As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Mudford.
Mark is an inspirational leadership coach, business mentor, consultant, and also an international bestselling author. He works with entrepreneurs and business leaders to challenge everything about the way they approach their business life.
He has decades of experience in leadership across corporate, non-profit, and the military. A passionate researcher, Mark uses the latest findings in business and the sciences to help his clients become more aware of the connectedness of all aspects of their life and assists them with weaving the strands into the unique tapestry that is their best solution.
Mark is passionate about people and enjoys the challenge of co-creating in their accomplishments. An advocate of courageous conversations, he will champion the success of those who have encountered the most traumatic of events and help them identify ways to turn these moments into opportunities of strength and growth. This has led him to opportunities to work across the globe, travelling often and living in both bustling communities and remote locations. He cherishes each opportunity to travel and the growth that comes from every journey, yet still loves the feeling of returning home again to family and friends.
Now with a thriving online business, he connects daily with people from all over the world.
Mark lives in Central Victoria, Australia with his beautiful wife, Arlyn.
Thank you so much for your time Mark! 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?
Thanks, Charlie. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today.
I think the backstory to how I got started in my current business is really my life story. In my youth, I played various sports and found them enjoyable for more than the skill and physical challenge. I was also drawn in by the sense of teamwork. I think when I look back at being fortunate enough to captain some of those teams, it wasn’t because I had any particular sporting prowess — I was surrounded by some incredibly talented players — but perhaps more because I was determined to succeed, and just as determined to bring everyone along with me. That also mapped well into individual sports, as did my desire to beat myself (my greatest opponent) rather than the those against whom I competed.
I started working during the school holidays with local builders until I was (finally) old enough to work legally (from memory, that age was 14 and 9 months, in the state I lived in). Throughout my early career, I always worked hard to learn the ropes in any job I found myself doing, and I think that gave me an appreciation of not just hard work but also regarding the management of the fruits of my labors — and from that very young age, I began to track my income and spend.
Fast-forward a few years, and my time in the military saw me recognized for various contributions in my desire to improve the outcome of the team (both for those I led and for those who led me). I think this was where that first desire to lead, to improve the lives of others, and to bring everyone across the finish line as one winning team really took root in me as a clear desire.
When I left the military, I continued my studies and achieved degrees in business and then information technology. Knowing that I was “starting again,” I entered corporate life as a graduate. But the desire to improve things for others remained strong and I quickly found (or was found by) other like-minded individuals. We initiated things such as speaking opportunities for the most senior leaders in the company to impart their experience and wisdom to us, the newest cohort. And throughout my time with this multinational, I was able repeatedly to roll up my sleeves, jump into the challenges, and just get things done.
I was lucky enough to always be able to travel during this time, and I saw many parts of the world. This gave me a much stronger appreciation for diversity, which added another string to my bow. And in fact, after finishing up one corporate role, I had the chance to move to Southeast Asia and began doing what (by then I had REALLY begun to understand was something that I loved — making a difference in the business lives of others, and co-creating THEIR success WITH them. But beyond the basic principles of teamwork and bringing the entire team along, I now had skills in technology and leadership that I was able to share. And while the pay packet wasn’t anything like the one that I had just left, the gratitude and richness I felt in making this sort of difference in so many lives made this a two-year adventure that I truly cherish.
Eventually, the pull of a leadership role brought me back to Australia. I was asked to lead a major project and establish a new way forward, and away from the disaster it had become. The project had extremely high community visibility, and given the massive issues it had already encountered, this was really a final “Hail Mary” attempt to avoid complete (and very public) failure. Having worked across the globe, and within both some of the best — and worst — conditions (and having had success in my career resolving problems that no one could seem to solve), this felt like a challenge that had been custom-made for me. And for 12 months, I worked with a joint venture that had one of the biggest customer bases in the country. * was required to navigate customer concerns, special group interests, all levels of government, and even significant internal conflict between the JV partners themselves to create an exception plan for both the design and the construction areas of that nation-building project.
