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 Brenda Neckvatal.
Brenda is an award-winning HR professional and is often referred to as the “HR Force of Nature” by her clients. Not only does she help business leaders solve their most difficult people issues, she is a specialist in crisis management, government contracting HR compliance, and mentor to women in HR working as an HR department of one.
She started as an HR sprout after a solid fourteen year career in retail management. She really enjoys helping people solve their unique problems, and human resources offered her the ability to support her co-workers in a greater capacity. Having the benefit of working for a total of five Fortune 500 companies, she converted her experience into advising her audience to use tried and trusted best practices that help small businesses achieve their workforce goals.
In her 30 year career in human resources and business, she has consulted to nearly 500 small businesses and C-suite leaders. She has optimized employee effectiveness and helped mitigate the high costs that are associated with making hasty employment related decisions.
She has been involved with employee situations where they have engaged in workplace violence, a near stabbing, deliberately inciting fear in other coworkers, stalking women, breaches of protocol around national security, assault, suicide, death, homicide, and a potential active shooter.
Brenda is a devoted volunteer in the Navy SEAL Community and is constantly finding new ways of supporting veterans of Naval Special Warfare. She dedicates 32 weeks a year working with The Honor Foundation to support the career transition of Special Forces personnel by providing them with her knowledge, insight, and creativity.
Perseverance, integrity, and relentless optimism are just of the few of the ingredients that make up what you experience when meeting and working with Brenda.
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’ve had the privilege of working for five Fortune 500 companies for 20 years of my 30 year career. I have always been a very observant person, and I was always watching how companies handled things from initiatives to successes to crisis. I had the benefit of learning from some pretty impressive leaders, and found a way to translate that over to assist small to medium companies.
There have been two jobs that I loved. The first I picked up in 2001 and that was the launch of my HR career. I had an amazing mentor, who I still talk to today, I had great leaders who helped me soften my hard edges, and vast number of new experiences that provided me the opportunity to learn every day. My second job I loved was really by dream job and I started that in 2011. It was exactly how I envisioned it. I got to travel a lot and meet new people. I learned more than I realized was possible in the five years that I worked there, but I also realized it did not afford me the career path that would have kept up that bliss. I ventured out and tried some new things, but in the end, I find myself adding my favorite elements of the parts of those two positions into the work I perform today.
The biggest challenge that I will always face is that I’m a dyslexic, and I can easily misinterpret what people are trying to say. My threes, sixes, and eights all look the same, and I’ve had to create a process of working with numbers to make sure what I produce is accurate, and it’s not easy with you are a solopreneur. My diagnosis was delayed, and it wasn’t until I was 32 years old where it was confirmed I was dyslexic. It was missed during my formidable years and as young adult made me quite awkward in socially. The feedback I was given regularly was that I was a square peg in a round hole. I was, but not in the way they thought. Some people just felt that I didn’t “get life” and that I wouldn’t measure up to standards. When I began studying emotional intelligence, that’s when I was able to really bust through my barriers and applied what I learned in how I communicated and how I related to people.
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 honestly cannot think of a funny story. Usually my mistakes were big, but in reverse where we benefited from them rather them helping us. It was really weird!
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?
Oh my gosh! There are so many people that I am grateful for in my journey! Everyone has been a contribution, both good and bad experiences. I don’t have one story to share, but I do have a favorite mentor. I still talk to him today; we’ve become very good friends and we highly respect each other. He is that guy whose so brilliant that when he says something amazing you think in awe, “I wish I said that.”
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?
Human Resources as a field is so vast and layered with complexity that it’s a very frustrating learning curve, and it’s a long road to hoe. The best part about it is you learn so much at the turn of each corner. At first the puzzle pieces start to fit, and you get excited because you got that far. But after a while, you start to realize you see a much bigger picture of the business and human aspect of the company, that you really start to feel good about that progress. My purpose is to help women and men in HR, as well as business leaders, get there faster.
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?
There are several moments that unfortunately I can’t discuss, but years ago I was working on a training project and I was just the subject matter expert. I wasn’t in charge. We had some personalities as part of the group and their dynamics behind the scenes were starting to heat up. The three ladies who were involved in the project started to bump heads and get off focus of the project, and soon enough egos started to dictate behavior. The pressure and tension between the three of them was building, and it was palpable. Simply put, they were no longer on the same page and everybody wanted to be “right”. Soon enough, they started to antagonize each other, and nobody was backing down. It all came to a head when I was in a meeting on the other side of the corporate office and when I returned I was pulled into my boss’ office. He shared with me that a shouting match above the cubicles had taken place and I needed to “fix this”.
