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 Austin Denison.
Austin Denison is the founder/CEO of Denison Success Systems LLC, a strategic management consulting and coaching company based in Southern California. For years, Austin has practiced and refined his leadership skills in a variety of professional settings. He has personally led groups of various sizes, between two and one-hundred and fifty people, and has given professional presentations in front of organizational leaders and Air Force Generals alike! Austin enjoys traveling, experiencing new cultures, and public speaking. As a self-improvement nut, Austin has authored books on personal philosophy and betterment as well as organizational change management. He earned his degree from the University of La Verne in Business Administration and Marketing.
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?
Ever since high school, I’ve been heavily influenced by leadership roles and personal development. I had joined the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (AFJROTC), and within three years, I had been promoted to the highest rank possible and led the group to earn the coveted “Distinguished Unit with Merit” award (the highest achievement for a Junior Reserve Corps). Of course, I couldn’t have done it without many of the fast-flying hard workers I’ve gotten to know! My team was inarguably more valuable than I was in achieving that honor, and I am extremely grateful for that experience. Ever since then, I had been obsessed with personal development, leadership, and management! The experience has certainly shaped my direction throughout the rest of my life.
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 had first started my entrepreneurial journey, I was reading and writing incessantly. I consistently woke up at 4 am each day to read and write down ideas until nightfall. I became so absorbed with personal development, leadership, and self-improvement that I neglected to even keep up with my family and coworkers! Many of them had reached out to me expressing serious concern for my health and well-being! Many of them wondered why I was so excited and decided to pick up self-improvement books of their own! It was so ironic to me that my complete and utter devotion to such a healthy topic such as self-improvement would cause them to worry about my health and change their own habits! It taught me that when you change as a person, people around you will notice and start to change as well. As a leader, this is very important. Leaders need to demonstrate by being examples of the person they want others to be and avoid barking orders merely for the ease of it.
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 no clue where to even begin listing all of the people who have made a difference in my life as there have been so many. I do believe that we are a culmination of the thoughts, experiences, and ideas that we choose to keep around us, therefore, I’ll list some of the people I feel have influenced me most and in the most positive ways! Firstly, Lt. Colonel Kenneth Francis was a huge inspiration to me as my mentor, my teacher, and a friend. He taught me the difference between active and inactive leadership, as well as the importance of converting your followers into leaders of their own. He is greatly missed. Next, I’m inspired by all of my friends and family who have been amazingly supportive and offered their best efforts to help me grow and succeed. I would most certainly be nothing without them.
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?
Believe it or not, my organization first started as a personal development and life-coaching company. Over time, however, it transformed and blossomed into leadership and management consulting due to my love for business and organizational psychology. Ultimately, my vision is to create a world that rids itself of victimhood and inspires everybody to stand up for their beliefs, and take action to improve their own lives. In fact, this remains my vision to this day! Which goes to show that something you truly believe in won’t change in principle, but will only transform alongside you and your growth! The “how” may change, but the “why” is forever. My purpose is to increase the power that other people feel to change their lives and, in turn, their leadership!
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?
