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 Carol Seymour.
Carol Seymour is a sought-after business leader and catalyst for growth. As an executive advisor to businesses and executives around the globe, she has a passion for helping leaders perform at maximum potential in their professions and lives.
Carol founded Signature Leaders in 2013 at the request of a dozen global heads of HR, and now runs multiple leadership-focused offerings FOR women, not about women, including Signature Premier, Signature Select, Strive, and Surge. Today, more than 1,600 global executives in the Fortune 1000 are part of Signature Leaders, which also partners with more than 130 market-leading companies for their selective investments, including Eastman, ADP, Ahold Delhaize, Ingersoll Rand, ServiceNow, Cardinal Health, Merck, UPS, Nestle, Southern Company, AT&T, and Cigna.
Over the past decade, Carol has interviewed more than 1,000 C-suite executives for their leadership insights. She has orchestrated executive discussions among some of the world’s most acclaimed leaders and CEOs, including Condoleezza Rice, Greg Norman, Fred Smith, Paul Azinger, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, extracting high-impact ideas for executives to action in their own organizations.
Carol is the author of Wisdom Warriors: Women with the Courage to be True to Themselves, a collection of 200 stories and lessons of leadership AND life from amazing, accomplished executives. She is also a top-rated speaker, named one of the Top 40 Women Keynote Speakers for 2020 by RealLeaders Magazine, spending most of her speaking time with women’s forums, industry conferences, and client leadership forums.
Carol is a Founding Member of Paradigm for Parity and uses Signature Leaders to do her part to address the gender gap in executive levels. “Two through You,” an on-line resource, was launched to help companies build their formal sponsorship programs.
Carol now resides in Cashiers, NC, having spent 34 years in Atlanta. She has two married children, two granddaughters, and a grandson.
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 started my career as a salesperson for Mead Paper Company in New York and moved into executive sales and marketing roles fairly early in my career. After 23 years in large, global companies, I moved into mid-cap size companies as an executive with a focus on turnarounds. During this time, I found that, in addition to sales and marketing, my passion and my gifts were related to growth. I am always thinking about how to connect the dots and create positive momentum.
While working for the premier company that built networks for C-suite leaders, I was asked to build a program — a way for companies to accelerate selected, high-potential female talents. What I thought was going to be a one-off program turned into a business, and we have now had the opportunity to impact the careers of more than 1,800 women, representing market-leading, global companies, and spread across six continents.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I started in sales, I was the youngest (by about 25 years) and the only woman in the entire industry selling paperboard. We used to have client lunches where martinis would be ordered. After two martinis during lunch, I would go back to my office, close the door, and put my head down on my desk for a while. I realized quickly I was not built for that.
What I learned, and one of the main tenets of what I teach leaders today, is that you must have the courage to be authentic. As leaders, you can’t just fall in line with everyone else and work to fit in. You are being paid to bring your unique gifts to bear on the organization, which means being 100% yourself. (While martinis at lunch weren’t my thing, I don’t mind a glass of wine at dinner.)
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?
There are so many people I could list here, and so many stories, but I’ll focus on one.
I started my corporate career in 1981, at the age of 22, in a terrible economy. It was a sales rep job, selling industrial paperboard to the corrugated box industry. I was the youngest person by more than 25 years, and the only female. This first job wasn’t exactly my dream job, but I felt fortunate to have it, even if I’d never sold a thing in my life other than Girl Scout cookies.
I did sales training in New York City. Then, I traveled with each sales executive in their territory. One of my favorites was Bob Davis: the quintessential Southern Gentleman. He became my first mentor, and eventually, my sponsor, patiently training me, proactively checking in on me, and constantly pushing me to get better. Instead of giving me all the answers, he made me think through the challenges and asked what I would do to solve the problems.
Ten months into my job, unbeknownst to me, Bob was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Around that same time, I was given my own sales territory — the entire Southeast. While it had only one customer to start, I worked hard to build it. Bob gave me tremendous support, even loaning me his office manager to get set up and service the new customers. Bob died without seeing my territory become the largest sales region over the next two years. Only after his death did I learn how instrumental Bob was in creating that opportunity for me. While I was in training, Bob flew several times to NYC to convince my manager to give me a chance at my own region. He was adamant that I was ready, smart, and knew how to develop client relationships. I never had a chance to tell Bob how much he meant to me or thank him for giving me the opportunity which set the entire trajectory of my career, but he was the perfect example of what a Sponsor can be.
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?
