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 Caroline Kennedy.
Caroline Kennedy, an accomplished CEO, led multinational companies, with annual revenues up to $250 million. Kennedy is a leadership and management specialist with over 25 years of experience under her belt; her work was acknowledged twice by the Telstra Business Women’s Awards and by the International Stevie Awards.
She is a highly sought-after mentor and coach to top global executives. A popular speaker, the leadership futurist, and an advocate for emotionally intelligent leadership, Kennedy authored Lead Beyond 2030, the 9 Skills You Need to Intensify Your Leadership Impact.
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 spent my childhood years growing up in Dublin and Brisbane. To say my life started off rocky would be an understatement. My mother was an addict, which presented many challenges for me in the first two decades of my life. But, if she had been a decent mother, I wouldn’t be as driven. It’s a core part of what’s fuelled me. Those challenges early on in life taught me to be resilient. They made me commit to living life with no regrets. They also drove my obsession and curiosity to understand people and human behaviour to help create change.
I was fortunate enough to spend my twenties building my career, which took me from restaurant manager at Ayers Rock Resort, to business manager of Hamilton Island Weddings, and then to expat resort management in Thailand. Returning to Australia, I held director-level positions at resort properties in Broome and Port Douglas. I was appointed CEO of one of Australia’s largest wholesale travel companies. I became a pioneer, as the first female CEO to lead a network of builders and Australia’s largest building franchise group. My career has spanned roles in diverse industries, and the journey has been far from a straight line. My fascination with leadership, human behaviour and diversity stemmed from those life experiences. I’m a curious, life-long learner.
Today, I’m a coach to top executives globally and author of ‘Lead Beyond 2030, The Nine Skills You Need to Intensify Your Leadership Impact’.
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?
Where to start; there are so many! I have been refining and reinventing myself for nearly three decades now. I’ve lived life outside of my comfort zone, so there are many lessons to laugh at upon reflection. However, as humans, mistakes can be challenging in the moment, and we take them personally, which is difficult to disassociate from.
However, one that jumps to mind from when I first started. I quit my first job as a receptionist because I didn’t like the boss telling me what to do and pointing out my mistakes. I literately stood up, grabbed my bag and walked off. Upon reflection, I realised that I lacked self-regulation skills; my mistakes always serve to teach me a valuable lesson. The key lessons I learned was to demonstrate courage in receiving feedback, to see it as a gift, to value curiosity and the ability to learn on the go. I, therefore, I’m a life-long learning and practitioner. I take the lessons from all mistakes and move forward to become a better version of myself each day.
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?
One of the biggest mistakes I made in my early career was conforming to the established corporate cultures, which suppressed emotion expression. The pressure to conform to organisationally appropriate behaviour was intense, plus the need to appear competent and in control meant I became robotic and devoid of feeling.
I’m grateful to an old employee for helping me see how powerful a human-centric approach is in leadership. The catalyst for this change happened years ago on my last day in an organisation. A woman, Sarah, approached me and said, “I remember the first time you asked me to come into your office. At first, I was scared, but it turned out to be a day that changed my life.” Sarah talked about how dedicated she was when she first started with the company. She was at the office early every day because she loved her work, and she was happy in every aspect of her life.
Then one day, she started to feel miserable. She found it hard to get out of bed every day. She was crying for no apparent reason, she felt like a failure, and that life was not worth living. She went on to say, “You walked past me. You were on your way to the bathroom. Before you turned the corner, you stopped and looked at me. Your serious look scared the life out of me. You continued into the bathroom, but you asked me to come into your office when you returned. In your office, you asked me if I was okay. You were the only person who saw that I needed help, and you convinced me to let you call and make an appointment with my doctor.
Your intervention changed my life. I’ve not told you just how important that day was for me, but now that you’re leaving, I had to tell you that you’ve been a person who’s had a positive impact on my life, and I’m going to miss you.”
Here’s the truth: I had never realised the full power of emotional intelligence until that moment. Sarah sharing her perspective with me helped me improve and become a more emotionally intelligent leader.
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?
My vision is to modernise conversational leadership because old-school management is archaic. Through our nine-step framework, we support leaders in focusing on leading themselves, leading others, and leading businesses to intensify their influence, impact, and performance. We’re on the cusp of arguably the most significant transformation period since the First Industrial Revolution. Companies and leaders globally face a flood of disruptive influences that are predicted to spark the Fifth Industrial Revolution. The rapidly changing landscape influences the need for business leaders to adapt their skills to remain relevant.
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?