After completing my contract and handing the work over, I was able to consider my next steps. Having always been encouraged to undertake my Master of Business Administration (MBA) throughout my career, I returned to my hometown to undertake studies. While doing this, I also began to do what I had always done — to reach out and help local businesses in the areas of leadership, operations, technology, and business planning. Intending only to keep my skill sets “alive” while I completed my studies, this took on a life of its own and morphed into a larger consultancy business.
However, despite the fact that my consultancy clients were able to achieve significant success, I was also somewhat bemused to occasionally see great wins fade into no real commercial advantage once my time with that business had concluded. And slowly, it began to dawn on me that I was applying my experience, my wisdom, my view of the world…to someone else’s context. I was trying to fit someone else’s unique circumstances and strength to my narrative. And thus, my journey into coaching began.
But it’s incorrect to assume my coaching skills began here. The best leaders are often better coaches than technical experts. And the greatest coaches are also often the best leaders. In many ways, my life up to that point had simply been learning the skills, gaining the experience, and developing the wisdom that I would need to help my own business to really take off.
And today I coach. And I serve. I lead, but I am also led. And with my clients, I co-create success with my clients… as it uniquely applies to them. And I do exactly this with the team I have built. Some virtually (as they are based in other countries), while others I meet face-to-face, very regularly.
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?
A story I can share happened during my work as a consultant, but actually had its roots in a process that I had undertaken during my corporate career. While still in corporate, we would have a Start of Week (or SOW) meeting with a group of senior managers. Often, they would sit and just throw out superlatives in order to appear they were accomplishing their targets, yet it didn’t actually address what the team actually needed to know. In an attempt to bring awareness to such learned behavior, especially of speaking without delivering value (including using massive amounts of “TLAs,” or three-letter acronyms… oh, how the technology industry loved their acronyms!), I had created a “bingo” sheet full of corporate catchphrases and platitudes that I could mark off whenever that phrase was uttered. And I promised to yell “bingo” if anyone managed to get all those phrases ticked off during their presentation. Of course, knowing this, I never was able to get many phrases marked off… however, the conversations became clearer and far more deliberate.
When I began my own practice, this was a great story that got SME leaders thinking about the terminology they would use between themselves (or with their clients and suppliers) — and it often helped them understand there could be better ways to communicate.
While a consultant, I would check back in with previous clients. One small business, whose owner and few staff had never been exposed to corporate tools and corporate speak, had used this methodology against me, in order to highlight one of my own biases. They told me some of the tools that we had introduced during my consultancy had been left by the wayside because they were too difficult to “translate” into daily speak for the team — and (more significantly) also for their customers.
This business had taken my inspiration, and when I met them in their meeting room, they had a list of words and tools on the wall that they would not use anymore. And a good amount of that terminology had I had used in delivering the improvements during my time there.
It was done in good fun, and in some ways, it camouflages the fact that without a champion to drive a change, that change would not remain in that business. But in many ways, the student had become the master, and I’ve never forgotten having my own cheekiness deployed back on me. But it did serve to highlight another reason for the need to move away from consultation and into the coaching space.
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?
Wow, that’s a really long list. Every person I’ve interacted with for any amount of time has helped shape my view of the world, hone my skill sets, and either imparted their wisdom to me or helped me create my own wisdom. I have my tribe, a group I also call my ‘Personal Board of Directors’, who have proven invaluable in the success of my business. I also have partners (professionals who own other service businesses) with whom I work to improve the way I support my clients. All are equally important, and I would not have the success that I have today without any one of them.
So, I am blessed to have experience, wisdom, and technical skills that I can call on to develop a new business offering, sanity-check a new idea, or even do a business health check along the way.
So rather than sound like an Academy Award speech that rambles on to thank everyone in my life, perhaps the most consistent supporter of my “tribe” is my wife. We came through some pretty tough early years with lean income, before morphing the business into the success of today. And throughout it all, she has remained my staunchest supporter.
