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 Amanda Hill.
Three Box CEO Amanda Hill brings expertise in marketing strategy, crisis communications, media relations and experiential marketing to Fortune 500 brands and meteoric private companies. Amanda delivers senior counsel to Three Box clients and builds programming to help companies reach their business objectives through strategic communications. She has led international campaigns for ConocoPhillips, Singularity University and Topgolf, as well as regional brands including Southwest Transplant Alliance, Dallas Summer Musicals and Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.
Before joining Three Box, Amanda worked in marketing and public relations for Texas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest nonprofit for farmers and ranchers. She started her career in the Dallas office of Fleishman Hillard, an international communications agency, where she worked with Shell Oil, Ernst & Young, Yahoo! and the Boy Scouts of America.
Amanda has a bachelor’s in journalism and public relations from Baylor University and a Master of Business Administration from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. She’s a member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and earned the Accredited in Public Relations credential in 2013. In 2018, Amanda was invited to join the Forbes Dallas Business Council and regularly contributes to Forbes.com. She is a member of the 2019 class of Dallas Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” and serves on the Board of Directors of the Dallas Arboretum & Botanical Garden. She also serves as treasurer to the Public Relations Global Network.
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 dipped my toes into the world of public relations and communications at a very young age — my dad also works in the field, so PR was front-of-mind for me as I started discovering my passions and talents. I began my career out of college at a large, multinational agency, where I got my feet wet by working with some incredible brands. From there, I went on to work for an insurance company and later a nonprofit, but I always knew that entrepreneurship would likely be part of my career path. I went back to school and got my MBA from The University of Texas and eventually landed at the firm I now own and lead, Three Box Strategic Communications (formerly Lewis Public Relations).
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?
When I graduated from college, I imagined my life as a communications expert — sitting in important meetings with executives, preparing clients for media interviews, drafting corporate announcements that would be seen by the masses — but failed to imagine the “other duties as assigned” role that PR practitioners take on in order to deliver excellent client service. Early in my career, I was tasked with finding Chanel perfume for a client in the middle of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which was definitely not included in my job description. As bizarre as it felt in the moment, that memory sticks with me as a reminder that ego and offense don’t belong in client service — it’s an all-hands-on-deck adventure, and you have to be a team player to deliver great results.
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?
So much of who I am as a professional and as an individual is because of my dad. He has been the most natural mentor to me throughout my career. As a PR practitioner himself, he understands the nuances of the industry and is a trusted advisor to me. He encourages me to think objectively about a situation or challenge I’m facing, and I know he always has my best interest at heart.
One of my earliest memories is my dad taking my brother and I to spend the night at his agency while he and his team pulled an all-nighter on a client proposal. While that was a long time ago, since then, we’ve shared professional spaces and worked together for a number of years. Every day we learn something new from each other. I’m grateful to benefit from his deep industry experience and his support as I navigate a new approach to integrated communications and business development.
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 my dad founded our company, he wanted to create a culture that supported work-life balance while also delivering excellent service to clients. Many of us have had different, sometimes difficult experiences in an agency or corporate setting, and he built a more meaningful environment — one that encouraged our team to have more fulfilled, well-rounded lives outside of the office. That balance, along with the pursuit of excellence for our clients, is what drives me every day. It continues to be our north star, regardless of how or where we grow as a business.
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?
Without a doubt, navigating COVID-19 has been the most challenging circumstance I have faced as a leader. When the pandemic hit the United States in March, my team acted incredibly quickly to make sure our team stayed safe and client work continued without interruption. Just hours after a breaking news alert, I met with our operations team and then the entire staff to announce the decision to enforce remote work until further notice. Prioritizing our team’s health and safety remains a non-negotiable in my decision-making.
The days and months that followed were even more challenging, and yet it was important to me to lead my team with confidence and calm so that everyone was informed but not panicked. Keeping a level head and leading with courage and transparency was especially critical during that time. Since then, I think open communication has allowed us to collaborate as a team and serve our clients well, even if we’re not physically together in an office.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Truthfully, yes — but never for long. Being a leader can be lonely and incredibly difficult, but at the end of the day, I love my job, our team and our clients. That really sustains me when things get tough. Throughout the years, I’ve realized that my emotions can fluctuate or be fleeting, but there are people who count on my leadership and stability. Those people matter way more to me than a desire to give up when it gets hard.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think the most important thing a leader can do during challenging times is be decisive and calm. Everyone knows when things are rocky. They’re looking to a leader to chart a path forward out of the storm, and they need to feel confident that their leader will find a way ahead.
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?