Though I’ve been called “visionary” before, the business didn’t start out that way. When I started Signature Leaders, I thought I was building one — yes, one — leadership program. I didn’t even call it Signature Leaders. I called it The Signature Program. But the outcomes for those 29 women in the first class were profound. Their comments indicated how impactful it had been, such as, “never before have I spent three days focused entirely on myself. It changed the way I think about my own leadership and ability to make an impact.” I also heard, “if I had had this experience sooner in my career, I would have gotten here faster.”
My goal in building the program was to help accelerate female leaders into the next level and give them ongoing support. When you get feedback that you have changed someone’s life, you want to do more of it. And those who came through the program wanted to share it too.
Our leadership offerings keep expanding because we have built trust and credibility with a large set of clients. We create new things to meet their unmet needs, areas they can’t seem to do themselves. It’s very much “pull” growth, and we like being in that spot. Our mission is to “unleash the full potential of each individual in leadership and life,” and I believe our Signature Network (alumni, advisors, advocates, and clients) rallies around that and makes our company stronger as a result.
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?
Based on the nature of our business, when the pandemic came crashing down on us, we knew we had tough days ahead. I knew from my corporate executive experience that budget cuts often happened first in leadership development. I was worried about the impact on our people. We began postponing entire cohorts from March into the fall. We knew, realistically, that our year would likely not start until July of 2020.
I also knew that what we provided had significant value, and we could build on this foundation. My COO and I had a discussion around, “How do we take what we do really well and make that the springboard for where we go next?” That started the pivot, translating the unique benefits of our in-person experiences to virtual programs without any loss in quality. When we took this to the team, they jumped in immediately, got creative, and brought lots of energy to how to solve our problems.
From a leadership standpoint, you obviously have to take care of the stuff behind the scenes (like the PPP loan), and then you have to lean on your best assets — your team. You communicate openly with clients and find out where their needs and intentions are. In this case, they were often as unsure about the future as we were, but we were able to give them a plan they could grab onto that would still allow them to achieve some of the development goals they had set for 2020. We wanted to be a bright spot for them in an otherwise tumultuous year.
We also spent a lot of time thinking through messaging, how we were presenting to our team, and tried to find the right blend of vision and reality (here’s where we’re going, here’s what we don’t know, here’s what we do know). We worked hard to make sure we didn’t show how nervous we were, stayed positive, listened, and maintained forward momentum.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I can’t remember a time in my life I ever thought of giving up! Signature is a special business and with more than 1,800 alumni, who are great advocates, your motivation is right in front of you. I’ve often said to my business partner, “I would do Signature without charging a fee, because when you can make that much difference for someone in their life and their career and see how they now want to do the same for others, you need no other incentive.”
We know that more has to be done to reach gender parity in the corporate world. I can see the development of future role models before my own eyes, and that sustains my drive because I have two granddaughters under four that will depend on Signature graduates to pave a different path for their future. No, I wouldn’t say I ever considered giving up. There are times when things are tough, but I know that what I’m doing matters to the women and companies we work with.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most important thing a leader can do is paint a picture of the future. People need to understand where they are going and why it will be so great, so they can push through the difficulties of today. When you are trying to get people to make a significant change, you need to get people to understand how it benefits them. A great vision helps the team anchor into something tangible and creates forward motion.
A great way to illustrate a vision is, well, visually. When I was at Accenture, I was working on rolling out a new way of describing our consulting capabilities. It received a lot of pushback from Partners who were comfortable in the “old way” of doing things. They knew how to navigate the current company landscape and how to talk to their clients about what we did to make sales. In order to get them on board with these changes, I created a series of poster boards that looked like magazine covers containing headlines from the future. The headlines featured all of the great things Accenture would do with this new model. Once the Partners could visualize themselves being successful in this new way of working, they started to get on board.
Another leader who did this was the CEO of WestRock. When Mead Westvaco and RockTenn merged to become WestRock (but before they had a name for the company), the newly appointed CEO, Steve Voorhees, had his team create a poster board highlighting “NewCo,” the new company they would build together. It showed the company’s impact on the world, its customers, and its employees. It showed visually why NewCo would be better than Mead Westvaco or RockTenn had been apart.
By visually displaying the company vision, we were able to sway the hearts and minds of our respective audiences so they would buy into our vision, even during a time of drastic change. They understood what success would look like and how we would win together.
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 once looked up the definition of self-care, and one source I found said, “How you treat yourself is how you invite the world to treat you.” As leaders, I think we can expand on that. “How you treat yourself is how you teach your team to treat themselves.”
Even in normal times, if there is such a thing anymore, people are working longer and harder than ever before. We’re checked-in 24/7, answering emails all weekend, available for global calls in the middle of the night. We even eat faster than our parents did, and most people rarely get enough sleep.
We don’t protect enough time to take care of ourselves. In uncertain times, it’s so easy to go into crisis mode, and then, even the little scraps of self-care we have get put aside. When our teams see us do this, they think they have to do the same. We all end up less healthy and more stressed because of it.