She has never lost faith. She is an integral part of the business — not just because she helps keep me sane outside of office hours, but also because she seems to know just when I need an attitude adjustment. Sometimes I am still that military guy who is focused on one objective to the disadvantage of all others (the “see the hill, take the hill” mindset). At such times, she can be the voice of reason, making sure I reflect on the action I’m about to take (perhaps to tone it down, or to consider other things I may not have yet). At other times, perhaps if I’m stuck in overthinking about my course of action, or about a troubling upcoming interaction with someone, she reminds me that as long as I’ve done the work and I know in my heart I am making the right decision, it’s simply time to take action.
Extensive suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Yes, that’s a really important point, Charlie.
Purpose is probably one of the key aspects that I spend a lot of time on — both with my clients and within my business as a whole. As I’ve touched on earlier, my business began as a consultancy, in which my experience and wisdom was the central resource (and clients could reasonably expect the solution to be presented to them). However, it became apparent that solutions that were built within the businesses (rather than just for it) would better stand the test of time. This was when I began to pivot my business toward co-creation, mentoring, and coaching.
My purpose always remained the same: to help business owners and leaders of small and medium organizations to resolve the issues that were most impacting them. And by honoring this purpose, I was able to change my business structure in order to deliver a much better outcome for my clients and a much more rewarding outcome for myself and my team.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now 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?
Phew… I’ve been called upon in difficult circumstances so many times. Throughout my corporate career, I was usually engaged to manage a problem that had, until that point, somehow appeared unresolvable. That’s probably where I get some of my resilience when things go bad.
I guess one of the most recent examples happened as a result of the COVID lockdowns. Many businesses are (still) on a lifeline. And in many ways, my business is no different. However, one advantage I have is the structure of my business in that my assets are really our intellectual property. So, we aren’t highly geared, and we can absorb an economic downturn for a longer period than others.
However, with the fearmongering and panic that seem to dominate the news cycles today, no one is impervious to the negative connotations that the pandemic has brought.
Perhaps the most important quality of the leader during these times is to remain calm and to instill that sense of calmness and confidence in their team. During the pandemic, we’ve done that in part by increasing the number of times we check in, and also by instituting an accountability matrix for each team member to keep morale and productivity high.
But perhaps more importantly, we’ve doubled down on our sense of purpose. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been offering our services through government and business groups, and we stand ready to provide those services wherever they are needed. We’ve even offered those services, free of charge, in the regions that were still reeling from the impacts of last year’s bushfires when COVID then hit.
We’ve also been working very hard to automate much of the coaching support that can be replicated across businesses. So, in the next few months, we will have up to 20 online courses in the areas of business, health, personal growth, and (so important during and immediately following the global pandemic) mindfulness and stress. These courses will be the distillation of all of our years of coaching and mentoring, and they are specifically designed for businesses. And we are pivoting to provide these services as a complement to our full coaching services in order to pass on the benefits of automation and provide more support to our clients worldwide during these difficult times.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m not certain I’ve ever seriously considered giving up. There have certainly been some low points at which I wondered if things could work. Or wondered if I had the energy to make it through. And in those times, it was just a case of putting one foot in front of the other, trusting the process, in order to make it through until things picked up again.
Pivoting is the key strategy when dealing with the insurmountable. Any business that doesn’t have the flexibility to adjust to circumstances is at a huge disadvantage. And significant risk.
My motivation has remained the same throughout my career in all its guises. It’s to add value. Whether helping to achieve an objective, complete a task, or deliver a project of any size, the purpose was always that. And of course, that extends to people. I always strive to leave people in a better place than when I first encountered them. And seek to provide them the context and environment within which they will continue to thrive.
And a benefit of our current business structure, within the current economic crisis, is that we can pivot our services and find new ways to reach people who may now find themselves in need of support — those who may never have dreamt they would be in the position they now find themselves.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think it’s to engage and support the power of tribe.
There are several aspects of tribe that are all key in taking a team through uncertainty. A good leader demonstrates calm, and when people see a leader who is calm and measured, it helps instill that same calmness in themselves. In order to strengthen that sense of safety, a leader should also provide routine and structure to the tribe, which will help reinforce a team member’s sense of belonging. And honesty is essential in uncertain times; the leader will never have all the answers, so they must also remind the team that the answer also lies within them all. All of this will take advantage of the fact that there’s no single point of failure in a team. And that’s the power of tribe.