The most difficult time I’ve experienced as a leader was during a disruptive transformation of Senior leadership. At this point, our senior leader Lt. Col. Francis was diagnosed with cancer and had to, unfortunately, leave the organization. He had been the guiding light of the institution, and It seemed to us that along with him left the vision of the organization as well. In this situation, leaders are forced to define the vision behind the organization as an ideal and a principle, and not embodied as a person. In other words, to keep the vision alive you must transfer the embodiment of that vision to the culture of the organization itself. This is why creating leaders out of followers is so important. In psychology, “perception is projection,” and to maintain morale and the fulfillment of your organization’s vision, you must instill that drive within the individuals so that their “projections” embody the spirit of a leader’s vision, and are not limited to only the minds of the leaders themselves.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I certainly have considered giving up before. Rough times can make anybody doubt almost anything, especially if you believe that the spirit behind your organization has been lost as I mentioned in my last answer. To continue my motivation, I had to rely on my own thoughts and ideas on what the purpose behind the organization was, instead of relying on another person’s thoughts and ideas. This was difficult but led me to an epiphany that I had never thought of before. I began to take action as a leader with the best interests of the organization in mind as opposed to only myself. This led to me the philosophy that I call polarized thinking. Polarized thinking is the idea that you should make every mutually exclusive choice in leadership regarding your willingness to optimize that choice to the fullest of your ability. For example, in terms of leading teams, are you going to be the MOST micromanaging boss, or lead the MOST autonomous teams? You can’t have both. Thinking this way helped motivate me to improve and take quick action despite the troubling times.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
By far, the most critical role of a leader is to instill a dedicated culture into the organization. Many people say that a leader’s true role is to provide direction, although this is true to an extent, that direction quickly becomes lost once the leader is no longer with the organization, or able to influence others. I’ve learned this the hard way. I believe that a leader’s true role is not just to provide a direction, but more importantly to transform their followers into thinkers and doers that can act with the overarching purpose in mind DESPITE the presence of the leader themselves. This not only instills autonomy in your work teams but also promotes and advances the organization despite whether the original leader is present or not. In this way, good leaders become bountiful throughout your organization, and each of them takes action with the best interests of the organization in mind.
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?
The best thing a leader can do in uncertain times is to clarify and define the issue at hand that is causing uncertainty. Most people within an organization don’t have the strategic perspective that leaders have. Because of this, there is often a disconnect between what the actual problems are, and what the employees experience. This is similar to the difference between issues and symptoms of issues (symptoms being the smaller problems that arise due to overarching issues themselves). Only when a leader can use their advanced perspective to communicate the true issue can the organization pool its knowledge and resources to resolve that issue, and consequently, the symptoms also. “What if the issue is external and can’t be changed?”, you may ask. In that case, the same process applies, although now the organization will have to pool resources and knowledge to adapt to the environment, instead of resolving the issue that you can’t control.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Like many things in business, the answer is “it depends on the news itself.” However, in most cases, communicating difficult news is always better done when it is timely and honest. Without being timely, the effects of the bad news may have created more issues than it otherwise needed to. For example, if you had to lay off an employee, it’s better to tell them sooner than later so that they have the most amount of time to search for another source of financial security. The same principle applies when being honest. Dishonesty is never a beneficial thing for any business. And integrity is one of my core values. I like to think of integrity as being honest, even when you aren’t being watched or won’t get caught. To relay difficult news, have empathy, and NOT sympathy. Empathy is much more powerful because you consider the thoughts and feelings from another person’s perspective, and don’t only “pity” like you might if you practice sympathy.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Planning is interesting because you can make plans as a leader despite the need for solid evidence or predictability. For example, I can plan to be a best-selling author in a year, but that doesn’t mean it will happen (or is even probable). The only way that I can appropriately describe planning well for every situation is in the cliché to “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” All in all, you don’t want hope to blind you from being well-prepared, but you also don’t want to take action believing that the worst will happen when it affects the lives of all of your employees. Planning for the unpredictable is about assessing risk and preparing for that risk. To increase your chances of success, you can do two main things in terms of risk management: 1) lower the cost of failure (i.e. lower the risk), and 2) increase the potential for your success. Companies can ALWAYS do one of these two things. Both would be ideal. Lowering the cost of failure is about adjusting the issue in ways that don’t affect you as harmfully. Increasing your potential for success is about adjusting yourselves to better adapt or navigate the uncertain times.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle that can make or break an organization that faces difficulty is whether they are proactive to change or reactive to change. That makes all the difference. As an author of books on change management, I’ve consistently noticed that organizations that willingly adapt BEFORE they are required to change become much more able to sustain difficulties as well as troubling times. Reactive organizations, on the other hand, only change when they are forced to and often do so haphazardly, inefficiently, and ineffectively.
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?
