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 Amy Scissons, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer of Russell Reynolds Associates, a global leadership advisory and search firm. A results-delivery marketing executive with an exceptional record of success in leveraging digital and traditional platforms to support business growth objectives, Amy brings over 20 years of experience leading and developing go-to-market strategies for firms across the globe. Skilled in end-to-end marketing management, her expertise includes integrated marketing strategy, demand generation, customer-centric digital/data-driven marketing and leading high-performance teams.
Prior to her current position, Amy served as Chief Marketing Officer for Mercer’s International Region, where she led marketing operations in more than 100 cities and 41 countries for the global HR consulting firm.
Amy earned a BA in history and an MBA from McGill University. She also holds a Certificate in International Business from HEC Paris, has spoken as a guest lecturer at ESADE Business School and is fluent in English, Spanish and French.
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?
My primary expertise is in integrated marketing strategy, demand generation, customer-centric digital/data-driven marketing and leading high-performance marketing and communications teams. Prior to joining Russell Reynolds Associates in 2020 as its Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and Chief Communications Officer (CCO), I served as Chief Marketing Officer for Mercer’s International Region where I led the firm’s marketing operations in over 100 cities and 41 countries. Before Mercer, I held a global marketing leadership position at Moody’s Analytics.
My passion is in work that crosses industries, functions and geographic borders. I’m also motivated by the ability to leverage both digital and traditional platforms to support business growth objectives against continuous disruptions.
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?
I’ve made the grave mistake of misjudging or misreading someone upon introduction. While this is not uncommon in international business environments, it unfortunately prevents critical connections from happening. I’ve learned that a leader needs to adapt his or her style, depending on who or what is the context. Without a strong and adaptable communication style, leaders will fail to earn commitment from team members, fail to meet business objectives and fail to develop a rapport with those that matter most. In the end, they’ll fail as leaders no matter how good their intentions are.
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?
I have been very fortunate to have had really strong mentors and influencers who have helped me throughout my life, but none more impactful than my mother. It’s been 12 years since she’s passed, but I keep the lessons I learned watching, emulating and sharing ideas with her with me even to this day.
My mother was a radical. And while she would never want to be categorized as such, she was far from conventional in her approach to life and her career. She was highly influenced by the feminists of her time, dedicated to her patients and a student of life — always reading, learning, challenging the status quo. At the same time, she celebrated her femininity and coveted her individuality.
She taught me many lessons that helped me manage everything from embracing the complexities of being a woman to standing my ground in male-dominated industries to navigating the challenges of parenthood.
Some of these lessons include:
- Not buying into unrealistic body image norms.
- Surrounding yourself with nurturing female friends.
- Showing up to all of your commitments and for the people in your life.
- Investing in yourself, your ideas and your passions.
- Trusting your instincts. It seems simple, but when immersed in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, sometimes you need a reminder to do what’s right for you. It takes true strength of character to know when to walk away, but sometimes it’s exactly what you have to do.
- Find a partner that helps you grow. If you are a better, more challenged person with them, you have found the right life partner.
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?
At Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA), we have defined that our driving, fundamental purpose is to improve the way the world is led. Business has a greater purpose than just providing shareholders with revenue. Strong business leadership can impact our communities and improve how we live and work. As business leaders, we need to be constantly tapping into that higher purpose. We need to be encouraging clients to do that as well. One of the first initiatives I’ve focused on as the new CMO and CCO at RRA is bringing our mission of inspiring new leadership to life so the firm — and all the people within it — can own this purpose. By all team members taking it forward in the work they do, we will organically bring this point-of-view to clients, triggering profound impact on board rooms and offices around the world.