With my marching orders in hand, I scheduled a meeting with the four of us and spoke to another manager who came over during the event to calm the situation down. I had sketched out our objectives, tasks to be completed, and each step, as well as my expectation to bring the project to a successful conclusion. I informed each of them that we needed to stay in our swim lanes, focus on the objectives, respect each other for our gifts and differences, and get the job done. If they had any other issues to bring them to me and I will deal with them accordingly.
There is nothing more energy draining than dealing with conflicting personalities who want to be right, add in ego, and volatility with no filter, you get a stressful situation that impacts the entire team. Leading a team of contentious employees is one of the most challenging situations any leader can face. It literally sucks the energy out of you and creates a massive distraction from focusing on what’s important.
As a non-leader in that position, I was thrust into a leadership position otherwise the project was at risk of imploding. It was a great opportunity I didn’t count on to turn around a tough situation and bring it to a successful conclusion. It showcased my interpersonal skills and ability to lead and defuse a highly charged situation.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Absolutely I did! Every new step I took in my career was quickly followed by my thoughts of “what the hell did I get myself into?” I am not a quitter. I have backed away from things that did not make sense, but I don’t quit. I don’t like failing, even though I embrace every lesson I learn from failure. I just don’t accept backing down from a challenge, especially when I commit myself to something or make a commitment to somebody. I’ve gotten pretty good at being brutally honest with myself about how I feel, how I have accountability in my actions, and hold myself accountable before anyone else is able to. I don’t like being held accountable by someone else. Not because it’s uncomfortable or plucks my ego, it’s because I haven’t held myself accountable first. If I’m wrong and I make a mistake, I’m good with that, but I really work at eliminating the need to anyone to hold me accountable. I will make every attempt to clean up my own messes first and learn from it, so I don’t make the same mistake twice. To me giving up means that my integrity is out of alignment and that’s not something that sits well with me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To lead. That’s what people need. Someone to lead. When there’s a challenging time, the group needs direction. They need answers to their questions. They don’t know the whole story, and this is when my #1 live and die rule in life kicks in: in the absence of information, people make stuff up. Even if the leader doesn’t have all the answers, people need to know that their concerns are heard and being addresses. More importantly, they need to know the leader has a plan — even if it’s not 100% or they don’t necessarily agree with all of it. They feel more confident when there is one.
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?
Pick something and believe in it — passionately. That’s what people need to see. Unwavering passion on whatever it is that will get the team through to the other side. You know, each of us has a significant amount of power and demonstrating passion for something that everyone can buy into is what people are looking for during the tough times. When they see their leader has a formidable faith in something that is or could be a solution, they jump on quick and will put the full weight of their support behind it. They may not always have the full details, but if you look at history and how people react to fear, they will buy that ticket to the most promising solution.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be straight forward, be gracious and understanding, but don’t own everyone else’s emotions. When you take on everyone’s emotions, your vision of what needs to happen gets clouded. That and it’s not your place to take on someone’s feelings about something. That is their challenge they need to work through, but you can support them and show compassion. When you go down that rabbit hole, you suddenly show a weakness or that you aren’t as strong as people who follow you need to be. It’s interesting when it happens, and the biggest risk is that you’re affording someone too much latitude when what is needed is boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
How can a leader not? Without plans, your team is navigating without a compass, which means there’s a risk of drifting away from the team’s mission. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s ok to make plans, but don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re inflexible if they have to shift. You know life happens and it changes the course of business as well. I’m a big planner, but I also stay agile and strongly recommend that others do as well. I think you need to have a firm target to work towards, but the path to get there will never be straight. There’s always a business answer to every situation, and sometimes it takes several answers to find the right one.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Control what you can control. That’s all you can do. It starts with you. The only thing that is really in my control is how I respond to life and life circumstances. You can choose to be negative in a bad situation or you can choose to be positive. Recently, I just lost my business partner to a horrible mountain biking accident, and it was incredibly sad. He was one of those guys who was just on fire, had so much going for him, always positive, never had a bad thing to say about anybody, and believed in everyone with a whole heart. Just an amazing man. We were launching our new program in four days. We had all this momentum built up, we had a very clear plan forward, and then I got the news that he died. Everything just stopped. I literally felt the whole world stop, and it felt awful. Aside from losing a great friend and business partner, for a brief moment it felt like everything was done. It was like hitting a wall.
I took the time I needed to work through it, but within two days made the commitment to keep going — to find the answers on how to keep his legacy alive with other amazing people. You can’t do that when you feel defeated. You can’t win when you’re down and unrealistic. So, I flew out to Salt Lake City, I said goodbye, but said hello to about 6 people I’ve never met, and we are all committed to pushing forward and picking up where he left off. And I have every confidence in the world that we will succeed. That’s positive. That’s powerful.
