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 Angie Morgan.
Angie Morgan is a dynamic, creative thought leader who’s committed to helping others develop their leadership skills so they’re more influential, effective, and inspirational in all areas of their life.
Angie learned how to lead as an officer in the Marine Corps. Following her time in uniform, Angie pursued a career in sales with both Merck and Pfizer before launching her own consulting firm, Lead Star, and writing her two books, Leading from the Front and the New York Times best-selling SPARK. Beyond her work in the leadership development space, she’s an avid athlete and mom to two great sons. She resides in Traverse City, Mi.
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 journey started with a simple question: If not us, then who?
I was working in pharmaceutical sales at the time in North Carolina. I had a huge territory and would drive hours each and every day. There were elements of my work that were fulfilling, but the career itself wasn’t the right fit for me.
My (now) business partner, Courtney, asked me that simple question as we were both contemplating leaving our corporate jobs to write our first book and launch our consulting firm, Lead Star. We were both nervous about leaving the comforts of a steady paycheck and careers with promising futures. But given our creative and entrepreneurial natures, we were also both feeling constrained in our current roles. We had this vision of sharing the leadership lessons we both learned as Marines with a broader audience — many who had never served in the military.
Her question, at the time, felt like a dare. But she was right. If we couldn’t succeed in pursuit of our vision, who could? That was 2004. We’ve been going strong since. That’s not to say it’s been easy, but the journey has been worth the risk.
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?
One of our very first clients was Walmart, which definitely put some wind in our sails. Courtney and I were asked to speak at the corporate headquarters to share highlights from our first book, Leading from the Front. This was right around 2005.
What was cool about their conference space was that it was lined with rocking chairs, which was perfect for me because I was pregnant at the time.
I remember waiting to speak, rocking away, while holding my belly when a gentleman came down and sat next to me. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me — or the fact I was one of the speakers — but he struck up a conversation. We engaged in casual, polite chit chat for a while.
When he got up to leave, Courtney. who was sitting next to me, nudged me and said, “Wow, way to keep it cool and casual around the CEO.” Oops… At the time, I didn’t realize that I was speaking to the CEO of Fortune 1.
My lesson learned from that encounter was to do more homework whenever working with clients and always, as a business professional, be more prepared with engagement in the likely (or unlikely event) that I get a chance to have a conversation with a leader whose experience I could learn a lot from. Had I known he was the CEO, I’m sure I would have had a much more thoughtful conversation.
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 a consistent, standing running meeting with a dear friend who not only is wise, but has the best name in the world: Coco Champagne. She’s the COO of the classic car insurer, Hagerty. She, like me, juggles a variety of roles — mom, community leader, businesswoman — in her life. She works around the clock to stay on top of things.
I once asked her how she handles the barrage of requests for her time. Coco confided that she’s very, very good at saying “no” and setting boundaries. Her time needs to connect to a priority in her life. If it doesn’t, it’s easy for her to decline.
Coco says “no” with grace. I really respect how she keeps what’s most important in her life front and center, which is reflected in her decisions on how she manages her minutes.
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?
We firmly believe that better leaders = better world.
We’re passionate about our mission to share leadership development guidance with people who’ve never built their leadership skills with intention. We tend to think of leaders as people in prominent positions. This isn’t the case. Being a leader isn’t about a job title; it’s about action and behavior. When more people commit to building their leadership skills, they begin to see how they can bring greater influence and inspiration to their lives. Our book SPARK is all about helping professionals — at any level — build their leadership capabilities so they can be a force for good in their work and a force for good in the world.
This purpose continues to motivate and inspire us to share with others how to build trust, develop confidence, become more consistent, be more authentic, and make difficult decisions. I’m honored to be able to share our message with so many people.
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?
