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 Alicia McKay.
Alicia McKay is a strategy, change and leadership expert — and author of the newly released sensation: You Don’t Need An MBA: Leadership Lessons That Cut Through the Crap.
A feisty and inspirational young female entrepreneur, Alicia founded her consulting practice at just 25, with two young daughters in tow. She works with New Zealand and Australia’s most senior leaders in government, business and community to develop cutting-edge strategy and build leadership capability. Alicia founded the Meetings that Matter facilitation method, and the naMBA executive programme. She is the co-host of the What’s On Your Mind podcast and has authored two books. Known for her trade-mark no BS delivery style, our interview with Alicia is no exception! Read on to understand how a teen mother and foster kid went on to became a rising star in corporate strategy and leadership world.
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?
Of course! Would you like the personal story, or the professional one? The professional one is reasonably boring. I started my career as a policy analyst and strategic advisor, working in-house in local government. Then, I jumped ship to the private sector and worked and as a management consultant to develop strategies, policies and plans for investment for companies and government agencies across the board.
I did all the right things, got all the right accreditations and wrote all the right reports, and I was good at my job… but something just didn’t click right. Everything seemed to take a long time, cost a lot of money, and have a slow payoff. I found myself often watched in frustration as things weren’t implemented and people went around in circles, unsure about how to make a decision — and then how to make it stick.
I’m not a particularly patient woman, or a very compliant employee, so I left employment pretty early on, when I was 25 years old. It was a pretty risky decision! My husband was an apprentice builder, and we had two young kids and a mortgage to pay at that point. But I really believed I could do things better on my own, and I was ready to take the risk. I threw myself head-first into learning everything I could — tailing successful consultants to see what worked and what didn’t, travelling across New Zealand and Australia to do specialist training and get different accreditations, and reading everything I could get my hands on.
After a few years cutting my teeth working with “approved” methods, I eventually got serious about building my own way. It wasn’t easy — I drank a lot of coffees and had a lot of sales meetings that went nowhere, but eventually I started to get some traction. We moved cities, and I wrote and self-published my first book, and then things started to shift.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been riding that wave and taking all my strategy and change experiments and expertise and channeling that into the people stuff — leadership. It doesn’t matter how great our processes are, if the people who are in charge of making it happen are missing key skills. I noticed that things would be fine while I was involved, but tended to die a few months after I left because people didn’t have the confidence to respond as things changed and keep things moving. We don’t seem to teach people the things they really need at the top table — how to make good decisions, how to solve tricky problems, and how to keep people on the boat with us. So, I shifted my attention into how to build those skills! Hence: my new book and the launch of Not An MBA.
On a personal level, I think I was always destined to be an entrepreneur. I had a pretty tough start in life: I was raised in a dysfunctional family, I was in foster care as a teenager, and I was out alone in the world — baby in tow — by 16. I knew education was going to be the game-changer for me, and I was lucky to have a well-functioning brain, so I made a choice early on to make that work for me. I sweet talked my way into university when I was 17 and my first daughter was just a few months old, and worked extremely hard to get good marks. My second daughter arrived a few weeks into my postgraduate year, and I didn’t skip a beat — just kept working, pushing, channeling my focus as best I could and finding the fastest, smartest ways to do what needed doing. I think a tumultuous early life prepared me well for life as an entrepreneur — I’m used to taking risks and living on the edge. I never had comfort or security, so I didn’t miss it! It’s not all roses though. It’s been tough juggling a career, a business, and children, without the traditional support network that comes with a functional family. And those habits that served me so well as a young mother — persistence, risk and an impossible work ethic — are now the things I’m trying to untangle as I settle into a more sustainable way of living, before I burn out completely. It’s a fine line, and the reason I have so much empathy and connection for the CEOs and executive leaders that push themselves just as hard.
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?
