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 Allison Shapira.
Allison Shapira is a former opera singer turned entrepreneur, author, speaker, and expert in public speaking. She is the Founder/CEO of Global Public Speaking, a communication training firm and certified woman-owned small business that helps emerging and established leaders speak with confidence and authenticity in both virtual and in-person settings. She teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School and has spent 18 years developing leadership communication programs for global Fortune 50 companies. Allison holds a master’s in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School and is the author of Speak with Impact: How to Command the Room and Influence Others (HarperCollins Leadership), a Washington Post best-seller. She was a recent finalist for Woman Business Owner of the Year by the National Association of Women Business Owners, San Diego Chapter.
In her free time, Allison is a singer/songwriter who has performed all over the world. When she’s not speaking or singing, you can find her out on the water sailing or paddle boarding in Annapolis, MD. A multilinguist, she can ask for directions in 10 languages but can only understand the responses in 4.
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?
Growing up, all I wanted to do was become an opera singer. I went to a performing arts high school and later studied vocal performance at Boston University. But after receiving some critical feedback from my teacher about my chances of making it in the industry, I became disillusioned with the field of opera and switched majors.
After graduation, I found myself in the field of diplomacy and soon realized everything I learned as a singer made me an effective public speaker and public speaking coach. Techniques such as breathing, vocal projection, and eye contact: these skills which I had honed as a singer became my competitive advantage as a speaker. There was certainly a steep learning curve for the skills of persuasion, messaging, and content creation, but once I built up those skills, I started a communication consulting business which I ran on the side for nearly 10 years. Then, in 2012, I took a leap of faith and moved to Washington, DC to launch the company full-time. I moved to a new city with no clients but I was determined to make it work: I set a goal of 2 networking meetings every single day of the week. In our first year, we were profitable and had 35 clients. Today, we are a global team working with the largest companies in the world. Years after graduating from the Harvard Kennedy School, I was invited back to teach public speaking as an adjunct lecturer, a role I’ve held for seven years. I’m really proud of the ability to take skills in one very narrow area (singing) and parlay them into a successful business that can add value to any industry.
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?
“The kind of person you want doing sales and business development is not the person who is also going to pick up your dry cleaning.” Thankfully, a friend of mine and executive recruiter pointed out my hiring naivety when it was time to build my team. Early on, I made a list of tasks in all aspects of my life with which I needed help. The idea was to find one person who could do the majority of those tasks. Turns out, that’s not a great hiring strategy! My friend helped me segment my needs into different categories and then it became easier to find the right people for the right roles, from part-time contractors to full-time employees.
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?
It’s hard to count the number of people who have helped me get to where I am. From friends who opened their network to clients who made introductions — every step of the way, there were people who helped me. Some were good friends and some were people I barely knew. What I realized is that none of us does anything on our own 100% — we are all part of an incredible ecosystem, and we can be more effective and more impactful when we tap into that ecosystem.
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?
My purpose has always been to help people overcome their fear of public speaking, and my vision is a world in which people are unafraid to use their voice for good — at work, at home, or in their community. I help professionals who are moving into leadership roles find ways to communicate that are both authentic to them and impactful to their audience. The tactical need to speak clearly and concisely, combined with the purpose-driven need to connect, never cease to amaze me. I absolutely love the idea that something I’m passionate about is also something that organizations recognize as a critical need to be successful. One of the programs I’m most passionate about is with the nonprofit Vital Voices Global Partnership. Vital Voices finds extraordinary women leaders around the world and does everything possible to maximize their impact. I have had the honor of traveling from South Africa to Argentina to Japan, teaching public speaking and networking to these women.
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?