But leaders, I urge you to do just the opposite, especially in the most uncertain times. In such times, self-care is more important than ever. It’s how you maintain your own energy and engagement, helping you lead well. And in modeling this for your team, you send a message that they should protect time for their self-care as well.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
With vulnerability. Early in life, we often learn to associate vulnerability with weakness, so we find ways to shield ourselves from that exposure as often as we can. It is in our nature to want to be in control. This holds doubly true in the business world, especially for leaders who get the message that they must be confident and strong, no matter the challenge.
However, the vulnerability to share our insecurities and imperfections helps us to be our authentic selves. It’s what connects us to others, makes us more relatable, building strong, trusting relationships. It’s how we acknowledge tough challenges, even when — especially when — we don’t have all the answers. When we’re looking for help and new ideas.
So, when there’s difficult news to communicate, acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. Share your concerns. Tell them what you know, but also ask the questions to which you don’t yet have the answers. Your willingness to do so will help your team and your customers do the same. Then, together, you can work to find the best way forward.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Life is always unpredictable, so it’s good to lean in to the same things you are confident in that helped your plans gain momentum the last time. Some of the same things that make you a strong leader in more dependable times will also help you plan when they are uncertain. Leading with your authentic self, asking questions and truly listening to the answers from your people, taking in diverse points of view and being curious — these all help leaders captain their ships, no matter what the tide is doing.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
For us, it has been to maintain a laser focus on delivering our mission our way. With the Covid-19 pandemic, as an in-person leadership development business, we obviously had to rethink things quickly.
As we pivoted to virtual sessions, we brought the team together to rethink our entire delivery, from front to back. We couldn’t do it the same way we had before, but we could still do it the “Signature Way,” with a focus on the experience, the personalization, and the concierge service that we strive to give to every participant that goes to a Signature program.
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?
Losing their sense of openness and curiosity.
It’s tempting, in difficult times, to hunker down and stick with what you know. But it’s during such times when it’s most important for businesses to look around at how the world is changing and what other people may have to teach them.
What challenges do others see ahead? What are the opportunities? How might a different perspective change our approach?
When we keep ourselves open to new ideas, we create the possibility that a difficult time will lead to transformation and growth.
Neglecting health and happiness.
Whether it’s eating healthy meals, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, or just taking a 10-minute break now and then throughout the day, it’s easy to treat these as luxuries for easier times. But good health and mental wellness are more important than ever when times are tough. It’s how we maintain our ability to give our best when our talents are needed most.
Leaders should set an example and send a message that the company values health and happiness in easy times, and hard, alike. It’s better for everyone, individually, and because it helps us each give our best, it’s better for the company, too.
Pausing investments in growth and advancement.
Difficult times are some of the best times for people to learn and grow in their present positions and into the positions they would like to hold. The challenges are very real in such times, and it’s usually clearer to everyone that “business as usual” won’t work anymore. It’s also especially important for morale that, despite the current stresses, people see opportunities to develop their skills and advance.
So, when the challenges faced by your organization are most difficult, use them as teachable moments for your people. Use them to cultivate a growth mindset, one that views struggles as opportunities to grow. This will help your business weather the hard days, then emerge from them stronger than ever.
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?
(Again, these strategies are not limited to turbulent times. We employ them during good times as well.) In our case, our intentionality in maintaining relationships with our buyers and 1,800-person-strong network are key components. Our team is hyper focused on creating a Signature experience for all who are included in the Signature Network. We have built trust, and we have people who not only believe in our products, but our mission as well. When the turbulent times came, they were ready to trust us, even as we made a pivot. Our ability to quickly adapt and pivot, put a robust plan in place to serve our clients’ needs, and communicate that in a compelling way helped us sustain, and even grow, during the pandemic.
Additionally, our approach to developing and offering our products lends itself to succeeding in good and turbulent times. When you create new products in response to the unmet needs of your clients (vs. building an offering you think is great and searching for a buyer), it is easier to gain traction. When we designed the new virtual programs, we started with the end in mind. How would a leader get a high-impact experience through a virtual environment? That approach allowed our team to be very creative. We didn’t have to lift our in-person programs and place them in a virtual setting. We enabled creativity to build a virtual offering that is as unique and personal as our in-person offerings. Our ability to communicate well and pivot quickly ensured our participants stayed committed to their programs. We also created additional value for them by engaging the participants in learning sessions with pandemic-relevant business topics. They were meeting their future session peers ahead of their program, and so when they “logged on” for their leadership program, they already felt like they had friends in the room. Our ability to continue to provide our world-class programs during a pandemic strengthened our relationships and provided us more opportunities in the future, as we can now offer multiple approaches to our programs.