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 we first entered the pandemic, I was leading a large international team of about 130 people. All team members were located outside of the US and I was based in New York City. This was a particularly difficult moment to bring together people who were so regionally disparate. At this time, everyone was located along different stages of the pandemic timeline. The way I was connecting with teams in Asia, who were deeper into the timeline, was very different than my teams in Europe. People were not just concerned about health and safety personally, but also professional security. I rapidly had to adopt a new leadership style so I could empower them, promote flexibility, drive purpose and get everyone on the same page. My approach was centered around empathy, over-communicating, agility and empowering team members to make the right decisions on the ground.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Everybody always considers giving up. But a true test of character is how you manage to reframe your thinking. For me, I have one person in my life, my husband, who is very good at helping me reframe and re-approach situations from a new angle. Tapping into these new approaches helps keep me grounded when I hit the wall. The trick for getting past the wall is tapping into the mindset of someone who doesn’t see that the wall exists.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think the most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to be continuously purposeful and intentional about what you’re sharing and communicating. Remaining focused on the purpose is key because team members need to have a reason for pressing forward, especially during difficult times. The number one priority should be to drive that purpose, explicitly and implicitly. The purpose also has to be about more than just making money. The second priority is to listen, be empathetic, bring people together and trust that team members will make the right decisions at the right time.
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?
Aside from relentlessly driving purpose and vision, team members have an inherent need to be recognized, valued and appreciated. Recognition during a difficult time cannot be overdone. For example, I was on a call yesterday with a team member in Singapore. Over the last couple of weeks, this person has been giving up their evenings to sync up with those of us in EST. I started out the call by recognizing and appreciating that fact. Now this team member knows that their work is not going unnoticed. When people know that the work they’re doing is valued and appreciated, they remain more engaged and committed.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
My philosophy is always be straight-forward and honest. However, before you deliver difficult news, it is important to take a step back and imagine yourself receiving the same information. Try to empathize with what receiving that news would be like and think through what the best way to message it would be. How would you want to receive it? Because every person is different and so is each situation, you may need to do this on an individual basis so you can personalize the messaging and response to that person. Taking these extra steps goes a long way in earning trust, as I’ve learned firsthand.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have to make many plans and remain flexible. There should be a plan A, B, C and so forth. You don’t need to fully flesh out these plans but they should be kept in the back of your mind. As we’ve learned in recent years, the business environment is always in flux and we can be thrown a curveball at any moment. Leaders must also be open to all plausible possibilities, new ideas and multiple perspectives. Planning helps leaders be prepared but malleability helps them stay resilient and adaptable in the face of uncertainty.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle is by far communication. I may be biased because I’m a communicator and a marketer by trade, but the importance of communication cannot be overstated across all functions and industries. When a company is going through difficult times, they cannot communicate with stakeholders enough. Overcommunicate, whenever possible. And this should not be done through a single channel. Make the communication multichannel so you can reach different stakeholders, using different sentiments and tones that resonate best across your many audiences.
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?
A typical mistake made during difficult times is cutting back too fast and making decisions before all the information is available. For example, the March and April time frame of this year was too early to assume that the complete lockdown would be status quo for more than a year. For companies that acted on this assumption, the rebound has been unexpected, and they’ve struggled to stay ahead of it. For companies that brashly cut workforces quickly and radically, it sent a message to team members that they cut fast and swift. Against this backdrop, it’s difficult to build loyalty and commitment in teams.
Another mistake is going quiet or simply not communicating enough. Silence only adds to the uncertainty and anxiety. This can make people feel uncomfortable and insecure about the future. This uncertainty is impacting both mental health and productivity and, in many cases, clear cut communication could help to remedy these pains. Even if the response confirms the uncertainty, team members will appreciate the transparency.
Finally, people are the important asset that a company has. But when the going gets tough, some companies lose sight of this. Like many prized assets, humans are fragile. They need support. It is a mistake to not always invest in people, especially during challenging times.
‘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?
In professional services, staying close to the client is a top, unrelenting priority. However, it is critical to avoid going into sales mode. Rather, you’ll want to enter support mode. Send a message that you’re there for them and you’re there to help. Staying close with customers has several benefits. First, it creates longevity in partnership, demonstrating that you’re a partner who is there through the good and the bad. It helps to define you and your brand, drives your purpose home and establishes you as a long-term partner. The other benefit is that, during turbulent times, customers are seeking information on how to overcome challenges. Putting information, expertise and advice out there showcases your expertise and differentiates your brand in the marketplace. It may seem counterintuitive to offer ‘free stuff’ during a time of tough cash flow, but it creates long-term value and enduring relationships. Instead of thinking short-term dollars, many companies excel beyond difficult times because they lean in to really understand their client and the problems they face. Essentially, they thrive because they become problem-solvers.