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?
Failing to evaluate talent is one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen companies make. There’s been this big push for several years against formal performance reviews, and I think that’s a huge fail. I’ve seen so many articles on how performance reviews don’t work. Well, that’s correct to a point. Performance reviews only work when leaders and managers invest in the continuous development of their people. When they stop nurturing that growth, an annual review with no accompanying feedback within that 12 month period, those reviews don’t really hold water. Employees really don’t authentically understand what their boss expects of them, and performance isn’t as great as it could be.
The goal of nurturing performance is to identify undesired behavior and convert it into desired behavior. That takes communication, action, and time. From an HR standpoint, without formal reviews, it’s also hard to document a broader history of performance. As we’ve been dealing with COVID, reductions in force, and WARN notifications for many companies of 100 employees or more, those who poo pooed performance reviews and walked away from them, likely had some challenges supporting to their legal counsel who was really an underperforming liability in the company because that information hadn’t been properly documented. I’m sure looking back, they realized that they wish they had. But, you know what, that’s ok. Its something that can be picked up again and the company can move forward.
Another really great mistake leaders make is not fully utilizing the skills of their team. Every one of us has a special gift that is unique. I recognize that companies hire people to fulfil a job, but we often miss the opportunity to enrich our employees by tapping into what they’re good at. When people are working through their gifts, they will be happy, they will be engaged, your customers will be loyal, and your company will be productive. It takes work to figure all of that out, but there are so many examples of leaders and companies that do this well, we’d be foolish to not invest in making that effort to mine everyone’s talents.
Tightening control over most situations, a.k.a. micromanaging. It’s a death grip. I see this a lot and there’s a number of leaders who are really afraid of getting taken advantage of or their expectations aren’t being met. So they grip tighter and tighter. If you as a leader develop your talent to perform in the way you need them to, are clear on your expectations and work to help the people on your team remove their obstacles, then you don’t have to grip that hard.
If you were to imagine holding in your hand a ball of putty, clay, or slime — let’s call it fear. When you squeeze in to grip that fear, you’ll find that it oozes out between your fingers, and employees see that. The oozing stuff is what employees have to contend with; the slime that gets away from your death grip.
I think the last thing leaders need to do is to figure out how to get their needs met, both emotionally and physically. I don’t believe every leader needs to look like Adonis or the serenity of a monk, but we do need to take care of ourselves. When we miss taking care of themselves, we really can’t take care of anything and everything else that we need to. If we burn our brains out, we can’t see the trees through the forest. If we don’t do a better job of taking care of our bodies, we miss out on vital rest that we desperately need to function.
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?
This can be a real heartbreaking tragedy when you see companies invest all their eggs in one basket. I’ve watched some of my clients, who perform meaningful work, close because they didn’t have the foresight to diversify their purpose, offering, and revenue streams. I’ve watch leaders — solid leaders — crumble under the pressure of a declining business.
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.
First and foremost, they need to focus in on trust. You cannot lead without it. Period. If you’re a leader and don’t believe your employees need to trust you, you’re just a manager focused on getting the task at hand accomplished. Trust encompasses so much in business, but there’s nothing more that your employees need is the trust they have in their leader to get the job done.
Some leaders have never really given trust a thought, and you know what, that’s ok. There’s a really great Chinese proverb that says “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” Trust is forged and it can be built, destroyed, and rebuilt. Right now, more than ever, you need to focus on building trust in your workplace. If there is a lack of trust between a manager and his/her team, get a handle on that otherwise a part of your vital chain of talent will be underperforming and feeling underappreciated. That doesn’t help your business at all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is my #1 live and die rule…in the absence of information, people make stuff up. Humans, people…we don’t like not having an answer for why things are, and we create stories about an answerless situation to fill that void. You hear it all the time, and it’s such an innate thing we do. I’m convinced its an ego defense mechanism that helps us absorb the blows we all face in life. Once you catch yourself doing this, it’s a real eye opener.
How can our readers further follow your work?
If you’d like to connect with me, you can find me on:
Instagram & Facebook at @bestpracticesinhr where I give general updates. Again, on Instagram: brendathehrlady where I share more about what I’m up to. If you’d like to connect with me professionally, you can find me on LinkedIn @Brenda Neckvatal. On YouTube I have been building a library of videos and you can find me again using my name. Lastly, you can jump on the website at bestpractices.work where you can read up on the new updates I called out my podcast episodes. Simply visit bestpractices.work and click on the Podcast link and you can get this week’s articles.