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.
All of the “5 Stays” are generally important to leadership, but they are even more foundational during turbulent times, when you need to focus on what is in your control (i.e., “control the controllables”). These “anchors” will not only help keep your footing, but also create momentum and thrive in a forward motion.
It’s so important to be yourself. Not doing so may work in the short term, but for sustainable long-term results, you must be authentic. And authentic leaders live to their core values. In times of crisis, decisions need to be made in alignment with these values, or the leader can’t live them, role-model their leadership from them, or live with their decisions.
I recall when Ellen Kuhlman, former CEO of Dupont, shared a story from just before she took over as CEO. Her then CEO said to her, “Ellen, I’ve stopped trying to change you. I thought you needed to do things a certain way as CEO, but then I realized those were not your way. And for you to be a good CEO, you need to lead from your values.”
Leaders need to be the thermostat for their team and the organization. If they aren’t taking care of themselves by getting good quality sleep and fueling their bodies with good foods and water, they will underperform. Good leaders give energy to others, and you can’t give energy if you don’t have it. Your wellbeing isn’t something you can outsource, and without your health, you can’t bring energy to your leadership. Caring well for our bodies supports our minds.
While sleep, nutrition, exercise, and breathing are all components to our health, so are those things for mental performance. Feeling low on the health front means it’s harder to be present, make good decisions, or listen empathetically.
We strategically teach about recovery time in our programs and how to incorporate them into daily habits. Even just 10 strategic minutes of a mental and physical break is crucially beneficial.
I worked with a CEO in the ’80s who had that classic big executive mahogany desk and heavy drapes in his office. On the corner of his desk sat a box of crayons. His recovery break was to open the box, close his eyes, and take a sniff of those crayons. In that short moment, he went back to fun, play, and creativity, which allowed him a fresh and open perspective to the next challenge.
Authentic leaders need to tap into the insights around them — not to “confirm” what they already know, but to stretch their thinking with new perspectives. Asking open-ended questions and listening to the answer show the other person you value them. Being curious about others’ perspectives, gaining from their experiences, learning how their diverse thinking can inform your own — that makes for an inclusive leader and an inclusive culture.
I often share the story of Jack, a new CEO who arrived at our business unit to make big changes. We knew our unit needed a lot of work, and we expected him to come with a plan. Only, that was not his approach. Instead, he began asking lots of questions, only he did it in a unique way. He didn’t gather us around a big conference table, he stopped us in the hallway. He looked us right in the eyes and asked great questions. And he listened, really listened, as if what you had to say was the best thing he ever heard. You could tell through his body language that he valued you, and he was soaking up your answer. Three months later, when Jack put forth his big plan, he had already built the trust of his people through those value moments. We were ready to be part of that plan.
How you show your curiosity is more important than just being curious.
It’s very easy, when you are in the middle of turbulence, to put your head down and start solving the problems. And yet, it is never more important to intentionally connect with those outside of the immediate business issue or challenge. Intentionally set time aside with those outside your work area — colleagues in other business units, functions, and geographies. It is also good to bridge to people who are from different cultures, experiences, religions, or political backgrounds than your own. Listening to someone with a very different perspective can help a leader make his/her ideas even richer.
During turbulent times, it’s easy to throw all your energy into the problems at hand and, at times, lose sight of the big picture. We need to anchor back into our passion, that fire in our belly that is our personal “why.” When we bring our passion into our discussions, the energy and enthusiasm that comes from that can be contagious. Leaders are role models, and people love to work for those who are passionate about where they are going and committed to getting there, no matter the obstacles.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I started building Signature Leaders as a company, many well-intentioned friends would call and tell me about other programs coming into the market. They were more established than I was, with big names behind them. I began to get nervous about the launch of Signature, and I began to wonder if others would have better ideas. Around that time, I ran across this quote by William Faulkner, which changed my mindset:
“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do.
Don’t bother to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors.
Try to be better than yourself.”
This message changed my approach and reduced my stress dramatically. From that moment forward, the measuring stick I used was the person in my morning mirror. I stopped worrying about the things outside of my control, and just tried to be better than who I was the day before.
How can our readers further follow your work?
We have a Signature blog that provides regular leadership lessons and inspirations, and you can sign up to receive them straight to your inbox: https://blog.signatureleaders.com/.
You can find me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carol-seymour-40897614/.
You can find Signature Leaders on:
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/signature-leaders/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/signatureleaders/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/signatureleader
You can also check out our website — www.signatureleaders.com — to learn more about what we do. If you want to be a part of the most incredible network I’ve been a part of, contact us through the website and let us know how we can help.