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?
Again, purpose is key here. Keeping the team aware of their purpose helps each team member understand the importance of their role in the success of the business. As a leader, you should be spending time with every member of the team on a regular basis. That feeling of being supported, of being heard, of being important to the team will boost morale. During uncertain times, these things become even more crucial when people question the future. A good leader will stay tuned in to the group in both one-on-one and team environments.
In the team context, keeping the team aware of how the business is going, what goals they are achieving, and any difficulties that have arisen are all important in keeping morale high. And whether in a one-on-one or team context, ensuring that everyone is able to speak freely and without judgment is key to maintaining the honesty and integrity of the business as a unit.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In person. Delivering difficult news in this way shows both your team and your customers that you care enough to take time out of your day in order to communicate it. And more importantly, it shows you care enough to ensure that they are okay with the news.
At times, in person may not be possible. In those times, using a video conferencing tool (we use Zoom) might be the only way. Again, be prepared to deliver the message and then stand by to ensure that the team/customer has understood it, and that you’re there to provide any support as necessary.
Of course, there are rare occasions when it’s inappropriate for the leader to remain and support (perhaps in the case of a termination due to significant breaches of safety). However, the message should still be delivered in person, and only the location of support would change (such by the leader ensuring some kind of employee assistance program, in the above case).
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
How can a leader not make plans when the future is so unpredictable? As I touched on before, that sense of routine, that feeling of psychological safety — that you’re safe within the team…these are all enhanced by a leader who actually leads. Psychological safety is paramount in keeping a team cohesive and productive.
But I’m sure we’ve all heard that old military saying that all plans are good until the first shot is fired (sometimes also said as “no plan survives the first contact intact”). This is true.
This translates into the business world, as providing knowledge and undertaking skills improvement to keep people busy and focused and (again) give them something to pour their energy into in a positive way. But remind them that we may need to adjust as needed (although a good leader will often absorb the number of major changes in order to maintain the sense of psychological safety). So let the team know that (especially now) the business environment can be unpredictable, and that’s OK. Any undertaking will likely require adjustments along the way. A plane flying to its destination is only exactly on its planned path a small percent of the time due to weather and wind shifts. And to extend the plane analogy, another saying we would often use in corporate leadership is to remind the team that sometimes the trick is to accept the fact that at times, we may be asked to fly the plane while we are still building it.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
“Honor thy tribe.” The business, of any size, should not be one person. Success is not a solo sport. And the incredible depth of knowledge and skill sets diversity brings are genuine assets to the business. Always ensure that a company’s sense of self is more than one person. Ensure that every member of the tribe feels included. This will smooth out the peaks and troughs of the business, whether by providing resilience to external components such as economic upheavals or by recognizing and developing your team in order to become more resilient.
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?
1. Mistake consensus for leadership. Probably the biggest mistake that I’ve seen from well-meaning leaders is to defer their leadership and attempt to manage by committee. This is tempting, because it’s engaging the tribe…but in the wrong way. A leader doing this is actually abdicating their responsibility. A leader’s job is not to get the team to choose the direction — a good leader will engage the team to find all the options, but ultimately it is then the leader’s job to select the best solution. This is particularly important during difficult times, as the team is often operating under a high level of stress and anxiety…which can exaggerate behaviors.
2. Not healing internal differences. Any organization that isn’t complete, that holds significant differences in values, will always fail during turbulent times. This applies to a single business with internal areas in conflict or a larger joint venture between organizations. This can cause destructive behaviors between the senior leaders of different parts of the organization. In every context that either myself, my team, or any of my clients have encountered, where there has been a lack of internal integrity — a sense of competing goals within the affected organization — every outcome has either fallen far short…or has failed completely. I’ve seen senior managers do extraordinarily selfish things all in the name of self-preservation because they were unable to cope with a perceived threat, or a challenge to their leadership. Joint ventures have fallen apart, and large, expensive projects have collapsed under their own weight whenever the parts that make up the whole were unable to resolve these differences.
