right. I’m always interested in the root cause, challenging the status quo and looking for process improvements.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Putting your oxygen mask on first. As a leader, I believe that you need to have personal resilience to move through challenging times. If you don’t, your people will know you’re afraid and start wondering if they should be scared too. A leader’s role is to serve the team and you can’t do that if you’re a hot mess. It’s a delicate balance of reality and optimism as you don’t want to come across as a Pollyanna or a hand wringer. And it’s okay if you don’t have all of the answers. Be vulnerable and let your team know that you’ll do your best to support them.
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?
Ask your team what they need from you to move through this uncertainty. Show that you’re listening, be empathetic and help your team find solutions to challenges. Acknowledging that they are feeling vulnerable and uncertain goes a long way to building trust with your employees.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
With humility, confidence and transparency. Simple words like “this is difficult for me” shows that you are vulnerable and employees can relate. Being as transparent as you possibly can is another way to build trust. Be direct, honest and own it. There is no room for blaming it on the CEO or business owner. As a leader, you’re a part of the decision making team.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Make short-term plans daily, weekly and monthly, and stick with them. Course correct as often as need be and don’t be afraid of making a mistake. In these unprecedented times, organizations will need to iterate and continually scan for pivots and changes needed.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Organizations hold back because they feel they don’t have all the answers. There is nothing wrong with saying, “this is what we know today and we’ll keep communicating as new information becomes available.” I’ve worked with leaders who shy away from less than perfect communication. As a recovering perfectionist myself, I’ve come to understand that perfect is the enemy of good. Start the dialogue and build on it and if you make a mistake, apologize.
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?
Often leadership teams feel they know what’s best for their employees and never ask for input. In the 2008 economic downturn and in today’s environment, many organizations moved immediately to reducing their workforce without asking their workforce what they could do to decrease expenses during this period. Furlough days became a popular strategy for reducing labor expenses in 2008 and employees were sad when they ended.
Sparing employees from the good, bad and ugly. People work for an organization because they feel a connection and are invested. At least this is true for highly engaged employees. They want to understand the health of the business and contribute to its success. Be honest with them and ask for help in solving problems.
Eroding the trust you have built. Turbulent times require predictability and as a leader, you want to continue advocating for your team, talking about goals and performance and helping them get the resources they need to do their job effectively.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Encourage innovation — in this current economy, we’ve looked at the way we deliver our services via virtual platforms and on-demand products. Without in-person networking events where we generate the majority of our leads, we’ve needed to look for new ways to find prospects.
We’ve built strong relationships with our clients and we continue to nurture these relationships during this time. Small gestures like a quick call to see how they are and how we might be helpful keep us in the forefront.
We’ve increased our thought leadership around best practices for remote work, performance feedback and covid related issues.
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.
PUT YOUR OXYGEN MASK ON FIRST. Take care of yourself so that you can be your best self when you arrive at work each day. Each one of us knows our self care recipe. Mine is a bike ride, therapeutic massage and lots of greens.
INCREASE COMMUNICATION. Use all available channels to communicate out and provide a vehicle for feedback and questions. Sending the email isn’t good enough- ensure that it was read and understood.
SHOW EMPATHY. Your team and colleagues all have unique situations and challenges. Don’t assume that you know how they feel. Ask them and learn how you can support them. If you don’t have a relationship with each team member, start working on one.
LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES TO SERVE. Successful leaders serve and increase their service during turbulent times. Ask “how can I help you during this time?”
ASK FOR FEEDBACK AND LISTEN. Once you ask for feedback, pause and listen. Show the person that you heard by acknowledging or paraphrasing. Learn how to accept feedback and act on it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you are through changing, you are through.” ~Bruce Barton
My life has been full of twists and turns necessitating reinvention. With each change, I have grown stronger, learned new skills, found my purpose and become a better person. Whether a human being or a business, change must happen to thrive. It’s about how we handle it.
How can our readers further follow your work?