Honestly, most of my funny stories are — ironically — about being trapped in my own overwhelm and making stupid mistakes. For a couple of years, before I could afford to hire a team, I had what we called the “F**k Up Budget” which was responsible for funding all the stupid administration mistakes I made along the way. I was known for doing things like booking hotels in the wrong city, or forgetting critical items and paying the price. I once landed in Christchurch and realized when I went to pick up my rental car that I’d left my drivers license back in Wellington! I had to be 300kms away that night for an early morning start the next day, and the rental car company wouldn’t budge — no license, no car. So, I started chatting to people around me, to find out where they were travelling to. As luck would have it, I got talking to someone who was going in my direction, and who was happy to let me hitch a ride and even drop me exactly where I needed to go. While I was there I managed to borrow a car from a friend in a nearby town, and made my flight home with just a few minutes to spare after juggling a patchwork of alternative transport arrangements. I’d like to say I don’t still make mistakes like that, because I’m so strategic and such a good delegator, but I’d be lying. I’m a big picture thinker, so unless someone has explicitly taken care of things like where I’ll park my car, what the weather will be, or where I’m staying, I just completely forget until I get there. The lesson there is to
- Always be ready for disaster, because something is likely to go wrong, and
- Have people on your team who will think of all the things that you won’t.
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?
Professionally, I’d struggle to single out someone in particular. I’d have to really acknowledge everyone who’s ever taken a risk on me and given me the scope to do great things without getting afraid and putting a box around it. I’ve had mentors who’ve let me be involved in projects that were a bit out of my league, and clients who’ve trusted me to deliver without specifying exactly how I should do it, and it’s in those moments that I’ve had the most opportunity to really shine and step up. That kind of empowerment is rare, and it’s taught me so much about how to get the best out of people.
Personally, I’d say, without hesitation, my ex-husband Hamish. I took some really big risks early in my business and they weren’t without potential disaster for our family. Hamish always believed in me, and trusted my judgement — even when things looked scary. I was never worried about coming home and admitting I’d failed, because I knew he was behind me and believed I’d pull it off. We’re no longer married, but we remain close friends as we raise our three girls together, and I’m thankful every day for his commitment to our children, and absolute support in everything I set out to do. I particularly love what that’s shown our girls — about upturning traditional gender roles, and putting first things first even when things are hard.
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?
Great question. I’ve always had a social conscience — I believe deeply in contribution and responsibility. They’re right at the core of my values. I come from a background where life was tough — financially, and logistically — and I’ve always firmly believed that if you’ve got a gift, or you can contribute, then you have a responsibility to use it. I knew I had a good brain and some potential, and always felt like if I wasted it, I was doing everyone who didn’t have what I had a disservice. So that’s been a powerful underlying driver for me from the outset.
The early years of my business were almost exclusively focused on working with for-community organisations — government agencies, charities, social services, that kind of thing — and I felt like the people they were serving deserved the best they had to offer. They couldn’t afford wasted time, wasted money or wasted energy, and they’re also the ones paying, through their taxes, for good stuff to happen! So, helping public service professionals do better, faster, and get more done, felt like the right use of my skills.
As I’ve expanded my reach, I’ve realized that the same applies. The more people I can help to do great work and overcome the barriers in their way, the larger the contribution I can make. It’s just more leveraged now. Rather than running change processes myself, I’ve realized that training others to do a good job of it, through initiatives like Meetings that Matter and Not An MBA, is the right way for me to help others. My vision right now is all about helping ambitious, overloaded professionals have the impact they want to have on the world — without falling to bits along the way! And I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity to do that at scale, reaching big audiences on stage and online, and working with large corporations. The further I can stretch that reach, and the more people I can touch, the happier I get.
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?
When the pandemic first hit here in New Zealand, we had some tough choices to make. Our Prime Minister made our lockdown announcement while we were in the middle of a strategy meeting, and we had to make some quick decisions about what the next few months would look like for us. I knew that we weren’t going to be able to predict how we would feel, or what our clients would need, so the conversation turned quickly to principles: what were our most important priorities going to be, as we navigated the next step.
We landed on three priorities, which we fleshed out with some early goals. They were:
- Love the sh*t out of our clients (be frank, give freely, and talk frequently)
- Be visible and add value (daily LinkedIn, podcast launch (this is how What’s On Your Mind was born!) and create regular, relevant content)
- Online excellence (deliver every week, build a studio, share our journey, be willing to try and fail)
Making the “right” decision was going to feel challenging for all of us, but with those priorities to guide us, we were able to make good choices as we went, that were true to our values. If we were facing a choice that didn’t enable us to hit at least one of those three things, we took serious pause. Having that clarity about the most important things made it easier to cut through all the small, trivial challenges that had the potential to throw us off course.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Would you like the good media answer, or the honest one? Look, I probably think about giving up once a week. I have a tendency to go big, fast. Sometimes that pays off beautifully, and other times, I find myself out of my mind with stress and pressure when it all hits at once. I’m still working on how to balance that passion with sustainability. There’s been a couple of really dark mental health moments over the last year or two where I’ve had the scary experience of losing touch with my sense of purpose and passion, which is new to me. Ultimately, I get back up and keep going though.
