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 Anne Huntington, President of Huntington Learning Center, the nation’s leading tutoring and test prep provider. She is also a Business Leader, Collector, Philanthropist, Producer, and Curator.
Anne oversees business strategy and growth initiatives, including partnerships, marketing, IT, and franchise expansion.
Anne is involved in the arts as a collector, producer, philanthropist, curator, and founder of AMH Industries, a creative agency for contemporary art and culture. She has curated more than 30 exhibits across the country and raised over $30 million dollars for various philanthropic causes. Anne is also an associate producer on “The Price of Everything,” an art documentary that appeared on HBO.
Additionally, Anne is active with arts, education, and business organizations. She is a board member for the Learning Disabilities Association of America, Art Advisory Board member for NYC’s Coalition for the Homeless, member of the Women’s Franchise Committee for the International Franchise Association, Co-Chair of the Young Collectors Council, and member of the International Directors Council at the Guggenheim Museum, and a founding member of the Future Leadership Council at the Whitney Museum. She also supports Teaching Matters, CHADD, and COPAA. For her service, Anne has been recognized by SmartCEO, Apollo Magazine, and Moves Magazine.
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?
Huntington is in my DNA. My parents founded the company in 1977, and I grew up as a student at our local centers in addition to being featured in advertising campaigns. I have a passion for education and art. I studied Art History, Sociology, and Anthropology at Colgate University. Eventually, I knew my path would lead me back to Huntington Learning Center, but it was important for me to have an established career and a strong foundation of experience outside the “family business” before joining Huntington as a professional. I began my career at the international auction house Phillips where I held several positions. I founded a creative agency, AMH Industries where I curated and produced over 30 exhibits across the country and raised over $30 million dollars for various philanthropic causes.
After multiple promotions at Phillips and founding my own company with several completed projects, I knew I was ready to “come home” with the business acumen, drive and experience to be a strong, innovative addition to the Huntington team. At first, I joined the company as a consultant, went through our comprehensive training program, worked with centers across the country and departments at the main office to understand all aspects of the business. Ultimately, with hard work and perseverance, I’ve worked my way up to President.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My parents, Eileen and Ray Huntington are a constant source of motivation and inspiration. My mom was a teacher prior to co-founding Huntington and as an educator, she saw firsthand the struggles many students faced academically. My father was a business analyst and the two of them set out to solve the problems they’d realized within education and help students learn. Those efforts lead to the development of Huntington Learning Center and its mission to give every student the best education possible. Today, 43 plus years later, this mission is what guides us together as a family, helping families across the country.
I am extremely grateful for my parents’ love and belief in me and I am extremely grateful for my faith, which has helped me get to where I am today.
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 are a mission-driven company. Since Huntington’s founding by my parents in 1977, our mission has been, and continues to be, “to give every student the best education possible.” All of our decisions are based on this mission. We’ve taken our purpose-driven business further with a vision statement of “world-class student results and franchisee profitability”. We fulfill Huntington’s mission and vision each and every day across the country at our locally owned and operated centers. We help students build their skills, confidence, and motivation to succeed in and out of the classroom with this focus.
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?
As President of Huntington Learning Center, I lead by example and have to make decisions that protect and grow the company. I became President in October 2019, just five or so months before the outbreak of COVID-19. I started getting reports and updates from our west-coast locations about the virus and instinctively knew that this wasn’t an isolated incident. The next step was to prepare for survival and to ensure that we adhered to CDC and government guidelines. I started meeting multiple times a day with members of the team, started building redundancies and plans B, C, and D just in case. I started calling franchisees to understand their individual situations. We acted fast and it’s because I remained calm and focused on what needed to be done vs. letting emotions cloud decisions, and without wasting time we did not have. Some decisions were not looked on favorably. Starting in March every in-person minute counted and every minute wasted meant that we might not be ready for what could happen. I credit collaboration and teamwork to our survival. Every whiteboard in the main office was filled with ideas, short term deadlines, and goals to ensure that we were all on the same page. There wasn’t a question or possibility of failure, we were going to survive under my watch and we did. Within days, this 40 plus-year-old, legacy company transformed from a brick and mortar model to become completely online. I now tell the team that we are a “43-year-old start-up” since we continue to pivot and innovate to move this company forward.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Never. I told the team that we needed to make the impossible possible, which we did — we’re still here. My motivation came from a need for survival. Hundreds of franchisees — small business owners — were relying on me to solve our fundamental problem — turn an in-person only model into a hybrid, online organization — which was solved. Hundreds of thousands of families were relying on Huntington to be a source for academic help. We started holding free webinars that were relevant such as learning from home or dealing with anxiety, for example. As a team, we continued to look for ways to help our franchisees and our families by rolling out new programs and opportunities. This innovation, collaboration, and creativity motivated me to continue. We also leaned on each other with clear goals, communication, transparency, and results. Ultimately, my motivation comes from within and throughout my life; I am thankful and grateful for the entire Huntington community. As a franchise business, you could say our nationwide business model is a metaphor for our success as we face all that 2020 has thrown at us. That is to say establishing a broad network that is focused on a common goal will continue to produce positive results, even against adversity.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I strongly believe in the following as a means to be an effective leader…
FOCUS: When presented with a problem, clearly identify the immediate need that will act as your solution. Once the need is defined, build a dedicated team that is cross-trained to work fluidly across departments.
GOALS: Work on a timeline defined by goals and specific deadlines.
COMMUNICATE: Huntington is an integrated network of franchise businesses that operate across the country. I lean on tools like daily update emails, systemwide video calls, and weekly video calls with key groups like our Franchise Advisory Council and Advertising Fund Board, as well as daily check-ins with key members of the team.