I led a business through the global financial crisis, which coincided with the disruption of our industry. Our competitors were closing their doors around us as they were unable to remain solvent. As you can imagine, this was quite concerning for me as the individual responsible for the business’s commercial viability and the people we employed. I quickly collated a very comprehensive market analysis to understand shifts and relevance. Once I identified the severe impact this had on the business; I gathered even more data points to gain a more detailed perspective on the situation. It became apparent that a significant shift in buying patterns was affecting how the industry and consumers purchased. We were now operating in a dynamic and commoditised space.
These data points enabled us to create a new vision, implement strategies to combat the market shifts, and leverage technology for a competitive advantage. I couldn’t have done this alone. It required a collaborative effort from the entire team, creating alignment and a culture of empowerment and accountability. As a result, we grew the business by 38% in 18 months in declining market conditions.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have always persisted or pivoted. I have never identified as a person who quits. I still believe I’m only as good as the team around me, so I value having the right people on the bus in the right roles and empowering them to high performance to set them up for success. I love to celebrate milestones along the way to create a culture that thrives.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To be human. To lead with both head and heart. To lead by example with integrity, honesty and humility. To be fully accountable for your role as a leader:
- Set the direction, culture and vision for teams to follow.
- Take full responsibility and don’t blame others.
- Stay true to your word, and follow through with aligned behaviours.
- Don’t over-promise and underdeliver; this erodes trust.
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?
“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” — Alexander the Great.
Being a Lion is about having tough empathy, leading the way, having the courage and belief in yourself and your abilities, and committing to being the best version of yourself. You can then understand the barriers that stop people from taking action and prevent people from owning their accountability. You can help enable people to breakthrough limitations, fears, and concerns so that now they can move themselves to a conclusion and action.
The most significant opportunity within organisations is influential leadership. The fastest way to transform people’s performance is by helping them think for themselves and find solutions themselves. When people think for themselves, their brain is finding the necessary connectors to form new neural pathways. To inspire and motivate people to reach their goals, leaders must guide them with their thinking. When your team is empowered, accountable, and people are growing, they also become Lions and capable of so much more.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Emotional Intelligence, empathy and influence are critical when communicating difficult news. Communicate difficult news with transparency, and consider people’s emotions, values, motivations, and character. Recognise and acknowledge the impact of your message. Difficult news usually entails change, so make sure you’re clear on the outcome that has to be achieved. It takes time for the emotion to settle but once it does, involve the team in identifying the changes they need to make. It makes people feel part of the process, gives them some control over events and builds commitment to the decisions.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
In this new world, leaders need to be flexible. There’s no other choice. We need to change the way we see planning. For a long time, planning has been about the process more than the outcome. Today it needs to be the other way around. Businesses need to be more agile, and so do leaders. We coped during the pandemic by keeping our eyes on the goal and not being hung up on how we got there. It’s time to be rid of outdated thinking and processes, assumptions and ideas. Unpredictable can be exciting and bold new ideas give businesses the edge. Knowing that things will change means we need to be constantly looking ahead and thinking about business sustainability. We need creativity and adaptability, and we need to nurture our people because that’s the source of innovation.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I would have to say that constant communication is the key to survival for the business and its people. If there’s one thing that became clear during the pandemic, people are your most important asset. They want you to succeed, and they want to be part of the process. They want to make a difference in the world. They have all the motivation needed to keep your company thriving. They will be your best support and resource if you talk with them. Tell them what’s happening, ask for help, ask for ideas, look for input… Look after them. Take care of their well-being. Practice the ‘soft skills.’ You can only do all that by talking with each other. Remember that leaders can’t steer the ship alone. They need navigators and crew. Communication will keep you on the map.
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?
The common mistakes are these:
- Sticking with the traditional processes
- Failing to adapt and remain relevant
- Telling rather than influencing
- Absence of emotional intelligence & poor communication
In difficult times something needs to change. The old processes don’t work anymore, so they have to go. Adaptability is a required trait in both workers and leaders as it helps companies keep up with the rapidly changing trends that are radically reshaping business and the modern workplace. But there’s a way to introduce change, and it’s not by telling people what to do. That leads to disinterested and disengaged people.
If you want to transform your business, you need your team to join in and get the best out of people; you need to use your empathy skills. Everything in business comes back to the relationship you have with your people. Think about it. You could have the best tools and smoothest systems in the world, but if your people haven’t bought into them, you won’t get off the ground. Empathy and communication build relationships, solve problems, develop trust, and promote positive action. It’s worth putting your efforts into people first.
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?