Some of that motivation and drive comes from a negative place — anxiety and fear from a tough childhood — and it’s not serving me like it used to. I’m working on that.
But lots of it is super positive too — I love the work I do, I love being a role model to my children, and every time I get an email from a client or a reader about how my work has touched their lives, I’m back at it again. It’s the sustainable bit I need to get right, which is all about making the choices that keep me healthy and happy. Taking regular space, prioritizing exercise, investing in connection with family and friends outside of work, all that good stuff. I might work with people on this, but I certainly don’t claim to be perfect at it myself! It’s a work in progress. But work worth doing.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader is to see the big picture. When things get hard, our brains default to the ‘right now’. That makes total sense for our operational teams, who’s job it is to fix the right now, but we need our leaders to see past that, and consider how this chapter fits into the bigger picture. They’ve got to be asking better questions like — how could this be a good thing? What has this revealed to us that we’re glad we know? What chapter will this be in our overall story? Leaders have to be able to zoom out.
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?
Be real, so that others can be too.
People see right through disingenuous attempts at boosting morale. When their jobs are on the line, and they know it, they’re not going to be soothed by wellness programmes or jazzy events. What they need is honesty and connection, with their leaders and others. Talk about what’s hard, and what might go wrong. Talk about personal battles, and make it safe to be scared, and then channel that into supporting each other to find new ways and tap into what really matters.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Can I say the same thing again here? Be real. Channel a bit of appropriate vulnerability, stay attuned to how people will be feeling, and don’t try to dress things up as something they aren’t. If you’re having to shut down service lines to stay profitable, tell people that. If you’re having to cut a few jobs to keep your company afloat in the long term, tell people that’s what you’re doing, express the difficulty you’ve experienced in making that decision, and explain why in simple terms. I’m not sure why we forget basic human interaction principles when it comes to corporate communication, but it’s time we went back to our roots here.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plans are problematic at the best of times — they rarely survive first contact with the enemy. The more ambiguous our environment is, the less we need to rely on plans, and the more we need to turn to principles. When we know what matters most to us, and we’re clear about that, we can make decisions that align with it. We might not know which product or service is going to hit the mark, or what organizational structure is the perfect solution, but we can be clear on the impact we want to have on the world, how we want to work, and what our values are. If you’re a retail company in COVID, your plans will be dead in the water on the first week. But if you’re focused on, for example, serving your customers in ways that make their lives easier, or supporting parents to find balance while they homeschool, or whatever your specialty is, that will guide daily decisions about how to make that possible. The less attached to our plans we can be, and the more confident in our values and principles we are, the better things pan out.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Play the long game.
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?
Hmm. Here’s my top three:
- Abandoning their long-term goals for short-term gains
- Trying to move into areas they have no idea about, while forgetting what makes them great in the first place
- Focusing too much on the negative, without seeing the opportunities to adapt for the better
- Leaving no margin for error.
Good businesses aren’t playing a short game. They don’t sacrifice their ten-year impact for a quarterly revenue goal. That’s the kind of behaviour that confuses people, breaks down trust, and ruins brand integrity. People remember how you behaved, and when things are rosy again, they’re going to remember your kneejerk reactions! Crisis gives us the opportunity to show what we’re really made of, and to maintain relationships that matter. When COVID hit us, I was tempted to throw all my government work out the window — they’d lost their budgets and strategic focus overnight, so why stay there? But the reality is, continuing to show up and serve, and keeping in touch while people battled, was totally in alignment with our brand values and has proven that we really care about the work they’re doing, not just the invoices they’re paying. The quality of those relationships has really deepened over the last few years, and unlocked opportunities to add value that we couldn’t have conceived of a couple of years ago.
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 might seem counter-intuitive, but the more we narrow down our niche, the better we seem to do. I think it’s tempting, when you’re starting out, or money is tight, to become a ‘jack of all trades’. All that does is dilute your focus and energy, so that you’re doing a worse job of more things!