Here are a few of the issues that I’ve noticed most: 1) Being reactive and not proactive. Like I mentioned earlier, most organizations only change when they are forced to. Put SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) in place to avoid confusion and conflict on how to manage change during difficult times. 2) Taking disruptive action much too quickly. I’ve seen many organizations try to adapt to change too quickly after they become pressured by external forces. The problem with this is that there is little time to assess the actual impact the change will have and whether you are adapting to symptoms of a larger issue. 3) Focusing solely on what CAN’T be done. Too many businesses try to change the unchangeable. Instead of adapting to provide relevant services or products in a new way, they either wait or try to use the same old way they have before, which harms their effectiveness. 4) Making assumptions. Assuming things about the market, internal and external environments, and more are merely a method of avoiding action. I can assume things will be a certain way that I want, but without taking action to make things the way I want them, nothing will get done and nothing will improve.
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?
Certainly! Although my business provides consulting services (an industry that has been hit heavy due to the lack of funds from companies) there are lots of opportunities out nowadays! After all, money is made when there are ISSUES to solve. Therefore, the more issues that there are in the economy, the more money there is to be made. Consulting and coaching are very similar, I’ve adapted to provide more coaching to help those who have also been hit hard by economic impacts. I help them to maintain positivity, direction, and more. The results have been astounding, not to mention that I now have more time to work on building content and organic traffic to my website. Just proving that difficulty can be beneficial if you adapt to the demands of the marketplace. Another example of an amazing adaptation is the current restaurant market. Many are offering delivery where they weren’t before to quell the concerns of diners. I’ve used these strategies to better present value and gain traction during rough times.
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.
The first most important thing a leader can do is to communicate the purpose behind the organization in no uncertain terms. After all, a team that understands the “Why” can transform and adapt any “how” to get there. I once had a job long ago at Costco Wholesale. Whenever a manager told me to do something I’d immediately ask “Why?” they never understood that it was because I was learning how to think like a manager and not simply how to take orders. When my manager left to work elsewhere, I was able to help fulfill his duties because I understood why things were done, and could manipulate the “how” to do them properly.
The second thing a leader must do is to transform leadership into the culture and the minds of their employees. Like I mentioned earlier with Lt. Colonel Francis, a leader that instills a purpose-driven culture will leave that culture in good hands once they are no longer available to provide direction. This is because the direction is instilled in the culture and not embodied by a leader.
The third most important thing that a leader can do is to define the issues that are impacting the organization during difficult or trying times. In my experience as a leader and in my consulting endeavors, whenever the issue was clear, the solution was clear as well. In consulting, often our job is not to provide a solution, but redefine and clarify the actual problem itself. Once we do that, the solutions become obvious.
The fourth most important thing a leader does during turbulent times is to focus the minds of the organization on the variables that they can control. Too many people fall into victimhood by focusing on the very things that they have no control over. What is the point of that? Other than to needlessly worry yourself? I write in one of my books that there is an easy method of relieving worry during hardships. First, define the issue. Next, resolve the parts of the issue that you can control. Then, adapt to what you can’t, The last step is the hardest, and that is to simply let go of worry about things you can’t control. You’ve done all you can, and the rest shouldn’t control your mindset.
The Fifth and final thing that a leader must do during hardship is to control the fears of the organization as well as themselves. A courageous leader inspires courageous followers. Note: Courage is not the absence of fear. Being afraid is ok, but it’s what you decide to do about it that makes the difference. Courage is feeling fear, but taking action regardless. This is why you need to control fear and not simply ignore it. Too often have I experienced debates where thoughts on solutions are thrown around, yet nothing ever was accomplished. Thinking is great for making a plan, but doing is great for making a difference.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is easy! One of my favorites is “If you want the things you’ve never had, you’ll have to do the things you’ve never done” — Thomas Jefferson. Ultimately, a great life or business is one simple thought process away. Ask yourself “Am I happy?” If not, make a change. The day that I realized that I could make a difference in my life is when I started doing two things: Firstly, I stopped caring about what others thought about me, and secondly, I stopped hoping things would change and began making them that way.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can easily reach me at austindenison.com, as well as speak with me, or see more of my writings and philosophies! I am also active on almost every social media!