At the start of the pandemic, 90% of our business disappeared within the span of a month. All of our expected annual revenue was gone — and we had just hired two new full-time team members and were still paying rent on an office we couldn’t go into. We didn’t have time to wait it out, we had to spring into action to save the business. While many people would think of those team members as liabilities during this time, I realized what an asset they were: because of them, we had more people working full-time on pivoting our programs from in person to virtual. We recreated all our processes for a new workflow, a new medium. That’s how we were able to save the business and emerge stronger than ever.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up was never an option, especially since I had staff depending on me. They had left larger organizations to come work for a small business owner, and I wasn’t going to make them pay for that decision. Even if I had to cut my own salary, I would do whatever it took to provide a stable job for my employees. I’ve always considered “focus” to be my superpower; every single day, I woke up thinking “Time to save the business” and that mantra kept me going despite all the global uncertainty. Eventually, I lifted my head up and it was the summer and business had started picking up. By August, I knew we would be OK. We produced this video to highlight our pandemic pivot.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
One of the most critical roles of a leader is to address the most pressing challenges head-on: not to procrastinate, but to immediately focus on them. You may not have any answers or solutions yet, but it’s your responsibility to address the challenge immediately, especially if others’ livelihoods depend on 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?
My goal was to always find ways of highlighting the positive in any situation: for example, since we didn’t have our normal flow of business coming in during the pandemic, I framed it as a unique moment in time to invest in our back-end processes. Each of my team members had joined our business with ideas and suggestions for how to improve it, so we actually had the time to implement those suggestions: transitioning to a new CRM, updating our collateral, developing new programs. We would never have had time to do this otherwise! Each staff person came up with new ideas based on their strengths, and as a result they were motivated and empowered to try new things.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It’s important to be up-front about the news and make sure your team hears it from you first. Acknowledge what people are thinking — give them a space to respond — and then keep the focus on what we can do as opposed to what we can’t do.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The reality is that the future is always unpredictable, regardless of whether or not there’s a global pandemic. A key client can leave their organization at any moment, and there goes the program you had built for them. Leaders need to constantly scan the horizon for opportunities and threats in order to stay flexible, innovative, and adaptable. They should also stay in touch with their clients: it was through our wellness checks with clients that we learned what they really needed help with. As a result, we realized that our virtual communication training was sorely needed in order for them to maintain their competitive advantage in a virtual environment. Our clients told us the solutions they needed.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
There is no one principle that will help guide a company through turbulent times; as leaders we need to develop a toolkit of skills that we can call on when needed. One of those skills is clear and compassionate communication.
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?
I saw several of my colleagues decide to wait out the uncertainty, while others tried too hard to sell during the pandemic. I don’t think you can avoid making mistakes; we certainly tried strategies that didn’t work but we learned from them and then moved on to different strategies.
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?
It’s not a linear path, even in a “normal” year. We have always sought to diversify the industries we serve and create multiple touchpoints within any one organization. We can’t influence when someone makes the decision to invest in training, but we can influence how often they hear from us and how many people we reach out to. In turbulent times, it’s important to stay close to your clients and employees: do wellness checks with no agenda, offer free resources for those whose budgets are in limbo, and always put yourself in their shoes. Those touchpoints became important ways for us to learn from what people needed and adapt our offerings accordingly. Ultimately, it made us a better company.
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.
Any business owner knows that one size does not fit all. This is what worked for us:
- One: try things out without knowing if they will work. Rather than waiting to see what would happen, we took quick, decisive, strategic action and course-corrected frequently. As a team, we would brainstorm possibilities and then decide on one or two ideas to implement.
- Two: Communicate concisely and often with your team. Even if you don’t have answers, let your team know where you are and bring them into the conversation. My team often had solutions or suggestions that I would never have considered, and some of them have become standard practice since then.
- Three: Make your team feel safe and secure. When your team’s existential needs are being met, they have more energy to be creative. I let my team know that their jobs were secure and that we would use this time to invest in our company; that freed them up to try out new ideas.
- Four: Check in with your clients. Letting them know you are there for them shows your commitment to the relationship and also provides valuable information you can use to better serve them. Our wellness checks were simple and personal, and so many people responded right away with gratitude that we thought of them. Some led to business, but I never included selling language in the email.
- Five: Consult with others. Leadership can feel like a lonely endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be. I reached out to my competitors in the industry since we were all going through the same challenges. We were willing to share what was working and what wasn’t, recognizing that we all had critical pieces of the puzzle.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is from St. Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
We don’t achieve incredible results all at once. We do it step-by-step over time, with strategy, focus, and reflection — much like how we become great public speakers!
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’d love to share public speaking tips with readers: they can sign up for my newsletter at: https://www.globalpublicspeaking.com/the-gps-newsletter/
They are also welcome to connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/allisonshapira/