We’ve all experienced a massive period of uncertainty amidst COVID. For my business, Lead Star, our foundation was rocked. To do our work pre-COVID, we traveled on airplanes, spoke to large audiences, and facilitated conferences and events. When the stay-at-home orders began to roll out, and it was clear virtual work was going to be a part of our life, we had to pivot… fast and hard. This was also during a period when we lost revenue, and it was uncertain what type of support we’d be able to obtain, like PPP, to see us through. We all had our moments of doubt and uncertainty regarding the future, but we reminded ourselves of our vision and our mission. We soon realized that even in the midst of COVID, our work mattered. Arguably, it mattered more. We just had to find different methods and mediums to channel our services. We transitioned fast to virtual events and expanded upon our coaching programs. These two key acts allowed us to be very relevant in our space. We also rebranded to support this new direction for our business.
Keeping a vision and mission central to your business is like a North Star. It gives you guidance when you feel lost and serves as an inspiration when you feel uncertain.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I can recall a handful of times when I felt like quitting. Surprisingly, it wasn’t when we were struggling to find business. It was when we were overwhelmed with work, and I felt I wasn’t able to live my whole life… like I didn’t have time to go to my kids’ field trips, read a good book, or go out for a trail run.
Whenever I feel like I have to do a work/life tradeoff, that’s a sign — to me — that my balance is off.
I believe that my whole-life living sustains my drive. I’m a firm practitioner of fueling my mind, body, and spirit. These three elements are critical for me to feel as if I’m living a life well-lived. If I don’t have a way to clear my mind, exercise, or live out my values, then the tradeoff doesn’t seem worth it. That’s a warning sign that change needs to happen.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To be the calmest, coolest, most focused person in the room. It’s really that simple… yet, exactly that hard.
When people are challenged, they run the risk of losing their minds and reacting in sporadic, unpredictable ways. Yet, during these periods, we need steady, consistent leaders. They set the tone for others to follow.
As leaders, to get to a place where you’re calm, cool, and focused, you must embrace strategies that refresh your mind, give you perspective, and support your overall health. Small actions, over time, really do add up, which is why investing in practices that support your mind, body, and soul really, really matter. If your mind is scattered, you’ll be scattered. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you may not have the strength to endure a challenge that persists. If you’re not living out your values and intentions for yourself, then it’s hard to concentrate because you’ll feel like something is missing.
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?
Start by being empathetic to the needs of the people around you.
If you want to lead people during uncertainty, you have to try to see the world through their eyes. This will better inform you on what you need to do as a leader to meet your team where they’re at. Being empathetic allows you to consider ideas to inspire, motivate, and engage others in ways that have meaning and value to them.
Also, seek to serve them. Service-based leadership is a philosophy I picked up during my time in the Marines. Your job as a leader is to make sure everyone around you has what they need to be successful. Service isn’t about coddling or enabling. It’s about empowering.
You can empower by being present and listening to others, giving people feedback, launching a book club that shares ways for your team to build skills relevant for the time, or trying to support them by giving them flexibility. The more you serve your teams during the difficult times, the more committed and loyal they’ll be in the long run.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
With integrity, compassion, dignity, and grace.
No one likes to deliver difficult news. But don’t water it down. Be direct, be respectful, and don’t try to offer promises that you’re not sure you can deliver on — such as, “It’s tough now, but it’ll be better… I promise.” People remember false, empty promises; they remember when their hopes were built up and they were let down.
And, if people get mad at what they’re hearing, just listen. Don’t defend. Take their feedback, their criticism, and be there to hear what they have to say. A simple, “I understand why you feel this way,” goes a long way.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
One of the best exercises I have to offer is pretty simple, but very powerful. Here it is: Write down everything you know to be certain right now. This allows you to gain in-the-moment awareness of what you can influence.
Also, read. And read a lot, especially media that you typically don’t turn to. Every morning I read the news from several sources to try and anticipate what the future will hold. I find the diversity of sources, even ones that might seem random, broaden my perspective, which — ultimately — enhances the quality of my decisions.
These two practices allow you to make informed predictions, as well as plans. A plan will never be perfect, yet it can set you on a course that you can adjust along the way.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes. Courtney and I always ask ourselves, “What’s best for the business?” This allows us to put the business at the center of our decisions during turbulent times.