LISTEN: Keep your finger on the pulse of the community in order to be as proactive as possible. As franchise business leaders it’s vital that we know how individual cities and states are traversing things like the spread of the virus in order to provide effective leadership and resources.
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 is important for the leader to be open and honest. When the team knows they can rely on and believe in you then there is confidence in not only the person but the organization. It’s important to be real — it’s okay not to have all the answers, but it’s important to communicate. Being remote has its own challenges, but being remote means that the entire team can be together virtually. Bring the team together, which is what we do, we have weekly huddles and Friday “happy huddles” with the corporate team. We share successes and recognize achievements across the system formally and informally. Celebrating small and big wins along the way help the team forge ahead with greater goals of business development and focus.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Difficult news is never easy, but the best way to communicate it is to be factual and resolute. It is important for one’s team to know the facts and to understand the “why” behind the difficult news. Likewise, it’s important for customers to know that whatever the difficult news was that there was a business reason for it. It’s critical for all to understand that the mission, vision, and values of the company continue and that there is an actionable plan in place.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It’s very important to remain focused on your company’s mission, core values, and overall goals in order to successfully navigate everything from the most routine to the least predictable business challenge. There needs to be a strategy that drives all business decisions, prioritization to implement, and plans that are based on these principles.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Focused collaboration makes sure the team is aligned and able to accomplish the goal in a methodical way.
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?
Leaving out the experts: In order to quickly establish effective solutions and changes, leaders need to rely on the input from expert advisors and their boards. For example, our lawyers were on speed dial as we formed fast partnerships with software companies in order to go fully digital at Huntington.
Forgetting to listen: It’s critical to listen, to weigh all the ideas and opinions before making decisions. Of course, a decision may be wrong, but then listen and fix it if that is what is best for the company. For example, we have forums for discussion from system-wide calls to our Franchise Advisory Council. Each forum provides an opportunity to listen, to understand from different points of view. Feedback is priceless and I encourage all leaders to have an ear to the ground at every level of their company.
Losing sight of the future landscape: Turbulent times won’t last forever. Keep that in mind as you pivot and innovate to face current challenges because changes need to have a lasting and positive impact on your company. For example, our new programs will continue to provide increased opportunities for students and new revenue streams for our franchisees.
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.
Base decisions on fact, not fiction.
In order to be an effective leader and make key decisions, it is vital to gather the most complete, factual, and up-to-date information when working through challenges. Remember facts can change, and often will in turbulent times, so be sure to stay current on all facets of the issue at hand in order to make the most effective decisions. This is what I do every day, especially during the spring and summer months of 2020 when I sent daily emails to the entire Huntington community and shared information. We need to always ground our decisions on facts. Sometimes the facts changed, such as CDC or government guidelines changed, but the team and I communicated what was known at the time. And, if something changed, we updated the system and course-corrected.
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Frequency is the key to communication. Share updated information regularly with your team. Also, listen closely to what key players have to say; their input along with guidance from mentors is invaluable. This is what we do, we communicate. It’s easy to assume information is available across the system, but when working with a network of 300 plus locations, it’s essential to communicate and make sure the messages are aligned.
Hard decisions must be based on what’s best for the company.
When faced with a difficult business climate, remove emotion as much as possible. It is always important to have empathy, but you always have to do what is best for the company long-term by making fact-based decisions that are not clouded by emotion. This is difficult because I am a passionate leader, but this is something I practice every day — my job is to protect and grow the company — I’ve been saying this mantra even before I became President. Therefore, some decisions are hard but necessary for survival. Thankfully, I have a team of trusted advisors who I lean on to help navigate the decision process.
Lean on your resources.
Critical decisions are best supported by the guidance of people in your network such as advisors and experts. When a decision needs to be made and there is buy-in, the support will increase not only your confidence but your level of success. As leaders, we all wear a lot of hats, but we need to remember to include people like legal counsel and key expert resources that perform integral functions within our organizations when faced with challenges. This is what I do every day — I lean on my support teams to ensure that we are making the best decision at the moment.
Maintain the true identity of your organization.
A brand’s mission should weather any storm. Being flexible, pivoting operations, and adapting to rapid change will be a constant in any company, but you must remain true to the company’s mission in order to grow successfully in the face of adversity. This is a non-negotiable — being true to and focusing on the mission ensures success and guides all decisions.
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?
Prioritization is key. Ask yourself, what has to come first, what do we need to do to “keep the lights on”?
After the most critical tasks have been addressed and security is established, identify the objectives you must reach in order to solve the problem. From there, prioritize projects that need to be executed in order to achieve those goals. Prioritizing should serve two purposes, addressing the immediate challenge and creating future opportunities for growth as a result of the decision you make in order to do so.
For us, we are investing heavily in our infrastructure and the future. This requires capital and this requires a clear understanding of the financials. By having regular finance meetings and regular departmental budget meetings we are all aligned and understand the health of the organization. Prioritizing immediate needs while supporting future company initiatives by investing time, resources and dollars appropriately sets us up for success and ensures that we are fiscally responsible.
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?
Early on in my career, I learned it is important to be true to who I am and figure out how that fits into a company’s culture, instead of conforming to what someone may have told me is best. Something as simple as a perceived “dress code” forced me to look in the mirror one day, and the way too buttoned-up, heavily overdressed person I saw not only didn’t reflect the real me, it encouraged me to break out of that shell and be my honest self in my new workplace. Plainly put if something just doesn’t suit you (pun intended) that’s OK.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Trust but verify” is one of my favorite quotes. Of course, there has to trust in a team, but it’s important to follow up and verify situations to ensure all the facts are known. This quote guides and grounds me time after time.
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