You’ve heard of IQ and EQ but have you heard of AQ, the adaptability quotient? It’s a skill that enables you to quickly learn new behaviours and skills, and change strategy in response to changing circumstances.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of adapting to survive. I’ve spruiked the importance of adaptability for many years now but until COVID19, numerous leaders and organisations hadn’t appreciated the risk of dismissing it.
In fact, adaptability has been described as the “new competitive advantage” by the Harvard Business Review. Your AQ matters more than any other metric when disruption surrounds you; when the pressure is on and the stakes are high. Today’s workplace has evolved into a fast-paced environment of constant change, and relies on technology and innovation to enhance and streamline systems, as a basis for cost saving and to achieve global reach.
Businesses that can’t or don’t adapt will fail. Think of Kodak or BlackBerry; their low AQ meant they couldn’t recognise or respond to changes in technology or demand. Not only do these failed giants have quite a lot in common, but their stories merge into a single powerful parallel about the dangers of success and the consequent failure to adapt, innovate, and ultimately remain relevant.
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.
I may have covered some of these in the earlier questions but here they are.
- Use your emotional intelligence. Now more than ever, we need leaders with high EQ. My favourite story here involves Volkswagen and its CEO. Do you remember the scandal which saw company engineers install software that manipulated emissions in over 10 million diesel vehicles? Martin Winterkorn was CEO at the time, and he claimed ignorance of any wrongdoing, essentially not taking responsibility for his actions. His lack of emotional intelligence made him believe that he shouldn’t be seen to have made a mistake. The error should lie on the shoulders of someone less important. This is my favourite story because it clearly shows how a lack of emotional intelligence can ruin your thinking and perception.
- Develop influence. You can’t lead without it and it doesn’t come from your title. Power and influence are different forms of leadership. Power leaders suck their teams dry of happiness and motivation, so they’ll have a high turnover of staff. Influential leaders build relationships and trust with their people who are then willing to grow, take risks and stay engaged with their work. I was talking with someone I used to work with who was worried that his team performance had dropped during a difficult period at work. The worse their performance, the more he was trying to direct them on what to do. After talking with me, he went back to work and called a team meeting. He opened the conversation and stepped back to let it flow. With some careful questioning, he got the result he’d been looking for. The questions were simple.
- Here’s what we need to achieve, so how will we do it?
- What needs to change?
- How will it affect us?
- What options do we have?
- Which one works best for all of us?
- How can we support each other as we do this?
He influenced the outcome instead of dictating it.
3. Know your triggers. An executive told me he was concerned because people found it challenging to work with one of his department heads. “She needs to stop becoming defensive and aggressive towards others, especially when they try and talk with her about an issue,” he said. “A conversation with her can be like a matchstick just waiting to be ignited.” He had clearly found one of her trigger points. We all have “hot buttons,” or “triggers” that, when pushed, makes us blind to how it’s limiting us. When you become aware of your triggers, the more powerful you become, but only if you bridge the gap and work on them.
4. Remember that you’re part of the team. I remember when I first started to lead a team, over 20 years ago, my manager gave me some sage advice; she said, “In the past, you were only looking out for yourself and relied solely upon your skills to achieve your results. However, things are going to be different now. You’ll be judged differently because now you’re responsible for the results of the entire team.” If you act like a “boss” you won’t get the results you and your team are capable of. It’s not us and them. It’s we.
5. Communicate using the clearest and most direct method. Alex was a Managing Director who said to me, “Some of my A players have become B Players, and I’m not sure why.” He hadn’t realised this until one of his employees said to him, “Lisa’s not herself, she used to be so passionate, but she seems to be unhappy, and unfocused.” What had happened was that during a busy period, they had less face-to-face communication relying instead on email and phone, which created blind spots for the business. The best way to communicate is face-to-face if you can. Eliminate blind spots and misinterpreted messaging.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are many but the one I come back to is by Charles Darwin. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
If I’d known that quote when I was young, I would have appreciated it even then. My life has been a story of adapting to change, and significant change at that. Starting life without the traditional role model of the mother made me a bit of a loner. I didn’t trust many people. It took me quite a while to realise that I needed people and — even harder to grasp — that people needed me. I’ve adapted to many new and crazy circumstances in my life, but that was the fundamental lesson for me. Darwin is right. If I had not been able to adapt, I would never be where I am today.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’m an accomplished CEO and global thought leader on business and leadership. I’m a highly sought-after mentor and coach to top global executives; I support leaders to intensify their Influence, Income & Impact. My methods are neuroscience based to achieve rapid development and growth. I’m the author of Lead Beyond 2030: The Nine Skills You Need to Intensify Your Leadership Impact. For more information on my work, please visit www.carolinekennedy.com.au