It’s important to celebrate wins and progress, even if things look different than they did before an economic downturn or organization-wide challenge. Leaders must shift their expectations in a troublesome time, but there are always good things to recognize and praise. When a team member or associate feels heard, valued and appreciated, it’s reflected in their work and makes it easier for everyone to show up and push forward, even on the hard days.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Delivering bad news is like ripping off a bandage — the longer the process is drawn out, the more painful it is for everyone involved. Be transparent and quick when delivering bad news. Avoid speculation or rumors, use plain language, get to the point quickly and provide plenty of room for questions and feedback — it’s crucial to create a safe environment that welcomes two-way conversation. Finally, share the news with everyone together (either in-person or over a phone or video call) if it’s appropriate, or schedule one-on-one meetings as close together as possible so everyone is informed at the same time.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Planning for the future, especially in 2020, can seem daunting when there is so much uncertainty ahead. Leaders should start by mapping out what they know (it’s often more than they think). Try to anticipate what you don’t know based on industry expertise, economic trends and business forecasts. Then create contingency plans around those scenarios. Handle what you can, plan for what you can imagine and then focus on making progress. Don’t get too sidetracked by the fact that you don’t know everything — forward motion is success.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Focus on your people. Put your team first during good times and bad. When organizations take their focus off the people and place it, instead, on revenue or efficiency or process, it has a domino effect on the rest of the company. Organizations lose talent, they risk their market reputation and they threaten their consumer loyalty. An organization’s foundation helps it withstand turbulent times, and more often than not, that foundation is built on culture, people and leadership.
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?
Over the course of my career, I’ve had the pleasure of working with lean startups and Fortune 500 brands. Across them all, the most common mistakes I see include panicking, isolating leadership, making emotional decisions and taking the focus off people.
First, avoid panicking and grasping at straws. Companies that start trying anything and everything, whether it be a new product, service, hire, etc., with no real strategy will inevitably lose that gamble. Difficult times force brands to innovate, but it is important to do it thoughtfully — don’t just throw something at the wall hoping it will stick.
Next, isolating leadership is a real problem. When leaders try to solve things on their own without the rest of the company’s input, they miss out on tremendous opportunities. A lot of great ideas come from roles of all levels and can propel your brand forward during bad times.
In that same vein, leaders should avoid emotional decision making. Making decisions for the company based on individual pride, selfishness or wavering emotion is impulsive. By removing emotion from your decision making, you help lift that cloud of judgment that makes it harder to make unpopular choices for the sake of a brand’s longevity.
Finally, I think the most severe mistake leadership can make during a challenging season is taking the focus off their people. A company’s employees are its lifeblood, and they will play a vital role in getting out of a challenge if they feel valued, heard and appreciated.
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?
As a leader, it has been important for me to look for opportunities even in a challenging economic time. As a team, we put our heads together and thought of creative ways to reach our market with new services and even package our existing services in a fresh way. With that innovation comes team buy-in and excitement, and that energy attracts new business. Of course, I’d encourage other leaders to invest in services that directly impact your clients, keep communicating with your audiences and always look for ways to help.
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.
- Communicate often and with transparency. As part of our remote business continuity plan, our team has a 15–30-minute video conference meeting every morning. I share company updates, new business opportunities and answers to any questions from our team. It’s a safe space for the team to express concern, share ideas and cheer each other on.
- Trust your team. Prior to COVID-19, our business development team consisted of just a few key players. When the pandemic hit, we invited our entire team to join our regular meetings. We’ve seen significant progress, creativity and innovation from the all-hands-on-deck approach.
- Invest in the individual. In good and bad times, Three Box offers everyone a personal professional development budget and weekly meetings with their leaders. We always encourage our team members to pursue their personal and professional goals and support them in their journey wherever possible.
- Know your numbers. Business leaders should have a regular pulse on where the business is, the progress it’s making and where it’s headed. I make it a point to always know our cash flow at any given moment — equipping yourself with data is always a good idea.
- Make hard decisions. Sometimes you have to downsize, let people go or make other unpopular judgment calls to ensure a healthy business. It’s important to stand by your decisions with confidence, communicate them with clarity and keep pushing forward to a brighter tomorrow.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” — Theodore Roosevelt
This quote hangs in my office as a reminder that leadership is a heavy role to carry, and though it’s hard, the most effective leaders are those in the trenches with their team, doing the work together. Your team will work as hard as you do, but you must set the tone.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Twitter — @ThreeBoxInc
Instagram — @ThreeBoxStrategic
LinkedIn — @Three Box Strategic Communications or connect with me, Amanda Hill