3. Being frozen in time. Our current times are turbulent. There’s a great deal of uncertainty in the air. And because this causes us to seek safety (or at least a sense of safety), we often fall back on the things we’ve done because we know them so well. This is a false sense of safety. If we choose to stick to our routines, our standard operating procedures, the way we’ve always done it…then we will miss the opportunities that come with every great shift in the world. Remember, Nokia (once the world leader in mobile phones) missed the smart phone opportunity that gave Apple such a strong presence in the world today — and also opened the door for Samsung to become number two with a product they were never renowned for. And today, because of COVID, remote working is more acceptable by businesses (even by those more traditional organizations that were previously resistant to such ways of working). This means there are massive opportunities for those who are not complacent, or asleep at the wheel.
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?
This really relies on you having correctly identified your business’s purpose and values, and then proceeding to set first the aspirations and then the shorter-term goals in alignment with the purpose and values. Making sure you have correctly set these and tested them with the leadership group (making any changes required following that discussion) is the basis of your stability in times of crisis.
In addition, staying agile to changing market conditions or economic changes is also key. Watching your numbers (revenue, profits, costs) is vital to flagging possible business issues early on. Again, tracking this in such a way also reinforces managerial responsibility, so managers can see and react to changes as quickly as they can — and this must be part of your everyday business functions. And of course, reacting to any softening markets (and alternatively, exploiting any future advantage) should already be part of the leadership team’s weekly discussions to maximize benefit and minimize unforeseen impacts on other parts of the business.
And just like we’ve done, by pivoting our high-end coaching service, always staying tuned to ways you can deliver your purpose more effectively and to a larger client base. Also having multiple products or services will help minimize any loss of traction in one specific area.
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.
I always coach around principles, which are timeless. These are evident throughout all of humanity’s written history (and likely well before). They are universal truths that help support us in the bad times and propel us to greater success in the good.
1. Stay grounded to your purpose. Purpose should always be your context, and when you stay connected to your true purpose, it does more than just drive your business to greater levels of success. That sense of knowing in your gut also provides a defensive shell against the challenges that are getting thrown at you in these turbulent times. It’s our routines, while a little boring at times, that also give us security when we feel overwhelmed by overexposure to chaos.
2. Remember that everyone is unique…and usually a little bit right. When we hold on to this fact during troubling times, it allows us to remember that those things happening around us that may cause us concern or distress (whether that is the actions of others, the decisions of a company, or even the behaviors of our leaders) come from a perspective or context that’s not our own. So we should remember that someone with the same intentions as ours might not necessarily be choosing the same path we would — and that’s OK. By understanding this, we will more clearly understand what’s happening and begin to see the things we agree on. And even identify the flaws in our own assumptions that are often the greatest source of our pain.
3. Wisdom is the result of experience and not the consequence of our chronological age. This is often something we forget. I have met people in very senior positions who are quite capable of making some very silly decisions. And I have also worked with quite young people who, due to the experiences in their fledgling career (or even through challenging circumstances in their childhood), are astoundingly perceptive, measured, and wise in their interactions with the world.
4. Success is not a solo journey. Building a tribe does more than provide the skills and experience you currently lack. In times of great personal or professional duress, it also helps to have a tribe. During uncertain times, it’s the support, the camaraderie, and the scientifically proven fact that working in a team gives us greater resilience (even for those of us who often prefer their own company!).
5. Everything is connected. We know our physical health affects the way we think and the way we handle stress. But beyond that, our physical environment, the way we hold our thoughts, the way we treat others…all of that also impacts our ability to lead and be resilient. We are connected in ways that science is now only beginning to prove (despite the fact much of this has been known since ancient times). And of course, by definition, this principle is connected to the previous four, and it proves that the sum of the whole gives a far greater benefit than each principle individually.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Perhaps a key quote was one my nana used to say when we were children.
“People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
Beyond the face-value warning against hypocrisy, for me, it also held deeper layers. It’s a reminder that we all have our flaws. And we all have our imperfections. But we also have our strengths.
And we have all of these things in a combination that’s completely unique. To us.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My website at https://markmudford.com.au has more information, including some of the researched articles and other work that I’ve written.
I’m also on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/markmudford/