It’s easy, when making decisions, to let your emotions, as well as what’s going on in your personal life, impact how you see your current reality. But if you can passionately detach yourself from what you’re faced with and focus on a shared interest — like in our case, the business — it’s easier to see a bigger picture and gain clarity about what the next, best thing for you to do is.
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?
Yes! Great question.
- Not changing. When things are challenging, change needs to happen. By not adapting to technology, or not innovating amidst disruptions, you’re putting your business — and yourself — at a complete disadvantage.
- Not learning. When businesses don’t invest in the training and development of their teams, they become dull. Dull is close to irrelevant. There are so many learning opportunities when we’re struggling. We can’t keep our heads down. We have to process what we’re experiencing and apply what we’re learning. This ensures our growth amidst a struggle.
- Hoping for things to get back to normal. This one is the saddest. I’ve worked with organizations who tell themselves, amidst challenge, that they’ve struggled before and things will work out again… just because they will. The adage “hope is not a strategy” is so true. You can hope, sure, but you have to do the work, too.
In regard to not changing, businesses should embrace the opportunity to transform. We get so worked up about what we stand to lose that we forget about what we stand to gain if we embrace our environment and work with it (versus against it). Change can be the best, healthiest thing for an organization, and it’s the best opportunity, or gift, we can get from a crisis.
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?
I always think it’s important that business leaders tell themselves, and their business, the right story.
A story has several key elements: the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution.
A right story explains why we’re here, what the challenges are, what we should be experiencing, and what we should be doing to position ourselves/the business for the future. Storytelling is a great way to capture people’s imaginations and help them understand that with each turn of the page, they’re advancing closer to a vision — a vivid vision that helps people see the rewards their hard work has the potential to earn.
I’ve underscored the word right in regard to storytelling. There’s no perfect story, but there are bad stories to tell. A bad story is one divorced from fact, logic, and the challenges of the current reality.
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.
- Walk… or Run. This one is best if it’s done outside. Beyond the fact that nature gives you space, walking or running outside has a way of clearing your mind while contributing to your physical health. It gives you the perspective you need to do the hard work you need to do.
- Balance the Big and the Small. This requires some mental gymnastics. Basically, it’s focusing on the big picture and ensuring your everyday actions are aligned. I’ve coached a lot of leaders in the practice of writing down at the start of the workday the vision they’re striving for. This helps ground them in the morning. Then, at the end of the day, I ask them to “check their work” to see if what they did that day contributed to the bigger picture. Self-management and accountability are always enlightening!
- Shift Your Perspective. There are a thousand ways to look at a challenge. Sometimes the one we choose doesn’t help. Knowing that we can channel a different lens, like a reverse lens — if I were advising me to address this situation, what would I say — can give us a new view of our problem and refreshed insight on how to address it.
- Live Your Values. It’s taxing enough to lead through uncertain, turbulent times. But when you’re not living your values, or demonstrating behaviors inconsistent with them — that’s far, far worse. That’s what keeps you awake at night.
- Keep Making Decisions. I learned in the Marines that a good decision today is better than a great one tomorrow. I was taught to embrace the 80% solution, which is a threshold of information you need to reach to make a quality, informed decision. There’s no such thing as a perfect decision. Make the call… and continue to be agile and make future calls to adjust and calibrate your actions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” — Wayne Gretzky
This is, by far, my favorite quote. What a great reminder it is that if you don’t try, you won’t know. So, what’s the worst thing that can happen to you? You fail. That’s it. Then, you pick yourself up, wiser from the experience, and keep stretching, keep trying.
How can our readers further follow your work?
We publish a great Monday morning Leadership Moment — it’s everything you need to hear to start your week with a leadership mindset. Visit www.leadstar.us to subscribe. Also, follow us on Instagram at lead.star or connect with me on LinkedIn at angie-judge-morgan.