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.
Lead with transparency and overcommunicate whenever possible. This means providing clear guidance on all business-critical priorities but also discussing the future outlook, which has the dual purpose of driving productivity in the short-term but also helping ease feelings of uncertainty in the long-term. In the beginning, some companies communicated the pandemic to be “temporary” or maybe even tried to downplay its effects. Still others made brash decisions based on assumptions of there being complete shutdowns for a year or more. Extreme approaches are dangerous. Companies can avoid extreme reactions by maintaining regular, constant communication with team members. People understand that the business environment is currently uncertain, and they can accept that there may not be answers or resolutions at the moment. However, silence is never acceptable if a leader wants to build trust and loyalty with their team.
Because communication is a two-way street, leaders must also provide safe opportunities for their team members to express their own thoughts and offer feedback. Especially during turbulence, leaders should offer avenues for their team members to provide their thoughts, concerns and feedback. I’ve learned that offering multiple channels is particularly important because not all team members will feel comfortable coming directly to their manager. Some will prefer to offer their feedback anonymously. Anonymous surveys have been tremendously helpful in identifying and addressing gaps on teams that I’ve worked with. Also, it’s important to acknowledge any feedback that comes through, even if there’s not a plan to implement it. Often times, feedback cannot be acted on because of budget limitations or operational needs but recognizing the feedback and explaining this is an important part of the communication process.
It’s also critical that business leaders remain focused solely on the situations and variables they can actually control. There’s limited time each day and we can spend it preoccupied with that which is outside of our control or we can instead invest it in the factors that are in our very hands. I often make a two-column list of what’s in and out of my control and after I am finished, I physically cross out the “out of control” list. This helps me accept and move on from the items that appear in that column. It also helps me understand what I can control and sets me on the path of taking action.
The best leaders are those that put their own oxygen mask on first in an emergency. Only if we’re healthy, safe and well can we help others and lead them to safety. Team members take cues from leaders, meaning they’ll pick up on how managers act and respond to situations and this will impact how they act and respond. If we’re anxious and worried about a situation, it will trigger stress among our team. If a leader is not taking care of herself or himself, this will likely rub off on their team as well. Self-care becomes all the more critical during turbulent times. Be sure to take time out of the day to take a few intentional deep breaths. Get sleep and eat well. Catering to personal needs will help leaders achieve better business outcomes in the long term.
When the sea is calm, anyone can easily sail. When a storm comes through, only a strong leader can guide the team to safety. But this means being prepared for different possibilities. The guiding vision for an organization shouldn’t change but the means to realizing that vision inevitably will as market conditions evolve. This is true even during times of stability, but it’s especially true during turbulent times. Sticking to a plan that was made before market conditions changed could be a potential disaster. Keeping a strong pulse on the unfolding situation at all times helps leaders to fully understand the internal and external variables that are affecting business. Team collaboration is perhaps more important than ever, as it can bring fresh perspective and help guide a new approach. When it comes to team collaboration, I also try to make it a point to celebrate all victories — even the small ones. I find that this helps build positive momentum, rolling in a tide that can raise the boat and keep us moving.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is an eloquent quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg that I find to be profound and meaningful: “So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.”
As I look back on rejections or setbacks I’ve faced in the past, now I can approach them with clarity and hindsight. I even see them as valuable lessons and building blocks. It’s simply human nature that we can rarely understand and fully process the events of the present. Sure, when we face a difficult situation, it is valid to be disappointed and try to make sense of what went wrong. But, for me, this quote sums up how important it is to welcome challenges and obstacles, as they too can open doors of purpose and steer you on a new path. The hardest part is waiting to find out exactly what the positive outcome will be.