My goal is always to be the ‘go-to’ in whatever we choose to focus on, and I don’t want to play in a space where I don’t intimately understand the lives and challenges of the people I’m serving. That requires some real confidence in your offering, but it’s always been worth it. If you want to forge ahead, be crystal clear about how you add the most value, and stay totally attuned to the people that need it. There’s always a market when you add real value — and the more niche you are, the less competition you face. There’s no other Alicia McKay out there, so as far as I’m concerned, I don’t have any competition! That kind of attitude only leads to playing small.
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.
Ironically, I think the five most important things are exactly the things we don’t teach people how to do. We’ve got this development trajectory in place that doesn’t serve us anymore — train excellent technical staff, make them people managers, and then profile their personalities. What we really need are enduring skills that support us through ongoing uncertainty no matter what happens. Rather than trying to predict the technical and operational capabilities we need the most, we should be thinking about how to tackle our strategic capabilities, so that we’re OK even when our operational demands change.
These are the five skills we focus on in Not An MBA, and the five modules that comprise my latest book, You Don’t Need An MBA.
To lead through complexity, we need to be OK with change. Flexible leaders know that leadership isn’t about getting things done in spite of their environment, but because of it. They have the awareness, agency and resilience to withstand pandemics, natural disasters and technological disruption, because they stay flexible to the world around them.
Making good decisions is a learned skill. Decisive leaders know it’s not what they think, but how they think that matters, focusing on providing direction that drives action. They know that no cost-benefit analysis will save them, without the skills to capture diverse input and build in tolerance for change.
Strategic leaders think in systems, because they know that successful organizations dismantle silos and work out how things fit together. Systems leaders don’t settle for what’s in front of them, focusing instead on the messy stuff — context, relationships and dependencies. They stop finger-pointing and problem-solving, to pull levers and dissolve issues before they take hold.
True performance isn’t operational excellence or time management — it’s focus. Strategic leaders understand that their most valuable resource is their attention, optimizing their environments and teams to invest in the factors that make a real difference. They know that once they eliminate distraction and insist on value, quality and accountability, there’s nowhere left to hide.
Influential leaders know that political savvy isn’t slimy; it’s non-negotiable for impact at scale. They know that their integrity, reputation and relationships are what makes the difference. As our environment continues to shift, it will be the leaders who can bring others with them whose ideas will take hold.
Ultimately, in the knowledge economy, we’ve got access to all the technical information and instruction in the world at the touch of a button. If you need finance knowledge, watch a video and get your head around it in 15 minutes. If you need marketing expertise, Google for a freelancer and book the job in online.
But if you need to understand how best to adapt to your environment, how to make quality decisions that capture the big picture, how to drive focus and how to take people along on the journey… well, it’s time for strategic leadership.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Can I have two?
The first one is to always assume positive intent.
I read somewhere once that every time you’re tempted to ask “Why are they doing this to me?” You’re best to remove the “to me” and instead ask: “Why are they doing this?” That kind of compassionate curiosity can be hard to stick with, but almost always delivers better results. When you assume that people are inherently good, and doing the best they can, it helps you to ask better questions about why they’re not able to do that. Blame is so unhelpful — and even on the rare occasion that someone is trying to be hurtful or evil, they still respond better to your positive assumptions than your negative judgement.
The second one is a line from Gabor Mate — “When facing a choice between guilt and resentment, always choose the guilt… Resentment is soul suicide.”
I think that’s particularly pertinent for women, who battle the guilt monster daily. When we do things we don’t want to, we wind up inevitably frustrated and disappointed at our lack of recognition. People didn’t ask us to put them first, but we still want them to acknowledge a level of sacrifice that’s mostly invisible to them. It doesn’t work, and it serves no-one. The guilt stings to start with, but it has a far shorter shelf-life. Go with guilt.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The best way to stay up to date is to join the Wednesday Wisdom tribe. I started publishing weekly 3 years ago, to a list of 28 people, and now there’s thousands of people who read my thoughts every week. They’re always fresh ideas that are relevant to what’s happening for me and my clients — I write them the day before, every week. You can join up on my website — www.aliciamckay.co.nz/wednesday-wisdom
I’m also super active on LinkedIn, and I love making new connections there! www.linkedin.com/in/aliciamckaynz